KING OF THE ROAD
Though I loved the guitar, it never entered my mind that I would one day be thought of as “well traveled,’’ because for me, playing guitar meant locking myself in my room, practicing endlessly and anti-socially.
I eventually learned that successful musicians don’t play in just in their own house, or even just their own hometowns, they tour-join a rock band, see the world!
At one point it’s every musician’s dream but being on the road with a national touring band can be either grueling or like you’re on vacation, and often both. One way or the other, either austere (crammed into an ancient Ford Econoline Van with 276,000 miles on it) opulent (flying first class, 5 star hotels and limos) or in-between (the old standby: a fine 12 bunk Silver Eagle tour bus) I’ve been doing this since 1974. You’d think I’d know better by now…
But I don’t, and I actually miss it and get antsy when I have too long a break. The travel aspect of touring can be very intriguing. When left to their own device, most folks would head to exotic locations or at least a locale where they have acquaintances. When you’re on a tour, you’re told where to be-places you wouldn’t necessarily go on your own- and that’s where the fun begins.
Usually the getting there is the sight seeing, looking out the window while you tool through the Rockies or the Great Salt Lake, or Hawaii, or the UK countryside, watching the mile markers pass on the right (or left in the UK) Sometimes there are even days off, layovers where you do get to check out things at ground level. Once with an afternoon off in Three Forks Montana, we took in a thrilling barbed wire exhibit at the local museum (there are 247 different kinds).
Yes, musicians can have a different take on what a tourist spot is. When we played London, I didn’t visit Buckingham Palace (though I did rubberneck on the drive by) instead, we had a pilgrimage to Abbey Road Studios, and had our pictures taken at the crossing (just like the Beatles album cover of the same name). Back in the states, in San Francisco we had to visit historic venue the Fillmore West. Playing the Ed Sullivan Theatre (Letterman) was for a fan of 60’s music. In Bozeman Montana, it was a tour of the Gibson Acoustic Guitar factory, in Petaluma, California, a tour of the Mesa/Boogie Amp facility. When in Dallas, it’s a trip to Dealy Plaza.
We even visit cemeteries! While filming the American Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium (with Shania) we stayed at the luxurious Westwood Marquis. Returning from soundcheck, we asked the concierge where we could get a nice lunch within walking distance, as it was a beautiful day. He suggested a place nearby and added, “Be sure to check out the Westwood Cemetery on your way back.”
It didn’t really seem like something we’d seek out, but as it turned out, it was fascinating. Right off Wilshire Blvd. (1218 Glendon) it’s small and quiet (150 yards by 100 yards) unassuming and dotted with trees. Sure you expected Dean Martin, Darryl Zanuck, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Natalie Wood, Billy Wilder, Eva Gabor, Sebastian Cabot, and most notably; Marilyn Monroe. But it was full of musicians as well! Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, Mel Torme, Carl Wilson, Peggy Lee, Minnie Ripperton and Buddy Rich (musicians, insert your own joke).
Marilyn’s remains are in a tomb on a wall. There are bouquets of flowers (10 times that of other sites) and best yet: letters. Stuffed into the cracks and crevices of the wall, are dozen of letters and notes. These days, Marilyn does seem to have plenty of time to read them.
Normal tourist activity does happen though. While in Vancouver BC, I rented a bike and toured the city, then took a 15-mile ride around Stanley Park (a peninsula that juts out into Pacific) which offered an incredible ocean view-I even saw an enormous manatee bobbing in the water of a quiet bay. Also, the ferry ride to nearby Victoria Island is an event in itself, as you weave through the mountainous islands. On the other coast, I once did a bike tour of Nantucket Island, which was peacefully meditative. The bike-renting route is one of the most enjoyable yet economical ways to spend an afternoon away from home and get a feel for your surroundings.
In Music City (Nashville) the brochures tend to steer you towards the Opryland Theme Park or the restaurants on 2nd Ave., I tell musician friends (and adventurous folks) to head down to Broadway. There you can visit the real Grand Old Opry: the Ryman Auditorium, where the music lived in its heyday. Hank Williams got fired from there, and Elvis Presley was told by Opry manager Jim Denny to go back to driving a truck!
Now if you were to go out the stage door of the Opry, you’d find yourself facing the back door of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, which we’ll affectionately call a cramped, “seedy” bar (or dive). In the old days, stars would pop in for a quick one between shows; a struggling Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson used to write songs in the booths and even beg a few bucks and a meal from the owner. Just across the street is the Ernest Tubb Record store, where the legendary Ernest himself would play the midnight show post Opry, to catch the fans leaving and lure them (and their wallets) into his shop. It’s still the most extensive country music and book store you’ll ever see, and you can just feel the history there, as you can in the Ryman and Tootsie’s.
You can also head down to Music Row, and see a few miles of actual record company offices and publishing houses, all housed in cute little in 2-story house. On the way on Demonbreum Drive, you can visit the artist museums, and drop your photos off at the Barbara Mandrell One-Hour Photo shop. Sure it’s a bit corny, but in a good wholesome way.
Some places are inspiring just to drive though. Driving through the expansive verdant fields of Kansas, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, near the Columbia River in Idaho, Sunset Boulevard to the sea in Hollywood, the swampland of Louisiana … the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California (Rt. 1 or 101) all are equally sublime experiences.
Tour travel can even provoke life-changing events; I made a few stops in central Kentucky in the 80’s, and ended up loving the area, enough to move to Lexington for 4 years.
I toured with British blues-rock band Savoy Brown for 5 years. We spent a lot of time out west, which is the only place you can still find the old Route 66 Jack Kerouac wide open and free Americana. Granted, in many cases that vibe is usually driven more by lack of money to update and remodel then pure nostalgia, but the results are just as glorious. Things are a bit friendlier out West as well- I was running once in Montana between farmland and mountains, and drivers waved as they drove by. (that has never happened to me in Saratoga County).
Hawaii has to be paradise, and I’m scheming to go back there as soon as possible. Running and swimming on Maui was simply one of the joys of my life. The big island (Hawaii) had a split personality, the first show we did was at the old Palace Theatre in Hilo, the rainforest side. It rained at least every hour and the vegetation was so thick you expected a dinosaur walk out. To get to the other side of the island you have to go through lava fields-miles of windy roads guarded by a few hardy trees with gnarly roots dug into the barren terrain. Even the beach in Kona is lava rock and rumor has it, bad things happen to those who remove this stone from the island, some have actually returned it to break the curse. Kona is also where they grow the best coffee I ever had.
On the other side of the coin, Honolulu and Waikiki were like West Hollywood, who needs tall buildings and noisy traffic in paradise?
In the states, if something is 200 years old, it’s ancient; it’s a bit different overseas. Recently during a UK tour, I visited a 13th century castle in Caerphilly, Wales. All of a sudden, Led Zeppelin tunes made sense!
California (like Texas) is a whole different world. As we entered California from the north, we had to pass through an agriculture checkpoint. The man at the booth inquired when we packed the vehicle last, and “If there were any fruits and vegetables besides the drummer”! (And beat us to our own joke)!
The ride from LA to San Francisco can be very surreal; you will often parallel the canals that bring water (most of CA water is imported, remember it is a desert!)and you pass thousands of high tech windmills. So with the canals on one side, and windmills on the other, mix in a relatively barren terrain, and you really get the feeling you may be on Mars!
And they have their own terminology; approaching San Rafael we crossed a bridge undergoing heavy construction. But instead of being under repair, it was having an “Earthquake retrofit.” Then of course there’s the Golden Gate-just driving over the majestic bridge it is an event, and at $4, it’s a better bargain than our own George Washington Bridge.
Back on the East Coast, we played a big festival in Maine, and stayed at a quaint bed and breakfast. You are often the product of your environment and surroundings, and amazing transformation happened there. All of sudden we were 4 old rockers, sitting on the front porch in: old rockers. To make matters worst, we played horseshoes (bring on the Geritol and walkers)
Then of course there’s our own New York City, which decades later, is still a thrill to play. (as in the song, if you make it here you can make it anywhere)But after a rather carefree summer of 2001, things changed in September. On a sad note, we played the summer concert series at the World Trade Center 8/31 sponsored by Bloomberg Radio (the future mayor even introduced the band). Security was intense and thorough, we had to show IDs and have special passes park on the tarmac, when we brought a big equipment trailer up to the stage, it was stopped and checked (even though we had passed security already to get that far).
The day was beautiful, the buildings magnificent and proud. At soundcheck as we hit our first chord, it echoed across the plaza, bouncing off the huge towers, both Kim and looked at each other and smiled.
We used a room in Tower One for our dressing room, and we made friends with a handful of security people on duty that guarding our area. You had the feeling that with their extremely well done job that the area was quite secure, and nothing could ever happen to the buildings again. That, and standing right next to them, the buildings seem so massive and invincible.
12 days later, the whole area is gone. We were the last band to ever play there. Watching the events unfold on TV was made even more eerie, in light of the fact the Trade Center towers were not just a picture on a postcard or magazine, but a place where we had worked, 12 days before.
Oddly, we made a return visit 364 days later. A new location; Southstreet Seaport, but the same sponsor and same crew. Some were actually on the site during the disaster, all had first hand stories of the attacks, some had even seen the planes hit. It was a very emotional day for everyone, [ep
But life (and music) goes on, and we will adjust. I’ve gotten many emails since 9/11, reminding us of how important the shows are to the fans, and how they are an important part of the healing process. And in these difficult times travel can even help. Insolated in our own provincial hometown worlds, we forget there are other cultures (even in America) that may not have the same agendas and motivations as ours. Remembering that our way is not the only way, and being tolerant and respectful of others, is more crucial everyday.
48 states, the UK, Sweden, Germany, just when I thought I’d seen everything, I was asked to tour with Adam Pascal & Anthony Rapp, and in December 2010 ended up in Japan.
First off, there’s nothing like a 14 hour flight …
The first thing I noticed (as my friend Gail Ann Dorsey described to me) was that everything was amazingly clean, and that the subways and trains were always on time. And the trains were Bullet Trains that go near 200 miles per hour! Going from Tokyo to Osaka, we saw the beautiful Mount Fuji. We visited Kyoto, and saw the Temple of 1000 Buddhists and well as an ancient castle. Tokyo was amazing, so polite and civilized. I learned how to say thank you (arigato) and that got me through most of the trip!
In 2012 I went to the UK with Anthony Rapp to do his play Without You. As opposed to the usual one nighters, plays sit in one place for weeks at a time 8 shows a week with Monday’s off. So once it’s up and running (an 80 minute show) it affords you the time to see the town on a deeper level.
Edinburgh was amazing, there is an enormous castle on the hill overlooking the city, and any time you ventured out, you could just look up and see it and marvel. London I’d been to, but for no more the 36 hours per visit, this was different, 3 weeks. Now typical things happened, like we went to grocery stores, did laundry (the machines are different and painfully slow) had favorite (favourite) restraunts, and i went running each day along the Thames, really got a feel for the city and people. We stayed in a loft above the theater, near London Bridge, not far from Tower Bridge and Tower of London-where my daughter Lindsay and I spent a glorious afternoon walking through the castle, up and down small stairways, and viewing the Crown Jewels.
The end of 2012 found us in Toronto at the Panansonic Theatre on Yonge St, the same street where Ronnie Hawkins once ruled and The Band (then the Hawks) was born. We visited the venue i played with Garth Hudson in 2002. After that show, we were in the dressing room when behind me i heard “Son, you can really bend them strings!”
I turned around and it was Ronnie – whiskey sour in hand – full of priceless quips about the show. I asked him why he didn’t come up and sing with us, and he replied “well ya know, i just had triple bypass surgery and got out of the hospital yesterday.”
Okay, Ronnie, you’re exempt!
A real tourist trip did take place finally, stage manager Ellie and I took the 90 minute drive to Niagara Falls on Christmas Eve, and got wonderfully soaked from the mist next to thunderous water, then visited the casinos (only one of us was asked for an ID going in …) and walked about the city which felt so Christmasy.
Touring now is drastically different from when I started. Then, if you got lost, you pulled the bus over, got everybody to donate all their quarters for the payphone while you scribbled directions on a gig poster. Now there are cell phones, and GPS for the driver. Of course you still can get lost, but not nearly as much and as bad.
The best part of touring, is more often then not, you go to a place you would never go to on purpose, and end up completely enchanted by it. When you do go to an honest to goodness tourist spot, it just feels like you got a free trip. And on a good night, when the venue is right, and the crowd is in tune with the band, and the energy intoxicating, you remember why you started playing in the first place, and that you’re still living the dream.
200 miles to Toledo!