Road Fever
from L.A. Style, January 1990
It is no accident that highways are called arteries. I am a corpuscle in this mighty, this holy system, borne by Econoline van through desert and swamp, over mountain and prairie, from city to town to town to city, from one motel to its cousin clone down the road. As I write, we descend from snow-clad Donner Pass toward political Sacramento, in the last turn of a 10,000-mile circuit from Los Angeles through the Deep South to the Northeast through the Midwest to the West Coast. We are five, we are a band (though we are not the band We Five, of "You Were on My Mind" renown), we are on THE ROAD, like a hundred thousand bands before us, and heading generally toward home. For three weeks and change, I've been playing the organ in a rock group on tour to promote its leader's latest record. (This is more in the nature of a pickup band than a heavily bonded, mutually invested, fratri/sororital, common-historical band band -- though all this dormitory living does tend to create a kind of instant, not always chummy, intimacy.) I have aspired toward this state of being for many years, and I suppose I come by the aspiration honestly -- my grandfather was a traveling salesman, my father spent a few years of my adolescence shepherding a Major Pop Band around the country. But the truth is that for any boy or girl infected with the rockin' pneumonia or the boogie-woogie flu, the Road calls as the one true home, the essential setting for the drama, the playing field where the artist meets, strives to conquer, his/her audience.
    For what is more emblematic of the Rock Life -- and the Jazz, the Country & Western, the Rhythm & Blues Life, and all American-born music -- than the Road? Our sung history teems with travelers, going to Louisanny, going up the country, going down to Rosedale, going where the climate suits one's clothes, the water tastes like wine, the chilly winds don't blow -- hundreds, thousands, going, going, ever moved to get, in Elvis's words, "real gone." It's typical of American songs about home that the narrator is not there: "Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away "; "My old Kentucky home far away"; "I wish I was [were] in the land of cotton"; "I left my heart in San Francisco." "Other arms reach out" to the author who has "Georgia on My Mind." Home is home only in the light of leaving it -- how can you miss if it you won't go away? The train-whistle whine is our true national anthem, the Airstream trailer the perfection of our native architecture. To be ever elsewhere is our inherited compulsion, travel for its own sake the modern progeny of the pioneering spirit that built this country, goldarnit. We are free men or dead men. The American bohemian lives not in a garret, but upon wheels. Our best art is an argument against the tyranny of the hearth, the yoke of the buttoned collar, the Hell of respectability.

Though 35 years of solid commercial performance have earned it a place at the dinner table, there are still few things, even in America, less respectable as an occupation than rock & roll. (Kids: Declare you're leaving school to play electric guitar and see if your parents don't quickly turn purple.) The fact is, popular entertainers of all sorts have been traditionally considered a class not far removed from the criminal; the fact is, there are reasons for it. (The performer as aristocrat is still a relatively new idea.)
    This, of course, is part of rock & roll's appeal -- the romance of life upon the wicked stage, the unbound statelessness of the wandering minstrel, singing for his supper, for the favors of señoritas. "Outside of society," sang Patti Smith, whose work as much as anyone's celebrates rock's outlaw image, "is where I want to be."
    Going on tour is a fast way to get outside. The habitual ethics of the more centered life fall away easily in a lifestyle defined primarily by motion. As a constant stranger in town, one may come to see oneself as less beholden than usual to convention. Men and women who at home may love nothing better than to tinker with classic cars, tend to the polo ponies or trim the roses in the formal gardens turn to throwing television sets off balconies, marathon drinking, sex with the nameless -- all that rock & roll has come to mean. Indeed, to a certain extent, such activities have become codified to the point where they are now what draws some people to a career in music. But they were initially, my own small experience tells me, side effects of a routine guaranteed to encourage loneliness, boredom, self-absorption. Old faces blur, old ties are either relaxed or snap. In the space between the abandonment of former custom and the establishment of a new one linked to the rhythm of check-in and check-out, load-in and load-out lies the abyss. Touring hands you a jet-black blank slate -- and you had better have something coherent to write there, or you may find yourself signing your name in an illegible, animal scrawl.
   And not to generalize too terribly much, but rock musicians are not the most well-grounded, well-rounded of beings to begin with. Many are either actually kids, still a-forming, or have had (by will or circumstance) their development arrested. (I am, I assure you, the very picture of moderation, but it became clear to me quickly that a certain amount of conscious resolve would be required to remain so.) And there's a familiar line of thought that anyone driven to climb onstage in the first place is compensating for a severe ego deficiency.

Now, there are tours and there are tours. My experience of the touring life has been, I think, not unrepresentative of most less-than-major-label-but-not-totally-unknown bands. We had no "roadies," no "groupies" -- species specialized to the environment -- but we had an efficient rented van, a motel bed four nights out of five (each man rotating to the floor on the fifth), a $10 per diem, (usually) free beer and an occasional hot meal provided by the clubs we played. Some bands content themselves with far less, content themselves to live on, literally, peanuts. The Rolling Stones, who were on the stump at the same time we were, and in some of the same cities, had it somewhat better, you can imagine as well as I -- hot meals everywhere, and the heavy pampering that can make moral laxity so much easier to practice.
    But in the existential particulars -- the hurrying up and waiting, the traveling without tourism, the acceleration through time zones and seasons and places where other people lead real lives -- it all pretty much accords to one or another Beatle's description of one or another Beatle tours as (I paraphrase), "a plane, a car, a room, a stage." A fast-spinning cycle of excitation and enervation that leaves you inclining toward the latter, struggling for the former -- there is the text of such rock-and-Road films as Robert Frank's banned-by-the-band Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues ; Bob Dylan's Eat the Document; the Band's Martin Scorsese-directed farewell-to-the-stage The Last Waltz; Frank Zappa's 200 Motels . Even the light-hearted A Hard Day's Night, which takes off from the quote above, shows touring as a kind of prison, relieved only by jokes, temporary defections, the hint of anything female and the moment you finally get to play. Of course, the jokes and defections and moments of playing are precisely why you hit that Road (there were not so many females hinting at us), and, if you are lucky (and I was), they more than compensate for the routine: You play, then you go to the next town, then you wait to play, then you play, you go, you wait to play, and so on and so on, for however long you can stand the Road or the Road can support you.
    For some players, this works out to approximately always -- total immersion in the Road-world, in the band-mind, in a life of Just Passing Through, of love that lasts until Checkout Time, of humanity apprehended dimly from the stage or as a highwayside blur. It's astonishing how fast one begins to call Motel 6, without irony, "home." (Compared to the van, it can easily seem so.) There are men and women for whom this state becomes the norm; for others, touring is more of a moral vacation, a chance to drop the hearthside Jekyll and indulge for a while Mr. Hyde. I am not that sort; I've neither the desire nor the energy to be. I'm just a blushing dilettante. But I found value enough "on tour," not just in the performing, the pranks, the travel that broadens, but also in the personal dislocation it occasions, and even in the awful grind -- it's my kind of cattle drive, it's this boy's walkabout, a musical version of Outward Bound that forces you to decide who you are or go to hell. It's true that you've got to leave home to long for home, but it's also true that you've got to have a home to get away from home. Somewhere around Nebraska I struck up "California, Here I Come", 5,000 choruses later, here I am. Until the next time.¶

Russ '89
Critical List columns from the same trip: Part One, Part Two
A later story on the same subject  

Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1990 and 2006