"I'm not interested in getting up there with a bunch of flags waving. After September 11, I didn't want any part of the jingoism and the "Let's go to war' stuff everyone else was really excited about," Mestnick said in a call from Colorado last week. "I was stuck there in Florida, I didn't know anybody, just the band, and they took a really militaristic attitude. I can't be on-stage playing music with people who were feeling so strongly the other way, when they're saying, "America, love it or leave it' at the same time. Especially when I knew there were millions of lives literally on the line."
Compounding matters for the band, just an hour after Mestnick called to announce he was moving back to Denver, Pank Shovel's other guitarist, Brian Hay, phoned to say he was leaving the group as well, due to health problems and general unhappiness. Former bassist Marissa Mikeo is now playing guitar, and keyboardist Shannon Lindner has moved over to bass. Immediately prior to Pank Shovel's 2:30 a.m. performance at the City Link Music Festival on December 7, vocalists Kristen Kelley and Genny Slag expressed sadness and surprise over Mestnick's meltdown.
"It just sucks," said Slag. "We argued about a lot of stuff, but we were friends, and we talked more than anybody else in the band. I always thought it was good! Tom's a good guy -- he's weird, but it's good to be passionate about what you believe in."
Before September 11, remembered Mestnick, "We'd always be into armchair radicalism and Philosophy 101, but it never really mattered. I had really toned down my politics when playing with them. I was doing Amnesty International and ACLU work down there, but I never really felt the need to preach about it. Which I can do -- very easily."
But on September 11, all the rules changed. Actually, they didn't change until September 14, when Mestnick finally discovered what had happened, since he'd been on the floor of Pank Shovel's radio- and television-less rehearsal room since injuring his back at work on September 10. Three days later, his bandmates showed up at their rented practice space in a warehouse off Congress Avenue and relayed the news to him. Crazily enough, you'd have to be living under a rock or in a cave to be unaware of something so momentous -- or be Tom Mestnick, to whom it's not so momentous -- and whose home was the warehouse.
"In the 100 worst atrocities of the 20th Century, it wouldn't even measure," he insisted of the WTC collapse. "That's horrible to say, but..."
Colliding with Mestnick (who usually eschews news, except for NPR, and didn't see any footage of the event until early October, when he stopped at a motel with cable TV on his trip back home) may have allowed an emotional and reactionary side of Pank Shovel to surface.
"Marissa said, "I wanna join the Army and start killing Arabs,'" described Mestnick, who's now involved in rallies and vigils for the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace when he's not doing what he calls "coffee stuff" back in Denver. "Both [drummer] James [Washington] and Brian said they wanted to enlist. I didn't want any part of it. I knew it was going to get ugly. I was disappointed -- I thought I knew everybody better. Maybe I should have been educating them all along. I knew they weren't anarchists, but I didn't think they were going to decide George Bush was the man and join the Republican Party."
Surely Pank Shovel's patriotism didn't lead to such drastic measures?
"Marissa is a little country-club Republican for the most part," said Mestnick. "She goes and plays golf every weekend."
"Well, she plays golf," admitted Slag, but flatly denounced the political realignment charge as "ridiculous. None of us are Republicans. It was his inability to coexist with our beliefs. I was just like, "Dude, living in this country affords all these opportunities....' It's difficult to hear him say we're too conservative."
How did Mestnick become such a hard-line leftist that, to him, even lovable, liberal lesbians lack a left-enough lean, you ask? "He went to college for, like, 30 years!" sniped Slag.
Actually, it was 12 years Mestnick spent wandering Colorado's halls of higher education, directing most of his energy toward social-change activism, but music-making (usually in a classic-rock vein) was always in the picture. Primarily due to his politics, he said he always found himself in bands with gay women, a streak he began in 1993 and continued on through Pank Shovel. But Mestnick never bargained for a pair of Christian, patriotic lesbians.
"I believe in God," commented Slag dryly, "and that was a big problem for Tom too."
He responded, "I just assumed lesbians were cynical, never willing to trust George Bush or the Republican Party no matter what. But Genny and Marissa were not that way at all."
Mestnick either wouldn't or couldn't temper his hard-line rhetoric in the wake of the terrorist tragedy.
"I hate patriotism," he spouted. "I've never liked flags. People ask, "Aren't you proud to be an American?' I didn't do much to be an American other than be born here. My parents fucked here -- that was about it."
Such divisions in fundamental principles, it would appear, didn't bring out the best of Pank Shovel. Mestnick continued to level accusations at his former bandmates, especially Mikeo, who has committed the sin of being born into an upper-middle-class family and having not a care in the world. "She's 23 and loving life. She's never heard of Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn -- she couldn't even tell you what decade the Vietnam War happened in."
Alas, Mestnick explained that he left his copy of Manufacturing Consent back home in Denver. If only...
"I don't know what that guy's problem is," said Mikeo. "He's a freak. He thinks he's an intellectual, but I think he's losing his mind."
But Mestnick believes he was the voice of reason in a band gone astray from its ideological center: "Part of me is so pissed and disappointed at them for being so that way. I just think it's the role of musicians to be the voice of peace and compassion. Creativity and bloodlust don't go hand in hand, and I don't know where Pank Shovel is going to end up on that. Maybe they'll get their heads together.
"I miss the music a lot, but I know it was the right thing to do."