by Nick Tarlowski
Somewhere between the advent of MapQuest turn-by-turn instruction printouts and GPS-powered smart phones, there was a revolutionary and semi-reliable resource to help navigate tours: the Garmin. My band, The Heat Machine, had one, and we trusted it to a point.
For reference, The Heat Machine was a ska band that had a rotating lineup of musicians and singers who could go on tour. We were all friends who played in different bands and came together to start what we thought would be a low-key house show band — a ska band. Little did we know that it would take us all over the country, and introduce us to Flood, the owner of Connecticut-based Asbestos Records, on which our record was to be released. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
On tour, we were always watching roadsigns thanks to our Garmin’s uncanny ability to reset and send us through horrible traffic, road construction or the scariest most derelict part of a giant city. Having to be constantly aware kind of defeats the point of having a Garmin in the first place, though, when it came to the few turns before the club you were playing that night in the basement of a giant warehouse with no markings or signs, it was a relief to have.
One summer, at the start of a lengthy East Coast tour, our Garmin screwed up big time, only this time things couldn't have turned out better.
The tour began with what drummer Mitch Cady described as a "harbinger of certain doom.” Our tour kickoff show had been cancelled. We found out as we were loading the trailer to head to Omaha for the show. So instead of playing a lucrative show at a venue with door money and cheap drinks and a chance to sell our new record, we played an out-of-control, super-drunk house show that made us next to nothing. It was still a win because it was loads of fun, but a bit of a kick in the stomach money-wise.
A couple days later, we were headed farther east. We had done our homework the morning we left and headed out with more than enough time to make it to the show that night. Travel was easy that day, and we were joking around in the van. Mitch was driving for a good part of the day, constantly checking the Garmin to make sure we were on the right path. A few hours passed before there was a sudden commotion in the driver's seat. Our Garmin had taken us north — way out of the way of our supposed path to the show. Within about five minutes, Mitch had figured out where we were and was on the phone with the venue to inform them we had taken a wrong turn and were going to be late. He hung up the phone disappointed. Not only had we driven hours out of the way, but the show had started early. A matinee rock show? Today? Of course.
Now nearing Cleveland, we decided to stop and get something to eat. We figured we might as well, as busking and trying to jump on a show were the only two things that could monetarily save our night. As we rolled into town, someone brought up the thought of going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Too expensive," was the general reply, but the notion that we might be able to get in for free was always out there. After all, we are broke and on tour. Maybe we could talk our way in? Maybe they would just let us in? We figured we'd give it a shot.
We rolled the van into a curbside parking spot quite a distance from the museum. The afternoon sun was shining as we piled out, locked up and rummaged through the trailer for some proof we were The Heat Machine from Lincoln, Nebraska. With a handful of records and some eye skull stickers, we made it to the front of the building.
I was elected to do the talking, as apparently I was born with the Talks Well With Strangers gene. At first, I was confused, though. I needed to find the person in charge — the person I was going to try and weasel free passes from, but the only person I saw was a stout, bearded biker guy in full biker garb: shades on indoors, sleeveless jacket to announce his full-sleeve tattoos, boots, bandana. I approached him.
"Hey man, we're a band on tour from Nebraska. I was wondering who I could talk to about tickets."
He gestured to follow, so I did. We walked to a small ticket booth that I had not seen on the way through the front door. He waited as I tried to explain our situation to the lady at the counter.
"Hi, my name is Nick and I play for this band back here called the Heat Machine and we're from Nebraska and our show fell through today because our stupid Garmin doesn't know where to go and…"
"Do you have any recordings?" she asked.
"Uh, yeah. We have shirts and CDs and stickers and a bunch of stuff."
"Go get a CD for us," she said. I produced a handful of them. Meanwhile the rest of the band behind me looking very anxious. Our bassist Johnny Feuerbach was wearing his backpack, as always, and had his hands on the straps like he did when he was nervous or bored. They approached slowly. She examined the CD, which was handmade. (We were selling pre-release copies of a vinyl that had not come out yet. As far as professionalism went, they looked pretty sketchy.) She set it down.
"Let’s get you some wristbands," she said with a smile.
We looked around at each other in disbelief. We were in. Instantly our demeanor went from bummed to ecstatic. We were about to see rock ‘n’ roll history. Before leaving the entryway, I thanked the biker for his help. I shook his hand and handed him a CD. He smiled and said, "Thanks, man. Have fun."
As soon as we were in, it was madness. Like kids loose at a carnival, we instantly spilt into every direction, each one of us texting the others what we were discovering. We found Johnny speechless in front Joe Strummer's 1966 Fender Telecaster. Shortly before, I was tearing up at the sight of a pair of Freddie Mercury's shiny silver pants. We marveled at the historic electric guitars on display while Meg and Genni ran amok on Johnny Cash's tour bus. I got my picture taken with a giant hotdog-shaped spaceship that cruised over the crowds during Pink Floyd's "The Wall" tour. It was incredible. The best part had yet to come, as we had not reached the top floor, which is reserved for the museum's rotating exhibits.
That particular month, the giant square room at the top of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was devoted to Bruce Springsteen. The Boss. The walls were covered in pages torn from spiral bound notebooks — all chronicling the writing process of the his greatest songs. Johnny and Mitch were in awe, and didn't say much as they passed from page to page. I stayed upstairs to check it out some, but I've never been into Bruce the way Mitch and Johnny have. They stayed for hours.
In the time that followed, we continued to run the stairs and freak out at the sight of priceless guitars and clothing, first pressings and video clips. While the rest of the crowd seemed quiet and lethargic, we ran to exhibits, reading everything twice — sometimes out loud to each other. We were the weirdos hugging each other in the entryway and on the stairs. We were borderline obnoxious, but it was completely warranted. If someone would have asked anyone who knew, "Who are those kids freaking out at the Iggy Pop display?" the rhetorical answer, "They're in a band on tour," would have seemed almost rude.
Pictures were not allowed in the museum for good reason, so we soaked in the atmosphere with as much zeal as we could muster. By accident, we had made it to the promised land, and by the grace of a few nice people, we were allowed entry. It made sense to me then why they would let us in at no charge. It seemed like we were the only band there — at least we were the only group of kids who looked the part having conniptions over James Brown's socks.
Maybe they just wanted to watch a band from Nebraska freak out at the sight of their heroes' belongings and instruments. Maybe they felt that it was part of our journey that day and needed to be there. Maybe they just knew it would mean the world to us. In any case, we got to do something we wouldn't have been able to afford. Not by a long shot. Getting our band in had saved us around $150 collectively — money that should not be spent at the start of a tour unless warranted by an emergency.
As we had done with the bars and clubs we routinely played on tour, we closed the place down. The museum closes just before dinner time and we were there until the last minute. To cap off the day, we decided to play a few songs acoustically while the people inside cleared out. We positioned ourselves in front of Johnny Cash's tour bus and blasted through a short set of songs. Our singers, Meg Mahannah and Genni Bachinski, sang, guitarist/keyboard player Matt Hovanec and I manned the guitars, and people stopped and listened. By the time we finished, we had signed some autographs, given out a few free CDs (after all our free fun, we figured it was only appropriate), and met up with the biker we had run into that afternoon.
He told us he had been pleased to meet us, and that he was happy we had fun at the museum. We told him we had a blast and that it was one of the coolest things we had ever done on a tour. In parting, he paused and became very serious. He urged us to never stop playing. He said a few words about what a terrible place the world would be without music, because it brings people together. He told us that to him music was love and peace and a part of all good things. We didn't know it until then, but he was a volunteer for the museum. It was a beautiful thing to say. We were pretty choked up when he wished us luck and went on his way.
I don't remember where we slept that night or who we made friends with that evening. We probably slept in the van and talked about how awesome the day was. We probably drank cheap whiskey to fall asleep on top of each other, and I probably had to leave my shoes outside of the van so no one would choke to death on the fumes. The old adage that sometimes the best part of going some place is getting there is true, but only sometimes. Sometimes the drive totally sucks and right when you think you're in the clear, your fuel pump takes a dump on your plans and your van catches on fire. In this case we got lucky by taking the scenic route.
Nick Tarlowski is a Hear Nebraska contributor. We wish Nick and his newlywed wife, Karissa, the best as they leave for their honeymoon this week. Reach Nick at email@example.com.