Destroy Your Safe And Happy Lives: No More A Workhorse

Drummer Jack Carneal began his career serving behind the kit of the notoriously enigmatic Will Oldham. He was one of the original members of Palace, the band that seems to have been regulated as one of the many facets of the whimsy of Oldham, thanks to his insistent name-changing. It’s a shame, because the Palace bands, irrespective of the name variant, had some superb music. Destroy Your Safe And Happy Lives is a document of what life was life during those mysterious years, and Carneal has a funny and likable style that is both compelling in its storytelling and vivid in its detail. The book is so good, you’ll swear you can smell the tour band–and the band’s—perfume of ass and sweat and ass sweat all the way from 1994.

Carneal’s book is more about life on the road; it’s about friendship, adventure, love, passion, and the frustrations of a creative life, be it with Oldham/Palace, The Anomoanon, or life as a stranger in a strange land. We are happy to share with you Carneal’s recollections of being on the road in 1994 as one of the second-stage touring acts of festival juggernaut Lollapalooza.

Purchase Destroy Your Safe And Happy Lives: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Rare Bird Books

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The sprawling Lollapalooza operation was a well-run machine. I was amazed to arrive at some new venue in another suburb of a great American or Canadian city every day to see that the two stages, the lights for both stages, the carnival of tents, two enormous sound systems, essentially an entire small town, was all in place and ready to go. I probably should not have been surprised that a professional touring company like Lollapalooza had figured out how to make a tour happen without incident, but this is another example of my own inaccurate expectations about how my Lolla-adventure might pan out. I suppose I expected more of the behavior that I saw on that first day, the Brylcreemed rockabilly roadie with the DTs bitching at me for leaving my drums in the wrong place. Instead, the opposite: day after day after day, and nary a major mistake made. A sense of professionalism, of bourgeois “going to work” pervaded, which was comforting.

All of the places we played, called “sheds,” looked more or less the same: sheet metal-roofed amphitheaters with brightly colored plastic seats encircled by a grassy ring, all guarded by muscular, mustachioed men. The larger area around the grass ring circling the shed was paved to oblivion. All of the sheds were well outside even the most distant suburbs of the closest city, all were antiseptically clean, and all were often staffed by rosy high schoolers in matching tennis outfits. In addition to looking the same, all of the Lollapalooza sites also had the same creosote/diesel exhaust/cigarette/hot dog smell in the air, supplemented by a soupçon of french fries and, if you whiffed carefully enough, the ever present scent of funnel cakes. Thus, Maryland Heights, Missouri, looked and smelled an awful lot like Noblesville, Indiana, which reminded us all of Clarkston, Michigan, which really, when you got right down to it, wasn’t all that different from Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, which, perhaps not surprisingly, bore a striking resemblance to Barrie, Ontario. Etc.

One afternoon, I realized while in the van that I’d left my case of cymbals at the previous show in Maryland Heights, a suburb of St Louis. Cymbals are expensive, and I spent nearly twenty-four tortured hours cursing my absentmindedness, being stuck in a gut-wrenching loop of anxiety, and thinking that some scum-sucking dirtbag like the wasted stagehand in Chicago had already traded my thousand bucks worth of Sabian and Zildjian for a few crack rocks. How in the world might I afford a new set of cymbals? How in the world might I play a decent set without being able to hide behind the din of my cymbals, those flattened discs of bronze whose clattering, deafening wash of noise were able to hide any number of drummer’s mistakes? Arriving in Columbus the following day, however, there was my cymbal safe, sitting on the side of the stage, lit by an errant sun’s ray, waiting for me.

Everything about the backstage area at Lollapalooza ran counter to my fantasy of the touring musician’s life, which I assumed would be, well, a fantasy. Instead, Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, and the rest of the Seeds; Adam Yauch, Adam Horowitz, and Mike Diamond; The Flaming Lips’ frazzled road crew; the Luscious Jackson ladies; it seemed like everyone worked their butts off every day in the interest of putting on as good a show as they possibly could. I can’t speak for George Clinton, for Q-Tip, for Phife, or Billy Corgan because I rarely saw them, or if I did it was a fleeting glance as they strode from their trailers to the stage, but we watched the Beasties and the Bad Seeds bring a superhuman effort to every show every single day. Being outside and engaging with the crowds appeared to be part of their shared performer’s ethos. There was an old-fashioned show business element in everything they did. Their work ethic moved me, allowed me to know that I was not doing myself much honor by continuing to worship the slacker ethos, the laissez-faire “whatever happens happens” attitude I’d had since college. I became determined to work harder at my craft, once I figured out what my craft actually was.

In addition to the daily Lollapalooza shows, we frequently played local clubs at night, which was a direct breach of the contract we’d signed with the Lollapalooza folks. It’s called a radius clause. I hope the statute of limitations has passed so we are not fined for our illegal transgressions. The Lolla-legal team’s thinking was that a fan would be less likely to shell out the cabbage for a full-on Lollapalooza ticket if said fan’s favorite band was also playing a show at a local club nearby without all the other bands, and for a far cheaper ticket price. This may well have been true for the big names, Smashing Pumpkins or whomever, but not for us—no one was coming to Lollapalooza for just the Palace Songs experience, I don’t think—so we supplemented our Lollapalooza income by playing a few extra shows along the way, contract be damned. We were rebels, punk-rockers, who paid no heed to contracts, to lawyers in their sharkskin suits and ridiculous demands, we would do it all ourselves, by any means necessary…actually this is not true. We did in fact consider the implications of our breach of contract with Lollapalooza, and nervously agreed among ourselves to keep the news that we were playing shows along the way a secret from the other bands.

So, after a certain number of Lolla shows we’d pack up our gear and pretend to head out to the next stop on the Lolla-tour, only to mosey the few miles into the nearest burg where we’d play one of our illegal shows.

At each of these shows, we supplied the soundman with a TDK ninety-minute tape from a pack that Will had bought in Charleston, and picked up the tapes after each show. (I’d love to know where these tapes are now.) We’d listen to them in the van as we drove. Not once—never—did I think anything other than this was some of the best music I’d ever heard.

 

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We had to sound-check before each and every show we played, at both Lollapalooza and the clubs, and I suppose it’s time to try and describe what happens to one’s sense of hearing when one is the drummer onstage with a loud rock band.

First, I’m sure that every musician reading the words “sound check” felt their ovaries twinge, or, alternately, their testicles drawing up into their lower pelvic region as they imagined, against their will, the steady whomp whomp whomp whomp crack crack crack crack smash smash smash thud thud thud thud whomp whomp whomp whomp of a drummer sound checking. If Dante were alive today and writing an addendum to the Inferno, I think he might add a tenth circle to Hell, wherein the poor doomed bastards and bitches would be subjected to listening to an eternity of drummers’ sound checks. There is nothing worse. The sound of a drummer sound checking remains to me a perfect auditory example of the fundamentally stoopid nature of rock and roll.

I’ll make it short, but the grinding nature of the process is actually essential to understanding a number of things, including why so many drummers are often surly sons of bitches and why they’re often the first to quit bands. First, drum sets themselves are heavy and cumbersome; a kick drum, one or two mounted toms, a floor tom, and a snare. The snare sits on a sturdy, solid stand, which is supposed to conveniently fold up, but which often does not, and frequently one’s fingers get pinched in the various folding joints of the stands. Those two cymbals smashed together to the drummer’s left, the high-hat, is also an evil thing. Like the high-hat stand, cymbal stands are similarly filled with the evil intent of harming fingers. There’s the bass drum pedal that needs to be fastened to the rim of the drum, requiring the drummer to crouch on the ground and try to wrestle with a tiny set screw…I’ll stop there. But understand that these things needed to be set up as quickly as possible before the set, then broken down as quickly as possible after the set, so while Ned and Will and Aram and Jason were frequently enjoying their first Corona of the afternoon, having been able to walk off the stage with their amps and guitars, I was getting my thumb smashed by the legs of another cymbal stand.

Speaking of the guitarists, each has his own unique desires as far as the volume of their amps, and for pretty much every single guitarist I’ve ever played with, that desire is to be as loud as humanly possible and, at the very least, to be louder than the guy standing next to him.

Here’s what often happens: During sound check guitarists are very modest and well-behaved and play at a normal volume, which allows the soundman to set the house levels properly. A war begins, however, as soon as the band takes the stage and the show starts. As one guitarist leans over to pretend to tie his shoe, he’ll quickly turn his master volume up. The next guitarist will drop a pick on the ground or reach for a water bottle or beer sitting on top of his amp, and if one wasn’t trained to spot the movement one might miss that the second guitarist has, instead of grabbing the beer bottle, turned his volume up as well. The first guitarist, having noted that he’s been outdone, might wait patiently until the first song begins, at which point, perhaps during the second guitarists’ solo, he might wander over to his amp, again reaching for a beer or water bottle, and turn up his own amp. And so on.

The drummer, having noticed that both guitarists have cranked up their volumes, recognizes that, if he’s going to enact his God-given right to be the loudest person onstage, he’s going to have to pound that pedal to his bass drum all the more forcefully and hit the crash cymbals more often, and also more forcefully.

One can often see the soundman standing behind the audience at the soundboard shaking his head or otherwise being grumpy as this volume war rages.

Besides the onstage amps, each musician has a monitor, which is just a speaker aimed straight at his head. Such an arrangement seems counterintuitive: on a stage full of blaring speakers why on earth would someone need one more speaker just to hear what the other speakers are already blaring out into the crowd? The answer is that on many stages the sound from multiple instruments is so loud that one loses the ability to hear one’s own playing, even, in my case, with an instrument as obnoxiously loud as the drums.

Most soundmen are able to mix each musician’s monitor specifically to what that musician wants to hear. I keyed in most­ly on Will and Ned’s vocals and guitars rather than the bass, what many drummers listen for, and I also liked hearing my snare and kick drum in the monitor mix. Remember that I am sitting more or less at amp level while the guitarists and keyboard players are standing above the speakers in the amps. They can also move out of the way if something is too loud. What most people don’t realize is that the backs of some amps are open, and speakers project noise out of the backs as well, and when I’m sitting behind my kit, I’m pretty much staring at the backs of every amp on the stage. So, the drums are often in the one spot on stage where as many as five amps, plus my own monitor, are all spewing their noise in an out-of-control sound fountain.

I’m not going to apologize for mixing my metaphors—explosions, sound fountain, it all works to describe the ear-bleedingly loud chaos I often heard on the stage.

 

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It was whispered among a few of the second stage bands that well-known major label talent scouts were prowling the second stage at Lollapalooza looking for the next Nirvana, and every so often a coterie of well-dressed young men and women whose heads glistened with hair product would swoop in with a kind of nervous, coky energy and fling business cards onto the ground. Some bands would dive into the fracas, fighting over the cards as if they were starving and the cards were bacon-flavored potato chips.

It’s important to remember that at the time record companies were making money hand over fist and events such as Lollapalooza still played an essential role in the dissemination of popular music. The “music festival” as a marketing concept has been diluted since then, with the rise of Bonnaroo, Firefly, SXSW, Coachella, Stagecoach, and Warped, and it’s easy to forget how events such as Lollapalooza were once used to focus the attention of the great pubescent unwashed on an organized array of bands for the purposes of selling more product. Even though the previous years’ Lollapaloozas had been a fundamental part of what was then being called “alternative” culture, which was little more than an updating of the “college rock” and “indie” movements of the eighties, 1994 was the year that Lollapalooza was supposed to cement itself as a mainstream event aimed less at breaking bands and more at presenting bands at the tops of their commercial strengths. Nirvana, Tribe Called Quest, the Beastie Boys, and Smashing Pumpkins all sat at or near the top of the charts in ’93, while bands like the Breeders, Pavement, and Flaming Lips waited in the wings.

Interestingly, the week before we began our Lollapalooza experience in 1994, Aerosmith released the first song available for purchase on the internet, a 4 MB file for CompuServe members called “Head First” that took over an hour to download using dial-up. An hour to listen to a single song, and by Aerosmith!

Perhaps some of the backstage uptightness mentioned above was the result of some of the other bands’ anxieties about claiming windfalls of industry cash, which I hope I’ve made clear was still more than plentiful. The internet was years away and the bottom hadn’t fallen out of the music biz yet. One could still get rich by being blessed, anointed, as it were, by the hand of a recently-graduated-from-Northwestern twenty-something “talent scout” from Geffen, Virgin, or Warner Brothers, so it’s safe to say that many bands were thinking to themselves, “Hell, if Urge Overkill can score a major label deal, and the Flaming Lips and Royal Trux for Pete’s sake, then why not us?”

Even though the Lips had signed a major deal with Warner Brothers in ’91, the seeds of their commercial success had been planted in 1993 with their hit single “She Don’t Use Jelly” and there’s no doubt that the summer’s tour and their high energy DIY stagecraft acted as potent fertilizers for their later popularity. Guided By Voices wouldn’t sign with Capitol Records until 1998, but I’m sure one of those young scouts cruising the Lollapalooza second stage watched as innumerable fratty bruhs wearing backward baseball caps and cargo shorts bellowed along with Robert Pollard as he sang, “I am a scientist, I seek to understand…,” and knew that GBV might one day sell records.

At the Polaris Amphitheater in Columbus, Ohio, I glanced up from my paper plate of beef stroganoff just in time to see three of the Lips lads gallivanting on a grassy hillock just above the backstage area. They appeared to be having a smashing time, engaging in some archetypally male fellowship.

Upon closer inspection, I noted that drummer Stephen and singer Wayne appeared to be forcing bassist Michael Ivins to ride down the steep grassy hill on a large piece of cardboard box. Michael didn’t appear particularly comfortable with his bandmates’ attempts to force him down the hill on the cardboard; he sat stiff-backed as it slid and bumped down the hill. As I watched, shameful memories burbled up of me forcing the guitar player in my middle school band to sit on a banana-colored (and shaped) skateboard at the top of our bass player’s absurdly steep driveway. Time and again, we’d shove him down the black asphalt ribbon, hoping for a dramatic and painful crash into the three foot-deep concrete culvert at the bottom of the drive. It was like a very early version of Jackass. It’s a wonder he was never killed.

In Philadelphia the backstage area was an open field filled with backed-up raw sewage. Tampons and toilet paper floated in oily pools of waste, along with cigar-shaped turds. Picking from the trays of baked chicken and rice and mayonnaisey salads and shredded pork wraps were pneumatic young Eastern European girls in bikinis with too much foundation caking their faces. Mafiosi in cheap sharkskin suits and oversized sunglasses smoked cigars and leered at the girls’ fake breasts as they glistened like raw chicken in the summer sun. I watched the ladies tiptoeing through the sewage-rank area in their high heels, and noted that Beastie Boy Mike Diamond was also bouncing through the area, having donned his white mullet wig, a disguise he wore regularly that made him look no different than any other loaded teen stumbling through the crowd.

After our show in Philly, we went back to our hospitality space to grab a beer, only to find that the case of Corona was gone. We were bummed, having worked up a good thirst onstage, and wondered if the five middle-aged farmer-tanned white people who happened to be standing over a full case of Corona as if guarding it might know something about where our particular case of Corona went. A few of the mens’ hair looked remarkably like Mike Diamond’s mullet wig, all business up front, all party in the back.

“Hey, fellas,” I said, “y’all didn’t happen to grab that case of Corona from our space—”

“Hell naw,” said the red-faced man with the bleached mullet. He sucked on his cigarette and, with a rather simian-appearing paw, adjusted his balls, which appeared to be tucked uncomfortably into a tight seam of his ill-fitting cut-off jean shorts. He pulled deeply from a bottle of Corona that, quite apparently, was not his first. “These ain’t your beers. They’re mine. End of story.”

“Okay!” I said, clapping my hands together once. “Just thought I’d check.”

At that moment, who should appear to quell any negativity but the lighthearted and likable comedienne Kerri Kenney, one of the Girls Against Boys’ lady friends. Kerri was finding some success on MTV with her comedy troupe The State, and her quips and comic presence served to counterbalance some of the more intense backstage vibes.

I actually really liked the GBV dudes. Drummer Kevin, like most drummers, was an openly friendly guy who appeared to mostly just want to bang his drums and have a good time. GBV bassist Greg, who wore smashing candy-striped bell bottoms every day onstage, told us he was quitting the band and would enter law school at the end of the tour, which he did. He’s now a practicing attorney in Ohio.

It wasn’t difficult to notice that Girls Against Boys might be on the short list for “next big things,” something that happened when they signed a deal with Geffen in ’97, and the resultant record deal and appearance on numerous nineties teen movie soundtracks allowed bassist Johnny Temple to start the publishing company Akashic, who would one day publish our friend Bobby Arellano’s books.

One afternoon at a water park next to the Riverbend Music Amphitheater in Cincinnati, we saw Beastie Boy Ad-Rock running up the wooden steps next to us as we all ascended to the departure point for one of the slides—“This is the bomb!” he yelled to us, and it was the first time I’d ever heard that saying. Later we all watched as the Buddhist monks invited by Ad-Rock’s bandmate Adam Yauch careened down the swooping fiberglass slide gleefully, still wearing their long saffron robes, into the pool below. Beautiful, gorgeous, moving, strange. Much later, Will recalled that underneath the saffron robes, the monks wore matching Speedo-style briefs. At that afternoon’s Beasties show Ad-Rock was still in the bathing suit and Seattle Supersonics jersey we’d seen him wearing earlier at the slide.

 

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Another afternoon Nick Cave stood at the door of his trailer beckoning us, waving his long, thin arm dramatically as a thunderstorm broke over the commons and inviting us all into his trailer during the storm. I was wearing a rain slicker, and as I rushed breathlessly into the trailer as the deluge began, Bad Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey asked me sarcastically if I’d been fishing.

“I wish!” I chirped.

Harvey’s face dropped.

The conversation died a quick death.

 

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At some point that summer, during some money exchange, Will invented the phrase “niggardly, with malice” and we repeated it ad infinitum throughout the remainder of the summer.

“Geez, when that girl selling me the energy smoothie was handing me my change,” Jason might’ve said, “she was really niggardly about it, and with malice. It was like she expected a tip.”

One day, listening to the radio in the van, Ned announced that he was tired of yarl.

“Tired of what?” I asked.

“Yarl,” Ned said. “Yarl music. The kind of rock music where it sounds like the singer is yarling rather than singing.”

We discussed the matter for a time and recognized that Ned had identified an entire strain of rock vocalizing, one whose first modern practitioner might’ve been Joan Armatrading. Singers like Eddie Vedder, Layne Staley from Alice in Chains, Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots, they were all yarlers; even Dave Matthews wasn’t untouched by the finger of yarl. Yarling has only grown more popular. For whatever reasons, lots of female singers who also play the ukulele are practitioners of yarl. It is a kind of weird, back-of-throat, tonguey singing that frequently accompanies tampon commercials. Listen for it. You’ll know it when you hear it.

Thank Ned for that one.

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Every afternoon after our show we’d wander over to a stand run by a cute dreadlocked raver who reminded me of the female singer from Haysi Fantayzee or Hope Nichols from Fetchin Bones and buy one of her special energy smoothies filled with bee pollen and God knows what else. We’d then wander around enjoying the weird body buzz from the unknown natural ingredients in the energy shake while we took in all that Lolla had to offer, while in the background Phife and Q-Tip rapped about leaving their wallets in El Segundo. And what did it offer us? An awful lot from an era that is now dead to time, the final gasp of a living, breathing human culture unsullied by the community-fracturing technologies that were on the horizon: cell phones and the internet and downloads. People had no objects in their hands to stare at, no internet where they could double-check L7’s latest Instagram post; there were no selfies, no one holding phones up to film bands as they played. Audiences paid attention to what was going on.

 

 

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