Henry Rollins' Get in the Van hilariously vilified it. Almost Famous sweetly glorified it. Rock 'n' roll constantly mythologizes it. The cross-country, shoestring-budget "buncha smelly guys crammed into a shitty van or backfiring bus" tour is one of pop culture's most romantic notions: the endless all-night drives, the epic partying, the Kerouacian adventure of it all. What makes Life on the Road so dangerous -- ramshackle vehicles, sleep deprivation, gleeful substance abuse -- is also part of what makes it romantic and exhilarating for those musicians who fall in love with touring. The danger is inherent, invited, necessary.
Which makes it shocking -- but sadly, not particularly surprising -- when tragedy strikes. The Monday before last brought news that three members of the Exploding Hearts, a Portland power-pop band, had died in a van wreck in Eugene, Oregon, early the previous morning after a July 17 gig at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. (The band had also met with folks from the Lookout! label to discuss a record deal.) Beneath the subsequent outpouring of grief and sympathy within the indie-rock community was a current of fearful realization: This could have been anyone.
Only the Exploding Hearts' manager -- one of the wreck's two survivors -- was wearing a seat belt. And with the typical touring van precariously loaded with heavy equipment, makeshift sleeping bunks, too many passengers, and little regard for safety, very few DIY tour veterans can claim they haven't survived some close calls.
"A lot of people are talking about it, that's one thing that's for sure," says bassist Don Lee of the indie group Rum Diary. "Just because there's a ton of bands doing the same thing. If you think about all the little vans cruising around the country, it's pretty nuts. It's all with four, six guys, and you're probably drinking a lot, and tired, and you smell because you haven't showered, and you're either having the time of your life or you're totally miserable."
Lee should know. His own band has toured relentlessly, and he contributes to the Amp magazine feature "Bands and Their Vans," consisting of short Q&A sessions with musicians about their tour vehicles. "Usually the van has a good story behind it," he says. "You can always spot them on the highway -- you always know which van belongs to a band and stuff like that. They just got that look. The lack of maintenance, the stickers, the crazy paint job, there's always somethin' kinda quirky."
Alcohol has never entered the Exploding Hearts equation, but fatigue -- the band's driver apparently veered off the road, hit gravel, and flipped the van when he overcompensated by steering back onto the roadway too abruptly -- is almost a given, considering the grueling schedule. "Bands just don't choose to drive at six in the morning, unless you're driving through the night," Lee says.
So that's the risk touring bands take: the worst possible outcome. For most, though, the thought of what might happen doesn't overshadow the euphoric ups and downs of the road. "I think it's the greatest thing ever," Lee says. "Even if the shows suck, I think it's such an awesome way to see the country, you know? We talk about this all the time, how fortunate we are to just roll into a city where you've never been before, and actually take part in the city's culture for that night. You always get to be at a bar you would hang out at if you lived there. You get to meet people you'd probably know if you lived there. And then, like a dream, it's over, and you wake up and you're on to the next one. I love it."
Lee cheerfully recounts the Rum Diary's more teeth-rattling tour moments: An ill-advised all-night drive from Idaho to Utah in a raging snowstorm, and a drunken soiree in Seattle where the band piled into the van and drove four blocks before the driver realized he was too drunk to drive, pulled over, and joined everyone in conking out instantly until morning.
That kind of self-recognition is crucial. "I usually do the late-night driving, and I'm really bad at gauging when I'm getting too tired," says Gabriel Cutrufello, guitarist for San Diego's the Dropscience. "So someone usually slaps me around. I'll start nodding off, but when we're late-night driving, someone always has to be a co-pilot, who's up with the driver to keep an eye on him and talk to him."
Gabriel understands the dichotomy, too: "Yeah, being on tour, every day it's the best day of your life and the worst day of your life. You're always barely scraping by, you're always hungry, you're tired, you're usually pretty dirty, but at the same time you're doing exactly what you want to do -- it's just not physically comfortable. It's great, but it sucks at the same time."
It's a lesson everyone learns. Matthew Solberg, guitarist for Oakland post-punk band From Monument to Masses, returns Down in Front's phone call just days before the band's first national tour, a jittery month-long affair. "It's scary," he admits. "I'm nervous. We're all nervous about a bunch of things, but we hadn't thought about the possibility of catastrophic accidents on the road until now. But yeah, it's always kind of in the back of your mind. Would we go down in history as the Ritchie Valens of the post-punk world because we all died in a horrible accident? But we feel on pretty solid ground, because we have a pretty good van, and we share driving, and none of us drink, so we don't have that angle to worry about."
As for the other angles -- well, that's all part of the mystique. Even as indie rockers mourn the Exploding Hearts, their bands are jumping right back on the road, in some cases because they have to, but mostly because they want to.
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