Velvet Waltz

High times with Built to Spill

My friend Kevin tells me that Doug Martsch is the nicest guy in rock and roll, and I believe him. Previous casual conversations and email exchanges with the guy have confirmed this to be true. Doug Martsch is a sweetheart.

And a stoner.

Tonight I’m at Slim’s to interview Martsch, Built to Spill’s singer-songwriter-guitar god-beardy leader. I’m also here to see this guy I kind of dated, but by “dated” I mean we’ve rolled around on the shore of a lake and the floor of his apartment a couple times. And by “guy,” I mean he’s at least 30.

Kevin and I descend the stairs to the unventilated backstage where Doug and the rest of the band are engulfed in a thick cloud of some seriously killer Northern California weed—apparently, their show in Arcata proved fruitful. One of the band’s three guitarists goes all Snoop Dogg with the bong rips as Doug smiles, offers me beer and asks if we can do the interview later.

It’s weird to be almost 40 and backstage with Built to Spill. Almost 20 years ago, I listened to them with a slew of indie-loving dishwashers at Copperfield’s Cafe in downtown Santa Rosa; we’d flip the “closed” sign, lock the doors and blast There’s Nothing Wrong with Love while shouting about upcoming road trips and concerts over the rattle of the boombox. I’m much older now. I’m not wearing a miniskirt or fire engine red lipstick or any of the things that I used to wear backstage at concerts, and this is good, because I obviously don’t look like someone who is here to give blowjobs or handjobs or any other kind of “jobs.” Instead, I am a geek with my water bottle, notebook and recording device in hand, in my mom jeans and T-shirt.

At my midlife turning point, I’m not into smoking weed, either. I imagine the whole scene playing out before me—bongs and joints and bottles of whiskey being slowly passed around the small rooms and hallway with scraggly, long-haired dudes plucking at guitars—mirrors that of a low-budget Phish documentary.

“Doug might be too high to do the interview,” says Kevin, his eyes darting around the room as he fidgets with his wristband.

Kevin is naturally antsy (and about a million years sober), and as I look at him, I find myself staring at the collar of his shirt for an extended period of time. He looks kind of funny and I wonder if his chest feels all swirly and orange like mine does. I’m sweating now, and getting that weird stoned feeling I remember from my teens and 20s, a sensation of food woven through my teeth and paranoia that I’ve either started my period or peed myself a little.

Doug suggests we check out the opening band and glides up the stairs, disappearing into a sea of fans who are presumably too high to recognize him behind his fuzzy beard and half-closed eyes. Kevin and I head outside for fresh air, hoping the cool San Francisco evening will help us sober up from our unintended trip down 420 Lane. Suddenly, I remember the thirty-something waiting for me out in the crowd. Built to Spill goes on next and I realize, with the heavy weight of defeat and pot-fueled anxiety, that my interview opportunity has slipped by the wayside.

I find the thirty-something and kind of hope he’ll kiss me, but I’m worried about my cotton mouth and weed breath, even though I didn’t smoke pot on purpose. Everything feels so complicated. I don’t have earplugs and I’m afraid I’ll have permanent hearing loss from standing up here, so close to the stage, with this drunk thirty-something who keeps calling me a rock-‘n’-roll mom. I might be too old to be at a show on a school night, I think to myself. I need to get home and pack my kids’ lunches.

And then Kevin leaves, the thirty-something takes off without kissing me and I stand alone with a Bud Light as the band busts out a Blue Öyster Cult cover. Soon, they’re launching into a rendition of the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” that morphs into a 20-minute jam session with the members of one of the opening bands dispersed throughout the room. I never knew how incredible long-ass guitar riffs could be—but then again, I never get as high as all my fellow audience members who, by the looks of things, are having their minds (and eardrums) completely blown. How is the band playing so flawlessly after all of those bong rips?!

Like a true jam-band aficionado, I get super into it, closing my eyes for a few moments in this sea of sweat and hair and bloodshot eyes, forgetting my age, the possibility that I may have peed in my mom jeans and the thirty-something that I’ve let slip away. Nothing matters but this moment. My kids can make their own damn lunches.

And I think, as the swirly chest syndrome takes it all in, Holy shit, holy shit, this is the best fucking concert in the world! And I realize that Built to Spill, after all of these years, have still totally got it. And maybe I’m just high, but fuck, dude,I think that maybe I’ve still got it, too.