A Cult of Personality

I won't go into details, but I spent a long, grueling week at my day job defending myself for having a lousy MySpace page. And standing up for my right to self-expression (it was, after all, my space) had left me worked up, wiped out, and maybe just a little crazed. I needed to let my hair down.

Problem was, though I wanted company, I was too tired to get dolled up. Letting my hair down (and running a brush through it) was about all I had energy for. And that's how I ended up at Cheers for their Grateful Dead tribute band, Crazy Fingers, and their hordes of happy, hippie fans.

I had been at the Fort Lauderdale bar only long enough to use the facilities when my obsession with personal rights converged with the aesthetics of the flower children.

"Hair has rights too," I said, surprising myself as I subtly teased the woman in a long floral dress who was bemoaning her rain-swollen tresses.

She was pulling at her waist-length hair in the bathroom mirror: "Doesn't it look frizzy?"

"It's just wild and expressive," I reassured, pretty sure I was talking her language, since a quick glance around on my way through the place indicated that the Crazy Fingers fashion standard was uncut, unstyled hair (and, when it came to the men, usually pulled back in a ponytail regardless of the places that might be balding.)

My comment was a far cry from my usual "I hate hippies" stance. I mean, I believe in peace, love, and earth-friendly living, but I also believe in soap, shoes, and shaving. Oh, and personal space. Lots and lots of it.

But tonight, I was stuck on personal freedoms — even as it extended to hair. I was at the bar exercising my right to drink ale when a redheaded guy in a black T-shirt approached the bar.

"How ya doin'... beautiful?" he asked, leaving enough space between the words so that I had opened my mouth to answer before he completed his sentence. Nice trick. He introduced himself as Pete, the band's drummer and singer. Then he excused himself for the stage so the band could resume playing.

While the band performed a tune-up that exceeded its epic-length jams, I met my bartender Rick, who, like the rest of the staff, was in the spirit of the evening by wearing a Bong Spirit vodka T-shirt, though he himself was a vegan committed to clean living. He had something else in common with his back-to-nature clientele: an anti-technology philosophy.

"I don't like all those strings attached," he explained when I asked why he didn't own a TV, computer, or phone.

I figured I had him figured: "No strings, huh? Problems with commitment?"

"Married 23 years. I've worked here for 18."

That shut me up for a minute. And just in time too. Otherwise, I'd have been able to taste the patchouli that suddenly hung in the air like a hot fart. The diddling of guitar strings had summoned the entirety of the tribe from its otherwise fresh-air break out front.

The band finally got around to its second set, encouraging many of the sandal-footed crowd to kick off their shoes and begin dancing on the worn, wooden dance floor. Later in the evening, one guy even went into the men's room in his bare feet, exercising his right to ignore the standards of sanitary living.

I moved to the smaller bar far from the patchouli stank and watched the crowd while some twirled and others flailed in time to the music. The arms of the woman who had been worried about her hair were waving more wildly than anything her hair could have dreamed of.

Between songs, Drummer Pete teased the audience "Sugar what?" as they called out a request for the Grateful Dead hit, one of the few I actually knew. Instead, the band launched into another funky jam I didn't recognize.

No matter. It was less distraction from my surreptitious observation of the young couple at the end of the bar. They leaned into each other, sharing a cigarette in a naive sort of intimacy.

Around the bar, a garland of bras (perhaps donated by the female Crazy Fingers fans, several of whom wore bathing suit tops beneath their halter-tops) offered their support, but I needed a different sort of pick-me-up, so I ordered a Red Bull while I watched everyone else dance.

"Did you hear me play?" a guy said as he claimed the barstool next to me.

I couldn't be sure. All the middle-aged guys with their graying hair pulled back in ponytails were beginning to blur. The only guy who distinguished himself was the bass player, whose black hat and long black beard made him look a lot like an orthodox Jew.

I nodded and made the only guess that made sense: "Guitar, right?"

Introducing himself as Zappa Pete, he told me everyone here was family and began pointing to people and telling me their names. Not surprisingly, those named Spaceman and Sunshine both wore tie-dye.

Hey, it wasn't high fashion, but the clan had bigger fashion concerns. Like the fanny pack that dangled from a guy's hips like the modern version of a codpiece — the man sack.

Like some universal synchronicity, Drummer Pete encouraged from the mic: "Vote and vote and vote so we can keep our rights, y'all."

Meanwhile, I was getting a rock 'n' roll history lesson from Zappa Pete that included Deep Purple's inspiration for "Smoke on the Water" and, when the band began playing "Tangled Up in Blue," Dylan factoids. I was pretty sure this was the guy's way of flirting with me. It was a far more endearing approach than, say, "I make $100 million a year. Net." (An actual opener used on me in Boca a couple of weeks earlier at Moquila.)

At 11:59 p.m., the band called it quits. I guess they figured no one would quibble over a minute. No one complained as the bar cranked up the jukebox, which played stuff like Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, Steely Dan, and Heart.

Meanwhile, in an effort to learn more about the band and its fans, I went outside where most of them had congregated. I introduced myself to the bass player as he was moving a crate of equipment.

"I'm a Lubavitcher," said the band's bass player, Jarrett, when I asked about his apparel. "A chabad."

I looked at him quizzically.

"I'm a Hasidic Jew," he finally said plainly. "A Jew is a Jew is a Jew."

He explained that when he had been following the Grateful Dead, he had met religious Jews who had brought him to his newfound spirituality that made him "aware of the power of the creator in everything."

"When I saw that they had a blessing for when you come out of the bathroom and everything worked out all right," he explained, "I knew that it was spirituality on that very real level."

Fundamental, even.

Calling for his wife to join him, Jarrett excused himself: "Good night. Be well."

"God bless you," the woman with the expressive hair called after them, though no one had sneezed.

"Amen," replied Jarrett's wife as they left.

Normally by this point, my gag reflex would have kicked in, but this was a welcome change from a week of confrontation and contest.

"You need a hug," Miss Hair said and stood up and put her arms around me, hugging me close as I stiffly let her embrace me. "This is family: good music, good people."

I think this is how cults welcome new members.

"Crazy Fingers is my higher power," said a guy named Damian, whose hair looked like he'd received electroshock therapy. "If it weren't for them, I'd be in a straitjacket."

Maybe I wasn't too far off on the cult observation. I reclaimed my edge: "So what do you do when you're not worshiping Crazy Fingers?"

The crowd erupted into laughter.

"I wait for Tuesday and Thursday," he said, laughing at himself, explaining that on Tuesdays, the band plays at Bamboo Room in Lake Worth.

Well, amen for him, and I can certainly relate. I'll continue to look for my own welcoming community online, whether it gets me into hot water or not.

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Marya Summers