It was a thing of grace. That machine yielded to his will as though it had woken up with the sun, puffed a stale cigarette, choked down some black coffee, and idled patiently until unlikely captain Kurt Vile, reluctant guitar hero and folk journeyman, arrived. The Kurt you don’t know is every bit as prodigious behind the wheel of a forklift as he is strapped to a guitar. As his co-worker at the Philadelphia Brewing Company, I saw it five days a week.
Anybody could see that forklift had lived a hard life before Kurt even climbed on for the first time around 2003. It was a propane-fueled TCM, spit off an assembly line in the Americas sometime before its eventual master even learned to tune a guitar (which was shortly after he learned to crawl). Rotten yellow foam broke free from the lift’s vinyl seat cover, rust showed through a dull paint job, hard rubber tires were worn down, and the machine shot out a cloud of smoke whenever it was pushed into gear.
Any other operator struggled to drive it across the warehouse and pick up a pallet. But on the lift, Kurt showed a nonchalant precision and economy of movement that drew the deserved praise of anybody who understood the difficulty of his task. Nary a wasted motion. A rare false move would be easily corrected without panic, and its cause was usually a momentary lapse of attention, typically to advance the track on the Discman that lay permanently balanced on his left palm.
Tony Iommi had the sheet metal factory, to tragic results. Cobain tidied up and swept floors at medical facilities. Mo Tucker had her seat at IBM’s keypunch. Kurt Vile? Maybe it’s premature to utter his name among those heavies, but in the world of forklift operators, he’s a giant. If any sanctioning body should care to establish some type of Forklift Rodeo, the smart money’s on Kurt.
He dragged himself out of bed and clocked in at the brewery sometime between 9 and 11 a.m. There, he’d hijack the stereo, clean and fill kegs, and load countless pallets stacked with Kenzinger beer onto trucks for the day’s deliveries. It was light industrial work, nothing to get sentimental about. But it was dignified and it allowed Kurt the mental room to think about the craft of songwriting during the day and spend his nights (and often early mornings) recording an ever-lengthening list of tunes. (One of them, notable for our purposes here, “Space Forklift.”)
One crisp morning, an old-timer from the distributor up the street pulled into the dock to pick up a load of cases and kegs. He chewed on a pretzel and watched as this young guy, with long, wild curls and wool gloves worn through at the fingertips, expertly filled each available inch of his truck. He’d disappear through the double doors, throttle fork-first into a pallet, and emerge noisily with a tall stack of cases. They’d teeter with the swiftness of the motion, but never fall. The old-timer learned that the driver was a musician and that he’d be performing at some area dump on Friday night. The old guy swallowed the last of his snack and let out with a minimal level of enthusiasm: “If he can play guitar as good as he drives that forklift . . . he’s got a hit record.”
After six strained years, Kurt finally lost his job in the summer of ’09. He had shown up late too many times, taken too many unsanctioned breaks, and irked his superiors too many times with his increasingly casual work ethic. Luckily, he’d been practical enough to develop a secondary skill. After all, the usual cause for his tardiness was that he had been moonlighting making music until the sun came up. So, when he could no longer make a living as a forklift operator, he was able to fall back on his music. A recording contract stood waiting for his signature and concert marquees across the globe yearned to boast his name.
You likely know the rest of the story.
Richie Charles runs Richie Records // TestosterTunes. Kurt Vile’s 2009 The Hunchback EP was the label’s 21st release. Charles was cast in the role of “Security Guard #1” in Vile’s “KV Crimes” music video.
Kurt Vile headlines the 4Knots Music Festival on Saturday, June 29.
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