King of the road
Updated: Jan 30, 2020
Though I loved the guitar, it never entered my mind that I would one day be thought of as “well traveled,’’ because when I started out, 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 or internationally 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 or Japan) Sometimes there are even days off, or 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 find the intersection of Haight and Ashbury. I’ve taken tours of the famed MOTOWN studios in Detroit, the legendary Sun Studio (home to Elvis and Johnny Cash) in Memphis (as well as a tour of the Gibson Guitar factory there). In New York City, a walk by songwriter mecca the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway is must. In Bozeman Montana, it was a tour of the Gibson Acoustic Guitar factory, in Petaluma, California, a tour of the Mesa/Boogie Amp facility, and guitar heaven, the Gibson Custom Shop in Nashville.
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 has 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. When in Dallas, it's a trip to Dealy Plaza, standing in the sad place where my favorite president was shot. On the other coast, I once did a bike tour of Nantucket Island, which was peacefully meditative. In fact, 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 Opryland or the restaurants on 2nd Ave., I tell musician friends (and adventurous folks) to head down to Broadway. There you can visit the original 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, dive bar. 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 a midnight show post Opry, catching the fans leaving and luring them (and their wallets) into his shop. It's still the most extensive country music record and book store you'll ever see, and you can just feel the history there, as you can in the Ryman and Tootsie's.
Some places are inspiring just to drive though. Tooling through the expansive, verdant fields of Kansas, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, along 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. There are still times out west where 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.
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.
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 greatest joys of my life. The Big Island has 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 any moment. 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? And on the other side of the world … Alaska is simply breathtaking.
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. And all of a sudden, Led Zeppelin tunes took on a different light.
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?” 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! There's the spectacular Golden Gate Bridge-just driving over the majestic bridge it is an event, and at $8, it's a better bargain than our own George Washington Bridge ($15). Once I even walked it to Sausalito, and that was truly inspiring.
Then of course there's our own New York City, which decades later, is still a thrill to play, even though I’ve lived here for 5 years now. Back in the day, it was the infamous Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, these days, often The Cutting Room, Highline Ballroom and 54 Below, but my favorite might have been the much loved, much missed Bottom Line, where simply everyone that counts played. And of course, the ultimate is the Ed Sullivan Theatre, which I played twice taping David Letterman. My friends were excited “you’ll meet Dave!” and I did, we even chatted. But when I was 8, my musical epiphany came while seeing The Beatles play the Ed Sullivan Show there. For me, it was all about “George stood here” coming full circle, and soaking up the vibe, while recalling the best entertainers in the planet having stood there.
50 states, the UK, Sweden, Germany, just when I thought I’d seen everything, I was asked to tour with Broadway stars Adam Pascal & Anthony Rapp, and in December 2010 ended up in Japan.
First off, there’s nothing like a 14 hour flight. Second, the trains were always on time, and there were Bullet Trains that can travel nearly 200 miles per hour! Going from Tokyo to Osaka, we saw the beautiful Mount Fuji, visited Kyoto, and saw the Temple of 1000 Buddhists and well as an ancient castle. Most of all, they people and the culture were so impressive, as I learned to greet folks by bowing, and frequently say arigato (thank you).
In 2012 I went to the UK with Anthony Rapp to do his play Without You. As opposed to the usual one nighters, or even week sit downs, musicals often sit in one place for weeks at a time with Monday’s off .So once it’s up and running, it affords you the time to see the town on a deeper level, almost like a resident.
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 no more than 36 hours per visit, this was different, 3 weeks. We went to grocery stores did laundry (the machines are different and painfully slow) had favorite (favourite) restaurants, went running each day along the Thames, really felt the lay of the land. We stayed in a loft above the theater, near London Bridge, not far from Tower Bridge and Tower of London-where my daughter and I spent a splendid afternoon walking around the castle, up and down small stairways, and viewing the Crown Jewels.
In 2014 I went to Bogata, Colombia in the pit orchestra with Mamma Mia!. It was beautiful, and the people were warm and lovely, but its hard to convey what a third world country is without walking the streets. First off, you really have to watch where clusters of seemingly way too young men were at most intersections casually brandishing machine guns. There was no new construction, not even heat or air conditioning in our fairly upscale hotel. But it was stunning, and a trip two hours away for zip-lining, white water rafting and horse backing riding was one of the most magical ever.
In 2001 I was in Savoy Brown when they played the summer concert series at the World Trade Center on 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 to 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. Our friend Leo Lyons from the group Ten years After visited, and had a dressing room in Tower One, and made friends with a handful of security people 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.
But life (and music) goes on, and we adjust. In these difficult times, travel can really help and bring a different perspective. 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.
And now things seem to be going in the wrong direction, with politicians stoking fear of immigrants, strangers and folks not like us. Muslim bans (except for the country the 9/11 hijackers were from …) Mexico not sending their best, LGBT folks losing ground, Jews having swastikas painted on their houses, women are still fighting the same battles, … Black Lives not mattering and marching Nazi white supremacists showing they are surely are NOT the superior race. All of which I thought were discarded, outgrown sad ideas of the past. You can learn through travel that there’s many colors and creeds but really, we all want the same things and all are the same.
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 a payphone while you scribbled directions on a gig poster. Now there are cell phones, GPS for the driver, and you still can get lost, but not nearly as much. (and then you can blame the GPS).
The best part of touring with a rock n roll band, 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!