They jammed with Joan Jett. They helped the Dwarves dodge the cops. They got drunk in condemned apartment buildings. They got jock itch. And so it went for the Vacancies as they crisscrossed America last month, logging close to 5,500 miles over two weeks.
Hitting the road in support of their recently released sophomore LP, A Beat Missing or Silence Added, the Vacancies took their keyed-up, hook-driven power punk cross-country for the first time, opening for cult degenerates the Dwarves. With a maxed-out credit card in his name and a broken-down van in his driveway, frontman Billy Crooked describes how it all went down.
Thursday, November 10, Baltimore
"I woke up at 6:30 a.m. after hitting snooze a couple of times. I hadn't packed yet and had another load of Vacancies T-shirts to dry -- the heat from the dryer sets the ink and makes it last longer. We save a lot of money making them ourselves. Somewhere in Pennsylvania we passed two wild dogs on the side of the freeway, tearing at some fresh roadkill. I hoped it wasn't a sign of what was to come. This was our first real tour, and we'd be opening for the Dwarves, who have a reputation for partying heavy and causing havoc. I knew that being the opening act out of three bands wasn't going to be easy, considering that the rest of the country had never seen or heard of us.
"Our label, Joan Jett's Blackheart Records, set up a video interview with a local cable-access rock show in Baltimore. This was our first interview like this. We were a bit awkward at first, but it was easier than I thought.
"The show that night went OK. I wasn't as comfortable onstage as I normally am, but the crowd responded and paid attention. A couple of people approached me after the show and said they enjoyed the set. To me, it was a success. The Dwarves played and the place went nuts. After the show, we met some of the other band members and had a couple of beers in a condemned apartment next to the club. That was the 'backstage' area. We loaded up with leftover beer, a little whiskey, bananas, and bottled water, and headed to our motel for the night. Tomorrow would be our CD-release party in New York, and we needed to find our groove."
Friday, November 11, New York City
"We showed up in the city, found the club we were playing -- the Knitting Factory -- and started loading in gear, only to find that Joan [Jett] had beat us there. She decided to play a couple of our songs with us during the show. We ran through the two songs with her unplugged, to make sure we were on the same page. This was all the rehearsal we'd have and all that she needed.
"The crowd went nuts when she came out. There was a slight delay due to a technical difficulty, but the crew got her amp working and the show went off without a hitch. I kept turning around while I was singing to see her playing our songs, making sure that I planted that image firmly in my memory banks. The Turbo AC's, the other band on the tour, rocked, and the Dwarves were great as usual. Some people left bloody that night.
"We partied backstage with everyone and eventually had to make our way to the second of two shows. The next one was at a hidden little venue in SoHo called the Cake Shop, which had a bakery upstairs with a small bar and drum-riser in the basement. It was crowded from the show before ours and extremely hot. Not a good environment for the claustrophobic. The Dwarves came down and did four songs, and the crowd went berserk. Beer was flying, people were falling over, and I thought, 'We have to follow this?'
"We set up quickly and played a couple songs. The crowd was into it, but it wasn't until we asked Joan to jam with us that everyone freaked. She played the two songs of ours that she'd played earlier in the night, and then we went into 'Bad Reputation.' It was an intense moment, seeing people singing the words and just having a great time. I was supposed to sing the second verse, but I was so caught up in the moment that I forgot. Michael [James, guitarist] kicked me in the leg and yelled, 'Sing!' 'Oh shit, that's right,' I thought, and jumped in right after the first line. It was certainly a highlight of the tour. We said our goodbyes in the street after the show and headed to Brooklyn to crash on a friend's floor."
Saturday, November 12, Providence
"When we left N.Y.C., I noticed the brakes on the van were rubbing and vibrating. Sounds sexy, but it's not. Before we left, I had as much preventive work done on the van as we could afford, including new rear brake shoes. We were at a rest stop somewhere in Connecticut when the rear driver-side brake locked. The van wouldn't move at all. We called AAA and got a tow to the closest mechanic. The tow truck could only take two of us, so Angelo [Merendino, drummer] and Bo [bassist] had to wait for a cab. None of this was cheap, by the way.
"After a couple of hours, the mechanics said they made some adjustments and everything should be working properly. By this time it was getting dark, and we had to haul ass for soundcheck. The show went well. We met with a local college-radio DJ who had been spinning one of our tunes, and he had us do some station I.D.s. Once again, we felt kind of silly, but had fun with it regardless.
"During the Dwarves set, some young girl fell off the stage -- none of us witnessed the incident -- and hit the ground. She wasn't hurt, but she was pissed off. She called the cops. The guys pleaded their case while we helped their merch girl get packed up and loaded out. Luckily, there were no arrests."
Sunday, November 13, Cambridge
"Boston was a short drive from Providence. We arrived early and walked around a bit, soaking in the atmosphere. We ran into Blag [Dahlia, Dwarves singer] and he invited us to lunch. It was Indian food, which we would regret later that night. We had some good conversation with Blag and heard some great stories. Nice guy. The show was cool -- good crowd and we sold a few records.
"Just when we thought things were rolling smoothly, the same rear brake locked again after we loaded up our equipment. How is this possible? By this time it was around 2 a.m. We waited an hour for a tow truck, only this time the driver was nice enough to let us all ride with him. It was funny for a second, seeing us all crammed in, Bo on Angelo's lap and the van bouncing around the flatbed. The tow truck driver recommended a mechanic that could look at my van the next morning. They called at 8:30 a.m. and told me what the problem was and had us on the road by noon.
"A running total of van expenses from just before the start of the tour:
· $1,300: rebuilt transmission
· $650: serpentine belt, brakes, oil change, two new tires, and alignment
· $20: tow in Connecticut
· $68: brakes again
· $702: brakes again and upper and lower ball joints = maxed-out credit card.
"The only problem now was that the next show was an eight-hour drive to Buffalo. We showed up just in time to set up and play. The club and the crowd were cool. We decided to save a few bucks and try to knock out the three-and-a-half-hour drive home to Cleveland. I did an hour and Michael did the rest. He was a trouper, 'cause I was beat and couldn't stay awake. I slept until 4:30 p.m. the next day, and it felt great."
Tuesday, November 15, Cleveland
"Woke up late and got ready for the Grog Shop show. As I started driving the van to pick up the guys, I noticed that something was up with the brakes once again. They weren't stopping gradually; instead, they were locking and skidding. I pulled over and called the label. They told me that they had reserved us a rental van after the last breakdown just in case. Luckily, it all worked out. We would pick up our new van tomorrow. I could park my heap and deal with it later. We still had seven shows left and a drive home from Denver.
"The show here was cool. Some good friends and family came out to hang. The Dwarves told us that Cleveland was one of the best shows for them so far."
Wednesday, November 16, Columbus
"Picked up a 15-passenger Chevy van with only seven thousand miles on it. Popped two benches out of the back, which you're not allowed to do, transferred everything from my van to this one and headed for Columbus. It drove like a dream. The show was sold-out and awesome. There's a different kind of energy in college towns.
"Somehow, a few shows ago, I acquired a nasty rash or jock itch around my satchel. It's gotta be from sweating and not showering often. The creams and powders help a little, but the itching is driving me bonkers. Not to mention the constant smell of ass that surrounds us. Not a part of the day goes by that one of us doesn't have gas. I am losing my sense of humor toward farts and their odor.
Thursday, November, 17, Detroit
"The restaurant downstairs from the club where we ate had a photography display. It was by a legendary local photographer, whose name escapes me at the moment. There must have been 50 or so black-and-white pix of rock greats like Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and the Dead Boys playing at small clubs in Detroit. Very cool."
Saturday, November 19, St. Louis
"By this point, every night starts to blend together. The routine is the same: Drive, load in gear, soundcheck, wait to play/drink beer, play, watch the other two bands, sit at the merch table, pack up gear, and drive to a cheap motel. Get up and do it again. I love it."
Sunday, November 20, Kansas City, Missouri
"Ghost town. My appreciation of Cleveland continues to grow. Ate at some shitty BBQ place that charges way too much. Fun show, though. I think I'm coming down with something."
Monday, November 21, Denver
"Everyone in the band has caught a cold, including me. It's no fun singing when your nose is clogged. We did a couple interviews that went well. I think I'm getting the hang of it."
Tuesday, November 22, Fort Collins, Colorado
"Last show. There was some talk of the Dwarves pulling an evil prank on us as a farewell gesture. Luckily, it never happened. We got good and drunk, and hung out with the other bands before the show -- Fort Collins was only a 45-minute drive from Denver. Michael gave me a wedgie onstage and gave Angelo a nice little cut on his forehead after jumping over the drums after the last song. I know we sounded like shit, considering that I had no voice left whatsoever because of my sore throat and head cold, but we had a good time. We gathered in the parking lot behind the club and said our good-byes to everyone. We made some good friends and learned a lot on this tour. It would take us two days to get home. My bed was all the motivation I needed for the long drive. Eventually my jock itch and cold would clear up, and life would get back to normal."