The great thing about art is that two people can look at a painting, read a book, listen to a song, etc, and come away from it with different interpretations of what the meaning is, if there is a meaning at all. Sometimes one’s interpretation differs from the intent of the creator. Meaning can be added after the fact that wasn’t originally intended by the artist or author. An example of this that I learned about in school is a composition called “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Listening to “Threnody” makes me think of pain. It sounds like the soundtrack to the universe splitting open and collapsing on itself. It’s cacophonous, eerie, and menacing. Seeing the title and listening to the music conjures obvious images and associations with Hiroshima. I can almost envision Little Boy falling from the sky as the Enola Gay speeds off, the ensuing chaos and destruction, and the absence of life in the ruins of the city.
Now what if I told you that Penderecki didn’t name the piece until after the composition; until after all the tinkering, revisions, frustration, and emotional sacrifice went in to the creation? Upon hearing it he searched for meaning and association and through that process, found a post-compositional muse in the tragedy of Hiroshima. Some say it was a necessary military decision for the United States, and while I won’t contest that, the tragedy I see is humanity’s ability and willingness to destroy itself.
A theme that always jumps out strongly to me and tends to have a lasting impact in literature or music is travel. Everyone knows the line from the Allman Brothers Band tune Midnight Rider that seems to sum up the working musician, especially touring musician’s experience: “The road goes on forever”. Another line I love is from Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir: “I am a traveler of both time and space to be where I have been”. I’m writing this from my hotel room in Las Vegas in the middle of a five day tour that includes three days here and two days in sunny San Diego and I wanted to say a few things about travel from a musician’s perspectives. If you’re a traveling musician, you and your gear are going to get from point A to point B one of two ways. You and your merry band of musos are either piling into a car, van, bus, or hybrid of all three or you’ll be flying through the air in a metal tube. The first tour I went on filled my soul with an amazing sense of fulfillment and purpose juxtaposed with the simultaneously draining my wallet due to the very DIY style of traveling independent musicians undertake. I was in a progressive rock band that decided to take our show on the road, so we departed Nashville in a SUV and station wagon, an ecletic caravan determined to have our way with the Southeast. I quickly encountered the two biggest hurdles to overcome when in transit: boredom and comfort.
Accommodations vary depending on who you’re working with, so you may not have the luxuries of a TV or (*gasp*) a consistent phone charger access. I like to use the time to catch up on sleep if possible, not getting enough sleep is a surefire way to not be at 100%. The lifestyle of a live musician leads to a lot of late nights which can sometimes mean sleep is hard to get. A few hours in the van catching up on rest between cities can really do your immune system a favor and help you from getting sick. I also like to use time spent in transit reading (huge Tolkien nerd) or listening the music or podcasts. The key to this is to keep an eye on what you’re consuming. Garbage in, garbage out. If you choose to read or do anything where you’re absorbing information, be conscious of what you’re letting in. Hack through a long book that you normally wouldn’t have time in your day to day to spend time with; I dig on Lord of the Rings, Dune, Game of Thrones, and anything Doestoyevsky. Catch up on a record you haven’t heard yet or revisit a classic. Use this time to refresh both your body and soul so you have something there to draw from when you perform instead of anxiously staring out the window or at your phone while you drive from Nashville to Milwaukee.
Comfort can really be address with two main points: respect people’s space to the capacity you would want your space respected and be prepared for a flux in temperature. It might be 90 degrees outside but a cool 68 in the air conditioned van, or maybe it’s 68 in the van and 40 outside. I always keep a sweater and warm socks on hand in the van during summer runs to combat air conditioning run rampant countered by a jacket and hat during winter traveling. Planes tend to be cold more often than not in my experience. A keyboard player buddy of mine gave me great advice once when it comes to being prepared on a plane: bring an extra change of clothes so if a drink gets spilled on you due to turbulence or your own inherent klutziness, you don’t have to sit for a few hours in a wet shirt or pair of pants.
The safety of your gear is always important, invest in good cases if you find yourself traveling often. I recently bought a Mono M-80 dual guitar gig bag, a quality bag that I’m not afraid to put in a trailer, overhead compartment, or the dreaded gate check that also allows me to take an extra guitar, which is a lifesaver on the road or in the air. I also have a Pedaltrain 2 with an ATA hardcase which always gets checked when flying that can take a beating and doesn’t make me cringe too much when it shoots out onto the baggage claim belt upside down. If you’re a guitarist, bassist, or horn player, pay attention to the weather and take care to not leave your instrument in a trailer out in the cold overnight if you can help it.
Now that you’ve reached your destination safely with your gear intact and you’re settled in to wherever you’re staying, the battle against boredom continues while hopefully you have conquered the struggle for comfort. Use your time to be productive. I take the Allen Iverson approach to working out, which means I don’t because “that shit’s too heavy” but I do enjoy walking. I like to get out and explore the sights, sounds, and smells of a new place. I enjoy being aware of how small I am compared to the vast openness of the sky and how the land I’m standing on stretches out around me. The ocean is always a must visit if I’m on either coast. If the weather’s crap or you aren’t staying somewhere where getting out and taking everything in isn’t an option or isn’t appealing, you can always practice! If you’re a hired gun, this a great opportunity to go over the bridge of the song you’re still shaky on and clear up anything you’re shaky on. This can be the difference between nailing the set and making a good impression on the artist or not. If you’re square on the set, practice technique or learn a tune. Mindlessly running scales or other simple exercises while watching Sportscenter, Seinfeld, or whatever your TV vice is is a great way to maintain your chops so you don’t licks or riffs in your set don’t sneak up on you. The goal here is to keep from anxiously staring at your phone for hours then heading to the gig like a zombie.
The lifestyle of a traveling musician can be stressful. It requires a certain amount of mental toughness and flexibility but anyone who’s been lucky enough to hit the road can tell you it’s worth the mileage. Nothing can replace or take away the things you get to see, the people you meet, and the things you experience. There’s a great Mark Twain quote I want to leave you with. You may have seen the quote floating around social media, but don’t hold that against it.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”