So you go to visit.
It is cold, but not too cold. You take the bus to Port Authority then a cab to the studio and find your sweetheart and it is all New Yorky and that weird thing where you’re taking the elevator up with some friends then some famous people get on, and you don’t know who they are, but you know they are famous because they are sort of shinier than you—they radiate self-confidence, they are all externals. Then the elevator lets you out and you go sit in the mostly empty theater and watch the rehearsal and you have that funny feeling: my friends are kinda famous. And it’s all weird and odd and nice, and you’re not supposed to be talking about it. It isn’t done, but who cares. You watch them do their thing once and twice and three times and four times, and you’re still not tired of the song.
You chat with the other people you know, and you look around at the whole set and the showbiz thing, and it’s a pleasant way to spend a Tuesday afternoon, for sure. It’s not exactly your thing—a part of you is thinking about downtown, and the gelatos you could be eating, Chelsea gallery shows you could be seeing, Chinatown browsing you could be doing. But you’re in Midtown and it’s just fine. You hop on and off the tour bus and get caught up on emails, then it’s time for the taping and you go and watch it in the sound engineer’s booth, where you have to be totally quiet. There are all these screens and you can see what all of the camera people are doing, and you smile and watch everyone working while you’re on your day off, just hanging out in Midtown, watching.
Then it’s all over, and you all go different ways—you tag along to an interview at your favorite radio station where you watch the screens and the microphones and hushed quiet that is radio. It’s lovely, and everyone is nice, and you think about how things that are exciting to you are other people’s day jobs, and vice-versa. It’s nice to watch other people’s day jobs every now and then.
Then discussion about dinner options, and you settle on a great little Mexican place, where you get nopales tacos and grapefruit margaritas and jalapeno margaritas and another few friends join you, and your face gets all red because—not (just) the margaritas, really—you’re surrounded by such sweet and fascinating people and you feel lucky and alive and like it’s all OK. We’re all artists just doing our things. You realize that you haven’t been anywhere except your own little inside worlds for about a month, and you suddenly want to ask a million questions and learn everything about everyone. There’s no snow on the ground and there are margaritas and nopales tacos and everyone is wearing such lovely jeans.
You chat and smile and even when you want to insert an outré political opinion it’s all good—people know you by now, and don’t take offense.
Then a bar, where you meet up with more friends and just sip water. It’s of course loud, but you see all kinds of people and chat, and then the show everyone taped earlier is on, and they turn down the music and turn up the TV and everyone is watching themselves and smiling and clapping at the end. All the musicians are pretending it’s no big deal, but you can tell by their faces—even the ones who’ve done it before, even the ones who’ve done it lots before—that it’s really awesome. Their phones are ringing and it’s their parents, and you smile because it’s just cute, no matter how cynical you are.
Suddenly you are so tired, and you two say your goodbyes and take a cab back to midtown, to the bus, to bed. A little email on the bus, more chatter, and you fold yourselves into the small bunk and whisper in the dark for a while, then the bus starts moving and you drift off to sleep.
When you wake up it’s Somerville and it’s sunny and there is an amazing thrift shop two blocks away.
You stumble out of bed, remember not to put toilet paper in the toilet, remember to brush your teeth with water from a water bottle, and vow to wash your face at the venue.
You notice there is a mirror on the ceiling of the front lounge.
Most people are still asleep, and it feels good for once to be the early riser (relatively speaking). Your sweetheart is of course up—on the phone, on IM, emailing, having meetings, more phone calls, counting out per diems and dinner buyouts, getting annoyed at people, putting other people at ease, more phone calls, more IMs and text messages and endless emails, and he has that harried tightness that worries you. It is the third day of the tour, and you know things will calm down, but when his tiny little portable printer refuses to print out setlists, you can see him taking deep breaths and trying to pretend it’s not the final straw. The final straw is always and never coming, and that’s just how it is—things keep rolling along. Phone interviews are set up and conducted, in-person interviews are set up and conducted, it just rolls on and on.
You two sneak out for a quick taco lunch, and things are relatively calm for half an hour. You talk about the cats and gossip a little and he lets off a little steam and you can tell he’s going to be fine—it’s the third day of the tour, it will calm down soon.
With nothing to do except computer work you’d rather put off, you spend two hours in the amazing thrift shop and score some amazing 1960s dresses, along with a gorgeous 1920s-esque drop waist little number that fulfills your vow to dress like a flapper. You resist the urge to change your clothes on the spot.
It starts to snow—but pretty, soft snow, not icy snow. Everyone is soundchecking and consulting with everyone else on final show preparations. You read and wander around the venue, hating this dead time when everyone else is working. It’s always so odd to be on vacation when everyone else is working. You used to sell merch when you would visit, and you loved selling merch—such a small, stress-free job. Count in, count out. Chat, make change, fold shirts, done. You were finished working when everyone else was finished working. It makes you nervous to relax when other people are working. But you can’t sell merch these days—the tours are bigger and more professional, and there are lots of boxes and forms to fill out and it’s more of a production than it used to be. Oxfam is tabling on this tour, and you think, as you do every time you visit, that if you were better you would set up a little table for some animal rights group or something—but then: hauling literature and all that around? You’re on vacation.
With no merch to sell, you get to watch the show. You find a perfect little box seat off to the side, apart from the audience but right above the stage. You take a glass of Maker’s Mark up to your little nook and settle in, and it’s a perfect show—high energy and just the right intensity, slow songs interspersed with fast songs, solo songs interspersed with full band songs. A guy yells out a song he wants to hear and it happens to be next on the setlist—that kind of show.
Afterward is that weird time for you, when everyone is on a big giant show high and is chatting backstage, and you go and chat for a while, then it starts to get old. This always happens to you. After about 24 hours, you find you need more—being on tour is all about maintaining a steady stream of pleasant chitchat, and after you’ve told everyone what a great show it was and asked the sound engineer about her delay philosophy and impressed her with your deep fake knowledge of arcane sound engineery terminology (that is: you know the terms, but not quite what they mean), that’s about all you’ve got.
You lean against a wall, take a long sip of whisky, and start a conversation with whoever happens to be nearby about the economic stimulus package.
A good, lively, hotheaded discussion follows, and it’s not just the whisky. You have conquered the chitchat lion, forced it to do your bidding: forging deep connections. Hurdle passed. Now you can talk deeply about politics and chocolate and books and everything for the rest of the trip.
Speaking of books—this little tour bus rumbling through the East Coast just might be the last place in America where people are reading and talking about books. Literary fiction, beat-up vintage copies of Hemingway and Faulkner—your heart beats faster to see books and The New York Times and The New Yorker mingling with the typical tour bus detritus of music rags and alt-weeklies from last night’s town with features on the band. Quietly, knowing how dorky they are compared with most touring musicians, there is a life of the mind on this bus. One night everyone watches an old BBC Lennon documentary, then the back lounge is filled with people playing some kind of music trivia game. No secret makeout sessions with disposable girls, no seas of empty beer bottles clogging the thin thoroughfare to the bathroom. The bandleader is the first to bed and the first awake.
The other great secret of touring is that this bus, like so many other indie rock tour buses constantly criscrossing the country, is full of small business owners running their mini-empires—the muted clattering of a dozen MacBooks is how most days begin and end. Everyone on this tour is a real musician with multiple concurrent projects and/or a professional crew member. Being a real musician and music-industry professional means constantly booking shows, planning upcoming tours and securing one-off gigs to fill in time between tours. The drummer owns a drum shop with a friend back in Portland, four people on tour are sound engineers with studios and mixing projects always in progress. You are all small business owners, and you are right at home, pulling out your old PowerBook, jumping onto the bus wireless network and running a mini-empire of your own.
The next day is back to New York, up to Harlem, and you spend the day wandering around and taking photos.
The venue is beautiful and historic and everyone is on a secret high because they get to play there. Big city days, with their extra interviews and promo appointments, are always crazy for your sweetheart, and because its your last day together for two weeks, you take a few hours and just follow him around, shadowing him like he shadows you when he’s home and you’re working.
You watch a little bit of the show, then it’s time to go. It’s all over.
A subway back to Port Authority and you sneak onto the last bus of the night, next to the drunk kids and the theatergoers. You watch the secnery change from skyscrapers to trees, from concrete to snow. Your car is still in the lot where you left it, and when you get home it’s so quiet. Mewling cats hungry for dinner and no warm body to share the bed with.