For 33 days in the summer of 1987, Divine Weeks toured in a beat up old Ford Econoline Van, sleeping on strangers’ floors, never sure they’d make enough gas money to get them to the next town. This deeply personal, coming of age, on the road memoir follows critically acclaimed 80s indie alt rock band Divine Weeks’ first tour. Liberated from alcoholic upbringings and rigid cultural constraints, all they have is their music and each other’s friendship. The road is filled with yuppies, brothels, riots, sleeping on floors, spiked drinks, DJs with no pants, and battles with racism. They set out on the road to discovery to drink in all they could and maybe sell a few records. They grew up instead.
Bill gives an overview of the book:
The time has come to be brave.
For the first time in my life — all 22 years of it — I wake up today with this crazy-ass belief. If I can just get myself in that van, I might have a chance…to make it possible.
Today the door opens. The culmination of three years of maniacal drive toward a singular goal. To get out of this haunted house and get my band, Divine Weeks, on tour. It’s all I’ve thought about the last three years, daydreaming in class and writing out imaginary tour dates. Toiling at my windowless shit day job, shuffling papers everyday, helping rich men get richer while my dream just sits out there waiting for me to seize it.
We’ve spent the last few days scrambling around. Gathering contact information of bands, promoters and press to call and radio stations to drop in on. To the Price Club to buy peanut butter and jelly, bread and Cheerios in bulk. Down to Venice Beach to buy a bunch of stolen calling cards. Then to Guitar Center with a tall tale about how we’re going on a very high-profile tour promising to play exclusively on whatever gear we can scam off them. Worked too. Gave us some drum skins, some cymbals, a mountain of guitar strings, patch cords. The smarmy store manager then groups us all together and takes our picture with one of their moronic sales reps who has on about the goofiest grin you can imagine.
Tom Hasse is going to be here in just a few to pick me up so we can go rent the van. No one will rent to us because none of us have a credit card, and we’re all under 25. Our friend Ron Jolly, a courier, turned us on to his mechanic who showed us how to disconnect the van’s odometer so we can save on mileage charges. You get something like 500 free miles, so the plan is we’ll go to about the 600-mile mark and then disconnect the thing. After the mechanic tells us how to do it, we were all quite pleased with ourselves until he turns to us and says, “But you guys do know it’s a Federal crime, right?”
I started the band with two friends from high school — George and my other best friend Raj, our guitar player. In high school, the three of us were basically losers — either laughed at, dismissed, or never even thought of. Earlier this year, it started getting back to a lot of folks we went to high school with that Divine Weeks was starting to make a dent in the L.A. club scene. We’d see familiar faces come to a show, snicker and leave. Some of it was jealousy, or maybe it was a sense of order being disrupted. Like seeing Radar from M*A*S*H* play a saloon singer in a movie or something. You just can’t accept it. High school’s like TV a little. You get typecast. Those first few years after high school are threatening. People keep tabs on you and not so they can cheer you on from the sidelines.
The last gig we did in town was a few days ago at the Lhasa Club opening for fIREHOSE who started up out of the ashes of the Minutemen after D. Boon tragically died a little over a year ago.
Just a few months ago before a show I’d pace back and forth in front of Club Lingerie or the Anti-Club or Raji’s, thinking if I fretted long enough out in the cold more people would magically appear. Of course they don’t, and I head back inside, and we play our hearts out in front of eight or ten people at most.
Because the Lhasa is so intimate and we’re so loud, we always bring great heartache to the soundman there, an uppity little Frenchman like the Lhasa’s owner, Jean Pierre. During soundcheck, the soundman tells George he’s too loud so George says, “O.K., but if I turn down any more I won’t be audible.” Guy marches toward George and spits out in his heavy French accent while striking a bass player’s pose, “We’re not going to lose our license because some silly little bass player wants to go boom, boom, boom.” George just stands there dumbfounded while the little fellow pivots on his boot heel and storms back to the soundboard. So, we do what we always do. Turn down at soundcheck and crank it when the show starts.
For our encore I ask what everyone wants to hear. It’s a rock star thing to say but who can resist the opportunity to hear “Free Bird!” shouted back at you? Never fucking fails. Finally, someone yells what I’m waiting for. I want to do “Dry September.” It’s my favorite song to perform. Raj has adopted “Dry September” as his own personal catharsis of the racial taunts he absorbed growing up Indian in England. Every time we play it, it’s like we’re all fighting the power of his past together. The middle section of the song is like an exorcism. As the band pounds out a strident staccato marching beat, I wail my guts out. Every night we play a different version. It just keeps evolving. Live, this is the true essence of Divine Weeks. The one song I’d offer up if we had only one left to play.
Before fIREHOSE takes the stage, Raj offers to move Mike Watt’s skyscraper-like SVT amp onstage and poor waif-like Raj can’t handle it and about gets crushed to death. Right before the amp topples on him, Watt’s massive hand reaches down and pulls it up just in time. Watt just smiles and says “I got this one, Raj.” Like he’s done with countless up-and-coming bands, Watt’s sort of taken Raj under his wing, and it’s really had a profound effect on Raj who’s now totally bought into the whole DIY approach. During their set, Watt, in his inimitable style, pays us the ultimate tribute when he says “This is dedicated to Divine Weeks,” and he hits a big booming D note, lets it sustain and points at Raj. Few get it, but it was fucking high praise.
Now let me make something clear. Divine Weeks is not some big arena band on a major label with oodles of cash behind us. You probably never heard of us unless you’re one of the few thousand people who pick up the L.A. Weekly, L.A. Reader or BAM every Thursday to check what’s happening around town. We’re not part of L.A.’s “in” crowd, and we don’t have any hip cache. One of the earliest bits of press we ever got was: “These guys will grab you by the scruff of your collar and demand attention despite the fact that they look like four college Joes waiting for a bus.” It’s one of those backhanded compliments we’ve used as inspiration.
Just seven months ago, we were limping along playing late weeknight gigs with no record deal, a drummer that was never going to work out, and virtually no press at all. Just after the first of this year, we got signed to the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn’s Down There label, found an incredible drummer, got named one of the top local bands by the L.A. Times, and we’ve been getting great reviews for our live shows and for our just-released debut record Through and Through.
This is not just our first tour. Aside from our drummer Dave, who’s been on his own for a few years now, it’s basically our first time out on our own at all.
This is not some big tour by plane or train or bus. We’re just throwing two old love seats I found in my garage into the back of a Ford Econoline cargo van, putting them face to face to sleep on, and the rest of our stuff we’re storing in back.
Aside from maybe Springsteen, there’s no rock stars for role models. They’ve all let me down. It’s like they all lusted after stardom and once there, looked us in the eye and then fled. I’ve stood there outside after shows and watch them treat fans like an annoyance, get whisked away in their limos and isolate themselves in their extravagance and wealth only to moan about it later. I’m done with it.
That’s what drew me to the Do It Yourself (DIY), just-get-in-the-van credo pioneered by bands on SST Records. Although we don’t sound much like bands like Black Flag, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth, we’re inspired by their ethic and aesthetic. Success doesn’t come to you. You go to it. Eschew major labels. Put out your own records, book your own tours. You don’t stay in hotels, you beg from the stage for a floor to sleep on. Create a community. Call like-minded bands, ask to open for them and promise to help them when they come to your hometown. Drop in on college radio stations and beg people to come down to your shows. No roadies, no high powered promoters. Black Flag pretty much invented it and bands like the Minutemen taught us how to go and do it. Mike Watt calls it “jamming econo.”
Musically, we’re closer to the Who at Woodstock by way of early REM. But ideologically, more than any other band, the Minutemen are the closest to what Divine Weeks’ core is all about. Egalitarian, working-class, politically conscious, smart. Like us, their friendship and loyalty to each other shaped their very essence. The Minutemen were like indie rock teachers. They showed us and a lot of bands that being indie was a righteous cause — fighting the good fight against the bloated, arrogant and self-important hierarchy of major labels and radio programmers that keep good music off the air and relegated to garages.
Every time we climb on stage, write a song, meet a fan, deal with a booker or a radio programmer, we feel the eyes of the bands that showed us how to do it are watching. We can’t let them down.
Once I get in that van today, I plan on never going back to school. Raj, same thing, and Dave washed his hands of school a few years ago. But for George, it’s more complicated. He’s got to make a decision whether or not to commit to grad school next year. He needs us to make as big a splash as possible on this tour so he can justify not returning to school in the fall.
* * *
When George, Raj and I started college, we kind of went our separate ways. That fall I went to a lot of club shows around town, mostly by myself. I got angrier and angrier. I’d drive home and find myself pounding the steering wheel and screaming, “Man, I could do better than those fuckers! What the fuck am I waiting for?”
By that Thanksgiving, it’d become impossible to hold back any longer. I’ll always remember the date. November 24, 1983. It’s a typically crazed, uncomfortable holiday dinner at 940. Ten minutes of eating and four hours of waiting around. Lots of false starts and stops and frozen smiles while my Aunt Nancy sets up a photograph. “Now everyone just smile and be happy!” she’d say. Right.
My mom can’t sit still and pops up in five-minute intervals to disappear into the kitchen to swig some booze and then return momentarily calmer. My grandmother, the same thing, slipping into the kitchen quickly downing some Cutty Sark and staggering back into the living room chirping, “Everyone happy?!”
As Thanksgiving dinner finally winds down, I just want to get the hell out of there. I call Raj and ask him if he can come pick me up and take a drive. When I see him pull up in his family’s old Honda, I grab my pea coat and pull my newsboy hat down low on my head. I mumble a goodbye hoping to get away before somebody makes it out to the driveway and starts screaming something.
I get in and say to Raj, “Hey come on, let’s go,” looking back to see if I’d been followed.
“Where to?” Raj asks.
“To the top of the world,” a spot up on Mulholland Drive where you can see all of L.A., I say.
The alignment on Raj’s old Honda is for shit, and we roll along Sunset Boulevard almost like a crab walks — kinda sideways. Traffic is light, and we make our way through Hollywood, past the Strip — first Gazzarri’s, then the Rainbow and the Roxy. Then there’s Duke’s and the Whisky on the left. The next block, you have Tower Records on the left and Book Soup on the right. A little further east, all on the left, is Ben Frank’s, then Carney’s, Guitar Center, Rock ‘n’ Roll Ralph’s and a little further, Club Lingerie and across the street Cat & Fiddle. But just before then, we hang a left on Highland, go past the Hollywood Bowl and then take a left up Mulholland Drive.
When we get to the top of Mulholland, we pull along the dirt embankment and stop. It’s cold and dry and windy so I pull the collar up on my pea coat. We walk to the very edge of the cliff. The sight of a million shimmering lights and all of L.A. is there for the taking.
“So, how’s the college life, my friend?” I ask.
“All right, I guess,” Raj says looking down and kicking at the dirt.
“So, what do you think we’re gonna have to show for it in 20 years?” I say picking up a rock and chucking it as far as I can.
“Don’t know,” he says shrugging. “Just living our lives, I guess.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think that’s gonna be good enough,” I say, picking up another rock but not throwing it. I go on. “I keep hearing people say when you get to college you’re just getting started on the rest of your life, but that’s a bunch of bullshit. It’s not the beginning. It’s the fucking end if you’re living someone else’s dream. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re living someone else’s dream, Raj.”
“OK, but what are we supposed to do?” he asks watching me chuck the rock out into the darkness.
“Don’t you see, Raj?” I say moving closer. “Something happens when you keep denying what’s at your core. Something happens when you deny the thing that’s your very essence.”
I watch him stare out into L.A.’s vast expanse.
“Raj,” I say quietly to him. “Soon it’ll be too late. You’ll be married to someone you’ve never met before, and I’ll be as bitter as everyone in my house. If we don’t do this now, we’ll hate ourselves for the rest of our lives.”
He looks back at me and asks, “Do what?”
“For fuck’s sake, Raj. Music. We’re supposed to make music — you and me,” I say feeling a rush scaling my windpipe. “I’m telling you, it’s meant to be. Raj, look down there,” I say taking off my hat and using it to point at all the shimmering lights. “Let’s make every one of those motherfuckers down there know our name.”
He doesn’t say anything for a full minute. He just keeps staring out at all those lights before the words just tumble out: “Bill, I’ve wanted to call you and say the same thing for the past three months.”
“And you know what?” I say, my eyes widening. “We’re gonna be the ones who do it right. No groupies, no rock star poses, no ego trips.”
I look at him until a smile creeps up that Raj can’t hide.
“I’ll call George,” I say smiling.
The next morning, I phone George who’s living in the dorms at UCLA. I hadn’t talked to him since the summer.
“Que pasa, my friend,” he says in his croaking morning voice. “How’ve you been?”
“Look, if I beat around the bush I might think twice.”
“Well, you don’t want that,” he cracks.
“Listen, I hooked up with Raj last night. We were talking up there on top of the world, you know, up on Mulholland looking down at the whole city and everything. And man, I’ve been up there a million times, looked down and never saw any space for me. But last night it didn’t look so scary and off limits.”
“Oh-kay,” he says trailing off.
I exhale deeply and fire my shot. “Look, school’s become a joke. I’m only going for my grandfather. And, well, Raj and I were talking, and…we want to start a real band. The goddamn greatest band that’s ever been.”
George laughs nervously for a moment and then says soberly, “I can’t believe you’re saying this. I was lying on my bed just last night wanting to call you and say the same fucking thing.”
The next week, the three of us gather in George’s basement and write one song, “Like the City, a droning but jangly little lark. We record it onto a shitty little ghetto blaster. I still have the tape. I ask George’s mom to take a picture of us together so the moment can be captured, certain this will be an important piece of rock history.
After that first rehearsal, we all walk up the steps of George’s basement, and it’s like we knew we’d just crossed over. We’d played a few parties together in high school but no one dared say it was for real back then. This was different and we could all feel it. Everything up to this day was someone else’s, and now everything was in our own hands. When I get home, I write out ten targets I’ve set for the band with a little tagline under it: “Thanks be to music — the deepest mother, a lover, a soul mate, like no other...a gift from God, a spirit to haunt, an expressway to the soul — toll-free…for wounded hearts tired of lamenting.”
* * *
Excerpt from 33 Days: Touring In A Van. Sleeping On Floors. Chasing A Dream
Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and lulu.com
Used by Permission from the Author.
Copyright ©2011 by Bill See. All rights reserved.
Q & A
Bill See answers a few questions about his new book and the motivations behind it.
Q. How did you come to self-publish? There are a lot of challenges to getting a self published book promoted. Has that been daunting?
A. Well, it can be, but this is nothing new for me. D.I.Y. is in my blood from putting out my own records, touring, self-generating hype, and forcing people to take notice. My band Divine Weeks made the jump to a bigger label that way, and I don’t see marketing a self published book all that differently. I see young bands today utilize facebook, youtube, twitter and blogs, and wish Divine Weeks would have had those at our disposal. We sure wouldn’t have starved to death on the road like we did. I see promoting “33 Days” as my chance to modernize the old D.I.Y. punk ethos I learned from Black Flag and the Minutemen. I’m making video tours of L.A. to show readers the town as it existed in the book, I’m making book trailers, creating youtube channels, facebook, of course, blogs, and the book’s website offers a virtual tour of the book, and a portal into all the music, people and clubs found in the book.
Q. At the end of the book, you reveal you were asked to join Jane’s Addiction but turned them down which is ironic since their presence is strongly felt in the book and caused some conflict in the band. Did that story ever come out before?
A. No, I never revealed that before other than to a couple friends. My motive with the book was never to try and make a case that Divine Weeks was the great lost band of the last 20 years or bemoan our not making it. Or me not making it. In fact, just the opposite. It’s inconsequential whether Divine Weeks made it, and I strongly considered ending the book before that question is even answered. Ultimately I decided to add an epilogue, but more so to muse over the whole idea of what success is.
Q. What drove you to write this particular book?
A. 33 Days is actually a combination of two unrelated projects that commenced simultaneously about 12 years ago. The first was a letter to my sister, who was given up for adoption and reappeared in my life. She asked me to describe for her what she missed and what it was like growing up. I grew up in a pretty turbulent household, alcoholism, mental illness. I was originally going to call it, ‘Hey Sis, Glad You Missed It,’ but that only told half the story. The other thing I was working on at the time was turning my old tour journals into a readable book. So, I had these two things that seemed so unrelated, but then it occurred to me, the background I’d written for my sister was actually the primary motive for what lead to me making music, starting a band, and all that drive I found to getting us on tour. So that basically became the book’s first chapter, day one as it were, before segueing into the day by day journal that’s the crux of the book.
Q. Is the book in any one particular genre?
A. Well, I guess they call it a memoir nowadays, and it is, in fact, a true story with real people doing real things on real dates in real places, but it’s actually written like a novel, a docu-drama, I’m calling it. It’s basically a coming of age, on the road story. It just happens that the “characters” play music at the end of every mind blowing day out there. They could just as easily been mountain climbers or comedians on the road and the motivations and arc of the story wouldn’t be all that different.
Q. Who are your greatest writing influences?
A. Hmm, Kerouac, Salinger, Camus, Harper Lee -- as authors whose body of work I love. And probably Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries, Henry Rollins’ Just Get In The Van as two specific influences for 33 Days.
Q. Would you self-publish again?
A. Like I said, D.I.Y. is part of my core. See, I have a unique perspective having watched the music industry revolutionized by the internet during my band days, and now I enter the fray while arguably the same thing may be happening in the literary world. The music industry was torn down by people going DIY, and I never shed a tear over it. If the insular exclusive world of the publishing world is blown open by self publishing, I’m all for it.
Q. Who is the book for?
A. Well, when we left on that tour, we set out to have our own Kerouac On The Road
experience, and that spirit was running through me as I was journaling that whole time. When I finally got around to writing 33 Days, my motive was to write a book you’d go searching for after finishing On The Road and wanted more journeys that go off the map. Maybe that’s folly. In the end, it’s a book about liberation, the perils of sitting on your dreams. It’s about giving yourself the gift of opportunity,
and defining your own idea of success. And ultimately, it’s about redemption and reclaiming the original spark for why you create. Who’s it for? It’s for everybody who ever stood at their own crossroads with a dream screaming inside wondering whether to choose the road that goes off the map or fold up their tent and head back home.
Bill See was the lead singer for critically acclaimed Los Angeles band Divine Weeks for the duration of the band’s lifespan from 1984-1992. Divine Weeks was signed to the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn’s Down There label in 1987 and released their debut Through &...