Center of the Universe (13)
“I got a rich guy carrying my stuff!”
Gail Muldrow has a fantasy about me. But that’s only fair, because I have a fantasy about her. Which is why I can’t just sit back and finish my decadent quaff of Nero d’Avola, as she passes lugging a microphone, stand, music stand, music, Stratocaster and ridiculously heavy amp all by her petite lonesome out to the sub-compact that, judging by the scuffs and dimples, she’s been driving for a decade or two and that’s poised by the fire door with the hatch open in the harrowingly narrow parking lot behind the Fairfax trattoria called Sorellas.
Gail is a star.
More than that, she’s a genius.
More than that, she’s a wiseacre, cracking wise about a middle-class guy trying to do the right thing, cracking wise because that’s her, on the topic of anything, including herself, cracking wise because Gail Muldrow, who’s been up, down and all around in her (let’s say) late-fiftyish years, tiny Gail, with the tiny nose and giant smile — that generates dimples of its own — is pound for pound as bad a badass as you could bring to the knife fight and needs no help from no one.
Which is a word Gail fancies and can encompass a helpful fan or a heavy amp, good shit or bad.
“Reminds me of when I was in the Brides,” she riffs, as I attempt to sidearm the leaden amplifier into the hatchback.
“Roadies!” she adds, growling the R, in just one of the many flourishes with which she punctuates her allegro patter. “Setting up, breaking down, tuning the guitars — I didn’t have to do nothing but play!”
And for a brief, shining demi-year of Fridays, Gail is the star at the center of the universe.
Gail was a star in the George Clinton universe in the P-Funk spinoff called the Brides of Funkenstein. Played Strat and sang, as she does now. Before that, like a lot of folks in the George Clinton universe, she played and sang with Sly and the Family Stone, starting at 16. And since the Sly universe begat the George universe (begat the Prince universe, who Gail toured with in 2011), that means she was present at the Creation. When soul turned to funk.
Sometime in there, Gail played with slap-bass inventor and Sly alum Larry Graham in the top-ten hitmakers Graham Central Station. And after, in the last incarnation of the Johnny Otis Show. And even if you’ve never heard “Willie and the Hand Jive” or don’t recognize the artists Johnny Otis discovered (Etta James?) or the one he spawned (Shuggie) or haven’t paid a speck of attention to the unbelievable tale of the bandleading Greek who passed for black, that means Gail was present at the Creation, twice.
Oh, and her hero is Rosetta Tharpe, if the “Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll” means anything to you.
There’s more (Gail’s also the prize-winning bass drummer in a Celtic marching band). More (singer, guitarist in the longtime Latin outfit Bernal Beat). And more (something called the Gunpowder Rebellion with scowly guys in black kilts that could be Celtic death metal).
But trust me, she’s heavy — for a flyweight. And here she is, in all her glory, all jammed up in the corner of the back room, three tables away. Her band’s pretty heavy, too: a bluesy piano pounder who did 20 years in San Quentin, a backup singer and Sam Cooke ringer who spent 20 years painting the Golden Gate Bridge, and John Molloy, skin-thumper extraordinaire, Soy’s man and, in Fairfax, the musical connective tissue of tutti. She can be a tough band member, he allows. She won’t hesitate to call you out. And seeing as how John’s not one to turn the other cheek, it says more than the rhapsodic words that follow for him to be playing with her, not in one, but three, bands.
Here at the ristorante, Gail sticks to Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Minnie Riperton, “Dock of the Bay” and, for her other singer, “Cupid” — mellow classics that in less gifted hands might be moldy. But it’s not to suck up (Gail don’t play that). It’s strictly because, a bit hippie herself, she likes them. So there’s no roof-tearing in the back room. No funk, except in a masterfully silent way — twinkly, trebly Fender pulsing behind vocals that rumble and rise, thicken and thin, with all the flourishes of her conversation, plus the occasional Al Green-ish backwards squeak.
Still, unspecified customers are whining to the sisters that it’s loud. I just figure it’s a couple of old cranks, so fuck ’em. But Soy’s too nice not to listen.
What brings Gail to the back room is Giovanni. Through a series of troubling turns in his family life, our favorite accordionist found himself in urgent need of lodging. And because underneath Gail’s biscotti exterior is zabaglione, she offered the extra bedroom at her place in the Valley, other side of White’s Hill. And if there was conflict, as always with roommates (especially when one of them doesn’t clean up after his nasty self, motherfucker!), there was also care. And at no time was it more manifest than the afternoon of the big December rainstorm when Gail told Gio, juggling a 30-pound squeezebox and suitcase of song cards, to take it easy on that wet, slimy porch.
Gio arrived at Marin General just a few hours after our friend Sandy. I kept thinking I ought to hunt down my duet partner, but he had a tore-up knee — badly tore-up, but still — while Sandy, unresponsive, after a cerebral hemorrhage, was touch-and-go. So as Gio mended, first at the hospital and then, with a surfeit of moaning and groaning (well-placed sources say), at home, Gail’s home, his roomie kept his seat warm Fridays at Sorellas. While Gio — less 20 pounds — came back to the back in June, we were still so wrapped up in Sandy, who was still so broken, with no one else to look out, that we hadn’t seen either in months.
Then came the photo. That one, up there.
When some nostalgic superfan or promoter is willing to pay the freight — which is surely never as substantial as it should be, or was — and it’s convenient to the lives they’ve carved out beyond major-label show biz, the Brides do one-offs. Like the Long Beach Funk Fest. And one day someone posted a picture of my fave, the little one on guitar. And I realized, with a face like that, who needs my thousand words.