Playback: Pastures of Plenty
Q: Ships and vans share what in common? A: Hazardous waste.
Stowed away on the back bench of an old church van called Momma Pearl, I set off on a 5,000-mile tour, playing 17 cities in 19 days. Not only the new guy, out for the first time with the touring lineup, but since I was barely sperm when some of Black Eyed Vermillion began their music careers, I'm the new kid, too. Half the band I hardly knew, but a journey like this brings people together, and by the time we hugged onstage after playing the last date – a sold-out show at the Houston Continental Club – I felt like family. Or better.
Fighting through crummy weather and terrible drivers, Momma Pearl proved an unsinkable battleship. Confined in her crowded interior with six dudes, everything was magnified: the humor, the depth of discussion, the snoring, the smells (oh God, the smells). But with a great crew like Kurtis Machler (bass), Justin Collins (drums), and Fritz and Reverend Johnson of Whiskeydick (guitars), I considered myself lucky. "The captain of our fucked-up ship," as Collins titled him, was singer Gary Lindsey, a punk-rock poet with a boxer's face and Gandhi's hopes, best known as Hank Williams III's screaming sideman. He used to use a microphone for violence, beating his face bloody, but these days Lindsey uses it to dispense witty wisdom between songs and to sing blues, folk, punk, and world music. I asked the sandpaper-voiced singer what our mission statement was.
"It's about taking all the dirtiest parts of yesterday, putting them together today, and hoping for something better tomorrow."
For unmanaged bands on the road, uncertainty becomes omnipresent, so you learn to find tranquility in scarce constants: load in, sound check, Waffle House. Still the greatest comfort lived in the 45 minutes we had every night to share our music with new ears. Working through the craziness, we knew if we made it to the stage, everything else would be all right.
Every adventure has its villains: the flaming gay KKK supporter in Florida who became irate with me for suggesting he was an ironic fascist; the "World's Most Annoying Sound Guy" in North Carolina, who scolded us for playing too loud, bragged how he played in the Gin Blossoms, and barred us from drinking onstage; and the old drunk Machler found covered in blood, passed out on a toilet with his dentures on the urine-soaked floor of a West Virginia bar. When Machler retrieved the teeth, the stranger threw them across the room and scolded him, "Thanks a lot, asshole!"
"That's when I stopped helping and got the authorities," reasoned Machler. "The blood wasn't from him. I'm pretty sure he killed a guy."
We also had a hero – the headliner – the foot stompin', guitar thrashin', one-man band from San Marcos, ol' Scott H. Biram. He took us on this ride and brought out stellar crowds every night. While he'd rather me tell you he's a crazy motherfucker who doesn't give a shit, the truth is he's one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and genuine musicians I've ever met. When Machler's close friend died and we drove all night to get him to the funeral, Biram wrote him a meaningful verse about losing old friends while making new ones.
Late one night in Florida, Biram and I sat out on a dock pickin' old bluegrass and folk tunes my uncles taught me when I was a kid. At the next show, he announced: "I made a new friend. His name's Kevin Curtin and he wears muttonchops, but he doesn't eat pork chops. Anyway, he likes Woody Guthrie a lot, so I want to do this song for him."
I'll remember that version of the great migrant workers' ode "Pastures of Plenty" for a long time.
Early in the tour, Biram told us: "When you're on tour in the South, it's a good idea to keep a Bible on the dashboard. When a cop pulls you over, he'll see it and say, 'You boys have a good day!'"
I found a Bible the Gideons left in our hotel, so I tossed it on the dash. We didn't get pulled over so I don't know if it would have helped, but it's still there and it sure looks funny next to a bust of Robert E. Lee and four types of rubber dog shit.
Barge to Hell
"I spent seven days looking at nothing but the water. When we landed, I was just so glad to see earth," acknowledges Mike Harmeier.
The frontman for local honky-tonk saviors Mike & the Moonpies was left stranded in the Gulf of Mexico with 4,200 others after the Triumph cruise ship went idle midvoyage. Harmeier, who was vacationing with his new fiancée, said the passengers weren't aware of any fire until "Alpha team to engine room fire!" came over the loudspeaker – at which point they started grabbing life jackets. "I never thought I was going to die," reports Harmeier, even though he could smell smoke and the boat was leaning heavily starboard. "I just thought I was going to be stuck in a lifeboat in the Gulf."
Instead, he was stuck on a massive cruise ship for five more days without power, waiting in line for hours to snag bread and fruit with the stench of sewage in the air. The singer/guitarist laughed recalling a British-accented female on the intercom announcing that people should urinate in the showers and defecate in red, plastic, hazardous waste bags.
"It was amazing how many people had shit in the first hour," he chuckled. "I looked out down the hallway and there were red bags everywhere."
While Mike drifted in the ocean, the Moonpies had friend Robert Banta fill his spot onstage. The boat finally docked late last Thursday night, and Harmeier was swarmed by TV news organizations wanting an interview. No time – the Moonpies had a show the next day. NBC came in with the assist, taping an interview and flying him to Dallas for a triumphant show at the Granada Theater.
Any more cruises in the foreseeable future?
"Probably," laughs Harmeier. "They gave us free tickets. I'll just make sure it's a newer boat."
Mike & the Moonpies play Thursday nights at the White Horse.
› After two consecutive Fun Fun Fun Fest cancellations, old-school NYC rapper Rakim made good at Mohawk on Sunday and was joined by Bushwick Bill for a verse on "Paid in Full" and the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me." "Rakim's my all-time favorite. I wish my old friends could have seen me," Bill told me. "I used to rap along to his tape in the car and they'd say, 'You ain't Rakim!'" Later that night, Bill joined local dub duo Sit Down, Servant for a full show at Hotel Vegas.
› Jack White's Third Man Records released a new Gibby Haynes EP on Valentine's Day. It features two new stripped down and distorted rock songs and a cover of the obscure Adrenalin O.D. thrasher "Paul's Not Home," which finds White playing guitar and yelling. Limited edition 7-inches pressed on old medical X-rays will only be available at South by Southwest from the TMR van.
› Best wishes and a speedy recovery to Uncle Lucius' keyboardist Jon Grossman, who underwent emergency surgery after doctors discovered a tear in his aorta. From his Facebook page: "The surgeon will be installing a gortex valve in my heart that he described as 'an accordion.' I've always taken the squeezebox to heart; now it will save my life."