Fear John

Raygun feaR john titlehad an annual “On The Road” issue, so in 1994 I pitched them a piece about the horrors touring bands encounter from coast to coast dealing with nightclub bathrooms. They suggested I survey a dozen or more different musicians to get their perspectives, which was fun. After this, I kept a running list of “round up” pieces I planned on pitching, and made a point of getting anyone I happened to be interviewing to weigh in on those topics. The fruits of some of those labors are sprinkled throughout the site.

Most nightclubs are grim spectacles during the day. It’s pretty easy for exposed pipes and concrete walls with a little neon paint to appear exciting in the dark, in a crowd. But when you turn on the lights and take away the people, nightclubs can only be pathetic. They are meant to be dark, and if you doubt that just watch how they swallow the sunlight when you open the stage doors to load in your equipment. They smell like the stale beer that sticks to the bottom of your sneakers as you walk across the floor. From around three p.m. to eight o’clock, the five hours when nothing gets done commonly known as sound check, nightclubs are among the most depressing places on the planet.

The nightclub bathroom, however, is another matter entirely.

Nightclub bathrooms are at their best during the day. The floors have recently been mopped, the seats wiped clean, the toilet paper restocked. The smell of disinfectant is reassuringly overpowering. In a few short hours you will need heavy boots to safely navigate across the vomit, piss and broken glass. For now, though, this is a haven, a comfortable spot for quiet reflection.

One fear picof the first times my band went on tour, Love Tractor‘s Mark Cline gave me the best advice I’ve ever received from another musician. My bandmates and I had been complaining about our difficulties finding toilets we were willing to use. Now, I’m not all that picky. But there is one thing I think all toilet stalls require: a door. None of the clubs we were playing seemed to agree with me. Mark looked at me with what I like to remember as a mix of surprise and admiration for my naivete, but was probably simple contempt.

“Use the women’s room, dummy.”

To this day I don’t know why women get doors and men don’t (believe me, I’ve been asking). But because they do, I have had the privilege of sampling the bathroom facilities for both men and women in numerous happening music venues across the country. Therefore, I am uniquely qualified to offer various observations on same. To wit: precisely which nightclub has the nicest commodes, and which should only be entered with heavy diving gear? Where can you find the shiniest chrome, the softest tissue paper, the most amusing play on the words “Men’s” and “Women’s”? More importantly, where can you take drugs and engage in illicit sex acts with the least likelihood of discovery? These are the questions this magazine asked me; these are the questions I assured Nina Malkin I had already asked and answered myself.

Unfortunately, when I actually sat down and tried to commit those answers to paper, I discovered something disturbing. While I do indeed have numerous fond and horrifying bathroom memories, these consist almost exclusively of little mental snapshots of overflowing toilets, frightening graffiti and stoic, out-of-place attendants. When I tried to match these pictures with the name of an establishment, a city, or at least a state, I usually failed.

Oh, one or two stand out. I remember that the Nick in Birmingham has such inadequate facilities (one or two toilets for 250 people) that some folks just walk outside, go around the building and pee. But be forewarned: the police like to stake out that side of the club and arrest the impatient. And I have spent many happy minutes in Tipitina’s, in New Orleans, peeing on the ice they pour into the urinal and watching the steam rise.

When I called twenty or so other touring musicians to get their opinions, I discovered I was not alone in my inability to match specific bathrooms with specific nightclubs. This memory gap may be due to the very nature of touring: it is a surreal experience that leads to disjointed recollections; dreams and reality tend to become confused. Or it may be because only four people called me back.

I fear pic2am probably lucky. As much as I long to meet Lucinda Williams, did I really want to introduce myself by asking if she preferred manual flushing or radar? For the record, though, the Mekons‘ Sally Timms, who could safely be approached because she already thinks I’m a fool, prefers manual. “Because the minute you get up it’s gone. You want to look.” Maureen Herman, from Babes in Toyland, also prefers manual, but for the opposite reason: “I hate that radar thing. You’re sitting there wiggling your butt in front of the thing and it never flushes.” Jon Langford, also a Mekon (and one third of the Three Johns and either a third or a fourth of the Killer Shrews, depending on if the drummer counts) also holds radar flushing in disdain. “I like a chain as well, to be honest.”

My survey response may be small, but I think I can safely state that CBGB’s has the most hated bathrooms in the country. “I’m sure everyone’s gonna mention that, ” Langford says, correctly. “It’s hideous.” The men’s toilet is particularly useless: anyone brave enough to use it is in full view of men and women coming down the stairs should the bathroom door open. Herman mentions CBGB’s, then cites the 9:30 Club in D.C. as the smelliest. Still, she says, “the scariest was having to share a trailer on Lollapalooza with all the truck drivers.”

Several people cite the bathrooms at Cabaret Metro in Chicago as their favorite. Langford is “quite fond” of them. But remember, the touring musician can’t afford to be choosy. Langford also says, “If they’ve got a lock on the door and they’ve got toilet paper in ‘em they’re all favorites.” His band-mate Gary Lucas tells me only that he enjoys vomiting on trains, because you can watch the ground go by while you wait, but train bathrooms, unfortunately, are outside the scope of this article. Sally Timms’s favorite bathroom is one she invented herself at a club in Ottawa, seconds before the band had to play. “Behind the stage were all these snooker tables. You couldn’t get to the toilet because the toilets were right at the back of the room, so I just climbed onto the snooker tables and pissed down one of the holes.”

Herman also chose Cabaret Metro, for the usual reason: “The door locks, which is like, rare.” She’s also impressed by the bathroom attendant. “She hands you your towel and there’s like an assortment of deodorants, tampons, lipstick — stuff like that. But if you use it you gotta tip her.”

Ah, a subject hotly debated in the best travel guides. What’s an appropriate tip for someone whose major function is to make you uncomfortable? Herman says “maybe a quarter, or fifty cents. If I use their lipsticks I’ll give ‘em a buck.” Timms gives them “everything I have, just out of guilt. What a job.” Langford has a stricter standard: “Only if they wipe for me.”

Those attendants aren’t the only people in the restroom who want your money. Bar bathrooms are a stunning example of one of capitalism’s glories: its virus-like drive to find new hosts. The last time I went to Webster Hall in New York City, I swear there was a guy selling candy behind a counter in the men’s room. And I once had an unfortunate encounter with a cologne dispenser at Tipitina’s: the smell lasted for two days. Herman confesses to buying perfume in a ladies room once, “when I thought I might get laid that night. It didn’t work, though. I think it was ¬†Chanel #5.” And there are any number of unlikely sexual aids (“If she’s a moaner, this will make her scream; if she’s a screamer, this will get you arrested!”). Langford is partial to the machines that dispense “one inch by half an inch photographs of a naked woman.”

Of course, some wit always has to write, “Gee, this gum tastes funny” on the condom machine. Bathroom graffiti, in fact, is probably a much better indicator of any society’s level of civilization than its prisons. Sally Timms finds the phenomenon “totally tribal and primitive and all people want to do is shag so all they do is draw pictures like little cavemen used to draw pictures of animals that they hoped to catch. I suppose bands draw pictures of women’s genitals that they hope to fuck.”

It’s no different in the women’s room, where Herman, perhaps proving Timms’s theory, has “this picture of a guy that I draw. With a boner.” Other women like to pick on local men, she says. “Penis size. How long the ride is. Then there’s the whole lesbian-love thing.” Which, of course, is mirrored by guys in the men’s room who feel compelled to tell the world they love it in the ass. Langford found at least one person who managed to rise above all that and simply wrote, I SUCK MY OWN COCK. “It was written on the ceiling,” Langford says. “Fucking hell, somebody made the effort to climb all the way up there to write that.”

Every so often, though, somebody with a felt tip and a few minutes to kill graces us with something that has nothing to do with sex. People in Montana are extremely well-behaved, in fact. One bathroom had nothing written on the wall except a big, friendly, HOWDY! The most salacious thing I could find in another was the phrase, EAT HUCKLEBERRIES. In another, more cosmopolitan state, I encountered my favorite message ever: “Qu’est-ce que c’est que ‘Euro-Fag?’”

Where’s fear pic 3the best bathroom for taking drugs? “My parents’,” Timms says, unhelpfully. Actually, since club policies change as quickly as their owners, we should probably ask instead ¬†which bathroom has the best scenery for those already on drugs. In Ohio once, I was startled by a gruesome head staring back at me while I peed. At about eye-level over each urinal, someone had carved a hole in the wall and placed decorated skulls within. According to Herman, the Empty Bottle in Chicago has “like, floor-art, I guess you would call it. Where they kind of put this like collage on the floor and then put shellac over it.” Timms isn’t sure if it qualifies as art, but a pub she remembers in Yorkshire has “a little brass character with a fig leaf, naked. And the fig leaf has a hinge on it and when you lift the fig leaf it says underneath a bell has just rung in the bar. So when you come out everyone knows you looked.”

Not surprisingly, the Brits I spoke with prefer European plumbing. But they’re just being contrary. In Ireland, women are lucky if they get a seat. “American plumbing rules,” Herman says. She especially hates Dutch toilets. “I don’t like that Dutch shelf in Europe at all. It makes it so that when you have a bowel movement it sits on this little shelf before it flushes in a manner that you’re not accustomed to and would never want to see. American toilets don’t make you withstand that. It’s just terrible.” Langford, however, claims to like the Dutch system, although he admits, “You have to get used to it for a few days because you feel inclined to look and then it’s like really alarming.”

And what about south of the equator? Does the water really swirl in the opposite direction? Well, maybe. When Herman played in Australia, the first thing she did when she got to the hotel was turn the water on, “just to see it happen. But I didn’t notice that it was any different from any other time I turn the water on in America. I never knew which way it went before.” Pressed for his observations on water motion south of the equator, the inscrutable Gary Lucas says that the plumbing in Taiwan “is musical, almost.” When it is suggested that Taiwan is well north of the equator, he says, “it’s equatorial, almost.”

Nightclub bathrooms give fans a chance to interact with bands. Most musicians try to be gracious about these encounters, but sometimes it’s hard. Timms was once followed into the toilet by an overzealous woman. “She told me she wanted to have sex with me and then kind of sprawled her legs open in some kind of inviting gesture.” Langford finds the men’s room at Maxwells, in Hoboken, “quite embarrassing. Cause you kind of sit there but people can see your legs while you’re taking a shit. I always come out and it’s like, ‘When are you going on?’”

And that, finally, is one of my favorite things about bathrooms: their democratic nature. Everybody’s got to eat, they say, which implies that shortly thereafter everybody’s got to go. And there is an upside to being recognized in the restroom, Langford notes. “People, if they’re waiting to see you play, they’ll often let you go in front of them if there’s a line. That’s a feeling of real power.”

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