“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” – Kerouac, On the Road
I’ve done a fair amount of touring, less than many musicians but more than most. No, I wasn’t Born To Run, Born To Follow or Born to Be Wild but I did Hit The Road Jack, Truckin’ down Route 66 to look for America.
Back in 1971 my first band started caravanning counter culture-style in a used Ford station wagon and a red Chevy van that had our quartet’s name Revival painted on the sides. The moniker was a reference to “folk-revival” but when we pulled into a town we were sometimes mistaken for Jesus freaks. I wonder why?
As a child we went on family vacations to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania or Shelter Island out on the east end of “Longuyland“. But, those trips always came with serious parental supervision. It wasn’t until I got out of high school that a rock band took this boy out of Queens, NY. Turn up the radio… put the van in gear… and we were outta there. Real freedom at last! It’s not an overstatement to say that the road really opened my eyes.
“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road
A DJ from WBCN introduced me to Jonathan Richman when he came to see us at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA. We were touring New England in support our first and only album on Buddah-Kama Sutra Records. It was 1972 and Jonathan’s proto-punk band the Modern Lovers was riding the FM airwaves with a track called Roadrunner. It was the first time I could relate to something called a road song.
Going faster miles an hour
Gonna drive past the Stop ‘n’ Shop
With the radio on
I’m in love with Massachusetts
And the neon when it’s cold outside
And the highway when it’s late at night
Got the radio on
I’m like the roadrunner
Jonathan was maybe the first of countless “mad ones” I would come to meet. More often than not I’d sit back and listen, as they’d hold court into the wee hours. There was: the misfit writer from Austin, TX who accompanied Janis to San Francisco; the former fighter pilot/photographer who owned a bar in Savannah, GA; the legendary Chicago folk-singer who stayed up ‘til dawn in a Boston hotel room after we did a concert singing for a bunch of us in the band and crew like it was his last night on earth. I learned that the joy of being on the road was people, all kinds of people.
I met thousands of bartenders, bouncers, waiters and waitresses, soundmen (and sound-women), club owners, stagehands, agents, managers, musicians and of course the audience without whom none of us would be there. Nearly all were casual, occasionally intimate and sometimes crazy encounters that lasted less than a day. There are so many stories! Sometimes a story became a song. For years my old boss Tom Rush has threatened to collect musician road stories into a coffee table book. No doubt, many of them would be authored by: “anonymous”. Trust me this guy “anonymous” got around!
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road
After Revival broke up I played in a bunch of bands and backed up many other artists. I somehow balanced staying home being a music producer and educator with being a touring musician. Thankfully, I have a very understanding wife Mary Ellen Bernard who is an artist in her own right and we occasionally perform together.
For the last 22 years most of my touring has been with The Bacon Brothers. We still travel in cars and vans but they are much nicer than the wheels Revival had in 1971. We also fly a lot. Once, we flew all over the US and Canada in the Planet Hollywood corporate jet. Yeah, I know… touring sucks. Without a doubt the best way to get around is on a tricked out rock and roll tour bus. My band mate Kevin even wrote a love song to this mythical vehicle with “a Janis Joplin heart and an Aretha Franklin soul.”
Where’s she gonna take us to today
It don’t really matter, if we get a chance to play
Something that was lost has now been found
She can keep those worn out wheels goin’ round and around, and around and around and around and around and around! – Bus by Kevin Bacon
So, here comes the obligatory shout out to band and crew… If you’ve read this far then you knew it was coming, right?
What started out in 1994 as a quartet with Michael, Kevin, Marshal Rosenberg and me has evolved into quite a little touring machine. For the last 8 years it’s been Michael, Kevin, myself, Frank Vilardi, Ira Siegel and Joe Mennonna with occasional contributions from Charlie Gordano and Aaron Comess. Because I was with them from the start I have seen astonishing growth in Michael and Kevin as songwriters, singers and musicians. Nobody can ever say this is “just a celebrity band.” And, I am continually amazed at the level of skill and creativity that Ira, Frank and Joe bring to the stage and the studio. They push and inspire me to be a better musician than I naturally am.
Life on the road is made easier by an outstanding and tireless crew. As Jackson Brown says in his song “they’re the first to come and the last to go.” For every single show Andrew Harris, Matt Borders, Brett Morgan and for a while back Chris Fenn would put it all together and take it all down. Finally, let me be clear, nothing happens at all without the steady oversight of our tour manager (now manager) Chris Bailey. Kerouac himself could not find a better bunch of traveling companions.
“We fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess–across the night…” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road
After long ago forsaking a solo career to become a back up musician, producer, composer for hire and educator I am today a performing songwriter. And I’m still traveling. I finally wrote my own road song called Wherever This Highway Goes. Appropriately, the music is co-written by Frank and Ira. I hope you like it.
“Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy.”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Yes, the joy of the road is the people you meet. Every now and then you connect with a man or woman who becomes a life-long compadre, which is pretty wonderful.
See you down the road! I promise.
Love reading about this life of yours….Ellen
This is great. My first blog I’ve ever read and love it. I do love the song Wherever This Highway Goes and I love the song Bus too. Thanks for sharing, Paul. I know it must be really fun to be on the road, but also not always easy. Keep on “Dancing While You Can and Singing While You’re Able”