ALMOST EVERY THURSDAY NIGHT since the summer of 1986, one of America’s most prolific unpublished songwriters, Peachmalt James, has hosted “Thursday Night With Peachmalt James” — the West Coast’s fourth-oldest open mike, at the Magenta Neighborhood Palace. But the MNP’s lease recently expired, and the new land barons have found it in their hearts to raise the rent by 300 percent; so tonight, the 20-year run must end. For the last time, Peachmalt James will appear onstage at 8 p.m., shirtless, wearing transparent plastic pants filled ankle-to-gut with ice cubes and raw meat, held in place by two burgundy alligator-skin suspenders. “Meat-pants,” as James dubbed them long ago, were “created specifically to keep talent agents away” — he met one in 1985, and didn’t like her.
Over the years, Peachmalt James has introduced very small audiences to some of Southern California’s most unremarkable entertainers, many of whom have returned tonight to perform one last time, to say farewell and get drunk on the patio. Patty Mudge and Duke LaBarn drove all the way down from Alaska.
Magenta Neighborhood Palace has an outdoor patio twice the size of the performance room, and this is where the performers gather before each show. Between 6 and 7 p.m., they filter in — tight-knit die-hards, mostly, but always also a handful of bashful initiates — adding their names to the list and heading out to the patio to drink, talk and, tonight, reminisce.
IT’S 7:45. THE PATIO’S PACKED, and I’ve set up a Mac-and-mike recording studio on a small wooden table near the center. A stranger’s microphone quickly draws concern from several performers.
“Are you authorized to be recording?”
“Who are you recording?”
“What are you recording for?”
“Without a microphone in front of me,” says Darcy Finnegan Wakefield Simms, ducking in, interrupting, “I’m utterly tongue-tied.” Simms licks her lips unpleasantly just inches from my microphone, introduces herself and then introduces me to her husband, Rico Petrocelli (no relation to the Red Sox Hall of Famer). Under the name Petrocelli & Simms, the now-septuagenarian couple have been performing original songs here since almost the beginning — 1989 or ’90, Petrocelli recalls. “We haven’t missed a single Peachmalt James since 1998.”
Now Jackie Gene — a tall white woman in her 20s who later asks not to be identified, then reconsiders and asks to be called Jackie Gene — places an empty glass on my table. “Can I just say anything?” she says to the microphone. “I mean, can I just say whatever I want, and then you’ll put it in the story?”
“I am monkey-boy,” I say. “Automatically in service to all. But it depends on what you say.”
“In that case, monkey-boy,” says Jackie Gene, “I’m going to read you a little something from my journal.”
As she opens up and begins to read aloud, Peachmalt James breaks through the crowd. And elbows Jackie Gene away.
“So you’re the guy writing the thing?” says Peachmalt James, his baritone still strong and croony. He’s already in the meat-pants. “Pleased to . . . meat you!” At this he grabs one of the steaks in his pants, for effect.
“Heh-heh. People love meat jokes,” he continues. “Generally. Some don’t. But most do. At least the ones who laugh, I think. Most of my jokes are about meat — I figure laughing means they liked the joke. Don’t you think? I mean, I’m not up there to tell jokes. I’m a songwriter.”
Slim, shirtless and bespectacled, with a hat not quite cowboy, not quite fedora, Peachmalt James is a boisterous, endearing fellow. You’d cast James Cromwell to play him, and you’d be happy.
James quickly introduces me to the old-timers. It’s getting close to showtime.
“What are you going to do after this?” I ask.
“After this? Well, the show always ends when the ice is all melted — right around 11. Then I take off the pants, we lock up, grill the meat — and usually someone brings potato salad — and we have a nice little late-night dinner party. That’s what’s so . . .”
“I mean,” I cut in, “after this whole . . . this chapter of your life.”
“Oh — that this. No plans. Nothing. Broke, old, no marketable skills. Figure I’ll hitchhike up to Juneau, stay with Duke and Patty for as long as I can stand them, then wander off into the snow and fall asleep. I imagine I’ll make some poor polar bear a happy meal.
“Unless you have a better idea.”
AT 8 SHARP, THE PLACE IS PACKED. Peachmalt James takes the stage to unrelenting applause, cheers, loud. James smirks and chuckles and mumbles and havers on. “Packin’ some serious meat — heh-heh”; “Picked these up at the track meat — heh-heh.” At this heh-heh, he draws attention to his brand-new Austrian air-dried T-bone sandals. The crowd goes nutz. Peachmalt James surrenders the stage, and for the next three hours, the audience is treated to 30 brazen acts of entertainment, which James has asked me not to describe here.
AT 11 P.M. THE ICE HAS MELTED, and Peachmalt James returns to the stage. Final valediction with a shrug. A half-dozen old-timers join him for the same closer they’ve sung together all these Thursdays, since Reagan was king. Most of the audience sings along. A simple song called “Neighbor Lloyd,” about one of Peachmalt James’ former neighbors, up in Palmdale, who inspired him to be a performer by paying him $20 to write a song about him.
Oh, we’re pretty sure Neighbor Lloyd was all right
Or so we would like to believe
Folks would visit Lloyd from far, far away
To buy drugs and real estate and leave
Oh, they’d only stay a short time
No, they wouldn’t stay for long
They’d get back in their cars and drive away
Drive away, drive away
They would always drive away
They’d all get back in their cars and drive away
It’s over. Peachmalt James removes his meat-pants. Underneath, he’s wearing insulated dark-blue snow pants, embroidered with white polar bears.
By the suspenders he raises the meat-pants high, and swings them in triumphant circles above his head.
“Dinner!” he shouts, and releases.