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Inside the World of a Rock Roadie

On a cool morning in the spring of 2002, I stepped off a bus andhobbled into the bustling lobby of Cleveland’s Ritz-Carltonhotel. As I waded through a sea of Armani-clad business travelerssipping lattes and perusing The Wall Street Journal,disapproving eyes knifed into me from all directions–a reminderthat, by all appearances, I did not belong in their well-pressed,nine-to-five world. I was wearing my standard work uniform: fadedSlayer T-shirt, stained knee-length shorts, and a tattered baseballcap that barely disguised my greasy, matted hair. I joined theregistration line behind a sophisticated woman in a gray pantsuitwho was clutching an Italian-leather briefcase in her manicuredfingers. She checked her watch, then stole a glance at thelumbering, disheveled figure behind her. Our eyes met for a second,and she quickly looked away. She sniffed loudly several times, andI saw the corners of her mouth twist into a disgusted grimace. Ihadn’t showered in three days, and although I had tried toconceal my stench with a hefty dose of Speedstick, it was a battleI was clearly losing.

Istepped up to the counter, and the middle-aged clerk greeted me with ahesitant “Can I help you, sir?” His tone was the kind generallyreserved for placating the severely retarded or completely insane. Itold him that I had a reservation, and he just looked at me, oneeyebrow forming a skeptical arch. Then I uttered the five most surrealwords ever to escape my lips.

“I’m with the Doobie Brothers,” I said quietly. “I’m with the Doobie Brothers.”

My strange journey as a rock’n’roll roadie began in thesummer of 1988, when Ronald Reagan was president, cell phones were thesize of toaster ovens, and Def Leppard dominated the Billboardcharts. Over the next 15 years, I would drift in and out of the roadieworld, doing brief stints in 1994, 1998, and, most recently, the fallof 2002, when I left behind the predictable comforts of the corporateworld in search of a writing career. My transition from Web-coding deskjockey to full-fledged “road dog” was remarkably smooth, considering Ihardly fit the roadie profile. I had two liberal-arts degrees from aprestigious West Coast university. I bathed regularly. I wore khakipants. And the only debauchery in my life involved freeze-framing thenaked Katie Holmes scene on The Gift DVD. Now, two years later, I’m humping band gear with guys named Opie, Bongo, and “Taliban” Dan.

I’d just flown home to Los Angeles after three months withthe Doobies and was sorting through an enormous pile of unopened mail,when I noticed three things: All the plants in my apartment were dead,my cat no longer recognized me, and my live-in girlfriend–atemperamental fireball named Candy–was nowhere to be found. There was,however, a note scrawled on the bathroom mirror in her favorite shadeof lipstick that simply read “Fuck this–I’m gone.” I hadn’t evenunpacked my bags when I got a call offering me a job on ElvisCostello’s When I Was Cruel tour.

“Great,” I heard myself say. “I’ll be there on Thursday.”

When I arrived in Seattle for the first show of the tour, theproduction manager, a gargantuan New Yorker called Wookie, handed me anall-access laminate, a copy of the tour itinerary, and a key to thebus. He introduced me to the rest of the crew–Itchy, Squinty, “FlavorFlav” Dave, and the others–then rattled off the crew-bus rules in amonotonous drone, much like a flight attendant giving an in-flightsafety presentation. “No smoking and no drugs in the front lounge,” hesaid. It was standard first-day rhetoric. But then he added, “Andnever–ever–fall asleep in the back lounge.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I just nodded and smiled.

The first day of a rock tour is a lot like the first day ofschool. The crew members, generally ten to 12 guys, meet on the bus,swap handshakes, quietly scrutinize one another, and try to discernthree things: who the lazy guy is, who the asshole is (anyone whorefers to himself as a “technician” is immediately suspect), and whocan score the drugs. Some of the guys may know one another fromprevious gigs (“Hey, man, weren’t you the L.D. [lighting director] onSlipknot?”), but generally each new tour is a gathering of strangers. Iuse the same tactic I used as a child when moving to a newneighborhood: I try to impress them with my toys. As I’ve grown older,my Hungry Hungry Hippos, Slip ‘N Slide, and life-size Chewbaccapunching bag have given way to a dizzying collection of DVDs, Xboxgames, and German dungeon porn.

There is a definite and immutable hierarchy among roadies,which goes like this: production manager, front-of-house mixer, monitortech, instrument techs, lighting director, rigger, bus and truckdrivers, and–at the very bottom–me. I’m the tour merchandiser,in charge of band swag: T-shirts, sweatshirts, ball caps, and otheroverpriced souvenirs. The merchandiser goes by many nicknames,including “Swaggy,” “the Swag Man,” “Cotton Boy,” and “Merch Guy.” On atypical day, while the other roadies are pushing cases, flyingspeakers, laying cable, and rigging lights–all potentially dangerousactivities–I am busy folding T-shirts and arranging them by size intoneat little piles. It’s like working at the Gap, with the addedincentives of illegal narcotics and genital herpes.

Although rock merchandising does not involve the physicalrisks associated with other crew jobs, it is not without challenges.One of the more frustrating aspects is trudging through thebureaucratic quagmire of international customs–specifically, bringingmerchandise from the United States into Canada to sell at Canadianconcert dates. In 1998, I landed a job on the Celine Dion tour at thepeak of her Titanic success. Our most popular souvenir was asmall stuffed frog wearing a tiny “Celine” T-shirt. Celine Dion lovesfrogs. People send her toy frogs from all over the world, and beforeeach concert, she has them playfully arranged in her dressing room.Fortunately, kids love them, too, and the frogs were a huge seller. Asa result, I found myself declaring a payload of 9,000 toy frogs to ahumorless Canadian customs official, who informed me that the frogsthemselves could enter Canada, but the tiny T-shirts they were wearingcould not–something about trade sanctions with the country thatmanufactured them. So there, at the Canadian border, in the middle of ablinding, testicle-retracting snowstorm, I carefully undressed 9,000frogs.

Upon arriving at the arena in Calgary, one of Celine’sassistants strode up to me with a deadly serious expression on herface. She was holding a small, shirtless frog.

“These frogs are naked!” she said tersely. “What happened to their shirts?”

I told her about the customs incident.

She studied the toy for a moment, examining it from allangles, then looked me in the eye: “Maybe you can find them some tinypants. Because we can’t sell naked frogs. Celine won’t have it.”

Tryingto find a decent margarita in Calgary is difficult. Trying to find9,000 pairs of tiny frog pants on a snowy Sunday evening is enough toburst a vein in your head.

On a typical rock tour, there are four to six shows a week.When a roadie does get a day off, it’s rarely in a desirable city likeNew York or Miami. Instead, a break usually comes in a place like RapidCity, South Dakota, or Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Every production crew has its day-off ritual. Some of theCowboy Junkies’ crew, for example, liked to do drugs and visit the zoo.We watched the penguins in San Francisco on acid, the monkeys in theBronx on Valium, and the hyenas in Denver after smoking somethingcalled “Boulder Salad”–a colorful blend of Northern Californiasinsemilla, Indian hashish, and a mild Southwestern peyote. Some ofThey Might Be Giants’ crew liked to get stoned and race go-carts atMalibu Grand Prix parks across the country. This was fun until, aftersmoking some wicked Thai stick, I drove my car off the track, across aminiature golf course, and nearly plowed into a children’s birthdayparty.

Halfway through the Elvis Costello tour, we had amuch-deserved day off in Knoxville, which is located in the Great SmokyMountains in eastern Tennessee. It’s a place where, just outside thecity limits, hillbillies roam free like jackals on the Serengeti.Squinty, our wild-eyed lighting director, invited me on an expeditionto purchase some authentic homemade moonshine. We rented a car anddrove into the backwoods, past several abandoned fireworks stands and aburned-out Shoney’s, to a small clearing with a dilapidated house atthe center. A friendly man in cutoff overalls greeted us, then told hiswife, Luanne, to “fetch us the hooch.” Luanne returned with a largeceramic jug, for which we paid $35. Two nights later, the crew brokeout the moonshine and had a party on the bus. The liquor burned mythroat, and at first I wondered if the hillbillies hadn’t sold uslow-octane gasoline or industrial-strength paint thinner. The painsubsided after six or seven shots, and that’s when things got foggy. Iwoke up the next morning in the back lounge–apparently afterpassing out–with my shirt caked in what I hoped was my own vomit. As Istaggered out to the front lounge, the entire crew pointed and laughed.Turning to look in the mirror, I saw the words “I choose cock” writtenon my forehead in black permanent marker.

I was mortified and, for a moment, considered catching thenext plane home. Then, to my surprise, their laughter turned intoapplause, congratulatory hoots, and high fives. My reckless inebriationand projectile vomiting had somehow earned me the crew’s respect, andthis juvenile prank was their way of saying “Welcome to the club.” Thatwas the moment I became one of them.

Most roadies are on tour 300 days a year, leapfrogging fromthe end of one tour to the beginning of another. At times, the extremejuxtaposition of tours is so bizarre that it requires mass quantitiesof mind-altering substances to maintain a grip on one’s sanity. Twosummers ago, I left the easy-listening Dan Fogelberg tour and wentdirectly to the grotesque circus of GWAR, which is the kind of headtrip that can only be duplicated by mainlining crystal meth and liquidDrano directly into your cerebellum.

My mother was a big Dan Fogelberg fan in the 1970s. In fact,Fogelberg’s core audience is, essentially, my mother: 55-year-old womenin Ann Taylor slacks, sipping glasses of merlot. His crew had ano-smoking and no-drugs policy on the bus, which was a refreshingchange of pace. Instead of getting high and watching SpongeBob Squarepants, we would watch Antiques Roadshow and swap amusing stories about our cats. On a particularly raucous evening, we might bust open a case of Zima and play Boggle.

The day the Fogelberg tour ended, I was on a plane to joinGWAR for a handful of shows. GWAR, for the uninitiated, is a band thatdress in enormous rubber monster costumes and perform theatricaldecapitations, mutilations, and bloodlettings onstage. Their songsinclude “Sex Cow,” “Slaughterama,” and “America Must Be Destroyed.” Forme, the only way to cope with the surreal disparity of these two tourswas to cloud my mind with psychedelic drugs. With a head full ofmescaline and a belly full of ludes, the enormous gap between Fogelbergand GWAR narrows considerably.

To the roadie, pot-smoking exists in the pantheon of dailyrituals, and bong hits have assumed their place alongside morningcoffee, checking email, and flossing. Most of the 1994 They Might BeGiants crew were cannabis connoisseurs. On one particular morning,Dingo, the Giants’ grizzled Australian guitar tech, brewed a pot ofcoffee using stagnant bong water just to see if it would get us high.It didn’t. As we discovered, the toxic combination of bong water andespresso beans rapidly induces violent diarrhea. The beverage,appropriately dubbed “crappucino,” earned a place on the long list offailed roadie drug experiments, narrowly edging out the Percodansmoothie for top honors.

Another fundamental aspect of the roadie experience isgroupies. People invariably want to know: What are groupies like? Willthey really do anything to get backstage? Groupies do exist, but sadly,most do not look like Kate Hudson in Almost Famous. And theones who do don’t go for roadies. A roadie is more likely to bepropositioned by a “ramp rat”–a leathery woman who will trade sexualfavors for a backstage pass. Aside from the momentary thrill associatedwith a blowjob behind a Dumpster, the result of this brief unionusually involves a degree of shame and a fiery, oozing sore.

Sheled me outside to a metallic-green van with a giant screaming eaglepainted on the side. She swung open the door, and I saw a mattress inthe back, covered with a single dirty sheet. We climbed inside, and shepulled the door closed. There was no small talk–she immediately kissedme, then removed her shirt and turned around so I could unhook her bra.I quickly noticed two things: a jagged eight-inch scar behind one ofher kidneys (probably the remnants of a drunken knife fight) and alarge grinning tattoo of Burt Reynolds just above her right shoulderblade. When she twisted her torso, the loose skin around Burt’s eyefolded in such a way that he appeared to be winking. Although Ieventually lost consciousness, I do recall the sting of a Malaysianflogging cane and the hum of a large vibrating egg. When I came to, inthe back of a green van during my 20th summer, I was no longer a boy–Iwas a man.

The very nature of the roadie’s job–the brutal schedule andconstant travel–dictates that most roadies remain single. And if theyaren’t single, they soon will be. On every tour, at least one marriageor long-term relationship comes to a difficult yet inevitable end.Absence, it turns out, does not make the heart grow fonder. Instead,absence smokes all your weed, forgets to water your plants, and leavesa nasty note on your mirror.

On a muggy Massachusetts morning near the end of the ElvisCostello tour, Flavor Flav Dave’s wife called and said she was leavinghim after 15 years. Since there is no privacy on a tour bus, everyoneoverheard his sad yet painfully familiar conversation. Dave wasdevastated. The next night, several members of the crew took him to aseedy strip club on the Jersey shore for the best therapy money canbuy: enormous quantities of grain alcohol and three hours of lap dancesfrom a Puerto Rican beauty named Dazzle. We had a good time, and for afew hours, Dave did not have to think about the unpleasant realitiesthat awaited him back home. As I looked at the well-traveled facesaround our table in that smoky club, I realized that I was proud to beamong these wandering souls. I was proud to be a roadie.

The last night of the tour, I walked out front to watchElvis Costello play. He delivered a blistering, inspired performance–arare blend of artistry, passion, and craftsmanship that reminded me ofwhy I had fallen in love with music so many years earlier. Afterload-out, I said my good-byes to the crew: Itchy, Squinty, Flavor FlavDave, and Taliban Dan. I felt a bit like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz. “I’ll miss you the most, Wookie,” I heard myself say. And within hours, I was back in my empty Santa Monica apartment.

A few months later, a magazine purchased one of my stories.It appeared that my writing career was finally taking flight. In myheart, I knew it was time to leave the roadie world behind, and after15 years, my long, strange journey was winding down. I don’t knowexactly what the future holds, but if Foghat should call my name fiveyears down the line, I can’t promise that I won’t come running.

Rockin’ The Boner Lounge
A glossary of roadie terms

B.J. Tag: Backstage pass acquired after performing a sex act on a roadie
Boner lounge: Rear bunk in a tour bus, used for “entertaining” female guests
Bunk sock: Gym sock used for discreetly masturbating on a tour bus
Cable monkey: Semi-pejorative term for lighting or sound-crew member
Cattle: The audience
Feeding the fish: Ritual tossing of guitar picks, drumsticks, or set lists into the crowd at the end of a concert
Gig butt: Painful chafing of the buttocks or groin caused by sweaty labor, the inability to shower, and infrequently changed underwear
Junk bunk: Empty bunk on a tour bus used to stow extra luggage
Per diem (P.D.): Cash allowance paid to the band and crew every day while on tour, often spent on lap dances and prescription-drug refills
Spark fairy: The tour lighting director; a.k.a. Squint or Blinkie
White gloves: Roadie who never gets dirty or sweaty and rarely appears to be working