I was heading east on the California Trail. The first transcontinental Railroad ran parallel just a few miles north of the highway. This was the route the emigrants traveled by wagon train during the gold rush. The sun melted in my rearview as I drove past the last service exits of Reno/Sparks and Fernley into the long desolate stretch of interstate 80. I should’ve fueled up back there, but I left Sonoma County without much forethought, unprepared for the vast and lonesome darkness of the high sierra. It seemed not much had changed since the frontier days. There were very few cars passing and it was a relief to see any sort of illumination. It brought to mind alien abduction and unsolved murders. The radio was static and the cassette player was broken so I hummed a tune I had been working on. At a quarter tank of gas panic began to set in. At some point, I saw a faint glow on the north side of the interstate and I took the exit. But at the end of the ramp the road was narrow and unpaved. It was just another ranch exit. Nothing but reflectors on a fencepost.
Five years earlier I left Tennessee for the west coast to live the rock and roll dream. We landed in Northern Cal after a greasy four-day bus trip. I was barely eighteen, bashful, with a thick country accent, and a guitar… ready to rock. There wasn’t any sort of play book back then, aside from what you read in the magazines. You practiced and played the club circuit until one day you got noticed by a record exec and signed to a major label deal. That’s all any of us knew and that was the plan.
My last couple of years in Northern California seemed like one long party. Finding friends with drunken aspirations seemed to be the main objective. Then the harder drugs began leading us by our noses. We spent many a night driving the streets until dawn wired to the gills on crank and cocaine spewing insipid drivel about things we’d never do. It sure was fun, (kind of) but I was musically lost and frustrated. The band had long fallen apart. The speed and death metal frenzy had taken over the Bay Area. If you didn’t wear a black t-shirt and play a hundred miles an hour, the kids threw shit at you and gave you the finger. It was time to go home. My plan was to regroup at my parents’ house for a few months and then make the move to Nashville where I’d hone my songwriting skills. Maybe sell a few songs someday; live on a lake and write hits for other people. I asked my girlfriend to come east with me. She was eighteen and an aspiring dancer. Things were really heating up between us and she was a distraction from the partying. I had never been in a serious relationship before, and I didn’t have the heart or guts to break up with her. It sounded like a good idea at the time. She would be flying one way three weeks after my arrival. Three days before my departure, standing in her parents’ garage I told her dad that I would take care of her, that she would like Tennessee, not to worry. It was only the third time I’d ever spoken to him.
When you’re young you make bad choices. You live in the moment and it’s all about the experience and not so much the consequence. In 1987 I was suffering the consequences of a series of bad choices. But if my older self could’ve given my younger self any advice it would’ve gone something like this: turn around Kevin. Do not go back home. Take your guitar, and the $150 dollars in your pocket and head to L.A. That is where your scene is, and that is where you wanted to be and should’ve been all along. Nashville? Really?! You’re a rocker, Kevin, Nashville is not your town. Better yet, go north. Seattle’s music scene is getting ready to explode and some of the coolest bands of the future are forming there right now. How about New York?! Atlanta?! Go anywhere but home, Kevin. I can assure you there is nothing in East Tennessee except the life you left behind. You’ve only been gone five years! I know that seems like a lifetime now, but, someday it’ll seem like five minutes. Do not do this! You’ll regret it someday. Call your girlfriend and break it off. Do not fly her to your hometown! That’s insane! You will cheat on her. Do you remember your itchy crotch? Come on! You will hook up with the first hometown girl that flirts with you and you know it. Have some guts Kevin. Do not take the high road. By the way, there are plenty of free clinics in LA.
As I entered what is called the forty mile desert I was running close to empty and resigned to the fact that I could be sleeping on the side of the road. I was nervously tonguing the inside of my mouth where a knot had formed from a well deserved ass beating I had taken a few months earlier when Jack Daniels and I crashed a party we weren’t invited to. My hair was beginning to thicken again on the side where it was gripped by the guy who held me in place while the others kicked and punched me. What’d you say white boy?! Pow! What’d you say? Pow!
I pulled over on the highway shoulder to pee. My car was just as beat up as me. Wasn’t an unscathed panel on the thing. The driver side door made a loud pop when you opened it, usually turning heads. But out there, there aren’t any heads to be turned. No midnight roamers, no transients to speak of, no late night travelers. Just the stillness of the black night, you and the moonlight, and maybe a ghost or two. An old silver miner on horseback weaving through the sagebrush, heading over to the Comstock Lode.
To be continued…