Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Farewell to Old Blue, the old Uncle Tupelo Van

Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 67, just a few stops down the road from my previous post, "Managing your religion".

A Farewell to Old Blue

By Chris King

Old Blue died. It was East Coast Tour II that ushered in his final decline. He never really came back after that breakdown in Worcester. We lied to ourselves, and told lies for his sake, trying to explain away his failing health. When his death could no longer be patched over with new car parts and alibis, it was like losing a member of the band.

I told Tony Margherita, Uncle Tupelo's manager. Chris Bess told Jeff Tweedy from the band. No one was happy about it, but there were things to celebrate. Uncle Tupelo had basically put Old Blue out to pasture when they ran that ad in Cicero's zine. So all his adventures on the road with Enormous Richard were like an unexpected second adolescence. We had to admit that we had given him a good run.

Survivors are left with stories. A lot of exciting music was circulated around that old van. People heard the Meat Puppets, the Hang Ups, and Soda for the first time in there. Chris Bess kept us awake at the wheel with gags and serenades. Old Blue was the coach that escorted Theo away from the job she quit. We slept in there on a few friendless nights.

Old Blue was the setting for Skoob's famous work stoppage at the wheel, when his repeated requests for a napkin, which went unheeded, resulted in Skoob finally shouldering Old Blue and declaring he was not driving another inch toward the gig until somebody handed him a fucking napkin! Barbecue sauce from the chicken nuggets he had been dipping while driving had become smeared onto the steering wheel -- it was too dangerous to proceed.

This may have been the first time in the history of rock & roll that a tour was stopped dead by a condiment. Finally, Junior dug in his knapsack and handed up a pair of his skivvies, which did the trick.

I am left with only one regret. Tweedy had taken pains to show me the dent in Old Blue's left rear panel inflicted by the Replacements. Uncle Tupelo had done some shows with them. One night, Paul Westerberg of the Replacements backed right into Old Blue. Now I can't imagine why we didn't take a blowtorch to that rear panel. Today we would have a Paul Westerberg sculpture of sorts, and right now I could still lay my hands on a piece of Old Blue.

Maybe nobody could bear to start cutting apart the old guy we had worked so hard to keep intact, and who had kept us together.

Richard Byrne, Uncle Tupelo's old advocate from The Riverfront Times, had the last word on this one. I must have been crying in my beer at Cicero's about the loss of Old Blue, when Rich, a scrapper from Philadelphia, cut me off. "Hey. How sentimental can you get about a vehicle in which Brian Henneman has taken off his shoes?"

One moves on. We had no choice but to buy a new van. Since we were making more money in a few towns now, we decided to go for adequacy of physical plant over anecdote value and buy a stronger van.

After that major purchase, we were broke again, just when we were supposed to be saving to put out a record. Indulgences, like splurging on meals from the band fund, came to a halt. One of the things we unloaded from the casket of Old Blue was a box of damaged canned goods that a friend had given to Chris Bess for East Coast Tour II. Most of us went back to the box for our road meals. Matt Fuller -- author of the tour observation, "Snacks are good" -- found even cold SpaghettiOs to be surprisingly not bad.

One night, before a packed show at the Elbo Room in Chicago, Chris and Matt snacked from the canned food box. It was, perhaps, not the most flattering self-image we could have presented in front of two hundred people who had just paid ten bucks to see us perform. But it paid off richly.

One of our well-wishers after the show was a woman named Madeline. She looked like an older sister type. "I couldn't help but see what you guys were eating for dinner," she said, shaking her head. "Here is my phone number. Please. Call me before your next Chicago show. Let me cook for you."

We did, and she did. I forget that particular meal only because more remarkable ones followed. The next edition of our zine Popular Dickhead announced a new membership program, "Feed the Needy", which proved especially popular in Chicago. (These were Cubs fans, remember, loyal to a fault.) The dented tin can box was history, at least in Chicago. We never paid for food in that town again.

The meal to remember was Lori Malatesta's grandmother's ravioli, delivered to us before a big show at the Cabaret Metro. Everything about that was right. The handmade pasta, the involvement of the grandmother, the flavors of the food, the name Malatesta, the fact of Lori Malatesta herself, a clear, prim, evidently stable young woman of startling beauty.

The name kept whispering in my ear, Lori Malatesta, Lori Malatesta, until I looked it up, and found a prominent Italian anarchist of that name, Errico Malatesta. Lori Malatesta (no relation) was the furthest from anarchy a being could be. Without question, she could have taken home any member of Enormous Richard and shaped him into a mild, obedient husband who never looked back at the road, except to make sure it wasn't gaining on him.

Lori Malatesta seemed far more interested in feeding us than assuming the more carnal duties associated with domestic life. She did, of course, develop a certain affection for Skoob. Skoob was a changing man, though. Becky the diver was just starting to come out of her tuck. She was just starting to open up to him, and Skoob was looking more and more ready to receive her. Unless I missed something, Lori Malatesta was his last kiss before wedlock, and it was only a kiss.

First we lost Old Blue. Now the Goddess of Illusion was starting to shimmer and fade. If you shook your head hard, and blinked a few times, you could still see her, beckoning toward the road. But if you weren't careful, if you weren't living insistently for the dream, then you were looking at a quiet wife who wasn't even yours. She was carrying a tray of her grandma's ravioli, and she didn't know anything about anarchy.


From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).

Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion


That is indeed Old Blue lurking in the background of this snapshot found in the archives of Echota, a band friend. I am the homeless-looking person on the far right. Before me: producer Meghan Gohil, guest guitarist Joe Z. Armin, bassist Jay "Junior" Lauterwasser, drummer Matt Fuller, accordionist Chris Bess.

No comments: