I’m the Madonna
And I’m holding your honor in my hands
I lie if I wanna
And I’m tired but I still get up and dance
-- Megan Pfefferkorn,
Christina’s World, “Madonna”
“How are you?” Megan Pfefferkorn asked, taking me by the shoulders and staring into my eyes.
I was vaguely aware that this was a little bit odd. I had never met Megan before, and this was her album release party, and her album ¿Cómo Se Dice: "Sinner"? was supposedly so good it made your ears hurt, and we and the bus had just arrived late with all the sound equipment, and she clearly had more pressing things to do than ask little old me me how I was.
But more than that, I’d had a pretty harrowing day on the bus. Every single circuit in my brain felt like it had shorted, and I was intellectually and emotionally deader than the electronics I was stumbling around trying to find a place to plug in. I didn’t really know where I was, or what was going on. But if Megan Pfefferkorn wanted to ask me about my feelings I was going to try to tell her about them.
“I’m OK,” I muttered pathetically. I tried again: “I’m tired.”
She smiled with profound sympathy. Her hair formed an auburn halo that tickled the disturbingly blurry edges of my vision. Mikayla McVey came up beside her and squeezed my arm. I remembered back to the previous Friday, when Mikayla had warned me about the gender balance of the tour: so far as anybody knew, I was to be the only lady aboard.
“The energy just gets weird the more dudes there are,” she had said, waving a cigarette into the black Berkeley night. “It was the best when it was almost all women.”
Pancho nodded in agreement. Mikayla also said that every Splendor female had at some point borne the proud, difficult, necessary duty of being the only female on the bus. And, she said, she’d see me in Los Angeles, where she and Megan would provide temporary reinforcements, and godspeed.
Seven days later, here we were.
In general, I'm suspicious of gendered theories of psychology and communication: “women are from Venus men are from Mars”, “men’s brains are like waffles women’s are like spaghetti." Even when they're well-intentioned, they usually seem like unscientific heteronormative bullshit that reinforces stereotypes and keeps people from treating one another like fellow human beings. I’m not a gender anarchist, but I do think that it is easy to go too far in highlighting gender differences.
That said, gender balance is important. And regardless of why, Mikayla was right: gender balance is particularly important on the bus.
Wiley thought gender balance was so important that, thanks to his efforts, I ended up not being the only lady on the bus. As I found out the morning we left, he invited a few last-minute women on the trip: Angela, a fiddler, visual artist, and long-time friend of the bus, and Victoria, who lived down the block and he had just met. Helyn and Jeff followed us in their van and played our first show with us in Santa Cruz.
But both Helyn and Victoria only stayed a day, and from Santa Cruz to Drum Canyon to Santa Barbara to Ojai to San Diego to LA it was just me and Angela holding it down.
It’s not like Pancho, Derek, Wiley, and James are a bunch of testosterone-seething chauvinist monsters. They’re not: they’re great, and I had a great time with them on the first leg of the tour. And I got to become very close friends with Angela, Victoria, and Helyn, all very quickly.
That said, here are some of the things that made Day 6 on the bus kind of harrowing:
Getting stuck in LA traffic for the second time in the same number of days
Not eating after breakfast, and literally running out on a lunch before ordering because we realized we didn’t have time to eat
Trying to coordinate with a friend in LA (the talented and lovely Joy Autumn) who was generously offering her place for the night, and then running out of time to do that too
Everyone’s phone battery dying at around the same time, and our on-board charger not working properly, thus...
Running late through LA traffic without reliable navigation and coordination tools
None of this has much to do with gender. But the way we were dealing with it might have. Beyond bathroom break petitions, there wasn’t much group process. No check-ins, no coordinated planning of basically anything, including meals. According to Pancho, the lady-skewed Splendor Tours were touchy feely and process heavy, with check-ins and circle time on the daily.
Based on the way Megan and Mikayla greeted me when I got to LA: I believe it and I’m into it.
Angela also reported that before we left San Diego that morning, she had to break up a heated argument between Pancho and Derek about how long it was OK to keep your urine on the bus. Pancho had peed in a green Perrier bottle when he woke up, which Derek almost mistook for water and drank.
Angela also reports that Pancho said, “I just don’t like it when people tell me what to do.”
This might have been a good example of what Mikayla had meant when she said, “The energy just gets weird.”
When we got to LA, there were a lot more women in the community: singer-songwriters Mikayla, Megan, and Millie Mason were all there, and Victoria rejoined us, as did James’ partner Laura and Pancho’s partner Natalie.
Besides the positive impact on the “energy,” another nice thing about the swing in gender balance is it meant I got to see a lot more female musicians, and I found them damn inspiring. Megan’s new album is, in fact, so good it makes your ears hurt. It’s spacious and large and haunting and sad and weird and funny and absolutely beautiful, and you should listen to it.
Her opening act, The Whole Damn Fam, was also incredible. Brother and sister Jack and Maesa Pullman have one of the weirdest, coolest vocal blends I’ve ever heard: Maesa’s a buttery warm contralto, and Jack’s warbly and high-and-lonesome. Their pitch is on, and the songwriting is great, and the band, which is a family affair, rocks. Check them out too!
Despite our worst efforts, we found a place to sleep for the night. Whitney, who had also rejoined us (yaaay!) had a friend with a warehouse (yaaay!)
The warehouse turned out to not be just any warehouse. Those of us who were somehow alive enough and human enough for social interaction took a mini tour. Anthony Greenz, our benevolent patron, showed us the two massive rooms that make up most of Creatington: a studio/performance/events/arts/live/work space in the Flats neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Greenz himself is a dancer/performer/choreographer/green-infatuated artist and a solid person to have in your corner.
Creatington enchanted us with its colors, character, toys, unicorn-disco-themed bathroom, and athletic and circus equipment. And then we figured out what we could sleep on. Victoria and I snuggled up on a crash pad at least 3 feet deep.
In the morning, Day 7, we climbed a rope, did yoga, ate lots of the food Victoria brought, and took cold showers. At least, that's what I did. From what I can tell, Victoria is extremely good at teaching people yoga and rope climbing and juggling and basically everything.
I spent a lot of the rest of my time at Creatington typing. While I was typing everyone else: (a) assembled a dance floor (b) put a couch Creatington gave us on top of the bus (c) drank coffee.
Victoria went around with my camera taking pictures until it filled up. Greenz started practicing on the newly-assembled floor.
"Oh man. If you ever wanted to know who James Wallace was, look out the back window right now." -- Wiley
James and Laura spent Day 6 away from the bus. Our reunion, the afternoon of Day 7, was passionately well-documented through a very, very dirty bus window. SKYWAY MAN!
"The boys were caught up in trying to fix the cord to the power saw so they could cut of the legs of the couch, when Victoria and I realized the legs came off if you just twisted them. So we did that." -- Angela
Our plan for the evening was sketchy, in a couple senses of the word. We showed up in Elysian Park a little before sunset and looked around. It looked like we'd be able to get get several hours of play time in before a neighbor called the cops, so we posted the half-stage and announced our location on Facebook.
Megan played, then the talented Paul Bergmann, and then Millie Mason. Millie Mason was in the middle of "Not Lonely" (which is a great song) when the cop cars started to arrive. The many, many cop cars.
Though the police were numerous, they didn't come hassle us. They just kept to themselves at the end of the road. Millie was a pro, and played out her set unfazed. When she was done, we decided to try our luck and send another act out.
“For mysterious reasons I'm the person who's usually playing when the cops come and shut things down,” Mikayla said, as she plugged in the guitar and James adjusted the equipment. “So I apologize in advance if that’s what ends up happening.”
I am a huge Mikayla McVey fan and can't imagine why anybody anywhere would ever try stop her from singing. Luckily, that night, nobody did.
We were still so sketched-out by the police presence that we almost packed up the show. Thankfully, Megan and a friend volunteered to walk over and actually ask them what was up, while the rest of us waited with bated breath.
“We’re fine!” they said, on the walk back. “They’re not here for us!”
I never got a straight answer about what the cops were doing there. Someone said something about a Dodgers game.
There's definitely a point to be made here about law enforcement and class and race privilege. But that stuff is complicated this post is already too long. The short story I am very privileged to be able to tell is: The cops were there at the start of my set and gone by the end of it. And I couldn’t be happier.
James went on after me, then Pancho and Wiley. Evan and Cameron were also there that night, but the Sweet Peas didn’t get to play -- we didn’t want to push our luck with the noise pollution. It’s probably a good thing, too, given what ended up happening during the Los Horny Boys (AKA Pancho and Wiley) set.
The generator died while the boys were singing “HORSE." "HORSE" involves a lot of hoarse whispering, and hoarse shouting, and a whore/horse pun, and Pancho and Wiley making some real horsey faces and noises. And on one such face/noise moment, the generator burnt the last of its fuel, and the sound and stage lights crashed out with a booming thud.
The rest of the set was acoustic by the light of Whitney’s way-too-bright handheld spotlight. It was magical. Derek played his set inside the bus, and Mikayla sang backup on some of his songs, and it was perfect.
“Do we know where we’re sleeping tonight?”
“The Wi Spa.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, you will. You all are coming right?”
“Is it creepy?”
“Is it psychedelic?”
A little before midnight, we checked into a 4-story 24-hour Korean spa. There, we were given bracelet keys to our lockers, branded t-shirts, khaki shorts, and towels, and were separated by gender and sent to our respective locker rooms with basically no information about what was going to happen next.
An hour and several hot tubs later, the men and women met up in the cafe on the third floor.
“This place is amazing.”
“Do you like it?”
“I'm going to eat all of this kimchi. Unless someone tells me not to.”
“What is this?”
“On the menu it’s called ‘shaved ice.’”
“The textures! The contrast!”
“It’s all about the contrast.”
“They have all the elements! There’s a cold sauna which is ‘ice’, a clay sauna which is ‘earth’, and the super hot one is ‘fire.’”
"What element are the rooms of uniformed strangers asleep on the floor?"
“I'm going to get deep in some balls if anybody wants to come join me.”
Process is great, but too much communication can also have its drawbacks. Talking about your feelings all the time can get in the way of getting stuff done, or just having fun and living in the moment.
Balance is also important because it means you can pleasant surprises.
“I can see why they didn’t want to tell us very much about this place beforehand,” Angela said, as she, Victoria and I drifted off to sleep on a couch on the paradisiacal rooftop deck, many saunas later. “It would have spoiled some of the magic.”
My newly soft, newly clean skin radiated heat beneath a robe beneath a blanket. It was a mild night, and there were heat lamps and fans on us at the same time. A flat, mute TV flickered bright green soccer at the periphery of my vision. After our cafe rendezvous nobody anywhere had discussed a plan for leaving or meeting up again, and all of our phones were in our lockers.
“What do we do if we wake up in the morning and everyone is gone?”
The Alignment Tour is over, but the blog lives on! I'll be posting backlogged stories from the road for the next couple weeks.