“What Drives Us” tells the stories of some of the biggest artists in music, recalling the romance and adventure, as well as the idiocy and chaos, of their time on the road. While the world has changed, the custom has not changed. There is no other way to know whether you can make it in this business. You have to get in the van.
With all due respect to country singer-songwriter Roger Miller, Mike Watt is the true “king of the road.” In “What Drives Us,” the punk-rock vet talks about the lengths to which he’s gone to make a living as a musician — a pursuit that’s required him to get in a van and motor from one town to another, never sure of how many people might show at a concert or what he might encounter along the way. His balance from a 2019 trek, one of more than 100 tours the bassist has endured: 45 gigs, 45 days, 13,380 miles. The Minutemen cofounder sat behind the wheel for the entire trip.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Credit Jack Kerouac for instilling the wanderlust when I read “On the Road” in high school circa 1980, though my mother would have said “blame,” given that it spurred an atypically irresponsible urge to abandon home, job and all commitments to climb in the van. Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” helped, too — “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold” — but I was never that irresponsible. Psychotropics weren’t necessary for what Kerouac called “the restless search for kicks” and Thompson deemed “a savage journey to the heart of the American dream.”
Being part of a touring band can be exhilarating, a nonstop string of gigs in a new town every night. But at the start, the material rewards are often slight: Long hours far from home for barely enough dough to pay for gas to make it to the next club, while coping with broken drive shafts, lousy food and surly club owners. Yet generation after generation, this is how bands often begin their journey, inevitably leading to a bounty of vivid memories and hard-won experiences that can’t be acquired any other way. Here are a few songs that put us in the driver’s seat of the tour van.
The Guns N’ Roses lineup that recorded the iconic “Appetite for Destruction” album (1987) and gained worldwide fame hadn’t been together even a week when the members set out on their first tour in June 1985. With only one show to their credit, the band — vocalist Axl Rose, lead guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, guitarist Izzy Stradlin and drummer Steven Adler — would soon get a crash course in patience, tolerance and relationships on what became known as the “Hell Tour.”
The typical touring indie rock band has one more member than you think it does: the van. It's just as essential and omnipresent — and can be as temperamental — as anyone in the group, which is one reason why it often gets a nickname, like a ship. It's why the tour van is a major character in my book about the American indie rock community in the '80s, “Our Band Could Be Your Life” — virtually every chapter includes an episode with the huffing, puffing metal boxes that transport grassroots rockers and their clunky black boxes full of gear down our nation's highways and byways.