11/6/02

I had a conversation the other day with a dear friend that included the
sentence “You’re only as good as your last job”. Actually in her case
it was her “last deal” as she sells real estate. I wonder if it has to
do more with the kind of jobs we have or with the kind of confidence we
have in our work.

This time of the year is the beginning of the
questionable mental health period for sub-contractors and other
freelance workers. The dwindling money and the seasonal slowdown adds
fuel to the silly season fire. As the road people find their way home
for the holidays and often at the completion of a tour, a small voice
gets louder and louder in the personal mental choir: “You’ll NEVER work
again!!!”

Years of practice, involvement in faith based
support groups and the fact that I’ve got a pretty good credit rating
help quiet that hysterical voice. I get by; there has always been a
roof over my head and I never miss a meal… except when I’m at work. I
like to remind myself of the times in the mid-90’s when I was down to
my last twenty dollars in my checking account before the first check
came in. This was before my wife introduced me to savings accounts. It
reminds me to have faith.

Some days it lasts seconds.

In my line of work I’ve had the opportunity to work
for some of the greatest musicians in the world. I’ve never been sent
home before the tour was over. I’ve often been called to replace those
who are. As an old friend used to say “Nobody yelled and nobody threw
anything; it was a good day.” That’s success. I’m not a world-class
expert. I’m just a guy who sets stuff up and makes sure it works so
other people can use it.

I’m a roadie.

Now before your mind jumps to some rumor/ fantasy/
bad movie scenario, let me share one thing; it’s just a job. It’s just
a glamorous as accounting or janitorial service (but markedly less
glamorous than marketing research). It has few benefits (free
black t-shirts for one): no job security, no health insurance, and no
pension. Almost everything financial is a verbal agreement… no
contracts, no union. You have to depend on people who go by names that
sound like wrestling holds. Sometimes your workday is affected by a
person that your seven-year-old nephew knows ingests more toxins than
the Crocodile Hunter or spends every morning watching the Teletubbies.
It’s not that much different than corporate America. In fact, it is now
a part of corporate America.

Most of our employers work for one of the big five
record companies. The touring promotion business is now nearly wholly
owned by a radio and billboard corporation. Many of the hippies and
counter culture people who came up through the concert business never
having to wear a suit and tie or dress clothes have to go to weekly
lunch and learns or strategy meetings. It’s not your daddy’s rock
concert anymore.

A business that was fueled on drugs, sex and cash
when it started has grown up to be an arm of someone’s media
conglomerate. The tribal act of gathering to watch someone perform,
entertain and commune with the divine has become a way to sell
concessions and charge for parking. The recording and promotion angle
still has some worth, but it’s becoming a way to stoke egos, sell
t-shirts and get the last of someone’s disposable income spread around.

The last paragraph seems pretty cynical, but it’s
just one facet of the touring world. It’s still a way for artists to
make a living sharing their music with people in real time and perhaps
bringing a bright moment to some mundane existences. There are some
valid artists out there in stadiums, arenas and theatres, not just on
street corners and living rooms. There are also nice people who enjoy
entertaining others because it is their calling. For every three
emotionally damaged, ego driven attention magnets onstage there
probably is one person sharing what they have the best they can, for
better or worse.

The reason why this time of year is an issue is that
touring has become more of a seasonal business. With outdoor
amphitheaters all over the continent and kids being on summer vacation,
it provides an entire circuit for bands to play. As the fall arrives
and the temperature drops, bands wander home and begin to record their
next project. The process can take months and then the media company
wants time to market, advertise, promote, time and schedule the
release. Out in the spring, tour all summer and back in the studio in
the fall… the machine cranks out more CD’s to sell.

When I started writing this I wanted to
express my feelings about how my work and it’s insecure nature makes me
feel… insecure. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to describe the road
life as a calling. Those who are not cut out for it are thinned out
quickly. Many of us were fooled into it initially. Once you get
comfortable out there, it’s got you until you’re done. Many “retire’
from the road and return time and again. The money has a lot to do with
it but the moving plays a big part.

Showbiz, the circus, the irresponsible life… many
people are running from something, perhaps all of them. The long hours,
the mostly thankless work, bad food, suitcase living… how can that be
appealing? As much as some of us yearn for a home and something to
return to, the being away is what makes it so special. I do enjoy the
travel, the time off in different places, the old and new faces… and I
enjoy the job.

Doing shows has more than a few dualities. You’re
often in a brand new place doing the same old thing. Once the schedule
and itinerary smooth out, it’s easy just to read the day sheet and plan
your day around that. It’s a job that people see as exclusive and
glamorous that can grind like factory work some days. Because it is
show biz, regular folks treat you different now and again. It can be
fun… even if you know me and my infamous inability to have fun, I will
say that about the job.

Packing my bags and leaving the house for a period
of time is still an adventure for me. I’m not sure if others feel the
same way as part of the job is acting jaded and indifferent. I’ve
always said to people who ask me how to get into the business to be
careful, that it is a trap. Once you go out and survive for a while,
it’s hard to go do something else.

I’ve actually tried to think of what else I would
want to do, a dream, an alternative, something to keep me close to home
and earn a living. I still don’t have a clue. Perhaps it’s because a
part of me won’t let go of the road. Writing like this sometimes gives
me a glimmer of something else, a creative possibility that will allow
me a voice and a path elsewhere. I find my use of words interesting
here too… else, as in or else or what else.

Many people go through life without realizing their
passion or acting on it. The folks who are compelled, won’t stop, can’t
stop, the ones who it verges on a mania, I admire them. I used to play
music and at some point the joy departed and the flame went out. I
think I was using it to light a bong. For too many years I went through
life without a creative outlet and perhaps that was the time when I was
the closest to death.

I’m sure my addictions were the main reason, but the
thing about spiritual bankruptcy is there is nothing left but self. I
still have days when I don’t like living with myself; back then I would
have drowned myself if I had the chance. Believe me, I tried.

Things changed. Life is full now; many blessings
have been bestowed upon me. I’m back on the path most days and the
searching continues. I have lived on the road three times longer sober
than I did drunk. It can be done; better, faster and happier. Even the
party cities are better and I can visit the places I was too paralyzed
or hung over to enjoy.

I really wish that travel or schooling abroad were
mandatory for American kids today. They could use the perspective of
why the USA is so amazing and so truly fucked up at the same time. I
have guys in their 50’s who I travel with who I’m still trying to show
the difference between “different” and “wrong”. To look in from the
outside can change your life. It’s too bad that so many Americans can
leave the country and never really be outside.

Off I go again, a valid point but not the one I set
out to make. In speaking with someone about this issue who is outside
the business he had this comment that floored me with its insight:
perhaps I don’t have an identity or autonomy until I’m on the road.
What a heavy thing to consider about yourself after nearly forty years.
Why would a somewhat well adjusted adult feel like a visitor in his own
town sometimes? But then stick him in a crew of strangers in a foreign
country and he feels like he belongs?

Moving to another state and getting married was a
major change for me after living alone for fifteen years. Having a
house as opposed to storage with AC and a phone line is a thing of
comfort and no small amount of pride. When Angela and I completed our
dining room and then had a place to feed and entertain guests, I
realized that something had changed. I never had a guest room where
anyone could spend the night. I never had a room where eight people
could eat a meal together. Angela and, to a small degree I, had created
a home to share with friends and family. It may seem strange to you
that these things are new first time experiences for an old fellow like
me. If you are in my business you’re probably wondering what the hell
I[base ‘]m talking about.

There is a balance here somewhere. The problem is
the work is so unpredictable: too much, too little, no security. The
easiest way to get a work call is plan a trip or an important event;
the phone will ring. As the dining rooms are built and the plans are
made the only question is: what is more important?

(I wonder if this is more of a personal question rather than rhetorical…)

Well, home is more important. Your family and your
health is too. This is the strange thing about work and work away from
home especially. To build and maintain these things you have to earn a
living so you can live your life. Many people can not delineate between
living and life. The fibrous tangle of our jobs holds us back or pulls
us down. How many children have spent their childhood wondering where
their parent is? How many marriages have ended when the answer to the
question about whether the job or the relationship is more important is
not acceptable? The road is littered with divorce papers and sad notes
from sons and daughters. There are a lot of bachelors too.

It takes tremendous efforts on both ends of the
phone to make it work. Understanding and sacrifice are needed as well
as both parties being somewhat comfortable and secure apart. It’s just
like any other relationship in that there has to be acceptance of who
each other is. This is the idealized opinion of someone on one side of
the argument though…

I still want to make a living by touring. I also
want my marriage strong, warm and growing forward. I need my home to be
comfortable, safe and part of who I am as a living, breathing evolving
human being. I need to do my part and be present and productive in both
places. I need to be open to both my wife and family and who I am, who
I have become. I am part of the production staff, the technical crew,
the traveling party, the bus riders, the lobby dwellers, the airport
throng, the backstage group, the road dogs, the tour scum. I am also a
husband, partner, brother, son and friend.

When I first go into this business I went to work
for a cartage company in Los Angeles. My boss was a long time road
person who had bought the company to be home and make a living. For a
time I was his only employee and we often put in 90 hours a week. We
shared our warehouse with another business nearby. We returned one
afternoon to find the other tenant removing the roll-up door, the
security system, all the lighting fixtures and who knows what else. He
was basically going to leave our inventory wide open to the honest
junkies of Hollywood Blvd. as he took what he felt were his belongings
and moved out.

My boss Pat shifted into a gear I’d never seen him
in before. He mobilized friends, solved scheduling problems, ran the
business and secured the building before sundown. He turned to me as it
became clear that we handled this unbelievable day with an angry yet
victorious eye. He said “They shouldn’t have screwed with us. They
didn’t know who we were. We’re road people and the show always goes on,
no matter what.”

This is the other family I was adopted into. They
got me through some tough times, took me places and got me home in one
piece. I learned a lot, earned a lot and it’s part of who I am today.
I’m someone who gets paid to wake up in parking lots. I’m someone who’s
tired of your favorite song. I’m someone who was onstage all night but
you won’t recognize me five minutes afterwards. I’m a roadie. And I’m
still waiting for that phone to ring.