On the road with the Smokejumpers: Part Two

Dead bunnies, canceled gigs, pizza and beer a San Francisco band explores America.


The King Teen
November 12, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

In the darkest of the dark hours Sunday night, as we struggled unsuccessfully in a Brighton, Colo., truck stop parking lot to fix the Big Orange Van in time not to have to miss a second consecutive show, I thought it would be a prudent move to play the lottery, on the off chance that our luck was overdue to change. And maybe it was: I won $5 on a scratcher, bringing my lifetime lottery winnings to $5, which is to say $4 because I paid a buck for the ticket. I took it as a sign that things were going to start happening in our favor after two days of minor mechanical problems cost us as much as $600 in lost earnings, repair bills, parts and unanticipated hotel stops, not to mention the attendant frustration, anger and tension.

You take your signs where you can get them.

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Now we're on a 24-hour, 1,220-mile drive through five states to get from the Denver outskirts to Muncie, Ind., for a Tuesday night all-ages show at a record store called Stevie Ray's House of Wax. We plow through eastern Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa on Interstate 80, then head southeast on I-74 through Illinois and on into Indianapolis. From there it's less than an hour up the road to Muncie. I play one scratcher ticket each in Nebraska and Iowa, losing both times. At Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the river from Omaha, we buy gas for 92 cents a gallon -- the first two-digit price we've seen on the trip, or in years. Gas is $1.20 or more back home. We take pictures of the sign. Starting in Iowa and for the rest of the time we're in the Midwest and South, store clerks bid us adieu by saying, "Come back."

I begin to measure the quality of truck stops by their willingness to give me a cup of hot water for free. (Flying J keeps wanting to charge me 16 cents for the cup, but I always manage to talk them out of it. On the plus side for Flying J: great bathrooms.) I'm guzzling lemon tea to soothe a sore throat that hit me the day before we left and hasn't been helped by my singing every night. (Come to think of it, nothing is ever helped by my singing.) By the end of Saturday night's show in Denver, I was in pretty serious pain and worrying about my future as a singer. A former musical partner injured his vocal chords six years ago and is still struggling with the effects. Now, thanks to the tea and not having to sing for two nights, my throat is feeling better. Perhaps the problems with the Big Orange Van have been a blessing in disguise, though I have to say it's a hell of a disguise.

One thing brightening my spirits as we head to Muncie is that my wife will be there. A Hoosier gal, the Queen Teen is taking a trip to her home state to visit friends and catch our show. When we'd been sitting in 40-degree Denver weather waiting for a tow, or when I'd been up to my elbows in grease, helping Double D, guitar player and resident mechanic, try to force some unwilling engine part into place, I'd spent a lot of time thinking about how nice it would be to be at home, curled up on the couch or clean and warm in bed. She has a way of reassuring me in bad times without being a Pollyanna, and after less than a week on the road, I can already use a dose of that.

What kind of town is Muncie? The Indiana Visitors Bureau booth on the highway has no information on it. Not even a map. Stevie Ray's is in "The Village," a downtown section of restaurants and shops near Ball State University. We get to town in the early afternoon and check into a Valu-Lodge motel. "It's going to be expensive because of that word 'lodge,'" says Big Stick Mick. "No," I say, "Valu with no 'e' cancels it out." The rooms smell like chemicals, the shower is broken and there are shady characters hanging around, but we have all afternoon to eat pizza, do laundry and, in my case, luxuriate in the presence of my favorite person.

We're playing with the Parasites, friends of ours from Berkeley who are racing east to hook up with the Queers and the Mr. T Experience for a tour. A local band of teenagers called the H-Men opens the show, then us, then the Parasites. We form a mutual admiration society with the Parasites. They tell us they jumped at the chance to play this show with us and we thoroughly enjoy their melodic punk show, with the Queen Teen dancing all night front and center. The Parasites want to adopt her. The kids buy up some CDs. Who ever said anything bad about Muncie?

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Here's where the story should get really wild, because we were originally
scheduled to play a wet T-shirt night in Nashville. Alas, that show fell
through and we ended up with a gig at a pizza parlor in Montevallo, Ala., a
college town down the road from Birmingham. When we arrive, the place is
empty and we decide not to play, though the staff gives us free pizza and
beer anyway. Eventually, some people show up and talk us into playing. I'd
already changed into my spiffy stage outfit, but the other guys hadn't even
bothered -- so this is the first Smokejumpers show in civilian
clothes. It seems that Barnstormers Pizza is the one place in town where
the freaks go, and some of them come just in case something is happening.
We make some friends, including some college girls who take us home to the
messiest house I've ever seen that has no men living in it, which I say
without meaning it as a criticism.

By Thursday morning, we've decided that we can't ignore our exhaust leak
any longer, lest one of us go to sleep in the back and wake up dead, so on
the way to New Orleans -- where our gig has been canceled, surprise,
surprise -- we stop at a Midas shop in Montgomery for repairs. We take
turns walking up the block to the Burger King to get drinks or use the
bathroom. There's a picture on the wall of Elvis Presley shaking hands with
George Wallace. We're later assured that this is pretty much it for
Montgomery. We haven't missed anything.

We'd found out our show at the Dixie Tavern in New Orleans had been pulled
when we called Tuesday for directions. Seems the promoter and the club
owner had a disagreement. I make calls to everyone I know in New Orleans,
which isn't very many calls, in a desperate attempt to hook onto a show.
The promoter, who isn't being very helpful, mentions that the Hi-Fives are
playing a place called the Hi-Ho Lounge. The Hi-Fives are friends of ours
from the Bay Area. They're a "suit band" -- they dress up in black or gray
suits and play early Kinks-influenced three-chord rock. They're the cutest
band I know.

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Information has no listing for the Hi-Ho, so I call WTUL, the Tulane
University radio station, hoping someone there knows who's putting on the
show and, amazingly, someone does. I'm put in touch with Anthony, who, even
more amazingly, says, "If it's OK with the Hi-Fives, the more bands, the
more fun." We ask the Midas mechanic how long it takes to get to New
Orleans, since it's already 4 by the time the BOV's fixed. "Ah, New
Orleans," he says. "Party capital of the South, man! Take you about five
and a half, six hours, maybe seven or eight." Uh, thanks for the help. We
race to New Orleans, figuring the Hi-Fives won't say no if we're already
there, and they don't, so we get to play. The crowd is decent-sized, and I don't
get the idea they like us very much, but we feel like we've accomplished
something just by getting to play.

After our set we jump in the back of a pickup for the short ride to the
French Quarter with my friend Derek, who's come to the show with his
brother and two friends. We wander around for a while, but it's pretty
quiet, and we want to get back to see the Hi-Fives. Butta Fingers, the
stand-up bass player, and I each buy a beer to drink in the street, because
we can, and then we scurry back. The Hi-Fives are their usual fine selves,
and they give us some of their door money at the end of the night. We go
back to Derek's to sleep. He and his wife, Kera, who's under the weather, have the nicest house we've ever seen that doesn't have guided tours.

In the morning we're at a gas station on I-10 west of town when a couple of
guys sitting in a pickup call me over. "Hey, Green Wave!" shouts the
driver, referring to my Tulane baseball cap, which I've just bought at a
big grocery store at the foot of Napoleon Street, "c'mere." I go over and
as he's asking me if I'm a Tulane boy I notice the two of them are drinking
beers and they have a shotgun between them. Living in the Bay Area, I
don't see many shotguns, so as I tell them I'm a musician from
California, I'm thinking that they either just got back from hunting or I'm
in big trouble.

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"Y'all are a band? You should set up right here and play!" says the driver.

"Well, I would, but we've gotta get to Dallas tonight."

"Dallas, damn! What kind of music y'all play?"

"Country."

I always say this on the road, especially to the police. With the stand-up
bass in the van, it's a sustainable half-truth (we do play some country
numbers), and it just seems to lend itself to fewer potential problems than
our standard at-home answer, punk-rockabilly.

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"Really? You don't look country."

I'm wearing a Texas Longhorns T-shirt, green Army shorts and red Chuck
Taylors. "We mix some other stuff in."

They get out of the pickup and the driver waves me to the back to look at
their dogs and a rabbit they've just shot.

"Nice," I say, unsure of the etiquette when looking at a freshly dead
bunny. I mean, what am I supposed to say? "Cute little feller" doesn't seem
appropriate. I head back to the van, always happy to make new friends.

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The hippest part of Dallas, the only really swinging part of town as far as
I know, is Deep Ellum, a hipster quarter three blocks wide and a quarter
mile or so long, about a mile from downtown. We're opening for Kim Lenz and
Her Jaguars,
a local traditional rockabilly band we opened for earlier this
year in San Jose. Kim is a talented singer and songwriter, and she and her
husband, Charlie, couldn't be any nicer and kinder to us, offering us
advice on the Texas music scene and encouragement on our music. The place
we're playing tonight, the Velvet Hammer, is a swanky joint that's been
open for a couple of months, catering to the swing-dance crowd. Tonight's
crowd is fair to middling, thanks in part to a show down the street by one of my favorite bands, the Derailers, and we find out just before we go on that after
tomorrow's show the place is closing. We count this as good luck for us, in
a way: The way things were going earlier in the week, we're just glad it
didn't close the night before we were to play. During our set,
Jimbo, the bass player for Reverend Horton Heat, comes in with his
girlfriend. They're dressed as survivors of the Titanic. He heckles me
about how you can't smoke in bars in California and they leave.

We're staying with Chris, one of my best friends, who lives in a converted loft right in Deep Ellum. Chris is generous almost to a fault, and he simply showers us with kindness. "You're the Beatles for a day," he says as he gives us the royal treatment, showing us around the neighborhood, where he knows everyone, cooking gigantic burgers at 3 a.m. and loading us down with Shiner Bok and Lone Star Beer. This is how it should be everywhere.

On the way out of Dallas on Halloween morning we drive down Elm Street and through Dealey Plaza. I point out the School Book Depository and the Grassy Knoll to the boys, and at the appropriate spot, we all snap our heads.


On the way to San Antonio we learn what a Texas stop sign looks like: It
says "Dairy Queen" on it. We're playing a Halloween block party at a place
called the Reverb. There are nine bands playing inside the club and out on
the street. As we start to unload, a guy comes up and says he's seen our
picture and a positive review in the newspaper. "You're from Houston,
right?"

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No, we're from San Francisco."

"No, no, man, I saw the newspaper. It said you're from Houston."

I offer to show him my driver's license, but he loses interest and offers
to give us his copy of the paper. When we finally read it, it says we're
from San Francisco -- and that our record's good. San Antonio: great town.

Things start disappearing in San Antonio. First, Butta discovers his
stage tuner and one of his cords are missing. The dolly he uses to move his
amp around also vanishes, and we spend a fair amount of time chasing it
down. Seems it's been borrowed by others with things to move around. And
one last casualty is Mr. Bones -- a foot-tall rubber skeleton that's sort
of our mascot. It lives on Mick's snare drum. It has squeezable, squeaky
viscera -- until San Antonio, when the viscera is suddenly gone. We never
find it.

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There's a pretty good crowd, inside and out, and they're almost all in
costume. So are we. I've revived an old Zorro outfit, Big Stick Mick is
dressed as a nun, Butta Fingers has on some false teeth and glasses to look
like Jerry Lewis in, uh, one of those old Jerry Lewis movies and Double D
has on an enormous foam top hat and tie, both purple with orange
polka-dots, plus a Charlie Chaplin mask he won in one of those machines where you try to grab a prize with a claw. It looks unfortunately like a Hitler mask. Mick and Butta had worked out a routine where Mick, in his nun
outfit, falls down on the stage and gives birth to a Teletubby doll he's
got with him, but I guess they decide not to do it. We do bust out our new
cover: a rockabilly version of the Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right to
Party" (a song I despise, although it was my idea to cover it after we heard
it in the pizza parlor in Alabama). During our set, we get a sign that
perhaps there is a God -- it starts raining, so a great costumed hoard
crowds into the club. Many eventually drift out again, but a fair number
stick around and seem to like what we're doing. Later, I ask Kim, a local
woman, what kind of music really goes over here and she says, "Hard rock."

"I would have thought our stuff would go over big here."

"Everywhere in Texas," she says, "except San Antonio."

Tomorrow we get our first scheduled day off. We have two days to drive to
Albuquerque. We want to stop in Roswell to see some aliens. Our nose is pointed toward the barn now -- pretty soon we'll only be one time zone from home.

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The King Teen

The King Teen sings and plays guitar for the Smokejumpers.

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