It's not every day that a band makes it out of South Florida. This is for many reasons other than the obvious: It takes a good ten hours just to drive out of the state.
Two months after May 21, when the Heatseekers won the Miami regional competition for Little Steven's Underground Garage Battle of the Bands, we loaded up the van on Friday, July 16, and headed north to New York City and the national finals, where we played at a sold-out Irving Plaza in front of 1500 people.
Along the way, we had the usual things happen to us. Everyone blew up at each other, hung out at the Russian/Turkish bathhouse, ran up the Philadelphia Museum of Art's steps like Rocky Balboa did, and ate cold Indian food on an AC vent outside a Chapel Hill club before playing a gig for five people. We hit Jacksonville, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, Philadelphia, and Manhattan, and played shows in each town.
You think you really know someone, but you have no idea what they're like until you spend ten days in a van with them. Digestion (or lack of), weird smells, sleep deprivation, insufficient funds, poor driving directions, and my very un-rock and roll devotion to NPR were all running themes. For drummer Chuck Loose, singer/guitarist Owen McLean, guitarist Chris Maggio, and myself (I play bass), it was our first time touring outside of Florida together, and if we could make it home in one piece it would be a success.
Five days after being packed in a minivan together, we were all a mass of exposed wires that kept knocking into each other and shooting sparks. Chris wagered on who would get in a fight, freak out, or cry first. And as we finally hit the Jersey Turnpike the following Tuesday morning, I lost the latter bet.
Day of the Competition: The day before the battle, we got a call from Little Steven's camp telling us to be ready Friday morning for an interview with MTV2. With just a handful of press interviews under our belts, our only concern was trying to convince Chris that his usual reply of "bag of dicks" was not really an answer.
Now, all-black is not necessarily the uniform for the Heatseekers, but it is what we have stuck to for a few years now. It's classic and timeless like Johnny Cash was, yet easy enough to conceal yesterday's beer stains. But at 9:00 that morning, Owen met me in the lobby in a pale plaid shirt, backward green baseball cap, and his mom's old pair of black jeans that I'm now convinced is his form of a blankie. The jeans that just won't die were gray and frayed, and had a rip in the bottom of the back pocket so his wallet hung out, cradled by a few stray threads.
I don't know why I cared but somehow I did. It's not every day that a huge machine such as MTV interviews you -- even if it is MTV2 -- although the whole ordeal is something that might have clashed with our old teenage punk rock ideals in the first place. It's like the ugly kid getting asked to the prom: These things only happen once in a lifetime and damn it, you want to look good.
We arrived at the Gramercy Park Hotel (where we got free rooms for the night) to check in and headed for the bar where the interviews would happen. Other bands shuffled through the revolving door to check in and dry off. It was raining piss-hard with no sign of stopping, casting a small amount of doubt onto the day.
Upstairs, there was a quick pre-interview with an amped-up MTV girl who said things like, "That's off the shazam!" The boys renamed her "the Fluffer."
We entered the tropical wallpapered bar area, where we were propped up and pinned with microphones for the interview. Owen, who had been keeping check on everyone's emotions the entire trip, cozied up to Chris. "You all right, man?" he asked.
Chris responded, "If you ask me that one more time, I'm going to punch you in the fucking face." The cameraman, seeing an opportunity to expose band turmoil, said to the others, "Oh, this is gonna be a great interview."
But as fate would have it, when the cameras rolled we were dead silent. It was like watching a mime stuck in the headlights. I tried to open my mouth, but nothing came out. My throat felt like a desert and all that was left in it was hot air. Thankfully, Chuck dusted off some of his stock quotes and we made it through.
After a few hours we headed over to Irving Plaza. It was still raining, and Chris's Rod Stewart hair had gone limp from the humidity.
The Battle: The judges for the night included Little Steven himself and MTV stalwart Kurt Loder. The general consensus among the bands was that everyone was just happy to be there. This was a nice change from the Miami battle, where the air of nervous competition was so thick you could stab it with an ice pick.
The evening's host was Kim Fowley, the rock and roll producer/writer/et cetera best known for creating Joan Jett's teenage girl band the Runaways. His tall stature and shockingly white hair, coupled with a black suit and a white collar, made him look like a corrupt priest. My inner Catholic schoolgirl envisioned getting whacked across the knuckles with a ruler if I hit a sour note. He handed me his business card before we went on, then introduced us to the crowd. The ten-minute set was seemingly over before we even had a chance to get nervous.
The rest of the night was a blur of sweat and vodka tonics. At the end of headliners Rocket from the Crypt's set, the judges announced the winners as Muck and the Mires and the Blackouts. The two bands were solid representations of each side of the garage rock spectrum, and they were off to play another ten-minute set, but this time at Little Steven's International Underground Garage Festival on Randall's Island with the Strokes, the New York Dolls, and Iggy and the Stooges.
After oversleeping our checkout time by an hour, we returned to the road and ended our tour on Sunday in Brooklyn. We were back in familiar territory, playing at the aptly named Trash Bar. It ended up being the best show of the trip, and we left New York at 3:00 a.m. Monday morning with an extra boost of morale.
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