Thank you to everyone who emailed about Part One. Welcome back to Part Two of the Tale of the Desert Rat Tour! Danny B. Harvey (resident Rock God), Sasha Heslip (Cinderblock Bookshelves’ producer and tech diva) and I have left the mountains of Colorado and are having lunch in Flagstaff before heading into the Arizona desert. But before I continue our tale, let me digress briefly to discuss the young woman across the street from our restaurant who was singing folk songs in a park as part of some kind of weekend street fair.
She had a high, earnest, Sheryl Crow-esque voice, lots of energy and good guitar chops. There were a few people listening as they sat in the sun, and others casting a glance her way as they strolled by.
I bet she applied for this showcase and was chosen by some panel to round out the music portion of their arts weekend, and I feel equally confident that she wasn’t paid. “But!” the promoters likely said, “it’ll be great exposure.”
As my friend Andrew Hardin likes to say: “You can die from exposure.”
Okay, I’m on the road doing a play I wrote. It took three months to lock in the bookings and I did all the promotion and travel arranging myself. My friends are working their butts off for very little pay, and now, on day five, I can see that even though I budgeted conservatively I am not going to break even. I’m going to lose money on this tour. So believe me, I understand the Investment Phase of a musician’s career.
I’ve done gigs like that street fair, but I will never do another and I wish other musicians wouldn’t either. That’s not to say I don’t play for free – I do all the time if it’s for a cause I believe in. But it’s one thing to donate your time to a charity and another to give your time and talent away for no good reason. The organizers of events like that Flagstaff street fair have to shell out money for permits, for trash pickup and for porta-potties, but they routinely ask the musicians to donate their time for the privilege of standing before a crowd that is only minimally paying them any attention. And they will keep doing so as long as musicians are willing to do this kind of gig.
Look – if you are being used to attract people to an event, then you should be paid something. It doesn’t have to be much – but it should be in proportion to the other costs of the event. Never mind that you love doing it so much you’d do it for free – do it for free in your living room! The garbagemen who will clean up that night might like their job, but they don’t work for free. A gig like this is not a step to anywhere.
Okay, rant over. Back to the road diary.
We peel out and head south with the Gargoyle of Free Gigs hot on our heels, and before long we are hurtling through northern Phoenix on our way to the third stop on our tour: Soul Invictus. I’m excited to get there, because the back and forth of logistics and promotion with the venue’s owner, Patti, has been a total pleasure. She’s excited about the show and I’m excited to get there. And get this: she’s a rockabilly player (a drummer), so she knows people who know Danny.
Did I mention that Danny is in constant communication with friends all over the world? And that his phone makes the sounds of a variety of barnyard animals when he receives texts? And that we often receive updates, like “it’s 5:00 am in Perth, Australia, and they are still awake, drinking Jagermeister.”
We have made telephone contact with our fourth crew member (and director of the play), Kim Maxwell, who has landed at Sky Harbor and is getting in a cab. There’s a coffee place next door to the venue and she will be able to chill there for an hour before we arrive with the van.
Flash! Oh, dammit, in compliance with my urging that she put the hammer down, Sasha has just driven past a photocop. But did it flash for us or the car next to us? We can’t tell! The answer will come by mail (or not) in a week or so. Damn.
Then Kim calls. The coffee place is closed on Sundays. There’s nothing open in the neighborhood, and we are an hour out. And her cab driver is…
“Emphysemic! Omigod, you guys, and he didn’t know Phoenix at all and his cab reeked of cigarette smoke. He was horrible and I didn’t even want to get back in.” But she did, and she had a lovely lunch at some corporate hotel downtown.
We unload the van. It’s really hot. But the venue is not: it’s cool!
Located in an industrial part of Phoenix, not far from downtown on Grand Avenue (probably the next boho enclave that will eventually be inundated by Starbucks and trendy boutiques…), Soul Invictus is a tiny little theater with a dedicated and passionate crew committed to bringing forth innovative performances and loud music.
So it’s fitting that they should be located next to a giant womb:
…which is actually an outdoor studio for a metal sculptor.
My sister-in-law and nephew have been amazing promoters, and they are bringing the whole family and many friends to tonight’s show. So after the sparsely attended performance in Durango, tonight we will have a good crowd. I’ve done this play enough times that I’m pretty relaxed about its intimate content, but occasionally I get a little nervous about what certain people in the audience will think. When my daughter saw the show, for example, a lot of passages from the play took on new (embarrassing) significance. This is one of those nights! But I remind myself that we were all awkward youths, we all lost our virginity at some point, and, most of all, we all have parents with whom we have to come to terms. I try to remember that those are the common places that I’m reaching for with people. And sure enough, the family and friends turn out to be a very sympathetic audience.
Another thing (and I guess this is obvious to seasoned actors, but I’m still fascinated by it): depending on their background, there are marked differences in when people laugh. I can tell when I’m performing this play in front of hippie or post-hippie crowds, because they laugh really hard at the childhood drug references. Other audiences react to the same material with palpable alarm. And honestly, both are appropriate! In doing this play, I learn so much about where my childhood fits in to the spectrum of childhoods.
And tonight in Phoenix, I also get an international perspective: my nephew has brought a number of Egyptian friends, and there are four people from the former Yugoslavia in the audience too. Later I will hear that my sister-in-law’s friend had always dreamed of a freewheeling California life, and that to hear the challenging part of that lifestyle was an eye-opener for her.
The set is set up and the sound system is working. Proprietress Patti Swarz solves a problem we’ve been having with yellowy slides – a pin in one of the cables is bent. Ah! Full color! I have opted to use Patti’s wireless headset mic instead of my own, which has been giving me problems. And Kim is with us! We begin again.
So far, so good. Slides are working: check. Microphone working: check. Danny and I in sync: check. Audience friendly: check. Then I cross upstage to point at a slide and am hit by a blast of cool air from a vent above the stage, which feels great but creates a bit of an unexpected Steven Tyler look. Okay – no problem – use the Aerosmith effect sparingly, as needed.
Then, about an hour in…a slight crackling, more pronounced when I get close to the stage monitors. Oh dear: our horrible tech karma is rubbing off. It gets worse and worse. Finally, realizing that I am coming into the most emotionally intense part of the play, I decide to pull the mic off my head and go acoustic. But this mic works differently than my mic – it doesn’t detach from its cable. So now I have the mic off my head, but the cord is running down my back under my shirt to the base unit, and I have no way to get it out. So I have to hold the headset in my hand.
I hear a quiet rustling from the back of the room, which I later learn are Sasha and Patti going through the script searching for a good place to bring me a handheld mic. And at one point I look down, and Patti is handing it to me and I finish the play with good sound. Phew!!!
After the show, I go out to talk to my family and Danny has a reunion with an old musician friend and his wife. Patti and her crew have set out wine and hors d’oeuvres, and everyone stays and talks for a long time.
Here’s the Soul Invictus team:
We pack up the set and gear and I enter the Four Points Sheraton into Google Maps. I know Phoenix, so I am driving.
Hmmm…this is weird. I actually don’t really know this part of town. When I come to Phoenix, I hang out with my relatives on the other side of the tracks in Scottsdale. So I am kind of turned around. But we find the hotel and I drop off the crew. Then I head back across town to my mother-in-law’s condo. But nothing’s really looking familiar. So I readjust, turning east. I call my mother-in-law, who is waiting up for me. It’s going to be a little longer than I thought. Wait: is Sun City east of Phoenix? Finally, I pull over, to give Google a chance to locate my Current Location when I am not moving. No, it is not east. It is 40 minutes WEST of where I am going.
Here is the problem with Google Maps on the iPhone. It’s really hard to use when you’re in motion. And sometimes, when you’re in motion, it gets crazy ideas about where you actually are. But it doesn’t matter. The best GPS on the planet would be no match for the ghosts that are plaguing every machine that comes in contact with me this week.
At midnight, I pull into the condo development on Scottsdale Road. I check my email and have received this picture from Kim with the subject heading “Bar Trash.”
I’m glad they’re having fun. But I have an awesome host: my mother-in-law, Olivia, the classiest person I know. I could go on about her, but for now suffice it to say that she is a smart, scrappy single mom who raised two kids while working her way through Stanford University, ultimately marrying Rusty and spending her career as a school psychologist. She wears bright, colorful eyeglasses, has a pair of leather pants, and saw Pearl Jam before I did, at a festival in Ireland. She sends me clippings of things she thinks I should read. I love her.
She has food and wine and we end up talking way too late. And this cozy bed is waiting for me:
The next morning, my sister- and brother-in-law, Cindy and Marty, have invited my crew over for brunch. I leave with the van to go get them. In the daylight, I can make a lot more sense of where I am driving. Kim, Sasha and Danny climb in and we head across town towards Paradise Valley. But jeez! I do not understand this, as I have been to this town dozens of times, but the next thing we know we are downtown at the Heard Museum. I call my nephew Keith and he calmly talks us through this. “That’s it,” I say to my van-mates. “Do not listen to my directions any more.” Danny points out that now that I am being humble about it my directions will probably be right from now on.
Cindy and Marty have yummy sandwiches for us, and Ol is there, as are Keith and his new wife Becky. It’s fun watching this diverse group chat. Marty and Sasha get into an animated conversation about art. Cindy is telling us a story about a car accident, and in her enthusiasm, starts to say “shit” but catches herself. Then she laughs and says, “you guys are musicians – you don’t care!”
When it’s time to go, Keith and Marty work together to make sure we have good directions to Las Vegas. I stay completely out of it. Marty is very concerned about the amount of dust on our vehicle and is about to personally hose it off, but we dissuade him by explaining that there’s so much crap in the van that we can’t see out the back no matter what. When he can’t help us that way, he insists on making us more sandwiches for the road.
Just in time, too. Any longer, and we would be prey to that most dastardly of devils, the Phoenix Philanderer.
And we are on to Vegas!
After Danny and I rehearse for our house concert tomorrow night, we will have a night off. Sasha, Kim and I have been salivating all week at the prospect of seeing the “Sirens of TI” show at Treasure Island, where we will be staying. (Good rates. Nice rooms. I recommend it!) In preparation, there has been much lascivious emailing about pirates. We are anxious to see how their hair gel holds up when their vessel capsizes, as it does every hour and a half, seven nights a week.
We stop in Kingman at a diner, and Sasha and Kim spontaneously break into a performance of “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”
Here are the happy travelers:
We indulge in onion rings and root beer floats, and then it’s onward. I have never seen the Hoover Dam, so I am kind of excited.
As we get closer, they are doing road work. And the road across the Dam is, of course, two lanes. This gives us a lot of time to see the dam from afar and discuss driving over it.
Sasha, mildly afraid of heights, doesn’t love it, but Kim is NOT HAPPY about driving over the Hoover Dam. It doesn’t help that we are now in bumper-to-bumper traffic, giving her nearly an hour to ponder the likelihood of an earthquake. We crawl closer, and Danny’s phone whinnies. As we come down the hill to the dam, there is some kind of large waterway on the left. “What is that giant hole???” Kim wants to know. I don’t know – some kind of spillway? Danny’s phone whinnies again. Sasha turns around and says, very, very sweetly, “Um, Danny? Could you turn that off for about ten minutes? We have one nerve left, and we are sharing it.” Danny grins at me and mutes the phone.
Here is Kim, not enjoying the Hoover Dam:
Just as we are partway across, we look over and see some guy leaning his toddler over the edge. “Who does that!?!” Kim demands.
If we come this way again, we can use the new bridge they are building instead of driving over the dam. But I doubt Kim will enjoy it much more:
We survive, and head down the hill towards Henderson. But now it’s Danny who isn’t very happy – he wants to get to Vegas already. Once we’re there and I check us in, we learn that he is coming down with the flu. He retreats to his room, and we will not see him for the next fifteen hours.
Sasha, Kim and I head down to the front of the hotel for the show. We get there early and get good spots right in front of the Sirens’ ship. The way it’s set up, you have to choose to stand near either the pirates or the Sirens. We choose the Sirens, because it’s closest to the bar. Sasha goes for drinks (two leaded and one, as they say in the South, “un.”) She returns with giant skulls of margaritas. And you know, everything tastes better when it’s drunk from a giant skull!
A breeze has come up, and an announcement comes over the loudspeaker. The show may be cancelled due to wind. Well, what the hell! “A decision will be made soon.” Sure enough, it is cancelled. WTF?? We have come this far, and we want hair gel! Has our bad luck affected the pirates too?
Kim decides to perform her own Sirens of TI show.
It turns out that as a consolation prize we can have our pictures taken with the Sirens and pirates. Well, that is something we will have to do.
And then we will have to gamble. Kind of. I am too intimidated to actually gamble, but I bet $1 on a slot machine called…
and in half an hour it’s turned into $22.50! Maybe our luck is changing.
It’s now time for the next Sirens show, and it is all we imagined it would be. Now we understand why they routinely cancel it due to wind. The heat from the flames is intense, and you would not want to be standing there in booty shorts if the flames blow the wrong way.
And then, since we are Vegas amateurs, it’s time for bed. If Danny were with us, he’d probably be ashamed.
In the morning, I am thinking about whether it’s realistic to force Danny to rehearse the house concert. It will take us a couple hours to really prepare. I text him to check in, and he’s feeling kind of human and is willing to do it. But I ask Sasha what she thinks about us performing the actual play in the home of her friends Jim and Joy, who have generously agreed to open their living room to us. No slides, no sound cues. Instead of house concert, what if we do a House Play? She calls them, and they are not only willing, but eager.
At the start of this tour, I would never have considered doing the play in a living room without the multimedia elements. But because of all the technical snafus, I’ve now done the play without every single technical element at some point. I was surprised to realize that it worked. The play relies on the images and sound cues less than I thought it did.
Okay, it’s settled. I call Danny and tell him to relax. We don’t have to rehearse. “Are you sure?” He’s now feeling fine and wants to go get lunch. Yep!
After lunch, we look over to see that Treasure Island has thoughtfully installed a station to provide us the medical help we need after our arduous week-long journey.
We are feeling much better now. Thank you, nurse.
I have to say that the House Play at Jim and Joy’s is the best of the tour, performance-wise. We are free from all technical problems at last, which puts Danny and me in a great mood. And I learn an interesting thing. Because they are not looking away from me every few minutes at the screen, the audience and I are far more connected. Danny and I are more connected. The show feels great.
Also – the great thing about a house concert is you get to know lots of interesting people. Here is this particular group of interesting people!
Hmm. A house play? Without complicated scheduling? No press releases? A completely underground, guerilla theatrical experience in YOUR LIVING ROOM??? Maybe this is a new direction.
This is not to say that I don’t plan on continuing to do the play with the slides. They add something important. But they also take something important away – the connection between the audience and me. And, as my cousin Rio observes, sometimes it’s good to form your own picture of the characters instead of seeing a photograph of them.
After the play, our little foursome begins to disperse. Sasha goes with her husband Lloyd. Kim, her boyfriend Carl, Danny and I decide to end the week by going to the Bellagio for a proper nightcap. Danny wants to buy us a round of “Infusions,” which he drank here a week ago with his friend the Blue-Haired Blonde.
It’s been a good week. I’m proud of us and sad it’s ending.
Kim and Carl head back to their own room, and Danny says, “Pizza?” Yes. 2:00 am pizza is perfect. We’re kind of an unexpected pair of friends. The pizza place is closed, but the coffee shop is open, and it’s good to sit and talk about music and life and Danny’s feeling that “House Parties,” as he keeps calling them, are something we could easily do.
The next morning: Bye, Danny.
I’m alone in the van on the way home. It’s very quiet. About an hour out of Vegas, I look out the window to see a small tornado.
Two weeks later, Kim receives the speeding ticket from the photocop in Phoenix. I don’t know what’s next.