Tales of the Road Warrior
By Lee Totten
"Oh the stories we could tell
if it all blows up and goes to hell
I wish that we could sit upon the bed in some motel
and listen to the stories we could tell...."
- Jimmy Buffett, "The Stories We Could Tell"
It's like my worst nightmare, only I'm not naked.
I am, however, standing alone on a stage staring at 15,000 people wondering what to do next. In my hands is my guitar, now without the benefit of a G string. I don't have a backup instrument or extra strings nearby, and I'm supposed to play for another fifteen minutes. The words of my road manager come rushing back to me in the lingering silence - "Bring a second guitar with you."
"No," I told him the night before. "It's only a twenty minute set - what can go wrong?"
To the left and to the right guitar techs for the headliner try not to make direct eye contact with me, ignoring the fact that any one of the twelve acoustics scattered around them would save me from further embarrassment. Unfortunately, those guitars are meant for the stars, not the opening guy.
Finally, after an eternity, someone comes from backstage and hands me an acoustic six string borrowed from one of the other support bands. I strap it on and give it a strum - it's heinously out of tune. Whatever. I grab the quarter-inch cable and go to plug it in only to discover that it is a TRUE acoustic - no output jack. The stage manager is starting to shuffle his feet uneasily as I look to see if there's a microphone nearby I could use for the guitar. There is not. I decide that five strings amplified is better than six strings that no one will hear so I put my old guitar back on and grit and grin my way through the rest of the set.
It is just another day on the road and another story to share.
The nice thing about performing for a living is that it's always interesting. Say what you will about spending more time in your vehicle than in your house, about late night Mini-Mart food, or about the one drunk in every crowd that wants to play "just one song" on your guitar and assures you that they are "a professional" - at least you are all but guaranteed that no two days on the road will ever be the same.
Every time I think I've finally seen and done it all, something new happens. Like the time we opened up for a U2 Tribute band that, honest to god, thought that they WERE U2. They walked around the club the entire evening trying to exude rock star snobbery.
Let's be honest: when I was in fifth grade I dressed up like the guys in KISS and pretended I was in the band. However, my make-believe days pretty much ended there.
Just for fun, we opened our set with about half of the U2 song "Desire". The U2 wannabes were not amused.
Then there was the night we opened for a Led Zeppelin Tribute band. The room was packed and we rocked out the first three tunes of our set. Out of the almost three hundred people in the room, not a single one applauded. One guy asked if we could play '"Fool In The Rain." It turned out that every one of these people wanted to hear Zeppelin tunes and nothing but Zeppelin tunes. They wanted to hear Zeppelin tunes so badly that they weren't even going to bother with polite applause. We played the next few songs with even more passion and energy. Still nothing. We tried telling a few jokes, figuring maybe comedy will work. It doesn't.
Perhaps it's the unpredictability of life on the road that makes it so appealing - the whole adventure is one big surprise party and you're the unsuspecting guest of honor. Nothing is ever as you expect it - even the best intentioned of gigs can resemble something straight out of Spinal Tap.
Now I do as many charity shows as I can, feeling that a big part of what makes music so enjoyable is the pleasure we can provide to others and the fulfillment of being able to give something back by doing what we love. My reward for these deeds?
Well, one time many years ago, while still gainfully employed, I blew off my company's holiday party in order to play a kids concert in town. (The full ramifications of which were understood four months later when I was fired for "liking music more than the company," a charge I never denied. They then tried to rehire me on three different occasions, but that's a different story.)
At the end of the evening, still basking in the warm feeling that comes with believing like you did something good, I loaded my new amplifier in to the back of my trusty Nissan and, with all of my friends gathered around, close the hatch back.
An interesting bit of trivia for you - it turns that a Fender Combo amp, when standing up in the back of a Nissan Pulsar, is actually about two inches higher than where the rear window rests when the hatch back is closed. There is a long silence that immediately follows the sound of shattering PPG safety glass while we contemplate the finer points of spatial relationships.
On another occasion, I was asked to perform at a benefit to help a local animal shelter. It was an outdoor show, so I brought a small powered mixer and a couple of medium-sized speakers just so I would be heard, but basically I was playing solo acoustic.
Halfway through the first song I notice the little old lady sitting in the front row with her face contorted in disgust and her fingers stuck in her ears. I look around trying to figure out if I'm really too loud, but quickly come to realize that I'm really only too loud for this one particular woman.
Then during the third song, just as I start the instrumental/solo section, the emcee for the event walks up on stage, whispers "Just keep doing that part" and then begins to make announcements over my playing.
"We'd like to auction off our next stray right now," he says while I try to play the solo section over and over again with some sort of "adopt-a-stray" passion. Once the dog is purchased, he nods at me and I mercifully launch into the outro chorus.
A few moments later, just as I get ready to start another song, the emcee returns to the stage and announces that the mayor of the city will be speaking right after I finish the next song. Which is fine. So I start the song and make it halfway through a verse when the emcee returns yet again to the stage and asks if I can just shorten the song and end now because the mayor wants to speak at this exact moment. I make a dramatic ending out of the last line of the first verse, thus playing a whopping 40 second song, and then go home.
People who are not musicians often see the seemingly chaotic life of a performer as unstructured. I have friends who believe that what I do is not really a job. They think that every day is sunshine and roses - that I'm essentially a glorified professional tourist with no responsibilities who gets to visit new cities and, oh yeah, play a few songs. It is impossible for them to imagine a bad day on the road or a bad night in a club because when they travel or go to a bar, it's always for fun.
That's when I usually share with them the story of my glorious New York City debut. We had just released our first CD and were in the midst of a long weekend of playing in the Hudson Valley when a friend mentioned that they knew of a club in the city looking for a band for the following night. The club owner only wanted to know if we were available and if we had a New York City following ("Of course," I lied).
This was it, I thought naively- the big time. I felt as if I was only one step away from landing in heavy rotation on MTV because, well, we were playing The City!
Our first omen of what was to come materialized in the form of an ice storm that transformed our drive south into a crawl. Then there was the accident on the highway where some Einstein had built a homemade trailer to haul his puppies in only to have it desinigrate in the bad weather, spilling puppy dogs along the side of the road. (None were seriously injured - I know because we stopped.) Once in Manhattan, we cruised the streets or a good half-hour trying to find a conveniently inconspicuous place to park the van.
When we finally did arrive at the infamous club, the gate was still locked. Other bands started showing up. We all milled about the street in the sleet wondering if we were going to play or not. Finally, a full two-hours after we were told to arrive, the club owner strolls up the road and lets us in. An hour later the sound guy finds the time in his busy schedule to make an appearance clad in his leopard skin lycra, 1980's pink tanktop and poofy hair.
About this time, the owner circulates through the room informing us that anyone not in the band would have to pay a $5 cover charge. That's fine, except she's demanding that my wife, who, although with the band is not technically IN the band, pay a cover. We decline.
The first band takes the stage performing exclusively for the sound guy and the members of the other two bands. Meanwhile, at the front door, the same club owner who tried to insist that our spouses pay a $5 cover was now bargaining with people on the street to get them into her empty club on a Sunday night. "$5 a piece or I'll let all five of you in for $15," she's heard to say. They decline.
The second band takes the stage and they actually have a following. More technically, a family. Clearly this is their first gig, and a crowd of ten relatives, including grandma and grandpa with the video camera, respond wildly to something that almost, but not quite, sounds like music. The sound guy is nowhere to be found - we assume he's blow drying his hair or something.
By the time we take the stage for our illustrious New York City debut, I realize that MTV will not be calling anytime soon. The owner has managed to deter potential patrons with her sparkling personality and is now sulking behind the bar. The first band has packed up and gone, and we're left playing our set to the second band and their family. Grandma doesn't video tape us, and we learn that there are as many bad bands and bad bars in the big city as there are back home.
I used to believe that the reason so many strange things happened to me when I was out playing was a product of the fact that I was playing in small clubs. Small clubs, of course, always have their own unique brand of fun.
In one club we played, the live music venue was simply a room off of the dance club. The only thing separating the dinky stage and moderate PA from the gazillion watt sound system for the MTVers in the next room was a swinging door.
Did I mention that we were playing acoustic?
Even with the music room's PA cranked, every song we played was overwhelmed and punctuated by the "Boomboomboomboom" of the dance music. We started picking up the tempos of our songs just to match the dance grooves.
To make matters worse, the sound guy did not have a grasp of the monitor controls. Now, normally I'm not picky about monitors - I want just enough to hear if I'm in pitch. But this guy had my acoustic cranked and my vocals almost nonexistent and I simply couldn't hear a note I was singing. I politely ask for a little more vocal. Next song there is even MORE guitar and LESS vocal. I break my own rule of never asking for more than one monitor correction in a set and explain that I need more vocal, not more guitar.
"I GAVE you more vocal!" he explains tersely. I calmly explain that there must be a misunderstanding because I'm not trying to be difficult, but it's hard enough to sing over the dance beat from next door, and it really sounded like he turned the guitar up and the vocal down. He grunts and makes another adjustment. I sing the song and now it's obvious that the guitar is almost to the point of feedback while the vocal is barely audible. I can, however, hear the dance grooves just fine.
I politely tell the sound guy that something isn't right because clearly every time he turns up the vocal, I get more guitar and less vocal. He is not willing to believe that his years of experience could possibly be wrong because he did, after all, turn the correct knob, regardless of what was coming out of the monitors.
"Fine," I say, "then turn the monitors off."
Now I've confused him.
"Turn - the - monitors - off." I say slowly, and then proceed to try to sing off of the slapback from the house PA.
What carried me through the small club nightmares was my dream of life on the big stages, where everything was well-rehearsed and choreographed to eliminate anything unpredictable. Since then, I've had the good fortune to do several big shows over the last few years, and have quickly learned that the chaos only magnifies in proportion to the size of the crowd.
I had been getting a lot of radio play on a modern rock station in Connecticut, and they would invite me to come and make short fifteen-minute solo appearances on the big stage just before the headliners. Each and every time, no matter how far in advance it was planned, it seemed that there was somebody in the production or stage hierarchy who was surprised by my appearance.
One time I got to watch the stage manager throw a hissy fit because he didn't know I was performing. The production manager had arranged it and had even told the front of house guys and the monitor crew, but neglected to tell the stage manager.
Another time no one had realized that the headliner was going to be switching from the house sound system to their own, and my appearance fell right when they were switching over the 60-input snake. I hid behind a lighting rack for 10 minutes while the stage crew scrambled to find me a microphone and a direct box. Finally I got to take the stage in front of 10,000 people.
The only problem was that in their haste they had given me a straight stand instead of a boom. Worse yet, it only came up to my chest. So instead of some triumphant moment in my career where I could stand proud, I played the set slouched over and leaning forward trying not to whack the mic stand with my guitar.
On another occasion, I actually got to take the stage to a SCREAMING crowd of 7,000. I was feeling like a rock star. They actually crowd surfed to my music, and kids were calling out my name. I threw a guitar pick to someone in the front row and then everyone wanted some, so I emptied my pockets and threw ten or eleven picks out into the crowd. They still wanted more, so I threw out some loose change. I don't know exactly why - I just wanted to make these people happy since screaming crowds don't happen very often.
Then, halfway through my set, I watch as one young crowd surfing girl drops six feet straight down on her head. A moment goes by and I don't see her come up. Now I'm wondering what to do - do I stop and try to help her, or do I just ignore it and count on the security guys in the front row to do their job (always a 50/50 gamble). I'm wrestling with my sense of moral responsibility when she thankfully bounces up on her feet and then, unbelievably, proceeds to climb up on the crowd again.
I am relieved, and as I finish the song and the crowd cheers I think to myself that even though this life of mine is stressful, chaotic and unpredictable, there is not another thing in the world that I would rather be doing.
The nice thing about performing for a living is that it IS always interesting, and for me that's reason enough to be doing it.
The night is going like a dream come true. I've just gotten off of the stage when one of three amazingly attractive women reaches out and grabs the back of my shirt as I walk past. I'm in a small club in Massachusetts and adrenaline is coursing through me in that post-performance rush. I'm feeling pretty confident because I felt like the show was a good one and the closer, a song called Highs & Lows, really had the crowd responding. And now here were the three most attractive women in the bar gesturing that I should come closer and talk with them.
I should mention that this is not something that happens every day.
Well, to be honest, it never happens. so I put on my best suave smile and step in closer to their circle.
"Hey!" I say.
They giggle. Really. Then one of them says "We really enjoyed your show."
"Thanks. It's always fun playing here."
"Umm," another one begins, "We have a bet we need you to settle."
Now strange and dangerous thoughts run through my head. A bet!? Visions of stories from the Aerosmith biography book run through my head as I answer with a nervous "Yes?"
They giggle again. Really.
"That last song you sang?"
My music! They like my music!
"Were you really singing 'EYES and NOSE'?"
I am shattered. "No," I say.
"Oh. Because we didn't think anyone would REALLY write a song called 'eyes and nose'.
"Indeed," I say and excuse myself, dragging my wounded pride along with me.
All right - so maybe some stories you don't share.....
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