City Paper is not for tourists
On tour theonly thing you can count on is constant low-grade discomfort. Some shows are great, some are awful. Sometimes you sleep on a nice couch or even a guest bed, and sometimes you zip yourself into your sleeping bag so you can’t smell the floor you’re sleeping on. Sometimes you play in clubs with green rooms, and sometimes there are piles of dirty mattresses being used to sop up a foot of putrid standing water in the basement show. Unless your band gets lucky fast or perseveres for years and gets lucky, you stay on that circuit indefinitely. A person can tire of it. But not everyone does. I first participated in the bizarre, self-destructive ritual known as touring 10 years ago and haven’t lost my taste for it yet.
We were putting the finishing touches on our tour schedule around the time of the presidential inauguration, when over 200 people were arrested for being in the proximity of a protest (and are now facing decades in prison). I wondered what our travels would be like in this new era. In D.C., it’s a given that music scenes are political. Benefit shows are the norm, and bands are held to a high standard when it comes to calling out injustice. My band Hand Grenade Job has never encountered hostility about the stands we take.
I wondered how we would be received elsewhere, performing in front of our neon “UNGOVERNABLE” sign. I wondered if the election would have already made tangible changes in show spaces around the country. What I found was the election changed nothing about touring. My ability to openly express my ideas was not affected or threatened. It’s actually funny that I wondered about it—not because it’s impossible that people like me might encounter censorship, but because I’m now imagining the pearl-clutching that would have ensued had I come home with a story about that.
Speech has implicit protections based on who is speaking, too. It can be more dangerous to be a young black man on the campus of the University of Maryland than it is to be a white woman in Louisiana singing a song about hexing killer cops. The freedom to live without white nationalist terror, to name just one example, should be at least as fervently protected as my right to sing those songs.
And sing those songs I did. And though formal or informal censorship was not among them, a lot of strange and unexpected things did happen. I documented them carefully for your reading pleasure.
Feb. 26, 2017: Athens, Georgia, at Cookie Road with Deep State and Pansy
I’m surprised to be excited to play, because I used to be so nervous. But beta blockers are magic, and now that I love performing, I crave long sets and new audiences. Paula Martinez, a local artist, made us the neon “UNGOVERNABLE” sign, and though it’s about 1’ x 6’, we brought it in the van. I can’t wait to light up the sign and talk about being ungovernable.
In the middle of our set, after “The True Story of the Monster of the Potomac,” a guy in the audience yells out that he’s from Southeast D.C., quickly adding, “It’s awful.” I ask where he went to high school. He says Chavez, and we launch into a public conversation about the changing landscape of Anacostia. When it seems like we’re losing the crowd, I recoup by asking if anyone present had a good experience in high school. A few people did, and I ask them to leave.
I spent most of last year living on the behavioral health unit of a research hospital. Consequently, I don’t take my freedom for granted, and mostly, I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m crazy. So on this first day of tour, I am feeling a special kind of freedom. When we play, I want to wild out. My social anxiety is better than it used to be, because I just walk away from situations I don’t want to be in, or alienate people with my honesty.
After this band plays, we will figure out sleeping. I’ll wash my face and drink some NyQuil. I’ll make a bed for myself on the floor.
March 1, 2017: New Orleans, Louisiana, at Sisters in Christ with Kalvin
We are staying with my friends Adrienne and Dan, who publish the local alt-alt-monthly, Antigravity Magazine, and live out in the suburbs in Gretna. I’m on the verge of tears since we got here even though this is the city where I have the most friends—the sweetest, most loving, generous-of-heart friends. My neck pain is bad, and I haven’t yet figured out the most effective balance of medications—how to quell the pain but not get too drugged and drowsy. I’m not maxed out on Gabapentin yet but inching up toward that.
Our show is at my friend Bryan’s record store. We set up the sign and Bryan sets up chairs. Three black trans women have been murdered in Louisiana in the past week: Ciara McElveen, Chyna Doll Dupree, Jaquarrius Holland. Stolen lives. We write their names on candles and place them on an altar in front of my amp. Every night I make an altar. Life is an accumulation of rituals.
March 5, 2017: Durham, N.C., at The Pinhook with Truthers and Priests
I was in a car accident in August and suffered brain, back, and neck injuries, which have largely defined my life ever since, particularly in that I have a constant, low-grade migraine. It was an unmanageably intense migraine, but then I had some success mitigating it with Gabapentin, lidocaine injections, and Botox injections. Still, it disables me significantly.
Sometimes the migraine spikes and renders me totally unable to do anything. It’s unclear what the triggers are. On this drive, it came back sudden and hard. Perhaps it was from a week of poor sleep, or allergies, or just all the recent new and unusual activities of touring. My skeleton wanted to escape from my body, and the pain was so bad I felt like I was going to throw up. We pull over and I decide to take the maximum allowed amount of the medications I’m prescribed for breakthrough pain. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to have to find a hospital. After 10 minutes—fast because I always take part of my medications sublingually—I start feeling some relief, and the rest of the drive is an over-medicated blur of trying to keep my energy up for playing.
I’m perspiring heavily during our set and can’t quite help from speeding up songs or rambling between them, but I’m proud to have gotten through, and the crowd response is positive. We sell more tapes and shirts than usual. My bandmate Erin and our roadie Dee do shots with Priests because it’s their drummer Daniele’s birthday.
My meds start to wear off. First, I’m tired, then suddenly I’m suffering. The lights and sound are swirling. I stand with my head against a pole and a cup of water on my head, waiting for people to be ready to leave. Then I sit on a couch and try to use my hands to block out all light and noise. When we get back to my friend’s house, I’m pretty well fucked up. My friend slowly administers lidocaine shots to my face, neck, and trapezius. By 3 a.m., I can finally fall asleep.
Erin wakes me up three hours later to drive home. We’re supposed to leave again six days later, to tour for two weeks to Austin and back. But that doesn’t go as planned.
March 6, 2017: Returning Home to Takoma Park
In order to afford these two months of on-and-off touring, I found a subletter for my room in Mount Pleasant. When Erin and I were initially planning these tours, I asked if I could crash with her and her family in Petworth between trips. I’d also had vague notions about visiting friends in nearby cities during the intervening periods. But as my home base, I’d designated the apartment in Takoma Park where my father and stepmother live.
That’s where Erin dropped me off around noon, my world a blur of nausea and pain, slightly deadened by Tramadol’s fog of dull confusion. Tramadol is a synthetic opiate, the strongest medication I’m prescribed for breakthrough pain. It only sort of works: It makes the pain a little more distant, but in return it makes me muddled and sleepy. You couldn’t call it relief.
Dragging this fog behind me, I go upstairs and sleep all day and through the night.
March 9, 2017: Erin’s Big News
Erin tells me she can’t go on tour. Circumstances in her life have abruptly changed, and with them, her priorities. She says I’m welcome to go without her.
Tour is in three days.
My head is spinning. It feels like I’m watching a movie, a dark comedy where everything that can go wrong does. The world is full of little trapdoors. This past year I keep finding them and falling through, to alternate realities where things are slightly harder, a funhouse mirror world. The absurdity makes me want to laugh and laugh, little releases to relieve the pressure that’s building up into one long scream that might never stop.
I literally cannot imagine not going on this tour.
March 12, 2017: Richmond, Va. at Gallery 5 with Magnus Lush and Bad Magic
I try to stay relaxed as I set up. I took notes during my solo practices, and I refer to them on stage, even as people start paying attention. I open with “The Name,” and I can feel from the audience that it was the right choice, picking up vibes that the song is functioning as a prayer for attention.
There are a couple low points. It seems like “July” doesn’t work as well as I’d hoped solo, though it’s hard to gauge in the moment. I accidentally delete the guitar part I set up to loop in accompaniment to my autoharp for “New Year,” and need to start over. The biggest flop is in “Jupiter,” which I intended to be the denouement of the set. The live-looped crescendo generates unintended feedback at an ear-shattering frequency.
For the first time in my career as a musician, I just stop playing the song. “You know… this just doesn’t feel fair to either of us,” I tell the audience, who react amicably enough. To further garner sympathy, I share that this is my first solo set, the disclosure earning me a smattering of applause. Mind racing, I settle on an a capella cover of the Hatebreed tune “Driven by Suffering.” It isn’t my best work—I feel like I’m doing karaoke—but it closes the set.
March 17, 2017: Dallas, Texas at NSFWeekend with True Widow, Thou, and Aseethe
I drove 10 hours yesterday, six today. I gotta get into the kill zone, pure discipline and focus, taut. It’s not difficult to do this when you approach challenges with total commitment, when you’re totally committed to yourself. I’m like an athlete if the sport is straddling chaos like a bucking bronco.
When I hit traffic just over the Louisiana/Texas border, I freak out because it pushes my ETA back an hour. I have no time to spare. GPS tells me there’s a faster route if I bail on the highway, get off at the next exit, and take the service road past the congestion. I’m not the only one with this idea, and I see cars pull off over the median onto the road that runs parallel to the highway. After 15 or so minutes of deliberation, I decide to do this too.
In other words, I intentionally drive into a ditch. And get stuck. My wheels spin in the mud. I hadn’t realized the median was muddy and hadn’t considered that my car (a 2002 VW Golf) is unusually low. Fuck.
I get out of the car to evaluate the situation. Because my air conditioning is broken, I’ve been driving in a sports bra and short shorts. Because I’m sexy and stylish, I’m wearing platform jellies. It is in this garb that I get behind my vehicle and attempt to push it. Shockingly, my attempts are unsuccessful. Aware that I’m running down the clock and that my options are limited, I set out down the shoulder of the highway. Without donning additional clothing. It’s hot as fuck. I receive the honks and catcalls I’m expecting, but I’m practiced at ignoring and resisting harassment.
A white pickup truck is pulled over onto the shoulder a ways up. I walk the shoulder and see the truck is packed with five men. “Hi,” I say. “My car is stuck back there.” “We saw,” the driver says, “that’s why we pulled over.” I’m touched. They all get out of their car and we walk down the highway together. The driver’s name is Pedro. We get to my car and try to push it together, first with the car in neutral then with me inside giving it gas. It’s no use.
We contemplate them pushing my car out with their truck, but ultimately agree the risk is too great that their truck will also get stuck. During another failed attempt to push, a larger pickup truck pulls over onto the service road. It has a Confederate flag bumper sticker and I’m thinking “Oh no.” The dude gets out and looks about like what you’d expect. He quickly grabs chains and comes over to evaluate the situation. He’s all business. I show him my hitch and we attach the chain to his truck. I get in and steer as he pulls, and just like that I’m on the service road. We all cheer.
I get out and try to give them all a little money. They refuse and the white dude with the Confederate flag truck says “I’m just glad I got here before the cops.” We all nod, unified by our distrust and hatred of the police. It’s a beautiful moment. I give them all HGJ tapes. They’re super impressed that I’m touring alone. I hug Pedro and hop back into my car. I make up for the lost time by driving over 100 mph to Dallas.
Reuniting with Thou is amazing. I saw Bryan on the previous tour leg, but I only saw Josh for a moment. I haven’t seen Matthew, Andy, or Mitch in a long time. My old bands Turboslut and The Gift played a ton of shows with Thou, beloved tour brothers. Getting ready to play with them again feels so natural. We go to a vegan diner. I’m freaking out and talking way too much, way too fast. I drink several glasses of water and let some Propranolol dissolve under my tongue.
March 25, 2017: Savannah, Georgia, at Spaceland/Starlandia with Ankle Sox, Valore, and Orthodox
Folks are slow to trickle in, but among the first are a couple from D.C., Renee and Aaron, who happened to be passing through Savannah on vacation. They’re theater folks I know from having accompanied Taffety Punk’s production of An Iliad. It’s nice to see familiar faces, and the three of us clump together, somehow the most normy (and oldest) people in the mostly vacant room. There are, generously, six people in attendance at this point, scattered throughout a room the size of the Velvet Lounge’s upstairs.
The first band is a guy named Christian performing as Ankle Sox. He plays YouTube videos through his iPhone and distorts/loops them. I’m confused by this until I remember Savannah College of Art and Design is here. At one point he just throws on an FKA Twigs song. Accidental? Not clear. Then he fucks with the restaurant orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. The set has been about 20 minutes. That was a cool set, I think. Then he plays for another 25.
The next performer takes the stage, a white woman with long, fine blond hair, who looks like she is either 19 or 40 (nothing in between). She is wearing a gray hoodie with big pom-poms hanging from the zipper pull, hoop earrings also with pom-poms, a black T-shirt with a picture of Paris Hilton on it, pants that are the shape of JNCOs but the texture of yoga pants, and teal sneakers: an ambiguous, enigmatic visual brand.
She introduces herself as Valore. A pre-recorded beat plays and she begins to rap. It’s a song about positivity and self-love. Valore isn’t rapping in affected African-American Vernacular English. The songs flow one into the other because the tracks are being played from an iPhone playlist, so anytime Valore wants to talk between songs she has to rush because the next one is already starting. Many of the songs feature the words “intricate” and “succulent.” Her stage presence and physical movements are reminiscent of Jonathan Davis from KoRn: lots of moody crouching and menacing or sullen gazes through hair. With each song, she slips further into AAVE. Five songs into her set, I notice that half the audience has left.
Valore announces that the next song is called “Gritty Marsha Brady.” The most memorable lyrics are:
Call me Marsha BradyMarsha, Marsha, MarshaAnd that is Marsha with an S-H-A,Fuck the CIA,Kill your fucking phone
There is also a brief and startlingly graphic song about being raped, another song critical of having an iPhone, and a song about smoking weed. There is a song about hanging out in Southern towns, smoking weed, and feeling targeted and profiled by the police for being an artist. Another song begins:
I pledge allegiance To the flagOf the United States of Corruption
The set runs about 45 minutes. The booker does not intervene, nor does he spend the whole set inside. By the conclusion of her set, the audience is down to four. Valore and her boyfriend leave afterward. They do not return.
April 10, 2017: Providence, R.I., at AS220 with Gauche, Iris Creamer, and Funeral Cone
During Gauche, I’m sitting at my table drinking what would technically be the glass of redemption when an oogle approaches. He seems drunk. I motion disinterestedly to indicate that I can’t hear him over the band. His response is to start screaming at the top of his lungs: “HELLO! HOW ARE YOU?” I’m embarrassed even though I’m the victim, not the perpetrator, of this encounter. His persistence is disconcerting.
I stare at him until he leaves. As soon as Gauche is done playing, he’s back. I pointedly ignore him as he fumbles through my tapes and pins. Finally he blurts out, “What’s the deal with you?” He is holding two cans of PBR tallboys. “Are those both yours?” I ask. “Yes,” he says proudly. “So what’s your deal? What are you?” Sensing this is some kind of setup or trap, I try to pivot, answering “Sun in Sagittarius, Moon in Scorpio, Virgo Rising.” He is thrown off but recovers quickly, slurring, “What’s the deal with you because you are, because I’ve never actually met a Siren before, like in real life.” I’m a little impressed at the level of his rambling.
Someone else walks up, and grateful for the distraction, I give him all my attention. It’s a tall young man, who tells me he liked my songs a lot, then asks if he can buy my tape for just a dollar. I decline to sell him my tape at less than half its cost. Then my friend Brian shows up and we launch into printer talk, discussing how relief printing ruins you for screenprinting in some ways, and discuss our current studio setups.
Mythology-oogle leaps into the conversation, eagerly telling us about his monoprint/image transfer system. I’m aghast at this twist. Why couldn’t this dude have led with that like a person instead of screaming at me like a toddler? Why are men so corny and dumb? How can I stop them from stealing my lifeforce?
April 12, 2017: Montreal, Quebec, at Brasserie Beaubien with Gauche and Jeu De Bouteille
When I see signs for the border, I get anxious. This is my first time leaving the country. Until November, I didn’t even have a passport. I pull up to the booth. A female border cop takes my passport and starts asking me questions. I’ve had enough friends tour internationally to know what to do—if asked, deny that I’m going to be playing music for money. Since I’m in a passenger vehicle, I didn’t anticipate any problems, nor did Gauche, who, because they had lots of people, gear, and merch, told me they’d prepare by printing out a “contract” from the venue.
“What is the nature of your visit?” The question I’ve been preparing for comes. The cop is unimpressed with my answer that I’m just on a road trip. She scoffs and says “it looks like you have your whole life back there or something,” gesturing at the backseat of my car. I don’t know what to say to that, so I don’t say anything. She asks what I do for a living, a question I hadn’t anticipated. I say performer, and she asks what that’s supposed to mean. I tell her I play guitar at a museum. I’m starting to realize that this whole time I’ve been worried that it would look like I was a touring band, when really the risk was looking like I was trying to move to Canada.
Finally, the cop scowls at me and tells me to pull over up. I pull over and a different cop comes over and tells me to get out of the car. I get out and sit on a nearby bench. He slowly goes through every compartment of my car, occasionally pausing to disdainfully kick something out of the way, or to ask me to identify an object.
When he gets to the backseat, he encounters the large plastic tote I use to contain toiletries, snacks, and my many various medications. Viewing this pharmacological cornucopia, the pig is startled. “Why do you have so much medication?” he asks. “Because I have illnesses,” I reply, not sure what else to answer. He looks at each bottle and asks me what each drug is and what its meant to treat, often moving onto the next bottle and question before I’ve finished answering, in case there was any doubt about whether he actually cared.
At one point he stops and asks suspiciously, “What did you say your name was again?” I tell him, he cross-checks it with the name on the label, and resumes his survey of my meds. When he’s handled each bottle, he says, “So what did you say was wrong with you?” I don’t say anything for a moment, working to manage the fury inside me, keeping my face expressionless, my voice controlled. “I have a chronic illness,” I answer, and stare into his eyes until he looks away.
My eyes are hot and wet. I’m alone. I’m not sure if my phone will work if I need to tell someone I’ve been detained, and even if it did, I don’t know who I’d call. I don’t have the phone number of the contact at the venue. Gauche is probably an hour ahead of me, with all their phones off. I feel stupid, naive, and underprepared. Then my decades of training as an anarchist kick in and I remember that stupid and alone is exactly how the State wants me to feel. And, in particular, I remind myself that my internal sense of dignity isn’t something a cop can take away from me. I remind myself that institutional power is arbitrary.
When the cop opens my trunk, I remember that I have a large metal box in there, covered in mysterious tubes and visible weld. It’s my veggie oil tank, but on one occasion a security guard mistook it for a bomb. “That’s my veggie oil tank,” I call out, but the cop doesn’t seem to notice it or care about it and ignores me. He removes every object from my trunk: my little Orange amp, my autoharp, my pedal box, and my box of cables. He quickly replaces each object in my trunk, hands me a piece of yellow paper and sends me inside the station.
A cop at a counter motions me forward. He looks exactly like Chief Wiggum, even down to the slightly lazy eye. I hand him the piece of paper and my passport. He asks me all the same questions again, and then some new ones. The cop stares at his computer screen for a while then hands my passport back. I’m confused. I almost say “Am I under arrest or am I free to go?” Damn those decades of anarchist conditioning. But before I can say it, Chief Wiggum dismisses me.
April 15, 2017: Allston, Massachusetts, at Track Shacks for Rogozo Showcase with Missing the Action, The Dingo Babies, Rogozo, Mint Green, and Elizabeth Colour Wheel
After I’m done loading in, I see a young man with long hair wearing all white, a white cape, and makeup that looks like the Hamburglar recently vomited several liters of ketchup. He is the person I’ve been in touch with about playing. Oh … good. I introduce myself, and he confirms that I’m in the right place.
While I plug in my pedals, an Alfred E. Neuman-looking dude starts harassing me. He plugs a cell phone charger right into the power strip I’m using on the stage. He keeps getting in my face, asking me over and over again if I’m a rapper, giggling maniacally. My patience threadbare, I completely ignore him. I have zero capacity to give warnings, only to knock this juvenile the fuck out. The child-looking guy doing sound is standing there uncomfortably throughout but doesn’t intervene except to weakly say to Alfred, “I think she’s busy.” He gets a phone call and wanders off.
Once I’m set up, I go use the bathroom upstairs and try to steel myself for playing. When I come back down, the basement is about half full. I inform the Hamburglar and the soundchild that I’m going to begin. I light my candles and focus on giving my all for the last set, determined to deliver, summoning my power, forming an orb of pulsing light around myself powerful enough to supercede this reality and take us into another one.
But really, I’m just trying to ignore the feeling inside me that’s berating and taunting me like “this is the culmination of all your work, look at yourself, playing in a sewer to college brats, this is where you ended up.” I take a deep breath, take my mic, and begin to sing.
As I layer the vocal loops, Alfred returns downstairs, walks to the center of the audience, and starts moshing, shoving the people around him, throwing up his hands and screaming “YEAH!!!! YEAHHHHHH!!!!” I snap. I stomp the foot switch that cuts the loop, and berate him over the mic.
“Why don’t you just leave? That way, you’ll only have ruined two minutes of the show, rather than the whole thing.” He begins to protest, putting up his hands. I shake my head. “Nope. No one will miss you. Just go. Get out of here.” I’m ready to make a blood sacrifice of this brat, right on stage, as a warning to anyone else who might dare step to me. Alfred slinks away.
Determined to go on, I hit the footswitch to resume. The crowd seems scared. I can’t tell if they approve or disapprove of my actions, and I also don’t care. I get through my a capella songs and move on to my autoharp songs. Apropos of nothing, the soundchild runs on stage and adjusts my mic stand height, lowering it to where I know I will knock into it as I strum my autoharp. “Um… okay… thanks,” I say, hoping to expedite his exit. I play my songs, knocking into the microphone every third or fourth chord.
At the end of my set I tell the audience that tonight is my last show after two months of touring. They clap.
Read the complete Hand Grenade Job tour diaries:
Beck will read selections from her tour diary tonight at 7 p.m. at Red Onion Records, 1628 U St. NW. Hand Grenade Job performs on June 26 at Atlas Brew Works with Thou, Cloud Rat, False, and Moloch at Atlas Brew Works. 2052 West Virginia Ave. NE. $15.