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For 33 days in the summer of '87, Divine Weeks toured in a beat up old Ford Econoline Van, sleeping on stranger's floors, never sure they'd make enough gas money to get them to the next town. It was the first time Bill, Raj, George, Dave and Ian were out on their own. All they had was their music and their friendship. The road was filled with yuppies, brothels, riots, DJs with no pants and spiked drinks. Then one night in Edmonton, their little tour became something more profound, and they were never the same again. They set out on the road to discovery, drink in all they could and maybe sell a few records. They grew up instead.
The time has come to be brave.
For the first time in my life - all 22 years of it - I wake up today with this crazy-ass belief. If I can just get myself in that van, I might have a chance...to make it possible.
Today the door opens. The culmination of three years of maniacal drive toward a singular goal. To get out of this haunted house and get my band, Divine Weeks, on tour. It's all I've thought about the last three years, daydreaming in class and writing out imaginary tour dates. Toiling at my windowless shit day job, shuffling papers everyday, helping rich men get richer while my dream just sits out there waiting for me to seize it.
Nothing holds me in this house anymore. It's been like this ever since my grandfather died last year. My mom's been hitting the bottle pretty hard, acting more and more erratically. My grandmother's Alzheimer's is getting worse. Then late last year, my girlfriend Mary confessed she'd had an affair. Something snapped right then. I've been spinning ever since.
I used to think all heaven was an ear, but it's like I've been screaming into the void - eulogizing stalled dreams - but I never stopped that one continuous plea. So it went: someone's got to save me. Straightaway, I bought into that whole idea that the gods send down lightning bolts to split us all in half and set us out on a perilous journey to find our other halves and become whole again. I thought Mary was that other half, but maybe I've had that all wrong.
"Inner City Blues" by Marvin Gaye just ended, and I'm putting on "Bad" by U2. I must have listened to "Bad" a hundred times right after my grandfather died. "Let it go...and so to fade away..." That and "Hardly Getting Over It" by Husker Du. I played those two fucking songs to death last summer.
I'm pulling out Let It Be by the Replacements to play next. "Unsatisfied" is my favorite song right now. "Look me in the eye, then, tell me that I'm satisfied..."
We've spent the last few days scrambling around. Gathering contact information of bands, promoters and press to call and radio stations to drop in on. To the Price Club to buy peanut butter and jelly, bread and Cheerios in bulk. Down to Venice Beach to buy a bunch of stolen calling cards. Then to Guitar Center with a tall tale about how we're going on a very high-profile tour promising to play exclusively on whatever gear we can scam off them. Worked too. Gave us some drum skins, some cymbals, a mountain of guitar strings, patch cords. The smarmy store manager then groups us all together and takes our picture with one of their moronic sales reps who has on about the goofiest grin you can imagine. Man, Guitar Center. Where else can you find a grown man wearing pink spandex pants, a pompadour and a cheese-eating mustache?
Tom Hasse is going to be here in just a few to pick me up so we can go rent the van. No one will rent to us because none of us have a credit card, and we're all under 25. Then my friend Dave Silva told me his friend Tom would lay down his credit card for us to rent the van. Now, I don't know if ol' Tom's just too stoned to know better than to rent a van for a rock band going on tour for over a month. A band that's not even traveling with the guy who rented the van. A band that's not only taking the van outside of California but clear out of the freaking country.
Our friend Ron Jolly, a courier, turned us on to his mechanic who showed us how to disconnect the van's odometer so we can save on mileage charges. You get something like 500 free miles, so the plan is we'll go to about the 600-mile mark and then disconnect the thing. After the mechanic tells us how to do it, we were all quite pleased with ourselves until he turns to us and says, "But you guys do know it's a Federal crime, right?"
* * *
I'm trying to figure out if I've forgotten something, but really, all that's left is the letting go. The time has come to be brave. I keep saying that over and over as I pace around my bedroom listening to as many of my favorite songs as I can before I leave. Just trying to get my fill of this music that's been my one salvation here. Music that staved off the madness surrounding me and kept my heart from closing shut.
I just put on side two of the Meat Puppets' Up on the Sun. I wonder what George is listening to right now. Probably the Clash. I've got to remember to ask him later. Fuck, what time is it anyway? 7:30? George probably isn't even up yet.
George is my best friend and Divine Weeks' bassist. The ubiquitous Phast Phreddie, the ultimate scenester himself, says George is the best bass player in L.A. Pretty good considering L.A. is home to Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eric Avery of Jane's Addiction.
I started the band with two friends from high school - George and my other best friend Raj, our guitar player. In high school, the three of us were basically losers - either laughed at, dismissed, or never even thought of. Earlier this year, it started getting back to a lot of folks we went to high school with that Divine Weeks was starting to make a dent in the L.A. club scene. We'd see familiar faces come to a show, snicker and leave. Some of it was jealousy, or maybe it was a sense of order being disrupted. Like seeing Radar from M*A*S*H* play a saloon singer in a movie or something. You just can't accept it. High school's like TV a little. You get typecast. Those first few years after high school are threatening. People keep tabs on you and not so they can cheer you on from the sidelines.
Now let me make something clear. Divine Weeks is not some big arena band on a major label with oodles of cash behind us. You probably never heard of us unless you're one of the few thousand people who pick up the L.A. Weekly, L.A. Reader or BAM every Thursday to check what's happening around town. We're not part of L.A.'s "in" crowd, and we don't have any hip cache. One of the earliest bits of press we ever got was: "These guys will grab you by the scruff of your collar and demand attention despite the fact that they look like four college Joes waiting for a bus." It's one of those backhanded compliments we've used as inspiration.
Just seven months ago, we were limping along playing late weeknight gigs with no record deal, a drummer that was never going to work out, and virtually no press at all. Just after the first of this year, we got signed to the Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn's Down There label, found an incredible drummer, got named one of the top local bands by the L.A. Times, and we've been getting great reviews for our live shows and for our just-released debut record Through and Through.
This is not just our first tour. Aside from our drummer Dave, who's been on his own for a few years now, it's basically our first time out on our own at all.
This is not some big tour by plane or train or bus. We're just throwing two old love seats I found in my garage into the back of a Ford Econoline cargo van, putting them face to face to sleep on, and the rest of our stuff we're storing in back.
Aside from maybe Springsteen, there's no rock stars for role models. They've all let me down. It's like they all lusted after stardom and once there, looked us in the eye and then fled. I've stood there outside after shows and watch them treat fans like an annoyance, get whisked away in their limos and isolate themselves in their extravagance and wealth only to moan about it later. I'm done with it.
That's what drew me to the Do It Yourself (DIY), just-get-in-the-van credo pioneered by bands on SST Records. Although we don't sound much like bands like Black Flag, Minutemen, Husker Du, Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth, we're inspired by their ethic and aesthetic. Success doesn't come to you. You go to it. Eschew major labels. Put out your own records, book your own tours. You don't stay in hotels, you beg from the stage for a floor to sleep on. Create a community. Call like-minded bands, ask to open for them and promise to help them when they come to your hometown. Drop in on college radio stations and beg people to come down to your shows. No roadies, no high powered promoters. Black Flag pretty much invented it and bands like the Minutemen taught us how to go and do it. Mike Watt (formerly of the Minutemen and now fIREHOSE) calls it "jamming econo."
Musically, we're closer to the Who at Woodstock by way of early R.E.M. But ideologically, more than any other band, the Minutemen are the closest to what Divine Weeks' core is all about. Egalitarian, working-class, politically conscious, smart. Like us, their friendship and loyalty to each other shaped their very essence. The Minutemen were like indie rock teachers. They showed us and a lot of bands that being indie was a righteous cause - fighting the good fight against the bloated, arrogant and self-important hierarchy of major labels and radio programmers that keep good music off the air and relegated to garages.
Every time we climb on stage, write a song, meet a fan, deal with a booker or a radio programmer, we feel the eyes of the bands that showed us how to do it are watching. We can't let them down.
Once I get in that van today, I plan on never going back to school. Raj, same thing, and Dave washed his hands of school a few years ago. But for George, it's more complicated. He's got to make a decision whether or not to commit to grad school next year. He needs us to make as big a splash as possible on this tour so he can justify not returning to school in the fall.
* * *
When George, Raj and I started college, we kind of went our separate ways. That fall I went to a lot of club shows around town, mostly by myself. I got angrier and angrier. I'd drive home and find myself pounding the steering wheel and screaming, "Man, I could do better than those fuckers! What the fuck am I waiting for?"
By that Thanksgiving, it'd become impossible to hold back any longer. I'll always remember the date. November 24, 1983. It's a typically crazed, uncomfortable holiday dinner at my house. Ten minutes of eating and four hours of waiting around. Lots of false starts and stops and frozen smiles while my Aunt Nancy sets up a photograph. "Now everyone just smile and be happy!" she'd say. Right.
My mom can't sit still and pops up in five-minute intervals to disappear into the kitchen to swig some booze and then return momentarily calmer. My grandmother, the same thing, slipping into the kitchen quickly downing some Cutty Sark and staggering back into the living room chirping, "Everyone happy?!"
As Thanksgiving dinner finally winds down, I just want to get the hell out of there. I call Raj and ask him if he can come pick me up and take a drive. When I see him pull up in his family's old Honda, I grab my pea coat and pull my newsboy hat down low on my head. I mumble a goodbye hoping to get away before somebody makes it out to the driveway and starts screaming something.
I get in and say to Raj, "Hey come on, let's go," looking back to see if I'd been followed.
"Where to?" Raj asks.
"To the top of the world," a spot up on Mulholland Drive where you can see all of L.A., I say.
The alignment on Raj's old Honda is for shit, and we roll along Sunset Boulevard almost like a crab walks - kinda sideways. Traffic is light, and we make our way through Hollywood, past the Strip - first Gazzarri's, then the Rainbow and the Roxy. Then there's Duke's and the Whisky on the left. The next block, you have Tower Records on the left and Book Soup on the right. A little further east, all on the left, is Ben Frank's, then Carney's, Guitar Center, Rock 'n' Roll Ralph's and a little further, Club Lingerie and across the street Cat & Fiddle. But just before then, we hang a left on Highland, go past the Hollywood Bowl and then take a left up Mulholland Drive.
When we get to the top of Mulholland, we pull along the dirt embankment and stop. It's cold and dry and windy so I pull the collar up on my pea coat. We walk to the very edge of the cliff. The sight of a million shimmering lights and all of L.A. is there for the taking.
"So, how's the college life, my friend?" I ask.
"All right, I guess," Raj says looking down and kicking at the dirt.
"So, what do you think we're gonna have to show for it in 20 years?" I say picking up a rock and chucking it as far as I can.
"Don't know," he says shrugging. "Just living our lives, I guess."
"Yeah, well, I don't think that's gonna be good enough," I say, picking up another rock but not throwing it. I go on. "I keep hearing people say when you get to college you're just getting started on the rest of your life, but that's a bunch of bullshit. It's not the beginning. It's the fucking end if you're living someone else's dream. And that's what we're doing. We're living someone else's dream, Raj."
"OK, but what are we supposed to do?" he asks watching me chuck the rock out into the darkness.
"Don't you see, Raj?" I say moving closer. "Something happens when you keep denying what's at your core. Something happens when you deny the thing that's your very essence."
I watch him stare out into L.A.'s vast expanse.
"Raj," I say quietly to him. "Soon it'll be too late. You'll be married to someone you've never met before, and I'll be as bitter as everyone in my house. If we don't do this now, we'll hate ourselves for the rest of our lives."
He looks back at me and asks, "Do what?"
"For fuck's sake, Raj. Music. We're supposed to make music - you and me," I say feeling a rush scaling my windpipe. "I'm telling you, it's meant to be. Raj, look down there," I say taking off my hat and using it to point at all the shimmering lights. "Let's make every one of those motherfuckers down there know our name."
He doesn't say anything for a full minute. He just keeps staring out at all those lights before the words just tumble out: "Bill, I've wanted to call you and say the same thing for the past three months."
"And you know what?" I say, my eyes widening. "We're gonna be the ones who do it right. No groupies, no rock star poses, no ego trips."
I look at him until a smile creeps up that Raj can't hide.
"I'll call George," I say smiling.
The next morning, I phone George who's living in the dorms at UCLA. I hadn't talked to him since the summer.
"Que pasa, my friend," he says in his croaking morning voice. "How've you been?"
"Look, if I beat around the bush I might think twice."
"Well, you don't want that," he cracks.
"Listen, I hooked up with Raj last night. We were talking up there on top of the world, you know, up on Mulholland looking down at the whole city and everything. And man, I've been up there a million times, looked down and never saw any space for me. But last night it didn't look so scary and off limits."
"Oh-kay," he says trailing off.
I exhale deeply and fire my shot. "Look, school's become a joke. I'm only going for my grandfather. And, well, Raj and I were talking, and...we want to start a real band. The goddamn greatest band that's ever been."
George laughs nervously for a moment and then says soberly, "I can't believe you're saying this. I was lying on my bed just last night wanting to call you and say the same fucking thing."
The next week, the three of us gather in George's basement and write one song, "Like the City," a droning but jangly little lark. We record it onto a shitty little ghetto blaster. I still have the tape. I ask George's mom to take a picture of us together so the moment can be captured, certain this will be an important piece of rock history.
After that first rehearsal, we all walk up the steps of George's basement, and it's like we knew we'd just crossed over. We'd played a few parties together in high school but no one dared say it was for real back then. This was different and we could all feel it. Everything up to this day was someone else's, and now everything was in our own hands. When I get home, I write out ten targets I've set for the band with a little tagline under it: "Thanks be to music - the deepest mother, a lover, a soul mate, like no other...a gift from God, a spirit to haunt, an expressway to the soul - toll-free...for wounded hearts tired of lamenting."
* * *
From "33 Days" by Bill See
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