On The Road With Tourettes Lautrec
Ben Johnson’s adventurous 1997 tale from a tour in his early band to pre-Katrina New Orleans …
Back in 1997, my band at the time, Tourettes Lautrec, was headed out on our fi rst nationwide tour. Through countless hours on the phone, calling bars that redirected you to varied booking agents and/or club owners, I had managed to book dates as far away as Philadelphia, no small feat for an unknown band.
There was no internet or cell phones being used at the time, and as a result my phone bill was through the roof. Most of that was due to calling clubs, but a good chunk was also spent talking to someone with more experience than myself–a girl in Austin. She helped me book several shows, including Austin, our second stop, and New Orleans, our third.
The fi rst show was in Tucson, where we had tons of friends, mainly due to my roommates at the time being from there, before their mass migration to San Diego. It was a blast.
One problem–the next day, our van wouldn’t start. I wish I could remember what was wrong with it, but the truth of the matter is that it ended up quitting in so many various and sundry ways that I can’t separate one faulty part from the other so long ago.
Anyway, we got the van put back together and hit the road. We had a night off to get to Austin, and rolled through Texas with no vehicular problems, arriving at our friends’ BBQ at midday.
I met the girl I had talked to — and her boyfriend, who happened to be in the band we were playing in. She hadn’t mentioned that she had a boyfriend, or that I knew him, and some things she did mention were steering the conversation far away from that.
After a while, we went down to our show, which was also a very good time. Aside from the weirdness on the personal level with this lady, this tour was going alright. I was both surprised and delighted. The next day, as was pre-arranged, I would drive with Austin Girl in her truck to the club in New Orleans and the rest of my band would catch up to us, as the van seemed to be running well.
That was the first terrible decision; separating from my bandmates.
The drive, with just the two of us, was extremely awkward, and it seemed we enjoyed each others’ company much more over the phone than in person.
In the meantime, there was no way for my band to contact me, save for them calling the club to fi nd me, which–after my mostly silent ride through the bayou and a couple hours at the club–is what they did. They were broken down an hour behind us in Baton Rouge, and wanted me to come back and either get them or hang with them.
The van had quit on the freeway during a traffic jam, and it had taken them two hours to get it to a mechanic, which is where they were. Austin girl flat-out refused to go, but did say I could take her truck on the long drive back to where my bandmates were. It was not the most sincere offer I have ever been given. Trying to weasel out of a long, hot solo drive, I told my bandmates that by the time it took me to get there they would most likely be on the road, which would be a waste of time. Unfortunately, they listened.
So, Austin talks me in to going out to some bars while we wait. Not that it took much much urging. I was in The Big Easy on tour, albeit without my band, and I was twenty-seven. Were we in the French Quarter? I don’t know. It was a big ol’ strange city of voodoo and zombies I’d never been to. Everything was brimming with danger and intrigue. We drank with the locals, the bartenders, the garbagemen on their routes.
Somebody said he could score me some weed, and in my state that sounded so good. So I followed the smooth talking guy to some big, dark buildings.
It was not the first time I had seen projects, but it was the sketchiest. My stomach dropped into my bowels as I handed him my money, then watched him walk away around the corner and out of my life.
I waited for about five minutes that seemed like six years, until a cop car rolled around the corner and lit me up in its beams.
“Whatcha doin’?” asked the cop.
“Just hangin’ out,” I replied, trying to be nonchalant.
“Kid,” he said, “you need to go hang out anywhere but where you are. Do you even know where you are?”
Of course it dawns on my young, drunk, stupid brain that I am in grave danger, hanging out alone in the shadows by the projects in an unfamiliar and totally dangerous city. I took the kind officer’s advice and walked back to the bar that I had come from.
But the bar wasn’t there.
It was somewhere, to be sure, but not the way I had gone. I turned a corner, then another, but each turn made the surroundings less familiar, not more so. I turned and turned again until I was in a neighborhood where I was the only white person, which wouldn’t be so bad if everyone were not looking at me with either shock or outright malice. Even now, New Orleans is intimidating, but this was far before Katrina and any camaraderie spawned by that disaster.
I hurried up to the next busy street, and was getting a little panicky by the time I made it to the famous above-ground cemeteries. I wished I could enjoy seeing them, but the alarm bells in my head made that impossible.
An hour passed, maybe more, of my hectic wandering. The events of the day had worn me out, and I was almost giving up, looking for a bush to sleep in when I saw her pickup truck. I knew it was hers, as my stuff was locked in the cab. But where was the only link to my world–Austin Girl?
I laid down in the open bed of her truck, but everyone walking down the street saw me and commented, plus it was cold. I didn’t want to, but felt I had to go find her.
Like the vanishing bar, she was not to be found. I realized this plan was stupid and went back to her truck, rather, the empty space where it had been. In the ten minutes I’d been gone, she’d returned to her vehicle and driven off. I kicked myself for leaving, seldom having felt so idiotic.
After about another hour walking the mean streets, cursing myself, I found the club we were originally to have played. It was closed, and long dark, like the streets. It was probably three or four in the morning at this point. I walked up to the door, listening for sounds from inside.
The building was a little shanty-like, and was not put together in the most sturdy fashion. This place, I knew from earlier, had beds in the back, and–more importantly to me at the time–beer. I searched for a weak spot to try to break in, and found one on the side door. Using my fingers and thumb on both hands to pry it from the frame, I snapped the hook-and-eye lock on the inside out of its wooden moorings and chuckled with self-satisfaction as I strolled into the club. A warrior come home. I walked to the cooler and cracked a beer.
Then the alarm rang, piercing the night as sure as a bolt of lightning. I quickly put one beer in each of my four pockets and bolted for the door. In the interest of stealth, I opted to jump the chain-link fence in front of the exit I had taken rather than run down the corridor to the street.
A sharp pain slashed my hands as I vaulted the fence. The steel wire tops had been filed down to sharp points, and the flesh on my palms was cut to ribbons as I shot myself over, somehow not getting hung up on the top. I fell on my ass, breaking the two bottles of beer back there, and ran away from the approaching sirens with broken glass clinking in my pockets.
PUNK ROCK THUG LIFE
Two blocks later I finally stopped by a trash can to empty the glass. When I was done I looked down the sidewalk and saw a tall, muscular man walking toward me. He looked like he had done whatever he wanted in this neighborhood for a very long time, and was about to continue to do so.
“You got a cigarette, white boy?” he said.
Sizing him up, he was about 6’5”, 210 pounds. His eyes were not exactly kind and neighborly. I was about 6’ even and 145 sopping wet at the time. Crazy beats tough, I said to myself.
“Nah, man, I’m out.” I cocked my head to the side and grinned, giving him bird-eyes, wide like a certifiable nut-job.
Apparently he hadn’t got the memo on crazy. “You got any money, then, white boy?” he asked, walking closer.
There it was.
“I don’t have shit, man,” I said, opening my hands to demonstrate my lack of cash. His eyes bugged out, and he stopped, then turned and walked away, muttering something. I didn’t care what, as long as he was walking away. I looked down at my palms, slick and dripping with blood. Maybe crazy hadn’t beaten tough, but crazy and bloody sure had. Nobody in 1997 was going to risk anybody else’s blood on them if it was at all avoidable.
I breathed a sigh of relief and walked away.
All the longest minutes of my life crept by before I noticed I was walking by some of the same things, and was getting some bearings. I circled back to near the music club, watching the cops check it out from down the street, then walked away and bided my time until the police cruiser pulled off. Exhausted, I went across the street from the club and laid down underneath a delinquent vehicle, dozing off for a few until the club owners came back in the morning, only about an hour away.
When I woke up, I approached the club, careful not to show my blood-stained hands, and ordered a beer. The cold bottle felt like heaven to my wounded palms as the owner told me they had had a break-in. I feigned surprise as best I could, not able to tell whether or not he knew it was me. To be honest, at that point I didn’t care. I was going to be long gone before any police work came back on me, of that I was positive. Whether it would be getting sent home by my pissed off bandmates or continuing on tour remained to be seen. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to cop to this.
There were five messages for me on the club’s machine–two from Austin Girl and three from my band. When Austin Girl came back, she was pissed that I had messed up her night. I was just happy I was alive and with someone who could connect me to my life.
A couple hours later, my bandmates caught up to me. They were worried, then very angry. Before they could fi re me for being such an insane idiot, I threw myself at their mercy, apologizing and swearing that nothing like that would ever happen again.
They accepted, barely, and we drove off as a band in our van that would break down at least once per day for the remainder of our trip. New Orleans had literally chewed me up and spit me out, and I tried to make fewer terrible decisions for the rest of the tour, succeeding most of the time.
Ben Johnson can be found, most nights these days, in San Diego behind the bar at The Casbah. He’s currently shopping publishers for his novel and plays in his bands Grammatical B (comedy rap) and The Long and Short of It. ~Editor