Joe McRedmond interviewed Mike Greenlees, drummer from Tar (Chicago), about their touring vessel. (Top photo is Tom Zaluckyj, John Mohr, Mike Greenlees, Mark Zablocki, & Whitney O’Keeffe. “Somewhere in Canada in front of somebody’s apartment where we had stayed. March 1993”. Photo courtesy of Tar).
What was the catalyst, motivation, or inspiration for getting a van in the first place, specifically?
In the spring of 1989, we thought we were ready to start stringing shows together and tour. John (Mohr – Tar guitarist) had the good job, compared to everybody else, and offered to buy a van. The agreement was that during periods where the van was being used by the band, the band would pick up the payments/maintenance. John would retain ownership, as he made the downpayment, and paid for most of the year, etc. He thinks we split stuff like tires (went through a lot of those, obviously).
Where/from whom did you get it? Did you know the background of this van when you purchased it?
Our van was purchased at Elmhurst Ford in Elmhurst, Illinois in the spring of 1989.
Tell us about the van, year, make, model, color – did it need work, and did you do any DIY, build a loft, etc.? Did you give it a name?
The “touring vessel” was a white 1988 Econoline 150 cargo van with 22K miles on it. $8500, John thinks. Manual transmission. No a/c. It had two aftermarket sun roofs already installed, which were nice for ventilation, but they leaked when it rained hard enough. I think we beefed up the suspension/leaf springs whatever. John and maybe Mark (Zablocki, guitar) built a loft in the cargo area. Gear below, futon on top, which was the standard. We attached a heavy duty cable, looped through the sliding door and one of the legs of the loft, thus disabling the sliding door, which was not opened again for the duration of the touring years. This meant that the only way to get the gear out was through the back doors, which had one of those hockey puck heavy duty locks.
Did the van have any funny or unique features?
Not that I recall…John put a cassette system in it, and had a portable cd player that hooked up to it via a cassette contraption. It got stolen once from our practice space, which was in a saucy area at the time.
What did you typically listen to in the van?
A sample of Tar van tunes is: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, Neil Young’s Ragged Glory, a Led Zeppelin mix tape, Wipers’ first 3 albums, Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady, Big Star’s first 2 records, the Stones’ Exile of Main Street, and NPR Radio.
What’s the longest drive you ever did between shows? What was the first trip you took with it?
First trip was down to Champaign, Illinois in March 1989. The loft wasn’t built yet. I remember sitting on the floor in the cargo area with the gear as we brought a friend or two with us, Iain Burgess, and I think Bruce Adams.
The longest drive between shows – technically, Minneapolis to Spokane, though we had a day off to make the drive. We left Minneapolis after the show, drove 15 hours to Butte Montana, got a hotel room. This made the drive the following day to Spokane a short one. The longest drive we ever did for gigs on consecutive nights was Edmonton, AB to Winnipeg MB. 13 hours.
How did you kill time on long drives?
Reading books, playing scrabble, sleeping, and for John (and sometimes Tom Zaluckyj) driving.
Did you sleep in the van, people’s houses, or hotels?
All of the above. We almost never stayed in hotels, and almost never had days off when touring the US, which is when we would typically spring for a hotel, if we weren’t somewhere we could stay for a couple of days. I was allergic to cats and dogs, and we would never leave the gear unattended ever, so I slept out in the van whenever we were staying at somebody’s place who had pets. And in general, everybody who put us up had pets. Winter, summer, whenever, wherever I was out in the van, which suited me and my socially awkward ways. Other members occasionally slept in the van as well. The main advantage to that was not having to dump all the gear into somebody’s living room, then pack it all up again the next morning.
Were there any van rules you had? Or band rules in general?
We didn’t have any behavior rules. The only rules I can remember had to do with the gear. Never leave the gear unattended. If nobody sleeps out in the van, the gear is to be unloaded into the room where we are sleeping. Always pack the gear the same way. This makes loading and unloading more efficient, and since we had that rule of emptying the van whenever it was left unattended, we were loading and unloading the van more than once a day sometimes. John did about 99% of the driving, but that wasn’t really a hard and fast rule. I remember driving once on the heavily under construction (always) PA turnpike with semis riding our ass, and not ever driving again, except for a few times I moved the van, or parked it or something.
“Parallel parking our van full of gear, with the manual transmission, on a steep incline in San Francisco one night after a gig was the crowning achievement, probably, of my life. We don’t have hills out here…“– Mike Greenlees
We tended to not give people a break if they didn’t want to pay us a guarantee due to poor turnout. Getting paid was sort of a rule.
Lastly, we never brought extra helpers on tour, and in fact, very seldom allowed anybody we didn’t know well in the van. We did one tour of the US with a soundman, split his pay with Jawbox, but he rode with us because we didn’t care if he smoked in the van. Beyond that, we pretty much pegged the capacity of the van at the 4 band members.
Do you have a classic nightmare van/police/mechanical/crash/fire story from tour or any other shows?
Nothing too bad. We hit a deer outside of Detroit the first night of a tour. Took out the front end, and we had just enough power/momentum to limp up an exit ramp to a gas station. Got towed to a Ford dealership and we all slept in the van, and spent much of the next day in a diner across from the dealership waiting for it to be repaired.
We got pulled over speeding near El Paso, and said the magic words “rock band”, so we had to empty out the van so the cops could make a half-hearted effort to find drugs or whatever. They didn’t really look through much but our personal bags.
The van got towed in Brooklyn once. We would always park it on the sidewalk in front of our friend’s storefront apartment on Flatbush, and then on our 4th or 5th time there, it finally got towed. We had all the gear with us inside (see “rules of the van” section), so we just had to go to the yard, and pony up $150 bucks.
Any other entertaining tour stories?
Nothing extraordinary comes to mind. We were not crazy, wild, party dudes. We played music. We played scrabble. We read books. We made friends.
We had recurring in-jokes involving taking credit for preposterous feats such as building roads.
“Man, this is a nice stretch of road.”
I would like to point out that in the photo at the beginning of this interview, with the four of us standing in front of the van with our soundman, “Sweet Knees” O’Keeffe, that is not my hair. I had on a ridiculous winter flap-hat, which I lost somewhere in the ensuing years. Which is unfortunate, as The Kids in the Hall autographed the underside of the bill. Retroactive shout out to Don Pyle for getting us in to see a taping earlier on that tour. We blew off a soundcheck to attend the earlier taping – they did the same show twice for two different audiences, I think. Don Pyle, the drummer for Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, who did the music for Kids in the Hall live at the tapings, got us front row seats. The main sketch I remember involved a father, played by Bruce McCulloch, taking his son out to the traditional rock where the men of the family get blind drunk or something like that.
Where did the van end up?
John sold it in 1996 with about 220K miles on it. He thinks he got about $1200 for it.
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