Ain't Life Grand - The Time I Accidentally Followed Widespread Panic on Tour

“Caw! Caw Caw! Caw Caw!” Lauren crowed out the sliding glass window of the Waterfront Hotel. Earlier in the afternoon she had insisted that this was how all Widespread Panic fans communicated, but I’m certain that this is just a thing that people do that is unrelated to being a fan of a particular jam band.

She crows on for another three minutes and no one crows back, they don’t even look up to the second floor balcony that she’s squawking from. “Whatever. That’s what real fans do.” Lauren takes another sip of her Elvis Presley (coconut rum, pineapple juice, and a splash of ginger beer – shaken) and collapses back into her deck chair. There’s only an hour and a half until the show starts and she plans on being annihilated before the first notes of a song I’ve never heard ring through the Fox Theater.

Three weeks ago I started filming a documentary about a guy suffering from stage four- stomach cancer. He wanted to show the world that he could do more with the little time he had left than most people do in a lifetime. This included trying to get a social media site for cancer patients off the ground while exploring various methods of treatment, both Eastern and Western.

What I didn’t know was that this also meant drinking cheap booze, having a nonstop contact high, and following Widespread Panic to four shows over the course of seven days.

On our way to San Francisco we made a brief detour in San Luis Obispo to visit a reiki specialist who banished me to her waiting room because she was uncomfortable on camera. I spent most of the afternoon reading under a meditation lamp and eavesdropping on the hypnotherapy session that was happening ten feet away from where I sat. I’m still a little worried that about what my trigger word may be.

We arrived in San Francisco a few hours behind schedule and we had already lost most of our light so instead of shooting we decided to get dinner. Nick’s baffling San Francisco fallback was a Cheesecake Factory on the third story of a mall that promised a “beautiful view of the city.” Denying a dying man’s last wish I insisted that we eat something a little more authentic, and with a better rating star rating on Yelp. With each circle of the block The Cheesecake Factory became more appetizing. I knew a few people that had eaten and enjoyed their mass produced appetizers and lauded the extensive menu. I’d spent months on the road with men that sang the praises of their glam burgers and strawberry cheesecake, was I really so up my own ass that I couldn’t stoop so low as to order an over the top meatloaf sandwich and enjoy it?

“You guys lookin’ for something’ to eat?”
A withered man with matted hair and a beard reaching to his chest had stopped us at the edge of a street that lead directly into the towering, very un-SanFran mall. Trailing behind him was an oxygen tank with tubes that snaked up to his nose; the hiss of leaking air, once noticed, could not be ignored. Thank fucking Christ he had some dinner recommendations.
“First Crush is right up the street and among other delights it boasts one of the best burgers in the city. I strongly recommend the kobe beef burger. It’s absolutely delicious.”

We had lucked out and met one of the few decent wizards left in North America. We began walking to First Crush as he continued helping us plan our meal.
“The only thing I don’t recommend is the lobster mac and cheese, not because it’s bad but because there’s not enough cheese. You need a lot of cheese to make a good mac and cheese, it’s not good unless the cheese strings out from your fork and you’re not sure where your mouth begins and the mac and cheese ends.”

We neared the entrance to First Crush, a bar and restaurant that was significantly more upscale than I had imagined. The wizard’s spell had worked. I popped back outside to give our guide a few crumpled dollars but he had vanished. There was no way he could have walked off that fast and there were no alleys available for a quick getaway, I'd never believed in magic but there were no other explanations. 

Here’s something I didn’t know about stomach cancer that I now know. When you have your stomach removed you can still eat. The doctors actually encourage you to eat the same stuff that you ate before, but you have to relearn how to chew. If you don’t spend at least an entire minute chewing your food you run the risk of throwing it all back up again. I don’t know where the food goes; I don’t know how your body breaks down the nutrients to keep you alive, I just know that it does. If you asked me to explain how a healthy body breaks down food I would say the same thing. When you don’t have a stomach you’re supposed to eat a bunch of small meals throughout the day to keep your body from freaking out and hating you, so when you decide to shoot your documentary about a guy with stomach cancer who’s starting his own hot dog stand make sure that you don’t take a six hour drive (extended to eight with a stop over in San Luis Obispo) without eating.

Nick began to throw up at the table about ten minutes after Brady, his friend who lived in Hawaii, arrived and ordered the lobster mac and cheese (against the recommendations of a guy with stomach cancer, a writer moonlighting as a director, and a wizard). Nick had imbibed approximately one eighth of his peartini and half his kobe beef burger before he turned bone white and began coughing up into his hands. While Nick was vomiting in the men’s room I carried the weight of a conversation with the business owning beach bum. The reason Brady was stepping foot in the good ol’ contiguous was two fold. Obviously he was in town to see his long time friend for what could be the last time. Also he was selling water bottles (I’ll get to it). Growing up in Kansas City, Brady and Nick an adolescence straight out of the music video for “1979.” They set off fireworks in parking lots, made out with chicks in basements, and got stoned before skipping class. They went their separate ways sometime after college but had remained close in the interim. Now that Brady lived in Hawaii he was no longer a ne’er-do-well, he had made the transformation to an honest to goodness business owner. He had recently purchased “a shit load” of stock in a company that manufactured (I think – I had finished two beers Nick’s peartini at this point) water bottles that kept liquid cold for twenty-four hours and hot for twelve. I know it sounds like a thermos but it’s not because shut up. Nick returned from the bathroom and the night withered from there. The scent of the peartini stuck to my beard and as I drifted off to sleep I began to dream about shampoo.

“Caw! Caw Caw! Caw Caw!” Lauren was seated in the Escalade’s limo seat and crowing out of the open window. People on the street stared and shrugged at one another, just another drunk asshole. Through my camera’s view screen I watched Nick catch himself having fun and then check to make sure I was filming, preserving the moment in amber. Before we arrived at the venue Brady opened the Escalade’s door and tried to step out on the pavement, moving under his feet like an airport sidewalk. In unison, everyone shouted “Woah-oah-oah-oah” and pulled him back in. The driver didn’t seem to care, just another drunk asshole. Outside the venue a dense swarm of dreaded couples in ponchos smoked pot openly, guys in polos giggled at their audacity, and scalpers on every corner sold tickets to fans whose fingers weren’t fast enough for Ticketmaster. Brady and I didn’t have tickets but for sixty bucks and a nug, Brady was assured a spot in the pit and for fifty dollars I was afforded the same pleasure. I know that seems unfair but outside of a Widespread Panic show it isn’t so much the economic model of supply and demand but rather, are you cool and whaddaya got?

Inside the venue I notice that the crowd is stacked with people wearing their “big night out” outfits. I was confronted with a mélange of plaid pants, Hunter S. Thompson shirts, sweatbands, fedoras and trucker hats. The fact that there was enough tie-dye to stock an Etsy store for eternity goes without saying. As I made my way down to the front of the stage with Nick and his ragtag crew (of which I have now become a member) the lights went down and I began to take mental notes of the music and my surroundings, pretending to be a journalist or a spy, whichever was sexier. Whatever the band opened with made the audience flip the fuck out, it was like everyone had won the lottery. The crowd control that bands like Widespread Panic, Pearl Jam, and Phish have is astounding. Speaking of Phish, do you think it’s possible that, not now, but in the late 90s or possibly in 2009 when the band reunited, that Widespread Panic were ever jealous of Phish and their parking lot goo balls? (Google it). They’ve now obviously settled into a late career plateau where they can play literally anything and people will freak out but it had to irk them a bit that they weren’t headlining Madison Square Garden three nights in a row during New Years Eve. Although every great story needs an underdog, and it must be a good feeling to know that even if you’re not the most popular jam band, you’re easily number two. Or at least you’re in the Big 4. If this were the SATs a very possible test question would be Widespread Panic is to Phish as (blank) is to Metallica. The answer is, of course, Anthrax. No one thought either of the bands would have the staying power that they did and both bands contain a member with a segmented beard.

At one point there was a guy in front of me that kept taking secret hits off his miniature pipe and then doing a move that can only described as a “light shimmy.” After a spectacularly botched moonwalk he made eye contact with me as if to ask “isn’t this the best night of your life?” He quickly looked away, bashful that I couldn’t reciprocate his enthusiasm. After the first set ended I reconvened with my group and caught up on the latest Widespread gossip: JB changed the intro of a song, there was a little bit of “Keep On Truckin” in the middle of one of the songs, and who was that new roadie onstage? We made our way back to the pit where I was immediately separated from the group as dudes in cargo pants and girls with newly purchased tour shirts rushed the stage to do their whiteboy dance. Two songs into the set and I began to feel stifled, a claustrophobia overtook me like I’ve never felt in my life. I was not underwater, I was standing in more or less fresh air and all I could do was choke.

Once I stumbled onto Theater Avenue some of the fog floated away from my brain, outside the box office I was reminded that once I stepped onto the sidewalk I could no longer return to the show. I heeded the ticket takers advice and turned right, I needed a drink and had faith Oakland would answer my unvoiced request. After a couple blocks I stumbled into Café Van Kleef. I don’t know why (and if I did even the most cursory of Google searches I’m sure I could tell you) but every drink contained at least one slice of grapefruit and the bar was littered with grapefruit rinds. I drank slowly, Widespread Panic couldn’t have been more than four songs into their second set and the crowd was promised a third. My beer did the trick and fished me out of the jam band lake that I sat at the bottom of like an old boot or something much more appealing than an old boot. Maybe a new boot that was filled with diamonds. The new boot is also encrusted with diamonds (so as to not make the finder of the boot toss me aside when they dump out all the diamonds). The more I drank the more I liked Café Van Cleef, it had the feel of a nice dive bar where the perpetually collegiate could drink and talk shit while muted indie rock plays on the stereo and a local band takes an ungodly amount of time to set up.

If I were an Oakland local or a diamond lake boot wearing Berkley student I could see myself becoming a permanent fixture there and I’ll bet you all the diamonds in my boot that I would have fallen off the stage at least once.

I still had time to kill and my stomach was begging for something other than beer, Elvis Presleys, or grapefruit so I made my way to Hi-Life pizza and watched The Godfather II while I ate my slices in silence, the crust tearing in half as Michael embraces Fredo and reveals a plot point that couldn’t hear because some guy asked me which Godfather was playing. I walked back to the theater as the show was letting out and neo hippies were spilling out onto the Oakland streets. Brady was looking for a ride to Reno but no one seemed to be offering, there was no more space on their private jets or in their stretch limos with peace signs for hubcaps.

The next morning, in our San Francisco hotel and in between fits of vomiting, Nick would instruct me as to which angles we would need of him throwing up as I sat on the tile floor and watched my sort of boss, sort of friend puke up bile.
“Are you getting all of this?”
He would ask in between retches, denying the water I offered just out of frame.

Epilogue

Nick passed away around Thanksgiving 2014 in Marina Del Rey. I wasn't personally informed of his death, but I saw a few facebook posts and was able to connect the dots. We weren't friends, just coworkers inhabiting a profoundly heightened space for a couple of months. Today would have been Nick's 30th birthday and as I read over my words it feels as if I'm proofreading a dream. I wish that I could close this out with a philosophical one liner akin to Vonnegut or Marquez,  but the only thought in my head is that the heaving feeling in my chest is heavier than it should be for someone that I hardly knew.