Michelle's Tour Diary
TAB got started the same way most bands do, playing thankless shows in foul places. Bassist Michelle Rubin kept a journal during much of this period, documenting many of TAB’s misadventures. She agreed to let us use excerpts from her tour diary “as long as you don’t expect me to add some silly ‘introductory comments’ or anything like that.” We reprint them here with her kind permission.
Somebody I know once described touring as “summer camp in bars.” I think it’s more like being stuck in a traveling jail cell, although Tommy and Ray act like it’s being a kid in a toy store. I think I’ll stick with the jail metaphor, even if the scenery is better. We’ve only been out a few days, but jail and scenery are both on my mind after the drive in to Knoxville.
Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee have some of the most amazing mountains I’ve ever seen, all craggy and medieval and wild-looking; very misty, like something out of “Wuthering Heights.” And about an hour outside of Knoxville, coasting down I-40 and headed for soundcheck, we came upon a beat-up old bus lumbering westward. Ray was driving the van, and slowed down when he saw DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS painted on the side of the bus, staying next to it for a mile or two.
Most of the prisoners on the bus ignored us, but a few did make eye contact. One guy in particular stared hard, and when Tommy started waving and blowing kisses he yelled something I was glad I couldn’t hear. “Okay, Ray,” I said, “this is starting to creep me out. Can we please get away now?” Tommy chose that moment to insert “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” into the tape deck. Two funny guys, the boys in TAB.
Less than a week on the road, and the inside of this van already smells like a garbage dump. But today, we almost got rid of all the trash and everything else. Tommy was in the backseat and fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth; it fell onto the road atlas on the floor, and began to smolder. We didn’t notice anything until the entire van filled up with smoke. Ray pulled over and we threw open all the doors and managed to shovel all the burning stuff out before the van itself caught fire, thank God.
But our road atlas was a total loss, and we don’t really have enough money to buy another one. So Ray says to be on the lookout for one to steal. Ha ha ha…
The “circle of fear” is the area right in front of the stage that almost always stays empty. It’s a weird thing, the way people are afraid to get too close to the band. Maybe they don’t want to be “on display” in the stagelights, or up where they think they’ll be expected to dance or look like they’re (heaven forbid) having fun.
The area varies in size, depending on how big the room is and how bright the lights are. It’s about 10-12 feet most places; occasionally as much as 15, or as little as six. Whatever, getting anyone past this psychological barrier can be a challenge. Sometimes, you don’t mind when people keep their distance, especially when you’re not playing well. But when we ARE playing well, you feel like a crowd is a bunch of loser snobs if they won’t get off their ass and get close enough to give something back.
Tonight, we played great best show of the tour so far and you’d think we had hepatitis, because nobody would come closer than 11 feet, 4 inches. I know because afterward, I found a yardstick in the club’s office and measured the distance from the stage to the pool of beer that spilled when Tommy jumped off the stage and tackled a guy for yawning in the middle of one of his guitar solos. He had it coming, if you ask me.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
We were late getting here, but that was okay because New York City at dusk is something to see, with all the lights in all the buildings coming on. I wished we had some Gershwin, since the New York skyline always puts me in the mood to hear “Rhapsody in Blue.” Or at least some Sinatra; I wouldn’t even have minded, “New York, New York,” the world’s corniest song.
At least we had Tommy for entertainment, and he didn’t let us down. He flicked a cigarette out the window just before we got to the Holland Tunnel and announced to the rest of the van, “New York is 58% and a dream.” Ray and I were both so baffled, we didn’t even think to ask what the hell that was supposed to mean.
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
Out on the road, “tour lobotomy” usually sets in at about two weeks. Early on, you’re still running on excitement even a crappy job starts out okay, if you haven’t worked for a while. But you can only hold out so long before brain death starts to creep in.
I think of it as a coping mechanism. Ignoring your bandmates’ annoying little tics so they won’t drive you insane takes concentration especially in a situation like this band, where they’re…you know, guys. It’s less effort for me to just lapse into a semi-vegetative state. Sitting in the van with my mind a complete blank while we roll on down the highway, I don’t have to get depressed over the fact that I haven’t had anything like a real conversation with anybody in weeks. There’s a Zen to advanced burnout, even though people look at you funny when you collapse out of the van all shaky and bug-eyed with that thousand-yard stare while you schlep the gear in and try to play. But it’s a fine line between Zen and zero, and tonight we were on autopilot and it showed.
Here’s how stupid we are right now: It finally happened, Tommy got the name of the city wrong. After three songs, he leaned over to the mike and announced, “Hello, Bloomington!” which was where we’d been the night before. A hush fell over the room, and then half the crowd started booing and the other half started laughing.
“Next time,” Ray told Tommy afterward, “Just say HELLO CLEVELAND and make it a joke.” One of the oldest rules of the road: When in doubt, quote “Spinal Tap” and you’ll never go wrong. Just so Tommy wouldn’t forget, Ray thoughtfully wrote out HELLO CLEVELAND in bright pink fingernail polish on the top of his guitar.
Tommy refuses to go anywhere near the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Instead, he said he wanted to go find the Cleveland Arena, where Alan Freed did his first big live “Moondog Show” back in 1952. The only problem is that the Cleveland Arena has been gone for years. The local Red Cross headquarters is where it used to be. Given this Tour Of The Damned we’re in the middle of, that has a certain symmetry.
When we finally found the right place, Tommy tried to talk us into donating a pint of blood; “for the symbolism, man.” But Ray and I both said no. Thanks, being on the road with this band is quite enough bloodletting for me.
LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS
Every night, the moment of truth arrives at Song Number Five. Why? Because that’s your last shot at winning over anybody who hasn’t already made up their mind, before they give up on the band and settle in at the pinball machines. If things are going well, you want to just glide right through #5 without calling much attention to it. If things are going TOO well, at a pace we can’t keep up, we might even want to ease back on #5; do an instrumental or a silly cover, let everybody catch their breath.
But if a set’s going badly, #5 is where you hit a crowd with everything that isn’t nailed down. Tommy once told us that if at least one fight hasn’t broken out by the fifth song, he feels like he’s not doing his job. And if nobody’s fighting, that’s about the time he’ll go to war with his guitar, on #5.
Tonight was one of those nights. Songs one through four didn’t even register, went right over the crowd’s head. Everybody was standing around looking bored, and the room felt like a balloon with all the air going out of it. So Tommy just started to beat the living daylights out of his guitar, making it shriek like an animal being put out of its misery.
It was no song we’d ever played, at least not that Ray or I could recognize. After a minute or so, Ray started pounding out a simple 4/4 backbeat while I kinda plunked away on a nice, safe Middle C. That was all the safety net Tommy needed. He reigned in his guitar just enough to play with the beat, then started speeding up and slowing down. After a while, his guitar sounded like this crazy weird circular thing, and people were kinda swaying back and forth. Tommy went over to the microphone and yelled out some gibberish, but nobody can ever understand the words in bars anyway so it was fine.
By the end of the song, everybody in the room was finally paying attention and the rest of the show picked right up. Afterward, a guy came up to talk to Tommy. “Man,” he said, “that one song was really cool. Wildest damn thing I ever heard, like a tornado. Whatcha call that one?”
“Number five,” Tommy said.
If my grandmother hadn’t already been dead for 12 years, I’d swear that the waitress in this truckstop was her. It wasn’t, of course. Her nametag said “Vivian,” and my grandmother’s name was Mary. But Vivian called me “hon,” just like grandma used to, and she didn’t charge us for dessert. We had just enough money for grilled-cheese sandwiches, coffee, one order of fries split three ways and a tank of gas. After ringing up our check, Vivian brought over three huge slices of pecan pie. With scoops of ice cream, no less.
“Here, hon,” she said. “Looks like y’all could use a little something extra.”
It was all I could do not to cry.
Some very odd decor in tonight’s club, which was downstairs in a basement with all the walls and ceilings painted black. There were skulls on a shelf behind the bar (couldn’t tell whether or not they were real, and didn’t want to get close enough to find out), skeletons painted on the wall behind the stage. But the first thing you noticed was the beer cooler right next to the bar a converted coffin. “That used to be one of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ coffins from his stage show,” the clubowner said when he saw me looking at it. “He’d rise up out of it while the band played ‘I Put A Spell On You.’” Really, I said, and asked how he came to own it. He smiled conspiratorially.
“Well, ol’ Jay knocked up quite a few girls in his day. Legend has it that the father of one of them raised a big stink, and threatened to put Jay in this here coffin permanently. And somehow, Jay talked the guy into backing off if he’d just give up the coffin. It changed hands a few times over the years and eventually wound up in a frat house at Ol’ Miss, where they turned it into this beer cooler. I heard about it, went down and bought it. Not often you can buy a piece of history for only 75 American dollars.”
True. You can, however, buy a struggling American touring band for even less than that. About a dozen people showed up tonight, and the clubowner paid us 50 bucks. And when Tommy heard the story about Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ coffin/cooler, he insisted on sticking his head into the ice inside it and came out of it sputtering and hollering, “I put a spell on yooooooou!!!” In Screamin’ Jay’s honor, we added “Constipation Blues” to the setlist. Y’all come on back, now, y’hear?
I thought tornadoes were something that only happened in Kansas. But there we were, headed east on I-20 through rural Alabama and watching a funnel cloud off to the north. We couldn’t really tell how far away it was; a couple of miles at least. Tommy, of course, wanted to get off the interstate, see how close we could get and try to outrun it. For once, Ray sided with me and we just put it in the rearview mirror as fast as we could. The way our luck’s been going on this tour, I’m surprised it didn’t land right on top of the van.
Things I learned tonight: Every band always sounds better from the parking lot outside (which we noted during loadout while the atrocious headlining band played). That goes double when the room is empty and you feel like you’re playing in a cave from all the reverb.
But no matter how small, there’s always at least one potential heckler per crowd. Ray was going to find the guy and beat the hell out of him, until he discovered it was the bartender.
I never want to play in a club with dartboards again especially the
kind of boards that have real darts, with sharp points.
I really really really really want to go home now.