Notes from the Road
Touring as Travel
Westways, January 1997

JOIN THE NAVY and see the world," the Navy used to say; I joined a band instead.

When I was a sprout back in the '60s, my father would tour, in a business capacity, with the famous Beach Boys. He visited faraway cities I knew only from television and geography class. He flew in private planes, rode a roller coaster with Dennis Wilson. He took a sauna with Chad & Jeremy (top 10 in '64 with "A Summer Song"). I once heard him reminisce with the former drummer of the Buffalo Springfield about the time they placed a teddy bear in the arms of a sleeping road manager and took pictures. Rock and roll!

Take me along, I begged, oblivious to the several dozen reasons why one might not want a 12-year-old along on a rock and roll tour. Twenty years would pass before I'd go on the road myself, as a working musician, but in the seven years and several trips since, in bands from country rock to pre-alternative alternative, I've traveled through 47 of the United States and into 15 foreign countries. I've played in a Canadian field and a Norwegian shipyard, in San Francisco's Union Square and at a communal farm in Verona, at a Wyoming county fair, a Danish pop festival, a Belgian velodrome, inside the Arctic Circle, below the Acropolis. I've played for line dancers, young Communists, geriatric Southern vacationers. I've played for crowds as large as 12,000 and as small as -- if you count the bartender -- one.

It's a curious, curiously intense form of travel, touring -- hurried, purposeful, privileged not usually in the sense of luxury but of access; you may have to forgo the popular attractions, but you see things you'd otherwise never see, meet people you'd never meet. (How else but as part of a rock band from L.A. would I have been served, with great pride, a home-cooked "Mexican" meal in Stavanger, Norway? Why else would I have ventured into east Austin to the backyard accordion repair shop of Johnny Degollado?)

Every club, every theater, is a country of its own, a new land to explore, a place happily or dreadfully to revisit. Each has its own topography, climate, native customs, friendly or hostile natives. I know few sensations as fine as walking in from the afternoon light to set foot on the stage of an empty venue and take the first measure of the size and resonance of the place I'll spend my night. New York's full of famous sights, but I wouldn't trade any of them for the view from the stage of a full house at the Mercury Lounge.

THIS YEAR, and not for the first time, I spent 10 weeks as accompanist -- accordion, mandolin, guitar and piano --

to John Wesley Harding, "Wes" to his initiates and not to be confused with the Bob Dylan album from which he takes his name. (A bellman in New Jersey, carrying guitars, as if we play and rock and roll. "Folk music," answers Wes. "Folk music? Where does that come from?") About half that time we opened shows for those largely Canadian creators of classic American rock, the Band, who have been on the road so long -- nearly 40 years with breaks -- they deserve a royalty on asphalt.

We braved rain and snow and the dark of night; fast food and public rest rooms; uncooperative sound systems and indifferent sound engineers; broken guitar strings and a rheumatic accordion; and most relentlessly we braved each other, for there were just the two of us, in rented cars and rented rooms, day in, day out, for better than two months. (You've seen The Defiant Ones ?) Lashed to an itinerary apparently planned by the rules of pin the tail on the donkey, we sped from Washington, D.C., to Asheville, North Carolina, to Cleveland, Ohio, followed promptly by a thousand-mile hop from Champaign, Illinois, to Boston, Massachusetts. Next stop: New Orleans.

You take it as a challenge to your good sense and stamina, as the more physically daring might ascend a very high, very sheer cliff. You work late and rise early enough to cover a sometimes hilarious distance in time to do all the setting up and plugging in and testing-one-two that are the necessary prelude to an evening's music-making. And then you do it again. Perennially behind on sleep, you rush along in a sort of manic torpor seasoned with adrenaline and caffeine -- a state not at all unpleasant. I'd even call it fun.

THERE ARE as many ways of going as there are levels of success in the music business. On the high end -- if you're

the Stones, say, or Hootie -- you travel in style, command entire floors of the finest hotels, never hesitate to open the minibar. You carry with you an organization devoted to ensuring you'll never have to lift a suitcase or wear a dirty shirt or tune a guitar or be lonely or be bothered. Onstage, you're showered with love and adulation of a degree known only to popes and national liberators. At the end of your trip you're a million dollars richer.

On the low end, you travel in an old van just about guaranteed to strand you in some town where they don't like your hair, you lug your own gear (one or two or more large and always surprisingly heavy instrument cases on top of your regular luggage), live on fast food, and hassle the promoter for money that will not nearly cover your expenses. There may not even be a hotel at day's end, only an announcement from the stage of the need of a place to stay, and if no one offers there's always the van. If you're truly unfortunate, almost no one comes to see you, and those who do, leave. My own first tour was not quite that bad, but it was close. I had a great time.

This year's trip ran down the middle of those extremes. Wes, whose latest album is John Wesley Harding's New Deal (Rhino/Forward), has a devoted if not gigantic following (two Web sites track his career) and fills nightclubs across the land; combined with the low overhead of a two-man tour, that means we stay in some pretty nice places and rent a full-size, not an economy, car. Opening for the Band -- creators of such generational touchstones as "The Weight" and "Up on Cripple Creek" and the subject of an entire movie by Martin Scorsese -- means we play bigger halls, including such grand historic venues as Washington, D.C.'s restored Lincoln Theater (where Duke Ellington used to appear), Chicago's Vic, and Seattle's Moore Theatre. (We also play a San Diego resort hotel, a Las Vegas casino, and two Houses of Blues.) Wes's music goes down well with the Band's crowd, which ranges from kids checking out an authentic legend of a romantic lost world ("Where's the party afterward?" one asked me in the Lincoln Theatre lobby) to their tie-dyed parents out to relive it. More than one hall smells like the Fillmore 1969.

AT ITS WORST, it's a lot easier than a real job. Nevertheless, even a few days on the road make apparent how

touring as an unrelieved way of life might drive a soul crazy. Rootless, unaccountable, insulated from responsibility, Ms. or Mr. Rock Star is given ample room to become Ms. or Mr. Monster. Like its sexual counterpoint, the one-night stand world of the professional troubadour can take an emotional toll. There is the danger of a kind of traveling cabin fever, the symptoms of which are well-known: drugs, groupies, dismantled hotel rooms, TVs tossed from windows. The bands I've toured with have been better adjusted than that; we did have a bass player once who always used to throw his mattress on the floor, but it was only because he had a bad back.

To combat the inevitable sense of alienation, of being, indeed, everywhere an alien , one attempts to civilize the surroundings. The car, our floating world, we fill with music from home: cassette tapes of ABBA, the Incredible String Band, T. Rex; Peter Sellers for comedy; and dramatic adaptations of works by Thomas Hardy and Conan Doyle. Clean clothes are essential to inner peace, but hotel laundering is extortionary, and there's not always time to find a laundromat, or even one to find. Stalling for time, you beg promotional t-shirts from clubs and radio stations, hit the Gap for a pair of socks. You remember that your friend Susan three gigs down the road has a washing machine.  You consider making new friends similarly equipped.

Eating well is also important, not so much for nutrition (they've got pills for that) as to establish a discipline. McDonald's amounts to an admission of defeat (though the coffee's not bad, and seen from the highway the famous arches practically scream, "Come on in! The restroom's clean!"). The same goes for the other drive-throughs and for most coffee shops, though when in the East and Midwest we actively seek those of the Bob Evans chain (382 restaurants in 19 states), where breakfast is refreshingly greaseless, there's vegetarian gravy available for the biscuits, and the fruit is not only "fresh," but sometimes actually ripe. Once in a while, we splurge on something ... mythic; something to compensate for all the meals skipped or taken on the fly, for the too many times there was finally no choice but McDonald's. Breakfast at the pillared Pump Room, in Chicago's Ambassador East hotel, is a fond ritual -- between the perfect service, and the perfect food, and the utter gentility of it all, it's a hot shower for the soul, a tonic for the last long drive, or against the next one

SOME SPOTS you visit simply because you've visited them before; returning to places you know in cities

not your own gives you a sense of belonging, makes the spinning world of touring hold still. When in Manhattan, for example, I always try to get my hair cut at Valerie's, on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. In Minneapolis, I head to Harmon Place, a short block of shops and cafes bordering many-squirreled Loring Park. (The Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden are just over the highway.) I get coffee and cake at the Loring Bar, still the finest example of attic-eclectic coffeehouse jumble I know, with high ceilings, complicated old moldings, tall potted trees, and big windows through which to watch the park. I've seen rain come down on it, and sun, and snow. It's 2,000 miles from home, but I feel like a regular.

Of course, there's a Starbucks on Harmon now -- they've sprouted like the teeth of the Hydra. America's gone espresso-mad -- between Seattle's great monster and the little storefront cafes that are now a feature of every city with more than 100 citizens below the age of 30, you don't have to look far for your triple grande percent latte. In Asheville, there's
Bean Streets Coffee, where Wes beat me at chess; in Fort Worth's small downtown, there's a choice of the Coffee Haus, Java Creations, Downtown Java, and Cat Daddy's Mystic Java Coffee Bar. It's the greatest embrace of Euroculture since the croissant and has improved tour life immeasurably.

We cover so much ground so fast that the country seems to flash by like TV channels -- an effect heightened by the fact that most tourism on tour is conducted through the windows of the car. Hurrying on to the next job, crossing the piney woods or scrubby desert or Southern bayous, you read signs for all the amazing places you're not going to stop -- the World's Largest Beer Stein (Wisconsin), the World's Largest Thermometer (Mojave Desert), Gator Farm (Alabama), Yellow Rose Cattle Co. Steak House and Petting Zoo (Texas). You gauge the foreignness of your location by the exotic brands of junk food available in the gas station quick-mart and the occasional unmistakable indication -- a notice on the door of a Virginia cafe announcing a turkey shoot, a several-story roadside statue of Sam Houston -- that says you're not in Hollywood anymore.

NEVERTHELESS, conventional sightseeing is not impossible. It does take a certain dedication: the willingness

to forgo a nap, the resolve to turn off the cable and seize even the odd hour before you've got to go to work or get out of town. (Sometimes you get a day off, and if you're lucky it'll be in Paris and not Grand Rapids. I've had both.) And the fact is, too long spent in a hotel room can make one begin to feel like Keir Dullea at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, aging quietly into a different life form. (This sensation was heightened over a few days in an Atlanta hotel, where I got hooked on a TV station that showed nothing but Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet, over and over.) While on tour I've managed to visit the Roman Forum, the Brandenburg Gate, the ruins of Pompeii, and the Hershey's chocolate factory. On a single day on this last trip, we took in a Buddy Holly exhibit in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, and the grave of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, New Mexico (in its own little jail, to keep the marker safe). Wes confabulated the pilgrimages into a new song, "Buddy the Kid."

In Cleveland, we were invited to accompany the Band on a private tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum -- they're inducted -- on the edge of Lake Erie. It was typical of them to include us; the Band and all their crew counter the rigors of the road by being unfailingly courteous and extremely friendly -- I've never shaken so many hands so many times. (And Rick Danko let us use his bass. And Garth Hudson fixed my accordion.) To follow them around the museum was a singular experience: Here's their picture on the wall, there's the very tape recorder on which they recorded with Bob Dylan the celebrated Basement Tapes. Though the facility itself, another I.M. Pei variation on the big glass pyramid, is about as funky as, well, a big glass pyramid, and though the very idea of a rock and roll museum seems oxymoronic, if not actually counterproductive, any place you can see Iggy Pop's shorts, Janis Joplin's psychedelic Porsche, and the Everly Brothers' report cards (Phil was the smart one) is worth a visit. If you already happen to be in Cleveland.

The last night of the tour, at the Roseland Theatre in Portland, Oregon, we were invited to join the Band one more time -- onstage for an encore of "WIllie and the Hand Jive." I stood on the drum riser, a mandolin in hand, hovering over the right shoulder of Levon Helm, one of rock's greatest drummers and most enduring voices, watching and listening, and trying not to forget (in my excitement) to play along. Now that was a sight, and that was a moment. Here, mister, here's your grail. Four thousand miles of hard road melted away.

Then we all shook hands once more, and headed finally for home.

Copyright 1977 and 2006 Mr. Robert Lloyd

An earlier story on the same subject ///// Details of the relevant tour

  on the same subject