First off, this is a very boring story about a weekend in California with a punk band from Tucson, Arizona called Mudpuppy. But before I get into this story, I think you should meet the crew.
There are seven of us, in total. There’s me, the wannabe-William-Miller-wannabe-Penny-Lane rock journalist. There’s Dee’s dad, Alex, a paramedic that is driving our gear (not pictured); he is mostly too busy with school to get involved in our bullshit. There’s Dee’s mom, aka Catfig44 (also not pictured), the tour manager and owner of The Coop in Tucson; a former exotic dancer, former Jehovah’s Witness, former undercover agent, and current protective mom-ager, she always carries a Glock, does not tolerate creeps, and has a lot of wild stories. There’s Riley, the new bass player, a gifted makeup artist and completely covered with tattoos; she doesn’t look a day over 24. Some of her tattoos include a spider with the face of a beautiful woman on her stomach, an undead woman on her collarbone, an eagle on her neck, and roses on her arms.
There’s Nathan, nicknamed “Baby Gap” (due to being 17) and “Osh Kosh Bigosh,” he is there to help move shit. Then there’s Isaiah, filling in on guitar; Isaiah is 21 and has more street smarts than anyone I have ever met; he graduated with a 0.7 GPA and is the kind of guy every girl is a little in love with, mostly due to the street smarts and sense of adventure. There is no drummer, due to reasons that I’ll get into later. And, of course, Dee Struction. Dee is 19, sings, and plays guitar; they ARE Mudpuppy, co-owner of The Coop Tucson, and the star of the show. Standing only 4’11” and with a bright red mullet, wearing stompy boots with pom-poms, and painted with dramatic eyeliner, you immediately know they’re the center of the story. In the words of one of my friends, “They’re such a main character, and they look so fun-sized, like you just wanna put them in your pocket.”
We aren’t cool enough to have a van or a trailer yet, so we’re doing what’s called a caravan, which is just everyone taking their cars. Dee’s dad drives the instruments, Nathan and Isaiah are on their own, and me, Dee, Riley, and Catfig44 are in the Range Rover.
This is my first tour ever. When I was younger, like in high school, I would spend hours in the Wayback Machine reading old forums and blogs and watching old tour videos from rock bands from the 90s and early 00s on Youtube, crying and begging God to materialize an actually cool rock band into the Iowa cornfields and get me on the road. I tried to learn guitar and start a band when I was fifteen, but I wasn’t any good; pretty much all I can do is type fast and also take mediocre pictures, which makes getting on tour a little harder.
My prayers were not answered, but several years later, I meet Dee in an interview for Scrunchie and we hit it off immediately. So now, I am on tour, for the first time ever. Anyway, as soon as I land in Tucson there is tour drama. One of the shows is canceled and another show dropped the opening band from the lineup due to Covid restrictions and wanting local support; the ensuing very dramatic fallout has led to Mudpuppy and their team losing the Airbnb and losing their guitarist and a drummer.
Dee and Catfig44 are able to convince Isaiah to fill in on guitar, book a hotel, and some guys in the other openers agree to fill on drums each night. This is better than having no drummer, but the lack of practice is daunting. All in all, we still think we’re going to be okay. After a single practice with Riley in Dee’s bedroom (I sleep through most of this), we hit the road for California at around nine on Friday morning.
Mostly, I just lean against the window and listen to true crime podcasts while Dee plays punk songs from the aux, Riley texts, and Catfig44 drives. The landscape of the southwest is very different than the Midwest, with nothing but red desert, cacti, and rough-looking bushes. And mountains; there are a lot of mountains. Weirdly, the contrast from the flat cornfields I’m used to gives me the heebie-jeebies. As we get into California, of course there are palm trees.
One highlight from the trip comes when we stop at a gas station and spot an abandoned building of some kind not far away, covered with graffiti. We pull over and take some pictures, first scoping it out to make sure we won’t disturb any residents. There’s bottles of piss, a lot of trash, and a couch in very sad condition. The second highlight of the trip comes when we take a detour to see an alleged underwear tree, driving through desert backroads. The underwear tree is, sadly, nowhere to be found, and our detour was a waste of time. Additionally, the remoteness of the desert gives us all the creeps, looking like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Catfig44 proclaims that it is a trap, and will lead us to the inevitable doom of cannibals and “quickie-sand.”
That night, we’re playing Brook’s Bar in Riverside, California. It’s pretty much what I expected from a bar, except for the golf course packed with tourists directly outside. This seems like a pretty unconventional place for a punk show. The show isn’t until 9, so we don’t stay for long, just long enough to pee, and then we go check in at the hotel.
Pulling up to the hotel, we are greeted with the kind of less than savory place that has red doors on the outside and looks like you definitely wouldn’t want to shine a blacklight on the sheets. As we roll up, a soft chorus of “Oh nooooos” emanates from everyone’s mouths. Given my suburban Iowa stupidity, Catfig44’s aforementioned Glock, and the fact that all seven of us will be in one room, I don’t particularly care that much. Neither do Dee and Riley. However, Catfig44 and Dee’s dad say that they saw these types of places when they worked undercover, and we need to go—fast. So after a brief debate with the front desk over canceling our reservation, we split and head to a Shakey’s Pizza.
All of the pre-show glamour—hair, makeup, jewelry, costume changes— happens in this bathroom. Dee putting their ruby red lipstick on and rubbing their cheekbone with a blush brush in the mirror reminds me of a Life Magazine photo I once saw of showgirls playing chess backstage at a nightclub in the Latin Quarter in the 1950s, with fake eyelashes and cropped hair and strings of pearls. Dee is not a girl, though, and is also wearing a Misfits shirt. Anyway, post-makeovers, we eat pizza, drink apple soda, and head back to Brook’s Bar for load-in.
We meet the other bands, and hang out at the wobbly little tables next to the golf course, mess around with the cameras, watch the first opener, and wait for the show to start. Even though we said on the poster that the show started at 9, it turns out that load-in wasn’t even until 9. It’s going to be a late night. Even though a two-hour time difference doesn’t seem like a big deal, I am already so tired I am nodding off on a rock-hard bar stool and sipping ice water to stay awake, even though all of the opening bands put on a great show.
It’s Mudpuppy’s first time playing together, and their set doesn’t even start until well past midnight. They hadn’t had a chance to practice with Isaiah, and the drummer from another band only had a day or so of notice. You can’t tell, though. The patrons of the bar are mostly composed of golfing tourists and people drinking at the bar, but there are maybe twenty punk kids watching the show and starting little pits here and there; some of them are nodding along and others are collapsed on top of each other in little piles by the wobbly tables.
Dee announces to the crowd that if they see anyone after the show that wants a kiss, they’ll kiss them. This is directed at the couple of cute punky guys hanging around (particularly the one that appears to be running things and looks like Jack Black), but is presented as an open invitation. This proves to be a mistake, and thus will not be repeated at the next show. After their set, as they’re hanging around making small talk with the bargoers, a guy who is probably a hundred years old and looks like Rumpelstiltskin corners them and asks for a kiss as well as promising to follow us to the next show. This is a little frightening.
Meanwhile, during the show, Catfig44 talked with the guys in the opening bands and one of them offered to let us crash on his living room floor. This is a blessing, considering that it is now past one in the morning. He promises, “I’m not a bad guy, I used to be a Mormon, you know? Life is just about a party, man, it’s all about the party! You can totally crash with me.”
I don’t really mind, because this is something I’ve always dreamed of. I think that when you’re a kid you hang on to every word that comes out of the mouths of older rock guys talking about when they were young and just starting out, they always tell tales of sleeping on cold hard floors and not showering for weeks on end and grueling overnight drives, and it just seems so brutal and romantic. So honestly, I am pretty stoked to sleep in this guy’s living room. And I would definitely do it again given another opportunity to tour with a rock band.
It’s allegedly only a thirty-minute drive to the guy’s house in Pomona, but given the chaotic previous night and the hours we’ve already spent in the car, it feels much longer. Much of this drive is spent going up and down the street making at least ten agonizingly slow U-turns trying to determine which house, exactly, it is, and also trying to find parking. By this point, everyone is hysterical with lack of sleep and laughing at nothing so hard we can’t breathe while also somehow miserable. Riley says this feels like a mushroom trip, but I say it feels a little more like hell. (The next morning, the tour manager will reveal that she thinks she laughed so hard she peed her pants a little.)
When we arrive in the house, we are greeted with an expansive wood floor (Isaiah especially is impressed by the floors), a freezing AC, a piano, a fireplace, and couches and lamps that look like they belong to a grandma instead of a punk rocker. It also smells like cats, specifically cat pee, though there are sadly no cats in sight. The guy offers us hits from his dab rig, and the tour manager, who is not quite sure what a dab rig is, is rather alarmed—“Do not smoke anything that guy gives you!”. It crosses my mind that my mom would not like this.
Despite talk in the car of breaking out the Nintendo Switch to play Mario Kart, we are all far too tired to do anything of the sort. We are so tired we don’t have time for all of seven us, plus the guy who owns the house, to wait their turn in the bathroom, so we sleep in our clothes. I take my contacts out in the middle of the floor and, like a few others, brush my teeth outside by the mailbox using someone else’s water bottle. Then we bicker over sleeping arrangements and pass out. Catfig44 tries to sleep on a table, like a corpse ready to be autopsied, however Dee makes her take one of the chairs. Riley takes the other chair. The three guys sleep on the floor. Me and Dee, the two smallest, share the sole sofa. For the record, we did try to take the floor; I guess chivalry isn’t dead, though, because the boys wouldn’t let us.
Despite the abject exhaustion of everyone, it takes forever to fall asleep, mostly due to the cold, the lack of blankets, and constant hysterical laughter and hissing for each other to shut the fuck up. Everyone is taking photos of each other trying to sleep, looking like tortured ghosts, and sending them in the group chat. The night is so cold Riley and the tour manager both voice that they felt like they were dead, and few people slept. Some insist the house was haunted, maybe by the ghosts of the cats whose piss we smelt. I did see something glowing in the dark when I opened my eyes, but I am pretty sure this was just a poster.
We have to leave at nine the next morning due to our gracious host needing to leave for work, so those who did sleep only caught a few hours. It takes a while to load the car the next morning, because we brought all the instruments and cameras and luggage in the house in the event of a break-in. The extra time gives me a chance to see the bathroom (Though some people are choosing to brush their teeth outside again). The bathtub is inexplicably filled with aquarium rocks, and there is a huge sign reading “PLEASE DON’T DO COKE IN THE BATHROOM” hanging on the wall. I also catch a glimpse in the mirror, and I already look like a dead fish. Our host is nowhere to be found, so I write a thank-you note in the thick layer of dust on the piano, and we hit the road.
I suggest that we stop somewhere for coffee and food and a bathroom to get ready, like we had in Shakey’s the night before, but my pleas go unheard, and we head straight into LA. I have heard a lot of things about LA, none of them good—mostly that it sucks, it’s a cesspool, and there’s absolutely no grass or anything green. I decide that this is largely correct, but there’s a certain charm to the fact that there’s no spaces between buildings, just solid blocks of concrete and steel, and the older abandoned-looking buildings covered with graffiti, and the parts downtown with streets filled with stands selling stuffed animals and clothing advertising their wares with signs in different languages, even if it all looks a little post-apocalyptic to someone used to suburbia and cornfields. The thing that surprises me about LA is how empty most of the streets are. I’ve seen Paris, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco, but I knew LA was bigger than all of these cities; therefore, I expected the streets to be absolutely packed. Somehow, this wasn’t the case, perhaps due in part to the pandemic.
Shortly after we arrive in LA, it is revealed that someone mistakenly booked a hostel for two people instead of a hotel room we could sneak seven plus our gear into. The ensuing stress of finding a room sends everyone into a hungry, angry rage. I am pretty sure I am the only person on this tour that needs breakfast every morning. The fever pitch of emotions in the car leads us to decide to stop for donuts and coffee, then Dee saves the day by taking the debit card and booking us into the Hollywood Inn.
Part of me anticipates that there will be a repeat of last night, but the Hollywood Inn is deemed acceptable, and we drag in our all shit. Overall, the rest of the day is pretty uneventful; the band practices, I take another nap, and we all take turns waiting for the shower. Then we head down to load in at The Smell. Even being from Iowa, I have heard that The Smell is a legendary DIY venue and playing shows there is coveted. Every band we’ve spoken to has asked how we got the gig—the waitlist is allegedly over a year long, and apparently you need to know someone in order to get in. I guess this is just some of Catfig44’s magic.
While we’re there, we walk down to Little Tokyo and get some sushi to-go. Dee is all made up now, with pink-clown blush on their cheeks, red pout, and dramatic eyeliner filled with the kinds of twists and turns I can’t do. They’re also bedecked in their signature pounds of jewelry, including the gold chain reading, “MUDPUPPY.” As Dee is desperately struggling with their Ramune soda and Riley has to open it for them, it strikes me how adorable they are. While we are sitting at a table outside the sushi place, Catfig44 calls and informs Dee that they have fans waiting outside for them—a group of little kids that want to meet Mudpuppy. Dee is frightened by this; they speak often of how as a musician, it’s hard to be perceived, especially when your art is so vulnerable.
After we speedwalk back to The Smell and wolf down the sushi, it’s time to get started. As the bands are setting up their gear, I wander around and explore the venue. There’s two scroungy little dogs hanging out at the front of the venue, seemingly unbothered by all the noise and commotion. The walls are covered with graffiti, and the bathrooms even more so, mostly love declarations and anarchist statements. The toilet is covered with stickers, just like the one in Jennifer’s Body. Some seats ripped out of cars, with the seatbelts still attached, serve as couches. There is a little altar dedicated to zines, and I flip through one about how to protect your communist organization from government watchdogs. The desk the guy running the show sits at has a clear top, and the glass below is filled with candy and the IDs of kids (I am not sure why, as The Smell is all ages), doodles, and notes with statements such as: “The Smell saved my life.”
Eventually, I cross paths with Cardboard Boxer, one of the openers. They’re from San Diego, and they’re surrounded by girls with dyed hair, black miniskirts, eyeliner, and cropped tank tops. This is how you know a band of dudes is actually good. As I shake hands with the frontman, he tells me the best place for me to interview his band is the ambulance. I am not sure I heard him correctly, but I follow them all out back anyway, where there is definitely an ambulance.
The singer tells me to watch for needles as I climb through a gate and over a pile of garbage in order to get into the ambulance. I remember that Isaiah had mentioned that The Smell is not far from Skid Row; being from the Iowa suburbs, however, my knowledge of Skid Row starts and stops with the Panic! at the Disco Little Shop of Horrors cover I heard in middle school, which is probably not a very good representation. While I am outside, I also realize why it’s called The Smell.
The ambulance is sick, with band stickers everywhere and all the medical equipment stripped out to make room for their gear. I’ve interviewed over a hundred bands, but this is the first time a band has ever asked me to do the interview and take photos in their van, and I’m a little too excited about it. It feels like that scene in Jennifer’s Body, but everyone was really nice and definitely didn’t kill me and sell my soul to the devil to get famous. Through the glass of the little cabinets on the walls, I catch glimpses of groceries, like peanut butter and marshmallows. The band tells me that most of them are EMTs, and got the ambulance off of their boss for a really good deal. (The interview with Cardboard Boxer should be up soon.)
After the interview, I join back up with the group. Dee’s mom tells us that we sold about a hundred tickets to The Smell. We had hoped to sell it out, but you win some and you lose some. She also tells us that someone from a label came to watch Dee. I also grab a quick interview and some pictures with the other band, Storm Coast.
Dee does amazing, punctuating their set with dry humor. The drummer from Cardboard Boxer fills in, and he’s an absolute animal, playing two sets back-to-back without so much as blinking. Dee will later tell me that they hugged after the show, and they were both so sweaty it was like two wet sponges slapping together.
During the show, Dee takes a (deliberate) dive, and get swept away from the stage by the audience, pink guitar and all. This yanks their cords out of their pedalboard, leading to horrible feedback screeches, and a bunch of kids wanting to be helpful descend upon the pedalboard and start plugging the wrong cords into the wrong ports. However, once they are safely back onstage, Dee pulls it together surprisingly quickly, and they finish up with a cover of The Distillers “City of Angels.”
After the show, we stand outside making small talk with security and some other people while the other band smokes. By this point, all I can think about is how badly my feet hurt and how I probably need to bite the bullet and get new Docs already. I buy the worst hot dog I have ever eaten for five dollars from some Ukranian lady selling them from a stand outside of a bar. It tasted too smooth. As we pile into the Range Rover to head back to the hotel, Cardboard Boxer flash their ambulance lights as a final goodbye.
We sit around and I watch everyone talk shit on different bands in the Tucson scene. Even though I don’t understand any of the drama, it’s fascinating nonetheless. Nathan and Isaiah decide they want to go sleep on the beach. Even though it’s the wee hours of the morning, me and Dee want to come along, too—though we make them promise to return us to our beds to sleep.
We pile into Isaiah’s car and drive down to sit on Venice Beach, listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and looking at palm trees along the way. We meander the paths for a little while, with Isaiah smoking cigarettes, and a man sitting on a bench tells Isaiah and Nathan to make sure they keep us safe as Isaiah shakes his hand.
I’m so tired I can’t keep my eyes open, and find myself nodding off even as we’re walking. California is always colder than everyone expects it to be, even in July and August. Shivering with my lips turning blue, I can’t bring myself to nap as we all sit in the wet sand, listen to the waves, and look up at the few stars visible through the California smog. I know that sitting on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, looking up at the stars and hearing the ocean crash, on my first rock tour after a pandemic… it should all be a very romantic moment that I need to be cherishing, but all I can do is think about how fucking cold it is. Dee journals, the guys mess around in the water, and eventually I beg everyone to go home around three in the morning, and we begin the long walk back to the car.
We decide to take a shortcut through a trash-filled parking lot, even though some of us are barefoot. Isaiah tells us to keep an eye out for human shit. I am so exhausted I can’t even bring myself to care when a cop rolls up and starts yelling unintelligible demands through a loudspeaker. At any other time, this would have made me blow an anxiety gasket. It’s not for us, though; it’s directed at a group of people smoking and listening to music by their cars. As we get closer to civilization, Nathan starts throwing around a baseball, and it bounces into a fenced off area surrounding something that might be an aquarium. He jumps in after it, and an automated voice blares something along the lines of, “You are trespassing! Evacuate the area immediately! You are being recorded!”. Again, at any other time, I would have freaked out, but I am too tired to care. I doze on Dee’s shoulder in the car, and when we get back to the hotel, it’s closer to four; we pass out immediately.
The last day of tour is pretty uneventful. It’s a bummer the San Bernardino show got canceled, but we make the best of it. We start our day off with tacos, sit on the balcony for a while, then Uber to the Hollywood Cemetery and check out the swans, ducks, koi fish, peacocks and feral cats. In Iowa, sometimes you see “feral cats” that are actually just fat, spoiled barn cats. These cats are truly feral, and look like mean old men, covered in flies. Unfortunately, I can’t get close enough to pet them, and Dee’s jackfruit burrito does little to coax them in our direction. While at the cemetery, we’re sure to stop at Dee Dee Ramone’s grave, covered with the lipstick of all the wannabe rock groupies that came before us. Dee fishes their signature red out of their bag and we leave our own kisses.
Our final stop is at Amoeba records, where we browse and grab souvenirs. Then we Uber back to the hotel for our last night on tour (My LA adventure isn’t over, however—I have some friends picking me up in the morning). We grab snacks at 7/11 and then turn in for a night of Mario Kart in our pajamas before passing out.