Today I would be heading to St. Petersburg to stay with my old bass player from my eponymous band I was in from 1995 to 1997. I encouraged my Mom and my sister to get on the Brick to fill out more of the family portrait series. My mom refused to climb aboard and just stood next to the bike. I think she believes I am in some way making fun of her which could not be farther from the truth. This motorcycle is important to me and and I want my family to share in that idea. I want them to sit in the same seat I’ve sat in for thousands of miles as to join them in the legacy. I didn’t give her a hard time. As you have read in previous posts, the woman has paid her dues and was probably happy to see me get on my way after all of my grouchy moods I displayed while staying with her.
Instead of taking 95 to I-4, I decided on a more scenic route and take 16 to 301 to 75 to 275. Winding through the back roads and onto 301 reminded me of the time I was dating a girl that went to University of Florida. I took a similar route many times and even drove it by motorcycle more than a few of those. I remember almost getting stuck once while on a bike my brother John pieced together from my wrecked 1980 Honda Hawk CB400T and a much uglier orange ‘78 Hawk my dad acquired as a donor bike. I was driving in the pouring rain with my ridiculously thin yellow rain suit and the bike just bogged down as if water got in the carbs. I pulled over and whacked the throttle a few time and whatever gremlin was plaguing the fuel system quickly cleared itself out and I was back on the road. This was back in ‘84 and there were no cellphones, so getting stuck out in the middle of nowhere was a much scarier experience than it is today.
I slowed my pace through the smaller towns, Green Cove, Starke, and, Waldo, all notorious for being speed traps, and noticed a sign for a place called The City Diner. The placard had had an image of the famous New York skyline complete with the twin towers. Seeing this image threw me into a state of disbelief of how much time had gone by in my life. The World Trade Center fell 12 years ago. I dated that girl in Gainesville over 30 years ago. Where did it go? How did it slip by so fast? While trying to explain the theory of relativity Albert Einstein quipped, “Put your hand on a hot stove for two seconds and it seems like two hours. Sit with a beautiful girl for two hours and it seems like two minutes. That’s relativity.” If this in fact the case, my life as of late should have been filled with nothing but joy as fast as the time seemed to pass me. I think the truth is as I age, an hour is simply a smaller piece of my entire history. For instance, when I was 4, a year was 25% of my life, but with 48 clicks on the dial, a year is merely 2.0833% of my life and that is what makes the flipping of the calendar pages appear quicker.
I pulled into a gas station to refuel and sitting at another pump was a Kawasaki Ninja ZX14, one of the fastest production bikes on the planet. The Brick is 75 horsepower, roughly the same as my old Ducati 900SS SP. The Ninja on the other hand is 200 horses, nearly 3 times the power of my old BMW. Who would ever need that much power? But then I reminded myself of last year’s cross country trip where I spent many hours yearning for more acceleration. Speed is a funny drug. I noticed when I dropped from 80 miles per hour to 55, the slower speed was like trudging through mud. Once I acclimated to the the higher speed, I craved more as I am sure many motorcyclists do. Please note I am not an unsafe rider. I do not wheelie through traffic or do stunts. I don’t tailgate and when other cars are around I make sure I am driving within the rules of the road. But when on a desolate stretch of straight road, the temptation is too great to resist. The throttle must be twisted.
The drive went but quickly and I made it safely to St. Pete, Fl. I neared the home of Martin Rice, my old bass player from my eponymous band – Joe Popp. We started the band in 1995 after I left my other group of 4 ½ years, dogs on ice. I wanted more commitment from my counterparts and Martin and his former bandmate Jeff Wood (R.I.P. 2007) stepped in to complete the new power trio. Our rise to local success was blindingly rapid. One of our first gigs was opening for the Toadies at an outdoor venue in St. Pete, Florida dubbed Janus Landing. The gig went incredibly even though we only knew 8 songs. Nobody knew we were local boys and the 50 T-shirts Martin had printed up all sold out. I remember the feeling I had that night. I had this great band behind me and our first gig was to a crowd of 1200 and we nailed it. I felt hope. This was my time.
The band went on to record 2 CDs and we did tons of gigs. We opened for punk groups like Mike Watt, and Seaweed, but also more rock based acts like Cheap Trick and Joan Jett. We played SXSW in Austin and did a TV commercial for Fox Baseball. We won regional awards and packed out clubs. We seemed destined to be signed to a record label and even had a manager in place. The band also performed American Stage’s outdoor Shakespeare production where we served as not only the band, but the witches in the play Macbeth. I composed all of the the original music for the production. It ran just past a month and over 20,000 people attended. But all was not well in paradise. I let a bad review of Macbeth hit me too hard. I was drinking more and letting myself get out of shape. My depression was getting the best of me. The live music scene was also changing. Our live gigs were not being as well attended as they once were because of the rise of D.J.s, raves, and foam parties. I was 32 years of age and I wanted out. I was weary, and playing wasn’t fun anymore. I quit the band in June of 1997 just a few months after our two year anniversary. Martin had just scored us dates on the Florida Van’s Warped Tour dates and we bailed on those. Those shows could have been a turning point and I simply walked away.
I often think about what would have happened if I stuck it out with that band. I reflect on life and realize that I’ve quit too early too many times. I’ve left bands, theater productions, relationships, animals, and, friends, when things got tough. Do I fear my own success? Do I crave a path of least resistance? I shook these thoughts out of my head as I turned into Martin’s driveway.
I rumbled in and Martin’s family greeted me outside. He has an awesome wife Melanie, two boys, Cannon and Conrad, and two dogs, Jasmine and Todd (having recently lost his longtime dog Woody). I was happy to see him. Martin and I remained friends over the years after I left the band, and even after I moved to New York. The guy is a work machine. I remember back in the band days he would crank out posters, flyers, and album art at a staggering pace. He also showed up to practice on time and played the bass with all of his heart. He had good gear and took care of it. He loved to have fun and whenever we travelled with the band he always pulled some kind of shenanigans. I remember one time he hotwired a disconnected hot tub at our hotel so we could have a soak after a long drive from a gig. He climbed up a pole of a tent we were playing at our SXSW performance. He knocked over the master of ceremonies with the headstock of his bass at the 1995 Florida Jammy Awards when the emcee tried to cut us off after only one playing song. He’s that kind of guy – fun, intense, serious, and a huge heart.
I talked with his family for a while and then we headed out to a Greek place on Central Avenue called Acropolis. The food was great and the staff performed the traditional dances and plate smashing. I thought the latter was wasteful, but I reminded myself I have smashed a few guitars in my years so I’m not one to try and limit entertaining destruction. After dinner, Martin and I ventured over to a Hugh T. Williams’ house for a few beers. Hugh is a drummer and a talented folk artist. We never played together, but our respective bands shared a few stages. We all talked of the old band days gone by and about the various characters of the the mid to late 90’s Tampa/St.Pete music scene. I lived in Tampa for 10 years and I played live music in some form the whole time I was there. The area is where I cut my teeth as an artist and it will always be special to me. Travis, another scenester from back in the day rolled up and hopped right into the conversation. I love the phenomenon that occurs among old friends of “picking up where you left off.” I’m repeatedly surprised by this clichéd statement but it holds water. After only a few minutes, we were all joking and ribbing each other like it was 1995. We laughed like only old friends could laugh. The night grew long and my eyes heavy, so we said our goodbyes and vowed to meet again sooner – a lie told by friends as they are parting. Martin and I drove home with a few more chuckles along the way.
Martin’s guest room where I spent many a night on my visits to St. Pete was now occupied by his little dudes, so I camped out on the couch which is bigger in size than my entire NYC apartment. Todd, a Jack Russell mix, and Jasmine, a St. Bernard, settled down around me. I felt comforted by their presence. I believe those dogs sensed the melancholy waves that ran through my brain as I drifted off to sleep. I left for NYC in 2000 with dreams of writing the greatest American rock musical. Although I had a great time during my years in Tampa Bay, few artifacts remain that could ever draw me back – but a great lifelong friend like Martin is certainly one.