Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
I'm sitting in a van with my two best friends. Actually I only met them a few months ago, but we've been sharing this van for an eternity now, along with dressing rooms, stages, meals, airplanes, hotel lobbies, after-show bars, and all our meals. They may not really be my "best friends", but they have been the only constant in my life for three months now, so they will have to suffice.
We are On The Road, we three, flung together by circumstance and the bizarre lifestyle our live of live performance incurs. Theirs are the first familiar faces I see each morning, and the last I see at night. Flirtation is rife; sex rates high on our discussion lists. Hey, don't knock it - our day began with 8 a.m. wake-up calls to ensure we made the 6-hour drive and got to soundcheck on time, followed closely by gig, then autograph-signing - it's 1 a.m. and we still have an hour to go 'til we reach the next hotel. After a day like this, sex is about the only topic we can discuss! Besides, it's the one thing everyone is an authority on. Face it, past a certain age you either know what you're doing, or you shut up.
There is Road Kill, the stuff left on pavement after a car's run over a formerly-living animal; they write books about it, how to scrape it up intact, how to make gumbo from it. There are Road Warriors, those terribly straight-looking businessman whose entire experience of the jungle consists of making their computers do as they're told. And there are Road Rats, people who spend more time on the road than off, gazing in bleary stupefaction at the nine-to-five world, crawling out from the tunnel of their bunk or van seat to come alive on stage.
And then there is Road Sex. Sex on the road, not with your significant other but with someone else, someone unfamiliar enough to be interesting, yet familiar enough to be safe. Sex with fellow travellers, crew or band. Sex with fans, whose very knowledge of your work makes them seem safe. Road sex.
We are Road Rats now, comfortable in our daily routines, careful of each others' idiosyncrasies. Home seems further away with each passing state. When we hit England I began feeling a little schizophrenic - on the one hand there was Tennessee, my daily life as a writer, home and family, the familiarity and safety. On the other hand there was Edinburgh, mash notes sent backstage, gifts of necklaces and invitations to "come back to my place for the night." Life could be worse.
This article is not for the Weekend Warrior who goes out a couple of times a month for the occasional gig. Nor is it for the local heroes who can make a living gigging close enough to home that they can sleep in their own bed every night. Nor is it aimed at the uppermost echelon of touring groups, like the Dire Straits band who were supposedly paid a million each for their year on the road, families flown in and out as an added perk. No, this article is for the true road rat, someone who parts from home and friends for weeks and months at a time. It's for the leader of the band, the solo performer, the crew boss - anyone in an "up" position to someone else's down. More specifically, it's for the performer who does leave someone at home - someone who cares and worries and wonders.
The road is a solitary place. For an artist, particularly one trying to remain emotionally coherent, it can be an abyss of loneliness. The crew have each other. The band have each other. The solo artist has, ultimately, no one but him/herself. And speaking of self, remember that we as artists are Selfish with a capital S. It's okay, nothing to be ashamed of, but it plays into our discussion here. Most of us grew up geeks. Part of our defense includes protective coloration (how many of you changes accents with the accents around you?), and part includes instinctively knowing what carrot to hold on the stick in front of the nose you want to follow. Because everyone has their carrot - it's only a question of finding it. That puts us in a very strong position where those under us are concerned. And one quick fix for loneliness, on or off the road, is sex.
The current economics of touring have shut out the middle ground, that comfortable place where you tour when you want and stay home to write a record the rest of the time. Most of us aren't wealthy enough to fly our spouses in and out on a regular basis; usually there's no room in the car for them, and the addition of another person always disrupts a touring group anyway. If you travel with anyone besides yourself, you're faced with the additional problem of trying to keep your employees, which means you have to tour enough for them to make a living rather than taking a job with someone else. Add to that record companies that want you out there in one or two big gulps to maximize their advertising, and we move away from the 60s and 90s and into the touring rigor of the 70s, when all tours are six to twelve weeks and it's not economically viable to see home during that time. Days off still cost you salary and hotels so you tend to stay out there as long as possible.
I should probably add the disclaimer that being female, I write from a female point of view. And it is different for women. Like it or not, the double standard still prevails. On some level, boys who sleep around on the road are seen as virile, macho, sexy. Girls who sleep around are just sluts. I don't care how much a man thinks of himself as a sensitive new age guy, he still looks askance at a woman doing exactly the same thing. I was reminded of this full force a few months ago at the Newport Folk Festival, when a singer I know proceeded to get very drunk and hit on every woman at the hotel bar. He concentrated on fans, hangers-on, and waitresses rather than the female performers gathered there, probably because he knew one of us would deck him. His need became pretty ugly, couched as it was in the "Hey baby, I'm a sensitive writer, wanna come back to my room and listen to my new CD?" lexicon only a drunken folksinger would try. I don't know if he found someone to go home with, but I do recall him explaining tearfully to me a few months before that his current girlfriend had "picked some guy up in a bar" while he was on the road, so he had to leave her. Where's the difference? Only in our heads.
In my own experience, few women sleep around on the road. Mostly we fall in love. Men seem to enjoy casual sex more than we do. It's an old saw that "Boys go into rock and roll to get laid; girls go in to get saved." It may not be politically correct to point this out, but having watched us on the road since I was fourteen, certain things do seem to hold true. I was discussing this with a very famous female acquaintance a few years ago whose reputation for "catting around" had preceded her. She was telling me that in my hometown she probably had 30 or 40 beds she could call on in any given night. My own reaction was complete paranoia. "How," I asked, "do you know what they're saying after you've gone? Maybe it's 'Gosh, great singer, but what a lousy lay!'" Somehow men don't consider it in those terms. Consequence and what people will think play a lesser role in their lives. Maybe it's easier on a man, I don't know. But I did once have a bass player who walked onto our bus one morning with a very frustrated look and barked, "Do you have any idea what it's like to be in bed with a girl, just arriving at The Moment of Truth, and hear her say, 'So what's Janis really like?'" Maybe it's weird no matter what.
I'm going to forgo the obvious things articles about casual sex usually rely on - surely no one reading this really thinks, "It can't happen to me"? Anyone fool enough to sleep around without insisting on condoms being worn (I don't care if he did write your favorite song, dear, you don't know where he's been) is probably too big a fool to read Performing Songwriter anyway. Start with AIDS and work your way through herpes, genital warts, pregnancy, then see how annoying that little rubber thing still seems. I'm also not going to get into much about the reputation issues - whether we like it or not, men's reputations don't suffer much when they have a road affair, and women's do. That's just the hard truth of it. This is not Reader's Digest, this is a how-to magazine for singer/songwriters, and these articles are meant to make you think.
People in the legitimate theater have a saying: "The theater has no rules, and you break them at your own peril." This holds particularly true with sexual behavior on the road. It's not like gig rules (be there half an hour before you go on, keep your set to its agreed length, wear something) or travel rules (show up at the van on time to leave, pay your share of the meals, don't laugh when the driver insists on carrying a rubber duckie). There are no brakes on us as performers in this area except those we impose on ourselves - when was the last time your favorite artist sat you down to discuss your sexual responsibilities toward your fans or staff? Think about it - in the nine-to-five world, when you interview a potential employee you're not legally allowed to ask, "Are you married? Have children? Have a problem leaving home for long periods?" In that world, sleeping with an employee (or even the suggestion of sexual behavior to someone functioning below you on the hierarchy scale) can lead to lawsuits, public exposure, humiliation. Those limits are imposed externally because society has found, over and over again, that all employees are at risk of gross exploitation, however well-meaning its intent may be.
I think that's the problem. We have no legal limits on our behavior, but we also have no mentors to tell us right from wrong regarding that behavior. No, don't shake your head. Everyone knows it's wrong to use fans, but where do you draw the line? Does sleeping with someone who's dying to meet you and know you constitute exploitation, if you're totally up front about it being a one-night stand? Everyone knows you don't shit where you eat, but how many people think of those golden words when they're flirting with the guitarist?
And flirting goes on, all the time. If you have more than yourself travelling, on some level you'll eventually flirt with the people around you, even if there's nothing further intended. Everybody likes feeling wanted, attractive, important. As "boss," I'm acutely conscious of the need to praise those around me - everything from "Great job with the sound tonight" to "That sweater looks nice on you." Employees that are not praised become nervous. But who praises me? I'm supposed to get everything from the audience, I guess, but at 9 a.m. after five hours of sleep I could really use the occasional "Gosh, your eyes look nice today." Additionally, I'm a tactile person; I was raised with a lot of hugging and body contact. It's weird to me not to touch after two or three months together (as opposed to being hugged and semi-groped by people I barely know who seem to think they know me). After five or six months where the only body contact I get is shaking hands with fans after a show, I crave physical contact. But I find that as the Performer on Duty, it's a very grey area. People will gladly accept my hugs, but they won't initiate a hug with me. It brings up a plethora of questions, in their heads if not mine. We all see way too many road romances where the female artist winds up in love with her guitarist/road manager/producer or whoever is available, only to crash and burn a short while later (and lose a good employee to boot). In fact, over in the U.K. right now there's a huge to-do about a very big group who've just fired their manager; road gossip has it that said manager was stupid enough to being sleeping with one of the singers. He then dumped her, and was shocked when the group proceeded to dump him.
It's hard enough to stay in a committed relationship when you're home all the time (though I've known performers who've managed to maintain them mainly because they're away so much). Add to that a nation of therapists who are trained to tell their clients to take care of themselves first, and a business where with zero training in leadership we artists often find ourselves CEOs overnight, and you have one big mess. Throw all the usual stuff that performers carry with them into the pot, and you have potential disaster. We are needy, driven, obsessive characters who usually grew up standing outside the ballroom with our noses pressed against the windowpane, wishing we could join in the dance. Being an outsider makes for good artistry and strange people. We hunger for attention. In fact, for most of us the reality is that sex on the road usually isn't about sex - it's about all that other stuff. Warmth, nestling, snuggling, someone to share secrets with, that delicious abandonment (if carried that far) of sex and basking in the afterglow of being wanted.
We inhabit a false reality when we're out there that often becomes the only reality, particularly if we're out there long enough. And there is no emotional middle ground for us - we are heroes or villains, roaring successes or losers. You know when your record company thinks you hung the moon, shows up at your gigs, takes you to expensive dinners, sends flowers - when the houses are full and promoters adhere to your rider without complaint. And you know the flip side, when no one returns your calls and the half-empty houses laugh in all the wrong places, if they laugh at all. We're usually the same in our intimate lives - people love us or they don't. It's rarely enough for us to be liked. Most of us take a long time to understand the difference between someone loving us and someone loving us - some of us never quite get it. It's easy to misinterpret things when you're on the road a lot.
Romance, for instance. Road romances are called that because they belong on the road - they don't travel well. A lot of them fall under what I laughingly (and painfully) refer to as the Feelgood Syndrome. It takes a lot of courage to do what we do, whether it's being a performer facing a hostile crowd and struggling through the show, hoping nothing too dangerous gets hurled at us, or facing a blank page, wondering if we've finally used up our talent allotment for this lifetime. The good ones quickly learn that the safest way to get through crunches is to plow through without regard to consequence. That works out well in our profession, allowing us to ignore the obvious ("You'll never make it, there's a thousand out there just like you") and get on with our careers. And that devil-take-the-hindmost carries over into our private lives - artists are inevitably leaders, roaring forward into the mob while everyone else hangs back waiting to see what will happen. We learn to trust our instincts early, those subtle feelings that say "this line is right," or "this set will work." Those instincts stand us in good stead, so we cater to them. We like to get what we want because we're usually right about what we need. And when we have what we want, our work flows. How lethal that can become, translated to daily life! "If it feels good, do it!" was the watchword of our generation, and for most of us it remains a way of life. It's too damned hard being an artist to worry about consequences - the safest thing is usually to turn a blind eye.
But as artists, we are also supposed to deal in reality, so let's discuss some realities of sex on the road.
It's the most natural thing to be attracted to someone you're touring with. Loneliness is endemic in our profession, and it's human nature to want something to fill the abyss. If you spend a lot of time in foreign countries, that little crew - be it one person or fifty - may even be the only people around you who share a common tongue. And we are talkers; most performers/songwriters thrive on words. My partner gets annoyed because when we discuss something she will think it through, then make her feelings known. I, on the other hand, rarely know what I'm thinking until I say it. That makes communication imperative.
There's very little communication as effective as the feel of two bodies meeting. And there's all the fun that leads up to it - the sidelong glances, the sense of being understood, the generosity of love that allows us to have all those ugly things performers' egos demand fulfilled, suddenly, by one person who is constantly there. Since we spend our lives being pandered to (oh, come on, we really do!), this just carries it to the logical conclusion. If I'm so good, why aren't you in love with me? our embarrassing psyches demand. Your road crew is a little self-contained unit, whether it's one person or fifty, as dysfunctional as any other family. Flung together physically in a way very few jobs allow, we deal with bodies in a way that would terrify most other professions.
Most of us are more open about sex than the average Joe. Artists and actors have traditionally been lumped in with whores and sailors on the lower rungs of the social scale. A lot of that's because we don't have the same constraints imposed on us - when you're never home, when there's never anyone to answer to a week or a month later, you start figuring out that a lot of your concepts of "right and wrong" have nothing to do with you, and everything to do with fear of what the neighbors will think. Our language is less restrained (to put it mildly); even our body language is open compared to most other professions. Consequently, we are a tolerant lot, usually freer with our bodies and hearts than most, and in our little bands we are fiercely protective of one another against the outside world. We are the world, when we're on tour together. Every miserable family dynamic comes into play. Because unlike every other profession, once we're on the road we don't get any time off from one another. No going home at night to discuss the days' events with someone far removed who can provide a clear, unblinking look. No, being on the road is a lot like being fifteen again, stuck at home with a bunch of people you really love but may occasionally dislike.
When it comes to life on the road, we are less free than we think. We can pretend to choose our gigs, hotels, travel arrangements, but most of those choices are financially dictated. We can think those other people are there so we can be responsible only for the show, but that's false, because the minute you're the lead singer, you're responsible to and for those around you, even though their job is to support and care for you. That feeling, of too many responsibilities and not enough joy, can make a person feel trapped. Especially if, like most of us, you're caught up in the schizophrenia of being a writer on tour. It's hard to write on tour, and most of us long for home where we can settle in and do what we do best. But at home, we long for the rigors of the road, for the camaraderie, the audiences, the travel and fun. Feeling like you're trapped can lead you straight into major problems. Because you are the Boss, with a capital B. Face it, if the bass player dies tomorrow, the show will go on. If the road manager loses his mind and has to be sent home, the show will go on. But if you have a sniffle, much less a bad day, the entire tour is in jeopardy. Everyone's job depends on us being all right (at least) and happy (at best). So when one of us decides to seduce a member of the touring entourage, all hell breaks loose.
Why? Start with this - as limited as your options may be, the people around you don't have as many. Sure, they can quit, but jobs are hard to come by. Besides, they're on the road because that's what they like doing, and we hope they're with you because they love your work. Fair or unfair, they know they can be replaced in a heartbeat. So when you flirt with staff, it puts them in an impossible position emotionally. It's a rare bird who will look that position in the eye and say to you, "I'm feeling uncomfortable with the way you're behaving toward me; please stop." They are flattered, they are responsive, they are whatever they are but the truth of it is that you're in a one-up position all the time, and abusing that position by seducing staff is exactly that - abusive. They may not even be aware of these things, but hey, you're the artist - it's your job to be aware of the subtle undercurrents in relationships, not theirs. It may seem simplistic to say their job depends on your favor, but that's the unspoken truth of it.
Then there's the question of favoritism. Any time you have more than one person with you, they will always be (consciously or unconsciously) jockeying for position with you. It's not usually so blatant, but it exists. The minute you show favoritism in any way, you've let down everyone else around you. You've also, by the way, made it impossible for the person you're favoring to do their job - the assumption by everyone else is that they no longer have to carry their weight, because you'll overlook any lack on their part. Don't say you won't play favorites - you do, and you will. If you're employing women, be aware that women on the road, as crew and band members, face a different set of problems. I spent this year working with another female and watched her trying to handle everything from being called "Baby" by crew members in Florida, to losing a potential job because the male artist had just gotten married and his wife didn't want any women on the road with him. Her standard method of dealing with people who get out of hand is to go to her immediate superior and say, "I'm here to get paid, not laid," then hope that person deals with the problem. How fair is that, to put her in a position of having to ask for protection?
Continue on. Most artists are not stunning visually - we're not models, we're artists. But talent is seductive - it's one of our great hidden strengths. Our charisma sells us. Doesn't matter if it's a fan or an employee, we are still the Artist and they are still the Audience. And it's a temptation that's next to impossible to resist. The road is a harsh place; we in particular are built to want attention, solace, something to take away the dark and give us respite from the monkey that rides our backs. We thrive on our ability to fascinate. How embarrassing the Bette Midler line, "But enough about me. Let's talk about something that interests you. What do you think of me?" is to the honest artist! We want a hand in ours, eyes that light up when we enter a room, anything at all warm and endearing. Something to make us feel that even when the makeup comes off, the guitar goes down, the song is sung, we are still somehow desirable - because most of us were the kids who didn't get invited to the prom, and it haunts us still.
We are in many ways the last adventurers, hobos in a global sense, with a closer kinship to the Malayan trekker than our day-jobbing neighbors. Centuries ago, when there were small wars available for the asking, lots of us would have gone off in search of challenge and experience, joining caravans or sailing for unknown destinations. That adventurer's spirit is a large part of what drives us forward in our craft and careers. It's nothing to be ashamed of; it allows us to be forerunners, to tilt against windmills. But it is something to be cautious with, because those same energies can be misdirected in the narrow world most of us are forced to inhabit. We misinterpret them as love, as lust, as passion for another, when in fact they are merely the passion for life that absorbs our waking dreams.
So know yourself. That's really the first job of an artist anyway, and as self-absorbed as most of us are, it should not be difficult to set aside mental time to comb through your own feelings. Know your warning signs. Be aware of those around you, and their reactions to you. Here are a few basic thoughts I came up with in our months together:
Know your own warning signs and try to respect them
Be honest with yourself. Nobody in the midst of a full flirtation, on or off the road, wants to be honest - not with themselves, not with others. Any relationship you have to keep secret is bound to get you in trouble. Some people enjoy secretive sex - it makes them feel powerful, or desired. If you're going to do it that way, make sure you're unattached.
Flirting is normal, natural fun for everyone concerned. Just make sure you're clear on your own borders. All touch becomes sexual under the right circumstances; make sure you avoid them.
Drinking is a quick and painless way to lose your boundaries. It's also how most of us get into trouble.
Compulsive anything is never healthy. Compulsive sex on the road is no different from compulsive sex at home. It's one thing to have a high sex drive, acknowledge it, and enjoy it - it's another thing to use sex as a substitute for everything else that's lacking in your life and yourself.
Using your talent and position to score is really yucky...and it leads to conversations like mine with a crew member who'd been hit on by my folksinger pal at Newport. "I used to really love his work," she said, "I thought he was a wonderful, sensitive guy. I'll never listen to him again."
Sex with strangers is just stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. Rent Klute and see if it's still enticing.
Know what it is you're looking for. Is it someone to talk to, a friend on the road? You can do that without jeopardizing everything else in your life. Is it sex? Tension relief? You can do all of those by yourself, if you're a little creative and have a working shower.
When they come on to you ask the obvious - who are they really coming on to? That person they see on stage every night, or the one with bad morning hair who smokes too much? Employees, fans, staff are vulnerable to you - to your talent, to your charisma, to your power. Sometimes the only way to avoid betraying someone's trust is to not give them what they want.
Remember who you are. Most of us want to be heroes. Act like one. Heroes don't get what they want, they get what's necessary. There's a huge difference.
Sleeping with fans. Remember that the other person is just that - a person. Don't be an ass and humiliate someone by pretending it's more than it is. I've known way too many men who sleep with a fan for a day or two and then play hero, giving that fan their "home number" - except the number has a couple of digits reversed. Very low rent.
Show some common sense. I had a dear friend whose husband spent three months in Europe playing bass in a big touring band. She flew over spur of the moment to surprise him on his birthday, and discovered he'd been having an affair for most of the tour. As she said to me through her tears, "It would be one thing if it was a drunken one-nighter, Janis, but he took her on the bus!" He humiliated his wife in front of the singer, the band, the crew, and as far as she was concerned, everyone else in the world.
If you get a crush try to recognize it for what it is. Performers with many years' experience know the difference between a crush and falling in love. They understand that the road is a different reality, one whose edges fray when you get home. So try to go home and spend a few days in your "normal" environment before acting on it and involving third parties. Of course, if the road is your normal environment, this is harder than it looks...
Affairs with managers, producers and the like are deceptive, since most of us regard those as working partnerships where we're not technically "the Boss." Think on this - if you're not the Boss here, who is?
Your family back home will find out, sooner or later. Yep, it's inevitable. I know you don't believe that, but trust me on this one. And they will not be happy.
If you're feeling trapped by the road, by your talent, by your life, remember that they're all temporary conditions. Everything will be different in a year. To quote Welsh singer Martyn Joseph, "Freedom is not the ability to do anything you want, whenever you want. Rather, it's the ability to say 'No' to something you desperately wanted to do."
If you do... be graceful. When it's over, by doubly graceful, and hope they'll do the same. Don't make promises you can't keep, don't believe in promises that are too good to be true. There will be another tour, and another life for you. Try to make sure the other person involved will have those choices, too.
The problems with sex on the road are obvious. As Thomas Wolfe said, "It's easy for me to find someone to sleep with, to make love with. But to find a woman who can read my writing and type my manuscripts, that's a different story." Sex is easy to come by. Even love, if you get down to it, is usually easier to come by than finding the right manager. That alone should be a good reason not to sleep with your staff. If you have someone at home whom you trust and who trusts you back, when you get home after a casual alliance on tour there will be an abyss between you that cannot be crossed. And if you're conducting a road affair while others watch, you have put them in the impossible position of having to lie for you, constantly, while demanding they be honest with you to your face.
The plusses with sex on the road should also be obvious. Someone once said to me, "There is a price for everything, so long as you're willing to pay it." Just be willing to pay it.
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