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MJ THE SOLO PERFORMER

The Code Of The Road


Written by
Michael Johnson

The bus drops you off in the empty parking lot of a closed shopping center at 4 a.m. and by the time you schlepp your gear into your car and drive home it's getting light.

"How was your trip, Baby?"

"Oh fine. The usual. Tired. Killed 'em in Cleveland last night."

"That's nice. Welcome home."

Our mythical road warrior, Bronc, has neglected to mention playing Strip Twister on the bus last night with Sheila, the background singer.

Rule number one—Silence. The standard, actually the double standard, of the red blooded American male musician. The Code Of The Road.

There is a never ending stream of stories about musicians on the road, and swapping them is a favorite pastime on the bus. But for public consumption, for this article, naming names wouldn't be a very swift idea. The only performers who would be willing to admit to such heinous truths would either be Dead Now or Born Again, and a story without a leading man or lady is just another fable. Maybe someday, when I feel like being sued or striking up a deal with The National Enquirer, I'll tell you about the night a bunch of us . . .

If you eat someone else's food, don't tell them.

Life consists of The Bus, The Hotel Room, The Venue, and, of course, Food. Sleep, eat, soundcheck, eat, play, shower—sleep, eat, soundcheck . . . If you're lucky there's a trip to Walmart in there somewhere.

Keep your feet off the couch. Das bus is many things: kitchen, dressing room, sleeping quarters, in general, the pad. Tour buses, as luxurious as they may appear at first glance, aren't. After a few days, you begin to develop that baked feel, like you've been under glass or one of those warming lights they have at Denny's. Any food left out is fair game.
There is, of course, a pecking order on the bus. People have to move on or die before you get a good bunk. The middle bunks, mid height and midway down the aisles are the coveted ones. The upper bunks sway too much—the lower are too cold and noisy, especially the one closest to the generator. You get the junk bunk when first you arrive. If there is one to spare, the junk bunk is the place where all the extra bags go. It's on the floor by the john next to the door to the front "lounge" area. Sleep tight.

Sleep with your feet to the front of the bus.

Some sleep better on board buses than in hotel rooms. It's important to respect the nocturnal habits of your bus pals. If you hear someone moaning his own name, walk quietly by. For me, two hours of bus sleep equal about an hour of regular sleep. I have this recurring thing: I come half awake in the dark—I'm on a plane, hovering inches above the ground and we're just about to land, just about, almost ready to touch down, almost ready . . . oh god, that's right, I'm on the bus. Fun little dream I have. It's the same reason I don't like camping—the resting is so stressful.

Once you arrive in town you have a few responsibilities. No pooping on the bus. In the hotel lobby you're like Cub Scouts, bumping into each other on a bad hike. Straight out of Spinal Tap, you ask the road manager: "What time are we heading over for sound check? Are we coming back to the hotel? When do we eat? What do we eat? Where do we eat?" Ask others to share. Don't share. You try to sleep in a hotel bed but it's hard to keep it from moving. You watch Celebrity Mud Wrestling on daytime TV. You need to make a private call so you leave the bass player snoring and find a quiet pay phone in the lobby—moody conversation. Some people manage to stay married.

Lick your food in front of everyone so no one will ask for a bite. The hotel room is sometimes just a "cleanup room," a single room in which the band showers before the show. The crew may go for days without a night's sleep in a real bed, showering and eating at the venues. They are definitely more challenged to stay clean and healthy. The hours are longer and sleep deprivation a bigger deal. As often as not, lunch for them is a deli-tray. Eat when it's there, even if you're not hungry. White bread, yellow mustard, potato chips. Be nice to the crew, Bronc, no matter who you think you are. No pooping in someone else's dressing room.

At the "Meet & Greet" after the show, Keep your boss in a proper light for the fans. When asked if it's possible to see Bronc, to touch his raiment, don't say, "Well he's throwing up in a big trash can right now. Maybe in a little while."

Your time on the road can be luxurious because you are a captive of the schedule—you can't do much independently of the others. A trip to the mall is like Christmas morning. You spend your per diem on little trial size oddities you don't need. You become a gadgeteer. You ride your bike, if there's room to stow it in one of the bays, or you roller blade, play with your laptop, call home. It's kind of like college. You play Frisbee in the diesel fumes and the generator noise.

When praised because the road is such "A Hard Life," nod sagely and say, "Yes, yes it is."

At the venue there's the soundcheck, hopefully a good meal. Don't criticize the food in front of the caterer, the merchandise table, the schmooze and the show. Your backstage warm up becomes the soundcheck which turns into a rehearsal, while the opening act wonders if she's even gonna get a line check before doors this time. Everybody's trying to get it together. You have to cut it. You do have to be consistently good. You can do just about anything else, but when it's showtime you have to deliver. If you are expected to jump off a drum riser with your little headset mic while taking a guitar solo without losing your hat or whatever, then that's what you do.

Only the driver should drive the bus. The driver has slept through soundcheck and show and is ready to rock. The parking lot is the scene of the tearful melodramatic good-byes of people who have just met. The Faithful try to pick out the keyboard player from a group of skinny people in sweat pants, standing at the door to the bus. Occasionally one of the girls will "flash" the crew as they speed away. Hey, now that's entertainment. The guys whoop it up like they've been in solitary confinement for months, and now they're part of a cross country pole vaulting contest.

Christian tour: No girls on the bus.

Rock tour: No wives on the bus. The straightest person talks to the cops. Whoever gets the girl gets the hotel room.

Country tour: Everybody on the bus. The soberest person talks to the cops.

Folk tour: No dogs in the van.

Back on the bus it's time to celebrate. Twinkies all round—cheese balls and beer, all the better stuff. Everyone has a different interpretation of how the show went, always.

I love to sit up with the driver, rolling through the dark after everyone's asleep. He tells you he's just gotten off a Rap tour. We talk on the CB with Dylan's bus just up the road because our tours have been leap frogging each other across the miles. Shotgun gets the coffee. Stories of bibles, bottles and guns fill the airwaves. Vibrant times.

Don't get left at the truck stop. More than once the highway patrol has had to chase down a bus to deliver some sleepy-eyed hair farmer back to his bunk.

Do what the driver says. I remember this driver, Sarge, who in the middle of the night smiles to me as someone gets up to relieve himself. Sarge waits until he's sure the guy is inside the john and "vulnerable." Then, with just a quick little move, he jogs the wheel as if to avoid a pothole and then the swearing begins.

Back home you realize how depleted you've become. You sleep without resting for a few days. Your feet don't seem to make enough contact with the ground. It's like you've been on a riding lawnmower for weeks. You have forgotten how much there was waiting for you to do at home. You try to find the top of your desk. Soon you wish you were back out again and, soon enough, you are.

Break a leg, Mj

P.S. I e-mailed a few road rat friends who helped me compile this list. Thank you. This "code" is obviously incomplete. I would welcome any additions. Mj

Performing Songwriter - Volume 4, Issue 22 - January/February 1997

More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns



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