Couch Surfing 101, Nick Stumbles Out
We were always on the move. I was starting to lose track of which phone numbers I had given my parents. We knew if I could find a place to crash, Jeff could go to Stacy’s. We weren’t a package deal at her place, and he didn’t want to abandon me, which I appreciated. What I really needed was to find work. It had been the longest stretch of unemployment since I was 11. I had never applied for a job because I grew up working for the family business. I knew it required an address and a phone number and I didn’t have either. And as rock and roll as it was to be a vagabond, I was tired of walking. I missed my car. My dad was sending me $40 cash in the mail about every 6 weeks. It’d be wrapped in folded typing paper with simple one line notes. “Put this in the bank” (bank?) Or, “Here’s a little spending money” Or, “Give this to Jeff’s mother for rent.” Cars were real important in the Abernathy clan. I knew if I planted the seed in dad’s ear he’d find a way to send one down the pike. Working was equally important, and as expected he brought up my job situation in every conversation.
The neighborhoods in Rohnert Park were alphabetized, A-section through M-section. All the streets beginning with the letter of the section. I’m pretty sure Jeff and I crashed in every letter within a 6-month period. I memorized the towns geography, the short cuts from section to section, the side streets and trash can alleys. Keith lived on the outskirts of Petaluma about 10 miles from Rohnert Park. If I was hanging with him, I crashed at his place. It was hardly walking distance, so I didn’t like getting stuck there. Sandra and Clyde had a tiny one-bedroom apartment in L-section about a mile from Kei’s house. If our situation was dire, they’d take us in for a night or two. There were many nights where we just showed up on their door step, hoping they wouldn’t turn us way. Their apartment was full of aquariums of fish with names like, Fin, Rock, Gilly and Spaz. It was relaxing and easy to fall asleep to the sound of the bubbles and watching the fish swim in the soft light. “Don’t tap on the glass, Kevin.” They chided. “Oh, okay, sorry.” We wore out our welcome there pretty quick.
It had been a crazy 6 months, and we were the hottest band in Rohnert Park. At the same time, we weren’t making much progress. It seemed that for now our creative hot streak was over. There were a lot of nonmusical days, and we had only played a hand full of shows. Uwe was infatuated with Shelly, Jeff wasn’t pulling his load lyrically, and we had a lot of unfinished songs. Nick’s ears were still ringing, so we weren’t that surprised when he announced he was quitting the band. We could sense his unhappiness leading up to the announcement. He wasn’t digging the direction of the band and we weren’t really into his avant-garde ideas. The rest of us wanted to rock hard, and Nick just wasn’t a hard rocker. But, I knew that the real reason he was quitting was because of me. It was obvious I drove a wedge between him and Uwe. I was hogging Nick’s creative partner. It was jealousy.
Jeff had a phone number of a bass player named Mike from nearby Santa Rosa. Mike saw us at the Battle of the Bands at Rancho Cotati High and told us if we ever needed a bass player to call him. We auditioned him in the barn while Nick was inside his house wondering if he made the right decision. It was weird because we knew Nick was listening. Mike was the complete opposite of Nick. He played straight ahead, using eighth and quarter notes on one string; Immediately giving the band a different sound. We loved it! Uwe could still do his Bonham and Moon stuff, and now I had more freedom for riffing. My solos stood out more, too. Mike was young, not yet 16. He had an athletic build, was fairly good looking and funny. He was our Michael Anthony. Well … except … he couldn’t sing … at all. Not even a gang vocal. I wasn’t that great a singer either. Nick handled all the high harmonies, so it was a step backwards in the vocal department. And, not only were we losing Nick, we were losing the barn; the perfect practice pad. That would be our biggest set back. A part of me didn’t want him to leave while the other part of me knew we needed someone like Mike to play the kind of rock we wanted to play. When Nick quit, I felt like he knew something that I didn’t.
By the end of March, things began to change. The gloom and fog of the rainy season, which began when I arrived, was finally over. Sunny California was for once sunny. I had been staying at Bob’s in his converted chicken coop behind his dad’s house on East Cotati Avenue. Jeff moved his stuff over to Stacy’s in E-Section for good. We were off the streets and separated for the first time since November. And, although our living situation began to stabilize, our practice schedule suffered. We had gigs lined up, and a new bass player, but no where to rehearse. We kept our equipment in Bob’s van and started doing pop-up practices at friends houses while their parents were at work. We appropriately named it “the living-room tour.” But, most of those rehearsals weren’t very productive. They usually turned into afternoon parties, and half the time Uwe and I were the only ones who showed up.
Our first gig with Mike was at Rancho Cotati High. We played outside in the quad in front of a big crowd during lunch hour. I wore a purple jumpsuit and played Bob’s white custom made explorer. Mike showed up in a green sweat shirt hoodie. He looked like he’d just left a soccer game, so Jeff and I had to give him the stage clothes talk. Bob dialed in the sound and, as usual, jumped around behind our amps playing his air guitar during the set. It pissed me off, but since he rented a decent PA system, and I was crashing at his place for free, and playing his guitar, I couldn’t really express my grievances.
Bob’s dad, Ken, was from the middle east, and like Jeff’s mom, spoke with broken English. His voice was high pitched, and I didn’t understand him half the time. From the git-go, I could sense he didn’t care for me. He was a handyman of sorts, but dressed in pleated dress pants, button-up shirts and wing-tips. When I first moved in, he was doing some sheet-rock work on a commercial building and asked me and Bob to help. I needed money so I jumped at the chance. Ken couldn’t pronounce sheet-rock very well. He’d say “shit-rock” which really cracked us up. “Okay, grab the Shit-rock.” His house was small, 600 square feet at the most. You could see the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom doors from the front entrance. There were a few pieces of second hand furniture in the den, a tall plastic plant in the corner, and an old RCA turntable on a couple cinder blocks against the wall.
The chicken coop was just a few feet from the back door of the house. An uneven flat rock sidewalk led to one of the side doors. If Ken wanted something, he’d stand on the walk and call for Bob from the back door. “Bobac! Bobac! Come, come, Bobac!” The coop was about the size of a big walk-in closet. It was L-shaped with a very low ceiling. There was a cubby hole that Bob’s water bed fit in snuggly. The rest of the room was about 12 feet long and maybe 6 feet wide. It was claustrophobic as hell. I slept on a couch in the longer section. There was a meat processing plant on one side of the property, and on certain days the smell of blood and guts from the slaughter house would waft over the chicken coop. On the other side of the property was a row of businesses in similar sized houses.
One night, Bob and I were heading out when Ken stopped us in the den. “Bobac, wait, listen, listen!” The soundtrack to Fiddler On the Roof was on the record player. Ken turned up the volume. He and Bob started doing Tevye’s dance, and singing, “If I were a Rich Man, daidle deedle daidle daidle daidle deedle dumb.” It was some kind of Father/son bonding, and it felt like I was in a foreign land. The song ended, and we started out, but Ken held Bob’s arm until the next song began. “Bobac, no, you mustn’t leave!” They locked arms and continued laughing and dancing. Back then, I had no idea what a musical even was. Had never really heard of Fiddler On the Roof. Growing up our house was pretty bare of books, and my parents weren’t really in tune with pop culture. The Passion of the Christ was the only theatrical production they took us to see. We’d go to the movies a few times a year, but by the end of the 70’s I still hadn’t seen Star Wars, Jaws or The Godfather. A small record collection, 3 TV channels, and a set of encyclopedias from the late 60’s was the most secular things in our house. California was like going off to college. Ken emerged from his bedroom with a fiddle. He couldn’t play it. He did it for affect. He handed it to me, but got upset when I said I didn’t know how to play the fiddle. He looked dumbfounded. “You’re from Tennessee, you play the guitar, but the fiddle, no? But, why?!” It seemed to be a strike against me.
After one of the last rains, Bob was in a rush to get to the mountains to pick psilocybin mushrooms. We pulled off of Crane Canyon Road and walked through a clearing near a cow pasture. “Look for the ones with bell-shaped cap’s.” He directed. We filled a paper bag and headed back to town where he dried them on the roof of the chicken coop in the sun. The next day he stuck them in the oven on a large pan to finish the process. Bob didn’t have a job but always had money. Now I knew why. He had quite the weekend business selling pot and mushrooms to friends. Sometimes he would go away for a couple days, either to his sisters in the city, or places unknown, and leave me in charge. He kept the drugs locked in a small desk drawer in the corner of the coop. It made me nervous, but he gave me a small percentage of the sales, and … I kind of liked being a bad boy.
Besides electricity, the chicken coop didn’t have any modern day amenities, so we went in the house to cook and shower. On one of Bob’s weekends away, I was in the bathroom taking a leak. Since no one else was home I casually left the sliding door about a quarter of the way open. All the sudden I heard the front door shut and Ken walks by the bathroom door as I was zipping up. He started yelling at me in Arabic. He was pissed because he saw me peeing. I was like, “Seriously? We’re all guys here. What’s the big deal?” He was still going off as I walked outside and back to the chicken coop. I guess in Iran it’s taboo to see someone urinate. After that, Ken didn’t like me at all. The feeling was mutual.
A band without a rehearsal space is like a car without wheels; you’re not going anywhere. Did I even have to say the latter? The nonmusical days turned into weeks and I was growing antsy and anxious. It felt like time was slipping away and we were losing what momentum we had as a band. I kept my guitar with me, but got bored playing by myself, cooped up in the chicken coop. The studio time we won in the battle of the bands wasn’t scheduled until September, and we sorely needed a demo tape. So Bob bought an 8-track reel to reel to take a stab at recording the band, and talked Ken into letting us set up in his den for a few days. None of us knew anything about recording. I just wanted to have a band practice while we had the chance.
I had a little mushroom money, so as usual I walked across town to get a cheeseburger at McDonald’s. Afterward I stopped by Luchini’s Garage where Uwe worked as a mechanic. Uwe was kind of cold to me when he was working. I could tell he didn’t like me stopping by. But if there was a chance we could practice, I would either call or walk to Luchini’s. Plus, I was free and jobless and had nothing better to do. He came lumbering out wiping an oil stick. He was wearing his leather jacket over his coveralls. He wore it year round.
“Hey Kevin, what’s up.”
“Just walking around. Can you come over to Bob’s later to practice?” I asked.
“Umm … maybe. I’m eating out with Shelly tonight.” He said.
“I got a new song I want to show you. I think you’ll like it.” I said excitedly.
“Okay, can I call you after work?”
A “maybe’ became Uwe’s standard answer, and as he got more involved in work and Shelly, I’d spend many days and nights waiting by the phone, and looking for his head lights.
It was still mid-morning and I knew Jeff would be getting up soon, so I hiked the 3 miles or so over to Stacy’s in E-Section. On the way, I hit the sidewalks of a couple of strip malls, making a half-assed effort to look for help wanted signs. My reflection was in the plate glass critiquing my hair, as the sun cast a long guileless shadow walking close behind. Faded jean jacket, collar up, over a tight white t-shirt with black music notes, and a red bandana around the neck. I was out of my element. A rock and roll interloper, alienating the bourgeoisie; too cool for the normal world.
When I got to Stacy’s I knocked on the door to no answer. Damn, I should’ve called. I knocked a few more times … no answer. I could hear the TV, so I turned the door knob and it was unlocked. I pushed open the door about a foot and called out Jeff and Stacy’s names. Suddenly a man appeared. He opened the door and was pointing a gun at me. It was a Colt 45.
“Who the hell do you think you are?!” he said angrily.
Instead of running away fear stricken, I felt my eyes narrow and my brow wrinkle.
“My friends live here. Who are you?” I said
“None of your damn business, and nobody’s home.”
“Whatever, man, then tell Jeff and Stacy, Kevin stopped by.” I said, staring him down.
He slammed the door and I walked back to Bob’s pissed off and shaking, and in total disbelief that I just stared down the barrel of a gun.
While we were set up in Ken’s house, Uwe and I worked up a new song called *Get the Message. It was an energetic surf-rock song that would eventually wind up on our 2nd demo tape. Other than that, we squandered away a whole week, goofing off, and trying to get something on tape before Ken made us move everything out. It didn’t help that anytime Bob tried to make a game plan, or express an idea, Jeff would mock him. Jeff was drinking and cutting up the entire time. We were all green and lacked the patience for the tedium of the recording process. It was a fiasco. And, we were unable to get a full band practice together. A frustrated Bob took off for the weekend. We called Nick to ask if we could practice at the barn for a few hours before the next show.
I ended up at a party in L-section not far from the chicken coop. It was packed with wasted kids. Most of them standing in a long line to the keg. Motley Crue’s “Too Fast For Love” was blasting on the stereo. I put on my shy guitar hero/I’m buzzed smile, leaned against a wall and drank my beer. They were all strangers, and I hardly spoke to anyone. I was surprised when a guy yelled, “hey, you’re the dude in One.” I nodded and held up my cup. The recognition felt good, so I hung out long enough to stand in line a few more times before heading back home.
I stumbled down the street and took a right behind the Quick Stop corner market and down a grass and gravel alley-way that led to the fence behind the chicken coop. There was an old garden gate that was hard to unlatch. It was dark and I was drunk so I climbed over and landed on my back, knocking the air clean out of my lungs. While I was gasping for my breath I heard what sounded like a bleat … like a goat or something. I thought, did an animal escape the slaughter house next door? I didn’t see anything so I went in the door on my side of the coop and passed out on the couch. A few hours later, I woke up dehydrated. I was outside drinking water from a garden hose in the moonlight when I heard the bleating again … meh, meh. I peaked around the corner of the coop towards the tree line along the fence. There was nothing but darkness. I went back to bed.
When I woke up my head was pounding. The coop didn’t have any windows but I could tell it was daylight. I covered my head and tried to go back to sleep. Then there was a soft knock at the door. It was strange because no one, except me, used the door on my side of the coop. I didn’t want to open my eyes, much less, move my body. Then the knock came again. Damn. I got up and slowly opened the door. It was a girl. She was standing there, with a sheep.
“Hey.” I said, looking at her, then the sheep.
“Hey, cute sheep.” She said, smiling.
“Is that what that was?” I said
“Is that what what was?” She answered.
“Never mind. Who are you?” I said, curiously.
“Becky. Are you going to invite me in?”
She came in and sat on the couch. She was wearing a dark blue blazer over a white button-up with an ascot, and a matching skirt. Like a school uniform. When I asked her where she lived, she pointed and said, “that way.” When I asked if she was at the party the night before, she said, “what party?” I looked out the door. The sheep ran behind the coop.
“Does anybody know you’re here?” I asked
“How old are you? I asked
“16. How old are you?”
“18.” I said
“Yeah, right.” She said, smiling.
Bob returned from the city, and we were hanging in the coop. He was tallying up the drug sales when Ken called him from the back door. “Bobac, Bobac, come, come, Bobac!” Bob went outside, and I could hear Ken bitching about me and the bathroom incident. Two days later and he was still upset.
The sheep turned out to be a lamb. Ken brought her home, and since he and I steered clear of one another, I had no idea. Bob and I named her Mary. She was good company and an interesting pet. As it got warmer we’d sleep with the coop doors open, and Mary would come in and wake us up in the mornings. Bleating in our faces. She liked me, but not my guitar. She’d run away when I plugged in.
A few days later, Keith stopped by with a six pack of Budweiser. I was playing with Mary behind the chicken coop. Sometimes I could get her to chase me like a dog. Especially if I had a fistful of hay. He said that he and Melissa were going to the US Festival in Los Angeles Memorial Day weekend, and asked if I wanted to go. Even though Van Halen, Judas Priest, and the Scorpions were playing, I said no. Keith couldn’t believe it.
“Really, dude?” It’s going to be an historical event!”
“Nah, I don’t want to.” I said.
“Kev, you should go just to check out the LA scene.”
“Seriously?! Because, you’re a bad ass and that’s where the action is! You might want to move there some day.” He said.
It was odd that going to LA didn’t appeal to me. The city I was obsessed with just a couple of years earlier hardly crossed my mind. I had moved on from going to concerts, too, and I wasn’t buying records anymore. My every thought concerned working with the band and writing songs. If I wasn’t playing music, then I wasn’t having fun. I was committed, and loyal to a fault; Two virtues that were both admirable and crippling. If things weren’t going right, those characteristics would highlight my negative traits. I could be fussy, overcritical, and completely inflexible. In hindsight, I wonder why Keith even wanted to hang out with me.
I grabbed some things and headed to his house for the weekend. We watched Faces of Death and Fast Times at Ridgemont High on VHS, then listened to some records. Around midnight we got bored and Keith decided to sneak his dad’s truck out for some four-wheeling. We did so successfully, and 30 minutes later we were in the mountains climbing steep hills in the dark. It was my first off road adventure. Sometimes we’d spin out halfway up an embankment and roll backwards, laughing. It was both fun, and terrifying. A few hours later we were heading back to town when a tire blew. It could’ve been an easy fix, but, we didn’t have a spare, or the money for a tow truck, so we had to walk to a pay phone and call Keith’s parents. His mom picked us up at 4 in the morning. We were waiting under the Exxon lights. I was exhausted, and passed out as soon as I got in the car. We had eaten bean burritos for dinner the night before and I was super gassy. I farted the whole ride back to Petaluma. Keith’s mom was so mad and disgusted.
I didn’t know it then, but that night was the beginning of a series of bad luck that only occurred when Keith and I hung out. Something was bound to go awry. It was a thread of fate, already woven on a loom.
When I got back to the chicken coop, no one was home. I grabbed a fistful of hay and called for Mary. She didn’t come. I was playing guitar when Bob walked in.
“Hey, where’s Mary?” I asked
“Ummm, next door.” He said, pointing at the slaughter house.
“No way! Are you kidding me?” I said.
“Dad got her for eating. You didn’t know?”
A few days later I looked in the freezer and it was packed with lamb chops. Ken was excited, and he and Bob prepared a big meal. They called me from the back door to come eat. The smell hit me first, and slowed my walk to the table. I sat down, looked at the meat on my plate, and felt sick. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t eat Mary. I left the table and went back to the coop. I could hear Ken yelling. Bob came in later shaking his head.
“Dude, you know you insulted my dad by not eating.” He said.
“Well, he insulted me by butchering Mary.”
“C’mon, Kev, we’ve been living on ramon noodles for months. You should be grateful.”
“He should be grateful I didn’t throw up on my plate.” I said.
Bob opened the drug drawer and put a baggy in his pocket. Then grabbed his van keys off the desk. He was twirling the keys on his finger and looking down.
“Also, dad wants you to start paying rent.” He said.
“What? When?” I asked
“Starting June 1st.” He answered
“That’s like 2 weeks away! Whatever. I guess I’ll have to find another place to stay.”
Come Monday afternoon, I was dealing with a fair amount of frustration. I was thinking about what Keith had said about checking out the LA scene, and when the next band practice would be. I was also worried about where I was going to live. There was a knock at the door. It was Becky, out of the blue again. She was wearing the same school uniform as before. I let her in, then looked out the door towards the alleyway. It was her 3rd visit, and she always seemed to know when I was alone.
“Hey, where’s the sheep?” she asked.
“In the freezer.”
“What? You mean?” She said, pointing toward the meat plant.
“Yeah.” I answered.
“How do you know when Bob’s not here?” I asked her.
“Who’s Bob?” she replied.
About an hour later, I was playing guitar when she got up to leave. She leaned over and kissed my cheek.
“You know, the guitar fits you … like you were born to play. Don’t ever quit your dream.” She said.
She walked out, turned and smiled and closed the door. I leaned my guitar against the couch, turned my amp off, and went to the door. I could never catch which direction she came and went from. When I opened the door, I expected to see her fumbling with the latch on the garden gate. It had only been a few seconds, but, she wasn’t there. Strange. Even if she ran down the alley, I would’ve seen her. I hurried to the front of the house and looked up and down East Cotati Avenue. She was no where in sight. And just as mysteriously as she appeared a few weeks earlier, she was gone.
Our last show with Nick was at the River Theater in Gurneville. Things got off to a weird and uncomfortable start. During the first couple songs, Nick was playing with a blank expression on his face. But as the set went on, he began interacting with me and Jeff, and jumping around. He was playing the hell out of his bass, and he was louder than usual. He seemed to be saying, I’m quitting but you guys are going to miss me. When he played his bass intro on Open Ending, he propped his leg up on the guitar stand with the neck of his Rickenbacher bass pointing straight up. He adjusted his thumb pick and strummed his big-rock intro with a smile. The guitar-stand fell over, and he stumbled away for the last time.
Afterward we sat on the banks of the Russian River behind the theatre and talked about the show. By dark you only know it’s there by the grumbling waters picking up speed on the last stretch to the pacific. Not even a full moon or the lights on the bridge touched its murky back, and, it had yet to learn my name. But a few years later and up stream, where you can walk straight into it, that river and I will become little more intimate. For now, my karmic weather was still in the stratosphere; yet to be frozen on the mountain.
*1. On the Whammy Bar Diaries record, the song “Get the Message” is now titled “Backyard Party Circuit.” The music is the same as it was originally. I rewrote the lyrics.