Monday, July 23, 2012

Singing For The Desert And Its Awful Beauty

By Talon Bronson
Senior Reporter
A hundred miles outside of the barren town of Elko, Nevada, there is a truck stop frequented by the truck drivers, the twitching tweaks, and the general dregs of this part of the country. It sits out in the middle of nowhere, a three-hour drive from the last gas station.
Here, the sun bakes down, searing like the stare of the devil. No trees. The water comes out of the fountain disgustingly warm, and inside the bathroom are nothing but big scrawls, phone numbers with listings under them for sex. Only a highway passes by, and then there is dry desolation. Miles of it.
“It’s either your fuel filter, or your fuel pump,” says Hairy Bob, a big man with waves of fuzzy black hair running up and down his neck. When he bends over the hood of our blue Astro van, you can see the waves don’t stop at his neck – they run down the middle of his back, and into his pants. I shouldn’t make fun of him for it. For the hour that we have been sitting here, baking, trying and trying to get the van running, Hairy Bob has been the only one willing to come over and help.
Six hours of driving to the next performance of my band, A Thief At Heart. Six hours, and only an hour and a half left, and yet breaking down here is the same as breaking down 100 miles earlier. Nothing in front, nothing in back, heat all around, and, if we hadn’t found ourselves our very own Hairy Bob, a very long night of heat and slow dehydration.
The landscape of Nevada stretches out like one wide-open prison. All around, you can see for miles, but in the end there is nowhere to go.
“So … we’re screwed?” asks bassist Jacob Duffey, hungrily puffing on a cigarette while sweat beads upon his brow.
In the sun, everyone looks a little dirtier, a little meaner. After a while your lips gnarl up from the heat, and your skin takes on a sweaty sheen. It’s no wonder that after years in this, the locals are weathered and rough, cowboys of the desert.
We’re all peering over the hood with Hairy Bob, but it’s more for moral support than anything else. I could count how many parts of an engine I know on my right hand, and I know about as much about the engineering of our van as a fish knows about flying. The others in the band aren’t far from being in the same boat.
“Well, maybe not…” Hairy Bob says. “If it is the fuel pump, we might be able to get it working, by facing the hood down this little slope here. Hope you boys can push!”
Duffey, lead guitarist Kade Schagunn and I put our hands on the hood of the van. My fingers immediately began to burn hot in the late afternoon sun.
“PUSH!” yells Hairy Bob.
With heaving shoulders, we began to turn the van around, slowly, but surely. Every muscle wrenched, and the sweat on my body quickly doubled, rivers running down my temple and over my collarbones.
“Trying!”  shouts drummer Trevor Scott, from the driver’s seat. “There is no power steering!”
Slowly, the van did turn. Trevor locks it into park, the back now sitting up against the curb.
“All right, so if it’s your fuel pump, this might help for now,” says Hairy Bob. “Just turn her on, and see if gravity does its thing.”
“Just turn it on?”
“Yep. And maybe cross your fingers, too.”
I’m not superstitious, and have always hoped to remain that way. But, I cross my fingers. I didn’t want to be stuck there. No one would. I could only barely stop myself from thinking about the type of people living in the many random shacks that littered the last 200 miles.
I’m sure, thinking back, that the dwellers of the hills of that state are more than upstanding and kind, but the hills felt then as if they had eyes, and the air whispered of the horrible things that would happen if you spent more time there than was allowed. Allowed by whom, I don’t know, but if there is a god then he sits at home with me, in the Northwest, surrounded by fresh air, and trees, and if there is a devil, he sits in Nevada, just waiting for the unfortunate soul to stumble in, and never get out.
“YES!” screams Hairy Bob. The van roared to a start.

Cover art for A Thief At Heart's new release

Hairy Bob drove away, and soon afterwards, we left as well. The rest of the ride was marked by waves of paranoia, coming down just like the waves of the sun. The van lurched dangerously along the road, and we lurched with it. The road passed slowly, the cars passed us quickly, and 15 minutes took 45 minutes to cross.
We didn’t turn off the van when we stopped for gas, for fear that it wouldn’t turn back on again. Down below a quarter of a tank, we barely even made it to the gas station, and pulling in we sputtered to a halt, the van wheezing from exhaustion. At this point we were 20 miles out of Elko.
We were set to play at a bar called the DLC. Native paintings and sculptures hang from the walls there, most painted by the owners of the bar. One half of the room is a gallery, and bottles line the other half. They’re whiskey, Bacardi, Admiral Nelson’s, Maker’s Mark, and many more, more than I can name or know.
The clientele at the DLC all seem to be transplants from somewhere else. The only bar in Elko with no gambling, it caters to those looking for just a drink, to get away from the casinos, the lights, and the sheer dry desolation of that city.
We pulled into Elko after filling up, barely half an hour before show time.
Walking into the bar, I see a painting of a tree, standing tall and resolute, and I am hit by a wave of homesickness that shudders down into my toes. I miss the Northwest and I miss Portland, Oregon.
“You all the band?”
The woman who greets us is bustling about the bar. Her name may have been Sarah, or it might not – life is too short to try to remember either way. Whatever her name was, she finished pouring the drinks in front of her, and walked out from behind the bar. She showed us around the bar, and showed us where we would be playing, right in front of a classic piano that sat beside the bar.
Our space was nothing more than a spot on the floor, 10 foot by 10 foot, with a strict line we must stay behind as not to bother the drunks who would be passing by in the night.
“Just like Wembley Stadium,” I said with a grin.
Finally, she showed us our accommodation, the part I had been dreading all day.
A week ago, we had played in Leavenworth, Washington, in a bar on the ground floor of a hotel. We had been promised accommodation, just like the DLC, and yet when we had been showed in we had been led to a 10 foot by 10-foot room back behind the bar. There were no beds, just two couches which took up two-thirds of the space.
So I held my breath, hoping that perhaps, just this time, we would have an actual room.
The DLC, though, was not Leavenworth Washington.
Sitting upon the top of that little bar in Elko, Nevada, is probably the best spot for touring musicians I have ever been. There were five rooms, one each for five people (four band members, and our tour manager Roman Merrell), and a big, beautiful shower. A back balcony overlooks the small garden behind the bar, perfect for smoking a cigarette in the late evening sun.
It was still an easy place to lose your mind, and there is no way to get around that. People wander the streets at all times of the night, whooping and yelling, broke and drunk from the casinos and the bars with no strict definition of last call. But at least if I lost my mind here, I could lose it comfortably.
“Here is a room key for each of you. Make sure you lock the front door when you leave. And, you play at 8:30.”
Photo courtesy A Thief At Heart

A Thief At Heart performing in DLC Elko, Nevada
That night, despite there only being 15 solid people in that bar, I screamed my heart out. Maybe it was the 12 hours in the car, or maybe it was that the desert was getting to me with its long, horrid flatness. Whatever it was, though, I could feel my throat grating roughly as I shouted into the microphone, releasing every bit of pent up energy that wells inside your gut as you ride along past long expanses of nothing.
That night, I sang for the desert and all of its awful, ugly beauty.
The DLC didn’t card me that night. Whether it was from the neck beard that I was beginning to sport, or the dull look of boredom in my eyes that few my age possess, I don’t know. But, four rum and Cokes in, sweating from the heat, and aching from the drive, I leaned back at the bar with Trevor and whined.
“Nevada is the flat chest of a cheap whore,” I told him maliciously, and the bartender, who had spent quiet a bit of time in the Northwest, laughed. “A tweaker’s paradise. A junkie’s holiday. Let’s get some peyote, why don’t we, and go fry in the desert – one more rum and Coke, please? – maybe then we could find something interesting here.”
“Just wait till Lake Tahoe,” muttered Trevor, looking around the dim bar, at the weathered old faces, and sadder still, the young ones, just beginning to crack. “Tahoe will be better.”
A Thief At Heart is Talon Bronson, songwriter and singer; Kade Schagunn, lead guitarist; Jacob Duffey, bassist and Trevor Scott on drums. You can listen to their music or visit them on Facebook.

Don't miss any of Talon Bronson's Rock 'n Roll Road series. Click on the links below to read any of the other parts:

Part Three:

Part Four:

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