Take a glass bottle and heat it up until it shatters. Break any larger pieces into tiny shards. Are they still scaldingly hot? Good. Now apply them with force to the underside of your left foot, mostly under the toes. Save a few for your right heel. Now put in a lot of hours at your day job, which requires you to be on your feet all the time.
Live in a two-story house and allow a full ten minutes for every time you need to go up the stairs or down them. Stare at the dog you can’t run in the woods anymore and at the motorcycle you can no longer ride.
Still got some of those burning glass nuggets? Take the rest of them and tuck them lovingly under your kneecaps: first the right one, then the left one. Can’t bend your legs anymore? Good. You’re there.
Stop going to work: you can’t even stand up without assistance, let alone walk miles a day.
Watch the bills pile up. Wonder what it will be like to lose everything you have.
Take note as to when the anger turns to panic and the panic turns to apathy.
Go on a tour of the West Coast just to spite everyone, especially yourself.
We were at Logan, waiting to board the flight that will take us to Portland. We were about to commence the ten-day tour that was booked before I was crippled, before I even knew that there was a thing called psoriatic arthritis, before I knew that anything could hurt so much that it could cause me to collapse to the floor in pain. For three months, I’d met with an ineffective doctor who kept shooting my deformed foot full of steroids and shaking his well-groomed head at the worsening symptoms.
It wasn’t until I was sitting in the exam room of the surgeon I’d consulted to remove some of my useless, excruciating toes that I found out what was wrong and got referred to a guy who knew what he was doing. Now with a proper course of medication started and a plan for treatment when we returned
, I stood defiantly with my bass, leaning on my cane, wondering if the decision to go on this tour was the bravest or the stupidest one I could possibly make.
Joining us on this round would be Sheri Dietrich of Crush Hazard on rhythm guitar and Javier Cruz of Tule Fog on drums. Both of them are M.O.T.O. veterans: Sheri even had a M.O.T.O. tribute band called MOFO. The first two shows scheduled were Seattle and Portland, and Sheri’s housemate Adam Goldman of thebrotheregg would be on drums for these. These people are all my friends. I couldn’t help but worry that I’d hold them up, bring them down, make things weird with my cane and my limp and my daily regimen of drugs.
But at this point I was in too deep to turn around. Twelve gigs, eleven days and about thirteen hundred miles awaited me.
Our inaugural show at Seattle’s now-defunct 2 Bit Saloon went a long way in relieving my anxiety and switching my brain from distaff-Woody Allen morbidity to a much healthier outlook. Sharing the bill with the hilariously mission-focused Warning: Danger! (The World’s Safest Punk Band), scarfing down free pizza and having some catch-up time with Sheri in the patio was a damned sight nicer than sitting in the prison of my easy chair at home with the ubiquitous bag of frozen peas on my foot.
When we left the club, I stopped to look at the mural on the side of the building, which included a portrait of the late Captain Phil Harris, of the reality show Deadliest Catch. I reminded myself of what other people feel called to do, like spend months at a time on fishing boats, miles away from home, working without sleep and under conditions that would turn me into a sobbing wreck. Guys get their hands cut off in massive coils of rope while seagulls shit on them and they can’t go to Dunkin Donuts and stuff like that. So I have to walk with a cane and I can’t wear heels. BFD, McDonough, you pussy, I told myself. Now shaddup and load that gear.
After a great show in Portland, Sheri, Paul, and I rented a car to make the drive to San Francisco, where we’d meet Javier, play a show that night, and continue the rest of the tour in his van. When we went to pick up our temporary vehicle, we walked into some sort of spokenword drama involving fellow aspirational renters whose promised vehicle wasn’t available to take them to a funeral. There was tension in the air like static electricity as the hapless young manager tried to hold her corporate-directed stance and the mourning family became increasingly distraught.
I found myself fighting the urge to become invested. The Pollyanna part of me that lets people with fewer items cut ahead in the supermarket line envisioned letting these poor bastards have our car. But that would be stupid and if I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that karma only seems to work one way for me. Trying to squash my guilt under a veneer of rock’n’roll fuck youism, I promised myself that the people probably were at fault, that the rental car company was our friend, and that no matter what low point I hit I would never find myself yelling at a person in a green polyester vest as if they had control over any aspect of my life.
Of course, about ten hours later I was doing exactly that as we tried to drop off the car, which I had managed to not fuel up at any of the dozens of easily
–accessed gas stations along the way, my thick-Mick procrastination organ fully engorged with hubris and determination. Now, with an extra two hundred dollars tacked onto our bill as a reward for my lack of foresight, we were unable to successfully coordinate with Javier at the dropping-off point. No green-vested human being was able to tell me where to direct our friend, who had been patiently circling the garage in his van, probably inciting more than a couple of phone calls about a suspicious vehicle (trust me, this was a sketchy looking van).
All of us were technically speaking the same language, but not one person understood the nature of my questions. The garage was crowded, loud and filled with the smell of exhaust fumes and the echoes of shouting people and honking horns. A Green Vest was impatiently demanding that we move all of our gear and luggage out of the way while another argued with me about the logistics of moving anything without a place to actually put it. I felt the burning starting in my feet and legs again, compounded by stress and the simple act of standing upright for more than a few minutes. I limped over to a service window and shouted through a piece of Plexiglas that had seemingly been abused by others in my predicament over the years: “Do you not understand? I AM DISABLED!”
The admission was probably lost in the cacophony around me. It was probably not the first or last time someone had said these exact words here in the subterranean hive of the Cosmodemonic Car Rental Company, but it was the first time I had ever said them. As if in a movie, everything around me got muted into a blur. My own words hovered in my ears: “I AM DISABLED.” The battle cry of the defeated. I had copped to it. Played the cripple card. I was ashamed and horrified at my admission and its undeniable truth.
Fortunately, I didn’t have much time to dwell on what I’d just done. A young lady who had obviously not completed her Green-Vest Vow Of Incomprehensibility appeared unbidden and pointed us toward an unmarked door located behind all of the action. We laboriously dragged our stuff through and emerged into an alley as quiet and desolate as the garage had been chaotic. As the door locked portentously behind us, I felt like we were in a serial killer version of Narnia. A moment later, a set of taillights came alive next to a dumpster. In any other world, I would have felt a little scared. But not in touring mode. It was Javi and his crazy old van. I’d never been happier to see a shag-carpet interior in my life.
The rhythm of driving-loading in-sound checking-playing-loading out-driving is usually as satisfying to my soul as daily prayers must be to a person of faith. Javier’s van had no working AC, but as an unwilling reptilian-American, my cold blood and stiff joints were grateful for the steady, relentless heat. I tried to enjoy it, to be free in the way only the road can provide, to close my eyes and let my thoughts take me to the pleasant grey shores of car-sleep. But I couldn’t this time. Ever since my outburst at the rental place, my mind kept flashing a slideshow of my new reality: fistfuls of pills, walkers and canes, sensible shoes, that stupid plastic placard with the wheelchair on it. I was too young for this! Then I remembered my age. No I wasn’t.
Maybe I was too old for this, this music thing.
As Paul dozed next to me, I wanted to focus outward, to overhear and join the conversation between Sheri and Javi in the front seat. Words formed briefly over the endless rushing noise of the hot Pacific air blasting through the old van’s vent windows. But my hearing, destroyed by years of stubborn, unprotected exposure to amps and drums, failed to grasp anything I knew, just as it failed to connect with the aural mush emanating from the cassette deck. And my terrible, merciless inner voice started whispering urgently:
Maybe I don’t give a shit about music. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. Maybe starting to play again after all that time away was a mistake, a pointless personal dare. Maybe I’m not moved anymore. Maybe I never was. Maybe I just wanted to be close to people who are better than me as if excellence is contagious, as if there’s a herd immunity against mediocrity. Maybe at the end of this I should just hang it up, get a desk job, and sit at home watching cooking shows….
Our second show in L.A. should have been a home run: Big crowd, lots of old friends and fans, it was a Saturday night at a place Paul had played before with great success. But the fellow who booked us (nice kid, actually) promised the local big name band (fun band, actually) most of the door. He handed Paul a suspiciously thin envelope and beat a hasty retreat. The contents wouldn’t even cover gas.
I’d had enough.
For all of the good times, the camaraderie, the great music, there was also a now-constant chorus of doubt in my head. The thing that made my immune system attack my body was making my brain sabotage my soul. The illness was always there now, hovering in the background of every good time, turning my mental narrative into a redacted document: each burst of white hot pain blacking out a new friend’s name or a funny story. I tried to keep it secret, to walk without my cane, without a limp, to move in the world without weakness or hesitation. It was exhausting.
Two more shows tomorrow, I promised myself. Then I’m done.
Down the coast to San Diego the scenery became surreal to me. For days, we had been immersed in endless palm trees and glimpses of turquoise horizon on the right, posh shops and beach houses crawling up the blooming, gorgeous hills on the left. Everyone was wearing something white and looked like a model. I contracted myself into a fetal position against the door of the van and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the landscape had become familiar again. Despite the occasional palm trees, we were in a shabby part of some city or other. There were sketchy looking body shops, liquor stores, takeout joints. It looked like every other place we played all over the world.
“There it is!” someone said from the front seat.
And there it was: a multicolored art deco sawed-off obelisk that looked like it belonged on top of a Mardi Gras float, rising out of the asphalt and beckoning us forward. We had arrived at our destination: The Tower Bar.
There is something about spending a Sunday afternoon in a bar that just feels right. Even if one doesn’t partake of alcohol, one can still feel comforted by the low-lit dusky womb that closes around the inhabitants, protecting them from the bland Lord’s-Day reality outside. I ordered my customary bourbon and coke and felt my mood lighten as I wrapped my hands around the cool, sweating glass. This was a good place to be.
We played our matinee set to a small and enthusiastic crowd, loaded out and drove east to our final gig in a border town called El Centro at a bar called Strangers.
The sky got bigger as we left the ocean for the desert. By the time we arrived in El Centro it had darkened to an impossible deep blue-black. It was a Sunday night and the streets were empty, the buildings dark. The only thing missing from the picture was a tumbleweed blowing down the deserted street. Why the hell did we take this gig?
Within an hour I knew why.
The bar was tiny but packed with people who were genuinely happy to see us, first among them its proprietor, Ernie Quintero (you may know him from The Spits). Within minutes of arrival, we all had some sort of exotic, delicious beer in our hands. Our set was crazy in the way these things get when you know it’s the last time you’ll be playing for a while. I looked behind me at Javi, then off to the left at Sheri. I was gonna miss these people a lot. And then, center stage, at my beloved.
I’ve been listening to this guy for over twenty years and now I’m married to him and—dream of dreams—
playing in one of my favorite bands because of his faith in me as a musician and a human. What am I gonna do: go home and turn into a drone? Join a support group and whine about my brief artistic renaissance while I sit with a fucking bag of Birdseye peas on my foot? What an idiot. This is the life I was born to lead, and if I throw it away because of a weakness of the flesh then I never deserved to live it. Suck it up, McDonough. Drink it in.
At the end of the night, Ernie handed us an envelope that was considerably thicker than the one from the much bigger venue in the much bigger town on the much better night. He had asked his patrons to “tip fat” and they did. A comfy motel room, courtesy of his generosity, awaited us. I made a joke about “the kindness of Strangers” but then realized it really wasn’t a joke at all. No matter what my evil inner voice told me at my most despondent moments, it couldn’t erase the truth: music is the source of my health; strangers are family and this world is my home.
J.V McDonough is old enough to be your favorite aunt. She played bass in some Boston bands you never heard of, then joined The RiverCity Rebels (now defunct) in 2010. She now plays fulltime for M.O.T.O. with her husband Paul Caporino. Between November 2012 and the present they have played dates in China, Hong Kong, Japan (twice), Finland, Estonia, Berlin and dozens of U.S. cities. Click this link to learn more about M.O.T.O. and talk to J.V. via Facebook.