Joe Lala, the legendary gentleman congero from Ybor City, Florida, was standing outside a club in Van Nuys

1977. Joe Lala, the legendary gentleman congero percussionist from Ybor City, Florida, was standing outside a club in Van Nuys, in Los Angeles, talking with an also lengendary keyboardist, John Herron, taking one of the four fifteen minute breaks from the night’s gig. It was not a flashy gig. There were no limos. You showed up, loaded your own gear into the small stage, set up and played the four hours, got paid maybe twenty five to a hundred dollars; sometimes for no pay at all, then loaded out your own gear at the end of the night. It was a journeyman’s job. It was what kept the players playing; kept them in touch with the bigger gigs, the recording sessions at the myriad studios in Hollywood. Chemistry was generated at gigs like this. Drummers and bass players found compatibility, keyboardists fattened up their phone books with contacts. Down to earth; practical way of surviving as a musician. No egos. Everybody worked together. Most of the folks in the audience were there for a beer and a good time and didn’t much notice that these players were the ones who made the rock stars sound great: Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young, Whitney, Alice, Bowie, Flo and Eddie, Zappa, Hal and Oates, Bruce, Elton, Elvis, on and on; low key geniuses that shined and then were thanked onstage by their stars who knew just how valuable these back up players were.
As usual, the San Fernando valley night air was dry and mild. The club gig break conversation landed on high school reunions. John had attended his back in Elk City, Oklahoma and was treated like a returning hero. Joe had gone back to Tampa, the stomping ground for his first band; Blues Image, and their first hit, “Ride Captain Ride”. He had enjoyed it. I was extremely reticent to return to Clearwater, just across Tampa Bay from Joe Lala’s colorful, romantic, Cuban Ybor City. The redneck football team had tried to kill me in 1967 for my refusal to endorse the Viet Nam madness. Plus they hated the fact that my band, Those Five, were the heartthrobs of their cheerleader girlfriends. But Joe Lala was calmly convincing,
“Go back to your high school reunion, Buddy. It’ll be good for you. Something good will come of it. I’m sure.”
Some time passed and the CHS reunion committee found me. I remembered Joe’s friendly words of advice. I arrived at the Holiday Inn on Clearwater Beach and pinned on my name tag. I didn’t remember anyone. In high school we thought we had personalities but really didn’t. People called me Russell who I didn’t know and others called me Buddy which I almost recalled. Everything was bland but safe until a group of weathered construction contractors, Viet Nam Vets, approached me. They weren’t smiling.
“Upstairs. Now.” They said with no ceremony. I followed, feeling vulnerable, paranoid, and regretting having listened to Joe Lala and his fatherly advice. These were the good old boys who had orders from the football coach in 1967 to take out Helm because he had a ‘bad attitude’. Arriving in a large hotel suite they kicked out their preteen daughters and sons, sat down in a circle. They directed me to sit in a stuffed chair opposite them. These were the guys who caught the shit. I could feel it.
“You didn’t go to Viet Nam, Buddy. How Come?” The biggest one growled at me.
“I got a medical deferment. Some guardian angels…” I didn’t tell them about CIA kidnapping me, trying to force me to be an informant in the antiwar movement. I glossed over the grueling tours where I was pushed out a second story window by Otis Redding’s road manager, gashing open, almost losing my right arm, or the Uzi rounds that destroyed the hearing in my left ear; or the music business betrayals, or the murder of Tim Buckley.
“…Sometimes, I feel like a punk because I didn’t go.” I added.
There was a sad silence in the hotel suite. The big one growled again.
“Don’t…We aren’t proud of what we did….We obeyed orders.”
A round of grunts of agreement came from the other men. These boys, smiling and clean, in their high school yearbook pictures, had gone through green hell.
“We just couldn’t figure how you got out.” A former helicopter medic added. They all agreed, mystified that I had managed to escape their fate.
“You guys got the benefits.” I said somewhat bitterly. “I got nothing. I’m still on the outside.” They would never really understand the scope of my decision to separate from the herd back in high school. They were driving new Mustangs and pick ups. They had gotten the GI bill.
Later, in a sixth floor suite, overlooking the shimmering darkness of the Gulf of Mexico, class of 67 alumni were sitting, talking, when I heard a women’s comment from the balcony.
“I’ve never SEEN a dead man before!”
I went out into the balmy tropical night air, stood at the railing and looked down where they were pointing. A body was floating into shore. I went into some automatic emergency mode while everyone else stood frozen in the innocent bystander witness mode.
“You!” I pointed to someone who looked coherent. “Call 911!”
I sprinted out of the room and down the stairs, careful not to over exert myself and have my own heart attack. I was running across the grass when another pair of footsteps came running up behind me; the Viet Nam helicopter medic. I arrived at the lifeless body at the edge of the gently lapping water. A hysterical girl was screaming next to him and another young man was next to her. I got down on the grey body and proceeded to push on his chest. I had watched enough ‘Bay Watch’ episodes to know how to do it. I even had an offer to work on the show as post production supervisor, but they hired a girl instead who worked for half of what I asked for.
“Nothing.” The medic said with his fingers on the man’s wrist. “He’s gone.”
I pushed again, both hands, harder. The girl was screaming louder.
“Get her to shut up.” I said to the guy with her.
“He’s her boyfriend.” The guy said. He was not one of the CHS reunion group. “We’re from Tampa. We were out on the pier, drinking. He decided to dive in the water. The tide is out. Its only a couple feet deep out there on the sandbar. He knocked himself out and the waves brought him in.”
“Get her down here and give him mouth to mouth.” I said in the most authoritative voice I had learned at the Stella Adler acting class in LA. The girl grimaced but did it. I pushed harder on his chest.
“Nothing. Buddy. Give it up..” The medic said, monitoring the man’s wrist.
Then I used a martial arts technique I had learned along the way. I pushed up under his rib cage, insulting his heart with an aggressive thrust.
“Wait…keep doing that.” The medic said, intrigued. I pushed harder, then again.
“I got a pulse.” The medic said.
The man coughed. Water came out. He came back. The paramedics showed up and stood around talking while the guy was still lying there almost lifeless.
“Take care of him or you’re gonna lose him!” I yelled at them. They looked at me with a bored, detached appraisal.
“Let him go, Buddy.” The helo medic softly spoke to me, “He’s theirs now.”
His quiet assured voice reminded my of Joe Lala’s voice. I backed off and walked away. It was Joe Lala who had saved that kid’s life.

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