I grab the bass in the section for oversized luggage in LAX baggage claim and walk outside feeling like a rock star. I've never played in this city before and just standing in the warmth of California gives me shivers of excitement. LA. Los. Fucking. Angeles. Nice. My girlfriend and I hail a cab and head to our hotel in Hollywood. We hold hands in the back seat feeling a bit of youth return to be in this city for a whirlwind day of both sightseeing and Sightseering. The band has a gig at a place called Amplify at 8:00 so until then we're set for a walk up and down Hollywood Blvd, dinner and drinks at an outside cafe, marveling at the sunset and that we were in the Grayness that is Seattle only a few hours ago.
She offers to buy dinner at a Mexican place, and I wonder at my luck to be in this city for a show, to play in a most excellent band, to have a woman who puts up with all my writing time and band time and shows and this little tour we have going on. I must have done something right as the gods are being kind to me now. While we eat we don't talk much. We just enjoy the moment and watch the other people. There's a Mexican family at the next table and beyond them a tourist couple that must be in their sixties at least. They're wearing matching blue and white tee shirts that say, "I stepped on the stars in Hollywood" and holding hands across the table. The waitress drops off shots of tequila for them which they drain in one fell swoop, not a drop left, suck on the limes. Impressive. When I'm their age, I'll probably be drooling down my shirt and drinking my beer through a straw. The man motions to the waitress for another round, and we decide to do one too, Don Julio Reposado. Getting those, we make a toast.
"To the band."
After dinner, we stroll up a crowded Hollywood Boulevard and walk over Englebert Humperdink, Harrison Ford, Kermit the Frog ("Eh, Kermit the Frog here…"), and some we've never heard of, and others that make us question the merit of the star. Some of these people were truly talented (Duke Ellington) and others just popular (Britney Spears). It makes us question the decision process, and we joke about the imagined meeting of the nominating committee when someone spoke up to say, "We should have a star in honor of that great actor of our times, Wesley Snipes." Somehow it goes through, and there he is under our feet. And yet, in an odd way it's exciting. For good or bad, we've all been affected by the Hollywood hoopla machine, by the talented folks it churns out, and by the rich but pretty fools who have somehow tricked us.
"Dave!" We look up, and there are Welling and David. Hugs and handshakes.
It feels like the doctor introduction scene in Spies Like Us so I add one for good measure. "Doctor," and they pick up right away.
"And Doctor." Laughs.
"I'm having a blast here. I went over to High Voltage Tattoo from LA Ink," David says, "and thought about getting a tattoo, but wound up just buying a little trinket for my daughter." He pulls the chain hanging around his neck out of his shirt. Black beads, a cross. "She'll dig that I got it there. I need to find Michael Jackson's star and take a picture of it for my other kid."
"I think you can find the locations online."
"We'll look it up for you when we get back to the hotel."
They head off for a little more people watching before the show. We head to the hotel to sip few beers and look up the location of Michael Jackson's star which is something I never thought I'd be excited to do. We find it, make note, and then have a few more beers while staring out the window at the Hollywood sign whereupon Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock" pops into my head, and I decide to find his star since he was my mom's favorite.
"Let's find Elvis tomorrow."
Later at the club, we down a couple mini bottles of Jack Daniels in the parking lot and then go inside where we find a single room with a stage at the far end and one unisex bathroom to the left of the door. There's no bar since it's an all ages venue (thus the Jack outside), but the stage is a decent size so at least the band won't be crowded up there like we were in Portland at the Red Room where I had to stand in a wedge of space between Welling, PA, and David's drums. It's a good thing I don't much feel the need to jump up and down while playing, although lately I do feel such during the heavier parts of a new song called "Snake". The groove, though heavy, lends itself to bouncing, to shaking stages which we did in Portland, and it has become our closer as it gets people moving, pumped up, wanting more but being satisfied in the big finish of it all. It gets applause. It makes evenings.
And so we close tonight with that one, and the ten people in the place do move about during it, and they clap, and there are a couple shouts, "One more!" But we don't play one more. We pack up, and head back toward Hollywood Boulevard in search of the MJ star that is supposed to be in front of the Chinese Theater. We find it and all feel a little giddy. Not that we're given to such contrived things as these Hollywood stars are, but then, what artist wouldn't like such? It means success of some sort, not necessarily artistic achievement, but some level of recognition, and getting one means that at least for a while there weren't day jobs to go back to, that there was freedom and time to create, and not just after work, but all day, all week, maybe even a lifetime.
There are more handshakes and hugs. "See you in Austin." after which Welling takes off for the drive to Texas in his own car following or leading Lightfoot and PA and Furniture Girls in the RV. Lightfoot and I shake hands, "You guys don't miss your flight tomorrow," he says with a smile. A guy walking by drops a hot dog. He picks up the bun and the dog, rejoins them, takes a bite and goes on his way. We all laugh a little, and then they leave. David heads to his hotel. Allison and I head to ours.
The next morning, we find Elvis and take not a few pictures of me sitting next to the star. It saddens me to think of my mother who passed away in 2004, but then it makes me happy too. Elvis gave her a lot of joy. He meant something to her, maybe in one way of thinking, he meant everything to her. I begin to wonder then when his light first began to fade, when the magic slipped away, when Elvis lost the joy to be had playing for ten people in a small Hollywood club. And I wonder if my mom noticed. If she lost some of that same joy over the years as Elvis faded and finally died. My guess is that she did not. Few can produce for a lifetime, or if they do, the quality often varies or the content repeats, and often the last person to admit such will be the artist. Many of the people honored on this street had but fleeting fame, but even fleeting fame can resound years later, that one song, that one album, that one tour. Magic in the moment can last a lifetime. The way the stage and crowd bounce during the last song of a set can last a lifetime. The band will remember. Others will too, like the guy in the opening band last night who said, "That was fucking awesome!" as he bought a CD.
And I think only now that my mother's love of Elvis got me into music and writing and the idea of creating, expressing, of leaving a mark upon the world, upon people, upon lives. I saw how it made her feel and thought, "I want to do that." And so I've tried. I play music. I write. I step on stages. What else can one do?
I stand up careful not to step on Elvis, and we walk away hand in hand. She starts singing what I'd told her before was my mom's favorite, and I join in, "Warden threw a party in the county jail…"
Welling, David, and I drive down after work to catch up with the RV. Lightfoot and PA left earlier in the afternoon with Furniture Girls for the combined tour, the ultimate destination of which is SXSW in Austin, but will also include stops in the likes of Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and, my personal favorite, Wichita, Kansas for a Saturday night show at Kirby's Beer Store. Yes, at least in name, a beer store. Somewhat appropriate given the lyrical content of the last CD, but then, I suppose a whiskey store would be even more appropriate. Anyway, the three of us leave Seattle to battle the rush-hour traffic and manage to get to the Red Room in Portland with thirty minutes to spare.
I've done some touring before, and there's always that tinge of excitement when loading the bass in the car, climbing in, checking maps and smart phones, taking a swig of the vitamin water, and it is so this time, but I remember back in the day, in my early twenties with a band called The Generals in Detroit, it was cracking open a cooler in back of the van and grabbing a beer, something cheap like Bud Light, and something even the driver of the van did, but these days, we're older and a little wiser and boozing in the car on the way to a show is a thing of the past. Tonight, we sip our vitamin waters, and though we're excited, we sit rather quietly and stare out the windows and can't help but contemplate what it means to hit the road not simply for the purpose of fun or sightseeing but to play music, to live the dream as so few people ever do, for what we sometimes jokingly refer to as Sightseering. We have jobs and spouses and kids and mortgages and all manner of such things adults have, but we have a love of music too that keeps us driven, that keeps us searching for this kind of thing, one more opportunity to hit the road, to drive to a strange city and sling the bass over shoulder, and the guitars, to pick up the drum sticks, to grab the microphone and shout, "Hello, St. Louis!" before kicking into an F# and opening with what used to be our closer, "Red Eye Haze."
The guy working the door at the Red Room sees me carrying my Music Man bass and says, "You must be in the band." He's an observant one. We enter and the room is indeed very red, a little dive, a punk bar, but we'll make due. We see everyone and there are handshakes and hugs, and then we're quiet for a moment as the opening band is a group of young kids, early twenties, playing loud and unpolished covers. In my youth, I would have thought them terrible, but now I see they're just young, babies still finding their way, so I can forgive them that the music isn't just so. They go into Foo Fighters' "Everlong" and I've had enough of covers, Time to get a beer and tune the bass.
At the bar in back of the room, I raise a Blue Moon in a silent toast to the young kids on stage and wonder if any of them will still be at it when they reach my age, our ages, when they're in the middle of their lives with beer guts and kids and starting to bald and living out the aging rocker dream. I hope so. It's been a long life of music, but one well worth it, even to think that we'll get back to Seattle at 3:30 in the morning after which I have to get up at 6:00 for work for an 8:00 meeting of computer programmers, but it's the only life I can conceive, music and writing and writing and music, stepping on stage whenever I can and casting some sort of voice out into the wide and wild world.
We go on around 10:45 with about thirty people in attendance. We start "Red Eye Haze." We play a smoking hot set of nine songs, then we leave as Furniture Girls are starting their first tune. In the odd way we've scheduled this tour, Welling will leave Seattle again tomorrow and catch up with the RV in San Francisco, David and I will catch up with them in LA for another there and back episode. Lots of traveling time it might seem, but it'll be forgotten. It'll blur together, those open stretches of road, the gas station bathrooms, the waiting in the airports, the indirect flights that charge $7.00 for a can of Heineken at 35,000 feet, and the only thing that will remain in the coming years is the music. The music and the odd surviving CD or two and the few words we scribble here.
The Bite of Seattle. It's my first time here for what their website describes as the Northwest's premier food festival and being at the Seattle Center, it seems every bit the mini-Bumbershoot. No admission fees, smaller crowds, fewer stages and bands, no pay for the artists. Yes, that's how it works sometimes. The "pay" is in the privilege to play. And sometimes that's OK. We play for the love of music. We play because we can't not play. We'll play most any stage in most any venue because there's no better way to spend an evening, or in this case, a Sunday afternoon.
And Lightfoot, "Decided to join this afternoon, I see," he says laughing. We all tune and get amps and drums and guitars ready, and then we play. We rock. There are claps and cheers, and at one point a couple friends from the George and Dragon shout my name, "Dave!" I wave at them, and they wave back before one of them falls while trying to be graceful, or perhaps it's the power of the music that blew her over. It's a good gig. No worries about following a gospel band. We all have those things we believe in, that move and shake us, so we share something in common with Network. Faith, faith in the power of music.
I was mentioned in a book, not by name mind you, but it was there; it was me. And here it is:
At forty-two, I'd thought these days were over.
On the long, crowded flight back to Seattle, I pull out the tray table, cross my arms and lay my head down on them. Close my eyes to tune out snippets of conversation, raucous laughter, the tapping coming from Thane’s keyboard. Not to mention Welling’s wailing, rum enhanced, Mr. Tambourine Man-esque serenade from the row behind us once we landed, imprisoned and marooned on the tarmac: (“Heyyyyy, Mr. TSA Man, please let us off the plane…. my bladder’s full, it feels like I’m explooooooodin’……).
I laugh. Everything is changing, but thank God some things remain constant.
I try two different keys to unlock the front door (no lights), walk in, and set my bag and guitars down. Jen gives me a hug and goes to bed. Ah, there’s the whirring of the fridge, the cats giving me their perfunctory “I-could-care-less-you’re-home-just-feed-me” rub against my leg, the dog bounding down the stairs giving me her “you’re-home-I-thought-you’d-never-come-back” dance. A stack of dirty dishes waiting in the sink, matched by a stack of dirty laundry piled high on the washing machine. Paintings in progress on the easel by the kitchen, chemistry and calculus textbooks stacked on the stairs. I run a Peaceful Patchouli bath and slide under the bubbles with an outdated, crumpled copy of Seattle Weekly. At 1:45 I finally collapse in bed, with my impossibly great pillow. I have missed this. Home again.
David leaves me a voicemail on the second day back: “Hi. It’s David. I’m having.… band withdrawal. I really need to play some music.” But I know exactly what he means. I’m waiting for Thursday as well. I can’t explain why this music and this band are so important to me. Yeah it’s fun, but it runs much deeper than that. I can’t explain why when the chips are down, or even when everything is going right, seeing the guys and playing music with them makes everything better. It just does. Finally, it’s Thursday, and I pull my teeny car up in front of Lightfoot’s place. I let out a long sigh, because it’s been a long week.
As always, there is the incessant barking of the dogs as I approach the door. Malakye and Mango still don’t remember who any of us are, even after all this time. Someone once told me that goldfish have three second memories. I guess they see the little plastic castle in their little goldfish bowl and say, “Whoa…a castle!” Swim around, and then three seconds later say, “Whoa…a castle!” I’m very skeptical, but it does seem to apply to these dogs and would probably explain a few things. More barking. Lightfoot yells: “Knock it OFF!” Mutters “Every damn time….” under his breath. And then proceeds to scoop up Mango (actually more of a barrel-shaped Chihuahua than his name would imply), and cradles him like a baby. “Is that scary? Huh? Is that scary, Mango?” This coming from a 6’4, bearded, mountain-man kinda guy.
I say hello, make a beeline into the kitchen for a cup of tea. That’s the first thing. It’s always ready to go because one of those hot water thingys resides on the counter. It’s been nothing but rain and gray and cold here since…forever. So tea is very necessary. And every variety of tea is represented here from Peppermint to Green Tea Super Anti-Oxidant to Detox to Throat Coat to Smooth Move. I don’t think anyone drinks the Smooth Move. I’m not gonna try it, anyway.
On top of the fridge: spirits in various shapes and sizes; Maker’s, no thank you to the Fireball. On the fridge door: magnets, pictures, a flyer/souvenir of a nasty looking, blind in one eye, gassy, balding, stray dog that spent a rehearsal with us. He was a cool dog. We named him Victor, but his actual name turned out to be Tyrone. Inside the fridge: stuff like chocolate hemp milk and leftover miso, soba, or maybe homemade hummus. Not today, though. This week some kind of massive internal cleanse is going on, so it’s all about Dr. Herman’s Mysterious Colon Evacuator Elixir, or whatever it’s called.
Descend the stairs, and into the studio. Before the music starts, when it’s still and quiet and dimly lit, it looks like one of those museum dioramas. I pause and take it all in, every time. I swear this space almost feels sacred. I feel pretty qualified to say this, because I get the exact calm/meditative/almost spiritual feeling from the studio as I did when I was an altar girl back in the sacristy of St. Lawrence, preparing the wine and water for communion. Isn’t that weird?
Here, in Lightfoot’s sacristy, we have:
- Jason Welling, resplendent in his UPS uniform, strumming an acoustic, sitting directly under.…-a glowing Hannah Montana clock, the numbers and hands obscured (and thereby rendered useless) by the fluff of a pink boa surrounding it -Various strings of lights: blue/white/ glowing miniature skulls, etc.-Gig flyers, including the one from the very first show we ever played
-$3.50 diamond tiara
-Pokey. No Gumby that I’ve seen
-A shepherd’s staff from the Hooker Farm days
-A black sweater I dropped in the driveway at some point, made stiff and crunchy by a combination of matted Mango hair, rain, dirt, and drying up in a heap. Amazingly it smells delightful; like springtime
-A whiteboard with doodles, made-up band names (Tiny Giants Eating Jumbo Shrimp) and “COURAGE” written in caps across it (which I take note of these days, every time I pass the board)
-A Picasso inspired portrait that one of my 8 year old students couldn’t take home to his parents because it looks like a gigantic, lopsided pair of fleshy pink boobs instead of eyeballs
-Lyrics for Red Eye Haze’s chorus, taped to a ledge
-Guitars: Bitter Blue, Betty, Martin, and many others without names
-lukafresh standing in the corner, looking cool and with exceedingly good posture to boot, tuning his bass
-David waving hello in the studio doorway: white goatee, black glasses, stick bag in hand, wearing a rad porkpie hat
-Hockey stick with a gigantic pencil duct-taped to it ( one of my most favorite things ever), black whip, two empty beer cans, empty root beer bottle, two empty Vitamin Water bottles, set lists, cables, drum kit, mug with a dried up tea bag stuck to the inside (mine, sorry). Pedal boards, keyboard, violin, amps. A fake rat named Darryl lurks somewhere, he gets moved around. Josh, if you’re reading this, your drum throne is still down here.
Guitars are tuned while we talk about our days, what went right in Austin, and what still needs work. Welling starts the keyboard intro to “Resting Place", which sort of sounds like a drone. The haze of incense starts to curl and twist its way through the room. Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. I start picking the intro, something that I can do in my sleep. Of course I completely and utterly fuck it up. I yell, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrggghhhhh!” Laughter. I feel the stress of the week start peeling away, like a snake shedding its skin. All is right in the world…at least for 2 ½ hours.
I have missed this. Home again.
I guess it’s actually a pretty good time for me to start writing this, since a new chapter in my life has begun. Scratch that. It’s more like a damned new book altogether. More details later…but it all started with a brilliantly timed text, then a bunch of us waiting for the bazillion bats under the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin to take flight at dusk (they never did), and ended with a flash of silver disappearing over the bridge, settling forever to the bottom of Lady Bird Lake.
Sightseer and the other Critical Sun bands have been home from our SxSW adventure for several weeks now. The long layovers, camaraderie, hotel rooms stacked floor to ceiling with people and equipment, load-ins and load-outs, eight people in a van (and one left behind at the Chevron station), awesome and average gigs, the amazing sights and sounds of 6th Street, Southern hospitality, midnight jam sessions and streaking by the pool (not ME, Mom), fried everything, and a very unfortunate gallon of Gallo are becoming a faded but fond memory.
I had my own hotel room for the week; almost everyone else was crammed four to a room. It wasn’t supposed to be a solo room, but as it turned out, my only roommate ended up being a small cockroach in the bathroom sink that I named Barry. I was telling Bubba Jones about Barry the next morning. He shook his head and instantly surmised that my mini Colgate was the culprit given Barry’s reluctance to leave the bathroom counter. He informed me that cockroaches dig toothpaste: “Well, you got the CAP on your toothpaste? Because you’re in the DIRTY SOUTH now. You gotta THINK about that stuff”. So I screwed that cap on as tight as I could get it without pliers, and there was no sign of Barry after that. He ditched me the next day. This isn't Barry, but his cousin Federico from Christina Cramer of In Cahoots' room.
A little over halfway into the week, laundry and housekeeping services had virtually ceased. It was getting the point where people were considering blotting themselves dry with squares of toilet paper in lieu of towels. Given that the rooms looked like a combination drag queen refugee camp /frat house/Guitar Center hit by a 747 turbine engine and smelled of despair, I don’t blame the hotel staff one iota.
Anyway…. I digress. I was glad to have the room to myself. I had a lot to think about. Big decisions to make, and Austin would be the perfect place to do that: away from home and work, away from family, away from responsibilities other than music and the band. I needed answers.
But there really was no time to think. From start to finish, there was a van to load for five bands, people to get where they needed to be, gigs to play, tear down, and then do it all over again. (None of which would have been possible without Thomas, Jason, Thane, and Jim…. thank you guys). There was the taco truck off the freeway to walk to in the mornings, a murder on a side street, and a short lived debate on whether that gig should go on (it did). There was tons of music and bands to discover, old friends to reconnect with, places to see, and new friends to meet. All told there was a total of 10 acts brought down from Seattle that played 37 sets over the course of 5 days!
I tried to carve out time to find answers under a tree, in the van, at the back of the club waiting for our gig to start. But the guys had my back and I wasn’t alone in any sense of the word, ever. A few of us found ourselves at a blues bar late one night at the end of the trip. It was small and dark and pretty much perfect. After an hour, I wandered over to the back room where there was a pool table and immediately recognized one of the guys that was at the bat bridge earlier. He was local and left before the bats were supposed to fly out from beneath the bridge. His name was Adam: Plaid shirt, very tattooed, and a beard almost down to his belly button.
“Hey! Did the bats come out for you?” he asked.
“Well, it’s never a sure thing”.
I laughed. “You got that right”.
“Game of pool?”
He was a much better player. I squinted with my good eye, and took his advice on the tough shots:
“Try hitting that one on the top left.” “So, you need to push the cue more than stab with it.” “Try hitting it on the right side”. I was doing okay. But then I was left with a shot neither of us could figure out.
“Huh. Well, that one’s just…..well, you know, I think with that one, you just gotta BELIEVE where it’s going.”
So I said a small prayer: "Please God let this be a sign and just go in the left corner pocket." It did not. But it did roll and plop nicely into the very opposite corner pocket.
“Hey! You did it!” said Adam.
“Totally not the pocket I was going for.”
“Doesn’t matter. It still went in.” He smiled, and gave me a big hug.
That night, back at the hotel, there was a storm unlike anything I have ever witnessed. The rain was pouring down in sheets. It was probably a great time to stay in my room, listen to the downpour, brood and finally figure out some answers. But Welling, Darrius and I were in room 110, descending like vultures on a pile of leftover chicken and catfish at 1 a.m. It was pretty outstanding.
I went to SxSW hoping to find some answers, but came away with this instead: I think I’ll just believe in where things are going. Adam, if you’re out there….thanks for that game of pool.