"Tiny Amp of Doom."
"Tiny Amp of Doom." Credit: Josh Nee

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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 of the tour concluded, Beck came home for a short break before heading back on the road. Read previous entries hereherehereherehere, and here.

March 17, 2017: Dallas, Texas at NSFWeekend with True Widow, Thou, and Aseethe

I wake up feeling drunk with exhaustion. There’s a luxurious, decadent full breakfast bar. I load up and sit on a comfy couch in the lobby. I feel like everyone is staring at me. I’m wearing a sleeveless shirt, no bra, sideboob representing hard, and the Brujas “fire to the prisons” athletic shorts. I stare at the fireplace and try to relax my mind. I look at Instagram and discover that the last thing I was looking at before falling asleep was Remy Ma’s gram… more than two years back. I’m eating instant oatmeal (delicious and hot food is such a relief). I’m looking at pics of people I know who do crossfit like LOL health what even is it?

I drove 10 hours yesterday. I got 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. One time my dad called me a spiritual warrior and I am not the least bit embarrassed to disclose that’s how I identify, what I aspire to be. This, of course, is a rather lofty way to describe preparing to drive. Lord help me though.

“This apple is my only friend.”

As a gesture of self-nurturance, I vacuum the car at my first gas stop. On the drive I work on my banter for tonight. “Is today Easter? I’m Jewish. Sorry boutcher savior y’all.” I have no idea what day it is. I’m so exhausted that I’m weirdly peppering my text messages with Spanish which I basically DO NOT speak. I wish I had hand sanitizer, eyedrops, a portable humidifier. Cruise control means that as I drive I can do modified pigeon pose and massage my own feet.

The gig tonight is with my old friends Thou, and also True Widow, a band I’ve loved for a while. I listened to them almost every day when I was a patient at NIH. Particularly during my worst depressive episode there, a time I could barely speak to anyone. It was a rainy season. I had just discovered that my iPhone tracks the number of steps I take every day, and was horrified to see numbers below 100. So I started taking long walks around the building, through the labs and down into the windowless bright white basement, the parts of the building that look like the Metro but aren’t, the wing that hasn’t been updated since the ’90’s and has a total Memphis Group aesthetic. Past the silver Art Deco staff library, up onto the under-construction wing, further up still to the ghostly 14th floor that looks like a horror movie set, watching thunderstorms, letting my eyes unfocus so the world becomes a blur of beads of rain, listening to just AKA on repeat. I expect to cry during True Widow’s set. I just want to play so well for them.

Which is why I want to make it in time to soundcheck. When I hit traffic just over the Louisiana/Texas border, I freak out because it pushes my ETA back to doors. 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, 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, I 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 internalizing harassment. It just passes over me like my aura’s Rainex’d.

A white pickup truck is pulled over onto the shoulder a ways up. I walk the shoulder like a runway up to it. 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 he looks like about 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 C-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 100mph to Dallas.

While speeding like crazy, I make faces at myself in the rear view mirror. I’ve seen some pictures of myself from this tour and my face looks different than I’m used to. For forever, in all the pics I’ve seen of myself playing I have eyebrows tilted up, forehead creased with concern, and big sad eyes. But on this tour my face just looks blank. I look in the mirror and try to make my sad face. Then a frown. It just doesn’t move. “What the fuck?”, I think.

Then it occurs to me that I’ve recently had 32-plus injections of Botox in my neck, scalp, and forehead.

It’s slipped my mind because I got them, in February, as a treatment for my chronic migraine. Botox paralyzes muscles that spasm during migraine. So far it has helped a little. Even though some of the injections were in my forehead, it never occurred to me that there would be any results intersecting with the other, more cosmetic application of the botulism.

I try to make my sad face again and it just doesn’t work. So I laugh my ass off. And speed on, listening to Murder City Devils to stay in that rock ‘n’ roll road warrior zone. I make up for the ditch detour and am back on schedule.

Off the highway and pulling onto the street where the venue is, I’m stuck behind a party cycle rickshaw, and then I see what the people on board are doing. They’re all wearing bright green and drinking huge beers out of bright green shamrock glasses. Oh fuck. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. God dammit. This is one of my least favorite days of the year because I hate being around crowds of drunk people, and I hate when people of Irish descent claim that they aren’t white, or that the Irish were once “slaves,” or that the potato famine was “just like the Holocaust.” So annoying and dumb. The situation becomes more and more dire as I realize the street is the main drag of the bar district.

When I finally get to the venue I see the Thou van outside, so I pull up close and double park. Immediately a man in a bright green shirt steps out from the bar and starts directing me. Per his request I pull over to a different spot, and load in from there. After I’m done I ask him if there’s a staff lot or somewhere to park and he directs me to a small lot at the end of the block. I get there and it’s a paid lot. That’s when I put all his behavior together and realize he doesn’t think I’m in a band. I pay the $10 and walk back to the venue.

Reuniting with Thou is amazing, not least because I haven’t interacted with another human for 36 hours. 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. Turboslut and The Gift played a ton of shows with Thou, they’re beloved tour-brothers. Getting ready to play with them again feels so natural. We go to a vegan diner, I’m tweaking out and talking way too much, way too fast. I drink several glasses and let some Propranolol dissolve under my tongue.

Back at the venue I set up and walk the sound guy through my setup. This is always an adventure, as I have the triple threat of unconventional instrumentation, being a woman, and knowing exactly what I need. What I need is one vocal mic with medium-to-heavy reverb, one empty mic stand with clip, for my amp to be mic’d, and for the only thing in the monitors to be the house vocals. The guitar goes through the amp, as do my vocal loops, which I execute using my own mic (that’s what goes in the empty stand). The autoharp gets picked up by the house vocal mic. It can’t have its own acoustic mic because my hand would knock into it while I play. I could get a clip-on mic for it, but it hasn’t seemed necessary, and wouldn’t be unless I was like… playing a stadium.

For the entire hour before I play, the bar is exclusively playing Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. Really priming the crowd for my austere slowcore. I put on a ton of pink eyeshadow and get on stage. The room is still fairly empty—I’m opening the show—but there are people there, and the Thou boys are being supportive, standing up front. Also in front, right at the stage, is a young man with a black T-shirt and a fledgling mustache. He is looking nervously down at his phone as I begin my opener, “The Name.” Feeling bratty and averse to being ignored, I get down on one knee right in front of his face and serenade him until he looks up, terrified.

The entrance to the bar is a big gate, like a garage, and since the weather is nice it’s rolled up all the way… which would be cool… except it’s St. Patrick’s Day. Revelers on the street are rolling by en masse. So while I’m singing minimal, tense, sorrowful tunes, drunk dudes in leprechaun hats wearing light-up bead necklaces are stopping and staring.

Beck and Mitch in Texas

I thank the audience for spending the holiday with me, although I admit that I’m more of a St. Joan girl myself. They were quiet and appreciative—not what you’d expect for St. Patrick’s Day at a bar. It’s not what some folks would expect of metal fans either, but I prefer playing metal shows to punk shows. The punks aren’t always sure what to make of me, but metal fans are down with darkness. When I dedicate “Wildfire” to the women in prison for killing their abusers, there are cheers, so I follow up with “direct action gets the goods.”

After my set I chill with Bryan at the merch table. People keep coming up and asking to buy other bands’ merch from me, assuming I’m just there to sell things, rather than a performer myself. It’s annoying so I space out and start ignoring everyone, until a woman I don’t recognize approaches the table and asks “are you Beck?” She sees me trying to place her and says “you don’t know me.” It’s loud so I come around the table to hear her better. “I’m a fellow lab rat,” she says, then I realize who it is: a woman who preceded me in an experiment at NIH, someone I knew only by initials and numbers and anecdotes. She is like an estranged sister, we’ve both experienced something few other people have, we are unified by the experience of being infused with ketamine while inside a giant magnet. We embrace.

The show starts rapidly filling up before True Widow, more metal people, some rockabillies, cowboys, actual real life frat boys, crust punks with face tattoos, and (for lack of a better descriptor) people who look like they hang out almost exclusively at malls. Live music fans. It’s like a Noah’s ark of subculture: Two of each. True Widow are a wall of rhythmic loud fuzz, inciting an ecstatic sludgy slow mosh of people who love weed, and the people who love them.

The nervous mustache boy is standing in exactly the same place he was during my set. He’s still sweating and looking nervously down. He is slowly clenching and unclenching his fists. It suddenly hits me: He’s on acid! Ah. I hope my confrontational singing didn’t mess his trip up too bad.

I’ve seen Thou perform more than any other band in my life. They’re hard-working and consistent. Bryan is wearing flip flops, khaki shorts, and a button-down shirt covered in salmon-colored outlines of sharks. With his scraggly beard he looks like a recent castaway or a divorcée embarking on his Jimmy Buffett phase. Earlier at dinner he explained that the acquired this shirt for a trip to Pensacola with his girlfriend, Emily McWilliams, a competitive powerlifter and the songstress behind Silver Godling. The whole look is as anachronistic on the stage as I was, but in a different way. At one point Bryan says into the mic “This song is about the IRA.”

Everyone else drives to Austin after the show but I can’t deal with driving anymore. It’s been about 18 hours in a 36 hour period. I don’t know anyone in Dallas but Bryan does, and he’s exhausted too, so we stay the night. It turns out the guy we stay with was in a band that Turboslut played with in Dallas in 2008. I still have the poster for it, a large, full-color, glossy poster depicting a satanic goat who is being decapitated by vinyl records, while injecting itself and downing pills. It really had everything you could want out of a show poster.

That was possibly the wildest show we ever played, the only time there was a circle pit during our set. That night, I slept in the van and woke up to find someone pissing on one side of the van while another person spray painted the other side. For the rest of our tour, the van read “HALF-DEAD.” It had been accurate.

Tonight ends way tamer. We sleep soundly in bunkbeds. I get lower bunk.

To be continued…