Roughing it in the Vedder Van
Revisiting an article written by Tim Donnelly for the 2006 August edition of Relix Magazine, entitled Band Of Brothers: Pearl Jam Marches On.
The magazine article briefly mentions Tim’s journey with us in the Touring Van and also talks about Brian Leslie’s guitar pick shirts. Both played integral parts in continuing the momentum that the Wishlist Foundation was building within the Pearl Jam community.
The article can be read entirely at the following link:
There was a 2nd article that Tim wrote for the online edition of Relix.com, which chronicles his whole journey with us. The full article, Roughing it in the Vedder Van, can be read below. I’ve added some of my own images to accompany the story, one that compliments Jason’s Pearl Jam book well.
ROUGHING IT IN THE VEDDER VAN
By Tim Donnelly
Tim Donnelly Roughs It On The Road With A Group Of Pearl Jam’s Most Rabid Fans, Encountering Tailgating Boozers, Near-Death Experiences, A Sticky Van, And America’s Greatest Band In The Zone
When a writer is assigned to write about a band whose music moves them the way music is supposed to, objectivity is usually the first thing to go. There are a few artists who turn me from objective journalist to blind fan, but perhaps none more so than Pearl Jam.
So when I was asked this spring to interview the band for Relix’s August cover story, I’ll admit it, I was nervous. The band’s music continues to inspire me, and I possess immense respect for Pearl Jam as people and as an organization. After knowing them personally and musically for 15 years, I knew I was in a win-win situation, knowing they would deliver the goods on all accounts.
So when I first glanced at the itinerary for the first leg of Pearl Jam’s 2006 world tour, I knew I was, as they used to say: “on the bus.” The run was relatively easy, two shows in Boston, down to Philly for two more, onto DC for one, then back up to NYC for VH1’s Storytellers and back home to Jersey for the final two gigs of the first leg.
Not only is the Northeast kind on the gas tank and easy to navigate, but it’s also home to some of Pearl Jam’s most rabid fans. It’s a place where the band consistently sells out shows. “I don’t why it is? Maybe because it’s denser. There are more people,” says guitarist Mike McCready. “But there are a lot of distractions there—so for fans to come to our shows is pretty mind blowing.”
When it came to travel, I wanted to do something different. I certainly wasn’t down for driving solo through the most congested part of North America’s megalopolis, though I knew people would offer to drive me to Rio de Janeiro if it meant seeing Pearl Jam. Then the words “do it like ya used to” hit me, which meant hitching rides with fellow fans—like I did up and down the right coast in 1984-86, when I traveled from Boston to Hampton Roads to see the Grateful Dead.
Back then, sometimes we’d drive and take on tag-alongs, other times we were the tag-alongs. I remember the good far more than the bad from those days. So I knew all I had to do was get to the first show and if I put out the right energy, everything would fall into place. Then a paralyzing thought came over me: In 1984, I was 17. Do the math. “Isn’t it creepy for a dude pushing forty to hitch?”
Mainstream media outlets like Entertainment Weekly and GQ latched onto the “Pearl Jam as the new Dead” theory when Pearl Jam’s self titled record dropped on May 3. Their argument was that both bands’ penchant for free-flowing live shows, changing setlists and the notion that their fanatical followers kept them viable and in business after the general public and the industry turned their backs.
If these esteemed publications were saying this, then I was going to live and ride with the people and find the connection, to see first hand if there even was one, even if I was the thread. Hanging out in the parking lot and asking a question to fans wasn’t gonna cut it.
The other side of my brain was telling me that I needed to quell my youthful memories, my impulsive and irrational thinking. So to get rid of this mature reaction quickly, I pulled up my (18th) birthday show from 4/6/85: The Grateful Dead at the Philly Spectrum, pressed play on the second set and heard the master opus of “China Cat”/“I Know You Rider”/“Playing in the Band”/“Uncle John’s Band.”
Listening to that movement which occurred 21 springs ago—like it was the first time I heard recorded sound—re-affirmed to me that music is the purest form of simple, clean goodness. Also, that most humans, especially fans of good music, are inherently nice people.
Then I put on Pearl Jam’s official bootleg of the second night at Atlantic City’s Borgata and dialed Tim Bierman, the man behind Pearl Jam’s influential and high effectively fan club, The Ten Club.
“Timmy B., it’s Timmy D.,” I said on his voicemail. “I need to find fans who you know, who are not that nuts, and who I can hitch rides with for the northeast leg. Please call if someone comes to mind. Thanks.”
An hour later the phone rings and Bierman simply says, “Find the Canadians with the van. They did a DVD about driving the van the whole Canadian tour last fall. By all accounts they seem like good kids.”
The plan was hatched: JetBlue it to the two nights in Boston and find the Canadians.
Boston Doesn’t Suck Anymore
Boston is a perilous place for the non-drinking Irishman. On show day, around the building forever known as “The Gah-din,” the volume of wasted people meandering aimlessly is staggering. Most of the Boston Irish can handle their booze, but up here it’s a ritualistic rite of manhood to get absolutely blotto before a concert.
The last time I saw Pearl Jam in Boston was back in ’94 at the “Old Gah-din,” when an inebriated chick smashed a wad of gum into my thinning hair. The reason? I was rocking too hard. Needless to say I left the banks of the dirty River Charles with a nicked but freshly shaved skull, whiplash from the head banging and revenge in my heart.
My last trip to Boston was three years ago when I almost came to fist-a cuffs while on assignment for Relix at the historic Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band show at Fenway Park. A ruddy face drunk named “Sully” kept screaming “Yankees Suck” in my ear during “Into the Fire,” an extremely poignant song about 9/11.
Before I could turn around to say something mean and provocative to the Mass-hole, he pushed me from behind. Thank God for the Dean of Boston music journalism, the now semi-retired Steve Morse of The Boston Globe, who saw the flames in my eyes.
“Jeezus Timmy. Don’t bother, he won’t last another song,” I remember Morse saying with his hand planted on my shoulder. He was right. The drunk passed out and pissed himself during the next selection.
So my love for the music fans of Beantown coupled with the fact I am a died-in-the-wool Yankee fan had me a little edgy upon arrival at my hotel. I was two hours early for check-in when I saw the sign: “No early check in today, NO EXCEPTIONS!”
I caught on that the peeps at the front desk were Puerto Rican. I spend a lot of time down there, so I threw out, “Are you Boriquen, mamasita?” Ten minutes later I was sprawled out on my king size bed in the largest suite in the house, which overlooked the venue and crowds outside. In tribute to the red furniture I aptly dubbed them, “The Bill Walton Suite.” My ill feeling toward Bostonians was quickly changing as my love for Puerto Ricans grew deeper.
Never have I been a big cover-band guy, so when I found myself listening to Backseat Lover, a Pearl Jam tribute band, at The Harp Bar across the street from the venue, it felt pretty friggin’ strange.
One, I know the guys they are imitating, so that’s kinda weird. Two, I come from the Jersey Shore, a place where cover bands command big money, while local talent goes unheard because someone wants to hear “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Again. Three, they are making money off of other people’s merits and art. Boston’s very own Godsmack started off as an Alice in Chains cover band. Need I say more?
“EEEEEven-flow walks around like butta-flies,” sings the guy who really does sound like Eddie Vedder. The guitarist to his right is doing his best Mike McCready, standing in place doing the po-go, while throngs of Boston-bro-men in Red Sox caps are rocking out. You get the picture.
I went across the street to the box office for the first of my nightly ticket lottery. Going into each show I had no idea were I was sitting, much like a fan 10 Club member. It seriously was the lottery when I was handed my envelope. Excited, I ran to the seating chart with ticket in hand. It wasn’t the greatest, but it’s only night one, it’s free, and it’s my job. Not a bad gig.
After surfing the waves of drunks entering the arena (as opposed to people tripping face like in ’84 with the Dead), I sat next to a young woman named Eileen who hailed from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. This was her fifth and final show of the tour. She was polite and cherub-faced until the house lights dimmed. Then she put her game face on and let out a primal scream to the opening strains of “Release” that literally blew me down the aisle.
“Why do you love this band?” I asked her. “Because they make me feel free. I am actually the best version of myself when I am at a Pearl Jam show,” she said. I asked her what she did for a living, to be able to take the time off of work. “I am a police officer,” she said. I started to move back down the aisle.
“Dude, what are you taking notes for?” asked the 30-something stoner sitting behind me in a Black Sabbath shirt as he passed along something that smelled like Mexico. I told him what I was doing and he said, “I like metal, man, but Pearl Jam hits you in the heart. Write dat, dude.”
From the stage, Vedder shows a little bit of his big heart by remembering the clubs that paved the way for them. “Boston has been good to us over the years and we feel it. We remember The Axis, The Orpheum, The Garden and the three nights where we tried to play all our songs,” he said, toasting the crowd with his wine bottle.
When Pearl Jam opens with “Release” it is known to the hardcore fan that the night will be special and doing a two-song set of Dylan songs in tribute for Bob’s 65th birthday was just icing on the cake. With a bottle of wine in his hand Vedder toasted Dylan by doing “Forever Young” and “Masters of War” in a way that would have cracked Dylan’s craggy veneer.
After the show I went on a walk, dodging puddles of puke to find the elusive silver van with British Columbian plates. With no luck, I retreated to my suite, washed my sneakers to the last notes of “Rockin’ in the Free World” ringing in my head, knowing that if I don’t find these cats before the end of the show, my plan was more than derailed.
Looking for a Maple Leaf in a Hay Stack
The first heat wave of the year arrived in time for the Hunt for the Canadians. I asked everybody whom I recognized from the day before if they had seen them. Finally I got the answer I was looking for, “One of them is wearing a Hawaiian shirt. I saw them at the Harp.” Unless Buffett is in town, Boston ain’t usually a hotbed for floral prints on men, so I knew I was close.
On my arrival at the Harp I see them at a table doing shots of something foul looking. “Are you the van guys?” I ask. “Yea, you bet,” replied the skinny, short and heavily bearded one known as “Newfie Joe.” “Wanna shot?” he asked.
“No thanks on the shot. I was told by a friend of mine about what you are doing and I’d like to see if I can catch a ride with you guys,” I said. They said it shouldn’t be a problem, and a plan was hatched to meet at the van in front of Hooters after the show.
Secure in knowing that I had a ride to Philly I walked to the box office with a sense of purpose. It was to be a good night and with the ticket I was given it was gonna be impossible not to have fun. Third row, side of stage right on the aisle was a great seat except for the security guards standing directly in front of me.
With an opening of “Severed Hand”/ “Corduroy”/ “World Wide Suicide”/ “Do the Evolution” it was obvious that the gauntlet was being thrown down. They had to lay it on the line. For the first time in a decade Pearl Jam was ruling the airwaves and, in Boston, only The Boss and Aerosmith get as much love as Pearl Jam.
Mike McCready knows his band has a sense of purpose again in capturing another generation of Pearl Jam fans and is surprised by the recent accolades and airplay. “I am shocked. You never know, with the last couple of records, we did okay, and then we come out here and still play sell-out shows. To have it being out there in the radio atmosphere is pretty cool, I think. Maybe that is attracting new people I am not sure. I’m happy the record is doing well. I want to be able to do the songs better than they are on the record and I believe we are just beginning to hit that stride.”
In Boston, the band not only hit its stride, it was on fire, dusting off the approiate Ten classic “Garden,” a cathartic version of “I Got Shit” and—like the Dead with “Dark Star”—they dropped “Leash” for the first time since 1994.
The story about “Leash” is of Northeast Pearl Jam legend which actually has roots to another tune from the same era, “Breathe,” off of the Singles soundtrack. In 2000, fans through message boards got together and during the first encore held up signs with “Breathe” on it. After several shows in the region featured this behavior, the band relented and played it, happily butchering it.
Recently, it happened with “Leash,” a defiant rant from the same era. “Delight in our youth,” sang the man in his early 40s. The fan pressure had gotten so bad that before the webcast they did with David Letterman Vedder held up his own sign that read “‘Leash’ will not be played this evening.”
So when “Leash” was finally let loose, the place went bonkers. The techies sent text messages to let the world know as the old-school fans lost their collective shit.
Even a cameo by Red Sox General Manager—the greatest hero New England has had seen since Paul Revere—Theo Epstein couldn’t damper a show where Vedder actually flashed his nipples to the crowd.
Epstein, who wore a Beatle wig under his Pearl Jam baseball cap, avoided the detection from the Fenway faithful until he was introduced as “a guy who said he would match the money we raise dollar for dollar for the BLANK if we let him play. C’mon out Theo, Theo Epstein.’” I hate to say it, but the wonder kid rocked and I was ready for the Canadians.
After the show, I found the whole gaggle of them and their smiling minions in front of Hooters, where the main attraction wasn’t boobies and beer, but a crude silver van with hockey tape artwork.
“Hey, I’m Jason,” said the Mohawk-sporting 27-year-old. “Whose van is it?” I asked. “It’s Jason’s,” answered the Hawaiian shirt owner, Brad. The ‘89 Dodge Ram van—the one with the map of Canadian tour internary drawn out in red hockey tape on one side, with a matching map of America in blue tape on the other—was a magnet for fans.
“Can we take our picture with you,” asked a middle-aged fan. “We’ve been following you on your website,” she said. For almost an hour, fans came by to check it out, marveling at the comforts of the captain’s seats, get a whiff of stale beer and chuckle at the jerry-rigged DVD player that doubled as a broken X-Box.
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” I asked Jason after confirming my reservation on the van. “No,” he replied, as I told him of the “Bill Walton” suite at the Shawmut. Rachel Hogan a 23-year-old restaurant manager from Newfoundland and Jason would stay the night as “Newfie Joe” would sleep in the van, while Brad returned to his shared hotel room, paid by a fellow fan.
They fell asleep in seconds and I realized that they weren’t a fraction as crazy as I used to be at their age. It worried me one second, because they were so responsible, then my maturity kicked in as I got a good night’s rest.
Get In the Van
When I entered the van the next morning it was big deal as they all whipped out their cameras, evidently all new riders are shot upon embarking their journey. With a fat smile, I lunged in, embarking on my maiden voyage.
Boston is hell to drive in, it is absolutely the biggest traffic clusterfuck in America; and it’s gotten better. It’s no wonder why the British couldn’t get their shit together to take it in 1775. As we pull up to the swanky digs that Brad stayed the night, the bell hop was all smiles and laughs at the sight of the van.
I asked Jason of his planned route to Philly and it was excellent until I saw he wanted to go through New York City on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend—at three in the afternoon. I quickly staked my claim as navigator.
Then I looked at the dashboard and saw an electric fan plugged in. Frantically my eyes scanned for the AC button. “Do you have AC,” I asked in hopes that he did. “Nah. No need for AC in B.C.,” laughed Jason. The temperature at the time of our estimated arrival in Philly was to be 98 degrees.
“Fuck,” I thought to myself. “This is gonna suck.” I knew we’d hit traffic in Jersey as we made our way south. I knew it was going to be even hotter on the highway.
It took forever to get out of Beantown, but once we were on the road, I quickly realized that these kids were not like Deadheads. One, there was no smoking of any kind in the van, and if you saw the van, you’d know why. It literally screamed, “Pull me over!” Two, they listened to other music besides Pearl Jam, bands like Built to Spill, Radiohead and Soundgarden filled the cab, conversation took effort. Effort meant sweat.
As we made our way into Connecticut, the skies opened, waking those from a heat-induced coma. As the rain came through the skylight that doubled as Mother Nature’s coolant, Newfie Joe, clad in jeans and heavy work boots was reticent to fix it at first. “Ah, I don’t know, this feels good,” he said of the rain.
Once the leak was fixed, Jason and I got to talking about why he was doing what he was doing. He was working as an engineer until the Canadian tour. He explained that Pearl Jam had changed his life, made him think of his choices and the life he was living. Like most hardcore fans it’s the personal connection to the music that had him leaving his career, hopping in a van, making a film and, most of all, meeting other people who share that connection.
Stone Gossard knows that this deep, almost spiritual connection between artist and audience is special. “That’s the whole thing. When you get down to it, in terms of Ed’s ability to connect with people and his ability to tell a story and continue to approach art and his lyrical and melodic content, he just creates this world people can inhabit.”
Newfie Joe is a real quiet guy, totally unassuming. But he perked up when it came to his silver van. “Yeah when I got it, it only had 68,000 miles on it, in perfect road condition, and it came with the great seats. Rachel brought the X-Box so we could play DVDs.”
As we were rolling along the New Jersey Turnpike, a NJ State Trooper was staring at the van as we rode along side of him. Maybe it was “tonight we rock Philly” motto hockey taped on the side of the van that made him laugh. But me, I was a nervous wreck until he sped away. I know Jersey. I am Jersey. One thing I do know is the law according to Jersey, a place where anything or anyone that looks remotely different can be accosted at anytime.
When we crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philly I clamored for the breeze that emanates from the mighty Delaware below. It was stifling. The only breeze to be found was coming from Newfie Joe’s nether region. Hot, stinky, and a tad perturbed, I checked into the Penn’s View Hotel where the clerk was a double for Bronson Pinchoet’s character “Serge” from Beverly Hills Cop. After check-in, I was in dire need of a shower and a blast of cold air.
After catching up with an old college roommate and his wife I decided against going out with the Canadians on their quest for cheesesteaks.
City of Brotherly Love
I awoke comfortably freezing in my darkened room, had a smoke and a coffee, grabbed a book and went for a walk. I walked around historic sites and finally settled in an open garden area behind the house where Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense.
In the morning sun, I started thinking about freedom, about liberty and the scores of men, women and children who have died for it. When I spoke to Eddie Vedder a couple of days later I told him of my morning pondering the word liberty.
“Liberty is a powerful word, we always use freedom instead,” Vedder said after thinking for a minute. “Both are things that we take for granted and one of the things we are out there doing is saying that you can’t take it for granted, right down to living and breathing.”
I love this city with every fiber of my liberal American existence. I love the brutal honesty of the locals, the cleanliness of the streets, the historic sites and, of course, the food. For 25 years, I have seen some of the best rock shows in my life right here in America’s cradle of liberty and freedom. After lunch with my man Pi, he dropped me at the Tweeter Center in the beautiful and safe city of Camden, NJ. I am joking.
Despite a decade-long facelift, Camden is still the murder capital of America, a city where three ex-mayors are doing federal time, a spot where if you hit a red light in the middle of the night, you don’t stop. But this city of urban failure, the home of Campbell’s Soup and the birthplace of Walt Whitman, has hosted beautiful and moving musical performances from Pavarotti to Phish at the expansive shed on the river.
Philly, and Jersey as a whole, is Pearl Jam land. Philly radio station 93.3 WMMR plays more Pearl Jam than any other station in the world. After PJ shows, MMR plays back the night’s show song for song. With that kind of love, Pearl Jam could sell out a 20-night stand here, just like The Dead could.
Eddie Vedder feels that he has a kinship with the fans in the area and the relationship is workingman-like. “In the Northeast, they are hard-working towns. We feel we are in communion with putting our noses to the grindstone and picking up a hammer and working hard at what we do and they respond to that. We feel like we get it from them as well. It brings out the best in both of us.”
“It’s quite special, the relationship the band and the region has,” said Pierre Robert, the voice of MMR and Philly rock radio. Robert, a native San Franciscan, saw the Grateful Dead many times and feels the same vibe from Pearl Jam, especially in Philly: “Just like the Dead, Pearl Jam has amazing integrity. The folks in Philly can sense that and they respect that. I am fascinated by Pearl Jam as an entity in itself. It’s also the connection the band has with their audience, they treat them as equals and that comes across as well. It’s funny. When I saw their stage set up, it reminded me of The Dead, with the rugs, the candles and the people on the side of the stage, kind of like a controlled chaos. But, to me, they hold the torch high for great rock ‘n’ roll.”
Pearl Jam fan Jim James of My Morning Jacket (East Coast leg opening act) is not sweating in the oppressive heat backstage in Camden. His thicker-than-thick beard and his long, curly hair are bone dry. My eyeballs are sweating and I want to shave every follicle of hair I have on my body, yet he remains cool and has felt the white connection between the fans and the band.
“The thing that blows me away is every night, all 20,000 people sing along with Eddie as one. They sing every word, every syllable. That’s amazing to me. It’s like they are an extra member of the band.”
Heavy Aluminum Parking Lot
Like Boston fans, the Philly/South Jersey followers love the booze and here tailgating is done with honor, even if it’s really 98 degrees in the shade, if there was any. People made their own shade with tarps and tents but I have never seen so many pink and red faces in my life.
Hordes of beer-toting fans come by the van, asking if the riders need tickets or beer, but most of all bond over the music. “Didn’t you think that Boston 2 was insane?” asked a passerby. “Yeah, but I hear Philly rocks harder,” said Newfie Joe. He had yet to find out exactly how hard. “This tailgating is unreal,” he said, hoisting a brew and looking out at the thousands of BBQs being fired up. He’s amazed by the sound of cans opening in rapid-fire succession. “Its music to my ears man,” he laughed.
He’s right. It’s impressive, especially when each vehicle is blasting out a different tune from a different show. You’ll hear “State of Love and Trust” from Atlantic City, “Yellow Ledbetter” from Camden 2 in 1998, or “Baba O’Riley” from Madison Square Garden in 2000. The sing along has already begun, three hours before show time.
It’s an all-ages affair, as older fans are now bringing their kids. Younger fans are being schooled by the veterans on the PJ way and the die-hards are saving their energy for the main course, not getting sucked into 16 oz. appetizers.
The van gets attention from everyone; it’s become a gathering place for the lonely hearts that have traveled a long way from their respective homes. Two brothers from Wisconsin stop by to offer up a cabin if PJ plays Alpine Valley. A 40-something couple from California stop by with a bottle of Napa Valley’s finest and are amazed by the friendliness of the van riders. It’s a love fest.
My Philly ticket lottery is a winner as I am under the roof about 25 rows back in the middle. I meet the guys to my left, atypical Philly guys with gold chains and sardonic wit. “Yo, we got anything you need man. Wanna hit?” asked the one next to me. To my right there was an empty seat, with the aisle seat being taken by a rather large dude in preppy attire, whose surly behavior would end up driving me from my seat just two songs in.
Hot, pissed and thirsty I head for the lawn where the creatures of leisure are not worried about anything except if the lighter is working and that the beer is cold. I’m amongst brothers and sisters up here, where the view of the Philly skyline against the Delaware River is breathtaking.
‘This is where I belong at this moment,” I thought to myself. I soaked it all in, the breeze, the scene and, most of all, the sound. During “Porch,” the last song of the first set, came the only time where I actually felt a connection between The Dead and Pearl Jam. It was reckless improvisation being driven by McCready, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron, who brought it back to square as Vedder picked it back up to bring it home. It was a loose-but-driven jam, but like The Dead, the band knew exactly where they were going.
After the gig, the parking lot looked like the rest of the city: broken, beaten and battered. Cans and bottles were everywhere while the swirling dust looked like fall out from a bombardment. The exiting traffic was unreal and I ran over to catch the ferry back to Philly only to find the line worse at the river. So back to the van I went.
What I found at the van could have been potentially a dangerous situation: a drunken Newfie Joe talking to a Camden cop. Despite Joe’s claims as being the “smallest and toughest oil roughneck on the planet,” he was absolutely no match for Camden’s Finest.
“C’mon, officer, let me video you for the movie we are making,” slurred Newfie. “No video. No pictures,” responded the cop, whose arms were bigger than Newfie’s legs. “Lemme get this straight, you guys drove this van, this van right here, from Vancouver,” the lawman asked. “You betcha,” said Newfie. “Well, that’s pretty nuts.”
Before I knew it, Newfie was snapping pictures, and posing with the officer. “Be careful leaving here fellas. Stay on the street that leads you out, don’t make a turn, I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to ya,” said the cop before he drove away smiling.
My phone woke me before the alarm did, and it was a most pleasant surprise. It was an old friend from high school, who 20 years prior made my heart sing. We’ll just call her “Sunshine.” We had the same homeroom all four years; she was—and still is—a beautiful woman. Back then she’d wear the long, flowing hippy skirts and follow The Dead, but she ran with a different crowd than me. Her crowd scared the shit out of me, at 17 or any other age; I wasn’t down with droppin’ hits on a daily basis.
Twenty-five years after we first met we hit it off, so she was my date for evening, joining us for a beverage were my old college roommate Goids, another college buddy, the incomparable right-wing Springsteen/Pearl Jam fan Paulie, and Goid’s old buddies, Scotty and Bart.
Bart and I have gotten closer lately, as some nights he is up all night reacting from his chemotherapy. Knowing that I like to work at night, he’d IM me and we’d chat about the benefits of ganja during his wretched treatments. He’d lol and tell me the opiates work just fine, he’d tell me what PJ song he was listening to and what time his treatments were to start in a couple of hours and now, here he was standing in front of me with short hair, He was lighter but, damn, he was smiling. Fucking smiling—and alive.
I won the lottery again as Sunshine and I made our way to killer seats. The madness in the parking lot was still raging as we entered, the heat rose to 99 degrees at show time, when the opening strain of “Wash” was heard with Vedder’s words: “Oh please let it rain today. This city is so filthy, like my mind in ways. Oh, there was a time, like a clean, new taste… Smiling eyes before me, inches from my face. Wash my love. Wash my love,” it was apparent to me that a special night was in store.
Special it was, especially when it came to “Alive.” Vedder no longer owns the song; its meaning is different to each listener, with the song taking on a life of its own. For me, I thought of Bart. I thought of McCready. Sunshine thought of her brother, who passed 20 years ago. After all these years, the power of music still makes me emotional. Yeah, I cried during “Alive.”
I talked the touring van kids into coming to my house at the beach for the day off, which was Memorial Day. I cajoled Newfie Joe into buying the first pair of shorts he’s ever owned, I laughed as he jumped into the 60-degree water, which is bath water for a cat from Newfoundland. Jason asked about the surf. Rachel looked at home at the beach. Outside of the shows, I hadn’t seen them this happy. It was supposed to be a “re-charge” day, no beer for the Canucks. Well, by the end of the day, my recyclable container, which was empty in the morning, was now full.
The next day’s travel was mapped. Rachel would be dropped at the bus to take her to the airport and we would leave for D.C. shortly thereafter. I knew what lied ahead. Hell, four-plus hours of pure, unadulterated hell. But I was prepared: I was wearing nothing but a pair of surf trunks.
Jason took the reign first getting us to Route 95. The problem was this, though: It was so hot, that having the windows opened made it hotter. Yep it made it hotter. So when “Newfie Joe” and I took the reigns, we sat in stone-cold silence, not muttering a word to one another because we would have used valuable oxygen.
He kills me, this Newfie Joe character. He reminds me of what I read about Neal Cassady, hyperkinetic, excellent driver who could fix anything with a stick of gum and a string. He works the off-shore oil rigs though he’s got two college degrees. Jason met him during the Canadian tour while Newfie was hitch-hiking from show to show. He’s a throwback to an earlier time in history. His honesty was refreshing but, fuck, it certainly didn’t make it any cooler in the van.
We switched up again when we entered Maryland and then I saw my life pass before my eyes. We were doing about 85 in the left lane when one of those big orange phallic looking, garbage can sized, construction cones suddenly appeared in our lane. Jason literally had inches on his right side to avert disaster: hitting another vehicle or hitting the can. Like a snowboarder on a giant slalom, he cut and grooved his way out of it with ease then I saw his Asian skin go pale.
With every molecule alert, we hooted and hollered. Newfie’s hangover was now gone. My frazzled nerves became calm. Until 30 seconds later, when I realized I was still hot. The traffic leading into D.C. of course was stupid. We sat there and baked. I was shot, I was done. I wanted to die, right there in that van.
We finally found my hotel, where I was stuck behind a seventh-grade class on a field trip at the check-in desk. Giggling tweenagers jacked up on candy, away from their parents in a town where all innocence has been shredded and discarded.
I finally got my room key, opened the door and was welcomed with a blast of hot air that was hotter than anything I had experienced in the van. It was 100 degrees outside and the AC in my room was not working. I looked for something to hurt and realized that I wasn’t going to hurt myself because that would have meant—you got it—effort.
My patience was long gone. Three hours later, after six—count ‘em, six—showers, ten minutes before I was to leave for the gig, my room phone rang they had a new room for me. I wanted to kill.
The Just Reward
I got to the arena, grabbed my ticket and couldn’t believe my eyes: third row, front and center, prime real estate in Vedder-ville. Jason had second row. Newfie Joe had first row behind the stage and was going absolutely bananas. I missed the opening song. When I arrived, I looked up to see Mike McCready pointing to his watch, jokingly scolding me for my tardiness. Vedder and I locked eyes as sang “Grievance” together.
The energy was high enough to brown out the Capitol building. Being this close, dancing, rocking and sharing was exactly what this trip was intended to be. The end of my row was full of handicapped fans and on my way back from the men’s room I decided to stop and rock with them and I am happy I did.
Holding hands with a young man who couldn’t move the lower half of his body, I danced, laughed, sang and pseudo-moshed with him. Fuck the heat. I have no problems. None at all.
“I Got Id” and “Present Tense” are among my favorite songs from any band and having them be played back to back was unreal and coupled with the experience I had with the kid on the aisle, it connected me to what connects us all: our souls.
Jumping Off the Bus
The show in D.C. was a night that I won’t ever forget; it’s in my top five PJ shows of all time. It also gave me a sense of accomplishment in that I had done what I had set out to do. There is a tiny correlation between the Dead and PJ; it’s mostly in the community that surrounds both bands, though the shuffle function on my iTunes finds the connection all the time.
I told the boys in the van that I was going to hop off on a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike and bail on Storytellers. My mission was accomplished. My friend picked me up in her antique Volvo that had, yep, no air conditioning.
I told Vedder of my trip in the van when we caught up in Jersey. “Timmy, I should be interviewing you,” he laughed. “How where they?” he asked.
“Ed, I don’t think I’ve met nice, more considerate people in my life,” I said. “That makes me happy. Very happy,” said Vedder.
You can log onto touringvan.com and get the Canadians side of the story, including their run-ins with New Jersey and NYC law enforcement officials, which occurred after I left the van.
Right before press time, I received this message on my voicemail from Jason: “Hey Tim, it’s Jason. Well the van made it to Seattle for the end of the tour where it promptly died. It’s getting towed across the border tomorrow.” Mission accomplished. How-zah!”