Charleston, South Carolina
“I brought some energy weed,” James said as he walked through the front door of the house on the Rialto Row compound. One lesson I’ve learned with absolute certainty is that the rock and roll world is a feisty bull to hang on to, so you may as well get stoned and do your best to keep at it.
Van the Good and James both arrived at Rialto early to sort out the plan for the day before we left for Georgia for the last show of the tour.
“I just need to pick up a bag of ice, a 12 pack of Budweiser, and a pack of Camel Lights,” James said as he hauled his ACID BOYS cooler into the van.
The three of us had some time to kill, so we headed over to James’ house to chill out and say hi to Luda, James’ dog who acts as the mascot of Rialto Row.
“You see these speakers here?” James said as we came into his house. “They were custom made for Eddie Vedder and they were the main speakers for the jam room in his house. Ben [Bridwell] won them from him on a bet when they were on tour, so they were his for years. Band of Horses got a sponsor that hooked their house up, so I go these.”
“Can you play something?” I asked.
“Sure,” he shrugged, pulling his phone out. “This is what we stumbled in on last night.”
He played a smooth, groovy, jam. It sounded incomplete, and that’s because it was. The truest version of the song momentarily peeked through the psychedelic shadows of the music. James played a few Band of Horses songs to show off the aptitude of what were once Eddie Vedder’s speakers.
“It’s crazy how these guys are my best friends, right? I would love these dudes if they were, I don’t know, landscapers, if they were whatever the fuck. The fact that they’re making this great music is wonderful and I’m just lucky to be here.”
“It’s fucking crazy to me that these sounds that are made in Rialto, a place that we built, are gonna be heard all over the goddamn world. That is fucked up! And, who knows man, maybe this shit’s gonna cheer people up in Japan and Australia meanwhile Ben recorded the vocals in my shitass bathroom!”
He paused for a moment, looking around his living room with a Budweiser in his hand. “That’s insane, brother, straight up.”
“That’s the American Dream,” I said from the back porch where I smoked a cigarette with Luda.
“Hey, man, they’ve also helped SUSTO out a lot. Band of Horses has taken SUSTO across the country, to Europe. Ben gave Justin a guitar for his birthday one year and Justin goes shit, man! You just tripled my net worth!”
Once we rolled out, we picked up Igoe and Justin before pulling up at the storage facility to pick up the merch bins. The string hanging from the light in the unit took three pulls to turn on. We filled a wide cart with only what we needed for the one show and loaded up the van.
“Esta bien,” Van the Good said from the driver seat once everything was loaded in. “Everybody, take your vitamins.”
We swung through Chick-Fil-A for brunch before being Georgia bound. We were still in the drive-thru, waiting on the rest of our food, when Justin started coughing and choking on his drink.
“I’ve never felt like that in my life,” he said, heaving with every breath, his eyes red and watering. “I felt like I was drowning.”
“You just really wanted that fuckin’ drink,” Igoe said, almost impressed.
“Can you ask for extra napkins? I look like a child,” Justin said.
“You are a child, bud,” Igoe replied.
“I’ve never seen anybody that mean on sweet tea before,” James said in his rough, Georgia tone from the middle row of seats.
“Unsweetened tea,” Justin corrected him, eyes still watering.
“I bet now you have PTSTea,” James said before laughing hard at his own joke. “That was pretty good.”
“He’s still chokin,’ bud,” Igoe said, looking over at James.
“That was the funniest thing I’ve ever said, and nobody laughed,” James said, offended.
“I laughed,” Igoe and I both added.
“Justin probably woulda laughed if he wasn’t chokin’,” Igoe said.
Once we were squared away, we hit the highway and were off toward Georgia. Deep green bushes and towering trees skirted the highway behind a layer of low, heavy fog.
“You’re ruining this beautiful scenery with this ok-ass, bullshit music” James said from the middle row. “Put on Z by My Morning Jacket. Have you heard My Morning Jacket?” he asked, looking back at me.
I shook my head to say no.
“Oh, Canuck. Buckle up,” is all he said with wide eyes before taking a long sip of Budweiser.
We put the album on and passed The Gift Bowl around.
We vibed to the album while countless miles fell away behind us. James looked back over the seat and said, “This is that Low Country, dawg. This is all marsh and rivers.”
He looked up front as Justin drove, eating his chicken nuggets.
“Justin, your nugget-driving form is spectacular. I’ve got a buddy who weighs 400 or so pounds. He bet me one time that he could eat 100 nuggets in an hour. He ended up eating 66 in 23 minutes.”
“Then what? Did he die, or what?” Justin said into the rearview mirror.
“I don’t know, man,” James said, looking out the window at the South Carolina countryside. “He got real sick after that.”
When James starts telling a story, he gets the attention of anyone in earshot. What makes him such a good storyteller is his poetic tendency with words coupled with the fact most of his stories involve some light-hearted debauchery. He sat up straight before he spoke again.
“Do y’all remember when we were all at The Space doing & I’m Fine Today and I came in all excited. You’re like whatsup? And I’m like, ‘dawg, Lenny Kravitz just split his pants and…’” he stopped mid-sentence and looked back at me. “Did you see Lenny Kravitz’s dick? Do you know about this?”
“Yeah,” I said, laughing.
“That was the greatest day of my fucking life,” he said with a methodical cadence. “The fact that he had a cock-ring, leather pants, mid solo. Ah,” he said, leaning back and bringing his Budweiser up for a sip, “ya can’t beat that.”
More miles of endless forest and lowland swamp soared by us as I passed The Gift Bowl up to James. He flicked his Zippo open in a particular, spinning way before he sparked it. Igoe was mesmerized as he did it. She asked if he’d teach it to her, so he slowed the motion down for her to see.
“It’ll take you a minute and then it’ll get real natural,” he said.
“It’s gonna take more than a minute, bud. I don’t understand the physics. There’s gotta be another variable,” she said, continuing to spin and drop the lighter. Spin and drop, spin and drop.
“Ain’t it pretty around here?” James said, passing The Gift Bowl back to me, forgetting about the sound of Igoe dropping the lighter over and over.
“Gorgeous,” I said. He only nodded and smiled.
“Willin’” by Little Feat came on in the van as a part of Justin’s driving playlist.
“Is there another variable?” Igoe asked, her frustration growing.
“No, no,” James answered, showing her the trick another couple of times. “It just takes practice.”
“Show me again, fucker,” Igoe said, and he did.
“Oh shiit!” James yelled, getting the attention of the vehicle with his celebration as Igoe nailed the lighter trick. “Hell yeah, that was awesome!”
“I got it!” Igoe yelled back at him.
The two high fived and James’ excitement grew every time he saw her do it again, and again.
“Hell yeah,” James said between sips of Budweiser. “Lemme see it again, lemme see it again!”
The sound of the Zippo spinning open over and over was broken by James’ voice, calmer than usual.
“Hey, Justin, I just taught Igoe how to open a Zippo like a boss. It’s pretty valuable for your rock aesthetic. Soon, when y’all are rockin’ crowds, Igoe’s gonna need to have a cigarette and it’s gonna be a whole thing. My point is, I think we’ve earned a cigarette. We’ve been putting in work back here and we’ve learned how to open a lighter like a badass.”
“That’s so ridiculous,” Igoe said. She laughed and continued to spin the Zippo open over and over.
“It’s the truth,” James said defensively, his voice breaking on the word truth.
Justin gave the idea a moment of thought and looked in the rearview mirror to say, “I’ll give you guys a cigarette break in half an hour.”
“That’s great,” James said, raising both hands in the air, still holding a Budweiser in his left. “Thank you so much for your kindness.”
“I’ll probably have to pee in half an hour,” Igoe confessed.
“Exactly,” Justin said, keeping his eyes on the road. “You’ll have your cigarette then.”
“Oh, well, that’s not exactly a gift,” James said, making sense of the situation.
“Exactly. I’m saying you can have your cigarette, but it’ll be at a routine stop. I can’t watch her do that while I’m driving so I can’t verify the coolness of the trick. It doesn’t feel right to grant you a cigarette break for it.”
James was astonished by this miscarriage of justice. His shoulders raised as he became visibly upset. Finally, he erupted.
“That’s the most bullshit ass, horseshit kinda bullshit rule ever,” he said at last.
Then he broke out in laughter that spread through the van, while Igoe flicked the lighter open, and closed, and open, and closed.
“You’re doing really good over there,” James said to Igoe with a smile.
Justin rolled his window down and took the wheel at top center with his right hand. “Wooo!” he screamed, pumping his left fist out the window. “Window’s all the way down, baby! Wooo! Tour or die!”
“Whew. This is gonna be one of the best cigarette’s I’ve ever had, y’all,” James said at the next rest stop.
Justin jumped into the passenger seat, cracked a beer and rolled a joint as Van took over to drive the rest of the way to Macon. The sun had only just struck the horizon when we checked in to the hotel and it was dark when we arrived at the venue for the show.
As we drove over, Justin sat in the middle row of seats. By now he’d had himself a few hits of a joint and he’d put back a few beers. He danced in his seat along with the jams in the van. His seatbelt squeaked each time he bounced in his seat dancing. Once he heard the squeak, he danced in a way that carried a beat with squeak of the seatbelt. Then he danced to the rhythm of the squeaking seatbelt.
That’s the thing about being around a guy like Justin; he emanates music, he breathes it and never seems to ever stop living it. Whether it’s dancing along to a rhythm he just discovered in the world, or making up songs or tag lines, little tunes about anything. Justin is in continual participation with his musical self.
We had all sat down for dinner at the venue when Pete walked in with his guitar and gear box.
“How do you feel about the last show?” I asked him once he’d settled in.
“Happy to still be standing. Excited to get home, but it’s bittersweet, it’s bittersweet,” he said as he took a seat at the table.
“All good things must come to an end,” I uttered in cliché fashion.
“It’s true, man,” he said with a nod.
Justin sat down at the piano on stage for soundcheck.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he said into the mic. “One, two, three. Nothin’ ‘bout nothin. Check, check, check. Hey, hey, hey. Gettin’ me down, nothin’ bout nothin’,” he sang. before jumping in to “Acid Boys” as a warmup.
Igoe showed off her newfound Zippo trick as she stepped on stage. She smiled as she pocketed the lighter before carrying on with soundcheck.
“Alright,” Justin said once warmup finished, “I’m gonna get a shot n’ a beer and go chill in the green room.”
We spent enough time in the green room to get bored before we headed out into the pouring rain and on to the streets of Macon. We walked over to a bar called Grant’s Lounge that is said to have been a major building block in the development of Southern rock, hosting the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty, and the Allman Brothers in the 70s. “Silent Night” played and Christmas lights decorated the streets we ran across to get there. Igoe sung along in a dramatic, operatic voice.
“Is that a good opera voice?” she asked me with a whiskey scented smile.
“It’s great,” I said as we walked into the bassy, rock and roll atmosphere of Grant’s.
“This is fuckin’ cool, man,” I said to Justin with no better words for it.
“This place, it’s legendary, man,” he said as we walked through it. “I’m sure you’ve been told already; this is the place where southern rock was pretty much founded.”
All over the walls are autographs and band names, drawings and otherwise in sharpie, pencil, or whatever was available to write with. The promoter for the show, a southern man named Hubble, handed me a sharpie and said “sign somewhere, man.”
I wandered about, looking for somewhere with enough blank space to write and a memorable enough placement to recall. I saw a corner with just enough space.
“Draw a maple leaf,” Justin said after I signed my name.
“I don’t really know how. You try,” I said. I handed him the sharpie.
He knelt down and drew his best maple leaf, writing “Canada rulez” underneath it. We slipped away from the music, into the back area where the pool tables were hidden.
“Corner pocket,” Justin said, leaning into his shot.
“Woo! Cah caw! Cah caw!” James said, pumping a fist in the air with one hand and cradling a Budweiser in the other. “That’s my dawg. I did not have any faith in you on that shot.”
“What can I say,” Justin shrugged, “I’m a closer.”
“I’m more of a middle reliever,” Hubble admitted.
On the next shot Justin sank the 8 ball and it was time to head back to the venue.
As we walked through the bar to leave, I stood in the opening in front of the stage. I looked around, thinking my way through time to some night in the 70s when Lynyrd Skynyrd stepped on stage. Just some long-haired Florida boys, playing like you’ve never heard before. I looked around the floor, imagining the packed houses they must have played for. I wondered what it must have been like, how the atmosphere would have felt, the first time these walls rumbled with the first sliding notes of “Free Bird”.
As the group walked out, I looked around for Justin and found him crouched against a wall. I payed no mind and leaned against the bar until he rushed by to catch up with the group. I went back and saw the place he left his mark, the footprint of the Acid Boys. I ran out the bar and down the street to catch up with the group while we walked through the December rain to the venue.
As we came back in the building, we could hear Pete singing “Laid Low”.
“It’s true enough I’ve paid for a ride I didn’t mean to take but never have I wanted to forget it,” he sang, powerfully.
“Thank y’all very kindly,” is all he had to say between songs.
I thought of something while I watched Igoe and Justin take the stage for the last time that night. It was less a thought and more a feeling. Something to do with brotherhood and comradery. We’re out here together, neck deep and sinking into a way of life. For each of them, a life without music would be a failure to be living fully. Where there’s a stage and an audience there are people like Justin and Igoe looking to put on a show and share their greatest passion.
“The next song we’re gonna play is about surfing but it’s also about violence,” Justin said, scratching his forehead. “We live in Charleston where there’s a pretty vibrant surfing community. You can probably tell by lookin’ at me that I’m not a part of that community, as surfing requires this elusive thing called upper body strength. Never really chased that down. But I have some friends who were nice enough to bring me along to come try it out.”
“We went out and it was a beautiful morning. The water was glassy, and there were dolphins. And it just blew my mind and made me wonder how do we get to live in such a wonderful world?”
“After that I was like, ‘Call me next time and every time after that you guys go.’”
“They brought me out again a few days later and it was totally different. There was a big storm rolling in. I kept trying to get out into the waves, but I couldn’t do it. I kept just trying for like three hours and I started singing this little mantra: it comes in waves. After a while I gave up and just ripped cigs on the beach and watched my friends catch waves.”
“It was about a year after that I started thinking about the juxtaposition between those two days. And so, I guess this song was written about that feeling of confliction and it’s called Waves.”
Justin strummed the opening chords, letting his voice rip through those first lines. “Why’s there so much trouble,” he sang, leaning into the mic while Igoe backed him up. “We live in such a remarkable place.”
The last song they played was “Acid Boys”. Before they finished, Justin gave thanks to everyone for coming. He thanked Pete for opening and Igoe for performing with him. He thanked Van the Good for all that he had done on his first tour as Tour Manager.
Finally, he looked at me in the crowd and said, “We’ve also had a writer along with us for the last half of the tour. A Canadian writer named Matt Harrison.”
He smiled as he went on to say something else, but I couldn’t hear him over the cheering crowd. I put my hand over my heart and gave him a nod as he spoke. Whatever it was he said, I suspect it was something I had already felt along the way. When I had ceased being some just some writer clung to the underside of the van is indefinable. It was somewhere in those countless miles, those late-night joints and bleary-eyed mornings that I had become a friend among friends.
Weed was plentiful that night through the after party and the crew drank their fill. We spent most of the night in the bar attached to our hotel, shooting pool and playing foosball. The party cleared out when the bar closed and we went next door to the hotel around 3am. In the lobby of the hotel sat a white grand piano. Igoe sat down at it and started playing.
“Igoe, can you play Rosetta?” Van the Good asked.
A few tears built slowly and ran quickly down my face as we watched her sing. The beauty of her voice and the piano carried through the grand entrance of the hotel with the soothing fluidity of rainfall. At the end of the song, a hotel employee came rushing down the hall at us, clapping his hands and yelling.
“Hey, hey, hey!” he yelled. “You can’t be playin’ right now, it’s three in the mornin’!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she softly sang the last line of her song.
We kept our laughter quiet as we went upstairs and continued the party in room 231.
It was around 4:00am when Justin asked me a good question: “Matt Harrison, what are you doing here, man?!”. The last time he asked me this same question we were in Mobile, and he had just taken a hit of a joint. This time, The Gift Bowl was still smoking in his hand as he said it. “For all we know you could be the Devil,” he said. He eyed me suspiciously as he brought the bowl to his lips.
It’s as if it took the right combination of liquor and weed for the charade I had been upholding to fall apart. Ultimately, there’s no valid explanation, no good reason for me to be here for any of this. I’m not an elite member of the press or an exploring documentarian. I was just a SUSTO fan who got lucky.
I’d read The Proud Highway by Hunter S. Thompson and saw how many letters he sent to editors, politicians, other writers, anyone and everyone he thought would be worth while writing to. I mimicked that idea when I wrote Justin the letter that pitched the idea of me coming on tour with him. All I really did was write a letter. And there I was because of it, laughing along with Justin, Igoe, and Van the Good after touring with them for the last 10 days.
The next morning wouldn’t begin until the early afternoon. We passed The Gift Bowl around the van before we cleared out of the hotel parking lot. After these countless miles, it’s still the same four-person crew. Today the pace is our own and home is the destination for some much-needed R&R.
We met Pete for brunch before he went back his own way. As we sat down, Justin asked the server, “Do y’all sell any liquor drinks?”
The answer was no, so an unsweetened tea would have to suffice.
We said our goodbyes to Pete and drove back through the loping hills of Georgia. The energy in the van was lower than it was yesterday as we trekked through these final miles of tour.
“PTSTea is still the funniest thing I have ever said,” James said to a unanimous approval of the van as we crossed back into South Carolina.
The rolling wheels of the luggage cart echoed down the hall of the storage facility until we stopped at the unit where the light takes three pulls to click on. We loaded the merchandise bins away for the last time and pulled the wide metal door shut.
“How much more of that cigarette do you have?” I asked James as I stepped out of the building. “Half? Perfect. Can I borrow a lighter?”
“You do notice that I have not held up the convoy at any point in time?” James said as he passed me his lighter. “I have crushed beers and have not had to make a single piss stop.” His voice was calm as he spoke. “From an efficiency standpoint, everyone can suck ma dick.”
I raised a cigarette to his achievement, ashed it out, and climbed into the van. No one said anything as we drove through Charleston and pulled up outside Rialto Row.
Collectively, we had taken hits to the liver, the psyche, the lungs and otherwise. As we puttered down the dark streets of Charleston, I began feeling the end of the road, the end of the adventure. That first night in Chicago, the end seemed like an address we would never pull up in front of. Yet here we were, parked outside of Rialto Row. James, Van, and I climbed out of the van.
“Matt, it’s been a great ride, bud,” Justin said as I grabbed my things out of the van. “Monday, let’s get lunch before ya go. If you need anything, hit me up. King street is just through here. If you want anything, you can walk as far as you’re willing to.”
“Alright, man, it’s been real,” I said, unsure of the appropriate words for the end of such an experience.
“Yeah, dude. It’s been amazing. I’m glad we were able to make it work.”
“It just took a bit of time.”
“Yeah. I’ll see you around in a day or so.”
There will be other tours for Justin, for Igoe, and for Van the Good. James hasn’t crushed his last Budweiser on the road, either. But this tour, this particular stretch of highway and memories, has found its end.
“Take care, bud,” I said as I gave Igoe a hug goodbye.
“You too, bud,” she said before she climbed into the van.
I shed a couple tears while I watched the second show in Charleston, thinking about the looming end of tour. As I heard the van fire up and watched it roll down the street, I could only be happy any of this ever happened. The highway overpass sent a continual hum through the warm December night as their brake lights flashed at the end of the street before they turned left and pulled out of sight.