Monday, February 8, 2010

I Remember My First Day...

May 4, 1996.

I can't really recall how I got to Dave's house, but I got there. I brought one of my brother's old hockey bag's as my suitcase and my horn. That was it. I remember pulling in to Dave's driveway and seeing the van sitting there. We had just bought it for about $2500. It was a 1986 grey 15 passenger van. Red, vinyl seats, an AM radio...dial, not digital, no air conditioner and about 60,000+ miles on it. This vessel was about to take us on our first tour of these United States. And I was STOKED! This is what I always wanted. I couldn't wait to get out of this shitty state where I had lived my whole life and see what laid beyond it's borders.

We didn't have a trailer because we couldn't afford one, so we packed all the gear, all the bags, and all of us into the van and got ready to back out of the driveway. I remember Dave's dad standing out in the driveway waving goodbye. He had this look on his face that I could never properly describe: it was a look of concern, blended with fear, confusion and just a little bit of disgust. It never quite sat properly to me, especially since I was sitting shotgun. We waved goodbye and pulled down the street and headed towards the highway.

This was it, man!

Mike took that left and we were off! This was great! The open road! It really was a beautiful spring afternoon. We were all laughing, telling jokes, singing along to whatever song we could tune into on the AM dial. This was AWESOME! Destination: Wilmington, NC. The Mad Monk. That's where we were meeting The Toasters to start our first national tour in support of our new record. We were living the dream, man!

We were moving along great, but, as anyone who has driven in the northeast can tell you, we suddenly hit traffic. Out of nowhere. As a newer driver (I was 18 at the time) one of my newest pet peeves is other people driving. Especially when they tailgate, break fast and stop short. I didn't realize just how nervous this made me until right at this moment. We were carrying a lot of weight and when Mike hit the breaks, we didn't quite stop when we were supposed to. Up to this point I was feeling so care-free and awesome, I had my foot on the dashboard just chillin'. We stopped so fast that I nervously pressed my foot against the windshield and cracked it as we came to a screeching hault. It got deadly quiet. Everyone looked at the crack, then looked at me. Shit. Was this some sort of sign? We're not even 20 miles from where we started and we already cracked the wind shield? This can't be good.

It was about to get worse.

We were in stop and go traffic all the way into New York. This, apparently, isn't very good for your engine. For the record, some other things that are not good for your engine are bad fuel filters. Another bad thing for your engine is carrying a group of 18-22 year olds that have no idea how to take care of an engine or know how to figure out that it has a bad fuel filter on it.

As we were approaching the George Washington Bridge, the van begins to buck. You would feel the engine rev up, then stop, like it wasn't getting fuel. It did this about 4 times then....nothing. The engine is dead. Stalled out. It's 5pm on a Friday. We're about 300 yards from the GW Bridge and the engine is NOT starting. To say the stress level increased would be the understatement of a lifetime. I'm pretty sure the idea of getting out of the van was thrown around, but with all the horns blaring and middle fingers we were getting from motorists trapped behind us, we figured it would be a better choice to stay in the van. People outside the van were pissed. People inside the van were pissed. So we just sat there for what seemed like an eternity. Silently.

Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe we should go home. We're not that far. But just as those thoughts seemed like the right thing to do, Mike turned the key and the van started. Whether we kept going or turned around, we had to go over the bridge. We saw a sign for a service plaza...more specifically the Vince Lombardi Service Plaza. We could stop there and "check it out!" My only experience with cars was from what my father had told me: Check the fluids, change the fluids, bring it to a mechanic! My first thought was maybe there was condensation in the gas line. Now how ridiculous does that sound? Sounded valid, I thought. I think my dad had said dry gas would fix it. So I bought a shitload of fluids: transmission fluid, engine coolant, dry gas (which is a gas additive), and an air freshener because then van already smelled like shit.

I called Dave over and handed him the fluids and said "Hey man, I'm gonna grab a bite to eat. Put a bottle of the dry gas into the gas tank. Maybe it will help." He says OK and heads out to the van. I grab a burger and head back out. Dave comes walking up to me looking a little crazy. I noticed he was holding two small bottles. He holds one bottle up and says, "Pete, look at this bottle." Quickly he puts it down and holds up the other bottle; "Now, look at this bottle!"

"OK, Dave. What about the bottles." He looks at me and says "The bottles! They look EXACTLY the same, right?" I replied, "Yes, Dave, They do...except for the fact that one says DRY GAS and one says AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION FLUID. Why are you showing me this?"

If you didn't figure it out yet, don't worry. Neither did I. Apparently, he put a bottle of transmission fluid into the gas tank. What a fucking nightmare. We probably should have followed our instincts and headed home, but after talking to a mechanic two bottles of dry gas would neutralize the transmission fluid. Remember that the next time YOU pour transmission fluid in your gas tank. We had the mechanic take a look at the van. He was a nice guy and he didn't charge us anything to take a look. He said he didn't see anything wrong and it was "probably condensation in the gas tank." Yes!! I was right! But I wasn't right.

As we pulled away, there was still a lot of tension, but we laughed about it. That was the only way we dealt with any kind of adversity: laugh at it. As we continued down I-95 and hit the Jersey Turnpike, we again felt that familiar buck-buck-buck before the van stalled out on the highway. This happened every hour or so on the normal 12 hour drive from CT to NC. We'd have to pull off on the side of the highway and wait about 30 minutes until the van would start up again. By the end of that week, we would have spent well over $1,000 trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with the van.

Fuckin Fuel Filter. Son of a bitch!

We made it to the show, though. And made it through the entire tour. By the end of it, we were convinced we were bullet proof. In most cases, if you're a band and you can make it through your first national tour without any fist fights, accidents or breaking up, you can pretty much do anything.

I was just at Mike's house last night and we were talking about this first day of tour and how we all wanted to murder that van. The same van we named "Jolene". The same van we sat outside of in the sun waiting to cool down so we could drive. The van we penned the song "Jolene" about and the same van we used in the video we shot for that song. Funny side note, we filmed that video in New York City and had to drive Jolene one last time back and forth. The entire drive back, the van was bucking in it's oh too familiar way. Mike pulled it into his driveway, jumped out of the van and just then the engine started steaming. It was like reliving the nightmare all over. He ran into the house and turned the TV on to try to forget about it. We eventually sold that pile of shit to a church. Their problem now. And probably one of the many reason's bad luck seemed to follow us.

When we got in that van to tour all we had was a road atlas, a beeper, calling card and the 7 of us. No cell phone, laptop, internet card, blackberry or directions to the first venue. We just got in the van and left. No more planning than that. It seemed so pure, in retrospect. It seemed so terrifying when it was happening, but at the same time it felt right. Now a days when I'm on the tour bus, surfing the web and microwaving some nacho's, I think back to that first day. My life now was a dream that became a reality. I never lose sight of what I have been afforded and how lucky I am. Those early day were important. We all start somewhere and we are all "green" at some point. What was your first day like?


  1. Great blog article, JR. Did you guys play Philly on that tour? I remember seeing you guys with the Toasters and MU330 and I'm pretty sure it was that year.

    So stoked for a SHJ reunion.

  2. First day was a nightmare, maybe not as bad as Jolene, but for a wetback like me, it was terrifying. I play drums in New Brunswick, NJ based Jerk City. Our first time out on the road was pretty short, but still the most exciting time of my life.
    We were doing an east coast run starting in Covington, KY, making our way through PA and up to VT, then plowing down to FL and back. Total time out was just about a month. We borrowed a trailer from our friends in Years Spent Cold, as we were in no position to buy one ourselves. In the two months before we were supposed to be leaving, we looked everywhere for a decent van that would get us from A to B and that we could afford. Somehow we managed to pick one up from south-Jersey's I Call Fives for $300. Seemed like a good idea at the time. It needed some minor engine work and a new tire, but wound up only being about $600 to make drive-able.

    The day we were leaving we decided to pack up and leave New Bruns around 2 in the morning, drive in shifts all night and get to KY a few hours before the show. I took first shift driving and within an hour, we hit the hills of PA on I-80. That first up-hill battle with this van's engine was brutal. It was a 92 dodge ram van (the one's with the rotating seats in the middle). I'm driving on I-80 and go to hit the first hill doing about 75. It wasn't a very steep hill, and it wasn't very long, but we wound up dropping from 75 to 30 in about 5 seconds. I had the gas completely floored as we slowed to 25, 15, 10, and by some miracle made it to the top of the hill. My instincts were telling me that this was a horrible idea, and that we were going to wind up getting stuck in the boondocks of PA somewhere deep in the woods with no town around for miles. Everyone else was saying to just push it and that we could make it, and we did. But it was a great learning experience figuring out when you have an old van pulling a trailer, and you need to tackle hills, you have to use the ol' "accelerate to as fast as possible on the downhill in order to make the uphill" trick haha.

    We made it through the whole tour without a hitch and it was the greatest experience of my life, except for the part where we all got arrested 4 hours away from home in VA for having an empty ziplock bag with "suspicious white residue in it". None of us did hard drugs. I think it was from a donut. We were 4 hours away from home, and our van got impounded and torn apart by a K-9 unit (the dog also bit me in the face, twice) and we sat in jail for about 9 hours. My parents wound up driving down to bail us all out. The charges got dropped when the tests on the bag were inconclusive, but still. One of the worst days of my life.