A couple years back, I struck up an email correspondence with a guy named Chris King, who worked for the AAA Auto Club magazine “Car & Travel.” He prodded me to submit a puff piece for publication. Since I’ve logged lots of time in a touring vehicle, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think his audience might find a few hastily cobbled-together band anecdotes mildly diverting. Chris’ boss didn’t agree, however, and even though the article actually got as far as being formatted for print, the fabled Page 40 wound up with the axe. Chris was decent enough to send me a copy though, along with a modest kill fee. He no longer works for “Car & Travel,” so the whole episode is pretty much a dead issue. I leave it to the readers of this website to contemplate the greater wisdom of the powers that be, who noticed that — in their words — the article is “not funny enough.”
Band on the Run by Derrick Bostrom
One of the best things about being in a rock and roll band is the opportunity for travel. All it takes is a little notoriety, a flexible work schedule and a handful of good phone numbers to set up a national tour. When you’re a young musician, the money takes care of itself, as does the lodging. But no matter how undeniably the lure of glamorous adventure presents itself, one fact remains unavoidable: you’ve gotta spend a lot of time in the car.
You can chart a band’s career by its travel arrangements. My old group, the Meat Puppets, started out on a shoestring, and clocked an awful lot of miles before a brief run at the top of the heap. In 1994, we had a hit song, “Backwater,” on rock radio, and we appeared on MTV almost daily as guests of Nirvana on their celebrated Unplugged special. Shortly after that, we literally dropped off the map. (That is, we stopped touring.) Along the way, we managed to amass a small junkyard of car parts that tell our story as well as any biography.
Of course, you can’t hit the road without a vehicle. Any old van will do.
It helps if your bass player’s girlfriend can get her father to help you build one of those cool shelf things that every band van needs. You know, a big piece of wood installed about two feet from the ceiling, low enough to fit sleeping bodies up on top, and high enough to stash all the equipment down below. It should also create a dark isolation chamber big enough to hold either the low man on the totem pole, or the one nursing the worst grudge or hangover.
Ideally, someone should know a little something about auto mechanics. Your van will almost certainly break down, and there isn’t much of a garage budget when you’re traveling 800 hundred miles to play for 25 bucks. At one point during our first tour, we spent all our money on a new U joint, which we installed on a freeway median on the outskirts of Houston. Afterwards, we had only enough money left over for one burger and fries, which went to our t-shirt salesman, since he installed the part.
As our fortunes grew, we developed more complicated strategies. At one point we traveled in an RV, towing a trailer full of gear, carrying three band members, two roadies, two girlfriends and a pit bull. While cumbersome, the extra weight did help keep us stuck to the road.
I remember awaking abruptly one morning near the end of an all-night drive to discover we had left the pavement and were heading for the woods. I shook the driver awake and lurched into the seat beside him as he desperately (and successfully) tried to return us to the highway. After this, we started using rest stops for midnight sleep breaks.
Generally, we had good luck with weather. Only rarely did we find ourselves driving through a blizzard, weeping with terror, driving in pitch blackness with our lights turned off to decrease snow-blindness. The worst storm we ever endured was a hurricane in England. Our rented van had broken down in the middle of a forest, which quickly became a maze of broken trees and downed power lines. Luckily, we managed to find a cemetery, which gave us an open space safe from falling timber.
Weather wasn’t the only threat we faced on the road. We also managed to drive rack smack into the Los Angeles riots of
1991 1992. As fires burned all around us and the population seethed, our roadie spent a sleepless night parked out on the street, protecting our van full of equipment from looters.
Spending the night in the van can also be one of the pleasures of life on the road. For a group traveling inside each other’s pockets, the solitude of an empty van is a welcome respite from the close quarters afforded by the financial necessity of six people sharing one hotel room.
In time, we became too popular to travel in vans. Our managers rented huge tour busses for us, gilded cages on wheels, manned by professional drivers. Instead of whiling away the hours behind the wheel listening to our own mix tapes, we sat in the back lounge watching videos. Instead of our ticket to open-road freedom, our vehicle became a symbol of the prison our success had become.
Now that it’s all over, I don’t travel much. When I do, it’s in a compact sedan, not a land boat, and I usually know where I’ll be sleeping that night. But sometimes I miss the pure twisted strangeness of the 30-hour haul, wired on candy bars and bad coffee at 4 in the morning, and another 300 miles before the next show.