Sunday, December 30, 2007

24,480-Minute Song: Arks Fall Tour, The Rest of It

Because of announcements since disseminated to those who know Arks, and because I am horribly behind in posting anything, I am writing about the rest of the tour in one elephantine tangle. Which, for a tour, is pretty appropriate, as that’s how it’s bound to be remembered by all those involved.

That said, let’s burp up some memories, still nearby, but seemingly light years away.

Omaha, Day 3 (Nov. 4, nighttime)

Omaha remains Omaha. I don’t how else to better explain it. I had no impression of Omaha prior to our arrival and having now been there it remains colorless, odorless; the geographical equivalent to certain noble gases. But I was fortunate enough to have this dialogue with a local after we had loaded our equipment back into the van. Glenn and I stood outside, having just changed our sweat-ridden shirts, when a post-teen waif with mop hair approached me and opened with:

“Do you know a lot about life?”

Because I am (fortunately or unfortunately) who I am, I couldn’t just take this as a simple weed-fueled inquiry (and frankly, judging by his fairly staid appearance and open eyes, I don’t believe that it was weed-fueled).

“I don’t know,” I replied, “I’ve been in it for thirty years, so, sure, maybe a little.”

“Okay, yeah… can I get your advice?”
“Sure, I’ll do my best.”

He then told me his story: he had found a dog by the road, was afraid that the dog would be hit by a car, took the dog with him in the car that he was in, felt he couldn’t keep the dog since he was currently just crashing on a friend’s couch, and gave the dog to a girl he doesn’t really know. Since then the family had found him via phone (the details of this locating process weren’t revealed to me) and was angrily demanding that he produce the dog. But he, a great lover of animals, felt wary giving this dog back to a seemingly overly aggressive family, though he also considered that the family might have a child who would be missing the dog, and who was he to remove the dog from the child? So he had called the girl (that he barely knows) and left her messages, but to no avail. She wasn’t answering, she wasn’t returning his calls. So what should he do?

“So you don’t know the family, and you don’t know the girl?” I said, seriously invested in the story at this point.
“Give the family the girl’s phone number.”

This seemed to satisfy him and on our way out of the club (Oleaver’s Pub, which was a great atmosphere, if slightly attended) for the final time, after Mat had almost gotten his drunken face knocked in by an equally drunken but far more massive local oaf, the parking lot inquisitor thanked me. “Thanks for the advice on the dog.” This was said with Lanny and Mat nearby, and despite having no idea what this comment could possibly mean, they took it in stride. It was just that sort of evening.

We traveled from Omaha that evening and grabbed the first of several hotels. We were fortunate enough to have our gas expenses covered, for the most part, by what we managed to pull in through meager but solid enough door money. We collapsed after the obligatory e-mail checking, inter-group heckling, and rough plans for the next day.

Kansas City and St. Louis, Days 4-6 (Nov. 5-7)

In Kansas City we played a strip mall, which was, oddly enough, one of the better venues of the tour. The Record Bar is an excellent club, only from its exterior, you’d presume you were just as likely to get twenty percent off a pair of loafers or snag a charming refrigerator magnet as you were to see a decent independent rock show. But the staff was impossibly nice, the sound system great, and the all around atmosphere everything you could hope for.

Before the show I met up with my good friend, Chelsea, who was in the final lap of pregnancy (and has since given birth, to a beautiful baby girl named Zoe: congratulations to her and her family), and thus would be unable to attend the show that evening. While I marveled at the fact that a small person was silently enjoying the meal with us in her mid-section, we ate Mexican food and talked, as I can with few friends, as though she’d never left Chicago, as though it’d been a mere day or two since we last seen one another, though it had been the better part of a year.

After the show, which was enthusiastically embraced by the small crowd (who heckled and shouted like a crowd twenty times their size, and we loved them for it), we headed to Denny’s. At Denny’s our waitress was one of my characters, from my in-progress book “Life with Mr. Dangerous.” To some degree, I wish I was exaggerating. Her name was June, as is the character in the book, her hair was styled precisely as the character’s is, her demeanor was precisely the way I had written it. While Lanny prodded her to produce a sandwich where the bread was replaced with two t-bone steaks, I sat slack jawed. It was an evening of strange almost-persons.

We stayed at another hotel, next to the stadiums for the Chiefs and the Royals, a proximity which dictated our next morning activities. The Glennome series continued, and this time around I decided to act more as a documenter of the process itself. Treat yourself to Glennome: The Making Of:

We drove to St. Louis and found a hotel, where I would stay for the next day and a half, working away on “Omega the Unknown” coloring while the guys went around the city and saw the arch (which I managed to glimpse from a window after our show, but otherwise have never seen). Sitting in a dank, cramped hotel room for a day and a half isn’t exactly great for one’s spirits, but I managed to send off the first half of the issue and make significant progress on the second, so I took it as a positive on the whole.

Our show that night could not have fallen apart much more than it did (unless it was Pittsburgh, but we’ll get to that later). We were supposed to play at The Underground at The Red Sea, but when we got there, our show had been canceled and they’d added us on to another show, upstairs in the restaurant. A nice restaurant. White tablecloths, stylish cutlery. We, our volume, our feedback, and our far-too-many-guitars-for-the-space-allotted were going to be unabashedly hated by anyone here trying to enjoy a nice plate of veal that evening. While we waited on an order of gyros across the street, Mat hastily called Skip from Untied States (the band with whom we were originally supposed to play in St. Louis and with whom we would play the next three nights) to see if we could be added on to their show. Skip told Mat it was fine, so, after having loaded all of our equipment into The Red Sea, we loaded it back out, with the employees thoroughly confused, shaking their heads at us as if to say, “Musicians! Typical…”

The show onto which we’d been added was dead, to put it politely. But everyone there was exceptionally pleasant and it was great to see Untied States, one the nicest collections of musicians you could hope to meet, in addition to being one of the more impressive bands with whom I’ve ever played.

What really did St. Louis proud came after the show. We walked down the street to an Irish Pub, which was probably too Irish even for Ireland. A leprechaun voiced, curly-locked lad strummed and pounded on an acoustic guitar, singing traditional (or what seemed to my ignorant ear to be traditional) Irish songs, while a dedicated cast of drunkards banged and slammed their pints to the beat, returning faithfully to the chorus of “Oi! Oi! Oi!” (which I think is more cockney than straight Irish…).

I immediately loved the place for its ridiculous enthusiasm. But no one had gotten naked, gay, or beaten up. Wait five minutes.

And we had been there five minutes when a fellow patron tugged on one of Glenn’s thumbs, sort of, eh, milking it. Glenn, not easily thrown, turned around and laughed, good-naturedly, at this guy. Thinking it mainly humorous, Glenn recounted the story to Skip, who had gotten to the bar a couple of minutes before us. Apparently the same fellow had attempted to rub Skip in the nipple region. I thought all this odd, and was turning my head away from the conversation to mime a “huh… weird!” expression, when I turned back to announce, “Well, that guy’s not wearing any pants.”

Sure enough, a rather rotund, striped shirted man, with a little cap and flushed cheeks had dropped his trousers in front of the guitarist and was continuing, flanked by unfazed friends, to bounce up and down in time with the music. Stranger still than this or his friends’ lack of reaction: no one in the entire bar missed a beat. This could not have been any more boring or normal, apparently. I turned to the bartender, who shrugged at me “Oh, he’s the owner,” she said matter-of-factly, “He’s a nudist.”

As this was accepted by the locals, you just had to accept it. When in Rome, etc.

A bit later though, I noticed our thumb-milking nipple rubber was getting on a woman’s nerves. He was apparently trying to hit on the woman and she was having none of it. As for the reasons why she was having none of it, I think this may have been related to the fact that she was there with her girlfriend. This woman (being hit on) was so clearly what I'm sure the drunken tongues would have called Bulldyke that I doubt she would have hesitated for a moment to adopt such a moniker in stride. The short cropped hair, the man’s denim pants complete with requisite sagging seat, the leather jacket. Even down to the way her jaw was set and she carried herself. There was no getting to first base with this woman. She was playing field hockey with the girls, so to speak.

But the Thumb Milker pushed on, and another patron stepped in. This still didn’t inhibit his advances and in less than a minute, like some recently clothed whale, the owner had the Thumb Milker in a headlock and was dragging him to the door. Drunk on drunk action in late night St. Louis. And before they reached the door it was drunk on drunk on the floor. They had fallen over, the owner on his back, Thumb Milker on top of him, still caught in the headlock. Other patrons jumped in and eventually a six man tumbleweed emptied out on to the street.

Say what you will about Thumb Milker’s psychological workings otherwise, but he really had tenacity. He wouldn’t stop trying to come back in the door. Which is about when the tumbleweed grew fists and started giving him what most of us had unfortunately seen coming for the past few minutes. Eventually even he got the message and, having been beaten, kicked, and pushed half a block down the street, he gave up.

I turned to the bartender, dismayed, “Do you know that guy? I mean, has he come in here before?”

“Yeah,” she responded, friendly but unaffected, the perfect personality for tending a bar, “He’s come in before. And he got kicked out before, about a week ago, for starting a fight to prove he wasn’t gay.”

I looked at her and said the obvious, “You know he’s gay, right?”

She responded wordlessly, an ocular utterance saying, “Duh.”

Things settled a bit and eventually the police came in, apparently responding to the situation, though they might have just been doing their nightly rounds. Either way, the trouble had passed, so the cops got to the People’s Business of tying one on. Which is exactly what you want to see people with guns do late at night.

I stood at the bar thinking that, aside from the comedy and spectacle, I had just witnessed something incredibly sad. This guy, the Thumb Milker, was so in denial of himself that the only way he could become evenly remotely real was under a layer of drink, and even then he was fooling no one but himself. The only woman he’d pursued was the only woman obviously incapable of requiting his advances, no matter how masterfully or halfheartedly he played them out. The only men he engaged were approached with all the sophistication of a pre-teen splashing a crush in a community pool. The most successful attention he’d achieved was being kicked and punched. I couldn’t help but think of it all as rather horrible.

Sullen, I turned from the bar. And in a glowing white sign that seemed to read, “St. Louis says: cheer up, son!” the nudist owner had removed his shirt and was mopping – bleach white fat rolls bobbing – the floor, his floor. An evening’s work drawing to a close.

Knoxville, Day 7 (Nov. 8)

Our next stop was Knoxville, our second of four shows with Untied States, at The Birdhouse, a domicile turned art space. I was fearing St. Louis all over again. My fears were entirely misplaced.

When we started our set, I was optimistic. There were at least thirty people jammed in, watching us intently. This was a sharp improvement over the previous night’s five? six? people. But directly in front of my microphone was a fellow who was already turning a paler shade of vomit. If I was told he’d started drinking any later than two in the afternoon, I’d be surprised.

Still, I love a little good-natured heckling and jabbing: it just makes for a better show. Only this was good-natured. It wasn’t really bad-natured either, it was just almost-alcohol-poisoned-natured. Which is really not a great nature. I couldn’t even joke with him and eventually just had to mow over anything he was saying, which is hard in a small room with a microscopic vocal PA.

Harder still to do with a microscopic vocal PA is masking the fact that there’s no bass guitar, which is where we found ourselves about three fourths of the way through the set. During a song, when I heard the bass drop out at an unscheduled moment, I turned my head and peripherally saw Mat looking dumbstruck at his bass. We finished the song and I went over to him to see what was up, thinking he’d just hit the volume knob or had a cable go bad. Mat didn’t even offer much an explanation, not that he could. He held the bass up and I could see more clearly why there was no sound: almost every knob was snapped completely off. Short of exploding, I don’t think the bass could have been more badly damaged than it was. We hastily borrowed Skip’s bass and moved on, finishing the set.

I’d love to say that my drunken heckler stopped while he was ahead (behind), but he kept on throwing the drinks back, and by the time we finished our opening set he was borderline brain dead. He eventually collapsed directly on to Untied States pedal boards and was finally, mercifully dragged out by a couple people apparently owning up to being friends of his.

Untied States put on an amazing set, embarrassingly professional and massive, and were followed by Woman, a local act that I was immediately sorry I’d never heard of. All energy and spasm, these guys are a SHOW. The drummer is a cross between a smarter version of The Muppet’s Animal and a supercomputer: unbelievably crisp, controlled mayhem. The singer is your high school physics teacher crossbred with Iggy Pop, whatever that means (seems right, I just can’t explain it).

And being a SHOW, these guys got people dancing. Or at least they got people moving. A few people there were of that school that conflates “dancing” with “whaling the shit out of people.” An easy mistake to make. Okay, actually it’s not an easy mistake to make. These people were just morons ruining everyone else’s good time, one of them yelling between songs, “Are you motherfuckers gonna DANCE? DANCE!” We clearly hadn’t gotten the message that our non-maiming moves would no longer be accepted in this, his private dance hall.

The “dance” enthusiast’s moves eventually landed his foot squarely in the face of the PA, which apparently belonged to the singer of Woman, who proceeded to tackle the Dancer, ride him briefly, then flatten him until The Birdhouse’s administrators escorted him out the door. Not missing a beat, Woman finished their set. How could you not love these guys?

Athens, Atlanta, and Carrboro/Chapel Hill, Days 8-10 (Nov. 9-11)

The next morning we ate breakfast – if one can call my morning meal of a Philly cheese steak and cheesecake “breakfast” – with Untied States and I bought a new bass, a Fender Mustang bass, for Mat to use for the rest of the tour. Arteries clogging and bass procured, we headed for Athens.

Athens proved fairly uneventful as far as a show (though here Untied States sounded probably the best I heard them out of the four nights we played with them), but we were fortunate enough to have some great pictures taken by Mike White of Deadly Designs.

Regardless of the show’s spectacle or lack thereof, afterward we strolled over to the 40 Watt, where, directly adjacent to the club, we supped on some excellent Polish sausage and even better cupcakes (each cupcake was, even by the most conservative estimate, gourmet, and I could have stood there let the woman who made them describe them to me all night). A little tired, but well stuffed, we clambered into the van and drove to Atlanta, where we would stay that evening and the next, hosted by Skip of Untied States.

Skip (and his girlfriend Sonja’s) enviable house was made all the more enviable by their assortment of endearing animals: two dogs, a cat, a ferret, and probably something else that I’m forgetting. Ample pictures were taken, including Sandy, the daschund who slept in my lap while I worked on coloring, in a hot dog costume. Ridiculous.

We played Atlanta the next night, which was abysmally attended, and though there were cupcakes, I didn’t even feel up to having one, despite my well-documented sweet tooth. The night just had that sort of lackluster feeling. But my good pal Henry of Chunklet fame showed up straight off his tour with the Comedians of Comedy (thanks again, Henry), and we took plenty of demented pictures (my the best of which I'll be using in the next post) and made s’mores, so all in all, the night ended well.

In the morning we said our farewells to Skip, exchanging records and mutual appreciation of this, our second road brodeo, and made our way to Chapel Hill.

And Chapel Hill/Carrboro was pleasant enough, a good show overall, with great bands and congenial staff, but it lacked anyone setting themselves aflame of teetering on the verge of arrest or alcohol poisoning. In this and only this respect it was a little disappointing. But I did see my friend Brian (listen to his band here) who stopped by and caught up, albeit briefly. I hadn’t seen Brian in almost ten years. There was a lot of reuniting with people on the road, but Brian wins the award for least likely reunion. Congratulations, Brian, it was good to see you.

Fredericksburg and Washington D.C., Days 11 and 12 (Nov. 12-13)

Fredericksburg, out next stop, and a town that I would otherwise characterize as a giant historical gift shop, was easily the best show on the road. Must be something in the potpourri.

Before we played I already had a fondness for that night, via this encounter in the men’s restroom:

A guy walked in while I was washing my hands at the sink. The guy surveyed the room, which was riddled with graffiti. He turned to me, my back still to him, and asked, “Hey, do you have a pen? I gotta respond to some of this.” I was too intrigued to deny him his request and I handed him a Sharpie. He held the marker before setting it to the wall, explaining. “I wanna say Kevin and Andy are both faggots.” I nodded, indicating my understanding that Kevin and Andy’s sexual orientation should clearly be defined in marker on the bathroom wall, though I will now admit such an understanding is beyond me.

Then the budding wall journalist looked serious, just as he was about to write. “Hey,” he turned back to me, his face concentrated, “how do spell ‘both’?”

Fortunately I didn’t so much as crack a smile. “B.O.T.H.” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling, “that’s what I thought.” And he turned to let the world know which way both these guys were swinging.

I exited the bathroom overjoyed. Shortly thereafter we played and, as I said, the crowd was amazing. Completely ape shit. They were clapping along to the beat of songs, screaming their guts out after each song. Throwing bar stools. Lackluster response was nowhere to be found in this corner of the gift shop town, and we couldn’t have been more thankful for it.

And then there was Frenchy Punchy.

A gangly fellow came up to Mat and me after the show and raved about how much he’d liked our set. We thanked him. He continued to rave. We continued to thank him. Something seemed a bit off with him, but I thought nothing of it at first, figuring he was just drunk. Then he said, “Man, you guys are great, like, I loved you the last time you were here, but this time you were fucking great.” Mat explained that we’d never been there before, that none of us had ever even stepped foot inside Fredericksburg before that evening, let along played a show. Frenchy, as he insisted he was known, seemed to understand, but then again, no. He responded, “Oh, right, right… yeah… but anyway, the last time you were here you were great.” I joined Mat in explaining that we had never been to this town. But Frenchy would just go back to where we’d started. We were running loops with this guy and he just didn’t seem to tire of it. Fine, no problem… but then he started littering the conversation with inexplicable gems, that I at first thought were jokes, but then thought better of it. An example (only slightly paraphrased):

“You guys are just… you’re so good. You should play with my friends. Tell them Frenchy told you. I sent you. I’m Frenchy. Frenchy Punchy. Frenchy Punchy! You guys are… I’m sacred… I like your drummer. The last time he was here he was good, but now he’s… sometimes my friends hit me. You should play here soon. You should play with my friends. This is serious! Tell them it’s Frenchy!”

Later Frenchy tried to climb into our van, but his friend, who seemed merely to be under the influence of alcohol and not whatever insanity had gripped Frenchy, advised him otherwise in the form of dragging him lovingly down the street. We took that as our cue to exit and headed out, staying at a hotel just outside Washington D.C.

Washington for me was just a great excuse to see people I don’t see nearly often enough, my friend Julie, Scott Rosenberg (who wrote a great article about the band for the Washington Post’s Express), my sister Ann (who we stayed with that evening). Hell, even someone to whom I casually mentioned the show at a coffee shop earlier that day showed up. Washington was certainly great in that respect. But there wasn’t much fire to the crowd, and the sound guy seemed to be having a bad night (according to locals he suffers from a rather unchecked case of bipolar disorder), so…winner in the towns sporting historical landmarks? Fredericksburg. Hands down. Pick up a bar stool next time D.C., put some back into it.

Boston and New York, Days 13-15 (Nov. 14-16)

In Boston we played with our new, indecipherable but amicable pals from Japan, Emulsion, with whom we’d (by complete coincidence) played the night previous in Washington D.C. The show was ill-attended and Mat, in an unending streak of bad luck, somehow had his bass amp blow out. But after our set Glenn and I ate at an excellent Indian restaurant, one of the best meals I’d had in days, and when he and I returned to the venue to help load out the equipment, Lanny handed me an article saying that Six Finger Satellite – easily one of my favorite bands to have graced the stage – was working on a new album. So, in the end, I couldn’t complain about things. And, as always, Boston is beautiful in the autumn.

Oh, and Maris Wicks, who attended with the always amiable Liz Prince, drew this picture of our equipment (note that Glenn’s equipment included his beard).

The next day we drove to New York, arriving in Brooklyn only slightly early (almost breaking our trend of being unfashionably punctual) and loaded straight into Trash Bar, where we and – six? more?– bands would play that evening. Normally I would find that amount of bands a preemptive death sentence, yet the show was anything but. The crowd was jokingly cantankerous and my sarcastic taunting was apparently just what they were looking for. I heart New York. We had all been looking forward to our two New York shows (and I’ll admit that, at the more depressing moments on the tour thus far, I had looked to these as the tour’s possible salvation), and this first night in Brooklyn was not disappointing.

After the show Glenn parted ways with us to spend time with his recently-wooed girlfriend (who just happened to be in town at the same time we were) and Mat, Lanny, Lynn (with whom we were staying, and have stayed each time we’ve been in New York), and I piled into the van to go to another bar. We parked under a bridge and Lynn said she would check to see if it was a safe enough spot to leave what amounted to thousands of dollars in band equipment. If it was safe, fine, we’d leave it there and take a cab to Lynn’s place. If it wasn’t safe – according to the bartenders, who Lynn informed us were both in bands (bartenders in Brooklyn who are also musicians? Really? Shocker.) – then this would be of particular interest to me: everyone was well on their way toward obliteration, and I, the sole sober man, would then need to drive. Only I hadn’t driven this van. Ever.

I had been so thoroughly consumed with coloring work and sleep deprivation that I’d never driven this van, let alone this van with a decent sized trailer attached, in New York. So I was hoping the bartender’s appraisal would fall on the “safe” side of the danger spectrum. We walked into the bar with varied anticipations.

I had been to this bar once before when I was in town for a summer comics convention, and it was as plastered with plastered hipsters as the last time, if not more so. But conversation was easy flowing enough and Lanny and Mat, both now consuming heroic amounts of alcohol, were in great moods in the wake of the show.

And regardless of the sweat I experienced later, I walked out of the bar with yet another diamond of a conversation: A girl I’d just met, a friend of Lynn’s, introduced me to a friend of hers and added that I was a cartoonist (she might have said the more cumbersome “graphic novelist” or any variation thereof, I don’t recall). This newly introduced girl’s face lit up immediately.

She beamed, “Oh!… I need you in my life.”

Trying to be congenial, though I was thrown by her opener, I asked why that was, that she needed me in her life.

She explained, saying, “Oh, I have all these ideas…” Now, I’ve been through this conversation enough, even in my relatively short career, to know that what follows this phrase is typically not going to be something with which I’d want to involve myself. But I wasn’t ready for this one. This one was great.

“I have all these ideas for jewelry,” she said.

Oh God.

She explained, as if I couldn’t see where this was going, that she would come up with the ideas for the jewelry and then I would draw them. It was perfect! Where had we been all of each other’s lives?

When I politely declined, her reaction would have made an out-of-earshot bystander think I’d suggested something lewd with her mother.

“Where are you from?” she squinted, now wary.
“I’m from Chicago,” I replied, still trying to maintain some sort of normalcy. She was having none of that. My answer had cleared everything up. Her face turned to solid scorn, acid.

“Yeah, I knew you couldn’t live in Williamsburg,” she seethed, a little wild-eyed. “Everybody in Williamsburg collaborates.”

On jewelry. Sure they do.

Lanny and Mat were by this point simply collections of skin holding back their personal lakes of alcohol, and Lynn, only slightly less drunk, had gotten a lukewarm assessment of the area’s security from the bartender/musicians. So I resigned myself to it: I was going to drive the van, for the first time, at three in the morning, on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with three drunk people (two of which, Lanny and Mat, opted for having a full-on wrestling match while we were on the B.Q.E.), in heavy construction. Moments like these are so weighted with ridiculousness that I seem to slingshot around my typical neuroses into a sort of inevitable calm: the situation is so potentially fraught with problems that I reach that Zen state of, “eh, fuck it.”

We miraculously found a parking spot quickly in Lynn’s neighborhood, shuffled the block or two to her apartment and, like any exhausted, inebriated, sleep deprived people of responsibility, we ordered delivery from a nearby all-night eatery. I got the patty melt. It the aftermath of the evening, it was delicious.

The next morning, while I was feeding the meter, I got a call from Glenn. He was about a block away, returning from his night with Molly, and so we met up at one of my favorite eateries in New York, Le Petite Café. I’m not sure what it is exactly about the place, and I’m sure some of its appeal is linked to the ease of conversation Glenn and I always share therein, but it has a very warm, welcoming ambiance, and delicious lox. There’s enough to love to avoid specifics.

We played that evening in at The Annex in Manhattan, to another energetic crowd. Having a positive show the night before certainly fueled the current performance, coupled with the fact that the person running the sound and the opening band were from Chicago (the openers were our label-mates, Walking Bicycles).

The headliner that evening was The Giraffes. Every time we mentioned their name to anyone in response to oft asked “Who are you playing with?”, they immediately responded with “Oh, man, those guys are great live.” And having now seen them live, let me join the chorus: those guys are great live. Their singer was a towering mass of rock, on par, stature-wise, with the frontman of the aforementioned Six Finger Satellite. Before they went on they were all extremely complimentary toward us, and seeing them on stage, their compliments felt all the more significant. Positive feedback is always appreciated; positive feedback from someone’s whose work you enjoy, all the better.

I darted out to get dinner with the ever-talented Leah Hayes before being picked up by everyone in the van to head back to Brooklyn. And I mean everyone. I don’t even know how many people we were chauffeuring. I’d estimate nine or ten. I think I was sitting on my own shoulder, and I’m fairly sure I punctured Lynn’s lung. Sorry, Lynn. But we made it to Brooklyn, to the after party hosted across the street from Trash Bar. Jocelyn (the singer from Walking Bicycles) had a group of her college friends there, and with them, the two bands, and the indigenous crowd (who were losing their minds (and, on occasion, their shirts) to a local synth-pop band), we ended our stay in New York with style, or at the very least with volume.

And then it was time to be on the receiving end of Pittsburgh’s bowels.

Pittsburgh, Day 16, last date on the road (Nov. 17)

Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh. What went wrong, Pittsburgh?

Just about everything, to the point of comedic perfection.

First there were the physical realties of the venue: The bar we played was a cramped pipe opening into an overly hot pool room with a patina of filth (to which, admittedly, I might normally have taken a liking, but as the night progressed I was less and less in the right mood for it), and the PA was practically nonexistent, and so muffled it would have been better it hadn’t existed at all (I believe my quip was, “I’m singing through an armpit, how do I sound?”). Then there was the bartender, who treated us with disdain the moment we opened our mouths. When I asked for water he scoffed at me. When Glenn asked for Budweiser, this bartender and several patrons laughed at him (at Budweiser? I mean, if he’d asked for a full brandy snifter, I guess I could understand, but Budweiser?). So all of this wasn’t a great start. But the evening’s fun was just beginning.

The “crowd” – and I’m stretching that term as much as possible, given that there were about nine people in the room, five of them in the other band playing that night – could not have been more apathetic or unresponsive. To say their clapping was perfunctory is a little misleading as this indicates that there was decipherable clapping. A few accidental, muted collisions between some palms was more like it. It was for this, I joked, that the word “smattering” was invented, though in retrospect, that was being generous.

But had we played for smaller groups? Absolutely. Our last time through Washington D.C. we played for two people and had nothing less than a stellar show. So what was so bad about this show? I think it was just the complete lack of life on everyone’s faces, the fact that no one even stood up, the fact that if we poured everything into a song or just stood there it would make no difference. I was disgusted with it. Apathy, taken to this level, is fingernails across a chalk board.

So I moved my usual good-natured ribbing banter into the territory of straight biting sarcasm. (One of my lines, after completing yet another song met by silence : “Well, I guess now I know what it feels like to be a necrophiliac.” To which Lanny, playing the somewhat unwitting straight man responded, “I don’t get it.” And I clarified, “Fucking corpses Lanny. Fucking corpses.” And then we started the next song) Most of the people watching left in disgust, which was fine by me. I considered the microscopic exodus just a trimming of the fat. I personally gave a CD to all the people that remained, since they were the only ones displaying any sort of life to begin with.

Somehow we finished the set, though I cut several songs from it. Loading our equipment out through the pipeline by the bar became a gauntlet of heated stares and furrowed brows. And I was consistently accosted, at each trip inside to grab another guitar or amp, by a drunken woman who would alternate between apologizing for Pittsburgh and calling me a prick. She would vacillate between these two with complete liquidity. I wondered if Frenchy from Fredericksburg was her long lost twin.

But we finally got the van loaded and were given an address by Bill, Mat’s friend with whom we’d stayed last time in Pittsburgh, and were staying with again this trip. Mat read Lanny the address from a text message, and Lanny typed it into his iPhone. We were on our way, but we needed to turn around and head the other direction. We just couldn’t find a decent place to do it, given that we were a large van with a trailer and all the roads were going up and down steep hills. And it had been steadily raining. So sharp turns and one-eighties became a bit more problematic.

Eventually though, we reached a dead-end and had to pick a road, so Mat (who was behind the wheel since Glenn, inarguably the best driver in the band, was a bit on the tipsy side) chose a road. We went up a steep hill, which felt as though we were already defying gravity a bit. But when we got to the top of that steep, rain-soaked road, we had to make another choice, so Mat turned up another, steeper road (this section of Pittsburgh being on par with San Francisco for insane topography). And that road dead-ended. Into woods.

We were at the top of rainy, steeper-than-steep hill, the trailer behind us, woods in front of us, grass and drop offs to either side.

Mat started trying to turn the van. I began sweating. Glenn shouted, “Mat, stop, you’re jackknifing.” Mat kept going. The trailer was starting to do dangerous things behind us as we lurched back and forth, some wet beast at a right angle to itself. Finally I snapped, growling that he needed to stop, that this wasn’t getting us anywhere. Mat conceded and Glenn climbed into the driver’s seat and gave it his best.

Within a minute we were stuck in the mud.

We were stuck in the mud, atop that steeper-than-steep hill, with thousands of pounds of machinery and equipment. Lanny, Mat, and I all got out and stood in the reeds surrounding the grass, attempting to rock the van out of its muddy rut. Before the first attempt, my arms straightened, my palms against the van anticipating the push, I could see all of our breaths in the headlights and drizzle. I just started laughing. This was all perfect. Fuck you, said Pittsburgh.

Divorcing himself from probability, Glenn managed to pull the van forward, barely missing a nearby tree, and we all climbed back in. Our feet were covered in mud. We were all more than a little dejected. But in that common dejection was a silent camaraderie. No one snapped at anyone. A rare armistice in an otherwise powder keg moment.

So we were finally headed in the right direction. And we drove. And drove. And followed Lanny’s direction to their end. And realized we had no idea where we’d ended up. Despite not being lost, we were pretty horribly lost.

We called Bill and described where we were. Even Bill was confused and had to be walked through it a few times. We were nowhere near his house, he said. We were barely even in Pittsburgh, which the Edwardian-styled strip malls around us corroborated silently. (We would deduce the next day what had happened: Bill live on Davidson, but Mat – instead of showing the text message with the address to Lanny – had read Lanny the address, and Lanny had head Davison, typed that in, and led us to closed knickknack-huts rather than the beds and floors waiting us.)

With revised directions, we started out again, retracing the path we’d followed, going back almost to our point of origin, and finding, finally, Bill’s neighborhood, less than a mile from the club we’d played. We saw Bill standing on the street corner, waving at us.

The road onto which we needed to turn was a thin one, and it required a three-point turn. Glenn (who was driving now, sobered by the events of the last hour), started to execute the turn, pulling forward, then cranking the wheel, then popping into reverse, when Bill crescendoed, “whoah… WHOAH! YOU’RE GOING…” And then I heard a crunch. Plastic and metal wringing hands.

Glenn leaned out the window. “Did I hit it?”

I could almost hear Bill’s shoulders slumping, “Yeah, you hit it.”

We parked the van, surveyed the damage to the car (which was appreciable but not “totaled”), and sulked into Bill’s apartment. Bill, joining a long list of saviors on the tour, had prepared handmade pasta and sausage for us (he’s a cook and very good one). We sucked the food down, made small talk, and formed our little cocoons, hoping to come out the next day somehow shed of this night, knowing that tomorrow meant no more Pittsburgh, and far more Chicago.

Driving home, Day 17 (Nov. 18)

Everything cleared in the morning. The woman whose car Glenn struck called, and matters were sorted out. We went to brunch with Bill and his girlfriend who, ever the great hosts, insisted on picking up the check. We were too bedraggled and thankful to argue.

We were on the road, one last time. We were heading to home, to everything we’d sorely missed, to events we weren’t yet predicting.

Chicago, Day 18 (Nov. 19)

Quite simply, this show in Chicago was our best show together, ever. The crowd was raucous, vital and moving, and we poured everything into them and the songs. I personally felt obliged to extend a healthy middle finger to our last show and fully broadcast to this home audience how much we appreciated them. (Thanks to Hayley Murphy for the following pictures, and to everyone who attended for making the night happen the way it did.)

This last show of the tour was somehow a strange culmination of everything over the past weeks and all the more significant in light of the decision that would come a few days later (about which I will write next). This story had to come to a close some time, and by that I mean both this post and, more conceptually, the post I will write next about where all of this led us, and where we’re going next.

Thanks again to everyone who housed, fed, and supported us along the way. You made those two weeks worthwhile, many times over.


Mike said...

It was good meeting you guys in Athens, glad you like the photos. Thanks for the CD!

Paul Hornschemeier said...

It was great meeting you, too, Mike. Thanks again for coming out and taking all those pictures, feeding our easily bruised egos. A CD is the least we could do. Which sounds like we're lazy, but you get my meaning.