This IS My Day Gig!
by Hardin Butcher
Editor’s Note: The following events took place (really) on a recent Big Band road tour. All names have been changed—not to protect the innocent, but to preclude Dr. Butcher’s being sued. Syntax and diction will be familiar and routine for readers who are, know, and/or live with Big Band jazz musicians. If not one of the above, gird your loins. And do not attempt to drink anything liquid whilst reading Dr. Butcher’s prose: Trust me; it WILL come out your nose.
What’s better than a 478-mile bus ride followed by a three-hour gig? A 525-mile bus ride followed by a two-hour gig. Duuuuuuuh.
More bus equals less music. Awesome. From north of Buffalo to within spitting distance of Kentucky yesterday, we go back past Buffalo to damn near Syracuse for tonight’s gig. I guess that’s why these mid-week hits are called “routing dates.”
I would feel for our bus driver on a day like this—especially on the heels of two hellacious days of travel—were it not for the fact that he’s running away with the vote for Least Pleasant Human Being Ever.
I despise everything about the man. I hate the way he sounds, I hate the way he drives, I hate the way he eats his lunch, I hate that he has five fingers on each hand.
I hate the way he breathes in and out all the time, consuming oxygen and producing carbon dioxide.
I even hate the shirts he wears, especially since he only buttons them up only half way. When he sits down, his already-protruding gut pushes the lower buttons to their popping point; it also makes the top of his shirt come wide-the-hell open, exposing more man-boob than is permitted by law anywhere on earth. When he’s not chain-smoking out his little sliding window up front, he’s popping pistachios in his yapper. The shells get caught in his ample and highly exposed chest hair. He’s the only one who doesn’t seem to notice.
If I make it to Montreal on Saturday without having killed him, then I have no idea what I’ll do with my freedom.
With bus drivers, it’s so hit-or-miss. Sure, you want someone with good driving skills, but you also want somebody who’s not a total Poindexter when it comes to interacting with a bunch of jazz cats and big band derelicts. We’re road dogs, damnit! Even the youngest among us have already logged thousands upon thousands of miles in the saddle. We know how to maneuver around on a moving tour bus without getting our noggins smashed in by all the jostling about that goes on while we’re haulin’ it down the highway. In some perverse way, we must dig on it, or else we wouldn’t keep going out on the road.
I think what really pisses most drivers off is the way a big band treats a bus like a combination of sports bar, jungle gym, clubhouse and campground. They think just because we’re drinking beer and hanging out that we will somehow find a way to break the transmission by ripping up the bus seats and smashing them against the floor. I assure you, we’re not gonna break the damn seats with our suitcases (see previous installment of this road memoir), we’re not gonna puke in the toilet, we’re not gonna muck up the joint; we ARE gonna drink beer and play poker and drop sandwiches on the floor from time to time (tragic, really, when a sandwich gets lost like that), so either get used to us treating your ride like a man-cave or go back to shuffling Grandma and Grandpa around Washington DC or Lower Manhattan or the seventh circle of Hell, or wherever tour bus guys work when they’re not out with big bands.
The best driver I’ve ever dealt with isn’t even a bus guy; he’s a truck driver. I’m not saying he has a feather touch behind the wheel, mind you. In fact, he routinely bangs the back of the bus around like he’s two hours late for a freight drop. I can’t count how many times I’ve clung tenaciously to the seat in front of me, my buddy one seat up from me screaming bloody murder toward the front of the bus as Dan hurled us into a deep curve at full highway speed, causing the whole Ghetto (read: back of the bus) to be thrown from their perches like a semi full of basketballs.
He gets lost at the drop of a hat, which – combined with his half-Native American bloodline – earned him the nickname Chief Wrong Way almost immediately.
He even got us wedged into a mountain pass in Virginia one time (I swear, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried). If it hadn’t been the first Saturday of bow-hunting season, then there’s a chance that nobody else would’ve even been using that particular goat path that day. On the bright side, I learned a valuable lesson: never trust directions given to your bus driver by a shirtless man on a bicycle wearing a boa constrictor around his shoulders.
His intangibles, on the other hand, are through the roof. He can drive 700 miles without batting an eye, he’s incredibly personable—that serves him well on his side gig as CD salesman at intermission—he knows how to work his ass off and isn’t afraid to do so and, most importantly, he’s not a raging ass. Winner. I’ll take him every time over somebody with a whisper-feel on the road, no grease under his fingernails, and a worthless grey lump of moldering sadness between his ears.
Except, of course, for this week, when I’m not in charge and don’t have a choice, stuck on the worst bus ever, driven by an angry Czarist troll with pistachio shells in his chest hair.
I’ve played this house before. Three times, in fact. I found the drug store around the corner from the stage door the second time, and was as happy then as I am now that they sell beer. The band is going to lose their minds when I walk in with an 18-pack. After eleven hours in the saddle, that much beer won’t last any longer than a hummus platter at a Kardashian divorce party.
Not to self-gloss, but you can’t teach experience like that.
Finding beer with one’s inner divining rod is a behavior learned and nurtured over time. That, among other things, is what’s wrong with the music schools: they make you play piano when you don’t want to, they think they’re more important than they really are, and they don’t ever impart to you the fact that buying a case of beer at the right time can do more for your career than any solo you’ll ever play.
The last time I worked this hall, it was smooth sailing over glassy seas. The first time was the kind of gig that makes owners and buyers of bands alike reach for the antacid and call their therapists when they find out what went down.
Try, if you will, to imagine the drunkest person possible. Your imagination may allow you to fathom quite a bit of drunk, but it has not prepared you for the drunk that is This Guy. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he’s the drunkest person I’ve ever met. He’s the kind of guy who’s so wasted all the time that it makes you feel better about your own set of vices. He takes drinking cheap liquor by the liter to an art form, and is somehow still alive.
He is, literally, drunk all the time.
The truly sad part is that he was one of the best singers ever. He had a voice straight out of the golden age of Swing, and knowledge of the history that’s absolutely unparalleled for a man under the age of 75. Even in a stone-cold dead-drunk he could, for the majority of his career, bring the house down. He was the very definition of “functional,” in that sense.
None of that phenomenal talent could save his hide, though, when, on a super-swank cruise one November, he pinched a cop’s wife while attending a private party to which he was not invited (“If I pinched her at all, then it was only like this”, I heard him slobberingly explain to the bandleader as he extended his thumb and forefinger and clamped down on the road manager’s arm in demonstration, like some kind of jaundiced lobster).
The fact that he was late for three gigs and no-showed for three others during a nine-day cruise didn’t do anything to help his cause, either. He was summarily sacked when we reached Ft. Lauderdale, the pinching incident a sad last nail in the coffin.
Fast-forward five months, when the bandleader exhumed This Guy’s career and hired him back, out of a combination of pity and desperation, like some drunken Lazarus yanked from the graveyard.
For reasons known only to Satan, This Guy wandered into my hotel room at 11:30 on the morning that we were to play this venue. The vapor trails wafting behind him in the cool spring upstate air told us exactly how wasted he already was. Drinking straight from the plastic liter bottle – a cheap vodka that could’ve doubled as an astringent or a paint thinner—he plopped down, lit a cigarette and proceeded to tell my roommate and me about how it was ALL a raw deal for him, how he shouldn’t have been canned after the cruise that previous fall, how the world had wronged him and how he could quit drinking anytime he wanted.
Apparently, Anytime He Wanted wasn’t Anytime THAT Day. By the time we got to the gig, he was in splendid shape for a cadaver. Having drained the entire liter of hooch, his crash was timing out perfectly to coincide with—you guessed it—the concert for the evening.
I’ve never heard him sound so bad. The bandleader knew he was in rough shape, and left This Guy hanging on a note all by himself at the end of a ballad for what felt like half of the first set (my favorite moment of the night). When intermission finally came, he stumbled out the stage door into the alley to light a smoke, unaware that the door would lock behind him. When he wanted to go back inside, instead of knocking discreetly, or finding another way in, This Guy began to pound on the door with Hulk-smash intensity.
When the venue manager—the nice lady who hired the band in the first place—came to his rescue, instead of thanking her he decided to read her the riot act (although in Drunkenese I’m sure it sounded more like a strong argument for the return of Prohibition). After dousing her ears with five minutes of gender-based insults and derisions, This Guy stumbled to the lobby of the hall, where he lit another cigarette. Indoors. In the 21st Century. In the state of New York.
It was another three years before the band played here again. I’m relatively certain we had to guarantee that a certain person would not be joining us.
As for That Guy, he ended up working a total of three dates with the band over the next seven years, either as a replacement for someone who got sick or as a sub for someone who landed a hotter gig.
Somehow, he is still alive; it is not for his lack of efforts to the contrary.
The moral: keep your hotel room doors closed tightly, lest someone wander in and ruin your entire morning. That, and—for those of us who CAN have just one or two adult beverages per sitting—it’s always good to know where you can buy beer.