“You’re on in five,” said Benji, the entertainment manager of Sully & Co. Burger Bar in downtown Santa Barbara, who wore a silver ring on each of his long-nailed fingers and smelled of whiskey, cigarette smoke and sweat.
Usually this was the time backstage when Lennie’s band—The Backward Compliments—would huddle up, Lennie would tap twice on her good luck charm (a turquoise and white bracelet that lead singer Patricia Van Mulligan gave her years ago before a show at the Troubadour in L.A.) and the entire band would say a prayer to the lords of rock n’ roll. Enter Backward Compliments, stage left.
In happier times of yore, the colored lights would circle then focus on the seven musicians, all in matching red leather jackets. Lennie would stand poised and ready, guitar slung around her shoulder, its head pointing up in midair like a rattlesnake about to attack and the rest of the gang would be waiting with the same animalistic anticipation, drumsticks, fiddle, sax or microphone in hand. The crowd would shriek, Lennie would hit one epic power chord—usually C5 or D5—and the music of the Backward Compliments would roll through the stadium … pounding, thumping melodies that made you remember why it’s so awesome to be alive.
One platinum record and two sold-out world tours tended to forge a few rituals like the huddle-and-prayer and the leather jacket thing. (A balding writer from Rolling Stone Magazine who scampered around them on tour No. 2 once wrote: “To be a member of the Backward Compliments is not just to embrace a red-leather clad lifestyle but to be a creature of intense habit and therein we find the true reason why this band is, musically speaking, the tightest one touring today.”)
Other band habits included a sky-diving addiction picked up by Patricia, the red-headed singer with a blistering, frenetic attitude to match. And while the huddle-and-prayer served to rejuvenate the group and the leather jackets served to unite, Patricia’s sky-diving obsession ultimately broke them apart when she went up but never came down while diving somewhere over the Gold Coast of Australia.
The “Mystery of Van Mulligan” was broadcast from Kansas to Kathmandu and for an entire month it seemed like the globe had turned into sky-diving detectives, searching through every piece of evidence know by local news stations and big-time magazines alike, scouring Google maps, examining pieces of safety equipment that might have gone awry and trying to figure out where in the heck the beloved Backward Compliments singer might have gone.
Lennie’s theory was that she just had enough. Dyed her iconic red hair black and changed her accent. She was born in the Bronx but could speak in any accent she wanted and sound just like a native. Knowing Patricia and her penchant for the spirited and carefree, she was probably renting a surf shack in Australia with dried roses hanging on the walls—her favorite flower and why the band’s leather jackets were red—teaching sky diving lessons to divers who would never know. She liked but never really loved the music. What she loved was the adventure music stirred up as the Backward Compliments trotted their way around the globe.
The good news in all the mess was that radio stations played nothing but the Backward Compliments’ hit single, “You Look So Dumb I Didn’t Know You Were A Genius,” for a straight two month after Patricia vanished. The track floated atop the iTunes charts for almost seven consecutive weeks and raked up more than 100 million hits on YouTube. But once the dust of Patricia’s disappearance settled to a thin coating on the ground and the radio jockeys went back to spinning anything but that overplayed Backward Compliments song, the band decided it best to disband for good.
Although “good” apparently meant three years, which was when for most of them the money ran dry, the royalty fees slowed from a steady gush to a sluggish drip and a reunion tour was the only way for the six remaining members of The Backward Compliments to pay the mortgages on their Malibu beach houses and Brooklyn lofts.
Except music years were sort of like dog years. Step away from the spotlight for three of them and you’re practically unknown, as if you’d been away for decades, as gone as Patrician Van Mulligan herself. Onetime staples at the Staples Center and the London O, these days the Backward Compliments were lucky to book dive bars in Poughkeepsie.
At least compared with the renovated Laundromat they’d played in last month, Sully & Co. Burger Bar wasn’t so bad.
“Hello? Guys? You hear me? I said you’re on in five. Now it’s three.” Manager Benji and his rings were back. “Are you ready or should I just skip ya and we go on to the next band. Doesn’t matter to me. I give the money to whichever group of bozos with guitars can get up on my stage and play.”
“No, we’re ready,” said Lennie, huddling up the guys and searching her wrist for her lucky bracelet to tap. But when she circled a hand around her wrist, nothing was there.
“Shoot, I’ll be right back,” she spit out, pushing through the other five Backward Compliments and opening the door that led into a mostly empty parking lot. A breath, a pause. She could go on without the bracelet. She’d be OK.
Rock n’ roll superstar or washed-up hack, no matter how you wanted to label her, it would be hard to say Lennie didn’t have a little luck on her side. And she found it again tonight in downtown Santa Barabara when, just to her left, growing there by the steps leading back toward the stage door, was a tiny rose bush, and on one particularly blooming rose, her good luck bracelet.
Lennie plucked the white and turquoise bracelet from its rosy perch. “Thanks, Patricia,” said Lennie to no one. She slid it back onto her wrist and tapped twice. Time to play again.