Photo Credit: Jim DeRogatis

Everything Ahead of Me: The Van Diaries

Jim DeRogatis

16 Min Read

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” 

Credit Jack Kerouac for instilling the wanderlust when I read “On the Road” in high school circa 1980, though my mother would have said “blame,” given that it spurred an atypically irresponsible urge to abandon home, job and all commitments to climb in the van. Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” helped, too — “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold” — but I was never that irresponsible. Psychotropics weren’t necessary for what Kerouac called “the restless search for kicks” and Thompson deemed “a savage journey to the heart of the American dream.”

The van was the only vehicle needed, and discoveries during the journey provided highs aplenty. Of course, music and the community it engendered were also key. Whether or not others cited my literary footnotes, the spirit of hitting the road in the van fueled all the great independent/underground music that emerged post-punk in the ’80s, morphing into alternative in the ’90s, and continuing today, at least when musicians aren’t forced to cope with a global pandemic. And as Michael Azerrad telegraphed in his book “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” the people who formed the network that nurtured those sounds were as important as the folks who made them. Cheers to everyone who staffed the mom-and-pop record stores, spun discs on college radio, ran labors-of-love indie labels and recording studios, pasted up old-school fanzines or swept the floor at venues such as the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., 40 Watt Club in Athens, Ga., the Rat in Boston, Lounge Ax in Chicago, Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J. and others (some history now, others thankfully enduring). 

On one level, those stages were the destination, the Holy Grail at the end of the road, but in a cycle repeated the next day, and the next, and so on for every gig of the tour. But connecting with the members of that community at every stop mattered just as much, because it inspired new models for living and forged lifelong friendships. Climbing in the van wasn’t about aimless wandering. What Kerouac meant by “everything ahead of me” was connecting with kindred spirits, or, as he put it in another memorable line: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” 

To be clear: Van = “Awww!” 

Photo Credit: Jim DeRogatis

To the extent I’m known at all, it’s as a critic, but since age 13, I’ve also been a drummer (though never a musician — bah-dum-dum!). I’ve played in a long procession of underground bands and had countless life-changing experiences, but the magic of the van crystallized during two tours in the short span between April and July, 1987. 

Disheveled, unshaven and odiferous, which offended the sensibilities of the mods among us, some stumbled from the effects of too many lagers during that wait on the frozen tundra.

The first started when 14 ugly Americans emerged from customs at Luxembourg Airport after a long flight from New York and a layover in Reykjavik (Icelandair being the bargain carrier to Europe back then). Disheveled, unshaven and odiferous, which offended the sensibilities of the mods among us, some stumbled from the effects of too many lagers during that wait on the frozen tundra. I was sober, just giddy about serving as road manager for my pal Mick’s band, ready to crisscross Europe on a two-week package tour in two white Mercedes vans, one hauling a big trailer full of rented amps, drums and cymbals. 

The ‘60s revival was at full bore in 1986 when two German speed freaks named Tomas and Andreas took a summer vacation to “check out the American scene.” When they got home, the aspiring promoters somehow raised the Deutsche Marks to import their three favorite groups from the States, though the bands had all evolved from straightforward garage-rock by that point. Based in Los Angeles, Thee Fourgiven sounded more like Cream than the bands on the influential “Nuggets” compilation. The Miracle Workers started in Portland, Or., as a quintet in that mold, but they embraced ’70s Detroit sounds when they moved to L.A. Meanwhile, Mick’s group, the Mod Fun, progressed from a Jam-style trio to British psychedelic-pop, heavy on the Creation and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. 

The Mod Fun.

Photo Credit: Jim DeRogatis

None of us had ever been overseas — hell, I’d only been on a plane once, for a trip to Disney World — and no one spoke a word of any other language. We all worried the tour could fall apart at any minute, leaving us stranded far from home. (I didn’t tell anyone but Mick’s mom, but I had a shiny new American Express card for just such an emergency.) Nevertheless, we looked forward to living the rock ’n’ roll dream, and an encounter at baggage claim while waiting for our duffel bags and guitar cases set the tone. A fair-haired European girl approached the Miracle Workers. “You are U2, yes?” she asked in broken English. “No, we’re Bon Jovi,” singer Gerry Mohr replied. 

A mere 19 to my older and wiser 22, Mick was a ridiculously talented guitarist, vocalist and songwriter from suburban Maywood, N.J. A hyper-energetic prankster whose exuberant joking could grate, he also partook in intimate midnight conversations where both parties bared their souls. I was the first friend he came out to. He ditched his very Italian first and last names and became Mick London when he formed the Mod Fun, and he’d still bust my chops if I revealed what’s printed on his birth certificate. We met when the Mod Fun shared a few bills with one of my many bands in New York and New Jersey, and I was eventually christened his group’s road manager because I’d jump onstage to plug the guitar back in when he threw himself into the drums or drive the lads home when they got too drunk. Those services, combined with Mick’s mom feeling better if they had an “adult” chaperone, led to me accompanying them to Europe.

Tomas and Andreas booked the tour around a two-day festival called Psychomania in Hamburg, and the routing bordered on insanity: Luxembourg to Bern, Switzerland; Vienna to Hamburg; Rimini and Pordenone on the eastern coast of Italy to Berlin, and finally back to Luxembourg. At one point, a gig in France fell apart, leaving us stranded for a few days at Andreas’ mom’s empty condo in Bavaria with only a big bag of hash and buckets of beer from die kneipe down the road to pass the time. Mostly, though, we spent endless hours crammed in the back seats of those rented vans while our German hosts did the driving and we learned that speed limits don’t exist on the autobahn or autostrade. 

The countries sped by through the vans’ dirty windows in a surreal blur, though I retain snapshots from the tour diary I kept for a fanzine called The Bob: 

Maniacal Beer Vomitters

We arrived in Bern at 2 a.m., checked into the hotel where we’d play to 600 Swiss fans and mingled with the members of an arts collective called Project Blue, who had decorated the massive ballroom with psychedelic banners, a monstrous demon’s head and a papier-mâché pterodactyl with a 12-foot wingspan. During the show, it fell on Miracle Workers drummer Gene Trautmann (he later played with Queens of the Stone Age). The Vienna gig took place in a former slaughterhouse, and that plus the greasy hunks of brühwurst that promoters provided repulsed the vegetarians among us. Local openers the Maniacal Beer Vomitters disgusted us, too. They drank the backstage supply of beer, bashed out “Louie, Louie” on toy instruments, dodged bottles thrown by the crowd, then did indeed regurgitate onstage.

The Mod Fun performing in Bern, before the papier-mâché pterodactyl (seen overhead in the photo) fell on Miracle Workers’ drummer Gene Trautmann.

Photo Credit: Jim DeRogatis

Foosball with Neubauten

Fabrik, a former munitions factory in a medieval cathedral, hosted Psychomania. The first night featured some of Germany’s best psychedelic revival bands — the Yellow Sunshine Explosion, the Chud and the Shiny Gnomes — but I spent most of it talking down one of the Mod Fun boys on a bad acid trip. The next evening, they rose to the occasion when Mick climbed atop the drums during an encore cover of “Born to Be Wild,” fell over, and sent toms, cymbals and amps flying. We wound up at an after-hours club where some of the Californians paired off with enthusiastic German girls in dark corners, while Mick and I played foosball with two guys from “some noise band” — Einstürzende Neubauten! 

Poisoned in Italy

I’d been eager to get to Italy for my first taste in situ of the kind of food Grandma Rose used to cook, but during a 10-hour drive, we stopped at a McDonald’s. By the time we got to Rimini, food poisoning made me too sick to so much as look at a strand of linguine. Half-convinced I was hallucinating the next evening during the show in Pordenone, the photos I took bear evidence that a thousand fans really did pile into a soccer stadium, though I spent much of the night in a men’s room seemingly last cleaned circa Il Duce. 

Mooning at the Wall

I felt at home in Berlin, a place as dirty and hostile as New York at the time, though with one very unique landmark. During a visit to the still-extant Wall, we all stood in a line and mooned the East German guards on the other side, and they obligingly leveled their guns at us, just like they did for all the tourists. The next day, over breakfast of more brühwurst before the drive to the airport for the flight home, I got a call at the café. I have no idea how he tracked me down pre-cellphones and laptops, but the legendary Bryan Grant (he’d worked with Pink Floyd) asked in a crisp British accent if my own band could open for the entire tour by the group he then-managed, or if we could only do select dates. Hell yeah, I was game for a tour with legendary art-punks Wire! I hadn’t had anywhere near enough time in the van yet. 

Connecting with Wire

This tale needs some backstory, and it starts when Wire’s 1977 debut, “Pink Flag,” became my all-time Desert Island favorite after I first heard it courtesy of guitarist-pal Don Jackson, the self-professed “coolest Black man from Trenton, N.J.” With its seamless 21-song suite “cocking a snoot at the history of rock ’n’ roll,” the album displayed the brains and ambition of the best art-rock — the British press called Wire “the Punk Floyd” — along with the minimalist concision and maximum drive of the finest punk. None of the songs clocked in at more than two minutes. 

Don and I first played a few Wire covers with Mick on bass at the New Jersey Noise Festival staged at a loft in Rahway by my fellow fanzine scribe Bruce Gallanter (founder of the Downtown Music Gallery). We had so much fun, I suggested we learn all of “Pink Flag” — the songs were like potato chips, it was impossible to eat just one — but Don didn’t want to be in a cover band. Another pal, Pete Pedulla, proved game, and he recruited a friend from Columbia University, John Tanzer (who once frolicked with Lydia Lunch at CBGB). We did a few gigs playing “Pink Flag” in order in its entirety, calling ourselves the Ex-Lion Tamers in homage to one of the key tracks on “Pink Flag.” Mick announced “Side Two” between the title track and “The Commercial,” symbolically flipping the record over. 

The Ex-Lion Tamers (Jim DeRogatis is on the far right).

Photo Credit: John Baumgartner

Then I met half of the real Wire. After releasing three classic albums in three years, Wire went on hiatus in 1980, finally returning with “The Ideal Copy” in 1987. The band refused to perform its older material because “nostalgia is the kiss of death for all great art.” Like the Beats, the group lived in the moment and only moved forward. Still, Wire had a problem: The old stuff was beloved by fans and bands ranging from Minor Threat to R.E.M. and Big Black to Mission of Burma. When guitarist-vocalist Colin Newman and bassist-vocalist Graham Lewis flew to New York for a couple of days of press before the new release and tour, I interviewed them for The Bob. We hit it off so well, we went to the pub afterward, and my journalistic professionalism lapsed as I told them about the Ex-Lion Tamers. “We might have some work for you,” Colin said conspiratorially. And that led to the call from manager Bryan. 

Looking out from the stage, we saw underground luminaries from Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Salem 66 standing in the crowd.

The Ex-Lion Tamers opened for Wire at 16 shows during the month-long tour. Most sold out with crowds of a thousand or more fans who knew and loved every song we played, often better than they knew or liked Wire’s new material. Looking out from the stage, we saw underground luminaries from Fugazi, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Salem 66 standing in the crowd, sometimes shooting daggers at the cover band from Jersey that won the opening gig they coveted. Not everyone got the joke, but the headliners reveled in it. 

NME reported that Wire was so fond of its opening act, its members began dressing like us; we’d actually gone to a thrift store and bought red braces like Colin’s and a jogging suit like Graham’s and we were dressing like them. They enjoyed a good postmodern prank: the Ideal Copy, indeed. Graham told every interviewer, “The Ex-Lion Tamers play two pieces: side one and side two,” while Colin said, “We’ve only ever been influenced by one band, and that’s the Ex-Lion Tamers.” Of course, we were them, or pretty much. “You guys swing more,” Colin decided. 

The Ex-Lion Tamers hang with the members of Wire.

Photo Credit: Graham Lewis

Still smarting from the way they’d been treated as openers in the ’70s (touring with Roxy Music!), they showered us with paternal kindness, making sure promoters paid our contracted hundred bucks and a pizza, and offering their hotel-room floors when we didn’t have a place to crash. Usually, friends from college put us up — “the mad ones” — though I learned that anyone who lets a band sleep on their floor has a cat, and I’d often wake up with my throat and eyes welded shut from feline allergies. 

Like the European tour, the Wire jaunt sped by in a blur. I remember geeking out when Colin and I met this really tall and awkward fan in New York — Joey Ramone! At the 9:30 Club in D.C., a fan threw a Virginia license plate onstage that read “12XU,” while at Saint Albert’s Hall in Detroit, the promoter told us somebody demanded their money back because “Wire only played the old stuff and did it badly.” At Oz in Seattle, the ‘Tamers prompted slam-dancing for the first time, which Colin derided as “much more violent than pogoing” in London circa ’76. 

Though my fellow ex-Ex-Lion Tamers also recall that month as one of the best of their lives, in the thick of things, they occasionally groused at me when I let something fall between the cracks, like not securing our contracted pizza or losing the all-important AAA TripTik (essential in the days of pre-Google Maps). They also resented when I stayed behind after the show at Chicago’s Metro while they drove through the night to Minneapolis. A girl from Florida who called herself Gator wanted to hang. There were no groupie frolics — we slept chastely on the hotel-room floor provided by Wire’s roadie Ifan Thomas (who later managed Blur) — but the ’Tamers didn’t believe me. They also scoffed when I told them that during the flight to catch up with them, hastily booked on that still-shiny Amex, I sat next to a key architect of rock ’n’ roll. In the end, the mundane experiences we shared made as much impact as flying to a gig beside Chuck Berry.  

The radiator boiled over if we didn’t run the heater full-blast, which was no fun in July, especially after it rained and gaping holes in the floorboard left our gear soaked and smelling like Simba’s rotting corpse in a sauna.

I read “On the Road” again during the many long drives, and that sacred text took on new meaning as we crossed the country in the used Dodge van we bought for $500 from a fisherman who built a platform bed in the back. The radiator boiled over if we didn’t run the heater full-blast, which was no fun in July, especially after it rained and gaping holes in the floorboard left our gear soaked and smelling like Simba’s rotting corpse in a sauna. Nevertheless, the van propelled our version of the Beat odyssey, and I tried to be here now, open to every experience. 

During a dinner stop at a steakhouse in Montana, the packed crowd of blonde ranch families stared at us. “Honey, many of these folks have never seen anyone with black hair before, let alone four Eyetalians,” the waitress explained. When we blew a tire in the middle of the desert, Pete had to hitch a ride on a tractor to buy a spare. And in cities like Portland, Seattle and Montreal, we saw our college friends living better than we did back in New York. They could spend 15 hours a week running copy machines or making lattes to pay their share of the rent at a big old band house, then devote most of their time to drawing comics, making films, painting, sculpting and rehearsing in the basement. Their Boho idylls made me realize New York wasn’t necessarily the center of the universe. 

The Ex-Lion Tamers wait it out after blowing a tire in the desert.

Photo Credit: Jim DeRogatis

All of that time in the van also taught me nothing is more illuminating than travel to craft a far-flung community of shared passions that “burn, burn, burn.” And I learned the tired canard that “all critics are frustrated musicians” is bull. “Would I rather be writing or playing? I’d rather do both!” renowned critic Lester Bangs told me when I interviewed him at age 17. “The whole thing as far as making an album or whatever was, I had a dream, and I did it. And after you’ve done it, it gets you through a lot.” Even a pandemic. 

Other tours with other bands in other vans followed, and still do on occasion, though the road trips tend to be shorter now. (Hello, Circle A in Milwaukee.) Ultimately, all of the driving (with or without the heater blasting in summer) and sleeping on floors (with or without a cat on my face) made me realize I prefer writing about music full-time to making it, though I know my experiences deepen my work as a critic and journalist. 

Still, the urge to climb in the van never fully abates. For 15 years, as “Sound Opinions” has been heard on 150 public-radio stations across the country, I’ve urged my cohost to take our show on the road and tour cultural outposts from Hartford to Unalaska, Tampa to Marfa, Atlanta to Bozeman. Whaddya say, Greg Kot: Have I finally made the case? (Editor’s note: Not a chance.) I’ll take the first stint at the wheel, but the rule of the road is, the driver picks the tunes.

Born the year the Beatles arrived in America, Jim DeRogatis began voicing his opinions about rock ’n’ roll shortly thereafter. He is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, and together with Greg Kot, he co-hosts “Sound Opinions,” the weekly pop-music talk show heard on 150 Public Radio stations and via podcast. DeRogatis spent 15 years as the pop-music critic at The Chicago Sun-Times and has written 10 books about music, including “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly”, “Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs” and “Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock.”

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