There and Back again with dios
Photo by Amy TheiligOne night in Philadelphia, a few hours after the cops came, in a packed-to-capacity shipwreck of a bar where even the brass fittings smelled like spilled beer, a girl elbowed her way back to me. We were all three songs into the dios set, and she leaned in close so I could hear her. Her name was Rebecca, and she was dressed all in white, and I could tell by how bright her eyes were what she was going to say.
"Listen," she said. "I need to get their CD. This has only happened to me maybe once in my life: I just walked into a place, and I didn't know who was going to play; I just wanted to see the show. And then I heard the opening band, and it's one of the best bands I've ever heard, you know?"
I knew she meant it because I've said the same thing and because there's a goofy, googly-eyed adoration that just beams out of you if someone hits the right two piano keys together, and you can't camouflage it. True love is cheap on tour only because it's there every night if you want it, and that was the kind of thing that always made me happy.
"I know," I said, honestly, making change for her. "But no one believes me because I do merch."
And then I tried to sell her a T-shirt.
Waiting backstage in Boston
Photo by Amy Theilig
DAY ZERO: LONG BEACH
One night, six months ago, I got a phone call. I heard a motor growl and knock behind the second song on the dios CD, and then I heard a voice: "This makes me feel like a truck driver thinking about his relationships," says the voice. "They're going to be huge." Yeah, I said, because it was true. That's rock & roll, that lovelorn truck driver: the car on the cruise and the love unrequited, motion and emotion, music at its platonic male-female, light-dark, yin-yang heart. Dios was a band from Hawthorne I had written about, and they were going to be huge. They weren't stupid, and they worked hard, and they made music people actually might want to listen to. I used to drive around at night listening to them so I knew what the voice meant. I asked J.P. about the truck-driver thing, and he laughed and said he wished truck drivers could relate to them, and then he said he used to just get in his car and drive down PCH all night sometimes, too. So when he asked me to go on a national tour with them and sell their T-shirts and CDs, I said yes.
Living like rock stars everywhere in America.
Photo by James Philip Cabeza Devaca
DAY ONE: SAN DIEGO
Dios were not all Mexican, and they were not all from Hawthorne, though that was the soundbite. They were five guys who ate beef jerky between gas stations; who liked the Lakers, Lord of the Rings and Scrabble; who drank beer instead of liquor whenever possible; who called their girlfriends on their cell phones every chance they got. As a thrill ride, they were subpar, but as a band, they were very good and only occasionally at one another's throats.
Jackie Monzon (drums) is Filipino, not Venezuelan, as the British press had decided. He wore clear-framed glasses and had an even, measured cadence to his voice more appropriate to an extremely earnest guidance counselor. He called me "little guy," often as he clapped me on the back. He is 19. J.P. Caballero's mom was a middle-school principal; related or not, J.P. was reliable to a fault, organized, always worried about something and inappropriately well-read, though he hadn't brought up Foucault more than a month or two after I met him. Dios had recorded and mixed parts of their not-quite-out album in his Hermosa Beach garage; he had both the ear and the tolerance for minute detail that can unstick a song from the mud. He'd met Jackie in film class at junior college, and he'd met Joel and Kevin Morales (brothers just like the Wilsons! writers said, hyperventilating. And they're from Hawthorne, too!) during high school.
Joel and Kevin sang and played guitar—they shared an acoustic and an electric, a set of complementary vocal cords, and a cataclysmic talent for hilarious sarcasm—particularly Joel, who'd worked shitty retail for so long that he'd fucked up his circulatory system, if not—understandably—his capacity for human compassion. Joel was a head taller and a shoulder broader (and a good seven years older) than Kevin, but they'd still end up sitting next to each other on any given couch. Joel's songs had started the band five years ago when they were called God and recorded Weezer covers (even then with a nod to the Beach Boys, though), but the rest of dios had added relief and momentum. And then there was Jimmy, who played keyboard and piano, who graduated with honors from UCLA, who'd grown a beard that hung under his delicate Gucci glasses like cave moss. He shared a surname with Cabeza DeVaca—the Spanish explorer who spent eight miserable years wandering the wilderness of North America, who did about 6,000 miles in 1527 and left the first written record of the American interior—and he would drive.
Gathering beneath a Patriotic statue in Philly
Photo by James Philip Cabeza Devaca
DAY TWO: PHOENIX
"People are always like, 'Oh, you sell-out. Oh, you sold out,'" says Jackie, tipped into a booth at a freeway Subway. "But they should try it. Selling out is hard."
It was the first thing I thought to deliberately remember of the tour. Significant, said a finger-snap somewhere, because this was going to be the last tour where dios surprised anyone. They had been a band for five years, five years Joel called "summer vacation" and five years loading in through the back of the coffeehouse and arguing with the bar over a few dirty 20s. A lot of bands will do that forever—bruise over their talent on sharp corners until something puts them out of their resignation. A lot of bands rot; it's why you can buy good guitars used. Somehow, someone in dios figured this out, and dios put on some legs and pushed themselves up and out. The things they'd waited for were happening.
We were the only van, trailing three bulging buses. Saves the Day was the tour dinosaur; they'd had a video on MTV. They were as selfless and helpful as monks, and they were a terrible band. Even their fans were turning on them. Grandaddy were the dads; they'd had a song ("A.M. 180") in the 28 Days Later soundtrack and some critical acclaim, and they'd helped their old buddies dios to open. The Fire Theft used to be Sunny Day Real Estate—their press release certainly claims they invented emo—and they were polite but reclusive, introspective headcases in all the nice ways, and they were so uncatchy that after two weeks, we couldn't even hum a song of theirs to make fun of it, though keyboardist Jimmy learned "A.M. 180" on accordion and we'd grunt the riff from Saves the Day's "In Reverie" every time van conversation took a breath.
And dios were the babies. They always played first, to kids too young to be smoking outside or so nerdy they actually showed up when the ticket told them to, which was sometimes before the sun even set. But dios didn't gripe: every little inconvenience came with a wink, a sense of dues being paid to bank out as something great next time around. Jimmy was our pilot, and we'd boom through the freeways, watching mountain ranges slip by and listening to his audio books: "Without realizing what power drew him on, he made his way mile by mile and step by step to Mordor!"
DAY THREE: DAY OFF (TRAVEL)
It was an arctic nighttime, and we were the only life on the road, punching through a thunderstorm that had been pissing and banging since El Paso. One vent blew sickly wet-dog-smell engine heat, and the rest were all frigid freeway wind; we twisted blankets over our laps and listened to prank phone-sex calls to stay up: a wary old man breathing heavy and sweaty, a fake girl cooing that "Satan controls my robotic vagina," a computer-modulated HAL 9000 voice croaking, "Hello? Hello? I love you. I am a very lonely individual. I believe you are lonely like me." Outside, starlit slashes of rain splattered into static on the roof. No lights, no moon, no exits until Pecos, Texas, and a motel called MOTEL. Every time a heavy diesel kicked over or a light swung across the curtains, J.P. would twist himself awake, out of a panic nightmare that someone was stealing the van. In the morning, the plaster walls were slick and cold and damp, and the sky was a pale algae green, and we saw that the motel pool was full to the brim with soft black mud, and past the dew in the knuckles of the chainlink fence were creases of empty, dirty grass that ran until you gave up looking. We decided to slide the merch prices around a bit to our advantage and drew a new sign: DIOS MAKES DEALS.
DAY FOUR: DALLAS
I pushed away a curtain and stood backstage center, watching a blurry wave of big-eyed kid faces wash back and forth, out in the red-blue-green stage-lit dimness between Jackie's twin cymbals. This was the first show I saw—usually, merch people build little forts in the lobby and hide inside, drinking whiskey and smoking, but tonight the venue would sell our T-shirts and I was free to go, so I stood backstage and looked out into the crowd. J.P. admits dios songs are easy to like, the same way you'd explain how your parents paid for you to go to college, but I thought that was something to be proud of. Dios' hit would be "Starting Five": Beach Boys falsetto in the chorus, stoner-faux-serious lyrics, a guitar splash like a handshake, a bass line you can ride like a playground slide, even a sample of laughing schoolchildren. And then they had "You Got Me All Wrong," which sits up and stretches into a languorous Abbey Road lift in the middle, and the c'est-la-vie regret in "Nobody's Perfect" ("It's my fault/I stayed too long") and "Love You Girl" (most infamously unrecorded, with Joel's laugh line: "I'll love you till the end/Psyche! I'm just kidding!"), and it all took about 25 minutes. They'd close with the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" which is a little too easy, but these were young crowds who rarely knew it, and dios did it well, J.P. and Jackie cracking in with cardiac precision. Then they'd retreat backstage to nurse Budweisers and call girlfriends and because to date dios had only ever stayed in two hotel rooms; after the show, I would have to go out in the crowd and make best friends, which is what merch people are really supposed to do.
"Hey," I said to this Texas girl with goggle-eye glasses and red lipstick; that was the small-town library she wanted to work at and the porn store she did work at right there. "Did you like dios?"
"Yes, I loved them!" she said.
"Can dios stay at your house?" I asked because when you are a merch person, conversations are always potent and efficient.
"Sure!" she said; it turned out she'd done merch, too. But then dios found a hotel anyway—the guys in Saves The Day and Grandaddy had decided to pass their rooms on to us, the inauguration of a tour tradition. So I left by myself. We went to Dealey Plaza at 3 a.m. Someone had painted an 'X' at the spot in the street where Kennedy took the shots, and I stood there as headlights fluttered by and tipped out a Lone Star, and then I whipped that bottle spinning high over the train yards. The smashed glass sparkled off the tanker cars, and the girl said, "Can you help me put together this sex swing I got from work? I want to swing in it when I watch cartoons."
"Sure," I said. "Do you have any tools?"
"I think it comes with tools," she said. "Where is your band?"
"I dunno," I said. "Sleeping?"
Party van, Myrtle Beach
We were giving away guest-list spots because we were friendless in town—it happened a lot—and bam-bam-bam we shanghaied an entourage: two college boys and two college girls from New York, an Australian who loved Saves the Day and who'd been in town for a month, a singer/songwriter/strip-club waitress named Stacie who personified everything we'd ever heard about Southern hospitality and bought everyone a round of everything. Stacie was a tiny wisp of blonde—ethereal, you could say, depending on the dress; at her strip club, she was a fawn among moose. She got us in free. "I always wanted to be a stripperrrr," said the college girl with the tattoos, swaying. One of the guys steadied her. Dios was split into atoms now, no one sure where anyone else was, in the streets with all our strangers. Didn't matter. Two bars later, Stacie told me she was a spiritual but not necessarily a religious person, told me that a client at the strip club who was born into the Illuminati—she asked if I know what that is—had his face rot from cancer, had R.J. Reynolds rebuild his face for free, and now he wanted to die, ashamed of the papier-mch hedonism he'd built into a life. Because she was the girl at the strip club who was his only true friend, he wanted to leave her $500,000 and a mansion. I believed all this totally; I would be a bad person not to. We broke down smaller again, waved and hugged goodbye to Stacie, reconstituted into dios at a bar next to the bus, paid $40 for parking after an argument that ratcheted up a notch every time we lapped the block. The capillaried New Orleans back streets were lit the same as Stacie's club—pink on red slapped over slats of black—and two drunks in polo shirts were flopping off the sidewalk, their wristwatches cracking against the cobblestones. This was Joel's birthday. In the morning, I called Stacie. She said the college girls cried when they left.
DAY 11: ATLANTA
This is how it worked every night: a pile of limp T-shirts; a CD set nice and square with the corner of the merch table; a wad of utility tape to keep it all secure, dispensed with sympathy by one of the other merch people, who all had calculators and laptops and computer-printed mailing lists while I made change from my front pockets and kept text-messaging J.P.: FOOD N WHISKY U OWE ME SIX DOLL. By now, you had to dig through a layer of fireworks and old R&B 45s to get to anything we could legitimately sell, since I'd started using the merch boxes as reserve cargo space. The sign we'd made in Pecos was spotty with sticky kiss marks from the bottoms of bottles; anything that sat too flat for too long would probably play coaster for part of the night. But some kids always put up with it because they liked the band. They would buy things because they were worried about us getting enough to eat or because they wanted to make sure we made it to the next city. And because most of them didn't even see dios, since dios often played a half-hour before the tickets said the show even started, they'd talk about other bands they liked instead. Most of these bands were horrible, overtrebled, mopey, cheese-metal rehash, the kind of thing you'd montage over a prom scene in a movie, but it was the way the kids liked them that I found heartening. All they cared about was immediacy, the song as it was right then—they listened to music like they were playing it, one note linked to the next, instead of trying to translate it all into something else. They were still able to like bands without having to hold them up against some older band to see where the light shone through. I told a lot of them to listen to the Kinks, and they bought dios CDs without ever having heard dios.
DAY 12: MYRTLE BEACH
Because of the way I was raised, I already knew what a couple of hundred sweaty alligators mucking around in the mud smelled like. Everyone else had to mention it, though. Sold more CDs here than anywhere else.
DAY 14: DAY OFF
We accidentally left Joel and Jimmy on the Grandaddy bus and spent the day out of cell phone range by ourselves. It felt like our parents were gone, especially because we knew that we'd get yelled at when we got back. J.P. and Kevin awkwardly jockeyed for command as we tried to find a store that sold thermal underwear. Jackie and I were the most poorly prepared; I could see us 24 hours later, buried in a D.C. snow bank, stuffing free newspapers down our pants for insulation. As we squirted through the last edge of the North Carolina forests, the cells lit back up. All that time we'd been in the interstate slow lane, the other dios—the glossy media Xerox that glides from promo to publicist, not quite identical to the three slightly smudgy guys eating beef jerky next to me—was getting sort of famous. Dios was in Rolling Stone, had a review in Spin, had a review on pitchforkmedia.com ("If writers were allowed to draw maps, America would be promptly re-proportioned according to its most prosaic cultural mythology"), got a song on LA radio. Once we noticed, we could sense it, certain kids at the front of the stage unconsciously playing canary. The other bands would always say something nice about it.
DAY 15: WASHINGTON, D.C.
The last night with Saves the Day and Grandaddy and Fire Theft: DON'T LET THE DOOR HIT YOU IN THE ASS ON THE WAY OUT, said the sign. Jason from Grandaddy drew a dios group portrait on the dressing-room wall, and then Joel found a Sharpie and drew some of the Grandaddy guys, and then they got into the club beer and had a big art contest, and when we left, the walls looked like a desk from middle-school detention hall. Every band played a Pixies cover, and when dios got really drunk, they crammed some tortilla chips in their jacket pockets and stood in front of the dressing-room mirror, laughing and wearing sunglasses. I'm not good at goodbyes, so I drank a bottle of Saves the Day's whiskey and let peristalsis work its messy magic.
"Chris, what's wrong with you?" Jackie asked. "There's a demon inside of you!"
I dragged my head back inside the van to look at him, and he was just those glasses and a grin, hanging over the seat.
DAY 16: PHILADELPHIA
Here was a nice park. Joel sat on a bench to read the paper. We kept walking, stopping at a grassy wrinkle of a gully that used to be Philly's municipal sewer system. Jackie flashed a laser pointer at squirrels in the trees. A man in a white North Face jacket jogged briskly into our circle and started shouting: "Hands out of your pockets; get your hands where I can see them!" No one moved. This was the preppiest mugger I'd ever seen. And then four uniformed cops with Smokey the Bear hats and pudgy black pistols at their thighs melted out of the trees and historical markers. North Face had hard little eyes that clacked from side to side as he patted us down and a haircut that started by selecting a setting on the clipper and ended when the sarge said, "Okay, boys, lunch break is over." Someone had called about the laser pointer and thought we had a gun. And Jimmy's heavy beard—graduated from mossy to ursine—probably got a mention, too. The other cops got bored and let their adrenalin flush out their legs, but North Face made sure we all got a little hand time. He asked what a bunch of California beach citizens were doing in chilly downtown Philly, and Jimmy said, so politely and matter-of-factly it should have embarrassed the cops, "We're in a band." Cops always have to ask you the squarest questions when they find out you're in a band (Greg Ginn used to tell them he was a jazz musician; funny because North Face looked like a skinny Henry Rollins), and so North Face said, "dios, huh? That means 'days,' right?" Everybody just looked at the city skyline and said, "Yeah, yeah." At the show, I spilled booze all over one band's posters, but the guilt blew away as they began using unsold T-shirts to open beer bottles. Rebecca never bought the T-shirt—"Not a T-shirt girl," she said with a smile—and a chef and his girlfriend took us home and made us little nests in their living room and cooked us breakfast in the morning. We put a few 10s under the sugar jar, and for future reference, J.P. wrote down the type of air mattresses we'd slept on.
DAY 17: NEW YORK
The industry people had a distinctive kind of skin: scaly and orange from years of smoke blown over them, shiny from the resurrection products they could goo themselves with each morning. They looked like they could talk about Lou Reed for hours. The dios album—recorded in their practice space and mixed in J.P.'s basement—had come out just minutes before, and I overcharged based on customer oiliness. Tonight was the dog show, I guess. Dios had about 25 minutes to demonstrate their potential; to adjust the sentiments of the guy from the Streets, if 50 people in Hawthorne think you're good, then 50 people in Hawthorne think you're good. But if 50 people in New York think you're good, then the whole world thinks you're good. That's why there are bands in Costa Mesa and Long Beach and Anaheim and Lomita that really do deserve to be everywhere—they can't get their shitty cars out of the Pacific Standard zone, and so we get to watch them over and over again for $5 a pop. Feel bad? I sometimes did. But even if the dios guest list had blown out over industry fluff, at least we were in New York. "Starting Five" had a vocal just past the center that went something like, "Make some cash/and buy that classy/lifestyle I been told about." It was the tail of a couplet about space pot or something, but when the doors that kept the bar quieter than the band swung open for a second, I heard Joel doctor the lyric: ". . . that classy/lifestyle I been born without."
DAY 21: BUFFALO
"You like all that Manchester shit like Morrissey and Joy Division, you should listen to the Fall," I told Jackie. "They were from Manchester."
"Oh, I never listen to any music that people tell me," Jackie said. "I want to find it on my own. It's more meaningful that way."
DAY 22: CLEVELAND
Cleveland was as bad as they tell you. We sold $1 worth of merch, and I had to fight to get that. People would hold the CD in their hand, and you could just see the resale-to-Mad Dog calculations roll over their eyeballs. We'd strong-armed some naive college boy into taking us home, and Jackie kept hijacking the conversations to say, "Yeah, so I got a song: 'SEXUALLLLL FRUSTRATIONNNN!'" (He later worked up a new song that went, "Great balls of thunder! Came to me in my sleep! They hit me so hard, baby! I began to weep!" and then I would do backups.) I threw up in Cleveland just to say I did, and I ran into his mom on the way out of the bathroom, my knees probably still damp from hunkering over the toilet. It's okay, I wanted to tell her. I went to college, too.
DAY 23: DETROIT
I had been queasier and queasier since Boston, and when the show ended up just across the street from a hospital, I decided to see if I'd developed a worm or something, and I left dios and Grandaddy and Saves the Day doing cover songs together as soon as I could walk across the street. When my nurse came in at 4 in the afternoon, she was griping about her hangover. Because cosmic coincidence is as inexorable as it gets, she figured out I was with a band and, as she nicked a needle into my arm, said, "You know, I used to see Iggy Pop play at my high school. Of course, back then, he was Iggy Stooge." A saline IV drops your temperature a few degrees; I was shuddering like a shock victim and trying to quiz her ("D-d-d-d-d-did you ever see the B-b-b-bob Seger S-s-s-s-system?") when I passed out. I closed my eyes, and there were the merch boxes, hovering unsteadily in the dark, and when I opened my eyes again, there was J.P., hovering happily over my hospital bed, singing, "Mama, take my merch away. . . . I can't sell it anymore." Dios were just about to play at midnight, and J.P. was in such a good mood. "I thought you died, Ziegler!" he kept saying.
DAY 24: CHICAGO
We were leaving as soon as the Pixies song was done. Girlfriends and their clean soft beds were waiting 31 hours away. Dios was one of the bands that liked going home; other bands never went back, became homeless except for their van on tour for years at a time, sleeping on couches and floors and fistfighting at rest stops. Promoters talked about them like they were ghost ships. The merch girl from the headlining band gave me a little plastic pig—we'd been flirting like we were on a semester abroad; she'd run away from Alaska on a boat when she was 17, and she drank lots of whiskey. She'd been out for weeks, and she thought we were going home too early.
DAY 25: DAY OFF
Sleep in a Chicago traffic snarl; awake in flat Missouri heat. Sleep in a purple-and-white New Mexico sunset; awake in a blacked-out Arizona snowstorm, J.P. crawling, shrunk and shriveled, out of his sleeping bag, blinking and tasting the air like a lizard. He hopped out to pump gas still barefoot, his ankle bones blushing pink as soon as they sunk into a drift. I took a little walk. The van was alive and gleaming under the gas-station fluorescents. I didn't feel the cold at all. Our voices dropped into the snow, and we were the last band ever, the white-light halo around us unraveling into the starless desert dark, our breath puffing into tiny vapor crystals that flashed out and fell away. I turned back around when I heard the diesel clap and cough and saw our yellow headlights scribble over the pumps. I felt like a truck driver, so I thought about my relationships.
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