the life of a musician is almost nothing like it seems, when viewed from afar. well, the sex and drugs, and the incessant partying, and the crowd surfing, and the adulation, and the music, and just the sheer rockstardom of it all, those are all ever-present, but… ok, maybe the life of a musician is exactly what it looks like from afar. but there’s something else, something that can’t be captured even in recounting every detail, something simultaneously deeply personal and profoundly mutual about going on tour with your best pals, sharing your most guarded habits and behaviors with each other while at the same time losing yourself to be a part of something bigger. I’ve written about it here since our very first tour, trying to capture the essence of how, exactly, going on the road as a musician changes us as human beings. I still do not know. but perhaps, perhaps, in examining the visible, the tactile, the frozen nooks and crannies of the tip of the vast iceberg that is the human experience (it’s a metaphor, stupid), just perhaps, we can begin to understand the scope, the import, the sheer potential of that part of all of us that lies just beneath the surface, silently keeping our quotidian lives afloat.
first night, philly, tequila party! change comes in mysterious ways, dear reader.
then away, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, to roanoke, virginia, which was the commencement of tour proper, and also the beginning of a four-week trial of wits, i.e., the car game in which you say a movie title, and the next person says a movie whose name begins with the last letter of the previous one. we named, like, five hundred movies over the course of tour. I think it’s still my turn, and I’m on “t”, but I can’t think of any more movies that start with “t”…
then asheville, north carolina, where we brought the cold weather with us! yes, it snowed, and the whole city shut down, because they are scaredy-cats. but we did get to play that game “bop it”. super high. but then it wouldn’t turn off, so we buried it in snow in the yard.
anyway. boone, north carolina was a wonderful place and, true to its name, was in the middle of fucking nowhere. and it was still snowing. “what the hell?” said we, “we came to the south in january to get away from the snow, that is literally the only reason we’re on tour right now.” but life, she is a cruel mistress, and our collective plaints did little, if anything, to alter the weather.
we awoke the next morning to the greatest fear of any touring musician, that disabler of voices, that canceller of shows, that grim specter that lurks behind every tickle in the throat: the flu. yes, three of us had the flu, and it wouldn’t be long, in the close quarters in which we spent every waking moment (i.e., the van), before we would all succumb to its muculent grasp. except me. I was the only one who didn’t get sick, and I wholeheartedly attribute my health (and youthful vigor!) to a little miracle called WHISKY. it keeps the doctor away. it does a body good. it’s what’s for dinner.
but, never a group to let a pesky life-threatening virus impede the momentum of the bartok machine, we sallied forth to knoxville, tennessee, where you can smoke cigarettes indoors, which, needless to say, was emphatically (or emphysematically? anyone??) NOT everyone’s idea of a good time. but through clouds of smoke and with lungs ablaze, we threw a surprisingly wild rager of a show. we spent the night at a new friend’s awesome, high-ceilinged apartment and spent most of the next day making and eating chicken soup, drinking tea, and flying this little toy helicopter around the room.
slowly healing by way of hot-honey-water and eating airborne like big effervescent candies right out of the package, we drove to memphis. it was an odd city, perhaps because we had no one to show us around, or perhaps simply because it’s odd there. and so with everyone sick and nothing to do but eat uncooked tofu hot dogs in a van in the parking lot of a food lion, we had reached an impasse, the sort of dreary, lifeless, what-have-we-become moment that is, of course, a prerequisite for the dazzling highs of life that it so boldly contrasts. I only mention it so that you may recall a time in your own life when, maybe existentially amiss and netflix-addicted, you’ve wondered why in fuck you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing; don’t those times, in hindsight, seem kind of… necessary, as emotional valleys abutting the inevitable peaks? well… change comes in mysterious ways, dear reader.
on and upward to tupelo, mississippi, the birthplace of elvis, which, who cares, give me the birthplace of a real american hero like… steve buscemi, or something. mississippi is a place where you can literally (legally) drink while driving, so that’s… cool. our show was at the blue canoe, and confirmed for the umpteenth time my personal theory that the most fun in life is had in places whose name is of the form “the [color] [noun]”. the blue canoe. the purple fiddle. the mauve dandy. ok, I made that last one up, but I would definitely frequent a 1920’s-style speakeasy/gay bar called “the mauve dandy”. someone take the reins on this one.
we stayed that night at a new friend’s house down the way (“new friend,” by the way, is my term for those unflinchingly kind (and brave!) souls who have us over their house after shows). he was an ex-hollywood producer who had this plethora of really scary mannequins with futuristic diving suit halloween costumes on placed throughout the house. it was… AWESOME. upon our departure he handed me a jar of change that he usually doled out to the homeless because, in his words, we were “music homeless”. I couldn’t argue with his logic.
then on to atlanta, georgia, and jesus, is it really only a week into this tour? it feels like at least a month to all of us. our friends and family at home are becoming hazy memories. we struggle to recall with any clarity the faces of loved ones, after only a week. such is the density of experience on the road, and without that natural counterpoint to all the excitement, i.e., having a moment alone to reflect upon it all and integrate it meaningfully into your personality, well, what do you do? you just keep going, I guess, and hope that you’ll figure it out when you get home. maybe even write about it, and hope that someone out there, reading it, will understand what you’re getting at, even if you don’t quite understand it yourself. eh?
atlanta was magic. we played our show with an irish punk band “the muckers,” who were amazing musicians and people and, I can only assume, still are. if any of you muckers are reading this, let’s go on tour together. anyway, we kept the impetuous train (I mean… van…) moving southward, to columbus, georgia, to play the first of two shows at venues that were, to our momentary chagrin, situated in these, like, little strip-malls. but our humiliation, however mild, turned out to be unfounded; they were two of the most fun shows ever. it turns out that strip-malls are just how they do things down there (which I found out when my mom (in bella’s bartok, we are all notorious for our mom-calling on tour) told me that she had had the same apprehension when jerry remy once took her to an italian restaurant in georgia (which, what the fuck is my mom doing hanging out with the damn friggin’ remdawg? I had no idea about this), also in a strip-mall, that turned out to be some of the most authentic and delicious italian food she had ever had, and she knows her italian food).
so. the first of these two venues was (of course!) very happy to see us, saying they’d been watching a lot of our music on youtube, to which I replied, “yeah, we get weird…” to which THEY replied, “yeah, so do we…” while gesturing toward the ceiling and walls: somehow my eyes had, until that moment, glazed over the fact that the whole place was decorated with autographed brassieres. okay, they DO get weird! and they did.
the next of these shows was in valdosta, georgia. same madness, different day! how do people always know to go crazy at our shows? how do they know?! and by now you know the drill: music is played, madness ensues, a night transpires that is so memorable, so awesome, that one can’t help but think, “what could possibly top this?” and then inevitably, the next night, something even more memorable, more awesome happens. what are we to think, then, when each and every night is an unforgettable spectacle? where is there room in our heads for keeping it all? there is not, dear reader! but despite the pace of it all, the sheer volume of life that we were living in a single day, a lesson was developing here: if one day you wake up and find that you are flying, do not question it, just enjoy the miracle of flight while it lasts. but… isn’t that what icarus would have said, right before he flew too close to the sun and FUCKING DIED? perhaps.
week two, then, and no conclusive lessons learned.
onward to floridada! to preface, I, like most other new englanders I know, have long considered florida a place where old people go to to whittle away their autumn years, becoming raisinlike and crispy before entering the portal to the next life, which I’ve always pictured as being somewhere around tampa. not so, not so at all! florida is a place full of perfect weather, friendly people, and young party animals. and bloodthirsty gators. just driving into the state was like leaving the world I knew and entering some forbidden paradise. the trees change, the sky changes, the roads and landscapes change, and suddenly we are at the beach.
I grew up on the finest beaches that massachusetts has to offer, and can say without hyperbole that florida’s beaches are one million times better. the water is clearer, the sand is somehow sandier, plus I believe you can legally drive cars right into the ocean if you want! we opted out of that last one. but the beach was grand, and I successfully rode asher’s body like a surfboard as he bodysurfed. yes, here, splayed out upon the shore like seven gods drinking seven coronas, it was all beginning to make sense. this was the meaning of it all.
our first of four florida shows was in jacksonville, birthplace of limp bizkit (now we’re talkin’!), and, correct me if I’m wrong, but pretty much a wretched hive of scum and villainy and also the murder capitol of the country. is that right? we did not like jacksonville. but we kept on keepin’ on, deeper into florida.
we spent a couple days in st. augustine and had a much-deserved night off. crisco and I went to the golf hall of fame! it was fucking stupid. golf is dumb. but one must try new things, I suppose. the fates sent us next to tampa, and along the way my life was changed forever when I waded precariously into musical waters the likes of which I had never known before. that’s right, dear reader: I listened to bruce springsteen (or as I coquettishly refer to him, “juicy brucey”) for the first time. ever. like, I’ve heard his music on in places, but never have I sat down with the express purpose of listening to a whole bruce springsteen album. and it was… marvelous! that dude fuckin’ ROCKS! it should be said, too, that I had just finished reading his autobiography and have since passed it around to the rest of the band (we do book-swap on tour, and the band becomes an ad-hoc book club at times). anyway, it was inspiring to hear someone’s tale of touring hard and making it big, while we ourselves were touring hard. and as far as the making it big, well, whatever.
in tampa I ate an alligator.
(not a whole alligator, but some parts of one. they taste, yes, like chicken, but more difficult to capture.)
deeper, still. stuart, florida. the warm, salty air swirls about our collective head. this deep into tour, life itself is otherworldly, the drunk dream of someone somewhere who is leading a normal life, and has fallen asleep with a bella’s bartok album on in the background. our individuality has all but dissolved; we are a hive mind. at any given time, any one of us can tell you what any of the others are thinking with disturbing accuracy. we each have the feeling that our day-to-day actions are being guided by some unseen hand, which perhaps some would call divinity, but which I refer to as the HAND OF BARTOK. it alternately caresses and disciplines us, escorting us gently in a common direction, toward strange horizons we cannot see from where we stand. it is an odd thing for all of us, to begin to lose our grip on autonomy, but we submit, for what else can one do? we imagine it is for the best, losing ourselves like this. change comes in mysterious ways, dear reader.
anywho, important fancy kerrigan trivia: thorough examination of the previous blog entries will reveal that he has a favorite drink, a favorite drink in the whole world. what is it?
if you guessed MICKEY’S GRENADES, you are correct, dear reader! expect your prize-winnings in six to eight business years, in the form of a candlelit dinner with yours truly, just as soon as I can gather up the money to wine and dine all of our lucky contestants. yes, mickey’s grenades. and terra fermata, in stuart, not only supplied me with them, they made me a bet (which, in full disclosure, they will make with anyone they appreciate): if you can solve the puzzle under the cap (mickey’s has a little pictogram puzzle under there) within 30 seconds, you get it FOR FREE! suffice it to say I drank for free that night, and nearly put them out of business.
at the show that night (do we still play music? between the journeying, the parties, the book clubs, the beaches, the new friends, and the staying-up-til-sunrises, it becomes difficult to remember that there is indeed an undercurrent giving meaning to this lifestyle, namely the music), a particularly wild dancer in the front row took off his hat and watch (which I found odd; how often are you dancing so hard that you need to remove your watch?) and put them in front of me on the stage. I jokingly took them as an offering, donned them, and finished playing. later, when I met him, I offered him his hat and watch back, to which he replied, “oh, no, those were an OFFERING!” perhaps the hand of bartok is indeed divine, and perhaps our band is indeed becoming a religion (or, dare I say… a CULT?).
stayed with a musician who goes by the name of “johnny debt”. he had starfruit trees in his front god damn yard, and asher caught a lizard. but no time to dwell on that!; onward. orlando, which I thought must be a touristy, ridiculous place. we played a truly out-of-this-world show, but it was nothing compared to what was happening when I walked out the front door after our set: the street was shut down by cop cars just so people could party in it. and this was just an average friday night, I’m told. there was dubstep blasting out apartment windows into the street, and a man was climbing a telephone pole with a joint in his mouth. orlando is LIT, FAM! and so a minor lesson develops, one more easily comprehensible than the larger and more elusive lessons that we are seeking on tour: don’t judge a book by the rumors you hear about it. go to florida more.
just over a week remains, and we find ourselves next in savannah, georgia, a gem of a city. the quotidian party music that has become our lives blissfully ensues. we stay with a friend. I race, at the end of a long night, for the only bed in the apartment. I am whisked off to sleep by thoughts of having outwitted my beloved bandmates on the comfort spectrum. then the dripping starts. yes, there is a single drip coming from the ceiling, landing directly on my head. I get no sleep. minor lesson: beds, surprisingly, are not always what they appear to be.
then charleston, south carolina, to another of those places whose name is, as described above (“the [color] [noun]”), an example of the formula for a good time: the purple buffalo. we are in a silly mood, and make riduculous mockeries out of most of our songs this night, and laugh like hyenic demons into microphones. we sleep in a very strange warehouse which is decorated exclusively by the body parts of mannequins. very creepy. in the corner there is a full-sized refrigerator. we spot it, and thinking that maybe it has leftover beer or tasty oj inside, go in for a peek. we open the door. yeah, it’s full of mannequin body parts. but that is life. one cannot win ’em all, dear reader.
the saving grace of the warehouse space was that it had a bathroom with two toilets right next to each other. I took the liberty of taking a photograph. you’re welcome.
and by now, the end is nigh. it is clear that we’re all, in some recess of our collective mind, thinking about what life might be like when we’re finally not on tour: how will we fit in once we get home? do we still have friends outside this band? do we want to? if given the chance, would we just stay on tour… forever? how long would we last? do we prefer tour life to real life? the questions swirl like a maelstrom throughout the hive-mind, none definitively answered. because for now there is more to do.
such as, for example, the next show, in wilmington, nc, at the juggling gypsy, a place we knew we’d feel “at home” (whatever that meant at this point) at. and indeed we did. the show was one of those loud, underground, punk-as-fuck ordeals where people pour beer over your head while you’re playing and you reciprocate in kind. good show, lads, good show.
the next night (by now perhaps you, dear reader, feel a bit the way we (or any other touring musician) felt at this point, which is: “the next night?! it’s happening again?! what could you possibly tell me, what novelty could you possibly offer to set this, the next night, apart from the others? why am I still reading this? why are we still doing this?” to which I’d respond with a curt “it’s almost over,” which, of course, is what we were all thinking at the time) we played in raleigh, nc, with a band of truly superior musicians who go by the name of “jahman brahman”. now let it be known that van culture (see previous blog posts for a more precise definition of this term. it basically refers to the uber-insular mini-culture that forms when you’re around the same group of people too much) had long since co-opted this band’s name into our lexicon. in fact, their band’s name had replaced the word “yes”. (brief etymology: over the course of tour, if answering a question in the affirmitive, first it was “yes,” then “yeah,” then “yeah, man,” then eventually “jeah, man,” then “jah, man,” then, finally “jahman, brahman”. make sense?). so by the time we got on stage to open for these guys, we were just like, “hi, fuck bella’s bartok, we’re JAHMAN BRAHMAN!” and kept insisting that we were them and that we hated bella’s bartok. and to their credit, with the smooth improvisatory grace that’s often portrayed by great musicians, they got on stage and were all like “FUCK JAHMAN BRAHMAN, WE’RE BELLA’S BARTOK!”. and now we’re friends forever.
there are only three shows left. we are slowly returning home: the landscape around us changes gradually, over the course of a ten-hour drive, from the salty floridian heat of the south, through the dusty-but-temperate carolinian scenery, to the snowy winter wonderland that is the north. except that we are only in west virginia. oh well. the night is long, and we drive along dangerous and icy mountainsides to get to thomas, wv, our favorite place in the world, home to the perfect venue, which venue of course adheres to that age-old formula for good times: “the purple fiddle”. somebody gets bored during the van ride and lights our toy helicopter (remember that little guy? from before?) on fire and flies it around the van. we realize that this is a dumb idea and fly it out the window, watching it careen down a cliff into that good night. semper fi, little buddy. and then, we arrive.
words cannot describe the purple fiddle. there is only something in the air, and that is all that can be said. the town itself is one long street, something reminiscent of a wild west town, but haunted with benevolent spirits, as opposed to dead cowboys. the venue overlooks an expansive valley, one which screams to you of a strange and nearly-forgotten past as you stand on the balcony, clutching tightly to a warm tea-and-whisky. something in the air, and nothing more.
after the show, in a kaufman-esque, now-we’re-taking-you-all-out-for-milk-and-cookies scenario, nearly the entire audience joins us upstairs in our apartment to party and play music long into the night. there is a wood stove, and it is snowing, someone has brought us two cases of pbr, and everyone is all smiles. something in the air indeed.
we go next to a town in pennsylvania that is actually called “college town” or something like that. we park on the street and notice how many nirvana shirts are being worn by the general public. and flannel. and ripped jeans. some of us insist that something is afoot, but I, looking down at my own ripped jeans and over at asher’s nirvana shirt, insist that that’s just how people dress. a long debate ensues. in the end I am wrong; it’s some kind of 90s night for the college students, and we are struck with the realization that we ourselves have never really left the 90s at all…
and then, the final show of tour. philadelphia, kung fu necktie, a much-coveted venue with a rich history of goin’ nuts. it is a monster of a show (featuring “this way to the egress”!). confetti is released, crowds are surfed, and we expend every last bit of energy and love that we have, knowing that for once, we don’t have to save anything for tomorrow.
and then it is over. is it really over? the ride back to western mass is a quiet one, full of reflection, the hive-mind of bartok palpably, frantically trying to sort these nonstop experiences of the last month into a coherent narrative, a liveable lesson, or at the very least a convenient aphorism. because there is a certain fear, one that perhaps we all experience from time to time: after a profound undertaking, that we may come out on the other side unchanged. that we may not be able to integrate the breadth of an experience into our own lives. that we might just go home, watch reruns of rick and morty, fall asleep, wake up, and fall straight back into monotony, as if nothing profound had happened to us at all.
and this, as we pulled into our driveway, turned out to be the lesson that everyone was searching for. the reason, beyond just the music and the fun, that we do this. it is to remain dynamic, to let our experiences shape us, to not fall carelessly into the comforting mores of habit, to truly, viscerally, be affected by our lives, our experiences, our surroundings. for otherwise, what’s the point?
do not squander a moment, dear reader. life beckons in mysterious ways.
– fancy kerrigan