A Slow Van, the Melvins, and My First Punk-Rock Tour

I snapped this photo of the Melvins that's on the cover of their first 7". It's on the beach in San Francisco
I went on my first rock tour as a roadie for the Melvins in 1985. I owned a van--a 1968 VW bus that was painted with zebra stripes. We crammed the rig full of gear and four people--myself, Buzz Osborne, Dale Crover, and Matt Lukin--and hit the road. Three people could sit up front, and right behind the seats was this bunk where you could only lie down. The bunk would hold two sleepers. The van had a 55 HP air-cooled engine. It drove slow but steady, but it didn't matter: The speed limit on the interstates was 55 mph--the top speed for the rig.

We drove to Reno, Nevada, nonstop day and night on lonesome roads via eastern Oregon. The van lost power in the thin, high desert air, and we traveled slower than the speed limit. But we got there. I left home with $20 in my pocket. It was down to $10 when we arrived. I wasn't even 21, but I walked into a casino hoping to strike it rich on nickel slot machines. I lost my ass, but the $3 I had left were well spent in the grocery store on the Top Ramen special. I think the instant noodles were like a quarter a piece, so I spent all my money on them.

We coasted at a good speed out of the Sierras toward San Francisco. We stayed at Tim Yohannan's place. He ran the fanzine called Maximum Rocknroll. This fanzine was very influential in punk thinking and the DIY ethic. A sense of anarchy without adjectives was in the air in the communities we visited on the tour. It was about making things happen outside the governmental/corporate sphere. There was a vast record collection in the basement where we slept. All the record sleeves were wrapped in green duct tape, I guess to prevent theft. Somebody suggested the Fugs' second record, and I made a cassette recording for the van. I had never heard them before, and I fell in love with the original anarcho-rockers immediately.

The band played their San Francisco show to about 10 people. Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro was there, for a while at least. The next morning we left for Santa Barbara.

We were set to play this party, and there were tons of people there. But the cops came and shut it down--so no show. I met Fat Mike from NOFX there. He was this skinny dude who told us about another party in San Bernardino in a few days. With time to kill, we went to stay with my uncle Angelo in San Pedro. Ah! Plenty of food! Uncle Angelo baked a mountain of fish sticks for us. Well-fed and -rested, we left for the gig.

We met up with this carload of punkers to caravan with. Their big Plymouth sedan was fast, and the van had trouble keeping up. They would slow down, and from the next lane over urge us to speed up. Not to be wimpy, there were times when I pushed the van up to 65 or 70 miles per hour. By the time we got to the party, an odor was coming from the engine. It sounded bad, too. I didn't worry about it and enjoyed the party and show. When it was time to leave, the van would barely move--engine trouble!--a nightmare for any band on the road.

We had nowhere to go, so we found a vacant lot across from what we thought was a big school. But when the guards came over, we found out it was actually a state mental institution. They said it was OK to stay in the lot, but only for a day or so. I slept on the bare ground with a blanket covering me.

In the morning, I looked at the engine and noticed one of the valves was stuck. The old VWs were pretty simple, and with a little improvisation you could get back on the road. I disconnected everything from the engine and used the scissors jack for changing tires to slightly lift the abused machine. The other dudes pushed the van forward, and the engine came out right there in place. We were told there was a VW shop down the road--within walking distance! Lukin had some money, so we bought a couple of cylinder heads. We tore most of the engine down, put the heads on, and repeated the process to get the engine back in.

The van ran better, but there were some issues--there still wasn't power like there used to be. We had to floor the gas pedal to get anywhere--we even put a case of cassettes on it--and we drove the thousand miles home at a speed of 45. The van was slow but steady, and we got there.

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