Cover of the Week 14 Straight to Hell
Since I seemingly have written a book for this post, I will spare you the scrolling and start with the link to the song. but if you have some time, I hope you enjoy my reverie/rant. There is also a video clip in the middle of it.
Buffalo Tom were part of a miserable tour in the summer in the mid-1990s opening for some best-left-unmentioned-and-forgotten band, across the soulless empty heart of America’s highway-exit-mall-dominated exurbia, playing the local McBlockbuster Pavilions, staying at the McDays and McHoliday Inns, and eating at the blooming-onion Outbacks and TGIFridays that represent the hospitality and service industry at the hollow core of disposable America. We were opening for this McBand headliner in this same dispiriting setting night after night. We would travel for many hours of redundant eviscerated-wasteland, highway-side scenery only to seemingly arrive at the same exact spot daily, as in some godforsaken Groundhog Day purgatory. At least we maintained a bit more equilibrium than the guys in the band’s crew, who would travel all night, sleeping in the bus, arriving at more of the same in the morning, setting up all day, breaking down the stage and splitting after the show to do the same exact thing for a month or more. They were stinking zombies with fanny-packs and Leatherman holsters . But this is, of course, how the concert industry works.
We would wake up and there would be no place to walk to. I mean, you could see a mall, but trying to get over there was a matter of taking one’s life into one’s hands along the sidewalk-less Route 9 and Route 1 veins of the country, as SUVs full of Cracker Barrel denizens ripped out of parking lots and ran up onto curbs and over litter-strewn mud and weed-choked dead wetlands staked out with bent aluminum road signs. So we would all get the assigned departure time from the hotels and we would all be in the bus 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave — unlike the usual tours that might take us to some interesting cities or college towns where we would usually all scatter and arrive late for departure time.
But while we were in a hurry to get going, it was only a cruel rush to more of the same and then more of the same again. We would sit around this or that venue until we had a soundcheck, with a mutual polite indifference toward the headliner (who, in this particular case, were not only unrewarding musically but prima donas as people), bored out of our skulls, do the soundcheck, eat some catering and drink too much alcohol to numb the numbness some more, go out and play our 30-minute (at most) set to a ¾ empty house (I’ve always been a ¾-empty, as opposed to ¼-full-guy) as mall-rock fans filtered in slowly. These were the kind of “fans” who barely knew any of the headliner’s music; only the video or two which they were fed on MTV. Then we would try to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. The headliner would not even allow any of the opening acts to view them from the side of the stage and I would be damned if I was going to go out and try to fight for some vantage point to check out a band I could not care less about musically.
From there we would end up rolling into some hotel and hoping there was a bar down there to chat up businessmen/women numbing down their own hells, lived earlier that day in some nameless, windowless conference room filled with stale bagels and watery coffee at a stucco-palace hotel on the side of the highway. To them our lives represented at least some medium-grade rock & roll fantasy. If only they knew.
Or we might drive toward the next destination if it looked to be an interesting one, and try to gain some more free time in the places where we actually wanted to be, locations far and few between. So we would sit in the hotel rooms watching junk TV and drinking and smoking too much bad stuff. We’d bring out books, CDs, try to catch movies; there was no widespread use of laptops, the Internet, and no real cell phones yet. I had a bike with me to roll around neighborhoods around the Pavilions, the others brought out golf clubs. But after a while, there is no fighting it. You start to fall into ennui and mild simmering depression and lose faith in almost everything — unmoored. You realize that this is most of the country. It is like those backdrops in old Flintstone cartoons: a car flashes by boulder, tree, mountain, boulder, tree, mountain, boulder, tree…
When we would finally roll into even just some desolate old town center like Odessa, Texas, our road-numbed senses would be awakened by something like an authentic hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint and a real Salvation Army filled with junk that seemed like precious artifacts of some earlier, more real past…remember when we used to play records like these? Remember when clothes looked sharp? The margaritas at the Mexican joint would seem doubly potent after weeks of eight-hour drives. We would all come alive for an hour and then fall back to the diesel-choked bus to watch some DVD of Spinal Tap, which no longer seemed satirical after a while. Before you go on a tour you romanticize the idea of truck stops. One meal in a circa-1990s truck stop and you realize that gritty glamor is as long gone as the gleaming diners and rhinestone-earring waitresses named Flo of yore, less Tom Waits, and more like Bob Seeger.
It was a soul-sapping summer tour. You see, (cue up some maudlin strings) we came from humble beginnings. Buffalo Tom never intended to be anything other than a band that played small clubs. When we were starting out, it was all hair metal. The Clash and Talking Heads had broken through, and then there were a few post-punk-type artists that made some dents. But even that was pretty mainstream. When R.E.M and the Cure started playing arenas, people that were still playing at the Rat and the Channel in Boston started thinking, well, maybe…
But the immediate reality of the scene in which we operated is most accurately captured in Michael Azeroff’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. It outlines the club-tour circuit and aspirations of the post-punk indie-label bands of the mid-1980s to early 1990s. This is conveyed via chapters on the Replacements, the Minutemen, Dinosaur Jr., Mission of Burma, and other such heroes. There was a built-in support network with clubs to play and couches to crash on that was blazed by early Homestead, Touch and Go, and SST bands like Sonic Youth, X, the Gun Club, Black Flag, and Volcano Suns and extended from Berlin to London to Boston, New York, Chicago, and to Seattle. By the time the little brothers like us got out there, the way had been paved for us. We were meeting friends of friends in Amsterdam; buddies of tour buddies in Glasgow; the promoter in Australia was the same guy who booked our friends in Superchunk. We had great double and triple bills with My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, Pavement, etc.
This earlier indie network is the scene that we aspired to be part of and succeeded in joining. To be mentioned in the same breath as those Homestead, SST, Athens, Minneapolis, and Seattle acts (even if it is my own same breath) is still as thrilling now as it was then. But the goal posts for BT and a lot of these bands started moving back. Indie labels were a labor of love and really were generally not very well-run businesses. Promotion was sketchy, payments to bands almost non-existent. The Huskers signed to Warner Brothers, the Replacements to Sire, the Sonics to Geffen. And then Nevermind came out and everything was dated accordingly – pre-Nevermind and post. All of a sudden this little world exploded into the mainstream, with many of the college radio kids now in positions of power at major labels and MTV and booking tours. For a brief shining moment, good music was everywhere and bands we grew up with were becoming bona fide rock stars. Among the bands that opened (!) for Buffalo Tom were Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, the Goo Goo Dolls, all of whom went on to far higher heights. When I heard the Breeder’s “Cannonball” on the radio, it was like some fulfillment: yeah, a great song I want to hear immediately again…on the radio? And this happened again and again with our friends: Dinosaur Jr. with “Freak Scene”; Belly with “Feed the Tree”; the Lemonheads.
And yet, just as fast as the promise came, the promise was dashed along the shoals of mediocre and pale representations of those earlier bands. When it all started changing in the mid-1990s and a slew of mall-rocking MOR bands started hitting big, we were repeatedly asked to open for some of them and to start making compromises under the insidious guise of major-label promotion. It was tough to make such decisions back then. We had been making a living from the band and were committed to try to sell more records and reach more people. We said “no” to a lot of bad stuff. But we also said “yes: to some “opportunities,” like this tour I started this post with, if for no other reason than to keep the people at the label faithful in us, to show that we were trying and working with them to try and broaden the base. Some such tours proved to be pretty OK. And certainly we almost always became friendly with the bands we played with. There used to be an acronym, “GGBB,” good guys, bad band. This example I am harping on about was a definite anomaly of BBDB, or “bad band, douche bags.” When a tour brought us out with My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, and Mercury Rev, it was a magical combination of opening for a bigger band, fans that cared about music and were adventurous and also open-mined to the opening bands, and a touring group of really warm and interesting people. I mean, Yo La Tengo even bought us gifts at the end of the tour! This is something that the good guys in Goo Goo Dolls did as well when we went on to open for them when they exploded into rock-stardom. Touring with Superchunk in Australia in 1994 was like summer camp.
But here we found ourselves, stranded in the vast American wasteland, locked into some lame tour. We would come back from these wonderful trips in Europe, where we were treated warmly as artists, traveling through ancient and breathtaking cities. Then we would get on the bus and head to the belt parkways of America and I started to really feel adrift and asking myself the sort of existential questions that are wholly inappropriate for being on a rock tour: “Why are we doing this? Do we even want to try to win over such fair weather fans as those coming to these shows? Is this why we started a band? Why is so much of America depressingly ugly? This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife. Does anyone care about design, pedestrians, decent food, architecture, the environment? Nick Cave wouldn’t do this tour. What would Joe Strummer, with his love/hate relationship with America, say?”
Well, I might not have gotten answers to most of those questions, or I got the dispiriting conclusions I expected. There ain’t much “there” out there. But we did get close to answering that last question. Though I never got to meet Joe, we did get to hang out with – on this very gray tour – Joe’s partner, the legendary Mick Jones and his band of fun guys, Big Audio Dynamite, who joined the tour after another group of great guys, the Catherine Wheel departed. And Mick’s response to this backdrop seemed to be let’s party and have a fucking great time.
Mick Jones, Howe Gelb, and Buffalo Tom circa 1995. I’m the one who looks like Gilligan. Thanks to my brother Scott and also Mike Gent for independently pointing that out.
This was one of the all-time heroes of ours, and here he is (see video clip) in our dressing room outside of Phoenix, jamming on “Brand New Cadillac” and “Little Sister.” I think we were too nervous to actually think up some Mick Jones-sung songs and yet so many of his songs are favorites of mine. But in one simple little 30 minutes (only about 2 of which are captured here), the potentially nervous-breakdown tour of the decade was resuscitated into one of the all-time great reminiscences of our days on the road. Howe Gelb is even in there somewhere. It was a blast. But the juxtaposition, late afternoon in some fluorescently lit antiseptic dressing room in the middle of an asphalt desert, jamming with Mick Jones of “the only band that matters,” a band that was all about the here and the now and the viscerally real — only to leave this room and travel back out into the empty suburban sprawl — was a bit jarring even as it was heartwarming. By the time we reached the end of the line, Mick and the boys were literally partying with us at a shindig our label threw for us (on our dime, I would not be surprised) at an LA restaurant/bar. I wish I could say I spent hours chatting it up and jamming with Mick but I think our overlap was pretty fleeting and I don’t recall much more than these few times hanging out. He asked me if I had any speed. I did not. But it is one of the few times that I actually felt like a rock star.
And I have been on a mighty Clash jag over the past few months, getting the great new Clash book for Christmas, and catching the Joe Strummer documentary on DVD. The Stones, the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevie Wonder, Creedence, the Eagles…these were the giant bands and artists of my youth. Most of them were from England. But they were older bands, from a slightly different era. When I was 14, my uncle gave me Talking Heads Remain in Light, U2 Boy, and a Nina Hagen 10 inch. I also got the Clash’s Give ’em Enough Rope, which we would listen to repeatedly, next to a Stones bootleg of the 1972 tour. Some of my friends and I started to find new bands of our own. Growing up on Long Island, we had some pretty good FM radio out of New York (“the City”) in the 1970s. We heard a lot of Elvis Costello, some Patti Smith, a lot of Talking Heads, some Graham Parker and Nick Lowe and stuff like that. But it was still very conservative musically out on the Island. Southern Rock and Frampton still reigned into 1980. There was a daring new wave/punk band in Huntington called the Plastic Device that some of my friends and I — still playing Neil Young and Stones covers — looked up to. This band was booed when they kicked off a Huntington High School battle of the bands with their version of “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” It was ridiculous. They were exciting, new and fresh, doing something provocative. It was funny. But the kids in the flannel shirts, Timberland boots, with their feathered hair and pot pipes in their jacket pockets wanted to hear bands like the King’s Realm cover Jethro Tull tunes. But we were soaking it up. We (coincidentally my band was named the Plastic Peach) started taking on newer covers into our repertoire, adding “Psycho Killer” and such.
The Peach was rocking along and after years of not really finding my place in sports, I had found my calling. Musicians were my people. The band became our mutual obsession. We were organizing gigs, learning how to deal with teammates much like kids playing sports, but we did it all without adult supervision, influence, or most importantly, adult rules. As we moved from junior high into the early years of high school, my father felt I should be involved in more school-related extra-curricular activities to make myself look more interesting for the eventual college applications, but I never learned more about life from any other activity/organization than I did being in bands. By the time Buffalo Tom came around, I already knew how to help unite disparate personalities into a group that a shared goal, even if it was only to have fun at practice sessions. We were self-motivated and started to figure out promotion, getting ourselves noticed. But back then, rock band tenure wasn’t exactly college-application material. Even after we ran a business, Buffalo Tom, traveling internationally, with crew members employed and insured by us, learning sales and marketing, it was a tough sell when it came time to find a day job after a 10-years on the road. Resume: 1989 graduate college. 1989-91: assistant manager at print/copy shop. 1991-2001: rock band.
Just when I was feeling the Plastic Peach was rolling along, my father got a new job in Providence. We moved to a tiny little town southwest of Boston. At 16 I was ripped from a almost idyllic little adolescence, part of a band in the town in which I grew up, a town with beaches, a downtown village with record stores, ice cream shops, musical instrument stores, pizza places, a bowling alley with an enviable collection of video games, a great park with an art museum and performance stage, and a movie theater. Oh, and a greasy-spoon burger grill called Hamburger Choo Choo, which had a lunch counter and booths, a neon sign with a train on it, and a model train railroad that wound its way around tracks to every seat at the counter, delivering your burgers, fries, and Pepsi on flatbed train cars. Two or three of my buddies had little Boston Whaler boats, dingys with outboards, before we could get our drivers licenses. I remember summers tooling around the harbor and bay with boomboxes cranking out the Specials and the Kinks’ new live album, getting sunburns as red as lobsters, in between lawn-mowing gigs. Everything was walking or hitchhiking distance – an important feature before we could drive. And when we got bored and our parents allowed us, the train took us into New York City, where we would comb Bleeker Street for more records and the guitar shops of 48th.
We left at the end of the school year to move into the house my parents bought. The last night in Huntington was a gig night for us, some party at a beach club on the bay. We were all of 15 or 16 and all got blasted at some party afterwards and a house where someone’s parents were absent. I drank so much I got deathly ill, wrapped myself in a bathroom rug to cut down on my shivering and woke up wearing it, in a corner of the bathroom people were still using throughout the night. I could barely bring myself to my feet and tried to sneak out of the house mid-morning. The summer sun was blazing and I was sick as a dog. I made it out and to about the next house down the cul de sac before I heard some friends yelling out to me, “Hey Billy, where you going? Come on back! Say goodbye!” This was the day we were driving to Massachusetts. I couldn’t face my friends, not because of the emotion of it, but because I felt like I was on the edge of throwing up at every turn. I made it home, where movers were emptying the house and my family was running around frantically. My friend, Larry, called and was confirming a farewell lunch date we had at the Mediterranean Snack Bar, a greasy gyro and Greek hole in the wall downtown. I could barely even hold it together to tell Larry that I couldn’t make it. I kept feeling my body trying to evacuate what was no longer there. I was dry heaving, sweating, and my parents only needed to take one disgusted look at me, like, “this is all we need right now.” They holed me up at a neighbor’s house. The neighbor, who happened to be a nurse, gave me something that eventually stopped my nausea. I was in a bad, bad way. I am certain I had alcohol poisoning. To this day, I cannot drink Irish Whisky, Pina Colada Mix, Tanqueray, and Gallo Chablis all together as I did in a span of a few hours that night. Go figure. By late afternoon or evening, my family came to get me and I took a 4-hour ride of shame out of town and toward New England. I swear that the Squeeze tune “Tempted” came on the car radio, with the lines “I said to my reflection let’s get out of this place/Past the church and the steeple, the laundry on the hill/The billboards and the buildings/The memories of it still keep calling and calling/But forget it all, I know I will.” We drove up past our church and just next door, just up the hill was the laundry, the dry cleaners we went to a million times over those 15 years. It was the longest drive of my life.
So I came to this town, Medfield. I knew no one. The house was in one of those boring suburban developments. We were not even hitchhiking distance to one of those mall-strewn Route 9’s mentioned at the beginning of this rant. The first guy I met was a great kid with a nutty, unique personality named Andre, who lived a few houses up the road. I figured I moved from erudite and cutting edge NY, to this rural little town with one stoplight, farms with cows, and horrible pizza and so no one would be anywhere as hip as I am. But Andre had a great record collection. So he and I hit it off for the summer. And by the time I got to tiny little Medfield High, to finish up my last two years of high school, I met a handful of really cool kids with open minds and great taste in music and they all remain my close core of friends today. All the stuff I had dug in Huntington was fully represented among these kids. Back in Huntington, though, it was only a handful of kids open enough to new music. (One such “kid,” an old and steady buddy of mine, Chris Campion, has written a memoir that will include his own version of some of these formative days, as well as later struggles, called Escape From Bellevue, which was based on a successful off-Broadway show he wrote and then performed with his long-time NYC band, the Knockout Drops. Chris’ brother was also in a well-known band called the Bogmen). But here in tiny East Bumfuck Medfield, even though it took me a depressing whole year to adapt and meet some more kids, football players listened to Flipper and Mission of Burma. The Lyres, the Neats and Big Dipper were local Boston bands that I would listen to on local college radio. Hüsker Dü graffiti peppered some road signs eventually. My friend Jay introduced me to other outcasts and we would listen to the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms ad infinitum. Again, it was music that linked me to others.
By the time I was a senior, many of my friends were in college, a year ahead of me. We used to take our friend Joe’s van up to visit our buddies at UMass. Joe graduated high school and went to work for his father installing carpet, so he had this brown van with no seats in the back. We used to pile beer, some pillows, and anywhere from 4-10 guys in the back. And he cranked, over the heavy van stereo, the Buzzcocks, Iggy and the Stooges, Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Stiff Little Fingers, the Cure, Violent Femmes, Gang of Four, and the seminal compilation of Boston hardcore, This is Boston, Not LA. Joe had one rule that, when he bellowed it at us sounded like more of a suggestion than a ban, “NO SLAMMING (slam dancing, as it had been known early on) IN THE VAN!!”
Joe was one of those that didn’t make it. He had his demons. He turned into an artist, a photographer who ended up working with some influential friends in Provincetown. He struggled with all sorts of stuff as he got a little older. He got straight. He fell off the wagon. He moved away. He got straight again. He came back. He died. But back in the old days, we rolled down the Mass Pike in his van, making each other laugh hysterically, stopping off in Brattleboro Vermont, where the drinking age was still 18, looking forward to keg parties with college girls. And it was on some of these trips during my senior year, where I met the older dudes (OK, only by a year or two), Chris and Tom. Chris also spent junior high and high school in Medfield, but had graduated and went off to UMass before I moved there. Tom was one of a few guys from a different town, Andover, whom the Medfield dudes befriended. Tom also played bass at the time in this band I idolized called Plate of Mutton, who wrote their own songs and had a really compelling frontman singing, Tom’s cousin, Phil.
We would get to Amherst and pour out of the van and out to a great show with the Del Fuegos, Link Wray, or the Fleshtones out at the Rusty Nail, a roadhouse shack in the middle of a field in Sunderland. Or R.E.M and the dBs at the Fine Arts Center. Or Black Flag at the Student Union Ballroom. But more commonly we would end up at a dorm party with a great 1983/84 soundtrack: X; Killing Joke; Echo and the Bunnymen; Gun Club; Bauhaus; the Specials; Elvis Costello; Joe Jackson; and the Clash, always, the Clash.
So I have to take on a Clash tune. Not many of their songs jump immediately to mind when considering tackling an acoustic-based cover version, but I have played “Straight to Hell” solo acoustic before and I have long loved this song. It is a damning song. Late in their career, they pull out an almost Dylan-like indictment. I take it on at the risk of not being able to ably interpret Strummer’s idiosyncratic wordplay, as he is almost a rock & roll Kerouac, But it is a challenge I take on gladly.