An Evening With Gruntruck

©1992 John Leach / Licensed under Creative Commons

©1992 John Leach / Licensed under Creative Commons

One day in 2010 I rediscovered a Gruntruck CD I have owned forever.

A quick “where are they now” search on the Internet showed that Ben McMillan the lead singer had died a couple years before that – in 2008. How tragic; he was only two years older than me. Finding the disc and reading the obit reminded me of the time I saw the band in their element, and a unique moment of acceptance I experienced during that show.

I saw Gruntruck with my wife and friends at the Crocodile Cafe; the actual date of the show is lost to history.

I only recall that it was a Saturday night, probably in 1994. I don’t remember much about the opening band, only that there was one, that their brass section was unbearably screechy, and that the club was mostly empty during their set. But as the night got later (and the interior hotter) the facility started to fill up. When Gruntruck finally came on stage, the house was packed wall to wall. The energy level was very high, and the first note was like an explosion. It was almost too loud to enjoy. Almost. With the first song Gruntruck established their rule over the crowd by playing tight and embracing the energy already coming from the floor. For the rest of the show, band and audience were one.

The mosh pit started early around me, with the crowd moving back and forth as a single organism. Not big on that kind of thing, I steered my way towards the edge of the crowd while my wife and friends hung onto the stage front. I ended up near the band’s friends and girlfriends, to the left of the stage. A couple minutes later a girl in a floppy hat lit up a joint and took a big drag. She raised her chin, exhaled slowly, turned to me, and offered it up; I respectfully declined. Without missing a beat she smiled, grabbed something out of her pocket, and offered me a piece of gum instead; I gratefully accepted.

It was the best piece of gum I have ever chewed.

From that point on the show carried a different vibe. This wasn’t just a show; this was a band and an audience who were connecting like regular people. For an hour we were all just like each other. The only difference seemed to be the surface on which we stood – stage or floor. While the show’s set list is lost on me now, the show’s experience is still with me to this day. That night I felt connected with a crowd of people who were easily 8 – 10 years younger. I felt that – even though I was not a pot smoker – I was still able to find common ground with others to the sound of ear-shattering grunge. And most of all, I felt part of a local music scene more than I ever had – before or since.

R.I.P Ben.

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The Dark Drive Home

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In December 1991, I had finished the last of my finals at Washington State University.

The stunning Mrs. Clark had finished the year before, and had moved back to Bellevue for work after graduating. Now it was my turn to move back. Most of my belongings were locked in storage that we could clear out sometime on a return trip. Everything I needed back home was set to load into the Food Shark. But before I could head back to King County I had to work one final shift at my job delivering pizza Thursday night. My plan was to leave first thing Friday morning.

That plan changed.

Most WSU students had left for Winter Break. In 1991, about 9500 people lived in Pullman full time when school was out. By 8:00pm it was clear that whoever was left in Pullman was not ordering pizza. So the shift manager offered me an early out; I took the opportunity to go back to the apartment and finish packing.

But it didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would. It was then that I decided to surprise my wife of nearly two years by packing up the Shark and heading to Bellevue early. It would mean driving from one end of Washington to the other under the cover of darkness. In December. A typical daytime trip from Bellevue to Pullman took about 4 ½ hours. Since this one wasn’t typical, I figured it would take somewhat longer.

I left before 9:00pm Thursday night. The drive was uneventful, one I had made countless times before; the Shark performed flawlessly as always, pulling down 18mpg between Pullman and Othello. I stopped for gas, coffee, and a snack before getting back on Highway 26 West. Again, more uneventful driving. The world was incredibly dark, with only a few lights here and there at farms and outbuildings along the highway. Outside the air was also cold, hovering around 30 degrees. Thankfully the heater worked great; in fact, what was left of the climate control system in the Shark would dial up 70 degrees and hold it there. With no snow on the ground to battle, driving conditions were excellent.

Excellent and dark.

If anything, all the non-eventfullness gave me time to reflect on the last 3 ½ years. The rumble of the Sharks dual exhaust laid down a tone for my brain to register and allow my thoughts to race (music does much the same thing for me). Any plans I had before leaving Shoreline Community College and starting at WSU in August 1988 seemed so distant now. Those plans included a degree in English (which I did get), and a move to the Southwest – either Arizona or New Mexico to start my life again. I had never expected to find someone my own age, or even marry her for that matter. Now I was driving cross-state in the dead of night to see my wife after living apart from her for nearly a year. She was pretty and smart, with a big laugh and a beautiful singing voice. I could have never imagined having someone like her before moving to Pullman.

But the future I was driving towards was uncertain. I had no job lined up, only student loans. When told that my degree was in English, the first question people asked was, “So are you going to teach?” Nope. To be truthful I didn’t know what I was going to do. I got the degree because I love to write. Driving west in the Shark without a job was not much different from driving east in the Monza to Pullman in 1988; I didn’t have a job then either, only a dream to get a degree. I don’t recall being overly nervous about finding a job when I got to Bellevue. I only wanted to get home.

Near the Ryegrass Hill Rest Area I was getting tired. I didn’t have a watch, and the Shark’s clock accuracy was dubious. Best estimate for time was about 1:00am. No matter what time it was, I had to pull over and shut my eyes for a while – to keep from becoming a danger to others. Because it was cold outside, I slept for a while with the car and the heater running, and then for a while without them. After what seemed to be about two hours, I woke up refreshed and hit the road again for the final stretch.

Snoqualmie Pass was mostly clear that night, and the descent into Western Washington brought no surprises; it was raining. Another 40 miles to go and I would be home. The radio stations I had grown up with finally began working on the Shark’s radio. Lights and traffic began to increase. And when I drove through Issaquah I knew it would only be a few more minutes.

I pulled into the driveway at 5:00am on Friday December 20th. Even though uncertainty was at the front of my mind, it was still good to be back in King County, and starting a new life in NE Bellevue. The front door opened and Sherry was in my arms on the porch before I could get inside the house. Her greeting that morning was very simple:

“Let’s never be apart like that ever again.”