Rock ‘n’ roll road trip6/17/2015
On May 20, I set out on a mission to record, on paper and in imagery, what I thought would be an interesting junket of “wrecks, thugs and rock and roll,” as I deemed it.
Over the course of three days, I would travel more than 800 miles to attend concerts in Council Bluffs, Forest City and Sioux City, crisscrossing the state and documenting what I had anticipated to be a caravan of chaos.
But something happened on the way to that place.
Where I expected to find fury, I found peace. Where I looked for angst, I found kindness. And where I expected lies, I received honesty.
I uncovered some truths, learned of hardships and happiness and grandeur and sorrow. In all, it was an eye-opening excursion, one that I will remember for years to come. The music was great, but secondary.
This time, it was about the people.
I’m off for 800 miles of Iowa roads, hopefully some good music, stories and whatever else is sent my way. Not sure what I’m getting myself into here, but I hope it doesn’t rain.
I pass a guy in a three-piece suit driving an off-road Jeep with no doors on it. It’s still raining. The “what-the-hell?” look on my face as I drive past him holding my iPhone toward the passenger window to try to get a photo must be too obvious, judging by the finger he shows me — with a smile and a wink, of course.
Cardinal rule No. 1 when driving: Never pick up hitchhikers. The problem is that hitchhikers have good stories. Coincidentally, that’s what I’m looking for. So seeing “Jim” strolling along the side of the road just as I begin to get into the hilly country known as western Iowa, I throw caution to the wind and pull onto the shoulder to offer him a lift. I drive up next to him and roll down the passenger window.
“Where you headed?” I ask. “West,” he says. “But I’ll take anything I can get at this point.”
Good enough. Surprisingly, his bag looks clean, and he looks as though he had showered. “Jim” (he said that was his name, but I doubt it) is running away from home, he says, shaking his head and smiling out of the corner of his mouth, almost in jest of himself for admitting it. He’d had enough of “the old lady,” told her she could have everything, and walked out — back in Indiana. I ask him how long he’d been on the road.
“I don’t know. Maybe a week. Doesn’t matter. I don’t have no kids, no family, no job. Starting from scratch,” he says.
“So where do you WANT to end up?” I quiz him.
“Wherever life is better than this,” he says. Geez man, don’t make me get worried for your mental well-being or anything. But what’s a guy to do? I’m sure his troubles extend far beyond what I could ever offer him anyway. So, 20 or so miles down the road I pull into a gas station, give him a $20 bill and wish him well. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
Touchdown. Outdoor venue behind Harrah’s Casino in Council Bluffs is teaming with old folks in leather jackets and hairspray killers. I’m in the right place.
The attendant at Will Call is friendly as I slip her my ID and confirmation letter for the photo pass. Good. Smooth as silk. On to the front gate, where I show the gentleman my newly placed photo pass and take a few steps in.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he shouts, just loud enough for a few dozen people to turn their heads. “Let me see that pass.” I oblige and hold it up. He looks at it once then reaches into his back pocket for a piece of paper. On that paper were two examples of photo passes they were to allow in the gates. Guess what? Mine isn’t a match. “Who are you, and who are you with?” I feel like the little kid in the schoolroom in the Twisted Sister video being questioned by the teacher. Had I gotten a “What do you want to do with your life?” question, too, I wouldn’t have been surprised. So I stand at the gate with the guy, my scarlet-letter press pass hanging around my neck for everyone to see. It is as embarrassing as the times I’ve been pulled over on the side of the road in town for speeding. Everyone drives by — real slowly — to see who the violator is. You know — just like you do.
I’m in for good this time. The security guy had to call his boss, who came over, had me show the pass once again, looked at me, looked at the pass, looked at me again, then said, “OK, he’s good.” Must have been The Force. That or my Cheetos/Dr. Pepper supper breath was too much for him to handle. Whatever. I’m in.
Saxon hits this stage. I’ve never seen this band in concert, so I don’t know what to expect. But for a pack of gray-hairs, I am impressed. Singer Biff Byford has been on the scene since the 1970s, but it doesn’t show vocally as he leads the band through classics such as “Crusader,” “Wheels of Steel” and “Denim and Leather” as though it is 1985. And while the boys in the band are no longer spring chickens, they seem to be having a good time, banging their heads to the straight-ahead, classic heavy metal they produced for us. Good for them. The audience is an interesting mix of old and…old. Average age of this bunch? Oh, maybe 51 — and that’s on the young side. Uppers and Quaaludes, once staples of the heavy metal concert experience, have been replaced by Viagra and Pepcid.
The mighty Judas Priest shows us why it is a living legend, hammering out classic after classic, all the while showing us that, despite having been a band for nearly 40 years, the five-piece originally hailing from Birmingham, England, still has what it takes. Opener “Dragonaught” was a bit of a surprise (I was hoping for “The Hellion/Electric Eye”) but a good start, nonetheless. Follow-ups “Metal Gods,” from the classic “British Steel” album, and the deep cut “Devil’s Child” off 1982’s multi-platinum “Screaming For Vengeance” are showcases for vocalist Rob Halford. The sour notes delivered by the golden-throated 63-year-old are few and far between, and it’s good to see him stalk the stage once again after a few years of dealing with health issues. I last saw Priest in 1988 in the “Ram It Down” tour, so I didn’t know what to expect 27 years later. I should have known better.
Leaving Council Bluffs. Rather than try to find a room, I decide to head back to Des Moines. My first mistake.
What the hell? I pull into the loading/unloading area of Wildwood Lodge and notice all of the parking spots are full. Odd. Dead tired, I walk in and told the woman I’d like a single for the night.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “We’re booked.” Booked? Mid-week? “Yes, we have a lot of people here for the State Track Meet.”
Oh, for shit’s sake. I spend the next hour driving around the western suburbs, Johnston, I-80 and everything in between to try to find a room. Nope. All booked. At this point, it’s pushing 3 a.m., so rather than sleep in my car in the Grimes Wal-Mart parking lot (yes, the thought did cross my mind) I decide to try to make it home 40 miles north to Ogden.
Home. I swear to God I drove through mountains, stopped in the middle of the road — twice — and had multiple animals jump out in front of me during the trip. And I don’t do drugs. No need. A sleep-deprived brain provides a hallucinatory effect that surely has to be somewhere in the ballpark. I begin questioning whether or not this was the right thing to do.
After a two-day respite from allergies due to the unseasonably cold temps, Mother Nature returns to normalcy. Stuffed-up head, runny nose, bloodshot eyes — the works. And now, a drive to the next stop on three hours of sleep.
Garner. I pull into the parking lot of a small Chinese restaurant, China House. Upon entering, a young boy wearing an Iowa State Cyclone football jersey, shorts and cowboy boots compliments me on my hat.
“I like hats like that,” he tells me as I approach the counter.
I tell him thanks and move closer to the menu. I just want to eat. I don’t care if it’s crab rangoon or kitty cat delight, it’s going in my mouth. The boy and his three younger siblings are waiting patiently at a table while a man wearing a black Superman shirt with a sleeve of tattoos on his arms places the order. Then, out of the blue, Mr. Superman turns and addresses the kids.
“I forgot to get cigarettes from the Dollar General. Come on, let’s go.” And just like that, they’re off. No food. No goodbyes. Just gone.
They’re back. Superman and his crew, that is. Everything is seemingly well in their collective worlds, so I’m assuming the smokes were secured. Cigs and Chinese food. Doesn’t seem like a pairing Bobby Flay would recommend, but what do I know? As they collect their takeout and begin walking toward the door, I ask Mr. Superman about his tattoo collection. The rest is gold.
Maximum (13), Bam (11), Shyla (7) and Johnny Blaze are from Forest City. Unofficially known as the unofficial mayor of that town, Blaze seems to be a good guy, talkative and with a positive energy about him. It’s readily apparent that he loves his children, and his children love him back — not necessarily an easy task with young ones of that age. But there’s a visible bond there. Occasionally, Johnny will begin talking, then pause mid-sentence as if to let the children have their say as well. And they do, right on cue. His wardrobe consists exclusively of Superman shirts, he tells me, so people know who he is. Unique in its own right is the fact that his arms are covered with tattoos, each one a piece of art with a luck connotation tied to it, be it the number 13, a rabbit’s foot, a shamrock, horseshoes or even an image of salt being tossed over a shoulder. Mixed among them is a tattoo of a pair of lips.
“That’s from my wife,” Johnny says. “Before she passed on, I asked her to kiss a piece of paper, and my first tattoo was of her lips on my rear end. I balanced it out with this one on my arms.”
Wait. You’re a single dad of three?
“Yep. My wife passed overnight of a heart attack, right next to me in bed. She was 47. I didn’t know a thing, and I sleep like a prisoner — one eye open and one eye closed. It happened on a Sunday, and someone said it was a challenge to my faith. I could have thrown my hands in the air for having such a wonderful person taken away from me. But I was with her for 30 years. We did everything possible. If we didn’t do it, we shouldn’t have done it. She gave me these great children. She’s still with us. We say goodnight to her every night and good morning to her every morning. She lets us know that she’s still blessing us.” And with that, they were gone.
I’m not a huge country music fan, but that didn’t lessen effect of seeing the Tree Town Festival in Forest City for the first time. Now in its second year, the primarily country music festival is amazing to see in a sleepy little Iowa community with a population of less than 7,000. Tree Town Festival is a must-see for anyone, really. From the State Fair-like vendors, to the acres and acres of RVs and campers, the big tent and gorgeous Ferris wheel that is lit up at night, it truly is spectacular. Organizers spared no expense in the entertainment, either. They brought in the big guns of today’s country market, including Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts. I spent a few hours there on the first night — Rock Night — seeing Hairball and .38 Special. I spent time with my good friend Mark Skaar, and even walked around my old stomping grounds at Waldorf College for the first time in 26 years. The parking lot where a future NFL football player stole my car stereo speakers is still there. No, I’m not kidding. The not-to-be-named lineman (who was playing for Waldorf at the time) was spotted by a classmate (who ended up as sportscaster for ESPN’s auto racing broadcasts) busting out the window of my 1980 Buick Regal in broad daylight. Nothing happened to him, and he went on to a Division I school for a couple of years, then on to be a starting lineman in the NFL for a few more. You owe me some money, fat man. Oh, and a shout out to Mr. Shelton, too. Hey, buddy. Yeah, I’m looking at you, too. Remember back in 2007 when you came to the Iowa Speedway to sing the National Anthem before the midget car race? Neither does anyone else. Regardless, you did, and a couple other members of the press and I took the time to snap some pics of you and publish them. You know, “country guy with mullet does good,” kind of a thing. Other than that, well, let’s just say no one was exactly clamoring to get to you. But oh how times have changed apparently. I understand that no one was allowed to photograph you at any time during your Tree Town performance. Talking to us? Not an option. Seems you’ve gotten too big for our little britches, eh? It’s good to know, though. The next time I hear you sing about “rememberin’ where I’m from,” I’ll chuckle. ‘Cuz you don’t, cuz. Now excuse me. I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth. My lips taste like sangria.
Pardon me for sounding Yelp-ish here, but if you’re ever in Garner and need a place to stay, make it the Garner Inn and Suites. Privately owned, immaculately kept and priced just right. I wake up and head down to the first floor to enjoy a hot breakfast before embarking on the last leg of my trek, this time to Sioux City. As I sit there, I notice a farmer-ish looking gentleman, pleasantly portly, walking around the room, shaking hands with smile on his face and a warm greeting in his tone. Curiosity kills my cat. I ask what he did here.
“Owner,” he says with pride. “I built the place.” Roger Schmidt, a 69-year-old livestock buyer from nearby Klemme, is a lifelong resident of the area who turned some “luck” into a nice little nest egg for he and his wife of “47 or 48 years,” Deb. Being in the hotel business was never on his radar, he claims.
“The motel that was here was a piece of junk. It was too nice of a piece of property, so I bought it, burned out the old hotel and cleaned it up. And now I sit owning a hotel. I could never imagine me owning a hotel.”
But he does. That knack for entrepreneurship began in high school when he started buying livestock, something that ran in the family lines, down from his grandfather to his father and then to him. That’s what life was.
“I wasn’t going to dances and all that stuff. I look back, and I was making more money in high school than the teachers were who were trying to teach me.”It hasn’t always been easy, though. “Badly bent,” as he calls it, Schmidt found himself on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1980s. Things were not going his way. He sent his biggest shipment of sheep ever — 23 loads — to Mexico only to learn that the buyer had gone bankrupt.
“It took me 10 years to get my money back, but I got it.”
A busy man, Schmidt kept at it, slowly building his little version of an empire. So is it time to slow down and enjoy some of the spoils of his labor? Forget about it.
“I can’t see me going down to South Texas or Arizona and playing shuffleboard with some old lady and her walker. That’s not gonna happen. I don’t have time to retire. I’m bored as hell right now. There’s a bakery down the road, and I think it would be fun to buy that and expand it. The wife hit the roof when I told her I wanted to buy a bakery. But I’m not going to sit around the house and watch ‘Oprah’ all day.”
Fair enough. But back to this aforementioned “luck” thing. What happened that you were able to get back on track?
“It’s all ‘who you know,’ let’s just say that,” Schmidt says with a wink toward my recorder, specifically the “off” button.
I shut the recorder off to learn more about “who you know.”
And now I know.
The mural on the side of the Sac Liquor store in Sac City. I love this type of advertising campaign. The subtle “Because-this-painting-depicting-small-town-goodness-and-wholesomeness-is-on-the-side-of-this-building-it-means-that-everything-within-this-structure-is-goodness-and-wholesome-too” is fantastic. The guilt of blowing half your paycheck on three kegs of beer and a case of Jack Daniels for the downstairs man cave? Gone. Genius in a Sac.
Tyson Events Center, Sioux City. Credential check-in time for the Volbeat/Anthrax show. I give the woman behind the glass at Will Call my I.D. and confirmation email from the tour publicist. She looks at it and says, “I don’t know what this is, and I don’t have anything for you.” Sweet. I love consistency. I ask for further instructions and get a shrugging of the shoulders. Sitting behind me is a man who pipes into our conversation.
“The guest list doesn’t get brought down until 5. That’s what they all do. You should know that.”
“What’s your name, and how would you know?” I return.
“I’m not going to give you my name, but I’m the merch manager.”
That does it.
“Oh, then why don’t you f*** off and go sell some T-shirts,” I advise him.
I’d had it with the long hours of this three-day adventure, and his holier-than-thou tone pushed me over the edge. His response? Back to playing on his phone. I’m guessing he’s tired, too. All is well later when I run into him again in the parking lot. He asks if they took care of me. I laugh at how quickly we forgive and forget.
The shows were great. I feel bad for my brother who is in attendance and had to go through a ticket broker to get a seat. At a premium price, of course. Ticketmaster said the show was sold out. Weird. Half the seats in the house are empty. Volbeat’s tour photographer passes by me a couple of times and I talk with him briefly, the second time out of curiosity how he got such a gig. With a thick Danish accent over the 130-decibel grooves of Volbeat, he replies something to the effect of “shlkslkjd lskkdlkdk ldishsk slisosk…I got lucky.” What? You, too?
Home. I’m tired but manage a moment of reflection as I sit in the garage, struggling to keep my eyes open. It’s been interesting. Some ups, some downs, some things I certainly didn’t anticipate. But the bottom line is that I’m better for it all. It’s been a learning experience, I’ve met some unique people, and to get to hear their stories, I’m blessed. Or, dare I say it…lucky. CV