The good thing about being on the road with three other starving artists (and a concrete inspector) is that the van looks insane. “MYTHBUSTERS” is painted in Cyrilic-ish letters on both sides of the bus, along with a couple of Gorgons. Best of all, Scottie welded a dragon onto the back window, which makes visibility difficult for whoever’s driving but is totally worth it. Still, no one’s managed to fix the air conditioning; and being cooped up in the van for long stretches of cornfield land, in the summer – well, that’s the bad thing about being on the road with a bunch of people Grant doesn’t really know. Especially when he’s stuck in the middle of the backseat, as he is now. Something from the drum set keeps poking the back of his neck. Normally Jess, the band’s roadie/merch girl, has to sit bitch, but this time she has to be able to jump out of the van as soon as they get to the auditorium to start unloading the instruments and equipment.
Tonight they’re playing the university in Ames, Iowa, and they’re late. They left Milwaukee with plenty of time to spare and were almost out of Wisconsin by the time Adam remembered he’d left his hat in the motel. Grant can’t believe that they actually went all the way back – it’s just a hat, after all – but after observing everyone in the band for the past couple of weeks, he has a sense that Adam can talk Jamie into almost anything.
Jamie drives like a bat out of hell, but they’re still going to be late for sound check, which means there’ll be no time to rehearse for tonight’s show. Everyone’s tense, except Tory, who’s somehow asleep. Grant goes over the setlist in his head, practices the songs on invisible keys in the air.
A few weeks ago Grant had never heard of Ames, let alone been to the Midwest. He hadn’t played a musical instrument in years – prior to joining the band, the only time his childhood piano lessons had come in handy was during a “You know you’re Asian-American when…” bit in a sketch comedy show. The pay didn’t even begin to cover the cost of living in San Francisco, but Grant didn’t mind temping during the day.
Then the troupe folded. As Grant was walking out of the little black box theater forever he spotted a flier for the Mythbusters audition. “WANTED: Keyboardist for geek rock extravaganza band. Must have a flexible schedule and be willing to reject reality, substitute own ASAP.” Grant took a tear-off tab, figuring that being a temp and single was as flexible as anyone could get. Plus, the flier had a drawing of a ship using Greek fire, and that was pretty neat.
He didn’t own a keyboard, and it wouldn’t be exactly practical to haul his parents’ baby grand to San Francisco for an audition. So he improvised: he borrowed his roommate’s girlfriend’s keytar. As in, one of those mini-keyboards on a strap with a built-in synthesizer. He went to the audition and played a few Michael Jackson songs he’d learned from Youtube.
Jamie hadn’t looked too impressed, but Adam had gone nuts over it. Adam’s powers of persuasion must have struck again, since two weeks and a few rehearsals later, Grant’s on tour. The other band members seem okay so far. Kari’s been really nice and helpful, and Tory’s almost as bad a guitarist as Grant is a keytarist, so neither of them is exactly pushing for all the solos.
When they finally reach the auditorium they load in and do the fastest sound check ever. “Checkcheckcheckcheck one-two-one-two!” Adam bellows. The others have time to play a couple of notes apiece before they’re all shooed offstage.
They cruise around, looking for somewhere to eat that isn’t Arby’s. They end up at a steakhouse to Kari’s dismay – she’s vegetarian – and the six of them crowd into the no-smoking section. (“You can still smoke inside?” is the predominant discussion topic.) Grant still gets too nervous to eat anything substantive right before a show so he orders a side salad. It turns out to be a foot-tall pile of iceberg lettuce with a single mummified cherry tomato on top, but he chokes down what he can: he doesn’t want Jamie to start nagging him, like he does to Adam.
“You’re going to exhaust yourself if you don’t eat,” he says. “And you have to be able to go all night.
“What?” he demands when everyone else snickers into their food.
Then, suddenly, it’s call time and they’re piling into the greenroom. Before every night Adam finds a private corner to meditate in, which is always hilarious to watch because the man hurts to hold still. Meanwhile, Kari takes off her wedding ring, explaining, as she does every night, that “merch sells better this way.” She goes into the bathroom and comes out in her costume: striped tights and a dress with zippers all over it.
Tory doesn’t have a costume but after Kari bleached his hair in his sleep he’s started calling himself Jonny Quest onstage. Grant guesses that in Tory’s mind Adam is Dr. Quest, and Kari is Jessie, but that means Grant is Hadji, and that’s kind of offensive, but … yeah, whatever. Hadji was cool.
Jamie doesn’t wear a costume or use a stage name; but then, Jamie as Jamie is personality enough.
As for Grant himself, he’s started going by Grant Imaheartthrob. He’s developed a persona to go with the name: a kind of delusional 80s Adonis. (If Grant ever gets into the Groundlings, he totally has his breakout character ready to go.) Kari lent him a checkered necktie and Tory presented him with a pair of tight pleather pants – “Just don’t ask how I got them, man.”
“You’re on in two,” someone in black says.
“Okay, everybody huddle,” Adam says in the stage wing. He’s put on a pair of thick spectacles and has traded his beloved cowboy hat for one of those DEVO cones.
“All right. First off I want to say sorry about leaving my hat in Milwaukee –”
“Prepare for blood,” Jamie says placidly.
“Thanks – and second off I want to say that we are totally going to kick some ass! On the count of three, Mythbusters.”
They all put a hand in the center of the huddle and count off. The stage lights dim and Grant scoots onstage. He's heard this called the holy moment, right before a show begins, when every single nerve is shivering with neon and electricity and adrenaline.
Grant doesn’t go to concerts very often, but after his first show with the Mythbusters he vowed to be nicer about opening acts from now on. Warming up a crowd is hard, especially when no one’s drunk yet and everybody wants you to get off the stage so whoever’s headlining can play. People are still chattering – the Mythbusters are going to have to grab the attention if they want anybody to listen.
Grant plays a few ominous-sounding chords, then Jamie comes in on the drums and they all launch into an instrumental version of the Ghostbusters theme song. So far this has been Grant’s greatest contribution to the band – a sweet new opening song. They used to do a cover of “She Blinded Me With Science,” which completely fails to capitalize on the whole “-busters” thing and isn’t that great a song to begin with. Grant squints past the stage lights, into the audience. A few people are already dancing. That’s good.
Adam dances onstage in a bizarre combination of The Robot and the Mashed Potato.
“Good evening, Ames!” he yells into his mike. “I’m Atom Savage and we are the Mythbusters! We’ve got a great show for you tonight. We reject your reality and substitute our own!”
Immediately Jamie strikes his drumsticks together four times and before Grant knows it they’re blasting through “Chicken Gun,” which goes right into “Hindenburg Mystery.” Grant’s finally getting to the point where he doesn’t have to look down at his hands or think all the time and can actually have fun with everyone else onstage. Kari has the cute bass chick role down pat, duckwalking during her solo and flirting out to everyone at the front of the crowd; and Adam, unencumbered by an instrument, clambers all over the stage. He even gets up on Jamie’s drum set and dances, although Grant can tell Jamie really doesn’t like that.
When they play “Seasickness (Kill or Cure),” which is sort of a hillbilly punk number, Adam gets the crowd going in a circle pit, and they mosh like they really enjoy it. Their energy acts like a feedback loop: they dance hard, the band plays hard; they dance harder, the band plays harder.
Tory yells to Grant, “Take the solo!” Before Grant can tell him no, Tory’s stagediving into the crowd. Some people catch him, which is a definite improvement from Milwaukee.
Grant stands still for a second like a total idiot, then starts playing the first thing that comes to mind. It’s an old piece he had to learn in the seventh grade and it might be by Bach but he’s not sure. It feels good to be on the brink of disaster and to just fly on the seat of his pants, and have it work. It’s why he never did anything with that engineering degree, and why he thinks live shows are a thousand times better than movies or TV; there, there’s nothing left to chance.
And before he knows it his eight bars are up and he can breathe again.
They finish on a slow note: another cover, this time of “Life on Mars?” Grant looks out and is pleased to see lighters swaying – not cell phone apps of lighters, but real flames.
“Thank you for being such a good audience!” Adam yells over the closing notes. “We had a great time playing here tonight. To my right is Red Angel Dragnet. To my left – Jonny Quest. To his left – Grant Imaheartthrob. And in the back – Jamie Hyneman! ‘Is there life on Maaaaaaaaars?’
“Now put your hands together for … They Might Be Giants!”
And of course the crowd cheers louder at that than for any of them, but by now Grant isn’t fazed by it.
Adam and Jamie stick around backstage for They Might Be Giants, though by this time they’ve seen the show a dozen times. The rest of them hang out with Jess at the merch table in the lobby, selling CDs and stickers and the band T-shirts Tory screenprinted. Quite a few people come up to the table and talk to them; a few of them buy stuff. A woman with 1940s pinup girl bangs and a man with horn-rimmed glasses seem particularly happy to hang out.
“We’ve been waiting for months to see you guys!” the guy enthuses.
“Thank you so much,” says Kari. She looks just as surprised as Grant feels.
“So what happened to your old keyboardist?” asks the lady.
“She couldn’t take the touring anymore. Good thing Grant here’s holding up pretty good,” Tory says.
“Well, Grant, you’re a find,” she declares. “I really dug the Bartók solo.”
Bartók. That’s who it was. The couple buys a CD and the woman insists that Grant sign it, even though it’s Scottie on the tracks and not him.
After they load up the van, Adam leaves with some fans to check out a radioactive barn, or something, and Jamie goes off who knows where. Jess drives Grant, Kari, and Tory to a bar.
Grant’s always been a lightweight, and the pitiful salad he ate for dinner isn’t absorbing much. It turns out it’s karaoke night, and somehow Kari and Tory convince him to lead the whole bar in a stirring rendition of “Rocket Man.”
“Nice!” Tory says and claps him on the back when he drops into his seat again.
“Very glam,” Kari agrees. She gets this dopey, happy expression on her face when she’s drunk.
At some point while Grant was singing, another guy slid into their booth with them. He’s younger than they are, can’t be more than twenty-six or so, and he’s wearing one of those Army cadet caps that were all the rage a few years ago. At least, that’s when Grant remembers seeing them in San Francisco – maybe fashions travel inland from the coasts, like sound waves.
“Elton John is not glam rock, dude,” the guy is saying through a comically huge mustache. “Okay, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, maybe, but definitely not Honky Châ–”
“Fuck off, dude,” Tory tells him.
Grant giggles. As annoying as the guy is, it’s funny that he’s a hipster and yet still in Iowa. If he was really hip, Grant thinks, he’d move to Brooklyn or Portland or something.
Once Mr. Hat-and-Stache, whose real name is Andrew, finds out they’re in a touring band, he gets a lot more eager to please. He goes as far as offering up free drugs, some kind of government experimental hallucinogen called 2C-E, and is shocked when they decline.
“Why are you on tour if you’re not going to live life to the extreme?” he says.
Grant shrugs. “It beat moving back in with my parents.”
“But you’re musicians!” Andrew persists.
“I’m in my thirties,” Grant says. Like they’re druggies because they’re in a band? They sing about whether or not yawns are contagious, for crying out loud.
“Really?” Andrew says. “Wow. I thought you were like twenty-eight, max.”
Grant knows it’s supposed to be a compliment, but that doesn’t stop his whole body from clamping into Yonsei Defense Mode.
“Hey,” he snaps. “Just because I still get carded doesn’t mean you’re allowed to say anything. Way to harsh my mellow.”
Andrew looks startled. “No, like all of you. Are all of you that old? You all look extremely good.”
"What Grant said," Kari says. "Scoot along now, young whippersnapper." Andrew takes the hint, finally.
“Extreeeeme,” Tory groans and makes devil’s horns with both hands.
“Good riddance,” says Kari.
“You okay, man?” Tory asks.
“Yeah,” Grant says. “Did I really just say ‘harsh my mellow’?”
They all laugh, and that’s enough to make things okay again. Tory buys another round, and then Kari buys them shots called Redheaded Sluts.
“Okay,” Grant says. He is very drunk now. He can feel his eyebrows practically in his hairline. “I have a very serious question. Are Adam and Jamie …”
“Fucking?” Kari supplies.
“We don’t know,” Tory says. “I don’t think so though. They’re both married. But then, with those two, who knows.”
“They are really kinky with each other, though, aren’t they?” Kari says. “It’s not just chemistry between two people, you know?”
Grant laughs. “If I didn’t know them – when I walked into the audition I thought I had gotten it mixed up with a Craigslist ad. ‘Intimidating walrus and Indiana Jones-type seek out-of-work actor for discipline and occasional backup vocals.’”
Kari lashes an imaginary whip and Tory howls. Grant wonders how long he has been wearing a coaster for a hat.
“Hey, did that Andrew guy look anything like Fidel Castro to you guys?” he asks. “With that hat, and the mustache? Dead ringer for El Jefe.”
“El Jipster,” Kari says and they all crack up.
“I really,” she says after they’ve calmed down a bit, “really, really could go for some ice cream right now.”
Grant stands up. He's feeling pretty energetic right about now. “Let’s go get some. There must be a 24-hour place around here.”
Ames isn’t the kind of city that’s meant to be walked – everything is too spread out, neon signs dotting the flat land – but it’s a warm night and they wander around until they find a drugstore that’s open late. Kari settles on a pint of mint chip and Tory buys a can of spray-on blue hair dye.
“You don’t like the bleach job?” Kari asks.
“No, I loved it,” Tory says, “but my roots are starting to show, y'know? Roots showing is not extreme.”
In the parking lot, Kari sprays Tory’s hair. Blue hair actually a pretty good look for him – it makes him look impish.
“You’re next,” she tells Grant, shaking the can. Something inside it rattles.
The dye smells really bad. Grant gags and runs several paces away, but Kari chases him and eventually gets the other half of his hair.
“Revenge will be mine!” he shouts and tries to wrestle the spray can away from her. In the struggle, he trips on one of those parking block things. He loses his balance, staggers, clutches at anything to try to stay upright, and anything turns out to be Kari’s arms. He doesn’t let go for a second and meets her gaze.
She's just standing there, smiling at him. She’s really pretty. Shit.
Grant’s relieved when Tory grabs the spray can from Kari, completely wrecking the moment.
“Help me do my chest hair!” Tory yells, pulling off his T-shirt. Grant manages to spray-paint a pretty decent upside-down arrow on his stomach.
“What is that?” Kari asks.
“Directions,” Grant and Tory say at the same time.
Kari rolls her eyes. “You two really should get it on.”
“Fine with me, good lady,” Grant says cheerfully.
“Only if you wear the tight pants,” Tory says.
“Oh, well obviously,” Grant agrees.
They’re taking turns scooping out bites of ice cream with Tory’s Leatherman pliers when a security guard approaches them and asks them, very politely, to leave, or he’ll have to call the real cops. They shuffle to the edge of the parking lot and Kari pulls out her cell phone and calls Jess. Grant feels like he’s in a John Mellencamp song about teenagers in the heartland with nothing to do, waiting for a parent to come pick them up from the drugstore parking lot.
Except, he muses, he’s not really a teenager, he’s in his thirties and still doesn’t have a real job, and he really doesn’t know how he’s ended up drunk in the middle of fucking Iowa, with blue hair, playing keytar in a band, and all of them overgrown children and getting old, why is he so okay with all of this?
“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time,” he sings softly, under his breath, – “and I think it’s gonna be a long long time…”