The traveler has worked long hours and exchanged good money for this. And what is this? This, pre-eminently, is where you don't belong. --Malcolm Lowry
New York City--We arrived at our Soho hotel under a cold and steady rain. In the coming weeks this poor weather would follow us from state to state, impeding our travels and lending to the tour an adventure-at-sea tactility. Of course, at the time, we did not know this; the seven of us [singer Andrea Zollo, bassist Derek Fudesco, guitarists Nathan Johnson and Jay Clark, sound tech Julian Gibson, drummer Nick DeWitt, and merch guy/tour-diary writer Pat DeWitt] stood in a group at the front desk and spoke of the upcoming shows, our bodies clogging the lobby like so much gelatinous cholesterol. The harried concierge rushed through our check-in, and we settled into our rooms, though our thoughts were not of rest. Derek made telephone calls while the group freshened up, dizzy with Manhattan's possibilities.
We met with the good people of Matador Records, the Pretty Girls' new label, outside a place called Pianos, and were escorted by them past the throng to the bar. While all of us were drinking, save for Nathan--liver trouble--I saw at once that Jay was the most dedicated to oblivion. By the time we left Pianos for some other boozy destination, he was speaking out of the side of his mouth, literally and figuratively, the pair of us bookending Derek as we lurched through the damp streets. Derek's a clever bird, so I'm not sure how he got stuck baby-sitting us, but he later described it as a most terrible task, with Jay issuing rude comments to random passersby and yours truly experiencing a total communication failure with my lower half. We entered the bar and Jay offered a loud, blanket insult for the entire crowd, at which Derek threw up his hands and fled, leaving us to our infantile ruminations.
Here my memory rests, like the intermission at an opera. I haven't a clue how I got back to Soho or what became of Jay; my next recollection is of descending our hotel fire escape. I woke a goodly portion of the hotel's occupants with my maniacal cackling and cursing as I slipped on the rain-slick rungs, and could hear their cursing in return. I leapt from the fire escape to the open kitchen window of our room and, once inside, locked it and dimmed the lights. I tiptoed to my corner bed, over and past my snoring friends, and fell fast asleep, not bothering even to remove my wet clothes or to pull back the covers. This was my first night on the Pretty Girls Make Graves tour.
* * *
The next morning, Nathan and I sat in the kitchen admiring a photograph hanging on the wall, depicting a misty, jagged-cliffed shoreline. "Its beauty," Nathan said, "is undeniable." But he believed the scene was missing something. A dragon, he thought, would round it out nicely. Applying wrinkle cream to my whiskey-worn skin, I explained that the implication of the dragon was there, thus rendering the seascape infinitely more powerful and menacing than if the beast itself were before us in black and white. At this, young Nathan grew thoughtful, and silent.
* * *
Somewhere between the lobby at 625 Broadway and the offices of Matador Records on the 12th floor, my hangover dropped anchor. It was to be, for me, a most unpleasant day. I shuffled after the band as they went from room to room, meeting with the friendly staff and pouring over the layout for their upcoming long player, The New Romance. Occasionally I was asked my opinion but could do little more than nod or smile, and when I was introduced to the label heads, I didn't so much as raise a hand or remove my sunglasses. That evening, over Spanish food, I discussed my time at Matador with publicity kingpin Nils Bernstein.
"We all thought you were a real asshole," he said happily, inviting me to sample from his plate. I accepted a shrimp and he my apologies, and we became fast friends. Unselfish in conversation, Nils is one of those rare people who seem genuinely interested in the lives of strangers. I was introduced to Matador's mustachioed co-owner, Chris Lombardi. Chris is likewise charming and charismatic in discourse. He is handsome in an Errol Flynn-after-a-bender sort of way, and I imagined him in a grape-stained toga, his laurel wreath askew, tossing slaves to the lions to appease his insatiate boredom and--to borrow a line from Bellow--pouring champagne on his dick, and roaring.
* * *
After the meal we went by taxi to a cavernous karaoke bar in the Village. The Matador crew are old karaoke pros, real showmen. I'm too tightly wound to have previously sung in public, but in such fine company I couldn't help myself. I drank Bushmills and warbled through "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Jealous Guy," and with the help of my younger brother, Nick, "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." Nathan, thinking perhaps of his expectant wife in Seattle, got lost in the gentle poetry of John Denver and brought the room to tears with a heartfelt rendition of "Sunshine on My Shoulders."
Many whiskeys and songs later, the group splintered and I found myself in some pit justly named the Hole. I had arrived by taxi with Chris and a few scattered Pretty Girls, all of whom I misplaced upon entering. I was sorting loose change at the bar--I believed I had enough for a can of beer--when the bartender ahemmed and I lifted my gaze to meet his. He was a friend from Los Angeles, an angel offering free drinks. He had just come from an invite-only Vicodin party. "They had bowlfuls of the things. People were emptying them into their purses and pockets. Wish I'd known you were in town, Pat. You could've come with me."
I then began to walk in circles, going "B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b."
* * *
The next head-sore morning, the band and I piled into the van and headed out of town for the first show, in Worcester, Massachusetts. I sat next to my brother Nick, the fidget, a decision I would soon regret.
"I wish there was something in here to make noise with," he said.
"No noise," I told him. "No noise."
He had no concern for his older brother's sagging insides, retrieved his Dr. Sample from a knapsack overfull with wires and doodads, and began whistling into its microphone, seemingly at random. As painful as this was for me to endure, I had to laugh when we arrived in Worcester and Nick was playing this "whistle piano" at sound check. The tune: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
The venue was a vast, drafty hall, like the hull of a great and ancient ship. Through the fogged windows of the dressing room I could see the young people lined up in the rain. Throughout the tour I would speak to a great many of these types, America's youth, for in addition to documenting the trip in words and pictures I would be acting as the Pretty Girls merchandise salesman. The band does very well in T-shirt and disc sales, and all were concerned about my ability to operate. "We do sell a lot of stuff," Nathan said, furrowing his brow. Derek, the businessman of the band, was more forthright. "You better not fuck this up," he told me, his plump finger pressed to my paper-skin chest.
Two girls had been lurking around the merch table for the better part of an hour, looking coquettishly in our direction and running their fingers over the display shirts as if checking for dust. We found out later that they were 18, but at first glance I couldn't have told you whether they were 15 or 30. While not unattractive, they were clearly rotten to the core, these two, just absolute monsters, and Nathan and I, both being married, wanted no part of them. I referred them to Jay, who took a liking to the smaller, louder one, but Andrea denied the girls entrance to the van--it was her birthday and she was in no mood for whorish shenanigans.
* * *
Derek arose early the next day to attend to van troubles. He stopped at the first auto shop Worcester presented and was quoted some ridiculous price by an oppressive Italian man who doubtless smelled blood and shot the moon in his estimate. Derek asked if there were any other garages in the area.
"There's a Chink down the street," the man said, "but he doesn't know what the fuck."
Derek took his chances with the "Chink," who as it turned out was a crackerjack mechanic and a fair man besides. We were soon on the road to Philadelphia.
* * *
The next morning, walking off a Geno's cheese steak, Nick jumped on Derek's back and they went into their Master/Blaster, Beyond Thunderdome routine:
"Who run Bartertown?" Nick demanded.
"Master/Blaster," Derek conceded.
A long pause. "Master/Blaster runs Bartertown," Derek said, defeated.
The rest of the band caught up with us and we walked in a pack to the 8th Street Italian Market, a buzzing quarter-mile of specialty shops. We ducked into a cafe and brought business to a halt with our presence. Back on the sidewalk, Julian asked, "Do you guys ever feel like you're in a gang when you're on tour?"
Derek shook his head as he stared into a butcher shop window at a row of dead rabbits. "I feel like I'm in a musical," he said. And then, to no one in particular, "This latte is delicious."
* * *
Norfolk, Virginia--We found a hot tub in the backstage area, above which was a sign barring menstruating women from entering. Andrea and I puzzled over this. Do they not ever change the water? And how hygienic could the adjoining sauna possibly be? Andrea commented on the porosity of wood and we moved, shuddering, to the game room.
The next morning, I played a van prank on Jay, sticking an enormous pickle in the driver's seat sun visor, above him. Twenty-five miles down the road the sun broke through the clouds and Jay flipped the visor down, the pickle dropping like a stone in his lap. He held the grotesque vegetable up for inspection and sighed while I whooped like an ape in the fourth-row seat.
Atlanta, Georgia--A sign on the outskirts of town: "Success Lives Here." Where, exactly? I entered a gas station and asked the walleyed cashier if she sold duct tape.
"Duck tape?" she asked.
"Duct," I said. "Duct tape."
"I never heard of no such thing as duck tape," she told me. I asked for a pack of Parliaments, a brand she'd never heard of, which in addition to the tape miscommunication made her wary of me, and I could see her committing my features to memory. She would study the local papers for weeks to come and if a rash of duck kidnappings set the press ablaze, she would have something to say to the authorities.
Florida--Nathan announced that he would leave for Seattle in 36 hours. His wife was due any moment and he couldn't bear being away from her for another minute. The final week of tour would continue without him, with Jay on double-guitar duty. We made the best of our remaining time together, swimming two nights in a row in the Atlantic Ocean, with Derek splashing around babylike in his diaperesque shorts, smiling and refusing to wade out farther than waist deep. Police lights landed on us in Fort Lauderdale and we were ecstatic. Nathan danced in the beam and asked, "Doesn't this look great?" He was wearing blue-and-black striped underpants, and I had to agree that it did.
The next night in St. Petersburg, Andrea approached the merch table with a man I assumed was her uncle, but who was actually Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. Bun E. Carlos, the stoic, trailed behind, looking bored and perfect. Mr. Nielsen was enthusiastic about the show and said he was a big fan of Pretty Girls.
* * *
We dropped Nathan off at the airport the next morning and drove west. Jay pulled his guitar from the trailer and practiced Nathan's parts in the van. Texas, as large as it is, always fills me with the nightmarish feeling of moving in place, like walking the wrong way on an escalator. You check and double-check the map and roll your eyes at your watch and wonder when, exactly, is the Lone Star State going to let you get on with your life.
In Oklahoma Derek nearly brained a young fellow who hit audience members in the backs of their heads with a full beer bottle. The guy later told Jay and me that the last time he checked punk rock did not have any rules and asked that we impart this information to Derek for him. Okay: Derek Fudesco, punk rock does not have any rules.
In Kansas the skies cleared and expanded over the endless brown fields, with sparse white clouds hanging like mobiles on the horizon. After the show in Lawrence, Jay and I met a girl in our hotel hallway. She held a sipper cup shaped like a penis. Jay asked about the cup's significance, and the girl explained that she was having her bachelorette party in the hotel. I pulled Jay down the hall to the elevator. As the door closed, I shivered at the sight of the vulgar cup, still in her hands, beads of sweat on its shaft, a straw poking from the tip like a catheter.
Colorado--I was exhausted to the point of retardation all the next day and that night in Boulder. It was the final show of the tour, and I remember nothing of it other than Andrea's kind farewell words to me from the stage and someone offering me an ice-cream cone, which I declined. I caught my plane by only the narrowest of margins. Once settled in my seat, I looked over the journal I'd been keeping for the past three weeks, smiling at the dips in the writing from when I'd drunk too much or Julian had taken a corner too fast.
The end of a tour is the end of the celebration, and though you are homesick, it is a sorrowful thing to finish. I hadn't the strength to be sad, though. I stowed the journal beneath my seat and closed my eyes to sleep.