Ah, the road! That unending ribbon of concrete that winds all over this great country of ours, magically connecting every truck stop and motel with your driveway. The road will take you nearly anywhere you want to go, until you come to an ocean, and to a lot of places you don’t particularly want to go. But when you’re an out-of-work musician hanging around Nashville going broke sitting in at clubs for free beer waiting for some producer to snatch you off the bandstand and put you on his next master session, a road gig might be just the thing to let you keep up the payments on your old Datsun.
If you have the right look and can play the licks on the work tape, you might get an “artist gig”. One with a big star pays more money than you can spend legally. A gig with a singer who recorded his last album in somebody’s garage might not pay enough to Greyhound-it home if the van breaks down.
But you don’t want to run around the country in a van, anyway, unless you’ve been living in a monastery or a biosphere and just need to get out a little. A bus is definitely the way to go, if you have to go. You get a stereo, a TV, a refrigerator, your own bunk, and enough room for the star to slap you around so you don’t lose time pulling off on the side of the road.
Stars can be persnickety when their trainer’s not around, y’know, and you shouldn’t mind being rousted out of a sound sleep in your bunk at four in the morning to go get him a hot dog at some truck stop because he doesn’t want to sign autographs, or because he’s having a bad hair night and the bus driver backed over his hat, or because the regular hot dog-getter is the relief driver and he needs his sleep, or … just because you’re the new guy.
Motels are where you have to stay when you get off the bus. You might get a better one than war corespondents get in Iraq. There’s a motel in Bandera, TX with shower stalls so small that you can’t turn around in them if you’re any bigger than Jimmy Dickens, so you come out with only one clean side. A motel in Dallas double-booked a room once, and Mickey Mantle walked in on Ernest Tubb’s steel player in the middle of the night. RCA has a special factory in Arkansas that makes color TV’s that only show green that they sell at big discount prices to motel chains. And you know those “Do Not Disturb” signs you hang on your outside doorknob when you crash at five in the morning? They’re in English on one side and Spanish on the other? Well… motel maids come a-banging on your door about eight o’clock hollering in Egyptian or something, wanting to know if you need clean towels.
The dazzling musical technique that won you the gig in the first place can get a trifle rusty on the road, what with playing the same licks in the same songs in the same show every night. You’re so busy riding, and sleeping, and riding, and sitting around, and driving, and standing around… Who’s got the time to practice? And who wants to lug a sousaphone or a steel guitar up to a third floor Holiday Inn room? So you try to learn some new scale or something at a sound check and the singer cringes and gives you the fish-eye like you’re banging on a garbage can full of cats in heat. So you tell the sound man to turn the monitors down and then you play a little louder. You’re gonna learn how a whole tone scale can go from a 5 to a 1 and you don’t care what that farging bastage of a front man says about it.
Being on the road does have certain advantages, though. It’s a break from real life, especially if you don’t have to drive or handle money or do anything more responsible than play the show, and you can party ’til you puke, or sleep, or meditate, or withdraw from life, or whatever, as long as you don’t scare the star and make him think you’re one of those disturbed loners who would be better off working at the Post Office. If you’re having problems with a wife, or bills, or your neighbors, or a pesky lawsuit about that apartment you blew up, you can just kind of forget all that stuff until you get home. You can set a mental alarm that goes off an hour before you get back to town that tells you it’s time to start worrying again.
So, anyhow, you work the road long enough to count on getting a tax refund next year and then the unthinkable happens. You get laid off! Gee, you didn’t think you had any job security, did you? In Nashville? But management has been complaining about the costs of taking a band on the road, and the accountant has been looking real worried and drinking too much, and the record company needs some extra liquidity for investments in overseas construction projects. It’s not your star’s fault, shoot, he owes so much money to his record company and to his backers that he doesn’t have any say-so in what’s going on. But he tells you you’re the best musician he’s ever worked with, and when he can get the band back together you’ll be the first one he calls.
Ahh, what the fuck. You’ve made enough money to pay off the Datsun, and you’ve got a string endorsement, and now you can tell road stories. So sign up for unemployment and start hanging out again and maybe now that producer will call. But in case he doesn’t, there just might be an empty bunk with your name on it in another Silver Eagle out there.