The Grotto’s van, Betsy, was a real war horse. A loaner from Miguel, one of Kevin’s cousins, the Mazda saw us through some incredible mileage and awful storms. From day one, she was packed to the gills. We determined early on that there was only one or two ways to fit all of our equipment in. We had all of our albums, three guitars, a keyboard, an amp, all our cables and pedals, various stands, merchandise, and then all of our clothes. It was ridiculously tight.
You’ve heard our rants about New York roads at this stage. A while ago, I was chatting with a Congolese cabbie in the East Village, when he nearly lost the cab in a pothole. “Pothole” doesn’t do it justice. The car scraped the ground twice. It was a trench.
But even worse than Manhattan roads are New Jersey’s. On the Ani di Franco leg of the tour, we drove from Greensburg, PA, just north of Pittsburgh, overnight to Lowell, Massachussetts. We left straight after the show, and tried to eat into the trip as best we could. Around Newark as is now the tradition, Mandy, our SatNav, went down. We desperately needed fuel, so drove around aimlessly in Newark trying to find a gas station. We hit several bone-crunching chassis-killing potholes as we cruise slowly around. Each pothole is met with a long silence – would this be the pothole that finally kills off the van? Here’s a top travel tip for pasty white boys in a heavily laden vehicle: Don’t turn down random streets at 4am in Newark.
After narrowly missing getting caught in some gang warfare, we eventually find somewhere to refuel. I run to the toilets, Kev goes to pay for the petrol, while Mick fills the car. When I come out I realise there’s a really nasty vibe in the place. By the time I reach the car some spaced-out mentalist is threatening us as we get in. Kev seems a bit shellshocked, and we find out as we zoom away that one guy in the store was basically trying to start fights with everyone. He was either on copious amounts of coke, or else just naturally an asshole. The shopkeeper was calling the police as we left. I’d be surprised if something hadn’t gone down after our speedy departure.
We parked up in Connecticut just over the border for the night, and aimed to get a few hours sleep before driving on to Lowell in the morning. We get going, make good time but unfortunately get stuck in heavy traffic about 30 miles from Lowell. The traffic is crawling along. We can feel a strange rocking with the car. We can see any damage – and can’t get out to check on the interstate, but I guess that one of the wheels was buckled last night from those ridiculous holes in the road back in Newark. It feels really bad. We’re tight for time, so we have to get off the Interstate and hare down some smaller roads towards Lowell. We eventually reach the town, and find the venue, a large open square by a museum. Tonight is a crazy one, because we’re driving to Ann Arbor, MI straight after the show. We can’t stick around for Ani’s show, and I can’t do anything even vaguely touristy in the town where Jack Kerouac grew up.
I’ve said to the guys, we dump the equipment by the stage, I’ll change the buckled wheel, try and find somewhere to nap, and then we’ll get going when they’re finished. So I get on with it. We can’t see anything while it’s static, so I drive in a straight line and Kev points out the wheel that looks buckled. I change the wheel and try to locate the offending buckle. Suddenly, I see the problem. The wheel was not buckled, but we had a bulge of over an inch from the top of the tyre. We were so close to having a blow out, it’s just not funny. So many of my friends believe things happen for a reason. I’m not so sure, but I am certain that if it hadn’t been for that traffic jam on the way into Lowell, we would have had a very bad blow-out.
E, Ani’s tour manager, like the Saint that he is, gives me a bunk on their sleeper bus for an hour and a half. I don’t sleep, but I get enough shut-eye to facilitate the drive. Not twenty minutes after the guys finish, we’re on the road again. The weather gods are toying with us. We drive for three hours through a thunderstorm. A lot of highways in the States don’t appear to have any “cat’s eyes”. I never realised this until faced with a stretch of asphalt 5 lanes wide, with a glistening sheen of water, poor visibility and no notion of where any of the lanes are supposed to be. Terrifying! You want to brake, but you know if you do, someone’s going to barrel into the rear of your car. I’m left frantically doing spatial arithmetic, dividing the road in front of me by five, and trying to plant myself right in the middle of it.
Betsy finally died on the Grotto’s last US Tour in October. We’ll miss you!