"Slick Ass" Dan Pavlick was having a bad night. In his first round of kick the can, all four of Pavlick's beer cans had skittered across the wooden floor of the practice space and merely bounced off the bottoms of the three trash cans into which he was trying to propel them.
But now, as the big man lumbered up to his row of cans, something seemed different. He swung his leg back and his black-and-white knockoff Adidas made contact with the lowest point of the Boh can, sending it flying in a perfect arc to bank off the back wall above the second can and land perfectly in the third. The rest of the players cheered wildly. We were all playing against Pavlick, as is customary, but the next week, we would all be playing on a team against the bands Choke Motel and Poindexter.
Pavlick kicked again. The shot had a beautiful lift, but was marred by a weird drift as it went off to the side. He kicked again and BOOM! There it was. He was now tied with me and one point behind CP contributor Michael Shank, my bandmate in the Barnyard Sharks and the acknowledged Michael Jordan of this game.
One dented can was left standing. Pavlick reared back, cocked his leg, and kicked. The can went flying through the air, end over end, bounced off the rim of the can and went in. The cheers were deafening as a member of another band came out of the bathroom and said, "World Cup in here."
This version of kick the can is not that 1950s version of tag played by children (though, to combine the two might be the next step). Jimmy Mengel, of Choke Motel, claims to have originated this game. "Basically we started doing so about two years ago at the Hour Haus," he wrote in an email. "It was in the midst of an extreme creative drought, so we basically took our frustrations out on the copious number of empty beer cans. We just started kicking them at the wall, the ceiling and—most satisfyingly—at each other.
"It occurred to us one day that we probably looked like drunken lunatics to the other bands diligently practicing their craft, so we decided to construct a coherent framework around it. So we started kicking them into the three trash cans and began keeping score, one round at a time."
Choke Motel then developed a far more elaborate system, using baseball's nine-inning structure, with each inning having different configuration of cans, so that it is also kind of like miniature golf. "The eighth inning is an OCTOSMASH where we'd made a eight can pyramid you would kick all at once," Mengel says.
Other bands started to pick it up, including Deaf Scene, Barbeleth, Infinite Honey, and my band, the Barnyard Sharks. We consider their elaborate baseball structure a bit proggy, and play the punk version of the game, "four cans and the truth." You set up four cans and each person gets a turn trying to kick them in. We also have the more aggressive five-can showdown, where two players go at five cans simultaneously. Each person can reliably get two cans, but that last can—it can lead to injuries. "There are no lovers in kick the can. Only fighters," says Beth Harper, recalling a time when her romantic partner kicked her legs out from under her, leaving her lying on her ass.
It is a game that leads to intense rivalry and affects one's emotional state. "When you're on a hot streak, you're on top of the world," says WYPR's Aaron Henkin, another Barnyard Shark member. "Right now, though, I'm in a humiliating and protracted slump."
Ruby Fulton, another Shark, says that she kicks the can "in pursuit of balance in an otherwise chaotic universe," while Pavlick argues that "I kick the can in pursuit of more chaos."
Everyone has a different style, but the key is to get under the can. I have a weird thing that Henkin calls a "grand jeté" because I lift both feet off the ground when I kick. Shoes are crucial—the thinner the better. And there is a lot of debate about fresh can versus dented can. But the most important thing perhaps comes from Phill Clark, who says, "Kick the can is a game best played with beer in hand, as a counterbalance."