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Thunder Pie | Band Rides West

This family is no family. It is not even close. This is a playground at a county jail.

“As soon as you start talking about mystique, you have none.”
— Neil Young

In a parking lot somewhere in Texas, I popped the ash tray out of its socket. The sun was at the horizon and I was the only one up. This day was going to be a long one and I wanted to make sure we could leave on time. Now though, there were so many cigarette butts in the ashtray that it felt heavier than I thought it would. Even though I’d done this plenty of times before, I looked down at the heft in my hands and stared at the micro tornados of ash rising up out of there on unseen thermals, thin as twisted hair.

I dumped the whole mess behind a wheel stop at the back of a parking spot a few down from our van. There, the slew of yesterdays smokes from the front riders lay in a heap. The used up cigs looked like bodies from a bus crash. Later on this blacktop lot, still cool now from the semi-merciful Texas night, it would begin to bake and then fry as the sky hammered it with so much blistering heat that even these used up old smokes would probably shift and morph into something stranger than what they already were. Yesterday, on the long ride from Arkansas to this service road in the middle of nowhere, it had been the same as it always was. Me in the driver’s seat and my brother riding shotgun and the rest of the band on the bench seats in the back. Me and him had the ashtray up front, the rest of them, if they were man enough to smoke, they could flip their burning butts out the cracked side windows.

“Just make sure they don’t blow back in,” I’d told them long ago. Other than that, I didn’t give a damn. If they burnt down a vast wild grasslands, I mean, that wasn’t our intention. We just didn’t have any ashtrays in the back of the Sprinter.

I dug out my half-crushed box of Marlboro Lights from my shorts pocket and shook it with one hand until a single smoke appeared. I wrapped my lips around the familiar end and lit it with a lighter fished out of my back pocket. While my fingers had been back there grappling for the Bic, I’d felt my guitar picks splashing there in the dark. Deep drag, morning lot. A Mexican dude was the only other person around. He was 20 spots away, looking out at the horizon, his hand on the handle of a roller suitcase he’d dragged down the steps from a room upstairs. He didn’t look at me as he sized up the sun. We are fellow travelers, I thought to myself. I wonder where you are going, amigo. I wonder why our paths cross now, never to cross again.

He stood there looking out at the long desert to the mesas revealing the orange sun.

I watched him like a fellow soldier. I eyed him with far-off respect.

He cleared his throat violently, dragging up the sleeping ghosts of the dirt weed he’d gorged on last night. His racket sounded out of place. The sun stopped rising for a few seconds until it figured out what the hell was happening. I stood motionless, my cig in my lips, fascinated by the unfolding scene. Then he laid a lone finger alongside his nose and blew a snake out of his skull towards an SUV with plates I couldn’t see.

He was about the same age as me.

I headed for the lobby for a little cup of coffee and maybe a donut from a box.


When I look back on what the band was, what we were setting out to do, I rarely can get much past the strange authenticity of our unbelievable ineptitude. We lacked almost everything it takes to be successful in the music business except the unmistakable magic that you only find once in a while when it comes to music. The band was not born to be a machine or a triumph or even an example of what could happen when you chased your dreams. The band was born to exist in certain real time moments in order for it to ultimately disappear. The very existence of something radically special in this world is not rare at all. What’s rare is the existence of something radically special that manages to attach itself to the skin of an era long enough to gorge itself on the blood of the people. Or, in other words, bands we love/ how often did they last/ how often did they maintain a presence in a world like this?

So many have, indeed.

But what about this. What about this hard question. Is rock-n-roll a 74 year-old? Is it an 80 year-old? What will happen when it’s a 100 year-old man or woman with the perplexing energy of someone zapped by witchcraft that comes dancing out of the darkened shadows to spin and leap across a sold-out stadium stage?

What kind of what is that?

Was that fucking Dio hologram real?

Do we even give a shit about real in the first place?

No one would get up at the time when they were supposed to. Sometimes they would, so I shouldn’t say never, but mostly they would not. It would be me and one other guy and then the rest of them in bed. The rest of them laid there in their silent chambers of darkness. Loose threads of daylight breaking through the heavy blinds were never enough to rouse them on these mornings when we had a lot of ground to cover. East coast bands moving through the west quickly find out that the gigs are much further apart then back home. Cities (or markets as they’d say), they lay a day or two away instead of a couple hours. When you are in Texas, you are still a galaxy from L.A. And you are an entire Europe and then some away from Seattle or some place like that.

Still, the necessities of a traveling band on a shoestring budget, they shape-shift along the way. Whatever was laid down as gospel truth by a manager or a booking agent weeks ago, all that becomes thrashed and tattered by the winds of the actual road. It is almost as if everything before the journey was simply a warm-up dream for this grander one. Now this dream is so mighty and convincing that it draws you in, each of us in its own tempting way so that in due time — in short time even if you’re breaking west like us — we are all fully engaged in a fantasy flow of breathing and moving according to ancient threads we’ve likely never (or rarely) been following before.

To say that the reasonably young man a thousand miles from home is a wild card when it comes to rational thought and dedicated purpose is an understatement of epic proportions.

What was happening back then, even though I didn’t see it at the time (how could I?), was the emerging locusts of multiple vessels of personality and consciousness being freed from their lairs, up from the earth, and out into a shining world that held many different meanings for each of them. Despite appearances, the collective spirit of rock/roll that people like to think exists within the thin steel walls of their favorite band’s van isn’t really there at all. What is there instead is the loose smoky wisps of a useful forward motion that feels right. It feels — and as such, it just happens that it is — the one essential characteristic that members of low-budget, largely unheard of bands typically have in common with one another.

They are all mental.


Running from a mountain lion called reality.

Chasing that neon rainbow.

Lonely. Sad. Immature. Beautiful. Artists.




Wanker cunt babies.

Heavy smokers.

Beer ticket peasants.

Impossible fools spreading joy throughout the land even though no one really gives a fuck.


I call the rooms. The one next door, I can hear the phone ringing in there and it’s me on the line waiting for someone to pick up. No one does though. It’s a 50/50 thing. Eventually someone will roll over and grab the thing, but I don’t know when. I will knock if they don’t, but that’s last resort. We have so far to go if we are going to get to Phoenix on time but what can I do about it.

My anxiety already has a reputation here. So does this other guy’s unwavering unsatisfied status. And another dude, he loves to smoke herb all day long. And two of these guys, they have their own wives and no one really talks to them ever. The wives, not the husbands. But still.

This family is no family. It is not even close. This is a playground at a county jail and everyone on it got lifted up in a twister and now here we are/ changing strings/ flicking smokes/ looking out the windows at landscapes that look like the moon to us all. Our parents at work or maybe even dead or back at home folding laundry in that solid retirement zone. For years they laid it down/ their own lives to survive. And now what? Their kid is out in the west/ barreling down an interstate/ teasing cancers/ tempting fates/ standing in truck stop parking lots under wide open prairie skies with a Subway bag and a tall cup of coffee and no one to hold their hand in the afternoon and no one to whisper nice things to them in the evening.

Just the frazzled guitar boss pushing them to keep the beat way faster than the song goes on the album. Just the amigo blowing his nose in the motel dawn. Just the snoring body of your bandmate laying there in the air-conditioned darkness of a Tuesday morning in Texas when you are completely knocked out in a deep sleep that has taken you out of Texas, out of America, and away from this world where we are all desperately trying to prove to ourselves that we are worthy of love and respect even when we feel like utter shit deep down.



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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattling around his noggin.