I’m on tour with Tom Petty right now. Let me tell you, it’s a ride. The sheer size of the operation, the level of skill and expertise. Hit after hit, night after night. The volume of fans – the volume. But in the end, it comes down to one thing: the music.
I’m driving from gig to gig in my Subaru and listening to Warren Zanes read his incredibly interesting, enlightening Tom Petty biography. I know everyone’s on to Bruce writing about his own life and I’m eager to take that trip too – but for now it’s answers to many questions I never knew I had about the blond one, and much to think about on the subject of art, ambition, how where you come from can point you where to go but not what to do when you get there.
A great aspect of Warren’s book is his connection to his subject – first as a fan and then as a musician himself, whose band ends up opening a tour for one of their heroes and experiencing first-hand a music business that these days exists in the mists of time like King Arthur’s court. Somewhere in a notebook I have scrawled a possible date at the Fillmore in San Francisco opening for the Heartbreakers – I was on the short list or maybe the medium list to fill a slot during the twenty nights of their historic stand back in 1997 and imagining that possibility is as potent and magical as had I actually done the date (maybe). I carry that possibility with me onstage every night – I can’t help it. I am always partly in your living room, bar, club or bookstore and partly onstage not only opening for but playing with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (the Clash, the Raincoats, Who, Bob Dylan’s band and dozens of others. Sometimes I’m with one of my heroes for real, Wreckless Eric, and it’s still a thrill).
Touring solo – it’s all coming back to me, there is nothing insulating you so it’s quite an emotional thing. You remind yourself why you’re doing it – to get up for that hour or two a night and bring your music to people – but unless you’re wearing some impermeable coating, you are absorbing the places and faces you encounter like any traveler would. These are piled on top of memories of other shows and tours over the years – oh, that couch in that dressing room. That couple, they were so nice. The people you meet and talk to, the bored barista (not the pickup truck with TRUMP emblazoned on the back, who cuts me off, he doesn’t get to play); even a hand reaching out from a ticket booth on a toll road, become your band – your Heartbreakers.
I’m only partway to Rochester when I have to pull over and take a nap at a rest area. Getting out of the house was overwhelming, trying to mail out records, load equipment, load records I have yet to mail out into the car. It didn’t help that painters were working on covering the chipped and peeling paint on parts of our house – they had removed the front step making it that much harder to actually leave and it all felt so significant. Eric helped me pack the back of the car and promised to text me a photo of the pack. He’s the best at arranging the gear and it was a sweet way to have him along with me for the trip – oh right, that leads and pedals case goes there.
Rochester I felt nervous being solo after a couple band shows and I was dorky and awkward in my banter but the audience (many of them friends or familiar fans) were with me and for me so it was okay. Stayed with our pals Rick and Monica in their cool house in a cool neighborhood – I love Rochester’s architecture and artistic bent, the arts and crafts palette reflected in the trees and sky must have something to do with the lake.
I had to nap again in the car on the way to Cleveland – maybe catching up from troubled sleep for the last few weeks worrying about this whole enterprise. There’s a feeling of throwing off worries and burdens on the road – you’re doing this very specific thing, not a hundred different ones, and you can just let everything else slide up to a point.
At the Beachland, an old Polish (?) hall with attached tavern, I’m being joined on a few songs by Chris Butler and Harvey Gold’s Half Cleveland outfit. We run through stuff and I go downstairs to the familiar dressing room only to be greeted by a room of half-naked women and men, g-strings and body paint: there’s a Halloween burlesque show in the ballroom. I stake out a tiny corner on a couch facing away from the makeup mirrors, all that flesh in green paint is kind of distracting, then the club owners Cindy and Mark and manager Matt who are so nice to me, tell me to use the office. It’s always its own thing and feels very homey, playing the Beachland, some dear fans and even a few of my cousins are there. I’m up against Tribe fever – no game tonight but there is baseball madness in the air. Wish I’d gotten more people but I don’t know how to make that happen in Cleveland short of throwing my lot in with the bustier brigade in the ballroom and slapping on some body glitter? I will still always go back if they’ll have me because to the people it matters to, it matters and that means everything really.
The next day is a long drive to Champaign. I play at Cynthia and Ernie’s Sandwich Life house concerts – I’m not sure if the name comes from Warren Zevon’s quote about enjoy every sandwich but I met Cynthia through blogging (she reminded me we connected over my Hannah and Her Sisters Thanksgiving post from back in France) and I may have been the first of their now dozens and dozens of house concerts. Again I’m up against baseball, and Halloween weekend, but it’s a sweet crowd and I really enjoy playing this living room that feels like a house I might live in, full of interesting old stuff, a close family, lots of talk, music and good food. Thank you my dears.
I remember to get an oil change before I leave Champaign and it’s an easy drive to Willow Springs IL, I don’t even have to pull over for a nap this time. Petty is touring with Dylan by now, he’s in a dark patch (Tom has a lot of dark patches really, more than I would have ever expected) and there’s a stunning moment when Bob, who’s been kind of going through the motions on this tour, is reborn, right onstage in Switzerland. I love how the author weaves in Dylan’s Chronicles scene and corroborates with Tom Petty the reanimation of our beloved Nobel laureate. I must go back and reread Chronicles. I feel a little guilty listening to a book about music on the road instead of actually listening to music, but it just occurred to me I listen to music all day at my bookstore job, surrounded by books I can’t read because I’m working in a bookstore so this all makes sense!
The Willow Springs house concert is a dream. Jeff and Missy have set up their living room like a perfect little club, chairs and little tables for people to put drinks and food. They treat me so well and even though the Cubs are playing everybody focuses and listens intently. I’m enjoying this now, feeling more comfortable being up there on my own. I drink a Moscow Mule in a copper mug and hang out talking til I feel like I should go – I don’t want to be the House Concert Performer Who Never Leaves, holding forth while the crowd of friends dwindle down to the hosts feigning yawns.
I have a scare the next morning when my phone goes black. Yes we used to tour without phones, internet, fax machine even and I was up for that then, because there was no other way, but having GPS on the phone saves so much time, energy and aggravation that the thought of having to go back to the old ways has me freaking out for an hour or two – even in the simple act of writing down directions to a mall with an Apple store I screw up and end up driving south two exits before I sense something is wrong. I pull into a service station and start groping in the back seat for my road atlas and then remember it was the Toyota Siena that had the road atlas in the back seat. I suddenly had a real pang cause I used to love to read maps. No phone, no phone – oh God, the thought of having an interaction in the service station just held no appeal. I decided to just head the other way on the interstate and sure enough duh, there was Chicago gleaming in front of me. The mall with the Apple store was massive but I managed to penetrate and locate (no phone! no phone!) first a glowing Microsoft collection of squares and Apple just across a fake village green with real grass. It took only a few seconds for one of the technicians to solve the problem and then I had to find my way back to my car, happy I had deposited my tour cash in a bank machine that morning because there was every store you could imagine and gig money has a way seeming like Monopoly money if it stays in your pocket too long – “it’s not real! Life is not real!”
Cubs fever was intense and here I was worried about Halloween festivities being too much of a distraction. Halloween comes every year but not so the Cubs in the World Series. I felt a little like an intruder at a family reunion, a friend of a friend of the family, wanting to leave these folks to their jublilation that I couldn’t begin to fathom because I grew up in Pittsburgh in the seventies, when sports team domination was ALL we had going for us. The Reckless Records instore was fun and went off fine, got to talk to some people and sell records. Then I needed to drive to Rockford for a show at Mary’s Place set up by Michael Whyte, who’s a facebook friend and musician and writer. We’d decided to go ahead with the show no matter that a ballgame would pretty much destroy any possiblity of a crowd , especially on a Sunday, but I’m really glad I went. Mary’s was a characterful old bar full of characters – I liked playing there. At one key point in a song, a good line I’m proud of, there was a cheer in the bar, one of those moments you hope for – then I realized that on the TV hidden from view in a corner the Cubs had just scored. I was playing with the Cubs now! Michael and his wife Kathy were wonderful, and Rockford is full of great old buildings, a perfectly preserved American town fallen on hard times but attempting to come back. Birthplace of Cheap Trick (cameo in the Petty book), I got to see some spots of local significance and really want to give a gig there another shot.
Driving back east, I was reaching the end of Petty. It brought me to tears a few times, partly love of Tom, partly Warren Zanes’ writing, partly that general feeling of connection/isolation that driving alone on the interstate brings – trucks you become attached to for several miles, pass and see again in the service area; an ambulance I despise as he sits a firm sixty mph in the passing lane for miles, then find myself missing when I finally get around him and he’s just a speck in the rear view mirror. Part frustration, looking back at my own story, part elation that I still get to do this. Part excitement mixed with resignation before the final gig of this trip – before I head up to teach at a songwriting workshop in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – that most loaded of gigs: playing in Pittsburgh, where I come from. Still figuring that one out.
thanks Tamara Guo for this Pittsburgh clip