Let’s put it into perspective people: Forty goddamned years.
Well, 41 and a half, really, if you statistics nerds are going by your Discogs bible. But just as a juiced homerun record is forever scarred by an asterisk, our ruby anniversary was postponed by a pesky little pandemic.
Ronald Reagan was just sworn in (his first term!). We were still communicating through landlines and, get this, letters. The TV had seven channels, save the fuzzy UHF channels that showed those baffling Japanese cartoons. And when the price of gas briefly breached one dollar there was mayhem on the streets. Yes kids, we’ve been around that long!
But, no. Four decades? Could it have been that long ago, 1981, when we first saw that Posh Boy EP on the racks of Zed Records? We bought a copy each, still wary that this was all some sort of elaborate prank. Then Kimm and I stood on the sidewalk and tore at the shrinkwrap, slid black vinyl from sleeve. I held the record up to the sky, proof to the cruel gods that we did exist: We hadmade a record.
When Kimm first proposed this project, I was skeptical. “Do ya know what that would take?” I’d say, my phone on speaker as I worked on my dreadful chip shot from the fringe. “Licensing and remastering, artwork. And to get vinyl pressed nowadays?” You know…..work.
Undaunted, Kimm set forth and did just all those things. Teaming up once again with our pals at Hostage Records, we went about the messy business of stuffing a lifetime into a box.
We hoped to do 40 songs (duh), but even our brief sonic sketches would not fit ten per side. After briefly considering a bloated Sandista-d triple vinyl monstrosity, we settled on 27 charming tracks that nicely showcase them all, the gems and turds alike.
As we listened to the songs leveled and remastered, finally corralled together in one place, we smiled. The early demos, the hardcore zingers, those big haired guitar anthems–they’re all here folks! As the songs scroll past I am taken back to those days in the Cerritos garage. The hours on the highway come back to me; the taste of gas station hot dogs, the smell of another backed up backstage toilet. Each moment precious now, burnished a golden glow by the passage of time.
We decide to do the whole booklet thing too, of course. Pulled boxes from the attic, photo albums from the garage. We gathered around the scanner, ready to render our past to digital code. But the chore took hours longer than necessary, as we would hold up a photo and say, ….remember this? And then we would be back there: at a dive bar in Knoxville, say, or stuck in a ditch outside Calgary, the night wet and our faces young. And then we would be wiping our eyes on our sleeves, our eyes moistened by laughter and regret.
We briefly consider asking some friends, or maybe other musicians or journalists, to contribute a few words. But I could only envision pages of chaste language, politely recalling our glory days. I feared a booklet reading like an obituary, the words underrated and unappreciated popping up again and again. (Code words for unmotivated and second rate.)
Hell, I’ll just write the story myself. And so the 6 page booklet doubled to 12, swelled again to twenty pages, before we stopped ourselves at 28!
After the excruciating production wait, the day finally came: the records were ready.
Kimm and I opened the first box and took out that first record. We could have been those kids, again, standing in front of Zeds, not quite believing just yet. We passed it back and forth, remarking at its weight, the richness of the cover artwork. The smell of recently pressed vinyl, vivid as the electric scent of an oncoming summer storm.
And after tearing at the shrinkwrap, I take out the twinned albums and lay them side by side. The booklet is thick, bulging with victories and heartbreaks, friends aged or gone. But I pause before sliding the records from their sleeves, to hold them above my head, squint at the daylight beaming through the center hole. Not quite ready to sign off on the project, not quite ready to hold that many years in my hands..
The CH3 40 Box Set available in limited edition Purple Splatter Tomorrow! Saturday Jan 14 at the CH3Webstore and at Hostage Records.
So I’m plowing through the junk email on the old AOL account……..
What?America Online? Is that what you’re talking about gramps??
Oh, hell yes I keep the old AOL account active. It is my firm belief after the inevitable apocalypse we will all be reduced to handwritten letters, smoke signals and AOL instant messages as the only means of communication. Like Myspace, AOL will prove the surviving cockroach of tech media. As our new AI overlords whip us down in the crypto mines, we will make whispered plans to meet later in a private chat room to map our rebellion.
Let’s see: there’s the usual scams asking me to log into my banking account to ensure its safety. (I’m not falling for that one a fourth time, brother.) A Nigerian prince offers me millions in exchange for a few Amazon gift cards, which, really, seems like a sweet deal. Here’s some bottled water from Camp Lejeune, a nifty Christmas gift! And, of course, enough dick enlargement offers to give me a minor complex.
But there, a vaguely familiar missive from the SIng Me a Story Foundation. I open the email and reconnect. Then I am reminded of a little project we did a while ago with these fine folks, and I click the link. And I’m off, down a rabbit hole of screen time usually reserved for Youtube videos of squeezed blackheads and talking dogs.
The Sing Me a Story Foundation is a very cool and worthy cause. The company line: Sing Me a Story gives children in hospitals, children’s homes and hospice organizations the opportunity to write/illustrate stories about anything they want. We distribute those stories to songwriters who turn them into songs and send them back to the kids.
They first sent us an email some five years ago before a gig at Dante’s up in silly chilly Portland. They work with the bands at several key venues, and wondered if we might like to record a song for the site. After paging through their website, it checks out. The Dwarves, BadCop/BadCop, Less Than Jake, a grip of other great bands. They all lent their talents, so we’d be in fine company.
After soundcheck we gathered in the club’s damp basement green room and broke out the acoustic guitars. I showed the lads a few chords, we ran through the tune a couple times. There is a brief thought that we go back upstairs and record the song with blazing Ramones downstrokes, but we decide to keep it simple.
I was instantly charmed by a story by Keyiala, then age 8. It was submitted through Chicago Hopes for Kids, an organization that provides educational support for kids living in homeless shelters.
I didn’t know anything about her situation, but just try to imagine living through a brutal Chicago winter without a home. The awful clang of the streets, the endless worry for safety and warmth. And I just know my eyes would be shut, frozen tears of self pity blinding me from the harsh reality of another night to come.
But kids, damn. They’re fucking tough, yeah? And I can imagine Keyiala with nothing but a few colored markers and some blank paper before her.
She takes up the green marker, thinks better of it, and grabs for the blue instead. And then, despite where she sits or what she had for breakfast, she puts pen to page and nothing else matters. And then she writes the words, she draws the pictures, and she tells us about Miss Spider: Click here to listen.
Interesting, I thought, that we are introduced to Miss Spider as an egg! But it’s a striking image, lone egg upon leaf, the miracle of birth upon us. The artwork is spare. The sky merely inferred in bold blue strokes of motion.
There once lay an egg, on a leaf in a tree A jewel undiscovered, like a pearl below the sea But no mother was around, and no sisters shared the leaf What creature would come out to greet this world eventually? Will there be four legs or six? Horns or stripes or wings? The mystery of life inside an egg, of all things
But Oh, Miss Spider there you are, there you are With legs of double four, and one courageous heart And Oh, Miss Spider, the wonder you will see The Earth and all its treasure, every possibility
And then, with the economy of Hemingway and the pacing of Tarantino, Keyiala pulls us deep into Act One. Mom is gone, then this Big Head Spider character appears. And what’s this about a rogue bird nest? I’m in!
Miss Spider left her egg and then she looked around But even with her many eyes she couldn’t find her Mom She cried her many tears until a big head Spider said, This birdie nest is where you were born to lay your head
But then she heard a voice So soft and sweet and mild Like a chime from a bell, a Mother calling for her child
Oh Miss Spider, there you are, there you are I’ve waited for this day when I could hold you in 8 arms And Oh, Miss Spider, the wonder you will see The Earth and all its treasures, every possibility
It is the ending we’d hoped for, though I assume there are some unmentioned trials that Miss Spider has endured before the reunion. Better that way, I think. And are we gonna talk about the glorious eyelashes the spiders have? And with a Netflix worthy cliffhanger, Keyiala boldly goes to title card splashing Chapter Two!
.And there’s a chapter two, in this life there always is When we become the grownups though we still just feel like kids Miss Spider grew up beautiful and then she said, “I Do” She married Mr Spider on a leaf, beneath the moon
We are introduced to Mr. Spider! And though I think it is a tad cheeky to propose marriage so soon, I think we can all take a lesson on how to move a story along, am I right?
He said, “will you be my bride?” Miss Spider said, “yes.” They had the wedding write (!!) now and kiss the bride.
Calling, Oh Mrs Spider, there you are, there you are I’ve waited for this day when I could hold you in 8 arms And Oh, Mrs Spider, the wonder you will see The Earth and all its treasures, every possibility
And then she had her own egg, and then she had another And as she waited for her kids she thought she heard her Mother
In a nice little callback, we are back at the egg! The circle of life, marriage and motherhood, the story has it all. And then she leaves us with another spider set to brave the wild world.
I listen to the song and I am back there in that cold room, my breath visible as I sing the words, the guitars struggling to hold tune in the damp. In three hours we will be back upstairs, humbucked guitars attached to screaming tube powered amps. We’ll play 40 year old thrashers, tell dick jokes between songs. But for now, we play gratefully, aiming for the webs cobbing the dark corners of a basement room. A house of filament, that a courageous spider calls a home.
As we skirt across the webbed span of the Gerald Desmond bridge, an industrial glow emanates from below. Terminal Island pulses with the churn of commerce, harsh sodium lighting showcasing an evershifting city of shipping containers. I gaze down at those boxes stacked eight or nine tall for endless blocks. They sit in purgatory, a moment of stillness between the churning black Pacific and the stinking miles of highways ahead. Waiting to be plucked by the cranes hunting from above, fattened grubs helpless to the cruel whims of a hungry mantis.
I have to wonder what lies within those corrugated steel walls. Worthless trinkets made by starving children? Medicines delayed by customs, while a young man dies surrounded by family? Perhaps huddled within are humans, ready to emerge blinking in the sunlight, the opportunity or destruction of the American ideal on their minds.
It’s a chilled Friday night in the South Bay, an area that has always held a mysterious shroud over its industrial bent. The legendary Dancing Waters, sure.
But we recall earlier riotous nights on that side of the Vincent Thomas: There we are after a drunken gig at the Minutemen’s private space in 1981, when we lost the keys to the van and were stranded at 3 am. A vigilante troop of cholos sweep the darkened streets of punk trash, breaking my nose and tearing off a side view mirror for good measure.
The Cove in Hermosa 1982, when one industrious punk notices a working firehose coiled innocently against the wall. And like Chekhov’s gun introduced in Act One, said hose was surely unfurled and unleashed by night’s end. The geysers flooding the lobby a glorious fountain of crimson and azure, colored by the police cars surrounding the building.
But we hope no such water damage or bodily injury awaits us at the Sardine complex tonight. It is a tight friendly crew, our boys in Spider once again joining us along with youthful ragers Love Equal Death from up yonder Ukiah way.
The Sardine, It’s a very cool space. Neighborhood bar up front, decent sized gig space in back. And a lovely little courtyard just beyond that, where people smoke and chat. They sprawl along picnic tables like divorced dads waiting for the end of soccer practice, dreading the inevitable conversation with the ex through gritted teeth.
After Love=Death slays with their high energy melodic take, ourSpider men take stage and do their thing.
The lads are energized tonight, Hector bounding about the stage, pointing out the targets of rage that only he sees hidden in the dark rafters of the club.
It is the finest set I’ve seen them play, though I dare not mention that when we pass them offloading the stage as we set up. Can’t have them getting too high tone on us, yeh? “That second song from the end,” I ask Karl while he packs up his pedal board. “Is it supposed to sound like that or was that a fuckup?”
I see Randy from the legendary Alley Cats slinking around the perimeter of the courtyard looking the world like a wizened spectral vision. I say hello and we chat about band stuff for a bit, and I am relieved he doesn’t warn me of two more holiday spirits that shall me visit me on this night.
I notice my old pal Marcus standing by the stage, and I haul him up to do the band introduction. A former Buddhist monk, he agrees with a serene nod when I ask him to start us out with a brief chant. Om Mani Padme Hum, he sings, Om Mani Padme…. And then we climb upon the stage one more time, one more Friday night sending out our own mantra into the ether.
No lobbies are flooded tonight, no cartilage bruised. We launch the music skyward, in hopes of transmission, contact, engagement.
A mile away, the port hums its own chant of concern. A battle call of grinding gears, a song of its cargo, of the treasures and terrors that lay in wait.
I’d been up in these hills before, so I knew what to expect. Up Santiago Canyon, past my beloved Saddleback Park, the crown jewel of So Ca motocross now shuttered and relegated to landfill. Irvine Lake shimmers to the left, and as we enter Oak Canyon I start to track the dwindling cell coverage on my phone. The bars dropping off like the weakened pulse of a hospice patient, vital signs growing fainter until finally flat-lined. Sweet merciful death.
I put my neutered phone back in my pocket, and I suddenly realize just how much we’ve all become reliant on these goddamned rectangles of silicon and glass. As we follow their directions along routes we already know, as we allow them to strip beloved phone numbers from memory and reduce human interaction to emoji, so there goes our soul.
It is liberating, a day out without impersonal connection. Textless, we all make plans to meet up by certain gnarled Oak if we happen to get lost, and I am transported to youth. The luxury of two hours away from the parents at Disneyland: a child of ten rewarded for a sparkling report card, with only the sole duty to meet at Sleeping Beauty’s castle right after lunch
We park in the dusty back lot, directed by signage identifying us as either Troop 606 Boy Scout or Punk. And I ask you this: Can’t we be both?
It’s a grand day out, a promised rainstorm holding off until the Punk in the Park fest can wrap up under a bright full moon. Inside the gates it is a massive play space, beer gardens slinging free sips of crafted beers, a cigar lounge over here, art gallery over there. The crowd is giddy, kids running into the hugs of friends met by surprise. A clutch of trees shade families of punkers two or three generations deep. And here, here comes the Manic Hispanic cart, passing out fruity paletas to the laughing grandkids.
I briefly wonder if we took the wrong turn and had indeed stumbled upon a jamboree of jolly scouts.
We stop by to see our pals at the Steady Brewing booth where they are passing out samples of the new-yes- CH3 lager. People down the tiny cups like mental patients tossing back daily medications. I watch people sipping at samples, and I ask how it is. They give it the thumbs up. “It’s good,” one punkette tells me. “It’s better than the FEAR beer, but not as flavorful as the Damned.”
There is a brief moment of vertigo then, as I consider our band branded upon beverage. Compared to our heroes through not song catalog but by brewing temperature and alcohol content. But who am I to question this new day of lifestyle symbiosis? A guy walks by in a Pennywise flannel, smoking a Shattered Faith cigar.
The lads in Pulley have to get out early so we are switched to their later time slot. Backstage we are also gifted their trailer. They wave off my grateful apologies from the tent next door as Nick plops down on the couch.
He’s a fuckin madman, our man Nick. Just off a ten day tour with Final Conflict in Japan, then straight to the dragstrip for a gathering of the Gassers. I wonder if he is delirious with jetlag and V8 deaf, but he is ready to play, chipper as can be. When he leans in close to show me the new billet drum pedal he got in Tokyo I can smell burnt rubber and bonito flakes. I know it’s gonna be just fine.
Friends and family have been welcomed backstage, and it soon takes on the flavor of a backyard barbecue. We are introduced to kids of the kids we grew up with, and push our grown children before us in return. Proof of life, sheepish reminders of our nihilistic vows to never grow old.
I ask my daughter which shirt to wear on stage. She rolls her eyes and reaches for the bottle of vodka I smuggled in my guitar case for her, my sole paternal duty done for the day.
We get up on stage just as the sun dips below the hills, a happy bonus to winding the clocks back an hour the night before, The timing is military tight, and just as Voodoo Glowskulls finish on the other stage we are given the signal to jump. We launch into Indian Summer then, guitars ringing out true into the cooling night air. And here comes the crowd migrating toward us, like parched Serengeti cats toward the watering hole.
It’s only a thirty minute set, so there’s hardly time for the usual banter and confusion onstage. But it is Kimm’s birthday, of all things, and we take a sweet moment to wish him well as our kids bring out a cake. He blows out the candles as I surprise him with the opening riffs of Last Time I Drank, a song that soured us for a generation of punkers. But now it takes on a renewed, celebratory ring. And when an honest to god circle pit starts to swirl up a cloud of dust I turn to Kimm and think I see a wee teardrop form in the corner of his eye. Happiness or embarrassment, I’ll never know.
It gets cold, it gets dark. Lights sparkle along the trees as couples smooch in the shadows, dudes barf in the bushes.
We do our last sweep of the dressing room, swipe all the Redbulls and Cornchips we can carry from the abandoned trailers. As we head out of the Canyon we are all silent, each of us already reliving the day past. The lights of Orange County come into view below us, a vast bowl of twinkling lights stretching to the horizon.
Suddenly everyone’s phones start chiming and buzzing, for we have re-entered the coverage zone. My leg tingles with phone vibration, text after text, social media notifications. Notifying me of things I have no need to know.
I surrender a quick look at the newsfeed, and a certain red hatted madman has threatened a return campaign A terrifying election looms in just hours, the fucking Astros take the series, the planet burns and weeps.
And I turn back then, back toward the blackness of the hills, toward a day among family and friends. And I long to be up there still: Surrounded; Unconnected.
1979: The sky is thinner up here in Mammoth, and my heart tracks to a manic soundtrack as we line up. The dark loam of the track leads up, up to a point before us that disappears into a brilliant backdrop of crystal blue sky framed by towering pines. A cloud of blue smoke perfumed by premix gas floats around me as everyone starts revving, edging forward until our front knobbies kiss the starting gate. Yet in that moment I can only think of how the whine and growl of the big 2 stroke motors sounds like nothing as much as the stinging clarion call of my new obsession, of a humbucked guitar fed through a Marshall half stack.
It is not the roar of engine but the Clash, Complete Control that I hear in my head as the gate drops and we all launch forward.
The long uphill start is answered naturally by a left handed 180 that funnels the riders back to the forest floor. I brake hard and lean the RM400 toward the inside line, hoping to make up for a midpack start and gain a few positions from the riders riding the outside berm in a higher gear. But my front wheel catches on a rock no bigger than a clenched fist, the front end collapses left then catches traction again, sending me off the track, off the hill, into the air. I am weightless for an exquisite moment, the big Suzuki already falling toward the boulders eighteen feet below. And for the first time in my young life I have the very certain feeling that this is going to hurt. As I start to fall I imagine my mom, shaking her head in a hospital room, or perhaps beside the fresh dirt piled next to a coffin, sighing one last time-those goddamn motorcycles….. But it is not my mother’s worried warnings about to be fulfilled that I hear inside my helmet, but the exasperated bark of Joe Strummer scolding me: Oh, oh oh-have we done something wrong?
Later, as the ER doctor was pointing out the various places on my body where orchid hued bruises would soon blossom, I was considering perhaps ending my motocross career. And by the time he held an x-ray up to the light, tracing a pen along a single lightning bolt shaped crack on my right Scapula, I had already decided to sell the bike and finally purchase that 300 watt Peavey PA system down at Cerritos Music.
I took one last look at the glowing x-ray, a wedge of bone divided like a cartoon heart broken by a long lost love.
It was no big difference, I always thought, the move from motocross to punk rock. The threat of noise assured, the chance of violence always imminent. The camaraderie and and good natured ball breaking almost identical, backstage and the pits. But I found I was better at being in a band, comparatively, and- bonus!– I could do it while drunk too!
Through the next decades when music, jobs….life nibbled away at my days, I always kept a simmering interest in motorcycles. The amazing advances of 4 stroke motors and suspension, Supercross exploding in the 90s,
The opium smell of Blendzall simmering in the air, the stench of a porta potty with leathers at your ankles and a race starting in three minutes. To walk the pits and check out bikes, talk shit with the other guys in your class, the tickle of a pebble in the sole of a stiff calf high boot-these are the things that live on in memory. Familiar as the song that played in the background when you, fumbling, first lost your virginity.
This year’s MotoBeach classic was joined by the RedBull Straight Rhythm race, a single half mile straight motocross track to be built atop the parking lot of Huntington Beach State beach. As we set up the pits Friday we glance up at the starting gate, thirty feet above our heads. The lanes are littered with insane triple and quad jumps, a section of whoops jutting up like the armored scales along a dragon’s back. But it is the wee oval track, mercifully free of jumps or dragons, that draws us old guys back to race. It is a chance to race around for a few glorious laps on dusty old trail bikes, sure. But more importantly, it is a day to reconnect with those sweet rituals of race day. A chance to walk around the pits once again, to suit up in kneepads and boots, attend a confusing riders meeting in the chill of dawn.
Chris and Tbone, fucking Schmidt. They all show up to join me in the pits. We’ve all hung out in dressing rooms in crumbling theatres, parking lots of roller rinks while punk rock riots raged and nights ended by police brutality. Yet we are here together, eating cold pizza and perched on folding chairs, thrilled to be here among MX pros and exotic bikes as if we were about to see The Jam reunite for a single sparkling gig. To be once again backstage while the headliners fly above us, though sadly in this arena the lads can’t sneak into their dressing rooms to steal their beer.
I see Roger fucking DeCoster in the KTM pits and freeze. It is like seeing Joe Strummer backstage in the flesh, an icon whose postered image has graced my bedroom wall, covered the bare studs of the garage as we clanged our way through those first awful practices.
I point my phone in his direction, trying to be sly about it, but he seems to sense his photo is being stolen once again. He scowls toward me and I snap the picture, content to be acknowledged for a moment, even in scorn.
We see the top riders walk past our meager pop up all day. Webb and Musquin, Barcia. The names I’ve followed only though the 52 inch Vizio, absolute masters of the track on a Saturday night as I sit in my recliner and can barely stay up past 9. They look small here, just kids really. But when they take to the track it is astounding, the sheer speed as they attack the whoops, the grace and precision as they take to the sky. On the last jump I watch as Ken Roczen casually whips his YZ sideways after an easy heat win. As the bike twists almost backwards under him he casually points at a fan in the grandstand, 30 feet in the air and feet hovering over the pegs, certain he will land with feline grace on 2 wheels.
I am reminded then of my own last few races back then, when I realized I would never have the otherworldly skill of the professional riders I lined up next to. Riders who seem to hover a millimeter above the bikes speeding below them, guiding them with sheer will. I would forever be a mid pack rider, just as this band would never attain the headliner status of our heroes, but remain a good solid support act. And that’s okay..
It’s enough to just be here, in the pits, or walking with guitar case in hand backstage, and feel part of something grander than can ever be described.
I miscalculated, and entered the vintage aircooled class. I had pictured other old guys on clapped out pigs, but when I pull to the line I am among hissing Bultacos and Champion framed Kawasaki twins, the riders clad in full leathers, left boots heavy with hotshoe.
But I remind myself I am here on the beach, riding on a track again, and the thrill and pulse of the starting line remains the same. Just as we have the honor of being allowed on a stage still. Even if gifted an opening slot by a headlining band who used to listen to us back when they were kids. The starter twirls the green flag above his head as he paces across the line, pointing at each of us in turn. I twist the throttle wide open and try to conjure Strummer within my helmet once again.
I start at the back and stay there, passing just a couple of guys who either stall out or slide wide on the blue grooved track. But I am grinning under that helmet, letting the back end slide out as I jump on the gas, singing a song that only I can hear. It’s over too fast, of course, and when I pass under the checkered flag I am already regretting taking off the gear and breaking down the pits. Letting this day go.
As I ride back through the pits I get a few people clapping toward me, just for virtue of being out there I guess. But then a couple guys point at my jersey and give me the thumbs up, for I have had the gall to wear my own merch today. Channel 3! Whoo!, yells one guy, pointing out my shirt to the child perched upon his shoulders. He turns his head up to shout up to his kid, over the roar of motorcycles over the roar of time rushing past us all.
That was a band I used to go see, he yells. They used to be great!
Ah, a night at the Hollywood Bowl. Sounded pretty good when you bought those tickets back in May, didn’t it? A warm Fall night out, maybe dinner at Musso & Franks before strolling up the hill. Dean&DeLuca charcuterie box balanced on your lap, a benevolent moon swimming an ocean of stars above. Music swells through the hills, and you think, by God, I love this city!
But then the date arrives. And as you squint at those tickets stuck to the side of the fridge, you think: Goddammit-The Hollywood Bowl!
The Bowl trip, that torturous ritual that all Southlanders must commit to once or twice a Summer. It comes down to the fucking parking, am I right? Mention that you are heading off to the Bowl, and you are answered with a roll of the eyes before being bombarded with a dozen ways to get there. A So Ca tradition, family secrets passed down through the generations on how to navigate to the Bowl. Guarded as closely as the recipe for Mom’s ambrosia or the knowing secret of that one Uncle, overly fond of giving horsey rides to the kids. Take the shuttle from Lakewood Mall yo! Park at Yamashiro and bring rollerblades. Stub Hub! Don’t go! There are whispers of a secret tunnel, from a hidden closet at The Magic Castle that leads directly to the lower boxes. You need only suffer an overpriced dinner and the indignity having the 3 of clubs plucked from behind your ear to access it.
But tonight I park at Hollywood & Highland and commit my aching knees to that pilgrimage up Highland. Joining the mass of Angelenos puffing their way up the hill, we need only horsehair whips to complete the sense of pilgrimage. The crowd is young, excited…….early. Here to see the opening band. It is a nice, if sweating, sense of community here, an air of celebration for the hometown heroes.
The Linda Lindas, yeah, you’ve seen them. On every magazine cover and festival poster, in social posts playing for massive crowds in Europe and Japan. Made the rounds of late night talk shows like Ricardo Montalban promoting a movie of the week. Yet each new level of fame has been taken with grace, and they look like they are having fun.
Full disclosure here, we’ve known this band for a while. We’ve shared the stage with them at Save Music in Chinatown shows, have posed for countless selfies with Eloise since she was…….. this tall.
The band seemed a rare jewel plucked from the dark depths of the pandemic. Not since Belinda and Jane crawled their way from the Masque up to the Bowl stage has there been such a story that we can all– punkers, So Callies- share pride in.
Oh, of course, with any band’s triumphs come the whispers from the shadows: Rumors that the act is too perfect, that they must be coached or lip-syncing, put together by ad agency or algorithm. And to be sure, they arrive at the right place and time and check off all of the boxes. Young. Female. As multi ethnic as a Benetton ad of the 90’s.
But it only takes a countoff and slashing chord, first shouts into the air to convince you of their conviction. The ladies play songs with compelling structure and dynamic, a joy that reminds us just why we are punks. And their musicianship easily rivals any aging punk band playing 40 year old songs (ahem). Unfairly perhaps, it was as if we had been waiting for these 4 wee girls to somehow save us from a dark cynical path that has threatened us like a slowly realized curse. Proof that there is a reward for madness endured
People have remarked that they’ve never seen anything like this, but of course youth is something of a grand tradition in punk rock. Stevie from Mad Society, the Red Kross kids of The Tourists, Venus with Unit III. Harley Flanagan bashing away behind the Stimulators at 12. Is it because a childlike wonder is just what is needed to cut through the bullshit of monetized art, of petty jealousies between bands, of migraine inducing thoughts of the future? To just play as though there is no school tomorrow?
Of course, back then Venus sang of sleepovers and how yucky beer was, not racist sexist boys or the importance of voting to protect our threatened personal rights. A reminder once again, of this very changing world.
And while I’m sorry these young women need to write such songs, I am happy that they want to.
Was it only back in May that Kimm and I reported to the Troubadour for the record release party? The room packed with every staffer from the wounded record business, looking in awe and emerald envy at the girls on stage. They played a joyous set on that storied little stage, and a Summer of dreams lay ahead of them just as soon as they were done with finals.
I climb the Bowl steps, each usher in turn squinting at my ticket before pointing me higher still. The boxes below are filling with families, kids with headphones already clamped over their young eardrums, ready for first concerts. Beyond the numbered seats now, up to the bench seating of upper loge, where the Alaskan Cedar planking has been worn smooth by generations of Angeleno butts. I gaze down at that scalloped band shell, to that stage where the Beatles played inaudibly to a shrieking mass. Where Hendrix chased out a Mamas and Papas crowd with piercing feedback. Where Morrison sang of LA women, where Richard Pryor turned a crowd against him in an instant.
The band comes on and the crowd cheers. Not just for them, it seems, but for all of it: this night, this place, this time.
The band is tiny from these seats, and I find myself watching the side screen, where tiny Eloise now looms large as a superhero, transformed gigantic by a single wonderful word.
And I think then, that this is it. How success in this business must be measured on how far away the artist is from your seat, how much dearer the ticket. How many more people discover the band that you guard jealously as your own.
But it feels like a triumph for us all, and I can only wish for them to go, to keep going, for us all. A blaze rendered to the horizon, sparked from a small stage in Chinatown.
55 minutes. That’s all I’ve slept when I am awakened by voices. I turn to see if it is Kimm, still awake, talking on his phone. Or perhaps mumbling through a nightmare, the one where he fights off the night demon torching his balls with a blowtorch. But he is snoring gently into his pillow in the bed next to mine.
Then another volley of conversation comes from the wall, from the room next door. 3:58 am, that’s what the clock says.
I get up to take a leak, navigating the anvil cases and 4 x 12 cabinets blocking my way. On my return, I put my head up to the wall and listen, trying to decipher the late night conversation next door.
I can only make out the mumbling pattern of consonant and vowel, the muted trombone speak of grown ups talking to a Peanuts character. I hear a clearing of throat, then the laughter of a woman-no, two women-and a man. There is the flick of a Bic lighter, silence, then a cough. Gah! I pull my head back from the wall with grim diagnosis: Tweakers.
The night earlier was grand, the first night up North in a good goddamn while with the lads from Field Day.
It’s been years since we’ve taken this familiar route, but soon we are lulled into the old rhythms of Interstate 5. The trip up the dustbowl spine of the state once more, the blasted landscape punctuated by the occasional signs accusing the governor of dumping almond grove water into the ocean. Nothing much changes along the 5, save the startling appearance of another block of Amazon warehouses among the condemned cattle. But soon the bay comes into view, and we roll down the windows to take in the salt perfumed breeze.
Ivy Room in Albany tonight, this side of the bay, saving us the humiliation of trying to cross that goddamned bridge on a Friday evening. It’s out first meeting with the Field Day crew, though Doug and I have been email tagging for months to plan out these gigs. We hug it up, one of those virtual friendships borne of social media that somehow become real. And though I am still confused by the Wikipedia entries of the comings and goings of Dag Nasty I recognize Peter as the chap perusing the menu of the Himalayan restaurant next door. I approach, say hello, then we compare notes on the indignities of air travel and the departed Daghouse forum.
We get up and roll out the Fear of Life set out once again. On the intro to Catholic Boy I try to match the muted downstrokes of the recording, but I simply cannot play that fast any more. I surrender to a lazy up and down strumming, as if fanning a cowboy hat over a glowing ember, willing it into flame.
Field Day get up then, Peter and Doug joined by a couple of ferocious musicians in Shay and Kevin on guitar and drums. They blast through the Dag hits, barely stopping to acknowledge breath or thirst, the earth’s very gravity. It is fierce and tuneful, the crowd responds in kind, the show is over in a blink. We are all talking and laughing then, jazzed on being out playing once again. The bar lights are suddenly switched on , shooing us all into the night.
But now the town is shut up tight, not even a 7-11 to grab some regret laden treats. We pull into the third rate motel off the 580, one of those Expedia picks that are succinctly reviewed with triple exclamation points (Nope!!!) and it all comes back to me. We accept that this is no place to leave stuff in the truck, and grimly start the last bonus load in of the night, stacking the gear into our cramped rooms. As we pass the lit and darkened windows, their curtains part slightly, inmates checking out the fresh fish. At one open door an old gent sits on an office chair, plucking at a worn acoustic between drags off the sativa packed corncob pipe lodged between his gums. I dare a peek over his shoulder and look into his room, and see he is in for the long haul: the room is piled with WalMart groceries, stacks of black garbage bags bulging with the detritus of a previous life either failed or escaped. A grey tabby rests upon the garbage bags shamelessly licking at her crotch, a goddess upon her throne of cumulonimbus clouds.
We load in, finally, then meet at a bank of vending machines for a late night snack. There is microwave popcorn and honey buns, cup noodles and Doritos. After briefly considering making a county jail style spread, we come to our senses and grab a sensible Kit Kat, head to our racks for a night of sleep.
For 55 minutes. **********
4:30 am now, and returning to sleep is impossible. For now I have become attuned to the rhythms of their drug addled conversation next door. I have come to believe the two women are newly acquainted, the man older than either of them. The ladies’ rapid fire dialogue is only occasionally interrupted by the basso profondo interjection of the man. Then a beat of silence, then a coughing fit of laughter. I fall into a trance, then, and it is not the talking but the rare lulls in their conversations that kill me. It is the torture of waiting for the next whoo! to break the silence.
Around 5 am I surrender and switch on the TV. The local PBS is rolling out old cooking shows, those late 80’s gems before the Food Network turned chefs into fucking Country music stars. Good old Jacques Pepin demonstrates how to debone and entire chicken through its asshole.
Yan Can Cook comes on next. Yan smiles and mugs for the cameras, shows the rotting insides of the Durian fruit before returning to the studio kitchen to slice up some stuff. This is what we are here for, and he knows it. Fuck the chef knife, Yan wields his trusty cleaver, and decimates all that he surveys. He chops with ferocious downstrokes, smiling up at the camera, mugging at us-it’s so easy, dummy!-his hand a blur. Old Yan, he juliennes everything before him save his calloused fingers.
As Yan chops away, I become aware of another sound, a matching beat to his chopping. I mute the sound on the TV. It is next door I am hearing, but not the rumbling dialogue that has haunted me thus far. The drug fueled discourse has been replaced with a more urgent human expression. There is a grunt, a singing hum, a single expression clear as a bell through the drywall: oh! Then it is a rhythmic pulse, the tick of bedspring and and tock headboard, the panting exhalations: the unmistakable sound of fucking. On the screen, Yan now flattens a clove of garlic with the flat of his blade. From next door comes the answer: Aye papi, papi! Now…now!
The fellas finally rouse me at checkout time, shaking me out of a fitful sleep that came only after daylight. Twisted dreams where Yan had chopped down a forest of broccoli, only after the people next door ingested the last of their treasures and spent the last of their bodily fluids.
The day out there is spectacular, though, and the bay breeze is delicious after the insane So Ca heat we’ve been sucking down for 2 weeks. We load all the gear back out to the truck, and after my final sweep of the room I purposely linger outside the room next door. I wonder if they might open the door then, if their faces can possibly match the hideous and wonderful features I have spent the night projecting upon those distant voices. I put an ear to the door but hear nothing, and I console myself that it is better this way. What is it they say? We should never really meet our heroes.
It is a straight shot to Sacramento for the next show, but we cannot resist the urge to visit the city. I mean, it’s right there!
Of course, there is the pesky thing called the Bay Bridge to navigate first, and the quick jaunt into the city takes most of the day. But really, who cares? What are we going to do with the day anyway- Sleep? Debone a chicken? Reproduce with diseased strangers? Lunch is at our old beloved Parkside, being the only place we figure we can grab a bite and still keep an eye on the gear. Our pal James meets up with us and we are soon stuffing our mouths with those famous tater tots.
We drive through North Beach then, and look longingly up at the top story of Vesuvios. There’s no way we can leave the gear out here on the streets of San Francisco though, so we drive on. We pass City Lights and I make a small discrete sign of the cross over my chest.
After dropping gear at the Colonial in Sacramento, we check into a Motel 6. Cheap but corporate, a couple steps up from last night’s circus. This one has a gate around it, parking passes to be displayed on the dash, not two but three warnings not to hang around outside the rooms late night smoking: The cops will be called, The room is sparse but clean and we have the luxury of an hour and a half before doors. I try to nap, but now I am maddened once again, for the room is too quiet. On the TV England is saying farewell to the Queen on every station, but I can find no one destroying vegetables. I put my head to the drywall and listen. I hear only the hum of water coursing through plumbing and suddenly I’ve never felt so alone. I cup my hands to my mouth and whisper into the wall then, hoping someone-anyone– will hear: Aye? Papi?
It’s a jolly crew at the Colonial Cafe tonight, and we are humbled to run into old and new fans. These people who have waited out these last few insane years to come on back out to the clubs. Third song up is You Make Me Feel Cheap, and our old mate Chris Shary jumps up on stage to sing it with me. He does his wild Saint Vitus dance then, stomping the stage with raised knees , reaching wildly above his head as if gathering the last fireflies of the summer.
It is Saturday night, and I get to stand on a stage with a guitar in hand once again. We play Catholic Boy, and I urge my wrist down upon the strings, harder and faster, conjuring the carefree downstrokes of my past. My wrist blurs, as if holding an 8 inch cleaver and making it sing upon the cutting board.
And when I turn to the microphone, it is not verse or chorus that comes from my mouth, but a more primal sound. Ugh, I sing. Aye. Wordlessly pleading, as if urging an amphetemined lover to climax, at last, so we can finally go to sleep.
We let the final chord of I Wanna Know Why ring out, vamping it out with a storm of crash cymbals and dissonant guitar leads. We turn to each other, shrug, then bring it to a dead stop. Like putting down a wounded animal with a merciful bullet to the skull.
Time! I call out as Kimm checks the timer on his cell. “Thirty three and ten,” Kimm says, holding up his Iphone. Fuck.
Anthony opens the studio door, and even this humid heatwave night tastes delicious compared to the County Jail stank of the rehearsal room. We stumble into the parking lot, gasping for air like stranded mudskippers, our clothes soaked as if we’d just been rescued from a shipwreck.
We’ve been trying to relearn the Fear of Life album, both sides in order: no stops, two and half seconds between songs. 23 minutes, 35 seconds, that’s what they tell us the original playing time is of this record, yet we still can’t get it under thirty minutes. Perhaps it is our constant goof ups, or the wheezing I do between songs, hands on knees, cursing that nineteen year old dick who had to write so many fucking words, and shouted them way too fast.
The record is 41 years old. But of course that pesky little worldwide pandemic put a damper on a proper 40th anniversary, so the plan is to commemorate it now, asterisked by Covid like a home run record smudged by steroid use. We find ourselves in a race against our younger selves now. Trying to compete with those determined and beer drunk children. Them;They: they wrote those first ten songs on the shag carpet of their bedroom floors, innocent of every thrill and heartbreak that lay ahead of them.
Most of the songs come back easily enough. Hell, we’ve played Catholic Boy and Manzanar almost every set for fucking four decades. But we take a moment to listen to the original tracks, Nick holding his YouTube loaded phone up to prove we are playing one too fast, the other too slow. I try to match the impossible downstrokes, only to awaken insidious roots of arthritis climbing through my wrist.
We get to Double Standard Boys, and realize we have never played this track live. After failing to identify a proper key we resort once again to the internet. Sure enough, there is a tutorial on how to play the song. That our teacher is wearing a Duck head means nothing; I am just grateful he keeps his pants on and the clip doesn’t dissolve into some bizarre furry Only Fans episode.
When I pull up to Alex’s it is packing. Surprising, as we are in the middle of a suffocating tropical heat wave. Hot, that’s all anyone can yap about the past week, the news anchors giving us handy little tips on How to Stay Cool: Stay indoors, hydrate, save electricity by masturbating to old Penthouse magazines. Fuck that brother, these people are here to drink beer and howl along to punk rock. Dance while the wounded planet tries to shake us loose by turning up the heat.
It’s a matinee show, my favorite thing lately. We can play and be done before the sun surrenders to the horizon, be home and showered before the first dragon appears on the latest awful Game of Thrones prequel.
The big top tent remains outside of Alex’s, one sweet benefit of those virus years. Everyone is smiling, damn glad to be out among friends, even in the thick heat. Tacos grilling, ukulele music going, Decry heating things up inside.
When I pull the Rickenbacker out of its case the neck already feels gummed, the strings corroded with dried sweat from the practice sessions. As I tune up I try to remember the lyrics, those words four decades old. Verses all mixed up in my head, along with the grocery list for the week and passwords for a dozen websites, my locker combination from Faye Ross Junior High. I consider the limited capacity under my graying hair, the countless motocross crashes and drunken stunts that resulted in only head injury and skinned palms. I ask you: a teleprompter in a punk rock band–would it really be so bad?
Out of Control, that’s an easy enough opener, though a song we’ve relegated to the minors for the past few years. A pedestrian rocker in a standard 12 bar costume, it’s a song that we’ve played with an eyeroll and a groan, nobody’s favorite
But this time it seems different–we play it with a renewed focus, in context of the whole. Kimm and Ant bark the answer lines, Nick pounds out the backbeat with urgency. We finish it and roll into Accident, and now people in the room come forward. It seems to call to some past memory, of being a teenager and sitting on a couch while vinyl spins on a turntable across the room. Friends and music, together. A lyric sheet is held on lap, an album sleeve is covered with seeds and stems on a cluttered coffee table.
We roll into Make Me Feel Cheap then, and I can see people smiling, nodding their silver and balding heads. Household pets, all of us, yet aware of our wild ancestors who howled at the moon and feasted on sweet human flesh: it’s still there.
Fear of Life follows Wetspots, that pesky little ode to precum. We’ve finished side one, and we’re ahead of schedule. We’ve been playing the songs too fast perhaps, driven on by adrenaline and sheer momentum. Breathe, I remind myself. Hydrate. Enjoy this fucking thing.
I squint down at the setlist at my feet, then have to crouch down to make out the blurred print. Life Goes On, that’s the song that starts Side Two. I am back at Brian Elliot’s studio, a teen in OP shorts, listening to the playbacks and witnessing the lost art that was called song sequencing. Jay Lansford sliding the candy colored faders, Robbie Fields pinching the bridge of his nose as he listens. Posh turns back from the board and grins at me, cleverly answering the previous track’s cocking gun and final tragic denouement with this hopeful pop song.
Manzanar next, and we kill it: we’ve found a pocket that’s been lost for years. Strength in Numbers then, a song that has got astonishing online plays due solely to an eight second background play on Netflix’ Stranger Things. And though I have to question that doomed hesher Billy having the good taste to blast the track between his Scorpions mixtapes, we’ll take it.
And now it’s time to play Double Standard, and before we count off I turn back to Nick and nod. He clocks my pleading eyes: play it slow please.
We get through it alright, all the lyrics remembered if not slurred and blurred. But before I can catch a breath we are into You Lie, and the whole thing is almost done.
Only I Wanna Know Why is left to play. And the room is on our side, all of us in another day, of phone numbers known by heart, clove cigarettes shared in the alley, black beauties sniffed out of the pocket betwixt forefinger and thumb.
We finish, ten songs done, an album of our youth revisited. I turn to Kimm, raise an eyebrow and point to his wristwatch, but it doesn’t matter. We are no longer in a race with the past, but have somehow conjured it up in a thirty minute visit. Like a brief conversation with the ghost of friend gone too soon.
My Grandmother, Bachan, answered the knocking, only to find it wasn’t knuckles upon door she heard, but a 11 x 17 placard being nailed into the clapboard siding of their Delano home. INSTRUCTIONS To ALL MEMBERS OF JAPANESE ANCESTORY it began, the print scrolling smaller as it continued down, the words shrinking as their intentions grew more evil. Bachan stood on tip toe and looked closely at the words, her nose almost touching the paper. Sounding out each English word aloud in whisper, she thinks she is surely misunderstanding the instructions of eviction. By the time my teenaged Mom came out to the porch and read it for her, their life was already slipping away..
I ride through the historic main gate, stop at the small guard station where a ranger hands me a map of the grounds. He takes a look at the Pirelli big block tires on the Honda and, grinning, points to one of the multiple signs reminding visitors to Not Go Off Road. The skies are darkened by fire smoke, the sun reddened as if blushing in embarrassment. The atmosphere is heavy and hellish, but feels somehow fitting as I start riding along the paved trails. Good, I think. I would hate to see this place on a beautiful day.
It is, shamefully, my first visit to this place. Long ago, we recorded a song titled Manzanar, a rough 130 second song about Japanese internment. People sometimes tag me or the band in photos of the place. A quick stop off Highway 395, maybe on their way to or from a weekend of skiing the fine powders at Mammoth. They take a moment out of their hilarious vacations for a somber look into America’s shadow. #CH3 yo!, they might tag under a photo of them posing by the gates. Or, ….in fact in your own back yard! captioning a selfie in front of the barracks, a nod to one of the lyrics. In the comments, people chime in that they first learned of the place and that chapter of history from the song. It’s humbling and appreciated, and I can sometimes convince myself that I wrote those words as 19 year old to teach my fellow punks of our true capacity for brutality, and not just because I needed a three syllable title to match Kimm’s bitchin’ riff.
They were told to take only what they could carry, leaving behind their furniture and home, report to a bus station. Go somewhere else. Bachan fretted over the weight of the tetsubin, if she could bring her bowls and cups. Mom assured her they would carry the iron teapot for her, though the lacquered rice bowls would have to stay. Grandpa took a lantern with him to the vineyards that night, his Japanese ceremonial swords bundled in burlap like a tragically deceased infant in a burial shroud. He dug a hole, then dropped the swords into the Earth, taking stock of the grave from every vantage in the futile hope he would someday be back to retrieve them. He smoothed the dirt beside the grapevines he had tended just that morning but would never see harvested, their fruit still green and bitter.
The visitor center is closed, but the few restored buildings and exhibits open. The barracks impressively present camp life of the day. There are large photo walls and plaques filled with paragraphs of history.
But I am drawn to the still tableau of daily life here. A matchbox sits on a shelf of bare wall stud. A blanket hangs over a clothesline, the only privacy afforded between whole families. There, a long handled mochi mallet sits in its tub, and I imagine the rhythmic pounding on New Years Eve, making rice cakes for the traditional New Years feast. The wind howling through cracks in tar paper, the grim smiles trying to insist holiday and tradition upon life while being held prisoner in their own homeland.
I ride around the compound and stop at each of the exhibits. The floors are clean, the beds all made. It seems almost quaint, like a rustic resort, and I imagine if they put up string lights and sold hard cider the place could be a hot hipster glampsite.
But it is beyond the immaculately presented buildings, just past the landscaped walks of raked gravel that the moaning past seems to truly exist. It is there, on the naked concrete slabs that still dot the grounds. Cracked foundations, the bones of their buildings long since crumbled. These outnumber the restored buildings, and they lay flat against the desert dust, unremarkable markers of lives shattered and held. In the graveyard in the dusty back field, the cemetery obelisk shrine stands white against Mount Whitney, barely visible from ash-heavy winds.
There are some interactive exhibits in the barracks, handsets you hold to your ear while looking through a photo album or diary. When you push a button you hear a voice: a past resident telling of their experience here. I listen as a woman tells of arriving at the camp as a young teen. It was cold. The muslin blanket she is handed so loosely woven she could peer through it at the weak winter sun.
Suddenly, it is my own mother I am hearing, those stories she told of her own first night so far from home. They were sent down to Camp Jerome, down in the swamps of Arkansas for the duration of the war, an even worse fate than being at least still in California, I always thought. When she would tell us stories of camp dances and group dinners at long tables, and it sounded fun to us children. But now I think of it from a Father’s perspective. Her parents, Grandpa and Bachan, surviving the indignities of each day. The good natured cheer they tried to bring to their family in prison, the underlying rage that had to boil, hidden just beneath an expected serene Japanese façade. I have to hang up, for I can’t think of my mother, and her mother, come back to me in this way.
The night before they were to report to the bus my mother lay awake. She sat at the sound of muffled voices outside, then raised a corner of the window shade by her bed. Out in the street were two battered trucks, men standing in a tight circle. Smoking, spitting. The glowing red tips of their inhaled cigarettes floating like fireflies, their weathered faces illuminated briefly by match strike. Mom said it was the Okies, waiting to come in when they left. To squat in the vacated home, go through the closets and sniff at the strange pantry. Shreds of dried seaweed are tasted then spit onto Grandma’s immaculate kitchen floor.
By the time Mom and her family were riding the bus to Santa Anita racetrack, the house is already cleared of clothes and hardware. When they finally lay down to sleep in a horse stable that night, sharing with another family the space usually reserved for one thoroughbred gelding, dusty overalls sit upon their couch back in Delano. Everclear alcohol splashed into Bachan’s prized lacquered tea cups, the fine paint already weeping. But my Mom, telling the story again after we pestered her to relive it again, she never really blamed those poor white people coming in and taking their things. They were just another tribe fucked over and set to wander, though saved the indignity of barbed wire by color of skin and crease of eyelid
In each of the halls I am joined by a few other visitors. Everyone is masked and quiet, taking in the exhibits with hands clasped behind their backs or hands cupping their chins in thought, all in silent reverence. Suddenly all I want, now, is sound. Yelling or even laughter. A roaring humbucker pickup buzzing through 100 watts of tube amplifier, an open E chord struck with windmilled fury. Anything to break this spell of stillness, to shatter it all and to name this place for what it really was.
Leaving, I go off pavement and take the back fire road behind the cemetery. I switch off the traction control and ABS, and paddle down to first and fucking gun it. The back end swings sideways with loss of traction then suddenly hooks up, and I go through the gears short shifting, getting the hell out of there. When I look in my side view, I do not see the expected ranger truck chasing me, no lights or siren. No one cares that I am gone. I see only dust. Dust rising, rising like earthbound spirits finally freed.
We get to the Port damn early, pulling into the backstage parking lot before the morning mist has yet to lift from the harbor. A huge tanker chugs past, like a block long condominium set adrift by a jolting shrug of the San Andreas fault. I pause a moment, guitar case in hand, as we unload. I squint up at the stacks of containers moving past, then down to the waterline where the filthy port water is churned turquoise by the prow of the ship. Propelled forward by submerged violence, I wonder at the sheer horsepower generated within that steel hull. The miracle of fuel re-imagined as power, the massive screws twisting endlessly in battle against distance and time.
Nick got there even earlier, and has already staked out a prime spot near the stage. We have room for not only our pop-up and merch table, but also for Nick’s straight axle gasser, Dethtrap.
It gives our staked space the cool feeling of being back in the pits, of those 1970’s evenings out at Ascot or Orange County International Raceway, where we would race under the lights on the tight MX track while just beyond a chain link fence the garage built cars smoked their tires. The night air perfumed with the acrid sweet funk of melting rubber.
We’ve pulled an early set time, but that’s okay. It’s just a thrill to be back here at a festival, though Tucker went through hell pulling this one off. Through re schedules and band changes, the fest remained a torn flag on the horizon, a beacon to end this nutso Summer. There is still the delicious vibe of chaos going on. But the bands are indeed piling in and the stages have been set, and it looks like against all odds this thing is going to launch. We get up there and do the thing:
We play alright, though it it is always interesting to air our setlist under the midday sun. Forty year old songs of longing and desperation, nocturnal as raccoons. Perhaps they are better suited to the late nights in sweaty nightclubs?
I wander the festival grounds, the vast space starting to fill in with all the people who have sensibly arrived after our set. People come up and apologize for missing us, ask how it was. I assure them it’s all good, though a shame they have missed one of our all time great performances. We walk away from each other, each reassured by the white lie, faces intact.
Familiar faces everywhere, there is a sense of relief in the air. The lines snaking up to the food trucks start growing long, the port a potties start reeking with their astonishing stench. By god, it is a music festival after all!
Back at the merch stand we huddle beneath the pop up, watch as Paul grumpily rejects another potential customer. We don’t have that one in that size he repeats yet again. But most people stop by not to look at our meager selection of T shirts, but at the car. Nick stands by Dethtrap like a proud papa, pulling the pins to tilt forward the hood again and again to show off his build. A mild ’61 Dart repowered and rebuilt to 357 cubic inches of primitive power, 500 horsepower atop a 2900 pound car. It is Southern California. As people stop and look at the car, the sight of it seems to conjure sweet memories of their own late nights in the garage. Huddled over engines or flat backed underneath: a pal’s reassuring hands gripped upon their ankles to pull them out on the dolly, a four speed transmission cradled heavy upon chest, precious as an unexploded ordnance.
My brother JB comes by and I watch as he and Nick talk, and I know he is telling the story of his own ’72 Nova that he built and rebuilt, the most notable marker of his high school life.
And those memories are mine as well. The nights pestering him for a look by shop light at the hulking big block, until he would finally send me to a corner of the garage with valve seating compound and a suction tipped wand to grind down the valve seats on a cracked head. I haven’t thought of such things in decades, but I am instantly back in that Cerritos garage, long before we had the notion to egg carton the walls and turn up the amps. I smell the upturned hubcaps filled with gasoline to soak dirty parts, hear the clatter of tools dropped out of reach and the string of cuss words that followed.
The three stages go non stop and the crowd sweeps back and forth with each changeover. Every set seems a victory against the threat of a shutdown, under broken security lines or viral load. The day gains terrific momentum, like pistons unleashed of gravity, sending propulsion to crankshaft with each miraculous ballet of intake and compression, ignition and exhaust.
The HoeDown lineup features several acts that tend toward rockabilly and sleaze rock, their mirrored audience looking like a generation longing for the days of leaded fuel and cigarette machines at full service gas stations. Pinup dreamboats that look like they should be perched atop the classic rods and the greasy haired rockers who look like they should be underneath in the grease pit.
Back in the pits, another crowd has gathered around the gasser. Marshall, my old pal who spent his career as a Ford mechanic, comes by and looks it over grimly, like a man who’d be happy to never peer at another greasy motor in his retired life. But then Nick opens the hood and Marshall grins, and he goes, aw jeez, what have you done here….and then they are both pointing and talking.
An old punker stops in front of the car. In typical uniform, short pants and Vans, a faded Suicidal Tendencies Tshirt washed thin through the years and stretched tight over expanded waistline. He holds hands with a young boy, and though I first assume it his son, I do a quick calculation and realize he is my age, and therefore that is a grandson.
His eyes come alive with memories of past cars, the sweet torture of working part time jobs and counting a pile of soft bills weekly until he could buy his own ride And then, in the time honored tradition of So Ca Speed, he starts customizing. We take what we love and then immediately want to change it. Faster, and louder.
The boy squints at the gleaming motorwork and tilts his head in wonder. He has looked under a hood but once, that at his Mom’s Mercedes E Class wagon. He discovered only a bland sheath of plastic cowling covering a small city of computers and injectors. He knows only of the sewing machine efficiency of vehicles, bland couches that transport him to soccer practice, silent as a block in solitary.
PopPop points at the motor excitedly, relieved to finally show his grandson these things, to be able to explain how the gas goes from there, and mixes with the air here, and explodes there, and exhaust comes out there.
“That?” he asks in response to his grandson’s whispered question. He squats until his face is level with the child’s. They both point to the chrome contraption crowning the motor. “That’s a carburetor,” he says, as if showing his grandson the last of a near extinct seabird.
And later this night, he will hold his grandson upon his shoulder as the pit rages for Suicidal, and the boy will look wide eyed at the sweet violence, pure as the blue spark that ignites gasoline and propels us onward.