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On the Road with SUSTO: Part 4

At The Royal American. Photo: E.H. Stockton

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of six parts to E.H. Stockton’s story of being on the road with SUSTO in December of 2018. In case you missed part three, find it here. Enjoy, and stay tuned for part five coming next Wednesday, October 16th.

Charleston readers – SUSTO is throwing a two-night Halloween party at the Music Farm on 10/31 and 11/1. Tickets and more info here.

December 13th, 2018

1:30 AM

Somewhere on the South Carolina Interstate

The night was a blinding darkness as Justin, Igoe, and I drove to Charleston. Van the Good spent the night in Columbia while the three of us were homeward bound. Justin put on a Bob Seger album to fend off the exhaustion. We were in the middle of some moon lit nowhere, buried deep within the lowland hills of South Carolina, when “Turn The Page” came on and Justin sang along under his breath.

Here I am, on the road again,
There I am up on stage.
There I go playin’ the star again,
There I go, turn the page.

Hearing him sing as he stared into the endless, dark highway ahead, it was as if the lyrics had come alive in front of me. What those words mean to him is something totally unlike whatever daydream most people are lost in while they hum along to Seger’s words. These aren’t the poems of a fantasy, they’re an echo of reality to the man who is an hour removed from the stage and another hour away from his home and pregnant wife.

I woke up on the couch in Justin’s living room around noon. He’d taken his wife out for lunch, to celebrate being home for the first time in a couple weeks. “Hope that’s alright,” he said on the way out.

Van the Good arrived in Charleston that morning. He and I smoked a quick joint in the backyard before the two of us grabbed lunch at an authentic Mexican restaurant. The first of two shows that night was still hours away when we met Justin at Woolfe Street Playhouse and loaded the gear in and onto the stage. The chairs were being set up for the audience and the staff were the only few people that wandered the halls.

It was around 3 in the afternoon when I told Van the Good, “I’m gonna take a walk.”

“Alright, bud,” he said from the stage, unwinding a series of cables. “Enjoy it.”

St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, the tallest building in Charleston. Photo: E.H. Stockton

I walked for 20 minutes, taking deep breaths of the warm December air as I passed old churches and countless restaurants until I reached Meeting Street. I could see the waving arm of John Roberts, The Official Psychedelics Supplier for SUSTO, from across the street. I crossed to his side where we shook hands and carried on talking about this, that, and the holiday season while we walked to his hotel.

When I entered his hotel room, I emptied my pockets onto the bed nearest the door. Passport, wallet, smoke butts and all. I figured, If I’m going to be robbed, I may as well distance myself from my belongings.

“Don’t mind the Smith and Wesson,” John Roberts said casually as I unloaded my possessions. There, sitting on the nightstand between the two beds, sat his pistol. “Do you want to hold it?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, taking it, feeling the weight of it, pointing it aimlessly at the wall.

He reached on top and clicked on a laser dot that hit the wall. “I like to use this to play with my cat,” he said as he danced the red dot back and forth across the wall. “I unload it first, to avoid accidents.”

I sat in a chair next to the window as John Roberts explained how I was going to consume the DMT he had brought for me.

“Just try to hold it in as long as you can,” he said.

The room sat in stiff silence as I took drags that weren’t quite long or deep enough for the experience he had in mind. After the first two inhalations, I let go of the vaporizer and he held it for me as I began to tune out of the room. My eyes closed and I drifted off, beyond the room, to some distant psychedelic somewhere. He held the vaporizer to my mouth as I took another, then another. I was scared and didn’t want any more.

“Just relax,” he said in a soft voice.

I trusted him and took a couple more drags. My vision was overcome by a starlight brightness. I leaned back in the chair and hugged the throw pillow I held in my lap. I no longer felt myself in the room until, after three or four minutes the starlight faded, and my eyes slowly opened. Those four minutes felt more like 20 seconds.

The silence hung heavy around me.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“I feel good. I feel like everything’s good.”

“Did you see anything? Did you hear anything?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. I didn’t have the words for any of it. Even now, looking back, I have no words for what I felt.

“How rough did the vape feel?”

“Smooth,” I said. I was relieved to finally know an answer to something. “I feel like I can breathe down here,” I said after a moment of thought. “I feel like I was smiling the whole time I was deep in it.”

“Oh yeah,” he laughed. “I got some pictures of the DMT smiles. It’s what happens to everybody. You just feel too good in the moment. You understand there’s no reason not to smile. Next time you do it, just hold it in, that way you’ll get so much more out of it.”

“I’d be willing to take a little more now,” I said.

“Let’s give it 10-15 minutes so you can come back down. It’ll take about an hour to get back to 100%.”

“What do I owe you for this?”

“Nothin’, just write about it.”

“I appreciate the shit outta that” I said, slowly, still regaining my focus. “That’s the best gift I can ask for.”

“Yeah, for the holiday season. If you wanna buy anyone DMT vapes as a stocking stuffer, I’m here for ya.”

We talked for a while about the experience I’ve had and the growth that will come from having come down South.

“All these experiences build you up and give you the confidence you need to excel,” he said as we sat and talked, waiting for me to come all the way down. “You need confidence to do anything in this world.”

“This is a beautiful country,” I said. I looked out the window at a church across the street that saw the cowardice of a lone gunman enter its front doors a few years earlier.

“It is. We are an experiment from the enlightenment and hopefully it will continue,” he replied. “Would you like to try it one more time?”

“I would love to,” I said. I sat back into the same chair I was in before.

“This time really hold it in. Count to 10 and close your eyes. And hopefully you’ll go into the room.”

“Sounds good,” I said, unsure of what he was referring to, unsure of whether I wanted to enter such a place. “Thank you for facilitating this. And also for not robbing and killing me while I’m under.”

“Yeah, should I move the gun?” he said and we both laughed.

I leaned back and brought the vape pen back to my lips. The hotel room carried a soft hum as I took my first deep draws of the second round. The only way I can describe the experience is as an overwhelming wave of absence from myself before being settled down into a bed of well-being. Light overtook my vision once again like something interstellar. I felt completely removed from this plane of conscious existence, submerged into something indefinable.

I’ve read others refer to DMT as a blast-off experience, and that’s the most fitting description I can muster. I was blasted off from myself with such velocity that I could hardly hang on to what was happening. More than any other sensation, I was overcome with a deep euphoria that reached from the root of my soul and out to the tips of my fingers.

“I’m thankful that I get to be here,” I said through the soft chuckles that I couldn’t keep to myself. “How did I get to this hotel room in Charleston? How is it that any of this is actually happening? Is any of this tour even real? Everything seems perfect and I’m just so happy to be here.”

As I spoke, the words of this unguarded truth came slowly.

“There are so many good people in my life,” I said after a moment of silence. “I need to open myself up and accept the love they offer.”

“I try to keep that feeling throughout my whole life. But it’s clearest whenever I’m on psychedelics,” John Roberts said from the edge of the bed next to my chair.

We talked a little more about some book recommendations he had for me. As the conversation went on, the pace at which I spoke increased gradually until it was back to normal. John Roberts told me he had invited the ACID GIRL from the green room last night to come to tonight’s show.

“I’m gonna be shocked if that girl from last night really shows up,” he said. He looked anxiously at his phone as we descended to the lobby in the elevator.

“Oh, buddy,” I laughed, “I’d put money on her showing up.”

“Yeah,” he said, with a blank stare as he thought about the problem to come. “Oh well.”

Marion Square. Photo: E.H. Stockton
Photo: E.H. Stockton

We went for a walk around Charleston, through a hotel that was once a military school, a bookstore with nothing worth buying, and he beat me at consecutive games of pool. I’d be seeing him at the second show that night, so I wandered out of the pool hall and back toward the Woolfe Street Playhouse.

When I walked inside, Van the Good was in the lobby to greet me.

“Whatsup, man?” he asked, with a smile as he looked up from the merch table he’d just finished setting up.

“Van the Good,” I said, nodding in his direction. “How ya doin’?”

“Good, man. How was your walk?”

“Beautiful, man.”

The venue had large, century old cash registers in the lobby and at the main bar inside the concert area. I wandered by both registers and ducked into the green room while the pre-show setup carried on.

All set up at the Woolfe Street Playhouse. Photo: E.H. Stockton

Come the time of the first show, the green room was filled with family and friends, including the rest of the members of SUSTO.

“Is there an entrance onto the stage from back here?” Pete asked before his time had come.

“Yup” Van answered.

“Great. Go ahead and show me that now so I look like less of a fuckin’ goofball come show time.”

The noise of the crowd in the next room roared between songs while Pete performed. Seeing Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster live was one of the great surprises of coming out on tour. I shook his hand before I ever heard his music and found getting to know him offstage was as much a pleasure as having the opportunity to watch him on stage.

Both shows that night were sold out and I stood in the back corner, nearest the green room entrance, as Justin and Igoe stepped on stage for the first performance. At each applause break, a man behind me Cah-Cawed like a mutant bird from a terrible fever dream.

Anyone who has ever heard the SUSTO album Live at the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame has heard this very same Cah-Cawing madman. It was a friend of the band named James, famed smoker of cigarettes and gatekeeper of Rialto Row.

At the midway point in the set Justin sang a song without Igoe backing him up. “Erlene”, written for his wife who was in the crowd, was sung only in Charleston on tour.

“Erlene she is my baby, she stays up with me when I’m yellin’ through the night. I say ‘you think I’m crazy’, she says ‘you are, but that’s alright.’”

Toward the end of the song, Justin looked down with a laugh as he couldn’t keep himself from crying. James offered a consoling, tear laden, Cah-Caw from the back of the room.

“Shut up, James,” Justin laughed into the mic and wiped the tears from his face with a smile.

After the show, a group of us headed outside for a cigarette and a joint.

“So, do you accept my challenge?” James asked me as he pulled out his lighter and sparked a cigarette.

“What’s your challenge?” I asked, fishing in my pocket for the lighter I lost three days ago.

“Alright,” he said in his coarse voice, “challenge accepted. Do you play ping pong?”

I shrugged. “Not really.”

“Pffft” is all he said through a billow of cigarette smoke that floated through his beard.

Later that night I would learn that James was once a state champion ping-pong player, which explains his athletic physique. He and I took 10 minutes to set up the table before he rocketed two shots by me and said, “You’re not ready for this,” before disassembling the table and putting it away.

We scuttled back inside just as Pete took to the stage to start the second show. Between songs a fan standing at the back of the room yelled “Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster!” with a drink raised in the air.

At 10:00 it was time for Justin and Igoe to start their second sold out show of the night.

“I wrote this song the day after an acid trip and I had this sort of clarity,” Justin said, early in the set. “It was the day after a snowstorm in Charleston and the whole city looked like a snow globe. I’d just gotten home from Mexico that day and the heater in our house was busted, the plumbing was busted and our cat had an infection and a snowstorm was hitting. No one could come out to fix any of it. The acid trip ended up being a great escape from all that. We had one room with a heater that stayed warm if you kept the door closed. That room felt sort of like home, but the rest of the place didn’t. I started thinking, I wish I could take my family, my wife and my cat, to somewhere better. And this song is what came out of that.”

The show wrapped on “Homeboy”. Once he was back in the green room, Justin told me he lost the rhythm of the song while they were playing. “I’m not super pissed about it,” he said, “you get one fuck up per show.”

A group of us stepped outside for another joint and cigarette. As Justin took a hit of the joint and passed it on, he told me, “honestly, Homeboy wasn’t even one of my favorites on the new album but the radio team chose it as the single. A lot of people say they don’t like the label people to tell them what to do but, honestly, my head’s just so far up in this shit that I’ll take some clarity about which one’s good and which one’s not.”

“Canuck,” James said to me in his grizzled voice as he passed me the joint, “I believe in you, for some reason.”

His kind words sparked a thought and I said, “When I’m writing about this all, I won’t refer to you by name if-“

“I don’t give a fuck about anything” he interrupted. “Ain’t afraid of shit.”

“I guess that answers that,” I said with a laugh.

“You’re in it, dawg, don’t worry about it. We’re gonna have fun tomorrow ridin’ to Macon. I’m loadin’ in the van with the ACID BOYS cooler full of Budweisers, gonna have a shit load-a-jubbas ready to go,” he said, shaking his head, giddy at the prospect of what’s to come.

“Hey J,” he yelled across the group, “we’ll have to bring him by Rialto Row before he leaves.”

“He’s stayin’ there, man. We already talked about it,” Justin answered, confused.

“Ooh,” James said, his eye lighting up. “You’re the Canuck.”

“Do you get a lot of Canadians down here?” I asked.

“Honestly, I was just testing the market with that word,” he explained before asking in a hushed tone, “is that a racist term or somethin’?”

“No. I mean, we have a hockey team called the Canucks,” I said.

“Yeah, but we’ve got a team called the Redskins,” Justin answered.

The statement sparked a memory in someone’s mind who said, “I was telling James the last time I was in Macon, Georgia, I was at a bar watching the OJ chase.”

What?” Justin said, his eyebrows raised as he took another drag from the joint.

“Yup. It was on every TV with full volume. They changed the drink special to vodka with an OJ chaser.”

As the group went inside, I bumped into John Roberts. He offered me a cigarette, so I stayed outside with him. He told me the ACID GIRL from last night had not only come to Charleston, but she had brought a couple of loud friends with her, all three of whom were drunk beyond reason.

“I’m still surprised she took me up on the offer,” he said while we stood in the light rain. Cigarette smoke drifted skyward.

Later in the night he came up to me with a look of mild concern. “Hey, have you seen those girls around? They’re awfully drunk and if they wander off too far, they’re intoxicated enough to get themselves arrested and then it’ll be a whole thing.”

“Can’t say I have, brother. Good luck,” was all I could say.

As the night wore on and the party broke up, Justin, Van the Good and I waited around inside the venue. Everyone had left save for an older man who stacked the chairs. I helped him stack a few dozen while Van and Justin packed the gear on stage. There is no glamour to this side of the job, the take down and clean up. You’ve knocked ‘em down, someone dragged ‘em out. The part no one sees is when you have to come back out to pack the guitars and wind the cables.

Photo: E.H. Stockton

After cleaning up and packing out, Van, Justin, James and I drove through a gentle spattering of rain to The Royal American. We each grabbed a drink and walked onto the empty patio.

“Nice lil’ train track,” Van the Good said, looking behind the building.

“Man, the place I’m from was built as a train town,” I said. “All these tracks remind me of home.”

“Yeah? The town I’m from is a train city, too,” Justin replied.

“This place is the nexus of the universe,” James said as we took our seats. “If it wasn’t for this bar, me and him wouldn’t be friends.” He pointed towards Justin as he spoke.

“I moved to a brand new loft, directly across the street from The Royal American the day before it opened,” James went on to explain. “I didn’t know Justin was a musician or anything. I heard he lived in Cuba, so I asked if he liked Cuban food. After that we became best buds.”

“The Royal American,” Justin said, looking towards it from our table on the patio.

“This is the best establishment in America,” James said, leaning into the table.

“And they don’t close during hurricanes n’ shit,” Justin added matter-of-factly. “This place is indestructible. It was an old mechanics shop that was turned into a bar.”

“So,” James said, eyeing my fake beer from across the table, “how come you quit drinking? There had to have been something terrible that made you call it quits.”

“I just got a little too good at it,” I said after a moment. “The better I got at it, the worse I got at everything else.”

“Oh, cah-caw,” he said with a nod, raising his eyebrows.

“You’re talkin’ to a guy who drinks a case of Budweiser every day,” Justin jumped in.

“Oh yeah. I’m gonna freak you out,” James nodded before taking a sip of Budweiser.

“Two packs of Camels, an eighth of weed, and some chicken tenders,” Justin said, listing the rest of James’ diet essentials.

“You’re an oblivion seeker,” James said, pointing at me with an expression that said, I’ve got you figured out.

“Oh yeah,” Justin said. “He did DMT tonight before the show.”

“Twice,” I added before taking a sip of non-alcoholic brew.

“You did DMT tonight?” James asked, his chin low and his eyebrows raised, “Twice? Jiminy fuckin’ Crickets.”

“Guy gets after it, dude,” Justin said with a shrug.

“Well, I didn’t see that comin’. That’s a curveball,” James said, shaking his head.

“He hopped in the van with SUSTO and rode all the way to Charleston,” Justin said. “What did you expect?”

“My aunt isn’t going to like what I’m going to publish about this,” I said, picking nervously at the tab on my beer can.

“Well,” James said between drags of a cigarette, “ya can’t be rock and roll if you’re worried about what your goddamn aunt thinks. Man, tomorrow’s gonna be fun as shit!”

“Last show, how do you feel?” I asked Justin.

“Stoked. I just wanna get there and back alive. Put my Christmas tree up Saturday.”

“Guten tag,” Van said, raising his beer.

“So, I almost put a Christmas tree up in your house while you were gone,” James confessed, looking at Justin.

What? That’s our thing, dude,” Justin shot back.

James explained how his girlfriend had pulled him aside and talked some sense into him before he could get away with it.

“She’s like, they’re about to have a child, this is their Christmas tree. Fuck you.”

“Man,” Justin said, imagining the catastrophe, “there’d be pines everywhere and sap on the couches. The cat’d be all bothered. I’m glad you didn’t.”

We stayed at the bar another half hour before we dropped Justin off at home. James, Van the Good and I went to the Rialto Row studio compound. The plan for the night was for me to bunk in the studio house. When we pulled onto the property, I was amazed by the artwork painted on the interior of the house.

“That’s nothin’. Wait’ll you see the studio. That’s the real cool shit,” he said, as we walked through the yard to the studio.

I stood behind him while the rain came down as he put the key in the lock. He turned the key, but nothing happened.

“Huh,” was all he said at first.

The frustration grew as he tried the key over and over. He pulled it out, looked at it, and tried again.

“Okay,” he said cautiously, “I have no idea what’s going on here. This key works in this lock every single time, except it won’t work now.”

“Weird,” I said. In my head I wondered, did this guy get fired and I’m here when he’s learning that they’ve changed the locks out from under him?

We turned and headed back into the house.

“I guess I’ll show it to you another time,” he said as we stepped into the warmth of the building.

“No problem, man,” I said, though that nagging thought crept back: too bad there won’t be a next time, because you’ve been fired.

“Ho-ly shit,” he said suddenly, his face dropping. “I just got a goddamn text message. The reason we couldn’t get in there is because the owner of the lot is in there with one of the bands. They’re all trippin’ acid and someone was holding the bolt while I was trying to unlock it.”

I wasn’t sure what any of this meant, but I suspected it wasn’t great.

“You won’t be able to stay here tonight. I’m sorry Canuck,” James said with sincerity, “I didn’t realize there’d be a bunch of vegans trippin’ acid back there.”

The gravity of the situation remained airborne, but I broke out laughing. I felt tangled in this balanced chaos, so hilarious and absurd. Who else lives with problems like a shed full of acid fiends locked up out back? Such are the troubles in this little musical universe.

James only shrugged. “It’s what it is,” he said.

In the studio at Rialto Row. Photo: E.H. Stockton

The plan turned into me sleeping in the van in the parking lot, but the group cleared out before long. James brought me in to the recording studio and showed me what the speakers are capable of.

“Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “this place is in an entirely deaf community. I used to think all my neighbors were dicks. Nope, just deaf.”

The speakers blared a Band of Horses record as the rain carried on through the night, leaving the streets and the yard flooded by morning.

Continue to Part 5

Van with the van beside the flooded streets of Charleston. Photo: E.H. Stockton