Paul Juser: Footprints of the Behemoth

Mastodon Slept Here

“I put the butcher knife up to her neck, and I said, ‘if you want to live to see tomorrow, you better start frying them eggs a little bit better’n you been frying ‘em. I’m sick of eating sloppy, slimy eggs!” Then the music kicked in, and everyone at the American Legion went ape shit. This was my last clear memory of my first Mastodon show. Everything else was fists, feet, guitar, and drums. It was October 2000, and the band had been recently signed to Relapse Records, but had not yet recorded anything but the aptly-named “9 Song Demo,” that was later released as “Call of the Mastodon.” The original singer was already gone, and the line-up was already locked into the same quartet performing today. At the time, their only claim to fame was “two dudes from Today is the Day.”

My group of friends contracted the rare “mastodon fever.” The only cure was pressing your ear against a speaker and cranking “Shadows That Move” to full volume. The band toured almost constantly, and though they were from Atlanta, Bill and Brann were Rochester natives prior to their stint in TitD, and Mastodon came frequently through Upstate New York. They accepted any show they were offered in Binghamton, which usually consisted of a tiny room overfilled with scrawny, sweaty boys flailing like a herd of simultaneous Grand Mal seizures. After the American Legion I saw them in the basement of a restaurant, a condemned punk venue, and an abandoned Chinese restaurant. That was easily my favorite, as it was the night they slept at my place.

There’s an interview somewhere on the Internet where Brann talks about his favorite shows, and the worst places they’ve stayed. He makes it sound like this was spread over many tours, but every story he tells happened the night of the Chinese restaurant. One local band showed up in short shorts. They called my apartment the grossest place they ever stayed. However, if anyone says they slept with their head in the litter box, that was not Mastodon; that was a different band that spent the night a few weeks before.

In those days, I wrote zines. Mostly poetry chapbooks. They were awful. One was a series called “On the Run from the American Dream.” It dealt with mostly punk rock issues and topics, and if you can find one today, it’s worth exactly two dollars, and I don’t recommend you pay a penny more. One issue was about the night Mastodon spent at my house. I printed them on my home computer and stapled them in my living room. I didn’t have a stapler for binding, so I would lay a folded stack of paper on a cardboard box and staple through the fold. I peeled the book off the box and folded down the tines of the staple. This could be done with the edge of a flattening tool, but I was much faster with my thumb. Dots of my blood adorn the centerfold of many of those books. You just don’t get that kind of personalization with a blog.

A friend of mine asked to publish the Mastodon story last year on his blog, “Parlor City Punk.” I was faced with the painful task of ten years later revising a story I wrote the following morning after breakfast with my head pounding. I’d stayed up until 5am with Brent drinking my roommate’s Zimas after the hundreds of cans of beer were gone. He was mad I wouldn’t let them smoke weed inside and we didn’t know where to get them cocaine. Several years later, Brent’s drug abuse put him temporarily in a coma. My roommate spent the night elsewhere. Bill jerked off in her bed.

Life went on. That’s an old story. Next month I’ll tell you about the time I got on stage with Mastodon in New York City when they opened for Slayer on the Unholy Alliance Tour. This month, I want to talk about the Milwaukee Metal Fest.

Summer 2001. Both 9/11 and the epic rock star party above had not happened yet. Mastodon was playing along with an unbelievable lineup of that day’s hottest Metal stars, including Amon Amarth and the Electric Hellfire Club. Dr. Filth and I were rounding the curve on a cross-country trek by train from Syracuse to Seattle, then by car, bus, and vangina through Portland to San Francisco and finish in Phoenix. After a week and a half soaking up desert sun and eating Alice Cooper’s famous French Dip sandwiches, we hopped a train headed north to meet a friend in Milwaukee, spend the night in Chicago, and drive home in his car.

We’d already been on the road for a month, and were eager for the comfort of our own beds and friends that weren’t each other. The ride was overnight and supposed to take less than 24 hours. Estimated arrival in Chicago was early afternoon, and an easy connection by local train to Milwaukee, where we’d drink and rock the rest of the day. The cherry on top was sleeping through the states that suck. We had no money left, and nothing to eat but a bread loaf we’d made into PB&J’s. Our only water was from the drinking fountains on the train, which taste like metal, because no one has drank from those reservoirs since the 70’s. The water I drank in 2001 is likely the same water sloshing below passengers today. This is not the metal I wanted, and you can imagine my dismay when I awoke early the next morning in Arkansas.

We should have been through Missouri for a noon arrival in Chicago. I slept in late just to make sure I didn’t pick up my head before we crossed the border to Illinois. Train seats are made of cardboard and sheet metal, and are covered only with a think burlap sack. I’d slept in train seats nearly a total of a week and a half on this trip, and every moment scratching the raw skin off my cheek was a moment of agony. The benches in the lounge car are more comfortable, but plastic, and you slide to the floor if you fall asleep watching Sister Act 3.

We spent most of our days in the lounge playing cards. The only game we knew was Rummy. On the outward trip we were fairly well stocked with water and money for microwaved White Castle cheeseburgers. We once watched a card trick artist for half an hour. I now realize he was waiting for a tip, but I just thought then he really wanted to show us he could retrieve our cards from his deck.

That morning in Arkansas, I’d read all the books in my backpack already but the Fellowship of the Ring, and I was stuck at the awful Tom Bombadil section. A quick calculation confirmed we could still make the show in time to see Mastodon. The train needed to go full speed the rest of the way. There was weather, or mud, or some peril ahead that left our train crawling through dank and smelly Arkansas countryside. All I remember from Arkansas is the smell of rotten plant matter. Missouri is not much better. You feel dirty when you’re there. I wanted to be seeing the Electric Hellfire Club, but I could strike that off the list, because the train was still at a snail’s pace by noon. The Hellfires did really great covers of Satanic-inspired songs, but their original material sucked anyway. No chance they were doing an exclusive set of AC/DC covers.

Mastodon were still new kids in town, so they were early on the bill. Seeing them went out of the possibilities as our progress remained slow. When they took the stage, we were still in some godforsaken corner of Illinois, crawling toward Chicago. We were close enough, and the train was moving slow but steady enough we could still see Amon Amarth.

Ignoring, of course, that we had no idea how to get to the festival, and we had no way of contacting our friend. My cell phone had been shut off for non-payment, and we barely had a few pennies for pay phones. Our plan was simple. 1) Get to Milwaukee. 2) Figure it out from there. Transfer was surprisingly simple in Chicago, leaving me distrustful we were not actually so quick onto a reasonably comfortable but outdated train bound for Wisconsin, ETA 90 minutes. We wouldn’t see much, but we still had plenty of time before Amon Amarth.

At the train station I was delighted to find a print edition of The Onion. I didn’t know until later it cost money, so I’m sorry I stole it. This was late at night and the newspaper stand wasn’t open. I hope the magazine didn’t go out of print because of me. I hung onto that paper for years, and may even have it in a trunk somewhere, if anyone at the Onion would care to have it back.

In the parking lot, we spotted a pay phone, but found our friend driving at us as we walked toward it. He’d called the train line when we didn’t arrive and was told we’d boarded a shuttle bus. He’d been driving to the station between bands all day until he found us. A couple bands remained before Amon Amarth. All was good.

Cephalic Carnage was playing when we arrived, so we watched a few songs before spreading out to see the scene. I was most interested in the food carts, but Doc was looking for Mastodon. He’d booked shows for them in our town and they remained in touch for years after. We found Brent by the garbage cans eating the last of a sausage. He was covered in mustard. On his hands, arms, and jeans where he’d been wiping. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone over the age of one smeared with this much food. Brent extended a hand to shake. Dr. Filth stared in horror and shook his head. “No.”

We were able to see Cephalic Carnage, or Agoraphobic Nosebleed, or Dying Fetus, or one of those late 90’s “Brutal” Death Metal bands. They all sounded the same: a cacophony of drums and wailing guitars with a grunting bullfrog for vocals. This was all the rage at the time, but was pushing me quickly away from Death Metal as a fan. These days the best I can do is a few songs off an early Deicide or Cannibal Corpse album for nostalgia, but even these are impossible to take seriously. Doc and I took a seat in the bleachers to wait for Amon Amarth. We were near the speakers, but I still fell asleep immediately, and didn’t wake up until the applause for Amon Amarth as they left the stage.

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