I Shot A Van In Reno Just To Watch It Die

Somewhere I've got pictures of our broken down van, but they all look the same anyway.

It must have been 1996 or 1997.  I’m a little hazy on the date now.  When you’re in a young band, out of town gigs are a huge deal.  It feels like you’re going somewhere, doing something big.

Or it can make reconsider your life choices.

We were booked to play The Zephyr in Reno, NV on a Saturday night.  We hadn’t done a lot of road gigs at this point, and had never been outside of California, so we were pretty excited.  A chance to see a new state.  Even if it’s just right next door.  It wasn’t a stellar gig.  $400 to play for three hours.  Which meant we’d be doing a couple of sets.  Every song we’d ever written plus a handful of covers.

Now, the Zephyr has apparently been bought by new owners and completely remodeled into a fairly nice looking little lounge.  But back then it was a strip club that, for some bizarre reason, decided to have bands play on the weekend. Apparently there’s no market for boobs on the weekend in Reno.

So there we are.  Five scrappy dudes loading up a van with a U-Haul trailer on the back for our gear.  We’d seen a thousand other bands do it the same way.  There’s nothing like the romance of travel coupled with the promise of an awesome gig at the destination.

I had the whole band and our roadie John with me in the van.  My dad, who often drove with us as road manager, was behind us in his car with my mom and her friend who had decided to come along for fun and catch the show in Reno.  They had rooms at Circus Circus, but we were road-dogging it and crashing at the house of our roadie’s ex-girlfriend.

The first part of the trip was incident free.  And just as we got past Sacramento and into the Sierras our van started to overheat.  It hadn’t ever happened before, but whatever.  We’ll just pull over and let it cool off a bit, then get on our way.  This was the middle of summer after all.

After 15 or 20 minutes, we jump back in and take off.  And then stop again about 5 miles later to let the van cool down again.  It was running really rough and overheating like crazy.  We couldn’t figure out why.  The coolant was fine and nothing seemed to be amiss in the engine.  At least to the untrained eye of 5 musicians who know nothing about cars.

And yet, every few miles we had to keep pulling over to let the van cool down.  Now, the drive from San Jose to Reno is about 4 hours.  We’d already put in 6 and still had a long way to go.  We called the club and told them we were having auto problems and said we’d be there as soon as we could.

Fast forward a few hours.  We’re still about 75 miles outside of Reno and it’s about 6:30 or 7:00.  Show time is at 8pm.  And we’re still having to pull over and cool the van every 5 miles or so.  That takes 15 or 20 minutes each time.  So, to understate it, we’re going to be a little late for the gig.

And one point we decided to open the windows and turn the heater up full blast to try and pull some of the heat out of the engine.  The problem is the heat vents are down beneath the dashboard.  So I had full blast heat blowing on my feet and it was already in the 80′s outside.  The lyrics to Metallica’s “Jump In The Fire” kept running through my head.

As we’re waiting on the side of the road during yet another stop, an car pulls up and asks if we need help.  We explain that we’re trying to get to our gig and what all’s going on.  We hatch a plan for me and the singer, Tim, to hitch a ride into Reno with these folks who live there.  And we’ll call AAA to have the van and our gear towed to the venue.

Tim and I get in the car with these generous locals and get on the road while the rest of the crew deals with the towing.  And these locals are very nice people.  Rural types.  It’s a slower lifestyle out there.  Much slower.  And they’re driving slow.  And talking slow.  “Hooooowwwww looooooong haaaaaave yooooooouuu guuuuuuuuys beeeeeeeen plaaaaaaaaying muuuuuuuuuuusic?”  And we keep saying, “Man, I hope we’re not too LATE for the gig…” As we’re driving at 45 miles an hour.

We finally get there and have to stare down an irritated bar owner as we wait another hour for the van, band, and our gear to show up.

It arrives and we figure it’s all downhill from there.  We made the gig. Let’s set up and give the crowd what they came for.  The crowd… The crowd… Where is that crowd anyway?  We were the only band on the bill, so there was no local band to share the show with to help draw people.  And nobody knew who the hell we were.

And that is a long night, playing for 5 people for 3 hours.  And 3 of those people drove with us from California.  At one point, in the middle of a song, about 40 people walked in.  Yes!  Finally!  This may turn out to be an awesome show yet!  Wait!  Where are you all going?

By the end of the song, those same 40 people were gone.  Since we didn’t really have to stick to crowd pleasing stage banter between songs, we just asked “Hey, where did all those people go?”  The owner said they were all underage and he had to kick them out.

At least it wasn’t our music that drove them off.  So we did our 3 hours.  I seem remember at one point Tim took the wireless mic in the restroom with him and continued singing from the urinal.

We had been given a comped bar tab like a lot of places.  I don’t drink so I usually left it up to the other guys to track and take advantage of that stuff.  When I went to collect our meager pay for the night the owner told me that we had gone way over our bar tab and he had to take it out of our pay.  $60-100 bucks if I remember right.  As whirled around on my bandmates, the cause was obvious.  My bass player, Ronnie, was swaying like a willow tree in the breeze.  And apologizing.  A lot.

So we took what was LEFT of our pay and hope the van would make it to the chick’s house where we were staying.  It wasn’t too far so we arrived without incident.  Ronnie chickening out and riding with my folks in their car out of embarrassment.  They pull up behind us, he whips open the door and vomits on the ground.

We’re warmly welcomed into the house by my roadie’s ex and her mother who both live there.  And the first thing we notice is the smell.  A urine smell.  Permeating everything in the house.  At the first chance I ask John, “Dude, what’s up with the smell?”  He says, “Sorry, she has a little incontinence problem.”

There was nothing little about her problem.  The whole house smelled like a litter box.  My dad pulls me aside and says we should just all crash in their room at Circus Circus.  We all agree mostly.  John doesn’t want to ditch his ex.  They’re both certainly ready to rekindle a little romance for one night.  So he decides to stay.  And the girl’s mother had taken a shine to our drummer, Ralph.  Now, Ralph was one of the nicest dudes to ever hit the Earth.  And a horndog to boot.  So he decided to stay too.  Why, I’ll never know.  He had an easy escape.  This was not a hookup he was going to brag about anytime soon.

The rest of us split and head back to Circus Circus with my folks.  When we get there, me, Tim, and Ronnie decide we’re going to play some blackjack before sleeping.  Because our luck had been going so well the rest of the day.  They lasted for about an hour and went to the room before falling asleep on their aces.  I told them I’d be up soon.

But I wasn’t.  Casinos are interesting at about 4am.  There’s no pretense.  There’s no class divisions.  There’s no high rollers around.  And the people you’re sitting at a $5 blackjack table with will talk to anyone.  I was sitting with an old lady celebrating her 70th birthday.  And a guy in a cowboy hat on vacation.  These are people that probably wouldn’t give me the time of day if I tried to speak to them in public.  But when it comes to a blackjack table in the middle of the night, everyone’s on the same level.

I hadn’t even changed out of my stage clothes.  We had exited the venue as quickly as possible.  So I’m still sitting at the blackjack table at 4 am with my rock star duds on.  A few people look at me, wondering if I’m somebody.  Then they realize I’m at the $5 table.  I can’t be that important.

Up and down, up and down.  I wasn’t winning, wasn’t losing.  At about 9am my dad walks up behind me and asks if I ever slept.  Nope.  He tells me he’s trying to wrangle everyone together so we can go pick up the other guys at the pee house and get back on the road for what is sure to be an extremely slow drive home.  We still had no idea what was wrong with the van.  Figured we’d just stopping every few miles until we reached home and worry about it then.

Wrangling a bunch of tired, depressed musicians in a casino is no easy task.  Every time we had almost everyone together someone would wander off to drop some money on a table.  And this was before cell phones for very common, so we just had to hunt for each other.  So primitive.

At one point we discovered Tim at a roulette table.  He had become enamored with the pretty female dealer while dropping one bet after another on the felt.  He was up and down, but didn’t want to leave because he was enjoying the scenery.  I told him we need to leave now because it’s going to take us 12 hours to get home.

He had just won a decent sized bet and wanted to make one more before we left.  I glanced up at the number tracker above the roulette wheel and said, “Put it all on red.”  He did, and a few tense moments later, walked out with twice the money he’d started with.  It wasn’t the first or last time I’d called a bet like that.

Finally we’re all in the van.  Sullen.  Not talking much. Prepared for a LONG drive home.  And of course, we don’t get far before the temperature of the van spikes.  We do the stop and cool down thing 2 or 3 times.  Then someone has the idea to shift some of the gear from the trailer into the back of the van where there’s a little bit of space between the seats and the back door.  It’s enough space to get about 1/3 of the gear in there.

And guess what…. It worked.  That was it.  That’s all it was.  The damn thing ran fine the rest of the way home.  We felt like idiots.

But hey, when we got back to our rehearsal studio and loaded our gear back in we immediately started talking about the next gig.  Because we’re committed artists.  Dedicated to what we do.  Or really sick in the head and in desperate need of help.  Depending on your point of view.

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