On the road with the Smokejumpers: Part Three

Sold out in San Diego, boffo in Bakersfield -- the band's all-American odyssey ends on an up note.

By The King Teen
Published November 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

After our Halloween show in San Antonio, we have two days to get to Albuquerque for a Monday night show that -- you're not going to believe this -- might be canceled. This allows us to lounge a bit in the apartment of Jamie and Traci, who let us stay with them, saving us from a guy who said he wanted to take us home and give us peyote.

We'd been booked into a new place called Sprockets by a guy named Sparky. But Sparky must not have written it down, because when I called back Sparky went "Uh-oh" and told me that there was now a poetry and beer night scheduled. He offered to have us play afterward, or to try to get us a show at a different place. I opted for the latter, and now I've spent our time in Texas calling him repeatedly to try to find out if the show is really happening. He keeps assuring me that it absolutely is -- uh, probably. We're in Tucson on Tuesday, so as we head west on I-10 from San Antonio, we have about five hours to decide whether to drive north to Albuquerque or just stay on this highway and go straight to Tucson, saving a couple hundred miles' worth of gas money.

We decide -- what the hell -- to head north at Fort Stockton on U.S. 285, toward Albuquerque. Sparky's assurances aren't filling us with confidence, but we know that even if our show doesn't come through, we can go see our friends Luckie Strike, who are playing an all-ages show at Fred's Breads and Bagels. Luckie Strike is a punk band from Sacramento, and of all the bands we've ever played shows with, they're probably our best friends. (I realize I refer to almost every band we play with as a punk band. This has less to do with any similarities between them and more to do with my not being very good at describing variations in musical styles.)

It's about 10 p.m. Sunday when we stop at Loving, N.M., for gas. There are two gas station/convenience stores across the road from each other. Big Stick Mick uses the lone pay phone at the Allsup's, where we've gassed up, to call home. His wife, Rachel Harmony, is having a tough time of it alone with their 4-month-old son, Hank, also known as Little Stick. Mick talks to her for about 20 minutes. I go across the street to use the phone at the other place, and a few minutes later Butta Fingers comes across, attracted by the sign that says "pizza." He walks into and then back out of the store, then asks the two employees, who are outside smoking, how long it takes for pizza.

"Pizza's closed," says one. "Kitchen's closed. They close at 8 and 9."

Butta shrugs and goes back across the street. Mick finally finishes his call, everyone pees one last time and we hit the highway. We've gone about a mile, with Double D driving, when we get pulled over. "I wasn't speeding!" he says. The officer's voice crackles over the loudspeaker: "Driver, step out of the vehicle and keep your hands where I can see them."

This isn't about speeding.

Double D talks to the officer, who's now been joined by two others, and then comes back and tells us they want us all out of the van with driver's licenses ready. We get out and stand in their searchlight for a while as they check for warrants. They quickly determine that we're not much of a threat ("What kind of music?" "Country"), and the arresting officer tells us that both gas stations had called the police on us for "suspicious behavior."

"We're a pretty small community here, and when we get strangers in here, sometimes people get a little nervous," he says. I want to point out that this small community is a wide spot on a freakin' U.S. highway, and maybe they should get used to strangers coming by, but I restrain myself. The cops apologize and send us on our way.

Back in the van, Butta, who'd been asleep when we crossed the state line, finally finds out that we're in New Mexico, not Texas. This is significant because Butta figures there's a warrant out for his arrest in Texas stemming from a speeding ticket he got and ignored five years ago. "Why didn't you tell me?" he yells. "Oh my God, the whole time we were out there I was picturing my cellmate."

For the rest of the trip, "Pizza's closed, kitchen's closed" becomes our favorite catch phrase.

We spend the night in Roswell, home of all sorts of goofy alien stuff. In the morning we visit the UFO Museum and several trinket shops, including one that has a crashed model flying saucer with an alien standing in front of it. We convince the store owners to let us take our picture in front of it. We're supposed to record "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll" for a Sun Records compilation and maybe we can use the photo then.

In Albuquerque Monday, we quickly determine that the club where we're supposed to play the replacement show is locked up tight. We hook up with Luckie Strike -- and their show's been canceled too! But Fred's Breads and Bagels has given them a bag of bagels and some hummus, which we help them eat. We go out to dinner at a place called Route 66, since we are in fact on that fabled road, and then the 10 of us -- the two quartets and two local friends of Luckie Strike -- decide to go to Sprockets, for the poetry and beer. We're planning to get up and recite our lyrics as poetry: "The devil came down," I will intone, "and he brought some barbecue ..."

Unfortunately, it's not an open mike poetry night, so we don't get the chance. Sparky is at Sprockets, which is a pretty nice place on a strip across the street from the University of New Mexico, and he apologizes for the mix-up. The bartender gives us some free beer. We're again offered a chance to play after the poetry, but that would cost us our place to stay, with the Luckie Strike friends, by making it too late a night for them, so we decline. The free beer doesn't seem to be an all-night offer, so we head, literally, for the hills, where one of the friends -- who's only 16 -- lives with her dad, who doesn't seem to mind eight strangers crashing on his floor.

I should mention the Luckie Strike van: They've rigged up a TV and VCR. Mick and I ride in it for a while, and we watch part of "Enter the Dragon." The Big Orange Van doesn't even have a radio.

After saying our goodbyes to Luckie Strike we drive to Tucson, a slogging trek through the desert that's reminiscent of the slogging trek through Nebraska and Iowa, only with cactus instead of cornfields. Plus it's warmer. I play and lose another scratcher ticket. I'd also played and lost one in Texas, so I'm now even on the lottery, having lost four times since my $4 score in Colorado.

We play at a place called 7 Black Cats, which is across the street from the city bus terminal, not far from the University of Arizona. This appears to me to be downtown, but not much is going on aside from this bar, and not much is going on here either. A few folks show up, but most of them leave during the set of Tarot Bandero, who play before us. We decide that there has to be a word for that phenomenon, and if there isn't we're going to make one up. It's pretty annoying when it happens, but Tarot Bandero, on the road from Washington, D.C., seem to be nice enough people who weren't trying to alienate the audience, and they stay to watch us, so we're not too mad. We give them some of our door money.

On Wednesday we drive to Los Angeles -- we honk the horn and cheer when we cross into California and the Pacific time zone -- for a show at Spaceland, an ultrahip club in the supercool neighborhood of Silverlake. The less said about this show the better. It was booked three months in advance, and I spent the entire three months trying to get someone to call me back with details on the show. It ends up being a slapped-together bill with a folk singer, a cabaret/blues band and us. We're last, which we call being the "sucker band," because if you're naive enough the promoter will try to convince you that because you're playing last, you're headlining. The blues band before us takes so long to get off stage -- 20 minutes, 30, 40 -- that everyone leaves before we play.

Welcome to L.A.

We're staying in Hollywood with my brother, who works for "Entertainment Tonight." He invites us to come down and watch them tape the show. We drive the Big Orange Van through the main gate at Paramount Studios and we feel like movie stars. We walk through the back lot -- Hey! Frasier's dad! -- and find the Mae West building, where the "ET" offices are, and are then escorted to a studio where they're taping the weekend show. We sit in the control room for a while and watch as they cobble together the pieces into a TV show.

"Kind of like watching paint dry, isn't it?" my brother says.

Then he takes us out into the actual studio, where we watch the anchors, Julie Moran and Bob Goen, read their scripts. During a break he takes us up onto the little stage and introduces us to the anchors and stagehands, saying we're on a U.S. tour. Everyone laughs a "yeah, right" kind of laugh. We tell them we're playing in Santa Ana, down the freeway past Disneyland, tonight, and Goen says, "Shouldn't you be on your way by now?"

"Well, the helicopter picks us up at 5," I say, and he nods and says, "Oh, you have a helicopter," before realizing I'm pulling his leg.

In Santa Ana, we play an all-ages show at Koo's Arts Cafe, which is in what looks like an old house across a major street from the biggest, brightest 99-cent store you'd ever want to see. The three other bands are all good and the kids seem to really like us. Two girls tell me they're great admirers of my outfit, which consists of a red shirt, red pants and a red jacket, all of which clash a bit, but not in the dark. Even more exciting than that, our two biggest fans come out: Jamie and Sara, who are mother and daughter, have recently moved here from the Bay Area. Sara, 9, is a veteran Smokejumpers T-shirt seller at all-ages shows, and Jamie's been to more shows than anyone except our wives and girlfriends. They invite us to stay at their place, and they sleep in the living room so we can have the two bedrooms and they won't wake us up when they go off to work and school. I tell you, there's just no believing people sometimes.

In San Diego we're playing last, after the headliners, at a divey joint near the airport called the Crowbar, which used to be the Velvet, and before that was the original Casbah, back when "they" were saying that San Diego was about to become the next Seattle. Not because of the place, which we like, but because we're playing after the headliner, Billyclub, and because the show's lineup has been in flux over the past few weeks, we're figuring this show's going to suck. And we think we're not going to get paid much because the Crowbar is one of those places that asks people who they're coming to see as they pay the cover, and pays each band accordingly. This sounds OK on paper, but in practice it doesn't work so well. What if you've had several chances to see Billyclub, say, but decide to come see them on this night because they're playing with, oh, let's say the Smokejumpers, and that's a good package? At the door, you'll say you're there to see Billyclub, and they'll get your money.

In spite of this impending long evening, we're happy to go to San Diego and see our pal Darren, who's putting us up for the evening. We met Darren when we played a gigantic street fair in Pacific Beach last spring, and last time we were in town he came to our show and offered us a place to stay conditional on our singing "My Baby Thinks She's Bettie Page" to his 5-year-old son, Brandon, in the morning. We accepted. Darren has the most amazing kitchen you've ever seen: It looks like a '50s diner from one end to the other, and the centerpiece is an old Kelvinator fridge painted black with flames, like a hot rod. This time, Darren and his girlfriend Lisa are hosting a "Tupperware and cocktails" party on the night of our show, and he's invited us to come over, drop off our stuff, get dressed and enjoy the party for a while before we go to the gig. I'm disabused of the notion that the Tupperware party is an ironic joke when the Tupperware lady shows up! We all get free samples: little toothbrush holders and bendy straws that whistle when you blow through them. We also convince several of the party-goers to come to the show.

At the Crowbar, I try to wiggle out of playing last. Billyclub is a band of punk veterans (ex-members of U.K. Subs and the Exploited) who live in Dallas. I ask the drummer if they'd mind if we played before them. He's nice, but he says no. They've just driven straight from Dallas and they want to go to bed. We ask them to mention us a lot while they're playing, which they do, and to get offstage quickly so we can jump on and start playing before everybody leaves, which they also do. As we're rushing our gear onto the stage, Tony, the club owner, hands me a pretty decent stack of money. A surprising number of people (I try not to look surprised) have come just to see us. And a surprising number who didn't come to see us are sticking around, including the tired lads of Billyclub. We're so hyped up from hurrying onto the stage, from watching Billyclub and two other good punk bands that played before them, D.S.F.N. and the U.K. Wongs -- who aren't from the U.K. -- and from having a crowd to play to that we play as loud, fast and crazy as we ever have, and the audience seems to love it. And so do we.

We're invited to an "afterparty" at a warehouse somewhere, but instead take the offer of Dani and Sunny, two girls we met at Darren's party, to take us out to dinner, or breakfast, or whatever you want to call it at 3 a.m. We go to Denny's and I order "Moons Over My Hammy," which I don't even particularly like; I just like saying "Moons Over My Hammy." The girls pay for dinner/breakfast, and Dani gets into a heavy-duty parking lot conversation with -- you won't believe this -- Double D.

In the morning we revive what is clearly becoming a San Diego tradition: the acoustic concert for Brandon. After some lounging we pack up, say our goodbyes to Darren, Lisa, Brandon and Salty Dog, their demure pooch, and head for the last show of the tour, in Bakersfield. We can't wait to get home. The Queen Teen, back home for a week now, is saying things to me like "Don't go away anymore." If this tour were going on for another four weeks, I'd be good to go, but since it's one day from ending, I'm itchy to go home. So is everybody else. We're going to play the show and then drive to San Francisco overnight, about 300 miles. We can sleep when we get there.

It's drizzling as we pull up to Narducci's Cafe, a family-style restaurant and bar where we're headlining the show in a room that during the day is a dining room. We're offered free food -- everything but an entree, meaning we get soup, salad, bread and pasta. But things turn weird: A waitress is explaining the situation to us when the owner of the place calls her away and chews her out for wasting time on nonpaying customers. Our reactions range from annoyed to pissed off at this rudeness. No food comes for a while, so all of us except Butta Fingers abandon the table to get dressed, set up the merchandise, etc. The club is filling up nicely when we hear what is clearly karaoke singing. I go into the main bar and see, standing on a little stage, holding a saxophone and singing "Footloose" or something -- the owner! He sings and plays sax on several songs, then several more, mostly hits from the '80s. The first band, Johnny Retsched and the Fabulous Martini Brothers, is setting up. People keep asking me when we, or somebody, anybody, is going to play and end the karaoke. It's out of my hands, friends.

The Martini Brothers play their rockabilly-swing set, and when they finish, the promoter, Skip, climbs onstage and says to them and us, "Not to put too fine a point on it, but the faster you guys change over, the less likely Jimmy will play his saxophone." But we're not successful. He starts in again before we can get ready. I'm not sure, but I think Skip introduces us and we start playing while he's in the middle of a song. Sorry, Jimmy: If somebody says, "The Smokejumpers," we start playing.

We've played Bakersfield before, and there's a pretty good crowd to see us. We play two sets and sell lots of CDs, more than at any other show on the trip. This last show, in fact, is by far the best on the tour, a fine way to end up. Lots of happy people and lots of money. We're offered an opening slot in two weeks for the Paladins, who would be the biggest band we've ever played with. We pack up and spend some time outside in the drizzle talking to friends, while inside Jimmy and a few pals have drunkenly started up the karaoke again.

A guy comes bursting out the front door and running down the street. "He's doing Hootie! Run for your lives!"

I'm lying down on the front bench seat as we head west from Bakersfield on state highways for about 50 miles before hooking up with Interstate 5, which will rocket us north toward home. Double D is driving, and he hits a ramp a little too fast on the slick pavement. First I hear "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God." I sit up and look -- out the front window -- at a taxicab that's next to us, on the road we're merging onto. The driver is looking at us with this "fer-cryin'-out-loud" stare that only a cabby could give you in that situation. Now I'm looking behind us -- still out the front window. We're in a full spin. "Oh my God." I see the cab again out a different window. I wait for the side of the van to smack into something hard and unforgiving, or worse yet, for us to flip over. I can already picture us standing miserably in the rain, petals on a wet, black bough, waiting hours for a tow in the growing morning light.

And then everything stops. We're facing the right way. We haven't hit anything. While it was happening, it was too surreal for us to be scared. Now we're just freaked. We go over it again and again. "I just heard 'Oh my God, oh my God,'" someone says.

"Who was saying that?" Double D asks.

"You were."

When you get home from tour you can't just go home. First you have to stop off at the rehearsal space to drop off the gear. One last bit of torture: delayed gratification.

I walk in the door of our apartment around 10 a.m. The Queen Teen's pretending to sleep. I climb in bed and hold her and it feels like I'll never want to leave again, though I know I will want to eventually, because if I didn't do this, who would I be?

Later she takes me up the street for pancakes. We stop at the gas station and I buy one last lottery scratcher. I borrow a quarter from her to scratch it.

This time I'm a winner: I win a free lottery ticket.

The King Teen

The King Teen sings and plays guitar for the Smokejumpers.

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