Secret Lives

Secret Life of a Rock and Roll Trucker

Before every epic set from the Rolling Stones or Rihanna, dozens of backstage heroes haul tons of gear across hundreds of miles so their stars can shine.

Secret Life of a Rock and Roll Trucker

“This oughta be fun,” Pete Henke thought as he waited for the last of the double doors to close and the long drive to begin. It was well past one-thirty in the morning on November 14, 2006; just winter enough for snow-thatched streets but still a temperate forty degrees as Henke and dozens of other truckers left the Idaho Center Arena — bound for Atlantic City. The young driver was raring to go with a compatriot in his cab, over 2,500 miles in front of him and less than forty-eight hours to traverse them.

The moon was just beginning to show its luminescence over Nampa, Idaho when the final push of gear hit the last of the trucks still docked behind the arena. The bulk of the load was heavy black rolling cases and open-air set pieces held tight by neon criss-crossed ratchet straps. A total of thirty-two trucks had embarked on this trek, with more being added at larger stops like Nampa—all in the effort of getting to the next stop even faster.

A cancellation the previous month had forced the Rolling Stones to reschedule their New Jersey stop, so now Henke and his crew were rolling back to Jersey posthaste. The unexpected cross-country trip was all because of the illness of one man: Mick Jagger. It was during the fall 2006 leg of the Rolling Stone’s “A Bigger Bang” tour that the charismatic frontman was hit with a throat ailment yet again. Jagger faced similar issues before and during this tour, developing a case of laryngitis so severe over the summer that it resulted in a complete restructuring of the band’s European portion of the tour. The problem this time was that the sore throat came on mere hours to doors in Atlantic City. At the urging of doctors, the show could not go on. The Stones called off their October 27 engagement even though all thirty-six truckloads of gear had been unloaded, set up, and made “show ready.”

In set-up alone, it took almost an entire workday to complete the innovative build — with rotating LED walls and an elaborate catwalk — from off-loading to final preparations. Instead, roadies and local stagehands found themselves rushing to re-load gear onto trucks as if the show had, in fact, gone on as planned. That night they rolled on, the many production crew members packed into sleeper buses filled with bunks and amenities. Save for the night owls and those aching to unwind before bed, the many teams that add lights, sound and video to the show would be slightly better rested than usual on the long haul as the truckers and bus drivers drove on.

Trucks typically get between four and six miles per gallon, an unimpressive stat until you consider all that they haul and the sheer size of their gas tanks: two 150-gallon reserves help propel as much as forty tons at a time, the absolute legal max an eighteen wheeler can take in the United States. Henke and his crew had fairly full loads heading from the Northwest to the East Coast, making for a mixture of keen aerodynamics and a whole lot of fuel spent to kick off that momentum. Owing to a time crunch like no other — attempting a thirty-six-hour drive in the span of just over two days — the trucks really only stopped to refuel. It was all they could afford while trying to beat the clock. Showering could wait. Sleep was an option while on a team run, at least. “We usually do run in packs, as it gives us someone to talk to,” Henke says.

His eyes heavy with fatigue, Henke swapped out with his partner. Giving a bleary-eyed assessment of his cramped quarters, the trucker couldn’t help but smile. “It has just about everything I need and a lot of things I don’t: TV, microwave, fridge and one heck of a view everyday,” Henke says, lamenting. “It is nice to get home and enjoy the company of friends and family and not have to set an alarm, though.” Henke is burly and bald, with tattoos lining his forearms and an expanding beard he’s grown substantially since his early days driving trucks in his teens.

At this point, he’d only been OTR — “over the road,” or driving without stops at home — while an entertainment driver for a little over half a year at that point. Aside from getting used to the rigors of going from shorter stints to the long haul of touring, Henke had to grow accustomed to sleeping in the cab of a truck, which he now considers more familiar than his own bed. Sleeping in such short bursts on a seemingly endless drive was a rarity, though. While most tour stops span maybe an evening of driving in between, this haul was different.

Following the Atlantic City debacle, Henke and his coworkers made the team run to New York City for two shows at the iconic Beacon Theater on Broadway. Once catering to vaudeville acts, the eighty-six-year-old venue now plays hosts to countless touring musicians. Its Grecian décor played perfectly idiosyncratic host to the band, who’d specifically chosen the location to shoot their Martin Scorsese-directed documentary “Shine A Light,” released in 2008. As fate would have it, Jagger was just well enough to perform both on- and off-camera.

That initial Sunday show at the Beacon Theater October 29 was especially meaningful given its audience. Former President Bill Clinton had reserved the venue for his sixtieth birthday party and his house band was to be the Rolling Stones themselves. Though proceeds went straight to the Clinton foundation to benefit HIV-AIDS patients around the world, tickets were certainly not cheap. According to the Washington Post, the invite-only bash spanned the entire weekend and cost as much as $500,000 for the full experience complete with prime dinner seating and a photo with the birthday boy. Their second show, just days later, was for the common fan.

After bringing the house down to ring in Clinton’s birthday, the band, Ticketmaster, LiveNation, and an unnamed promoter were sued by their Atlantic City fans, angry at what appeared to be the Rolling Stones shirking their responsibilities in New Jersey in favor of a major payout for the former President of the United States. A makeup date was quickly chosen to appease those who’d plopped down some serious cash in New Jersey, spending as much as $350 per ticket to hear “Beast of Burden” and other hits live.

This is how Henke ended up stuck on one of the longest drives of his career. The Atlantic City stop not only stretched the crew to their brink from Nampa to New Jersey, but forced them back across the coast to California right afterwards. The Los Angeles stop at Dodgers Stadium was subsequently moved by four days to accommodate the change as well as the extra trucks, this being a larger-scale production in a baseball stadium with a capacity of nearly 56,000 people.

The band and crew made the dizzying trek across the country nonetheless. Once again, they departed around one-thirty in the morning. Following the November 17 Boardwalk Hall show in Atlantic City, Henke and the drivers pulled out from the historic convention center by the beach and set their sights from East to West. Dodger Stadium would be an even further drive, but at least they had an extra day. Though fatigued by the road, Henke was happy just the same. He was seeing a side of the country rarely glimpsed by freight drivers. Commercial drivers hardly get the opportunity to hit city centers in their travels.

Lately Henke’s taken to spending more time exploring cities when he can, likening the experience to getting paid to be a tourist. The breakneck pace to make nearly 2,800 miles in three days didn’t allow for much adventure, however. The Stones had a massive show to play in Los Angeles: one that required even more gear than the thirty-six trucks would allow. “We usually had thirty-six trucks that went to every show and many more that did just the stadium shows,” Henke explains.

In just a week’s time, the Rolling Stones’ gear made it over 5,300 miles: first, to wow their Idaho fans at their first show ever in the Gem State and then back to Atlantic City to make things up to a crowd who’d so desperately clamored to see them that they’d sought legal action after being unable to. It was Henke and a full production crew’s efforts that helped make “A Bigger Bang” the second highest grossing tour of all time, seen by nearly 4.7 million fans and racking up over $550 million in earnings. Though Henke and his trucking cohorts oversaw only North America, just as many drivers were awaiting the band in Europe for their many stops across the Atlantic. A majority of the production crew went on internationally, as is customary of larger tours, especially those with such elite personnel. “A Bigger Bang” was a massive, two-year affair spanning 2005 to 2007. Their grandiose hopes were to make each show larger than the grand events that set our universe in motion and they’d certainly done their damnedest.

Despite the many variables and unforeseen circumstances of life on the road, truckers tend to have a relaxed disposition. Growing up, Henke knew the value of composure at an early age. His father was a truck driver in his youth and Henke first started his career behind the wheel of a car transporter at nineteen. “I hauled cars, or as we say, ‘drove a parking lot around,’” Henke jokes. “I’ve always wanted to be a truck driver, as my dad had been one when I was little. I knew a guy that worked for them [trucking and production company Upstaging] from my hometown and he gave me information to get the wheels rolling. It was a quick and easy process and I haven’t looked back since.”

Henke and his fellow drivers find that getting ahead in the industry means maintaining professionalism no matter the gig. Even on smaller tours, it’s the same attitude and relentlessness that truly brings a show together no matter the odds. After pulling double duty for Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” tour in 2014 and 2015, Henke recently found himself driving for indie artist Beck. Recently bestowed a Grammy, Beck had embarked on a quick tour to celebrate his award-winning album, “Morning Phase” and Henke was along for the ride, back in the driver’s seat with other truckers looking to fill in work gaps with a multi-week rather than multi-month tour.

Beck played Memphis,’ Mud Island Amphitheater in the middle of his six-stop tour, soon heading south to close out the 2015 Hangout Music Festival. There was little about the tour itself that seemed strenuous. On paper and compared to his early memories of the Rolling Stones tour, the drive was a snap — seven hours in one evening with ample time to relax on the beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama. All but one driver made the trip without a problem. One truck appeared to be having computer issues, decommissioning it in the middle of the trip. The nearest rescue truck was three hours away. Office personnel stayed up late, working with drivers from afar to coordinate a rescue. It would be days before the truck itself was fixed. Yet again, the tour must go on. “Computers are a pain and really touchy,” Henke says. “It was a normal truck issue, though.”

Unbeknownst to beachgoers, the evening’s drama was unfolding into morning. Henke and the crew got little rest before Beck hit the stage at nine. His set was phenomenal, without a single issue. Despite the stress, despite the difficulties, Beck described the beachfront festival as “paradise” and as tired as they were, even the crew would have to agree. “I think we all have bad gigs from time to time. It’s just part of the job,” Henke says modestly, “And we go on saying how much we love doing this and push through.”

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