Photo credit: Christine Jakab
Small towns are like internal bleeding. A perfectly pristine shell can be a thin ruse for something toxic this way coming. It’s no coincidence that writers like Stephen King and directors like David Lynch set some of their most disturbing tales in tucked away backwaters. Small towns, despite John Cougar Mellencamp’s shit song claims to the contrary, are the sorts of places where locals could be making chili from hapless strangers and everyone would keep the secret with knowing nods, winks, and laughter-filled cookouts. As a homegrown outsider, I always felt trapped in my wretched village like it was slowly heating metal cage.
6 Oct 2003: Caro Pumpkin Festival Parade Caro, Michigan
Once I hit puberty, my central habit of self-definition was to revile everything about small town living: its obliviousness, its incestuous suffocation, its uncritical deep throat of the dregs of American culture. Upon graduation, I left Caro at a pace that probably left wisps of smoke hanging in the air of my wake. I couldn’t wait to go to college, start fucking men openly, and drink real coffee in a place where liberalism wasn’t believed to be some STD that you caught from libraries.
One of the things I avoided most was the annual Pumpkin Festival, a pagan fertility leftover that, whatever its meaningful ritualistic origin, had degenerated into an interminable parade, a pumpkin beer tent, and the crowning of the Pumpkin King and Queen. Basically, this dead-end strand of royalty consisted of whichever two little kids had parents who figured out which various shortcuts (like syringe injections of milk) would create the largest and most malformed pumpkin. Invariably, the winners looked like beanbag chair-sized testicles with razor burn.
My good friend Chad enjoys very much metaphorically dropping his dick in the party dip. For as long as I can remember, Chad could be relied upon to smash social niceties the way road ragers take out windshields with tire irons. While I retreated into a world of books and fantasies of room temperature vengeance, Chad made our small town his very own demented playpen. I was not surprised to find out that Chad and his band Tijuana Hercules would be playing the beer tent of the Caro Pumpkin Festival as well as playing on the float of the Thumb Meat Market, whose owners have enough good-natured, shitkicker irony to stick a fuck-all rock outfit on the trailer representing their business in the parade.
This is the first time Chad has been in a band that I’ve been able to stomach. Part of that has to do with the fact that my taste in music has opened wider and wider the older I’ve gotten and part of that has to do with the fact that my music taste will never widen to the point where I’ll be able to take some of the more onslaughting, skull-cracker veins of his musical influence. But Tijuana Hercules are a positively unhinged rock band, a deep impact, off-the-rails bullseye, that sound moments away from shearing off into shrapnel under the ramshackle hedonism of every track. With two drummers (one of whom smacks the fuck out of coffee cans) and one singer-guitarist, the band’s primary emphasis is pounding out bare-bones blues rattles that make it easy to understand why holy rollers viscerally understood rock and roll’s threat to God. With a band like Tijuana Hercules, the phrase “stolen thunder” takes on an entirely new meaning. Having already made their debut CD When the Moon Comes Up Wild a staple part of my bedroom dancing stack, I was more than a bit thrilled to see how they would pull off a venue that most bands would play only under threat of pedophilic blackmail.
It’s amazing how insular and out of step rural America can be. As me and a couple of friends weaved our way through the crowd to catch up to the float carrying Tijuana Hercules, I couldn’t help but notice that many of the janky little floats had sorely dated themes. One of the many flatbeds that celebrated some local football team and their victory over a hated equally forgettable rival actually used the movie Jumanji as its motif. What the fuck? I have no doubt that the Robin Williams’ shitbomb of a flick is probably just now making the rounds. In Caro, you can still sit down in a seedy pub and watch someone in yellowing stonewashed jeans do some sort of mating dance to a Jackyl song (for those of you who have successfully blocked this band out of your mind, they had a schlock rock hit where they played the guitar with a chainsaw). I tell you this not simply to heap disdain on these people (though, truly, it’s big fun) but because it’s a good backdrop for just how bizarre it must have been to see Tijuana Hercules belting it out amidst the Shriner mini-cars, high school color guards, and the Elkton Fish Sandwich Queen tossing jawbreakers from the back of a convertible. Lead singer John Forbes looks and sounds like a hard livin’ cuss with a good lovin’ heart, the sort of mildly belligerent lug impossible not to adore. He treated the ride on the float as if it were a stadium show, with the throngs of people in lawn chairs with lap blankets all waiting for a glimpse of their rock hero. He belted out every jake-legged track like he was expelling gut-busting demons with the liquor-torched exorcism of his pipes. And it was spectacle of badass proportions.
As I followed the float and gauged the reactions of the people, it was funny to watch the jaws drop, the brows furrow, and the skoal packets tumble off shocked bottom lips. The band was entirely out of place, but since they didn’t acknowledge that in the slightest, people instantly doubted their own judgments and then looked around to see how they were supposed to react. It doesn’t take much to throw a herd creature a curve ball. Children and the retarded, as yet unversed in the dark arts of “normalcy”, absolutely loved the band. Without fail, when the band passed, toddlers would hop up and gyrate and people with Down’s Syndrome would rock back and forth or skip in small, jaunty circles. Unsurprisingly, they were the only ones who got it.
I can’t remember the last time I smiled that much, watching Chad’s imp smirk as he punched out beats on his kit and second drummer, Zak Piper, pummeled the shit out of a row of coffee cans that, by the end of the parade route, looked like huge bullets dug out of a concrete wall. They had such a good time that they kept right on playing into the fairgrounds. The insurance company representatives whose float had the honor of trailing behind the band for what must have took over an hour had their faces atrophied into a permanent state of sourmash. One of the women had long since abandoned her pageant wave and had spent the last leg of the parade holding her head in the backseat version of the fetal position.
Being smug is such an unfairly maligned emotion. In the wrong hands, smugness can be just the appalling moral emptiness of the powerful, whose shit eating grins come from the fact that they’re the only ones not eating shit. But in the hands of a besieged minority, I find smugness to be like saying “You’re never gonna get this joke because you’re the punchline.” It’s a good time, being right. Watching my friend Chad and his mates force the people of my hometown to have a good time despite their cherished nipple tastes for the ordinary, was one of the best experiences of my year and, for a million other reasons, one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.