Rhett Miller at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2015, a few months after he wrote this essay. (Photo by Vivian HW Wang)

Music

Rhett Miller on the Evolution of His Rock-and-Roll Lifestyle

It ain't what it used to be.

Longtime FrontBurnervians know that I once worked for a weekly Dallas paper called The Met. It was a dangerous publication. So much so that, when it was just 6 years old, the parent company of the Dallas Observer bought it and shut it down in 2000.

One of The Met’s early issues featured a cover story about the Old 97’s, which our Zac Crain, a former Observer music editor, says might be the best rock band ever to come out of Dallas. On the occasion of the band’s 25th anniversary, Zac wrote an essay for our September issue; it just went online here. Though I didn’t write the Met story about the band, that must have been when I met its frontman, Rhett Miller. Memory is a funny thing. There’s a famous story about Rhett performing at the long-gone Naomi’s, in Deep Ellum. The band was doing a Cramps song, and Rhett stuck the mic into his mouth, a move inspired by The Cramps’ lead singer, Lux Interior. When the mic came out, so did a tooth. Rhett bled all over the place but kept performing. I think I was there that night at Naomi’s. I mean, I know I saw the Old 97’s play Naomi’s. I remember passing around the big plastic tip jar and dropping into it more than was fiscally responsible considering my paltry salary. But was I really there the night of the tooth extraction? Maybe I’ve just heard the story too many times, and my memory has betrayed me. I do know with certainty, though, that Rhett threw up at my bachelor party in 1996. In the parking lot of a bar, the managing editor of The Met shouted at him, “You can’t puke! You’re a rock star! Get back in there!” Oh, to be young again.

A lot of the photos we’re publishing with Zac’s essay came from guitarist Ken Bethea’s personal scrapbook. If you’re a fan of the band, I hope you enjoy the trip down memory lane. If you’re just learning about the band, I hope you’ll mark your calendar for April, when they host the annual Old 97’s County Fair at Main Street Garden, in downtown Dallas.

A final bonus: The Met crew got together in 2015 and published a special 24-page issue to commemorate the paper’s 21st birthday. Was it distributed in Observer racks throughout the city? You can’t prove that. But Rhett wrote a great essay for the issue about being a rock star and a dad. We’ve now put it online.

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Then and Now: Life in a Rock-and-Roll Vehicle
By Rhett Miller

Then:

I’m wasting my shift in the solo bench, watching rain speckle the dirty van windows and worrying about the girlfriend. I should be sleeping. That’s the whole point of the solo bench — three horizontal hours before it’s your turn to drive for three hours. The typical move is to spend the shift before you get the solo bench drinking beer and smoking weed in the front bench so that when its your turn for the solo bench you can pass out. Then, three hours later, you wake up and slam some coffee so you’re awake enough to fight off the loneliness of the early morning shift. It helps to chain-smoke cigarettes, though there is danger in the hypnotic effect created by the glowing cherry as it bounces along to the trailer’s shimmy.

I called the girlfriend during the last stop. The girlfriend is an aspiring stand-up comic, so it figures that the new message on her answering machine does that thing where the girlfriend’s voice says hello and then there’s a long pause before she says, “Psyche! Leave a message.” Normally this would be funny, but I was huddled against the wind at a truck-stop payphone trying to hear over the roar of long haul semi’s, so this comic chestnut inspired something bleak and desperate to blossom in my weary traveler’s soul. Home looms on the horizon.

Night before last was Louisville. We slept in the apartment of a skinny girl with a chubby roommate. One of my bandmates might have shared a room with the skinny girl, but the drummer and I rolled our sleeping bags out on the landing at the top of the stair. Something woke us earlier than usual, a whimpering somewhere between human and animal. We located its source in the kitchen. The chubby roommate sat on the kitchen floor, surrounded by Hershey’s bar wrappers. She seemed to be crying, but when she looked up at us, anger flashed in her eyes. “Do you want some of this chocolate? I hate it so much.” Our awareness of her frailty, our empathy for her plight, was long gone by the time the van hit the highway. Thank God our tour van came equipped with a karma filter. Unobserved cruelty is as natural in young men as body odor or belief in their own invincibility.

But she is there with me now in the solo bench, the chubby roommate, fighting my need to sleep. Conspicuously absent from that lonely back bench is the girlfriend. All I have of her right now is the memory of a voice on an answering machine. “Psyche! Leave a message.”

Home may be on the horizon, but I can’t see it from the solo bench.

Now:

The silence that defines the back lounge of the tour bus only does so during these early morning hours while the three bandmates and four crew members sleep through the final stretch of the long overnight drive. The driver, nameless and ever-changing, drives steadily on. My wife sleeps through my FaceTime request so I call the home phone. The kids are ready for this. Any other hour of the day, that phone would elicit as much response as the engine thrum of an overhead jet. The home phone is only for telemarketers except during the hour before school when it’s … “Daddy!”

“Hi kiddo. How’s the tooth?”

“Um. You know. Whatever. Hurts.”

“Go get Mom’s phone and FaceTime me.”

Moments later, it’s the daugher’s sweet face. And she’s wiggling a precarious front tooth at me.

“You are not allowed to let that sucker fall out before I get home.”

“When do you get home?”

“I’ll be picking you up from school tomorrow afternoon.”

“That’s too long. Can’t you just teleport home right now?”

“That depends on how much progress you’ve made on your teleportation research. As it currently stands, that technology remains unavailable.”

“Poop.”

She points the phone’s camera at her older brother, whose toes are locked below the front edge of a chair by the fireplace as he performs the most earnest sit-ups in the history of exercise. The little sister and I mimic his grunts and mock-compliment his rock hard abs. I call out to him, by way of apology, that I wished my stomach looked even remotely like his. Without even pausing his exercise, he responds, “And Leon’s getting larger.” If I were home, he’d have delivered the Airplane quote while shaking my belly. Little bastard. I don’t know where he gets it from.

Then he’s up, grabbing the phone from his sister. “Dad, are you gonna make it to my baseball game tomorrow night? We’re playing the Marlins!”

“Hell yes, I will. We hate the Marlins.”

“That’s awesome. I was afraid you weren’t gonna see a single game this season.”

This stings. The touring behind the new album has been pretty intense. Which is good and bad. It speaks to an increased demand which, this deep into a career, is rare indeed. But the price of this success is that I’ve had to be away from home even more than usual.

“Well, kid, I wouldn’t miss the Marlins game for the world. And if that A-hole coach starts yelling at the ump while you’re in the batter’s box, I might accidentally kick him in the nuts. Is mom still asleep?”

“Yeah.”

“Go put the phone next to her bed and I’ll send text messages until the dinging sound wakes her up.”

I start texting.

“Good morning, sleepybutt.”

“Wake up and look at how cute yer kids are.”

“If they don’t go to school, you’ll go to jail.”

“Don’t let the girl one’s tooth fall out until I get home!”

Then the phone is ringing and she sounds like a surly teenager pissed at the morning.

“Why do they wake up so early every morning?”

“I know. It’s annoying isn’t it?”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes. Tomorrow. I love you, babe.”

I make my way back to my bunk, a coffin-shaped space with a curtain forming the fourth wall. I pull the curtain closed but still hear the muted sounds of human life up and down the hallway. The drummer and tour manager snore. The guitar player’s headphones betray his predilection for falling asleep to music and letting it play on unheard. The bassist clicks away at the keyboard of his laptop — does he ever sleep? These people have been my little army for decades now. We used to be kids, and now we have kids. Most of us still drink and smoke, and we all still talk shit. Just less. A lot less.

Home may be on the horizon. But it’s also right here.

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