There are no beds on the train. Or if there are beds, they’re not for me. They are for the important people, like Doug Aitken. People who actually need rest and make sure this whole thing is running smoothly. All I have to do is write. That doesn’t earn me a room in the sleeper car.
I wander into the window-lined caboose, looking for a place to nap, and curl up on a crescent-shaped couch in the tail of the train. The space is ringed by low couches and there are even windows on the ceiling, so I have a 180-degree view outside.
We left Pittsburgh this morning and are halfway through our ten-hour trek to Chicago. At the moment, the train is passing through Cleveland, Ohio. I watch the abandoned factories pass by and then fall asleep.
When I wake up, Ariel Pink is asleep on the couch across from me, wrapped to his neck in a pilly, yellow blanket. Ryan Sawyer, the drummer for YOSHIMIO and Hisham Akira Bharoocha, is passed out on the couch next to me. His hands are palm-to-palm and pillowed under his head, like an imitation of someone sleeping. He doesn’t have a blanket, but his foot-long beard reaches down almost to his stomach. That probably keeps him warm enough.
Suddenly, Ryan’s eyes pop open and he sits up. His big beard is matted down on one side. He turns towards me, looking crazed. I think maybe I’ve done something terribly wrong. Maybe these are artist-only couches, reserved and set aside for the musicians’ to nap. Ryan glares at me, eyes wide open, looking sort of like Zeus, if Zeus was a proggy drummer in a raglan t-shirt. He opens his mouth to speak and I wince, afraid of what is coming.
“That book is the shit.”
I look down at the novel spread open on my chest. I was reading before I fell asleep.
“Uh, yeah,” I say.
“Underworld, man. That book is America.”
Then his beard morphs into a smile and he wanders back towards the rest of the train. Ohio rolls past outside the caboose’s domed window. Ariel Pink smacks his lips a few time in his sleep. I pick up my book and keep reading.
The next time I see Ryan, he’s playing drums in the recording car. A guy named Chris, who does whip-cracking at the events, is wailing on the harmonica. It’s an interesting collaboration, but those are the kinds of things that happen all the time on the train.
The next time I see Ariel Pink, he steals my drink.
At 5:01 pm EST, the Levi’s car fills up for the 501 Happy Hour. We’re still an hour and a half from Chicago. The bartender at one end of the train car is whipping up jalapeno tequila cocktails, but the line at the bar is long so I grab a beer from the refrigerator.
“Anyone have a bottle opener?”
“Ariel’s got a lighter,” says Tim Koh, bassist for Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. “Right over there.”
I turn around and there’s Ariel Pink, awake and blanket-less.
“Lighter?” I ask, holding out the beer towards him.
“Thanks,” Ariel says, taking the beer. He grabs a spicy tequila cocktail off the bar and wanders off with a drink in each fist. I dig another beer from the fridge.
At some point during Happy Hour, we pass into the Central time zone. All of a sudden, it’s 5:01 again. The two-hour Happy Hour carries us all the way to Chicago.
No Age starts off the Chicago event in the Union Square train station with a thirty-minute drone set. A pair of elementary-aged twins are sitting down, watching No Age. I kneel down next to them. Randy Randall leans his guitar against his amp. It feeds back and he squats down to twist a few knobs on his pedal board. One of the twins looks over at me.
“Is this the chorus?”
“Definitely,” I say.
Orange-maned duo White Mystery start to play. They’ve already spent time on the train, noodling around on the old Gibson and uploading the songs to Soundcloud. Actually, Alex, the frontwoman, was the only one noodling. Her brother, White Mystery’s drummer, kept time by mashing his palms together to make squeaking noises. The songs sound a little different with real drums.
Their set finishes and Thurston Moore strolls onstage. He’s wearing the jeans I watched him try on in the Levi’s train car a few days ago. I use my press pass to get into the photographer section right at the foot of the stage, but I spend the time watching Thurston and drummer John Moloney tear through a version of “Schizophrenia” instead of shooting photos.
They’re in the middle of a song they wrote on the train the day before when Thurston’s amp sputters and dies.
“Blew a fuse,” Thurston says.
“Tell a story,” somebody in the crowd shouts.
Thurston tosses his guitar down and yanks a piece of notebook paper from his pocket. “Sure, I’ll tell you a story.” He starts singing the handwritten lyrics.
“How I wish to be on you / the meadow pounded by rain / a storm is natural enough / this has everything to do with you and your tiniest hair / be a warrior / love life.”
“That is a song for Kurt Cobain,” he says. Then a roadie brings him a new amp and the show goes on.
Black Monks of Mississippi perform, and gospel singer Mavis Staples closes out the night. I head back to the train and wait for the after party to start. It doesn’t take long.
A few hours later, Ariel Pink sits down next to me on a couch in the Levi’s car. He unpacks a quarter-pounder from a bag of McDonald’s and nods over to me. I grab my half-empty drink to make sure he can’t run off with this one, too.
“Have some fries,” Ariel says, holding the McDonald’s bag towards me.
I set my drink down and shove a handful of french fries into my mouth. I guess we’re even.
To check out the rest of the collaborations and contributors, go to http://levi.com/makeourmark