It was getting toward sunset on the Fourth of July when All the Young Dudes hit the deck of the SS RNR CIRCUS for the annual Glam Slam Jam and the air was hot. The boys were dressed in their usual regalia of 70s-throwback-flirting-with-a-drag-show aesthetic that would have made the Thin White Duke tip a coiffed head in admiration. The vessel, a reproduction of an antebellum riverboat, embarked from Mud Island for its usual churn up the Mississippi and back down for a starboard view of Memphis’s riverfront skyline. The crew was equally bedazzled for the event, carrying confetti guns in lieu of armaments, with flares attached at the hip for easy deployment when the night got into full swing. The Captain, who claimed to have spent time roaming beneath the iron curtain with the Starman during his Berlin years, acted as a de facto master of ceremonies. Not to mention he was rumored to have scored the same cocaine listed in the liner notes of Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life.
The crowd was the usual smattering of old Memphis rockers and audiophiles who kept original issues of Creem and Melody Maker in plastic sleeves only to be handled with freshly-laundered cotton gloves. Young dudes just delving into the Mott, casting eyes about the planks on the hunt for their very own Penny Lanes. Of course there were tourists, told by their phones that this was the premier paddlewheel-driven rock tribute; all square, their selfie sticks colliding with waving arms and raised bottles, complaining about the heat. Sure they weren’t expecting the rampant drinking and casual open-air drug use, but when you cram enough nostalgia and fervent rock fans together, all dipping into their private stashes to share in the collective revelry of a bygone era, things are bound to get a bit sloppy.
All the Young Dudes, though, were anything but. Each member of Memphis’s very own tribute to the Hoople offered a mixture of underground-famous studio player notoriety and the gregarious swagger of barfly troubadours. More importantly, those dudes kicked out the jams like motherfuckers surging on weapons-grade adrenaline. The Dudes’ Ian Hunter, cutting a jib on the Mason/Dixon of Electric Warrior and Road Warrior, punctuated each lyric with the lit tip of his cigarette, tucking it into the neck of his +-shaped guitar when it was his turn to rip. The rhythm section traded hits and slaps along with a tight roll of medical grade White Light (you know it’s gonna make you go blind) expelling clouds of cannabinoid smoke and working three times harder than all the fog machines combined. Swinging from the lifeboats were young cats from the local scene all looking to catch a bead of sweat as the ship continued carving its path, leaving hissing roaches and guitar licks bobbing in their wake.
While the Dudes continued to hold court aboard the CIRCUS, on the other side of Mud Island a similar vessel at anchor: steam-powered and hell-bent on absolute river dominance of a more nefarious caliber. Where the Dudes were attempting to bask in the warm shroud of the slowly ebbing twilight—somewhere between pastiche and true love expressed through emulation—the SS WAGON WEAL aimed to shoot them down.
Apparently, and this is word of mouth through some of the city’s back channels, the captain of the CIRCUS, the one who rolled with the Starman, had run some bad coke to fund this year’s annual Glam Slam Jam—the premier paddlewheel-driven rock tribute in arguably Tennessee’s real music city. Word about Beale was that the captain had been under pressure from some of the upper-ups around Memphis to bring in more out-of-towners to keep the GSJ in the black after what had amounted to several years of decline. The fat cats who’d been leaning on their thumbs, and subsequently the captain, were concerned that a certain other city in the Volunteer State also built on a river (but not one that Mark Twain really gave two shits about) was drawing not just the majority of Tennessee’s Fourth of July vacation money, but the great middle Southeast’s overall expendable income as well. This was bad news for the captain, and frankly left him in a spot tighter than a drumhead.
What the captain had settled on, and this again is just what so-and-so heard from one of the young dudes working valet at Rendezvous, was that rather than get a bunch of out-of-town amateurs in the mix for his favorite party on no wheels, the captain mixed some of that famous Beat My Brains white with over the counter anti-acid medication and passed it off as pure to some of the less informed powder heads around Shelby County. He was making it hand over fist. What the captain hadn’t accounted for was that one of those less informed heads happened to own the SS WAGON WEAL, a right-down-to-the-bolts replica of a Civil War river gunboat; locked and loaded and twice as long as the SS RNR CIRCUS. Their captain, high on the same shit as Iggy plus generic brand TUMS, hoisted anchor just as the RNR made its up river turn and headed back up towards the city.
As the Dudes called intermission, the captain swung the ship around and came on deck for a state-of-the-union type address.
“Y’all feelin’ alright?” he belted through gritted teeth into a microphone strung up with holiday lights.
“All the Young Dudes, ladies and gentlemen! Man alive, y’all is hot as grits tonight! I wanna thank the Dudes, and all y’all for coming out for what is shaping up to be a memorable evening. Give it up for yourselves, ladies and gentlemen!”
The captain paused for cheers and applause as his eyes caught the approaching gunboat in the distance. With drug-honed vision sharper than a red tail, he recognized the mounted figurehead of General George Pickett as none other than the SS WAGON WEAL approaching at 20 knots portside. This was not a drill.
Turning his back to the crowd, the captain lifted a small mound of that true LFL white into his left nasal cavity and inhaled. Resuming his emcee duties, he gave orders with an air of celebration.
“Hoople heads, I present to you, once again, the Dudes!” Waving his arms frantically to the light booth, signaling the projector, who swung the spots from the captain back to the stage where the Dudes, being amateur professionals, dropped their smokes, and once again it was strictly business. The captain pulled his first mate in close to whisper in his ear, “Get ready to give these bastards hell” as the Dudes launched into “Honaloochie Boogie” with a high-haired, eye-patched roadie stepping in to man the keys. The crowd, running too hot to notice the crew taking up positions along the port side, struggling with crates and what looked like brightly colored mailing tubes, went wild.
As the Dudes kept the crowd rapt and raging, no one noticed the SS WAGON WEAL barring down. At 18-inch increments, the crew had lined the mortars for the nights’ culminating firework display to point outward all along the vessel’s port side. The crew stood at the ready, hushed and smoking, awaiting the command. The captain drummed his fingers on the ship’s wheel in anticipation. In the distance, a flock of seagulls dipped into the rocking wake below the horizon.
“Boys, watch my footwork and get ready to shoulder ‘em,” the captain announced, muscling the wheel, churning the whole CIRCUS to run perpendicular to the approaching WEAL. This happened like lightning. The CIRCUS drifted at an angle of self-defense as the crew hustled to spark the display shells and get them loaded. The Dudes were ripping into “All the Way from Memphis” and just when their Ian Hunter belted out “Forgot my six-string razor—hit the sky,” a wave of explosions lit up the back port and rear of the vessel like a goddam firefight. The crowd officially lost it. The WEAL was not expecting to lose the upper hand of surprise (and muscle), and was effectively caught with their pants down. The display was immaculate.
“Give ‘em hell, boys!” At that, the crew let fly flares and confetti at the scuttling shapes on the WEAL’s deck. In the midst of the barrage, the WEAL let loose a volley that completely missed the CIRCUS’s carousing deck and hull, but managed to blow the lid off the Bass Pro Shop Pyramid off Wolf River Harbor. The WEAL screamed past the CIRCUS in a blaze of pyrotechnics and craft supplies as the Dudes launched into their namesake and their voices filled the night.
“HEY DUDES!” The captain shrieked over the rising chorus, weaving between the Dudes’ call and response, as he watched the WEAL catch fire like dry kindling, the Pyramid ablaze over his shoulder, the wind carrying the smoke as the Dudes carried the news.