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.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Lodi”:
John Fogerty well knew that playin’ in a travelin’ band wasn’t always a joy ride. For many bands, the search for a pot of gold ends up in a ditch. Even as CCR was breaking big, Fogerty remembered the endless one-night stands that made him question whether it was ever going to happen for him and his bandmates.
The Long Ryders, “Looking for Lewis and Clark”:
Not for nothing did this Los Angeles country-punk band name its 1985 anthem after the intrepid explorers who charted the newly acquired Western territories in the United States’ infancy. For an indie band in the ‘80s, the club circuit was still virgin territory, brimming with promise and pitfalls.
Jawbreaker, “Tour Song”:
The opening voicemail message sounds like a report from the front lines of a war zone. “It’s Sunday, we’re broken down in the top of Massachusetts looking for a hotel room. Show’s off. It’s pretty heavy.”
AC/DC, “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)”:
Few songs so honestly, hilariously and exuberantly mash-up the travails and triumphs of a rookie band speeding into the unknown. “Gettin’ had/Gettin’ took/I tell you, folks/It’s harder than it looks.”
Indigo Girls, “Get Out the Map”:
Sometimes life at home becomes too much and you’ll do just about anything to split town — now. All we need is our guitars and a map. Start your engine!
Fu Manchu, “Boogie Van”:
A celebration by and for stoner-rock dudes who favor wallet chains, guitar fuzz and shag-carpeted rides. Cue Deep Purple on the eight-track.
Neil Young, “Tonight’s the Night”:
“Bruce Berry was a working man/He used to load that Econoline van.” Young pays tribute to a loyal roadie who died young.
Wayne Hancock, “Drive On”:
When you’ve got to get to the next gig with nothing but 10 hours of pavement ahead, you “ain’t stoppin’ for nothing but cigarettes, gas and coffee.”
Iron Maiden, “Wasted Years”:
Even metal golden gods have moments of doubt and regret on the road, as when Bruce Dickinson laments all that he missed back home while “another city goes by in the night.”
Alison Krauss, “Endless Highway”:
Counting the heartaches with every passing mile.
Bottle Rockets, “Indianapolis”:
The van breaks down, again, and now you’re left wondering, “Is this hell or Indianapolis with no way to get around?” At least the band got a country-rock stomper of a song out of it.
Silkworm, “Miracle Mile”:
A tragicomic tour diary. The indignities pile up as the band plays one half-empty hole-in-the-wall after another for 15 bucks a night. Bonus points for the guitar solo that sounds like a cold, lifeless van engine sputtering back to life.
Iggy Pop, “The Passenger”:
In the Stooges, Pop and his bandmates barely survived a diet of audience indifference and record-company cluelessness. Yet the singer still manages to find wonder as he looks out his window while riding “through the city’s backsides” and glimpses “the stars…bright in a hollow sky.”
Motorhead, “(We Are) The Road Crew”:
As a former roadie himself, Lemmy Kilmister knew first-hand the rigors of being a nobody carting gear from town to town for meager reward: “Eating junk, feeling bad/Another night, I’m going mad.”
Supersuckers, “Roadworn and Weary”:
A country-ish campfire song about that moment when a band realizes it’s gone “one too many miles” and has had just about enough.
Bob Seger, “Turn the Page”:
Long before he was filling arenas, the Detroit mainstay was a rock ‘n’ roll troubadour who attracted stares — or worse — in every town he pulled in to, a long-haired vagabond “strung out from the road.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Travelin’ Band”:
After years of criss-crossing the country in search of an audience, CCR remained a travelin’ band. But instead of a car or van, they were traveling like the rock stars they had become in a Boeing 737.