There was no band for me in New York. There was toiling at a record company, cocktail waiting at CBGBs, attending an endless string of rock shows, and playing music at pay-per-hour studios. But there was no time for a band. I was on an express train speeding by a landscape of rockers who blended together in a black denim blur.
I wanted a change. I needed one more class to finish college, so I decided to go back to Chapel Hill, where tuition would be cheap. My savings could float me for summer school. I was going to stay for a month and then move to San Francisco. Something American in me pulled west.
When I got to Chapel Hill, I moved into the kind of house I had seen in Slacker and had been totally envious of. The bong in the living room smoked like a gun, lending the room an air of light-hearted crime. There was a stack of vinyl on the carpet, a turntable, a TV to watch The Simpsons on, and a plethora of foxes.
I moved in with Jamie, the foxiest of foxes, who did bong hits in the morning and played guitar scientifically. She hid in her room experimenting with alternative tunings and homemade pedals. She ate food from her garden and knew how to hem a dress.
MacPhail came over in the afternoons before work. She had recently acquired a blue metal-flake drum kit in exchange for babysitting. She painted, welded, tended bar, and could roll a joint with one hand.
Lizzie had stringy blond hair and drove around in her pickup listening to Dolly Parton. She had thin lips, a high voice and an unidentified Southern accent. In a crowd, all you could hear from Lizzie were vowels.
I was psyched. Cheap rent, easy living, good girlfriends.
Lizzie and MacPhail lived in a house out in the country, where you could hear a bee fly by, loud as a truck. We set up MacPhails drums and a couple amps in the living room and became giddy with noise. I had a black Hondo bass and a Peavey practice amp that screeched. Lizzie played my old guitar, or pounded on the xylophone (the top of the mallet often shot off like a bullet), or emitted feedback on her souped-up accordion. We plugged in, cooked food, wrote songs. We didnt have a plan to be a Big Rock Band, we played because we could. Besides, I was in a high glam period. I was dying to rock.
Playing with them made me think of my grandmother and her sisters. They were Rock Stars of the Living Room -- Mema on the autoharp, Aunt Foy on the banjo, Aunt Kate and Aunt Ethel on kazoos. Their singing, especially Aunt Foys, sounded sort of off and yet sacred, like those Tibetan monks who can hit two notes at the same time. These women appeared to me in a vision, like elders from Wonder Woman Island, and said, "Get it, girl."
Lizzie, Jamie, MacPhail and I had been playing together for about a month when we got a show at the indie rock mothership, the Hardback Cafe. We named ourselves Speed McQueen, inspired by the giant Speed Queen clock in the kitchen.
Our first show sold out. There were people lined up outside the door. Chapel Hill had an automatic audience for almost anything; kids flocked to the rock shows. Lizzie and I were amped -- the limelight! The outfits! But when Jamie and MacPhail saw how many people were there, MacPhail got really quiet and Jamie threw up.
Standing on the stage that first night, looking out the window at all the people who couldnt even get in, I felt I had crossed an invisible line. No longer would I have to sit in an office watching bands strut around, I was on the inside! I WAS A ROCK STAR. Who has never wanted to be a rock star? Who has never longed to put a foot up on a monitor and yell to a sea of seething fans, THANK YOU, TOKYO!
I was hooked.
Id like to say we were great that night but all I remember is that I screamed a lot and had a good hair day. What we lacked in skill, we made up for in volume and style. After the show, an interviewer shoved a mic in our faces, a flashbulb clicked. I imagined myself in an over-exposed photo, shielding my eyes with my hands. We even made a little cash. We shouldve started a band fund for recording and road trips, but we split the dough at the end of the night.
My summer class came and went, but I stayed because Chapel Hill still seemed glamorous. I only had to work enough to pay $165 for rent. Everything was so cheap, I ran out of money. I realized that the spend-no-money, make-no-money equation equaled simply, no money. San Francisco was far away again and I didnt care. It was fun to perch on rooftops and watch the sun come up, swim naked in a pond at 4am, and of course, play in a band.
Music in Chapel Hill was untainted. I wasnt thinking about who was on what label, or what was in heavy rotation. I wasnt eyeballing the crowd for connections. Art for arts sake. Also, there was more than the occasional female bassist, there were (almost) as many girl bands as boy bands. I was in my element.
We booked more shows.
The next time we played out, Lizzie threw up. The next one, MacPhail did. At least one of us puked at each of our first four shows. My turn came when a music business friend flew in from New York. I had been up there at a party, hyping our show. I didnt expect anyone to actually come to it; I just wanted to talk up our stage tricks and zany outfits. Promoter habits die hard. The afternoon of the show I got an ugly stomach virus. When the record company guy walked into the club I was dozing on the bar next to my ginger ale waiting for sound check. I had promised matching jumpsuits and dance routines, but delivered a subdued sea of solipsism. The only reality was the one in my head saying, try not to puke on his shoes. That night the crowd was lame. I couldnt even scream. It was an un-Zen moment where I couldnt bear the present and tried to speed up time by zipping through the songs. I left the stage mid-set to puke. I never talked to that record guy again.
Its not that we didnt want to get signed, we were still shocked that we were playing in front of people. It was a hoot. We werent exactly business-like. A small label in Chapel Hill eventually got us into a studio to record a few songs. We felt very fancy in there, separating each song and putting it back together like layers on a cake. While recording vocals, I imagined myself as Keith from the Partridge Family -- he has one hand on his big mushy earphone, the other on his hip, and his shaggy head tilted up towards the mic. Standard rock pose. In real life, I was in a soundproofed bedroom howling into a microphone that hung from the ceiling like a noose, my voice dangling, dead and limp inside it.
One song came out well, "Burn." We listened to the mix in Jamies car because the cassette player in the studio was, of course, broken. It sounded like a real song! Im gonna burn this town, Im gonna burn it to the ground. It was slow and moody. I wrote the song in my range i.e. it sounded like a cartoon dirge. Jamie sang backup and played a melodic guitar part, Lizzie honked away on the accordion like a musical goat. MacPhail kept a solid simple beat in 4/4 time. There were only two parts to this song and we mastered them. An old phrase from my seventh grade science teacher floated through my head "K.I.S.S. -- keep it simple, stupid." Maybe there was hope for us. We could keep it simple, stupid. The guys who recorded us even seemed excited, but we never pressed it. Thats how things went. We talked about pressing singles, recording albums, playing out of town, setting things on fire, but days and months went by and nothing happened. But I wasnt giving up hope. Sonic Youth wasnt built in a day, I thought.
Lizzie and I continued a long-standing glam off -- who could find the highest shoes, the dumbest pants, the fuzziest jacket. We gave up on trying to get Jamie andMacPhail out of their cords- and-Puma uniforms. We would have to be glam enough for the rest of them. Lizzie had black rollerskates and I had white ones. We skated around town as "Thunder" and "Lightning," careening into street signs, working on technique. We were no strangers to Dada or Evil Kneivel. Lizzie and I spent at least half of our practice time creating impossible scenarios for our shows. "Ill skate out with my hair on fire and you spread eagle over the drum kit while twirling a knife!"
During one practice we noticed a cow peeking in the window. Thats how good we were -- we attracted large farm animals. MacPhail ran out to herd our fan and her posse back into their yard. Lizzie tried to get them into the living room. She thought we could train them and use them in our show.
"They wont mind," she swore.
Cows or no cows, we played that town to death. We played at clubs and bars on the two-mile strip between Chapel Hill and Carrboro once or twice a month for almost two years. Free beer became a major incentive. The big crowd who flocked to rock shows had been deceiving; soon I knew everybody. I got excited whenever there was someone in the audience I didnt know because I expected to have rock star status after the show. But the cute strangers always shuffled out after the first song.
The urge to go west kicked back in but I held on to the rock and roll fantasy that we could tour across the country.
At long last we piled in a borrowed van and toured across the county. We played a show three hours out of town, on a big stage, with a real emcee who shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, lets give it up for Speed McQueen!" to a nearly empty room. All two of our friends gave it up for us. Clap, clap.
Practices became few and far between.
We found out there was a boy band from New York called Speed McQueen. Someone with a sense of humor booked us both on the same night at a club in Raleigh. The boys were the typical East Village rockers, all sporting those tapered black pants from Trash and Vaudeville that Lou Reed still wears. Their music was totally different from ours -- they were aging punk rockers trying to sound like Cheap Trick. We were a symphony of noises. No crossover, we could all be Speed McQueen! We invited them to our house after the show. This was no big deal as there were always people coming over to our house after two, when the bars closed. Everybody in Chapel Hill had lived at that house at some point and still had keys.
The night the boy band came over, there was a smattering of people hanging out, but I went upstairs to talk to a big blond oaf who promised to take me to Montana. I still needed to go west and the chances of our big tour werent looking so good. Maybe Jamie went to her room, too. Maybe Lizzie and MacPhail never came over. I dont remember, all I know is that we left the boy band alone in the beer-stained living room. They mumbled something into Jamies room about getting gas for their trip back and disappeared into their shiny rental van.
Later that week their lawyer called. We got a lawyer friend to represent us but we never had to go to court or anything. I think Speed McQueen New York was just trying to scare us. Even though we realized we had the name first, we were lazy. There, I said it -- we were lazy. Speed McQueen New York got signed to a major and a friend called to tell me they were plastered all over Tower Records on 4th Street. Our lawyer died in a car accident. We gave up that fight.
To make matters worse, Jamie started playing with another band, William Christ Supercarr. They were very serious and practiced a lot. We made the grave mistake of letting them open for us.
It was a miserable night around Christmas and we hadnt seen each other in weeks because of the holidays. Usually we got together before a show, but that night we made a haphazard set list over the phone and agreed to meet at the club. My El Camino the ultimate rock machine -- was docked in the yard, broken again, so I had to beg Lizzie for a ride. My amp rode shotgun and her dog and I hopped in the back of her truck.
If we knew we were going to suck, we either made our hair really big or got wasted. I worried when I saw Lizzie that night, her hair had Nashville height. I took half a hit of blotter assuming that Jamie or MacPhail would take the other half later. I didnt offer it to Lizzie; she got drunk off one beer and never smoked pot. No one ate the other half.
The thing about the automatic Chapel Hill audience, was that it left town on holidays and then you were left with the same fifteen people you saw every day crawling in your kitchen window to use the bong.
Lizzie and I sat at the bar while MacPhail played pool in the back room. My palms began to sweat. Lizzie cracked a second beer. I felt the beginnings of a trip that never totally materialized, all I noticed was a trace of strychnine which I tried to cut with Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can. I realized taking acid alone was maybe a really bad idea. William Christ went on very late. They played a very tight, oddly LONG set to a happy crowd. We were supposed to go on at eleven. Midnight came and went, our "opening" band played on and on. We continued to drink heavily.
People began to leave as last call was around the corner. I shouldve been relieved. I shouldve encouraged them all to run screaming from that place but I was pissed. Everyone must suffer with me.
Finally about one, the last note of William Christ rang out. We climbed on stage like drunk monkeys and plugged in. Someone put a ten-gallon cowboy hat on my head. It was beige. I fancied myself a rocker, but I looked more like the hunk-a-cheese guy from Schoolhouse Rock. Jamie noodled around loudly on her guitar while the rest of us set up.
Lizzie teetered on her platforms and seemed perturbed, but it was so loud all I could hear were those Lizzie vowels, "eeuuaa
"Whats your problem?" I said.
She pushed my ear shut with her finger (this actually helped) and yelled, "Itd be easier to get set up if it wasnt so loud." She was referring to Jamies screeching guitar.
Before I could respond, MacPhail clicked her drumsticks twice. Amazingly, we all started playing at the same time. We were so excited about that it took us a few minutes to realize we were each playing a different song.
We stopped and looked at each other. We ignored our audience. More people left. I scooched the hat further down on my face. MacPhail yelled out a song and we played it completely out of sync. We fumbled through some bastard child of our set.
As we packed up that night, I noticed Lizzie having a heated conversation with her amp.
"Whats up Lizzie?" I asked while winding cords around my elbow.
"I never turned that thing on!" she yelled, smirking. She was wearing earplugs.
I was mortified. Everything had gotten so stupid. I lived about half a mile away, so I threw my guitar over my shoulder and dragged my heavy amp out the door. I dont need anybody! I had just hauled it (thump thump thump) up the stairs and had begun scraping it along the sidewalk when Jamie pulled up beside me and insisted on giving me a ride. She laughed. She dropped me off at home and went to her other bands house.
I stood in the yard after she had driven away and decided I WAS NOT A ROCK STAR. I was a loser. I was waiting tables and playing bad shows in exchange for Pabst Blue Ribbons. Nothing else was going to happen.
I had to leave town.
Not just in general, but immediately, as in I wanted to wake up in another state. At this point the beers should have led me up to my bed, but the acid gave me a sense of purpose.
I ran into the arms of my El Camino. I thought I could start it with sheer will power. I got behind the wheel and turned the key -- the engine almost rolled over. The battery wasnt dead, so I cranked up AC/DCs "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap." If I could get my Camino started, I planned on driving until I ran out of gas or broke down, then Id live there for awhile, whether it be Durham or Las Vegas.
The goddamn Camino refused to start. I was trapped. Everything that was going to happen to me in Chapel Hill had happened. That was it. I felt like Id been duped, tricked somehow. We werent going to tour, I had no money, and my car was broken. I crumpled in a pitiful fit of tears. Go, El Camino, I cried, go!
I heard a little tap on my window. I looked up, embarrassed that Id been caught. A guy who had been at the show stared in at me. Hell say, "You guys rocked," I hoped. I rolled down the window.
"Your brake lights are on," he said calmly. He was one of those Chapel Hill coolies who never revealed any emotion. Hed been in bands since I was in high school. Months before he had noticed I was using my pinky when I played bass -- he was offended. "You dont actually want to get good, do you?" I had a tremendous crush on him.
He pointed out that I had been stomping my foot on the brake, broadcasting a red disco light of pain throughout the neighborhood. He acted like he saw that sort of thing every night. Maybe he did. He was so steeped in his own depression, nothing affected him. He walked away, probably humming a Smiths song.
"Fuck him. Fuck this town. Fuck this El Camino," I thought. I slammed the giant door and trudged up to my house and started packing.
A few weeks later a guy I barely knew needed someone to drive with him to San Francisco. I didnt need any money for the trip so I parked the Camino in my sisters yard and gave away all my stuff, except my guitar and bass, and went with him. I wanted to keep Speed McQueen together somehow so I suggested we exchange four-track tapes. I couldnt let go of a lingering hope that something good could happen.
I carried my rock and roll dreams with me to San Francisco where in hindsight, Speed McQueen had been the best band in the world. I got a CD pressed of our recording of "Burn."
I filled up a pile of cassettes with my attempts at four-track recording, but I never sent them east. They sucked and besides I always hogged all the tracks.
San Francisco was full of strangers and earthquakes shook my house too often, so I returned where this began, New York.
When I got back east, I went to Chapel Hill for a visit.
I got there just in time to help MacPhail go through the charred remains of her house. A loose wire in an upstairs room had started a fire. She was home but by the time she noticed it flames licked out of the upstairs windows like mocking little Satans. MacPhail said she thought about our song, "Burn" while watching the fire engulf our old practice space as she waited for the fire trucks. I helped her try and salvage anything from the charcoal, but amplifiers were crispy, cymbals were warped, our old keyboard was wavy and charred. The burnt instruments were cast out in the yard in a pattern that from an aerial view, spelled out THE END.
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