This being my third blog post, it occurred to me that I might like to expand the scope a little bit and bring in some other tales of touring with bands I played in previously to Rusty. And the only band I did any significant travelling with outside of Rusty, was Montreal's late, great, Doughboys, a band I co-founded with John Kastner and Brock Pytel ( Jon Asencio was added shortly thereafter through auditions) Now the blog is still Rusty related, but I was hoping there was some sort of literary device I could use that would let me tell disparate stories with a connecting theme. The problem is I don't really know any literary devices as I haven't done a lot of this kind of writing before, most of my experience is in writing songs and/or music for songs. For some reason, even though it's not the craziest of our road stories, I got to thinking about two separate incidents, involving both bands, that revolved around the theme of The Grateful Dead.
Now first off, I have never been a fan of the Dead. But it's not like I heard them and hated them, I mostly just never listened to them or sought them out. Outside of a high school friend playing me Casey Jones on his stereo, I'm mostly just ignorant about their catalogue. I remember at one point when the rock critic Robert Christgau compared the Deads' early stuff to Television and the Velvet Underground, I thought to myself that I should really check them out...but I just never bothered. And that's why it's weird that the Dead have popped up in different decades with different bands as a backdrop to some tour shenanigans.
I guess I'll start off with the rusty story, since I just introduced our pal Big Bird to everybody on the last blog, and he's involved in this one too. We had just arrived in San Francisco after spending a good week or so down in L.A., staying at fancy digs on the record companies dime. (actually our dime but you know how that all works) Now I may be getting my trips mixed up but usually, in San Francisco, we stayed at the coolest little rock'n'roll motel on the circuit, The Phoenix, which always had some band or rock star staying at it when you were there. It was a cool 1950's style motel with musical instruments in every room and a Sunday BBQ with a live reggae band. I recall waking up hungover there one morning only to discover that the xylophone in our manager's room was in pieces from an overexuberant jam session the night before. The motel even had a colouring book that name-checked all the famous guests. Georgina Langley managed to hang on to a copy all these years so I took a few cell phone pics of it that hopefully will show up below the text. We met Keanu Reeves there one time when he had his band Dogstar going. He found out we were from Toronto and he invited us to go see them play at a local club. We all went and the entire audience were young Asian women who screamed with painful pleasure every time Keanu moved an inch onstage...it was very odd. But more importantly than where we were staying, was where we happened to be playing that night, which was the historic Fillmore West, opening as usual for Collective Soul.
Now while I may be ignorant about the Dead, I'm certainly better versed in other aspects of rock history, and the Fillmore West is nothing if not a veritable museum about the history of the west coast music scene. The room itself was exquisite, with all the old San Francisco poster art lining the walls and copies of newspaper articles from the 60's housed under the glass tabletops. I remember reading a funny one about the Doors first show in San Fran where the writer suggests the band is really good but they're going nowhere with that Morrison guy as the singer. Just a treasure trove of stuff if you're into rock'n'roll memorabilia and the like. Oh and I forgot to mention that just prior to our arrival there, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead had passed away, so there was going to be a huge wake for him down in Golden Gate Park during the afternoon on the day of our show at the Fillmore. Coincidence? I think not.
Right around this time, we were starting to get stuff from sponsorship deals and the like. It was mostly hip clothing labels and cool shoes and stuff, but the one I'd been anxiously awaiting were products from a company that made rollerblades. (I think they were called Rollerbaldy or Bladerunner or something) Everybody remembers them, they were like the most uncool thing ever! I, however, loved them. Ken was a skateboarder from when he was a kid but I played a lot of hockey and couldn't really skateboard so getting a pair of blades was great for me...especially on tour. We didn't have bikes or anything like that stashed away in the bus but rollerblades gave you the ability to get out and cover some ground while you were in various cities. That and Big Bird already had a pair, so now he had a partner in crime for his crazy excursions. Actually, no else in the band even touched theirs so I would wear down the wheels on mine and then swap them out with the unused ones. Anyway, we had just gotten the things in L.A. and I was just figuring out how to use them when got to San Francisco.
But we had also arrived with a problem. We had run out of weed again. Now as I mentioned in the first installment, we weren't making a whole lot of money back then, and our main choices for intoxication were good old beer (which arrived by the multiple dozens every show without fail) and el marihuana, which was within our price range and pretty easily available. Usually, someone from the hometown crew would hook you up but sometimes you had to hit the street and find it the old fashioned way. Now not everyone in the band smoked weed, but as we were making a contingency plan, Big Bird appeared in the front lounge of the bus with his rollerblades in hand. He then proceeded to offer us a solution to our problem. He told us that there was a big wake for Jerry Garcia at Golden Gate Park today and that maybe he and I should rollerblade over there and check it out. After all, how could you not manage to procure weed at an event like that in San Francisco? Now truth be told, it probably would have been easier to ask the custodian of the motel or something like that but Birds real aim was just to get me out on the mad hills of San Francisco with rubber wheels strapped to my feet.
I, of course, readily agreed, it seemed like a fun idea and I'd only been to San Francisco once before and I really wanted the chance to look around a bit. So off went the Bird and me, just huffing and puffing it to get up all these ridiculous hills, and then on the other side trying to not get up too much speed before grinding the heel brake as hard as you could in order not to fly through intersections on the way back down those hills. It was a hard slog but we eventually made it to Golden Gate Park, which made it all worthwhile. We checked out the not so giant shrine to Jerry ( mostly big old posters and photos with a lot of flowers on a flatbed truck ) and flaked out on the grass for a while enjoying the lovely sunny day. Oh, and I managed to find some weed in the first ten minutes that I was there. I'm sure I mentioned to whoever I bought it from that I was playing the Fillmore that very night...in hopes of getting some sort of a Jerry discount. I guess we were thinking about heading back to the motel and sound check when Big Bird says “ Skowty, we should skate across the Golden Gate bridge and back...I mean look, it's just ovah theah” Over there, meaning another mile or two.
Well, I'm generally a game rooster and we seemingly had lots of time so off we went again, traversing the distance between the park and the bridge. When we got there we didn't really stop and just headed on over the thing. It's about three and a half miles round trip and the blades aren't nearly as energy efficient as a bike so it took us a little while. I think we might have stopped briefly on the other side for a look-see but then we were off again. As we approached the final descent part on the bridge a disembodied voice barked out of the speakers at us saying “ No rollerblades on the bridge”. We had no clue where that voice was actually originating from and we just kind of ignored it and kept going. We did finally stop when we got off the actual bridge and were at a point where a long access road leads away from the bridge and snakes all the way down to level with the Bay. Now I'm not sure exactly where this was as I don't know the city that well but in memory, it seemed like a long and steep winding road that dropped hundreds of meters from where the bridge entrance was located and went all the way down to sea level.
Big Bird and I kind of looked at each other and were like “should we go down this insane hill with these fuckin' death wheels strapped to our feet” I really don't recall the actual conversation but we seemed to be in agreeance somehow that this really wasn't that crazy an idea. I was going first, and our plan seemed to consist of “hope to see you at the bottom”. So I push off and start going, and really it was only a few strides before I was going way too fast to actually take a stride anymore...it was that quick. So I kind of locked the blades in one position, in order to get the best glide possible going. It's really at that point that I should have tried to apply the brake...I think that's what Big Bird did behind me, as he remained in control of his wheels by reefing hard on the brake right away. I, on the other hand, seemed to have forgotten that braking was part of the plan. I guess I assumed I could just glide all the way down and run out on the long road below. But the problem was that I just kept going faster and faster with the sinking realization that stopping was now an impossibility. I then noticed that down in the distance, there were two or three cars coming up the hill towards me. At this point, I started to officially freak out. I'm going somewhere in the vicinity of forty miles an hour (or so it seemed, it could have been more, or less, I really don't know) with my legs locked in position and I'm starting to get a speed wobble, plus there are a number of cars coming toward me. So even though I'm dreading doing it as I think it will throw me off balance, I hit the brake briefly on the ground, two or three times quickly. It doesn't do much but it slows me down just enough that the speed wobble disappears and I feel in control enough that I can start waving maniacally at the cars coming toward me. It's funny trying to convey “I can't stop and I'm gonna die” using only your arms with wheels on your feet. I'm still basically in the same stance, sorta like a skier bombing a run, and I manage to pass the three cars without getting hit. I'm not sure if I hit the brake again or not, but I manage to get to bottom part still standing and then glide for several hundred yards more as I've got so much momentum.
After what seems like forever, I finally roll to a stop. My legs are completely cramped into position and I can't really stand upright. My heart is beating at a mad pace as I'm still in “just about to die” mode and I turn to see Big Bird gliding up towards me with a huge grin on his face. “Skowty, that was the fuckin' greatest thing I eva sawr! You were outta control! You shoulda seen when you hit those brakes...it was like a nuculah hollercust of dust...you shoulda seen it! Wait until we tell those guys about this, they're gonna freak out! Of course, that would turn out to be not the best plan going forward, as this was the first time that the band would start to realize that me going out crazy-blading with Bird (without the standard issue wrist-break protection) was maybe not the wisest form of recreation for a touring guitarist. After we settled down a little we made our way back to the bus where Brian regaled the band and crew about my exploits. He stood in the front of the bus gesticulating wildly about my lack of concern for my own physical safety and positing that we were gonna have a “really” fun time once we got near mountains where we could strap planks of fiberglass to our feet instead of wheels and go really fast downhill on snow. (Bird loved winter sports best of all) Since this was only the first episode, nobody in the band was overly concerned yet about our off-duty activities, and we just went back to getting ready for the show while Bird went on about how it was the greatest thing he'd ever seen. I guess he was starting to realize that this trip might be more fun for him than your standard issue rock tour because of our shared “interests”.
Now I'm not sure how many readers are familiar with Bill Graham, but he was the legendary San Fransisco promoter/impresario who had run the Fillmore West since the 1960's and was a legend in the music business. A holocaust survivor, he had died in a helicopter crash in 1991 and his employees and family had taken over running the business when we got there in 1995. Anyway, during our soundcheck, I didn't like the way the monitor was positioned (my guitar is so loud up my ass that I need it pointing right at my face) so I put down my guitar and just physically moved it myself, without asking any of the many crew dudes who were running around to help me. After I got the thing where I wanted it I strapped my guitar back on, and as I turned forward to face it again one the stage hands was in the process of moving it back to its original position. I looked at him and said, “Hey man, I can't hear my vocals properly when it's there, can you leave it where I put it?” He looked back at me and said kind of blankly “Well. Bill doesn't like it when you put the monitors there” and just went back to doing what he was doing. I had to actually stop myself from saying to him “Isn't Bill dead”? It was almost out of my mouth but I stopped myself because it felt disrespectful and these people obviously revered their former boss in a big way. We did our set with the monitor where Mr. Graham wanted it, not me. Also during the sound check, we could see at the back of the hall that they were carrying in big pictures and portraits of Jerry Garcia that I guess had been on the shrine that Bird and I had visited earlier. A little bit of the rock'n'roll museum had gone out for a short tour and was being put back in its rightful place.
Another cool thing about the Fillmore that kind of ran parallel to all the poster history on the walls is that they still design and print really nice posters for all their current shows as well.(or they did in 1995 anyway) If you're in one of the bands on the poster, they also make sure that all the members are given some as memorabilia, packaged properly so you can transport them. There should be a picture of our poster below the text somewhere, unfortunately, it's a bad picture and the poster design for our show didn't particularly ring my bell. But I still have a couple of them stowed away somewhere to this day. Some of you may recall that we commissioned a poster from San Francisco-based artist Frank Kozik for a show we did at the Phoenix in Toronto back in 1997(with Groovy Religion, The Monoxides, and Squirrel) Some apparently credit him with reviving the kind of poster art that you see on display at the Fillmore. I don't really know but you can definitely see the connection between the two. I think we paid him five grand for fifteen hundred numbered hand screened posters. It seemed like a lot of dough at the time but there are still a bunch of them kicking around to this day, so that's kind of cool. Oh, that and the word Phoenix is misspelled on the poster, I guess either someone on our end sent him the wrong spelling or he did it himself...I'm not sure anyone knows. In any case, it ended up making the poster slightly more interesting, if anything.
So at the beginning of the piece, I said I was going to tie in two separate stories that revolve around the Grateful Dead, but now I'm thinking this thing is long enough and I can get to the other story another time. The story I was going to connect with this one was one about a trip we took to a Grateful Dead show in Alpine Valley Wisconsin when I was on tour with the Doughboys in the summer of 1987. We woke up one morning in Oshkosh to find our drummer missing and the Wisconsin page of the map book torn out. Of course, this is in the days before cell phones so in order to get a hold of our band member we were going to have to drive to a Grateful Dead show with 100,000 people at it...and find him! Much mayhem ensued, I got bitten in the hand rescuing a dog that had been run over by an ambulance but again...we'll save that one for another day. Watch your speed!
Our Fillmore poster with Collective Soul
Interior of the Phoenix colouring book
Frank Kozik poster for Phoenix show '97
Stooges/ Flamin' Groovies Fillmore poster
And just because....