Doomed Value Van Triggers Bad 80s Roadie Flashbacks

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
doomed value van triggers bad 80s roadie flashbacks

Some of you may be more familiar with this friend of the catering and drinking-water industries in its Chevrolet Step-Van guise, but I’ve always preferred GMC’s name: Value Van! I ran across this fairly complete example in my local self-service wrecking yard, quite close to the Simu-Wood™ LeBaron Town & Country wagon. Me and the Value Van, we have a history!

Back in 1985 or so, I had some old friends who played in an extremely terrible, wish-they-were-Metallica band in Northern California (I’ll call them “Suck-tallica,” to spare the surviving members— a couple of whom are now in good bands— from embarrassment), and they purchased an ex-San-Francisco-bakery GMC Value Van for use as their gig rig. Unlike the small-block-powered, slushbox-equipped one here, the Suck-tallica Value Van boasted a 396, floor-shifted 4-speed, and Cherry Bomb mufflers. Within minutes of its purchase, the hirsute, alcoholic, stolen-Camaro-drivin’ members of Suck-tallica installed a dozen or so thrift-store house speakers, mounted them all over the interior, and drove them with an alleged 2,000 watts of swap-meet no-name-brand amplifiers, so that their godawful April Wine and Dark Angel cassettes would be audible over the roar from the glasspacks.

I admit being something of a Dark Angel fan myself, back in the day, but I still had misgivings about helping Suck-tallica with their gigs during my visits up from SoCal. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the band was usually short at least one member due to arrest (possession of meth and drunk driving were the most popular offenses), or just the extremely sketchy— and, often, heavily-armed— hangers-on in their inner circle. Still, friends are friends! What could go wrong?

One gig, at a shank-tastic speed bar in lovely Hayward, sticks in my mind. The Value Van’s throttle cable snapped immediately after firing up the van, and the lead guitar player had the brilliant idea of removing the engine cover so the driver could reach over and work the carburetor by hand. Of course, that meant he had no hands free for shifting, so the drummer sat in the passenger seat and worked the shifter. By that point, they’d all been bonging up many ounces of brown, seedy Mexican weed and knocking back many Mickey’s Big Mouths, so their ingenuity seemed like a great idea. I disagreed, but what does a 19-year-old college boy know about rock-n-roll?

So, the truck somehow made it from band HQ in West Oakland to the Nimitz Freeway (in fact, the section of the Nimitz that became very famous five years later), albeit with several hair-raising stalls on the freeway onramp and a backfire problem that kept roasting the “driver’s” right hand… which would make him scream “FUUUUCK!” and remove his hand from the throttle, at which point the van would engine-brake so bad that all the fifteenth-hand Marshall Stacks would slide forward and mash the remaining occupants against the seat backs. Still, forward progress was being made… until the bass player decided to open the rear cargo doors and relieve his bladder of some Mickey’s residual buildup.

Well, that wasn’t the wisest move, since one of the Value Van’s many throttle/shifter/alcohol-impaired lurches sent the bass player tumbling right out the door and onto the Nimitz Freeway at 70 MPH. He managed to slow his fall by grabbing onto the door edge for long enough to spin himself around, allowing the rhythm guitar player lunge over and grab a handful of the front of his leather jacket as he fell out the door backwards, but the bass player scaled in at a good 250 pounds and his savior might have had 110 pounds between all his monkey-bump-depleted gristle and stringy guitar-twangin’ forearm muscle. The choice of leather for jacket material turned out to be a prescient one for the bass player, because the jacket’s leather was scraping on the asphalt and keeping his back from being ground into hamburger in the first few seconds. I rushed over and grabbed the bass player’s feet, to keep him from leaving the van completely, while the rhythm guitarist did his best to haul him back into the van. We’d manage to get him a foot or so off the pavement rushing by, but the driver thought this was the funniest thing he’d ever seen (guess you had to be there) and he twisted the throttle to WFO and started swerving the van so much that all we could do was give the bass player brief respites from the asphalt belt sander below him.

“HEEELLLPP MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” screamed the bass player as we tried to haul him him before the driver figured out that he could scrape the poor bastard off on any conveniently located guardrail. A legendary rock-n-roll death (though not quite up the standard set a decade later by Eldon Hoke) to be sure, but one that we really didn’t want to witness. Finally, I was able to brace myself enough to drag him to safety by the feet. The van reached the gig, Suck-tallica sucked as much as expected, and I decided to put a bit of distance between myself and the band’s Value Van.

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2 of 19 comments
  • Russycle Russycle on Jan 27, 2011

    Our department has gone through a couple step vans in the years I've worked here. We had a bright red one a few years back, our student employees dubbed it the Terrorist Delivery Van. One of them had the pleasure of having the front wheel break off and roll past him as he was driving across the railroad tracks downtown. I miss that kid, he owned an ancient Pinto with a set of steer horns glued to the hood.

  • Andy D Andy D on Feb 04, 2011

    Heh Heh, Great story. My first legal vehicle was a 54 IH walk in van. It was orange. I scrawled " Intergalactic Brain Police " in dripping black paint on its sides. The voltage regulator blew out, so I rigged up a jumper to ground to take its place. It worked fine as long as I remembered to disconnect it periodically . When I didnt, the battery would over charge and pop the head lights like flash bulbs.

  • Garagezone There was an Indy 500 yesterday? Hmmmm...
  • Mark Morrison Sad it just reminded me how good TTAC once was … required daily reading.
  • MKizzy It's an H/K, so my guess is the low resale value allowed a second owner with luxury car dreams, an economy car budget, and no concept of basic maintenance to snap it up and drive it around without so much as a trip to the local Jiffy Lube until something serious broke.
  • Cprescott Everyone can be given a participation trophy and you don't have to run the race at all. What is perhaps striking is that we still have competitions where there are winners and losers and this offends the modern day snowflake mentality. It used to be that they wrecked on the first lap.