On the road with the Smokejumpers

On the road with the Smokejumpers: What happens when a punk-rockabilly band from San Francisco tours the country in a broken-down Big Orange Van?


The King Teen
November 7, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

"Hey, we're the Smokejumpers from San Francisco, California. Thanks for coming, thanks for sticking around, we need a place to stay. Here's our first song ..."

That's as good a way as any to begin the Smokejumpers' 16-day, 15-show, 7,000-mile tour, at an all-ages coffeehouse in Reno called Planet Nine. We're headed east from San Francisco as far as Muncie, Ind., then south to Montevallo, Ala., near Birmingham, then back home through the Southwest and Southern California. By the time we're through, the four of us will possibly hate each other, probably hate our Big Orange Van and almost certainly hate some things and people we can't even imagine just yet. We'll get home, swear we'll never do this again, then do it again.

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We're a punk-rockabilly band. When we say that to people, they generally say, "You mean like Reverend Horton Heat?" and we say, sure, yes, like that, even though we don't sound like the Rev. We don't sound like anyone, really, although we also manage to be pretty unoriginal. But it's boring to describe yourself. We play loud and fast. We jump around. We make a lot of bad jokes. We're snappy dressers. OK?

We're on tour to promote our debut album, "Flat Tear It Up!" Thanks to some delays and screw ups, including a big communication failure between us and our label, Walking Records, a small, start-up indie in San Luis Obispo, Calif., promotion for the first few shows has been pretty weak. The crowd at this opening show is on the small side, but they've spread themselves out nicely to make the place look reasonably full. The other band is called the Atomics. They own this place. Literally. We're told they opened it because they were having trouble getting shows at the other two all-ages places in town. They wear busboy outfits and I like them, even before they give us the whole door take.

And my opening ploy works. Two college girls, freshmen at Nevada-Reno, offer to let us stay in their apartment -- which they share with three other students, including two football players.

At their place, something happens that amazes three-fourths (and maybe all) of the Smokejumpers: Tom "Double D" Thumb, guitar player and heartthrob of the band, the only one of us who isn't married or living with someone, whose sex life we live vicariously through on the road even though he never gets laid despite the fact that women are constantly flinging themselves at him, gets lucky with one of our hosts. (Not one of the football players.)

"I'm doubting everything I know!" Big Stick Mick, the drummer, is reeling. His world's been rocked, his assumptions destroyed by Double D's semireluctant admission in the van Friday morning that he had been co-responsible for the rhythmic noises coming from upstairs Thursday night.

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Our hero.


The Big Orange Van is new to us. It used to belong to the city of Orange, hence the paint job, though everyone thinks it looks like a Cal-Trans vehicle. We honk and wave at highway workers whenever we pass them, and they look at us like they'd like to hunt us down and kill us.

It's a one-ton GMC Vandura, the BOV is, and it's a beast, much more powerful than the 3/4-ton GMC van that died on us north of Eugene, Ore., in the dead of night five months and three road trips ago. Saying that your van, with all your musical gear in it, died in the dead of night 500 miles from home and 35 miles from anywhere -- bad as that sounds -- does not begin to get at how bad it is to go through it. But that long dark night of the Carrows Restaurant (waiting for a mechanic to open up) is behind us now, and we're happy in our Big Orange Van, powering up mountains at 65 mph, leaving hapless musicians in 3/4-ton vans in our dust. If it had a radio, the BOV would be perfect. Also, if the rearview mirrors stayed where you placed them and the floor didn't get so hot, that would be nice. And the seats could be more comfortable. And if the windows didn't all whistle, we could maybe get more sleep.

We beg for floor space to sleep on each night, but we live in this van. A West Coast band that wants to travel is in for some heavy driving. Bands east of the Mississippi can travel from town to town to town in a matter of hours, but out West in the wide open spaces there's a whole lot of endless gray ribbon, baby, long black highways and thin white lines yeah yeah. They don't write road songs about Maryland or Connecticut, you know. After our friendly little first-day drive of 230 miles from San Francisco to Reno, the next eight days promise hauls of 560 miles to Ogden, 533 to Denver, 556 to Lawrence, Kan., 347 to Iowa City, 430 to Muncie, 540 to Montevallo, 380 to New Orleans and 507 to Dallas. Almost everyone I've showed this schedule to over the last few weeks has had the same reaction: "Are you crazy!? How can you stand so much driving?" My answer: 10 or 12 hours a day in a van, driving, sleeping, watching the scenery go by, beats spending that same time on the job, grinding away at someone else's life's work. Plus, we get to play music at the end of the day. How could I go to work all day without this to look forward to?

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We have two bench seats, so at any given time on the highway, half of the band is asleep, preferably not including the driver. The addition of the second bench before this trip has cut down on the endless games of Boggle and 20 questions, which might better be called X questions, with X representing the number of questions it takes to guess the person or character one of us is thinking of. Through this game we've learned that various Smokejumpers have never heard of James Joyce, "Beowulf," Che Guevara and "The Greatest American Hero."


"What's Ogden like?" I ask two local guys as I change my guitar strings before Friday night's show at the O-Town Tavern, weirdly located in the basement of a state office building.

"A little Salt Lake City," they say, and clearly it's not a compliment. There's a Quiet Riot/Warrant/Slaughter show in town tonight, but it's probably our publicity woes more than some loss of potential fans to '80s fluff metal nostalgia that again keeps the crowd on the small side. Ah, but they're enthusiastic again, and you'd be amazed how much that helps this thought not go through your mind as you sing: "What am I doing up here? I'm wasting my life!"

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My opening plea for a place to stay works again. This time a woman in her mid-20s offers us floor space in her one-bedroom condo nearby and we quickly accept. Kathy had been an eager stage-front supporter during our set, and now it's clear to me she's in her cups. She's slurring her words as she tells me about her condo and that she lives alone there. Part of me -- not the part that's glad to have a place to sleep, of course -- is appalled at her lack of judgment. We're four men she knows nothing about other than that we play music and live in another state, and she's not operating at full mental speed. She's really putting herself in a terribly dangerous situation. We should watch out for our fan, tell her not to invite strange groups of strange men into her home. That's it, we're going to refuse.

So, over at Kathy's place, we claim our spots on the living room floor as she puts on various CDs. Louise, a friend who had been with Kathy at the show, turns up. Seems she lives next door. I'm a bit uncomfortable about this because I'd pressured Louise to buy a T-shirt at the show, taking a bit of advantage of her own beer-lubricated generosity. Hey, we're on the road. You gotta be aggressive. But now she doesn't seem to have any objections to the deal, though she can't seem to remember our band's name for any length of time. We all talk some more about Ogden. Kathy insists it's a pretty tolerant place, once you get past the fact that the Mormons really want you to join their religion. Louise disagrees. Her mother is Vietnamese and her father Puerto Rican. "I got shit all the time growing up here."

An Ogden police officer knocks on the door with a complaint about the noise of our "party." Considering there are only three occupied units in the building and the occupants of two of them are here, there's little doubt who called. Local dispute. None of our business. We turn in. It's the smallest, quietest party I've ever been to that's been broken up by the cops. I hadn't even known it was a party.

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Saturday in Wyoming, on the way to Denver, we climb above 7,000 feet. The altitude is wreaking havoc on our gas mileage, driving it down from about 10 miles a gallon to maybe seven. This is costing us money! And that's in short supply. All of us have managed to get time off of our jobs, but it's not paid time for any of us. We have some money from the record label, plus what we make on the road. We probably won't lose money out here unless the BOV lets us down in a big way, but if we don't make some decent coin at some of these shows we could come home not having earned much for two weeks. We discuss CD sales. We've had them for about eight days, and at our current sales pace, we'll go platinum in 5,000 years.

We got the Saturday night show in Denver through the Hillbilly Hellcats,
whom we'd opened for in Los Angeles. Local heroes here, they were going to
headline, but they had to pull out, and instead we're playing the 15th
Street Tavern with a hard-core punk band called Electric Summer, consisting
of four Japanese guys who barely speak English. Again, attendance is on the
light side, but Big Stick Mick and I have friends here, and it's kind of a fun night.

Until the van won't start after we've loaded the gear back into it.
It's 2, then 3 in the morning as Double D works on it desperately with
Mick's friend Sean and a good Samaritan passerby. Double D is from Detroit,
so he has some sort of inborn knowledge of cars. At least that's how it
seems to me, to whom starting a car engine is something like a magic trick.

And now it's 4. Teeth are chattering, tempers are flaring and hangovers are
starting as we and our friends wait in the cold for a tow truck. Sean's
cousin Jenny and her boyfriend, David, must certainly be regretting by now
their decision to let us stay on their living room floor. But they wait it
out with the rest of us, starting their car for heat every few minutes
until the tow finally shows up.

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We always ask and usually succeed in
getting someone to let us stay with them. We've only had to resort to a
motel a few times. Even a cheap one puts a big dent in our traveling
budget. Still, we're always amazed that anyone would let a bunch of smelly
musicians they don't know invade their home. It's an act of astonishing
generosity.

But it's nothing compared to what this couple will do over the
next 12 hours as we try to fix the Big Orange Van. They'll put up with us
lounging in and around their house all day, making phone calls, ordering
pizzas, swearing at our luck, getting underfoot during the Broncos game.
They'll lend us their car for too many trips to count to auto parts stores,
hardware stores, home supply stores, even Wal-Mart as we try to find the
parts and tools we need to fix the problem, or rather the problems, because
each problem fixed reveals a new one: Once the spark plugs are replaced, we
find we need a new fuel filter, which reveals that we need a new fuel pump,
and somewhere in this process we break the fuel line.

And they'll put up
with the stress and tension that are fairly radiating off of us, because
we're trying desperately to get this thing fixed in time to make the
11-hour drive to Lawrence for what figures to be the most lucrative show on
the tour, a weekly swing-dance night with a built-in crowd, and then the
depression that sets in when we realize we won't make it. And through it
all, they'll remain cheerful and welcoming. Don't worry about it, they'll
keep saying. No problem.

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Finally, as darkness crowds us early on the first day of standard time, we
say our copious thank yous and leave, the van finally working. We're headed
to Iowa City for Monday night's show, and we get as far as Brighton before
we break down again, which if you know your Colorado geography is a funny
one: To find a mechanic in Brighton, you look in the Denver phone book.

We coast into a Texaco truck stop, which will be our home for the next six
hours. Our jury-rigged fuel line has given way, so we have to try to redo
it, this time with a proper metal pipe. Double D catches a ride about five
miles to an auto parts store with a family that has room for one.
Not wanting to leave him out there alone, I try to catch one too to join
him, but I quickly find out that I don't have the kind of face that makes
people say, "Sure, hop in." If you ever want to feel like a scam artist or
a serial killer, try walking up to tourists in a highway truck stop fuel
area and saying, "Excuse me, are you driving toward town?"

Double D returns with the part, which we spend five hours trying to bend
and twist into place, without anything resembling success. There are temper
tantrums, sulks, damn-near nervous breakdowns as three of us (I, feeling
particularly useless, stay out of the way) try to get this damn $5 part
into place. We finally surrender, freezing, utterly defeated and saturated
in grease, and get a tow to a Super 8 Motel that's next to a garage.

In the
morning, the mechanic says he can put in a rubber fuel line. No way to get
a metal line in there, he laughs. They put that part in first, then build
the engine around it. We feel like idiots. But we're getting our van back.
We have no chance to make Iowa City. We call and cancel. We've missed two
shows in a row now, and playing music is beginning to feel like a distant
memory. But all we have to do to make Tuesday's show in Muncie is drive
straight through from Denver. The trip, 1,220 miles through five states,
shouldn't take more than 23 hours. Then we can feel like musicians again.

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*Some names have been changed.


The King Teen

The King Teen sings and plays guitar for the Smokejumpers.

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