Why Don't We Do It On The Road?

10 days on the road with Friends Like These

We're speeding down I-94 in a fire-engine red van that stinks of sausage. The four band members in this car have already grown accustomed to the smell.

"We're growing a sausage tree," says John Solomon, peeking into the rancid cooler and letting some of the smell escape. It's tempting to strap this stinkbox to the top of the van and let the Dodge air out. But Nathan Roise of 2024 Records, who owns the Dodge, holds a signed contract stating that Friends Like These will not mount, tie, or glue anything to the top of it. This request may or may not have something to do with the fact that the last thing John mounted, tied, or glued to the top of a moving vehicle was himself. After drinking a full bottle of tequila, he tried to reenact the van-surfing scene from Teen Wolf.

This is the man we have asked to drive.

John, a strapping Midwesterner, grew up on a farm. The sandy-blond singer/guitarist can tell you how to shear sheep. He can also tell you why jazz is not as interesting as rock, which Emily Dickinson poems are cleverest, who are the most underrated drummers of all time, and why he will beat you at Trivial Pursuit. When John talks about Friends Like These, he calls it "my band." No one corrects him.

John met Adam Switlick at St. John's University, where they played football and listened to Beach Boys records together. Now they share vocal harmonies, guitar duties, and a penchant for Maker's Mark, which they furtively pass between them whenever Matt O'Laughlin drives. Matt is the drummer and, at 23, he's the youngest, most emotionally reserved, and, the whole band agrees, the most talented in terms of raw skill. He's also the most responsible, which means he's the most likely to chastise Adam for attempting to go on their first tour with no money and no extra clothes--nothing but a toothbrush in his mouth. Adam insists he's changed his ways for this tour, and it's true. This time, the toothbrush is in his pocket.

The Crest bristles stick out of Adam's hip as he stretches his legs toward bassist Steve Murray. At 36, Steve has been touring with Twin Cities bands since 1986--before he had a valid ID. He says this group is a good job like any other good job, that playing simply makes him happy. There are countless things that make Steve happy. Touring is just the first one that comes to mind.

 

Somewhere between Chicago and New York

If you can't let the second day on the road pass quickly, the next few days will be longer. Between the major exits, the only way to spot an actual town is by passing an outlet store or a mental institution. The gas station signs all look like they were stolen from porn shops: Kum & Go, Pump N' Munch, Please Service Yourself. Green plaques on highway overpasses point toward cities whose names reveal more or less what's inside them: Bowling Green, Coldwater, Hicksville. When we stop to fill up the tank, John and Adam toss the football back and forth over the fuel pump, feigning a touchdown every third catch. Twenty minutes after Matt hits the brakes, our bodies still feel like they're moving forward.

At night, the rain comes down hard, streaking the windows, making it hard to tell the Motel 6 signs from the stars. In the rest-stop bathrooms, all the light bulbs glow a bruise-colored yellow, just bright enough to cast a ghostly radiance on your skin and just dark enough to keep any wayward junkies from finding a vein. The rhythmic undulations from our tires rock Adam to sleep. The rest of us rely on the car stereo to keep us awake. Loretta Lynn's "Portland, Oregon." Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." Modest Mouse's "The World at Large." Then a John Denver song crackles from the speakers, and John Solomon, his voice tired and scratchy, sings along, "Take me home to the place I belong."

I wonder if he's thinking what I'm thinking: What happens if we never want to go home?

 

Boston, early evening

We want to go home.

O'Brien's Pub is not the right place to kick off this tour--or any tour, for that matter. There's a portrait of Nixon on the wall. The drink special is called the "Juicy Pussy." The staff warns us that "the ladies in the group" (myself and tour manager Keri Wiese, who is also on board for the full road trip) might get hassled by The Pervert, a regular at this bar. The bouncer raves about the best show he's seen at O'Brien's: a band whose members dress themselves in jock straps made from paper towels and duct tape, soak their bodies in baby oil, and pour feathers over their heads. There's also the small matter of the sign in the window: TONIGHT AT O'BRIEN'S: FRIENDS LIKE THEIVES.

"They didn't even get our name right?" Matt sighs.

I hesitate to point out that "thieves" is spelled wrong.

There are seven patrons at the bar when Friends Like These set up. All but two leave before the first song. One remaining barfly stays to play video poker. The other, a husky man in a yellow T-shirt, sticks around to ogle Adam. Something tells me this is The Pervert. I can't imagine things getting much worse.

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