This is a lesson that would serve us well during the period of our tour colloquially known as “Hell Week,” which was generally accepted as stretching from April the 1st to April the 5th. Some would say that really only the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of the month were the true “Hell Week,” but whatever the particular definition, it was a much-feared stretch. The most consistently baffling thing to the traveling American indie rocker has always been the proper way to navigate from the upper Midwest to the West Coast. Along the southern part of our country, it is easy; reputable punk outposts in such cities as El Paso, Texas, Phoenix or Tucson, Ariz., Santa Fe, N.M., Reno, Nev., etc. make it pretty easy to plot an itinerary that will be low-stress and high-reward. Further north, the proper course of action becomes less obvious. The most popular route, as near as I can tell, depends on cities such as Denver, Colo., Lincoln or Omaha, Neb., Salt Lake City and then a long haul to the Pacific Northwest, which might take advantage of Spokane or Boise or whatever. The SXSW music conference took this option off the table for us. So what to do with the 1700+ miles between the major markets of Minneapolis, Minn. and Vancouver? We took this is an opportunity to finally visit the Dakotas, as well as Missoula, Mont. To accomplish this, though, while still adhering to our childish obsession with taking no days off, we committed ourselves to three days of 10+ hour drives. This is to say nothing of venturing into more-or-less uncharted territory for our organization. We have played in Missoula once before, to an audience of about ten, but other than that, it was all a mystery. What was to become of us?
It got off to an inauspicious beginning in Vancouver, where we were the victims of anti-American slighting, or maybe just crusty anti-everythingism. You see, we have taken to flying the glorious banner of our United States on stage, in an effort to re-appropriate it and emphasize the positive and admirable qualities of our country and the nobler values on which it was founded. You know, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all that noise. Important stuff, I’d say, especially to punks, and perhaps by behaving as punks in front of Old Glory, we can suggest that punks must never give up on the promise of our Constitution, as much as it has been dragged through the mud by our enemies throughout the ages. Anti-Flag says “Fuck the Flag,” but we think it better to say, “Fuck those who would have us forget or abandon what our flag really means.” Know what I am saying? Anyway, perhaps our message was getting across, as in Portland the night before, we received a gift of a particularly battered set of stars and stripes from a very nice Oregonian named Dan, who presented us with it after our concert. He was fairly non-comitial in his rhetoric, but I chose to interpret it as that he saw what we were going for and wanted to encourage and support us. Thusly, we prepared to let it wave the following night in Vancouver.
Maybe some people would say that flying our flag in Canada might not be the greatest observance of cultural relativism, and I can’t help but remember Crass’ commitment to playing only in England, since they were always too respectful to preach to people in societies that they couldn’t hope to properly understand by virtue of their foreignness. Yeah, perhaps, but I thought that our purpose would be obvious, considering the fashion in which we conduct ourselves, and that nobody would get the wrong idea and take it as the Toby Keith boot-up-yr-ass style of American patriotism on the march. Probably, nobody did, but for whatever reason, we were all shocked and much offended when, just before we were to start playing, Dave’s flag was ripped off of his keyboard, rubbed around on the filthy floor, and briefly set on fire before being extinguished and returned to the stage, leaving it covered in disgusting grime and with a large chunk missing from the bottom. What words can do justice to how we felt upon such an insult? For one thing, destruction of personal property—when is that ever acceptable? Especially to people whom you have paid yr hard-earned money to see perform? People who are visitors to yr country, who have come a long way at great expense to entertain? Any failure to heed cultural relativism on our part by act of flying the flag surely pales in comparison to the blatant disrespect of tarnishing that which means so much to us, and which symbolizes so many things so precious to so many hearts. I know that flag-burning has long been a convenient talking point in the greater discussion about the limits of our freedom, and I would hardly be any American at all to say that burning a hundred flags is every human’s natural right. This is provided, of course, that said flag is their property; if some lefty radical wants to buy up a bunch of flags and torch them to make some sort of point, then by all means. The unprovoked assault on our flag on this occasion, however, is nothing less than a slap in the face, and one I would gladly accept as prelude to a duel! I never got my chance, though, with the culprit having apparently been dragged out by some more righteous punters who wanted the show to stay positive. I didn’t find this out until after the show, so my challenge for the coward to show his face remained unheeded. Unsatisfying! Again, though, the punk spirit won out, this opposition only served to make us more steadfast in taking our work seriously and pushing even harder to get everyone pumped up, etc., and the kind people of Vancouver responded with the same, making for an immensely enjoyable evening of many good vibes. After the show, I received many comforting assurances from many fine Canadians that the values we love about America are beloved by them too, that we have similar dreams for our two neighboring countries, and more than sufficient reaffirmations that the citizenry of Vancouver believes in respect and hospitality and fellowship and all that good stuff. Punk wins again!
The following day, we sat at the U.S.-Canada border for about two and a half hours, along with all the other people who chose Easter weekend to make their emigration. Man, that was boring. I have been told that it was, anyway—I was asleep for most of it, happily. The 600 or so following miles were through snowy and treacherous conditions, which prevented us from hauling ass the way that we would have preferred. On top of that, we had to wait on a cripplingly long line on what seemed like the last gas station on Earth somewhere outside of Spokane. Jesus, that line was long! When finally we got within a hundred miles of Missoula, we were pulled over for a broken headlight that we didn’t know about and were further chided for failing to have the most up-to-date insurance information on hand (our van is fully registered and insured, of course, but the renewed papers arrived in Glen Rock while we were already far into our journey). Those charges have since been dismissed, with a well-placed fax or two to the necessary authorities. Upon finally making it to the club (a good three hours late) and setting up, I found out that one of my the tubes that I use to power my amplifier had become non-functional, and had to borrowing a highly confusing Fender Cyber Twin from one of the opening bands, only to then have the input for the speaker fall into the back of the head and become irretrievable. I was finally furnished with a small Peavey combo amp and the show otherwise went off without a hitch, if abbreviated by necessity. Lord, what a day that was!
The following day was devoid of any such drama, but as a result, chock full of extreme drudgery! In a way, though, one could say that is worse. Often on tour, I think of a poem called “Meditation on Ruin,” by a fellow named Jay Hopler, which speaks about how dramatic or traumatic experiences in our lives do not do nearly as much to whittle away at the power of the human spirit as does routine and the cyclical, repetitious nature of modern life. “The death of a father—the death of the mother—?The sudden loss shocks the living flesh alive!” writes Hopler, “But the broken?pair of glasses,?the tear in the trousers,?these begin an ache behind the eyes. ?And it’s this ache to which we will ourselves? Oblivious. We are oblivious. Then, one morning—there’s a ?crack in the water glass—we wake to find ourselves undone.” I think I know what he means. On this tour, we are quite blessed to have avoided calamity. We have suffered setbacks, surely. The loss of functionality of my amplifier on this occasion, the recent loss of Amy’s bag of pedals, a myriad of other inconveniences, they all annoy us, but nothing on par with the fall of Blue Thunder that led us to finish our tour last Autumn in a Budget moving truck, or the long and lonely march home after the abortion of our first planned tour with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. In the short-term, this no doubt helps morale. Yet, do not such experiences as I have just mentioned do a great deal to bond us together? Like Hopler says, in such times, our souls were shocked alive, and we grew together in strength. This tour has no such cornerstones—are we in danger of being undone by sheer monotony? It is the wind that will one day reduce to pyramids to ash, the simple passage of time that will reduce all of humankind’s works to sheer and total oblivion. Will that be so for Titus Andronicus? Well, not for me, certainly; I am having an awesome time! I am just pontificating.
We did, however, have to rock 760 some-odd miles to Rapid City, S.D., where a kind young man named Dan had set up a show for us at the Retired and Enlisted Association, which is a lot like the VFW halls we used to go to back in Jersey to see shows. That was a slog, but what a reward awaited us. Rapid City has a great little scene happening, a real oasis, and what is more inspiring than that? How can I say it without seeming condescending? Because a place like Rapid City is so remote from any sort of “cultural hub” or whatever you want to call it, they are free to make their own rules in ways that people like us, who grew up so close to New York, can scarcely imagine. In a place like South Dakota, it seems to me, there is no such thing as posing. Maybe I over-romanticize it, but all the actions of these kids seem to be strictly born of pure love. The scene that we saw in South Dakota was one made for South Dakotans, it seems to me, one made without credence to careerist or opportunistic agendas. Which is not to say that the bands there are dead-ends, for creatively, they are extremely rich. We played with a band called Union Electric, which featured the show’s organizer on guitar, which sort of sounded like Frog Eyes with maybe a little bit of mid-period Social Distortion. No, that isn’t really it. Shit, when I was watching them play, I had all sorts of what I felt were accurate reference points, but now they are all gone. Damn you, passage of time, and the destruction you wreak on my brain! The second band, Lady of Lourdes, will be easier, as they were pretty much a straight-forward garage-rock band, but one with a lot of spirit and plenty of melodic gifts. Their drummer, especially, was awesome—really hacking it up. Bands like this one, superficially anyway, are a dime a dozen in New York, perhaps, but in the remoteness of South Dakota, they seemed to carry a great air of authenticity and genuine enjoyment, unlike so many Brooklyn bands who might sound similar, but on stage look like they can barely be bothered to piss in circles. Man, do I sound like an asshole? Am I appearing to pat these “quaint” South Dakotans on the head as one who do to a child delighting in a game of Cops and Robbers? I hope not. What I am really trying to say is, moving in the Brooklyn indie-rock scene, the agendas at work are so often blatantly, offensively obvious. I don’t get the sense that South Dakota experienced a massive influx of chillwave bands since mid-2009, you know what I am saying? They do it because they love music and want to foster a positive community unto themselves, and sure, plenty of people in NYC or L.A. do the same, but to see it performed without the promise of the obvious rewards like folks elsewhere do—shit, I dunno. These kids inspired in me a lot of respect and admiration. They also totally rocked the house during our set and nourished us with their energy and enthusiasm. The fact that this happened adjacent to a big senior citizens’ Bingo tournament made me only fall in love with the community more. Ahh, peaceful co-existence!
After the show, we returned to Dan’s parents’ house where we stayed the night. These parents were out of town, but the mother had left us a beautiful Easter basket full of goodies (Easter was the following morning, you see), which is another lovely thing. Plenty of guys from the show, and the entirety of Union Electric, had come over, and we all had a blast hanging out, talking, playing pool, watching funny YouTube videos, and all that stuff. I had a nice long talk with a really sweet fellow named Jake, (AKA: “Jake the Snake,”) who told me a lot of very interesting things about the indigenous peoples from whom he derives his ancestry, particularly about this one dude named Red Cloud who was apparently pretty bad-ass. This Red Cloud dude was a hero to his tribe during their struggle with the White Devil, even though he was of mixed race, and this led to a lot of talk about cross-pollination of cultures and what not in America, and the fostering of diversity and inter-cultural respect and punk’s power to encourage it. He told me how touched he was to see so many different sorts of people at the show together, including many other Native Americans, and how they were all working together to make the best possible time for everyone involved. Punk had a special magic that way, he thought. He was right, and we ourselves were the proof—on the surface, it would appear that he and I had very little in common, and distances both cultural and geographical could easily have prevented us from ever meeting, but punk had brought us to a place where we could share quality time together and enrich each other’s lives, if only for a brief moment. When we left in the morning, he bid farewell by saying, “Have a nice life,” and I knew that he meant it. What a great guy he was, and how blessed I am that my line of work puts people like him along my path. Very, very blessed indeed.
We got up real early that morning to accommodate our long drive, which was made even longer by my insistence that we factor into our budget sufficient time to bask in the majesty of that national monument whose presence I have lusted after for as long as I can remember, Mount Rushmore. Did you know that if the heads on Mount Rushmore had bodies which were built to scale, they could step over the statue of liberty as easily as a human could step over a dog? Shit, that is so awesome. Fortunately, this miracle of human might was a short half-hour drive from Rapid City, and so we were able to take a few minutes and marvel at it, take a few pictures, etc. This was Easter morning, so there was some kind of Christian drum circle happening at the base of the monument, where the assembly prepared to make a joyous noise unto their Lord. This inspired a spirit discussion in our van about whether or not this violated our nation’s principle of the separation of church and state (Amy and I thought it probably did, the others were not so worried), and so we rolled on to Fargo, where we met a punter who, it turned out, opened the first Domino’s Pizza in North Dakota. He currently owns 19 franchises all over the state, and, believe it or not, actually got his start delivering Domino’s Pizza! This made me feel sort of conflicted, as an American. On the one hand, I know that Domino’s is part of the corporate ogre and has probably, by use of their various dirty tricks, put many a decent, independent pizza merchant out of business the world over. Also, their pizza tastes like shit. At the same time, how could we not be inspired by such a story as our new friend told? A fellow starting out in what most would think of as being a “dead-end job,” only to pull himself up by his bootstraps, use the resources available to him, however limited, and, through hard work, determination, and a willingness to take big risks, turned himself into enough of a success that he now gets to spend much of time traveling around the Midwest seeing his favorite music performed? Now, that is just fantastic. Tough call. This was American capitalism with a gentle face. It was clear that this guy was a successful businessman, but no monster by any means, a really delightful fellow, a fellow who had dreams and aspirations like anyone else. Must think more on it.
We arrived in Minneapolis the following day, and Hell Week was over. What had we learned? I dunno, perhaps nothing, but I shall take it as a reaffirmation of punk’s healing powers, and a reminder of how lucky we are to, even if a life of occasional great frustration, we always have a place to let it out every day and the warm hearts of wonderful people to barf it into. Do you find me to be overly sappy? Maybe that is fair enough.
So yeah, we enjoyed great shows in Minneapolis (where we fell short of selling out the historic 7th Street Entry at First Avenue by NINE TICKETS! Arrgh, really wanted to cross that one off the old bucket list), Chicago and Detroit. At the last of these, providence reunited us with our old touring buddies the Soft Pack, whose happened to be playing upstairs from us, and whose presence is always a great pleasure. This place we played, the Magic Stick, also happens to have a dope bowling alley, where I performed a new personal best! 186, baby! The real king of the game was Dave, though—somebody tell this guy Thanksgiving is still seven months away, so he can cool it with the turkeys! We had a lovely return trip to Canada, where about 50% of our beloved and much-admired Fucked Up came out to support the team, which felt as awesome as you probably imagine it did. Montreal also was sweet, but entirely too fucking hot. Neatly enough, at that show, my two favorite college professors, Dr. Shannon and Dr. Giacoppe, who taught me to love Walt Whitman and be a punk, respectively, appeared to wish us well and catch up, as they were in town for a conference at which they were both presenting papers! Awesome! They assured me they still have my graduate school recommendation letters on file for whenever I have to get on with regular life, so that is nice.
Hmm, it seems I have left out a bit chunk of this story, our adventures on the West Coast, but how can I talk about those without talking about our new friends, Let’s Wrestle, who shared in them? And how can I talk about Let’s Wrestle without also talking about the Babies, who we just finished a short run with a couple days ago, or the Spider Bags, which whom we shall do the same starting this very evening? I cannot, so perhaps I shall devote my next, and likely final, entry to those feelings of friendship and camaraderie. What better way to conclude our story than that? After all, isn’t that what’s it’s all about? Until then, I suppose.