HOW I BROKE UP A PUNK BAND
He tells me I’m the cause of all the tension within the group. The harsh neon light emphasising every worried line on his face. I look down at my watch. 3 a.m. Middle of the night, middle of nowhere, Germany. We are 8 tired punks, all hunkered down in the local McDonald’s restaurant—the irony's not lost on me.
"Look", I say, and I go on explaining to him that not all bands are made to break through, and not all of us were meant to be rock stars. In hindsight, probably not the best thing to tell someone down on their luck. But then and there I was broke, hungover, and I just wanted to go home.
Okay, so let's flashback to the first day of the trip. (See what I did there? I’m a writer!) The band Bad Fortune had asked me to accompany them on their Germany tour. Officially as a photographer, but really as a tag-along friend to some of the older band members. At that time I was young, and the idea of the punk tour life rang as sweet fantasy to me. Mind you, this was years ago, and I have since had my share of the tour life—Which, if you must know, smells of old farts and potato chips—and the punk scene–Which taste like crusty leather shoes and limp hamburgers.
Bad Fortune was coming off their latest album—and what was to be their last—and had for the occasion purchased a new tour van, and when I say new, I mean old. This piece of junk was an 8-seater, Ford-something-something, Auto-transmission, mutated version of the A-Team mobile. The maximum you’re allowed to operate in Europe without having to acquire the special driver’s license for heavy machinery or something. That last part might be a lie.
So, on a cold March morning, as “The Shitmobile” rolled up to my mom’s house. I hugged my family goodbye and squeezed my skinny fat ass into the empty seat among the spikes and nails. All of whom I had previously made acquaintance with. I’ll introduce them to you (Cue the Guy Ritchie edits):
Kean Hungover: The founder of the band; Writer, lead-vocalist, lead-guitarist, and the brain behind the whole operation.
Diane: His lovely punk wife.
Bowie: Bass. Silent Bob to Kean's Jay. That is if Silent Bob fell down the grumpy tree and hit every branch on his way down.
Aspen: Second-guitarist. A young kid with a sharp sense of humor. Careless, and like me, only along for the ride.
Odd-Even: Drummer. 18 years of age, and the youngest one in the van. At that time I thought he was borderline retarded, but looking back at it I have to admit he was probably just immature and nervous about playing with the big boys.
Amadeus: A straight-cut keyboardist. Polite, well-mannered, and behaved like he had a white-collar career he was proud of (Which, was most likely the case).
And last, but not least:
Little John: A big bear of a man, with stupendously long dreads and a large brown beard to match. If this Millennium Falcon had a Chewbacca, this creature would be it. Little John always shied away from conflicts or taking sides, which is why I was not shocked when I heard he was studying to become a priest.
The old diesel engine fired up, huffing and puffing, and we set out on our grand adventure bearing south. Crammed together, with instruments, equipment and the lot up to our knees. The first checkpoint of the trip was the ship that would ferry us to the shores of Denmark. Kean Hungover had wisely booked all the tickets and cabin rooms in advance and was promising us a clean and spacious rental apartment once we arrived in Berlin.
Bad Fortune was never a “big” band, so the realistic number of only 3 gigs had been scheduled—once again, by Kean—all in small-sized venues. Your local bars, clubs and what have you.
The first tour party kicked off as soon as we found the onboard pub, and we proceeded to drink ourselves silly. Hopes were high, morale soaring, with a female voice sparking through the monitors as the local Polish band started playing. Her accent was thick and rather horrible, and the band played throughout the night.
"You mustn't fall asleep." The voice whispered.
I slowly opened my eyes. The grey open landscape of the German countryside whirling by my face as we sped down the Autobahn. My left cheek plastered across the window, warm drool on my jacket.
"You mustn't fall asleep" The voice repeated. It was Odd-Even, the retarded drummer. His evil little grin indicating the joy he had when trying to get on my nerves.
"Jesus Christ," I thought, "I need a beer."
It was of course at that exact moment that the hood of the car decided to pop up and land on the window, successfully blocking the front view, on the Autobahn, in a van doing 55. I panicked and let out a scream. "Woooaw!"
Everyone else looked at me. Kean Hungover gently pulled the Shitmobile over to the side of the road.
"Did you see that?!" I lost my shit, "We could have died!"
the older guys rolled their eyes. They had zero tolerance for making a scene.
"Jesus", I repeated to myself as Bowie duck-taped the broken hood back on to the car. "I need a drink"…
That’s why I was thrown a lifesaver when we stopped by a giant supermarket situated just outside of Berlin for some much-needed refreshments. This meant buying four cases of beer; three of them going to Aspen, Odd-Even, and I. The last one for the older guard: Kean, Bowie, Little John, and Amadeus. It was already clear at that point that two factions were emerging: The young bucks, there to party like rock stars, and the mature, more professional musicians out to make art. At this time the transmission on the Shitmobile had also started acting up, and as a result, we had lost the ability to use the 5th gear. It was an omen of things to come. (Spoiler! We would lose all but the ability to reverse.)
As we entered the apartment, the cliques immediately separated. The boys and I camped down next to the kitchen. Bowie and Little John would share the living-room, Kean Hungover and his wife, the master bedroom, and Amadeus, not surprisingly, slept at the nearby hotel. We unpacked, and the older guard popped in a Blues Brothers DVD and got comfortable in front of the TV. Me and Aspen had been chatting for most of the trip and were hitting it off. Bad Fortune seemed to be a vehicle for friendship to him, something to just play and have fun with. We popped our first cans of Slots beer, and it was the start of a beautiful friendship. (Oh, and Odd-Even, the retarded drummer, was there too). No need for us to re-watch old 80's comedies. We were here in Berlin! The capital of Europe! The soil on which empires had risen and fallen!
Slots, Odd-Even declared, was by far the easiest beer to drink. It had an almost clear liquid, rich in alcohol, but devoid of taste. The perfect beverage for 3 guys looking to binge away a whole week. 12 cans in and everyone had turned into best friends. To keep the party going we devised a few drinking games. The rules were as simple as they were moronic: First, together, the three of us had to consume a case of beer every day. If anyone failed to do so, the other two would have to pick up the slack. Secondly, Odd-Even had yet to change his stinky socks, so in a drunken haze he was promptly forbidden to do so for the remainder of the trip. Thirdly, Aspen was banned from taking a shit – yeah, go figure. And lastly: I was denied to shave.
The fact that I got to grow my beard out, and that they actually thought it was a punishment, is beyond me. (Look, we were pretty drunk.)
So, surprise, this is the point of the story where things start to get a little hazy. The chronology of the rest of the trip is sort of a big blur to me, so I apologize in advance for the scene to scene dissection.
At some point, a drunk Aspen decided it would be a smart idea to climb a building. This plan was carried out by merely strolling into a nearby construction site in the middle of the day and climbing the scaffolding like an alcoholic Spider-Man. The construction workers, dumbfounded by the event, gazed on in amazement. I laughed, Odd-Even was scared.
The first gig Bad Fortune played in Germany was a complete disaster. –
Well, that’s not entirely correct, since the music was great, and I think all two enjoyed it. That being me, and the bartender of the place. To add insult to injury, the second gig they had booked was canceled later that night. The older guard took this news quite hard, and with weary eyes, they packed up the instruments, and we headed back to our apartment.
In light of the failed musicianship and the overconsumption of alcohol, we were told that the drinking games had to stop and that we were ruining the trip by acting like complete monkeys. All of this was of course true. Unfortunately, by saying so, and demanding change, it added fuel to the fire of distrust and bitterness between the two cliques and helped increase the gap between us.
Thankfully, the situation improved somewhat the following night, as we decided to hit the town in an attempt to bury the hatchet. On top of that, we met several interesting local figures ready to help us out with the tour, which resulted in the band getting slated for a show in the outskirts of Berlin. Little-John got shit-faced, Bowie sang acapella for a group of scared passengers on the subway, and Kean Hungover drank mead from a horn. We had gone from rock bottom to getting back on track. All within the short span of a day.
I wish I could say that the morning after was filled with remorse and accompanied by a splitting hangover. But the fact was at that time I had been drinking non-stop, and my body had acclimatized to the constant punishment. We spent the day sightseeing, checking out the local thrift-stores before getting ready for the big gig. As we jumped in the Shitmobile that evening, it was clear that tensions were high. No one wanted a repeat of the last show.
The venue was in a rural area outside of the city, and with my limited geographical knowledge of Germany, and the fact that I was sloshed on Slots, it could have been on Pluto for all I was concerned. When we finally arrived, it had been dark for quite some time. I crossed my fingers as we pulled up in the parking lot and was met with a cacophony of rock music and chatter. A sigh of relief was audible throughout the Shitmobile. In the end, the dream of a Germany gig had come true.
Bad Fortune played through the night, and the audience loved them for it. It now holds a special place in my heart. Memories from a time before we knew everything about everyone. It still holds a certain nostalgic mystique to me. They were the Sex-Pistols playing for a small crowd of 200 in a rusty basement in '77. They were a night at CBGB when New York was dangerous. It wasn’t filmed with a glossy iPhone camera. It wasn’t tweeted, nor linked, nor liked, nor shared. And all that remains of the show are memories and the few photos I took. It's myth to be precise. It’s the childish revisionism that myths are made of.
Ultimately, the morning of departure came. The glory of that great gig still fresh in our mind, but underlining it was also the bitter realization that the tour had been a failure. Kean took it the hardest, and the old guard let him be to himself. Bad Fortune had gone to Germany to make a name for themselves. To put on great shows and rock the city to its core. They had instead ended up playing 2 gigs, with one of them being a glorified soundcheck.
Before we left, Kean took me aside, and we had a real heart to heart. He was pretty somber and explained to me that I had been corrupting the younger members of his band, and that he regretted asking me to join the tour. I don’t believe it came from a place of anger or hate, and surprisingly it didn’t sting that much—though I do remember it well. But, hey, don’t worry kids! It gets worse, a lot worse...
With Berlin disappearing behind us—or the city of I’ll- crush-your-dreams! As I now like to call it—we were back on the road. And, again the van was acting up. This meant that the Shitmobile couldn’t reach the speed necessary for the Autobahn, leaving us the smaller roads to navigate. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I got to see a lot of the enchanting German scenery. I felt sorry for the boys and the repair bill they would later receive. But after seeing miles and miles of highway—and the all too touristy Berlin—it was an absolute delight. Bright amber yellow trees as far as the eyes could see, deep valleys brimming with creamy mist. Germany can be such a breathtaking place.
We followed the country roads into the night, before yet another gear failed, leaving us at a rather pathetic snail pace. Distraught, we took refuge at the local McDonald’s (The story comes full circle!). The guys were spent. At the breaking point. An empty fast-food joint at the edge of the world. Kean just kind of sat there, slumped over in the corner, staring out into space. I did the only thing I could and grabbed a seat next to him. It’s hard to tell what he might have been feeling, but fuck it, I’m gonna armchair psychologist the shit out of it:
I once saw this stand-up comedian doing a bit that struck surprisingly true: That we’ve all been told by our parents we could be anything we want to be, but that it’s really a lie. It’s the scam of our generation. What do you guess all those kids brought up on MTV and Hollywood would want to be? Plumbers? Carpenters? They all wanted to be rock stars and movie actors, and you know it. Open mic night for everyone! Well, guess what? You haven’t got shit to say. You’re not talented enough. The winning lottery number didn’t have your name on it. He knew it, I could see it in his eyes. I saw the very second that a grown man gave up on his childhood dreams, and I probably gave him a push. Like putting a dying dog to rest, I told him:
"Not all men are created for greatness. We do the best we can with what we have. We make a place for ourselves. A person to hold our hand, a green patch of grass, and a place to call our own." I might have been telling myself as much as him. Time to grow up. We crawled back into the Shitmobile and snailed our way off into the cold night.
"Wake up." A voice whispered to me. My legs were cramping up, and I’d been sleeping with my head against the window again.
"The car broke down." Odd-Even mournfully muttered. I watched my breath condensate in the air. How long had we been stuck?
"The last gear is shot," Aspen complained.
We all gathered that the next logical move was to call someone. This was during the early dawn of the smart-phone era, mind you, and so it proved to be a bit easier said than done. Firstly, they had to call the local guys back in Berlin to get a couple of numbers—that part went off without a hitch. Then, they had to call the help-desks. Do you know how many 24-hour help-desks in Germany that speak English? No one, and I mean no one. On top of that, we had no clue where we were. It was freezing, and the atmosphere was dense and daunting. I peered out into the winter scenery, pondering where we might find ourselves. Could this have been the site of a battle? Had soldiers marched these fields cold, alone, and starving? Would we be sitting here 'till morning? And at what point does a peculiar situation turn into a legitimate emergency? Is it this awkward transition like the one I was watching unfold?
Eventually, Kean and Little John, by some means of divine intervention got a hold of an English speaking voice on the phone, and they finally figured out the address. Then, after waiting a couple hours more, a giant truck showed up and gave us a much-needed lift. The driver looked like Mario’s evil twin, and he charged like him too.
We entered a city of, well, let's just call it Bricktown, I really can’t be bothered to remember as we might as well have been stranded on the dark side of the moon. Bricktown was right next to, uhm, Bay City. And by right next to, I mean really far away. Kean dropped by an ATM and paid gangster Wario an obscene amount of cash, effectively leaving most of us in debt to him. Then we all booked into Bricktown Motel; broke, cold, and tired.
The next day ushered in the scavenger hunt of the century, as we attempted to get the Shitmobile repaired. A quest, which after many hours, only succeeded in us restoring the first gear. Since we were starting to burn daylight, we all decided our best chance was to gamble on the transmission surviving and slowly make our way towards Bay City. There we could board a ferry to Sweden, and from Sweden: Home.
Blah, blah, blah. Fast forward to nightfall.
Scenery: The terminal.
The first gear had gone kaputt again (Raus, raus! Schnel! jawohl, Kommandant!) The good news was that we had reached our safe haven: Bay City. The bad news was that the car had broken down yet again, forcing us to spend the night in the terminal.
The feat of getting the Shitmobile onto the ferry was one of the greatest human accomplishments I have ever witnessed. Aspen somehow managed to reverse an overloaded 8-seater up a two-story ramp, around a sharp 90° turn, and then onto the ferry. To be honest, then and there, I would have been relieved if he had driven us straight off the side, to plunge into the depth of the Baltic Sea.
We were on board at last. Now, not only broke, but also heavily in the red. Motels we weren’t supposed to stay at, truck towing gangsters, extra gas money, mechanics who couldn't fix anything. On top of that, the van would sooner or later have to be repaired. (Luckily, as a non-band member I stayed out of that one.) Reality had hit, and hit hard. The penniless rockstars were on their way home.
Reversing onto the docks in Sweden proved to be a lot less complicated. There were no quirky angles, no steep points, and Aspen could simply hit reverse. Finally, in Sweden, we found Bowie’s parents waiting for us, each with their respective cars. Someone had been bright enough to call ahead for some much-needed back-up, once it was painfully apparent that the Shitmobile was reversing into an early grave. Kean reached out to a nearby mechanic and dumped the van with him. (Trivia: The man committed suicide three weeks later; The curse of the Shitmobile?) Then we all jumped in the cars and drove home.
An uneventful 6 hours later, at long last, I stumbled in my front door and collapsed on my bed. I might have cried. Honestly, I can’t remember.
I guess this is the point where I tell you the moral of the story. The truth is I don’t have any... If I make something up I could say we’re all just people hanging on, trying to get through life, and often you’ll have something to say, but no one there willing to listen. Perhaps the funniest comedian was a Chinese guy in '85 who performed for 2 years in Beijing until he gave up because people didn’t understand stand-up there yet. Maybe the greatest director never had any friends who wanted to be in his movies. I would like to think something to that effect applies to Bad Fortune. The right guys at the wrong time. A '98 Cali band stuck in '08 Germany. A crowd blissfully unaware of the storm looming on the horizon. I do genuinely believe that their albums are amazing and that they had something unique. That they could have been someone. But, then again, as the wonderful Kirsty once said, "so could anyone."
Bad Fortune never played another show together, nor did they record another song. I kept in contact with Aspen, and he gave up playing guitar entirely. He founded and now owns a successful PR company aimed towards apps and the internet. I hear he’s doing well. Odd-Even was the first to quit the band after the doomed trip. He’s now a farmer and post pictures of mostly chopped wood on his Instagram. I never heard from Little John again, but rumors have it that he dropped out of priesthood altogether. Amadeus, I believe, is still in his white-collar job, although higher up on the corporate ladder. Kean Hungover, the machine behind it all, watched as his band imploded a few months after the tour. He grew up, had a baby, and opened up a small, successful music store—His wife a hair salon. They moved into a new and bigger house close to town. With a green patch of grass. A place they could raise a family, and a place they could call their own. Oh, and Bowie? He rents their basement. I’ll grab a can of Slots now, and raise a quiet toast for punk, myth, and days long gone by.
Oh, and hey, if you’re heading to Berlin,
take a flight,