Born to Run (2016)
We found out another group had registered the name “Child,” so, at a late-night brainstorming session at the Inkwell Coffee House in the West End neighborhood of Long Branch, New Jersey, we searched for a new band name. The Inkwell was a longhair-friendly local institution one block in from the Long Branch beachfront. Its proprietor was “Joe Inkwell,” a Hitlerian presence who would take the skin off of you for looking at him the wrong way. Nevertheless, he and I got along great and the place was a safe late-night haven for weirdos of all stripes. It was done up inside completely Beat generation. You could grab a cheeseburger, flirt with the blue-jeans-and-black-leotard-clad waitresses and spend a little time in an environment where you felt reasonably secure you would not be under attack, except possibly by the owner. I think it was Mad Dog who volunteered Steel Mill. That was the direction we were going in. It was blue-collar, heavy music, with loud guitars and a Southern-influenced rock sound. If you mixed it up with a little prog and all original songs, you had Steel Mill . . . you know, STEEL MILL . . . like LED ZEPPELIN . . . elemental-metal-based, bare-chested, primal rock.
We started playing long guitar-crunching concerts under that name and we began to draw and draw big. First hundreds, then thousands came to impromptu appearances in parks, at the local armory, at the Monmouth College great lawn or college gymnasium and any other location that would hold our growing tribe. We became something people wanted to see. We had a raw stage show and songs that were memorable enough for people to want to come back, hear them again, memorize their lyrics and sing their choruses. We began to attract and hold real fans.
Tinker took us down to the University of Richmond in Virginia, where he had a few connections. We played for free in the park, gave the locals a taste of us and then got hired for school events. We became enormously popular in Richmond, drawing up to three thousand people at our Southern concerts, with no album to our name. Our voodoo had worked outside of the Garden State! We opened up for Grand Funk Railroad in Bricktown, New Jersey, stole the house and headed south, where we opened for Chicago, Iron Butterfly and finally for Ike and Tina Turner at the Virginia War Memorial. We quickly built ourselves a second home in Richmond. Now we had two cities we could play quarter-annually, charging a buck at the door and coming home with thousands of dollars that would get us through the dry times. The catch was you could not overplay either area and there were only two! Once every four months was a lot. We’d become too big for the bars, too small for the big time, so we became a strange victim of our own local success. We could draw thousands when we played but in order to keep interest and our value up, we had to make ourselves scarce. We scouted around for a few more locations, opening for Roy Orbison at a festival in Nashville, Tennessee, playing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, but it was our Jersey and Virginia fans who kept us in subs and cheeseburgers. The long weeks in between shows gave us a lot of time to practice, refine our band and settle into the unique position of authentic neighborhood superstars while remaining totally unknown outside of our given areas. So . . . what to do?
Go West, Young Man
Tinker always regaled us with tales of San Francisco. Hell, it was 1970. Let’s get out there and show them what we can do. We’d played with and done well against national bands for a year now. Bring on the big guns, the San Francisco groups. We were cocky as hell and sure we were good enough to make our mark anywhere. We felt we were the best undiscovered thing we’d ever seen, so we begged Tinker to take us to where the hippies ran free. A deal was struck. Tinker said if we each saved one hundred dollars and copyrighted our originals for their protection, he’d lead us to the far coast. Danny and I sat for two hours one evening at our dining room table and only managed to get one song onto staff paper. We figured, “Fuck it, just fill in the rest with a bunch of notes; Tinker will never know.” That’s what we did. We held one final concert at the surfboard factory for seed money, built a plywood box that would sit tucked inside Tinker’s flatbed, covered it with an army tarp to protect the equipment from the rain and set up a separate station wagon (Danny’s) with mattresses and water for the drivers’ rest and recuperation. With these two vehicles, a hundred dollars each and a prayer, we would make the great crossing in three days. We had a paying New Year’s Eve gig at California’s Esalen Institute in the mountains of Big Sur. Esalen was one of the first human-potential spas in the United States. At that time, no one had ever heard of such a thing. It was just a gig for us, and we didn’t have a clue as to what we were walking into. With the exception of Tinker and our short trips around the Southeast, none of us had ever been out of New Jersey.
The night before we left for California, Mad Dog and I visited our local cinema to see Easy Rider. It was not such a good send-off. As we watched the story of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s journey across America, a slow, creeping dread overtook us. When Hopper was blasted off his motorcycle at the end of the film by a Cro-Magnon redneck, it dawned on us it might not be too friendly for folks like us out there. Tinker of course had taken that into consideration; no peace-loving hippies, we were armed. We had our cap-and-ball pistols, all perfectly legal, in the cab of our truck. We’d run into “bad vibes”—an attendant who might not want to gas us up, a tension-filled roadhouse diner—but no trouble. Tinker spoke the common language of automotive mechanics. It’s amazing what a cross-cultural barrier breaker a little engine talk can be. We were in a vintage piece of hardware. People were curious about our old Ford truck and what the hell we were up to. Tink could’ve broken the ice with the grand pooh-bah of the Ku Klux Klan with his laconic command of the mystical ways of the internal combustion engine. Tink had gearhead knowledge accompanied by a strange and mighty confidence that put folks at ease. If those should fail, he seemed like the kind of guy who might shoot you.
The morning came, the truck was loaded, the station wagon prepared; I was twenty-one, and we were going west. West . . . dream time. West . . . California. That’s where the music was. The Haight, San Francisco, Jefferson Airplane, the Dead, and Moby Grape, one of Steve’s and my all-time favorite groups. West . . . free. Even my folks were there. I’d heard about the deserts, the palm trees, the weather, Seal Rocks, the great redwoods of Muir Woods, the Bay, the Golden Gate . . . On our few phone calls, my mom had told me tales of their new life in the West. I hadn’t seen my parents and younger sister in almost a year. Back then no one could afford cross-country bus, plane or train travel. I’d never met anyone who’d been on an airplane. So here it was. It would be a combination family reunion and career juggernaut that would set everything straight.
Our caravan of two left at dawn, rolling away from the surfboard factory, out of the industrial park and onto Route 35, over to 33 West, then to the New Jersey Turnpike South. It was winter and we’d take the southern route across the country to avoid as much snow and ice as possible. We were seven: Tinker, myself, Vinnie Roslin, Mad Dog, Danny, a pal headed west who would help drive and Tinker’s favorite living thing, J. T. Woofer, his dog. The cabin of Tinker’s forties flatbed comfortably held Tinker and me plus J. T. The rest of our travelers rode in Danny’s sixties vintage station wagon.
We had three days to get to California. We had no extra money for motels and no camping gear, so we would not be stopping. We would drive in rotating shifts around the clock, pausing roadside only for food and gas. I didn’t drive . . . at all. I had no car, no license; at twenty-one my transportation was a bicycle or my thumb. I had hitchhiked everywhere I went since I was fifteen years old and had gotten very comfortable with it. When I say I didn’t drive, I mean I DID NOT KNOW HOW. I could not safely operate a motor vehicle. My old man never had the patience to teach me, and after one sprint spinning and jerking my way through the Freehold Raceway parking lot, Tex himself had thrown up his hands and quickly quit too. I was completely incompetent behind the wheel. I was not counted as one of the drivers for this trip. That’s why we were glad to have the extra guy. There would be no “racing in the street” for me for a few years.
The trip was going well; then we hit Nashville, Tennessee. Somehow in Nashville, Tink, J. T. and I became separated from the car of drivers with “Phantom” Dan Federici at the wheel. The story later was “We looked around and you were gone.” This created an enormous problem. All the drivers were with Danny. To make it to Big Sur, California, three thousand miles in three days from New Jersey, we had to drive around the clock. To make it there New Year’s Eve for our date, the big wheels had to keep on turning. There were thousands of miles left and Tinker couldn’t do it himself; the dog couldn’t drive, so that left me. At midnight that evening Tink simply said, “I can’t drive anymore, it’s your turn.” I said, “You know I can’t drive.” Tinker said, “There’s nothing to it. Besides, you have to or we won’t make the only job we have on the West Coast.” I got behind the steering wheel of the big truck, an ancient behemoth, reminding one of the truck in Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear that hauled nitroglycerin through the jungles of Central America. What followed was so, so ugly: a massive grinding of fine vintage gears that left us jerking all over the highway, steering that left the huge truck with all of our band equipment and everything of value that we owned in its hatch weaving barely within the lines of our lane. A head-on collision with the unknowing, trusting souls coming our way seemed imminent.
Still, it had to happen. Here’s how we did it. Once we realized it was impossible for me to start from a dead stop, Tinker would get the transmission in first gear and get the truck rolling, and then we would switch seats in the tight cab, stepping on J. T. as she howled from the floorboards, and I would take over from second gear through fourth for as long as the highway held. We drove thousands of miles, the rest of the way, employing this method. We never saw or heard from Danny or the other vehicle again. We had no backup plan for someone getting lost. There were no cell phones, no way to communicate. All we had was a common destination, so we headed into the sun. It was not a restful ride for Carl Virgil West. I’d be driving through the desert night during his “sleep” break, weaving all over the highway, and I’d look over to see him with fear flooding his wide-open eyes. I couldn’t blame him. My driving sucked. We were lucky I didn’t kill us.
The big truck did not get easier to manage. I just drove, no license, no permit, no experience. When we came to a state-line crossing, a toll booth or a weigh station, I’d poke Tinker in the ribs and we’d switch seats again without coming to a stop. We got pretty good at it, but when we hit the mountain passes, terror set in. The truck was an old manual shift without particularly responsive steering. You had to clutch, shift, clutch, shift, clutch, shift, the engine begging for mercy, racing forward and back. I was killing that thing, but by the time we got to California I knew how to drive and Tinker had spent many a sleepless hour sprouting more than a few gray hairs.
The country was beautiful. I felt a great elation at the wheel as we crossed the western desert at dawn, the deep blue and purple shadowed canyons, the pale yellow morning sky with all of its color drawn out, leaving just the black silhouetted mountains behind us. With the eastern sun rising at our backs, the deep reds and browns of the plains and hills came to life. Your palms turned salty white on the wheel from the aridity. Morning woke the Earth into muted color, then came the flat light of the midday sun, and everything stood revealed as pure horizon lowering on two lanes of blacktop and disappearing into . . . nothing—my favorite thing. Then the evening, with the sun burning red into your eyes, dropping gold into the western mountains. It all felt like home and I fell into a lasting love affair with the desert.
On we soldiered, through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to the California border, then north to the Big Sur mountains. We were almost there but we had one more Halloween horror show of a night. Highway 1 to Big Sur had been washed out in a coastal storm, not an unusual occurrence, so Tinker searched the map for an alternate route. We stopped at an outpost of a filling station for a little local guidance. Tinker pointed at a squiggly thin line on the map and asked, “What about this?” The attendant answered, “It’ll get you there but you don’t want to take this truck over that road.” Tinker and every perverse can-do bone in his body only heard the first part. We took it. For the first few miles, a beautiful freshly paved highway stretched out in front of us, then in one swift mountain bend, the road transformed into sliding dust and gravel. It became a barely passable one-way hell drive with a mountain within reach out the driver’s-side window and a guardrail-less sheer cliff and empty grave awaiting outside the passenger’s window. Tinker had gone mute at the wheel, eyes burning like a zombie’s. He bumped, slid and rolled us for thirty miles and three hours of midnight over this impossible mountain pass. J. T. lay pinned to the floor like mortar fire was threatening her short canine life. She sensed we were hanging by the short ones and after an hour or so, my own stomach couldn’t take it anymore. The view from the cab was way too zero sum. I lay down on the seat and closed my eyes. I did not sleep. The truck slipped and swayed, loose mountainside gravel raining on the cab roof like hail. We took one last turn and it was over. The highway opened up before us and we shortly made our way through the gates of the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. The night was pitch-black, without a light source anywhere. I found myself hustling down a small path, searching for our accommodations, on the black side of a mountain in California.
We would be staying with Gopher, a friend of Tinker’s, on the “working” side of a small creek that separated Esalen’s wealthy belly-button contemplators from its service staff. It was not easy to find. Gopher lived on the steep side of the mountain in a tree. He had built his “home” around a towering eucalyptus whose roots and trunk sprouted out of his living room floor on up through a sleeping loft and out the roof (hello, Big Sur). There was a fireplace, no facilities and no running water. You climbed the tree in the house to get to the sleeping loft. It was a place fine for a leprechaun but its miniature “rooms” were full with Tink, myself, J. T. and soon, rustling up out of the brush, the lost platoon of Danny and the two Vinnies. They’d followed the sound of my strumming guitar to Gopher’s palace and we all had a joyful tall-tale-telling reunion.
At some point during the early evening before our arrival, Gopher had thought he heard a perpetrator amongst the bushes, unloaded his shotgun into the night and knocked out the electrical power for the entire side of the mountain. We sat by firelight, like Neanderthals huddled together in the heart of an unseeable new world. Finally, exhausted, we drifted off to sleep. When we woke at dawn and stepped out of Gopher’s front door, we stood speechless before what we saw. Giant old-growth trees, vegetation so lush you’d get lost a few feet in off the walking path, color, winter blooming flowers all set on a verdant mountainside that looked out high over the sun-fired emerald-green Pacific. If you watched for a while, you could see whales spouting in the distance. I’d never stood in the midst of nature like this and you could feel its humbling and intoxicating power. I approached a tree the likes of which I’d never seen before, covered with what appeared to be strange multicolored leaves. As I walked toward its base, thousands of butterflies exploded off its branches and shot into the hard blue sky. This was another world.
We quickly got the lay of the land. We were in the workers’ quarters and that was basically where we were supposed to stay. It would be a few years before I would start gazing into my own wealthy belly button, and so across the creek at the institute there were things going on we simply could not comprehend. The first thing Mad Dog and I witnessed was a group of people curled up on a green lawn in white sheets returning to their “amoeba stage.” This struck Vini and me as uproariously funny and we quickly came to believe, rightly or not, that the place, while gorgeous, was home to some good old first-rate Jersey carny quackery all dressed up in some new-age doublespeak. They did have great hot springs tucked into the side of a cliff overlooking the sea. There were the springs, a cold bath and everybody naked. This greatly appealed to unworldly Jersey folk such as ourselves and we spent what time we could there charming the rich ladies and bathing in nature’s sweet revivifier. A few of the fellows made “friends” with paying guests, leading to midnight creeps around the mountainside. For food, the staff would slip us some breakfast out the back door of the kitchen in the morning and we’d spend the day exploring, watching the dog and pony show at the lodge or practicing in a little shed by the sea for our big New Year’s Eve stand.
One afternoon I took a long walk deep into the forest. I stayed on the path so as not to get lost and began to follow the sound of a distant conga drum. About ten minutes in, deep in a wooded clearing I came upon a tall thin black man dressed in a dashiki hunched over a conga drum entertaining the wildlife. He looked up and I found myself face-to-face with Richard Blackwell, my homie from Freehold, whom I’d grown up with. What are the odds! We had a “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” moment, couldn’t believe the two of us had ended up there thousands of miles from home at this exact place and time, decided it was destiny, and I asked him if he wanted to sit in with Steel Mill for the rest of our West Coast stretch. First stop, New Year’s Eve.
When the night came, it all broke loose West Coast–style. Out of the nearby mountains came tattooed earth mamas, old grizzled mountain men, nubile young hippie girls fueled by acid, talking in tongues and ready to fuck. There were a lot of drugs and the show took off accordingly into the nether lands of California acid culture. Trance-dancing, the locals mixed merrily with the paying guests, and we played the crowd into a frenzy, with Richard Blackwell from the block, joined by Tinker, creating an unending pulse with their conga drums. It went on for a long time, and as a straight-edge Jersey boy it was about all the fun I could take. Everybody wanted to give you drugs all the time. I was a stubborn young man and set in my fearful ways. I wasn’t going there, so I played and played, and they went, the mountain hippies, their bonfires blazing, ancient faces with eyes rolling back alongside well-off middle Americans trying to find a new light who’d come west and were paying big for what we’d have done for ’em in New Jersey for two bucks.
Finally around dawn it quieted. Folks drifted back up into the hills and we sat exhausted. We’d entertained them and had been thoroughly entertained, but it was different from back home. Here music was a part of some larger tribal “consciousness-raising” event. The musician was more shaman and psychic facilitator. More mystic man than hard rocker or soul entertainer. I had the band and the skills to pull it off but I wasn’t sure it was my stock-in-trade.
We stayed on for a few days afterward enjoying the pleasures of Big Sur. The morning we left I sat on a bench overlooking the Pacific with a very straight middle-aged entrepreneur from Texas. He was lost in freak land and a seeker at the facility. I asked him why he was there. He said simply, “I’ve made a lot of money and I’m not happy.” It’d be years before I’d have to wrestle with that one, but there was something about him that touched me. He wanted something more than the world of commerce that his life had offered him. He’d come all this way, laid down his cold hard cash and opened himself up to try to find it. I wished him well and hoped he was in righteous hands.
A few hours later I sat on a rocky green outcropping on the side of Highway 1. In my lap I held my travel bag; the sun was high and dry as I watched a small army of ants slipping between my boots, carrying bits of dust toward their hillside empire. I searched north up the highway and waited. The smell of eucalyptus bark and high grasses, that uniquely California smell, surrounded me and reminded me I was a young traveler in a strange land. It felt good. A hawk circled above me in the flat blue sky as forty minutes passed, then an hour. A car slowed down and pulled to the side of the road where I was sitting. Through the sun’s glare reflecting off the front windshield I saw two big smiles. It was my mom and pop coming to welcome their only son to their promised land.
My mom and dad’s land of hope and dreams was a small two-bedroom apartment up a flight of stairs in a complex in the California suburb of San Mateo. It consisted of a living room/kitchen combo, a bedroom for my folks and a smaller bedroom for my little sis. They were proud of it. They loved California. They had jobs, they had a new life. My dad had taken up watercolor painting by numbers, and he played the home organ, its sour notes squealing beneath those mitts he called hands. He seemed to be all right. Leaving Freehold had done him some good. My mom was once again a respected legal secretary, at a firm in the Hillsdale Shopping Center, and my pop drove a bus at the airport.
I slept on the living room couch, ate some home cooking, shopped at the nearby St. Vincent de Paul or Salvation Army thrift stores and enjoyed being home. I was in the living room watching TV as my eight-year-old sister attempted to make me a homecoming cake. She had a big bowl of batter and an electric mixer set up on the kitchen table. The next thing I heard was a shattering scream, like a squirrel with its tail caught in the family mower. I ran to find batter splattered all over the kitchen walls and my little sis howling with the electric mixer still running and pressed close to her scalp. At first I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing. Then I realized the mixer had run straight up a strand of her lovely long brown hair, which had drifted into the mixing bowl, and was now vibrating like a banshee against her little skull. A pull of the plug, a pair of scissors, a few kisses, some laughs and she was okay.
Soon the entire band would be sleeping on my parents’ living room floor. It only lasted a few days. We were there to be discovered and that would take work, so we packed up and headed into San Francisco for our first audition. We pulled up to the Family Dog, home of the Quicksilver Messenger Service and a venerable old San Francisco ballroom that was looking for some new bands to open up for their main acts. Tinker had got us a shot. I recollect there were three or four bands auditioning that sunny afternoon. The first two weren’t much, so we confidently took the stage and played well. We played about twenty minutes of the stuff that had made us superstars back home and didn’t doubt we’d get the gig. After our set, the fourth band played. They were good. They were musically sophisticated, with several good vocalists and some very good songs. They didn’t have the show that we did but that didn’t seem to concern them. They just played . . . very, very well. They got the gig. We lost out. After the word came down, all the other guys were complaining we’d gotten ripped off. The guy running the joint didn’t know what he was doing, blah, blah, blah . . .
That night I went back to my parents’ house and lay awake on my couch thinking. They were better than us, and I hadn’t seen anybody, certainly anybody who was still unknown, that was better than us—better than me—in a long time. The guy doing the booking was right. My confidence was mildly shaken and I had to make room for a rather unpleasant thought. We were not going to be the big dogs we were back in our little hometown. We were going to be one of many very competent, very creative musical groups fighting over a very small bone. Reality check. I was good, very good, but maybe not quite as good or as exceptional as I’d gotten used to people telling me, or as I thought. Right here, in this city, there were guys who in their own right were as good or better. That hadn’t happened in a long while and it was going to take some mental realignment.
A few days later we were back at it. We auditioned at a club called the Matrix and this time we got the job. We would open for Boz Scaggs, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite and garner one of our first unequivocal raves, in the San Francisco Examiner from music critic Philip Elwood. It was titled, due to the San Francisco rain outside, “A Wet Night with Steel Mill” and was everything we could’ve hoped for. Mr. Elwood wrote, “Never have I been so surprised by completely unknown talent.” It gave us the shot in the arm we needed to impress the folks and newspapers back home and allowed us to think there might be a future there for us yet. Our pay at the Matrix was toll money across the Bay Bridge and hot dogs. That was it. We played for free. The experience was great. We got to meet and talk to some real recording artists. We weren’t the band people were coming to see, so we had to work hard, and we did. I don’t think we scared anybody but we impressed our share of the crowd one show at a time. Our next stop was the San Francisco Valhalla of Bill Graham’s Fillmore West.
In the Hall of the Gods
Everybody had been on this stage—the Band, B. B. King, Aretha, all the great San Francisco groups—and every Tuesday the Fillmore West held audition night. We nailed down a Tuesday slot and, nerves a-jingle-jangle, we headed down to stand on that stage and make our mark. You were one of five or six bands that would play for an hour or so to a paying crowd seated on the floor. Everybody there was good—you had to be to simply get an audition—but I didn’t see anybody very exciting. Many simply droned on, playing in that very laid-back San Francisco style. When the workingmen from New Jersey took the stage, all that changed. We rocked hard, performing our physically explosive stage show, which had the crowd on its feet and shouting. We left to a standing ovation and some newfound respect, and were asked back for the following Tuesday. Later in the evening, as I hung around the ballroom talking to the locals and basking in as much West Coast glory as I could, somebody else was lighting up the stage. A band called Grin, its lead guitarist, Nils Lofgren, playing his guitar through a Hammond Leslie speaker, rocked the house ’til its closing. We went home satisfied, counting the days ’til the following Tuesday. We came back one week later and did it one more time to the same tumultuous response, then were offered a demo recording session at Bill Graham’s Fillmore studios. Finally, just what we’d come three thousand miles for: our shot at the gold ring.
One crisp California afternoon, Steel Mill pulled up to the first professional recording studio we’d ever seen. It was a classic West Coast wood-paneled, potted-plant-infested rock star hangout, the likes of which I would be spending too much time in over the coming years. We cut three of our best originals, “The Judge Song,” “Going Back to Georgia” and “The Train Song,” as a demo for Bill Graham’s Fillmore Records. When you first hear yourself on professional recording tape, you want to crawl, in a cold sweat, from the room. You always sound better inside your head and in your dreams than you do in the cold light of the playback room. There, the way you truly sound initially lands on you like a five-hundred-pound weight. Inside your head, you’re always a little better of a singer, a little better of a guitarist and, of course, as with the layman, a little better-looking. Tape and film have no interest in the carefully protected delusions you’ve constructed to get through your day. You just have to get used to it. Not being quite as good as I thought was unfortunately becoming a theme I was revisiting throughout our West Coast jaunt.
The demo was as far as we’d get. The deal never happened. We were offered some sort of retainer fee but nothing that showed any real interest. Still, something was happening. We’d been reviewed. We had a semi-steady gig at a big city club, the Matrix. We’d drawn the attention of Bill Graham’s Fillmore organization and we were now drawing a small enthusiastic crowd of our own. I saw my folks occasionally, preferring to stay close to the action with the band in a variety of crash pads in Berkeley, Marin County or wherever someone would allow us to take up some floor. I managed to get arrested hitchhiking (my specialty) on the California freeway. I had little money, no ID, no official residence. That seemed to be enough for them to pull me in. Reprising a role she’d played many times in New Jersey, where I’d managed to be hauled into local police stations for hard-core crimes as varied as not purchasing a beach badge, hitchhiking and getting caught in my girlfriend’s father’s “borrowed” Cadillac, my mother came down, bailed me out and dropped me off at the Matrix for the night’s gig. I was still a kid and it was nice having her around to depend on, but soon we had to face the facts. Progress had come to a halt. We had no money, no paying work and no prospects. Unlike in New Jersey, we couldn’t do our quarterly concert to make ends meet. Here, we had no viable, financially sound business model. We were as “discovered” as we were going to get. There were simply too many good groups around for someone to pay us to play. I was right when I allowed my parents to leave without me and stayed behind in New Jersey. We could survive as musicians only on our little sliver of the East Coast. We had to get back.
Tinker borrowed some fast money for road expenses back home, and feeling not quite like complete failures but not like the successes we’d imagined, we packed immediately. I bade my folks adieu and we hit the road to Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, one of the two places we could make a buck. If we could get there, we could work, make a few dollars and pull back into the Shore area, hopefully resuming our previously underappreciated status as local rock gods.
Six Days on the Road
Our caravan of two once again headed south. Just a little ways out of San Francisco, Danny, leaning down to fix the radio while driving, managed to swerve off the highway, smash into a “Men at Work” sign, send the road crew scattering into the nearby brush, dent the hell out of our esteemed station wagon and continue happily on, Jersey bound. No problem. The problems would come soon enough. I was riding with J. T., the dog, in the back of the station wagon. We stopped on an Arizona highway for a piss break and got back in, and an hour later I realized there was an awful lot of room in the back of that station wagon now. J. T. had been left somewhere back along the highway. We signaled Tinker to pull over and I gave him the news. His eyes drifting out over the desert, containing his complete disgust, he mumbled, “Go back and get her.” Two hours after we left J. T. by the side of the road, we pulled back into what we thought was our original piss location. Nothing . . . just dry silence, so silent you could hear the blood running through your veins in the thin desert air. Emptiness . . . vast, unending emptiness. Then to the west there was just a smudge of movement on the horizon. Something was alive and moving out there. We climbed back into the car and a half mile or so up the road, there was J. T., heading back toward the California border. We threw open our car door and one panting, tail-wagging, happy hound bounded into the rear seat, licking everything in sight. Two hours after we’d left him, we pulled up to Tinker leaning on his truck, standing sentinel by the side of the road. J. T. hopped out and into Tinker’s cab, and a stone-faced Tink said, “Let’s go.”
Two days out of Richmond Danny’s station wagon, on its last legs, rolled to a stop. Dead. We didn’t have the spare parts and even Tinker’s mighty skills couldn’t get it running again. Okay, we were booked in Richmond. We had five guys. We had room for three plus the dog in the truck’s cab. That left two by the side of the road. Tinker eyed the big plywood box containing our band gear on the back of his flatbed. After thirty minutes of repacking, in between the gear and the end of that box we were able to squeeze out about two feet of crawl space. Two of us were going to have to ride locked in there.
Now, it was midwinter and it was fucking cold; there was little heat in the cab and none in the rear box. I don’t remember how we called it but Little Vinnie and I climbed in the back, and winter coats and all, we squiggled down into our sleeping bags. We were locked in, face-to-face, inhabiting a two-by-eight-foot space of freezing blackness. We had some water, a flashlight and each other. With no way to communicate with the cab, we were packed tightly in behind several thousand pounds of rock ’n’ roll gear, so if the truck hit a steep incline and the weight shifted . . . problem. We were pressed up against the rear gate on one side and our Marshall amplifiers on the other, our fate entwined with that of Tinker’s truck. Anything happens to the truck, we’re padlocked in with no way out. We had an empty container for piss and a guarantee from those up front to stop every two hours to check on us. Two days went by. Mad Dog spelled one of us every once in a while. Danny had some “confinement” issues and the tight black box wasn’t for him. After a while, you just sat there in the cold dark and let your mind wander.
Whatever its results, the California trip would have a lasting impact on me. I got to see the country. I came up against some real talent and held my own, but the band that took us out at the Family Dog stayed with me. They had something we didn’t, a certain level of sophisticated musicality. They were better than us and that didn’t sit well with me. It’s not that I didn’t expect to come up against superior talent; that happens, it’s the way God planned it. I was fast, but like the old gunslingers knew, there’s always somebody faster, and if you can do it better than me, you earn my respect and admiration and you inspire me to work harder. I wasn’t afraid of that. I was concerned with not maximizing my own abilities, not having a broad or intelligent enough vision of what I was capable of. I was all I had. I had only one talent. I was not a natural genius. I would have to use every ounce of what was in me—my cunning, my musical skills, my showmanship, my intellect, my heart, my willingness—night after night, to push myself harder, to work with more intensity than the next guy just to survive untended in the world I lived in. As I sat there in the black, I knew when we got back home, there would have to be some changes made.