"We have mortgages, high cholesterol, and I swear I have arthritis in my fingers. Our sixth CD is due out this summer."

Chicago is living up to its nickname. It's 8 degrees, and the wind blasts through the alley as we load in to the Metro. I go for a walk. A block from the club, a guy gets run over in the street. Hit-and-run. A memory bubbles to the surface. Years ago, I was the first at the scene of an accident on Interstate 20--the driver was pretty much decapitated, and his wife was crushed in a ball in the floorboard. I held her hand while she said the Lord's Prayer. I left when the ambulance came, never knowing if they lived or died.

I shiver, but not from the cold.

These days, our Chicago shows are so different from our adrenaline-drenched gigs of '94-'95. Chicago was the first town that adopted us, and we used to leave it on the floor. I've heard bootlegs where we play everything in double time, cramming 16 three-and-a-half minute songs into a 45-minute set. Now we approach our shows with the caution of a 40-year-old lefty, hiding our fastballs behind curves, change-ups and sliders. I wonder if anyone notices. The excitement from last night's windmill has faded. I feel like a schlep.
You know Rhett Miller can sing, but did you know he can throw a nice 50-yard spiral?
Angela Wieland
You know Rhett Miller can sing, but did you know he can throw a nice 50-yard spiral?

January 18, Madison. "Nervous Guy."

A joke: What do you call a lead guitarist without a wife? Homeless.

I lie on my bench and think about home. I wonder how my wife, Heather, is doing. How would I like it if she left with her friends every now and then to shake it for a bunch of inebriated college boys? I vow to buy her something really special for her birthday. Her birthday! It's a week from today. That means the present needs to be in the mail...tomorrow. The next day at the latest. I'll have to work fast.

We're in the middle of our second song when the fear of song seven settles in the pit of my stomach. I'm slated to sing "Coahuila," something I performed around Dallas in my little side band the Scrap Hotel. But in 11 years with the 97's, I haven't sung a lead vocal. To make matters worse, Bun E. Carlos, the drummer from Cheap Trick, is here. I feel like a third-grader forced to lead the pledge of allegiance in front of the whole school. I could bail out, tell the guys to skip it. But they'd never let me hear the end of it. When the time comes, I remember to turn down my guitar so I can hear my vocals.

We rock. I rock.

January 19, Indianapolis. "Dressing Room Walls."

I am officially sick of the cold cuts, Swiss cheese, cookies, crackers and assorted crap that appears backstage each night. Rhett and I bail to the sushi bar next door. We briefly consider: Is eating raw fish in Indianapolis a good idea? What's the worst that could happen?

After sound check, Murry calls a band meeting. He tells us his father is dying. Now. They can keep him alive until our tour ends, but after Murry flies out to see him, they will take him off the machines. Murry talks about his childhood in Boyd and what his father meant to him. My eyes fill with tears. How long before I'm giving the same speech? I wonder if my boy will have to tell his friends the same tale someday. We try to comfort Murry, try to deal with mortality. I remember what is really great about a band. For the millionth time, I think of these guys as my family.

We're due onstage in two minutes, and I have to pee. The Vogue is an old theater that reeks of beer and vaudeville. The backstage is tiny and has no facilities. Not about to wade through the crowd, I whizz in the trash can. The guys scream in disgust and dismay over my shoulder.

About an hour into the show, Rhett begins looking back at Philip and making faces. "Look at Rhett!" Philip yells at me between songs. He's pale and sweating more than usual. The set ends, and we fall into the backstage before encore. Rhett staggers to the urine-soaked garbage can and starts gagging.

Uh-oh. Tekkamaki's revenge.

"Do it! Come on, free yourself!" I yell. "Just think about the pee and bad living in there!"

He launches.

It's difficult to hear our shrieks of delight over the fans cheering for more music. Now this is rock and roll. Rhett wipes his mouth and hustles back onstage, wooing the young ladies with some love song, the stench of humanity lingering on his lips.

January 20. "If My Heart Was a Car."

Drive days are bittersweet. You have the day off, but, really, there is nothing to do. I pass the hours sizing up my so-called life. Again.

Here is the strangest thing about being a middle-aged dad in a successful band that no one has heard of: Your peer group has no idea what you do. Back home, everyone has a normal job. They don't get checks from such nebulous entities as ASCAP, Local Musician's Union #442 and Wait Til Next Year Music. When the plumber comes to fix my pipes, guess what? I rip off my pajamas and throw on some jeans. I stick the baby in front of the TV and switch it from the PlayStation to Blue's Clues.

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