It’s three A.M., and the bus I’m on has a broken window. Worse, I’m sitting right next to it. It’s been covered up with a layer of garbage bags and duct tape, but that’s small comfort when the plastic is pumping like a ventricle and the wind is howling right into my brain. It’ll be another hour before the bus finds a place to park on the streets of Cincinnati and we all hop out and trudge, amps and guitars in hand, to the house of a band who’s letting us crash for the night. We scatter across the room, taking whatever space we can find, and I end up on a loveseat that’s too small for me by half. In another six hours, we’ll be back on the road. It’s while I’m lying on this couch, trying to fall asleep with my legs dangling in the air, that a thought creeps in: What the hell am I doing?
The short answer is that I’m on tour with a rock ’n’ roll band. Scratch that—two rock ’n’ roll bands. I’m on the bus with Chicago psych-rockers Town Criers, while their tour-mates Rookie travel by van. Over the course of four days, we’ll be making stops in Penn State, Philadelphia and New York on a sort of co-headlining “mini-tour.” Our last stop is at Manhattan’s famous Mercury Lounge, after which we’ll be going our separate ways—the band on the bus, me on a flight back to Chicago.
I’m traveling with these bands in order to write about what it’s like to tour with a rock band in 2018. Over the course of four days, I’ll find that touring is—like most things for people our age—a mad scramble for scraps. It’s long hours and tireless work for a mostly uncaring audience and pay that usually amounts to “exposure” and “experience.” It’s part of our generation’s continued commodification of passion, a process that makes the thing you love just another thing you do. It’s draining in a way that makes you perversely proud to be exhausted, and it’s rewarding in its repetition, if not necessarily the outcome of it all. It is, in brief flashes, the greatest thing in the world.
The myth of the rock ’n’ roll tour is up there with cowboys and the palms of Old Hollywood in terms of its broad-ranging appeal. It signifies some sort of escape—this thing that’s worth throwing yourself into entirely. The subsequent realization that getting in a van and just going, man is not all it’s cracked up to be is almost as much of a cliché itself. And while the classic tale of is one of excess and disillusionment, the reality is that life on the road is often just as banal as life anywhere else. For bands like Town Criers and Rookie, the problems aren’t the overdosing groupies or destroyed hotel rooms of rock ’n’ roll folklore. The problems are a bit smaller, a bit closer to reality—do we have enough money for gas? Do we have a place to sleep? Is this all worth it?
These are the questions that come up on our first full day of touring. After the pit-stop in Cincinnati, we pile back onboard and tear out toward Doggie’s Pub in State College, Penn.. Guitarist Scott Truesdale mans the wheel, as he does for most of the drive out. Scattered throughout the busted-up little bus is the rest of our entourage. Drummer Kevin Allen lounges in the back with the gear while bassist Jimmy Russell sprawls on the bench/bed arrangement, leaving singer/guitarist Andre Baptista to sit with me and the band’s ad-hoc tour photographer Maggie McInerey at the designated card-table/peanut-butter-and-jelly station.
In the unending flatness of central Ohio we talk about what’s waiting for us when we get back home. Truesdale studied architecture and now works in event planning, while Russell recently quit his job shampooing at a salon and plays with both Town Criers and his other band, Blue Dream. Allen was studying photography but took a few semesters off to focus on gigging. He works at a record shop and still tries to shoot concerts when he can. Baptista moved to Chicago from Brazil a little over two years ago to study music and literature at Columbia. He’s trying to write a folk musical right now, but he’s seemingly always planning something new. Everyone’s got things they’re doing back home that they put on hold to do this. McInerey, too—she works at a crypto startup and joins the guys on tour whenever she can, all the while looking for a way to start a career involving human rights and social work. The guys in Rookie are much the same way. They work at restaurants or go to school or get odd seasonal jobs. They played in other bands, too; singer and guitarist Max Loebman played in the recently dissolved glam-rock outfit Yoko and the Oh No’s. It seems to be par for the course: start a band, take it as far as it can go, start another.
For Town Criers, the question of whether this is for fun or for life is never broached. The band is floating somewhere between part-time and full-time for everyone involved, their tours mostly confined to weekends because they’ve got to make ends meet during the weekdays. And while that, too, has always been part of the mythos—what is success without sacrifice and struggle?—it feels like an impossibility that something like this could sustain you even for a while, let alone forever.
“When we first started, touring was all this craziness and debauchery,” Baptista says. Last spring, the band drove down to South by Southwest for a showcase, and turned the trip into a different sort of mini-tour with Chicago psych-brethren Post Animal. “But we’ve been playing for a year and a half, and we can’t do that all the time. We’re not the new band anymore.”
Watch Town Criers’ Daytrotter session:
Somewhere in Pennsylvania, Baptista busts out an acoustic and plays “Chevrolet Van,” by friends and frequent bill-mates The Nude Party. The song addresses the futility of starting a band and just going for it. “You’re gonna wake up someday/ man, you’ll wish you had a job,” goes the chorus. It feels prescient in a kind of uncomfortable way. But the Nude Party are currently touring with Jack White, arguably the closest thing we have to a rock star today. So who knows? Maybe this will all work out.
By the time we get to Doggie’s, it’s raining, muddy and dark out. It’s a hole-in-the-wall college dive, the type of place that feels like it’s underground even if it’s not. After some pizza, the bands warm up, and the first show of the mini-tour begins in earnest to a mostly empty room.
Town Criers are the openers, and their thundering psych-rock shakes the walls of the place, so much so that the sound guy repeatedly scolds them throughout the set, even shutting their PA’s off at one point. Their music is heavy metal in the shadow of the valley of Sabbath, and by the time they reach their beer-spraying epic “Genghis Khan,” the noise has drawn quite a few heads into the back.
Rookie follows with their soaring boogie-rock, full of three-part harmonies and sharp-edged solos. Their woo-hoo-ing riff-fest draws even more people, and by the time they reach my personal favorite, “Sunglasses,” there’s even more bodies. When [Why not name the band?] headliner The Roof gets on, the room is packed, and this all seems worth it. Sure, the sound guy is an asshole, and we have to wait through the headliner’s nearly two-hour set so we can crash at their place, but for a little while the afterglow is everything.
When we wake up on Sunday morning, we do it all again. We load up, stop for coffee and donuts, and are back on the road once more, this time headed for Philly. By the time we reach Kung Fu Necktie, any residual wide-eyed wonder from the night before has worn off. We’ve broken down once in the Appalachian roads, and the thought of subsisting off of gas station snacks and canned energy drinks, even for only a few more days, doesn’t sound all that appealing. There’s more conversation, but much of the ride is spent looking out the window or plugged in and working on something or other. The quiet moments stretch for miles.
We load into Kung Fu Necktie, and the whole circus-ride starts whirring to life once again. The energy is a little looser, a little more dangerous this time around. Town Criers sound heavier, Rookie sound sharper, and headliners the Retinas smash the night into the floor. We still have no set place to sleep, and after the whole thing wraps up, we decide to drive straight to New York. With bus driver Truesdale finding a bed in Philly, Allen takes over captain duties, and we head out into night.
We arrive in Manhattan around 4:30 a.m. and park in front of Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side. Baptista takes a cab to his girlfriend’s Airbnb, and with Russell crashing with a friend in Philly, McInerey, Allen and I are left to slum it on the bus. We wake up freezing and cramped and walk out into Monday-morning Manhattan to find some coffee before we try to squeeze this monster into rush hour traffic. It goes like this—nights that make you believe in what you’re doing, and mornings that make you question why you do this to yourself. Wonder, doubt and back again.
Monday night is their big show at Mercury Lounge. They play the late show, and we reconvene in the green room beforehand. There’s no local, just Town Criers and Rookie, which means the crowd is pretty thin. Town Criers begin, and even in the mostly empty room, the awe still creeps in. By the time Baptista is spewing beer at the height of “Genghis Khan,” the dream is alive. Rookie rip it, and after it’s all said and done, we decide a night on the town is well-deserved.
At some point, Baptista tells a story about meeting the Libertines in London when he was 18. It’s the sort of legendary experience that forms the bedrock of what people expect out of a tour—the booze, the partying, the ridiculous strokes of luck.
But driving through these cities whose names we learned in history books, heading toward that old lodestone of success, the Mercury Lounge, it feels like a peeling-away of all that. It’s not even that those sorts of nights aren’t possible anymore, because they are. It’s that, for the most part, touring is just business.
For bands like the ones I was traveling with, it’s all a crapshoot, a game of opportunity costs and real costs. Going to New York might mean your band gains some fans and industry attention—or it might mean you have to cancel your rent check just to get back home. It’s the randomness of it all that became most apparent over the four days. Town Criers and Rookie fucking rock, objectively speaking, but what’s the deciding factor between giving up the ghost and opening up for Jack White?
There’s something in our national legend that makes us believe that artists can be saved by their art. We want to think of musicians as strictly that, just as we think of painters and sculptors and writers as fully inhabiting their trade. For a select few, that’s still possible. But for most of us, pursuing it means a constant juggling act, a tightrope walk with your hands full. It’s either that or you compromise. And how do you do that with a rock ’n’ roll band?
The next day, on my flight back to Chicago, I try to write about what this whole thing meant. It’s hard to say it meant anything. It was just a thing we did, four days that felt like way more when we were in it and way less when we were all done. It was not escape, merely transit. I guess that’s all the point there is. For a few days, we traveled to places to play—or in my case listen to—kickass music, because someone will always do that. There’s no grand narrative to touring, no Great American Myth.
If there’s any way that it can be summed up, it’s by something Allen said after the Mercury show. We’re sitting in the green room, basking in that golden feeling of another beer-stained performance, this one at the goddamn Mercury Lounge, when Allen yells out. “Fuck!” We all look over. “I just remembered I have to work after this!”