“Super serious, pro band needs awesome bassist immediately. Must learn and master 6-8 songs for upcoming tour and then take the next week (we leave in three days) to drive up north toward Canada and back (never mind the polar vortex making things impossibly frigid). No compensation as we garner no guarantees, but some venues are cool about free drink policies for band members. Hey, we won’t charge you gas money, and we can be pretty cool to hang out with. At least we fight a lot less with an impartial third party present.”
Thus begins a conceptualized but never actualized Craigslist post after our bassist backed out of a touring commitment three days before we left to promote a new EP release.
There are things within your control and things outside of it. Gas prices were significantly cheaper than our last regional jaunt — literally saving us a hundred dollars — but the wind chills were unseasonably cold despite ultimately skating around the snow storms that could have canceled our appearances.
Yes, our vocalist always seems to be battling colds whenever we have gigs, but having a member back out with such little notice was both terrifying and strangely comforting in that, despite any flirtations with very small-time, regional successes, we are still the butt of a cosmic-fated joke.
Touring is a part of a band’s life. It’s the hard part that makes for compelling tell-alls when your skin is hardened to military-grade leather (thinking of the cover to Keith Richard’s autobiography). It’s something you idealize when you’re younger. You look up to all the bands that have “made it” by going long stretches away from home, playing to a different city every night.
And as a band’s reality becomes Road Life, they often relay that into their artistic output as it becomes what they know. “That’s their road record,” I’ve heard before. And it makes sense: A band spends their whole life writing their first album — taking with them every drop of inspiration and gelling every influence into the first thing they stamp their name on — and then only get to spend six months on the follow-up. Generally the third album is the “road record,” where the band displaces love-struck hearts in their sleepy hometowns to love-sick hearts on the road missing someone back home.
MxPx are culprits of this, with Life in General having multiple tracks dedicated to road life. “New York to Nowhere” details being lost outside of a gig in the Big Apple, and “Southbound” simply brings focus on the soothing monotony of driving and “staring at white lines on the side of the road.” (Interestingly, on the demo version of the track, the line was originally written “playing every night with the occasional fight.” Both relate to touring pretty well.)
Value Pac’s contribution was a song about returning to the O.C., their home county, from a “past the point of no return” absence. Jackson Browne may have the best road album ever with Running on Empty, recorded mostly on tour — live on stage and in hotel rooms. If anything ever captured the sprawling feeling of a transient life, that may be your best bet.
While the practicalities (and lack of mid-level success) have kept us from our road record, we still cherish our meager tour misadventures. I’ve mostly always hated New York. It’s hard for any city to live up to the perpetual hype of being some epicenter of human importance, from international finance to Broadway to baseball, even the gateway to immigration. It’s also an entirely essential tour stop. New York has its benefits; it’s poised on the cusp of New England, with highway access leading to many lively music markets.
Since the city doesn’t sleep, it’s also bubbling over with live shows, seven nights a week. (Oh, and pizza by the slice.) Those are the benefits to playing N.Y.C., but getting there is a whole other issue. Now, granted, I don’t know any secrets to traverse New York. I couldn’t tell you which bridge is the right one to take, I’ve played three shows there in my life and let a G.P.S. guide me in using the G.P.S.’s own internal logic. It always consists of crossing some backed up bridge or tunnel and having so many curses lobbed your way you’re damned for seven generations, and then you getting charged fifteen bucks for the pleasure.
On our last visit, I spent a good 45 minutes at 2 a.m. finding a parking spot in Brooklyn. This may be considered a good day, I don’t know. I started within a few blocks of our friend’s apartment then slowly traveled and re-traveled down one-ways until finally spending the next eight minutes parallel parking over a snow bank that threatened to swallow me up or send me sliding into a parked car. We hauled our equipment back and forth those combined nine blocks to the apartment to the gig via a 40-minute subway ride, even passing my car along the way and praying to the patron saint of vehicle security. It was eight degrees that day in February.
Here were three people clutching their most valuable possessions, overburdened in the freezing winter, headed to a bar in Manhattan to play the show of their lives for strangers. Somehow the air was still electric; I just wish it transferred into heat energy for my toes.
The next night we made the drive to D.C., a city with a rich past in D.I.Y. and hardcore. We’re playing a little room on top of a bar with a staircase just wide enough to fit a kick drum. We found a great act to headline, a stellar eight-piece band composed of veterans from the scene. As luck would have it, their violin player was pregnant, so they asked to open instead of headline. Of course we obliged — then stared in horror at the complete and awesome showmanship that a tight-knit group of well-practiced individuals can provide through diverse instrumentation. They sounded like Phil Spector produced the Exile on Main Street-era Stones. Following that, we took the stage as a two-piece. Unless you’re John Entwistle and Keith Moon, you’re generally not going to come off as impressive in that scenario.
A lot of my live playing style was born of our band’s initial scarcity of shows when we started. There’s a real sense of go-for-broke, fourth-quarter-down-by-six kind of hustle. I even keep a closet full of old set lists that I couldn’t part with. These were initially keepsakes from the scattered shows my band could muster over the course of a year: Winston’s Care in February, the Taphouse in November, on a napkin or piece of tissue. They were specific relics from shows that still held their specifics in focus, unobscured by the commonplace. Now they threaten to become indistinguishable; clutter.
A lot of drummers hit hard and make faces while they play, but my style really bore from the love of those sacred 30 minutes with an audience and the naivety that my passion could somehow transfer into the crowd through osmosis, sending electricity through the water and sparking all the shrimp to dance.
So, New York, I don’t love you, but I’ll play you. I’ll play you every year and then some. I’ll freeze my toes, scrape my bumper and pound my steering wheel in frustration. I’ll spend more time searching for parking on your crowded streets and loading in gear through your alleyways than I could ever trade in stage time. And since it’s what we do, we’ll leave a part of us with you on every stage we play.