On the Road With SUSTO: Part Six

By Matt Harrison

Visiting the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame. Photo: Matt Harrison

December 15th, 2018

Charleston, South Carolina

The Royal American

When you step on tour with Justin Osborne, Jordan Igoe, and Van ‘The Good’ Robinson, the road seems endless from the outset. Times are good at every stop and it feels as though there’s a full moon hanging over every city you pull in to.

Then one morning you wake up in Macon, Georgia, and the ride has ended. The crew disbands and this old train is set down to rest for some time to come.

These thoughts swarmed me as I leaned over the railing of the Royal American patio with half a cigarette. I stared past the tracks out back, into the darkness beyond the reach of the moonlight until my focus was broken by an Indian bike being kicked into a growling start in the parking lot behind me.

I didn’t know anyone there other than Van the Good, so I’ve stepped outside for a cigarette every 10 or so minutes. Van and I split a small bit of LSD and I watched the stars come out as I waited to feel the effects.

The Royal American stage. Photo by: Matt Harrison

By 1:30 neither of us felt anything, so we took a bit more. I had initially blamed my continual missteps on the drug as I walked around the bar, though it’s worth noting I had smoked a pack of cigarettes in four hours which will make your feet feel heavier and your fingertips grow cold.

Van and I hopped into his van and took off through the night toward a recording studio for a party after we watched a couple bands play at the Royal. The studio felt like some indistinct and indefinable piece of home you’ve never stepped foot in; familiar in an unfamiliar way.

I wandered around briefly before settling into a spot on the couch and melting into the cushions. Not melting all the way into nothing, but enough to keep me planted there for the next few hours. I thought this damned acid is about as strong as a right hook from my grandmother and before I knew it, I was swept away and tangled up in the cosmic wavelengths that danced inside my eyes.

Most of the night crawled by but 3AM came out of nowhere. “Electric Feel” by MGMT came on only to be cut short as the room began to ride the waves of the tune. “Oh, come on!” one person yelled at the DJ through the studio window. “Why. WhyWhy?” he hollered with greater desperation, only to be answered by the next song.

I felt gentle waves coming and going. When they came, I felt lost in the drug, but unafraid. When they went, I thought about how none of what I just experienced will be even remotely replicated at home. The more I thought about tour, the less I wanted to leave. But even if I stayed, it will never be what it was. Just as I began sinking into this thought, I felt a gentle stirring in my stomach and my lips felt as though they had each blossomed open.

Just as I began sinking back into the drug, someone I met at the bar asked if I’m alright. I told him “I feel great,” which I think may have been the truth. I don’t know if he believed me, but the uncertainty stirring within me could be due to the acid. I can’t help wondering what kind of madman I must look like as I sit here, staring around the party at things that are only taking place within the parameters of my mind.

I stood up and wandered over to a group of people, looking to shed this aura of insanity. I struck up a conversation with a young, long haired guy wearing a jean jacket. There’s no point recalling most of the conversation, but we laughed and joked a short while before he leaned in close to say something.

“Do you fuck around with coke?” he asked in a hushed tone.

I thought about it for a moment, and then another.

“Eeh,” I said, “I think I’d probably ruin my life if I did coke, so I probably shouldn’t.”

He looked almost surprised. “Good on you,” he said, raising his beer.

I told him about the ride I was on that night and as we carried on talking, I felt another, heavier, wave hit the shores of my mind. As I felt it, I looked over at Van the Good as he sat down in a chair, running both hands through his hair as he felt the same wave strike the levees of his consciousness. The intensity of the LSD’s effects can’t quite be measured without taking into account a brief sleep,a pack of cigarettes and not nearly enough weed. It’s a delicate ecosystem, once you understand the nuances.

A few days later I was talking to someone about their experiences with LSD. He told me he tends to micro-dose the stuff on a weekly basis. He said the drug plays a valuable role in the way he interacts with the world. “It opens my heart and it opens my tongue.”

I sat back on the couch and watched a girl walk out of the room with the white lines. She wiped her nose with the base of her palm before she plunked down on the couch and began flipping through a colouring book filled with birds. I held no judgement toward her. After all, I’m the fiend tripping on the couch watching her. Which one of us is in a truer state of disrepair?

Just then the front door opened, and 5’10” of what I expected most people in South Carolina to look like walked in with the December breeze. I made it to the door before it shut and slipped out into the darkness.

The most bizarre thing happens when you step outside the thumping bass of music and the roar of talking and singing in this place. At first you won’t even trust the fact there’s cement appearing in the growing crack of the door. As it catches on the latch behind you, you’re submerged in absolute silence. There’s hardly a recollection of the music, the people, any of it.

“It’s something else, isn’t it?” a gentle giant standing outside said to me as I breathed the night sky. “The air is crisp, like biting into a fresh apple.”

Stars glowed endlessly around us as we each looked off into the darkness.

“I never want to be my own uncle,” I heard someone sitting on the cement ledge say between drags of a cigarette.

“I don’t want you to be like me,” the fellow next to him replied.

“Yeah, you’re my uncle,” the first man answered, shaking his head.

Van and I came back to Rialto Row for the night. We each felt another wave come on as we looked around the room at the mural painted along the walls, the art all around us. Van left to go trip in his van and listen to Ever Since I Lost my Mind. I spent much of the early morning laying on the couch, muttering sleep deprived nothings into an audio recorder.

The effect of the drug faded, and as the sun began to rise, I grabbed a bicycle I’d seen in the backyard and went riding around the quiet streets of Charleston on that calm, warm, Sunday morning. The morning birds flew through the sunlight, singing the city awake.

The neighborhoods I peddled around were silent and serene. Riding a bicycle around Charleston, South Carolina is how every acid trip should end. For mostly logistical reasons, that’s not quite possible.

I got lost for an hour or two before I found my way back to the compound. I slept that whole day on the couch in the Rialto Row house, only ever waking long enough to croak “whatsup” when people came walking through. I awoke long enough to give Van the Good a hug goodbye before he climbed into his van and drove home to Columbia.

I came back to life that evening and walked 45 minutes to downtown Charleston. I sat at Starbucks and rode their Wi-Fi long enough to do a final edit and post a piece I’d written over the few days prior. While I walked back to Rialto, through the dark, night fallen streets, the end of the trip weighed heavier on me than it had at any other point.

Justin picked me up the next morning to take me to lunch at a place that cooks BBQ just like his hometown. We passed around The Gift Bowl before we left and, after we ate, he gave me a driving tour of Charleston.

“Some Swedish guy sent me this mix CD he burned,” Justin said while we drove around Charleston. “He put Hard Drugs on it. It’s just funny to listen to some 70-year-old Swedish guys’ mix. It’s called Hit the Hay, Vol. 10.”

When “Hard Drugs” came on, he skipped it and told me a little about it. The most he had to say about it on stage was, “This song is about how sometimes going through the worst shit can bring you closer to people. It’s also about how fucked up it can be to go to the hospital when you don’t have health insurance.”

“My friend started datin’ this guy right around the time I got back from a trip with Meghan. We were real good friends, too. She was at my wedding. That dude was super possessive of her, and I felt like I was losing one of my best friends to this terrible relationship. She eventually got out of that relationship which was super good because he was a major shithead. He wasn’t even a shithead, he was just an asshole.”

As he finished the story, we pulled onto the grounds of The Citadel.

“When I first moved to Charleston, I got off the interstate and came straight to The Citadel. I’d never been to Charleston before I started going to this military school. Because of that, for a while, I didn’t even like Charleston. Eventually I realized how awesome it is.”

We drove deeper onto the property.

“Alright, here it is, dude. The Citadel. This fuckin’ place. If you’re a freshman, you have to shave your head and walk in the gutters. This was my introduction to Charleston.”

“Sterile,” I said, looking at the pale grey walls of every building.

“Oh yeah,” he said, staring at it. “Super sterile. Kinda fun though. But eventually, also just a huge pain in the ass. They have all kinds of obstacle courses n’ shit back there. Oh shit, the road’s blocked. Oh well, that’s good. It cuts our Citadel tour down a good bit, anyway.”

The old Swede’s mixtape carried on with a light rock jam with a gentle piano solo.

“You guys got some cool ass trees,” I told him as we drove through an old part of town. “I was bikin’ around while I came down on acid, lookin’ at the trees, having my mind blown by ‘em.”

“You were bikin’ around on acid?” he asked, excited. “Dude, that’s the thing to do around here! That’s what the ACID BOYS is all about. We’d each take acid and as soon as you’d start to feel it, we’d be like, let’s get outta here! We felt like this crazy sort of warrior troupe. We weren’t brawling at all, but we’d go downtown and look all the tourists in the eyes n’ shit. We’d wear crazy shit and stare people in wedding parties in the eyes. We were doing it just to kick back and we accidentally expanded our minds in the process. We’d do this thing called the Ron Paul No Hands where you stand up on your bike and just throw your hands up while you go.” 

He threw his hands in the air, off the steering wheel, to give me the full effect. It was only minutes later we came to a slow stop on a quiet residential street. 

The Ron Paul No Hands. Photo by Matt Harrison

“Alright, here she is,” Justin said as he threw the van in park.

“Panther’s flag in the window,” I said to myself as we walked up to the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame. A lot of the stories Justin told from on stage about the early days of SUSTO took place in this building, or, at the very least, while he lived here. To some SUSTO fans this place is a Holy artifact.

Justin knocked at the door, but no one answered. We walked into the backyard and up the balcony. Still no answer at the doors. Justin climbed out on the edge of the balcony, 25, maybe 30 feet off the ground, to get to one of the doors on the second floor.

“Meghan would kill me if she saw me doing this,” he said as he climbed back, taking a nervous peek down as he did. “You know that song that starts “Ashley’s smokin’ a bong?” I wrote it out here on this balcony while I was livin’ here.”

Crawling around the Country Music Hall of Fame. Photo by Matt Harrison

After a few more minutes, we gave up on entering the building. The members of SUSTO were waiting on Justin at Rialto Row for the first full band practice since recording Ever Since I Lost My Mind. He gave me his phone while he drove and had me send a text to the group chat to say he’d be late.

We drove across a long white bridge, toward the coastline. Justin pointed through the passenger window and said, “there’s an old bylaw in Charleston that you can’t build higher than the churches.”

I looked over to where he pointed, at the city of Charleston, at a dozen or more church spires peeking overtop every building in sight.

We stopped at the end of a quiet road and walked down toward the water. He pointed off in the direction of the secret spot on the beach he and his friends like best. We walked down the beach, past the million-dollar real estate, to the ocean’s edge. We each stared off into the apparent infinity between us and the other side.

“Put your hands in it,” he said as he knelt to rinse his hands as we stood in a half inch of water.

The Atlantic Coast. Photo by Matt Harrison

He walked out further and I followed his lead. All of a sudden, like something from an old sailor’s tale, the ocean came back our way ferocious and deep and before I knew it I was up to my ankles in water. We ran back up the sand as fast as our soaked shoes would let us.

“Aah!” Justin yelled, laughing as we walked back up the beach. “Sorry, dude. I was too stoned, and I just kept walking into it.”

We drove to Rialto Row and met up with James and the rest of SUSTO. My shoes were sopping wet with ocean water, so James offered to dry them for me before I left. We each smoked a bit of weed and hit the road.

“Alright,” he said in his gruff voice, with an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips, “we will do this quickly and efficiently. That is the name of my game. Don’t you worry about shit.”

He said this all with his typical straight, matter of fact, tone of voice.

Rialto Row. Photo by Matt Harrison

“Canuck, before you go, I’m gonna help hit you with some OutKast that’ll blow your mind” he said, again, straight and matter of fact. “Welcome to your OutKast Education.”

“West Savannah” came on, and we drove down the street.

We went by James’ house where he pulled my shoes apart and threw them in the dryer, offering me a pair of slippers in exchange. As we got back in the car, OutKast still playing, he told me “I suspect you’re going to go through a good bit of post-tour-depression-type-shit once you’re back home.”

I laughed and agreed with him before I thought about it a moment longer and fell silent under the music.

“I’m gonna take you to see something that’ll really make ya think,” he said as he turned the stereo off.

He took me to a civil war cemetery. It was large, seemingly endless. He showed me the graves of the men from the first successful submarine strike. He took me down roads I wasn’t sure anyone was meant to drive down, past countless tombstones. Brothers, fathers, friends. We drove in silence for some time past those great fields of tombstones.

“Before we go, let me show you the biggest asshole who has ever lived,” he said as we carried on down a small dirt road. “His name is MaClinsky. The, and I mean the, biggest asshole in the history of the world.”

We pulled up to a Mausoleum, the biggest tomb site in the cemetery. The name didn’t say MaClinsky, but that wasn’t the point.

“A regular grave wasn’t good enough?” James said, looking from me to the building that likely cost upwards of a few hundred thousand dollars. “You’re just as dead as the rest of ‘em,” he said, staring at the building as we slowly pulled away.

Once we left the cemetery, the OutKast Education resumed.

Driving around Charleston. Photo by Matt Harrison

We pulled up outside Rialto Row and waited until the band finished running through “Last Century” before we went in and I grabbed my bag.

“What a tour,” Justin said, smiling.

“Unbelievable,” was all I could say.

I gave him a hug, said goodbye to James and the band and headed out to catch my Uber.

I arrived at the airport around 3:15 and was still somewhat stoned. The weed made me forget a few things in security but I slid through without any real problems.

Once I found my seat I closed my eyes and drifted off, thinking about everything that had been the last two weeks. I woke up at a bump and expected to be in the back seat of the van, staring out the window at some stretch of Southern somewhere. Instead, I was in seat 14D, staring out at the snowy Chicago runway.

When I arrived at the airport in Winnipeg, I was depleted. My clothes stunk and I looked as though I’d been up to no good for a couple weeks. The middle-aged woman at the security desk looked me over for a half a moment longer than everyone else before she sent me off for additional screening.

This is it, I thought to myself. This is where the party ends and the trip takes a turn for the worse. This is where all those beautifully captured memories become thoroughly documented evidence.

The security agent pulled everything out of my bag, asking me about what I had been down south for, who I was with.

“Did the band you were with do any drugs while you were with them?” he asked, not looking at me but instead at the contents of my backpack as he dragged them out.

“They smoked a little bit of pot,” I said with a shrug. “You know, just hippie stuff like that.”

“Did you consume any marijuana while you were there?” he asked, looking now at me.

“I wasn’t there for that,” I said, looking back at him. “I was just there to write about what it was like being there.”

On the inside pocket of my coat my notebook felt heavy. Every answer he was looking for was inside it. He didn’t ask me to empty my pockets, so I didn’t, and he never saw the notebook or the stories it held.

My birthday came a few days after I was home. I hit the bong for breakfast along with a half cup of coffee, the other half of which I misplaced. My phone dinged with a text from John Roberts, Psychedelic Aficionado. He wished me a happy belated birthday that rattled my mind: How did he know my birthdate? Is he a Witch Doctor? Did he read the contents of my soul while I was under?

Love and Unity. Photo by Matt Harrison

Before these stoner theories could gather a real foothold, I saw the picture of me Justin had posted on Instagram.

“This is Matt Harrison,” the caption read. “Matt is a writer who I met last year in Winnipeg. He rode along with us on the last half of the Stories Tour, writing, seeing the country, and meeting tons of people. Yesterday was his 24th birthday. Proud to call him my friend, and excited for what’s to come in his career.”

I smiled when I saw it, still not believing this was anything more than just a dream.

I had three weeks until school started from the day I got home, and I spent all 21 days getting high and writing while I listened to the unreleased SUSTO album, Ever Since I Lost My Mind, and Aquemini by OutKast. What I sought to somehow recapture was the feeling of being on tour. While I was still on tour I clung desperately to those final moments. The weeks after I came home, I hung on even tighter, though there was nothing left for me to hold on to.

It would be months before I fully came back to reality. It was three months before I could look back with absolute certainty that the tour had really happened. Looking back now, I no longer feel a desperate want to be back out there. What I feel instead is gratitude for ever getting to go, and a burning desire to run some other unseen roads.

As I write this, SUSTO is off finding new ears in old cities as they tour through Europe. Once they’re Stateside, they’ll be hitting familiar roads until the end of the year. For Justin, life on tour is an unending voyage. Night after night, when the lights go dim, he’ll step onto another stage to tell his story through music. Once the fans clear out and the amps are left humming a static emptiness, he’ll be back on the road in search of the next empty stage and the next waiting crowd.

Dedicated to the memory of Andrew ‘Toucan’ Gardner.

Photo by Matt Harrison

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