The Touring Games
The Touring Games
by John O’Brien.
It’s tour time. Passport, itinerary, toiletries – check. Let’s rock and roll… Wave goodbye and hit the road for endless partying. It’s all sex, drugs and TV smashing, isn’t it?
Outsiders might romanticise it that way but most CX readers know something far different. Long days of sweat and toil, endless lack of sleep, unhinged from home life and any routine beyond hotel – gig – airport / road then rinse and repeat – this is the game that you are playing now.
Touring a show has all sorts of ups and downs. Traveling the world but missing home. Hanging out with the cool crew but getting stuck with that irritating so-and-so that is the Tour Manager’s pet. Not having to make the bed but waking up every day wondering just which bed you are in. My trick was to make a game within the game.
The first round is finding your daily abode. If it’s a regular hotel that you’ve been to before – you’re sorted. But, if you are in a new town, with some faded copy of the itinerary, lacking sleep, grumpy, tired and maybe hungover it can be an epic journey just to stake your roof for the night.
And you haven’t even unpacked the gear yet … Even when you do have a place, don’t forget the room key.
Several times, I’ve found myself having to climb up the outside of a hotel to get back to my bed for the night. First time that it happened, the whole band and crew had kicked on after the show and couldn’t find a key between us. Hotel management caught several of us scaling the outside, gave us the 3rd degree and frogmarched us to our rooms. We weren’t allowed back there again!
Once, I’d been out for a few too many brews and got back to the big old hotel we were staying in. No key – no big deal. Wide awning all around the outside but no access. I stacked a couple of empty kegs, swayed off a street sign and managed to grab the awning, spilling the kegs on to the street. Hanging in space, it took everything my somewhat compromised body had left to drag myself up and over.
Found a mate’s room and got in through their window. Did I learn my lesson? Well, no! A tour or two later, different band, different hotel, same dilemma. This time, my room-mate was busy snogging a local and didn’t want to be disturbed. I watched the stars for a bit…
Another night, my lift home to Melbourne from a show in Geelong disappeared without notice. Faced with a huge taxi bill, I took the option of an hour as the human load bar in the rear of the windowless gear van. Unable to communicate with the front seats, I was reeling from carbon monoxide by the other end. Never again…
One band I was with cut costs by buying their own trailer for stage gear. All good until I got the speed wobbles heading downhill @120 kph. Got to 150 before it straightened out and then I slowed to a stop on the next hilltop. Put a jack under the side and the wheel fell clean off. The whole hub had seized and fried itself – and not fallen off at speed!
Of course, this was a Saturday afternoon halfway between Sydney and Newcastle. The band in Sydney had a friend traveling up in a van, so we cross-packed on the side of the road and I looked for a wrecker who might have some Ford spares. Duly found, the yard owner threw me a shifter and sent me out back to find a hub. Found one, went back to the trailer and it didn’t bloody fit.
Back to the wreckers and they just laughed. Fortunately, a local farmer took umbrage at that and offered to bring his oxy-set over to help get the remains off and new hub on. Only 5 hours late to load in …
Mind Games – The Tour Bubble
On the road, you spend all your time with the same people every day. The interpersonal dynamics can get pretty interesting and mind games come into play. A bit of casual banter is fun and you often end up with ongoing in-jokes and rituals.
Jokes and pranks can be great team builders. On the flipside, I have seen that degrade from harmless fun to outright bullying. Nothing kills a tour vibe quite like tantrums and bitching, making a hard gig even harder.
Which brings me to my favourite tour ritual. If I could, every day between setting up and dinner, I’d try to find 1/2 hour to walk away from everyone and do a lap of whatever block we’d found ourselves on. A great way to get some perspective on an otherwise claustrophobic bubble.
One tour, we had a pro crew who weren’t into shenanigans, so our daily respite was a reading from American Psycho by our scary system tech. Got us all in the right mindset before the show. I was definitely not in the right mindset when, in front of everyone, I unloaded on the tour manager first day of a short tour.
I’d been on the road constantly for nearly 2 1/2 years without a break, bouncing from one tour to the next. I really didn’t see how fragged out I was and chucked a hissy fit over something completely inconsequential. It cost me a great gig, a 6-month lap of the US and several close friends. Also took me several months of reflection to see just how out of line I was.
Some lessons are hard learned.
Sometimes though, it’s not your fault. One poor monitor engineer got his marching orders only because the artiste was having a ‘moment’. Stage sound was bloody awesome but the talent insisted, so we changed hands mid tour. The new sound was certainly no better but the artist / paymaster was happier, so we kept our heads low and trucked on.
Relationship Games – Bursting The Tour Bubble
Relationships within the touring party are not the only ones affected by life on the road. You do have friends outside the entertainment / hospitality industries, right? Keeping old mates onside can be difficult if they think that you are living the high life, hanging with the stars.
It’s hard to relate back to outsiders that touring is actually long, hard, dirty, stressful, and messes with your mind in all so many ways. I’ve farewelled far too many at far too young an age for this not to be a real issue.
As for keeping up a relationship with significant others – you’re never home and when you are, you spend the first few days sleeping, maybe settle a bit or just run amok for a while and then piss off to the next gig.
Long suffering families can feel a bit left out of the loop. Life still goes on for others when you move to the next venue, blithely ignoring the mess left behind! Treat home like a hotel and there may be no home to return to. For many, there comes a point when living out of a suitcase gets old. Waking up in a daze, wondering where you are, what hotel / city / country you are in, what day is it again?
Time to take that house gig you were offered a while ago perhaps? Or a sideways career move into the corporate AV world. Same tech after all. Fancier hotels, better dinners and other perks are a nice upgrade but corporate touring still has long days and plenty of dislocation from stable home life. There’s nothing quite like arriving home on Christmas Day after 36 hours of transit!
Scheduling Games and Things That Just Go Wrong
Some promoters love scheduling dartboard tours. During one particularly dense schedule, we’d already done a matinee show down in the Shire, had a support slot in East Sydney and were then due for a late headline out in the west.
I just took a quick rest during soundcheck number two and was left there catching zeds. Woke up in the middle of the venue floor with punters streaming in for their big night out. And half the day still yet to come!
I booked loaders for a touring production that I was lighting. One phone call and four bods confirmed with local crew boss. Venue doors open, truck arrives and no crew. Great! We unload and setup ourselves, making the rest of the gang pretty cranky.
I call the crew boss to find out that the loaders were actually early and thought they’d “do a quick burg” while waiting. Needless to say they got nicked. We also got eight crew for loadout at a substantial discount and I never used that mob again.
Sometimes, your health gives out unexpectedly. I had a root canal go bad just as I got back to the hotel after a long gig. No amount of painkillers could stop me groaning and after a sleepless night we found an emergency dentist who could fix the offending mess.
The relief was immediate but the drugs finally kicked in and I was then far from 100%. The other lighting guy on this tour was even worse – laid out flat with a nasty flu. So I was propped up in a chair and directed a local friend of the band how to rig a lightshow.
I still don’t remember much of the actual gig that followed…
There are lots of good bits to life on the road. Seeing the world, getting the show buzz every night, making deep forged bonds with fellow crew and, if you are lucky, getting paid well to do a job that many dream of.
Unfortunately, as much documented in these pages, there can be a significant toll on health and sanity. Some deal with this better than others. More power to them. Personally, I got out before I got too broken. Amongst many other things, I really just wanted to wake in my own bed more often.
I still have a passport but have not used it in years and find the sedentary life just grand. I don’t regret a moment of road life though …