With his 2000 film Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe nailed the life of a young breakout rock ‘n’ roll band in the 1970s and the circuslike atmosphere that surrounded them, from the crew who traded a human girl for a case of beer to the hangers-on who filled the halls of the Riot House in Hollywood. Fast forward 16 years in filmmaking and 43 years in actual concert touring and we arrive at Crowe’s modern-day take on the lives of those who work behind the scenes—a fairy-tale series called Roadies.
At first glance, it seems like everything Crowe got right about touring life in the 1970s he got wrong about touring life in the year 2016. How do I know? I’ve been touring since the year 1996 with bands as varied as Motion City Soundtrack, Anthrax, Garbage and Fall Out Boy. Equal parts technician and adult babysitter, I’ve stuck it out because I love traveling the world and I love music. It’s difficult to watch my profession dramatized on screen in the best of circumstances.
So I winced through the show’s flagrant disregard for basic safety, its techies skateboarding across the stage and its tour accountant gathering everyone smack in the middle of setup to discuss pay cuts and firings. But eventually I managed to suspend my disbelief for the sake of taking this show for what it is: entertainment. I’m going to be the contrarian amongst those in my profession and say that this series, following the exploits of the fictional Staton-House Band, is off to a decent start. Outside of the pretty impeccable set design (convincing lighting and audio rigs, properly stickered and stenciled road cases), there are a few things Roadies gets right in the first episode that give me some hope for the series.
EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD CUP OF COFFEE
Coffee is the fuel of any good rock ‘n’ roll production—just ask the local production runner how many Starbucks runs they’re making a day between band and crew. It may have been cocaine back in the day, but health and safety took over in the ‘90s and now we have all manner of coffee keeping everyone working and focused. Wesley, the fictional guitar tech played by real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly, is known for his amazing cup of espresso, which sounds silly, but the detail of the tech with the espresso maker at his work station is an actual thing I’ve seen time and time again. For future reference, I take mine black, preferably iced.
It isn’t pretty, but it’s a fact. I guess living in the bubble of rock ‘n’ roll and touring I’ve come to accept that I have lived a suspended adolescence well into my late 30s. For years I felt like nothing mattered—that I was protected from reality by existing outside of the “real world.” Everything from chemical excess to random one-night sex is very much part of touring, although a lot of it is happening behind closed doors and people aren’t talking about it for fear of their jobs. The bit with Staton-House Band tour manager Bill (Luke Wilson) having hotel-room sex with the nearly underage daughter of the promoter in the opening scene isn’t so far-fetched, but I would suspect the real-life Bill would be more discreet about it, and most definitely would have known it was the promoter’s daughter beforehand.
It’s a very don’t-ask-don’t-tell environment on the road, but depending on where you are in the world and what kind of circles you run in, you may have shared a night or two with some of the same women or men. In Almost Famous Crowe referred to them as “band-aids” or by the more disparaging term: groupies. These days, with the popularity of social media, everyone is a lot more careful about who they choose to spend their time with away from the stage lest they end up having some risqué photos end up all over someone’s Facebook feed like Bill does. Most people on tour have significant others, husbands, wives, kids and families, so there isn’t that feel of wild free love anymore. You’re more likely to be outcast by your crew than to be embraced for advertising it, even though it totally still happens all of the time. I mean… sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, right?
THE BUS DRIVER/THERAPIST
Gooch (Luis Guzman) plays the bus driver everyone confides in on those late night drives. This one is pretty true. There’s something about sitting up in the jump seat of the tour bus as it rolls down the highway in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep that lends itself to opening up to a stranger who has your life in his hands. Nothing like spilling the beans to a guy who an hour earlier probably took a shower at a truck stop and whose right forearm is already caked with Dorito dust.
THE CALL OF THE ROAD
Being on tour is like being in the mafia: Once you’re in, you’re in for life. It’s a secret society of sorts, with its own rules and governance. An elite gathering of fuck-ups and misfits who most likely couldn’t hack it in the “real world.” It’s a hard club to get into and once you start enjoying the benefits of free world travel, free catering, pretty good pay and what amounts to an extended family, it’s difficult to go back to “normal" life. I personally go through stretches of time on tour where I start to think like tour lighting technician Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots). Kelly Ann is about to trade it all in for film school, and in her rounds of saying her goodbyes to her extended tour family, you can see the conflict. I’ve been in her shoes—plane ticket in hand, ready to trade it all in for an uncertain future. I have a file on my computer of nearly sent notices of resignation.
There’ve been a few times when I’ve tried to walk away for a short time, only to turn right back around when I got the itch again. The one time I was successful in “quitting” I ended up working as a stagehand at a venue in Chicago—watching my roadie friends come through and being insanely jealous that I wasn’t hopping on the bus with them. Going home and starting a whole new life can sound like the most amazing propositions—until you’re actually home and the hours drag on longer than the stretch between soundcheck and show time. Before long you’re wandering around some city on the other side of the planet thinking to yourself, “What’s a desk job?”
Every tour in every country around the world has a guy like Phil. Road manager to the stars, Phil (Ron White) and the cowboy hat bearing his name are the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend. He’s the guy who, in a heavy Southern drawl, will tell you a story for every situation you find yourself in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on tour with someone exactly like Phil. Sometimes it can be excruciating to listen to some old timer waxing nostalgic, but there’s something endearing about a person who has lived through the war and has the battle scars. The turnover in the touring world is so high that real-life characters like Phil are becoming an endangered species. Maybe the scene of him pulling a gun on the tour’s new smarmy financial adviser was a touch over the top, but Phil and guys like him are real. I’ve heard the tales of tour managers who roll in to promoter’s offices packing heat to collect the pay, in case of any heated conflict.
Relics of the old days of touring. A been-there-done-that look into the past. It reminds me of being on tour with Guns N’ Roses and meeting guys like the Mayhue brothers. They have been on tour with the band since the ‘80s and had seen it all and done it all, from riots to sold-out stadiums. They were hard to faze, and I learned a lot. Even after nearly 20 years of touring at that point, those guys made me realize I was still new.