FROM THE ARCHIVES, April 10 - This originally posted on sammcpheeters.com, 4/3/06.
The city of Norwalk is located in the seat of north Ohio's Huron County, a region seeped in small town Midwest fiber but still only an hour from the bright lights of Cleveland. Although the town took some lumps in the 1970’s for spawning the Norwalk virus – a nasty infection transmitted by fecal-oral contact – it is also home to the International Hot Rod Association, and is renowned for the stately maples planted along its Main Street in 1830. Neighboring Milan is the birthplace of Thomas Edison. It is not hard to imagine that, after electricity, the area has changed little in the last century. As of the 2000 census, Norwalk’s population stood at 16,238, enough people to fit comfortably in L.A.’s Staples Center.
In July 2000, I found myself in Norwalk after the summer tour of Men’s Recovery Project had gone terribly wrong. In San Francisco, our bassist quit three shows into a three week journey. The surviving members – guitarist Neil Burke, drummer Grant Mudge and myself –managed to recruit a replacement (Towel’s John Michaels), teach him the set, enlist his van, build a loft and retaining wall and arrange for insurance and new tires, but there was still the matter of driving from California to Indiana to salvage as many dates as possible. John had been planning to move to the east coast anyway, so in addition to holding our merchandise, luggage, sleeping bags, and equipment, his van – a 1979 Ford E-150 Econoline affectionately dubbed "Angel Eyes" and "Angie" – would need to haul all of John’s worldly possessions, including several hundred pounds of science fiction paperbacks and physics texts. Under the cramped back bench we established a reference section and raced east.
This meant a fantastic amount of weight on an engine and suspension running for three days at full speed for over two thousand miles. Approaching Cleveland, Angie whimpered and died at a rest stop just north of Norwalk. Some helpful locals gave the band a ride to the club, where I promptly split the cartilage in one knee, ending any hope of walking for the rest of tour. The locals donated a pair of mismatched crutches and allowed Mudge and I to sleep on the floor of the club. A drunk Burke and Michaels were returned to Norwalk by a 19-year old. When we reunited in the morning, our prognosis was grim. A mechanic had pronounced the carburetor cracked, and all we could do was wait for another. The band was hemorrhaging cash.
We retreated by cab to Milan, a town whose name is pronounced less like the European fashion capital than the layer of insulating fat that surrounds the brain’s neural sheath. Milan did not have the cosmopolitan glamour of Norwalk. I withdrew my last $40 from an ATM, and further withdrew into the depression of an Econolodge room. My notes on this day are sparse. At some point I watched a VH1 documentary on U2. The following morning, we moved to a cheaper room at the nearby Royal Motel. At some point I watched all of VH1’s “Bad Boys Of Rock” special.
Since I was effectively confined to bed, my understanding of that Tuesday’s events have a "Rashomon" feel. Mudge tells me he swam in a neighboring motel’s pool and “had a really nice evening” at the local Glass House Bar. Michaels and Burke bought a six pack and took a long walk through what John calls the "netherworld of pavement" linking the little stretch of motels, fast food joints and convenience stores that seemed a poor homage to a world class inventor. All agreed that Neil’s attitude was quickly deteriorating.
Sometime after 9pm, Burke and Michaels realized they had come full circle, arriving back at the Wendy’s opposite our motel’s parking lot. Although the restaurant had closed for the night, a live human still manned the drive-through. The men politely requested provisions, and were just as politely rebuffed. Here was our predicament laid bare. One needs a vehicle to eat. At this point, John recounts, Neil got “all agro.” Words were exchanged. A beer was smashed to the ground in anger.
At that moment, Mudge was being interrogated by a Milan police officer at a nearby phone booth. "We don't have many people use this pay phone,” the cop explained, reading Grant’s ID into his radio. A curious reply came from Milan Dispatch. “Drunk long haired suspect,” a voice crackled. “He's opening another beer and running now.” From his vantage point, Grant realized he could just make out two figures running from the Wendy’s window to our motel room. The revived policeman hurriedly thrust back the drivers license. “Today’s your lucky day.”
Milan takes civil unrest seriously. Five police cars materialized to subdue Burke, who had descended through the Three Stages Of Crapulence from pissy to pissed to pissing. As Mudge later recounted in a private email, there was “no resistance of arrest, just a broken man in a bad way who didn't have an actual automobile to get a potato at the strictly enforced drive-thru-only and couldn't take another ‘no’ on a tour riddled with negation.” An MPD cruiser tailed M.R.P.'s unemployed rhythm section on the four mile walk to the city jail. $65 of the band's remaining $180 paid for bail, and the desk officer kindly returned the remaining half of the six pack. Burke remained defiant. “The least they could have done was refrigerate it.”
The next morning we caught a taxi back into Norwalk. The van still wasn't ready. At the library, Mudge asked if the town needed any more drummers. "We have our fill," the librarian responded coldly, perhaps making a pun at our expense. I searched the web for signs of hope. The day before, a Concorde had crashed in flames just outside Paris, killing 113 people and providing our downtime with appropriate visuals. Only after an hour of aimless browsing did I realize that Neil had loaded the adjacent public computer with explicit porn. Norwalk would feel his wrath.
I hobbled to The Invention, Norwalk’s Thomas Edison themed diner. To kill time, I asked about Lorain, Cleveland suburb and my and Angie’s birthplace. “They’ve got a lot of Ukrainians,” one waitress offered. “A good place to go if you want to get shot,” said another, having none of our big town ways. All we could do was wait, and ignore an obvious mathematical truth: the band might not have enough cash for another motel. “If the movie theatre weren't deadbolted and for sale,” Mudge confided in another email, “the marquee says I could go see ‘The Patriot.’”
Mild misfortune requires a punch line. The afternoon's triumph of a working van was neatly mirrored by the evening's failure, when Angie conked out in Philadelphia, four blocks from the club. The next morning, Greyhound delivered me to Albany, New York. The city I had left as an idealistic teenager greeted a bitter 30-year old man - broke, sleepless and unwashed, on mismatched crutches, badly disguised by a ripped cowboy shirt and old-timey mustache.
The van was eventually revived and broke down again in front of the Smiles II Go Go Bar in Ledgewood, New Jersey. Over beers, Michaels met a helpful stranger who suggested he check the spark plugs. Sure enough, one was loose. John screwed it back in and "nothing ever happened again".
This story has more than one possible villain: the disloyal first bassist, the deceitful mechanic, the wanton spark plug. But all along Neil has assumed primary role as Not The Hero Of Norwalk. Would he, I recently asked, acknowledge this role? “I wasn’t looking for trouble,” Neil said evasively, seeing himself as the Rambo of Norwalk, a long haired but innocent stranger harassed in a small town. I pressed the matter, reassuring him that I dredged old memories in the service of truth.
“That’s the truth?" he exploded. It was as if the last six years of healing had been a hazy dream.
“That’s the truth? Dragging a man down into the sewer and calling it truth?”