Rock 'n' roll mythology, like every mythology, is only tenuously tied to reality. For a band without the huge audience, huge cash flow, and huge appetite for debauchery of, say, Led Zeppelin or Motley Crue, life is considerably harder and less exciting than Hammer of the Gods or The Dirt might lead you to believe. Life on the road is especially misunderstood by people who aren't in working bands.
Even today, long after the golden era of the rock star, some artists can still pull off the fantasyland version of touring—tricked-out buses, fistfuls of coke, orgy-worthy hotel suites—but for the vast majority a tour means interminable van drives, a couple of drink tickets at each show, and a keen appreciation of single-occupancy bathrooms with functional locks.
Touring, says former Electrelane guitarist and occasional Reader contributor Mia Clarke, is "a feeling of being perpetually unsettled. It's a strange little zone that you get into. In a way you're traveling and you're seeing the world, but in a way your world kind of shrinks. It becomes 'get breakfast, get in the van, play in the club,' and that's it. It can be incredibly monotonous."
But for those who can handle the grind, touring has its benefits: the number of artists who've kick-started their careers on MySpace notwithstanding, there's still no better way to build an audience than actually going out and playing to them. "It's amazing when you start going back to the same places and you know people and the town and you feel kind of connected to the country or the world or wherever you're touring in a very specific and strange way," Clarke says. "I can say, for example, that I've been to Athens, Georgia, and I have, like three times, but I've only ever spent time on one street."
One nice thing about touring is that under the right circumstances—if you don't get stuck doing more than your share of the driving, for instance—you can find yourself with a lot of free time, both in the van and during the hours between loading in at the club and playing your set. (On a recent tour by my own band, I edited a bunch of short movies on my laptop.) Clarke, a Brit who now lives in Chicago and fronts a band called Follows, has collected some of the fruits of that kind of mental space in The Art of Touring (Square Root Books), the new book she put together with former Erase Errata guitarist Sara Jaffe, who lives in Massachusetts. A multimedia tribute to the road life, it includes photographs, essays, journal entries, comics, paintings, collages—and, on the accompanying DVD, plenty of footage by and of touring bands, onstage and off.
The contributors mostly come from the punk or indie rock scenes, and Chicagoans—including current or former members of the Ponys, Atombombpocketknife, Pit Er Pat, and Milemarker—are well represented. But their artworks don't have a lot in common, aside from the fact that they were all created either on the road or as recollections of a tour. Some of the artists are steadfastly obscure (Sharon Cheslow & Bromp Treb, Miranda Mellis of My Invisible) and others headline major festivals (Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, Thurston Moore), so even if their approaches and aesthetics weren't wildly varied—which they are—they'd be addressing radically different experiences.
Alt-folk singer Jeffrey Lewis contributes a comic-strip paean to crashing on strangers' floors—a staple of the small tour, and as likely to be fascinating (if the stranger turns out to be insanely cool) as it is to cost you a good night's sleep (if the stranger turns out to be insane). Zinner's photographs portray life much higher on the food chain, where the audiences are moblike and the accommodations much more comfortable. Devendra Banhart's collages—pileups of drawings and snippets of language pulled from his sketchbook—convey the feeling of being on tour in an abstract way, collapsing a linear itinerary into a jumble of fragments, but plenty of entries portray touring's triumphs and humiliations more explicitly: in a letter to Nels Cline, Carla Bozulich describes an audience that talked loudly over her quiet material and complains that someone grabbed her ass when she went into the crowd during a song.
In the intro to The Art of Touring, Jaffe and Clarke explain that they wanted to push past hoary formats like tour diaries and tour stories—usually a combination of bragging and complaining—but they were clearly OK with including them when the quality was good. British music journalist Everett True, publisher of the late Plan B magazine, recounts getting tear-gassed in Siberia during a state-sponsored Soviet-era rock show, after authorities decided the crowd was too big and too wound up to control any other way. And guitarist and singer Brian Case, who now fronts Disappears, tells of a degrading German-border strip search on a 90 Day Men tour, which was compounded in weirdness by the language barrier. "After a few unsuccessful grunts and motions," he writes, the guard "finally spit out his first English word of the day—'striptease.' I think a single tear rolled down my face."
Some of the visual art in the book is just as expressive without using any words at all, though. Former Pit Er Pat bassist Rob Doran took a sequence of photos on a day off the band spent at Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho, swimming among piney vistas and decorating dock pilings with the same kind of vaguely pictographic primitive-psychedelic artwork they favor for album sleeves. They make touring seem like a magical vacation with your friends—and though on rare occasions it can be that way, it's a lot easier to pull off in pictures than in reality. Drawings by Clarke's husband, drummer and soundman Tony Lazzara, from a European tour with Atombombpocketknife include a fanged monster shitting out a warped version of a Germanic eagle with the word mÜnchen scrawled across it.
For someone who helped put together what amounts to a celebration of touring, Clarke is ambivalent about going out on the road again herself. She says her favorite part of touring is getting to play at the end of each day—an excellent albeit idealistic answer—but by her reckoning the stress of doing "so many tours I couldn't even count" is what broke up Electrelane. "Your relationships suffer. You miss your friends, you miss family, you miss being in your city for any amount of time, having a proper home. I feel like now I wouldn't tour for months and months on end." She pauses and adds, "It's still fun to go out for a few weeks at a time."