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Hand Grenade Job was on tour in the great American South and Northeast over the past two months. Over the course of the tour, HGJ’s Beck Levy chronicled her experiences on the road. After the first leg concluded, she came home for a short break before heading back on the road. Read previous entries here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
March 26, 2017: Charlotte, NC at Snug Harbor with El Malpais and Ghost Trees
After four hours of restless sleep, I am awakened at 7 a.m. because, in this half empty motel, I have been placed in the room adjacent to the laundry room, and the morning shift has arrived. I pack up and go outside. I’m congested from the smokey, damp room. My face feels numb and heavy. I put all my belongings in my car and return my key. I make an effort to get a refund, arguing that I’ve just paid the motel to exhaust and sicken me. The manager yells at me for a while, then gives me $12. I celebrate by taking myself out to Waffle House. I order coffee, orange juice, and hash browns (smothered, diced, and capped). I’m feeling polluted by the motel and disheartened by my past two performances. My nervous set in Gainesville, the creepy old man there. Playing to no one in Savannah, being exposed to Georgia’s own off-brand Iggy Azalea. Weariness is setting in. I feel fatigued from doing this all alone, my muscles ache like I’ve actually been pushing the car across the country, this endeavor feels Sisyphean. All I want is to deliver a great performance for my last show. And for my car to make it to Charlotte. And for my car to make it to D.C. And for the repair to be inexpensive. I guess I want a lot of things.
Perhaps it’s from my defeated demeanor, maybe because I’m excessively polite, maybe because I’m dirty and disheveled; or perhaps out of the goodness of her heart—the waitress finds a coupon in her apron and applies it to my order. At the end of the meal, I still have half my paltry discount from the gross motel. It’s a small victory, but I need a victory, so I try to brighten my whole being with it.
My show today is a matinee, which doesn’t leave me with much time to spare, but the drive is just four hours. It’s raining when I get to Charlotte. I load in, then sit in my car trying to muster energy and enthusiasm by putting on makeup. I’m still chilling in my car, watching the rain, eating cheerios, and generally looking like a recently-fired drag queen, when there’s a knock on my window. It’s the sound guy, who is friendly and looks amused at my appearance and activity. I roll down the window and try to tell him what my tech needs are, but my tired tongue ends up releasing nothing but an avalanche of spoonerisms and misnomers.
Inside, I set up my merch table, burning the Law Stay Away candle from New Orleans. I set up on stage too, my little amp an altar offering whatever’s left of me to the club, a sky burial, site for my sacrament, prayers go nowhere but up, this can’t be rock bottom. It’s possible that I’m delirious. I’m seeking omens in everything around me: the guitarist in the headlining band has an Orange amp too, the drummer in the opening band has a Gretsch kit. These are my preferred manufacturers of instruments. Bursting with excitement at these signs the universe has provided unto me, I approach the drummer about our mutual fondness for and brand loyalty to Gretsch. “They’re headquartered in South Carolina,” he tells me, “actually someone from corporate might be coming to the show today.” “Hell yeah!” I scream, “Let’s get sponsored!” We high-five and I sit back down at the merch table, vindicated in all my decisions.
The bar fills up, it’s a miscellaneous but mostly middle-aged crowd, and it’s not clear to me who is there for the show and who is there to hang out at a bar and watch the game (it’s sports, I don’t know, basketball?). To give you a sense of how middle-aged and normy this crowd is: I overheard a conversation about the inconveniences of eminent domain upon local real estate holdings. I want to scream “PLEASE GIVE ME MONEY!” but instead I sit and sip water, humming quietly to loosen up those vocal chords.
The crowd isn’t uniformly basic, though, the weirdos are starting to creep in. First there’s a beautiful woman in blue cowboy boots and a peacock headdress, who I (correctly) assume is the frontwoman of El Malpais. Then there are some mall goth/rockabilly types, including a man whose vest is adorned with a “Less Talk, Suck My Cock” backpatch. I Google if that’s a specific GG Allin reference but it doesn’t seem like it is, at least not explicitly.
At one point, an older man dressed as a clown, in full clown makeup, wanders in, accompanied by a glum child. Nobody acts like this is unusual. I tell myself there’s probably a child’s birthday party happening on the outside patio…of this bar…in the rain. I am not hallucinating. Just as I’m trying to adjust myself to the idea of performing for a clown, he departs, and does not return.
Ghost Trees finishes setting up on the floor in front of the stage—reminding me of all the other bands I’ve seen do this over the years (Shitstorm, Lightning Bolt, An Alarm)—and unleashes furious free jazz. The sax player and drummer are tight, totally in sync with each other, and yet totally frenetic. My jazz fusion lexicon is limited (basically to Weather Report), so the references coming up for me are Jim White (probably my favorite living drummer) and John Zorn. The volume and energy makes it impossible for me to hear my own shitty thoughts. I’m blissed out by the end, and humbled to follow such superb musicianship.
While I’m on stage getting ready to play, I hear a smattering of applause. Could it be that people are excited to hear me play? I look up. No, something favorable has happened in basketball. That’s all. My actions are betraying my exhaustion: failing to supply my pedalboard with power, attempting to tune a guitar with no cables, assuming an outlet is broken when it’s simply not turned on. I light some palo santo, drink some water, and try to go over my mantras: take your time. Enjoy this. Don’t think. During my first song, my limbs respond to commands in slow motion. During my second song, “Move Away,” I catch myself nodding off between notes, the same way you jerk awake in class or at the wheel, having not quite been asleep. I push forward on empty, through the shame and torpor. The high notes in “New Year” and “True Story” are raspy squeaks. I tell the assemblage of misfits and sports fans about my long and solitary journey; it feels like an apology, and I am sorry. I wrap the set.
I return to my post at the merch table, attempting to maintain a dignified posture. One of the Ghost Trees guys approaches me with kindness, saying that HGJ is “3 a.m. music.” I take the compliment.
El Malpais takes the stage burning bundles of incense and sanctifying their space. They’re a three piece: drums, guitar, and flute. The flute is the lead, she shreds, the guitar shimmers, it’s relevant and exciting prog rock. The bill has been eclectic, challenging. Realizing this, I sink into self-reproach, feeling as though I’ve squandered an opportunity to slay. I dip into the bathroom to make my misery private, and sit in a stall with my head on the wall, listening to young women discuss UTI remedies in the stalls around me. The whole world is swollen, irritated, and burning. Infected with grief, I stream back into the club and pack up my merch.
The members of El Malpais are all friendly and want to have a drink after the gig, but I want to hit the road (that being the nearest available option to straight-up disappearing from this planet). After being generously compensated—Ghost Trees has ceded their pay to me, adding to my share of the door—I leave. Charlotte’s damp. Everywhere’s damp—I’m covered in sweat, crumbs, grime. I stop at a natural food store, making irrational purchases ill-suited for the road, such as mashed potatoes and cookie dough. My car sounds like a dented can full of gravel being propelled by a golf-cart engine.
Somewhere near the North Carolina/Virginia border I stop for diesel and ice chips. Mashed potato cakes my lips. I want to broadcast this moment to anyone who has ever been impressed that I’m a touring musician: eating cookie dough raw while slowly driving around the parking lot of a closed Lexus dealership in order to steal Wi-Fi to download podcasts to stay awake. Self-aggrandizingly, I imagine a future where my songs are widely appreciated, my finances secure, my accompanists steadfastly loyal. To anyone monitoring the Wi-Fi usage at this Lexus Dealership, I say: “HISTORY WILL ABSOLVE ME!” And to all the various people who I sent voice memos to this evening, providing my a cappella renditions of Salt N Pepa’s “None of Your Business,” I say: “YOU’RE WELCOME! My Venmo is venmo.com/Beck-Levy!!!”
My entire body and car smells like a foot, and as an entire human, soul and all, I feel like a piece of old chewed gum covered in crumbs and hair. I’m pretty sure this is a literal fact. Every time the road looks blurry, I pull over at a rest stop and close my eyes, but I can’t sleep. The sound of a janitor sweeping the parking lot, their broom scraping the pavement, makes me startle with a racing heart. There won’t be rest. I resort to slapping myself. One slap = five minutes alert driving.
Charlotte to D.C. is about 6 hours, but with all the stops it ends up being more than 8. I pull into the parking lot at my dad’s apartment building around 4 a.m. I can’t help but imagine my own room, familiar and warm, lined with my favorite books and prints, and how comfortable my subletter must feel on my pillow top mattress, which I won’t sink into for a whole ‘nother month. I peel my body off the driver’s seat, and step out of the car in my shorts and sleeveless shirt, only to be greeted by snowdrifts. “Fuck!” I yell. “What the fuck!” Shivering, I gather my most necessary belongings, conceal my valuables, and lumber across this bleak terrain.
Why do I feel like a failure, when I’ve succeeded? I just drove thousands of miles alone, snatching a solo set from the jaws of an abrupt breakup. I did it. I made it. I didn’t flake on any shows. I sold out of tapes. And even the indignities, the discomfort, the chaos—I’ve chosen all of it. In fact, this is the future I always wanted. My adolescent self would look at me today with delight: me, a recent mental patient/research subject/art object, driving around alone, an almost-not-unsuccessful musician. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Comforted by the approval of my adolescent spectre, I put myself to bed. 12 days till the next tour.
To be continued in the May 25th issue of Washington City Paper…