King of the Road #4: A Long Way From Home
It’s 3 a.m. in a small Savannah bungalow; there are seven still bodies scattered about, sleeping on the floor around you. The crew consists of your bandmates and Boston band Pile, a group which you’ve been close friends with for the past 10 years. For 14 shows down the East Coast you’ve been opening for them and it’s been one of the most incredible touring experiences to date. In the morning you will say farewell to them all; your bandmates will board a plane back to New York and Pile will head North while you continue on West. It will mark the beginning of a long journey, a pilgrimage that will take you across this sprawling country all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back around again to your home in New York City. The tour will take a little over a month to complete and you will do it all alone. In that time you will sit on the rim of the Grand Canyon, body surf on massive waves in the Pacific Ocean, grapple with inner demons on long drives, go longer than you ever had before without showering, travel the furthest from home you’ve ever been, and write some the best songs you’ve ever written. You’ll learn more about this country than you ever could in a book or a college course. But most of all you will learn about yourself and what kind of fabric you’re cut from.
You act tough on the first day. A defense mechanism to mask the fact that you are scared shitless to be there without your bandmates. As you run through your set on stage at an Alabama dive there’s a timidness about you, a lack of confidence in your song. You begin to doubt your abilities and whether or not the people in the audience enjoy your music. It’s quite simple, without confidence you cannot perform well no mattered how talented or skilled you may be.
That night you spread out your sleeping bag on the futon mattress that sits atop a wooden bunk which fits snugly in the back of the van. The van is lit by a Coleman camping lantern, the same lantern you once used when camping with your grandparents so long ago in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Sipping on whiskey to calm the nerves, you question your ability to handle the long quest that lies ahead. You think back to a drunken late night conversation a few nights prior with a tour mate, where he pats you on the back and says, “I got to hand it to you buddy, you got more guts than I touring out there all on your own.” Perhaps I bit off more than I could chew. Are you crazy thinking you could keep it together for a month on the road all by yourself?
As you travel west, playing show after show you begin to sink into a rhythm. Shows begin to feel natural playing up there alone and the confidence you exhibited with a full band begins to enter into your solo performances. You begin to converse and tell stories from stage and slowly build the spirit necessary to perform proper on your own. In each city you meet new friends and the anxiety of being alone begins to wash away.
On a desolate highway somewhere between Oklahoma and New Mexico you drive. The street is lit by the massive feed manufacturing plants that dominate the land every few miles. It’s 3 a.m. and the only other vehicles on the road are tractor-trailer trucks bombing down the wide open interstate, abiding to their nocturnal schedule as not to be slowed by the amateur daytime drivers. As you catch a glimpse of the night sky you realize that you have never seen the stars shine so bright. It’s the farthest you’ve ever been from home and you’re there all alone. A voice comes over you and says, “Yes! This is what you are chasing, seize it!” Your arms steer the wheel so that the van slows to the shoulder of the road. You get out and lay on the cool gravel of an embankment by the roadside and look up at the blazing speckled sky. The ground rumbles from the colossal trucks barreling by. The beauty of the moment is overwhelming and you hope that somehow, someway, you can hold onto the memory forever. As you look over the vast, alien landscape you wonder, “How did I end up here?” and begin to laugh a maniacal laugh when you consider the absurdity of it all. It starts with a crazy idea, a fantasy, a childhood dream that you can’t quite shake and it pushes you off into a desolate divide, expanse and unforgiving that changes the very ground upon which you walk.
All hail the sacred radio! Without it the lonesome traveler would surely go mad. Western states are massive, much larger than those of the east and often require long drives from show to show, sometimes 10 hours a day. You spin the wheel on your old trusty Apple iPod. Atop the snowy mountains of Oregon the hypnotic gallop of the Velvet Underground keeps you chugging. Across the great plains of West Texas Skip James’ eerie wail fills your soul with inspiration. Through the deserts of Arizona the raw power of the Stooges keeps you from nodding off. On a breathtaking stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, windows down, the distorted overtones of Social Distortion fuse with the sound of the outside wind passing by. You play a game to keep your mind occupied, where upon entering a new city or state you put on a band that has any sort of significance or relation to that place. In Duluth, you play Dylan. Chicago, you put on Howlin’ Wolf. In Nebraska you play Springsteen… and so on and so forth.
At some point halfway through the tour, you begin to take notice that strangers treat you differently when you are touring alone than when touring with a band. People are more generous, more willing to take you in and accept you amongst their clan. At a show in Houston, TX a woman and her husband befriend you and insist upon getting you a hotel room for the night where you can get a much needed shower because as the kind hearted woman points out, “Someone who plays such nice music shouldn’t smell so bad”. At a Santa Fe Brewery the manager of the venue takes you back to his home where him and his lady make you dinner at 2 a.m. and give you a gift in the morning, a book called Navaho Expedition that they thought you’d like based off a conversation the night prior. In Flagstaff a college professor sits at a bar with you after your set and expresses his appreciation for your music and as the conversation ends, hands you a key to his cottage which he insists you stay at for the night. Throughout this great country the cultures, dialect and terrain differ greatly, but the quality of kindness is very much the same.
On a warm summer day in June you arrive back home. You park the van on your block like you had so many times before, and as you walk the steps to your home you notice that something has changed. It’s not in the way the apartment building looks or smells or feels. No, for the change was not one that occurred in the external material world. It occurred deep down within. Over the next few weeks you would be filled with a great frustration due to your inability to communicate all you had experienced on your journey. You’d go on similar solo tours multiple times in the coming years but none would ever match the impact and importance of that first one. Out there on your own you had learned of the true nature of fear. You had watched it go head to head in the ring against guts and courage and over and over again you watched as fear was toppled.