We have four days to make Minneapolis. An easy schedule to keep with Super Billy at the wheel unless, of course, the universe tilts on its axis and everything goes all haywire and the Family Bus blows up. Which it does.
We’ve broken down before. In fact, we break down a lot. Our bus is a sensitive dullard of a machine. A princess who feels every pea and can’t begin to figure out how to overcome even one of those peas. But never before have we ridden the professional and financial line so hard. This tour is barely breaking even and may lose money. I worry that I won’t be able to pay the other musicians and that my attendances and therefore guarantees are falling to the point where I can no longer afford to tour.
Every date is a question mark, a potential indicator of my future. I say I don’t believe in the music business because I hate what it celebrates and yet…I have no other business. Like it or not, I rely on the same construct I always did, the same Handicapper General that trades in some of the most offensive marketing on this planet; the same business that turns music – which is my religion – into nothing more holy than Fritos. I have to care if no one buys my record, I have to care if no one comes to my shows.
I have to care, because soon, there may be no place for the next song to go. I think I’ll always play music. I think I have to. I’ll play in my bedroom, in my car, in my garage…but without an audience, without money, I won’t be on the road and I won’t be in the studio. And like it or not, music is a social endeavor. I wish it wasn’t, but it is and as such, it’s impact is stunted when it’s invisible. Music isn’t supposed to stay in the bedroom, the car, or the garage. It’s supposed to be given away, to become other people’s soundtrack.
So what happens is, we’re driving through the mountains and I’m stumbling around the bus, listening to music, making sandwiches for the kids and laughing with Bernie as we barrel down the highway like we have so many times before. I had just stepped over a dog to hand Wyatt a cup of milk when Ryder yelled, “Fire!” from the back bedroom.
Instantly, the bus filled with smoke. I grabbed the baby off of his stool and handed him to Rob who was sitting on the couch. Bodhi’s eyes were huge as Rob wrapped his arms around him. Then Bernie found a fire extinguisher and ran into the smoke; I ran after him as the bus careened across lanes of traffic, Billy trying to pull off the road and yelling, “Don’t go back there! Don’t go back there!” I found Ryder in the back and pushed him into the kitchen, then I grabbed Wyatt and put him on my lap. We fell onto the couch next to Martin and Kim and that’s when everything slowed down.
The smoke billowed, Bernie appeared through it, people were yelling, Billy worked to keep the bus on a twisting mountain road without power steering or brakes…and all I really saw was music going away. Up in smoke, as it were. The last piece of the mother/musician conundrum falling out of play.
We lived, of course. But the impression of life being in slow motion persisted through what came to be three days of being stranded in Idaho without cell service or hotels. I don’t remember much about this time. I remember Billy somehow finding “s’mores” ingredients for the boys: from Super Billy to Super Dad. I remember making a fishing rod for Bodhi out of a stick and some dental floss. I remember cutting my hair in the dark, just to get it out of my face. I remember a band meeting where four exhausted, hungry and unwashed musicians all voted unequivocally to stay on the road and not fly home. “Anything to keep playing,” they all said, “we’ll do whatever it takes” and I had to leave the room because I’m not a girl and I don’t cry.
I remember the children packing their lives up as we left the bus, their only consistent home for the last 7 years — and at the time — their only home. Wyatt was in tears because he might never see it again. We all knew we probably couldn’t afford to fix it.
I remember waiting for Billy, Rob and Bernie to arrive with a truck and a van so that we might at least make Chicago and limp through the rest of the tour. The little boys blew dandelion seeds into the air while we waited. I sat in the grass and watched them through a haze of grief, knowing that since touring costs money and recording costs money, I could no longer work. I wondered if there was such a thing as life after music, wondered if I could live such a life, wondered if children ever forgave mothers who couldn’t live life. I was pretty low.
Bodhi approached with a dandelion and blew the seeds into my face gravely. “What’d you wish for?” I asked him.
“To live all the way to the very last day of my whole life.”
No, then. Mothers aren’t allowed to go anywhere. I’ll have to work it out somehow. Christ, the things they say sometimes.
And we do work it out. For the time being, anyway. Bernie and Rob drive the equipment truck while the three boys and Martin and Kim and the three dogs all ride in the back of a mini van. Billy and I ride up front like the Mom and Dad we’re supposed to be and pretend to yell at our passengers, slapping blindly into the back seat and threatening to “turn this van around and take everybody back to Idaho”.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” they all scream. Martin and Kim get very good at passing snacks, books and Kleenex into the back seat and then books, garbage and used Kleenex into the front. We discuss the idea that God has it in for us, a long-held theory of my brother’s. “Look at the facts!” he has said, “Everywhere you guys go there’s a natural disaster. In fact, all you have to do is think about going somewhere and awful things happen there. Do me a favor and don’t ever move to my neighborhood.”
He has a point. We have suffered damage of biblical proportions in the last several years. Earthquakes, floods, conflagrations and tidal waves seem to track our movements across the globe. “Maybe the universe is trying to tell us something,” Billy suggests.
“It wants me to quit? Why?”
“Who knows? Maybe you have more important things to do.”
“Like what?” I ask. “I can’t do anything but music.”
“That might actually be true.”
The Minneapolis show is canceled, but we make Chicago in time for soundcheck. A friendly restaurant owner in town has read about our plight at the website and brings a beautiful Italian dinner for our entire touring party to the Lakeshore Theater. During the set, my children dance around the dressing room singing, “Polenta! Polenta! Ya-ay, polenta!”
Most of the audience seems to be aware of our recent struggles, as they line up to buy five or six CD’s at a time after the set. “I already have this, but, you know…Christmas is coming,” says a woman in a red blouse. As I sign four copies of Learn to Sing for her, I remind her that it’s May. She smiles. “Well, Christmas is coming eventually,” she says.
By the time we reach Indianapolis, I’ve learned that the amount of money in the tip jar at throwingmusic.com has increased along with our bad luck. “The tip jar is overflowing!” says Tine, our webmistress, “and more is coming in as we speak. I’m watching it grow before my eyes!”
I have wildly mixed feelings about this. I am amazed and grateful, of course, but also heartsick. I’d feel okay taking some sugar daddy’s money, some record company or wealthy patron or…well anything but money from these people who’ve already given so much of their time and support over the years. But because of this swollen tip jar, it looks like the tour will break even: the bus will be fixed, the musicians paid, their flights home bought. Absolutely incredible. I’m proud that this “tribe” that music created solved the problem for itself, without the help of Corporate America – or anyone else.
At The Ark in Ann Arbor, a man holds up his copy of Sunny Border Blue and tells me, “If you ever stopped, I think I would, too.”
After the show at the Crystal Ballroom in Cleveland, a woman hands me a wide, flat cardboard box. I am so hungry, I think she’s given me a sheet cake. “Is that a cake?” I ask her.
“Did you want a cake?”
“Well…is it one?”
“No, it’s a picture, but I could get you a cake…”
“No, I don’t need a cake-”
Then Kim hops up onto the stage. “Yum! Cake!” she says.
The woman looks sad, “No, it’s just a picture…”
Billy leans in to pack up my stomp boxes, “Wow! Is that a cake?” he asks, grinning.
Now the woman looks distraught. “I’m sorry…” she says.
In Pittsburgh, Vicky and Slim Cessna smuggle their children into the venue to watch the set from the back of the room. During the show, Slim, a man of very few words, leans over to Billy and says, “I know it’s been hard lately, but this is important.”
We meet Orrin at Hi-n-Dry in Cambridge to shoot a DVD of the last night of the tour. This place was the late Mark Sandman of Morphine’s loft, back in the day. Now it’s a full service studio/performance space and it’s beautiful. With its funky oriental rugs and easy hominess, it so reminds us of Kingsway Studio in New Orleans that it’s eerie. There are even Boston versions of our New Orleans friends there. So strange, yet so comfortable. “Welcome home,” someone says to me when I walk in.
I am, at this point, physically and emotionally spent by the tour, yet terrified by the idea that in the morning it will all be over. Five months is not a terribly long time, but we sure packed in a lot since January. Goofiness and trauma, gourmet dinners and starvation, sleet and sun, boats and buses, mountains and deserts, days spent asleep, nights spent awake…Jesus, we’re like a bad movie.
The thing is, there was always playing. Every day had a point and that point was songs. Whatever happens next, I’ve been so blessed.
Painting: “Stranded – In Beautiful Mountains” by Victoria Cessna