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Band On The Rum

band-on-the-rum-bA veteran road warrior explains how to get drunk on rock and roll—especially if the locals are buying.

Let me set you straight right from the start—bands don’t go on tour to play music in front of new faces. They go on tour to get loaded in new places.

As you probably know, getting loaded means you have to drink a lot of drinks. And if you’re an unsigned band it goes without saying you won’t be making a lot of money and what money you do make goes in the gas tank. This leaves you with whatever wile and charm you possess to commandeer the booze that makes the trip worth taking. Most venues will buy the bands a round or two but if you’re unknown, that’s it. Forget about those tales of huge tubs filled with ice cold beer served by doe-eyed barmaids just quivering to hear your band. That’s beautiful nonsense. Rock n’ Roll is as cutthroat and uncertain as Wall Street, which is good, because if it was all cold beer and quivering barmaids every jackass would be doing it. And there’s already more than enough of us jackasses in the business.

When you play a show for a gang of strangers who end up digging your noise, the ultimate capper is cold beer with your bandmates followed by a big bold round of shots. On the other hand, when you drive for twelve hours in the rain to play a gig for three uninterested fuck ups and two dollars, the only thing that keeps the blues at bay is cold beer with your bandmates followed by a big bold round of shots. There is beauty in this. And here’s what’s even more beautiful—if you play them right, the drinks will magically appear for free! That’s right, free!

In the best of scenarios you’ve just wowed the locals with some rock ‘n’ roll that they may very well have been starving for. The most outgoing of them will approach you after the show. Seeing that the band is sitting around beerless and sad, they will immediately offer to buy a round. “Absolutely, as long as you’re joining us!” you sing. Once the other locals notice you are approachable and downright friendly fellows, they too may step up to help get you drunk. Especially if you wave them over while wearing a big friendly smile. Depending on the size of the show and how well you’re liked, this excellent phenomenon can provide the entire band with a bellyful of booze and not a tab in sight. At least not one with your name on it, and that’s what’s really important. In order to keep the good times flowing, take the few dollars you have and display them casually as though you’re a slumming millionaire prepared to buy your own. You might even be so bold as to offer to return the favor of your kind hosts whence they will (please, God!) bellow, “Nonsense! Put that away! You guys are on fucking tour, for crissakes!” These instant booze-built friendships may also bear additional fruit—they may offer you a place to crash, saving you the cost of a motel or the inconvenience of having to fight a bum for a park bench. Sometimes, I know this is hard to believe, they even have refrigerators full of unmolested beer in their homes, just sitting there, waiting. Waiting for you! Bottoms up! Oh, and it goes without saying most of these fine hosts are of the opposite sex. Here’s a secret though—you can never ask to crash at their house and drink all their beer. The answer will always be no. They have to offer. And your answer should always be yes, yes, thank you ma’am, yes!

In the second, less promising scenario it’s clear what you’re up against it the minute you walk in the club. “It’s an off night,” the owner will tell you, and your ego will be more than willing to believe him. The staff are bored and don’t want to be there. The few locals present are practicing the barstool hunker and dare not break their monk-like concentration to acknowledge your existence. Reaching the desired goal (getting smashed) requires much more determination than the first scenario, but it’s still well within the realm of possibility. Have faith, dear rocker, the night is young and if you’re smart you will discover your one true, infallible ally and focus your energies there. I’m talking about the bartender, of course. Any bartender worth a damn is by nature compassionate (if a tad guarded) and fond of drinking with those who share his fine qualities. Here’s what you do:

Before you play, get the boys a round for the stage and tip well. Don’t suck up, let the tip do the talking. Bartenders like talking to good tips, they’re like best pals.

Now you’ve got his attention. He most certainly doesn’t want to hear the regulars repeat their mantras for the tenth time and your wall of noise will insulate him from their bleating. Deep down he’s thanking you as he polishes glassware and sneaks shots in his fortress of peace.

After your set, return to the bar like good patriotic soldiers who had to go fight a dirty but important war. Don’t bring the whole band, just you and the really thirsty-looking one, which is usually the drummer. Order a round, cash in hand, and wait. When he returns you will immediately know if he’s on the team. He’ll say, “Nice set, man, where you from?” Your answer is important because the farther you’ve traveled to play, the more likely you are to hear those golden words: “Sorry the place is dead tonight. Oh, put that away, I got this round.”

Cha-ching! The crank just turned one full revolution and you can’t let it stop. Now is the time for the remaining bandmates, who’ve been cagily observing from afar, to pop into the picture for their piece of the action. As to not create dissension and jealousy amongst his new friends, the bartender will want to buy their round too. As for endless rounds and crash pads, don’t get your hopes too high. Last night you might have been the Toast of Punk Town in Kansas City, tonight you’re Joe and the Blows in Chicago. The secret is to take the good with the bad—and if the wind blows just right you’ll get hammered for free. If it doesn’t, go cry your sober ass to sleep in the van. Here are some examples of the wind blowing in the right direction:

Summer 1998, San Diego, CA The Casbah
We’re gigging with Reo Speedealer and Los Infernos. Big names but the crowd is jack squat. I pull the bartender buddy-up maneuver and we soon discover we have a mutual friend in Denver. That’s all the grease the crank needs and before I know it we’re slamming shots in his honor. The best thing about shooting booze with a bartender is that as soon as he’s drunk the drinks tend to flow forth with joyful ease. Scott the bartender is our new best buddy. He introduces us to his favorite shot, a Little Red Riding Slut, and after eight of these we find ourselves back at his place. Okay, he’s not a woman, but he’s one hell of a cook, and even more importantly, he grants us full access to his vast booze supply, which we shamelessly rape to the last drop. See, that’s how it works—you start off with a crappy gig and the next thing you know you’re hooked up with top shelf liquor, cold beer, gourmet food and a place to crash. And here’s the clincher—when it was time to leave in the morning, the beautiful bastard thanked us.

The moral: From funerals come flowers. And these flowers can get you really fucked up.

Summer 2001, Salt Lake City, UT Burt’s Tiki Lounge
We march in to find Shannon the bartender watching Pro Wrestling with a midget lady named Nettie, a dark premonition of what was to come. We gig with some stone-cool cats called Pornstore Janitor. The instant camaraderie between bands gets the attention of the small but mighty crowd, and Shannon immediately enlists himself to the cause. Endless pitchers of beer are slopping at us like the tap is stuck open. The beer in Utah is only 3.2% and he knows we know this, so the elegant motherfucker tries to calm our offended livers with quantity. A local girl named Kat offers both bands accommodations and, ominously, the female midget tags along. I’m barely halfway through a bottle of raspberry vodka when the midget starts getting lippy: “Hey you fuckin’ pussy from King Rat! Have you ever been wrestled to the floor by a midget before?”

Well, no, and who the hell is prepared to take crap off a drunk midget? “Hey, shorty,” I tell her. “The rest of this bottle says you’re gonna be licking my shoes within two rounds.”

Now listen to me very closely—never, ever trust a drunk midget. I’m taking one last gentlemanly pre-bout sip of vodka when Nettie plows into my knees, screaming as drunk midgets wrestler are wont to do. I go down hard and from all the cheers I immediately understand the crowd has taken the side of the three-foot female over the six-foot male. Go figure.

I’m disoriented. I’ve got a mouthful of carpet. At times like this I tend to brood, so I look to my friends for support. My bandmates Todd, Zeth and Mike are cheering me on. Either that or they’re congratulating Nettie on the charming headlock she’s trying to throw on me. I struggle to my knees and Nettie leaps into the air and comes down hard with a piledriver to the back of my neck. She climbs on my back and starts riding me, kind of like a jockey riding a horse, if the horse had killed the jockey’s mother and the jockey was the sort of person who would try to strangle a horse with his bare hands.

Thankfully, the Smirnoff finally leaps to the defense of my human dignity. I reach around, grab an ankle, get to my feet and start swinging the ferocious midget above my head in what’s known as the Helicopter. Which, incidentally, is considered a sport in parts of Australia. But alas, as she spins, arms outstretched, she tags out with John from Pornstore Janitor and soon I’m wrapped up like a pretzel and eating another carpet sandwich.

The moral: Midgets may look like nice little munchkins, but in reality they are very, very evil. Especially when there’s fruity vodka at stake.

Winter 2002. Detroit, MI The Labyrinth
The Labyrinth is in the guts of a decrepit hotel that’s rumored to be owned by the Mafia. It was once a speakeasy and just before prohibition was repealed a bunch of boozers were massacred by cops during a raid. Local legend has it the joint is haunted by the ghosts of the waylaid drinkers and I’m soon wishing they’d make an appearance because the gig is jam-packed with six wasted punks who literally pummel each other during our set. By the time I hit the last chord they’re laying in a pile in the middle of the floor, leaving no one to clap and shout encore. Which sucks.

After stepping down from the stage and over our fans I crank up the bartender buddy-up. Blackie is her name and drinking, she assures me, is her game. She apologizes for the night’s general shittiness and offers a shot before I can ooze an ounce of charm out of my mouth. Naturally we ask for Tuaca, chilled. She stares back, puzzled.

“What the fuck is Tuaca?” During the tour we slowly absorbed through repeated trial and error that the only place they sell kerosini in the entire United States is Denver. Which actually worked out for the best, because we stumbled upon a brilliant new bartender buddy-up strategy: for the next seven rounds of shots we attempt to synthesize Tuaca from the liquor she has on hand. Suddenly we are cocktail scientists, probing the mysteries of arcane mixology, united in finding the perfect mix. “That was close,” says Mike. “Keep trying,” sings Todd. “We’re almost there,” whispers Zeth. “Try more Jager in the next one,” I coax. Blackie is a good sport and unflinchingly mixes diabolical combinations: Curacao, Stoli 0 and Amaretto. Stoli Vanil, Crown Royal and Kahlua. Well gin, dry vermouth and Midori. It’s going so well I have to fight down the urge to take notes for future reference.

Basking in the light of the important scientific strides we’ve made, she arranges two free rooms for the band upstairs. Todd and I take note of the huge blood stain on the floor between the beds and immediately wonder, what’s to become of us? Lucky for us there’s a case of PBR in the van. We suspect PBR is a very good talisman against ghosts and to prove it we start prowling the hotel in hopes of finding one. Our search leads us through the two gutted sub-basements, the abandoned fourth story and finally the roof. We stumble through the dark holding beers like Ghostbuster guns, had we not been fucked up the ghosts would’ve undoubtedly devoured us.

Don’t believe in ghosts? Well, check this out—once we get to the roof we set what was left of our case down for a second and a little while later it . . . vanishes.

“I swear I only had like one or two, man,” slurs Zeth. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” whispers Mike. I would have agreed with him but I was already down in my room.

It’s true. The drunkard ghosts stole our beer.

The moral: PBR is a very good defense against ghosts. Just make sure you’re thirstier than they are.

Winter 2002, New York City
We have friendlies lined up in the Big Apple and we immediately rendezvous with Mike’s college buddy Christine and her mystery beau John. It is very important for a band on tour to have local guides with knowledge of local bars and refrigerators full of alcohol. Don’t ask me why, it’s just a good idea. John has ins at every hot spot in the Lower East Side and we make him take us to every single one. We arrive back at their place at 6am to find Christine has stocked up—cases of Corona and Budweiser peacefully cohabitate in the fridge with a vast multicultural clan of hard liquor. Todd and Mike crash as Zeth and I go the distance with John and by 9am we have a new pal. The next night, just slightly hungover, we drive to Redding, PA for an all-ages gig in a bowling alley. We play for 200 kids that dig our lovely noise so much they mosh in between songs to the sound of my heckling voice. They somehow find us after the show, which wasn’t real hard because we were, you know, just hanging out in the parking lot, drinking a few casual beers by the van. They ask for autographs and we sign PBR cans with a marker and sell so much merchandise our heads begin to swell with outlandish ideas of buying enough road booze to drown a large dog, even if the dog was a really good swimmer.

But not just yet. It would be a grave insult to our hosts to bring foreign liquor into their home when they have so much on hand. We do another 9am stretch then play the next two nights in Manhattan and Brooklyn, followed by late night excursions into hipster hidey-holes ferreted out by our local guide. We wind up at Manitoba’s, which is named for and owned by Handsome Dick Manitoba of the legendary Dictators. He’s nowhere in sight but I do meet Jimmy Gestapo, singer of Murphy’s Law. In a frenzy of joy, road lag and Ron Rico Rum I throw myself on the floor and start convulsing to the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat.”

“You Colorado boys are all fucking crazy!” Mr. Gestapo shouts. This also apparently made a positive impression on John, because the next day he put aside his veil of mystery and revealed himself as a representative of a major record company.

“How would you guys like to play SXSW?” he asks. (Note: Held in Austin, Texas, South by South West is the biggest music industry showcase of the year, bar none.)

“Sure.” I say. “Next year, right?”

“No,” says John. “Next week.”

Okay, I know this all sounds like some of that beautiful nonsense I mentioned earlier, but as far as I can remember, it’s true.

The moral: Local booze guides are sometimes record company executives in disguise. But you have to do the special rum dance to make them blossom into their true self.

The Next Day, The Long Road Home
While re-crossing the Midwest we get the confirmation call that says we are, it’s true, damn you, playing at SXSW. After our traditional gawk-at-each-other-like-a-bunch-of-dumfounded-retards session, which we like to do whenever we’re startled by good news, we snap out of it and decide, yes, it’s a damn fine reason for a celebration. The bars of New York ate most of our apparently very delicious merchandise egg, but we have enough left to splurge on a fifth of Captain Morgan’s and a case of Black Label. Sometime in the middle of the celebration we play an okay show in Columbus, Ohio with a band called Haircuts That Hurt. We barely refrain from showing them what else can be made to hurt when they leave with the only girls at the show. The ladies are hustled out so fast we don’t even have a chance to say goodbye, or even grovel a little.

The next night we roll into Ft. Wayne and are met with the familiar coldness of a joint that is frequented by touring bands of the sucking sort. We shuffle to the bar and I have a revelation—I’ve lost my edge. Not my musical edge, my booze-mooching edge. We have liquor and beer in the van and that knowledge is making me apathetic and lazy. I came to a sudden and bitter realization: I’d lost sight of the beautiful dream.

I try to snap out of it. I pay for our pre-gig round and squeeze out rough-hewn charm and a good tip, struggling to get back in the groove, inwardly chanting my mantra: “I am a booze magnet. Booze is naturally drawn to me. It wants to live in my stomach.” We hit the stage with the tightness from weeks on the road and the promise of SXSW shines enough light into our black little hearts to turn in a good performance. The regulars aren’t too excited but, much more importantly, the bartenders pump their fists to our anthems, roundly ignoring the thirsty wails of the barflies. And suddenly we’re right back in the groove. We step off stage and a brace of Jim Beams arrive with the most golden of sentences that ever rode on the back of an even more heartening slur: “Anything you boys want is on the house for the rest of the night, including food.”

Now, this probably sounds even more unbelievable to you than the New York story, but it’s true. We bashfully order two pizzas and rounds of Budweiser and Jager. We became somewhat less bashful later, using our combined tour-heightened alcohol tolerance to truly test the definition of that most ambiguous of words: anything. Turns out he meant it.

Giddy with the unspent money from the gig, we decide to visit a gentleman’s club. Four road-hardened punk rockers with a lot to smile about have a profound effect on a strip club. Within minutes naked women are writhing to our latest album, which the DJ has agreed to play. I lean against the bar, trying to absorb the sheer fantasy of the moment, and a very tall blonde asks if I want a lap dance. I ask if she wants a shot. After some heavy negotiating it’s agreed she’ll buy us shots if she’ll let me pay to give her a lap dance. We’re going through the looking glass now. She blushes in her seat as I pull out all the stops, executing a fully-hammered rendition of the Beat It gang dance moves along with James Brown splits and Jackie Gleason pratfalls. After she’s had enough, she refuses my money and shyly tips me five bucks. We fall back to the bar and she, for the love of all things holy, is buying. Shots of Amaretto topped with Bacardi 151 lit on fire and dropped into half pints of Red Bull. I absorb three and stumble back to the fold. Todd, Zeth and Mike are whooping it up with the rest of our gig money flapping in their fists. I can’t remember what happened after that, but I bet it was really cool.

The moral: Rock and Roll is totally awesome.

Four Days Later Austin, Texas SXSW
The tour was supposed to end three days ago but fuck it. Fuck the jobs, the bills, the science projects in our refrigerators. For the past five years I’ve diligently tried to get King Rat into SXSW, all to no avail. And now here we are, swept in by the mysterious Booze God. We get to the club and our gear is loaded in for us while we stand around like morons, unable to grasp the very idea of the thing. John and Christine have already arrived from New York and we play our hearts out. A large tattooed fellow pumps his fist in the air through most of the set and buys our first post-gig rounds, Jameson shots and Austin’s own Shiner Bock. John guides us to different venues and we stumble onto a set by our old pals Pornstore Janitor. We wobble in the crowd like whiskey-drinking flotsam while they tear the roof off the joint. We toast them and stagger into the night, following John and Christine to a private party for Columbia Records personnel.

I have this gag I do for friends at parties. It’s called a pratfall. You stumble through a crowded room and fall flat on your face. Hard. Properly done, you will spill you drink, face-plant and make a loud smack when you hit. Why, you ask? Because almost invariably a properly executed face-plant will result in multiple drinks coming your way from sympathetic onlookers.

So I’m pratfalling like mad but two things are wrong. First, I’m not doing it on purpose, and second, no one seems to give a shit. Not a single sympathy drink drifts my way. As I’m trying to suck my last spilled cocktail out of the rug someone says, “How come no one is helping that guy?” Someone else answers, “These are record industry people. They deal with rock stars for a living. They see this shit all the time.” Ouch.

Zeth, Todd and Mike carry me back to the hotel. They take a dive and I pinball out of the spinning room in search of a nightcap. There are musicians coming and going and I’m convinced someone has a stash. I’ve lost one shoe, there’s a wine stain across the front of my white shirt and gum in my hair. I know I appear a full-bore kook but people refuse to acknowledge my tragic existence, my unbearable thirst. I go for the one victim who can’t run into the elevator, the front desk girl. I beg her to go into the room service kitchen and get me a beer. Just one. She asks me if I’m in a band. I begin my usual spiel about myself and soon we’re back on the subject of getting me a beer. I assure her I’ll work for it. I’ll be the bellhop for the next hour for a six pack. She’s laughing at me, but I’m eager to prove my usefulness. A van pulls up and I see a tattooed arm hanging out the window. I run out the front door, fall into the side of the van and jerk open the sliding door.

“Welcome to the Austin, fellas, you’re at the Drury Inn and I’m at your service.”

“Hey fucko!” a heavy New York accent replies. “Close the goddamn door.”

I squint at the driver and find myself face to face with CJ Ramone. Recovering quickly, I immediately remind him of who he is and he graciously doesn’t kick my ass. He drove all the way from New York to play SXSW with his new band the Bad Choppers. I tell him I know the management and I’ll get a room for cheap, pronto. I run back to the front desk girl and beg for what’s known to bands on the road as the Manager’s Special. She won’t budge until I tell her who it’s for. Turns out she’s a huge Ramones fan and she hands over the keys for only $139, fifty bucks off the book, and oh look—their room is right next to mine. CJ and his boys enter and I’m bursting with good news. He asks me if I want a job managing a band, I tell him I’ve already got one and then I remember the rule: when in the presence of rock stars it is customary to shut the fuck up. I feel a sense of accomplishment as I trudge down the hall to my room. As I fumble with the plastic key I hear that New York accent again.

“Hey, kid. Thanks.”

I turn around and see he’s holding a cooler. I can’t help staring.

“Yo,” the beautiful bastard says. “Wanna beer?”

See? That’s rock and roll. That’s what it’s all about. Not the music, not the roar of the fans, not even the groupies. It’s about drinking with one of the Ramones until five in the morning. Most importantly, drinking his beer.