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Ed and I drove our Subaru to the back patio of a plain white stand-alone building off the freeway. We wandered onto the large wooden outdoor stage with guitars on our backs — I'm sure we looked a little lost. We were curiously staring at a large black cage set up on the end of our performance space.
A middle-aged man with long, graying hair tied in a ponytail noticed us from across the room and beelined over.
"Hi, I'm Gary*. I own this joint." He smiled, his firm handshake squeezing mine. Gary was one of the friendliest venue owners we'd ever met. "So, up on over in there is the strip club — you've probably already noticed," he continued, pointing at the large building to stage right. "Now this here general area is the swingers beer garden, and across from you in the trailer is the sex club — you may not wanna go in there."
We get one particular question all the time: "What's the strangest gig you've ever played?" I've always had a tough time answering this. I suppose it's because most of the gigs I've played haven't been that strange. One time I was hired to sing in a Gap store. That was pretty weird. As for my band, Whitherward, we have plenty of funny stories, colorful characters, and small towns we could talk about, but I wouldn't have classified any of them as "strange." Until now.
A few months earlier, I vaguely remember having a conversation with Gary over the phone, and the words "strip" and "joint" definitely happened. I brushed it off because, hey, it was a paying gig, and he seemed really friendly. But the reality of what I had gotten us into only hit when one of our fans inquired as to why the venue kept coming up as "adult entertainment" in Google Maps. And sure enough, he was right.
But what could I do about it at this point? I certainly wasn't going to cancel. So I tweeted our location, packed the gear in the car, took a big-girl breath, and put on the shortest, tightest dress I own. Because, you know, when in Rome...
"I should probably warn you that things can get crazy out here, depending on the night," Gary added, his sincere eyes looking deeply into mine. "You might see some strippers roaming around, and some may even dance in that cage up on your stage. But the rule is, nobody judges anybody here."
And we liked that rule. I looked at Ed. Ed looked at me. We shrugged our shoulders and began setting up for the gig.
We played our first set, which felt like a pretty standard bar gig. We had one fan show up like a kid in a candy store. The rest of the audience was a light crowd of mostly couples between the ages of 28 and 50. We typically play our original songs, but we felt it was best to please this crowd, so we belted out as much Tom Petty and Pat Benatar as we could muster with our acoustic guitars.
My aforementioned shortest, tightest dress kept riding up higher than my liking during just about every song, of course. There were many adjustments.
"You can stop pulling that down!" shouted one of the gentlemen in the audience with what appeared to be his girlfriend on his arm. "Do you know what kind of place this is?" We had a good laugh over that, took a break, and saw three strippers walk out of the main club.
They liked me. A lot.
My first impression of my new friends was how smooth their skin felt. Each one gave me the biggest, most sensual hug I've ever received, complete with a little ass-grabbing. I was OK with it considering they were practically naked. (I didn't know a G-string could be worn as a shirt.) I think they felt comfortable with me because, like them, I was also working the club, and I wasn't going to hit on them back.
One of the girls told me that she wanted to get married so she wouldn't have to work there anymore. Another told me that I was an inspiration to her because she'd never seen a female guitar player in person before. The third woman got too wasted too fast and wobbly danced in four-inch heels in the stage cage. She somehow didn't fall.
This was a pretty powerful moment for me. How do you respond to comments like that? Even if you get married, you still might need to hold a job, I considered saying. If you're unhappy working in a club, have you thought about other options for your career path? Maybe, I have a ton of badass chick guitar player friends, and I'd love to share their music with you. Instead, we all had to go back to work.
"Girls, don't forget you have a stage call time," said the owner's wife. Ed and I got back on our stage and the girls got back on theirs. On our next break, we went inside to cheer them on.
Later in the evening, couples that had arrived together seemed to be splitting up. The windows in the trailer were tinted, but I don't think anyone had actually gone inside. All in all, it was a pretty tame night.
We played two long sets, got paid well, drank a few beers, had a little dance party in the stage cage, packed up, and went to our hotel room. It was inspiring how respectful everyone was to each other. The staff calls it a "lifestyle club." They honored that we were there to sing, not partake in the usual activities.
My new friends shouted my name and waved out the window of their upstairs dressing room as we drove away.
"The rule is, nobody judges anybody here." Wouldn't that be a nice way to be?