The Revolving Door of Band Life
Band Life isn’t easy. Maybe for the Rolling Stones, Madonna or Dave Mathews who can afford a big tour bus, drivers, teams of roadies and tech people, nannies, first class hotels and luxuries on the road, it can be a cinch but when you’re a poor and struggling road band, it’s tough. Many people think they can and want to endure it to live the so-called “glamorous life” of a rock star. Once they find out that a minimum of six hours a day is spent sitting on your behind in a van with five other sweaty people you’re not sleeping with, many quickly change their minds. We drive as fast as we can, all day long to get to the town we are playing in, that night. We stop along the way for fast food and/or snacks at the gas station while we take restroom breaks and gas up (no pun intended!) Upon arrival in the town, we rush to the bar, load in our equipment, do a sound check and hope for enough time for a hot meal and a shower at the hotel. Sometimes we don’t have enough time and we have to change clothes in the graffiti filled dressing room or in the van itself. I have become an expert at applying my make up in the 4X8 light up mirror in the van parked in the alley of the venue. We play our show, meet the wonderful people who support our music, load up the van again with all our amps, guitars, luggage and equipment and find our way to the hotel in the wee small hours of the morning. At check out time, (or earlier depending on the drive distance) we hop in the van, rain or shine, and do the whole thing all over again day in and day out.
Your personal space becomes very precious when you live your life out of a rolling sardine can. Where you place your pillow, sweatshirt and backpack is the mark of your turf. When someone takes the liberty to move your stuff, it can be a proclamation of war. I have seen fights break out over the crumpled paper bag that was thrown away accidentally. Who knew it held the pianists half eaten roast beef sandwich that he was saving for later? The pillow you benignly pushed aside becomes a threatening insult to the sax player. Little inconsequential things take on powerful new meaning.
Put artistic musicians with big egos in a small space and you are likely to witness great art or monumental pettiness. Individual quirks seem magnified when you have 397 miles to observe them. Human beings have idiosyncrasies and they are up close and personal in the Ford Econoline. If the guitar player is an alcoholic who is hung over, it affects everyone who has to smell him and drive his shift because his pounding head and shaking hands make him unsuitable. If the bass player is lazy, rest assured someone else is moving his equipment and picking up the slack for the jobs he refuses. A bad back, a bad headache or a bad attitude can affect everyone in the small quarters and alter everyone else’s mood and road experience.
Then there is the inevitable rehearsal that one person cancels at the last minute, inconveniencing everyone else. Or one guys DUI makes it so he can’t pitch in and drive his shift. Family issues can complicate band life as well. A guitar player marries and suddenly his young wife doesn’t want him to tour anymore or she wants to travel with the band, adding one more body and one more personality to the stew. A musician’s parents are elderly and frail and she is an only child. I have lost musicians to other bands who have snatched them up after seeing them on a festival with me. I have lost people who have decided they want to be the front person and go out on their own. People have developed health issues that needed attention. I have had to fire people who ditched a rehearsal for no good reason, wanted to be paid for the rehearsal, or refused to learn new material or even learn the old material correctly. Musicians decide to go back to school and get an education or take a day job where they can make good money without being gone all the time. People have left because they have young children at home and are tired of missing out on precious baby steps and first words. Marriages are threatened and break up. One former guitarist’s ex wife went to prison and he had to take custody of the kids. Another developed a drug addiction and after having illegal drugs fed-exed to our hotel, in my name, I had to let him go.
People come up to me and say, “What happened to your guitar player?” or “that band you had in Munich was the best band you ever had.” People make assumptions that it’s the bandleader who must be hard to get along with. In some cases, that may be true but there are also a whole slew of other extenuating reasons why musicians leave. NO health insurance, no retirement, no unemployment and no guarantees other than artistic expression are also factors. I often say to well meaning fans, “This ain’t the civil service. It’s impossible to keep someone where they don’t want to be.”
Bands are like dysfunctional families with all the good times and bad times included. We are blessed to play music and often humbled by the thunderous applause and the love and energy of a live audience. Yes, we choose this life on the road and we get the glamour and glory of show business along with the unique and unusual occupational hazards. We drive through rain, sleet and snow to deliver live music from coast to coast. Many of us do it because we love the road and the people we meet on it. Some of us do it because we want to be famous. And all of us, who stick with it, year after year, do it because we love music and maybe for all of the reasons listed above.
So, the next time you see your favorite road band with a new person in the group, realize that there is more to the story than you could ever know. These aren’t robots; these are human beings with all the blemishes and complexities that make us humans. And if you’re a musician, wishing you could be in a road band, carefully consider all the complications you are inviting and then get in that van and do it! Band life isn’t easy but for some of us, it’s the only life we would ever want and the life we are blessed to be living. Let the music begin.