The first time I went on tour with Planes Mistaken for Stars, I came close to dying. It was the band's first trek across the country, in the summer of 1998, way before it had signed with the eminent indie label No Idea or perfected its vicious collision of punk, post-hardcore and rock and roll. Shit, some of the members weren't even old enough to drink. All four of them -- singer/guitarist Gared O'Donnell, guitarist/ singer Matt Bellinger, bassist Aaron Wise and drummer Mikey Ricketts -- were still citizens of Peoria, Illinois, months away from deciding to move to Denver. Their roadie, Jamie Drier, had yet to take over on bass (he was replaced last year by Chuck French, of Chicago's Peralta). They were a gang of small-town kids stoked to be driving around in a broken-down van, spitting out their songs and souls in random warehouses and basements every night.
But I almost died on that trip...of acute, utter embarrassment. Gared and I had been friends for a couple of years, and it seemed like a great idea for our two groups to tour the West Coast together. But things didn't jell as well as we thought they would. My band took itself way too seriously; Gared's knew how to laugh at everything. We had nice guitars and tons of effects pedals. Their equipment was held together with duct tape and dried sweat. And their music? It was a geyser of violence, a sloppy mess of sheer passion that made my group's obvious Radiohead worship look downright lame. I was terminally ashamed to share a stage with Planes every night, to see how visceral, cathartic and caustically honest these guys were. They walked it, too; their lives echoed their music, and their music echoed their lives.
It's funny how things come full circle. Six years later, I'm going out on the road with Planes Mistaken for Stars again -- this time as a roadie -- and we'll be following almost the same route we took back in '98. This tour, though, is a bit less modest than that first one. Planes was handpicked by Omaha's indie-rock powerhouse Cursive to be on the Plea for Peace tour, a series of high-profile concerts that also feature spoken-word poet Saul Williams and acoustic songwriter Mike Park. Park, former Skankin' Pickle vocalist and founder of Asian Man Records, started Plea for Peace in 2000. His main goal this year is to get young people registered to vote, ostensibly against George W. Bush. Planes is by far the heaviest act on the bill, but it's never been much of a banner-waving band. Denver loves Planes...but will a nation of fresh-faced, activist indie-rockers?
Monday, May 24 -- Provo, Utah: I get dropped off at Chuck's house at eight in the morning. Besides the band and myself, we're joined in the van by two of Planes's regular roadies: Dave Paco of Deadlock Frequency, a local hardcore outfit that Jamie and Matt once moonlighted in, and Zed Smith, a friend from back in the Peoria days. We're not even on I-70 when AC/DC's Highway to Hell is thrown on the stereo. Bon Scott starts screeching about "going to the promised land."
Later, somewhere on the way to Utah, a CDR of the new Planes album, Up in Them Guts, is played. Despite their self-deprecatory bitching, it's clear that the guys are proud of it; it's a huge leap forward, an ambitious mix of aggression, ethereality and intestine-trawling riffs that they have been working toward since 2001's formidable, if flawed, Fuck With Fire.
We pull into Provo at sundown and find the venue, an empty storefront called Starry Night. A hundred kids soon pack themselves into the small room. The stage is only big enough for Mikey to fit his kit on, so the rest of the band plays on the floor. Chuck is so engulfed by the crowd that you can't even see him. Afterward, dripping sweat, he laughs and says, "I got sucked out in the undertow. I got swept out to sea."
Tuesday, May 25 -- San Francisco, California: We leave Provo at 1 a.m. and drive straight through the night. Everyone's sore and surly. Somewhere near Reno, a Bill Hicks disc gets put on; the late comedian catalogues the evils of Billy Ray Cyrus and Jesse Helms, concluding that he'd prefer "the Satan-worshiping family down the block, the one with the good albums." The van roars in appreciation.
Tonight is the group's first on the Plea for Peace tour. The show is at San Francisco's venerable Great American Music Hall, a beautiful renovated theater covered with pigeon shit and toothless male prostitutes. After unloading the van and bathing in the dressing-room sink, I leave to hang out with some friends of mine who live nearby, in the Tenderloin district. By the time I drunkenly stumble back to the show, I've already missed Planes. We all go back to my friend's apartment and squeeze into his tiny living room for a night of backbreaking sleep.
Wednesday, May 26 -- Goleta, California: On the way to Goleta, Matt talks about his birthday a couple weeks back; at 27, he's the baby of the band. "But I don't feel that old," he says. "Greg Ginn was older than me when Black Flag recorded Damaged." Then everyone starts trading stories about all the times they've either been shot or shot somebody else -- apparently par for the course when growing up in Peoria.
Plea for Peace has the night off, so Planes headlines a venue in Goleta called, aptly, Hard to Find. During the day, it's a Christian learning center. The six-inch-high stage has a huge bookshelf filled with Christmas lights and stuffed animals. Against such a backdrop, Gared makes a speech that he's to reprise on stage throughout the trip: "We're not an overtly political band, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that we need to knock that half-wit needle-dick from Texas off his fucking throne." The kids cry hallelujah.
Thursday, May 27, and Friday, May 28 -- Hollywood, California: The drive down the 101 is short but gorgeous. Seaweed rots on the beaches, and oil rigs loom on the horizon like battleships. Gared, Dave and I have a long talk about our grandfathers and the wars they fought. Skynyrd and Bauhaus blare out of the van windows.
The tour is taking up a two-night residency at the Troubadour in Hollywood, and I finally get to meet everyone else during soundcheck. Mike Park tells me about his high hopes for -- and frequent disappointments with -- Plea for Peace. "This is the fourth one, and I think it's the best so far," he says, "but some nights it's just a party crowd. Everyone's drunk, and they don't want to hear about politics."
Or open their minds to anything new. Although Planes slays the stage both nights, the trendy kids there to see Cursive just slouch around, eyeing each other's meticulously disheveled outfits. On Friday, as the last squeal of feedback stabs out of Matt's amp, a sassy tenth-grader brushes past me and mutters angrily to his friend, "There's a difference between noise and music."
Saturday, May 29, and Sunday, May 30 -- Pomona, California: In contrast, the two nights at the Glasshouse in Pomona are amazing. The bands are on fire, and the kids aren't afraid to get their hair messed up. We have a real hotel room this time, and Gared runs around the fancy pool trying to catch lizards. Later, he tells the best story of the whole trip: "When I was in fourth grade, there was this girl in my class named Amy Davis. She was it. I had a huge crush on her. One day, we stayed in during recess to finish some project, and I was so stoked. But while we were sitting there together, she blew this huge booger down her face. Then, a second later, she sucked it right back up into her nose.
"Immediately," he finishes, "I started puking all over the place."
Monday, May 31 -- San Diego, California: The worst show of the tour. The crowd is impenetrably placid, and Planes plays even more desperately than usual, pushing with every erg of force and fury in their bodies against some unseen barrier. After Gared falls on his ass in the middle of a song, he tells the audience, "Sorry, I ate shit real bad there. It's not like falling down when you're nineteen. I'm a little denser." Even his anti-Bush rant is greeted with little more than a sea of crossed arms. He ends the set with his usual, heartfelt departing line -- "Take care of each other" -- and it just bounces off a force field of cool.
Tuesday, June 1 -- Victorville, California: A mid-tour funk sets in. The van has begun to smell like chicken-fried ass. A quick dip in the ocean outside San Diego augments my usual morning shower: a layer of deodorant and a stick of Polar Ice gum. Tonight's show is at a place called the Avenue, located in a Victorville strip mall. Halfway between San Diego and Vegas, the town feels like a rat's maze with a dead end. The native kids rock accordingly.
Wednesday, June 2 -- Las Vegas, Nevada: The drive through Death Valley is apocalyptic. Everyone stares blankly at the bone-dry landscape, listlessly whispering along to every word of Jawbreaker's Dear You. The blast of the AC when we get inside the House of Blues kicks us all back to life. Planes actually whips up a pit tonight; a dozen or so kids somehow figure out that it's actually okay to physically express yourself at a rock concert. Even Saul Williams is spazzing out on the side of the stage. A late night of drinking and gambling is made even more surreal by our stay on the 34th floor of the Mandalay Bay, the luxury hotel that rises above the House of Blues. From our wall-sized window, the lights along the strip blink epileptically.
Thursday, June 3 -- Tempe, Arizona: We have to keep the heat blasting in the van so the engine doesn't melt down. It's 108 degrees outside; I feel like I'm in a poorly shielded space capsule re-entering Earth's atmosphere. The cockpit's rocking Hawkwind and Hank Williams. When we finally pull into the parking lot of the Marquee Theater outside of Phoenix, I start to experience déjà vu. This is my final show with the guys on this tour, but Tempe was also the last place my old band played with Planes back in '98 before we headed back to Colorado and they to Illinois. Planes Mistaken for Stars has changed a lot since then -- but what hasn't? The world is by far a sicker place, and sicker times call for sicker music. Gared, Mikey, Matt and Chuck have heeded the call: The four of them may be burly, scary and strikingly Viking-like, but there's a sensitivity to them that can't help but react to all the apathy and ugliness that permeates this whole civilization from the top down. To paraphrase Sinatra, they eat it up and spit it out.
On the way back to Denver in a rental car the next day, I go into a gas station and fish around in my pocket for change. My hand comes out covered in sand from the beach in San Diego, where I was four days earlier. I remember asking Gared that day if he ever got homesick; he is, after all, the member of the band most rooted in Colorado, with a mortgage, a wife and a baby boy. "Yeah, I get homesick all the time," was his answer, "but then when I'm home, I get road sick."
Then Mikey, overhearing us, summed up everything with blunt, stoner Zen wisdom: "Never at rest, dude."
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