Humping Gear

By Tyler McMahon

Music

The secret to rock and roll resides in the nose hairs. Years ago, a veteran bassist taught us to pluck them in order to stay awake during all-night drives. I remind Josh of this, as the sign for the last Truckee exit glows green and white in the van’s headlights then disappears into the darkness.

Eli snores from the back seat, wedged between amps, instrument cases, and the world’s heaviest Hammond organ.

“Maybe we should stop,” I say.

“Too late,” Josh says. “We passed all our crash pads.”

The Reno show was a disaster. The venue turned out to be a tall stage amidst a complex of neon-lit fuck-or-fight bars and semi-attached to the stadium where the city’s AAA baseball team (the Aces) played an exhibition game. Once we had the gear set up, it was painfully clear that we’d left California and entered Middle America.

Security dragged off a few drunks who tried to climb on stage—about the only segment of the crowd paying attention to the music. Eli declined most of his solos. The band tab barely covered food, let alone drinks. During breaks, loud house-music pumped through speakers at the bar next door. There was no encore. I could tell from their mood that the guys wanted to go home, even though it was two in the morning and home was five hours away.

I’d gotten some bad news about a new manuscript right before we left San Francisco, and had lost sleep over it the past few nights. I figured I’d snooze on the way back. Normally, Eli and Josh were wound up after a gig. But tonight’s crowd had given them no energy in return. Thirty minutes into the drive, Eli declared his intentions to quit the band, then fell asleep. Josh exhausted his serviceable nose-hairs, then slapped his own face. The van drifted off into the rumble strips a couple of times.

The Best Thing About This

Rewind to the summer of 2008. Obama’s campaign gained momentum. An agent submitted my first book to several New York editors. Poor Man’s Whiskey purchased a second-hand tour bus—Whiskey 1—and stuffed it full of yard-sale couches and plastic coolers. The road stretched out before us and was lined with hope and glory.

We were somewhere outside Bend, Oregon when Josh threw the cap from a full tequila bottle out the window, as if that were some time-honored tradition between us.

“The best thing about this,” he passed me the bottle. “Is that it’s legal.” I’m still not sure whether he meant drinking aboard an RV or littering in Oregon. We sat on a plush couch and shared the tequila, while pine trees whizzed past the bus window.

Our destination was the second annual Four Peaks Music Festival, an event organized by the Coach and a couple of collaborators. It was one of many multi-day campout/concerts that take place in the Northwest during summer months. A revolving circuit of bands plays most of them. Four Peaks lost money in its first year and was all set to lose even more the second time around. Rumor had it the Coach cashed in his retirement plan to fund this year’s event.

Once the heavy summer schedule is complete, the boys will fly to Virginia to record their most ambitious effort thus far: a bluegrass interpretation of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, entitled “Dark Side of the Moonshine.” They’ve played their arrangement live several times—dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz—and a buzz has started. The recording will be a major investment, but everyone feels it could be a stepping-stone towards bigger and better things.

We spent the weekend at the outdoor backstage, surrounded by snow-capped mountains at every side of the horizon, listening to music with our shirts off in the sun, drinking cold beer from the kegs that kept appearing in the hospitality tent.

The festival’s finale was one of the most unforgettable concert-moments I’ve ever witnessed. The scheduled closer, a “band” called The Everyone Orchestra, turned out to be one guy with a whiteboard and dry-erase marker. Minutes before his set, he recruited a line-up from among the groups still hanging around. On two stages, he proceeded to “conduct” over a dozen musicians through a series of instrumental numbers via written instructions on his whiteboard. A wall of sound—guitars, drums, horns, keyboards, banjos, violins, Theremins, and harmonicas—played together in amazing cohesion. Fireworks went off overhead. Thousands of people cheered. From my spot in the crowd, you’d never guess that this event was anything but wildly successful.

The Pluses and Minuses

Josh and I met over a dozen years ago in our early twenties, when he dreamed of being a rock star and I dreamed of one day being an author. He’s recently returned from his first international tour (to a festival in Australia), and is heading to Arkansas in a couple of months (the band’s furthest point east). My first novel will be out next year. Both of us are a bit shocked by how little these so-called milestones have managed to change our lives.

Josh and I have spent countless hours over the years—mostly on long drives—discussing the pluses and minuses of our chosen fields. Certainly, being part of a band is the heaviest burden of musicianship. I’ve heard it called a “democracy” with five other guys, but I’d suggest the term “marriage” is more appropriate. They must check with each other before taking vacations, making any major career change, or moving to a new apartment. They work around each other’s moods, and are well-versed in the driving, drinking, smoking, eating, farting, and snoring habits of their band-mates.

Writing can be practiced alone, from almost anywhere. Josh often expresses envy for the silence and the solitude. I’ve tried to explain the downside—the loneliness, the lack of collaboration. He’d likely miss the chemistry among those other musicians. It would be nice, I think, to be able to lean into another artist every once in a while, to form part of a bigger whole.

Then there’s humping the gear—not what Hendrix did to his amp at Monterey but what foot soldiers did with their packs through the Vietnamese jungle. PMW tours often resemble multi-destination cross-country moves. Once Josh’s organ, keyboard, banjo, and amplifiers are all set up, it feels like the end of a long workday. As a writer, I rarely have to lift anything heavier than a laptop.

But the biggest advantage to what Josh does, in my opinion, is the bi-weekly interaction with his audience. I’ve been writing fiction almost as long as Josh has been playing music, and only rarely—at a public reading or when some eccentric literati has picked up an obscure journal—have I known the pleasure of changing somebody’s day, let alone their life, with art that I made. I could probably count those times on the fingers of both hands. Josh experiences this several times a week.

Though we’ve both handed our lives over to anachronistic dreams, his is only out of date by 50 years or so. The novel, on the other hand, reached its pinnacle in the 19th century.

Wasting Time

I’ve heard a few creation myths about the band now known as Poor Man’s Whiskey. My favorite begins with Josh’s freshman year at UCSB. He answered a classified ad in the student newspaper from a “band” looking for a keyboard player. He showed up to find two guitarists, one of whom he recognized from the Sports section of the same student newspaper.

“Hey,” Josh said. “Aren’t you the tennis guy?”

“Don’t worry about that.” Eli waved off the very correct identification. “Do you know ‘Ain’t Wasting Time No More’?”

Josh laid down the intro and chord progression. He continued playing it for the next forty-five minutes while the two sophomore guitarists gleefully traded solos.

“Okay.” Eli signaled them to stop. “This is looking pretty good here. What I need you to do is pick a major that won’t take too much time. We should be on the HORDE tour by next summer. Try not to get kicked out of school in the meantime, but you won’t have to worry about graduating or anything like that.” Jason smiled and nodded behind him.

“I got a couple of questions here,” Josh said sheepishly. “For starters, what about a rhythm section? You know: drummer, bass player, that sort of thing?”

“Don’t worry about that,” Eli said. “It’s taken care of. Let’s go through ‘Wasting Time’ again.”

And though each of them has quit or been fired at least once, and some of their hiatuses have lasted several years, the three of them are still playing those chords, still trading those solos. Fifteen years later, they’re still chasing the same stubborn and elusive dream.

Freaks, Stunts, and Banjo Comedy

PMW’s website describes “an incomparable fusion of folk, punk, rock, and disco.” But the origin of their sound is more complicated and quixotic. All of the principals were weaned at the teat of sixties and seventies hard rock. With inspiration from a borrowed banjo, they decided to bring along acoustic instruments and open for themselves as an old-time bluegrass string band. They half-jokingly named this side project “Poor Man’s Whiskey”—a reference to Mississippi John Hurt’s pejorative term for marijuana. In short order, the bluegrass arrangement outstripped its electric counterpart, and the latter was ditched altogether.

But it didn’t take long for the boys to get bored with their acoustic sets and begin to plug in again, in a Dylan-esque defiance of their own burgeoning purism. Now, their sound is a multi-headed stylistic monster. Besides the instruments, their greatest inheritance from the bluegrass tradition seems to be the performance ethos. As Nat Keefe, another string-band musician puts it: “These are the kind of guys who, in the 1920s, would have been a traveling variety show, complete with freaks, stunts, and banjo comedy.” At bigger concerts, the band plays in costume: prison stripes, mariachi outfits, gladiator armor, or wooden barrels. Often, they busk on the street outside a venue before taking the stage. There’s a little vaudeville there, a little Vegas. But beneath it all is a sincere desire to please crowd. One of my favorite parts of the show is their habit of unplugging the instruments and playing encores on the floor, amongst the audience. It’s an incredibly powerful moment—to hear hundreds of relative strangers sing together at the end of an evening spent listening, to see the walls between performer and audience kicked down by men who’ve been driving and carrying equipment for the past twelve hours, most of whom have to be back at work on Monday morning.

All of which makes me wonder how they’ve ended up on what is essentially a jam-band festival circuit—a scene which conjures images of aloof slobs with their backs turned towards the audience, playing mathematical solos and avoiding banter with the crowd. But as I hang out behind the scenes at Four Peaks for a few days, I find that it’s not so unusual. Many of the performers have a taste for punk, prog-rock, heavy metal, or hip-hop; most would choose a Black Sabbath record over a Grateful Dead one. It seems less odd when I consider the restricted demographics I’m used to seeing at readings and literary events. These jammy festivals and their crunchy devotees are simply one of the last environs left in America where people care about live music played well by non-celebrities.

Between the Poles

The magic of PMW resides in its three leaders. Josh is often called the face of the band. He writes and sings most of the songs, and shares beers and hugs with the audience into the wee hours of the night. In Josh’s own words: if he were in charge, the band would have a lot of friends and even more debt.

Jason—called “Coach” by the others—is the invisible enforcer. The only member without a microphone, he makes the set-lists, plans the itineraries, schedules practice time. He’s also the one with the most pedestrian lifestyle: two kids, wife, house in the suburbs, a minivan. His job as a tennis pro affords the flexibility he needs to take these tours. Abhorring beer and gas-station bathrooms, he’s the most unlikely rock star of the bunch. If there’s one thing you need to know about the Coach, it’s that he wears a helmet whenever driving or riding in a car. Citing an obscure statistic about head wounds and auto accidents, he now dons it without comment from the rest of the band. The jokes have all been used up; they’re not funny anymore. The last time anyone mentioned the helmet was to ask if his wife wore one as well. “Of course not,” Coach answered. “She thinks I’m a dork.”

Then there’s Eli—the intense, mercurial cross between prodigy and perfectionist in fields both chosen and accidental. From what I can gather, Eli was a childhood tennis star and later, a prize-winning hang-glider. I’ve seen his skills as a surfer and pool skater first-hand. When he needs the money, he takes photographs or programs software. For the past several years, he’s given himself completely to music—his first and all-encompassing passion. To keep overhead low, he moved into a teepee on a piece of borrowed land in Santa Rosa. He shares Jason’s discipline and musicianship, but also Josh’s recklessness and onstage charisma.

Together, their dynamic is something like Sancho Panza and Don Quixote squared. The band exists in a constant state of push-pull between the poles of a weekend hobby for a group of suburban dads and a hell-for-leather commitment to the rock and roll dream.

Ideas vs. Chops

It never ceases to shock me how—in the eyes of the band—all shortcomings are traced back to problems of musicianship. When things go wrong, at any level, the answer tends to be practice more, get serious, work harder.

On the way home from every show, they carry out a self-flagellation ritual known as “playback,” in which they plug a digital recording of the previous night’s performance into the stereo, and play it back in its entirety, often along to an electronic metronome. The boys berate themselves (and each other) over missed notes or clumsy changes—minutia lost on the drunken audience. Most of the members are currently taking music lessons of some kind. I can’t help thinking: didn’t the Ramones and the Stooges—even early Pink Floyd, for crying out loud—teach us that chops do not a great song make? Again, it forces me think of my own discipline, and our assorted pieties when it comes to revision, diction, and quality prose.

In the eyes of the audience, it seems there are only good ideas and bad ideas. In the eyes of the artist, there is only good or bad execution.

Internationally Touring Rock Band! (Also Available for Weddings)

Fast forward to 2010. The American economy collapsed. Whiskey 1 is broken down, its repair estimate in the tens of thousands. The Dark Side of the Moonshine album turned out well, but cost a fortune and failed to attract the attention of record labels or booking agents. The Flaming Lips announced their own cover of Dark Side of the Moon just weeks after PMW’s release. For the last year or so, Eli, Josh, and the Coach have forgone their salaries in order to pay down the band’s debt. Now, we travel to Four Peaks in a borrowed Dodge Sprinter. There’s no room for Josh’s Hammond organ.

The festival was on hiatus last summer, and is more like a backyard barbeque this time around. However, in light of all that’s happened in the past two years, one must admit that the Coach managed his own 401k more effectively than many other Americans.

I meet up with the band after one of their winery gigs. I’ve never actually witnessed one of these shows (in fact, plans always seem to preclude friends ever seeing them). But the impression I get is that the boys play in the background and are expected not to distract the listeners from their wine. Along with weddings, these are still the most lucrative income stream for Poor Man’s Whiskey. There have been many earnest conversations about somehow hiring other musicians to play these gigs as a sort of PMW franchise operation.

The band has decided to prohibit hard liquor before performance, and is generally more mindful of expenses on the road. Instead of sleeping on the bus like last time, we’ll be staying at a series of crash pads—mostly the homes of family or loyal fans—after the shows.

The first and most fascinating lesson about the band’s methods of growing their audience is how incredibly personal it is. In the age of facebook and myspace, PMW—and perhaps many of their contemporaries—still build their fan base one friendship at a time. They’ve shaken hands with most of their dedicated followers, often slept on their floors. Many times, I’ve watched Josh spend all the money he made at a show on rounds of drinks for those audience members who’ve stuck around. It’s a wonderful thing, that sort of interaction. But it’s no less work.

The Serious Money

I help Josh move into a new apartment in San Francisco. With mixed results, he’s been straddling the realms of full-time musician and weekend hobbyist for the past two years. Now married, he’s moving to the city partly to be closer to his wife’s work. Josh is technically looking for a day-job at the moment. But one glance at his calendar makes me wonder what he could possibly do. Almost every weekend is booked, and with travel time those weekends often start on Thursday. A couple of longer stints—Yosemite in October and Arkansas in November—require even more time off. And if the Australia invitation were to come their way again this year…could he possibly say no?

Unlike Eli, Josh doesn’t live in a teepee; he lives in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I know that he sees himself at a kind of make-or-break point. The band needs to start earning serious money, or else he’ll have to compromise his availability.

Josh has many times expressed his anxiety about this compromise, the feeling that he has only one chance to make his music happen. I respect his commitment, but in my heart of hearts, I fear that this make-or-break point may last more than a year. It could go on for decades. I know I’ve heard a similar sentiment from aspiring writers: a desire not so much for success, but for a clear sign of either success or failure. If they had closure on their dream, one way or another, then they’d be free to move on. Unfortunately, the universe is no magic eight-ball: it never speaks to us purely in positives or negatives, but in an endless overlap of ambiguities and contradictions.

Also, I fail to see where the serious money would come from. I’ve spoken backstage to several of the bands considered more successful than PMW. They may have a higher level of name recognition, but they don’t earn a lot more. Even the events themselves—the festivals or the nightclubs—rarely make any profit from ticket sales. Beer and corporate sponsorship seem to be the only way to stay in the black in this business.

In fact, “full-time” status has much less to do with income than with what the band is willing to sacrifice. Most full-timers live on their buses, and can’t afford a fixed address. It’s more a lifestyle decision than a measure of success.

As Eli puts it: “Touring is the best way for a band to lose money, besides recording.” If PMW’s goal were to earn well in the short term, then they’d be forced to forget that bus and focus on wineries and weddings. It’s a Faustian bargain: the part they loathe pays the bills; the part they love demands greater overhead, longer hours, and pays bird seed.

Curiously, the second most lucrative option for working musicians seems to be busking at street corners and subway stations. Without the middle-men, buskers go straight to their audience. It’s exhausting, unglamorous work, but the hours are flexible and you can go to bed early. As we carry his piano up the stairs to his new apartment, Josh entertains busking as a serious possibility.

By the Glow of the Dome Light

The band’s first vision of the 2010 Four Peaks Music Festival is a humbling one. Rather than the two rigged platforms of 2008, this year’s stage is a borrowed low-boy trailer. There’s only room enough for the rhythm section, so Josh, Eli, and the Coach lay carpets on the grass and play from there. This time around, the crowd is less than a hundred locals.

Josh has a hard time loosening up for the set. A couple songs in, he signals me to bring him a beer. Soon enough, the boys have found their mojo. The audience gathers closer to hear. As the sun sets over the mountains, they play “Ain’t Wasting Time No More,” which gets a big reaction from the crowd, and no ironic looks from the three men in the grass.

The local police force posts cruisers out along the road. The music has to stop at ten, or else they’ll enter the farm and shut it down. PMW unplugs and then hosts a sing-along around a hastily built campfire late into the night. All together, they must’ve played for five or six straight hours. No attendees will forget this performance. It’s a beautiful ending. Considering the staggering difference in budget, one could argue it’s more powerful than the Everyone Orchestra finale two years ago, just down the hill from here.

And still, the gear sits out on the trailer, needing to be packed. By the glow of the Sprinter’s dome light, we load it all up and drive off to a friend’s house, hoping to grab a few hours of sleep before the long haul back to San Francisco.

The Requiem

Along that darkened stretch of I-80 West which connects Reno to San Francisco, the only thing between us and instant death is a bag of sunflower seeds. I almost insisted that Josh pull off to the shoulder and sleep, but he swore all he needed was coffee and seeds from a gas station. They seem to be working.

I recently taught “Death of a Salesman” in an introductory literature course for non-English majors. As we drag ourselves down this old familiar road, it’s not the car wreck that comes to mind, but rather the Requiem and the Loman brothers’ final, contradictory words about their father’s dreams: that they were wrong—all wrong—and that they were the only dreams you could have. Those words didn’t resonate with the business and engineering students I’d forced to read them. But they’re all I can think of now, as I listen to the tires beat out a rhythm upon the highway—a writer in a world that no longer reads, among rock stars adrift in a post-record age, guitar heroes in the era of Guitar Hero.

I wonder about those white whales we’ve spent our lives chasing. Whether we called them record contracts or book deals, what we were after was some kind of meaningful artistic life, one where we could create what we wanted, could take an audience along for the ride. Do such lives still exist for some people? Did they ever exist? Or were they just the carrots held out before aspiring artists, at the end of a long stick which includes rejection, all-night drives, teaching comp, playing weddings, and humping gear?

Perhaps it isn’t so much that the dreams were right or wrong, the ones we should or should not have had. The problem is that they were only dreams after all. Following them wasn’t meant to lead anywhere, but rather to remind us—nightly—of the difference between the lives that are, and the lives that might be.

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TYLER MCMAHON is the author of the novels Kilometer 99 and How the Mistakes Were Made. He is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review. He teaches writing at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. More info at www.tylermcmahon.net.

24 responses to “Humping Gear”

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    Welcome to TNB, Tyler.

    This is a great piece. Usually I don’t read the Music pieces, but I’m glad I read this one, mostly because of the memories it brought back.

    I was a traveling events guy for 25 years, but not music. My gigs were road races (running) and I was the timer. The booked weekend where travel started on Thursday — yeah. Ours were much more early mornings, like very early (3 AM to start setting up), than late nights, but it was the same stuff. First to arrive, last to leave. Humping big cases of computers, finish line electronics, UPSs, ladders . . . well, all that stuff. And of course it had to work properly, no excuses. Driving, sometimes a thousand miles a weekend. Eating whatever they gave us.

    The wonderful sound of the generator powering down. Ahh. It’s over.

    And the rush when it was all on the line, and all working — I do miss that.

    Never heard that one about the nose hairs, though.

    So. A lot of commonalities. Thanks.

  2. dwoz says:

    best piece of work on this online rag this month.

    b.e.s.t.

    somewhere between Reno and Oakland, there’s a nail that’s been driven deep between rib 4 and 5 by a hammer hitting it squarely on the head.

  3. Ah, man, this road story-hauling amps, holding the band together, boozing to find the mojo, being stiffed by promoters-is as old as Chaucer. And just as iconic. I know these guys in different bands and different iterations, have lugged van-fulls of it myself to no avail, two drink tickets, and zero applause. All of which to say, this pretty much lashed it down again. Really good, crisp writing, Tyler. And I could swear I’ve heard of their Dark Side album. Maybe on NPR or something?

    Welcome aboard.

    • Wow! Thanks guys. I’m stoked to wake up to the feedback.

      It’s funny: so many people have had a similar reaction when I mention the Dark Side thing. A ‘think-I-heard-about-that-somewhere’ feeling. I can’t tell if it’s better publicized than the band realizes, or if it somehow snuck its way into the collective unconscious…

  4. Doug Bruns says:

    Wonderful piece–“lives that are and the lives that might be.” That pretty well sums up my quest of too many years. Welcome aboard and I look forward to getting to know your writing.
    D

  5. Art Edwards says:

    Yes!

    Tyler, as a novelist/musician, so much here resonates. This is the story of artists in the 21st century, what I’m calling (as of this moment) After the Bottleneck Broke. My wife and I live it everyday.

    I’m finishing up my third rock novel, which is called Good Night to the Rock and Roll Era, and I’m thankful to come across a kindred spirit.

    Art

    • Thanks Art!

      I’m stoked you like it. I was following your Nevermind vs. Appetite Saga pretty closely during the writing of this piece. I was hoping it would end up on TNB, among such good company.

      When’s your new book coming out? How the Mistakes Were Made will be out in fall, 11. We should try and do some dual readings or something…

      • Gloria says:

        I was just sitting here at my desk, minding my own business, when my Spidey sense tingled and I knew that somewhere on TNB, someone was talking about Appetite for Destruction.

        Welcome, Tyler.

        Hi Art!

      • Art Edwards says:

        Bless you.

        I have two self-pubbed rock novels, which have done well as self-pubbed rock novels go. My third novel will be finished in Dec., and I hope to go pro in 2011. (Always next year, isn’t it?)

        Sounds a trip to Honolulu is in order! I’ll gladly team up anywhere. I have your email now. You won’t be able to get rid of me.

        Art

    • Thanks Art!

      I’m stoked you like it. I was following your Nevermind vs. Appetite Saga pretty closely during the writing of this piece. I was hoping it would end up on TNB, among such good company.

      When’s your new book coming out? How the Mistakes Were Made will be out in fall, 11. We should try and do some dual readings or something…

  6. dwoz says:

    One very poignant and bittersweet detail…that for the most part the internet “art-as-data” shift has eliminated the economic “upside” for the practitioner of the arts…hit’s pretty hard. The “we all will hold on as long as we can, until it just becomes impossible” aspect.

    When I was coming up, the time you describe was the time considered an investment in your career. In today’s world, that word can no longer be used. It’s become something else.

    Soon enough for me to see it, the days of mastering your art, and of seeking out mastery in art, will be waning. Replaced by the music of plebes, replaced by the writing of plebes, simply because a journeyman troubadour/writer/artist meat sack has to occasionally eat real food, and sleep in a real bed. Maybe that’s just elitist, I don’t know.

    • I’ve been informally polling my freshman on how they feel about the buying and selling of music for the last few years. I think I could sum up their collective feelings this way: All music should be free; all musicians should be rich.

      It usually takes the remaining 45 minutes of class to work out the contradiction…

  7. nathan says:

    a great piece Tyler, filled with memories of great bands past, poor mans whiskey songs, and thoughts of the hot tub in Lake Atitlan… I would love to read your novel, and chat some more.

    NAthan Wise

  8. Nathan!

    Of all the comment boards on the internet…great to hear from you. Are you really in Antarctica, or is that a joke? I wouldn’t be surprised either way.

    I’m surprised our paths never crossed up in Nor-cal in the past few years…

  9. Matt says:

    Welcome, Tyler.

    I worked in a nightclub for several years, and spent most of my downtime while the band was on stage chatting with the road crew. The smaller acts always had the better stories, and they were always something along this vein. This existance of the working musician is such a far, far cry from the rock-star-excess stereotype that the public has become accustomed to. And so much more glorious when it succeeds.

  10. Zack Brough says:

    Amazing piece. You are a rockstar Tyler. This read sent chills down my spine. Love it!

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  12. Simon Smithson says:

    Welcome to TNB, Tyler!

    Have you seen the documentary Anvil? Fascinating stuff.

    There seems to be a theme around TNB at the moment about the questioning of direction and vocation. These things tend to come in clusters, with no real link to each other, they just appear from the firmament in the space of a week.

    This was a well-written debut, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your work.

  13. […] TYLER McMAHON is a roadie. […]

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