November 27, 2017

FTV: Keep on Truckin’

 I idly wrote the title of this FTV one day when thinking back about hauling my drum set around over the years.  Like the kid who decides to play the tuba in the school band, one does not sling a drum set under one’s arm and walk home after school.  Luckily for me, the school band had drums for me to play so I really didn’t have to move my set much farther than the basement when my mother found it hard to keep sane with me banging away on them in my bedroom at the end of the hall thirty feet from her kitchen. If your mind works like mine, the phrase “keep on truckin’” either sends you to the Grateful Dead song or the iconic cartoon.

    Our good friends at Wikipedia frame the cartoon as follows:  “ Keep on Truckin’ is a one-page comic by Robert Crumb.  It was published in the first issue of Zap Comix in 1968. A visual riff on the lyrics of the  Blind Boy Fuller song “Truckin’ My Blues Away“, it consists of an assortment of men, drawn in Crumb’s distinctive style, strutting confidently across various landscapes. The strip’s drawings became iconic images of optimism during the hippie era.  Crumb was offered $100,000 by Toyota to reproduce the image for a Keep On Truckin’ advertising campaign, but turned it down.”  Yep – the “hippie era” rang a bell with me, but also the Dead reference as my old bass player Mike was an avid Dead fan. Not to mention we developed this strange habit of walking in a leaned back pose any time the sun was low in the sky behind us, thus giving our legs that kind of elongated, shadow that evoked one of Crumb’s characters (and no doubt made people think we were a little off center).

    “Truckin’” in my early days involved stuffing my drums in the trunk of our 1969 Chevrolet Caprice.  That tank of a car held the whole set so all I had to do was talk my mother or sister into dropping me off at a buddies house or school, depending on what I needed them for.  When I was in the pit orchestra for the musical Bye Bye Birdie, the final weeks of rehearsal involved so many nights at Kaufman Auditorium, it made sense to leave the drums there.  Eventual Twig bass player Mike was the guitar player on stage so we would make it a point to get to the theater early and have a little impromptu jam with the orchestra bass player Ron Caviani.  The Saturday before the final week of play prep, a group of us decided to walk over and have a little jam on stage completely forgetting that there would be no reason for the auditorium to be open on a Saturday.  After the final Sunday matinee, I had to coordinate with someone to pick me up to transport my drums to the cast party at the old Chalet Restaurant (which later burned down to be replaced by the Bonanza Steak House which is now a clinic of some kind).  We had a grand old time being the cast party music (which in turn was the spark that set in motion the formation of The Twig), and at the end of the night, I had to call for another pick up to get the drums home.  One of the reasons my folks never objected to having my bands rehearse in our basement was simple – they didn’t have to drive me anywhere else!  Of course, getting a driver’s license cured the need for finding a ride, but my bands kept rehearsing at our house for the next eight years just the same.

     When The Twig began playing gigs on a regular basis, both Mike and I had access to a pickup truck with a topper on it.  The family that didn’t need the truck for something else or wasn’t at camp on any given weekend dictated who drove to the gig.  It didn’t matter to me that I drove more often as the equipment always ended up back at my house and if it was a late night, we could blow off unloading until the next day.  As a trio, we didn’t have all that much equipment, but it would not have been fun to stuff two amps, the PA and drums into the backseat of the Caprice. As we upgraded to Fender Bassman and Showman speaker bottoms (Mike and Gene each had two bottoms which not only looked cool, it made it much easier for them to hear each other with a cabinet on each side of the stage and for us to fill some pretty big halls), a truck was the only way to go.  On occasions when Mike’s truck was partly filled with his father’s stuff, I would transport the drums separately in my green whale car if we had to rally to the gig.

    By the time I was in Knockdown, I was also employed at the Huron Mountain Club in the summers and living at home while attending NMU the rest of the year.  We had worked out a delicate ballet of “truck, truck, who needs the truck” so I could continue using my dad’s truck to get to gigs.  We were playing two or three nights a week so I appreciated being able to leave the equipment in the truck for several days at a time.  During the school term, this meant keeping my other wheels available so my dad wouldn’t have to drive our equipment all over town doing his errands.  All summer, dad would graciously let me leave the stuff in the truck so I could swap vehicles on gig nights, do the job, drop off the truck, and then motor back to the club for the morning shift.  I lost how count of how many times my dad and brother had to unload all our stuff into the garage so they could use the truck.  They never complained, but I probably didn’t thank them enough for being able to arrive home and pick up the fully loaded S10.  Over two full summers of commuting like this, there wasn’t one time that we goofed it up.   It never crossed my mind at the time, but had we gotten our wires crossed, it would not have been fun to show up and find the truck gone and our band stuff sitting in the garage or basement!  

    Just before my junior year in college, my dad came home one day and said, “Hey, I found a used pickup truck for sale in Iron Mountain.  Why don’t you buy it so I can have a truck to use when you are using mine?”  The beater Chevy Bel Air I had been driving back and forth the the Huron Mountain Club that summer was burning almost as much oil as gas so it seemed to be a no-brainer to me.  The equipment truck ballet continued, but now there was always a truck on hand for my father’s handy-man and wood cutting projects.  I suppose I could have picked up a basic shell for my ochre colored truck, but it was probably handier to have one open bed and one closed bed truck for various uses.

    My first year in Ontonagon, I didn’t have a band so the drums stayed in Marquette until Mark Bobula invited me to perform at the spring Hootenanny athletic benefit at the high school.  Still lacking a topper on the ochre beast, I again borrowed my dad’s truck for a week to get them here.  My adjustment to living in a smaller town became complete when I heard my two bedroom wall neighbor’s discussing the new truck that appeared in the apartment lot.  It was kind of funny to listen to the two young ladies (who I had not actually met face to face) discussing whether or not the new truck meant that I might have a roomie.  One part of me wanted to beat on the wall and yell, “You know, I can hear you!” but it was cheap entertainment so I let it slide.  

    Once I was invited to join Easy Money, it became apparent that I would have to bite the bullet and get a topper.  My dad was still traveling with his State job so I asked if he could keep an eye out for a basic shell.  Sure enough, a week later he called and said that a dealership in Hurley was having a sale so he put down fifty bucks and told them I would be down to pick it up later in the week.  I remember the trip clearly because that was the last road trip former Elementary-Junior High librarian John Nakas and I took before he pulled up stakes and moved back to Detroit.  As a city boy, I had a hard time explaining to John exactly what we were going to pick up.  Only when it was clamped on the back of my truck did he finally grasp why I kept calling it a ‘topper’ or ‘a shell’.  As an added bonus, I found the extra weight made it much easier to back up in sand or snow than in the days when I had an open bed truck.  The back end was so light that the wheels would chatter and buck trying to gain traction.  It was such a problem that I had become the master at never driving forward in a situation where I might have to back up on sand or snow, especially if I didn’t have my ‘winter accessories’ in the back:  two washtubs of sand to add traction weight.

    The next problem arrived when I was back in summer school at NMU.  Easy Money had a lot of jobs booked that summer, so I was racking my brain how to not have a truckload of equipment on board when I would commute back to Marquette for classes.  My folks again came to the rescue and offered me use of the old whale car.  The Caprice was seven or eight years old and because  my mother only drove it around town doing errands, it had less than 25,000 miles on the odometer.  “Put some miles on it and park the equipment truck in your garage for the summer” was just too good a deal to pass up.  “For the summer” ended up to be a two year arrangement that only ended when I retired from playing regularly with Easy Money and my folks decided to sell the whale car to my sister and her husband.

    When the ochre pick up truck’s reliability declined (putting more money into a rust bucket that was beginning to show its age didn’t make much sense), I put an ad in the Herald.  An Ontonagon local serving at KI Sawyer AFB saw the ad and showed it to a buddy from Gwinn who was looking for that model.  When he showed up to take it off my hands, he told he that he used the parts off a couple of trucks to keep one on the road.  I am not sure what shape the truck he was driving was in, but he said that my truck was now going to be his primary wheels!  When he announced that,  “It is in much better shape than my other trucks” I was a bit thunderstruck!   As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so after a decade of road trips, hauling, and backwoods exploration, I found myself without a truck.  By that time, we owned a small Subaru wagon and I got over missing my truck when I found I could put the whole drum set in the cargo area for those occasional gigs I was still doing with Easy Money.  It now takes the whole back seat and trunk of my Fusion to do the same load, but I am still truckin’ my drums around for the occasional fill in gig.

    Truckin’?  It was a way of life for so long that I have fond memories of the many gigs and many miles I managed to put on our “fleet” of trucks.  I like to think I am still truckin’ along, I just don’t happen to do it with a truck these days.

Top piece video – I know you were expecting the Dead, but we like to keep you on your toes – another great

truckin’ song by BTO from a 2010 appearance in Ontario.