The Pressure Cooker of the Road

Sometimes touring is great, sometimes you want to kill the keyboard player

Only once in my life have I threatened to kill someone.

It started at the Launchpad, a dive bar in downtown Albuquerque, on a midsummer night’s eve. We’d ended up there after almost a month of playing shows across the U.S., with a band that I’ll call “the Record Tree,” to protect the innocent. Four weeks in, the six of us had reached varying levels of hatred for each other brought on by life on the road. Three weeks of highs and lows. Drinking warm beer as the sun came up over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge; fireflies and Bright Eyes on the porch of a rickety Omaha farmhouse; Digital Underground–powered dance parties as the van sped down an East Coast highway.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. One of my band mates—let’s call her “Polly”—decided to quit smoking weed somewhere around Boston. Polly needed weed. Without the green stuff, her OCD tendencies fully flowered. There were near-constant references to her boyfriend back home. Every five minutes it would be, “God, I miss Wayne” or “I wonder what Wayne is doing right now?” or “Have I told you how rad Wayne is?” Yes, yes and yes! I’m fine with people trying to get healthy, but seriously, there’s a reason why some people need a marijuana prescription—and without her drug of choice, well, let’s just say the van felt smaller and smaller every day.

Before the tour, Polly and I had been good friends. I was her biggest defender, until about Texas, when all of us in the van began to harbor a secret desire for her to disappear into an oil field, never to be seen again.

By the time we got to Albuquerque, on the heels of a bust of a show in Denton, we were tired, overheated and sick from subsisting on beer, whiskey, cigarettes and Burger King. Our plan was to get on the road immediately after the sparsely attended show and head toward the Grand Canyon, and then Las Vegas, where we were scheduled to play the following night.

One of the few people who came out to see us at the Launchpad was a friendly fellow named Rodney. He invited us out to drink beer and listen to records after our show. Everyone was down—except for Polly and the bass player Gina, who had formed an alliance, which involved doing their makeup together in the dark light of the bar, and from what I remember, braiding each other’s hair. Suddenly the best of friends, they put up a fuss about going to Rodney’s, but in an act of democracy, they were voted down 4–2.

About an hour into our impromptu party, Polly ran into the house (she and Gina had stayed in the van in protest), freaked out by a shady character hanging out nearby. She insisted that we leave right then. We gathered ourselves up and said goodbye to Rodney, promising to look him up next time we came to New Mexico. As Gina sat in the driver’s seat, and as I sat in the passenger seat with everyone else piled into the back, Polly started haranguing us before the keys even went into the ignition.

“I can’t believe you let us sit out here for that long,” she sneered. “That was fucked up. What’s wrong with you?” Everyone sat silently, taking her abuse. Everyone, except me, because sometimes I don’t know when to keep my mouth zipped. As soon as I said something back, Polly turned her wrath on me.

“Leilani, you are so selfish,” Polly said, fixing me with her intense, slightly popped out eyes. “You’ve been the most selfish person this whole tour. You only think of yourself.”

“Polly, be quiet please,” I said, anger building.

Polly’s little head popped up and down from behind the loft seat, like a cranky little bird, pecking away. At this point, I swear I saw red. The pressure cooker exploded. “Be quiet, be quiet, I’m telling you right now!” I spat out, but she wouldn’t stop, and before I could curb the impulse to injure I flung off my seatbelt and lunged towards Polly’s pointy white face.

“If you don’t shut up, I’m going to kill you!” I roared like the lion in winter. I bolted toward Polly, hands reaching for her neck. Two of my band mates had to hold me back like the beast I’d become.

Polly’s mouth clapped shut. She fell silent. I screamed at Gina to stop the van, and as it slowed, I jumped out and ran down that dark Albuquerque street, trying to get as far away from the van as possible. The roadie and the singer chased me down, finding me in the fetal position on the sidewalk, blubbering, with a broken tree branch in my hand. Not my finest moment.

Dear reader, as you might imagine, the story ends badly. Polly got on her phone, while I unfurled myself and booked the next flight to San Diego. We had to cancel Vegas. We drove Polly to the airport, me in the passenger seat, she in the loft, the Gaza Strip between us. Gina refused to speak to me for the rest of the trip. I spent that long drive down the I-40 weeping as Cat Power’s Moon Pix played over the stereo.

The next day, we stopped at the Grand Canyon, where the drummer bought me a bubblegum ice cream that I ate while staring glumly at the abyss below. Polly and I didn’t speak for months, despite the fact that she lived in the house behind me, and spent the rest of the summer telling people that she didn’t feel safe in my presence.

And I was never asked to go on tour again.

Sonoma County Library