You’re a hot Boston band with a national buzz, you’ve been on the road and the big hometown gig is coming up. Everything’s going your way—except that your van just broke down. And it’s New Year’s Eve. And your equipment is sitting in a mushroom farm in New Jersey. Other than that, things are great. Oh, and did we mention that your lead singer’s whole face just broke out in a strange rash?
Every band has one of those moments that separates the real rockers from the dabblers, a road experience that shows who’s in it for the long haul. For the Boston band the Charms, that happened three years ago. If you love wild garage rock with a '60s pop twist, you may know the band: They released three albums nationally and toured for all they were with, even opening a bunch of shows for legendary punk band the New York Dolls. Platinum-blonde singer Ellie Vee and rock-guy guitarist Joe Wizda both had that star quality. The holiday weekend leading into 2006 found them burning up highway as usual, with a bunch more roadwork lined up. Then the van hit the fan.
The vehicle started dying just after a gig in Asbury Park; they pulled out onto the highway and heard a sick sound from somewhere near the transmission. A few minutes later they wound up sitting still in the middle of a lane. “All of a sudden we see cops converging on us from all directions,” Ellie recalls. “They probably thought we were up to something.” And it probably didn’t help that she was still in fairly provocative stage clothes. Still, they did some fast enough talking to win the cops over, and they even gave the band a push to their motel. All was well for a little while.
That night Ellie did her evening ritual of dabbing her face with moisturizer before going to bed…except that motel moisturizer looks a lot like motel shampoo. And when you’re shaken up from a van breakdown it’s hard to register the difference. “So the next day I’m starting to call rental companies when I realized my face felt really dry, and it started to sting. I looked in the mirror and it was totally red—I had used the shampoo overnight. I looked like I had a really bad sunburn in the middle of the winter.”
The Charms in action!
The problems didn’t end there. Ever try to get a full-size rental van on New Year’s Eve in Asbury Park? As the band found out, it couldn’t be done: No rental place in Asbury Park had a vehicle that size up for grabs. All they could rent was a minivan that fit the five bandmembers, maybe a guitar and a pedalboard. The rest of their equipment, including the bulky Farfisa organ that they haul to every gig, was still sitting in a broken-down van: Problem #2: AAA wouldn’t tow that broken-down van as long as the equipment was still in it. So now the band’s been on the phone a few hours, the singer’s face is about to fall off, and the equipment looks destined to be left on the side of the road.
Enter MacGyver. Not the '80s TV detective, but someone nearly as unlikely. This MacGyver was working on the roof of the dealership when the band was trying to negotiate, and he made them an offer: For $150 he’d illegally tow their stuff to his place, which was a hydroponic mushroom farm out in the sticks. The band wasn’t sure they wanted to leave all their equipment on a hydroponic mushroom farm—or even, exactly what one was—but time was passing and they still had to play Boston that night. “He brings the truck and loads all our equipment into the back and drives off. All we could think was, ‘I hope he doesn’t go sell all of it.’ But he seemed pretty trustworthy and besides—his name was MacGyver.”
For a change, they were lucky: MacGyver didn’t rip them off. Now all the Charms had to do was drive back to Boston (distance: 271 miles) and spend the day calling every friend they had to borrow equipment for the show; Ellie also invested in enough makeup to get rid of the blotches (I was at that show could only notice that the band seemed more hopped-up than usual). The next show was in Albany—that’s 188 more miles—and required more borrowed equipment, more phone calls and more makeup. But the Charms came out with nearly enough money to pay the auto shop in Jersey. A week later Joe and Ellie trucked back down to Asbury Park and came home with a repaired van, a few war stories, and a trunk full of hydroponic mushrooms.