American Distance

(This is for Andrew & Dolarhyde, who gave me his CD and I listened to it until 4am and then wrote half of this in a notebook. This is for Clay and Judas Cradle who fell in love with metal and fought their way all over the USA map. This is for Wasserman and None but Burning… and every single one of my friends who threw it all away, stepped into the abyss, and went on tour.)

I woke up under a million burned out stars in the Flagstaff Arizona mountains and went to bed in a cheap Las Vegas hotel. The contrast of the two surroundings disoriented 21-year-old souls, a four-hour drive between cities was no time to adjust. Flagstaff was snow freezing in July, the mountain air burned our nostrils, but this was nature so none of us cared. The first thing I noticed in Vegas, aside from the neon lights and their inducing headaches, was the pornography. It lined the streets and gutters and we were ankle deep in glossy paper and cardboard, exposed flesh penetrating exposed flesh.

Our show in Flagstaff, 1995, never happened, but a year and a month later we went back and played, maybe, Exhaust’s best show ever. The Arizona comeback took place in a mountain side gazebo, the 100+ anarchist-nature-style punks more adapt to burning nostrils than the four yolks of Exhaust. I hung from the wood rafters and explained our song “Will” a screamo-emo tune (always) about a preacher telling Candace’s family that her suicide was God’s will. I dropped to the ground in unison with Andrew crashing in the drums and 100+ anarchist-nature style punks went crazy.

It’d be too easy to say that ‘you had to be there’ or ‘go on tour for yourself’ to understand this kind of thing. Start a band, annoy your parents, your girlfriends and practice at awkward times, awkward places. Rent a storage unit, a warehouse, a loft. Do something, be in a band, play shows, go on tour. Glamour-less, money-less, and in my case, talent-less, but throwing it all to hell because it all falls under punk rock, and I’d been wearing that title on my name tag since the mid-eighties.

En route out of Las Vegas for the first and last time we stopped at a fast food chain mirage in the middle of the Nevada desert, erected for road-weary travelers, drifters and suckers (chalk us up under all three). I met a 17-year-old employee on a smoke break, Christy, and she was impressed with my poor fashion sense and band status. I never led anyone on about being in a band. All we were doing was nothing. Nothing special, nothing exotic, nothing socially or financially or romantically beneficial. It’s a band. It’s punk rock. I shrugged a lot when I tried to explain it.

She begged me to take her with us and I refused. I just laughed.

Years later she found my number on the back of an Exhaust cassette and called. She’d just had a baby, she was 19 now, she still worked at Arby’s and she had nowhere to live. She told me I should’ve let her go with us. “Look at me now, look at my life now”, she said, tears in her voice.

Portland to Seattle was an easy three hours north but it was 2am and raining and we had covered insane distances to get to Portland in the first place. We were tired, mean, and getting too skinny… ribs sticking, faces whiter than usual, and sunken eyes. Brannon drove too fast in a van that drank oil like watered down beer. I watched his head drop as he dozed over and over, slapping his own face hard to come back to the wheel and the responsibility of a van full of southern white-boy punk-rock kids. (I’m writing this 14 years later so it’s a safe assumption that the self-slaps were effective). Red Bull had yet to become the common commodity it is now or we would have been bathing in it.

Tooth and Nail Records #2 man in charge, Bill, fell in love with Exhaust’s Dischord-borrowed sounds after I gave him a copy of the same cassette I’d given to an Arby’s Nevada girl. Tooth and Nail, then, was releasing wave after wave of successful bands, many or most with religious backgrounds. (Something Exhaust was far from). Bill and I both knew that Exhaust expressed different versions than the label’s current roster but we both chose to ignore the obvious. Sort of. A real record deal was talked about. Contracts, paid studio time and more touring.

When Bill finally called, Andrew and I were drinking Gatorades on a swingset at an elementary school, worn out from a poorly-played game of basketball. “Are you a Christian band?”, he asked, “not that it matters”. I could have said yes, I could have lied or trumped up my role and my band to be something we were not. Rock stars, millionaires, popular… or Christians.

Six months later Exhaust’s career on Tooth & Nail had watered down to a guest spot on a compilation CD called “I’m your Biggest Fan”, sharing space with bands that graduated to Pepsi commercials and sold-out fairground arenas.

And we stayed poor white-boy punk-rock types and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

We found the infamous DIY creation example of Gilman Street in Berkeley… North California coming on strong after a series of gangster failing LA shows and dominatrix days. (See an old essay I wrote called "Greetings from an Eerie-sweet Place") The show was sold out, not for us, no no no, but for the heavyweight matchup of Los Crudos- Hispanic political heroes, and Weston, New Jersey goof balls. Mohawks and spikes had made a fad comeback with Rancid’s 1995 outing of the wolves, and North California was covered in them. We stayed with friends in Oakland and Oakland is/was every bit as touch and rumble as they say. Our friends later that month lied their way onto a daytime talk show, with a fake bad romance and nationally-appealing drama.

Onstage at Gilman Street goes a long way. Exhaust had studied/modeled/attempted our stage presence after handfuls of other rock-n-roll nobodys that we worshipped while the rest of the world ignored them. The code was simple:

Play your heart out. Tear their hearts out.

A self-review would write that Exhaust. made up for holes in talent with emotion-terror and attitude. We were nice, we were smiles but we did not give a fuck. The 600 mohawks and spikes on Gilman Street got the same show that the four drunks in Albuquerque did. Strained-vocal emotion. Emo-terror. Out of breaths. Out of our element. Out there.

We shook a lot of hands and hugged a lot of necks in Berkeley. The hippie fight back scene of the sixties now had shaved heads and loud guitars. A year and a day later, back in Oakland, back on Gilman Street we played to no one, maybe 17 people, and aimed our claws and fangs at their hearts too. We stayed in a warehouse loft, the drummer of Operation Ivy living next door. Our this-year host said the drummer collected bi-monthly checks of $30,000. Reward for being a part of the greatest recordings to survive the late eighties.

The original lineup of Exhaust played its last show in St Louis, August 1996. Mike drank beer because it was free and we didn’t get paid. We’d driven straight from Denver (go look at a map) and the night before we’d driven from Seattle to Denver (look at the map again). We hurt-tired, we hurt for home and we were beyond poor now. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. There were rusted nails in my throat and broken glass in my heart when Mike quit the band a few weeks later. I still hold that grudge against him too, that’s how much being a part of nothing going nowhere meant to me.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve had the rest of my life to get things in order, make plans that make sense, and learn to be an a-dult. A busted-up van and a handful of southern white-boy punk-rock types with a shoebox of emo songs was the opposite of all that. Stumbling through cities, American explorers blindly following a notebook full of venue directions and contact numbers. Screaming lyrics hoarse to a crowd of hundreds or a crowd of 3-4 and, finally, being a part of nothing going nowhere that taught me something I will never let go of:

How to be me.

“I can’t stand this singing, I can’t stand this song. I can’t stand being home, lord, I can’t stand being gone.” -Tim Barry

“15 hours for a cancelled show, somewhere in Nowhere, Ohio… I think I just want to go home.” - Dolarhyde