When I was first starting out in South Dakota, we put together this rock band and it was the first time I basically had my first band where I was making the decision and doing the bookings for us. We struggled to find bookings at first because nobody knew anything about us and there were plenty of other bands in the area that they were familiar with. But after some time, I convinced a place to hire us. That place was called “The Bar”. Located in Hot Springs, SD we actually had to drive further than we wanted to, but it was a paying gig so we took the job. We didn’t have things like GPS at the time, so I remember driving around this town asking where “The Bar” was. As it turns out, there were more than just 1, so my question was confusing, but eventually we found the place.
It was pretty much like any other small bar venue we had been to. The front was all glass windows looking out over the small street and they had a horseshoe shaped bar that was in the middle of the room. On the left side of the room was the dance floor and the right side was filled with tables and chairs.
We loaded in through the back door, which was closer to the stage and near the bathrooms. They were dingy, stained walls with various messages written all over about who was a slut, and who to call for good times, and hearts around the couples of the moment. The stage was really tall from what I remember…although for a short girl, everything looks tall. But I remember it being over waist high, which was unusual for stages out there. I started wiring together my make shift PA system that I had acquired since I was 12 years old by saving money and occasionally bailing musicians out of jail and holding their gear ransom until they paid me back. They never paid me back. The speakers were set up on the floor and were so tall that you couldn’t see me standing behind them on the stage. I figured that was a little dangerous, so I strapped them together to make it a bit safer in case someone got a little wild and fell into them on the dance floor.
After we set up, we did a little sound check and I went to scope out the people that were sitting at the tables and wandering in the door to have a drink. They seemed pretty mellow; lots of cowboy hats and boots. I figured we were gonna ruin everyone’s day with our loud rock n roll music. I talked to several tables and introduced myself and tried to prepare them for what was coming. They probably should’ve returned the favor.
Most bar gigs are 4 hours long, so we take short set breaks. Back then we would do 45 minutes on and 15 minute breaks, which never works out right from 9pm-1am, but that the way the bars would always ask you to do it. Anything more than a 15-minute break would cause people to get bored and leave to find another bar. Any more than 15 minutes and your crowd is gone.
Since we had 4 sets planned out, we started in at 9pm sharp and much to my surprise, people were into it! We had girls dancing immediately and a few two-step dancers when we would play a blues song they could get into. Overall it was going well!
I stepped into the bathroom on our first break and read some bathroom literature on the wall. I may have even added my own:
As I sit in silent vapor
Some bastard has stolen the toilet paper
Shall I sit and shall I linger
Or will I be forced to use my finger
I’m sure I heard that somewhere along the way, but I can’t place it.
I emerged from the stall to see a skinny blonde girl at the tiny little bathroom sink. She had her switchblade out and was looking a little crazy eyed. I flashed a concerned look her way and she immediately put it away and told me there was nothing to worry about. She was just cleaning it up. Cleaning it up? From what, I thought? No time to ask questions. I’m in a postage stamp sized bathroom with a crazy, knife-wielding blonde in a crop top shirt and jeans. I just shut the hell up and washed my hands and left as fast as I could.
My 15 minutes was up and I was glad to be back on that stage away from the crazy. I told the band about her and they were all freaking out about it, but I mean…it’s South Dakota…everyone has a knife in their pocket. Maybe she used it to put butter on her toast that morning. Who knows? Anyway, we kick off the next set with a little bit heavier music because we got them warmed up by now. I should’ve seen the signs, but I was in my own little world.
I like to watch the crowd while I’m performing and try to see what they’re talking about or doing. It’s like a deaf person trying to read lips from a distance and see if they’re having a good time or if someone is bored or angry. I spent my life doing this and it helped me read the crowd and play songs that they might enjoy more than what we were playing at the moment. But nothing I was reading out there prepared me for what was coming.
One girl at the bar had been eyeballing this guy at a table who was sitting with his girlfriend. It wasn’t a flirtatious kind of look she was casting. After several bottles of liquid courage, she stood up and marched right up to his table and started letting him have it. He looked bored with her screaming and refused to engage in the conversation. It pissed her off and she threw a punch and landed on his face. That’s when the girlfriend had enough. The guy wouldn’t hit back, so his girlfriend picked up the slack and threw a punch back at the girl. Alright! Now we got a catfight on our hands. It seemed like everyone would be into it and just let them duke it out for entertainment sake, but the dude at the bar suddenly realized that his woman was in a brawl on the floor and came running to save her. He didn’t have the same feelings about not hitting a woman, so he barreled right into the other girl and sent her flying. Now her dude was in it too. Two guys fighting and two girls rolling around on the floor in a hair pulling rage seemed like enough entertainment, but one of the dude’s buddy just realized his wing man needed him and jumped headlong into the middle of it. Not to be outnumbered, another guy dove in…then his girlfriend cause she don’t want to see him get hurt…and then another girl to offset the number.
Before too much longer, people were just jumping into the middle of this pile of fists and arms and legs and hair and it became a tornado of violence that would roll to one side of the dance floor and then back to another. We kept playing, like the musicians who were watching the Titanic sink into the ocean. One by one, the bodies kept on coming and the pile got bigger until everyone in the bar was involved.
Two guys emerged from the fight and singled each other out and one of them ran straight into the other punching him in the face repeatedly until the guy staggered backwards and was half standing, half leaning into our speakers on the dance floor. Good thing I strapped them together. But that wasn’t enough for the other guy to claim victory so he jumped onto the stage and pushed the entire speaker stack over on top of his apponent. That was the end of him…and the end of the music.
Now that the music had stopped, you could hear the bar staff screaming at people to stop fighting, but nobody was listening. It was a UFC cage match situation with an entire bar full of people. The bar staff knew they had to do something, so they started grabbing 6 pack bottles out of the coolers and while standing on the bar, they would chuck them into the black hole of viciousness hoping to knock someone out so they could drag them out of the pile. It was a bold move, but they didn’t know what else to do.
The cops were called and showed up in several vans. I’m not sure how they got everyone to stop, but they weren’t interested in finding out how this all got started. They just started zip tying everyone’s hands together and throwing them in the back of these vans. Within the hour, they were loaded up and gone.
We sat with the bar staff who all looked like maybe they got the worst of the beating and asked if this happens often. They told us it’s never happened before, but we were the first rock band they’ve ever had there. Most of the time they just have blues bands or old school country music. I think we all knew what that meant. We loaded our busted gear up and went home and they never called us back again.