Monday, June 27, 2005

Climbing the Eastern Seaboard

From New Orleans the van ambled to Gainesville Florida. We arrived in town around midnight Sunday night and went directly to a house show, which we’d been hoping to play. By the time we peeled ourselves out of the car we realized we were too exhausted. Allen’s friend Jonas walked us to the corner store where we were dismayed to find that beer sales ended at 11 o clock on Sunday nights. The air inside the house was positively thick with heat and sweat and I felt overwhelmed by the pop-punk noise. I retreated to the porch where I found a sweaty 12 pack of beers and limply drank one as beads of condensation slipped down the sides.

After the show, Jonas took us to an apartment complex where we could go swimming. We cracked three more of the stolen beers, flung off our clothes and enjoyed a much-needed swim. When a crew of kids- more run-off from the show- appeared we joked that we became successively more naked as each figure came lumbering up the stairs.

Jonas and Erica live on a shady lane n a tiny house that used to be part of a hippie commune in the ‘60s called “Fort Ganga.” They retained the name for their house. Jonas made us some delicious snack out of tomatoes, beans and kale and we slept well. In the morning I met up with my friend Kathy who was preparing to move back to New York. I helped her transport a carload of heavy boxes to the mailbox and we ran other assorted errands and caught up on our lives. Kathy always amazes me.

Leaving Gainesville, we began our ascent along the eastern seaboard; next stop was Charleston South Caroline where we waylaid for two days to pick up our friend josh, just back from several months in Europe and staying there with his parents. The drive was only supposed to take 5 hours but due to some small interstate highway snafu it took 9. Josh was waiting for us faithfully outside a Wendy’s on the side of the road in a pink hat, little orange shorts and ratty espadrilles. It was midnight and after some aimless wandering we decided there was only one thing to do really: get some beer and go to the beach.

In one week we had traversed the country and it confused me to be on the atlantic coast. The beach was empty and infinite. The moon, just one day shy of full, radiated brilliantly, illuminating the gentle waves and turning the silver clouds drifting through the sky to diaphanous tinsel. In the distance, a ship loomed, its windows and lanterns like yellow holes in the night. We didn’t speak of the beauty but surely everyone was affected; we took our turns wandering away from the group and staring in silent awe. We’re a family now and as such, the trope of naked swimming has solidified. We took off our clothes and ran into the Ocean, the water warm and inviting even at that desolate hour. There we were, five of us, bobbing in the black expanse, drinking our beers, we ran up and down the beach and doing yoga in the moonlight. The water and air were so warm we didn’t need towels or to put our clothes on for quite sometime. Decently inebriated and besotted with awe, we returned to josh’s parents cozy house where we cooked bocca burgers and then, despite the existence of another room, piled into the big one together sleeping long and well.

South Carolina, Charleston in particular, gave me the creeps in its gory race-steeped classism. The following night we meandered around downtown with Josh’s friend Tom. King street is the kind of place that seems like it only comes alive on Saturday afternoons when people climb into their lexuses and come out to spend money. Eerily, it’s an upscale shopping mall au plain air. Pottery Barn, Sax Fifth Avenue, shoe boutique after shoe boutique, stores specializing in garish, overpriced matching khaki clothing for women and children. I moved uncomfortably through the grotesque promenade of wealth knowing that perhaps more than any place in the country, the riches here were amassed through the sweat and toil of slaves. Today, those lines are barely erased, merely redrawn, renamed, wiggly, hazy like the very torpid southern heat.

My new $5 sandals were destroying my feet and I was torn between hobbling in agony and going barefoot through streets teeming with giant cockroaches. I hobbled. Tom led us to a secluded courtyard by the art museum so we could drink some whiskey. It was dark and shady but we soon noticed the roach situation there was truly the stuff of Indiana Jones proportions. They skittered across the stones by the thousands, their huge black carapaces glinting in shadows, putting all but the most unfazed of us on edge. Dietrich offered me a piggyback ride back to the parking lot and I proudly refused, only to renege 30 seconds later and gladly accept.

From there we went to the Marina and swung on the giant porch swings playing our inane word games, planning the new pro sport of shark punching and our spin-off psychedelic band, Chocolate Chakra, until a security guard kicked us out. The next morning, we made fried potatoes for breakfast and packed up. Josh’s mother had folded our laundry in neat piles on the coffee table, a gesture I couldn’t get over and thanked her for profusely.

We drove to Charlotte North Caroline and played a nice show at little bar in the ghetto called the Milestone. Andy, the door guy was incredibly warm and funny and wowed us with stories of his former band, Fleshhouse, who last fall, had trashed the bar so thoroughly with a show cum orgy of flour and meat scraps that it took two days of scrubbing with industrial strength degreaser to restore the place to it’s normal state of filthy dilapidation. Once again, we elected to make an all night drive , this time to Baltimore, Dietrich’s home. I was actually able to doze for a few hours up in the loft. When I came too, sweaty and dazed, it was 10 am and we were stuck in beltway traffic.

My first inclination when we arrived at Liz’s house was to nap but the day was gorgeous so I visited an old friend from Oberlin who happened to live right around the corner. She and her boyfriend work at the local independent movie house and he, the projectionist, arranged a private screening of the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall classic “To have and not to have” just for the three of us.

Later that day, as we shopped in the thift store I got a call from Ann Arbor informing me that the condition of a childhood friend of mine who had slipped into a coma two days earlier had been declared irreversible and that a funeral would be held on Sunday. Aside from a manageable IBD, this man was my age and perfectly healthy. While convalescing from a routine surgery, his heart mysteriously stopped and no one is sure how long he sat without oxygen before being found. Wary of people who use the tragic deaths of those not in their innermost familial or social spheres as some sort of stage on which to play out their own dramas, I digested the news stoically. Only later evening before our show in D.C, as I talked to my mother about whether or not I should leave tour to come back for the funeral did it begin to prey on me. Feeling heavy and quiet, I forwent dinner with the group at a famous chili joint, walking to the CVS across the street instead and buying my first pack of cigarettes in almost two months.

Once inside our venue, the velvet lounge, I hid upstairs and weeping, nursed a beer and tried to compose a letter to his family while another band conducted their sound check. I was there but not there the whole evening and decided not to return to Baltimore with the gang, opting instead to stay with my old friend David there in Columbia Heights. David and his housemate Jarrett gave me exactly what I needed: some pot to smoke, a delicious glass of pauliner at the bar down the street, a good hour of sleepy TV watching and a wonderful sofa to crash on. In the morning, Jarrett made me a delicious breakfast burrito and we lounged around the better part of the afternoon.

I took the MARC train back to Baltimore and made it to the venue in good time for an expedition to Jerome’s Liquors. Somehow we’d gotten billed with a bunch of hardcore bands and I felt badly for being so unsportsmanlike and drinking in the van during their sets but I couldn’t handle all the noise. By the time we played everyone was pretty drunk but this time we managed to finesse that gentle balance of shambling disorganization and loveable charm. We bore mistakes with grace and humor and jammed out for a good 5 or 6 minutes at the end of the set. Outside at the van I conducted a bumbling string of merch transactions, the hilarity heightened painfully when Dietrich accidentally dropped the entire crate of CD’s and shirts on my sandaled foot.

From the Charm City Art Space, we went dancing at a Lithuanian national hall, making ourselves enormously sweaty to old soul and drinking shots of a mysterious honey flavored liqueur and tall bottles of cheap, dense Lithuanian porter. It was great fun until josh, Allen and Devon, declared themselves ready for home by passing out on the sidewalk talking about heavy-duty things.

We slept in a cozy row on Liz’s floor and in the morning she made us a delicious breakfast of hash browns and blueberry pancakes. We got a late start this morning but continue our climb: detouring west just a little bit for a show tonight in my beloved once home of Pittsburgh. Adventures to be had in the hilly city of bridges...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Stark and the Secret in the Big Sinking Easy

New Orleans is a t once a city of obscene, stark salience and ethereal, furtive mystery. There is the decadence of Bourbon street: the everpresent stench of vomit, live sex shows featuring world famous “love acts,” the neon green plastic tumblers of alcohol, stereos blaring and tits bared and beads falling from the sky. The city is sinking, the water table unreliable so even the dead aren’t intered, but rather rest eternally out in the air above ground. But then there are the untold courtyards concealed behind the closed, cramped streets of the French quarter, the spooky spirits, and the poor.

Fortunately I had the opportunity to see the indulgent and the Spartan sides sides of the city.

Our show at the Dixie Tavern was disappointing. It was a metal dive that smelled like piss and although the posters announced a $5 cover, the door guy didn’t seem to be charging one. I could see where this was going. The crowd consisted of the other two bands and a woman who yaked loudly through our set. Devon needled her with some comment about the T.V. apparently being more interesting than we were. She responded to his teasing with scathing vitriol, informing us that if we were “as interesting as Judas Priest (ostensibly the subject of her audibly debated program) then maybe I’d pay attention to you instead.”

Ouch. What we should have done, what I wished we could have done was launched into a Judas Priest cover but that’s a bit of an order for this band.

“I don’t know how to break this to you” Devon began, visibly irked “but Judas Priest actually sucks.”

Which began a very uncomfortable trip down agressively argued, pop-music discourse lane. “Who’s seen Heavy Metal Parking Lot?” I tried to interject jovially without much placating success. Her badgering had definitely damaged something about our set and sensing the futility of the whole thing we cut it pretty short in order to sit outside and turn our attentions to the greater problem of where we were going to stay that night since none of us knew anyone in New Orleans. Calls to friends and friends of friends were put through, messages left and the waiting began.

Finally a kid name Laurent, a friend of Allen’s friends called us back and directed us back to the French quarter. We hung around Molly’s tavern drinking beer on the street (supposedly it needs to be in a plastic cup but no one observes this rule). We watched every weirdo in the world parade by. I saw a cop car and found myself actually surprised to see that they existed. You know in Back to the Future II when biff steals the sports book and goes back in time winning lots of money and thus creating a fucked up, depraved alter 1986? Well that world is not the stuff of pop-sci-fi dreams. It exists and it’s called New Orleans. Exhausted and overwhelmed I left the group for a peaceful park across the street.

I sat on a bench and felt dark and heavy and tried to write some poetry weakly likening an unfulfilling love affair to the teeth gritting justification process we go through after leaving a show unpaid. On the bench next to me a young man nodded woozily.
”you alright dude?” I called
“yeah. I think. Too drunk. I feel kinda sick.”
“You look it. Get up and go puke you’ll feel better.”
“I should but where am I gonna do it, this a is a public place.”
“This is New Orleans. The whole place smells like puke. If people don’t puke enough they release a chemical reproduction of vomit scent into the air so it feels authentic. We’re in a park too…pick a tree.”

He did. I could hear it. Then he came over and talked to me a bit. He smelled like gum. I’m glad he smelled like gum and not puke. I know it’s not a kind thing to say but the kid kind of reminded me of a thinner, alightly more intelligent version of the son from The Family Guy. He was 23, goes to Louisiana State up in Batton Rouge. Had an interesting accent and bought his dad a Stan Goetz record he had to be not hung over enough the next day to drive three hours and deliver to him for fathers day. I mentioned a few of the places I’ve lived and he got excited. When a freight train rumbled by right behind us I jumped up excitedly to watch it.

“What are you gonna do, hop it?” he teased.
“Not in these shoes” I laughed.
“You’re really interesting.” He said.
Now why can’t the boys I love think things like that?

Laurent was a handsome young man, just out of Bard college, a drifter, a punk and a puppeteer. He led us back to his house in a rough part of town. “Not like you’ll need to walk around here alone at three in the morning but…don’t.” he cautioned us matter of a factly. His house was a dilapidated, three room, cardboard-walled shack. He kept the iron grill over the front door chained with a pad lock and the bathroom was kind of like an outhouse in the back of the structure, access to which involved a complicated search for lights and manipulation of a blank-board door locking system. The shack, with a sizaeble back yard costs him $100 a month. The neighborhood reminded me a lot of Minneapolis, Insane numbers of arty punks filling up terrible neighborhoods. His friend walt who put up Dietrich and Devon lived down the street. The neighbors were also friends, fellow musicians, performers and puppeteers. I fell asleep with Allen on a grubby bed in the front room, mildy stoned, listening to Laurent’s dog Lunga prowling around, feeling relatively at peace except for a nagging fear of flying cockroaches.

In the morning we pooled some money and made eggs, potatoes and Turkish coffee for breakfast. I chopped the garlic and mushrooms and realized how desperately I missed the simple pleasure of preparing a meal. After brunch, Laurent took us to the neighbors yard to show us the tree house and all the amazing foliage. “Would you ever know this was here?” he beamed with awe and pride. The city is magical alright and it was getting to me. When I told him I wanted to come back in the winter he gave me his number and some earnest advice: “Do it. Winter here is the best. The best.”

The stark and the blatant. The modest and the hidden. New Orleans is puke and ghosts. The tits and the hearts that beat beneath them…

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Keep Austin Wierd and Other Messes with Texas

Texas is no Joke. The heat is searing and the state goes on forever and ever. We arrived in Austin around 6 pm after driving all through the night and day. The city is bisected by highway thirty-five and it delivered us into town just in time for rush hour. The air conditioning had quit a few hours back and we were pretty uncomfortable. Devon’s left arm was righteously burnt from resting on the driver’s window for 8 hours. “I don’t know guys” he suggested languorously “ I think we should take off all our clothes and, I don’t know, slime together.” A hideous image we all found pretty funny.

I hadn’t see my friend Nathaniel since the winter of 1998 when I was living in Pittsburgh and he came home from school to visit his family for winter break. As I recall we spent the entire month of December sitting around watching TV, meandering aimlessly through suburban strip malls and poetically fretting about all our anxieties and imagined problems.

I’m pleased to say that some things never change.

Instead of the grey frigid Pennsylvania winter, now we battled the insufferable heat of Texas in the summer. My first order of business upon arrival was a shower. From there, I helped him unearth the air conditioner from under a heap of boxes and fire it up (so to speak). Then I was ready for a good day or two of peaceful Internet dabbling, TV watching, Gatorade drinking, Austin sun shit talking. My first night there I passed out nice and early during a rerun of Law and Order. It was a deep and heartfelt sleep.

Living near Pilsen in Chicago, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience a no paucity of good, cheap Tortas and Burritos. In Austin, however, I learned about a whole new frontier of Mexican Cuisine: Breakfast Tacos. “Food,” as Nathaniel put it, “for people who don’t have a lot of money and who don’t like to eat too many times in one day. “ Truly, two of these will set you from morning ‘till night. The city is peppered with sweltering little stands where you can buy sodden tortillas stuffed with various permutations of eggs, cheese, potatoes and greasy meats for as little as 80 cents a pop. After breakfast I met up with the boys and our friend Brie and went swimming which was great fun despite the fact that not five minutes outside the pool and you’re dry and sweaty again. It’s amazing.

After swimming we drove out to Brie’s house and practiced for an hour. Devon’s electric guitar had sort of melted in the van, the neck warped and strings so soggy that it refused to remain tuned. Frustrated by the set backs the practice devolved into me and Allen banging out a cover of the Buzzcock’s Why Can’t I Touch It, which ever since we danced to in L.A last Sunday, has become part of the official soundtrack to our trip.

We were slated to play at an all ages venue in Austin called the Church of the Friendly Ghost but it closed last week due to some mysterious legal troubles. Brie was able to tack us on to the bill at an eastside neighborhood dive called the Long Branch Inn, a bar we understood to be a mixer bar, meaning you bring your own booze and they sell you the cups of ice. We’d already taken a healthy dip into our handle of Jim Beam before discovering at the door that since March, the Inn had obtained and actual liquor license and was now running a tighter operation. “Yeah, the owners were kind of going bankrupt” The door guy confessed. Imagine that.

Although we’re billed at a few of them, Fingers Cut Megamachine is dismally prepared for bar shows for a couple of reasons: first, the music we play is fairly quiet. Second, our equipment is so shoddy it really can’t compete with the din. Although I find it mildly unnerving to perform all ages shows for kids younger than my baby siblings, younger than students I’ve had, I will say this, they are incredibly respectful. Not yet jaded by all the nervous, alcohol soaked mating rituals of bar behavior, they stand in front of a band for one reason: to hear the music.

This was not the case at the Long Branch. No one gave a fuck about us. I think the jukebox might have even still been on. The boys were already drunk and over the course of our half hour set we passed through all the stages: first we were disappointed, then flustered, then irritated and finally, we became dicks. I knew we sounded terrible though I couldn’t even hear the parts I was hacking out. As usual, Devon whined for drinks and as usual was rewarded with a shot of whiskey. At one point he launched into a new song I’d never even heard before with little more heads up than a curt “It’s in A minor Ok guys?” Allen stepped into the crowd and began performing one of his solo songs and at one point we drifted into two bars of the Misfits “One Last Caress.” I gave up on being confused and embarrassed and just tried to endure it all as nobly as I could.

When the nightmare was over I ran out to the van, arms laden with equipment to find the whiskey was done. Only at this point did I fly into a depressed sort of rage. Nathaniel offered to buy me a drink but thankfully the bar tender hooked it up. Nathaniel and I sat at the bar drinking for a while, pretty oblivious to rest of the scene until I was jostled from behind and realized some sort of commotion was breaking out right near by. It appeared that some people were getting aggressively hustled out of the bar. Then I noticed those people were Devon and Allen. I slammed the rest of my beer and sprinted outdoors where the melee was drifting, a many-arms-swinging-mass, down the block. Everyone was shouting and shoving and I had no idea what was going on. I later found out that Allen and Dustin had decided to initiate a boxer-shorted dance party. Austin might be Austin but I guess Texas will always be Texas and this kind of behavior didn’t agree with a couple vigilante patrons who threatened and goaded the boys (rambunctious anyways, particularly when soused) into some retaliatory bottle smashing.

Eventually the crisis diffused, our shrill, slurred rally cry (lifted from a bumper sticker we’d seen earlier in the day) of “Keep Austin weird!” echoing down the block. The night was still young enough but clearly we had to find a new place to go. At this point we were all pretty fairly wasted and decided to move the party to the infamous Whiskey Bar downtown.

Devon was turned away at the door for wearing an immensely tattered shirt which I found pretty ridiculous given the preponderance of wretchedly done-up hipster types inside. “If the fringes had been fastidiously cut and it bore a picture of Taz would it have been acceptable?” I later sputtered. He managed a costume change on the street somehow and we all pushed our way into the club. The first thing I did there was accidentally pee in the Men’s room which set off a chorus of “Whoa’s!” and “Who-hoos” when I exited the stall. Then I quickly shifted to beer grifting mode, my first unsuspecting victim being the dude-half of some canoodling couple. I just kind of danced up to the unguarded beer on the counter and in an instant had absconded with it into the crowd. Devon and I discovered a little balcony lounge upstairs where we performed all sorts of climbing acrobatics on the furniture and drained every abandoned beers on the tables. On the way back I decided it would be a good idea to slide down the curvy banister onto the throbbing dance floor below. I had just set off when Devon had the sense to grab my shirt, yanking me back over the rail and tumbling onto the stairs. I was a little banged up but nothing compared to what would have happened if I’d seen my mission through.

Nathaniel couldn’t stand the Whiskey and soon migrated outside to send text messages. It didn’t take too long for me to join him. Truthfully, I’d been ready to leave before I even got there. The place was awful. The kind of place that makes you feel the need to shower out your soul. We went home and listened to amongst other records, a laughable concept album attempt by the Frankie Valie, and passed out around 5 am talking about the bible.

In the morning I was destroyed and had the horrible idea that Breakfast tacos would fix me. Predictably, they made everything worse. I sat in the air conditioning and watched Gremlins while I waited for the boys to come pick me up. It only took us about 4 hours to get to Spring Texas, which included time spent lost in a creepy horror-movie set historic district called “Old Town.”

We put on an excellent show for an intimate and adorning crowd of teenagers at the Rayford community center. We limited our alcohol intake to a 6 pack of Schlitz and behaved very nicely. The kid who organized the show took us back to his Oil-baron parents’ house in a secluded, ritzy Houston suburb where we enjoyed the amenities of a home movie theatre, swimming pool, trampoline, pancake breakfast and an enormous and a little too-friendly bull-mastiff puppy (Devon doesn’t want to talk about it).

Good shows are as good shows do. We’re now on our way to New Orleans- a drive that could take as little as 4 or as many as 7 hours; people’s estimates varied that dramatically. I think that ultimately, Texas is so mind-bogglingly huge that I really can’t fault anyone here for having somewhat skewed perspectives on space or time.


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

All Nighters All West

Monday and Tuesday Jews worldwide observed the holiday Shavuot, the feast of weeks, on which we celebrate receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is one of the most important, sacred holidays in the Jewish calendar. Religious Jews have a custom of staying up all night, or at least very late, the first night of Shavuot studying Torah. Due to my family’s adherence to religious practice they are sometimes compelled to pull late nighters. Over the years I’ve adopted my own religious sort of appreciation for forgoing sleep though my reasons are rarely as noble as pouring over sacred texts. On the other hand, in these postmodern times we are free to read anything like a text are we not? Dancing, whiskey, bodies, the webs of heartbroken faultlines.

Tuesday night I didn’t really sleep at all. I lay on a homemade loft in the back of a van and watched the sun rise over El Paso, Texas. We left Albuquerque last night around 2 am. It was humiliating hanging around the bar waiting for them to close out so we could collect what I knew would be a miserable pittance. $30. Not even a tank of gas. We’d have to rely on the leftover from the night before in phoenix to carry us the 12 hours on to Austin. And that might not be enough.

People seem to believe that “dry” heat is somehow languor-proof. It’s not. Phoenix is a strange place because it strikes me as barely inhabitable. Not even mid June and when we rolled in around 6 pm it was 103 degrees. Everything is air-conditioned. Everything moves slowly. Although I was barely exerting any energy the change in weather knocked me out. Flushed and headachy, I meandered out of the Modified arts space shortly before our set and padded into the dusty parking lot. The sun had just finished setting. Around me stood lots of squat palms that seemed to have just given up on the idea of getting taller. The night air and sky felt rich, velvety and full of hot dusty particles. I tried to write a poem in my head but gave up too heat-sick and exhausted.

The promoter who booked the show, an old acquaintance of Devon’s, who couldn’t make it to the show because he’d broken his toe and and moping about Hot Water Music breaking up, put us up for the night. When we arrived around midnight his wife brought us fruit and beer and cooked us a delicious pasta and garlic bread. Their house was very air-conditioned. Mercifully. Some of the best accommodations we’re likely to see on tour and we slept in blissfully.

The Drive to Albuquerque took a good six hours. Leaving Phoenix we passed through a long stretch of desert. As a vade mecum of sorts, I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States on this trip. I tried to imagine human beings and animals, be they frontiersmen or displaced Indians actually walking through this extreme terrain. The rocks, the scrubby little patches of coarse vegetation, blanched, brittle, barely hanging on and I wonder how anything could manage to survive out here. Out west the desolation expands as far as the eye can see and much farther. It is not, however, a sad sort of desolation, rather, a majestic one. The earth just quietly informs us that we aren’t supposed to be here, that we don’t really belong.

On I-40, some 40 miles outside of Albuquerque, we came up on a horrific accident on the other side of the road. 4 fire trucks and about as many cop cars were tending to a semi trailer brutally crushed and so completely charred so it was barely more than a blackened steel box skeleton, burnt, indiscernible cargo remains flapping in the wind. I didn’t see the head of the truck anywhere but judging by the rest of the wreckage, it’s not likely the driver survived. A line of stopped traffic extended for a good 10 miles behind the scene. As we passed it we speculated on what our night would be like were we stuck in that direction, how many love affairs might result from the serendipitous interactions between strangers bound here in a common fate, how miserable the conditions must be aboard the two greyhound buses and for the horses in the horse trailers.

As the road curved and the backup continued on it occurred to me that those poor people, most of whom had climbed out of their cars, had little or know idea of why they were stopped or the nature of the catastrophe that lay ahead-but we did. As the line petered out and we passed free wheeling cars zipping around the bend soon to be caught up on the choked mess, I felt like the uncomfortable bearer of strange knowledge. It felt oddly godlike.

Alburquerque reminded me a lot of the “new” Ann Arbor. A college town with a pleasant downtown area full of sandwich and noodle shops. We also passed by a fancy senor frogs-esque bar called The Library, whose façade was built to look like a giant row of book spines bearing titles like “Gone with the Gin”, “Wrath of Grapes” and our favorite, “Tequila Mockingbird.” I’m always in awe of this world. It really makes no sense.

As the name might signify, Burt’s Tiki Lounge is done up all Hawaii Style. Prey to the classic kitsch-bar horror vacuii, it’s covered with nautical gear, leis, bamboo, lanterns, lamps, hand drums, beer-bottle shaped Christmas lights and surfing movie posters. I had a good feeling about our show when we first loaded in but something went wrong. Devon is a train wreck the rest of us are powerless to stop. When our set got off to a shaky start he seemed to lose his will to put on a good show and began berating the bar and the sparse crowd for more beer. I think the boys found the crowd abuse and purposely shambling delivery funny but I was mortified. There’s no use in even trying to argue with him either.

Just before the bar closed, I bought Dietrich a coke as he had volunteered for the first driving shift: Albuquerque to El Paso. I climbed onto the loft and tried to sleep without much success as our van barreled through the night. At one point in time two of my former heartbreaks lived in Texas. I’ve never been there before but I always thought that because of them, when I did finally make it, it would be crawling on all fours. Thankfully, I’ve cured myself of feelings for one and the other recently moved on to grayer pastures in New York.

Still, a big state on little sleep is likely to be no joke.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Treading Air In A Floating City

Southern California is an alien world. There is nothing gravitous about it. Everything wafts, floats, skims, hovers. It worships the sun; bright, constant, bathing everything in pastels. Nature and the built environment respond to the sun. Buildings are gently molded stucco, horizontal, lithe and mass less-painted in creams, pinks, and sea green; a box of mints is home. The vegetation is gifted in diversity. Since water is scarce, it seems to exist in just the right quantity to announce and coyly parade its variety: palms, ferns, creepers, lilacs, matted manicured grass and hedges.

Here, even decay has levity; for a ruinous shack can only ever be as bad as just that. There is nothing of the gothic dereliction known back east in steel and stone, cement or brick. The rusts, the grays, the soot, the weight of immemorial time, the denseness of navigating an earth altered, scarred, shoved, tugged and shaped so that the hollowed shells of structures seem at once extracted from and part of it.

In Southern California, the world rests on the earth. Lounging. Feet up, fishing on the dock.

It’s summer all the time, in every conceivable way, even when it’s not summer. It makes no sense. Los Angeles is a floating city. Nothing here, not even the mountains or the ocean, seems to weigh a thing.


This was my impression of Los Angeles yesterday, all day, until the sun went down. Nowhere has it ever been truer that night falls like a curtain than in downtown Los Angles.

We played our first show last night at an all ages venue called the Smell. And smell it did. The alley behind the club was rank with the pungent stench of urine and something about the inside of the club reminded me of the primate habitat at the zoo. We loaded in, stuck around for a couple of the first band’s forgettably generic emo power-punk numbers and promptly decided a beer was in order.

Cautiously, we ambled around the corner to a giant Mexican gay bar. The alley opened onto a street corner notorious for hosting the highest number of stabbings of any corner in the city. The bar was raucous, full of Mexican flamers of all ages, shapes and sizes. A whole retinue of men in tight jeans and matching ivory snake-skin cowboy hats sauntered in together. “Ooooh! Los Vaqueros!” I whispered to Ricky as I squeezed his arm in awe.

We nursed our Bud Lights at a decent pace; not wanting to miss Hanalei’s set back at the Smell. While we sat, a toothless, leathery faced old man in the booth behind us tapped Devon on the shoulder. Motioning to Allan with his filthy hands, he passed a tiny, stuffed green gorilla through the lattice work. “Is free” he kept repeating sluridly, speech thickly accented with a weak grasp of English and no small amount of drugs and alcohol circulating through his system. No one seemed to want the gorilla. I looked at it and it looked back at me, for an instant, the way my precious stuffed animals did when I was very little. It looked sad and tender, wholly anthropomorphized. I don’t know where this poor guy obtained it, what germs it was harboring or why he gave it to us but it made me feel like crying so I tucked it in my bag.

I have never seen a more concentrated area of post-apocalyptic, urban wretchedness than downtown Los Angeles. The extent of the bleakness, misery and destitution is boggling. Entire blocks of sidewalk resembling far-away shanty towns. A contiguous network of cardboard mats and huts, an eternal queue of zombie-like, hollow eyed figures asleep in grimy blankets, dazed and jerkily lumbering aimlessly with shopping carts full of salvaged scraps. This is not the first time I’ve encountered homelessness mind you. I’ve seen it plenty, but this; I swear there was something different about this. For blocks and blocks truly the aberration was us, not them. There wasn’t even any semblance of an integrated ghetto. There were no poor people in poor looking houses. There was only homelessness. Stark, bare, everywhere. Totally forgotten by the city, the state, the world.

I felt uncomfortable to be alive.
Certainly uncomfortable to be there playing music for other nice, clean, well fed, educated, lucky young people like myself.

Our set went off without too many disasters. I made mistakes but, surprisingly, did not fulfill my worst fears of completely blanking on any of the songs. Although I’m hardly a musician and for this project, am performing music wholly written by someone else, I did feel a certain pride to be the only female on the stage that entire night. I was baffled, when after the show, three teenagers approached me and asked to have a picture taken with me. I’d seen this happen to Devon many times before but me? How on earth did they even know my name? Flattered but somewhat stupefied, I complied graciously and thanked them for coming.

From there the night took many turns including a party thrown by Wendy of Made By Wendy® at her Boutique (sponsored by this strange new Budweiser product I cautiously imbibed called “Bud E”- a horrific malt beverage tasting concoction of beer, caffeine and ginseng), a visit to the famous Canters Deli, where I ate the biggest matzo ball I’ve ever laid eyes on, marveling at the prostitutes on Hollywood boulevard (tacked cloyingly and flamboyantly onto the night like those dots of candy that come on paper strips) and finally ending somewhere around 6 in the morning all bundled up in bed watching sode after sode of the Chappell show.

When me, Devon and Dietrich finally decided to call it a night the birds were out chirping in full effect- throwing down some amazing beats, Dietr and I noted. Nature’s secret syncopations are cool alright, but not when you’re exhausted. “ Go eat some fucking worms, bitches!” I harrumphed in exasperation, which for reasons I don't fully understand, Devon and Dietrich found so hilarious they giggled in bed for a full two minutes and were still talking about it at practice this afternoon.

Friday, June 10, 2005

As Seen at Rock N' Roll Boot Camp

Some pictures from the never ending practice here in L.A. Here: Allan, Dietrich, Devon. The tiny space we share together. Haven't killed eachother yet. At least it's bigger than a van.
Below: Me and Dietrich. I am aware that my clothes don't match but It's Ok. In California you can wear whatever you want and not feel weird- Even a short skirt. People here are more accustomed to the sight of flesh.

Originally uploaded by sweetabbyg.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Rock N' Roll Bootcamp

This doesn’t exactly feel like vacation. It’s more like Rock N’ Roll boot camp. Dietrich, Devon and I holed up in Devon’s sparse little studio apartment with Allan a few miles bike ride away in Vegan Bike punk house in silver lake. I wake up long before the boys and walk to Sunset Boulevard to park myself at the local coffee shop, read, write, correspond and generally obtain the much needed peace and distance from the band. It’s surprising how quickly rituals can form.

Yesterday, I returned around noon and the boys were still struggling to get out of bed. Originally we were supposed to drive out to Vegas to play a show with Hanalei but thankfully, the night before, Devon realized this was a ridiculous idea and, eating his pride, called Brian to cancel. Around 1, Allan arrived with his boyfriend Ricky and we all took a trip to Trader Joes. The other morning I took an inventory of food stuffs in Devon’s kitchen and it was something like this: 1 bag pasta, 1 jar pasta sauce, peanut butter, jelly, half a loaf of bread, several half consumed bags of pre-packaged cut up vegetables at various stages of decay, salad dressing, a tin of oats and two cans of Budweiser. I felt a deep swell of maternal affection for my new family, overcome with the powerful urge to cook big delicious meals for them. But this is Rock n’ Roll boot camp and we haven’t got the time. Ricky graciously busied himself in the kitchen making potatoes and omelets while we got plugged in and began hacking though the songs.

Devon and I, I realize, have very different practicing styles. He can’t handle doing any song more than thrice in a row-he gets agitated. I prefer to drill something into my head with relentless repetition. Far and away the least musician of the group, also the most timid when it comes to playing with a group, especially with boys, I battle my self-confidence issues with every song. I’m so clumsy! On Mousetrap I miss my guitar riff with such astonishing consistency that everyone has come to expect the screw up instead of the right way and actually start laughing in advance of my mistake.

We broke for lunch and an episode of Ren and Stimpy. Ricky, after dozing on the sofa, climbed on his bike and headed off for Amoeba music, where he and Devon work. After a little more practice we decided to take a trip to guitar center. “If we’re going on tour for a month we should really get, you know, the stuff we need.” Allan suggested diffidently “the drum head, a bass, a bass-case….” The list went on and on and was actually kind of funny.

Any Guitar Center makes my skin crawl. The Hollywood Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard is unlike anything else. Outside in the pavement is a little Rock-Walk of fame where you can put your hands in the prints of Robert Smith and Joe Satriani and gaze at all sorts of fantastic rock memorabilia in the display window like Keith Moon’s drum kit and three foot tall boots worn by someone in Twisted Sister. Dietrich and I had a hysterical conversation with the bag check guy about the bass drum rim he was carrying in.

“What do you have there, a hula hoop?”
“No, it’s a bass drum rim.”
“Does it have any marks on it that make it look old?” he jotted down notes on a tally sheet while he looked it over, pleased to find some distinguishing ratty duct tape in one spot.
“O.K good. Uh, how big is it?”
“We don’t know. That’s why we brought it here to measure the drum heads.”
“Right….I’m sorry….what did you say this thing was again?”

After making a huge racket in the tackily African themed percussion room and listening to three separate renditions of both Stairway to Heaven and Enter Sandman, wailed out in the cavernous guitar palace we fled.

Practice continued until Devon received a mysterious voice mail from an Officer Davis at the L.A PD calling “with regard to Ricardo.” Allan’s frantic calls back to the precinct yielded no information and we pressed on nervously for a few hours until he was able to reach someone back at his house. Apparently somewhere around 8 pm Ricky just walked in to the front door with a cast on his arm and knowing nothing about how it got there. We piled back in the van and sped to Echo Park.

Poor Ricky’s face was pretty cut and bruised and he was visibly discombobulated. His shoulder bag was missing but he had his address book in his pocket. Inside, Allan found a note saying, “Bike is at the fire station on Cuhuenga and Homewood.” Ricky had no memory of anything and kept saying, “I don’t know, I thought you guys were with me.”
“We weren’t with you Ricky, you left and then we went to guitar center. It was around three o’clock.” Ricky just shook his head and said he couldn't remember.

Feeling a little uncomfortable, Devon, Dietrich and I volunteered to retrieve the bike. Whatever happened happened just a few blocks from Devon’s house. Outside the fire station we smoother our hair and rang the doorbell. The guy who answered was pretty friendly. Ricky’s bike was so fucked up he couldn’t wheel it out to us, he had to kind of pass it off. The front fork was completely bent, crushing the wheel so tightly it couldn’t move. “Do you know what happened to our friend?” I asked the fireman.
“Not sure, we arrived with the ambulance…there was a ford explorer with a ding in the back, with think he must have ran into the car.”

Judging by the condition of the bike, the impact was intense and I’m so glad Ricky had been wearing a helmet. Since this makes my second friend to be involved in a serious car accident in the last week, I hereby firmly resolve to start wearing a helmet when I return to Chicago.

We thanked the fireman and carried the twisted bike out to the van. “No sense in returning it now,” Devon observed “no one can ride it like that…let’s go to the bar.”
I was a little worn out from Rock N’ roll boot camp so I let the boys go without me, opting, instead to pass out on Devon’s bed.

I imagine today will be similar, though perhaps less eventful. We keep talking about going to the beach but that’s not likely to happen. Our first show is on Friday night and I’m still a mess.

(I'll be posting pictures for you just as soon as I get this camera thing resolved...)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Hoofing and Hefting in L.A.

Believe it or not, the L.A Metro has four colored lines: Blue, Green, Yellow and Red. Not surprisingly, I had to ride three of the four (plus an airport shuttle) to get from point A (airport) to point B (Devon’s house in north Hollywood). The hour was late, I was exhausted from packing all morning and then sitting through hours of terrible turbulence, legs cramping and breathing recycled air, and carrying some 50 pounds of stuff (and it really is just that, stuff) of my back. I should have accepted Devon’s offer of a ride once he got off work but I felt bad about interrupting his date, I severely misjudged how difficult the trek would be and to top it off, I’m stubbornly independent.

What a mess.

I learned, somewhat discomfittingly, that it is extremely hard not to look terribly conspicuous on Los Angeles public transportation if: It is late at night, you are white, an unaccompanied female, not a drug addict, and, weighted like a pack mule, wearing a big camping pack and two bloated, pendulous shoulder bags.

I’ve lived in enough places to know that plenty of environments seem scary until they become familiar. This was just one of those things. Sleepily swatting away guy after guy trying to sell chocolate bars for a dollar or spange for the “tram” I soothed myself by mentally establishing train line after train line as my friendly, well traveled perlieu. “Compton…I’ve listened to NWA enough for that to feel just like home….7th and Flower….I’ve been to downtown L.A before, the library was beautiful I know that area just fine….” Stuff like that. Weary and spent, I unearthed a crumbly peanut butter and jelly sandwich in one of my bags. I try not to eat late at night but for some reason then, I felt peculiarly ravenous. Eating a sandwich also seemed somehow magically apotropaic, as if engaging in a benign, quotidian activity would somehow keep people like the guy in the next car hollering “Nigga you DON”T KNOW ME!!” at the top of his lungs from molesting or depressing me.

Waiting for the red line, my final transfer, I struck up a conversation with a guy who as it turns out, grew up in Chicago. Having spent time in all three places, we rapped for four stops about the differences between New York, Chicago and L.A. Chicago, with all it’s world-class pretensions and pudding-faced midwestern charms, I suspect, being the dearest to both our hearts.

“Los Angeles” he said “is like a packet of fast-food ketchup lying in a sweltering parking lot and then someone comes a long and stomps on it.” Here he made a grand explosion and diffusion gesture with his hands “And boom! There’s your city.”

I liked that a lot.

Another Peculiar thing I observed about the L.A Metro is that the fare system appears to operate entirely along the lines of Foucaultian panopticism. In theory, the rides cost money (not much I feel I should note, much cheaper than Chicago), but at no point along my route was I required to swipe or insert any kind of card. Rather, the machine spit out something that looked like a movie ticket stub and instructed me to carry this “proof of fare” on me at all times. The train station and car interiors were heavily festooned with signage reminding riders of this. Somewhere loomed the elusive watchful eye of god, morality, municipal works and discipline and punish. Not once did I have to stare it down. The penalty for Fare evasion is $250. One has to wonder how many times a day all over this sprawling city that risk is taken. I’m debating it myself.

When I finally emerged at Hollywood and Vine I sat shivering on a bench waiting for Devon and his friend to come get me. Since it was 90 degrees in Chicago when I left, I figured it would have to easily be, I don’t know, 165 degrees in southern California. I was wrong and once again poorly prepared.

Of course they showed up in a Convertible. A rather nice once.

I have a week to enjoy the pleasures of walking and metro-ing In Los Angeles before we leave for tour on Monday. I have no particular plans other than table diving as much free food as I can, playing music and getting to the beach at least once. After lazing around the house this morning practicing my bass parts and trying to concoct a breakfast out of the meager inventory of comestibles in Devon’s kitchen, I set out into the sunshine. I walked up to the coffee shop on Caheunga and Sunset feeling the watchful presence of the immortal “Hollywood” sign nestled above me in the hills with me every step.

For a Midwestern girl like me stuff like that is quietly epic.

The Many ways Chicago Says Good-bye

My last day in Chicago was almost a sweltering 90 degrees. Summer is here and I should have been spending my final moments at the beach. Instead, I was mucking through an assortment of low-grade hassles- the kind that become monumentally aggravating as you are in the process of packing up your life and departing for the unknown.

As it turns out, the replacement camera overnighted to me by the Digital Megastore is also defective. I should have known better than to subsist on peanut butter for two weeks just to attempt to own the kinds of nice things rich people have.

“I’ve never had two defective returns.” said Jenny, my “account manager” and new best friend.
“I must be the unluckiest person in the world.” I muttered ruefully. Not sure whether to sulk over the immovable restocking fee or gloat that I managed to pity her reimbursing me for my shipping.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but in these moments, it’s hard not to think that way. I woke up Saturday morning to find that sometime between the hours of 3 am and 11 am my bike had been stolen out of our front vestibule. The National Education Lending Corporation seems to think I owe them $1500 more in student loans than I actually do. The little things. Despite these irksome snags, it did manage to dawn on me as I was sweatily hefting my last few boxes onto the storage platform over our bathroom, that I am very, very lucky. I’m doing something most people only dream of: flying to the west coast, climbing into a van with three friends, and touring the country playing music. This is more important than a camera, more important than bureaucratic hassles.

I’ve apologized to my friends effusively for being so cranky about the little things. As I sit here on the terminal floor at O’Hare I think I’d prefer to reflect on the more monumental ways in which Chicago and I bid each other our farewell.

On Saturday the NVVAM hosted its Vietnam Veteran’s Awareness biker run. All was going well until a powerful storm rapidly swept in. When the rain came, we herded everyone inside and wildness ensued. I gave myself the thankless job of trying to politely ask 6 foot something, sleeve tattooed, leather-clad Harley dudes to kindly not regard the artwork as table tops on which to park their burgers and Old-Styles.

After those fetivities, I went up north to Shelley’s for the party at the Landmark, to some degree, in my honor. Parties at Shelley’s are small and somewhat more adult. The evening wore on and we still hadn’t performed our set, eventually opting to give a private bedroom concert on her bed for Andy, Jesse and Donna. The evening was warm and by 1 or 2 am everyone ended up drunk on the roof. I got Shelley’s guitar and we sang songs and tried to avoid sitting in the puddles left up there from the storm but mostly failed on that account. When Emilio and I left around 4, I found it difficult to articulate to Shelley how immensely her friendship has improved my quality of life. Donna gave me empty boxes and implored me to come back to Chicago. Antonia told me to make out with everyone in the band. I laughed.

Several important things happened on our drive back south. The first being a horrible murder scene. Rumor had it that the Ashland bridge down by Cermak was finally open. It’s been closed the whole time I’ve lived in Chicago and giddily, we decided to investigate this development. A few blocks south of Division the night was disco throbbing with cop car lights. Outside a corner chicken shack, police were roping off the street with yellow caution tape. On the ground lay a large man. His back was to the street, his body sprawled. The first thing I noticed was that his pants had fallen down a little, his big white ass, truly illuminated like the moon. The second thing I noticed was that his brains were pouring out of the back of his head.

My stomach turned and for once in my life I was grateful, so, so grateful I hadn’t passed by on my bike and had to absorb any more of the scene. For some reason I t really bothered me that the poor dead guy’s ass was on view to all who passed down Ashland Avenue.
“It’s humiliating.”
“Not really,” Emilio shrugged. “It’s not like we know the guy.”

As we neared the intersection of Ashland and Blue Island I got the sensation that we were on a roller coaster inching its way up the thrilling, neck-snapping incline. For reasons I can’t explain I was really excited. I told Emilio I thought the car might blast-off into the sky, chitty-chitty bang-bang style once we made it onto the bridge. As usual, I was a little let down. The bridge, this bridge they’d been working on for a year or two at least, is actually rather short. Worse still, it occurred to us that all things considered, the detour along Loomis was actually just as efficient, if not quicker, for getting back to our house.

So it is.

In a few hours I’ll be in L.A. Our first show is on Friday night and I’m nothing resembling prepared. Sam dropped out of the tour and last week Devon called to tell me that Allan, the bass player, can actually do the guitar parts.
“So, uh, how do you feel about playing bass?” He asked
“Well, aside from the fact that I’ve never touched one before, I feel fine.” Was all I could think to answer. I’ve been practicing hard. But I have a lot of work left to do.

Visit the Fingers cut megamachine website to see our tour dates. We’ll be back in Chicago on June 29th. I’m looking forward to a rock star’s welcome…