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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Rock ‘n’ Roll Odyssey, Parts I-IX

Just imagine our address is "2112"
or, I Think I Drove a Meth Head to a Rush Concert

I was on my way out of a rain-soaked Springfield Thursday afternoon, headed to Kansas City to see Rush for their 40th-year, probably final, tour. I had my Mountain Dew, my Golden Oreos, and two styrofoam flats of hot Chinese food given to me by the cook at Bao Bao for watching his restaurant while he was in Switzerland. I also had my wet socks draped over the dash, trying to dry them with alternating blasts of heat and AC. I had my stack of Rush CDs and had already burned through one album. The rain was breaking up to reveal a nice gray day, perfect for driving. Having left work about two hours early, I was just getting comfortable as the will-someone-from-work-call-me-with-a-problem? danger zone evaporated.

Somewhere around Clinton, I passed a hitchhiker at a crossroad, holding a little cardboard sign that said, “KC MO, Rush $”. Instantly began the internal war between my serial-killer-obsessed wife’s voice saying I would end up dead and sodomized if I picked him up, and my own Alfred E. Neumann voice saying, “What, me worry?” Of course I felt bad thinking that this guy had no ride to see the show. The “$” meant he might chip in for gas, but I had a full tank, which was enough for the whole round trip, so that was no real concern. I slowed down and U-turned. Even though I was not playing A Farewell to Kings, I had to do what was Closer to the Heart, right? What kind of a dick would I be if I drove on by, playing Rush to the three empty seats in my car? (Four, if you count my toddler’s car seat).

I pulled up to him, and he was happy. As usual, my car was full of junk, so I hopped out to clear his seat and floor. He was saying thanks, and shook my hand. I said he made the right sign as I stacked CDs and Chinese food into the back seat.

“I saw the Permanent Waves CD in your seat,” he said, “and I knew this was the right car. We’re gonna see Rush, man!” He tossed his sign into the floor and got in. I smelled alcohol immediately as I buckled in again. He said he had only waited about 10 minutes at that point. I think he said his name was Dean. The first thing you need to know about Dean is, he’s a talker. Also, a repeater of talk. Also, a terrible but unabashed singer, a Rush superfan, a man of low impulse control, and more!  

Dean was 48 going on 12. “My girlfriend (at least he didn’t say “old lady”) wouldn’t let me take the car because I’d had two beers—she said I was drunk—I had two beers!” He remained rather excited for the duration of the trip, which would be about 90 minutes for him. He had no ticket to the concert, but assured me, “Oh, there’s always a way in, man! I’ve got 500 bucks with me, I’ll get in. These shows never really sell out.”

I gathered the following information in no particular order: Dean had a few teeth missing—luckily none at the front, because his mouth was open a lot. He was from Minnesota, had been living in Missouri for only a few months and said he really liked it, and worked at the Tracker boat factory. He claimed to be part Native American, but said that didn’t mean anything—he brought it up in relation to living near a reservation “way up north.” His girlfriend of several years was depressed and stayed home most of the time.   He had seen Rush seven times, which he told me at least five times*, but by the third iteration, he admitted he’d only seen them six times, because once, when he had three great tickets that were around $300 each, he couldn’t go because he was in jail for about a month. He assured me he wasn’t the kind of guy who spends a lot of time in jail.
    *so, like 35 times in my mind**
        **Thanks for the math, Dan’l

Suddenly, Dean really had to pee! I guess the two beers had ramrodded their way through his system. We were cresting a hill, looking down at a town rich with shit pertinent to our scenario: bathrooms. It couldn’t have been more than 25 minutes since I plucked his sorry ass from the roadside, said my internal trucker who frowns on stops that do not align with an empty gas tank. But, as Dean was now adjusting his shorts in a way that may have been cover for crotch-crimping, I decided this would be a good place to stop. I honestly didn’t give a shit what he had consumed, as long as he remained lucid, compliant and continent in my vehicle. We had plenty of time.

I picked a gas station. Dean made it to the john while. I decided to pee while there, and when I came out of the bathroom, Dean was getting money out of an ATM, which he gave to me.

“Here, man, take this,” he said, handing me two twenties. I told him that was too much, really, but he insisted with a touch of hitchhikerly pride, so I took the money. Back at the car, he angled for a smoke break, which I said was fine. I took a minute to change socks again, moving the dampest ones to the trunk.

“Sorry about the stinky socks,” I said, “I’m still trying to dry my shoes out.” Dean didn’t care, taking a moment to make fun of some woman’s looks as she exited her car nearby. A couple of young ladies of slutty presentation lounged against the gas station wall. I worried Dean might try impressing them with some inappropriate behaviors, but he played it cool.

Just a few miles down the highway, my passenger had a coughing fit for about one minute. When he finally seemed recovered, I asked, with a trace of humor, “Did you get a bad cigarette?” Dean said rather seriously, “Don’t say that, man.”

After the pee & smoke break, Dean really hit his stride. He turned up my radio without asking (to about 38 Toyota volume units, if you’d like to recreate the experience in another Toyota), which wouldn’t have bothered me, except then he kept on talking and expecting me to hear him, between a number of disastrous singalong attempts. He obviously knew the songs, but was rampantly off tune and timing. I tried to just roll with it, with a smirky smile. Maybe my smile wasn’t convincing, because about once per song, he would say, “I’m sorry, man, I’ll stop singing,” but then he’d start again almost immediately. He threw in some air guitar flair when he could, which I countered with diplomatic smatters of steering wheel thumb-drumming, plus the occasional appeal to reason, such as: “Hey, uh, we’re looking for Truman Road, I guess it’s Exit 271,” I’d read the relevant direction from my envelope of mapquesty shorthand. Dean didn’t seem worried. His only feedback was, “I like how you drive, in the fast lane the whole way!” Which was weird, because I think I had been using the full range of lanes. At one point I made myself chuckle by imagining an abrupt pulling off onto the shoulder, where I would stop and tell Dean, in my best Clint Eastwood voice, “GET OUT.”

At some point, we talked a little about the band, and how it was likely their last tour. I had recently read in Rolling Stone that singer Geddy Lee was more energetic about the band in a ten-years-younger fashion, where Alex Lifeson, the guitarist, had some physical problems dragging him down, and drummer Neil Peart was more mentally sick of it—which had always been the case. Dean said, with some relish, “Yeah, I think Alex parties harder than the other guys, maybe that messed him up,” and then asked me if I’d read Neil’s book (he’s written more than one, though), which I hadn’t. He said I had to read it, and he would give it to me. Then as he paraphrased some stuff from Ghost Rider, I could only think, “How is he going to give me that book?”

Further highlights: he pointed out an older Cadillac on the highway, saying that it looked just like his car. And some story from his living in California years ago, where a guy he worked with invited a few people over to watch some other dude have sex with his wife. Dean said, “I decided not to go, but I went home with a big hard-on! That guy’s wife was really hot.” Impulse control, Dean—and too much information. Maybe we two were discount versions of the Hemispheres dichotomy: Dean the naked figure, I the suit-wearing dandy.

As we entered KC proper, Dean displayed some oddly aggressive staring at people in other vehicles, including a police van, which I called a paddywagon. I let the paddywagon in front of me, telling Dean that’s how we keep them on our side. I joked that maybe the cops were going to the concert. Then I decided the joke was true, and followed them all the way to the Sprint Center, which looked like a lovely god-size cut-glass bowl with tour buses parked around it.

“Hey, this has to be it, right?” I gave myself a mental thumb’s-up: despite my rider’s distractions, I had made zero wrong turns. We had arrived at a crowded area with lots of cops and Rush t-shirts containing humans of every sort. Now we just had to park. Dean rolled down the window. I worried he was going to yell at people, but he just asked an extremely inarticulate man about parking, receiving a flustered arm-spasm in response. I turned down a skyscraper-shadowed street that immediately broke my parking balls, so before getting too sunk, I thrilled Dean with a totally illegal U-turn and bragged on my car’s smallness. Backtracking a couple of blocks put us in much more Springfield-looking territory, where I quickly spotted parking. It was $10, but very close to the arena, and Dean’s $40 made me uncharacteristically decisive in the face of a parking fee that I normally might walk thrifty miles to avoid.

Out of my back seat, I changed into my Roll the Bones 1991-92 Tour shirt so I could project my Rush-veteran status. Locking the car, I asked the parking attendant the address and punched it into my phone, encouraging Dean to do the same. Even though he had twice said he would like a ride back, he didn’t want to trade phone numbers or take down the address. Yet, he talked about getting dinner or a drink before the show, which was almost an hour off. My phone chimed with about the third text from Tony Gray, who had been in KC all day, was already in the Sprint Center, and had checked in on my progress almost as if thinking I was the sort of fool who would pick up strange people from the roadside.

“Are you sure you don’t want to trade phone numbers?” I asked Dean. “I mean, I’ll wait for you, but, maybe I won’t know how long to wait.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me! You’re gonna be seeing the most awesome show, just enjoy it—an evening with Rush, man!” Dean was peering into the fronts of businesses, scouting the eats-n-drinks that I was not keen on sitting down to with him.

“I know, I’m just thinking ahead.” Maybe I should have explained to Dean that thinking ahead was a cornerstone trait of those of us who can drive ourselves places. As if to illustrate, I stopped right then on the sidewalk. “Oh shit! I forgot my ticket. It’s in the car.”

“What? Really?" Dean looked a little suspicious, as if I were just making shit up to avoid eating with him. I really had left my ticket in the car, and said, “Sorry, I have to go grab it.” At that instant, we both found the perfect exit from our alliance. I obviously needed my ticket, and Dean obviously lacked the patience to backtrack 500 feet for something.

“Ok, well, I’ll watch for you after the show,” I said.

“Don’t worry about me, man, we’re gonna see Rush!”

“I know.” As I walked back to the car, he ambled energetically away. Then my stomach was punched by my imagination: what if Dean had cunningly yoinked my ticket off the dash when we disembarked, and I was now the one with no seat in the Sprint Center? I walked faster, escaping from Dean but also losing evil-ticket-stealing-Dean forever in the crowd. Fortunately, my ticket was right where I left it, so he wasn’t the master of deception I almost had to mistakenly tackle to (not) get my seat back.

Joining one out of many lines, I entered the Rush-shirted throng. I was probably one of the commonest types, but the age range was quite wide, including young women and even kids. That makes sense for a 40-year career span, but it was also puzzling—at least for children—until you look closer and realize that kids today actually share interests with their parents. I looked over at an apparently operational box office, and wondered if Dean would be caught dead in the un-rock-n-roll tactic of simply buying a seat there, if any remained.

That’s when I started hearing little covetous comments about my shirt: it was 24 years old and in good shape, so it must have been a thing of pedestrian wonder. Every several minutes I’d hear “Roll the Bones!” over my shoulder, and one guy said, “I wish I could fit into that Roll the Bones shirt,” suggesting, I guess, that if he could fit, he would get it from me by any means necessary. I suppose it was just an oddity in a sea of much newer shirts. Once inside, I discovered the many expensive souvenir T-shirt options, starting at $40 and going up to $100 (for embroidered jerseys). Maybe that explained the desirous feelings about my shirt. Suddenly immersed in a t-shirt driven economy where the common, entry-level shirt is $40, lord knows what a rare and ancient shirt might be worth. Forty-one dollars? A hundred? A human life?

I started catching up with Tony Gray by text. My last update had been over an hour earlier, after Tony asked if I was in KC yet:
    ME: “Just passed Osceola Cheese.”
    TONY: “That’s good cheese.”
Now he wanted to know if I was in the arena yet. I skirted a bunch of food lines and souvenir lines, found my seat, and considered looking for Tony while the seats in my row were mostly empty. He was in a group who had scored a skybox-style suite on the upper level, courtesy of a friend who works for Burlington Northern. Tony said later, sort of jokingly, that he was trying to blend in as some kind of train engineer. Probably didn’t want to get “yard bossed.”

Then my brother texted from somewhere not far below. He’d never told me that he had a ticket, though I knew he intended to see Rush. I’d sort of assumed he would tell me ahead of time, and we would carpool, but maybe he wanted to smoke pot in the car, or maybe he wanted his own shot at picking up a drunk hitchhiker. (Later my wife asked why we didn’t go together. I said, I didn’t know he was even going for sure. She said, “You guys are weird.”)

Plenty of heads even balder/grayer than mine.
In a few minutes, the seats around me filled. The seat to my left was overfilled by a double-wide of a man; to my right, a guy about my size and age who spoke to his adult son with a gruff veneer of anger, as in:
    SON: “Must be getting ready to start—this sounds like Clockwork Angels.” (Classic rock songs on the PA had yielded the clock-alarms opening of “Time” by Pink Floyd)
    DAD: “Nooo... this is Pink Floyd.”
    SON: “They’re supposed to start with their newest album.” (Clockwork Angels= most recent Rush album)
    DAD: “This is fuckin’ Pink Floyd! I’ll bet you a hundred fucking dollars!” Once or twice he kind of cussed all the lit-up phones in the arena, which made me self-conscious when I finally pulled mine out to take a few pictures later on, but oh well.

Aside from the mad dad’s habitually abusive diction, everybody was well behaved. I assumed “Time” playing meant that it was showtime—because it was—but then a few more songs played while the place filled up. Finally the show began, first with a wacky animated video that ended with the band arriving in KC, MO, and then with a rather percussive onslaught which was exactly what we all paid to have thundered through our skulls. It was ever-changing sensory overload, with big screens, lasers, a dash of pyrotechnics, and the usual comedic touches. Back in the ‘90s, I remembered that Alex and/or Geddy had done a bit of stage cleanup with vacuum cleaners during gaps in their guitar sequences. Dean had mentioned that one of the more recent tours had featured giant rotisserie chickens turning on stage. This time the gag was stagehands dollying out a row of front-load clothes dryers on spin cycle. There was also a song from Counterparts, “Animate,” where giant words were projected in a way that looked like sharp holograms. Maybe my eyes just weren’t good enough to see the screens. I don’t know how the fuck they did it.

After about an hour, the first set ended, winding back the song clock to about the mid-1980s, with “Subdivisions.” Since I’m half-bald now, I no longer look like the kid in the Subdivisions video, but I still go, “Hey, that’s me!” when it is played.

During intermission, I changed my mind about six times and finally bought a blue R40 tour shirt. It seemed like the most popular of the choices, but I decided it looked like the most wearable. The $40 seemed almost painless considering that was what Dean had given me. I wondered where the sorry bastard was.

I squeezed back in between Mad Dad and King Beefy for the second half, Mid-'70s-early '80s, where the real heat of the Rush catalog dwells. No words. Mind blown.

Unfortunately, my phone's mind was also blown.

Yay, they played "The Camera Eye"
Something with guitars
"Xanadu" w/o Olivia Newton-John

In the ear-sizzled, brain-fried aftermath of the show, I shook off my post-2112 ennui and joined the human millipede that funneled into the surprisingly orderly urination zone, breaking my rule against organized bathrooming. Driving home would be interrupted soon if I didn't go now. I hoped Dean was doing the same. Just to make sure he had time for due diligences, I revisited the souvenir-industrial complex, trying to figure out what the hell was in the $20 programs. Kinda wanted one… Nah, the shirt would be enough.
After the five-minute walk back to my car, Dean was not there. I think it was almost 11:00. I called my wife for a quick check-in while I waited, but I didn’t tell her I was hauling a hitcher, because she would freak out and maybe lose sleep. We talked for several minutes, but still no passenger. I scarfed down the remainder of my cold lo mien, ate some cookies and hit the road.

In a few minutes I retraced my path and found a ramp onto 71 South. Just as I got that cozy feeling of settling onto the right highway for many miles to come, I shit you not, there was Dean with his thumb in the air!
    “Whaaaaaaat?” I cried out as I looked over my shoulder at him shrinking into the past. “You dumb son of a fucker!” I was laughing, but also feeling bad, like I’d abandoned a kindergartner or dumped a puppy. But there were two cars right behind me, and no easy turnarounds, so I just drove for about a mile in a state of cackling dismay, shaking my head, saying “shit” every ten seconds until I decided Dean was someone else’s problem. I wondered if he had seen me. I kind of wanted to go back just so he couldn’t say I doublecrossed him or whatever, and I kind of wanted to go back so I’d have someone to help keep me awake, and so I could find out if he really would have loaned me Neil Peart’s book, which would have been an odyssey in itself, requiring a visit to his house, and maybe waking up his depressed, probably medicated wife.

I still had my Mountain Dew and my Rush albums, and Dean's cardboard sign… I guess I should have slowed down back on that ramp and yelled out the window, “You can miss a stride/ but nobody gets a free ride!” But then he might have gotten in again and started singing.