January 15, Dallas. "Streets of Where I'm From."
I run around my Lake Highlands house grabbing clothes, video games, books, guitar stuff and assorted necessities for my first Old 97's tour in over two years. Since then, I've been a stay-at-home dad. I can't say I don't fear the prospect of dragging my tired 41-year-old ass onto the road, trading my secure home for squealing girls and envious boys, most of whom were born during the Reagan years. I'm worried about missing my wife and kids, in particular my 3-year-old Audie. He's been bargaining with me all week about how long I can go, how maybe he can go, too. This wouldn't be so far-fetched in a bus, but we're in our farty, littered, doughnut-crusty van. A horrible place for a child. What kind of father leaves his family to gallivant around the country with his friends?
While digging through my junk, I think about how the hell I got into this: Philip Peeples and I met in 1990 in Denton. We played in a freaky band called the Smeg Wentfields and had maybe six conversations. The only one I remember was about starting a band like Ministry and Public Enemy. Thank God we lost touch.
In the fall of 1992, I moved into Marquita Courts apartments on Lower Greenville. My neighbors, Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond, had been hacking around Dallas trying to make a go as musicians. I was learning accordion and banjo and owned a Fender Telecaster. I'd also lived in Austin. It must have impressed them, because they invited me to join their practice sessions in Murry's apartment. We started weekly gigs at Chumley's. We were having fun, but we needed a drummer. My friend Darin Lin Wood, who'd been filling in, suggested "this guy Philip" in Denton. Philip? My Philip!? Boom-shak-ah-lak-ah, we had a band!
Eleven years later, we're still grinding away. We're all married, and three of us are dads. Rhett and Murry live out of the state. We have mortgages, high cholesterol, and I swear I have arthritis in my fingers. Our sixth CD is due out this summer.
One by one the guys drive up. Everyone jokes about the long drive to Minnesota, how this is the way you travel when you lose your cushy major-label deal. The jokes aren't that funny. I kiss my wife goodbye. We jump in the van, and like atoms, we split.
Our guitar tech Noah Polk is driving. He's been on practically every tour with us. He's burly, tattooed and reminds me of a Jewish George Costanza. Right now he's asking where we want to eat. A chorus of negatives answer him. Not Burger King. Not Arby's. Not Denny's. Day one's menu is typical: Taco Bell, Steak 'n Shake and Subway. Noah also puts away a slice of pizza and some truck-stop Chinese food. He's an eater.
Every three hours we hit convenience stores like buzzards, circling the aisles for that one candy bar or piece of beef jerky that will make the next three hours tolerable. I've been trying to eat better. I've been on the modified South Beach Diet. Modified with the occasional cinnamon Pop-Tart and bowl of Lucky Charms. I figure if my guitar playing is rusty, I can make up for it with the illusion of youth.
January 16, Minneapolis. "Curtain Calls."
We roll out early. Cold and grumpy, we bitch about getting fat. Noah talks about his fear of crossing the 200-pound wall. In a convenience-store restroom, we find a scale and immediately start arguing about how much to subtract for our clothes. We settle on seven pounds. Noah steps on first, and the scale hits 212. "Something must be wrong! I CAN'T have gained 15 pounds in six months." Philip reminds him of the five meals he ate yesterday. Noah claims he ate only three--the pizza and Chinese food were snacks.
The club is packed. I wander into the audience for the opening act and immediately feel the stare of fans just outside my periphery. I turn, but they turn, too. Attention, Minneapolis: Settle down. You're in the presence of a Lake Highlands dad. Did you bring your soccer ball?
The show goes fine, and I have one kick-ass rock-and-roll moment: The Pete Townshend windmill is one of rock's staple moves, but I always felt it wasn't quite my style. But after two and a half years away, I'm caught in the moment. At the end of "Four Leaf Clover," I stand at the front of the stage. I windmill once, twice, thrice, then hold my hand high, letting the groaning sustain of my guitar hang in the air. I count on Philip to have my back. I slam my pick into the strings for the last time, and he's with me, crashing drums, cymbals and guitars in unison. What cacophony! Magnificent! We're on fire, baby.
Where the hell is Chicago?!
January 17, Chicago. "Crash on the Barrelhead."
My seat in the van is the back one. It's private and far from the mutterings in the front. Murry, our bass player, sits in front of me. He has a new laptop with a gigantic 20-inch screen. When he plugs it in, it sucks all the electricity from the adapter and everyone loses power. Ironic, too, since Murry uses his laptop for boring stuff like spreadsheets instead of games. He's a train buff who collects information on old Texas short lines--railways that ran in the '20s, connecting East Texas logging mills to towns with names like Reklaw and Sacul. I'm glad someone is doing it. Just as long as it's not me.
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.
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!"
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.
Once we've discussed rust and gaskets, the guy invariably asks what I do. Hell, it can't be this. So I tell him I'm in a band, and he tells me his brother-in-law plays bass at the First Baptist Church in Garland. I fight the temptation to roll my eyes and tell him, "No, a REAL band."
I wish the Old 97's had an iconic song, like Deep Blue Something. I could just sing a little "And I said, 'What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?'" We don't, however. Not even close. Instead of explaining about the CDs, the touring, the fans and the press, I give him what he wants. I tell him I've been on The Tonight Show, The Late Show and Conan. Look: Jay Leno's autograph, right here on my piano.
For the first time, he looks interested. I tell him the name of the band again.
"Olds 97? Yeah, I think I've heard of you. Y'all ever play out at Rusty's Bucket in Rockwall?"
Later, the van stops at a Wal-Mart, and I remember Heather's birthday. "Ken, you are such a half-ass," says a little part of my brain. "Getting your poor, hardworking wife a birthday present at Wal-Mart!" But I'm not even gonna go there. Instead, I enter the great hunting grounds of mid-America. Thirty minutes later, I emerge with faux leopard-skin house shoes, a card and a mailer. I'm not proud. I'm just trying to be a good person.
January 22, Philadelphia. "What We Talk About."
The drive to Philly is dull. I can't get my mind off home. I reconsider the band thing: How long can it go on? Why do I do it? Will anyone listen to the music in the future? How about this whole downloading thing--good for me or bad?
Rhett breaks through my fretting festival. "Talk to her, talk to her, talk to her, try to kiss her, and then she beats you off."
He's been buried in the PC game The Sims all tour.
"You just have to keep doing that until your love rating gets high," he mutters. "Then she'll make out with you."
Even for a lead singer, Rhett is a babe magnet. They throw notes onstage. Make signs and T-shirts. Some cry. Most just seem to get very nervous when he's around. He's been writing and performing songs since he was 15. The only thing he's ever had resembling a real job was a two-year stint as the doorman at Terilli's. He's somewhat of a legend in the metroplex, and lots of ink has been devoted to him. But check this out: He's a pretty good athlete. A decent basketball and roller hockey player. He's actually a good quarterback who can throw a nice 50-yard spiral. Whenever I tell people, they seem incredulous. Go figure.
Each night, during the guitar solo in "Murder (or a Heart Attack)," I play the notes to "Nickey Nickey Noo Noo, Stick Your Head in Poo Poo." I loved this when I recorded it and love to play it every night on tour. It reminds me of home and my little family tucked in their beds. I look out at the bobbing heads and think, "Not one of them knows what I'm thinking right now." It's my little secret. (So don't tell them, OK?)
There's a 12-year-old boy who looks kind of like me in the front. After we bang the last chord to "Timebomb," I go over to him, bend down and squeeze my pick into his hand--my best Mean Joe Greene impersonation.
January 23, Washington, D.C. "Question."
Best show of the tour, hands down. It used to be tough for us to even get booked in D.C., and to sell out the 9:30 Club, its largest venue, feels great. Murry's wife, Grey Delisle, has flown in to open the show. My best friend Jamie from high school is there. Onstage I think about the night he and I played "You Can't Always Get What You Want" on our guitars in my parents' garage at 1 a.m. My dad appeared in his underwear, yelling something about growing up, how it was too late to play guitars.
Still not sure if I can agree with Dad. I think 1 a.m. is about right.
The band is juiced. We have blood in our eyes, and for the first time on the tour my fingers feel quick. The crowd is interesting, too: A girl in an Oakland T-shirt demands Rhett get a haircut; two gay indie rockers hold each other tragically and sing along; a big bald guy air-guitars my solos and accepts high fives from his friends at the end of each song.
Philip and Rhett worked out something for the encore. In the middle of our mushiest love song, "Question," a family friend of Philip's gets down on one knee. She says yes, and the crowd roars.
After the show, I'm signing autographs when a couple approaches. The girl's had a few and tells me she left her CD at home. Could I sign her boob?
Had I been wired to a polygraph, the needles would have swung like whirligigs in a hurricane.
She takes my hand--if she weren't so drunk, she might notice the ring around the fourth finger--and repeats her request. The boyfriend fidgets and stares at his shoes. Oh, crap. He must think I'm a turd.
She babbles some more and repeats the request. Damn it, what's wrong with people? How the hell can I get out of this? The skunk has its odor, the tortoise its shell and the gazelle its blistering speed. But what defense does the lead guitar player have for the drunken obnoxious fan?
"Hey, how would you like to meet Rhett?" I ask.
Backstage, I tell Rhett some girl really, really wants his autograph. He pretty much runs me over. Five minutes later he crashes into the backstage flustered and spewing something about a girl trying to hump his leg.
If this were an e-mail, right about now I would do this: ;-)
January 24-25, New York City. "King of All the World."
I grew up on a dead-end road outside Tyler, where it was rare for anyone to even visit New York City. Now, we sell out the Bowery Ballroom both nights. Backstage, I meet Norah Jones' guitar player Adam. Being a card-carrying member of the Stay at Home Soccer Dads, I'm a big fan. We exchange guitar-player pleasantries: amps, guitars, pedals and whatnot. He turns out to be a bit of a 97's fan, so I tell him how we used to play Naomi's for tips from a pickle jar, how we crawled up the ladder of the national bar scene and, after an electric night at SXSW in 1996, signed a deal with the big boys. That night, Rhett and I stayed out until dawn we were so giddy.
I ask how Adam met Norah. Turns out he met her in a bar through some Denton friends before she had her record deal.
"So we pretty much just described the best nights of our lives," I tell him.
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In the middle of Sunday night's set, I remember what is sitting on the floorboard of my van bench. A certain padded manila mailer containing a pair of faux leopard-skin house shoes. Realizing I'm a dead man, I play like a banshee, spewing sizzling guitar licks that burst out of the Bowery, through Midtown and would still be ricocheting to this day had they not been nabbed by a homeless guy playing Bob Dylan in Central Park.
As we blast through the set, the crowd singing along and cheering, I don't give a damn. Playing music is fun. Traveling around the country is fun. Having a point to your life outside family and job is fun. I didn't get into music because I had to, only because I wanted to. It's great to be back doing it, spreading happy seeds across the country. I'll be excited to hop on the plane tomorrow and fly back to Dallas, but for now, life is swell. As my 3-year-old once said, "Dreams are tricky. Sometimes they are pretend, but they feel real."
I hail a cab. "Take me home," I tell him. "The Hotel 3030 between Madison and Park on 30th."