From The Desk Of Kelly Hogan: Home Sweet Van

KellyHoganLogoNeko Case has called her pal Kelly Hogan “the Zelig of rock ‘n’ roll.” Her name appears in the credits for albums by Mavis Staples, the Mekons, Will Oldham, Matt Pond PA, Amy Ray, Giant Sand, Archer Prewitt, Alejandro Escovedo, Drive-By Truckers, Jakob Dylan, Tortoise and many others, Case included. Hogan’s fourth album has been a long time coming, in part because she’s been busy as a crucial part of Case’s band (anyone who’s seen Case live has witnessed Hogan’s amusing banter), in part because of the nature of the project. For I Like To Keep Myself In Pain (Anti-), Hogan sent letters to her songwriter friends, many of whom she’d sung with, asking them if they would send her a song, either one written specifically for her or one that “you think I could do right by,” as she said. That process started several years ago, and results yielded songs from a veritable who’s who: Vic Chesnutt, Stephin Merritt, Andrew Bird, Jon Langford, Janet Bean, M. Ward and others. Hogan will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our recent feature on her.

Hogan: I’ve been touring in vans since 1988. Vans named “Big Gary,” “The Beaver,” “The Ultra Beaver,” “Large Marge,” “Bloody Caesar,” “Martin Mull” and “Tina.” There were some Fords, a Chevy, one rented Town & Country, a GMC, diesels and regular, with trailer and without. Anybody who does what I do can tell you. They become your home. Your stinky rolling home.

In my first band, the Jody Grind, we had a Ford XLT with a cracked and leaky hand-crank fiberglass fart-snatch in the ceiling and a ladder on the back door. The van was painted in three shades of brown and looked like a Snickers bar on wheels. Dual gas tanks meant that we theoretically never had to stop to pee. Our sweet-but-sweaty sound man used to wear Harley Davidson tank tops, and his wet blonde armpits would rub across the back of the cloth bench seats as we drove across the desert, which made the inside of the van smell like Chili-Cheese Fritos and ass. Forever.

I’ve spent many hungover mornings sleeping on the coveted back bench seat (the seat that the Robbie Fulks band very astutely calls “The Weeping Hole”) while sweating out last night’s Jäger shots and getting waffle marks on my face from the patterned seat covers while we motored to the next town. I’ve changed clothes back there, put on make-up, painted my toenails, spilled entire milkshakes, written lyrics and letters, laughed at dirty jokes and told a few. I’ve cut the cheese, practiced new songs, eaten gas-station sandwiches, performed cursory crotch washes with Handi-Wipes and bottled water, burped the alphabet and read my dog-eared copies of Dorothy Parker and David Lee Roth’s Crazy From the Heat. I’ve masturbated, copulated, got buzzed on warm beer for breakfast, I’ve “put ‘em on the glass”—and oh hell yes, I’ve wept.

There was always a “van library” floating around—definitely a Mojo or MAGNET or Spin magazine on the floor somewhere, some John Fante, Jane And Michael Stern’s Eat Your Way Across The USA, a couple of newspapers folded in rectangles to the crossword puzzle page, Joseph Mitchell’s Up In The Old Hotel and a tattered road atlas—which is still decent reading if you’ve finished the book you brought and you’re desperate.

You got a few hard gray french fries on the floor, and some dirty balled-up tube socks. You also got some bent bottle caps down there, one flip-flop and a wadded-up parking pass from three clubs ago. There’s been an apple core in the cup holder for a few days, and it’s starting to smell a little “Boone’s Farm-y,” and dangling from a played-out elastic on the rearview mirror is a KISS ARMY air freshener that doesn’t smell like anything anymore, thank god. Hey, right now somebody should play “The Fly That Rode From Buffalo” by Southern Culture On The Skids. It paints this picture perfectly.

After living this life for awhile, we finally got smart in at least one capacity and started carrying our own coffee rig in a milk crate between the front seats: a hot pot, french press, whole beans and a grinder, china cups, sugar. It saved our life many times over. We’d put a pillow on top of the rig during the drives, and it became the seat of choice for Augie, my little Boston terrier/poodle dog, who would always ride there. Augie toured with us since she was three months old and she loved the road—almost as much as she loved vienna sausages suspended in that funky clear jelly (the meat snack that my mom’s side of the family calls “monkey dicks”). Sometimes we’d buy Augie her own can of sausages at truck stops, roll down the windows because of the smell and just let her go to town.

Back then, we’d all come to the tour with a bunch of cassettes—in shoeboxes, or zippered cases that you got for free when you bought a multipack of blank Maxells—and everyone knew that when it came to what was to be played, it was always “driver’s choice”—unless the drummer’s free-jazz tape skronked on a little too long and you had to take a vote and stage an overthrow. Or unless, say, on a Rock*A*Teens tour, a drunk Chris Lopez ejected your irreplaceable 1989 mix tape during an Yma Sumac song and threw it out the window on I-20 on the way to Birmingham. Or maybe the “folksy-comedy-hating” Neko Case went behind your back and offered up your precious Jerry Clower cassette collection as free gifts to the audience between songs upstairs at The Middle East in Boston. Hey! Hey!!!!!

As a moneysaving security measure, we’ve drawn straws many times for who has to sleep in the van overnight to “guard the stuff” in places like Fells Point in Baltimore (where our bass player, wielding a big bottle of Valpolicella, scared off some dickheads who were trying to siphon our gas) or Bushwick in Brooklyn (where Lopez and I stayed up all night, scared to death, and fantasized about being in a two-man band like Indigo Girls or Giant Sand where you could cut costs and tour in a Ford Escort and only have to split the money two ways) or Ninth Street and Avenue A in New York for two nights in 20-degree weather (where cuddling my drummer became necessary for survival.)

I’ve done the van life for a long time, but in the past few years, I’ve been mostly touring in a bus with Neko Case—which you might think is kind of glamorous if you haven’t seen Das Boot. But I’ll just tell you right now that it’s 12 people trying to keep from killing each other while living really close together in a giant rolling Pringles can full of farts and guitars. There is usually a nice coffee maker on board (no homemade milk-crate rig necessary), but then, even though we do have a toilet, you’re not allowed to poop into it. Now, explain to me how you would call that progress? I got back in a van this year to tour for my new record, and let me tell you that it felt good to drink as many cups of coffee as I wanted at any time of day (from our milk crate rig) and not have to worry about developing mega-colon.

To all y’all out there in the vans right now—I feel you out there—and I salute you. I salute you!!! Please be careful! Keep your tires inflated, watch out for drunk-driving assholes, check your mirrors, don’t leave your favorite pillow in the hotel room by mistake, and don’t leave your bass player at the truck stop by mistake! Wear your seat belts even when you’re riding in the back seats, and don’t accidentally back into the hidden concrete pylons by the stage door! Take turns with the radio, call your mother, eat some vegetables besides french fries once in awhile, and rock on. I’ll see you out there soon.

Photo after the jump.

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7 Comments

  1. Tyler
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Hogan ROCKS!

  2. Chuck Uvas
    Posted January 18, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Write a book, please, Kelly. I’d laugh all the way through like I did reading this. Thanks for the amusing depictions of life on the road. Some of the funniest tales I’ve ever read. I once knew a conversion van driving odd fellow who romantically referred to his ride as “The Stabbin’ Cabin.” It’s a beautiful life.

  3. Maurice
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    You’ve evoked the glorious squalor so perfectly, I wanted to cheer. Instead, I’ll leave this comment. Chuck’s right–you should write a book.

  4. Mac Bartine
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    You should write for Rolling Stone. Very funny, and engaging. Though I’ve been rocking for a long time, I’ve never experienced van life. But I *HAVE* driven coast to coast in a Ford Escort. It wasn’t that bad!

  5. Dave P
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Jesus, Kelly. Love the new record. But wow, you don’t NEED other folks to write for you. You’re good. Really good.

  6. Posted January 19, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I spent a solid decade on the road working for many bands; some big enough that it might come off like a name drop, and some so obscure that they don’t even turn up in a Google search. Gigs so small that the band’s gear didn’t all fit on the stage, and the stupid football stadium ordeals that make one feel sorry for the saps in the upper deck who spent $90 in a vain attempt to impress the girl they work with enough to let them spend more money on her next week.

    All of which is just a long winded statement of qualification for what I’m about to say: Every single word in this post is full-on Gospel Truth. Unless you’re one of the top .001% of working musicians who get to the point of being able to afford whatever logistical luxury you desire, there is always an inconvenience to your touring life. I’ve flown in planes, ridden in buses, and driven vans and trucks. If I had to go back out on the road for another 10 years, and I had to pick one, I’d go in a van without hesitation.

    Viva Hogan!

  7. torquilbarker.co.uk
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Any of these songs you fancy doing?

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  • By Miss You « Experiments In Domesticity on February 1, 2013 at 3:02 am

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