The rigors, and smells, of life on the road as a rock band can make touring, uh, less than glamorous. But Grand Rapids guitarist/writer Troy Reimink’s tale of the travails of a missing van in New York City will live in infamy. Or something.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This Local Spins guest column is one of a series of essays giving a voice to West Michigan musicians on topics dear to their hearts — assessing the ups and downs of the music scene and their craft, in their own words.
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The photo above was taken a little more than a year ago at the Washington Square Park fountain in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
We were about halfway through the longest tour that my band Ghost Heart had ever attempted. I smile whenever I see this picture because, by the same time the following day, everything had gone horribly wrong.
We arrived in the city late after a show a couple of hours north. At the risk of sounding like a hayseed, driving into New York City on a clear summer night is an overpowering, humbling experience. Less overpowering but equally humbling was the response at the first of our two New York shows. (Small-time touring musicians are not usually supposed to do consecutive nights in the same city. However, YOLO!) Of the four bands booked at our venue in Brooklyn, only one besides us showed up: a Swedish folk-pop duo that un-ironically resembled Flight of the Conchords and were too polite to be trusted.
The next day, we left Brooklyn for Manhattan and connected with a friend who was generous enough to let four hygiene-deficient traveling musicians crash in her apartment. On her block, we were startled by the sudden emergence of a motorcade. As we were parking, the street was overrun with black sport-utility vehicles full of crew-cut men wearing earpieces and aggressive suits — guys who could probably kill you just by removing their sunglasses. From one of the vehicles emerged a tiny, blonde, goddess-like woman who was clearly this operation’s priority. She led her Blackwater-looking phalanx into a nondescript building, her every footstep radiating importance, European danger and sexual authority (I assume).
“You guys,” said an awestruck Cedric, “is that Robyn?” We have a thing for Robyn. However, this was not Robyn. And her not being Robyn becomes significant.
That night’s show at the Cake Shop was excellent. There was an engaged crowd, a friendly and enthusiastic staff, good sound and a strong, eclectic lineup. Also, purely by coincidence, a New York Times music writer was there doing a feature on the venue, a renowned spot on the Lower East Side that was struggling to stay afloat. He said he liked our stuff. I gave him the ol’ Nashville handshake (regular handshake plus complimentary CD), and we hit the town to celebrate our good fortune.
CRASHING AT A FRIEND’S APARTMENT AND A SHOCKING DISCOVERY
We crashed back at our friend’s place, slept in and, leaving in the morning to get breakfast, noticed that our van, a brown Chevy Astro that Cedric had recently traded in his car to acquire, was nowhere in sight.
We blearily retraced our steps: Are we sure we parked on this block? Does the city of New York impose a “we confiscate your van” toll on all visiting musicians? Does our agreement with Friction Records include emergency use of the label’s private helicopter? We wandered the vicinity for about an hour to make sure we didn’t just misplace it, and yup, no Astro. Consensus: Panic.
Anybody who has toured through New York City will preach against parking a vehicle full of gear on any street for even a minute longer than necessary, which is good advice. But when the place you’re sleeping in barely has room for your smelly sleeping bodies, much less amplifiers, drums and guitars, it’s easy to drink yourself into carelessness, especially when you’re keyed up after a good show. So we had left our van on the street, gear and all, and now everything was gone. We were about to become a cautionary tale.
For some musicians, this wouldn’t be the end of the world. Equipment is theoretically replaceable, and other bands will often help you out in a pinch if you’re determined to keep a tour going. But for Ghost Heart, the loss of our sampler, which we use as a basis for much of our music, would have been a hard pooch to unscrew. So we ventured into Manhattan’s unforgiving belly with a mission: track down our stuff or meet violent deaths trying. Tim and Cedric navigated public transit to the island’s one official impound lot, while Justin and I hit the pavement to scrounge up leads. Our first stop was the building we saw Possibly Robyn enter with her fearsome entourage. The guy at the desk did his best.
“Hello, we’re touring musicians from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Last night we parked our Astro van in front of your building, and today it’s gone.”
“I see. You had a van parked in front of this building. Was there anything in it?”
“Yes sir. Some music equipment, which we covered with blankets. Did we mention we’re a touring band from Grand Rapids, Michigan?”
“You did. Well, as you might know, security is a little tight around here this week because of our visitor.”
“Are you referring to Robyn? We have a thing for Robyn.”
“No, sir. This is the Swiss Embassy. The first lady of Switzerland is here as part of a state visit. It’s been in the papers. You may have been towed by the city for arousing suspicion.”
“Yes. An important political figure is in this building, and you’re leaving a Timothy McVeigh van in front of it with a bunch of weird stuff in the back all covered up? You’re lucky you aren’t in jail. Check with the police. Have a nice day.”
AN ENCOUNTER WITH NEW YORK’S FINEST … JERKS
Message received. That was a relief, sort of — our stuff was accounted for, rather than dumped in the Hudson or stolen by some underground society of creepy ’90s van enthusiasts. No sweat, we thought, we’ll simply pop into the closest NYPD precinct and explain our situation to an officer, who undoubtedly will bend over backward to help a few confused Michiganders navigate the city’s various administrative layers.
So we found a nearby police station, and in this police station, and presumably every police station in New York, there’s a guy whose job is to interface with the public. This is not a happy guy.
“Hello, we’re a touring band from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we’re–”
“From [expletive]ing where? What the [expletive] is Grand Rapids?”
“Second-largest city in the mitten state, sir. Boyhood home of Gerald R. Ford? Furniture capital of America?”
“That’s the [expletive]ing stupidest [expletive] I’ve ever heard in my damn life. What do you want?”
“Well, sir, we inadvertently parked our van in front of the Swiss Embassy, and it was gone this morning. We suspect it may have been towed. Can you help us find it?”
“Be glad to.” He shuffled a few papers around on his desk without looking down. “Nope, no record of that. What’s in your van?”
“Some guitars, amplifiers, drums. We’re a touring band. From Grand Rapids, Michigan?”
“Oh [expletive]! You left a van full of music [expletive] on the street overnight? Maybe that [expletive] got stolen! You ever think of that [expletive]?”
“Uh huh.” We had indeed thought of that [expletive].
“Ha! Well all right, you have a good day now, and best of luck with your trip home. Now get the [expletive] out of my station, you braindead [expletive] redneck [expletive]s.”
It might not actually have been that harsh, but I’m in the ballpark. We reconnected with Cedric and Tim, who had similar luck on their leg of the journey. Reality settled in. There was no van. It was all over. Time to find bus tickets, give up our abstract ideals about rock bands, rejoin square society. The sun had crested, and on a bright early evening the whole city looked like Instagram. But to us it was ugly and sad, and it smelled worse than the floor of the sketchy Connecticut house we never should have crashed in three nights earlier. We trudged along in silence, waiting for a survival plan to reveal itself.
ASSESSING A BLEAK FUTURE AND YET ANOTHER SHOCKING DISCOVERY
And if we figured this out, then what? What was the point? We were all on the wrong side of 30. We’d put out a record the previous year which generated minor internet buzz we’d largely failed to capitalize on. We weren’t great at networking and hadn’t built a solid DIY booking infrastructure. We were not writing fast enough to muscle through the “difficult second album” phase. We were about to lose our third practice space in 12 months. I had just moved to the east side of the state for a job, which made communication and scheduling almost impossible. The boxes of unsold CDs, shirts and vinyl weren’t getting any lighter as we…
“There’s the van!”
“Seriously,” Justin said, “I think that’s it right there.”
I squinted into the distance. “Jesus God, man! You’re right!”
Like a desert oasis in an old movie, our van materialized on the horizon. It was the only vehicle parked on a block that had been shut down for a street festival. It was too poetic to be real, but there it was. We hugged in slow motion, jumped up and down like a winning sports team. I raised my arms in triumph and inadvertently struck a genuine, angry New York woman, nearly knocking her New York ice cream cone onto the New York sidewalk. “I’m terribly sorry, ma’am,” I said, “BUT IT’S OUR VAN!” “Oh, well this is really appetizing,” she sneered, ice cream dripping down her arm as her New York voice faded into the New York air.
A sticker on the van indicated the city had towed it because we’d obstructed a special event (the state visit of First Lady Not Robyn). And so it was randomly deposited a half-dozen blocks away with no notice or documentation of its towing. We’ll never know the full story — whether there was a legit mix-up or whether this is just an insane thing New Yorkers have to deal with. In either case, after being subjected to a bureaucratic hell straight out of Kafka, we considered our karmic debt for being irresponsible with our gear and generally clueless about touring paid in full.
We hopped in the van to leave town and immediately got stuck in rush hour traffic for the next two hours. While checking our phones in gridlock we saw that the Times writer had published his story and included kind words about our performance the previous night [http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/31/arts/music/cake-shop-a-club-for-new-music-is-looking-for-financing.html], which he described as “haunting and resonant.” Going from the van scare to reading praise for our work in the New York Freakin’ Times easily qualifies this as one of the more eventful 24-hour spans I’ve lived through.
A TOUR FOR THE AGES, OR MAYBE JUST AN EPIC MEMORY
And it wasn’t quite done.
Our next stop was Wilmington, Delaware [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDGDgc1qNCA]. The only show we could find between New York and Philadelphia was an obscure open-mic session, and we performed like it was a headlining spot at Coachella. The tiny crowd of very wasted regulars expressed mild confusion about what sort of open-mic act would deploy an elaborate percussion set-up — including our usual bicycle wheel and timpani — and howl to the rafters on a Monday night, but they were otherwise disinterested.
Following us was a local theater person who was removed from stage while playing an original ukulele composition called “How Anne Frank Got Her Groove Back.” On our way out, we thanked the venue manager and told him how happy we were to have played in his bar. “Really?” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s ever said that before.” We finished loading our gear and drove off into the night, where Philly, and the shrinking future, awaited.
Ghost Heart has given me more good stories than I can count, but this van adventure is my favorite. Years from now when I’m trying to convince my (purely hypothetical) children how cool I used to be, I’m not going to remember the frustrating stuff. Like how we blew this or that recording session. Or how the sound at this or that venue wasn’t ideal. Or how we drove to Ohio to play a show for six dollars (actually, that was pretty great). Or the million little disagreements and failures of communication and missed opportunities that could have derailed the whole operation, and might still.
It’s the good memories that will always last. Or the ones that are so incredibly bad they’ve become good through countless boozy retellings. Like how, in the kitchen of a venue in Ypsilanti, we barely avoided a knife fight with the drunkest person on the planet. Or how after a show in Bay City we broke into a friend’s locked house by shoving Tim through a window. How Cedric and I screamed along to a Britney Spears song while speeding down country roads after an unexpectedly killer show in Kenosha.
Other local musicians have used guest columns here at Local Spins to pass on advice or encouragement to fellow travelers. I have none to offer except this: If you love doing it, do it until the wheels fall off. Otherwise, don’t bother. There are more than enough bands making more than enough music, and there are a million ways you could spend your time that are less draining and more materially rewarding.
But if you’ve held it together a while and done work you’re proud of and have more respect for your partners in music than you did when you started, you’ve pulled off a [expletive]ing miracle.
ABOUT TROY REIMINK: For what I consider a young fellow, Troy Reimink has lived an incredibly diverse existence, even since I first met him years ago as a budding entertainment/features reporter at The Grand Rapids Press. Not only could the kid write with a rare flair for wit and sarcasm, but he was well-versed and knowledgeable (or at least, really opinionated) on all things related to the rock music scene. As it turns out, he’s also one heckuva guitarist, perhaps making his talents best known in the edgy, innovative and experimental Grand Rapids rock band Ghost Heart, which has indeed earned kudos in some pretty impressive quarters across the country. After leaving The Grand Rapids Press and doing battle as an online guru at The Detroit Free Press, he has since returned to West Michigan to work as a music/video librarian at AMI Jukeboxes. He also recently launched a new radio show called “New Standards” at 6 p.m. Sundays on community radio station WYCE-FM (88.1) with former Press colleague Tricia Woolfenden so he can continue to express his opinion on new music releases, highly anticipated and otherwise.
Email John Sinkevics at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2013, Spins on Music