Sunday, December 20, 2009

Road Stories 3: Band of Brothers (and a Few Sisters)

If you have ever been part of a (good) team under stress, you have experienced some of the bonding (designated by Corporate weinies everywhere as "team-building") that can happen as a consequence of the experience. The ultimate case of this seems to be soldiers in combat, who will literally give up their lives for their buddies. The roadie experience was nowhere near as dangerous or intense as combat, but it beat the hell out of playing in a golf scramble or climbing a wall for building trust and mutual respect.

If you want to teach people to get along at work, jam between eight and fourteen of them into a van or bus, deprive them of sleep and basic comforts, and put them to work supervising a different set of strangers* every day from the crack of dawn to the wee hours. Keep it up for a couple of months, and then repeat the exercise with a different -- but probably overlapping -- group. And make sure it's an endeavor that cannot fail on any single day without potentially catastrophic financial impact and possible loss of life.**

The CliffsNotes version of this experience is to stick two people in a crew van and make them drive it across the country. This was often done when tours started on one coast or the other, and allowed management to avoid paying a whole crew to sit and do nothing but ride for two days or so. The speed limit was 55 mph in those days, and for several reasons which we will not discuss at this point we chose not to speed. Also, that was about as fast as the vans would go.

Enter Kenny. He and I were assigned to drive a crew van from Dallas to San Francisco. It is hard to imagine someone more different from me, who is still enough like me that we would expect to be able to relate. After all, we were two white American kids who loved rock and roll. How different could we be?

I was born and raised in Arkansas. Kenny was from New York City (I forget which borough). Before going on the road, his understanding of American geography was New York, then Pennsylvania, Ohio, some other stuff and then California. I thought the most relaxing thing in the world was taking off to the woods alone with a backpack. Kenny thought Central Park was a waste of space, and he was afraid of squirrels. He saw them as rats with furry tails.

My favorite music was Joe Cocker, James Taylor, Little Feat and Clapton. Kenny listened to the Kinks, Ramones and some Sabbath when he felt "poppy." His Facebook profile picture right now is a shot of him with Glenn Beck. My politics are somewhat unconventional, but suffice it to say I have no use for Glenn Beck, except possibly as some sort of filler material. In short, I thought Kenny was an asshole of epic proportions, and he thought less of me. So the prospect of being locked in a van with him for the better part of two days did not exactly set me all atwitter.

We left Dallas a little after lunch, so that we would be sure to hit El Paso when the Tony Lama factory outlet store was open. (I think Kenny bought a pair of ostrich boots. I didn't find anything I liked.) The first half day or so passed fairly quietly, with one of us driving and the other trying to sleep. As the desert unwound before us and the music choices got more aggressive, we started to talk. I couldn't really tell you what the conversation was about, just that it progressed like most arguments. Sniping gives way to bitching, bitching turns to accusation, the exchange grows more heated, and somewhere in there, if you're lucky and there is no way to escape, someone starts listening and some sort of understanding is reached.

By the time we were pulled over by Immigration south of Los Angeles, we were friends. I mean, it's not like I'm going to gay marry Kenny. In fact, I haven't really talked to him in many years. But I did learn to respect him as a full blown actual person with as much right to listen to crappy music and have stupid opinions as I have. I am confident that if we ever worked together again we would be respectful and effective, driving results, doing more with less, making it happen, etc.

I learned important lessons and acquired an impressive set of enduring skills during my three years on the road. For example, I can coil an extension cord better than you. Seriously, I can. Deal with it. But none have been more useful to me in my personal and professional life than learning how to understand and respect the people with whom I work, while encouraging them to do their best. After you've slept fourteen in a bus, sharing an office is really not that hard.

* The traveling crew usually formed about one-fourth or less of the labor required to set up a show. The rest were local stagehands, employed for the day, who had probably never seen this equipment before. They ranged from college freshman who were way too excited to be there to crusty and belligerent old union hands who were looking for maximum pay for minimum work. Most were hard-working, semi-professional*** people who did their very best to help and follow our instructions.

** While it wasn't combat or crab-fishing dangerous, people died doing this, either from falling or being crushed, or more indirect causes. We also took the risks to the audience very seriously, both from technical failures and the deaths that occurred more than once from poor crowd control.

** Not that they were at all unprofessional. It's just that this is not a full time job for most of the people who do it. They are usually cops or carpenters or wannabe somethings who work for extra cash.


  1. team skills. i may have learned my tolerance from within the family, but it's quite valuable... great stories....

  2. You can come roll my extension cord on the front porch when you visit. I'm a hot mess at rolling any cords neatly. Excy informed me that real cowboys pay-for-hire (day workers) are up to $75 a day! Incredible they still get paid so little, and they don't get paid for their horses or the cabin or get insurance.......there goes your dream, right? Right.....

  3. Whatever, I like the Kinks and the Ramones way better than James Taylor. James Taylor? REALLY?

  4. daisyfae: Thanks. These are the kinds of skills one tends not to appreciate while they are being acquired.
    Wye: sorry we didn't get to see you. We're thinking of you.
    Rassles: You had to be there, really. Some of the most talented people in the business were fighting to be on the road with JT, while the Ramones are largely responsible for getting glass containers banned from concerts. If we are ever stuck in a car together for 40 hours we can discuss it.