I knew the American Dream was dead when I went to Baltimore in 2001. Visiting that city was like going to view the corpse of a president.
I think I just managed to outdo myself for pretentiousness. Give me a moment to stab myself with the keyboard. Sometimes I have to remember that I wasn’t Theroux on a journey of discovery, but a vastly immature Australian on a death metal tour. Even so, there are some things you can’t help but notice. If I was to just write a straight strip club story without the context then you’d get an interesting caper with a few rum japes thrown in but ultimately, nothing remarkable. If any young buck out there over the age of twenty-one doesn’t have a comparable story, then shame on you. But if I give the context of my arrival in Baltimore then the strip club story is a very sweet cherry on the big fat cake of doom that I found both Baltimore and the United States to be.
I’ve referred to my disenchantment with America many times previously and I can pin the blame squarely on something marketers call ‘expectations management’. I’m thirty seven years old. If you grew up in my era then America was the shining pinnacle of civilization and it seemed that every TV show, movie, and song would drill that fact into you. Being American was cool. It was a message eagerly devoured. Our brains weren’t yet politicized. The decade-long fall from grace that occurred from September 2001 hadn’t yet begun. We take it as a given these days that America is far from perfect and this is now common knowledge, but my first visit to the States was in the twilight of the time when America was still America the Great.
I arrived for our first show in the US in 2001 and my expectations took a battering right from the start. We got off our twenty-four hour plane flight at New York, ran the gamut of luggage-handling hustlers, met our obese Puerto Rican tour manager Tito and jumped into the cramped splitter-van that was to become our home for the next month. Everything was industrial snowy shit as far as our tired eyes could see. We drove for three hours to a scummy club. Bits of snow and trash were on the side of the road. The carpark had been asphalt once but was now mostly potholes and rubble. We got out of the van, swaying from twenty seven hours of sleepless travel. A short fat balding dude came out of the side-stage door.
“Are you guys Berzerker?”
“Get your stuff loaded, you’re onstage in half an hour”
We walked inside and Skinless were playing. The first thing I saw was some dude in the pit execute a perfect flying spinning axe kick right onto someone else’s head. During the next song the singer AND the drummer jumped into the crowd to beat the shit out of some critics. I think they chased them all the way to the girl’s toilets and thrashed them in there.
This was my first impression of America.
I was thinking well, this is to be expected. This is a gig, and New Jersey is famously fleabitten. At some level there was still the expectation that America in general was great and good, and we’d have an amazing month-long tour basking in its glory and busting out our death metal. But day after day, we’d drive down roads and see breeze blocks and old rusting machinery everywhere. It looked like a lot of the country hadn’t gotten a spring clean since the 1600’s. The shining skyscrapers and glamour and competency that I’d associated with all things American were in short supply. Instead there were a million turnpike roads of varying quality, fields with smashed up buildings, endless unfortunate bastards who’d done jail time, hundreds of sharks all trying to rip us off, and bowling alleys with leaky ceilings. I had read Rollin’s “Get in the Van” years ago and like every other young fool who read it, couldn’t wait to get out and rub noses with America’s grotty underbelly. I couldn’t believe while travelling around this once-great-now -not country I’d ever idolized such a place. What was I thinking?
It wasn’t all horrible. The scenery could get totally majestic. Different parts of the country resonated with different band members. I loved – and much preferred – the West Coast. It wasn’t necessarily a people thing; I just found that the West was modern, cleaner, and just more chilled out. San Francisco and LA were two cities that delivered on the Great America fantasy. So whenever I was about to totally lose faith in the country, I’d stop in LA, or we’d pass over the Rockies from Colorado, or travel through a small pocket of civilization and I’d think hey, maybe it’s not so bad here. I read about this, I saw this in a movie or a painting. This is what I remember falling in love with from afar.
Then I went to Baltimore. After Baltimore, America lost me and there was nothing it could ever do to win me back.
The first thing I noticed when driving into town was the project housing. It was like an evil architect had received a brief to house people in the most crushing, hideous, soul-destroying accommodation possible, and he had exceeded in delivering. I couldn’t tear my horrified gaze away. We were driving on our way to downtown. I had the most shameful thoughts for the entire drive: why, why, why couldn’t they have hid this housing away somewhere else? Why couldn’t they have just dug a massive hole and put all the housing in there then pulled a tarp over the top? God must be too busy weeping to turn this place into a pillar of salt. It was as bad as Britain.
People reading over that last paragraph may at this point find themselves thinking, oh dear, Sam has gone all ‘Stormfront’ on us. He doesn’t like black people. He’s going to start talking about ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ next. To which I answer – no. When I talk about how the projects should be bulldozed into the centre of the earth I’m totally talking about the buildings and only the buildings. I don’t care who the unfortunates are residing in there. They could be the whitest of white aspirant professional class with a strange taste in domiciles. They could be my clones grafted from spare DNA that I left in random parts of America, whatever. Those buildings are a loathsome abomination and both America and the planet Earth would be a vastly better place if they blinked out of existence.
Enough about the buildings. We drove downtown. I was interested in seeing Baltimore because a friend of mine from high school lived and worked there for some years. He’s an immensely intelligent guy who had a fascination with modern America and I thought his choice of city would be a reflection of American culture. Was I right? Did it all make sense? Did I finally ‘get it’, and find a new appreciation for the USA?
I saw one of those manholes with mystery gas leaking out of it. I also saw The Block, attempted vehicular manslaughter, and gangsters with guns threatening people.
Here’s how the night went down.
We attended a CD launch party for a local band in the afternoon. I think Sparky Voyle’s brother played guitar for the band. It was not metal. I nearly got smashed by a Latin driver from the tour when playing him in pool because I enforced the ‘two shots on a foul’ rule. He chased me many times around the table calling me a “cheating Aussie prick”. Thankfully, his bulk prevented him from catching me. I originally wrote “his girth prevented him from catching me” but I’m suddenly possessed of the notion that ‘girth’ should only really be used in one particular context. That context is not when getting chased by a large enraged Latin dude.
We played a show at some horrible downstairs crowded-as-shit bar. I remember playing terrible guitar on a small stage next to a staircase, and being able to see the shoelaces on someone’s sneakers next to my head. I don’t remember too much from the venue except one of the promoters taking us on a tourist trip to The Block.
The Block was fifteen minutes’ walk away. I am fully conscious that this night was eleven years ago and I mightn’t remember it too good. I’m well aware that I’ll probably receive mail from Baltimore residents going “I’ve never heard of this place”. For all I know it existed for one special night only. But this is what I saw:
The Block was a city block, where the roads leading into it had police roadblocks on them. Is it always like this, or was it one lucky night? Fuck if I know. We crossed the police roadblock – me, the rest of Berzerker, Skinless, and a few Dying Fetus guys. The first thing I noticed was that we were the least dodgy guys in the area. It was night time. A few people were wearing shades and camo jackets and just hanging out on corners. The stores seemed to fall into two categories, fast food and weapons. It had a strange vibe, sort of like Detroit-standard dodginess mixed with a carnival atmosphere. We ended up in a strip club in short order, and I’d like to blame that on Skinless.
So, the strip club. It took a minute or two for my eyes to adapt to the dark interior, and another few minutes for my ears to adapt to the deafening R&B. The very first thing I noticed was that we were the only white guys in there, and everyone else was wearing sunglasses. I guess for me the first thing I tend to notice in strip clubs are the other patrons there. I want to know who I’m throwing my lot in with, before tackling drinks and strippers. This might be a left-over self defence mechanism from one of my first ever strip club visits – a club in Brisbane, Australia that consisted mostly of bikers and angry strippers (“I said no fucking hands, you big baby!”). That night ended with bikers vs bouncers, with the strippers fleeing the room. Since then I like to basically size up the patrons and get a sense of whether they could kick my ass and how badly, before relaxing and noticing anything else. I couldn’t work this crowd out though. As I mentioned, they were all wearing sunglasses at night in a club that was darker inside than outside. I didn’t know if they were gangsters or a bunch of Stevie Wonder impersonators.
When all else fails, drink. I headed straight to the bar and ordered a scotch and coke. I’ve noticed this order takes half a dozen repeats at any bar outside of Australia. The rest of the world seems to be flummoxed as to why one would want to mix cola with your bourbon or whiskey. Especially the UK, where they look at you as if you’ve just ordered a ‘Dirty Senorita’…which is the same as a margherita, except the bartender rubs his nuts over the glass rim and salts his balls. The drink doesn’t actually exist, I just made that up. So I got my drink and settled in for some strippers. I was sitting at the bar, which was like a stretched horseshoe shape with the bartenders on the other side. There was a stage in the middle of the bar area, which I didn’t realise was a stage until a stripper climbed up on it and started dancing. Both stripper and dance were unremarkable. I can’t even remember if she got her underwear off. These things are not a given in the US unfortunately.
What was remarkable was how she got paid. There were a few lone wolves sitting at the bar and they decided to show their appreciation for the dance. She was too far away for them to tuck a bill into a garter belt as per tradition. No, instead they’d get dollar bills, scrunch them up into little balls, and throw them at her. I watched amazed. It took a few fastballs from them for me to realise they were actually aiming for her vagina. It was bizarre. I tried not to laugh. The stripper didn’t mind. I looked at the pitchers. These sunglasses wearing fast-ballers had absolutely no expression on their faces. There was no smiling, hey-I’m-just-kidding. It was just emotionless hard looks, the scrunching up of dollar bills, and the contemptuous hurling of said bills at the girl. They completely did not give a fuck. At the end of the dance she got down off stage, grabbed a bucket, and collected all the money that had bounced off her. I am at heart a sheltered soul, and it was one of the more misogynist things I had seen. Wow.
I looked for the other guys. It wasn’t hard to pick them out. I could even hear Skinless Joe over the top of the R&B, a testament to how loud the guy is. He was going through his Eminem phase with a short bleached haircut and tour wardrobe consisting of one previously-white wifebeater that he wore for the entire month. He’d attracted a crowd of patrons and was talking to them most enthusiastically about something. I’d like there to be a payoff to this anecdote but there is none. It just amused me, that’s all. Those Skinless guys could make friends literally anywhere. I’d love to see them on tour somewhere ‘challenging’, like Moscow or perhaps Mecca during the Hajj.
Okay, to the last two things I remember for the evening. We left The Block en masse and headed back to our vans which were parked outside the bar we’d played at. We were about halfway there when a car came speeding down the road and mounted the sidewalk. Fortunately I was on the other side of the road, but some of the other guys had to jump out of the way. Vinny from Dying Fetus was square in its path. He jumped to one side and hurled the slurpee he was drinking at the windshield. The car swerved and smashed into a brick wall. Vinny ran over, hauled the guy out of the car, and started pounding on his face. A few cop cars immediately arrived and they yelled at Vinny to stop hitting him. I still remember them calling out to him in classic cop pose, one hand outstretched and one hand resting on the butt of their revolver. I think at that point I was so tired I didn’t even stop to see how it turned out. I just kept walking back to the van so I could get some sleep.
Things didn’t get much safer back at the van. The club owner and promoter were standing out the front. They were a young chick and a dude who were decked out in hardcore regalia and covered in tattoos. Blatant metalheads. A car pulled up in front of them. Sometimes it takes me a while to clue in to what is going on and this was one of those cases. The car had four or five black guys. One of them propositioned the chick. I didn’t hear Romeo’s soliloquoy but it didn’t seem to work as she said words back to him approximating ‘fuck off’. The guy didn’t like that. He had a gun. He pulled the gun on her. In her shoes, I would have wet myself, apologised, walked back with my hands in the air, and tried to hide behind something bulletproof or a drummer. Not her; she went off her head at the guy. Any student of English would be impressed by the fluent and ferocious phrases she directed at her would-be suitor/attacker. I remember one of the phrases being “you can jam that gun up your ass”. Her delivery was so passionate she had to be restrained by the club owner. After a bit more to and fro, the car drove off. I was faintly shocked that she hadn’t been blown away. At which point, the owner and chick both started laughing as if it was no thang, turned to me, and said in unison: “Welcome to Baltimore!….DUCK, MOTHERFUCKER!”
I don’t have a photo of my facial expression at the time, but it looked like this:
And that’s the end of this story. The night dragged on for a bit longer, what with everyone having to give statements to police about two separate incidents. I could maybe fluff up the brief argument I had with Luke, where he wanted to keep giving a statement and I just wanted us all to leave so I could get some sleep. But none of it’s worth mentioning. There were no more events that night, just a slow feeling of imbalance deep in the pit of my stomach. It took a few more days for me to work out exactly what the feeling was before I finally realised it. America was not for me and never would be.