17 Apr The Art of Traveling
I love to travel about as much as I hate to be sick. I’ve got a bad cold right now so I took a long hot shower to loosen up my chest. While holding onto the wall for support as a particularly vicious cough wracked my body I had a visceral memory of being on tour and taking a similar shower.
It was probably 1995 when my band Sleepyhead went to Europe to tour. We were never a very popular band, but we had a lot of supporters who helped us get things done. Probably our biggest one was Steven Joerg, who worked at Homestead, the label that released a couple of our records. He and our manager Lyle had gotten us a deal with a small label in Holland, Brinkman, and the label had helped arrange the tour to support their release. Brinkman had had some success with a band called Bettie Serveert, and that allowed them to put out a lot of other interesting, less commercial, bands, like us. They had worked it out for us to play one of the last shows of the tour opening for Bettie in Holland. We would be playing in front of probably 5,000 people.
For someone who likes to travel touring can be an amazing experience, but it can also be hard. It beats the hell out of driving across the country without playing shows. At least you meet people a lot easier. Before we made it to Europe we had toured the entire US with very little money or support. In fact, on our first full US tour I think we stayed in a motel only twice. Instead we would either stay with one of the bands we played with, or I would ask the first person who bought a record or a t-shirt if we could stay with them. It was hit or miss. We met some amazing people, and we also stayed in some places that were pretty gross. I swear that in one place in Florida there was so much hair in the bathtub that it almost looked like a rug. Even though we only spent money on gas and food we rarely came home with any cash.
When we got to Europe it was almost hard to believe how much better we were treated. The booking agent had arranged for us to stay in a small town called Hove for the majority of our tour. In exchange for playing a free show at a local bar called de pomp (an old gas station), we were allowed to stay in the apartment upstairs for almost a month. For the most part, touring in Holland and Belgium, we were able to drive to a show and then head back that night, usually arriving before last call. Occasionally we’d stay at a hotel if the drive was too far. The hotels were always fairly nice, and paid for by the club. In America we usually got a couple of free drinks but in Europe we always had a dressing room stocked with great beer. Our brokeness kept us from drinking too much in the US. However, with the beer as good as it was, and as free as it was I drank a little bit more and it started to wear me down a bit. By the time we headed off for a week of shows in Germany, I was starting to get a pretty bad cold.
We had a number of really cool shows in Germany but it was hard for me to enjoy the traveling because the cold got worse. Our final German show was in Hamburg in a weird club that had a main stage and a small venue off to the side that the opening act would play. The theatrical metal band GWAR, who wore crazy costumes, was playing in the big room and we were in the small one. After a couple of songs I simply couldn’t play anymore. I told the band to go on without me and I went to lay down in the back of the club. By then my lungs were filled with sickness and I was having trouble breathing. I had a lot of difficulty sleeping that night because of my lungs and in the early morning I went to take a long hot shower to see if I could get rid of some of the tightness. The shower helped but I felt like I’d coughed up about a pound of flesh by the end of it.
Weak and tired I made my way to the van for the long ride to Holland for our big show with Bettie Serveert. Despite my sickness, I knew that we were at the top of our game as a band. Playing live is kind of like having 5 practices, even if there isn’t a big audience; especially if there isn’t a big audience. We were always a little sloppy at the beginning of a tour, tight in the middle, and we started to fall apart again at the end after the rigors of touring took their toll. While the rigors had certainly taken their toll on me, I knew that as a band, we were playing better than ever. Our incredible tour manager Herman, turned the key of the van and nothing happened.
It took a little while to get a mechanic to come and we nervously checked the time, calculating and recalculating whether or not we would get to Holland in time for a sound check, and eventually whether we would get there in time to play. The tow truck arrived, and the mechanic charged the battery for a bit. We nervously watched as Herman turned the key and the engine exploded into life. We cheered. About 30 minutes later we were ripping down the autobahn. It had started to snow and my fever started to spike but as I watched the wipers slap away the snow I turned to Herman and said, “I think we’re gonna make it.” Just then the wipers came to clanging halt. “Uh-Oh,” Herman quietly mouthed. Moments later the lights went dim, and just as he started to steer the van to the side of the road the engine died and we slowly ground to halt as trucks continued to whiz by.
Instinctually, we all jumped out of the van to push it to the limited slice of shoulder. It was quite terrifying because the snow made visibility poor, and cars and vans kept having to swerve to avoid us, often honking angrily. As soon as we got it to the side of the road I climbed on to the back seat, shaking from the exertion. Herman implored me to get out of the van because he was afraid it still might get hit by a car or truck. I refused. I was just too sick. It was almost like being on a ship because the van rocked and swayed each time a truck passed.
This was the mid 90’s and no one had cell phones, so it took a long time before a tow truck finally came. Turns out it wasn’t the battery that was bad, but instead the alternator, which recharges the battery when the car is running. The strain of running the lights and the windshield wipers had quickly drained it. It was dark when the tow truck pulled up to a closed repair shop. Across the street there was a bar with a small hotel so stumbled through the snow. Herman asked about getting food but the woman behind the counter pointed to the clock which read 9:00 and told him that the kitchen closed at 9:00. He explained that we had had been stranded on the highway but she just shook her head. She wouldn’t even give us bread. We were supposed to be playing to 5000 people, but we were stuck in Germany in the middle of nowhwere.
A couple days later we played our show at the bar in Hove. It was a wild exciting night because it was almost like we were playing in our basement with a bunch of friends. We never wanted the tour to end, but it was time to go home. Except for a couple of shows in Spain we never made it back to Europe as a band. In the time its taken me to write this, two cups of tea have calmed my chest. I’m hoping I’ll be well enough to go camping tomorrow, because traveling when sick is no fun