TOUR: SMART: A how-to manual for God’s dumbest creatures

There’s nothing quite like the perspective of the musician.  As fans and journalists, we can speculate, we can write, we can posit.  We can guess what it’s like to be on the road, traveling city to city to play in front of fans.  The Big Wu’s bassist Andew Miller has given us a special insight into that world, and here are his thoughts.  Enjoy – Editor.
 
Bands do all sorts of dumb things; touring is amongst the dumbest. Playing live encompasses everything a musician hopes for: showing off their talents, admiration from peers, validation for their craft, loud speakers, cool lights, and of course, hot chicks. It’s all there, and all anybody has to do is go out and get it. 

The thrill of it all is a matter of circumstance, hard work and talent that culminates into a joyous monster of almost comical proportions. And there’s the rub: The result is not the goal; it’s part of the journey. Once you’re on the road, there’s no turning back. Reel in a big one and you’re on top of the world. Wake up the next morning and the glory is fleeting: It’s moved 400 miles down the road and you better get in the van soon and hit the road if you’re going to catch up with it. 

But the road is a cold mistress that promises big payoffs; she never fails to tease and taunt, and she knows you’re doomed pursue her.  

This is why everything goes to pot. Since there’s nothing like it on the planet, there’s no way to prepare for it until one does it for oneself.  

takeabow.jpg Since I was young kid, all I ever wanted was a rock band. I’m fortunate enough to have gotten past the heavy petting with that particular mistress, but I’ve paid my dues to her. I’ve logged over a half-million miles in tour vans and busses, played over 1,500 shows, spent a cumulative four years of my young life in strange hotel beds, and answered whether or not “I want fries with that” more times than I’ll ever admit to my cardiologist. I’ve rocked Bonnaroo and blew it in front of my home crowd. I’ve delivered the finest of shows to a crowd of seventeen people and have been neck-choked by a bad drunk backstage at a sold-out show. 

You see, everything I’ve always wanted (and a myriad of events I never asked for) have been granted me. Looking back, I would’ve given my middle finger for some solid advice. Not lip service, mind you, but a manual for life on the road. Something I could thumb through while recycling a thousand suspect tacos in any one of the million backstage crappers. Too bad for me, this mythical manual never materialized.  Until now.

Tour: Smart, written by Martin Atkins, who has spent over thirty years composing, teaching, drumming, tour managing, booking, marketing, (fuck, you name it, he’s done it,) is The Holy Manuals Of Manuals concerning every imaginable facet of life on the road. 

Never before in the history of the performing arts have so many mysteries been explained and mistakes been revealed. The back cover warns: “You don’t have to learn from your own mistakes- There’s plenty inside! 

After plowing through 560+ pages – Tour: Smart weighs more than a six-pack of PBR Tallboys- I’d agree. Filled with the hard-won wisdom of over 100 industry professionals from club bookers to multi-million selling record producers, Tour: Smart gives the gift of foresight to each and every artist crazy enough to hit the tour circuit.  

What struck me about Atkins’ book is the absolute depth of his knowledge, and the candor of contributors. For every fuck-up I’ve personally been witness to, there’s five more variations on the same theme. And everyone quoted knows what the hell they’re talking about. Which, until now, was considered an impossible feat. {mospagebreak}

PRESSING ISSUES:

When dealing with the local press on the road, one pauses to count their lucky stars. The road is a lesson in feeling alone, even with 700 fans in the room. But an interview or other piece of press can lift the spirits for the day. Although, be careful what you wish for. 

From Tour: Smart: “Never cop an attitude with a writer unless you are 100% positive the person you’re talking to will be the future lawn and garden manager at Home Depot. (Why do you think people hate that guy from Third Eye Blind so much? Except the obvious reason…)”

-Contributor Jason Pettigrew, editor in chief, Alternative Press Weekly 

sbband1.jpg Padre Says: Even if the clown with a pen and pad of paper is destined to push garden gnomes to the hopelessly suburban, the prick is still holding the pen today. My personal nemesis in the press arena is the college writer. Even though they’re generous enough to donate some ink for the cause, they never bother doing the smallest amount of research before I start answering questions on a cell phone from a Burger King parking lot 200 miles away.  

Among the most hated questions: “Where did you get your band name? When did your band form? What would you call your kind of music? What’s the name of your first CD?” 

The answers to these inquiries are either available from the most cursory glance at the band’s website, or are opinions that could be formed (part of their job) by listening to just one track from the same site. Both cases are typical cures to the same symptom; but it doesn’t matter, as it’s still my job to get them excited about getting everyone else excited to come out and see my band on a Tuesday night in Shitberg, PA.  

Unless you’re so famous as to big-time the small guys without penalty (almost never the case) give an earnest amount of your charm, humility and panache to anyone willing to spend ink on your band. 

Besides, there’s no telling where your band is going to end up. Ditto with writers. One reporter I’ve worked with quite a few times wasn’t qualified to write a parking ticket, yet moved up the masthead of their rag. Despite several of the most frustrating interviews I can imagine, a good dose of accessibility and humor has resulted in consistent press each and every time I come to town. 

HOLIDAY INN FOR THE PRICE OF MOTEL 6:

When a band hits the road for the first time, attitudes and moral are typically quite high. Don’t worry, hard lessons and disappointment are always waiting to kick them back down to Earth (usually lower). Of course, cash flow (not to mention eventual bet-hedging with the bass player’s Visa card) will present the first of many challenges for fledgling rock stars. 

Sleeping happens to be an addiction for every musician. If quiet rest is the drug of choice, then Howard Johnson is the pusher. 

From Tour: Smart: “If your budget is very tight, and you are traveling on a bus, you can save money by asking your driver if you can use his room as a shower room after the show. You cannot disturb the driver during the day (he is sleeping and downloading porn). This tip might have kept a few bands from calling it quits. And it could save you $2000 a month!” 

Padre Says: Showering and sleeping go hand-in-hand. Tour bus or not, you’ll need more than a pillow and Speed Stick to live like a human. Given the tight nature of money on the road, gaining an edge- no matter how slim- is essential to a young band on the road.  

The following advice is legally questionable at best. But if you’re on the road, jockeying around the states like pirates on a bender, then you’re going to learn to survive like broke pirates- which happens to be any way you can. 

Speaking of being broke, most young bands on the road are exactly that. Trust me, it’s not easy going from city-to-city when you’re just starting off and nobody knows who you are, save a couple of adventurous youths who saw you on honesttune.com.  

Thus, if one is to survive, you have to do one of the following- either raise your income, or more likely, lower your expenses. So if you’re just starting out and living in that tour purgatory where you’re sick of sleeping on people’s floors, but can’t afford enough for hotel rooms to accommodate everybody in the band and crew, then take notes: Although there are many variations on this scheme, we came up with an almost fail-safe way to get three hotel rooms for the price of two. 

Known as the "Big Wu Room Switch-a-Roo", the heart of this caper plays on the lodging industry’s fanatical goal to keep people from smoking cigarettes in non-smoking rooms.  

First, check into the hotel, purchasing two rooms. If possible, ignore any questions about smoking preferences, as the default for clerks is to assume you want non-smoking rooms. Everybody proceeds to the rooms. Upon opening the rooms, have one person call down to the front desk; insist that there was an oversight, and that he would prefer a smoking room. Reassure the clerk that the "unwanted" non-smoking room is in the same immaculate order as it was before the room was opened. While one person stays in the supposedly vacant room, the other goes down to the desk and returns the room keys in exchange for keys to the smoking room. Huzzah! Now you have opened and occupied three rooms for the price of two. 

One can vastly increase the chances of success by sticking to the four cardinal rules:

1. Check in after the gig. The chances of another traveler checking into the pilfered room vastly decrease after 2:00 am. 

2. Avoid unnecessary suspicion by leaving most of the band in the van. Nothing smells of crime like eight musicians standing in a lobby waiting for two rooms. Never "check in" more than four. Let the others in a back door. 

3. Be sure to hit the road well before check out time. Do everyone a favor by showering in one of the legit rooms, and be sure to make the bed in the ill-gotten abode. (Yes, you’ll have to pilfer clean towels from somewhere other than the “borrowed” room. Don’t be as dumb as your girlfriend suspects you are.)  

There are plenty of clean linens stacked on the maid’s cart as they make their rounds in the morning. Cop a couple of those or make do with whatever is left in the bathroom after keyboardist is done soiling the bathmat. Leaving no evidence of the rogue occupation is the key to the perfect crime! 

4. Pay cash. If they somehow get wise to you after you’ve left, they’ll charge your Visa and leave it to you to contest the bill at a later date. {mospagebreak}

ROCKY MOUNTAIN (AND EVERYWHERE ELSE) HIGH:

Despite repeated and enthusiastic attempts, no drug (or combination thereof) equals the high from a good show. But I’m not here to bullshit you: Getting one’s jollies is quite often THE initial reason one gets into a band in the first place. No matter how soon the realities of the road remind you put the music first, (or learn to stay home as a Rock-N-Roller That Never-Was) the use of drugs creeps into road life as sure as the drummer’s stinkfoot.  

Frankly, I don’t give a shit how high you sit on your horse and say to yourself “Music should be it’s own end… musicians should be happy with blah, blah, and blah… they’re the lucky ones…” I say go sit and spin. That thumb up your ass keeps you from pointing a finger at me. 

sbandyflag.jpg The index of Tour: Smart cites over twenty-five pages for drug use. After reading the book, I’ll safely say they missed about 500 other references. This isn’t because Atkins or his editor got sloppy (the drugs referenced are listed in alphabetical order from “cocaine” to “rohypnol”, including sub-topics such as “drug-searches”, and “drugs-and-sex”).  

It’s because drugs are so prevalent as side-characters to other tour topics, Atkins doesn’t need to index them… Like gravity, it’s always there, whether or not you pay attention to it. Thus, drug use in general gets its own chapter. 

From Tour: Smart: Chapter 37, Drugs: Highs and Lows- 

Accounts of reminding everyone on the tour bus that at 5:00 am it’s “Time to drop” acid kick off the chapter. But this isn’t a manifesto to become a waste of space for the sheer fuck of it. Atkins writes: “So when somebody like me says be a professional, that doesn’t mean don’t do drugs and don’t do the things that make you happy and enable you. It means at least look at what you’re doing and the people and circumstances around you and be professionally considerate about it.” 

Black Flag singer and professional Straight Man Henry Rollins warns: “Don’t mix drugs and touring. If you do, then don’t expect to very good for very long. You can try and have my band open for you and we’ll blow your fuckin’ doors off every night.” 

Padre Says: In a fucked-up way, all three quotes above are quite accurate. For the record, I can’t smoke the weed and play my way out of a paper bag. I just can’t. Now, I can hit the bong, eat a burrito as big as my head and watch Lord of the Rings with the best of them. And truth be told, I enjoy doing so as often as I can. 

I’ll say touring and drugs are a mixed bag: Where do you draw the line between passing hundreds and hundreds of miles in tour van while passing time and a bowl vs. dropping ecstasy an hour before show time? Or tooting a half-gram of Columbia’s Finest in the john? Or… Or… Or? 

Without mentioning a name every reader would recognize, The Wu was on a lengthy tour with this certain band. Their bass player, a talented chap to be sure, was also one of the worst drug-addled freaks I could imagine. After prying every last piece of funny business out of my pockets he could, I witnessed him snort not one, but two crushed Oxycotins, pop a couple Valiums, drink half a bottle of Jager, and who knows what else before he went on stage. The result? I couldn’t tell he was fucked up at all, and his playing was as good as usual. Would I want to be him? Not in a million years… 

There’s something about drug use that brings up a certain dishonesty- or at least, tainted truth- in everybody. Right or wrong, music wouldn’t exist as we know it without a laissez-affair attitude about drugging it up to the nines.  

From Tour: Smart:

“I am consequently not advocating drug use… But if you want to take drugs and make music, remember those “out of the box” thoughts, and good luck. Even if you don’t write that smash hit, I’m sure you’ll have a lot of fun. And remember, when you’re broke and “clucking”, don’t blame me- I told you so.

That concludes the ranting of a drug addict.”  

At least Atkins is honest about it. (He’s sober, to boot.) 

Speaking of honesty, Stephen Perkins regales a story: 

“I was hanging out with Johnny Colt, the bass player from the Black Crowes, and he was recalling a European festival that Porno For Pyros and The Black Crowes were playing in 1995. Johnny said the Crowes were throwing their backstage party in a tent full of girls, booze, and party favors with their own mobile P.A. blasting the Stones. Their reputation and their bragging rights to throw a WILD party backstage was "secure". It smelled like a good party!  

Then, as Johnny walked out of their tent over to our tent to invite the Porno For Pyros crew over, he was pushed aside by paramedics, police, security, photographers, freaks  and me, all trying to get to one half dead band member and a half alive L.D. ( lighting director ). quickly being pulled out of the PFP tent on to the grass field for pumped stomachs, mouth to mouth and CPR, and of course a shot of some wonder juice … they were back and breathing – while some other band members were gathering "goodies" to hide from the cops and of course… party with later.  The sounds of African drum chants (Baba Oluntunji) were still coming out of our small boombox in a distorted manner, while we gathered our wounded and went on for a stellar show – 8pm downbeat! 

The Crowes turned off the Stones, tossed the women from their tent, aired out the smoke and went  on to shower up for their overnight bus drive from here to there.  Johnny said their night ended with a Kevin Costner video and a conversation on how they thought they were at the top of the pyramid for hard partying… but they realized, you can NOT compete with L.A. addicts!” 

Furthermore, he sums up years on the road with three rules: 

Rule # 1. Party with medics close by 

Rule # 2. Stay clear of Costner films 

Rule # 3. Read this Atkins tour bible!!

– Stephen Perkins Jane’s Addiction/Porno For Pyros/Banyan 

LOVE IS FREE, THE REST TAKES CASH:

From the big expenses- hotels, gas, tour vans/busses- to the small (yet equally important!) money drainers such as guitar strings and tacos, nothing on tour is possible without a cash flow. I don’t care if you’re on the road the first time or The Eagles: Shit hits the fan and everything comes to a screeching halt without that filthy lucre.  

Being based in the goofy realm of art, bands are notoriously inept at business. First off, there’s the myth that concern over such matters corrupts the creative side of music. Secondly, musicians don’t want the responsibility of getting their due from the promoters, for any of several reasons: The average musician doesn’t know any of the business details that make a tour fly. Either that, or if they know anything, it’s usually just enough knowledge to be dangerous at best.  

Thus, smart bands hire tour mangers. Even a dumb one will get you further than none at all. That’s because you don’t need an Einstein to play good cop/bad cop, you just need a cop. Led Zeppelin’s ground-breaking manager was an ex-professional wrestler. Peter Grant may not have been prolific at the New York Times Sunday Crossword, but that didn’t really matter to the promoter he had shoved up the wall by throat because he “misplaced” a couple thousand dollars. 

Among the numerous tasks the tour manager performs- getting the band at the venue in time, making sure everybody has somewhere to sleep, and so on- they make sure the band gets paid. 

This, of course, is the meat of touring, and therefore, is most abused, lied about, confusing, and vile part of the road. The stories I could give would fill a book. But Atkins already did that. 

From Tour: Smart: “After sound check or line check, have someone sit by the front door with a clicker and count everyone who walks through the door. I have had to settle with clubs that claimed 210 people paid at the door, but my clicker shows 350. I have been mixing during the show and have seen the club owner leaving the club for the night. This will cause a big problem when it comes time to settle. I know audio gear very well and the value of it. If I was left alone to mix, I would have a screwdriver handy and loosen up the most expensive piece of gear in the rack. If the club owner was nowhere to be found after the show, I’d walk up to that piece, grab it, and sell it the next day at a pawn shop or call the owner back. We got paid that way really fast.”

-Contributor Don Byczynski 

Padre Says: Rather than recount one of the hundreds of settlement challenges I’ve faced on the road, I called Willie Waldman, a trumpet-blowing road warrior that has appeared on every one of those Snoop Dogg/Tupac albums, and sometimes has me play in Banyan with him and Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins.  

Willie knows a thing or two about getting the money the hard way: “We’re at this dog of a festival, the promoter owes me $2,500, and he has none of it in his pocket. Well, I’m saying to him that I’m having none of it (as for his excuses.) So I grab a golf cart with him and we’re riding around, grabbing $20 here, $60 there. Eventually the motherfucker starts crying that he wants to commit suicide. I say: “Fine, but do it right here and now. I’ll grab my trumpet and play Taps for you on the spot…” 

You may say that’s some cold shit. You may even go as far as to say that’s wrong. But sometimes, that’s what it takes to make things right. {mospagebreak}

A BOLD LESSON IN SHARTSMANSHIP:

Some things go beyond good and evil. Bodily functions come to mind. This goes double for life on tour busses. The very first thing one learns on the tour bus is that the driver doesn’t give a shit that you have to take a shit. Namely, because at all costs, it won’t be happening on the bus. Now, a driver is just as happy to pull over ASAP. But don’t EVER get so confused as to think there’s a legit excuse to boldly go where no band mate has gone before. 

Generally speaking, there’s at least a $100 charge for pumping out solid waste. It’s expensive in the face of other tour bus charges. Secondly, pumping doo-doo makes the driver grumpy. You might as well take away his speed and flirt with his wife. No, no, NO! 

From Tour: Smart: “If you need to take a dump, ask the driver to stop at the next rest area or truck stop. Your fellow passengers will appreciate it. Also, smells tend to linger in the bus, so let the driver know how immediate your situation is. In drastic emergencies, a garbage bag dump may be necessary. Tie it up securely and throw it away later.”

– Contributor John Aikin 

Padre Says: Even I had never considered the garbage bag solution. Sounds like a Missouri Compromise I’m not willing to make. But looking back, this could have been useful. 

From my Rock-N-Roll Diary: 

While trekking across the frozen wasteland known as “Montana”, a roadie announced that he was experiencing a disturbance of the gastro-intestinal kind.  

Being lunchtime and needing fuel, all members of our party voted to take a break from traveling. The roadie, whose bowels were screaming for attention, jumped out of the vehicle and made a mad dash for the Flying J building, where he could find shelter from the literal shit-storm that was descending upon him.  

However, the gods of touring had turned on him. A mere fifty yards before he reached the safety of the Flying J haven, with all of its well-maintained facilities, his body lurched into revolt, expelling a moderately robust turd into his Hanes. 

After cleaning himself up, (and disposing his soiled briefs), he rejoined his partners in crime at the lunch buffet within the truck stop. After sharing his embarrassment for the benefit of comedy within the ranks of his party, he dined on a wonderful smorgasbord of edibles offered to weary travelers. However, his full-bellied satisfaction soon transformed to an impending sense of doom as he began to feel a familiar urge. 

Knowing he must act quickly before history repeated itself, the protagonist bolted out of the restaurant relying on his internal compass to navigate him back to this diarrhetic’s haven, the men’s room. Well, as he emerged into the open spaces of the truck stop he realizes that the familiar potty he stopped at before was on the other side of the building, a good couple-hundred yards away, at least.  

Quickly reacting to his new set of circumstances, he looked for a closer facility. Frantically searching, his eyes hit pay dirt. There, a mere twenty yards to his left is a sign bearing the international symbol for poop amnesty. Running towards the promised land as fast as one can while doing the bow-legged mosey/sprint that can only be performed by a man under great duress; he reaches the door that serves as the goal line his poopy end zone… Only to find that the restroom he chose was designated for the fairer sex.  

While that alone may not have deterred him from completing his most urgent mission; his doo-doo designs were further halted by the female representative of the Montana State Patrol that was washing her hands.  Meanwhile, our hero’s body had begun relaxing upon believing that relief was in site. After realizing the shock of the mistake made, the roadie in question did the only thing it could do: He crapped himself on the spot.   

Many variations on this tale have been told over the years; perhaps the sight of an officer of the law was too much for this rock-n-roll bandit, or maybe he should have dined on a bottle of Pepto Bismo instead of truck stop buffet food. But one thing’s for sure: He’s the one and only person I’ve known over the age of six that has shit his pants twice within forty-five minutes. 

Now, what was the wisdom about a garbage bag? 

THE FINAL WORD:

The world needs bands, and thus, the band needs the road. As discussed before, neither bands nor their crew should be considered geniuses, as they’re all human. I mean, what should we make of a van or bus full of clowns with too much talent and heart to stay home, yet not enough sense to make good in the circus? 

Atkins knows. And he delivers his preaches his sermon to the choir that needs to hear it the most.  

As for the rest of you, who regularly enjoy the show from the other side of the stage, you need to hear it too. There’s enough mystery and confusion on tour when you’re in the band. Knowing what your band goes through to bring you their best can only deepen you appreciation for their efforts. 

Besides, you know you love watching Spinal Tap. Now read the real deal. 

Dispelling myths, fears, and mistakes leads to a better show for everybody. It starts with musicians knowing what not to do, or at least when not to do it.  

At least there’s someone to tell us so… 

Tour:Smart by Martin Atkins

http://www.tstouring.com/

http://www.myspace.com/toursmart

List Price $29.95 (under $20 through amazon.com)

Photos courtesy of Andrew Miller

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *