The Van From Hell

John Strohm waxes nostalgic about the "demonic" 1970s Chevy cargo van that carried Blake Babies across America.

By the time I could buy a drink in a bar, I’d already been on two US tours as the drummer of the Lemonheads. These weren’t glamorous tours. On our first, we traveled in the bass player’s mother’s Peugeot station wagon and shared gear with a band from Cleveland we’d never met face-to-face. The next time out, we borrowed a converted cargo truck that had no ventilation and wouldn’t go over 50 miles per hour. We threw some futons in the back and duct-taped a door open, until the tape gave out and the door fell off on the highway. Despite the horrendous conditions, we had the time of our lives. 

By the time Blake Babies — the band I started with my hometown girlfriend Freda Love and our friend Juliana Hatfield — first went on a national tour, we’d been playing shows around Boston for a couple years. When we played locally, we’d call a station wagon cab and load our gear in the back while the annoyed driver waited with the meter running. Then for a year or so, the two bands I played with became very incestuous when Evan Dando from The Lemonheads became Blake Babies’ bass player. 

Evan owned a little white hatchback, so he could drive our gear to shows. He and I would drive the gear to soundcheck while Freda and Juliana took the subway. In the summer of 1988, we booked a small tour of sorts to Georgia and back. We hitched a U-Haul trailer to Evan’s car and the four of us piled in the hatchback for a couple weeks’ worth of shows. Again, we had a lot of fun, even though most of the shows had single-digit attendance. During our stop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we signed our contracts with Mammoth Records to release our first album. 

By 1990, Evan had left to re-start the Lemonheads and we released our debut album, Earwig. We’d figured out how to play as a trio, and we were set to go on our first nation-wide tour that summer. I’m sure we could have sought the advice of other touring artists or our own business advisors, but we chose to just wing it. The three of us would figure it out as we went along. We needed a vehicle, so Juliana bought a late-‘70s blue Chevy cargo van from the want ads in the Globe — The Van from Hell. 

The Van was supposedly “low mileage,” but it was built before they put the sixth digit on the odometer. Its 70,000 miles could have been 170,000 or 570,000 for all we knew. I remember Juliana’s mother told us we should get an oil change, and we interpreted that advice as “we should add some oil.” We went to a junk yard and found a bench seat to put in the back, but we never bothered to bolt it down. We loaded all the gear in the space between the wedged-in bench seat and the front seats. We loaded through the sliding side door in part because the back doors didn’t open easily. It seemed to run OK, at first anyway. 

The six-week tour had us headlining small clubs from the Midwest to the West Coast, then back through the South and Southeast, and eventually back to New York for the CMJ Music Festival and then, ultimately, back to Boston to play a Planned Parenthood benefit at The Paradise with Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth. That show was the thing we were most excited about, playing with two of our favorite bands in a packed 1,000 capacity club. If we could just make it across the country and back…

The first part of the tour went OK, though The Van started to act up here and there. The engine would knock and rattle randomly, and sometimes it took a while to start the engine. The air conditioning stopped working almost immediately, so we had to keep the windows open at all times. Juliana always drove, because she believed that she had a psychic connection with The Van and she could will it to stay on the road. We had a boom box that ran on batteries, but often we just rode in silence as Juliana looked straight ahead, jaw clenched, occasionally muttering insults to the van when it made its strange noises or if any indicator lights came on. The “check engine” light remained on pretty much always after we left New England.

We didn’t have the funds to stay in hotels yet, so we always tried to find people to let us crash on their floor. That usually meant people who worked for college radio stations, the class of people most likely to be our fans. It often meant waiting out someone’s after party to curl up on a dirty floor near a stinky litterbox. After our Minneapolis show, we stayed at a group home of some kids from the local college station, where Freda and I drank a lot of cheap wine with our hosts (Juliana didn’t drink, and didn’t approve of any form of intoxication). We bonded with a guy named Mike, who told us he was in love with a DJ from another station, and he really wanted to meet her at the Gavin radio convention in San Francisco. Freda said, “Oh, we’re heading there next, you should come along!” And with that, we were four.  

Minneapolis marked the furthest point west before our show in San Francisco several days later, so it was time to take The Van across the Rocky Mountains. And that’s where the trouble really started. The Van struggled up the endless grades, constantly overheating and unable to reach speeds over 30 miles per hour.  We took it to the first of several mechanics, who charged us over $1,000 for God-knows-what, with no evident improvement. Poor Mike braved the passenger seat, and he tried to engage Juliana in conversation. Juliana, meanwhile, became convinced that the problem with The Van from Hell was demonic possession, and that she was uniquely qualified to calm the demon by shouting threats and insults. 

When we finally arrived in San Francisco and dropped Mike at the convention, he learned that his love interest already had a boyfriend.

Our listening consisted of three cassettes: Nirvana’s Bleach, a prank phone call tape of a friend of ours baiting guys into private sex chat by pretending to be a woman, and Henry Rollins’s spoken word performances. On the road to LA, to Freda’s and my astonishment, Juliana casually dropped that Henry might be coming to our show. She confessed that she had been secretly corresponding with Henry, and that she’d sent him a copy of our album. He liked it and wanted to come see us. So yeah, he might be there. As a hardcore kid who grew up obsessed with Black Flag, I was completely terrified by this news. 

Our LA show — at a dingy little club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood called Club Lingerie — couldn’t have been much stranger. We followed another show by a band featuring Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper, both drunk at the bar during our set. Our audience consisted of people we knew, a few of my high school friends plus members of Pixies and Bullet LaVolta, who were each in town making albums, and a smattering of college radio people. That was the entire audience, until a few songs in when Henry strode on to the empty dance floor. Henry planted himself directly in front of Juliana, and folded his arms across his chest, staring directly at her with a blank expression. She just froze, in complete shock. The set wasn’t our best. 

Afterwards Henry loaded all of our gear in about 30 seconds and led us to his bungalow in Venice Beach. We spent a couple days off at his place while we cut some awful demos for Columbia Records during the day. Henry regaled us for hours with crazy stories, holding court in his little room surrounded by thousands of records. He played us all sorts of amazing music, from Public Enemy demos to Albert Ayler to a bunch of prison recordings of Charles Manson. He kept trying to get me to lift weights, and if you can find a photograph of me in 1990, you’ll know why that was a funny idea. 

Things really started to go wrong for The Van as we went back east across the Southwestern desert. Texas seemed literally endless as The Van coughed, wheezed, backfired, and overheated every couple hours. During a traffic jam outside Atlanta, the exhaust system collapsed and we had to get towed to our third expensive repair. We barely made it for our set in Columbia, South Carolina. But we did make it — we made it to every single show, some with only minutes to spare. But we made it. 

By New York, we were all exhausted, and The Van was barely operational. Our CMJ set at the Knitting Factory fell flat, disappointing our label execs who had invited out a bunch of major labels in an effort to sell our contract. But by then we didn’t really care; we just wanted the tour to be over. 

After our midnight set we went to all-night Ukrainian place on the Lower East Side called Odessa with some friends for a meal. But when we pulled The Van up to a parking space on Avenue A and killed the engine, it just kept chugging away, billowing blue smoke and emitting a death rattle/wheeze. Finally, it sighed heavily and gave out. We tried to get the engine to turn over for a half-hour or so, and then we just went inside and got a table close enough to the front to watch to make sure our equipment wasn’t stolen by the night creatures hovering around the derelict Van. 

We were very stressed because we REALLY wanted to get back to Boston the next day for the benefit show, the big reward. Our friend Phil, our booking agent’s assistant who also directed our videos, quickly thought up a plan. We waited in The Van and watched the sun come up, and then despair set in as several more hours passed. Finally, Phil returned with a brownish, beat-up Ford Econline passenger van. He said it belonged to his roommate from the band Das Damen and he could bring it back after the show. Whatever, we loaded our gear and left The Van there on Avenue A. By the time Phil went to check on several days later, it had been picked and stripped down to the frame. 

When we groggily pulled into the parking lot at The Paradise in Boston later that afternoon, Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth were hanging out in the parking lot. I can’t explain how much I worshipped that band at the time, so I was nervous to have to talk to them. When we parked, they walked right up to us. Thurston said, “Hey, uh, where did you guys get this van?” 

“Our van died in New York, so we borrowed it from Das Damen,” I said. 

“Oh, weird,” he said, “Because this was our van a month ago — we sold it to those guys. We thought it was pretty odd that our old van followed us to Boston.”

John P. Strohm is an entertainment lawyer and former professional musician based in Nashville, Tennessee. During his musician years he played guitar and wrote songs for Blake Babies and played various instruments in the Lemonheads, while he dabbled in various aspects of the music business. These days he has a much better understanding of the music business, although he still occasionally dabbles in music.