Tuesday, May 3, 2011

White Dope On Punk: Chapter 19. You Guys Think You’re Led Zeppelin

I awoke to Mel screaming: “Where are we gonna stay? You guys are such fuckin’ losers!” Tom and George were fully passed out on the floor of the van and I was quickly on my way to joining them. With little control of my body and speech, I probably said the most inappropriate thing at the time, given that 1) we had no place to sleep, 2) didn’t know where we were, 3) it was 4am in Chicago, 4) we had a show the next night in Madison, and 5) three-quarters of the band was wasted and relying on Mel to deal with the situation.

“Mel, why are you being so selfish?” I wasn't making any sense. She was taking care of us—driving, looking for a place to stay—and I called her selfish. I just wanted her to stop yelling. This comment only made it worse. Mel took her right hand off the steering wheel and used to it to take a few good whacks at my back. I was lying down next to George and Tom and covered for the blows. “Fuck you, Foot! Fuck you guys, you think you’re Led Zeppelin.” That was the last thing I heard. I eagerly joined Tom and George in their black dreams.

Three hours earlier we were having a good time in a bar that we would never go to in our hometown. Lights from the ceiling spun in circles, unfamiliar music blasted from the speakers and weird looking people danced. We didn’t care. Our new friends, who we met at the show we played, took us there and, despite the loud music and straight crowd, we bellied up to the bar and treated it like our own. Crème de Menthe was on special, so we bought that. Lots of it.

A little before 2 am, desperate to get as many drinks in us as possible, we all ordered shots, thinking this was the end of the night. At 2am we asked a local what time the bars closed in Chicago and he said 4 am. So, we continued drinking, pouring drinks on our heads and making plans with our new friends (“You’ve gotta come visit us in San Francisco.”).

At 4 am the lights flashed twice and like good soldiers we moved to the door. Mel continued talking to our new friends at the bar. We found the van on the street, near the club, and piled into the back. The next thing I remember was Mel yelling at me.

I awoke the next morning next to George. Tom and Mel were gone and the van wasn’t moving. I peeked between the buckets seats and saw the van was parked facing a two-story 60s-style motel. I moved closer to the front, looking out the side windows. It looked like we were out of the city and just off the freeway. Mel must have driven toward Madison, pulling off the freeway at the first motel.

It was hot and I needed water, but I was in no condition to move. Leaving the van or drinking water would warrant vomiting.

I went back to sleep.

We were halfway to Madison by the time George and I stirred. George awoke with his usually growl: “Fuuuuuuck!” We called him the bear because of this and his lumbering ways.

Slowly remembering the night before and how I called Mel selfish, I exhibited caution before raising my head.

Like George, I expressed the same sentiment: “Fuuuuuck!” It was a morning to swear off alcohol for at least a day, or at least consider the idea. My hair was clumped together like dried sap from too many shots of crème de menthe being poured on my head. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It had been a rough night, one that with time is either looked back upon as a really good time or the start of bad times. It came back in blocks of bright color and in fast motion, the only clear thought being my asshole behavior with Mel at the end of the night.

I feigned illness in an attempt to get pity. I knew what I had said to Mel, but there was a good chance I had said something mean to Tom and/or George, too. Not knowing the proper greeting for this situation, I fell back on a tried and true opening:

“Hey.” I spoke softly, testing the water. It seemed like the best approach.

“Hey Foot,” Mel pleasantly replied, smoking and driving. By the tone of her voice, I knew everything was ok. Tom was in the passenger seat, sucking on licorice root. He had heard that licorice root was good for the throat, so he had a never-ending supply and was always chewing on it like a cigar. It was customary for Tom not to speak after a tough night of drinking and playing. His voice was hoarse and he wanted to save what was left of it. He had a harmonica for situations like these, when a question warranted some kind of response: one toot on the harmonica meant yes and two toots meant no.

“Hey Tom,” I said, desperately wanting to rehash the night before, even though I knew doing so would bring up the end of the night. “How are you doing?” Tom grabbed his harmonica and tooted once. I took it as a positive affirmation that he was doing well. But I knew he was as hung-over as I was and that he was probably extremely worried about his voice for the Madison show.

Halfway up interstate 94, we stopped at Wendy’s for lunch. I was still lying on the dirty floor of the van and, no matter how much I wanted to join them, the thought of food repulsed me. All my energy was focused on not throwing up. Despite the allure of a baked potato with sour cream and chives, I knew just the sight of it would send me running to the bathroom or an empty bag.

“Foot, you coming?” Tom questioned, while Mel and George looked on. I waved them off, knowing that they’d understand my absence.

Hanging from the lock of the side door of the van was a plastic bag that we used for garbage. I moved closer to it, knowing that it was just a matter of seconds before I threw up. As my eyes passed over the lip of the bag, I saw what was in it: discarded cigarettes, mixed with scraps of food in a broth of dregs from an orange soda can. It smelled and looked disgusting. I threw up immediately, gagging, half in the bag and the rest on my arm. I threw open the door and chucked the bag, relieving what was left in my stomach on the blacktop.

I kept the side door open. It was hot, the heat exacerbating my misery. I wasn’t the type to throw up and be immediately normal afterwards. The parking lot glistened from the high temperatures and the freeway hummed in a low key. With my head bent down, I waited for them to return and anticipated throwing up again. It never came.

“I’m never drinking Peppermint Schnapps again. What the fuck is that shit anyway?” I said as Mel, Tom and George approached the van, sated from Wendy’s. They brought me back some fries. I shook my head.

“Come on, Foot, you've got to eat something,” Mel said, playing the role of caretaker to her three man-children.

“No, thanks. I just threw up,” pointing to the bag lying on the ground, the throw-up leaking onto the concrete. They were all empathetic, having been there before.

Ten hours later were on stage in a cafe-like bar in Madison. I was still feeling ill, having eaten very little. Tom’s voice was shot. All the licorice root and not talking in the van couldn’t erase the abuse incurred from the night before. Four songs into the set he turned to us and said he couldn’t sing. It was obvious. He was constantly pulling away from the microphone and his voice was so weak that it was barely audible. The look on his face said it all: fear. Not knowing what to do, I asked for a pitcher of beer and took over the singing duties. My singing career opened with an instrumental: "Sparks" by The Who.

Mel quit the band in Minneapolis, the next stop. Tom’s voice was better, and our health was back in full form, but Mel was in a funk. The tour was badly booked. Instead of booking it herself—which she usually did—she entrusted two unknowns. The result was a spotty tour of lots of driving back and forth and way too much time in between shows to get in trouble. The tour had the feeling that it would be our last. We seemed to enjoy drinking before and after the show much more than the actual playing, which was almost a chore. Because of this and our general rock star behavior, Mel flew home and left the three of us to fend for ourselves.

We cancelled the rest of tour except for an acoustic show at a record store in Minneapolis. Except for Vancouver, where we played at least a dozen times a year—so much so that people thought we were local—Minneapolis was our home away from home. We loved Husker Du, The Replacements and Soul Asylum and wanted our third record to come out on the Minneapolis label Twin Tone. Since we cancelled our show at the 7th Street Entry, the Soul Asylum guys set up an in-store acoustic show at a local record store. We borrowed acoustic guitars, drank cheap vodka and did our best to tighten up our normally sloppy transitions. Acoustic guitars are not as relenting as loud, noisy electric guitars.

We asked the Soul Asylum guys to bring Paul Westerberg, the singer from the Replacements; they showed with Chris Mars, the drummer. That night we went to a party at Grant Hart’s apartment, the drummer from Husker Du. He had a cat that would fall over and play dead when you raised your hand and acted like you were shooting him. With all the drunks at the party, that poor cat played dead all night.

The next morning, Ellen, our friend and one-time booking agent, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Greg, you guys better get up, it’s snowing out.” I rose quickly and looked out the window. The first snow of the season blanketed the ground and was vying for more space to fill. It was time to go, quickly. Being two Californians and one Louisianan, we were afraid of snow. We thanked Ellen and told her to put in a good word for us at Twin Tone, then we hurried out the door, groggy and hung-over, and got in the van and drove south to I-80.

The road out of town was littered with cars and trucks slowly sliding off the road. I was driving, Tom in the passenger seat and George perched between us. In silence, we putted down the interstate as slow as we could get away with. Locals sped by and mouthed, “Fuckin' Californians.” Our plates gave us away.

Wide eyed, it was like we were trying to will the van to stay on the road. By the amount of cars on the side of the road, the norm was to slowly spin out and land in a ditch, stuck.

The farther south we traveled the better it got. The snow turned to rain and we ramped it up to 65 mph, free of the looming snowbound ditches. For the trip home, we had packed six cases of Pfeiffer beer, the new Soul Asylum EP and very little warm clothing. We certainly weren't prepared for snow.

As we turned west on I-80, a straight shot to Bay Bridge of San Francisco, we made some rules about drinking. We never talked about what we doing with the six cases of beer in the back, but one might assume we were bringing the unknown Minneapolis beer back home to share with our friends. This wasn’t the case.

The first rule was that we would only drink after we had stopped driving. When it became evident that we didn’t plan to stop at night, we quickly amended the rule. We agreed that that the non-drivers could drink after 5pm. As we passed into Nebraska this was changed to anyone could drink anytime, except the driver. This was quickly broken. The final rule was that the driver could drink but they had to be cool, whatever that meant. The rolling bar was officially open 24 hours. We only stopped to get gas and go to the bathroom (an empty gallon plastic milk container handled #1; #2 needed a real bathroom).

Crossing the Sierras outside of Reno, it started to snow again. At the peak near Truckee, in a heavy snowfall, we quickly amended the final rule: You couldn’t drink and drive, if it was snowing. It was a good rule and we planned on adhering to it. Still, careening down the west side of the Sierras, I opened a beer and passed it to Tom, who was driving. So be it. George was in the front seat, discreetly taking swigs off his beer. I was perched between the two, intently staring out the window, once again hoping that my intense concentration would will us from ending up in a ditch. We had broken every drinking rule. The snow turned to rain and we relaxed, celebrating with more beer and peeing into our well-used gallon milk container.

Descending the span section of the Bay Bridge, we coasted into San Francisco with the morning commute—drunk, dirty and bewildered from the trip.

They dropped me off at my flat on McAllister Street and they returned to where they were staying on Haight Street. At 5 pm Tom called and said to meet them at the Chatterbox. You would think we had seen enough of each other; however, we were determined to waste no time finding a new bass player. And for the past two months, 5 o’clock was the time we usually cracked our first beer at sound check. A little business while filling our bellies with alcohol sounded like a good time.

With friends and roommates in tow, to celebrate our homecoming, we headed out to the Chatterbox. We made a list of potential bass players and characteristics they would need to possess. Way down the list was musicianship. Loud and proud at number one was the ability to handle their alcohol. Freshly off a cross country drinking binge, we were cocky about our ability handle our booze and in our deluded, alcohol soaked brains, we really thought being an alcoholic was a good quality for a bass player.

We found a bass player in a very long haired guy that hung around the Chatterbox. We overlooked his 5-string bass (not good) and his questionable earrings (two studs with his initials in his left ear and a dangly music note in his right). We played one show with him and then begged Mel to come back.

She returned, but it was over: Rough Trade, our record label, dropped us for poor sales and for stealing hundreds of our own records. (Before leaving on tour, we stopped by their retail store to say hello. Tom asked if he could use the bathroom in the back warehouse. While he was back there he grabbed as many cases of our records that he could carry. I distracted the clerk and we left quickly.) Also, someone had stolen the front two bucket seats of our band van. Instead of replacing them, we seriously considered bolting wood dining room chairs in their place. Things weren't going well; and, with idle time on his hands, Tom rekindled his heroin habit and George soon joined him in the throes of addiction. In the basement of the Chatterbox, I quit the band. And that was it.

As I walked out of the Chatterbox, I knew this stage of my life was over. This was my personality. When I left Pleasanton; when I left anarchy and now leaving Short Dogs, I closed the door and left, never to return - leaving friendships and aspirations with those who stayed. It was a breakup, a death, getting fired; it wasn’t a conscious thing, just a dysfunctional way of dealing with loss.

I had only known punk, anarchy, rock, clubs, warehouses, shitty apartments, shitty cars and lots of burritos. For most, it was no life, but for me, and the circle of friends who followed the same path, we created a bubble that insulated us from the real world. It allowed us to pursue our rock/punk/political dreams without scrutiny, reflection and live in state of suspended adolescence. The future was abstract and we lived, like most young people, in the moment, believing we were the only thing in town and we would always be.

At 25 years old I felt the pang of adult life knocking. This played a part in me quitting the band. The dalliances of the past 9 years had robbed me of my self-esteem and bestowed upon me an identity I was uncomfortable with. Every 3 years it uprooted me and left me to start over. However, it had given a head start into a drinking problem, which would grow and mature for many years to come.

As I walked down Valencia Street, I craved stability, a healthy relationship and a steady job, but I wasn’t willing to work for it. Too much of my suburban upbringing, where I watched my dad get up every morning and go to work, pay bills and enjoy the fruits of his labor, kept me from fully embracing this lifestyle. It’s almost impossible to run away from your past and I was learning this, but I wasn’t willing to embrace it either.

In the back of mind, while I dabbled in anarchy, punk and rock, I secretly equated money and a respectable job with success. Messenger jobs, fledgling bands and a foray into driving a cab robbed me of my self-esteem. I came to realize I wasn’t a lifer like some of my friends who had passion for music or politics and saw this as a way of life, something that gave them identity and defined them. I admired them for this. But who was I? Where was my passion?

This is the question I still ask today? Sadly, the cruel joke of life is that there’s no expiration date and gauge on identity and bad decisions. There’s not an age where you magically get it or you just don’t care. I needed to find middle ground, taking the passion of punk, optimism of anarchy and the creativity of music and find somewhere in between that I could call my own. It would take a few extra pounds, a lot less hair, age and many years until I landed in something that resembled this.

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