Waggonerfest: the Gospel of Jake
By Jake Ziemba
My good friend, Tusk editor and erstwhile bandmate in Death by Misadventure Nate Waggoner recently published his own lighthearted account of our teenage Waterloo, Waggonerfest, a backyard high school rock show which 9 out of 10 Rolling Stone editors agree was “just like Altamont, but worse.” I will now offer my own, exponentially more harrowing account of the incident.
Before diving in, it bears mentioning that at age seventeen, I developed Paroxsymal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria, or PNH, a non-hereditary bone marrow failure disorder affecting approximately one to two people per million. It causes blood clots to accumulate throughout one’s body, similar to the effects of Sickle Cell Anemia, widely acknowledged as one of the most painful illnesses known to medicine. PNH used to be a death sentence, but medical interventions within the past few years have changed that, and that’s why I’m alive today (you can learn more at pnhfoundation.org; if this essay makes you laugh, or moves you in any way, please consider throwing them a dollar or two). At the time of this story, I was already sick with PNH, but had yet to be diagnosed, and therefore had no idea what the hell was happening to my body, or why.
The summer after high school ended and before college began, my high school band Death by Misadventure played what passed for a “big show” in the anemic Herndon, Virginia music scene, held in Nate’s backyard. We called it Waggonerfest, because we’re not as clever as we’d like to be. I was really, really excited for this show. While all of the other really serious stuff in my life was falling apart, playing music with my best friends was a real godsend. When I was doing it, I wasn’t worrying about how lonely and sad I was, or fearing that whenever I was diagnosed with whatever was wrong with me it would be something terminal or untreatable (it turned out to be both, at the time anyway), or dreading all of my friends leaving me behind for college while I stayed to suffer and deteriorate from a mystery illness while sporadically attending a commuter school. For me at least, playing rock music and being fearlessly goofy and weird with my fellow goofy weirdos was transcendent, and having that outlet helped me to bear my burdens with more grace than I would have been able to manage otherwise.
The morning of Waggonerfest, I woke up in the early throes of another PNH episode. I could tell this was going to be a bad one. It hurt to stand. It hurt to walk. It hurt to breathe. I had no morphine (in the early days of my illness, sometimes a kindhearted doctor would give me pain medicine without knowing exactly what was wrong with me, but it was more common for me to be kicked out of the emergency room and accused of drug-seeking behavior). My understanding bandmates offered to cancel the show, but I refused. We had extensively promoted it (and in the pre-facebook days, that meant telling a bunch of people and telling them to tell people, and sending mass electronic mails, now get off my lawn), and a lot of people said they were coming, and we’d been rehearsing hard and sounding great, and like all teenagers, I was quietly desperate to show other teenagers I was good at something cool so they would like me.
When the big day finally arrived, I was in no position to drive or carry my gear, so lead guitarist Nate came over and picked me up in his van, which we called the Nasty Van. He took care of transporting all of my equipment, and set me up on a couch in his basement, in as much comfort as could be managed, where I clutched my knees and shook and rocked back and forth, trying and failing to control my pain with breathing exercises, while the rest of the band finished setting up for the show while the audience arrived. A lot of people did in fact show up, for a DBM show at least, maybe around forty. Not only that, the first girl I’d ever asked out back in middle school was there (we’ll call her G), and my Great Gatsbian dream of showing her how she’d underestimated me back then and going on to win her love had endured for an embarrassing amount of time. The stakes were high.
But I was in pain. A LOT of pain. Not only that, but at any time, any of the many clots in my stomach could have broken loose and gone sailing up to my heart, lungs, or brain, and killed me (again, I only know this in hindsight. Had I known then what I know now, I would’ve taken the hit to my punk-rock cred, canceled the show, and gone to a hospital). 28-year-old Jake looks back on what eighteen-year-old Jake not only endured, but powered through, and marvels. I gritted my teeth and told the pain it needed to leave me be for the next 45 minutes. After that, I was fair game again. It needed only to open a tiny window for me, and somehow, I would dig deep and find a way to force prodigious amounts of highly concentrated rock and/or roll right through it and into the hearts and minds and loins of the audience. This was my big chance. Maybe I could be cool. Maybe I could transcend the stigma of being the kid with the mystery illness that everybody felt bad for.* Maybe I could show G she’d misjudged me, and finally suture an early adolescent psychological wound (those tend to be among the more difficult to close). I was young and optimistic enough to believe that maybe, just maybe, if your heart was pure and you played it like you meant it, rock ‘n’ roll really could mend all the broken things.
My bandmates and I walked out to the applause of our peers. I stood up as straight as I could, feeling the blood clots stretch and contract in my swollen veins, and forced a smile and a wave. I strapped on my bass. My insides were on fire. It didn’t matter. Waggonerfest was happening.
Waggonerfest happened alright, but it happened like the Hindenburg happened. Unbeknownst to us until it was entirely too late, the outdoor outlet we ran all of our equipment through was broken, and prone to unpredictable power surges. Our public address system and our amps kept cutting in and out. Songs were stopped and started. Two minute attempts to frantically troubleshoot the issue turned into interminable five minute delays. We maybe made it through four songs from start to finish, but none of them came off anywhere close to how tightly we had practiced them over weeks of intensive rehearsal. The PA system began intermittently feeding back and howling like a demon. We tried turning it off and on again. No change. It was amateur hour on the summer solstice, the longest, most aggressively amateur hour of the year. At one point I made the mistake of making eye contact with G out in the audience. She immediately, ashamedly looked away. At least the intense psychological agony had my intense physical agony to keep it company. With nothing else to do, we kept going.
For the final song of our abbreviated set, a cover of Rick James’ “Superfreak” (our most reliable crowd-pleaser), our singer/guitarist Evan sang “She likes the boys in the band / she says that Paul’s her all-time favorite,” (Paul being our drummer), and swung his arm back theatrically to point at Paul, and in doing so, punched me and sent my glasses flying from my face.
I still remember that moment. I remember it vividly. I remember my pain and my shame fusing into a hot iron spike within me. Up to now, I’ve never told anybody how embarrassingly close I came to smashing my bass just for the goddamned hell of it, an act of petulance rather than rebellion. From the crowd’s perspective, it probably looked like a little accidental slapstick, just one more reason to feel bad for us. To me, it was the universe punching me in the face, rebuking me for daring to try and be more than I was, using one of my best friend’s fists as a conduit. I never blamed Evan; it was unintended, and even in my fury, I could recognize that there were larger forces at play on this ill-fated night, and that we were all their victims, both the band and the audience, albeit to varying degrees. That’s why I didn’t want to talk to anybody for the rest of the night, not petty anger over a foolish mistake. Also, the blood clots. They were really bad at this point.
I was angry, ashamed, and beginning to grow delirious from the pain, but more than all of those things, I was a professional. I got punched in the face, and didn’t miss a note of the “Superfreak” bass line. However, I’m blind without my glasses, and was playing a fretless bass. You can probably guess how well the rest of that song worked out. It didn’t even matter, because less than a minute later, my bass amp died, along with every other piece of our gear. The gods of alternating current had finally mercy-killed our show. Nate helped me find my glasses, and I sat down in the grass and put them on. They were so bent that wearing them induced headache and nausea, but I could still blurrily make out the assembled crowd of our high school friends awkwardly shuffling about, wondering if they were finally free to go. I didn’t see G among them, but I confess I didn’t look very hard either.
Nate gave me a ride home. It was a long, silent ride.** What was there to say? I left all of my treacherous equipment at his house to be retrieved at a later date. “How did the show go?” my parents asked when I finally hobbled through the door. I had been telling them about it for weeks, excitedly sharing the details of our every rehearsal with them. I didn’t answer. I made a beeline for the bathroom, laid down in the tub, turned on the water, and cried. Finally, mercifully, the hot water was taking some of the pain out of my stomach. It was little comfort, but given the circumstances, I took what I could get.
The next day I found out that as soon as Nate got back to his house from dropping me off, the cops pulled up, and informed everybody that the show was being shut down. Nate assured them it was already over, and they shrugged and left. I didn’t even get to be present for the cops shutting the show down, a merit badge still missing from my punk-rock boy scout vest.
(At a different house show we played, one of our friends showed up and she had just gotten in a big fight with her boyfriend at an aquarium or something and she was really upset and she grabbed a bottle of liquor and took three shots and immediately vomited, out of her nose, and I got her paper towels and helped her clean herself up before gathering the band and pulling them into a corner and whispering in earnest excitement, “You guys, a girl just puked through her nose at our show. This is so punk rock.” So, you know, there’s that. Also, learn from my mistakes, and please don’t call it “punk rock.” Just call it “punk.” It’s just less embarrassing for everybody involved, and sometimes, rock ‘n’ roll is already embarrassing enough. Waggonerfest taught me that lesson, and I learned it well).
*Editor’s note: Everybody felt bad for Jake, but also everybody loved Jake, in part because he wrote funny columns in the school newspaper, columns with a kind of “teenage Andy Rooney” feel to them. He was like a local celebrity, which makes him and his crush situation all the more Great Gatsbyian.
**Editor’s note: I’m remembering now immediately throwing on a Mitch Hedberg album on my iPod for the drive to Jake’s, but the album ending halfway through the drive, leaving us in silence despite my efforts.
Jake Ziemba lives in Virginia. He is the subject of an ongoing medical experiment funded by the federal government. He is watching you as you read this. He likes what he sees. His first novel, The Yukon Glory, is available from Sink Swim Press.
One Response to “Waggonerfest: the Gospel of Jake”
Both the “lighthearted” and “more harrowing” accounts of this tale were great reads. My favorite line – “puked through her nose…” That had to hurt.