“You will be the only lady on board.”
My friend Gene stresses this point when he offers me my first roadie job. And I’m so thrilled by the idea of going on tour that I’m undaunted by the warning I detect in his voice. After having spent a year seeking meaningful employment in my recently adopted hometown of San Francisco, Gene’s job offer holds real promise.
The band is a known commodity from my New York punk rock days, the testosterone-fueled mosh pits of my youth. That scene doesn’t scare me. I’ve been the only lady plenty of times, as a bass player and lead singer in a handful of bands, and doing administrative work for music festivals. But I’ve never been the only lady in a traveling entourage, living cheek to cheek with a pack of guys in the cramped living quarters of a tour bus for two straight months.
“Just think of it as an extended family outing with a bunch of cousins you’ve never met,” says Gene, whose real name, like the others in this piece has been withheld to protect his privacy. That’s his way of advising me to steer clear of road romances. I don’t think he needs to. Internally, I’m already rehearsing my reassurances to my boyfriend that he has nothing to worry about. I tell myself I have nothing to worry about. At 25, I’ve worked hundreds of shows. I’ve mastered the dodge of the unwanted pass, and I’ve also had many casual flings. At the moment, I’m enjoying the predictable ease of a settled, stable home life — I’m not looking forward to a road romance. I’m looking forward to testing my skill set on a new playing field. And I’m hot on the idea of flexing my feminist muscles in what’s considered a distinctly male role.
Gene is a top-tier tour manager and soundman, and as his assistant, I’ll be well trained for future road work if I want it. I already own the uniform: black jeans, Doc Martens, and loose black T-shirts that downplay my curves. I’ll avoid looking sexy or cute. I will carry my own weight. I will not flirt. I’m determined to be the incidental female.
The tour bus is decked out in mirrors and dark velour, a glitzy ’80s disco on wheels, with a front and back lounge, kitchenette and micro bathroom, all expertly engineered to accommodate a traveling party of 12. We sleep in triple-decker bunks split by a shoulder-width strip of hallway. On day one, I feel like the sole frontierswoman in a band of outlaws.
Long show days unravel into ragged all-night drives. Members of the crew commandeer the back lounge for porn parties that end in giddy circle jerks, audible from my tiny bed. I fumble for my earplugs, trying to escape into a book. Tucked inside my flimsy blanket cocoon, I’m bothered more by the feeling of exclusion than their raunchy giggling. I envy their easy bond: the kind of camaraderie that eludes the only lady on board. Times like these solidify my sense of otherness. I know that around me, the guys act differently — speak differently, behave differently, try to tone down the locker-room banter. I wish they wouldn’t bother.
In the mornings, a chorus of alarm clocks stirs our zombie team, rumpled and smelling of beer and sweat. I try to be the first one up in order to avoid the tussle at the bathroom door. On show days, I set up our office inside the venue. While the crew spends all day humping gear, I deal with guest lists, dressing-room hospitality, incoming and outgoing laundry, any pending hotel issues, and replenishment of everything from bass strings to Visine, tube socks, cigarettes, and whatever else anybody might need. This means that when our guitar technicians want to bait eager fans intent on meeting the band, they come to me for extra backstage passes. I’m complicit in their best chance of getting laid. When they miss the wakeup call, it’s my job to round them up and make sure they’re all on board before the bus pulls away. There’s no reciprocal caregiving here, no way for them to scratch my back. I feel more like their babysitter than their friend.
Our bus driver, Chuck, is a potbellied biker who looks straight out of ZZ Top. On day three, he catches me off guard, alone on the bus, and sweetly thanks me for my “positive female influence.” He appreciates that the guys are keeping the bus tidy, and credits me with the lack of strewn skivvies and food trash. From then on, Chuck is my buddy. He addresses me as “Little Lady” without irony or crudeness, and I’m comforted by his paternal ways. Chuck is married and has fathered a small tribe: “Two generations of proud rednecks,” he calls them. But he’s spent 20 years driving buses, essentially alone, so I’m honored by his invitation to ride shotgun in his quiet company, with the crackle of his CB radio, rolling over endless waves of road.
We don’t discuss his numerous lady friends. In Austin, there’s the redhead in the yellow cab outside the backstage door, where I happen to be catching some fresh air. Chuck sees me watching and smiles, as if affirming some agreement we haven’t actually made. In Memphis, I’m loading leftover beers into the bus bays when a middle-aged blonde in a black Mustang pulls up, and the door opens to let Chuck out. The warmth in his “Bye, darlin’, I’ll be seein’ ya,” says he means it, just like he’s meant it before.
I learn to recognize his swagger on the nights he hasn’t slept alone. But unlike the other guys, who announce every conquest as if someone’s keeping score, he doesn’t flaunt his liaisons. Chuck has a certain ease about his practiced infidelity. It makes me question my initial skepticism about his loyalty to his wife. I overhear the way their phone calls ooze with tenderness, even in their mundane chats about their kids, their dogs, and all the household maintenance issues waiting for his return. I trust that after so many years of nights spent apart, he and his wife have come to an equitable understanding.
One year and three tours later, I’m tour managing Jordan’s band, living out of a dirty van with his adorable young trio and a soundman, sleeping in cheap motels and chasing a caravan of buses that belong to the headlining act. The tour, originally slated for two months, has stretched to five with no end in sight, because the headliner’s girl-power anthems are topping both the rock and pop charts, throwing our little club tour into arena mode. Meanwhile, Jordan has fallen in love with the headliner, and she loves him back.
Most nights, Jordan and his superstar steal away, entrusting her bandmates to mollify the rabid fans. When I need him to return to our piddling entourage, I interrupt their trysts with our secret knock: a two-fisted knuckle roll that sounds like castanets. She’s become so recognizably famous that her tour manager employs impersonators to confuse the crowds of fans who await her arrival and departure. This same tour manager travels with a cigar box stuffed with a raw cow’s liver, which he uses as a masturbation toy. He calls the box his “girlfriend,” a substitute for his living, breathing fiancée back home. I know this because while Jordan is fucking his superstar girlfriend in locked dressing rooms and darkened venue hallways across America, I have an all-access pass to her pop star world.
Four months into this routine, I’m tired of my mother hen act. And I’m tired of traversing the nightly floods of adulation, the outpourings of unrequited love, none of it aimed at me. Jordan and his boys prime the hordes of screaming fangirls, egg them on, strut and pout and tease. They adopt the sultry stage moves of the headliners’ more seasoned players, and the crowds eat it up. Watching each performance from the wings, I’m mesmerized by all those beaming faces, so worshipful and ripe, begging to be noticed by whoever is on stage. I’m stuck watching the orgy from the outside, and I want a turn at lusty playtime. I want to be adored.
So I start to invite the attention I crave. I flirt with security guards and local crew; I accept stiff drinks from lascivious promoters and record label reps. I alter my attire, adding slinky polyester button-down blouses in loud vintage prints to my old gender-neutral wardrobe. And the superstar’s drummer starts shooting hungry glances my way.
On a typically boozy night off in a hotel bar, the party ends when he and I sneak away. We land in his room, on his plush king-size bed, making out to Radiohead like a pair of teens in heat, with teasing tongues and groins grinding double-layered denim. I reach for his fly and he grabs my wrist. “We should stop,” he says. Which stuns me. The thought of me not measuring up to whatever set of standards guides his myriad nightly hookups is crushing. We both pull back. He locks me in a sad puppy stare and explains, “You’re the kind of girl I’d fall in love with. And I just can’t.”
Now I’m insulted and annoyed. His words sound like utter bullshit. Love is not supposed to enter this equation.
I’m not looking for commitment or romance. I just want to stop feeling sorry for myself. I want an unapologetically noncommittal hookup, same as the guys. I really want to get off, and I can’t believe this boy who’s been screwing his way across America right under my nose for the past several months is rejecting me on the pretext of love. I pull myself together and angrily ask if he’s serious, before dashing away, too dizzy to bother with his answer.
Days later, when it’s become clear to everyone that the drummer and I are no longer on speaking terms, I take the opportunity of a family-style preshow dinner to quip loudly, “I guess I’m just too much woman for him.” But for the remainder of the tour, his face is a reminder of my solitude in the midst of so much flesh.
Several tours later, I’m having an affair with Phillip, a married man. His band is on a tight budget, so we’re all doubling up in hotel rooms. It starts the night Phillip says, “Come lie with me. Aren’t you lonely? The road’s so fucking lonely.”
Of course I feel it too, all the time, in our bizarre state of constant company. But I hesitate, certain this will lead to toxic guilt, blame and doubt, all of which will tarnish any momentary pleasure. I know that I don’t want to be the other woman, the reviled homewrecker. But Phillip wraps his burly arms around himself and starts to moan, and I hate how sad he looks. I want to switch it up. I want to let it all go. So I surrender to the pull of lying next to him, of holding him and letting him hold me back.
In public, Phillip and I are bosom buddies who paint each other’s nails and prattle on about the movies that we stay up all night watching. We make an affable pair, and no one seems suspicious. In private, we make no room for remorse. We refuse to forecast any mess or pain. We wallow in what almost feels like love.
It ends when the tour does, when we return to our separate, stable homes. I picture Phillip lounging with his loving wife, nuzzled on a comfy couch, catching up on movies that she’s saved for his return. My home life is less idyllic. In my absence, my boyfriend has become enthralled with video games. I struggle with reclaiming his attention, and am convinced this is my rightful punishment.
Phillip tries to stay in touch, but I delay responding when he writes or calls. When I’m on tour again, we meet up in his hometown and I sloppily spill my truth: That I never wanted more than what the road afforded us. “So you used me,” Phillip accuses, prepared for battle. But I can’t absorb the blow. I’m liquored up and working the wrong side of a familiar scene. I callously reply, “I thought we were using each other.” Which isn’t meant to hurt him, but clearly does.
It’s been 10 years since my last tour. Now I’m the married one. A wife and mother, the author of half-written songs and fractured manuscripts, primarily caught up in the chaos of family life. The old skill set I mastered on tour now serves a multitude of redundant, mundane duties, a dull hypnotic hum of domestic tasks. My role as family manager falls shy of satisfaction. I deeply miss the unpredictability and adventure of the road, and mourn the loss of my independence. Most days it feels like my entire identity is at stake.
Finally, I decide to dip a toe back in the pool. I barter a rare night off to see a rock show, and slip backstage to lay eyes upon a favorite old flame. It’s been years since I last encountered Avi, decades since we first met after one of his shows, long before I ever hit the road.
We were both in bands then, both remarkably cute; it had been easy to fall hard, but hard to stay in touch, back before the advent of cell phones. So we saw each other on and off, when geography allowed, even met up once or twice when we were both on tour and our itineraries miraculously overlapped. With my family fast asleep an hour’s drive away, I stumble into his crowded dressing room, overcome with nerves.
He spots me from across the room and lures me with his eager grin, through the hot swamp of bodies that divide us. I try to hide my thrill when he says, in a voice that’s never failed to melt me, “It’s really good to see you, girl.” I answer coyly, “You look great,” at a loss for better words. The human tide swells around us, allowing us just a few short beats before engulfing him and edging me aside. Reduced to another member of the crowd, I linger briefly and then slip away.
The next day, I tweet a rave review of Avi’s show, and he reacts with a private message: “What’s your number?” It’s like a pebble smashing glass, shattering all my fixed routines. The mere idea of his desire sparks my imagination: I invent an illicit correspondence, lasting weeks, then months, ending in a libidinous reunion. I am primed for a grand seduction, in the flicker of warm candlelight, when Avi saves me from myself. “We’ve made very different choices,” he says, reminding me how clearly I’d once seen myself in him — and how content I’d been, for all those years, to be his lady friend.
This is as far as my invention goes. Without regret or shame, I lean back and let the road float between us.