I woke up in Louisville next to a weed whacker. I was in Allyson's spare room which she had not yet unpacked. This is not the first time I've woken up next to gas powered lawn care equipment. Last time, it was a leaf blower. This is my life.
Six years ago, my old punk band played a show in the backyard of a skatepark hostel (yes, a hostel just for skaters) on a sunny afternoon in Louisville. As we hit the first chord, twenty or so teenagers burst from around the corner of the adjacent building wearing nothing but swimsuits and life preservers. They danced, shot waterguns, tossed beach balls and kicked up a cloud of dust during our entire set. The ringleader of this madness was Jamie, who had first invited me to play Louisville in 1999 and has been providing amazing shows ever since. After this particular show, we adjourned to Jamie's mother's house, where he made us a delicious stew from dumpster-dived veggies. As you can see, Louisville is good people.
I came here to visit the good people, and Allyson is definitely one of them. She offered me her cat-free spare room to save me from Jamie's house, where the multiple cats were conspiring to destroy me with their dander. I groggily assessed my belongings strewn about the room. As usual, my bags had barfed their contents all over. I am like a gas, filling any container I am in, no matter the size. Once I got myself together, I met Jamie and we drove around and talked about Skull Alley, the venue that he founded with Allyson. He created Skull Alley in honor of his younger brother Dylan, who died tragically three years ago. As a teenager, Dylan promoted shows that would draw hundreds of kids and somehow he managed the chaos while also dancing enthusiastically to every band on the bill. Just inside the doors of Skull Alley are the house rules. At the bottom, the directive: “Rock it like Dylan would.” I started my travels in Louisville in hopes of doing just that.
I wasn't playing Skull Alley until the next night, but I still accompanied Jamie to the show that evening. Skull Alley is such a beautiful venue, with hardwood floors, a great sound system, a mosaic bar handmade by Jamie's mother, and toilets that actually have toilet seats. When they first signed the lease, this building had a collapsing roof and rotting walls. The dramatic transformation is evidence of thousands of hours of hard work.
I saw firsthand at the show how challenging it is for Jamie to balance his ideal of providing an open forum for local and touring musicians with the need to make enough money to pay the rent. The bands were alright, but few people came out and no one really bought beer, so Jamie sat around for 4 hours to collect about 100 bucks. After he paid the bands a pittance, there wasn't much left for Skull Alley, and there wasn't any to pay Jamie for his time. It's been an occasional dream of mine to run a community artspace of some sort, and it was sobering to see how difficult it can be. Things became even harder when Allyson's print shop in the basement was destroyed by a massive flood two weeks prior. Meanwhile, Skull Alley is one of only two businesses still open on the block. Times are hard in Louisville.
After the show, we returned to Allyson's house to talk on the porch. I didn't even mention food, but she brought us hot chili and whiskey, which was exactly what we needed. Pretty soon, we were in her living room singing all the ridiculous 90's hits we could think of. It was 2 AM and we had loudly indulged ourselves some of the finer cuts from our teenage years, notably the Gin Blossoms and the Goo Goo Dolls. We agreed that I should cover Natalie Imbruglia's “Torn” at the show the next night. Ironic covers are a tired fad, but since I love that song, there's nothing ironic about it.
The next day, Allyson got a bunch of poster board and wrote out all the lyrics to “Torn” so she could increase audience participation. She was giggling quite a bit during the whole process. I was impressed with her follow through; usually when I come up with a decent idea late at night, it is gone when I wake up.
On the way to the show, Allyson took me to a pizza place near Skull Alley. “This looks…oddly…familiar,” I said.
“Oops!” she said, then laughed. “You have been here before.”
Then I remembered. On my last visit, we attended a righteous drag king show, then followed it up with dancing, karaoke, neon green daiquiris, a live alligator and beach volleyball. At the end of the evening, Allyson found me laying in the alley adjacent to this pizza place, singing boozy songs of Louisville hospitality. She, Jamie, my travel companion Peter and a band of hooligans we barely knew took turns carrying me down Bardstown Road with my arms over their shoulders. As I repeatedly muttered the words, “Weekend at Bernie's,” a thought flickered through my head, perhaps the only thought I've retained from that night: Louisville is good people.
The show at Skull Alley was so great. It was one of those rare nights when I felt like I was playing to a roomful of friends, even though I didn't know most of the people there. It was particularly special because it was my birthday, and for the first time in four years, I wasn't spending it in a hotel room as a traveling poster salesman. It was also wonderful to see Nakatomi Plaza play again. They rolled into town as part of their farewell tour and I planned to join them for their next four shows as a prelude to bike tour. Before I played “Torn,” I told everyone how meaningful it was to join Nakatomi on their last tour, since I've played over 80 shows with them over the past decade. Then I said that none of my songs could evoke how torn up I was about their breakup as well as a cover could. Then Allyson joined me onstage with the cue cards. The singalong was really, really loud. And awesome.
I left Louisville with Nakatomi in the morning, but the good times and great hospitality continued throughout the next week. In Bloomington, Mike made us an enormous pot of curry before the show. In Cleveland, Dave, Mindy and Miles gave us comfortable digs and late night snacks. Jay's brother in Buffalo gave us beers and each of us got our own bed in his house. In Ithaca, Bubba left his front door unlocked so we could swing in however late we wanted. Oscar and Al from Nakatomi dropped me off at the bus station in Ithaca for my trip to Boston to rendezvous with Blake and Jon and my bike. Jeff picked me up from the train station and took me out to dinner. The next day, Brian made us lunch at his new cafe and then Lisa made us a pot of chili before the show.
I met every one of these people because I have taken my music on the road. Twelve or so years ago, I began plugging into this network of amazing people who just want to help musicians. Many of them help me because they like my music, but I am even more flattered and humbled by the people who don't like my music and still help me anyways. My karmic debt to this network is deep. I would not still be doing this if there weren't good people all along the way, welcoming me enthusiastically and making me feel like I'm home everywhere I go.
The morning after the Boston show, everything changed. We said goodbye to Dave and saddled up. We weren't scheduled to see anyone else we knew for at least a week. After a daily bombardment of friends, it was refreshing to simply have some time to myself on my bike, but it was also pretty scary to unplug from the grid.
The ride out of Boston was fairly tame. We had some small hills and a bit of traffic, but it was an easy ride. At the 30 mile mark, I couldn't believe how long it had already taken, and we had almost 20 more to go. I wasn't all that tired, but I was just getting kind of bored with the whole affair and it seemed like a nice time for a lovely bike ride to come to an end, perhaps with a happy hour cocktail on a friendly outdoor deck. That's when the rain started. It was harmless enough at first, but by the time I decided to stop and rearrange my gear, it was too late. My borrowed panniers are not waterproof, they are merely water resistant. When I opened my bags later, I realized they hadn't been resisting very hard.
We rolled into a campsite in the town of West Sutton at dusk. We met the kindly caretaker who reminded each of us of our favorite aunts, respectively. She put on her raincoat and gave us a cursory tour of the grounds, inviting us to take any site we liked. We erected our two tents hastily, then put our bags inside while Blake heated water for our dehydrated camp food. I went into the larger tent and puttered around, trying to organize some things. I was wet and tired, and I started wondering whether this bike tour was a good idea after all.
That's when I noticed puddles of water on the inside of the tent. I reached for something to mop it up, but since everything was either wet or needed to be kept dry, I couldn't find much. I took an already drenched t-shirt and sloshed the water around a little. I was about to wring it out when I realized that tiny but persistent streams were entering every seam along the floor of the tent, and the pools of water were growing. I yelped. I redoubled my Sisyphean efforts, but gave up soon after and sat in a puddle, which did not get me any wetter than I already was.
I wanted to call Dave and have him come pick us up or drop off dry clothes and a brand new tent. I wanted to drive into town and pick up supplies. I wanted to sleep in the van. I wanted to throw all my clothes in the dryer and make some hot tea. I wanted to get a hotel with a hot tub. But I couldn't do any of those things. So I sat in the tent, watched the puddles grow slowly, and weighed the pro-con of sleeping in the campground bathroom. Suddenly, Boston seemed very, very far away.
We survived the night, albeit somewhat pathetically. We huddled together in the other tent, waking frequently to find our sleeping bags wetter than the last time we checked. In the morning, the rain had tapered off to a drizzle, which was an improvement but not a solution to our problems. As I surveyed the nearly empty campground and watched Blake and Jon trudge about, I felt very lonely. Six more days to go until we play another show, until we meet up with more good people.
I walked up to the caretaker's cabin to return our bathroom key. My shoes were audibly squishing with each step, and I considered the frustrating possibility that today could play out just the same as yesterday. The caretaker answered her door with a smile. I could tell she had been awake for hours. I handed her the key, and she said, “Do you want some ice cream?”
Anyone who has toured with me knows that I believe ice cream to possess incredible restorative powers. This friendly woman, however, couldn't possibly have known that offering me ice cream at 8:30 AM would seem reasonable, let alone brilliant. I happily accepted, and moments later I was snacking on a Klondike Bar. I affixed my panniers to my bike while munching the rest of the ice cream, and grinned broadly at Jon and Blake. They laughed and shook their heads. As it turns out, West Sutton is good people, too.
Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" vid.
Photo courtesy of Attica! Attica!