“This is a family show. After my show you’ll all want to go home and start a family.”
North Tour 1980
After four months playing the sidewalk in San Francisco I pulled up stakes and trucked to the Northwest. Instead of fifteen minute shows I’d present my one hour set. Instead of a sidewalk I’d play college campuses. Getting amped up for twenty-five sidewalk shows squeezed into three days was a gut busting iron man competition. I needed a change-up to my routine. The hope was I’d come back from the tour recharged. Sidewalk shows are always uphill at full speed from start to end. Contracted college dates dialed the intensity of a show back. Instead of sprinting I was long distance running.
I traveled solo with my performing dog, chicken, cat and dozen goldfish. I had a sleeping bunk, cooking gear, suitcase, shave kit, typewriter, prop case and costume. Under my front seat were a set of chains for my tires in the event I encountered snow or ice. Cooking was done off my tailgate. The price of gas was my mortal enemy.
I was hopping from date to date. My California plates were a tipoff. Provincial types reckoned I must be an infiltrator. Alternately conscious sympathizers saw me as an out of bounds homeboy on the prowl, they recognized the desperado— I was pegged a soul searcher. Six hours from Stockton and I was in Ashland, Oregon, six hours more and I’m asleep in my bunk in Corvallis.
At the end of any day I might have not spoken to another soul. Touring can be as simple as sixteen hours of bittersweet lonely silence fueled doubt. I encamped along lakes and rivers. I’d stock up on food, get out of town— sit still. Weekday’s out thirty miles from any population center was all wind whistling through the pine needles. I made small talk with local ranchers. Sometimes a highway crew was repairing a nearby roadway. Most of the week after a show I’d be camped alone.
This road dog veteran polished the skillful means of being comfortable in my own skin. I had a good bed in my truck and screened windows. I’d wash my pots and pans, brush my teeth. The dog, cat, chicken and goldfish rested easier once I settled in for the night. I’d try to finish my chores before sundown then curl up on my bunk with a book.
Once on the road the pace of life will work out best by keeping your wits about you. Getting into the rhythm takes time while you adjust. The idea is to not fixate on the destination. You will want to appreciate all the in-between moments, make each leg of the tour matter, the journey itself is the spacious location, the string of dates becomes a feature length wide screen modern day sprawling epic. It was alternately either all Clint Eastwood as Bronco Billy or Charlie Chaplin out there. Waking up, making cowboy coffee, caring for the animals, getting the truck started, leaving plenty of time to get to the venue for the show, this is how to bring composure to each new crack of dawn. You can’t let emptiness rattle your nerves.
I sought out insider knowledge from incidental conversations about the places I was passing through. If I needed a nap I’d pull off the highway slow roll down a dirt road park beneath a shade tree climb onto my bunk and fall asleep relishing the stillness. You want to take the time and make the effort to fill the five gallon jug with spring fed drinking water. I did all my own oil changes, kept my brakes adjusted, greased all the zerk fittings. The idea was to keep ahead of trouble, be sure to fix a problem before you had a break down.
I’d play a date and after go to the local bank where the check was drawn. When my wallet was flush I’d send the extra checks by mail to my bank back in California. I’d pull off and use a pay phone to get in contact with my answering service operator. I’d practice juggling and hand-balancing in parks. Product development required staying in shape and coming up with new tricks. I wrote music and lyrics for the ukulele. I tried teaching my dog Sunshine a thing or two.
I corresponded with clients. Solicitous letters were composed on my Smith-Corona manual typewriter. I kept a calendar with potential appearances marked in pencil. Once a client confirmed I inked the date in with expectation and permanence. In the event a booking was contracted I queried the surrounding communities for more work. Festivals, fairs, schools, libraries, and park and recreation departments were all targets of my mailing campaign. Once I had finished one show I turned my attention to finding an engagement for tomorrow. A sober eyed fiduciary responsibility to keeping the theatrical enterprise afloat filled my day and night.
This past winter before heading north I went bar hopping and whiskey drinking. I befriended members of the Charlie Musselwhite Band at a down on your suburban luck saloon in Sunnyvale, California. Charlie’s players were moving north with spring. I’d pulled into Eugene and so was the band. Tacoma same thing. Between sets I’d drink beer, shoot pool and small talk with Charlie’s sidemen. My juggling business amused the vagabond musicians. They were envious of my running a solo entertainment enterprise. Unaware of a variety entertainer’s austere road life they instead traveled by automobiles and stayed in what I imagined were luxurious economy motels. Charlie seemed older than the hills even if he wasn’t. Musselwhite and his band all drank hard. The Chicago trained harmonica bluesman was punching out one-night stands trying to keep food on the table and a roof over his head. Charlie’s band was rarely asleep before dawn. You could be a blues player, do all that drinking, smoking cigarettes, skirt chasing-tom catting but that wore on a body and you’re bound to wear out sooner than later. Charlie eventually stopped his liquor drinking. Sobriety is likely a lot to do with why he’s lived such a long life.
Charlie’s guitar player had quite the way with the ladies. The handsome picker had two or four aching to be his one and only. He’d come and gone through Tacoma enough to have made some sort of lasting memories with his throng of heartthrobs. He’d tried taking one on the road. Hard as he tried the guitar player couldn’t make that kind of arrangement stick. Music making seems to be more soulful when powered by heartbreak, two-timing and everlasting unfaithfulness. Charlie’s band was versed far more completely in all of these matters than some upstart one man variety show act. Even a better than fair looking comedy juggler was no match when going up against a quartet of rhythm and blues infused Don Juan’s.