Nitrous Vaudeville

by Jeff Costello, June 30, 2010

In the early 70s we all knew that cocaine was the “greediest” drug. Marin County was giving birth to the yuppie phenomenon, and young, hyper-ambitious squares with stock portfolios, who “wanted it all now,” were setting the stage for postwar baby boomers to become the most hated generation. Thanks, guys.

The drug of choice for these people was cocaine. “It makes me feel like Superman,” said one button-down business type. Cocaine seemed to go directly to the ego. A miracle tonic for narcissists. “Toots and hot tubs” became an everyday Marin mantra.

The greediest drug — or so I thought — until I saw nitrous oxide in action at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. We were playing a show there, with some Santana-offshoot Latin band, and a good but short-lived rock group called Contraband. It was the pre-Watergate early 70s, the 60s still weren’t quite over, and the pink lemonade punch was dosed with LSD. You never found these things out until it was too late.

Memory fails me as to the reason for this particular gig. In those days we played quite a few benefit shows for different causes, including fundraisers for leftist or pro-dope lawyers. We did one for Terence Hallinan at the O’Farrell Theater. I wasn’t familiar with the particu­lars of the situation, but any attorney who would have a publicized event at a porno theater was all right with me. We did something for Tony Serra too; could have been the Music Hall.

In any case, whoever had organized this party had an odd sense of humor. Besides the acid-laced punch in the lobby, a room downstairs had been set up with several large tanks of nitrous oxide and a supply of 30-gallon garbage bags. People were filling the bags with the gas and huffing with all their might, refusing to let the next guy have a turn, shoving and pulling each other out of the way. The only way to feel any effect from laughing gas was to keep breathing it, and these people squatting on the floor with their faces in black trash bags, hyper­ventilating for maximum effect and fighting off the assaults of other would-be huffers, did not appear to be having fun. They definitely were not laughing. Competi­tion for a bagful of gas had become violent.

My own chance to be nitrous oxide-greedy came when I was selling pot to my dentist in Sausalito. He agreed to let me control the nitrous-to-air mix valve on the tank next to the chair. I cranked the gas all the way up. The best term for the sensation is goofy. It was no anesthetic but it did turn my teeth into a living vibra­phone as the hygienist cleaned them with an electric buffer wheel. Each tooth had a different pitch and while it wasn't terribly melodic, it was fascinating, even though the overall feeling from the nitrous was not pleasant in itself.

For another show we did in the City, at The Village in North Beach, I had the brilliant idea to put some vaudeville into a Redlegs gig. To this end I acquired a bunch of custard pies and a case of Redi-Whip. At a given cue, so it would be fresh, someone backstage would squirt the cream on the pies, and the band mem­bers would have a pie fight on stage. But spray-can whipped cream is powered by nitrous oxide, and when I wasn’t looking, my band mates had sucked all the laughing gas out of the Redi-Whip cans. Nitrous oxide greediness again. No whipped cream, no visual effect from pie throwing. The audience booed as we threw very un-messy custard pies at each other. That was my last brilliant show-biz idea for several years.

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