Published May 9, 2015 [Podcast link]
Wait, wouldn’t you rather listen? Reading is so 20th century, and besides, this is a transcript of an audio presentation that was meant to be heard with your ears. Follow this link to podcast happiness.
Well hello there. I am Michael Phillips, and THIS IS NOT A TEST. Did I mention that I’m writing a book? I’m pretty sure I did, but I kind of forget what I’ve talked to you about around here, and I don’t expect everyone listens to every episode, so if I’m repeating myself that’s just the way it’s going to have to be. So yes, a book, a memoir. Being American I pronounce the R because French words frighten us. Memoirs are tricky things unless you’re famous or you’ve accomplished something great or completely fucked up your life and the lives of everyone around you. Those are the three basic categories most of them fall in to. The focus of mine is my career in music, such as it was, and a bit about what made me the kind of person dumb enough to attempt such a thing. It’s tenuously titled “A Passport and a Clean Pair of Socks.” I figure it can fill a niche, a rock and roll memoir written by someone who never really succeeded. Most people who pick up an instrument never succeed in the way the world thinks of success, so maybe it will strike a chord with a lot of people. Get it? Strike a chord? Music? Hey, I could do this all day. But I won’t, don’t worry.
I’ve been writing this thing for years. Not because it takes years to write a book, it doesn’t, but because I get so sick of it, re-reading and re-reading and fixing and re-reading, that I get to a point where I can’t stand to look at it, so I put it away for a while and pick it back up when I really feel like jumping back in to it. Anyway, I’ve been working on the book again lately, trying to get this first draft tightened up and presentable enough to let a couple of people read it and give me their brutal feedback. Which I’ll likely ignore and just forge on in spite of all signs that I shouldn’t. But in working on the book this week I haven’t really had time to prepare anything for you here, so I thought maybe I’d read a bit of the book to you here now, in this place at this time, in lieu of the actual podcast type thing you really deserve. So here it is. You’re the first to hear it. The part I’m going to read is about two thirds of the way into the book, and at this point I’m doing sound for a reggae band here in Los Angeles and we’re heading to Europe for the first time to do a month’s worth of shows in Switzerland and France. It was the first leg of what was supposed to be a two month tour. Our tour manager was a Tunisian guy named Habib. I don’t think you need to know anything else to get where I’m going here, so let’s get started, shall we?
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The tour began like a beautiful dream. We drove our van up to the cargo hold of the Balair jet, loaded our giant airline container full of gear into the plane, then went back around through the terminal and settled in for the flight. We didn’t have any passport or visa hold ups, and or some reason, our flight was virtually empty, so we all had entire four-seat center rows to stretch out in. A luxury anyone who has ever spent 8 or 10 hours on a typical overseas flight can appreciate and envy. Most of us slept for the entire trip. It would be the last good sleep we would have for a month, but I expected as much, having done the punk rock tours. This trip didn’t have to be very fancy to be a hell of a lot more enjoyable than my previous experiences, and in a lot of ways it was infinitely more cushy and easy. Of course I anticipated it being just as bumpy in just as many ways – relentlessly grinding and draining. That’s just the reality of touring.
Let me say this up front though: there is no joy in life greater than that of cruising into a city you’ve never seen before in a rickety van full of stinky musicians. It’s especially sweet if you arrive on the morning of a work day and drive past thousands of people trudging toward their jobs. In those moments you can truly feel like a king. You are doing something that’s fun, you don’t have a boss – you are as free as someone can be in modern society. By benefit of your profession you have free reign to act like a fool, pissing into the soup of the straight world. They will never understand you, and you know that, and it feels good. You take on a swagger and look at the normal people of earth with a kind of pity. They will never know your freedom or glory. They will probably never sleep standing up or eat nothing but a piece of bread for days on end either. So they do have that going for them.
On this tour with Boom Shaka we had a kind of amplified version of rolling into town in a van working for us. We were rolling into town on a jet. Like rock stars. Until we got to the baggage claim and had to load all of our shit onto dozens of normal baggage carts, the kind designed for a few suitcases. That part was not so much rock star as roadie. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turned out that there was no way for us to move the airline container we’d bought. Even if we could have moved it, it hadn’t occurred to us that it wouldn’t fit into most of the vans we would be using. So we emptied the contents of the huge, expensive beast onto the carts, kissed it goodbye, and lugged everything out to the curb to wait for a van.
Traveling with a lot of sound gear is an exercise in masochism. There is a very good reason that the big bands pay a lot of money for road crews. Lugging a ton of shit around is unpleasant. Unpleasantness verging on self-imposed cruelty. The next time you feel weighed down by your traveling companion’s suitcases full of hardcover books in languages they don’t read or blow driers and shoes, imagine dragging an entire stage set up through a long string of foreign airports. Those suitcases will seem trivial.
We had not only our own stage gear, but a full PA system. Giant speaker boxes, mixing board, racks of power amps and again, no road crew. As it turned out we would only use the PA on a couple of dates in Switzerland. We had really brought it along for the African dates the following month. We were warned that there would not be the kinds of PA systems we were used to there, so we decided to bring our own and give the Tunisians a taste of sweet bass pumping sound. As we dragged the ridiculous pile of gear through the airport we had no way of knowing that it would be nothing but dead weight by the time we touched down on the mother continent.
After an hour or so, our large, comfortable van arrived and we piled our gear and ourselves in to it to make our way to Lusanne. I call it a “van,” but it was more of a small bus. A short kind of tourist bus that I imagine usually carried sightseers, but it was all ours. Score one for Habib. When we arrived in Lusanne we found that we wouldn’t be staying in a hotel, but rather a rented group of apartments. That would be the standard set up in Europe, and while we weren’t expecting it, it was comfortable enough. Two apartments, five bedrooms, two baths and two kitchens. There were only eight of us, so it was plenty of room. And the added benefit of the kitchens would soon make itself evident, as most of us didn’t eat meat and that seemed to confuse and offend the Swiss people.
The early signs of trouble were starting to crop up, but we chose to ignore them. You cannot undertake a trip such as ours without turning a blind eye to some of the ugly realities. If you didn’t, you would never leave home. When talking about the tour Habib had always talked about staying in “hotels,” when what he meant was rented digs such as the ones we were in. The quality of these rentals varied quite a bit. Some comfortable, some horrible. But English wasn’t Habib’s first language, so when he said “hotel,” in his mind, he was describing the apartments. It wasn’t an intentional deception, but it was only the first of many communication missteps that would eventually cause a whole heap of bad feelings. But for now the excitement of starting the tour made any little glitches seem unimportant.
Lusanne is on the shore of Lake Geneva, and the club we were booked in was a fancy “casino” that overlooked the lake. We had to walk to the club every night, and it was not a short walk. But what did we care – we were in Europe to play music! The first afternoon we arrived to set up and sound check and were suitably impressed by the fancy joint. We went inside and took in the large, round room, with a big dance floor in the center and seats and tables on the outskirts, near the walls. There was a small balcony on one side of the room, opposite another larger balcony that circled half the place.
Habib slapped me on the back and said, “Help me to carry this,” motioning toward the very large flight case that held our mixing board. I grabbed one end and followed him as he made his way toward the stairs to the large balcony. I stopped.
“Hold on man,” I said, “I don’t want to mix from up there.”
“Well man, is up there you have to be. This is what the owner say.”
“You should talk to him then, because I have to be on the same level as the band or the sound is going to suck.”
“Man, is perfect then! The band will be up also.”
“The band is being up there,” he said, shrugging toward the small balcony over the dance floor.
“You’re kidding, right? Do they know that?”
“I don’t know man, come on, this thing is heavy.”
They did not know, as it turned out, and no one was too happy to be crammed onto a small balcony suspended over the audience. It was a ridiculous set up, more suitable for a belly dancer or a puppet show than a band, but apparently it was a situation that the bands who played the Grand Cafe Du Casino had to deal with. Trevy told Habib that there was no way in hell the band was going to play from the weird and dangerous perch. But Habib introduced us to his standard response to problems such as these. It was something we would come to know well over the next couple of months. He would listen to complaints intently, looking concerned and nodding until you were finished. They he would shrug and raise his arms and say, “It is nothing I can do, man! Only do this for now, I will take care of it.” Meaning, just do the unpleasant and awful thing for now, humor them, I’ll fix it. But in the end, he never fixed anything. That was part of his charm.
So the band had to set up on the balcony. We carried everything up a narrow spiral staircase. When you first stepped on the balcony, it seemed to give way, like the soft floor of a trailer home. I tried to push the thoughts of the band tumbling down into a heap at the front of the dance floor out of my mind and go about setting up the gear. Mark and Owen were more than a little unhappy about working on the balcony. Everyone was, but those two were vocal about it. They raised their complaints in Trevy’s direction rather than at Habib as they probably should have, because it was Trevy’s band after all. He was the leader. Trevy tried to placate them, telling them that we would get it all straightened out and move everything down to the floor once Habib talked to the club manager. But they were having none of it, and a rift in the group was opened up at that moment, before they had played their first note in Europe.
It wasn’t just the death trap balcony, it was the culmination of a couple of years of minor grievances, friction and resentment. That they chose to express it there, six thousand miles from home, was unfortunate. But I don’t suppose they had any choice. The little annoyances that you can shrug off at home are magnified when you are trapped with someone for weeks at a time. Mark would resort to taking long walks every day. I usually tagged along with him, and we would head off in a different direction every day, intentionally trying to get lost. We always made it back. But we also discovered a lot of great things on those walks, because we were usually walking through neighborhoods, rather than the places that they normally herd the tourists into. I think the time away from everyone helped Mark, he seemed to ease up quite a bit when we were out.
The Grand Cafe Du Casino was a hot place. Very hot. Especially when it filled up with a couple hundred chain smoking Swiss nightclubbers. The cloud of smoke filled every room, but most conveniently, rose up to the balconies, so the band and myself worked in a perpetual cloud, not only at the Grand Cafe, but everywhere else as well, the entire time we were in Switzerland. The Swiss were also a very, how do you say – reticent people. Extremely reserved and poker-faced. It seemed to inconvenience them greatly to applaud, even half-heartedly. The physical exertion of bringing their hands together repeatedly wore them out and made them cranky. For one thing, it was difficult to smoke and applaud at the same time, so they usually chose to remain silent between songs. If they thought you were the greatest band they’d ever seen they might walk up to you after the show, stare at you with a blank face and say, “It seemed good. Thank you.” It was unnerving for the band to play to an unresponsive audience. They were used to the loud and appreciative crowds they drew in California. Not the uncomfortable silence or background noise of the crowd murmuring to each other that greeted the end of each song in Switzerland.
They were also used to playing one set. But minutes before they went on for the first time at the casino, Habib offhandedly informed us that they had to play three sets. Three one hour sets. That was show band territory. Original groups do not play three hour long sets. That’s the specialty of cover bands or hotel lounge acts. But Habib had agreed to the terms when he booked the dates. He knew it would be long nights of multiple sets, and that’s what it was at every stop in Switzerland. He neglected to tell us in advance because he assumed, rightly so, that we would tell him to go fuck himself with a rusty pitchfork and called off the tour if we knew we were expected to work three sets a night.
Mark and Owen were now doubly angry, realizing that they would have to spend several hours each night on the rickety balcony. Noel and Binghi were still trying to keep up morale and saying that it wouldn’t be so bad, that they could knock out three sets easily. Joel was off to the side somewhere brooding quietly, something he would continue to do for the duration of the tour. Trevy was caught in the middle. Knowing him, he was just as pissed about the situation as anyone was. But he had to listen to everyone’s complaints. It was only the first day, so he managed okay. But I knew that if he had to hear complaints about every bump in the road, he would not be able to take it for long.
Since the day I met Trevy on the mean streets of Topanga Canyon, I had spent nearly every day with him. Nearly two years worth of days. We always had some band or musical project to do, somewhere to go, someone to see, and spending that much time together we got to know each other pretty well. So I knew where his breaking points were. But there was nothing I could do to stop any of the other guys in the group from complaining. And I complained right along with them – when it was all of us sitting around and bitching. That’s what you do. But I didn’t bring the complaints to Trevy, because none of it was his fault, and there was nothing he could do about it. Habib set it all up, Habib knew what it was going to be like, and now that we were all there, we had to deal with it.
But it seemed that in the eyes of half the group the tour already sucked before it had even started. I think having gone through a lot of the shit I went through with the Extreme gave me some perspective that they may not have had. Even considering the problems we had run in to so far, we were still a lot better off than I had ever been on a tour. But it’s difficult to explain something like that to people who are out on the road for the first time. They hadn’t yet had all their expectations crushed and mutilated like I had, so they were disappointed and angry at thing that they probably should have just tried to forget about.
So three one hour sets it was, up on the balcony of the club, playing to painfully bored Swiss statues. Working from 10 p.m. to 1:30 or 2:30 a.m. And work it was. After a couple of nights all the fire and excitement were drained from the band and they were on autopilot. Three plus hours of mixing was also quite tedious and dead boring. It became hard to rouse any enthusiasm, or do anything other than set the knobs and stand around waiting for it to be over. Any awe-inspiring tricks, dub effects and exceptional auditory showmanship I may have had were inspired by the group’s performance. If they weren’t into a gig, there was much less manipulation of the sound. Mixing skills would have been lost on that particular audience anyway, so the hours behind the board really dragged. As much as I would like to say something about keenly observant about the actual music the band was playing, there is little of it left in my memory. The Swiss shows became a blur of long nights and repetition, with very few memorable high spots. That kind of schedule just wears you down and sucks the joy from the music. We would never agree to do one show like that in Los Angeles, let alone three or four weeks of them. That kind of schedule is suicide, but we were there and it had to be done, so we did it.
I’m making it sound bleak, but there were definitely moments of fun, there always are when you find yourself in absurd situations. You have to make your own fun, even when your audience may be confused by it, as they usually will be. One of our gigs was at a festival in a large Swiss field somewhere. A huge stage and PA had been set up, with a tremendous tent covering the whole affair. It looked like it was designed to accommodate four or five thousand people. But is was only a few degrees above freezing that night, and most of the Swiss population stayed far away from the “festival,” snug in their warm A-frame ski lodge homes. So Boom Shaka played to an audience of maybe 50 people, scattered around a football field sized area. Halfway through the show Noel stepped up to the microphone and shouted at the top of his lungs, “HOW YOU DOING EUROPE!” It was hilarious, to me anyway, but the few dozen Swiss people trying desperately to stay warm did not seem to find any humor in it.
Typically on a tour you are awake early in the morning because you are always traveling. But because the Swiss dates were usually a week of shows in one venue, right from the start we had the luxury of sleeping until noon every day, so naturally we did just that. When we woke up in Lusanne we would go across the street to a restaurant called Michaelangelos. Habib had taken us there our first night in town, and he seemed very friendly with the people running the place. We never saw a bill that night, and Habib told us to go there to eat our meals. So we did. We ate every meal there. I was happy to do so, since on our second day in Switzerland, Mark, Owen and I had gone out to eat on our own, and while I thought I had ordered french fries, I got a large plate of cold meats instead. It could have been a language barrier, or it could have been that in Switzerland “french fries” means a plate of meat. Either way, I had to send it back, which really irritated our plump old Swiss waitress, so much so that she neglected to ever come back to our table. So I was content to eat the same thing at Michaelangelos every day: Pizza Marguerite. No one ever seemed to pay, and everyone assumed someone else was covering the tab.
That is until our last night in town when we were all eating there together and the owner presented us with the bill for the week. Habib seemed to shift into slow motion as he looked over the bill. His smile disappeared and his face became very pale. It must have been substantial. He then got into a heated argument with the owner, who shouted at us in French, which we didn’t speak, but it was very clear that what he was saying was that we should all get the hell out. He illustrated his point by grabbing those nearest to him by the collar and dragging them out of the booth. We all hit the door, but Habib remained in the restaurant for a long time. He finally emerged looking dejected and angry. “I thought it was on the house!” he said.
Think about that for a minute and you’ll have some idea of the sort of genius our tour manager/promoter was. How anyone could realistically expect a restaurant to feed 7 or 8 people for a week for no charge is beyond me, but apparently it seemed completely reasonable to Habib. “The first night he said, ‘on the house,’ you heard it, no? He said ‘on the house!'” I didn’t quite know what to say to that. But Habib had to leave a big chunk of our earnings for the week at Michaelangelos. We were only a week into the tour but it was already quite clear that we were being “managed” by a guy with a tenuous grip on life’s simple realities.
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Well, there you go friends. An exclusive sneak preview of my upcoming New York Times bestseller and Vanity Fair Book of the Year. Vanity Fair doesn’t even have a book of the year, but I imagine they’ll create the award when they get a load of this masterpiece. Yes, yes, yes. One of these days we’ll talk about book publishing and where it’s at these days. Like everything else it’s changed quite a bit since the Internet invaded. In good ways and bad ways. It’s a lot like the music business, where the big advance checks and tour support are largely gone and you’re pretty much on your own, even if you’re dealing with a major company. Thirty years ago if the publisher or the record company signed you to a contract they’d say, “Here’s what we’re going to do to promote you…” Now they say, “What can you do to promote yourself? How strong is your personal brand?”
I don’t know anything about the business of the big publishing houses, but I know about the record business, and if they’re at all the same in other ways, it’s probably a good thing that they’ve changed. A record company contract had always been just this side of indentured servitude, and I can only imagine that a big publisher also stacks the deck in their favor. So the new way of doing things, even though we haven’t really figured it out yet, may be better. Or it may end up being worse, no one knows yet. The future is unwritten! So what are you gong to do about it? See you next time. Pull your socks up!