Foreword: I stopped keeping a real journal a long time ago. I'm starting one up again on this trip to SXSW. I decided to share it with all of you. Read at your own risk. -Ed.
Part of me is still there at the Artistery. For part of me it's still Thursday night.
I check in at the counter and mention the list. They barely look--not because they know me but because they don't care. "Anybody with you?" the girl asks, smiling. "Nope; just me by my lonesome." My small talk fails as usual. I walk past the kids who won't budge, talking about the next show they're gonna talk over. Step down the wet (beer? Tears?) concrete stairs to the basement, where it's all red lights and shadows. A thin veil of smoke from the back door left open. Kids look older than usual. High Life at the counter for $2. Weird. I've got $4, which could get me two, but everyone's so nice here that I know I have to tip—even for a two dollar can of High Life. Ghost to Falco's brief sound check goes through in front of everyone; transparent—you could learn how all this is done just from showing up. And like always there's a cute couple cuddling up on the couch while the band huddles up behind the stage, strategizing or shooting the shit. The back door closes and the side door opens for a moment—sliver of white light, silhouetted faces framed in electric hair—so much hair. And I'm thinking: This was a place, this was a time; this is the last time I'll see this place.
Portland is dead, Portland is being born.
I know Bud, the drummer, from the olde days. But I'm down in front with all the things they empty from their pockets before the show. I love that cleansing ritual—you drop your turned-off cell phone, unclip your keys, take out your shabby wallet and even the loose bus transfers, all in the name of balance. To feel natural. You spread the parcels around like little sacrifices to the rock show God. And say "I'm gonna miss this place."
So I'm here when the harmony's off and the guitar amp squeals. I'm here when the back of the room talks through it and half-cheer at the little intermissions—with a band like this they're not quite sure when the song is over. There are other distractions, like who was that buzz in their pocket and whose zitty neck can't they see past; how long until the band they came to see and what was that band's name again? Portland dies and Portland is born. Maybe that happens every night.
What I keep asking myself is, does this place look different because it has changed, or because I'm old. So I say goodbye to Aaron, the smiling face behind the sound board for so long, and I head out after one quick set. It's not, by any means, good riddance but it's good night. So I'm walking all the way home. And for 45 minutes I keep thinking maybe a break will do me good. I think about all the places I've called home in Portland that are no longer there; wondering if it still feels like still my town, or if I'm the part that fades out, maybe, and something else needs to fade in.
That darkness blends seamlessly into the next night's. We're at the Chevron on MLK: Scott, Henry and me. It's Scott's minivan, a Toyota Previa (shaped like a skipping stone and jostling us around over the smallest of bumps as we prepare for our 11-day trip. "The chasis probably needs work," Scott says, then pauses. "I think that's the first time I've ever used the word chasis.
The big plan is to get to Austin for SXSW. But the more immediate goal is Vegas. Saturday night we're due to see Cee-Lo Green and the Ting Tings at the Red Bull Soundclash. If all of this sounds suspect—it is. The date fit into our travel schedule so long as we were willing too drive non-stop from Portland to Sin City after work on Friday—and the folks at Red Bull will put us up at the MGM Grand and get us into the show. Why my editors agreed to let me do this, I don't know. But being broke, and gas prices being what they are, it sounded like a great place to crash. The only condition was that I write a bit about the show here on the website. Write ANYTHING. And as the show sounds genuinely fascinating to me—I think Cee-lo is a genius self-promoter if not an outright genius, and while I was late on the Goodie Mob train, I've come to appreciate the hell out of their influence on hip-hop. So none of this seems like a problem. If the show sucks, I'll just say it sucks. Hoping it doesn't suck. (Another disclaimer: On Wednesday morning I arrived at the WW office to find a crate worth of various Red Bull drinks at the front desk. "FOR CASEY," a hastily attached paper sign read. WW gets free Red Bull—as well as drinks called Hones-T and Neuro—on the regular.)
So where was I? We leave from the Chevron at 7 pm, and it's 1 am before I crack my first Red Bull from the stocked cooler. The truth is that I don't really like Red Bull, and furthermore that I've been off caffeine almost entirely for the past five weeks. I was getting sort of proud of this: I'm not the kind of guy who gives things up, and I've got a dangerous affinity for sodas. So it took some gumption to excise that demon. The deal was that I'd quit soda if my dad would quit smoking. He beat me on that one—I lasted about two weeks and found myself staring at the soda machine in the Blazer media room. But I rebounded and took another hiatus from pop—only, my own pop had started up smoking again. "I didn't think I even wanted one," he said. "I thought it would taste bad. Then I had one and it tasted wonderful.
So we're in the Previa and the buzz hits me instantly. I go from fuzzy to wired, then feel slightly drugged. Scott's first driving shift has lasted four hours, and he shows no sign of stopping. So I slouch in the passenger seat (the best spot in the van, if you ask me: The Previa's finest feature is a partially sunken dashboard on the passenger side that's perfect for long legs like mine), feeling increasingly pessimistic about my country as I watch the same stripmalls pass over and over again, each with the same logos out front and the same new cars in the parking lot. That stuff always looked gross to me, but this time it's downright disheartening. In the next 11 days I'll see the American West, but I want to see America before it all looked the same. And this time it feels like a part of me that's lost, not just a part of my country.
But it's dark in the Previa and we've got Silver Jews on the stereo, so we listen and joke in terrible taste and pass the time by using Facebook to "check in" at a number of awkward establishments that we're not visiting at all. Skate World in Eugene; something called the Donut Jelly in Grant's Pass; the Liquor Barn in Redding. Fun that you can do these things while speeding southerly, but maybe it's cheating somehow.
By 2 am I'm behind the wheel. The road is straight by now, and I'm wide awake. This is my first road trip as a driver. I got my license—ahem, my permit—earlier this year. So I take the whole thing very seriously. I'm acutely aware of the killing power intrinsic in even the most innocent-looking minivan. So I stay on edge. And when the red gas light finally comes on just past 4 am, we 're trolling a barren 47th street in Sacramento. After one failed attempt to draw fuel from a sad-looking abandoned pump, we locate an actual, open gas station. The signs say pre-pay inside, so I go to the door. Chains jangle as I attempt to pull them open, the portly clerk screams at me, insisting I approach a small window on the side of the building.
"What a fucking asshole," the guy in front of me, a balding late twentysomething wearing a tilted, flat-billed Mossimo cap and an oversized jacket says.
Despite my new friend's attempt at bonding, I stay quiet, hoping to avoid the little fat man's rage. Ball-cap guy asks him for a coffee.
âNo, five oâclock,â the clerk says. Itâs 4:45 am.
"Are you fucking kidding me? I have to work!" the guy yells.
"Five o'clock!" the little fat man insists.
The clerk motions for me to approach the window and I squeeze in. The signs told me to pre-pay inside, but the little fat man motions angrily at an ATM machine attached to the pumping station. "You pay machine!"
Ball-cap guy, who had started to leave the area, sees something that interests him inside. He shakes the front doors of the mini-mart open a crack and hollers about his coffee to another clerk who's mopping the floors near the coffee machine. "It's right there!" he insists. The clerk pretends not to notice, looking down at his mop.
A black Jeep Cherokee bumping 2Mex with its windows down guns into the parking lot and stops suddenly in front of the mini-mart as I'm fiddling with the ATM. The driver storms to the mini-mart front door, and he's let in without incident. The little fat clerk chains the entry again as the speedy young driver, obscured by baggy winter clothes, marches back towards his Jeep. Before he opens the door he looks over at Scott, says something sharp with the word "bro" in it, and creeps slowly out of the parking lot while staring in our direction.
"What did he say?" Scott asks, his brow furrowed as he stares down the exiting Jeep.
"I don't know, man. I think he was just saying hello. But why did he get to go in to the store? This place is fucked-up!"
"He was delivering newspapers," Scott says. "But what did he say? Something something BRO." Scott accents the bro, as if it was said with some deep sarcasm.
We get in the van. We swear to never visit Sacramento again.
I keep driving until we're about 30 miles from Fresno. I pull over at a combination Denny's / Subway / Dairy Queen (try and write a viral hip-hop hit about that one!) and "Trucker Chapel," its parking lot lined with red and yellow flags—as if this were a real fucking destination. What it is is miserable. A pasty shirtless man with long gray hair is shaving in the bathroom sink. There's a line of dead-eyed patrons waiting to pay for gas or buy coffee. Quasi-Christian country blares over the speakers. It's 6 am in nowhere, California and no one's happy about it.
The rest of the drive to Vegas is a blur of pink skies and orange trees, except for a the mountain pass around Tehachapi, which is beautiful and green. It looks like Ireland—rolling hills with the occasional rocky structures. Tehachapi itself looks broke and miserable. A quick Wiki-search reveals that it is known for Air Force bases and a maximum-security prison. It's beautiful land, nonetheless, and I'm sure there's a fascinating history behind it. But for us it's just another town to get through.
Henry downs Red Bulls and drives us all the way to Vegas. At one point we catch Scott sleeping with his eyes open. I take a short video and it's pretty creepy. Henry eats the healthy snacks he packed like they're going out of style. I talk too much about nothing and worry aloud about gas prices (we've paid close to $4 a gallon throughout California). The trip takes longer than we expected, and when we finally get to the MGM Grand, where we're staying, a look of horror crosses all our faces. "Spring break," Henry says grimly. And they're everywhere—rosy-cheeked college freshman boys with spikey hair and flip-flops; scantily-clad girls wearing bikinis and mini-skirts. They all seem to know each other. They all giggle and give shoulder-only hugs. They take fucking forever to check in to their rooms, and we wait…and wait…and we hate them deeply for it. We know we're stuck with them until tomorrow and that, more than likely, the Cee-Lo Green/Ting Tings show will be packed with them.
So we do what any unpopular person does when they get to Vegas. We go straight to our room, turn on the TV and wait for the show. At least we're safe here.
To be continued...