I finally got to see some Canadian money that day when a bunch of us went wandering to find some lunch. Canadian money was colorful. Montreal felt much more like we were in a different country than Toronto had. Maybe it was all the French. I think some people had been there before and led us through the Montreal Metro to a historic section of town.
The venue itself was historic in other ways. This was, to hear the security guards who were shooting the breeze with Antonio, the equivalent of Yankee Stadium for Canada. Their winningest hockey team had won lots of their championships here. Also, a bunch of live albums were recorded here. That perked my ears up because it probably meant good acoustics, which you don’t always get in a hockey rink. Rush did a live album there, and so did Queen. And Bowie broadcast a concert from there a few years before on worldwide radio.
We spent the rest of the afternoon doing press, some of it with translators, which was weird, but necessary, I guess. Most of that happened at the venue, where we were setting up, though the show wasn’t until the next night. No hotel this time, we stayed overnight in the buses at a park by a lake.
That meant a bunch of us hung around up there instead of going into the city that night. We had a kind of tailgate party between the two band buses, where we set up a little hibachi grill and sat around playing guitars and mandolins and singing songs with the other bands and the crew, and that was probably the best party we had the entire tour. The stars came out, and it was great weather. It had hit maybe just eighty that afternoon and was maybe seventy that night. In Canadian terms that was like 27 and 22 degrees, I think?
I sang a song with Ziggy, where I just played a riff I had been working on, and he sang something out of his inventory of stuff he was working on, and pretty much a whole song came out of the jam. But most of what we did was just folk songs and Beatles songs and stuff that people could jam on together. Everybody seemed as relaxed as I was. We went through a couple of bottles of wine but no one was really motivated to go get more.
At one point I took a break to rest my hand, but other people kept singing, and I went to the edge of the water and threw rocks in. Marty had the headlights of the bus on, pointed across the flat lake. Don’t ask me why throwing rocks was so satisfying. I skipped some of them, but I wasn’t really trying hard to. Just winging them into the water was enough.
Bart came over after a while and then we took turns throwing rocks. It sounds stupid, but at the time it felt really good.
Some time after that I was sitting on a log with Louis.
“You’re such good kids,” he said.
“What brought that on?” I asked.
“That didn’t sound like nothing.”
“Well, okay, I was thinking you’re so young but you handle yourselves so professionally. That’s not true of every touring musician, you know.”
I wondered if maybe he hadn’t heard about how Ziggy and I had literally run away from a promo party. “I just want to do it right,” I said.
“Well, you’re doing something right. Maybe more bands will be like you, too. I see it all around. I mean, look at pro athletes.”
“Yeah, come on, in the fifties and sixties, guys were always getting tossed in jail for shenanigans and they had curfews on the teams and you know, taking a baseball team on the road was worse than taking a group of delinquent teenagers. But now that they’re making millions of dollars, they take better care of themselves. They don’t have as many alcoholics.”
“I’d like to think I’d approach it the same whether millions of dollars were at stake or not,” I said, looking out over the still, dark water. “And we’re not in the millions camp yet, anyway.”
“If you keep it up, you could be, though,” Louis said. “I know, this is that tricky stage, you don’t know if you’re going to turn into a perennial thing, like Remo and Nomad are, or if by next year you were fad of the week. Let me tell you, though, seriously, this is the biggest tour I’ve done with so few people.”
“It’s not even two full months…”
“Oh I don’t mean the length, I mean the size of the places you’re playing. Some pretty big halls for a crew this size.”
I don’t think he could really see my face in the dark. “Did that worry you when you first saw the plans?” This was the first time he’d said anything to me about it.
“Carynne and Digger reassured me it would work. They told me hire as many guys as I needed and let Barnaby handle the rest. They told me we’d have local support, too. I said okay. I’m glad you hired more security, though.”
“Yeah.” I couldn’t see his face either. “How many people usually crew a tour like this?”
“Eh, like I said, you’re on the bubble. If you played all these same venues plus just a few bigger stadiums? Sometimes you’d have a crew of forty at least. But then I look at your equipment. Some guys tour with twenty guitars and their guitar tech is like the master of a race car pit crew. You’ve got what, two guitars?”
“Two,” I agreed. “Well, four, because there’s a backup of each.”
“And you don’t change your strings every day, and you don’t have a complicated amp setup either.”
“So I can see why they thought we could go out without an entire circus train. No pyrotechnics, no ridiculous stage constructions…”
“Like Stonehenge?” I admit it. I invoked Spinal Tap.
“Like Stonehenge,” he agreed, quite serious. “And you’re right, it’s just a two-month tour. If it was a six-month thing, you’d need more people because this crew is going to be so burnt to a crisp.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“Nah, not really. Many hands make light work. But you gotta feed ’em all, get ’em from place to place, gas all the buses, et cetera. I don’t know what the bottom line is, but I have to think you’re doing well. Every place has been sold out, merch has been brisk, and your expenses are a shoe string.”
“Nomad keeps everything minimal, too,” I said. “And Carynne and I both cut our teeth on the road with them.”
“And Remo’s a cheapskate, too,” Louis said with a chuckle. “You ever notice how there are never enough hotel rooms to go around?”
I laughed. “Yes! Oh god, yes.”
“And he makes it out like it’s some kind of mistake, and then once he sees everyone gets along, bam, that’s the deal.”
“Aha. Yes, that’s exactly how it was. I didn’t really know any better but now that I think about it, why didn’t he just say, hey, everyone we’re doubling up to save money?”
“Beats me. Think about it though, if you figure a hotel room is a hundred bucks a night on average, and he cuts the reservations from say 25 rooms down to twelve, that’s basically like earning an extra $1200 every night. Say you’re on the road for a month. That’s…” He trailed off while he did the math in his head. “Say thirty days, that’s going to be $36,000 a month. Now say you’re on the road half a year. Now we’re talking a savings of let’s see, six times six times six, over $200,000. Say you’ve got four band members like you guys. That’s over fifty grand you’d be earning, each.”
“Fifty grand we’d be saving,” I said.
“In this case, it’s earning,” he insisted. “That’s how you have to think about it. All the money that comes in? That’s all your earnings. Yes, you have to pay expenses from it, you pay guys like me and everything else. But every dollar you don’t pay in expenses, you earned.”
“What about bands who lose money on the road?” I asked. “You’re doing it to boost record sales.”
“Yeah, but you only get a tiny piece of record sales. BNC makes the lion’s share of that money, you know that. Come on, numbers. They’re not that hard. Say the record goes platinum and you sell a million copies. You’re getting what, a dollar per sale? And splitting it four ways? Five ways, because you pay your management. So you’re getting twenty cents. Gee, that’s the same $200,000 you earned just from doubling-up your hotel rooms in six months on the road. Or, even better, doing it without hotels at all, and just buses. Or how about spending that money, if you’re going to, on a custom stage setup with full crew for setup and teardown? Expensive, and time-consuming, but you can do more with it.”
“More like what?”
“Like we could build lights into the stage itself, for one, into the drum riser and have them set in the floor, so then when something lit up in your face it would be that. But that’s something to think about for next tour, next album, if it gets even bigger than this. But anyway, what I was saying about album sales, yeah, you can bust your ass on the road to sell a million albums and barely get the same money from that you earn just by having bunk buddies.”
“I see what you mean.”
“And those album sales aren’t guaranteed. The shows? Boss lady knew how many tickets were sold before you even started rehearsing. The shows are really your money, not the record company’s money.”
“Which is why record companies don’t want to shell out for tour support sometimes.”
“Exactly. Do you know how much BNC put in?”
“No idea. I know Digger said we got everything we wanted, though.”
“Well, that’s good. In the end, if it works, it works for everybody, because if you don’t tour and the album flops, they really look bad. They really want you out here selling yourselves to sell the record. It works when it works.”
It works when it works. That sounded like the line from a song. I tried to keep it in my head for later. I also tried not to think about how some bands could literally be throwing a quarter-million dollars out the window every year, just to have separate hotel rooms for themselves and crew. I tried to imagine working with a group of people who hated each other that much. I guess when you’re making enough that a quarter-million can be squandered, maybe you can work with anybody.
I said a little prayer then, into the dark, starry sky above the lake: never let it be like that for me. For us. I’d rather be happy than rich.
At midnight a policeman or park ranger or something came and told us we had to put out the hibachi fire. It was pretty much out by that time anyway, but we took that as a signal to go inside the buses.
In the back, I found Ziggy holding his throat.
“Fine,” he said. “Singing in the barbecue smoke made me a little rough. Going to gargle.”
He shut himself in the head with a bottle of Listerine.
Carynne and I exchanged looks, then shrugs.
Everything in the bus smelled sort of pleasantly like wood smoke for the next couple of days.