In December of 2018, writer Matt Harrison travelled down to Chicago where he met up with Justin Osborne of SUSTO. Along with backup singer Jordan Igoe and band tour manager Van ‘The Good’ Robinson, the group travelled together for two weeks, crossing through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and more. Matt came back to Winnipeg and wrote a six pieces about his time on the road which were published to a South Carolina publication called Extra Chill. In addition to the original six pieces are a few other pieces that were written while Harrison was out on the road with SUSTO.
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.
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. Why. Why?” 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 WiFi 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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?
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.
“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.
The night was a blinding darkness as Justin, Igoe, and I drove to Charleston. Van the Good spent the night in Columbia while the three of us were homeward bound. Justin put on a Bob Seger album to fend off the exhaustion. We were in the middle of some moon lit nowhere, buried deep within the lowland hills of South Carolina, when “Turn The Page” came on and Justin sang along under his breath.
Here I am, on the road again, There I am up on stage. There I go playin’ the star again, There I go, turn the page.
Hearing him sing as he stared into the endless, dark highway ahead, it was as if the lyrics had come alive in front of me. What those words mean to him is something totally unlike whatever daydream most people are lost in while they hum along to Seger’s words. These aren’t the poems of a fantasy, they’re an echo of reality to the man who is an hour removed from the stage and another hour away from his home and pregnant wife.
I woke up on the couch in Justin’s living room around noon. He’d taken his wife out for lunch, to celebrate being home for the first time in a couple weeks. “Hope that’s alright,” he said on the way out.
Van the Good arrived in Charleston that morning. He and I smoked a quick joint in the backyard before the two of us grabbed lunch at an authentic Mexican restaurant. The first of two shows that night was still hours away when we met Justin at Woolfe Street Playhouse and loaded the gear in and onto the stage. The chairs were being set up for the audience and the staff were the only few people that wandered the halls.
It was around 3 in the afternoon when I told Van the Good, “I’m gonna take a walk.”
“Alright, bud,” he said from the stage, unwinding a series of cables. “Enjoy it.”
I walked for 20 minutes, taking deep breaths of the warm December air as I passed old churches and countless restaurants until I reached Meeting Street. I could see the waving arm of John Roberts, The Official Psychedelics Supplier for SUSTO, from across the street. I crossed to his side where we shook hands and carried on talking about this, that, and the holiday season while we walked to his hotel.
When I entered his hotel room, I emptied my pockets onto the bed nearest the door. Passport, wallet, smoke butts and all. I figured, If I’m going to be robbed, I may as well distance myself from my belongings.
“Don’t mind the Smith and Wesson,” John Roberts said casually as I unloaded my possessions. There, sitting on the nightstand between the two beds, sat his pistol. “Do you want to hold it?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, taking it, feeling the weight of it, pointing it aimlessly at the wall.
He reached on top and clicked on a laser dot that hit the wall. “I like to use this to play with my cat,” he said as he danced the red dot back and forth across the wall. “I unload it first, to avoid accidents.”
I sat in a chair next to the window as John Roberts explained how I was going to consume the DMT he had brought for me.
“Just try to hold it in as long as you can,” he said.
The room sat in stiff silence as I took drags that weren’t quite long or deep enough for the experience he had in mind. After the first two inhalations, I let go of the vaporizer and he held it for me as I began to tune out of the room. My eyes closed and I drifted off, beyond the room, to some distant psychedelic somewhere. He held the vaporizer to my mouth as I took another, then another. I was scared and didn’t want any more.
“Just relax,” he said in a soft voice.
I trusted him and took a couple more drags. My vision was overcome by a starlight brightness. I leaned back in the chair and hugged the throw pillow I held in my lap. I no longer felt myself in the room until, after three or four minutes the starlight faded, and my eyes slowly opened. Those four minutes felt more like 20 seconds.
The silence hung heavy around me.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“I feel good. I feel like everything’s good.”
“Did you see anything? Did you hear anything?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. I didn’t have the words for any of it. Even now, looking back, I have no words for what I felt.
“How rough did the vape feel?”
“Smooth,” I said. I was relieved to finally know an answer to something. “I feel like I can breathe down here,” I said after a moment of thought. “I feel like I was smiling the whole time I was deep in it.”
“Oh yeah,” he laughed. “I got some pictures of the DMT smiles. It’s what happens to everybody. You just feel too good in the moment. You understand there’s no reason not to smile. Next time you do it, just hold it in, that way you’ll get so much more out of it.”
“I’d be willing to take a little more now,” I said.
“Let’s give it 10-15 minutes so you can come back down. It’ll take about an hour to get back to 100%.”
“What do I owe you for this?”
“Nothin’, just write about it.”
“I appreciate the shit outta that” I said, slowly, still regaining my focus. “That’s the best gift I can ask for.”
“Yeah, for the holiday season. If you wanna buy anyone DMT vapes as a stocking stuffer, I’m here for ya.”
We talked for a while about the experience I’ve had and the growth that will come from having come down South.
“All these experiences build you up and give you the confidence you need to excel,” he said as we sat and talked, waiting for me to come all the way down. “You need confidence to do anything in this world.”
“This is a beautiful country,” I said. I looked out the window at a church across the street that saw the cowardice of a lone gunman enter its front doors a few years earlier.
“It is. We are an experiment from the enlightenment and hopefully it will continue,” he replied. “Would you like to try it one more time?”
“I would love to,” I said. I sat back into the same chair I was in before.
“This time really hold it in. Count to 10 and close your eyes. And hopefully you’ll go into the room.”
“Sounds good,” I said, unsure of what he was referring to, unsure of whether I wanted to enter such a place. “Thank you for facilitating this. And also for not robbing and killing me while I’m under.”
“Yeah, should I move the gun?” he said and we both laughed.
I leaned back and brought the vape pen back to my lips. The hotel room carried a soft hum as I took my first deep draws of the second round. The only way I can describe the experience is as an overwhelming wave of absence from myself before being settled down into a bed of well-being. Light overtook my vision once again like something interstellar. I felt completely removed from this plane of conscious existence, submerged into something indefinable.
I’ve read others refer to DMT as a blast-off experience, and that’s the most fitting description I can muster. I was blasted off from myself with such velocity that I could hardly hang on to what was happening. More than any other sensation, I was overcome with a deep euphoria that reached from the root of my soul and out to the tips of my fingers.
“I’m thankful that I get to be here,” I said through the soft chuckles that I couldn’t keep to myself. “How did I get to this hotel room in Charleston? How is it that any of this is actually happening? Is any of this tour even real? Everything seems perfect and I’m just so happy to be here.”
As I spoke, the words of this unguarded truth came slowly.
“There are so many good people in my life,” I said after a moment of silence. “I need to open myself up and accept the love they offer.”
“I try to keep that feeling throughout my whole life. But it’s clearest whenever I’m on psychedelics,” John Roberts said from the edge of the bed next to my chair.
We talked a little more about some book recommendations he had for me. As the conversation went on, the pace at which I spoke increased gradually until it was back to normal. John Roberts told me he had invited the ACID GIRL from the green room last night to come to tonight’s show.
“I’m gonna be shocked if that girl from last night really shows up,” he said. He looked anxiously at his phone as we descended to the lobby in the elevator.
“Oh, buddy,” I laughed, “I’d put money on her showing up.”
“Yeah,” he said, with a blank stare as he thought about the problem to come. “Oh well.”
We went for a walk around Charleston, through a hotel that was once a military school, a bookstore with nothing worth buying, and he beat me at consecutive games of pool. I’d be seeing him at the second show that night, so I wandered out of the pool hall and back toward the Woolfe Street Playhouse.
When I walked inside, Van the Good was in the lobby to greet me.
“Whatsup, man?” he asked, with a smile as he looked up from the merch table he’d just finished setting up.
“Van the Good,” I said, nodding in his direction. “How ya doin’?”
“Good, man. How was your walk?”
The venue had large, century old cash registers in the lobby and at the main bar inside the concert area. I wandered by both registers and ducked into the green room while the pre-show setup carried on.
Come the time of the first show, the green room was filled with family and friends, including the rest of the members of SUSTO.
“Is there an entrance onto the stage from back here?” Pete asked before his time had come.
“Yup” Van answered.
“Great. Go ahead and show me that now so I look like less of a fuckin’ goofball come show time.”
The noise of the crowd in the next room roared between songs while Pete performed. Seeing Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster live was one of the great surprises of coming out on tour. I shook his hand before I ever heard his music and found getting to know him offstage was as much a pleasure as having the opportunity to watch him on stage.
Both shows that night were sold out and I stood in the back corner, nearest the green room entrance, as Justin and Igoe stepped on stage for the first performance. At each applause break, a man behind me Cah-Cawed like a mutant bird from a terrible fever dream.
Anyone who has ever heard the SUSTO album Live at the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame has heard this very same Cah-Cawing madman. It was a friend of the band named James, famed smoker of cigarettes and gatekeeper of Rialto Row.
At the midway point in the set Justin sang a song without Igoe backing him up. “Erlene”, written for his wife who was in the crowd, was sung only in Charleston on tour.
“Erlene she is my baby, she stays up with me when I’m yellin’ through the night. I say ‘you think I’m crazy’, she says ‘you are, but that’s alright.’”
Toward the end of the song, Justin looked down with a laugh as he couldn’t keep himself from crying. James offered a consoling, tear laden, Cah-Caw from the back of the room.
“Shut up, James,” Justin laughed into the mic and wiped the tears from his face with a smile.
After the show, a group of us headed outside for a cigarette and a joint.
“So, do you accept my challenge?” James asked me as he pulled out his lighter and sparked a cigarette.
“What’s your challenge?” I asked, fishing in my pocket for the lighter I lost three days ago.
“Alright,” he said in his coarse voice, “challenge accepted. Do you play ping pong?”
I shrugged. “Not really.”
“Pffft” is all he said through a billow of cigarette smoke that floated through his beard.
Later that night I would learn that James was once a state champion ping-pong player, which explains his athletic physique. He and I took 10 minutes to set up the table before he rocketed two shots by me and said, “You’re not ready for this,” before disassembling the table and putting it away.
We scuttled back inside just as Pete took to the stage to start the second show. Between songs a fan standing at the back of the room yelled “Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster!” with a drink raised in the air.
At 10:00 it was time for Justin and Igoe to start their second sold out show of the night.
“I wrote this song the day after an acid trip and I had this sort of clarity,” Justin said, early in the set. “It was the day after a snowstorm in Charleston and the whole city looked like a snow globe. I’d just gotten home from Mexico that day and the heater in our house was busted, the plumbing was busted and our cat had an infection and a snowstorm was hitting. No one could come out to fix any of it. The acid trip ended up being a great escape from all that. We had one room with a heater that stayed warm if you kept the door closed. That room felt sort of like home, but the rest of the place didn’t. I started thinking, I wish I could take my family, my wife and my cat, to somewhere better. And this song is what came out of that.”
The show wrapped on “Homeboy”. Once he was back in the green room, Justin told me he lost the rhythm of the song while they were playing. “I’m not super pissed about it,” he said, “you get one fuck up per show.”
A group of us stepped outside for another joint and cigarette. As Justin took a hit of the joint and passed it on, he told me, “honestly, Homeboy wasn’t even one of my favorites on the new album but the radio team chose it as the single. A lot of people say they don’t like the label people to tell them what to do but, honestly, my head’s just so far up in this shit that I’ll take some clarity about which one’s good and which one’s not.”
“Canuck,” James said to me in his grizzled voice as he passed me the joint, “I believe in you, for some reason.”
His kind words sparked a thought and I said, “When I’m writing about this all, I won’t refer to you by name if-“
“I don’t give a fuck about anything” he interrupted. “Ain’t afraid of shit.”
“I guess that answers that,” I said with a laugh.
“You’re in it, dawg, don’t worry about it. We’re gonna have fun tomorrow ridin’ to Macon. I’m loadin’ in the van with the ACID BOYS cooler full of Budweisers, gonna have a shit load-a-jubbas ready to go,” he said, shaking his head, giddy at the prospect of what’s to come.
“Hey J,” he yelled across the group, “we’ll have to bring him by Rialto Row before he leaves.”
“He’s stayin’ there, man. We already talked about it,” Justin answered, confused.
“Ooh,” James said, his eye lighting up. “You’re the Canuck.”
“Do you get a lot of Canadians down here?” I asked.
“Honestly, I was just testing the market with that word,” he explained before asking in a hushed tone, “is that a racist term or somethin’?”
“No. I mean, we have a hockey team called the Canucks,” I said.
“Yeah, but we’ve got a team called the Redskins,” Justin answered.
The statement sparked a memory in someone’s mind who said, “I was telling James the last time I was in Macon, Georgia, I was at a bar watching the OJ chase.”
“What?” Justin said, his eyebrows raised as he took another drag from the joint.
“Yup. It was on every TV with full volume. They changed the drink special to vodka with an OJ chaser.”
As the group went inside, I bumped into John Roberts. He offered me a cigarette, so I stayed outside with him. He told me the ACID GIRL from last night had not only come to Charleston, but she had brought a couple of loud friends with her, all three of whom were drunk beyond reason.
“I’m still surprised she took me up on the offer,” he said while we stood in the light rain. Cigarette smoke drifted skyward.
Later in the night he came up to me with a look of mild concern. “Hey, have you seen those girls around? They’re awfully drunk and if they wander off too far, they’re intoxicated enough to get themselves arrested and then it’ll be a whole thing.”
“Can’t say I have, brother. Good luck,” was all I could say.
As the night wore on and the party broke up, Justin, Van the Good and I waited around inside the venue. Everyone had left save for an older man who stacked the chairs. I helped him stack a few dozen while Van and Justin packed the gear on stage. There is no glamour to this side of the job, the take down and clean up. You’ve knocked ‘em down, someone dragged ‘em out. The part no one sees is when you have to come back out to pack the guitars and wind the cables.
After cleaning up and packing out, Van, Justin, James and I drove through a gentle spattering of rain to The Royal American. We each grabbed a drink and walked onto the empty patio.
“Nice lil’ train track,” Van the Good said, looking behind the building.
“Man, the place I’m from was built as a train town,” I said. “All these tracks remind me of home.”
“Yeah? The town I’m from is a train city, too,” Justin replied.
“This place is the nexus of the universe,” James said as we took our seats. “If it wasn’t for this bar, me and him wouldn’t be friends.” He pointed towards Justin as he spoke.
“I moved to a brand new loft, directly across the street from The Royal American the day before it opened,” James went on to explain. “I didn’t know Justin was a musician or anything. I heard he lived in Cuba, so I asked if he liked Cuban food. After that we became best buds.”
“The Royal American,” Justin said, looking towards it from our table on the patio.
“This is the best establishment in America,” James said, leaning into the table.
“And they don’t close during hurricanes n’ shit,” Justin added matter-of-factly. “This place is indestructible. It was an old mechanics shop that was turned into a bar.”
“So,” James said, eyeing my fake beer from across the table, “how come you quit drinking? There had to have been something terrible that made you call it quits.”
“I just got a little too good at it,” I said after a moment. “The better I got at it, the worse I got at everything else.”
“Oh, cah-caw,” he said with a nod, raising his eyebrows.
“You’re talkin’ to a guy who drinks a case of Budweiser every day,” Justin jumped in.
“Oh yeah. I’m gonna freak you out,” James nodded before taking a sip of Budweiser.
“Two packs of Camels, an eighth of weed, and some chicken tenders,” Justin said, listing the rest of James’ diet essentials.
“You’re an oblivion seeker,” James said, pointing at me with an expression that said, I’ve got you figured out.
“Oh yeah,” Justin said. “He did DMT tonight before the show.”
“Twice,” I added before taking a sip of non-alcoholic brew.
“You did DMT tonight?” James asked, his chin low and his eyebrows raised, “Twice? Jiminy fuckin’ Crickets.”
“Guy gets after it, dude,” Justin said with a shrug.
“Well, I didn’t see that comin’. That’s a curveball,” James said, shaking his head.
“He hopped in the van with SUSTO and rode all the way to Charleston,” Justin said. “What did you expect?”
“My aunt isn’t going to like what I’m going to publish about this,” I said, picking nervously at the tab on my beer can.
“Well,” James said between drags of a cigarette, “ya can’t be rock and roll if you’re worried about what your goddamn aunt thinks. Man, tomorrow’s gonna be fun as shit!”
“Last show, how do you feel?” I asked Justin.
“Stoked. I just wanna get there and back alive. Put my Christmas tree up Saturday.”
“Guten tag,” Van said, raising his beer.
“So, I almost put a Christmas tree up in your house while you were gone,” James confessed, looking at Justin.
“What? That’s our thing, dude,” Justin shot back.
James explained how his girlfriend had pulled him aside and talked some sense into him before he could get away with it.
“She’s like, they’re about to have a child, this is their Christmas tree. Fuck you.”
“Man,” Justin said, imagining the catastrophe, “there’d be pines everywhere and sap on the couches. The cat’d be all bothered. I’m glad you didn’t.”
We stayed at the bar another half hour before we dropped Justin off at home. James, Van the Good and I went to the Rialto Row studio compound. The plan for the night was for me to bunk in the studio house. When we pulled onto the property, I was amazed by the artwork painted on the interior of the house.
“That’s nothin’. Wait’ll you see the studio. That’s the real cool shit,” he said, as we walked through the yard to the studio.
I stood behind him while the rain came down as he put the key in the lock. He turned the key, but nothing happened.
“Huh,” was all he said at first.
The frustration grew as he tried the key over and over. He pulled it out, looked at it, and tried again.
“Okay,” he said cautiously, “I have no idea what’s going on here. This key works in this lock every single time, except it won’t work now.”
“Weird,” I said. In my head I wondered, did this guy get fired and I’m here when he’s learning that they’ve changed the locks out from under him?
We turned and headed back into the house.
“I guess I’ll show it to you another time,” he said as we stepped into the warmth of the building.
“No problem, man,” I said, though that nagging thought crept back: too bad there won’t be a next time, because you’ve been fired.
“Ho-ly shit,” he said suddenly, his face dropping. “I just got a goddamn text message. The reason we couldn’t get in there is because the owner of the lot is in there with one of the bands. They’re all trippin’ acid and someone was holding the bolt while I was trying to unlock it.”
I wasn’t sure what any of this meant, but I suspected it wasn’t great.
“You won’t be able to stay here tonight. I’m sorry Canuck,” James said with sincerity, “I didn’t realize there’d be a bunch of vegans trippin’ acid back there.”
The gravity of the situation remained airborne, but I broke out laughing. I felt tangled in this balanced chaos, so hilarious and absurd. Who else lives with problems like a shed full of acid fiends locked up out back? Such are the troubles in this little musical universe.
James only shrugged. “It’s what it is,” he said.
The plan turned into me sleeping in the van in the parking lot, but the group cleared out before long. James brought me in to the recording studio and showed me what the speakers are capable of.
“Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “this place is in an entirely deaf community. I used to think all my neighbors were dicks. Nope, just deaf.”
The speakers blared a Band of Horses record as the rain carried on through the night, leaving the streets and the yard flooded by morning.
“4:20 arrival,” Van the Good yelled from the driver seat, “we have to make that. Everybody, hold your pisses.”
The drive from Mobile to New Orleans is a little over two hours, which is nothing compared to the hundreds of miles we had thus far traveled. The sun baked the highway as we came into Louisiana while the bass of “House of the Rising Sun” rattled the windows. The bayou swamp grew thick and deep on either side of us before it receded, and we climbed into the belly of the beast called New Orleans.
The music cut out for a moment as Justin took a business call. He takes a few calls throughout the day, every day. With the release of Ever Since I Lost My Mindjust over two months away, there are countless moving pieces he needs to be involved with. The silent talking in the front seat carried on for 5 minutes, then 10. He hung up and sent a couple emails. The music turned back up, and the ride carried on.
It didn’t take long for us to pull up outside the one floor walk-up where the show was scheduled to be. We did a quick unload and set up for mic check.
“I’ve truly never seen anything so beautiful,” Pete said through his Arkansas accent as he stared at the barn-style interior of the house. “I swear,” he would later say, “I’ve had dreams about places like this.”
After setting up and checking the levels, Justin, Igoe, Van the Good and I each took a sprinkle of psilocybin mushrooms and went next door to the Mellow Mushroom. Whether you’ve taken anything mind-bending or not, the art on the walls inside the psychedelic-themed pizza chain have melting frames, and a four-foot-wide eyeball greets you at the end of an upstairs hallway.
The mushrooms took a gentle hold of us while we sat around gnawing on pizza. We hadn’t taken enough to mould our skulls like hot putty, but still enough to feel the gaze of the warped portraits on the wall staring back at us.
“As if we ate mushrooms and came to the Mellow Mushroom,” Justin said in a moment of realization while he sent a curious glance about the room.
“Yeah, yeah!” I said, excited he arrived at the same thought I’d been carrying. “There’s something deep and poetic at play here.”
“Man, I hadn’t even thought about that,” he answered, chewing slower on his pizza.
“I’ve been thinkin’ about it the whole time, man,” I said with feral eyes.
Sometimes when you talk to Justin you forget he has the words ACID BOYS tattooed across his knuckles. Then you catch a glimpse of them, and you remember you’re talking to the King Kid of the Acid Boys, the head of something whimsically psychedelic. He told me at some point he was one paper away from finishing his anthropology degree when he decided to steer headlong into music, getting his knuckles tattooed as an act of commitment.
“When I got my knuckles tattooed people hit me up like, ‘Hey, are you alright?’ I guess it’s a pretty intense thing to do. It didn’t seem like such a big deal to me at the time.”
Before we went back to the venue, two fans from Fort Worth, Texas came up to the table and bought a round of shots for the group. They also offered a gift: a beautiful glass marijuana pipe, which was immediately dubbed The Gift Bowl.
The table threw back their shots before going back to the venue next door. We each took more mushrooms and hid away in the green room while Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster performed. We could hear him singing “False Dawn” through the walls.
“He’s so good,” I said to Justin about Pete’s singing.
“And we just get to sit back here and listen to him play,” Justin answered with a look of disbelief. “Pete’s honestly one of my heroes. I’m so lucky to be able to be on the road with him.”
Justin told me about a side project he and Igoe have with their friend Darby Wilcox. “We sing a cappella but we only do one song. You ever heard “Down By The River To Pray”? We just do that one over and over.”
“Maybe we should do another song,” Igoe suggested, between sips of her drink.
“Yeah, but we just keep crushin’ that one. If it ain’t broke…” he said, trailing off and shrugging.
The room breathed a quiet laugh as Pete’s singing continued through the wall.
A train wailed in the near distance and it was time for Igoe and Justin to take the stage. A wire outline of a bull’s skull hung above the bayou-themed stage.
“Hey everybody. Thanks for comin’ to hang out. It’s good to be in New Orleans tonight,” Justin said to the crowd as they took the stage. “This story actually involves this guy whose walkin’ down the stairs right now,” Justin said, watching his friend Nick Woodley come down the stairs.
“Fuck you,” Woodley said, laughing as he stepped into the room and took his seat.
“Proper,” Justin said with a smile. “Woodley and I used to live together in a house with about a dozen other people. Around that time, I started getting to know my granddad. I knew he was a shithead, but I thought maybe he was cool. The thing about my grandad is he’s a world class Shag dancer. Every Friday night he’d go down to this place called the Circle Fountain and shag.”
“One night, me and Nick were there, and we went outside with him to smoke a joint. He says, ‘Now boys, the reason why I smoke a little marijuana before I dance is because it helps me feel the beats between the beats. Now that’s deep, that’s far out.’ We’re just like, yeah, Larry, far out.”
“This song is also a medley because at the time I was single as hell. This is so embarrassing to say, but I was creepin’ some people on Facebook. You know when you wanna talk to someone, but you never do? This song’s partially about that feeling of never sending the message. So, this song is about those two things that have nothing to do with each other, but they worked well as a song. It’s called ‘Circle Fountain’.”
As the show went on, I felt the mushrooms peak. I knew it wasn’t real, but I feared with a psychedelic certainty I would feel every person standing behind me if I ran my fingers through my hair.
Before long the show ended, and we retreated into the green room.
“Great show, man,” I said once Justin stepped into the room.
“Guten tag, dawg,” he said, cracking the top off a Budweiser.
“I was fucked up while you guys were up there,” I said.
“So was I, dude,” he said, turning toward me with wild fear in his eyes. “I wasn’t even sure if I was playing the songs right for a while. The mushrooms had me feelin’ real anxious up there.”
You could tell at the outset, as he told the first story of the night, that he was tuned into the room at a different frequency. But Justin Osborne is a professional, and as the night carried on, he shook those psilocybin jitters, and put on another unforgettable show.
We all chewed up a bit more mushrooms, and Justin grabbed an acoustic guitar and strummed the chords to “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, singing along with the small group standing around him.
“My aunt used to make so much fun of me when I would sing that song,” he said once he finished. “It was one of the first songs I ever learned to play and sing, and it was just bad.”
An hour or so later we left the venue, smoked The Gift Bowl and took more mushrooms before arriving at a bar that sent bass vibrations through the wall and down the street. The dance floor appeared immediately as we walked inside, and the drummer on stage carried a smooth rhythm. The piano rode his groove like a wave and the bass player at center stage leaned into the mic as he sung us a question through his raspy voice: “Lord, can you feel that it’s true?”
“That bass player,” Nick Woodley leaned in to tell me, “he’s from a classic New Orleans band. His name’s George Porter. He was in a group called the Meters.”
Woodley would later tell me, “That’s one of the things about New Orleans; everywhere you go, the musicians are top notch. Do you feel that? It’s that New Orleans funk. It hits you right in the soul, man.”
Once it came time for last call, Igoe, Justin, Van the Good and I piled once more into the van and rode through the deceptively quiet streets of New Orleans.The neighborhood we spent the night in seemed somewhat shady, so we did a full unload when we pulled up to the Airbnb.
“Should we get the groceries n’ shit?” Van asked after the last guitar case hit the floor.
“Nah,” Justin replied. “If someone breaks in over that, fuck ‘em.”
Pete was already in bed when we arrived, so the four of us sat around the living room. Justin took a seat in an absurdly large yellow chair, looking happy as can be in the thing.
“Any of you guys ever been arrested?” he asked after the conversation died down a bit. “One time I pulled a gun on this guy and I almost got arrested for it. I got detained in the back of a cop car for a while. That’s what the ‘shotguns at my chest‘ line is about. One other time I was coming home from Cleveland and they stripped the van. That guy let me go, but I thought for sure I was going to jail that day. I’m not very cooperative with cops, though. Except with the gun, because they had guns and I had to make sure I gave them no reason to shoot me. It was my fault, though.”
The next morning, we packed up and headed into the French Quarter. The sun glowed brighter than any other day on tour, making it the perfect day to get stoned and walk around New Orleans. Justin took a business call once the van was parked. The lighter flicked as soon as he hung up, and the van filled with smoke. The doors flew open and a reeking grey fog billowed out as we took deep breaths of the morning heat.
“I can already hear the tubas n’ shit out here,” Justin said as we stumbled out into the streets.
We wandered a few blocks in no particular direction before stopping at a random restaurant on a random street. When we stepped inside, the stink of weed still hung fresh on us. Accordingly, the server put us in the back in a separate room. “VIP seating,” Justin said with a glossy-eyed charm.
We met up with a friend from the night before and started to share stories about our experiences with edible pot.
“I have a buddy who’s afraid of edibles,” I began. “One time he was at a fishing tournament and he took some edibles and sat in his boat in the middle of a lake, surrounded by 30 other fishermen. He started worrying about how he would react if he caught a fish, so he reeled his lure to within 2 feet of the boat and sat like that for two hours so he wouldn’t catch anything.”
“Yeah, man,” Justin laughed. “One time me and a friend ate a medical candy bar and we had no idea what we were getting into. We were in Denver and I started having a panic attack and I couldn’t breathe. I was all stuffed up already. She was out of her mind, too. She said she just kept doing math problems in her head.”
“My sister never smoked weed and she texted me one day and said she took a half a candy bar that said 100,” Igoe said, and the table grew to a nervous hush. “She had a blast. That woman has the tolerance of a linebacker. She said she was so high she was at a kiosk to buy snacks and she turned around and everything on the shelf knocked on the floor. She just looked down at it and smiled and walked away because she was so high.”
“Run away!” Justin laughed.
We payed up and walked out, into the warmth where musicians were hidden away around every corner, the echo of their instruments ricocheting off every building. We wandered elsewhere, the sounds of these silent daytime streets broken only by the fading noise of the brass bands and the cuh-clop of horse carriages.
We met up with some others from the previous night’s show before stumbling upon the “Oldest Bar in America“, which we had apparently parked next to. By mid-afternoon, the van hit the highway with New Orleans jazz turned all the way up. Igoe passed The Gift Bowl and a cigarette to me over the seat while we tore through the first part of what would be a seven-hour drive.
This felt like an important place to be; with good people who shoot the straight and narrow, the parameters of which they define for themselves. To them, that’s a life deep within music where they are good to each other, and good to the people around them.
Trucks of all sizes flew past us down the highway and we drove until the sun cast a horizon light. We’re headed as far tonight as Opelika, Alabama.
“Everyone’s got a small pecker compared to God,” Justin said, not quite out of nowhere.
“God is the beginning, brother,” Van added at the heel of Justin’s observation.
“God is the beginning and the end, dude,” Justin said in a tone of ecclesiastical correction.
“Yo, there’s a hawk or a falcon or somethin’,” Van said, pointing out the window.
“Yo, I believe in those kinda signs,” Justin answered. “People really wanna think that they know what’s going on when they commit to believing in God. What you have to commit to is not knowing. Just try to feel the vibrations and ride the wave and try to make life, which I believe ends at death, as good a ride as you can.”
As he finished his thought, we pulled into the parking lot of an Outback Steakhouse and piled in.
“Hi,” Justin said to the host, “we have a family of four.”
Once we hit the table, Justin and Van fell into a conversation about merch distribution.
“Actually, you shoulda been on these calls” Justin said referring to an email chain Van was seeing for the first time. “We thought we’d just tell you about it, but you shoulda been in on the calls.”
SUSTO is farther along than most bands at their level as they already have a system in place for sales and merchandise production. The two of them weighed the benefits of changing or keeping various attributes of merchandise distribution. They talked for another 10 or so minutes, getting Van caught up on what he missed and what their options are moving forward. The conversation changed when our food arrived, and “Jingle Bell Rock” came on over the restaurant speakers.
“Holy shit,” Justin said, staring at his phone. “I just got a text from my mom that says, ‘I just wanted you to know how much I like your new song, Homeboy. It’s catchy and I’ve been singing it to myself all day. Love you and hope you’re doing well on the road. Stay safe.’”
He put his phone down on the table and looked around at us with a look of shocked disbelief. “She has never said anything like that to me about SUSTO.”
Once we were back in the van and ready to clear out, Justin said, “I can’t believe my mom texted me, man. It almost scared me.”
We got up to the usual business when we got to the hotel that warm night in Opelika. Van the Good and I stayed up a little later than Igoe and Justin. We sat in the van with the music turned up, passing a joint back and forth while the music carried through the night.
We cleared out of the hotel by 11:15 the next morning, and we arrived in Columbia, South Carolina by late afternoon. Justin and Jordan played a few songs for Scene SC in a large warehouse attached to the White Mule that was once a taxi garage. The warehouse held a damp chill and the show lights cast a dim ray from the open ceiling beams.
At this point I refused to accept there would soon come a day where I would be back home, my real home. I found myself clinging desperately to the trip and the excitement of being on tour. I rejected the thought that my life is anything other than what it had been for the two weeks I had been there. Though it hadn’t even been that long. It only ever was 13 days.
Justin, Igoe, Van the Good and I sat around the green room at the White Mule when Pete came off the stage.
“Man, there’s some people out there,” he said of the sold-out room.
“Were they nice to ya, Pete?” Igoe asked.
“Well, no one said anything mean or unkind.”
“Does that usually happen?” she asked again.
“No, but I’m just up there a-pickin’ and a-singin’ so their attention is the least I can ask for.”
“I’ll need a couple bottles of water and a shot of tequila,” Justin said to Van before it was his time to hit the stage. “Up there, can I get a glass of water and a shot of tequila. A Budweiser or something, too. Something light. Maybe two waters.”
“How do you feel at a time like this?” I asked as Van left the room to place Justin’s order, minutes before show time.
“I feel pretty fine. I’d probably be more anxious if I wasn’t more anxious about being home. Tomorrow I’ll probably be a wreck. Now that you mention it, I’m starting to get nervous. Closer to home, the harder it is to separate my anxiety. Once I’m up there I’m fine, it’s just leading up to it I feel like this.”
He paced back and forth in room, rubbing his hands together. “It feels like a tease to get to go home for just one night.”
Van came back with Justin’s pre-show order while the rest of the order waited for him on stage. He threw back the shot before Van lead the way out of the green room. The noise of the crowd grew as we came closer to the door. The house music thumped along as we walked down the cement corridor, turned right, and entered the show room. The few people who saw Justin come in looked at him with excitement. A few people whistled when the house music fell silent.
Justin strummed a couple notes on his guitar and the chatter of the crowd fell away.
“Hey y’all. How ya doin’?” he asked before the crowd cheered, raising half empty drinks as they did.
“We’re gonna play some old songs, some new songs, and I’m gonna talk a lot, which y’all should have expected, because that’s how we advertised it.”
When I came down south, countless SUSTO songs reminded me of people I know or situations I’ve been in. As I watched these many shows, and heard these stories, I realized how much I had taken Justin’s music as if it was my own. Not that I ever thought these songs were written about my life, but I had somehow lost sight of the fact these songs were written about someone else’s real experiences. Throughout this tour Justin’s music was reclaimed from my greedy mind. It put real faces and real names to these stories. These songs, these hymns of hard times and “Hard Drugs”, these are pieces of Justin’s life.
He said to me some forgotten night before he took to the stage that telling SUSTO Stories feels like telling ghost stories. Each night, as he tells these stories, he resurrects the spirits of his past for the hour he’s on stage before the amps cool off and these memories are laid once more to rest.
“Alright, we’re gonna do something special now,” Justin said, looking over his shoulder as Van the Good stepped on stage with his own guitar. “For this next song we’re gonna bring our Tour Manager Van onto the stage. Van lives right here in Columbia, and for his hometown show he’s gonna play with us on stage.”
Van gave a nod, and together, Justin, Igoe, and Van the Good played “Wasted Mind” for the sold-out room.
They finished the show on “Homeboy”. The crowd screamed and applauded as Justin and Igoe left the stage, leaving through the same door they came in through. They stopped in the back hall and decided what songs to play for an encore while the crowd roared louder and louder. The two of them came back through the door, the room erupted, and the show carried on.
The show finished with a two song encore. “Is this my first life, or is it my last life? Am I ever gonna make it to Nirvana, am I ever gonna see God?” Justin sang at the outset of the last song of the night, “Cosmic Cowboy.” The whole room raised their drinks and sang along as he sang the final chorus: “Always screamin’ fuck the cops! I’m a Cosmic Cowboy.”
“I’m so glad you guys are meeting,” Justin said, pointing from me to a gentleman named John Roberts while the three of us sat around the green room after the show. “John is the official psychedelics provider for SUSTO. You two have a lot to talk about.”
Just after we shook hands and fell into a bit of small talk, a drunk young lady stumbled in. “I didn’t mean to come in here,” she said, slowly.
“Hi, yeah, you’re really not supposed to be back here,” Justin said with a light smile, sending a glance my way that said I’m not sure what’s about to happen.
“I was just trying to find the bathroom and yet here I am,” she said.
“Yep, there ya are,” Justin said with a nervous laugh as she slowly walked toward him.
“I didn’t mean to come in here, and here you are,” she said, alluding to premonition of some sort.
“We’re actually in the middle of a drug conversation right now,” Justin said pointing at John Roberts who, judging by the reaction that crossed his face, didn’t expect that level of honesty to come about.
The young lady was harmless and just happy to be there. She showed Justin a tattoo she had on her ankle that, if memory serves correct, said ACID GIRLS. A few minutes after her came another fan who was equally shocked to have come into the green room through the door.
“You inspire a lot of my songwriting,” he told Justin once he’d settled into the room.
“That’s a big honor,” Justin said. “There are a lot of bands that have been a big inspiration to me, so to be that for you means a lot.”
The young man played a song he wrote called “Rusty Knife” and sang with a powerful and passionate voice for Justin, John Roberts, the ACID GIRL and I.
Van the Good came in for a minute, confused and ready to throw out the newcomers. Justin gave a brief explanation of the situation, telling him all is well. As Van left the room, he told me, “Make sure everyone’s out in five minutes.”
“Sure thing,” I said, unsure of how to clear the room but thrilled to have been promoted from Roadie to Bouncer.
I leaned against the green room doorframe while the two vistors talked to Justin, hanging on his every word. Down the hall, a woman in her 20’s rounded the corner. She looked at me the way a drunk tiger might.
“Is Justin in there?” she asked, a hip cocked in my direction. I looked into the room at Justin and his already full hands.
“Nope,” I said with a shrug. She stared at me a moment longer before she wandered off to become someone else’s problem.
After the two people left, John Roberts and I went for a walk about the venue. We talked about some books each of us had read and he explained to me the role LSD plays in his meditative practice.
“I would offer you some, but I don’t have any in my hotel room,” he said. He looked somewhat disappointed.
I had wondered if the chance to try LSD would come my way while I was on the run with the Acid Boys. This appeared to be my answer, and I was just fine with it.
John Roberts helped me pack the van and I told him I looked forward to seeing him at the show the next night. Van the Good stayed in Columbia for the night while Justin, Igoe and myself smoked a joint and hit the road for Charleston.