Thirty years later for the old rock band, no longer together, some of the details are sketchy. Like did it happen in New Hampshire or Vermont? Other details are as specific as the smell of gasoline on a freezing cold night when you just might die.
In fairness to the conflicting memories of the three Incredible Casuals and their two crew members who were there on that frigid northern night some three decades ago and recalled this story for us, they were all breathing gasoline fumes for several hours at the time of “the incident,” as their roadie, Lou McMurrer called it.
“It would have also made a good story if we all died,” said Johnny Spampinato, who was the guitarist for the Incredible Casuals. “Chandler (Travis) would have loved it. For us all to blow up, not in a plane crash or in a car crash, but in this big van. It would have been such a thing for us to do.”
“It would have also made a good story if we all died. Chandler would have loved it.” – Johnny Spampinato, guitarist for the Incredible Casuals.
Instead, this is a different kind of a story – a heartwarming rock and roll tale of forgiveness and redemption. It is a story of the craziness of life on the road, and from a very cold moment in time when five young men with rock and roll and more flowing through their brains literally risked their lives to return to Cape Cod.
We first heard about the misguided gasoline story months ago, while profiling Chris Blood, who was the sound guy for the band. We have now tracked down all five witnesses to this story that has seemed to progress from band lore into folklore for the Incredible Casuals, who were once the most popular original rock band on Cape Cod.
“I don’t really know how it happened,” said Chandler Travis, the bass player for the Incredible Casuals. “I think we were in Vermont, actually. We just pulled over to get some gas. We had one of those long vans,” he said. “We’d always be ending up with these half-assed vans,” he said.
All memories seem to say it was late fall, maybe November.
“This occurred when Lou (McMurrer) first started working for us,” said Rikki Bates, the drummer, since transitioned to a woman, who at the time was known as Vince Valium.
“We were in New Hampshire,” said Lou McMurrer, the band’s roadie and the star of this story. The band and two crew members, five in all, were in a “yucky brown” Dodge van on a week-long trip through upstate New York, New Hampshire and Maine, said McMurer. “We were on the way home when the incident happened.”
McMurrer, long a fan of the Incredible Casuals, had recently started working for the band and this was his first trip with them that lasted more than a weekend. He was the new guy. He was driving when they needed gas so, band rules, it was his job to pump the gas.
“It was Sunday morning at 2 a.m. in northern Vermont, near the Canadian border,” said Blood. “It was probably zero degrees outside. We were about to head back to the Cape. Lou hopped out to pump gas.”
“We were in New Hampshire,” said Spampinato. “It was probably 3 in the morning.”
“I could hear the thing click on. We were all passed out,” recalled Bates. “I was passed out, sitting in the passenger seat.”
The old Dodge vans, said McMurrer, do not have a door over the gas cap. “I took the gas cap off,” he said. “I turned around and put the gas cap on top of the pump. I took the pump out and turned back around band stuffed it into the hole and began pumping gas.”
“I’m hearing glug, glug, glug,” recalled Bates. “I’m thinking, man, it’s making more noise than usual. Man, it’s really smelling like gasoline.”
“It began to stink up a lot,” said Travis.
“We didn’t realize what happened right away,” said Blood. “But very quickly, we started smelling gas.”
“I stuffed the nozzle into the hole in the body of the van,” said McMurrer. “And I pumped five dollars of the cheapest gas in the late 1980s. It was more than a couple of gallons.”
What McMurrer had not noticed was that while he was pumping gas into the van, he was leaning against the van, actually against the hole to the gas tank.
There was another hole, from where an old CB antenna had been. It was a hole into the body of the van.
That was the hole McMurrer pumped five dollars of gas into, an opening that went into the bottom of the van, below some boards and carpeting that the band had put their equipment on. The gas splattered, onto everything.
“The floor of the van has channels in it,” said Blood. “It’s not flat. The gas went through those channels and started pouring out by the seat, by the front of the car.”
“My feet started getting wet from the gas,” said McMurrer.
“I was sitting in the back. All of us were seated in the seats,” said Blood. “When we realized what was happening, we all got out. We kind of panicked,” he said.
McMurrer recalled, “A couple of guys were in the gas station getting snacks. A couple of guys were in the van, probably awake but mostly dozing off.”
Spampinato recalled McMurrer, with his distinctive low voice saying, “Guys, I made a mistake. I think we have gas in the vehicle.”
Spampinato said he could hear the gas splash into the van, and then he smelled it. “There were easily a couple of gallons, three or four gallons of gas in the van,” said Spampintao. “Lou was horrified because he’s a car guy. It hurt him badly for him to do something like that.”
“I am very much a car guy,” said McMurrer. “I was horrified I had made such an amazing blunder.”
“The owner of the gas station came out. He knew something bad was happening. He said, ‘Get that car away from my pumps.’” – Chris Blood, the sound guy for the Incredible Casuals
So at this point they either all jumped out of the van, or perhaps a couple getting snacks didn’t get back into the van at what Blood called, “a backwoods gas station with a little restaurant.” The panic was clear.
“The owner of the gas station came out,” said Blood. “He knew something bad was happening. He said, ‘Get that car away from my pumps.’”
“We didn’t think starting it was a viable option,” said Blood. “So we pushed it.”
They pushed it to a place so the back of the van was lower than the front, and then opened the back of the van and gas poured out of it. “It was a sight to see. It was amazing,” said Spampinato.
“Then we stood around and contemplated what we were going to do,” said McMurrer. “I had just put five dollars of gas directly into the interior of the van.”
“What happened next is really the amazing part,” said Travis.
“We were basically sort of desperate,” said Blood. “It was the middle of the night, we had nowhere to go and there were not really a lot of options. The guy that ran the gas station was not at all friendly, not not even a little bit. I got the feeling that from his point of view, we were not exactly establishment figures.”
For some reason, the owner didn’t like the rock band that pulled up in a long brown van at 2 or 3 a.m. and then pumped gas into the bottom of their own van. It was a bad first impression.
Not knowing what to do, McMurrer said, “an hour later, we decided to go for it.”
“It wasn’t like we were even thinking that much,” said Smampinato. “It was 3 in the morning. We were exhausted.”
“It meant nobody could light up, for the four-hour ride home,” said Spaminato. “Every single thing reeked of gasoline.”
“That’s the longest time we ever went without smoking pot,” said Blood.
But Travis remembered, “Our concession to the situation was that we opened the windows when we smoked pot.”
Others remembered the windows open the whole ride home, and reluctantly no smoking. McMurrer recalled his first thought upon noticing his mistake was, “We’re not going to smoke any more dope.”
“I was like, ‘You guys are nuts. We shouldn’t be doing this.’ ” – Rikki Bates, drummer of the Incredible Casuals. At the time, Bates was known as Vince Valium.
Bates said she did not even want to get back in the van, except there was no other way home. “I was like, ‘You guys are nuts. We shouldn’t be doing this. I was thinking, man, we are all going to fucking explode. But I wanted to get home. Of course, I thought if this thing doesn’t explode, we are all going to die of cancer.”
“I was worried,” said Bates. “There was enough explosive power in that thing to blow up a federal building in Waco. We had this gas sloshing around in the body of the van.”
“Driving home was just horrific,” said Blood. “I imagine it took years off of our lives.”
McMurrer added this disclaimer, “I think we breathed in much more dangerous stuff over the course of the years. We were a bunch of idiots.”
No one was angry with McMurrer, the new guy who caused this improbable difficulty on such a cold night so far from home.
“It was a very humanistic thing,” said Spampinato. “All of us saw it. There were two fucking holes on the side of the van.”
When the van finally made it back to the Cape, the band dropped McMurrer off in Hyannis, where he lived. They continued to the Outer Cape, where most of the rest of them lived.
“The next day I waited until I called Chandler,” said McMurrer. “Calling him too early isn’t good,” he said.
McMurrer immediately went into an effusive apology, and then said he would come by, strip the van of all the interior, the carpeting, everything, clean it up, and then disappear. The band would never see him again, he said.
“But Chandler said, ‘No, no, no. After you left the van, we took a vote and it was unanimous. You couldn’t possibly fuck up this bad again.’ I was with the band.”
Blood likened the decision to that of Garp in the movie, “The World According To Garp,” in which the main character is with a Realtor looking at a house when a plane crashes into it and the main character says, “I definitely want the house. It’s been pre-disastered.”
“The fact that the band continued to be nice to me and speak to me, I was amazed,” said McMurrer. “I deserved to be fired.”
“The fact that the band continued to be nice to me and speak to me, I was amazed. I deserved to be fired.” – Lou McMurrer, roadie for the Incredible Casuals
But Blood said McMurrer had made his horrific mistake, and then went on to prove himself to be “a total standup guy.”
“The guy has a heart of gold and he’s solid as a rock,” said Blood. “He’s good to his word to a fault.”
“He’s come through in tremendous ways to make up for it,” said Spampinato. “He’s not just a great roadie. He’s a great guy.”
“Lou is just so Louish,” said Travis. “He’s always been resourceful and delightful. He’s not moody. He goes with the flow.”
“Lou is just a sweetheart,” said Bates.
“Lou really appreciated the humor of the band. The camaraderie of it all,” said Spampinato. “He found his role in being a Casuals fan. And then he got to do exactly what he wanted to do while he came to see us play.” And, Spampinato added, “Lou is probably the only right decision the Casuals ever made.”
All of those interviewed said this was among their top rock and roll stories. “This story is totally worthy of making it into a book of great rock and roll stories,” said Spampinato. The only story he has to compare it to it, he said, was when his first professional band, when he was 17 played in a barn in upstate New York in front of 100 people and three of the band members beat up the drummer on stage, and then they finished the gig.
Travis and Bates recalled a long series of events from a Casuals tour involving, first, van trouble and the scorched nose of a previous sound guy who was working under the band’s van.
Then, said Bates, he broke his bass head drum head in anger while Travis broke the low E string on his bass, and string popped on Spampinato’s guitar all in the first angry note by the frustrated band at a gig on that same tour. And then later, on the way home, there were several broke down vehicles, and one car hood actually flew up and shattered a windshield.
And they all recall a trip to the midwest, saved by McMurrer, who essentially rebuilt the engine valve covers every three hundred miles from Omaha, Nebraska to Cape Cod.
Of course, there was the spooky time their van was stolen from Chet’s Last Call in Cambridge, and then found burned, just after they listened to Brian Wilson’s “Fire Music,” which is said to cause fires.
The band, later a quartet with guitarist Aaron Spade, stayed together until about about five years ago when, for reasons only they can explain, they quit playing together. But they have this shared history, if recalled somewhat differently in places.
“We were just good at rolling with the punches,” said Bates. “We were good at just not letting shit that goes bad bring us down. Every time something disastrous would happen, it would feel like we were in a sitcom or something. Half that and half living, ‘A Hard Days’ Night’.”
(Here is a link, courtesy of Chandler Travis, to the Incredible Casuals calling McMurrer on stage, “Hey Lou”… to the tune of “Hey Jude” –
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