Show’s off, and I’m trying to sleep under The Straight As’ dining room table. Their lead singer fingers through the Kama Sutra with his girlfriend. Their bass player left his kid’s car seat in the parking lot to make room for more beer. Someone calls for a mirror, and it’s for their eye make-up.
Southern California has been all cold rain and pigeons. No beach, no bikinis, no flamingos, though I’m told that’s Florida—the only place we’re not going. Got bronchitis somewhere between D.C. and Santa Cruz and had no air on stage through Raleigh, Austin, Tempe. My lungs want to go on tour too, find a better body. They’re sick of the smoke and damp and the party in the living room. Last night, I chipped a tooth on the mic trying to make it work, Clip blew a fuse, Warren’s cords got lost, and Milk has broken every drumstick. Our van smells like a zoo, like the dark alley behind a zoo.
“Record sales are down,” Roger, tour manager, says, betting our band’s money away on gin rummy. But my boys are still cheery—the Mexican stuff being cheap here—and look, from under this table, to be walking on the walls.
Late night, the balloon deflates; then it’s just snores and NASA static from the stereo. A cat paws across all our backs, little claws. But Clip changes his strings by flashlight looking like a battlefield medic, eyes insomnia-wide, wire cutters in his mouth, playing the E and the A back and forth, listening close as if for a heartbeat.
In Las Vegas, I decide to wear the priest costume on stage. Bad joke, no one laughs, so I change. We make $100 minus what we drink, but the Strip sends up a flare and we go as if to the rescue.
At the Hard Rock, a grizzly bear in a v-neck sweater tries to sell me bad medicine in the bathroom. I tell him I have my own, shake my Dristan like a tambourine, but in the mirror I realize I do look like the type who might be buying: hair dyed and wild, eyes squinting out of dark pits, nose running. I actually meet a girl named Michelle, there on business, who thinks this mess is interesting. She likes music, but I tell her I’m growing not too. She says, “Sing something,” but I can only cough.
Roger hands Warren and me a plastic cup full of change. Meager takings from video poker. Michelle has a friend.
“Cab fare,” Roger says. “We’re out. Have fun.”
Michelle says, “I shouldn’t, but do you want to come back to my room?”
I say, “We have a place to stay,” too clouded by punk rock logic to understand her offer right away.
She and her friend leave. Warren and I circle the bar once and then say they weren’t that cute anyway. It’s true.
Then Warren sits at a slot machine, inserts a quarter, and says, “Watch this.” Gin appears.
Our cab driver is a Catholic. She gives us Bibles small as matchbooks. Just the highlights. Genesis, Job, and John. We do feel moved, spiritual even, lurching through the maze of the apartment complex, peeing on cacti, banging on the wrong doors.
The Urgent Care doctor in Phoenix shakes his head at me.
“Stop smoking. Get some rest. Wear ear plugs.”
But I can’t do any of those things.
“Have insurance? Any money? Folks to call?”
My turn to shake my head at him.
He gives me a handful of samples, pills big as nickels, and I take one in the lobby at the water fountain. Clip waits in the van. It used to be white, but now it’s like a rain cloud on black wheels
“Well, let’s hurry.”
Our host in Phoenix, Julie X., is matronly; her apartment, immaculate. So we fill it with our junk. Dirty laundry and maps, beer caps and tissues. She says some locals are boycotting our show. They heard we were dicks. The fact that we could piss people off this far from home without ever being here makes us glad. We think, We must be on to something.
At the show, Julie X. flirts with all of us—she has no preference—and then with the bartender, the bouncer, the walls and coasters. She drops thick, brown shots into beer, and gurgles the froth. The whole club is drunk in a friendly way. A few dance on the stage during the set. They do us the great honor of pretending they know our songs.
Julie X. pukes outside while we load the van, and the bouncer says he’ll hunt us back to Philadelphia if something bad happens to her. Then he passes us doing 90 on the expressway and giving us the finger, while she snores in the back of the van.
Then another party. A brief trip to the apartment’s pool. Cops.
I hear it all from the couch, under a blanket. The medicine is working. It’s killing something inside me. Then they come crashing back into the apartment. Clip saying, “They can’t arrest us if we’re from out of state. I need a towel.” Julie, revived, saying “What now?” and Warren saying, “Where’s Roger?”
Back across the sand, back towards San Diego again. The generosity of The Straight A's. Past the Indian reservation casinos and their frightening roller coasters. We beg Clip to stop. He won’t. Sandstorms and mountain snow all on the same drive.
“There’s Mexico!” Warren says and points to lights south that can’t be Mexico. Just more Arizona. My boys practice Spanish, running out of things to say to each other in English.
“Basta, basta,” I mutter from the back-bench and my fever ticks up a degree.
That night, the club is filled with skin-heads, an animal we didn’t know existed any more. But we are white. We are vaguely heterosexual. And--says, the scariest of them in the bathroom--we did a “nice job.” I stood at the urinal as he told this to my back. I expected a knife. An elbow wrapped around my neck. A snicker, at least. But the conversation behind me changed to someone else they wanted to murder.
Roger has found the girls we’ll crash with by the old black and white photo booth. They are drinking scotch and taking sexy pictures. Art students. Their hair-do’s are like dyed-black helmets—shiny, rigid, military. They smile at us, but only pull Roger into the booth as the old camera flashes.
We sell a few discs. Chit-chat. Complain we opened for crap.
The next band is local and they curse at the skin-heads. There is a familiarity in the way the singer addresses them, as if they have this argument every weekend. He calls on them by name, but we decide to get out. Bad scene. We hunt down the promoter, eat the bar count, and get our money. From the van, we watch all hell. They throw everyone out of the club and the skins throw trash cans back at the windows. Nothing breaks.
Back at the girls’ apartment, I still can’t tell them apart, even in this bright light. There’s Christian, there’s Kristen, there’s Kirsten. When we’re zipped up in our bags on the floor, Warren points out that Roger has gotten bed-time with one of the girls. He’s slept on so many mattresses on this trip. We curse him.
At 3am, a man shows up at the apartment that we were warned about before lights-out: Raisin, the final roommate. From my spot on the floor, in the dark, it seems that Raisin mainly hovers over the kitchen sink all night, muttering. I have to pee so bad, but I’m scared to move.
No sign of Raisin. But all the dishes are clean. The girls are up early to open the Barnes & Noble they work for. No time for showers--they have to lock up. So we sit in the van for a long time planning our next move. Had we all been hoping for a romantic picnic on the beach with the girls? Seems like it.
Tonight is the biggest show of the tour. Opening for Rocket from the Crypt’s record release party. Major label locals. They’ve actually sold tickets for the show, and those tickets have sold out. This is a first for us. The Casbah. We ask ourselves, Like, “Rock the…”? Is this the place they were talking about? We park the van outside the club a good eight hours before load-in. This show has been looming for us all tour, like exam day. Could finance the rest of the trip. Could be the break that’s big. Plan: we go get a drink.
At 7pm, we’re told we’re on in fifteen. The doors have just opened. The sun is still lighting the room. It’s empty. Bartenders cutting limes. The sound guy fixing his ponytail like, Anytime now, guys.
Our set is good. We’re pissed. People keep walking in and regard us like the trivia questions on screen before a movie starts. The sound guy has purposefully kept the volume low out of the speakers. People shouldn’t be able to talk while we’re playing, but they are. Between songs, I look at the boys. Clip has an angry smirk. Warren sighs. Milk, as usual, is having the time of his life, crashing and banging back there.
Roger stands at the foot of the stage, pretending he’s a local who has just stumbled onto something amazing. It doesn’t catch on.
After the set, we sulk at the merchandise table. Roger says, “We still get a cut of the bar. We need to stick around.” So Clip orders a drink. I have a coughing fit in the bathroom, and realize in the mirror that I’ve burst a blood vessel in my right eye. I look crazy. No one talks to me the rest of the night.
Milk and Warren meet a girl who says, “You guys can crash at my folks’ place. I fucking hate my folks.” We don’t crash there.
The road is empty and it’s not snowing in Wyoming, but the wind is whipping, so old snow swirls across the highway in front of the van’s headlights like the train of a girl’s dress we’re chasing. It’s beautiful.
5am at the Cowboy Hat Diner. They are waiting for their eggs to be delivered so we drink coffee and talk delirious. After three weeks, we’re developing our own language.
“I heard you j.o. in the van,” Warren says to Roger. “I heard a whimper.”
“I’m so sick of these post-hardcore kids,” Clip says. “Issues. Why write rock music about AIDS in Africa? Did the Stones ever write music about Africa?”
“’Brown Sugar,’” I say.
Milk starts to drum that song’s beat out with his silverware. He has the weird ability to conjure up any song on the drums.
“That song is about getting down to biz,” Clip says. “It’s different.
“7 inch records cost so much to make, but that’s all we sell,” Roger says. “Maybe we should raise the price. Or package a deal.”
The waitress arrives with our order and we cheer. The eggs have come in. The grease. We’ve been hung-over for this entire trip, so we go silent and gobble. A staring local from the counter finally addresses us.
“That your van out there?” he says.
The whole restaurant looks out the window at our white, Dodge 12-seater. The most suspicious vehicle in the parking lot. It’s a kidnapper’s van. Everything else is a pick-up.
Roger speaks up, “Yup.”
“Be careful,” the local says. “Day like this blows vans like that off the road.”
After breakfast, Clip climbs back in the driver’s seat, unfazed. He points to a sign for the Budweiser brewery. 250 miles. “We’re going,” he says. “It’s on the way.” But the snow across the road is different now, ruined by worry. Clip turns the radio up and the others sleep while I try to keep the van steady with my mind.
At 11:30 am, we are the only people who want a tour. The Budweiser employees are not happy.
“Do you want to see the Clydesdales?” the tour guide asks and points across a snow-covered field.
“On the sled?” It’s twenty degrees out.
“What is that?” Clip asks.
“They’re horses,” the guide says.
“No,” Clip says. “I want to see people make beer.
Nothing in the factory is actually working. The guide points to a window and says, “Usually, this is where the hops are cleaned, but that machine is broken now.” Or “That’s the machine that puts the labels on the bottles, but that’s done in another building now.” It’s like the zoo in wintertime. The tour ends in a fake, crappy-looking bar. They wake up the bartender so we can get our two complimentary samples. How dumb is this? We’ve had Budweiser before. Milk is thrilled for free beer.
As soon as we are back on the highway, we see the wind shear they were talking about in the diner. The car a hundred feet in front of us in front of us bangs left three or four feet, brakes flash then quit. I guess the driver is thinking that it’s best to accelerate through. The snow from the drifts is lifted and blinding. I look at Clip and he just raises his eyebrows. But when we hit the clouds of snow, nothing happens.
Denver breaks my fever over skyscrapers in front of mountains. We carry guitars through snow and stay with a friend of a friend who can cook and doesn’t have cats. Milk goes to Western Union and then buys a round on his parents. No one told him we’d be splitting $80 five ways each night, minus gas. Or he never thought to ask.
A small-talk stranger buys a record and the van an oil change at Jiffy Lube saying, “I know how it is. Remember me when you’re famous.”
We forget his name immediately, but hope what he said is true, the first time the word “famous” has been mentioned on this tour and it sounds so good to us.
I finish my antibiotic in the nightclub with some gin. On stage, my lungs are filled with that thin mountain air—the locals expect us to run out of steam—but we plug in and the feedback rises out of amps in expectation and when Milk clicks us off, we stomp through our set, and the music comes back.
I can’t tell if I’m getter better or just getting used to being sick. The songs are getting better though, tighter. We make inside jokes on stage. Clip and Warren add goofy fills on guitar. I change lyrics to personally insult someone in the crowd. Milk tosses his sticks and finishes songs standing up behind his kit as if he’s just won a fight. Our set is down to twenty minutes: trim, precise. The crowd actually wants more. Roger says, “Buy a record.” This is marketing.
We’re sitting in the parking lot of an I.H.O.P. when Clip brings it up.
“So, we’re going back to California?” Clip says. “We just left there.”
“You’ve seen the schedule,” Roger says. “There’s no surprise here.”
“Yeah,” Clip says. “I guess I never thought about it though. Like, map-wise. Thought we’d be making our way home.”
“Would you rather I tried to book more shows in Idaho?” Roger says. “There’s a really cool scene in South Dakota.” We get the point. Not that any of us are really interested in going home.
So back West. Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, the Donner Pass. Again. There’s the sense in the van that we’re pressing our luck on this drive in January. The idea of cannibalism starts a game of truth or dare: “who would you rather?” The game turns ugly when mothers and girlfriends are introduced, and the van goes silent.
Wake up in Davis, CA, in a pool house full of gold records. I’d forgotten. Smell of chlorine. A six-year-old boy is pointing a gun at my head. He shoots me. I die. He shoots Warren. He dies. The kid bolts and Warren and I sit up and remember. The band we played with last night used to be a big deal. Not so much any more. We’d actually laughed when we heard we were playing with them. But that money bought this house, this pool house, too. I look at the gold records, soberly for the first time. Warren and I talk it out. “That’s 500,000 records. Fuck.” We brought five hundred with us on tour
By the time we get to the house proper—around the pool, the palm trees--Noah has shot the rest of the band. They are lying on the floor while he covers them with pillows. He’s wearing a cowboy hat now, calling us “Indians.”
Victor, our host, is laughing, sipping freshly brewed coffee. I see him in a new light now. Father. Rich man. Last night, he was demanding shots, flashing his hairy, beer-gut in the club. His bass was out of tune for his whole set. Later, he was clutching me by the shoulder, pointing at girls saying, “Do her. Do her. Don’t do her. Do her.”
Now his wife serves banana pancakes and scrambled eggs with tarragon. She hears me cough and gives me Echinacea tea. She pours local honey in it. She’s gorgeous. She says, “Stick out your tongue. My mother practiced homeopathy.” She says, “You’ll be sick for a long time. Your tongue is not the right color.”
These women we’ve met, weird mothers and sisters and lovers. They take care of the boys in trouble. Mom calls and says, “Don’t you ever stay in a hotel?” Lovely gets on and says, “Little brother playing Mick Jagger. Playing Micky Dolenz. Tell me about California.” Janet emails, “I miss you, miss you, miss you.”
In L.A. The club is actually called “The Smell,” just so everyone is clear. Before the show starts, we lock the van while homeless guys bang on the door and say, “Hey, let me see what’s in that van.” The kids going into the show seem to have rich parents. They have expensive dye jobs and full-color tattoos. Designer clothes paired with boots and spikes. Roger says, “Hollywood.” Says, “We’re gonna sell a lot of stuff tonight, boys.”
The first band’s set goes like this: the drummer clicks four and the rest of the band falls to the floor, screaming and flailing. After 90 seconds, the distortion and screeching subsides. A few people clap, and the band regroups for another number. They write songs only in the sense that they use instruments, and that the sounds they make begin and then stop. And it is entertaining.
On the fourth song, the bass player swings his bass into a couple near the front. The girl is knocked on the floor, dazed. The boyfriend picks up the bass player and launches him to the back of the stage. He falls behind a curtain, but keeps playing. When the song ends, words are exchanged, and the boyfriend walks the girl out for some air. Cat-calls from the crowd until the singer throws a bottle of water into it. Their set is over.
Pretty good crowd for our set, but after two songs, almost everyone leaves in one big mob. We stare at each other like, What did we do? Should we fall over and scream? But it’s not us. The bass player and the boyfriend have decided to have a fair fight in the alley. We start to pack up, but a girl in the crowd says, “I drove from Santa Anna to see you guys. Can you play one more song?” We’re flattered. We take our first request.
By the time we make it outside, the fight is over. The bass player lost, but he’s still hanging around and angry, face all cut up. Now, someone has convinced the homeless guys to fight for money and it’s getting uglier by the minute. Roger is arguing with the promoter about the $40 we’re being paid.
“All these rich kids were going to buy records!” he says, “And you’ve shut the club down!”
“Someone flashed a gun out here while you guys were playing,” the promoter says. “Show’s over. Bet the money on the homeless fight. I don’t care. There’s an I.H.O.P. up the street.
“I.H.O.P.? What is this?” Roger says. I’d never seen him so med. “This is how you run a business?”
“Business?” the promoter says and laughs. “Who do you think you guys are?”
Roger slams the door to the van and says, “We’re getting a fucking hotel room tonight. A nice one.”
When I wake up, my arms are around Warren and I’m in a bed. I have no idea where I am. Smell of coffee and soap. Roger is at an oak desk with his computer. He throws me his phone.
“You’re doing an interview for a paper in Vegas. We’ll be back there in four days. It’ll run that morning.”
We’re in a hotel room. The other boys are sleeping.
“There’s bagels,” Roger says. “I’ve been working. We play tonight. Play tomorrow. Drive to Vegas. Reporter dude is gonna call in thirty minutes. Don’t say anything stupid."
When the phone rings, I’m frightened. I go into the bathroom and lock the door. I expect questions like: who are the band’s influences? or why is music important? or what’s next for you guys? I have no way of answering these questions. Instead he says, “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen on tour?”
I say, “Bees. In January.”
He says, “Who’s gotten laid the most?”
I say, “Roger. But he’s not really in the band. Milk has fallen in love the most.”
He says, “So, you’re coming back to Vegas. Gambling or strippers?”
I say, “Gin.”
This goes on for ten minutes. I have no idea what sort of article could come from this kind of questioning. Before getting off he says, “Are you sick? You sound sick.”
I say, “I’ve had asthmatic bronchitis for the past three weeks. I took some medicine.”
He says, “Must make your job tough as the singer.”
I say, “I haven’t coughed on stage once.”
And there it was. He got his story.
The club in Albany, CA is like a T.G.I. Fridays with a stage. Maybe sixty tables set up. Bacon cheeseburgers and Caesar salads and chicken fingers. Fishbowl drinks. We stash our equipment next to the highchairs in the back. Everyone is ten or twenty years older than us, and friendly drunk. It feels like a set-up.
The first band to play is made up of four gorgeous girls in matching retro miniskirts. They’re actually called “The Skirts.” The crowd goes wild. Some divorcees get up and start dancing. This is not a good act to follow.
Thirty seconds into our set, Clip breaks a string. He’s a quick-change, but still it takes time. I tell the Saint Peter joke, which I can make last for 15 minutes if I want. Clip finally nods at me, so I lay the punch line on them--“So I’m naked in this refrigerator”—and we crash back into the set.
Afterwards, we drink at the merchandise table with The Skirts. Everyone buys something. Is this our true demographic? The girls are much older than they seemed on stage. Two of them are married. They fawn over us like mothers. “So far from home!” they squeal and tussle our hair. They look at my bloodshot eye, and say, “Aw, you poor thing.” It’s not exactly what we wanted, but it will do.
Driving back to Vegas now. At the show last night, an A&R rep from a label out of San Francisco said he liked us and would come see us again next time we were in town. Next time we were in town? I hadn’t thought about doing this again. It was meant as a compliment, but it would take us years to pull off something like this again.
Still, Roger keeps booking shows even though the van is a week overdue at Enterprise. When we first told them why we wanted to rent the van, they wouldn’t do it. But Roger just picked the phone up a half hour later and told them he wanted a van to move his sister across country. No problem. Now the van has a thousand more miles on it than the clerk estimated it should when we got back to Philadelphia.
“What are they going to do?” Roger says. “We’re all the way out here. They’ll get it back when they get it back.”
“Maybe we should call them so they don’t report it stolen,” Warren says.
“They have my credit card,” Roger says.
Milk, forever broke, says, “I can’t afford to buy this van.”
“Are you kidnapping us?” Warren says. Clip is quiet, keeps his eyes on the road.
“Fine,” Roger says, “I’ll call them. ‘We had 1500 miles worth of car trouble.’”
Finally Clip says, “Just no more California. How about Chicago? How about Boston? Fucking Indianapolis.” These places are so far away. But there’s not a home-sick bone in my body.
“Yes, yes, I have a plan,” Roger says. “We’ll see it all. You’ll keep playing until we can pay for it.
It’s a really bad plan. But this is what we do. Back to Vegas. We’ll keep playing until we win.