My sweet mother stood there scowling and covering her ears behind the patio door as the final squeaks and pops of my Virginia-legal-sparkler-fountain-thing scattered its dying embers across the backyard of my childhood home. This was not the first time I had heard her say these words, of course. She hated those damn things, always did. And I had made a childhood career of indulging in any explosives I could get my hands on. Though, as Virginia fireworks go, this particular little gem was pretty standard fare: a few red and green sparks, a little whistle, and a puff of white smoke…..over in 15 seconds. No glorious display of pyrotechnics by any means, but sadly this was the closest thing anyone was gonna get to a good old fashioned bottle rocket or firecracker in my suburban neighborhood. You’d have to drive to the North Carolina border if you wanted anything TRULY adventurous (a trip I had happily made numerous times over the years).
It was another brutally hot and humid 4th of July afternoon. Not so different from any other 4th growing up in Springfield, but this day seemed even too muggy to go downtown with the rest of the DC suburbs and watch the National fireworks display, a tradition for anyone growing up outside of town. The thought of packing up a cooler, braving traffic, searching for parking, and humping a giant picnic across the mall (as we had done countless times before) didn’t seem so appealing in the suffocating heat. So, rather than battle the masses, my mother, sister and I decided to fire up the grill, put on some music and spend the day together at home as a family. A nice, quiet evening. Or, so we had hoped.
Now…..I must admit…I was a fireworks junkie.
Years of roaming around the country on tour, I found myself pulling over and stopping at any local fireworks merchant/stand/wholesaler I could find. Posessed by a love of all things explosive, I simply couldn’t resist! Little ones. Big ones. Ones that fly. Ones that zip around on the ground. Smoke bombs. Snakes. Rockets. Roman candles….you name it. (most of which were illegal in my hometown…perhaps the sweetest allure) And if the motherfucker went “BANG” at the end, well shit….sign me up! I just HAD to have them. There was nothing like being on tour, sitting in the front seat of the van, seeing that old, faded billboard on a windy country road advertising an arsenal of fun, and pulling in with a pocket full of per diem. No matter what time of the year it was! Could be national donut day for all I care! I’m lighting this place up! (that’s Friday, June 5th by the way)
1998 welcomed a beautiful, life transition for me. I had just moved back to my hometown after spending almost a decade on the west coast. I found a nice little place outside of Old Town, Alexandria and decided to build a studio in the basement. Coincidentally, the band had recently been let go of our record contract on account of a “key man clause” (Thank you, Gary Gersh!) so we decided to go rogue, hiding away to record another album completely on our own without distraction or complication from any “business types”. Free agents! Woo hoo! Girls gone wild! The plan was clear: find a house, design a basement studio, build the basement studio, soundproof the basement studio, find recording console to install in the basement studio, and then make gigantically huge rock album in the basement studio. Voila! Easy enough, right? The wheels were in motion….
As we all know by now, the centerpiece of any classic studio is the recording console. (I’ve done a little research) THE BOARD, MAN!! It’s the heart! The altar! The womb! The soul! The thing you put your beer on while you play guitar! It defines your space, and translates those little voices in your head that keep you awake at night. It is, without a doubt, the coolest fucking work of technology known to man. This is a fact. So, finding the right board was obviously crucial to our 20 year world domination plan. It had to have style, pedigree, history! It had to take our sound to another dimension! It had to unlock the secrets of the ancients for us to channel them and conquer modern rock radio!
But, most importantly, it had to fit through the basement door.
I hope I don’t sound like we knew what we were doing. Because we sure as fuck didn’t. Not by a long shot. Our idea of soundproofing was literally nailing old sleeping bags to the walls. Egg cartons. Big chunks of foam, questionably glued to surfaces in formations we imagined to be acoustically relevant. Whatever we could find, if it was soft and squishy, it was going up on the walls. Just flying fucking blind. It was Lord of the Flies with microphones and amps. A Charlie Brown treehouse with speakers. A 24 track stoner fort. Fucking heaven.
With the help of studio “guru” Alan Sides and producer extraordinaire Adam Kasper, we found an old API desk for sale in Nashville, Tennessee. A classic behemoth with everything we could possibly need, it had lived downstairs at Ocean Way studios for years. Rather than going for a Neve board, which are known for their warmth and signature vintage sound, we opted for the API because of their presence and more brilliant tones. Perfect for a garage band in basement studio. It was an “L” shaped beauty, in excellent condition, with the 1/4 inch patch bay built into the frame. Kind of looked like a cross between an old telephone operator switchboard and the Star Trek control room. It was the perfect fit. Best of all, it was now OURS!
As we got closer and closer to the completion of construction in the basement, we made arrangements to transfer the board from Nashville to Virginia. Considering the importance and complexity of such a delicate endeavor, you would imagine it would take a team of scientists/experts/professionals to gently and meticulously remove it from it’s home, carefully place it in some sort of official transport, and motorcade it to its final resting place, right?
Nope. It was Jimmy Swanson and I in a Uhaul truck.
Jimmy and I were no strangers to a good road trip. We were inseparable from the age of 10. From teenage trips to Ocean City, Maryland in the summer, to California for the first time together with Scream in 1987, we had put in some miles between the two of us. Nirvana tours. Foos tours. Hell, he was my fucking roommate in the house we were building the studio in! It was just another adventure in our long list of “things that high school dropouts do to avoid working at a fast food restaurants”. We set the date for pick up, hit the 7–11 for Slim Jims and smokes, and headed out to the highway (cue Judas Priest song).
Springtime in the south is fucking glorious. Try it sometime. Everything comes to back to life in a lush, green return. You get to wear your favorite Slayer t-shirt again. The truck windows come down. You smell BBQ in the distance. It’s a redneck rebirth. And for Jimmy and I, watching the world blossom from the front windshield of that Uhaul truck was the closest thing to Dorothy landing in Oz that we were gonna get without a handful of mushrooms. Beautiful. A little less Thoreau, a bit more Dumb and Dumber, but beautiful nonetheless.
Somewhere along the way, I spotted that old familiar red white and blue billboard: FIREWORKS SUPERMARKET! A fucking supermarket of fireworks! Can you imagine? Aisle after aisle of fountains, parachutes, sparklers, bottle rockets, missiles, roman candles, smoke bombs, snakes, aerial spinners, ground spinners, firecrackers, wheels…..I mean……FUCK YES. A gunpowder garden of Eden! There was NO WAY I was passing up the opportunity to throw down a boat load of cash in this mecca of smoke and flame. A baptism of BOOM was upon us come 4th of July! I may have actually gotten the chills from excitement. Sad, but true. I was hopeless. Jimmy and I decided that we’d swing by on the way back to Virginia after picking up the board. No use in blowing our wad just yet! (See what I did there?)
Pulling up to Ocean Way studios, an immaculate white conversion van in the alley caught my eye. CB antennas and fishing rods from top to bottom, this thing was the Love Boat of party vans. The Millennium Falcon of Pensacola. I fucking DROOLED. Like a chariot sent straight from Margaritaville, it was more of a “craft” than just a van. Yes, we had officially arrived in Nashville. (If memory serves, the proud owner was a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Though, I may have just made that part up in my mind. You know…romance.) It was an omen, I was sure of it. This was a sign from the heavens that Jimmy and I would successfully make the transaction and be on our way back home in no time.
Let me tell you, I’ve never birthed a child, but squeezing that monolithic recording console out of that downstairs room was not unlike delivering a one ton baby through a very small orifice. The grunts and screams of 10 grown men squirming and wrestling this thing through a window, up some stairs, out the door, and onto the truck would’ve made any obstetrician blush. And, not 10 hulk shaped bodybuilding linebackers, mind you. No. More like 10 dudes that sat around smoking and eating Slim Jims all day like Jimmy and I. Knees were fuckin’ wobbling, believe me. Not sure how we pulled it off, but we managed to achieve the unachievable and get back out on the road.
Pyramids schmyramids, we had some shopping to do.
Oh, the anticipation. What would I buy first? Did they have shopping carts like a normal market that I could fill, and refill, and refill again? Was there a limit to how much I could buy? Maybe stuff was on sale! Maybe I could get a members card, punch out all the little holes in it and get something for free! Maybe they had T-shirts that I could wear so that when another fireworks addict/lunatic saw me, we would become friends and swap secrets/tips/war stories! My mind was racing, pedal to the metal, speeding back to that billboard. God forbid I got there and they were closed! I’d hate to have to sleep in their parking lot, snuggling Jimmy in the cab of my Uhaul truck, waiting patiently for the manager to arrive the next morning to open up shop and let us in! (don’t judge)
Surprisingly, I got out of there without having to refinance my house. I must have had a moment of clarity while standing dizzy in the aisles like Robin Williams from “Moscow on the Hudson”, because I think everything I bought fit into one large box. You have to understand, I was imagining filling the goddamn truck to the roof with this stuff. Like, maybe leaving the recording console there in the fireworks supermarket parking lot and coming back for it someday. But….priorities, you know. Plus, there was a question of where the heck I was going to light this stuff off! Most of it was far too massive a display to attempt in my mother’s back yard. Maybe go down to the Outer Banks, NC? Maybe up the dunes in Currituck? Surely not within the confines of my neighborhood cul-de-sac. But, I had time to decide.
Got home, stashed the box of fireworks, squeezed that giant board into my basement, and made a new record. Remember that shitty, sleeping bag padded, Charlie Brown treehouse, 24 track stoner fort? Turns out it worked just fine. Wrote some of our best songs, washed down a lot of BBQ with some ice cold beers, and nabbed a few Grammys in the process. It was an inspired spring….
“I hate fireworks, David!”
Fortunately for my mother, I had made the wise decision of NOT bringing that god forsaken box of firepower with me to her house that day. There was just no way on earth I could unleash such bounty on my sweet North Springfield neighborhood! Too massive. So, I dug through the box and picked the runt of the litter hiding at the bottom of the pile. The most harmless looking thing I could find. I think it was called “Cracklin’ Thunder” or something like that. Nowhere NEAR as intimidating as some of the other goodies I had stockpiled. I figured at least my sister would get a kick out of it. I jumped in my truck, stopped at the store for some things to drink, some things to grill. Hit up a local fireworks stand for some more conservative fare, maybe a sparkler or two, and headed over to Mom’s….
I believe my mother and father bought our house in 1974 for $30,000. Built in 1958, it was a 1,300 square foot, single level brick home, 3 beds, one bath, a carport. One of hundreds exactly like it. This is where I spent my years before moving to Seattle in 1990. A wonderful place to grow up, the dead end street became a community of families that worked together, played together, ate together, and helped each other in times of need. People of different backgrounds, ethnicities, races, religions. We were tight. Johnny Park, the Robinsons, the Woodwards, the Gallaghers…it was more Norman Fucking Rockwell than a Lana Del Rey record! But, as the years go by, families move, people disappear, people say goodbye, new people move in, things change…..except for us. We stayed. By 1998, we had become one of the few families that had been there for over 20 years. And sadly, we just didn’t have that connection to the neighbors anymore. Not like when we were young. To be honest, I think they viewed me as the “satanic rock star” and my mother as the “retired school teacher/cat lady” (which I was kind of into, really) But, I ain’t gonna lie, I did long to be a part of that old school community again.
As I was flipping our steaks out back around sundown, I heard a familiar popping and crackling on the street out front. I craned my neck over the fence, spatula in hand, apron dripping in the heat, and saw the entire neighborhood gathered at one end of the cul-de-sac. Lawnchairs, grandmas, little kids, coolers, dads in shorts…it was the next generation of our neighborhood that I remembered from my youth! Just like the good old days! Norman Fucking Rockwell!! I poked my head into the kitchen and convinced my mother and sister that this was the PERFECT opportunity to meet the neighbors and reassure them that we were neither satanic, nor a cat farm. I grabbed a beer, grabbed my “Cracklin’ Thunder”, put on my best game face and the three of us slowly headed over, arm in arm.
I could hear the whispers as we grew closer to the crowd, “spspspspss…..sssataniccc rocckkk staaaarrrrr!! spspspsps….Caattttt laaaaddyyyy!” Hands cupping ears in a symphony of hissing, southern accents. Hard stares up and down. They looked a bit scared, to be honest. I mean, imagine the Adams Family showing up to Billy Graham’s family picnic, and you’re getting warm. Undeterred, we smiled and greeted everyone with a handshake and a “Happy 4th!”. Deep down, all I really wanted was to be a part of that good old neighborhood again. That perfect, brown and beige 70’s sitcom version of life that had I loved and missed so dearly. That kodachrome photo album in the living room cabinet that I opened once a year. I wanted to be that kid again, if just for one day. I could win them over somehow. I knew it. I could get in. I could do it. I told myself, “I can do this”.
In the center of the cul-de-sac stood one dad. The master of ceremonies. The lighter of all fuses. With protective eyewear and hose in hand, it was clear this dude was the mack daddy. I knew had to take it to the top. Awkward introductions aside, it was time to go large. I approached confidently. “Hey man, I’m Dave.” “Hello. I’m Bob. Happy fourth.” I was in! This was it! We shook hands, made small talk while children ran around excitedly as Bob lit a few fountains here and there. This is exactly what I remembered from my childhood. Exactly what I wanted. It was happening…
Feeling more comfortable now, I offered to join in the festivities with my “Cracklin’ Thunder” that I bought that fateful day in Tennessee. I knew it would impress them. I knew it would impress Bob. I would become king of the neighborhood once again.
“Mind if I throw a little something in the mix, Bob?” I said with a newfound swagger. “Of course!” he said. “Just a little something I bought at a fireworks supermarket in Tennessee a few months ago….you know, no big deal…”
I placed it on the ground. Held my lighter to the fuse and waited for that first spark and the delicious smell of sulphur to ignite. HISSSSS…I started running back to the crowd with wild anticipation….
Have you ever seen Apocalypse Now?
What happened next can only be described as a “worst case scenario” (understatement of all understatements). It started off ok. Well, more than ok actually. It was phenomenal. Two giant balls of flame the size of comets shot at least a hundred feet into the sky, exploding in a shower of M80 sized, ear drum bursting firecrackers, illuminating the street like strobe lights at a fucking Nine Inch Nails gig. Audible gasps. Mouths agape. “OOOOHS and AAAAAHS” from the crowd behind me. I. Could. Not. Fucking. Believe. It. This little thing, the size of a Folgers coffee tin, had about the same firepower as the USS Nimitz. I was beside myself.
Well……silly old me didn’t stabilize the damn thing before I lit it (apparently necessary) and it tipped over, facing the crowd, with two more rounds in the camber.
Need I say more?
Lawnchairs flying. Grandmas running. Children screaming. Dads in shorts scattering. Ears ringing from the deafening sound of a thousand explosions all around us. Panic. Chaos. Mayhem. Anarchy. Terror. All I remember seeing in the thick cloud of smoke and strobe was the sight of my sweet mother running for her life to hide behind a tree. I had never seen my sweet mother run for her life to hide behind a tree before. It was fucked up.
As the last little explosive made its final pop, I lifted my head from my hands and surveyed the damage. Chairs overturned. Families running home. Generic sodas bleeding on the pavement. Carlton 110’s still burning. Bob’s hose laying lifeless in the middle of the street. It was suburban annihilation. And it was all my fault. My Kodachrome fantasy had been crushed. My neighborhood dreams dashed by one stupid fucking 4th of July firework. Regret does not begin to describe what I felt in that moment. I had never wanted that kick ass “Back to the Future” car more than right then and there. But, I had to live with it for the rest of my life. My mother, sister and I slinked back to our tiny little house with our tails between our legs. Once again the “satanic rock star” and his “cat lady” mom.
I’ve never to this day touched another firework. Never stopped when passing one of those billboards on a windy, country road. But I still long for my old neighborhood. My sweet Virginia. If she’ll ever forgive me….