Sing Me a Story

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

Mom returns!

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.

Boom.

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.

Please click on the link and donate to this great cause:
SIng Me a Story

Our Last Gig: Packed like Sardines

Albert Licano photo

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.

Love Equal Death

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.

Lorrie Smith photo

After Love=Death slays with their high energy melodic take, our Spider men take stage and do their thing.

Albert Licano live photos

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?”

Lorrie Smith photo

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.

Backstage at MotoBeach

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!


Take the Lindas Bowling

Martin Wong Photos

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?

Flipside photo

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.

No Sleep til Sacto

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.

@Digdivi Photos

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.

Field Day
@Digdivi Photo


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.

Robert Taylor photos
Robert Taylor Photos

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.

Fear and Life at Alex’s Bar

Edward Colver photo

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.

Brian Walsby art

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.

Happy tenth Dead Rockers!

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.

Live shots: Albert Licano @jerryskid1 photos

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.

Escape from Manzanar

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.

The OC Fair

Arab meets us at Gate 4 in his golf cart, points us into a parking spot 10 meters from the back entrance to the fair. As a favor among old punk rockers, he has allowed us a space in the crew lot.
I watch as he pulls the barricade shut behind us, disappointing a line of cars that have slowed in hopes of joining us here among the tour buses and amphitheater staff cars.
Arab waves them on, sending them to the back recesses of the parking lot, miles from the entrance.
And at my age, this parking space thrills me.
I am tempted to spend the evening in Kimm’s Yukon, isolated and safe from the teeming crowds, cracking the window only to hear Cheap Trick play Surrender in the distance.


Beyond me the lights of the fair rides sparkle in the twilight.
There is the shriek of children pitching down the banked curve of rollercoaster, there is the smell of meat smoking over open flame.
Ghastly concoctions are deep fried in oil and sprinkled with powdered sugar, ingested in the name of Summer, of being goddamned alive and once again at the OC Fair.

It is ritual, this walking tour of Americana nestled within the confines of Orange County.
It is the one month of the year, in the dead doldrums of Summer, that we can drop our cynical armor and march, like mesmerized chickens, toward the bright lights.
We imagine the thrill of the circus come to town, a brief escape from brutal and honest work in the fields.
We can pretend to be the earnest and the good, washed shiny and clutching at our nickels.
Toward the exhibit halls packed with hopeful baked goods and artsy craftsy photographs, past the pens filled with prized chickens and sheep, the best of the county offered to be judged.


It is my second visit to this year’s fair, having gone to see X play a couple weeks back.


I make a beeline for the Centennial Farm to check on the piglets, and am shocked to see how fat the little fuckers have gotten in my absence.
Truffles, a slutty Yorkshire sow lays defeated in the sawdust, eleven greedy children nursing on her chafed teats.
They eat like, well, pigs.
It reminds me to join in their gluttony, and we traipse off toward the food stands.

Oh, the food!
they say, your coworkers when you tell them you are knocking off early to go to the fair.
They list their top five favorites and allow you to leave only after you promise to eat one of each for them.
But let’s be honest here; the food is pretty crappy and crazily overpriced.
It is this setting, after all, that makes the food come alive.
Eating on shared benches with open mouthed strangers, the air wafted with goat shit from the nearby 4H exhibits.

We eat corn barbecued black at five dollars an ear.
Pork chops are sold, but with a carnival twist of being on a stick, forcing us to lap with extended tongue as if upon pork lollipops.
Sausages that have been cooking for five hours straight are sold to us for fourteen dollars.
They are oversized, and this being the Fair, each sausage is also wrapped in bacon.
The meat is vicious, dried out and bland, but eating it here on a picnic bench under the purple sky it is delicious.

For dessert there are ungodly treats battered and fried, combinations dreamed up by either madmen or stoned Junior High school children.
Oreo cookies are not only deep fried but again wrapped in bacon, dipped in chocolate, powdered with sugar.
They are served, naturally, on a stick.

I take a bite and it is America, obscene and victorious.

We stumble to our seats in the amphitheater, dazed by the smoked meats and fried sugar, herded into a sold out 8000 seat arena with not a mask in sight.
There is a passable Blue Oyster Cult tribute act on stage, and it take a couple songs to understand that, no, that is Blue Oyster Cult playing.
Two surviving old guys joined by a couple new young guys, a lineup that makes me feel for some reason familiarly queasy.
But god bless ’em, they roll into the set closer of Reaper without a mention of Will Ferrell or doing a cowbell schtick, and then it is intermission.

A beach ball floats over the crowd now, people return to their seats double fisting beers.
We will have a normal Summer, the scene says. Even if it goddamned kills us.
Outside the amphitheater there are roars of terrible hydraulics, another set of hardy riders launched skyward on some insane ride, anything to escape the grim realties of our Earthbound existence.
They are, for at least a single moment, weightless.

A stranger next to be fist bumps me, yells Cheap Trick, whooo! into the night sky.
I try not to think of the odds of airborne virus in this place, the random gift of disease raining down as casually as a beach ball swatted from one filthy hand to the next.

But the people here are happy, thrilled to be out, and I am ashamed of sitting among them with such thoughts.
It is a Summer evening amidst the lights, and for the moment anyway, we can all pretend everything is quite fine, or soon will be.
Cheap Trick come on, the familiar strum of Hello There ringing out and the crowd goes fucking wild.
And though I usually refuse to stand during these things, I am on my feet with the rest of the crowd, shouting Hello There right back to Robin and Rick.


They are joined tonight by not only Rick’s kid on drums, but Robin’s son on bass, who nails each of those pure sweet high notes of his Pop.
Ah, I think.
They have cracked the problem of longevity by simply handing down their setlist to the next generation, able to book shows into the next century with their legacy upheld.

The show ends right at ten.
The curfew imposed by the same neighbors who make the jets take off at crazy angles from nearby John Wayne airport, settling you back into your economy seat of Frontier airlines with palpable G force, your balls squeezed tight as on any badly maintained carnival ride.

As we file out we take one last look at the livestock, check in on the piglets who amazingly have seemed to grow even fatter since we arrived earlier today.
One spotted little fellow roots up close to my Conversed foot, and I dare to reach through the slats and stroke him behind his pointy ear.
He snuffles with glee, and looks up at me with canine affection, and all is right in this world.

Next year, god willing, we will return yet again to the fairgrounds.
Returned to the ritual, the memory of tonight’s heartburn and inevitable nausea long forgotten.
We’ll walk through the same Halls of Products, eat the same salty food, perhaps try the latest deep fried combinaton of chocolate and bacon on a dare.
And we will return to the pens once more, and seek out our porcine friends.
Be they now exhausted mothers themselves, with greedy piglets nursing in a row.
Or perhaps they will be nourishing us further down the midway, gloriously smoked or deep fried.
Impaled in their blue ribbon glory, America on a stick.






Riding the Rails I

The 12:27 Blackpool North to Leeds.Train

We face backward, the scenery fading away from view.
As if we are rewinding an old 8 mm movie or falling back in time, reviewing our barely visible youth on the horizon.

Ant comes back from the bar car, cheese and onion sandwich and a Strongbow.  He tries to nudge Nick to let him back in the window seat, but Nicky just shifts in his nap and spreads out further.  Anthony shrugs at me and takes the empty row across the aisle.

Kimm taps on his keyboard to my right, Beanie is a few rows up, head visibly bobbing to whatever the earbuds feed his head.  I put on my own headphones now and Bluetooth the phone, shuffle songs by The Beautiful South.

I look behind to an empty row and tilt the seat back, a luxury I never claim on a plane.
I refuse to ever tilt the seat back a single degree in hilarious battle: a passive aggressive show of respect to my fellow man, a courtesy that is never rewarded back to me.
A 3 foot tall child inevitably gets the seat in front of me, his evil little legs unable to even reach the stained carpet.
As we reach cruising altitude, he proceeds to launch the seat back into my knees, the audible crunch of patella like a framed photograph destroyed beneath the boot of a jealous lover.

As the lilting strains of Bell Bottomed Tear come on, I slip on the Wayfarers.  Take a sip of Earl Grey and watch the  hills moving away from me.  Their green is deepened by the clouds above, an emerald carpet punctuated only by dots of sheep.

Fuck, I love a train ride.

And the stations.
In this day where banks are reduced to storefront ATM cages and churches pop up in abandoned industrial tilt ups, you can count on the train station still catching your eye on the horizon.
A spire or clock still standing defiant amidst the cranes that seem to infest every city, like a congregation of giant robot mantises just waiting to bend down for another bite.

Still lovely on the outside in granite and gilt, guarded by patinated gargoyles or saints.
And though usually garish inside with the tattoo of modern commerce, you can just squint past the Subway and Boots signage and see its stately history.

The small stations in the countryside, outposts of connection placed among outrageous green. 
Here, a pause in the journey, a garbled announcement on the PA system reads off a list of towns undecipherable. 
We stand, sit, and stand again, ask each other if this is where we transfer.  We put the guitars back in the racks and sit back down, only to repeat this comedy routine at the next stop.

Perhaps the best part of train travel is the absence of airport torture.
The lack of the TSA queue–or any of the overbearing corralling of the airport- makes us feel like we are finally grown ups, held accountable for our own scheduling.
Third graders finally allowed to walk to school by themselves.

The split-flap board scrolls yet again, and you gather up bags and rush toward your track with a delicious tinge of espionage.

Find the proper car class and simply get on,  grab a seat.
See? You did it all by yourself.

Who’s a big boy? You are!

Helsinki
Central Station Helsinki

Doors hiss shut and there is that exquisite moment of lag between pause and motion.
You move away, slowly, the high ceilings of the station finally surrendering to the gray skies above.

You can’t help but be reminded of black and white cinematic images, the bellowing steam giving way to a couple kissing farewell.
Pearls and overcoats, a final look back before handing a porter her bag.
There is a wave through an open window, and then distance between the two lovers.
Each now considering their new lives without the other.

Riding the Rails II

I’ve dozed, and jolt awake when we pull into New Pudsey station.

The car is crowded now, and I’m grateful my gangly legs and naptime drooling has kept the seat next to me vacant. I take out my phone, start a new playlist, shake my head to wake up and look about.

Beanie is in a seat across the aisle and one up from me.
He’s wearing all red today.
Pants, shirt, jacket. Socks. Everything.
The costume is tight on his thin frame, making him look like a villain from the DC comics universe, intent on kidnapping then eventually being destroyed by Batman.

Good natured to a fault, we like having Beanie along for the ride.
When we all get in that pissy mid tour mood, you can always count on Beanie to lighten up the room.
Backstage and grumpy, staring at our phones, he barges in and tells us we have to come look at the full moon hanging above Milan.

He hustles the merch, often shilling leftover shirts in the wrong sizes to fans who walk away broke and puzzled, wearing XXXL Indian Summer shirts like mumus.
And they were looking for Naked Aggression merch in the first place.

He’s squished against the window beside a large fellow, but cheerfully nodding to the frantic beats coming through his headphones, watching the green hills roll by.

He turns to his seatmate to point out a squirrel or maybe an outhouse, immediately spills a half can of Scrumpys Cider between the seats.
The big man half jumps up away from the spill, then nods to the aisle.
“Go on, go through then,” he says.
In his coarse northern accent it comes out gah froo den.

Beanie gets up to fetch some paper towels, and I am tempted to offer the guy my seat,  lest he break Beanie in half.  His forearms are thick as unsplit cords, covered in blurry mirrored lions.
Tattoos of the miserable football club that will let him down yet again this year.

But in a moment Beanie is back, paper towels and a new can of cider for each of them.
I watch them chat a bit then touch cans in toast. Soon Beanie has his phone out and is showing the chap photos of his dear departed Mackie.
The two of them now laughing at a video of the Terrier mounting then destroying another pillow.

People shut off their Ipads, finally break their gaze at the phones in their laps and just stare out the window at the land going by.
I watch them watching, see them taking in this rare moment of quiet without, alone with the scenery and their thoughts.

When they touch their phones again, it’s not to check their useless Instagram feed but to snap a photo.
Lamb noshing on turf; Cathedral spire lording over a thicket of Alders.
They picture themselves back home, Happy Hour at LoConda Verde, pulling out their phones and showing these shots to friends.
Knowing they can never put this into words.

Hell. The only time you see photos taken on a flight is when the passengers are collectively recording an Air Marshal dragging an overbooked passenger down the aisle, screaming and bleeding as he clutches at their ankles.

Now I take in all my fellow passengers, spying openly.
I gift them personalities and lives befitting my perception from this rear seat.

This guy, man on his way to break it off with his mistress: he twists the gold band around his finger clockwise as if shutting off a faucet.
The old woman crocheting on the aisle? Wearing a discreet half kilo of brown heroin tight against her pantyhosed thigh.

Here we have a young Vicar returning to his flock after a cleansing weekend in Ibiza, no secret save the bejeweld butt plug that twinkles just inside his boxer briefs.
That bored Bulgarian teen taps on a labeled ice chest, delivering a sparkling cornea to St. James.
A cloudy eyed widower waits to look upon his son one last time.

And what of us, our group?
Members of a third rated Cirque troop, heading to a muddy field just outside of town.
Me, I throw knives at a leotarded gal named Isla.

People are starting to gather their things, make their way to the doors as the countryside gives way to the gravel and concrete of the city.
I watch a young woman, maybe drinking age, get up.
She’s dressed defiantly, Doc Martins and torn tights, a rainbow tie dyed MDC shirt leading up to her harsh angular haircut. She got on in Manchester with some of the other people returning from Pride weekend. She pulls a black backpack off the rack, walks past me and waits for the train to stop, the door to slide open.

I’m writing this in the future. These people, that train ride, all in my past.
Just waiting for a miserable year to finally release its claws and slip back to hell.

To ride on a train again.
Through a foreign country, surrounded by strangers, sharing the same harmless air.

I would even welcome the brat behind me a whole 12 hour Trans Atlantic flight.
Kicking at my Upper Economy seat since Heathrow, yet I vow to smile at the kid as he hangs over my headrest and stares at me upside down for the whole approach into LAX.

Please Lord.
I will gladly take the middle seat between the Herbalife sales lady and the silent farter.
Just let me go, let me wander once again. I’ll be better.

Leeds station, the others trot off with guitars in one hand, wheeling luggage behind. Beanie balances a cardboard box of the merch on his head, walks his way through the train station with the practiced gait of a Mumbai porter.

I take a moment, use the excuse of kneeling to lace a Converse.
I see the girl who got off the train first.

A man and woman come to her.
She brings a hand to her mouth, then hugs her mother.
The girl raises her head to look at her dad over her mum’s shoulder.
The dad wipes a tear from his eye with a thick thumb, then envelops them both.

I finally have to look away.
I am intruding on something real, in the middle of the station, in the shadow of the Northern Line.
I cannot resist and look back again.

They start shuffling sideways, laughing now as they try to walk while still hugging.
Trying to travel, without letting go of each other.