40 feet of fun
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SONIC REDUCER What's 40 feet long and 13 feet, 9 inches tall and fun all over? Sounding like a potentially lame "you've gotta be kidding me" joke and accelerating in Bay Area underground rockers' imagination as a real alternative to your average bad show experience, John Benson's converted Muni veggie-biodiesel bus is the latest in a bohemian nation's short parade of party starters on wheels driven by motorvators like the Merry Pranksters and Friends Forever in order to cavort, make art and sometimes community, and blow minds. Le difference is that this art 'n' good times vehicle is huge able to fit an audience of 50 and despite its whitewashed exterior, green.
Just join the scattered, happy misfits and in-the-knowsters wandering in from off the street on this particularly deserted stretch of the Mission-Potrero area Jan. 21. The bus is peacefully parked and perfectly inaudible beneath a pretzel of elevated freeway off-ramps, like the sweet overgrown offspring of Miss Open Road USA. Take a look under the hood as Benson once in A Minor Forest and Hale Zukas and now with Evil Wikkid Warrior opens up the works in the butt end of the bus with the cool little lookout tower on top. Two tanks hold the vegetable oil that primarily propels the bus and the diesel or biodiesel fuel that heats the radiator fluid, which keeps the vegetable oil liquid enough to course through the pipes. With a lot of help from friends, Benson spent only $300 to veggify the bus. And the beautiful part especially to those in perpetually touring poverty-stricken bands who know what it's like to spend all the money from a show on gas is that he gets his fuel free from the pits of used grease behind truck stops and fast-food joints, which ordinarily pay people to take it away.
This is just the latest in a handful of vehicles Benson has vegged out (give or take a few fires caused to keep the vegetable oil flowing), including a Twin Towers dustsaturated ambulance retired after 9/11 service. In 2005, Hale Zukas ended up touring the country in the EMT vehicle alongside the mobile Friends Forever. "I really liked the whole paradigm shift of everything. People didn't know what to expect," Benson recalls fondly. "We'd come in an ambulance, and everyone would say, 'Someone got hurt!' I was excited by the whole chaos and confusion and trickery, and you don't have to rely on clubs or booking agents or soundmen." And of course there was that added sense of poetic justice, he adds, "driving it around on vegetable oil, the whole statement against the war for oil going on."
Inside the bus, far from maddened neighbors, the music goes on. Slight, skinny-mustached Carlos of Hepatitis C in town from Bloomington, Ind., where Benson drove him around on his world-record bid to play the most shows in one day is throwing the party. Living Hell, Ex-Pets, He-War, Noozzz, Erin Allen, and Russian Tsarlag are on the free-to-all, free-for-all bill, and Carlos runs down the street to the opposite street corner the unofficial green room, where the bands and friends are milling to tell them the first artist is starting. Backed by crunchy minimal beats, Sewn Leather is flailing around the small stage inside the bus, shouting, "Noise is dying, punk's been dead, the only rock 'n' roll is in your head!" through a PA fed by a battery fueled by the bus's solar panels. At one of Benson's biggest events, which included Warhammer and Rubber-O-Cement among 13 bands, the overflow turned into a double Dutch jump-rope contest in the middle of the street. The vibe resembles a kid's clubhouse taken to the next level on the road and relatively off the grid.
"Another great thing about the bus is that during all that downtime usually spent staring out the window driving through Nebraska, you can actually plug in instruments. A full band can be playing in back like it's a practice space," Benson says earlier over the phone of the bus that shall remain nameless (he likes the anonymity).
The all-ages club on wheels simply just "fell into my lap," he continued. "A retired Oakland cop was selling it, and I just saw it going by one day. It was a monstrosity."
The Oaktown police department had torn it up to convert it into a mobile police unit, he was told, and its last owner was going to remake it as a family RV. That intrepid soul was "so hilarious," Benson raves. "I was sold on it because of his personality. He was this 6-foot-7, really huge black guy with these huge hands such a can-do person. He was sooo the antithesis of Burning Man, because my first reaction was 'Oh, no, this is some big, gross Burning Man art-car thing.' Being a retired cop, he said, 'From driver's seat back, it's perfectly legal to rock out with your cock out' his exact words. 'You can drink a fifth of JD and whatever,' and he then did this funny little dance."
"It's a surprising tidbit," Benson says. "You don't have to have seat belts and can have open containers. And you can have a regular driver's license. If the bus was any longer, you'd need a commercial license. It's kind of shocking."
Shocking, especially when shortly after he finished converting the bus to use vegetable oil last summer, Benson took it on the road with a bunch of bands to the Freedom From Festival in Minneapolis, where they played before the Boredoms. Because of the bus's height, they got stuck in an underpass in Chicago's Wicker Park district. They also couldn't get it into the Pennsylvania Turnpike and instead were forced to drive through the Poconos. "I got lost in a white-picket-fence neighborhood and was forced to turn around in this poor lady's yard," Benson recollects. "She and her neighbors came running out, and she was, like, 'What are you?!' I was so busy trying to do a 20-point turn I could only yell, 'We're a bus!' 'What kind of bus are you?' she yelled. And then someone in the bus jumped out and gave her a hug and said, 'We're a magic bus.' "
You've gotta admit there's a bit of magic going on when Sewn Leather finishes his riveting songs on dead lice, bad pickups, and the end of music genres and the kids pile out, over the oriental carpet cushioning on the floor, and share cookies and other comestibles outside. The cars rumble overhead, oblivious to this DIY snatch of culture-making quietly going about its beeswax. *
With the Fucking Ocean and other bands
Feb. 3, 8 p.m., free
Highway 24 overpass Shattuck and 55th St., Oakl.