Why Don't We Do It On The Road?
Where the hell are we?
If you can't pluck a soggy pork rind from under the passenger seat and call it "breakfast"...
If you can't figure out how to make truckers' speed from two cans of Red Bull and a packet of Pop Rocks...
If you can't sleep facedown on a stranger's kitchen floor with your nose stuck in an overflowing ashtray...
If you can't go along for the ride, you'll never survive on the road.
We're 1,200 miles from home, moving at 45 miles an hour, and for the thousandth time, some ridiculously melodramatic VH1-style commentator has commandeered the voiceover in my brain, repeating the Top 100 Guidelines for the American Road Trip. By now, I know the rules: If you can't keep repeating the rules, you'll never make it through the week.
But how can you tell when you've made it through the week? Lying here with my eyes closed, it's hard to keep track of such things. I don't know what time it is and I don't know what day it is--which doesn't really matter, anyway, since you can't chart hours and days on a road map. Today is not Friday or Thursday or Monday. Today is New York. I know that much. Then, over the treble-heavy whine of an old Queen cassette, the voices fill the rest in.
"How would you rate the tightness of this highway, Johnny?"
"I'd rate it at a level of 10-year-old boy."
Suddenly I remember two things: 1) that I'm curled up in a vehicle that's backing up at high speed on a major Manhattan expressway, and 2) that I'm on tour with a rock band.
If you can't live it and if you don't love it, what are you doing here?
Three days earlier in Minneapolis
If you can't pack up your toothbrushes and hairbrushes and suitcases and guitar cases and drum kits and first-aid kits and bass strings and bass drums with absolute confidence about touring, your father may start to get worried.
"I told my dad that we were going on tour with a writer," Steve Murray explains, plopping his cowboy hat down on his head and carrying his bass guitar out of his practice space in St. Paul. "The first thing he thought of was Almost Famous. He said, 'Don't let what happened to those guys happen to you.'"
Now, one can understand the elder Murray's trepidation about the second national tour of the Minneapolis band Friends Like These. After all, his main touchstone for the experience is a movie where an LSD-addled lead singer nearly kills himself by jumping off somebody's roof and a teenage roadie gets deflowered by a pack of STD-ridden groupies. But I want to console Mr. Murray that this tour needs to happen. For the first time since his son joined the group a year and a half ago, Friends Like These are performing for packed crowds locally. Minneapolitans are starting to hear themselves in the group's songs: the groupies knocking back watered-down two-for-ones backstage at the Triple Rock, the musicians who spend their winters wishing they hadn't wasted their summers, the tiny music scene where everyone has kissed everyone else's ex and everyone has played in everyone else's band. These people are the band's people. But they can't be their people forever--local musicians burn out like that, fading back into the same city that put them on stage. Which is why Friends Like These will eventually have to find out whether people in New York and Illinois and Boston are their people, too.
That time has to come soon. Their debut album, I Love You, which earned them a Minnesota Music Award nomination, also left them a thousand dollars in debt, and as that number grew, the band was forced to stop recording their sophomore full-length two-thirds of the way through the process. They asked John Hermanson of Alva Star to mix four of their new songs for a self-released EP, Deliver Us from Evil, promising to repay him three thousand dollars when they got back from tour. "The worst is having someone like Johnny believe in you enough to put his own money on the line," says Friends Like These singer John Solomon. "He has kids to feed and he isn't exactly doing stellar himself."
Friends Like These know they won't be able to pay Hermanson back by selling T-shirts and CDs to kids in Chicago and Baltimore. But maybe touring will bring them a few degrees closer to a record contract. That's the thing about blowing all your savings on something you believe in: If you don't get what you want, you're just a sad dreamer. If you get what you want, the history books will say you were always an optimist. To paraphrase singer Nellie McKay, everything you do that makes you a stupid person before you get signed makes you a smart person afterward. For John Solomon, this leaves only one option. "Head down," he says. "Plow forward. Hope for the best."
The next day, driving between Minneapolis and Chicago
If you can't buy a private jet, how do you travel 3,300 miles? Metallica rode the lightning. Queen rode the wild, wild wind. The Doors rode the storm. Friends Like These ride a Dodge Ram with bird droppings streaked across the windows.
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."
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.
Then they do. The bouncer informs John that the group who played before Friends Like These escaped with every last George Washington collected at the door. "Are you serious?" John, very tipsy, asks him, not at all rhetorically. "We drove all the way out from Minneapolis and we got paid zero dollars? We could have played on the side of the road and gotten the same deal, not to mention a bigger audience."
"Give us free drinks," he says, his voice breaking a little. "Give us five fucking dollars. Give us something. Give us our pride, at least. It's the principle of it all." The bouncer turns away.
No drink tickets tonight, then. No gas money. Not a word of thanks from the O'Brien's staff. But Friends Like These do earn five bucks.
The Pervert buys a CD.
Boston, late evening
"We don't care about the money," says Steve. He takes a swig from a bottle of sake and passes it back to John. Up on the roof of Matt's friend's apartment building, the crooked shadows of Dr. Seuss buildings scribble across the skyline. John looks as if he'd like to throw the bottle at them just to hear it break. Instead, he takes a drink. "We don't need a major label record deal," Steve continues. "We're doing this because it's fun."
The rest of the band just stares at him.
"The thing about Minneapolis is that you're not supposed to need a huge following," John says, breaking the silence. "No one wants to be competitive. No one wants to make it bigger than anyone else because if you do, you're an asshole. But really, when another band makes it big and you're still back in your hometown, you're the asshole."
"At some point, you start thinking that maybe you don't need your hometown backing you," says Matt. "You look at bands like Motion City Soundtrack and Har Mar Superstar who made it without a lot of press just because they never stopped touring. Then you start thinking, This isn't working for us in Minneapolis, so why not try it in New York?"
"We tried it in New York--that's what we did on our first tour," says John. "This is our second tour, so we're getting better shows because of that experience."
"We are?" asks Matt.
The band members look out toward the skyline. John passes the sake bottle to Adam. No one says a word.
New York, part one
If you can't shake the thought that last night was a nightmare, it's good to wake up in the city that never sleeps. New Yorkers would like you to believe that their metropolis got this nickname because its inhabitants are always so busy doing new and fabulous things that they don't have one free moment to devote to hugging the mattress. But the real reason nobody sleeps in New York is that it's too damn loud. Trash trucks, car horns, drunk girls, cat calls, loud dogs--the sirens can't silence them all. But sometimes, the bar's clackety ventilation system sputters out and you can hear a more reassuring sound: whooo.
"Whooo!" cheers a tattooed blonde at a Brooklyn bar called the Hook. She's watching John climb up onstage, and her jeans are so tight you can see her spleen.
"Twin Cities!" cries the blonde. "That's where the Lutherans are! Whooo!"
"I'm Catholic," says John.
A small group of sacrament-takers join in. There's a whooo for Matt, whose acrobatic movements suggest that he's paddling his drum kit upstream. There's a whooo for Steve, who struts across the stage with his best Jagger swagger. There's a whooo for Adam, who breathes into every la la la until the chorus expands and pops like a gumball bubble. And there's an extra-big whoo for John and his cowbell, the star of the show, who gets the spotlight at the beginning of "7th Street Queen."
When there's a whooo for a band up onstage in the 7th St. Entry, people might hear it in the bathroom if they're lucky. New York is closer to the ocean. Sound seems to travel differently here. When there's a whooo for a band onstage in New York, it's a whooo heard round the world. Hearing that whooo in Brooklyn after hearing nothing at all for three days is something that makes you believe all those beef jerky breakfasts and gas station campouts were worth it.
When we leave the Hook, rain is pouring down. We race down the street shrieking and laughing, our sneakers slapping against wet pavement, our T-shirts and socks soaked to the skin. Fat droplets of water hang from our eyelashes, refracting the streetlights. Everything we see looks like it's ringed with a thousand yellow moons.
In New York, you can run forever. The streets stretch out so far that the kids who live here have given up looking for the spot where the pavement ends. Maybe the pavement never ends. Maybe it just keeps going, up the sides of buildings and over rivers. On nights like this, I worry that if we follow one street long enough, we'll end up right back where we started.
But we don't. Eventually, we find the van. And when we climb back inside, I can still hear John singing. "Jonathan, New York City/Why would you leave it all behind and make a new start?/The streetlights, they are deceiving/They lead you on and on and on and break your heart."
If you can't feel the air move, you're probably in Baltimore. Restaurants close early here, and old ladies sit on their front steps, waiting for something to happen. The bartenders at The Mojo don't say much, but when they hear tour manager Keri Wiese say that a Marylander just asked her if the band was from "Mindianapolis," they smile and bring the next pitcher. The second we roll into this town, our blood pressure drops.
Today Steve turns 36 years old. "I used to be this punk kid who would hang out at the railroad tracks paying the older guys to buy me beer," he says. "Now I'm this older guy on the road with the young kids, hoping the bartender will give us the beer for free."
Steve ends up paying for his own beer--and the band's beer, and most of their dinners. He doesn't seem to mind. No one seems to be bothered by anything in Baltimore. Pterodactyls could pluck swimsuited toddlers from the shoreline and folks would go right on fishing. All bad news comes with a shrug.
"At least it's guaranteed that we won't get paid here," Matt says. "That makes me kind of relieved."
When you don't play for money, you play how you like. Adam's and John's jagged guitar chords skate zigzag trails across each song. Steve and Matt anchor the rhythm section with a pulse that you can feel in your shoes and your chest. Since no major label execs are waiting in the eaves of this bar, Friends Like These play like four kids rocking out in somebody's basement. Almost by accident, they play the best show of their tour.
Tonight, everything is easy like that. John and Steve venture into to a gay bar just to see what's inside, and immediately, four men with Freddie Mercury mustaches offer to buy them drinks. Steve even lets them call him "Girlfriend." Later, when the whole band decides to get drunk, it takes only a small glass of whiskey to get the job done. I fall asleep effortlessly, dreaming even before my eyes are closed. When I wake up, it's still dark outside, but I can vaguely see shadows. John, Steve, Matt, and Adam are standing over me, singing at the top of their lungs.
The next morning, I wonder if I dreamt the whole thing. I ask John if he thought there was something strange about Baltimore. "It was just like any other city on tour," he says. "We didn't even get paid and we played the best show of our lives."
The way he says it, it's hard to tell whether this is a good or a bad thing. But I catch him smiling as he turns away.
Dr. Watson's Pub is having a quiz show. The winner gets a $25 gift certificate.
"We might not get paid for playing here," John reminds the band as they load in their gear. "So we should win the quiz show. Then we should climb up on the table and rip up the gift certificate as an act of protest."
As it turns out, we do win the quiz show. Someone hands the gift certificate to John.
He starts to climb up on the table. Then he looks back at us sheepishly and spends the money on beer.
New York, part two
If you can't find a place to stay, you might end up sleeping at Rocker's house. Rocker is Steve's friend. And Rocker is his real name. Judging by the drum kit, five guitars, bass guitar, microphone stand, and several ukuleles that he has encouraged us to play in his Brooklyn apartment, Rocker lives up to that name. This prospect excites me; it almost makes up for the fact that we will be sleeping on Rocker's cat-hair-encrusted kitchen floor. I am hoping that Steve may have other friends we can crash with. Drinker, maybe. And Breakfast Cooker.
New York, part three
If you've played for people in Brooklyn, you won't recognize Manhattanites. Everyone's too good for you on the island. There are no drag queens named Britney here, only Jacqueline or Eugenie or Gwyneth. Everyone is proud of the fact that they know the fastest way to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from any point in the city, and even prouder of the fact that they can't find Minnesota on a map. From the moment Friends Like These step into the Sin-é, you can tell what the sound guy is thinking: You ain't the Strokes.
The show doesn't go well. A show never goes well when it's the most important city of your tour and you're stuck playing at seven o'clock on a Wednesday. Right away, Adam breaks a string, and the other band members get so nervous and exhausted that they keep sliding off rhythm. Matt just plays louder and louder, trying to get the rest of the band to sync up to his lead. "That's a good drummer," says the bartender, a dead ringer for C.C. DeVille. Then he looks at the four Friends Like These fans at the bar and decides to charge them double for drinks.
No one buys any CDs. The Friends Like These T-shirts stay snug and neatly folded in their boxes. The band moves on to the next bar. If they can't play like rock stars, they'll drink like rock stars. "We have every flavor except tangerine," the bartender says of the tropical cocktail selection, but even in the first sip of my mostly-tequila-flavored concoction, I can taste tangerines. I can also taste strawberries, limes, unicorns, kryptonite, and the quadratic equation. After that, the details get fuzzy.
New York, part four
If you can't open your eyes when you're hungover, you're probably going to vomit. I understand this in the same way I understand that when I toss a ball into the air, gravity will bring it back to the ground again. What goes up must come down, Sir Isaac Newton says. And Jack Daniels says that when you've spent the last 24 hours gulping alcoholic beverages from a goblet the size of a preschooler's skull, what goes down must come up.
By 11:00 a.m., I can't recall what happened. John, however, remembers everything.
"Last night's show was bad," he says, venturing outside from the recording studio where we're hanging out in Brooklyn. We walk, although the sunlight is painful. "Last night makes me feel like I can't keep doing this. My wife called this morning and said I have a maxed-out credit card. I only spend that card on music stuff and alcohol. I'm more than a couple grand in the hole. We can't do this tour again."
We duck out of the sun. The closest shelter is a liquor store. John stands by a wall of cheap vodkas, trying to fix his sunglasses.
"When I was 20 years old, I was the young guy. In five years, I was gonna be the star. Now I'm 25. What am I going to be in another five years? Broke, still working a nine-to-five job, and still playing for a crowd of two people?
"My brother works for a video game company, you know. He wants me to write music for video games. Maybe I'll just move to New York and do that."
We pay for two six-packs, carting them back to the studio in silence. Inside, Adam, Matt, and Steve are waiting to record a song for the MP3 site eMusic, a company that has given Friends Like These free studio time for being one of the best unsigned bands on their roster. On any other day, this would be good news. But this morning, Adam sits grimly on the counter, swinging his legs beneath him, watching his feet move back and forth.
"So, we're recording until around 8:00 tonight?" Steve asks.
"Yeah," says Adam. "And then we're done."
"Until we play on Saturday night, right?"
Adam looks like he's thinking way past Saturday night. "No," he says. "After tonight, we're done."
In Minneapolis, there are wives and girlfriends and clean sheets and home-cooked meals and freshly scrubbed bathtubs and lemon-scented laundry and high-quality stereos and telephone messages from good friends saying what's new and we miss you and when will you be back?
In Chicago, there is an opportunity to open for a group called Lust 'n Rust who perform what they call a "trailer park musical." They do this in full costume.
We decide to go home.
From Chicago to Minneapolis
No one feels like talking. The Dodge trudges along in silence until we can't take it anymore and somebody slips a cassette into the tape deck. On the speakers, a man is singing about New York City. Something about how the city swallows its nobodies, but the fact that most people are somebody there makes you want to return. That's what I get from the chorus, anyway. Then I recognize John's voice.
"We sound really good on that tape," says Adam, brightening up. "If people ask us why we went on tour, I'll play them that recording."
"Yeah," says John. "Next time we're in New York, we'll play it for all of our fans." Everybody laughs.
When we pull into a gas station, I catch John staring out onto the highway. "What happens now?" I ask him.
"I don't know," he says. "We go home, open a bottle of wine, and sleep in our own beds. We wait for things to get back to normal. And then we make it big." He's joking, and he's not joking.
"Do you still believe you can make it big?" I ask.
"Of course I do. I have to--all musicians do. If you can't believe it, you'll never play music again."
If you can't spend your last five-dollar bill on a drink to throw at a heckler... I only remember half of that rule, and it's not the important part, anyway. So as I elbow my way through the crowd at First Avenue, I try to think of other ones.
If you can't play your best show for a crowd that isn't listening...
If you can't bear to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble your drum kit for the 185th time...
I don't know what comes next. If you can't do these things, what happens? Then the lights come up and the curtains pull back and there's John, Adam, Steve, and Matt onstage and I know what the last rule is. If you can't go on, you'll go on. Head down. Plow forward. Hope for the best.
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