Matt McGuire

Apr 18, 2021

5 min read

What drives us: journeys, destinations and friendships

Hopper — Brian, Matt and Lou (L-R) — at Beat Kitchen in Chicago’s Roscoe Village.

“The Badger Herald is selling its old delivery van,” I told Lou on the phone. I had called him from my desk at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s independent student newspaper, where I got my start in journalism. “It’s not too old but it’s pretty beat up. I was thinking about getting it. It might be a good band van.”

From my days working at Minstrel Music in Niles, Ill., I had seen dozens of band vans, usually while helping a band member load the PA system they had just rented. Each van was a unique character but they all had one thing in common: They presented the opportunity for adventure. Our friends in Crackpot and 92 Degrees had a nice vans. I hoped Hopper, the band I played in with Lou and Brian, would have one some day.

“What are they asking?” Lou replied.

Lou and Brian had already graduated from college and had more life experience than I did. They frequently took calls from me asking for advice on everything from vans to careers in journalism. They accommodated my college schedule and all the demands that came with it. Case in point: The morning after a Wednesday night show at Elbo Room in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, Lou drove me to O’Hare airport at 5:30 am so I could catch a Van Galder bus back to the Madison campus for a 9:30 am class.

“Two-hundred bucks,” I told Lou. “A little out of my budget.”

My stipend at The Badger Herald was roughly $70 every two weeks — not even enough to cover my share of the rent at 312 N. Hamilton St., the house I shared with Kevin, Liz and Russ.

“I’m putting a $200 check in the mail today,” Lou replied without missing a beat. Lou has always been generous. He’s also pretty smart and likely knew that $200 got him out of future pre-dawn drop-offs at a bus depot.

Soon that 1990 Dodge Ram B250 cargo van was mine, dents, repairs and all. Hopper had some great adventures in it — driving through a blizzard on our way to Detroit, entertaining questions about my “brass” in East Lansing, sitting for a radio interview in DeKalb and playing on the Landing in the summer in St. Louis. Road trips let us leave a few of our worries behind. They were freeing and they brought us together, though we may not have realized the latter at the time.

I started thinking about the van’s days after watching the trailer for “What Drives Us,” which shows Ringo, Flea, Slash and others sharing memories of van tours and the role they played in their bands’ success. Their bands were chasing something a bit different than Hopper— and they succeeded. Hopper was a serious band but we didn’t have an all-or-nothing approach. We wanted to write good songs, hang out and bring friends together in a rock club on a weekend night. A few times a year, we drove for a few hours to play our songs in front of new people in a different city.

Moments from Hopper’s past that may have seemed unremarkable at the time have stuck with me. These days, I look back fondly at the time we spent unloading the van in the alley behind Lou’s Henderson Street house after a Chicago show. Once we got all the amps and instruments into the basement, we’d stand around and recap the night. Did that new song work? How many postcards were at the door? What’d you think of so-and-so’s new sweetheart? When we were done, we’d slam the back doors shut and hear the booming echo of an empty van.

I’d regularly hear a different “BOOM!” from the driver’s seat. One of the support arches in the middle of the van had cracked during its days as a delivery van. I heard it cracked during a celebratory dance on the van’s roof after The Badger Herald beat The Daily Cardinal in the competing student newspapers’ annual football game. Now the roof sagged a bit.

It would “BOOM!” back up when the windows were down, the van was accelerating and the back of the van filled with a rush of air. While I got used to it, the noise always startled anyone in the passenger seat. When driving to band practice, I knew the roof would “BOOM!” up on the Kennedy’s Cumberland Avenue entrance and “BOOM!” down when I’d exit at Kimball Avenue.

Brad, Matt, Doug and Mike (L-R) after filling up the tank on their way to Montreal.

That Dodge was more than a band van. For several years, it moved me from one home to the next. It’s how Brad, Doug, Mike and I got to Montreal one summer and to Dave’s family’s house on Elk Lake the next. The “back seat” was a mattress from an old sleeper sofa. That didn’t appear to bother anyone.

I got a small gift when I bought the van — a beat-up rubber football that was rolling around inside. Was it the one from that victorious game? I never found out. I kept it in the back with the jumper cables and tire jack. Having a football in the van started many unplanned games of catch — with Russ and Kevin in front of our place on Hamilton Street, with Brian in the alley after unloading gear, with friends on the rolling lawn at Dave’s Michigan getaway.

I found that football a few months ago when cleaning out a box in the basement. The van is long gone but I plan to hang on to the football and the memories the van helped create.

In the trailer for “What Drives Us,” Ben Harper talks about how the time he spent in the van with his bandmates — “that experience together” — strengthened their relationships. That resonates with me. Trips in the van are a bit like songs: Everyone has a role — organizer, driver, navigator, guitarist, bassist, drummer— and you work together to create something more melodic than if you had done it alone. On some trips you wear a couple hats, on others you sit out a couple measures.

I didn’t understand everything the van gave us during my Hopper days. I was likely focused on what seemed important at the time. Looking back on it now, I see it differently.

Those days in the van created more than memories. They created lifelong friends.

Matt McGuire lives in the Chicago area with his wife and kids. He’s collecting new van memories with the family’s Honda Odyssey.