Article: “Zebras on the Pirate Bus”

Zebras on the Pirate Bus  (Grapevine, April 4, 1984)

by Peter Tooker

I had noticed Felix Haneman long before I met him. He would come to the bar and order drinks next to where I sat, sketching the music and people of the club Zanzibar in pregnant phrases on a long yellow legal pad. He was short—oh, maybe five-foot-six if I had to guess—clean shaven, with long blond hair falling to his shoulders. Whenever he came back for another drink he’d glance circumspectly at me and my notepad. Then he’d take a drink from the barman and disappear into the crowd again.

After a point, when I had exhausted my capacity to imagine the club from my exalted barstooled perspective, I descended into the smoky mass of jeans, flesh, and fertile fantasies. Time for more formal research. Interviewing one group of revelers, someone suggested I talk with members of the band Zebra, who had arrived at the club from their concert at Barnhill with Cheap Trick. It seemed appropriate to find what a celebrated band thought of the club I was reviewing, and so I headed in the direction that another person had pointed to as being the Zebra table.

It wasn’t. But the folks at that table pointed to a small group gathered against the far wall, next to the bandstand. “That’s them over there. You see that blond guy in the middle? That’s them.”
So that’s how I met Felix Haneman. As I introduced myself to the three men and two women he said, “Yeh, I was wondering what you were doing over there writing.”

So what did he think of the club, Zanzibar?

“Man, this is great. It’s got a nice atmosphere. I love to see this. This is what we grew out of, clubs like this. Clubs are important, because it’s the clubs that support the bands. This is where I started, in clubs just like this.”

For eight years, Felix and the two other members of Zebra lived the hard life of a club band in New Orleans. After a point, all the people and places converge in memory, melting into a hazy, smoke-filled canvas of indistinct faces, shadowed forms, and an unintelligible dull rumble of background conversation beneath the roar of the electric music. Life becomes nighttime working the smog-addled graveyard shift of roadside honky-tonks and small-time bars, staying for a night or two, then packing up p.a., mike stands, amplifiers, and hundreds of feet of cords to move on to the next gig, only to have to unpack it the next day.

In this dark-lighted, chiaroscuro world of bars, shadowy ghosts of memories, and the silent violence of alcohol lives, there is one dream which carries a band. Success. Making it. Doing an album. Becoming such a power that it can leave its past buried in those beer-hall graves and become, in Felix’s words, “above the business.”

Finally, in 1980, the decision was made to go for the big break. Head to New York. Get close to the heart of the music industry. And so Zebra took off for the unknown north, landing finally on Long Island. That year they were voted, in a Long Island radio poll, as the number-one band on the Island. New York could not ignore them.

They were signed to an album contract with Atlantic, and what was born from that marriage was the hottest-selling debut album in the company’s history: Zebra. Now they’re traveling again, but this time from arena to arena. No more smoke-choked backwoods bars, unless it’s to hear other musicians. The arena crowds are larger but no more memorable. Payday goes a hell of a lot farther than the old days, though.

A big-time band gets respect, too. At the bar, Felix was ordering a couple drinks for us when a sleek young tight-jeaned bar shark glided over to him. “Didn’t you used to be in another band?” she asked. “No,” he said. I wondered how, for a married man such as Felix, it was possible to stay married.

Now we were in the lobby, the small entry room, of Zanzibar. Outside the door a silver-and-red bus hummed, its body giving off a gelid lunar glow. Suddenly the club door opened and a virtual wave of people poured through. This was the Cheap Trick crowd, their bus having landed, now descending on Zanzibar: women in sparkling silver jumpsuits or jeans molded to their hips with hair falling in flaxen waves to their shoulders and deep eyes heavily shaded in aqua or turquoise or chartreuse; bulky men with off-white T-shirts, at the center of which was the Cheap Trick logo, with badges hanging from string around their necks like rock-age dog tags; then, after the roadies, the band members entered: smooth men wearing silk athletic team jackets, cuffs pulled up to the elbows exposing their forearms, or long-sleeved jersies, or dark shirts open to the breast. As each Trickie passed by, Felix hailed him and introduced me. One by one I shook the hands of men whose very names would cause heart palpitations among millions of young Americans; men whose names to me had no more significance than any random acquaintances.

It was clear they were ready to party as they blew through the lobby. It was time to unwind after all the traveling. “The traveling is really hard,” Felix said to me, his eyelids weary. Then he brightened and, leaning toward me, confided, “You know what it’s like? It’s like a stag party. A moving stag party. We’re like pirates on a bus.”

One month later I’m sitting between my friends John Anderson and Ron Sumner in our low-budget version of the pirate bus: John’s 1971 Ford pickup. Over the bed he’s built a wooden camper. The azimuth door on the rear is locked with bolts and padlocks. Inside is the equipment: John’s amp, mixing board, guitars, Ron’s amp and bass, our luggage, and a few p.a. speakers, just in case the clubs don’t have acceptable ones. It’s twelve hours to Houston along the snaking highways of western Arkansas and east Texas. In a hard-suspension pickup, where every pebble feels like a pothole, it seems much longer.

But though we’re only going to play three gigs with our friend Mike Sumler, we feel the excitement of chasing the dream of music as strong as if we were in Zebra’s pirate bus. The lyric buzz of the tires on the road, the rumble of pistons in their houses, the night song of birds and peepers, the awakening morning’ scarlet glow rousing the day’s creatures as we pass through the lowland pine forests of east Texas: all are part of the boundless song of the Universe, a song to which we will add out tiny choruses. Just like Felix Haneman’s, ours becomes another in the fleet of pirate buses traveling the four-laned seas of America in search of the music that sings to us of our lives.