When we left Santa Fe, it was an extremely hot June afternoon. The radiator in Greg’s red hatchback was leaking water badly, he was out of his bipolar medication, and I was late for a gig in Albuquerque. My first set of show dates in New Mexico turned out to be far more explosive than I had imagined.
I had finished pre-production and was getting ready to enter the studio to record my No War album. A break before recording seemed like a good idea. A good friend from college suggested I do a short tour in New Mexico and I took him up on the offer.
Greg was a professional gonzo journalist, self-published author, and lunatic. A bisexual Hunter S. Thompson. A brilliant, edge-of-sanity mix of Truman Capote and Alan Watts. I loved him dearly. He booked me a series of last-minute show dates and I flew in from San Francisco excited but with no expectations.
I played a couple of small solo gigs in Albuquerque, which included musicians from the area sitting in. One of them was the brilliant multi-instrumentalist, Dave Hoover. Our musical meeting sparked a beautiful collaboration that led to recording in his studio a few doors down from Greg’s apartment.
In just two sessions, Dave and I recorded our Santa Fe Sky album. An ambient, instrumental record with a meditative storyline to match the wonder of the New Mexico skyline.
My trip felt like magic was in the air. But magic is conjured by forces that can change fast. Whimsical djinnis blown in by haboobs and ancient Native American spirits can turn on you in a flash. I learned that quickly.
The heat of the city was really getting to me after a few days as it rose up to 108 Fahrenheit. Partying until late hours and then going to the local amusement park in the morning didn’t help. I was thankful when Greg said it was time to go to Santa Fe.
When we got to the artist enclave in the high desert, it was a great refuge from the oven-like heat of Albuquerque. I did a few more gigs there, surveying the landscape, and thinking about what this land held in its mystical red clay mountains.
Greg was an excellent tour manager, but I could see that he was suffering. His frayed edges were unraveling. His manic side had slipped and his depressive side was becoming his constant mood.
I was no amateur to the world of clinical depression and anxiety myself, so I did my best to have empathy while moving from apartment to home, and from gig to gig, sweating and maintaining my relatively new persona as the barefoot punk rock pianist. I had retired my fedora when I disbanded my previous band the Night Watchmen and was now trying to reinvent myself as less of a caricature.
Greg and I were fans of each other’s work and had been since meeting in 1994. I was very impressed by his affiliations with the early cyberpunk world: Mondo 2000, RU Sirius, and The Well. All San Francisco internet institutions of anarchy before the capitalist rise of the late 90s web. He had also written for Macworld, The Industry Standard, and lots of music press for various artists and venues. His help to me was invaluable.
I knew Greg enjoyed being around the music world, too. He had climbed on stage with me and the Night Watchmen several years before in San Rafael for a drunken spoken word tirade with my band and I loved it. We had continued to spur each other on over the years using art, words, and music.
On tour, even for short periods of time, the blurry-eyed become blurrier when you perform consecutive nights, party afterward, and sleep less and less. At night, things seem slippery and easy, but during the day, the increasing blare of sunshine and ineffective cups of coffee begin to grate on your sanity. Those with an increased chance of being on edge, get edgier.
Things began to grow to a pulsing head in Santa Fe when Greg ran out of his bipolar medications. Out of nowhere, he would cry one moment, be furious the next, hilariously laugh, and then hide in a fetal position. My anxieties were growing but I was keeping them at bay and anticipating the next show. That night, I started to slip myself.
I performed a show downtown Santa Fe and at 2 AM when I put my Yamaha electric piano in the back of Greg’s car, I didn’t shove the hard travel case back far enough. As I shut the hatchback, the back window met with the case and completely shattered. Glass spread everywhere all over the parking lot and throughout the back of Greg’s car in the hot desert night.
The next day, we found a back alley repair shop to put new glass in the rear window of the car, and I spent all my show wages to cover the cost. Then, I convinced Greg to get his prescriptions refilled and we rolled over to the pharmacy en route back to Albuquerque for an impromptu gig I had scheduled with Dave Hoover.
Before leaving the house, we made sure to fill up the radiator and bring along two plastic gallon jugs of water. The small-sized leak had grown to a large one and we hoped that we’d only have to stop once on our trip back to Albuquerque to fill it up.
As we pulled out of the pharmacy with Greg’s medications, the car was filled to the brim. In it was my keyboard and cords, my backpack full of clothes and music merchandise, Greg’s suitcase, a bag full of his prescriptions, and a vintage amp we had borrowed from Greg’s stepfather Jerry. The amp was especially valuable because Jerry was a well-known cowboy-poet, singer-songwriter, and musician who had once taught Bob Dylan to play guitar licks in the early 60s.
There was only one main interstate between Santa Fe and Albuquerque; a 65-mile-long stretch with two lanes on either side. We lurched down the road watching the temperature gauge. When the needle started pointing toward the red, the plan was to pull off in the first place we could.
Nervously we sped down I25. I was behind the wheel and Greg was piled in the corner of the passenger side. I hoped his drugs would kick in soon. We were about halfway, beyond La Cienega but not yet near Budaghers, when the temperature gauge climbed very fast.
It was above the ‘H’ and solidly sticking in the red when I saw the engine start smoking.
I looked at Greg and said, ”We gotta pull over, dude.”
He glanced back sullenly and silently at me. Black smoke began emanating from the car.
“Seriously, Greg. Now. I’m pulling off. This is bad.”
There was nowhere close, so I pulled off on the shoulder of the interstate. Cars whizzed past and a few honked. I got out already sweating. I hovered over the hood of the car and when I looked down the paint was bubbling.
I yelled, “Get the fuck out of the car, Greg! Get out now! The car’s on fire!!”
As Greg stumbled out of the passenger door, he was wide-eyed. I ran to the back of the car where the back glass had just been replaced, opened it, and pried my heavy keyboard in its case out onto the dusty desert ground. It weighed the same as four guitars combined. I frantically rolled it out on its tiny wheels through the scrub brush leaving it 100 yards from the car.
As I ran back for more of our things, I passed by Greg. “What’s going on?” he asked looking scared and confused.
“Fire, man! Fire! Just run!” was all I could exclaim.
My shirt was now sopping wet with perspiration and I thought, fuck me fuck me fuck me. The car’s going to explode. Any. Moment.
I pulled Jerry’s vintage amp out, threw my heavy backpack over one shoulder, and carried them both out into the desert where Greg now sat on the ground mesmerized but safe near my music gear.
Then, I went back for Greg’s suitcase. The entire time thinking this car is going to blow up in my face. But I managed to get there and get back with Greg’s things before the first tire exploded.
BOOOF!! The radial blew out into the desert. Flames had reached all parts of the car and they were leaping high into the blue sky. Then another BOOOF!! Another tire exploded. Cars going in both directions on the interstate had now stopped and lines of cars began to gather in both directions for a half-mile.
Greg began to cry. I understood. Then, I remembered, I forgot to get his medication. All of it was gone now, consumed by fire.
We watched until Greg’s car was a smoldering wreck, a conflagration leaping skyward, smelling of oil, gas, and rubber in the heat. The two lines of cars stretched a mile or more now, and the smoke was thick and dark rising above us all.
During the long time that we watched the car burn, Greg called his stepfather on his cellphone. Somehow, Jerry arrived before the fire trucks, driving down the shoulder. When the firemen and police arrived, Greg gave a brief report to them. Then, we loaded everything into Jerry’s car and left in a pile of stink, chalky desert, and sweat. The smoke still rising in the distance behind us.
We went back to Santa Fe and I missed my gig that night. Instead, we sucked down many margaritas at a hotel bar.
We did eventually acquire more medication for Greg but further drama ensued when we got back to Albuquerque. He was hit by a bicyclist while walking and ended up on his back, slightly injured, and screaming in the street. A high-pitched shrieking banshee, naked except for a dirty tee-shirt.
Later my own fuse blew. I became a broken toddler, throwing spaghetti and red sauce at the white walls of Greg’s apartment. Then I ran off to a strange corner of the city with a random woman from Alabama I’d briefly met at one of my shows.
Despite everything, Greg and I remained friends and are still good friends today.
My first tour performing in New Mexico inspired the creation of an album that people still tell me they love. It also nearly incinerated my friend and me. We created and we destroyed, like mischievous spirits in the mysterious desert.