The annals of music history are rich with tales from the road — stories of questionable behavior, catastrophes in transit, run-ins with the locals, and shenanigans of the most bizarre and extreme order. Who could forget the infamous Led Zeppelin mudshark incident, or that time Frank Zappa was nearly killed when a crazed concertgoer, incensed by his girlfriend’s infatuation with the musician, pushed Zappa off the stage at London’s Rainbow Theatre?
These stories are the stuff of music history legend; they become mythologized, and some are even completely fabricated, like Robert Johnson’s crossroads meeting with the devil, or Ozzy’s Alamo urination.
Such anecdotes have become an art form, a time-honored tradition in the culture of any genre of contemporary music. Thousands of biographies and memoirs recount the exploits of musicians on tour. And the notion of the “crazy tour story” hasn’t disappeared as legendary musicians hang up their boots or pass on to that great gig in the sky.
A new crop of bands and artists has taken up this mantle, constantly refilling the anecdotal coffers with fresh tales of mayhem. Sure, there are sexed-up narratives to be told, but the typical “so I took her back to the tour bus” story only has so much mileage to it. Wilder is the violent episodes, the truly catastrophic stuff. And while the escapades of big-name artists can prove droll, those of grassroots, touring bands are often more intriguing.
Today, there’s an entire subset of the music industry, and innumerable careers, dedicated to chronicling such noteworthy events. Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, MTV News and TMZ — a dazzling array of media outlets keep us fully abreast of on-the-road monkeyshines of musicians from any stratum of fame, from one-hit wonders like Afroman, who recently made headlines for delivering a haymaker to a fan who was unlucky enough to be dancing behind him onstage, to superstars like Justin Bieber (no one’s forgotten what you did in Germany, Biebs). Outside the realm of celebrity, though, musicians are still getting into trouble, and their tour stories continuously add to the canon of lore that has come to define the archetype of the traveling musician.
“This is what rock and roll is all about,” says “Evil” Jared Hasselhoff (real name: Hennegan), bassist for the raunchy pop-rock group The Bloodhound Gang (think, “You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals”►). He’s talking about a night in New Orleans 10 years ago, when he was working as a roadie on the Jägermeister Tour with Slayer, Archenemy, and Hatebreed. He tells this story between an anecdote about going to court to testify against some young punk (“this fucking ballbag”) who graffitied the Gang’s RV in Towson, Maryland, and a tale about filling his manager’s briefcase with old sushi one time in Berlin.
That night in New Orleans, the tour package was playing the House of Blues, and after soundcheck, Jared had gone to the Harrah’s next door to gamble a bit. “I made a huge mistake and had some mall sushi,” Hennegan says. The raw fish made Jared’s stomach churn and roil. He felt what he was sure was just a substantive fart building up, and he let ‘er rip. Unfortunately, Hennegan got more than he bargained for and his bowels voided themselves at that moment. “There was at least a solid cup of shit,” he claims. Jared’s stomach rumbled again and his gut expelled another wave of noxious waste. “It was everywhere,” he says. “It was, like, a quart of diarrhea.” Soiled, shit-stinking, and sick, Hennegan retired to his hotel room to lie down.
Several hours later, Evil Jared was back in action, hanging out with some other roadies in the venue’s VIP section. But the scene was grim: “No broads there; not a looker in the lot.” He grabbed the tour manager and headed to the bar next door, where they were soon approached by an enthused fan. “I think she’s half-Mexican, but she’s pretty hot,” he says.
“Yo, I know you work with the bands,” the girl proposed. “I’ll do anything if you get me into the show.”
Now, you might think you know exactly what happened next, but if you’re picturing a sordid, back-room exchange, you’d only be half-right. Evil Jared handed the girl “a shot of insanity hot sauce,” which she put down without issue. Then she took another. Jared escorted her backstage to the VIP section and went back to his hotel room to watch TV, while the girl proceeded to attack with gusto the green room’s generously stocked open bar.
Two hours later, Hennegan was back at the House of Blues and had run into a hot-sauce girl. “This is the guy who got me in!” she screamed, hammered after a go at the open bar. She threw her arms around Jared and shoved her tongue into his mouth. “We weren’t really making out, more like she was molesting me,” Jared offers. She was sloppy, but that was hardly a deterrent. Wanting privacy, Jared took the girl through the back of the venue to a quiet area, pulled open a door, and stepped into a small room. “Even working for Jägermeister, making out with some pissed-up slapper in the middle of the VIP area is frowned upon.”
“I realize we’re in the trash room,” he says. The couple was literally surrounded by gargantuan piles of trash, heaped high and probably smelling like the contents of Jared’s underwear earlier that night. Things started getting hot and heavy between the two, and suddenly, the girl stopped the action to make a request. “I’m on the rag right now,” she said, before asking Jared to place himself someplace fairly uncomfortable. “She asked me to fuck her in the ass,” Jared says.
“I think she was from Memphis,” he concludes.
The Cinder Block Brawl
Daniel Bray, a Toronto-based photographer, was on the road with the hardcore group, The Holly Springs Disaster, when the tour ran into some trouble with the residents of Stouffville, a small town in Ontario. The tour package had played an “awesome” show, and the bands were loading out when “out of nowhere, a hail of rocks and chunks of red bricks came raining down on us.” The groups turned to see two kids chucking stones from an empty lot nearby, and sent four or five guys over to deal with the situation.
They broke Hayden’s leg! Bray heard minutes later. “One of the dudes named Hayden, from one of the Calgary bands on tour, went over there to stop these kids who were throwing bricks,” he says. “And one of them picked up a full-size cinder block and threw it at Hayden, and it broke his leg badly above the ankle.”
While Bray stayed with Hayden to administer some rudimentary first aid and help him into a fan’s car, the rest of the tour package went off in search of the culprits. Heading back to the venue, Bray saw a kid dash past him, holding a skateboard, with eight guys in hot pursuit. Bray followed.
“I’m not sure who got to him first,” Bray says, “but they caught up to him right behind the backstop for the ball diamond. They tackled him and had him up against the chain-link [fence], feeding him punches, in no time. Everyone else joined in as soon as they got there.” The entire tour package laid into the kid, using his skateboard as a weapon against him.
One guitar player broke his hand on the kid’s face. “You know those oil barrels that are used as big garbage cans?” Bray asks, “I saw one of those full of garbage dumped on the guy then the barrel thrown at him. We beat this guy up till he was limp.”
A few minutes into the beating, two cops watched from the safety of their squad car. “Alright boys, he’s had enough,” said one, emerging from his car to drag the bloodied youth away from the melee. “The other cop told us that this guy was the town’s biggest shit disturber,” Bray says. “He fucked with every single band that came to town, and no one ever did anything about it.” According to Bray, the cop was “stoked we put an end to [the kid’s] shenanigans and taught him a lesson.”
Greyhound to Hell
It’s not unusual to hear of out-of-town bands getting into altercations with local folk, especially in rural areas and red states. Once, while on tour, I nearly found myself the victim of a hate crime in Knoxville, Tennessee.
I had been working for a tiny record label on the 2010 Vans Warped Tour for six weeks, hawking my solo album in parking lots and spooning bags of ice while sleeping on the floor of our 15-passenger Ford van, “Connie.” The day after the Atlanta stop of the tour was to be an off-day, to give us time to make the drive to Cincinnati while those bands lucky enough to ride in buses had the chance to do some volunteer work. We woke up that morning in the empty parking lot of the festival grounds where the tour had stopped. We were freaked out. We’d heard gunshots nearby the night before.
We stopped at a gas station — where some guys pulled up next to our van and tried to sell us a VCR — and discovered the card we’d been using to gas up had expired. All we had was a couple of hundred dollars in the cash box, just enough to get the van back to our home base in D.C. The owner of the record label and I made the call to send the rest of our entourage back to D.C., giving them the cash to finance the trip. We would continue on to Cincinnati to shore up our contacts, as we assumed we’d want to get on the tour the next summer. We headed to the nearest Greyhound station to buy bus tickets.
Outside the station, we killed time waiting for our bus, crushing up Vicodin into a mason jar that’d once been home to moonshine-soaked berries. We mixed in some raspberry schnapps and some Svedka and drank deep, knowing we had a long ride ahead. We found a bum who sold us a $5 bag of weed, rolled a joint, and smoked in the van until we heard a knock at the window. It was two cops, who warned us this was a “rough neighborhood” and walked away.
As my buddy and I went to board our bus, a haggard-looking old man asked if we wanted to buy some Xanax, which we politely declined, as we were already pretty fucked up.
We got on the bus and, to our chagrin, the only two seats available were aisle seats directly across from each other. However, the seats weren’t entirely, well, available: the gentlemen taking up the respective window seats were so large that their torsos spilled over into our seats, leaving me and my buddy each with one cheek in the seat and one in the aisle. Uncomfortable as it was, it wasn’t long before we passed out.
I awoke at 5 p.m. at a bus station on the outskirts of Knoxville, irate and desperate for a beer. We had half an hour to kill, and I thought myself miraculously lucky when I found a bar right next door. But when I walked into the dank, dusky honky-tonk, I found myself in a scene akin to a classic movie. Every drunken day-shift worker put down his drink and stared right at me. These guys were white-bread, and I’m the kind of half-Indian who gets dark in the summer. On top of that, my tattoos were exposed and my beard was in full effect. “I’m going to die,” I thought.
As soon as I got my $1 Bud, this yokel sidled up to me and slurred, “Hey, brother, you better get off that Allah, man — it’s all about Jeeeezuss!”
“Oh. Oh no. No, I don’t like Allah. I love Jesus. I swear,” I swore. The man put down his beer and started to stand up; several of his peers did the same. I grabbed my Budweiser and made for the door, full beer in hand.
I made it back to the bus and on to Cincinnati in one piece. I was back on another Greyhound by 2 a.m. the next night, after paying a cabbie $10 to drive me over the bridge into northern Kentucky — where I’d stood in front of a line of cars at a drive-thru liquor and begged the cashier to sell me a fifth of whiskey. I didn’t tour much after that.
Detours and Disasters
Often, musicians on tour encounter pitfalls in the form of natural or man-made disasters — tempestuous weather, accidents, and calamities of every sort, ranging from mild delays to Almost Famous-esque transportation woes.
Geoff Bennington, the guitarist/vocalist of the Brooklyn indie-rock outfit Gillian, describes narrowly missing one such cataclysm while the band was en route to Johnson City, Tennessee. “I think it was only the second full day of our first time on the road together as a band,” he remembers. They’d almost reached their destination, driving south on I-81, when their phones began to buzz and flicker with messages announcing an area-wide tornado watch. “We had no idea what to do,” says Bennington. “We looked out the window and saw that [the sky] was, for the most part, totally clear and open,” so the band kept driving.
Minutes later, everyone’s phones lit up with a second emergency message, a tornado warning. The band drove on, watching as other motorists pulled over and switched on their hazard lights. “We’re fine as long as we’re not close to the exit for Route 21,” guitarist Paul Demyanovich said, trying to calm down the rest of the van’s occupants.
“The next sign we see says ‘Route 21, next exit’,” offers Bennington. “This also happens to be the road we have to take to get to Johnson City.” With no tornado in sight and their destination nearby, the band pushed forward. It didn’t take long for them to notice the broken signs and snapped trees littering the highway, so they got off 81 and made for the backroads.
“Suddenly, we could go no further,” Bennington says, “because a huge barn had been knocked over and into the road, along with some trees and power lines.” The van came to a halt as the band stumbled onto a harrowing, almost biblical scene: farm animals, loose, milled about in terror. In the middle of the road, an enormous barn lay in ruin, having dragged down a number of trees and power lines with it.
On the side of the road, people were emerging from storm cellars and damaged homes, their faces contorted in shock and dismay. “Apparently, we missed it by about two minutes,” Bennington says of the tornado. “Suddenly, I felt bad for discouraging that last quick bathroom stop we took that probably saved our lives with its serendipitous timing.”
As long as fans of music are willing to shell out their hard-earned money to see live performances, there’ll be occasions for artists to get into trouble, to get involved in situations they’ll end up recounting to friends, fans, and journalists. These few snapshots into the lives of touring musicians are mere drops in the bucket, pages in an elephantine tome of booze-addled tomfoolery, waylaid van trips, vicious tempests, and snafus involving the locals. Every tour story, every new bit of oral tradition, adds another layer to the lore of the itinerant musician and another episode in the vast history of on-the-road antics we’ve come to expect from bands the world over.
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