The Van Life
Across the vast land known as the United States, thousands of young people are climbing into vans to bring their songs and sounds to basements, coffee shops, living rooms, abandoned lots and other “venues.” It’s Kerouac’s utopia, groups of vagabonds out on the massive highways that crisscross the country. Four or more people in a van, living on the bare minimum, surviving because of the rare kindness of strangers. Americans have a cultural romance with the idea of driving cross country. The DIY tour is attractive because it fulfills this dream.
And sometimes, it’s a total disaster. Tour Sucks is an anthology that compiles the horror stories of over two dozen musicians who have toured on their own laurels and dime. From van breakdowns in the desert of New Mexico to troubles at the Canadian border and theft of vans, gear, time and sleep, Tour Sucks is filled with anecdotes for when the adventures go wrong.
Todd Congelliere is no stranger to life in the van. He’s been traveling across the US, Japan and Europe since 1989. In the winter of 1993, his band F.Y.P set out for Canada for the first time. The promise of many booked shows and an easy pass across the border lured them to Canada. A nervous call from a Canadian citizen landed them in the custody of Canadian Border Patrol, their van stripped in a search for drugs, their merchandise confiscated and a $1,200 bill to get their vehicle back. To make things worse, driving through the snow on their way home, the band slid off the road and into a ditch. The band slept as snow covered the distressed vehicle, creating what they thought would be their frozen coffin. This kind of tale would stop anyone, but Congelliere still tours to this day.
John No writes of his days in the Fleshies by weaving a glorious tale of small-time drug smuggling, close calls with the cops and a blown-out wheel two-and-a-half hours north of Albuquerque before an opening gig with the Melvins. They made the show just in time, only to fail to impress their heroes. Ariel Oakley recounts all the bad things that can happen on tour through short, poetic anecdotes. She traces her time on the road from strange illnesses, sexual harassment by cops in Idaho and flipping a van in West Texas.
Tour Sucks compiles cringeworthy tales that will make you wonder why people would put themselves through this at their own expense. But these aren’t cautionary tales told to prevent people from touring. The glory of this book and stories like these is that they're always told to relay the adventure, the challenges met and conquered and the true meaning of going on tour. The reward of being in a band is the freedom to get in the van with your friends and see the country in a way most people never will.