The name of the guitarist is lost to time, but I remember the stool we’d set up for him center stage, and the glint of the footlights off his polished Martin guitar. It was a free gig: we couldn’t afford to pay, so we bought him a bottle of his favorite brandy. He was a friend, a flamenco guitarist by training.
A favorite M.O. of his was to stroll into a bar unannounced, and knock out Beatles tunes or something else from the Rock cannon — for a drink or two — to the delight and surprise of everybody. Claimed he did it for an “ego feed.” He was a natural showman. But onstage between movies?
A tough audience.
There was no heat in the auditorium of our failing movie palace; you could see your breath. Fewer than 200 souls clustered in the first four rows holding free hot coffee to keep the blood flowing to their hands. Jostling and shouts of “where’s the movie?” gave an edge to the evening.
I’ve forgotten what he was playing, was it “Mr Tambourine Man?” Out of the middle of a clutch of kids came a battle cry, HOT TUNA, HOT TUUUUUUUUNA!
Only slightly ruffled, our guitarist kept playing, while the chant traveled freely in the occupied first three rows. HOT TUNA, HOT TUNA, HOT TUNA.
A Blues/Rock off-shoot of Jefferson Airplane, the band they were asking for (founded in 1969) had just released its 7th album. I could imagine why our freezing audience members might not want to listen to a solitary guitarist between two less–than–stellar movies, but why, of all things, Hot Tuna? Well, there was that word “hot” in the title...
Or the original heckler had actually been to a Hot Tuna concert at the Capitol Theatre across the water in Passaic, NJ.
November 20, 1976, Hot Tuna played there, while practically nobody was showing up at the unheated St. George for Buzzy Linhart, an older, lesser act. Was the heckler trying to give us a booking suggestion? John Scher, the rock impresario who owned the Capitol, like other old movie palaces converted to rock venues. was doing what we couldn’t afford to do, bringing big name acts to Passaic, a similarly tough urbanesque ‘burb. A 3,200-seat movie palace similar to ours, the Capitol hosted a long list of heavy-hitting acts in the seventies and early eighties: The Grateful Dead, Blue Oyster Cult, Peter Frampton — you name it. Sadly, that palace was demolished in 1991, to make way for the Capitol Plaza, a shopping mall (while, despite our bad fortunes as theater entrepreneurs, the St. George still stands).
Our guitarist kept on with “Tambourine Man” and then, out of pure stubbornness, followed it with “Lay, Lady, Lay.” The chants eventually faded out. He did a Flamenco number, tipped his hat and disappeared into the wings to muffled boos. We never saw him again.