Instant Coffee and Hanging Sheetrock
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of touring?
Being on the road is like any other addiction. It gets in your blood and it’s hard to shake, and you love it while it drags you slowly down into lesser humanity.
Musicians knowingly share and acknowledge the duality of the road life. The cliche’s of life “on the road” [as my friend George Wirth likes to say in that voice that simultaneously mocks and celebrates the concept] are cliche’s and they’re true. It is romantic. It is hard. It is exhausting. It does destroy your home life but it does pour a sense of freedom into your glass of life like nothing else I know.
As a touring musician your career, in a way, starts over every day. Most jobs have some sense of order and consistency to them. Most people have jobs where there are co-workers and projects that are ongoing and require communication and some group effort. Or at least an effort to dirty your hands in your part of the garden while someone else weeds their part of the garden. In the middle of a tour, you lose that sense. Your career is one day long and starts over each day. You spend a few hours getting to know the sound guy, the waitstaff, the doorman, the bartender then you settle up and move on. Sometimes you never see these people again. So life on the road sometimes consists of these very short blasts of very intimate relationships that sometimes wither as you drive to the Red Roof Inn.
It is also exhausting. I used to hang and finish sheetrock for a living. I can’t tell you how hard that job is. There aren’t words for it. A 12 foot sheet of sheet rock weighs roughly 80 pounds. Go pick up 40 pounds and hold it over your head. Now hold it with one hand and get your screw gun out and now holding the 40 pounds with your head gently put a screw in the bit and, with one hand, drive the screw into the sheetrock. Now do that all day long on a ladder and plank breathing dust all day and occasionally driving a metal sliver from the drywall screws up under your finger nail day after day, week after week…it’s…medieval. But, being on the road can be more exhausting. It’s a strange sort of exhausting. You don’t actually ever work very hard. You drive, you soundcheck, you play. Maybe a couple mornings you have to get up early to make it to a radio interview. It doesn’t seem that difficult and it’s not. And yet it’s exhausting. I’ve finished tours where I almost literally collapsed at the end. I wasn’t joking earlier when I said it drives you to a lesser humanity. It changes you. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re constantly moving, never having to deal with whatever you leave in your wake that does it. I’m not sure. But it does change you. Your exhaustion leaves you without patience.
Answering the same questions over and over and having the same surface conversations over and over can make you anti-social and..just…weird. There are times when life on the road makes you feel like you are living a parallel existence with the rest of the world. You feel part of the world and yet somehow alongside the world and not in it exactly. You are in the circus. You’re the ringmaster and the elephant. You’re the high wire act and the clown. You are the strong man and cage cleaner. You are in the circus and the rules of the circus trump the rules of the world. That’s because you answer to the circus. By the time you have to answer to the hotel manager you are down the road. This is the blessing and the curse of touring. It’s a very special freedom that is hard earned and beautiful but can do a lot of damage at the same time.
So to answer the question: My favorite parts of touring are my least favorite parts of touring. They are part of the same thing. The less romantic answer? Standing on stage, singing well and sharing an experience with an engaged audience who loves your work is the very best feeling in the world. Bar none. Waking up to instant coffee in a hotel where the check out is 10 am and you share a wall with the kitchen is the worst.
Note: This blog was written at my desk in Nashville where I’m spending most the summer for the first time in 12 years. Not being on the road gives you a sense of being on the road. Being on the road gives you a sense of how important good coffee is…this answer might be very different if I was burning oil and gasoline right now…