Love For Nothing

My first time at the Eastern Iowa Airport was September 28, 1971. My family was moving from Iowa City to Washington, D.C. It was my first time on an airplane. I was three weeks old. Thirty-four years later, I’m here again, waiting on American Airlines flight #4239 to Chicago, then connecting to #360 to Laguardia.

The Midwest leg of my “Better Than That” Tour is — mercifully — complete. My primary feeling at the end of this grueling road — nausia notwithstanding — is relief. It’s been just one week. They’ve been seven long days, though, each punctuated solely by some three hours of fitful sleep. I’ve done three newspaper interviews, six radio broadcasts (one of which was simulcast state-wide), and performed eight shows for a total of about two thousand people (and yes, I rocked them all). And this is what I call vacation from my day job.

Last night’s Waterloo show was unprecedented. My hosts, Brian and Justin, and all of the great people at Smitty’s, were gracious beyond compare. One gentlemen, by example, handed me a Waterloo Police Department cap and said, “On behalf of the WLP, welcome home.”

I performed five sets over as many hours, trotting out every song I could remember (and some that I couldn’t). My favorite moment came in the small hours of the morning. The venue was officially closed (“We’re serving as long as he’s playing,” Smitty said), but fully packed. The lights were low. I transitioned David + David’s “Swallowed By The Cracks,” into U2’s “All I Want Is You,” then back again. And somehow, those two songs summed everything up: the road (“We could drive around in circles getting nowhere all night long”), the shows (“Getting drunk with strangers / Telling lies and singing along with the jukebox”), the weight of fifteen years chasing this silly rock ‘n roll dream (“Swallowed by the cracks / Our pride warn down / Talking times gone by like everybody else”), and the hole that only love — not even all of the applause in the world — can fill (“All the promises we make from the cradle to the grave, when all I want is you”).

I woke up on top of the sheets, fully-clothed, fully-shredded, fully-loaded, and completely unsure of where I was, or how I got there. My watch read 8:40. My flight — departing one hundred miles away in Des Moines — was scheduled for 9:46. It was obviously a lost cause, so I consolidated my stuff (tour is a constant process of scattering, then consolidating one’s things), dipped my head in a sink full of cold water, chugged a warm Mountain Dew, and stumbled out of the Quality Inn. But before pointing my rental south towards Cedar Rapids, I had two brief stops to make.

The Gardners were my grandparent’s neighbors. Mr. Gardner was the local mailman. His daughter, Becky, was the local hottie. She was a few years my elder, and just as beautiful as could be: bright blue eyes, hair the color of wheat, and a wide, white smile. She used to mow the lawn in a bikini. When we were teenagers, she and I would stay up all night talking. In the morning, we’d walk down the block to McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin. This morning, when I walked in — pale, pasty, and reeking of alcohol and cigarettes — the teenager behind the counter looked at me all funny and said, “Ummmm, weren’t you just in the newspaper?”

Smiling now, and returning to life just a little bit, I drove west to Mount Olivet Cemetary. There on the crest of a hill beneath a naked red maple, I knealy a minute, thanked my grandparents, told them I missed them, and sketched a heart in the snow in front of their headstone.

It’s a straight shot through vast farmland on I-380 between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids. I travelled 52 miles in 33 minutes, preparing a speech for an Iowa State Trooper the entire way that I never had to give.

Seconds after getting my plane tickets, and checking my guitar, I was paged by the Hertz counter. Walking back, I ran through all of the worst case scenarios. Did I ding the rental? Did I owe them more than the addition $244.37 I was charged to return it to a different airport than I picked it up? Did they find something illicit under the seat? When Igot to the counter, a beautiful young woman — let’s call her Sarah, because that was her name — held up a copy of “Heartland,” and smiled sheepishly.

“You left this in the car,” she said.

“I left it for you,” I said.

I signed her copy, thanked her for paging me, exhaled that the TSA hadn’t found anything, and strode off towards security.

Some of my peers at The MTV or in the record business or with their rock blogs, they might not think very much of travelling a thousand miles for two week’s vacation to play rock ‘n roll with a bunch if Iowa bands. It might not make much sense. On the corner of Rivington and Attorney, it can be difficult to imagaine fifty-two miles of corn fields and sky. And until someone shines a spotlight on Des Moines, until someone gets hip to what’s going on with The Nadas, Towncrier, Josh Davis Band, Jason LeVasseur, Jerry Chapman, and the family that Jason, Mike, and Authentic Records has built, well, it might not make much sense.

But I’ll to you why I spent my free time humping gear up snowy stairs, or playing at a Youth Center in Iowa City, or staying up late and laughing ’til it hurts. Because it’s real. In a world of manufactured authenticity, crass cynicism, and disposable heroes, these guys are the real deal. There’s just one thing that matters with my friends, and it’s at he center of it all. It may be a little bruised, or have some stitches, but it’s still beating. And it’s beating in time with the music.

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