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.
While pop culture tends to portray touring life in a glamorous light — party like a rock star! — Watt’s experience parallels those of countless artists. For every Led Zeppelin that zoomed around in private jets or zipped past cornfields on a luxury bus, there are a thousand bands that piled into a rusty car or van and turned it into a home. The likelihood of an upstart group like the quartet portrayed in the fictional film “Almost Famous” traveling in a spacious coach and prop plane? Pure fantasy. Narratives relayed by the likes of Ben Harper and L7 bassist Jennifer Finch in Dave Grohl’s documentary lack Hollywood’s glitter-dust mystique but tie into a richer story — one that, in lieu of COVID and shifts that began before the pandemic, may be nearing a conclusion.
Stretching back to pioneers such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, hitting the road has been intertwined with the history, development and dissemination of rock ‘n’ roll. The establishment of the Interstate Highway System in 1956 helped spur the music’s spread and popularity. Until then, the idea of a performer leaving a locale and playing other parts of the country — sometimes reachable only via dirt and gravel back roads devoid of many gas stations — wasn’t feasible.
By the mid-1960s, however, an expanded network of paved roads designed to expedite speed, prioritize safety and connect urban hubs transformed how music was consumed and how bands connected with audiences. Another critical early ‘60s invention? The passenger van.
A majority of touring bands play for gas and food money; if they’re lucky, they sell a few T-shirts or LPs at shows.
Larger and more rugged than cars, vans provided efficient, adaptable transportation that could carry humans as well as the gear — instruments, amplifiers, merch — necessary for performing a concert. Their relatively compact size meant they could pull up next to a venue for unloading and navigate dense areas starved for parking. They also doubled as places to crash. A majority of touring bands play for gas and food money; if they’re lucky, they sell a few T-shirts or LPs at shows. Staying in a cheap motel is as practical as members asking in earnest, “Are we there yet?” knowing that even when they arrive, they’ll soon be en route to the next destination.
Beyond the financial sacrifice, committing to such a lifestyle requires a willingness to embrace the unknown. For all the romanticism afforded by freedom and adventure, for all the bonding and patience forged by sharing claustrophobic spaces with smelly bandmates, the venture comes with no guarantee of graduating to even a modest comfort level: a towable trailer that frees up precious interior room in the van. And while cell phones and the Internet aided in the perennial fight against boredom, the road-weary ennui Bob Seger described in the song “Turn the Page” nearly 50 years ago remains as relevant now as staying focused during an all-night drive.
There is a logical parallel. In profiling musicians from several massively successful bands — AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Aerosmith — that paid dues via sit-in-the-van journeys, “What Drives Us” hints that the undertaking is akin to a baseball player toiling in the Low A minor leagues in hopes of one day playing in the majors. For decades, the system worked in the sense that beliefs in those prospects held firm. If a scrappy band wanted evidence it was possible to go from sleeping in shifts in a Ford Econoline to only using a van to go from an airport to a gig, it needed to only look at the stadium headliners.
Of course, not every artist that deserves a wider platform attains it. Yet heading into 2020, the chance existed, at least in theory. Groups still relied on networks established by ‘80s underground artists. The idea of locating supporters willing to lend a couch or floor for an evening also remained. The major difference? Bands stopped ascending to arena status.
“It’s 2019, and the biggest rock bands in the world are all the same biggest rock bands in the world that were [in] 1999 or 1989,” says Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich in the film. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, channeling similar comments from Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, makes the same observation. He jokes that in the late ‘90s a wall was erected around mega rock bands, but he sounds serious about the dearth of new rock ‘n’ roll groups that can put butts in stadium seats.
The drought’s repercussions on van touring — and its ability to let bands carve a career out of playing rock ‘n’ roll — are severe. Notably, the trend started well before COVID, which has thrown into doubt the survival of the small-to-medium-sized clubs on which burgeoning groups depend. Other changes illustrate the persistence of a significant transition that threatens to further diminish the role of the van ethos. The explosion in the past decade of destination festivals, and tendency for fans to pay for a smorgasbord approach as opposed to shelling out for a single show, triggered shifts in priorities and scheduling. Recent developments, like virtual concerts and the evolving ways in which groups connect with fans online, may jeopardize the need and appetite for in-person events.
Just as businesses have figured out alternatives to working in offices and attending conventions, musicians and promoters continue to devise methods to bring the live experience into fans’ living rooms — or wherever people can look at a phone. Webcast performances, a descendent of the pay-per-view events from the ‘90s and early 2000s, are already commonplace. More ambitious ventures seem imminent. Todd Rundgren recently completed a 25-date virtual tour in which the singer-guitarist performed on a stage in Illinois but aurally and visually tailored every concert to reflect what he would’ve done in each city on a traditional trek.
Taken together, the changes and innovations fuel a looming question: Is cramming into a van for two months or more still viable, or even necessary?
Watching on a screen isn’t the same as “being there” yet streamed broadcasts solve a host of longstanding etiquette complaints: Nobody ruins the experience by talking, blocking views, pushing, recording on a phone, spilling drinks, vomiting or worse. Online shows also eliminate geographical barriers and additional expenses, such as babysitters and parking. Taken together, the changes and innovations fuel a looming question: Is cramming into a van for two months or more still viable, or even necessary?
Radkey, one of the two newer bands in the film, gets ferried around in a rental van by the members’ father. It’s a heartwarming albeit privileged arrangement. Starcrawler, the other upstart, appears to treat the escapade with all the seriousness of teenagers freed from parental oversight: more as a fun escape, less as an occupation. Does either group possess what ex-Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler deems as the will to “lose it all”?
Foo Fighters, who close “What Drives Us” with a blowout performance amid a huge crowd and blazing fireworks, harbored that passion. The triumphant sequence feels earned and worth celebrating. What’s less certain is if the film’s feel-good celebration revolves around nostalgia, memories of what was rather than what will be, and if the heyday of van touring is in the rear-view mirror.