Touring in the Time of COVID: Rejoining humanity on the road with Hickoids

click to enlarge Hickoid Jeff Smith (second from right) hides his face as the band pauses for photo following a gig. - Courtesy Photo / Richard Tomcala
Courtesy Photo / Richard Tomcala
Hickoid Jeff Smith (second from right) hides his face as the band pauses for photo following a gig.
I’ll preface all of this by stating that I’m not an epidemiologist, sociologist, scientist or even a published non-fiction writer. I sing for Hickoids, and I approached the Current about writing a piece chronicling the band’s tour of the Southern United States against the backdrop of the surge in delta variant cases.

Initially, I thought I would come away from the tour with some hard takeaways. Instead, what I experienced left be me with more big questions than small answers.

Hickoids were originally scheduled to be in Spain at the end of July through the middle of August, after having canceled a similar tour in 2020. Toward the end of April or beginning of May it was becoming apparent that the trip was off the table because of the slow vaccine rollout there and regulatory issues that made it unclear whether we could even gain entry.

So, it was decided that we’d use the time to tour the American South instead, which promised to be wide open on those dates.

For the uninitiated, Hickoids began in the mid ’80s and could be most aptly described as a no-holds-barred garage band that folds country and glam rock into our sound. Thirty-plus people have filtered through the band, and save me, all the other members that appeared on our 1985 debut album are now deceased. I often tell people we’ve been around so long that our first band photo was a cave painting.

We’ve never had wide success. We play and tour because we enjoy each other’s company — and because we like entertaining folks with our brand of raunch ’n’ roll. We make enough to cover expenses and divvy up a little at the end of a run. We know who and what we are, and we don’t have grand expectations.
After COVID forced us to sit idle for most of the past year and half, we felt that getting in the van and playing a couple weeks’ worth of shows would be a victory in our scheme of things. And, if things got too crazy or one of us fell ill, we’d just turn around and come home.

We were prepared for the whole thing to crater up until the day we left.

A ‘germy’ life

At the risk of inserting too many asides, there seem to be unending questions and considerations begot by every aspect of this story. You likely wonder whether the band members are all vaccinated. The answer is yes. I think I can speak — with the exception of our youngest member, Harvey McLaughlin — for the others when I say, “We ain’t spring chickens.” Any reservations we had about getting jabbed were far outweighed by our collective desire to return to a more normal state of being.

Personally, I’ve lived a “germy” life. During my days as a user of hard drugs, I carelessly consumed whatever someone proffered. I’m fortunate to have lived as long as I have, especially after donating my body to science several times over. I’m much less fearful of the lasting consequences of a vaccine than I am of the near-term psychological damage.

And I find the idea of a “chip” being injected along with the vaccine laughable. Why would it be necessary when almost everyone in the developed world has a smartphone?

Don’t get me wrong: I distrust the government no matter who is president, although some office holders are better and more qualified than others. Still, I believe our government has worthwhile institutions overseen by able and conscientious civil servants.

Under the Volcano

On Wednesday, July 28, the Hickoids began our “C’mon Back” tour at Under the Volcano, a small bar near Rice University in Houston.

We were joined by our friends the Guillotines and had a nice-sized crowd, many of whom hadn’t seen each other since the beginning of 2020. I spoke with my friend Ken Hoge early in the evening. Ken took some of the most iconic photos of the Sex Pistols at their infamous Randy’s Rodeo show in 1978. I’ve only come to know him over the past decade but he’s a warm, cheerful and funny guy.

“I felt invincible after I got the vaccine,” he told me at the club. “I started going out and having fun, and now I don’t know what the fuck to think.”
You, me and another 165 million other folks, Ken.

I was also ecstatic to hang with my childhood pal Chris Juravich, whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years. He was my best friend growing up in Houston. We drifted apart as teenagers and hadn’t spoken until we reconnected on Facebook, ironically the day before his mother Opal Juravich succumbed to COVID-19 earlier this year. Chris isn’t a scenester, but he remarked how cool it was to be able to get to see bands up close again.

While the reunion with friends made it a fun show, the Hickoids weren’t that sharp as a band. That might come down to how much anxiety and emotion was built into just getting as far as Houston. Nobody seemed to mind, though, and some folks overdid it. My buddy David Ganz disappeared before we ever played despite having brought a small bale of hay, some un-shucked corn and a watermelon, which he placed on the stage. All of those were later serially abused by the audience.

That night, I observed a pattern that I would see repeated almost every night of the tour. Folks seemed vigilant with masks on as they walked in, and they were also clearly trying figure out how much space to give each other. In other words, everyone was trying to find that comfort zone while remaining “safe.” Inevitably, though, by the end of the night, the masks were cast aside or slipped down around the chin, and folks were hugging and rubbing on each other.

While alcohol played some role, it seemed more like an expression of two things. The first is the instinctual human need to read the faces of those around us and to be understood. The second is the more basic mammalian need to be touched.

Needs and rituals

And that’s the thing that sucks about this pandemic. Beyond the death, financial havoc and displacement, it deprives us of our most innate needs and treasured rituals. Touch, the warmth of a smiling face or broad laugh. Weddings, funerals, birthday parties and rock shows.

Pre-vaccine, Hickoids performed a few live-streamed shows for charity or fundraisers. For the first, it felt great just to be in the room with the guys and playing. But the shine progressively wore off, both as an artist and an observer. It’s an unsatisfying, tasteless meal that leaves you hungrier than when you started. I’d rather watch the most so-so band in the world in a roomful of people than the greatest via livestream. Call me a cannibal, but I need that human flesh.

What do all the changes we’ve seen in the past 18 months — from remote work to grocery delivery — mean to us a species? Personally, I don’t buy into the narrative promulgated by the big tech companies that they’re working to bring us closer together. I think this is all a big fat multi-trillion-dollar wet dream come true for them.

I could really care less who gets rich or poor as corporations trot out new technologies. What’s being taken from us as we draw apart from each other is bigger and more important than any paper wealth. It’s called humanity. When we feel emboldened to jibe and insult people online in a way that we couldn’t face to face, that’s a loss of humanity. When we reduce others to whatever we perceive their essence to be because we skimmed a few of their social media posts, that’s a loss of humanity. When we no longer interact with people that we have nothing in common with except juxtaposition, that’s a loss of humanity. When we’re afraid to gather with our families and friends, to hug an elderly relative or hold a baby, or even go to a rock show for fear of becoming or making someone ill ... again, that’s a loss of humanity.

And like trust broken, it might be a lot harder to regain than it was to lose.

click to enlarge Every tour needs merch, and Hickoids brought along these novelty bottles of hand sanitizer. - Courtesy Photo / Hickoids
Courtesy Photo / Hickoids
Every tour needs merch, and Hickoids brought along these novelty bottles of hand sanitizer.
‘If there’s another shutdown…’

As we rolled up to the club in Birmingham, Alabama, on the first Saturday night of the tour, I told the guys about the last time Hickoids were scheduled to play the city three decades prior. For that gig, we were supposed to play a storefront that dated to the 19th century and had once been some sort of burlesque theater. It was mid-afternoon and the guys running the place had two-wire electric laying on the floor atop a heap of plaster pulled from the now bare-lath walls. They seemed to be under the influence of amphetamines, but they assured us they’d have it all together that night — after they passed a city inspection. We told them we were going to go get something to eat and drove on to New Orleans.

This time, though, we were playing The Nick, a venue opened in 1982 that’s hosted everyone from Jane’s Addiction to The Black Keys, which was given the title “Birmingham’s dirty little secret” by none other than U2’s Bono. The club sits on the edge of downtown near a tangle of freeway overpasses. It feels lived in and isn’t especially clean — my kind of place. The business operates as a private club, open from Friday morning until Monday morning, so you can imagine things get loose from time to time. As a younger man, I could definitely see myself doing some damage there.

We didn’t end up hitting the stage until after 1 a.m., and most of the original audience of students, older locals and hardcore punks faded mid-set. Even so, we seemed to resonate better with the crowd that came in as other bars closed, especially a gaggle of young gay dudes. We played until about 3 a.m., feeling satisfied that we’d done our job.

I chatted with one of the co-owners after the set, a lady named Pam Stalling who looks younger than her years. Pam’s a great hostess — imbibing and chatting with patrons, and even buying Hickoids T-shirts for staff, beyond paying us decently. As we made nightclub business chit-chat, I asked her how they’d been weathering the pandemic.

“We’ve been kicking ass up to now, we found ways to get by and make it work,” she said. “But if there’s another shutdown, that’s it, we’re done.”

As the tour went on, we felt safer on the road than if we’d stayed in Texas, where hospitals were filling up with COVID-19 cases.

But after two full weeks of shows, two of our final gigs were canceled due to concerns about the delta variant, and we decided to abandon a third in St. Louis and head home. It wasn’t a decision we made lightly, but our own insubstantial setback paled in comparison to the defining night of the tour.

Us and them

Before I get to that defining night, I should mention that I think it’s an individual choice whether to receive a vaccine. While I wish that a vast majority of Americans would choose to roll up their sleeves, I don’t believe it should be mandatory. Requiring all Americans to get vaxxed would only further embolden the conspiracy-minded and potentially strengthen their argument.

That said, I do think enticements such as vaccine requirements as a condition of employment or healthcare coverage could drive a significant portion, say 10-15%, of those who remain unvaccinated to be swayed by their pocketbooks — fellow Americans be damned.

Still, the national polarization that threatens to turn to one of the most prosperous and powerful nations into a failed state comes into play. The coronavirus threatens to do what even the last election could not.

Once again, we seem to be divided into us and them. One side will refuse to get on board the forward-moving train mostly because the other has embraced it. Neither side possesses a monopoly on self-righteousness. On the one hand, you have the religious and socially conservative, and, on the other the liberal and “science minded.”

In the couple of weeks leading up to the tour, I watched as members of the latter group raised concerns on social media about the selfishness of the former. That kind of self-righteousness is no more a carrot, a stick or a bargaining chip than a picture of butchered fetus changes anyone’s opinion about abortion. The beliefs are deeply held and hard to change.

You have half the country who feel like they are defending their way of life while the other half is simply hoping to preserve their own lives, and maybe, protect the lives of those who they don’t see eye to eye with in the bargain.
We all want this to end, and even those who favor science over God aren’t above wishing for or accepting a miracle. Perhaps the former is the one thing that still binds us as humans.

Moving needles

Now, back to that defining night.

After playing an uneventful show for a small crowd in Lafayette on Thursday, July 29, we headed to New Orleans for our next gig. On the drive I started seeing on my Facebook feed that a friend I met in “the city that care forgot” at one of our shows more than a decade ago had died. His name was Hollise Murphy, and he was only 38. Sweet dude and one of the truest music fans you would ever meet.

Since first meeting, Hollise at that gig, I ran into him again over the years at shows in New Orleans, Austin and San Antonio. He even traveled as far as Japan to go see bands from his hometown. As far as I could tell, he was loved by nearly anyone who met him. He was one of those rare fans who could make a band feel appreciated by his mere presence in an otherwise empty room.

“The dude was music and goodness,” John Littlejohn of the band Savage Master said of Hollise. “He was all the great things you’ve heard and read about — 110% all of the great things folks have said about him — his loving nature, his positivity, his enthusiasm. It’s all true. An angel among us really. It didn’t matter if you met Hollise for five minutes or if you had known him for five years, he was your friend forever and he made sure you knew it.”

click to enlarge Hickoids found out about the death of New Orleans fan Hollise Murphy (right) while they were on the road. - Courtesy Photo / John Littlejohn
Courtesy Photo / John Littlejohn
Hickoids found out about the death of New Orleans fan Hollise Murphy (right) while they were on the road.
I knew Hollise had been to a small punk and metal festival that takes place annually at a few different clubs in New Orleans two weeks prior to our stop there. I also knew that a friend here in San Antonio had contracted COVID while at the same event — and so did several other attendees. It didn’t take long to surmise that Hollise had died of COVID.

My suspicions were confirmed later as we loaded in for that night’s show. I was also told that he was unvaccinated, something still haven’t been able to fully confirm.

Hollise certainly wasn’t someone I would consider one of “them.” He was a smart, sensitive and funny guy who was full of light, yet if I what I heard was true, he chose to remain unvaccinated. I’m not sure what his reasoning might have been, but if that’s actually the case, I wish it had been different.

Later, as I carried some stuff from the van into the club, a maskless local lady who looked to be in her late 30s sat at one of the venue’s sidewalk tables talking loudly to a group of friends about how “the local hospitals are full of vaccinated people who are dying.”

I didn’t see any reports to substantiate any part of that statement, and I doubt she had anything to back up the claim either.

Between finding out about Hollise’s passing and hearing the woman speak on the patio, I came to an inescapable conclusion about where the U.S. finds itself right now: We’ve got dueling brands of “truth,” but only one of them will kill you immediately.

Our defining characteristics as individuals should make our country a beautiful place not a deadly, divided one. Life would be staid if we were all the same.

I want to see the Hollises of the world again. To quote my friend John Littlejohn again, “This world is a darker place without [Hollise], and the only way I’ve concluded to bring some of that light back is to try to carry on his spirit by living as best as I can by his example. ... He would want us all to ‘stay awesome.’”

Beyond seeing folks like Hollise, I want to play and see bands at places like The Nick until I can’t do it anymore. When I walk into a truckstop diner with the band, the only thing I want to get sick from is food poisoning.

Vitriol and a sense of moral and intellectual superiority are understandable, but they don’t move the needle(s) — literally or figuratively. Last year provided enough shouting to last a lifetime. I’m determined to save the virtual rocks I throw from behind a computer screen for an argument I might win, like whether or Austin or San Antonio has better breakfast tacos.

When I speak to someone who chooses to go unvaccinated, I will do my best to reach them — for me and for them. I want to restore my humanity and help them regain theirs.

We can get back to fighting about the small stuff when that’s done — without masks.

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