'The bus is on fire, man'

I have some old memories about the days of playing in bands, both here and in Iowa. First, my brother and a friend with whom we've both played came for Christmas and stayed and while we were whiling away the time between fish biting in a fish hou...

I have some old memories about the days of playing in bands, both here and in Iowa.

First, my brother and a friend with whom we've both played came for Christmas and stayed and while we were whiling away the time between fish biting in a fish house out on the ice -- time which was substantial, because they weren't biting all that well -- we talked about past experiences in the music business.

Most of these playing hours were of course in bars and night clubs, some of which bore a great resemblance to the movie "Road House." One of the bands I played with performed sometimes behind chicken wire to protect us from thrown beer bottles and flying bodies. Sometimes the band set up behind the bar, and it was a good night when the bartender(s) all weighed more than 200 pounds.

These were the days when being drunk was still legally and socially acceptable. Things sometimes got pretty interesting. "Whaddya mean you can't play Pretty Woman!" (We'd maybe already played it twice.) This situation often involved the threat of violence and the urging of the band by the drunken customer to do something to ourselves that is anatomically impossible.

Back in 1966, before I got drafted and went to Vietnam, we were playing a black club called Jimmy's on the wrong side of the tracks. We did music that they liked very well, even though we were a completely white band, and we looked as out of place in that club as poop in a punch bowl. We were very popular there.


The Dow Chemical riots in Iowa City at the University were in full chaos about then, and the hot summer and hot autumn and a general discontent with racial discrimination amongst all blacks had led hundreds of them to congregate in the back parking lot of Jimmy's. We were in the middle of the second set when a couple of black guys approached the stage and said: "There's a riot in progress out back, where your band bus is parked. You guys better quit playing and let's see if we can get you and your equipment out of here."

We were urged out the back door, from which we were startled to view a sea of shoulder-to-shoulder black faces out there, everyone shouting, throwing anything they could get their hands on, and in general, one spark away from this turning very bad. We were each given a couple of escorts -- black, of course -- who began pushing a path for us out to the bus. We turned to protest that we needed our band equipment, and discovered that it was being handed overhead, body-to-body, right behind us. It looked like a river of microphones, amplifiers -- some of which were pretty heavy -- guitars, piano, cords, stands, cases -- you name it, flowing over that body of people.

There was a cop car overturned at the edge of the parking lot, and not a cop in sight. I've never since seen so many people so fed up and angry. They let us drive out of there. We never lost even so much as a single guitar pick, although everything went into the bus in a pile, and didn't get sorted out until the next day.

After Vietnam, in another band, we were playing there again, around 1970. It was approaching midnight, when a black man walked up to the guitar player, beckoned him to bend down and listen to what he had to say, said it, and walked away. We were in the middle of the song, so when we finished, I asked the guitar player if there was a request.

The guitar played had tied off his big toe during break and shot himself up with some sort of pharmaceutically popular hallucinogenic, and he turned to me, stoned to the gills, and said, quite nonchalantly because nothing much was registering with him: "The bus is on fire, man."

I thought I had misheard. I asked the guitar player once more about what had been said, and he repeated the bit about the bus being on fire. "THE BUS IS ON FIRE!" I asked him?

Yeah, he replied, tuning his guitar.

I raced out the front, saw our 66-passenger bus sitting across the street, black smoke peeing out every one of hundreds of rivets on the top of the bus. It was empty except for a couple of Salvation Army stuffed chairs in the front, which I figured were smoldering to create that much smoke. I unpadlocked the back, figuring I could crawl into that maw of black smoke, get to the front, and swing the front double doors open, vent this mess, figure out what was going on.


Looking back, this was close to the stupidest thing I've ever done, but I took a deep breath, jumped up in the back, and began crawling toward the front, eyes closed, breath held. I lost my bearings immediately, and for an eternity, didn't think I was ever going to make it out. I took one breath of that foul smoke-filled air, found the front door, levered it open, and fell out into the arms of the town's finest, a cop.

Upon whom I promptly threw up.

We tossed out the chairs. Everything was fine.

The guitar player figured he and the drummer, who were smoking pot on the way to the job, had dropped a seed into those chairs.

We didn't get any more stuffed furniture. Not too much later, I left and went back to college. It was pretty boring after that.

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