Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thin White Rope and the Face Of Death

(Originally posted on MySpace on February 24, 2007)

My original plans for this week were to discuss the Oscars and my own picks for the best movies of the 2006-year. But I started thinking that I would rather discuss the Oscar winner choices and to do that I had to wait until they were over. So you can all look forward to that next week.

This week I've decided its time for another story about touring life with Thin White Rope. This is a story about looking death in the face and living through it, although we really didn't know it at the time.

There were three times I can remember that the band and I almost bit the big one while on the road. (This doesn't even include incidences like the band climbing to the top of a smokestack on the ferry from Dover, England to Calais, Belgium so they could piss off it. I was sleeping at the time and only heard about it several hours later as I managed to talk the Ferry Captain from pressing charges. Someday I'll have to do a whole blog about the many times I managed to talk authority into letting various members of the band go without charging them for various offenses.)

The first was during our first trip to Denver. It was winter and we were all excited to be there because it was bassist John Von Feldt's hometown and his parents, whose house we were staying in, had cooked us up an amazing meal of green chili and cheese rice. And a good meal can really make the day for a touring indie rock band. As we were leaving a great show in a great mood, our van hit a patch of black ice on an overpass and we just went out of control, heading towards the edge of the overpass where it looked like we would flip over and fall to the freeway below. Everyone was screaming and it looked like the end for us all. Fortunately, I have great reflexes and managed to turn the wheel in just the right way so the van hit the curb and bounced off instead of flipping over. (John was a great winter driver as well and probably would have saved us all in the same way.) We came to rest in the middle of the road and gingerly made our way across the bridge to safety.

Then there was the time in Germany on the Autobahn. At this period, there still was no speed limit in places on Germany's freeways and we were speeding along at quite a clip when I was suddenly cut off by an even faster driver, forcing me into the next lane where it looked like we were going to collide with slow moving truck full of sewer pipes. At that moment, I noticed a rest stop off ramp and quickly pulled into that. I went speeding through the rest stop, avoiding collision with other cars and pedestrians, until I could slow down and stop many yards later at the end of the rest stop. I looked over at Guy, who was in the front seat with me, and he was white as a sheet. Again, everyone was yelling and screaming and I think we all realized how close we came to being a red smear in Deutschland. I was much more careful on all highways after that.

But the real story here happened during the same 1988 tour that I talked about last month. The one where we ended up in Russia. I mentioned then how the Russians pretty much held us hostage and insisted we play the shows they had booked for us even if it meant we would lose our flights home. And I mentioned that our Italian booking agent had promised he would take care of the matter.

When we finally ended the USSR tour we flew to Rome, where our agent put us up in a hotel. It was there that he told us that he still didn't have flights for us, but he told us not to worry. He would get it all figured out. He told us that he would pay for the hotel and that he would meet us every evening and take us out to dinner.

The problem here was that we had no money. Everything we had made had gone into this tour. We had been touring almost 8 months that year with just a week or two here and there to visit home again. Christmas was approaching and all we really wanted to do was get home to our families. We were all sick with various illnesses. I had come off of a really bad bit of food poisoning in Russia and along with everything else that went on there, another story that will have to wait for another day, I was in the middle of a mini-nervous breakdown. And I really don't think that's an exaggeration. So we sat in this hotel room by day since we had no money to spend on anything and every night Paulo would show up to take us to dinner.

This went on for days and it was looking like we would never get home. It was almost Christmas and flights were hard to come by. Every morning Paulo would tell us that he thought he had something and then it would fall apart. We were all ready to just hang ourselves and end it all right there.

Then, on the afternoon of December 20th, Paulo said he had flights for us. They were out of the airport in Milan and we had to leave RIGHT NOW if we were going to get up there in time to make the flights. I took a few minutes to call Skip to give him our flight itinerary and then we all piled into a leaky Volkswagen van and with an Italian friend driving, speed towards Milan, hoping we could make the 8 hour trip in time. As I said, we were all sick. This was in December and the van had no heater and had holes in it that let freezing cold wind in, blowing all over us. We all thought we were going to freeze to death.

And lo and behold, after all that, we arrived in Milan about 15 minutes too late to make the flight. So we turned right around and headed back to Rome. Now by this time we were really demoralized. I didn't even think about calling home to let them know we hadn't made the flight. We just drove back to the hotel and settled into our routine of doing nothing.

The next day, I woke up with what was possibly the worst case of flu I had ever had. So, again, I didn't even think about calling home. I was too worried about what we were going to do and how I was going to survive how I felt.

And that night was when the shit hit the fan. It turned out that the Milan flight we were supposed to be on was connecting in Frankfurt, Germany. From there we were to take a flight to Heathrow Airport in the UK and then we would have continued on to the USA. But that flight we were supposed to be on turned out to be Pan Am flight 103. And that flight exploded and went down over Lockerbie, Scotland. I hadn't called home, so Skip and the band's girlfriends all thought we had been killed. Skip kept calling the airline, but they wouldn't release any information and he was in a real panic.

It wasn't until the next morning when Paulo told me what had happened, that I realized I hadn't called Skip. So I went to Paulo's office and gave him the call. I thought for sure that he would be furious with me, but he was so happy to hear my voice and realize that we were alive that I escaped his wrath.

And that was also how we got home. People started canceling flight plans out of panic and we were finally able to book a flight home. We arrived back in Los Angeles on the morning of December 24th, just in time for us all to get home with our families for Christmas. Everyone took time to eat a great meal of posole that Skip had cooked up for us and then Guy, Roger and Matt headed to Davis, while John had to drive all night to Denver to be with his family. I got on the flight as sick as I've ever been and my fever broke during a short layover in New York. I was lying on the floor in a pool of sweat at the time and I don't remember much except for seeing Lynn, a friend of the band who came by to visit with us during the layover. But by the time I got home, I was feeling pretty damned good both physically and mentally. It still took over a month before I was really feeling up to snuff though.

At the time we were just thankful that we had finally gotten home. But after the Christmas holidays, when we could really think about and absorb what had happened, we realized just how damned lucky we were that we didn't make that Milan flight. There were several close calls on this tour. We missed avalanches in Austria that covered the main roads by just a few hours. We strongly felt the Armenian earthquake in Tbilisi (and got stranded in town for two extra days because of it) and had ridden a runaway train down the Caucasian Mountains. I we just missed the Lockerbie Disaster. The Saint Of Touring Rock Bands was definitely looking over our shoulders during this tour.

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