“I’ve never been to Sturgis, I just thought I’d showed up at the ugliest gay pride parade I’ve ever seen. Really, that much leather and tassels and you’re going to tell me you’re all straight?”
We’re at The Knuckle Saloon in Sturgis, South Dakota, at the tail end of the 71st Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The Saloon is packed; there’s a handful of wary locals but many of the people in the crowd are bikers rounding out a weeklong bender. Kyle Kinane’s on the stage, and as his opening lines swing out over the bar to mixed reactions I grip my pack tighter. In the bag, just in case, is “The General”, though I’m realizing there’s no way a buck knife will improve this situation. Our jokes about getting the shit kicked out of us in this town may turn out to have been more like premonitions.
But before Sturgis, there was Colorado. As Kyle’s dirt-encrusted truck chugged along to Night Ranger’s “Rock in America,” the outlandish landscapes of Utah slowly gave way to pine-covered hills, which scrambled over one another until they grew into mountains.
When we pull into Denver, Andrew Orvedahl and Ben Roy are waiting for us on Orvedahl’s front stoop. Both are friends of Kyle’s and stand up comics themselves (Ben is also the lead singer in Denver-based band The Fire Drills). When Ben hears of Kyle’s upcoming Sturgis show he says, “Things are going pretty decent for you right now, but imagine what’ll happen when bikers murder you. Your popularity is going to skyrocket.”
“I’m playing on Sunday,” Kyle replies, “So all the riders with jobs will probably have left town, leaving only the gang members.”
We head north to Boulder for the second show of The Great Mistakes Tour. As we roll into town the sun is setting on the Flat Irons, the brick streets are packed with smiling, attractive people, and laughing children play in a fountain outside the venue. We are far from the outskirts of Las Vegas.
The crowd at The Lazy Dog Sports Bar is as idyllic as Boulder itself. The venue is packed, and the openers all do well. Kyle laughs along with the audience; sometimes he’s laughing the hardest.
When he takes the stage the room immediately loves him. You can feel it. His confidence is on display and the set goes on for 50 minutes. His voice, hard to hear in the cab of a truck, is made for a microphone. His low, baritone mumbles take on new life when amplified over the heads of an attentive crowd.
After the show, people line up at the bar to have their picture taken with him. “That was awesome.” “You’re really good.” I laughed my depression right out of me!” “I want to buy you a drink.” “You partying around here tonight?” “Can I feel your beard?” “This is my fourth time I’ve seen you, I love how it’s different every time.” Seeming a little off put by the praise, Kyle mutters, “Nah, it’s all just bullshit stories.” “Well, your bullshit smells sweet, son,” a fan quickly replies.
Fueled by success, the comics hit the bar and continue to hit it until long after the crowd has left. I’m marching to the endless beat of Maker’s Mark and dancing on an empty dance floor with a stranger who would rather be dancing with Kyle, while a random fan buys far too many jell-o shots for everyone. It isn’t long before my dance partner is throwing up and we decide to call it a night, but not before I take a moment to relieve myself in the bushes of a nearby church, right by the fountain where the idyllic children of Boulder were playing but a few hours ago.
* * *
The next day everyone feels like shit. We spend the afternoon trying to lounge off our hangovers, and then go see Andrew do a show with Greg Proops at Comedy Works in Denver. After that we head to 3 Kings Bar to watch Ben’s band play with Kingdom of Magic and Planes Mistaken for Stars. It strikes me again how much of a fan Kyle is of other people’s work. Hungover and beat, he still puts himself in the middle of the metal show, rocking along with Denver’s drunken sweaty scenesters.
The next morning, hangovers now multiplied by two, we pack up the Ranger and prepare to head north through Wyoming and then east into South Dakota. Before we get in the truck Kyle googles “Sturgis Crime” and reads aloud to me: “Two rival biker gang members stabbed downtown this weekend.” He pauses, “Man, I don’t know about this one.”
* * *
By the time we pull into Sturgis we’re exhausted. Wyoming provided nothing but flat, desolate scenery, and driving through it was like watching a never-ending reel of movie credits. But we’d made good time and cut through Deadwood earlier than expected as a flood of motorcycles headed in the opposite direction.
“The Rally’s dying down,” the young comic who had organized the show tells us when we pull up to his childhood home, where we’ll be staying the night. His father is a retired police officer and we’re regaled with stories of biker fights and deaths from rallies past: “One guy got hit by lightning riding his bike in a storm.” “Sometimes they’ll hit deer while riding too fast.” “Most bars don’t allow gangs to wear their colors, but that doesn’t stop them from fighting.”
We drive into town and are soon surrounded by Harley Davidson logos and leathery skin. Everything seems to be for sale, the most popular item being ridiculous clothes with even more ridiculous quotes: “Tailgate if you have never seen a gun fired from a motorcycle,” “Save a hog, ride a biker,” “If speed kills, consider me dead,” and, my personal favorite, on a black and white tye-dyed button up with the sleeves removed, a simple “Eat Shit and Die Motherfucker.”
When we walk into The Knuckle Saloon a few things are clear right off the bat. One, the “entertainment director” has had a few too many (he will spend most of the show asleep on the floor of the sound booth), and two, save for a few of the opener’s friends and family, no one is at this bar for the show.
“I haven’t relied on booze for confidence in awhile,” Kyle whispers to me as we order Budweisers two at a time. After a few drinks Kyle turns to the young local comic who will open for him and simply states, “You’ve got balls, buddy.”
The younger comic takes the stage for a half-hour set. At one point, an old biker near the stage gets up and starts dragging his chair noisily around the room. No one moves to stop him and, eventually boring even himself, he wanders outside. Not long after the local comic welcomes Kyle to the stage, and there, fueled by bravery or stupidity, Kyle launches into his opening lines, taking a verbal swing at everyone in the bar, and then specifically at the heckling older biker.
“And let’s get a big hand for the 70 year old man with the ‘Eat Pussy’ shirt. That man hasn’t had an original tooth in his skull since 1973. How about ‘Gum some pussy, and then watch the Weather Channel for three hours.’ You are an old person. Gross.”
I laugh nervously and look over at the table of bikers where the old man was sitting before his grand exit. Surprisingly, they look more amused than annoyed.
“Well listen, before Uncle BBQ goes and gets his ass kicked in the parking lot,” Kyle continues, “he’s going to tell you a couple stories about fucking up his life, then we’ll get on with our evening.”
The night turns out to be a haphazard success. The locals love Kyle’s jokes, and the bikers even start paying attention, bringing the noise level at The Knuckle Saloon down to a low din. At one point, in the bathroom, a skinny man in a leather vest covered in tattoos, whose look can best be described as “methy,” says to me, “Hey, is that your friend out there?” My pants are unzipped and I consider pulling a Judas and pretending not to know Kinane, but instead say, “Yeah, that’s my pal.”
“Well shit,” he says, clapping me on the back. “I almost didn’t get up to take a piss because I didn’t want to miss his jokes.” I decide not to ask him if that meant he was considering just urinating at his table, and instead laugh, nod my head, and turn to wash my hands.
* * *
The following morning we wake up unscarred by bike chains or brass knuckles. In fact, the wildest thing that happened to me the night before was drinking a midnight milkshake from McDonald’s (Kyle didn’t even instigate round two of “Shake Time Shakedown!”). We’d survived Sturgis.
Before we leave town and head to see Mount Rushmore we happily take the young comic’s father up on a kind offer to give us a tour of the bullet factory where he works. The warehouse is filled with buckets of brass and lead, and giant modified-antique machines churn out violent projectiles of all shapes and sizes. The taxidermied heads of animals from all over the world stare down at us from the walls.
In the back, our tour guide opens up a gun safe, revealing more firearms than I’ve ever seen in one place. Without saying a word he reaches in and comes out with a Smith and Wesson 500 magnum revolver. I’ve lived in towns like Sturgis, and have fired my fair share of guns. Never have I seen so large a hand cannon.
“What’s the practical use of this thing?” Kyle asks.
“None,” our tour guide replies. “Want to shoot it?”
The thunder of the gun is inexplicable. The release of noise and metal shakes me to my core. After Kyle slams another slug down the tunnel of the underground firing range our guide says, “Sometimes the rubber at the end of the tunnel gets eaten up, and every once in awhile a bullet will ricochet straight back.” He politely points to multiple holes in the wall directly behind our heads. And, just like that, the brief safety we felt in Sturgis is gone, and we are ready to cut out towards Omaha.
Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals by the age of 25. He has also written for AlterNet, The Bold Italic, McSweeney’s, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Mother Jones. He is the managing editor of The Rumpus. Follow him on Twitter.