On the Road Again, Again, Part 2
Youngstown is next, not so far away, and we pull into town about 5, before the club is open. Sitting in the van, looking at the grimy little closed bar, we realize we have some time on our hands. What to do, what to do... There's a hard-drinking little dive bar across the street, and it’s open, so that was easy. The last time we walked into a random across-the-street-bar we wound up, open-mouthed, in front of the Country Rockers. This time we wind up in a regular dim beer-light smokey bar with a juke box and a dozen John Deer hats drinking Budweiser bottles. No band, no stage, just a cruddy-looking Rockola in the corner playing country music, the sanitized kind, miles away from the weird, off-key yodeling of the Country Rockers, or the demented mess kicked up by Jon Wayne. So we kind of stand there a minute, wondering. Do we want to hang out here and put up with the mainstream country and the John Deer hats staring at the Hawaiian Punch hats? The answer is of course YES, let’s have a cocktail and settle in with our soon-to-be best friends!
We order some drinks and see what can be done with the juke box. Well, it's all country, mostly the cheesy stuff, but lookie here, they have "You Never Called Me By My Name" by David Allen Coe, and some George Jones, he always gets it right, and a few one-off random or local items, placed here either by a local radio station or by the bands themselves -- this one here, "Walleye" by a bunch of up-and-comers called the Hula Poppers, this one could be good. All told the NDI invests close to three dollars in quarters and retires to the bar for a well-deserved round of Rusty Nails, the official cocktail of the East Coast Trip.
Of course the bartender, a wiry old dude with a one of those long braided Vietnam veteran beards, of course he says "So what's with the hats?" and we tell him we're a band, being truthful for no good reason, and he goes "What kind of music do y'all play?" and we all go "Woo!" Another running joke, the best way so far to describe our act, always shouted in unison. Half of the words out of our mouths lately are in unison, or a lie, or a lie in unison. Bartender dude takes that at face value, he’s a little hyper, but we are free to hang out at this increasingly comfortable bar, bullshitting with the locals.
We learn that Youngstown, Ohio, is "Murder City, USA." The bartender tells us this with pride. This neighborhood looks pretty calm, but according to him it's a war zone. “Wanna see my insurance policy?” he asks us. He seems a bit mental. Then suddenly he’s got a fucking Uzi in his hand. He’s waving it around the bar. “Motherfuckers come in here, Murder City motherfuckers, we’ll see who lives in Murder City!” Not making sense. “Cool gun,” we say, and eventually he calms down and puts it away.
We order another round of Rusty Nails and listen to some too-smooth country, and then the Hula Poppers song comes on, "Walleye." It's actually "Rawhide," only with new lyrics about fishing: "Trollin' trollin trollin', walleye!" "Don't try to understand 'em, just reel em in and land em," and so on. Pretty funny, at least to us, but then in the middle of a verse the song begins to die. The Rockola has lost power and the turntable is stopping, but for unknown reasons the speakers still work. The song slows down comically, trollin trollinn trollllinnnnn... and stops. An odd silence descends upon the bar. "Goddammit" says the bartender. He lurches out from behind the bar to the jukebox, and exactly like the Fonz on Happy Days he smacks the jukebox on the side, and it starts playing again, revving up from zero, woarwoarwoar… and now it's playing the "Walleye" song again, only backwards. It sounds like Satan’s jug band. Everyone stops talking for a moment, and then the room kind of shrugs and goes back to its drinking. So we sit there in Murder City USA, Skipper, Pigtail, Goodtime, sipping our Rusty Nails while everyone else drinks beer, listening to "Walleye" by the Hula Poppers playing backwards, and it doesn't even feel all that strange. Everything was already strange enough.
Presently it grows dark. We watch the club across the street for signs of life, for a light going on or a car in the parking lot, but evidently this is a late-minded place. When the boogers finally do show up we have to hurry to get the entire NDI stage extravaganza loaded in and set up and ready to go, and we blast through a pretty pyroclastic set for 35 people, knock ‘em back on their heels, overpowered by the NDI tidal wave of entertainment. They're here for the headlining band, but the headlining band is an all-cover deal called The Dive Kings and oh my lord, they're old, but not in a good Country Rockers kind of way, just five balding dudes with big bellies, wearing jeans and t-shirts, playing “Mustang Sally” and “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and assorted other tired old shit. When the show is over people wander out into the night, clutching the plastic skeleton hand necklaces GT handed them during the set, or an NDI record they just bought, or wearing a "Pigtail's Pig Parts" t-shirt. We make $75, most of which we immediately give back for the bar tab, but it feels like success. There's a nice live feeling in the place. We steam away, laughing and full of power.
The next day, before we are on the road for even an hour, a deer hits our van. GT is driving, and in the misty morning, in the endless hills of Pennsylvania, a doe emerges from the brush, ignores the warning signs, and bolts into the 70-mph highway traffic. It runs full force into the side of our vehicle. It's disturbing and violent and not at all funny: the cars behind us trample the doomed animal and we cruise on, sober and reflective. The highway is no joke.