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We wake up in Knoxville, Tenn., and drive to Harrisonburg, Va. It is the last day of our SXSW tour.
Not long after we eat and get back on the road, we stop again. Though bourbon is primarily known for its association with Kentucky—-a state we played last week—-we seek out a liquor store near the Virginia border so that Fill-In Bassist C. can purchase “Tennessee bourbon.” I walk into the liquor store to find that it has no public toilet. I walk behind the liquor store, push my way into a secluded patch of lush, Smoky Mountain underbrush, and, next to a broken toilet that has been discarded among the trees, I (ironically, given the toilet) urinate on to the ground, wondering what I have made of life and what life has made of me. Four hours later, I eat two 7-Layer Burritos at a Virginia Taco Bell. Though an air-conditioned dining room is available at the rest stop, I feel compelled to eat these burritos on the curb in the inadequate shade of the minivan for no discernible reason.
The Harrisonburg show is at an Ethiopian restaurant called The Blue Nile. Things look grim. There is no P.A., or obvious place for a band to play, or any indication that customers eating Ethiopian food would want to see a postpunk quartet (probably more accurately described as a dance-punk or art-punk quartet) from out of town. When the promoter arrives, I am happy to learn that there is a bar hidden beneath the Ethiopian restaurant with a different entrance where shows are held. The room is spacious, relatively clean, has a Galaga/Ms. Pac Man machine and a decent sound system.
Yet, a show in a hidden bar is, as an abstract concept, grim. If people show up to the Ethiopian restaurant to see a show, how will they find the secret bar on the other side of the building where the show is actually taking place? The concert is billed as “Edie Sedgwick @ The Blue Nile,” not “Edie Sedgwick @ The Bar Below The Blue Nile or, To Be More Accurate, The Bar Beneath the Blue Nile With an Entrance On the Other Side Of the Building Off of the Parking Lot That Seems To Be Devoted to the Blue Nile, But is Actually Largely Devoted to Other Area Businesses Unrelated To the Blue Nile, Except for, Like, Four or Five Spaces Where Blue Nile Patrons Can Park If No One Else Is Parked There.” At least there aren’t parking meters to puzzle though: “How much are these meters? What times do they run? Are they for handicapped or not-handicapped drivers, or both? Do they apply only to patrons of the Blue Nile? How would Harrisonburg parking enforcement differentiate between the cars of patrons of the Blue Nile, and cars of those who are not patroning the Blue Nile? Will tickets be issued? What are the associated towing fees and parking tickets if the long arm of the law punishes those who dare park in The Blue Nile’s parking lot (or, at least, the parking lot that the Blue Nile abuts? Etc.”
The Blue Nile show turns out okay. Thirty or—-gods be praised—-as many as 40 people are at the show. We get paid $130 and we go home. The tour is over. We survive.
In these tour diaries I’ve written for Washington City Paper on and off since 2007, I’ve tried to debunk the idea that “going on tour”—-even to an illustrious, respectable, sweet-smelling, well-planned, well-known, totally meritocratic music festival like SXSW where everyone is nice and parking is abundant—-is glamorous or wonderful for a small, unknown band in the same way that it was glamorous or wonderful for, say, Led Zeppelin, who threw TVs out of hotel rooms and put fish in women’s vaginas. However, I’ve also tried to debunk the idea that going on tour is incredibly brutal in the “We’re in Black Flag and we eat dog food” sense most famously perpetuated by Henry Rollins in the excellent, if bizarrely bleak 1994 book Get in the Van. If you and your bandmates have an OK job and a little bit of money, “going on tour” isn’t brutal.
But it does involve a lot of waiting. For a small band that plays 30 minutes, tour is 23.5 hours of waiting and 0.5 hours of playing. Some of the waiting involves sleeping, carrying equipment, and eating, but a lot of it is just plain, old fashioned waiting—-in minivans, in gas stations, in restaurants, in bars, at tollbooths, at airports, at immigration checkpoints, at record stores, in dive bars, in dive bar bathrooms, in dive bar offices, in Guitar Centers, in motel lobbies, in hotel lobbies, at some dude’s house, in some dude’s driveway, in some dude’s kitchen, in some dudes bathroom, etc. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything—-but all that waiting leaves a lot of times for insecurities to surface. Here’s a summary of the questions that been going through my mind every second of the past 15 years:
“Why am I here?/Does my band suck?/Why don’t we make more money?/Why don’t we sell more records?/Why don’t people buy records anymore?/Is this success?/Why am I still doing this?/I am 25/Who are these people I am on tour with?/Why are the people I’m on tour with such assholes?/Who are the assholes at this show?/Am I an asshole?/Why is this other band so popular? They are terrible!/Why is this show so terrible?/Why are we playing here—-again?/What’s the point of doing this?/I am 30/Why don’t we have a booking agent?/Why is our booking agent such an asshole?/Why are we such assholes?/Why does our gear keep breaking?/Why does this nice gear we got to replace our shitty gear sound worse than the shitty gear?/Why can’t we afford a van?/We can’t afford this van./I am 35/Only 9 people came?/Only 20 people came?/Only 40 people came?/Only 100 people came?/Etc.”
If you’re a worrier—-and I am—-this shit never ends.