the van smells like a**!
self-promoted touring. rocko dorsey, spring 2009 (part ii)
by jeffrey d. walker
Last month, I brought you a shameless self-promotional piece about my band going on tour. Despite hope, I'm not following up with a piece about getting signed. And despite popular demand, I'm not following up with my tales of debauchery. The antics, the nonsense, the essence of the rock and roll experience, I'm not giving away those stories away for free. If you're interested in buying the rights to the Jeff Walker and /or the Rocko Dorsey biography, please have your people call my people.
In the aftermath of my first touring experience, I'm not sharing the glamour, I'm sharing the opposite: the lusterlessness, the boredom, the depression. These aren't the pretty parts of being in a touring rock band, but they happen unless you're already famous before you hit the road (thus guaranteeing hotels, tour buses, and eager fans waiting at every stop to buy merch).
You're going to get sick of eating fast food and gas station snacks. You're going to get sick of sleeping in the van (or what have you), and it's going to start to smell in there. You may get alcohol poisoning. You may well pass through a part of the world you never want to visit ever again. You may ask yourself why you ever thought that this was a good idea, in addition to questioning your life's choices more broadly.
But don't sell all your stuff on e-bay just yet. After coming home and decompressing for a few days, you'll recover. You'll probably realize that just because you've now seen and experienced all the ugly parts of being a working musician, there still are reasons to keep at it.
And so, for those of you about to rock on tour, I've assembled a few tips to help you make it through.
(1) CB radio.
Since the advent of cell phones, CB radios have fallen out of fashion with the general public. But big rig drivers ruling the interstate still communicate frequently via CB radio. Not only can a CB permit a voyeuristic listen into the lives of truck drivers, you can also often find out useful stuff, like where police are waiting for speeders accurate to the mile marker, and suggestions for an alternate route in a traffic backup. Truckers are as good (if not better) than GPS.
Also, when you're parking the van and settling in for the night, truckers can offer suggestions about which truck stops are safer than others. Which leads me right into...
(2) Where you stay.
Hotels cost a lot for a band on the road. Which means, you'll be needing a place to crash.
It goes without saying that if you have friends near your gigs, do whatever it takes to stay with them. Free CDs, tee shirts, and a little bit of politeness can go a long way in exchange if you don't know the people very well (or only one of you knows them). A lot of people are happy to assist a struggling band on the road.
If the season is right, and you've planned ahead, your best tour option is to find campgrounds to stay at along the way. They're usually safe, cheap, and a camping stove and a cooler can keep you well fed inexpensively.
Of course, plans go wrong. Sometimes campgrounds aren't open when you're wanting to pull in. Or maybe you don't make it as far traveling as you expected one day. Or maybe, you totally didn't plan. What now?
Truck stops are open 24 hours, have security, and have a fairly good selection of food. Plus, they often have showers that are pretty nice for around $10. It's like renting the bathroom part of a motel only. And believe it or not, you're going to smell funny after a couple of days on the road. You're living on the road like a trucker; why not delve into the whole lifestyle?
Rest areas are ok, so long as there are not signs prohibiting overnight parking. No showers, but better than nothing. Also, Wal Marts often permit overnight parking (the ones that don't also have no overnight parking signs); it's actually common for people to park in their lots overnight. If you have a CB and are looking for a Wal Mart, ask for the nearest “Wally World.” They'll know what you mean.
This is the lawyer in me talking, but the reason not to park where overnight parking is prohibited is because that's trespassing. If the "bears" (trucker lingo for cops) show up and you're trespassing, they may well search your van. ... Not that you have anything in there, but all I'm saying is, the last thing you want is a trespass charge to deal with after a tour. Stay where you're welcome. And also watch your speed on the road. Stay clear of the man.
(3) AC adapter, flat screen tv, and a playstation.
I'm not sure there's a better way to pass down time while on the road. In the Rocko Dorsey van, there is a small flat-screen monitor that hangs on the back of the driver's seat with a PS2 hooked up to is. The passengers in the back can watch movies or play video games during the ride. It's also a good way to pass the time at night after you've all crashed out in Wally World. We also have a pair of wireless headphones hooked in so that others can drive or sleep without the distraction. Highly recommended.
(4) Talking to people.
Another example of a time killer. Face it, you always wanted to go on tour. Even if you aren't living it up the way you dreamed, you're still doing something interesting. So, people might want to talk to you. Even better, if you put on a really good set, you're suddenly all the more interesting, and people may want a minute of your time.
If for no other reason, do it because happy people buy merch. Happy people tell their friends about the awesome band they hung out with. Happy people will come again if they see your name in a local paper next year.
Sure after a rocking gig, you may just want to get hammered. Or pick up girls. Or just get your junk and leave because you're tired and you've got a five hour ride before tomorrow night's show. I know - I've been there many a time.
I figured out a golden rule for gigging that I've held onto: you make your fans one at a time. Immediate overnight recognition is bestowed on few. The rest of us have to go the extra mile for people to recognize us. Never forget the difference a few minutes of friendliness makes. If you're product is good and you're nice as well, you'll see the people you meet again.
(5) Somewhere, you will probably play to almost nobody.
If you've read this far, you're probably not already well known. Until now, you might have garnered a bit of attention and repeat patronage near where you live. But for most of us, once you venture out of your home area, you're on your own. Accordingly, when on tour, there will be at least one place you play where you have no friends or family to count on. And the number of people in the crowd may reflect that.
The same advice I gave above will help get you through those nights: you make your fans one at a time. Sure, I've loved the nights I played in front of a thousand screaming people. But when you have five people in the crowd, getting them to stand up and cheer is a real feat. Don't be afraid to play the same for those few as you would in front of a thousand. That is the sign of a true rock star; when the show is just as good no matter what the ticket price, no matter who is watching.
(6) Some places out there really are frightening / bizarre.
Okay, some places that seem initially scary are actually ok. But, as one writer on the subject of touring once said, "These places will make you glad that you live wherever you live." I'm not naming cities, but you'll hit one that makes you nervous, or perhaps just sad. It'll probably happen far from home, when you're tired, and haven't slept or eaten right for a few days.
Don't panic. Revert to step 4: Talk to people. If you're in a place where people come to hear music, you've already got that much in common. Once you make a couple of friends, you'll feel better when performing. And you'll still feel a great relief when you're leaving.
(7) This is not your one and only chance to "party like a rock star."
This should be obvious. But a lot of touring is waiting: waiting at the club before soundcheck; waiting between soundcheck and showtime; waiting to load out and get paid; waiting in the van until the next destination. And when you get to the next destination, the van, which you've been riding in and sleeping in, is the last place you want to hang out. So you're in the bar, and well, it almost comes natural to have a beer or two. Why not? You're on tour!
It may just be my personality, but this is a pattern that's easy to repeat. Trust me. And the thing is, the aforementioned not eating well part, this plus the drinking trend and it's not long before you're having a bowl of cereal and a banana in a truck stop parking lot in the morning and then plowing into your first pint by 3:00 pm with little regard for anything else until nightfall.
If you're anything like me, you'll chuckle at the above anecdote and make the same mistake anyway. So, when you do, let me recommend walking into the 24 hour Wal Mart and getting Elmo Punch. It's a lifesaver when you can stomach little else.
(8) Make sure you have your gear. All of it.
Also should be obvious, but strange environments make for unintentionally altered routines. Case in point: Shreveport, Louisiana. I can't be exactly sure where it went wrong: part too drunk; part that the club's front entrance and rear entrance both brought you out at about the same place, so our band unload went in two different directions (confusingly); and part, just being in a new place. Anyway, the end result was, we had completely vacated the premises and were down the highway before we realized that my bass guitar was not aboard. Luckily, they were still cleaning and we got it back before Texas. Still, it's just a warning. Double check that everything's there before departing. You might not be so lucky.
These are my tips for touring. Break a leg!
[Sources not cited in article:
A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.
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4.21.09 @ 8:04a
Way back before the earth's crust had completely cooled, I was one of the lyricists for a local Miami rock band which was really, really good, and did their own songs (they even did a couple of mine). I can vouch for all your advice. All the budding rockers who read this will thank you --- eventually.