Richard Flohil: War Stories
By Richard Flohil. Photo Credit: Randy MacNeil
Musicians know it’s a battlefield out there.
And as COVID hopefully eases, and things begin to open up again, spare a thought for the men and women on the road, bringing music to you — and hopefully they’ll bring meaning, reflection, joy and laughter with them.
But as the hearts and minds of musicians everywhere will tell you, if you give them the chance, they know that the road can be hard.
How hard? Hamilton based songwriter Corin Raymond knows:
“I’m tired of trains and boat, and planes and buses…
If I could get one week’s grace
A good night’s sleep in a quiet place
Some home cooked meals, some solitude
The chance to see you in the nude…
They can keep their boats and trains and planes and
For the last few years I’ve hosted a workshop at the Calgary Folk Festival’s Talk Tent — thanks to artistic director Kerry Clarke — which she named War Stories. With an audience of some 50 to a hundred, a panel of three or four performers tell horror stories. And I sit back, learn them, and I’ve dined out on those tales for years.
Travel, indeed, is more than half the job for most folk, country and rock musicians, and it ain’t easy.
Damien Jurado is an “alternative” singer-songwriter from Seattle with some 20 albums to his credit, and he was on his way to Germany for a tour. But let him tell the story:
“On long plane rides I don’t read a book, or watch the little movie screen on the seat-back in front of me. I go into a zen place, quiet and reflective. And on this flight to Frankfurt I’m helped by the gentle snoring of a elderly gentleman sitting next to me."
“At some point, way into the flight, I realized that he wasn’t snoring. He looked ashen, and I nudged him gently — and realized that he was dead."
“I jumped up and called the nearest flight attendant, who told me very brusquely to sit down at once because turbulence was coming. I did, of course, because those women cannot be disobeyed — and as the plane lurched, my neighbour, who did not have his seat belt on, kept banging into me."
“Eventually, as the mood in the plane shrunk into a depression, they covered him with a sheet, but they couldn’t move me because there were no other seats on the plane."
“So I spent the rest of the flight sitting next to a shrouded corpse. And when the plane landed, I was forced to stay behind — with four sad flight attendants — to give a statement to the police when they eventually boarded the almost empty plane."
“Not a great start to my tour.”
Long before Loreena McKennitt had sold 14 million records — on her own label — and before she became an international touring artist — she was fascinated by the roots of Celtic music.
Her busking days were over, the CBC had consistently played her music, and there was a growing audience for her thoughtful, atmospheric and neo-Celtic songs, and she was about to release her breakthrough album, The Visit. In 1991, with her band crammed into a van, she embarked on a tour of small Ontario concert halls, each with anywhere from 350 to 700 seats.
With three days off in mid tour, she badly wanted to see an exhibition of some 2,400 artifacts from 24 countries called “The Celts: The Original Europeans.” Problem: the exhibition was in Venice — could she get there, see the exhibition, and get back in time to continue the tour with a show at the Opera House in Orillia, a small town north of Toronto (and the home of the Mariposa festivals, founded in 1961).
I was working at the time with Loreena, and had an Italian travel agent, and he arranged an inexpensive return flight for her, with a day to attend the show.
On the third day, early in the morning, she waited at the foot of St. Mark’s Square for the vaporetto (the regular public boat to the airport on the mainland). When it didn’t arrive, she spoke with a policeman, who said the service was unreliable, and that she ought to get a water taxi, and he kindly made the call.
In short order, a speedboat arrived with a young driver who helped her board. As they sped through open water to the airport, he asked if she’d like to try her hand at driving. Always up for an adventure like this, she took the wheel.
And, standing behind her, the boatman thought it would be a good idea to make a sexual advance.
Loreena was, obviously, insulted, offended and furiously angry; it is not a good idea to be on the wrong side of her Irish red-headed temper.
“Suddenly,” she remembered, “I burst out laughing. It was too ridiculous. Here I was in Venice, driving a speedboat at full speed, being groped by a young Italian......On my way to a gig in Orillia!”
Eric San is much better known as Kid Koala, a Montreal DJ with an international reputation, nine albums, two graphic novels, and film scores for half a dozen movies. He’s toured all over the world, working with others DJs, Radiohead, and Bjork.
I asked him, at the Calgary Folk Festival, if he could recall the worst gig he ever had. Without hesitation, he said:
“I set up my turntables on stage at this venue in Hamburg, and I had sorted out the technical aspects, which usually also involve film and other elements for a mixed media performance.
“Then I discovered there was an opening act, a performance artist. His assistants laid out rolls of white art paper across the dance floor in front of the stage where I was going to perform."
“To my surprise, the artist came out, wearing only his underpants, and started to cut himself all over his body with a razors blade, rolling on the art paper making patterns with his blood."
“Eventually he started to get weak, and his assistants carried him off, and rolled up the bloodied art paper. I was speechless; I mean, how the hell do you follow that?"
“The show must go on, and I stood behind my turntables and started my show. But instantly, the venue’s technical crew decided to turn on bright flashing strobe lights, which made it almost impossible to see what I was doing as I worked the turntables."
“I asked them to stop, but they didn’t understand and turned on a fog machine as well.” He stopped for a few seconds.
“And then one of my contact lenses fell out, landing on one of the turntables, speeding round at 33 rpm as the lights flashed and the fog enveloped the stage…”
The Calgary audience was crying with laughter. And to this day I can’t remember Kid Koala finishing the story…
Musicians sometimes take their families on the road. And a good thing too.
These munchkins travelled through Australia — twice — with their parents, Andrew Morrison and Nancy Mike, on tour with the Jerry Cans, the iconic folk-rock band from Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut.
Sure, it adds to the tour costs, and you need to have a baby minder on the road with you as well.
But with kids like this, you get preferential treatment, smiles, and good cheer from folks who usually make life miserable for musicians, bands, and tour managers:
Airline check-in people.
Security officers who check your carry-on bags.
So take your kids with you. I’ve seen how it works!
Loudon Wainwright, now in his 70s, has made more than 30 albums, written hundreds of songs, been in dozens of films and television shows, written his autobiography — and until the pandemic arrived, played thousands of live gigs.
His songs are witty, sarcastic, mordant, and sometimes deeply moving, and he is a brilliant one-man performer who usually has his audience in the palm of his hand. Rolling Stone recently called him the poet laureate of family dysfunction.
At a Winnipeg Folk Festival in the late ‘90s, however, he has earned the ire of a determined group of a dozen angry women. They are deeply offended by one of his off-the-wall songs — and I wish I could remember the title — about a California dude who has turned his dead girlfriend into a surf board. Armed with placards, they heckle and boo at every workshop he’s taking part in, and they are particularly vociferous at his main stage performance.
Finally, he gets them to quiet down, and he talks, in a quiet, direct tone about what being a performer really means. .
“You know,” he explains as the 12.000 people pay close attention, “you might ask yourself why people like us do what we do. It’s not easy."
“We live on the road, we don’t sleep very well, and sometimes we don’t sleep at all. We can’t remember where our homes are. We usually can’t remember what town we’re in."
“We have messed up our relationships with our wives, and our kids are screwed up and we hardly see them. We seem to live in airports or tour buses or crappy motels. Above all, we are so very lonely.”
He paused, and the 12,000 people in the audience are completely silent. “So why do we do this? Why do we live like this?”
Then he answered his own question, rearing back on his
heels and shouting as loud as he can:
“Why? BECAUSE WE WANT TO GET LAID.”
Music gives us all so much. But for the travelling musician, daily it is often a battleground, a war zone, and there’s no time to call for surrender or victory. And every musician I know can’t wait to get back to it…
A retired publicist, editor, writer and concert promoter, Richard Flohil prepares a column (almost) every month for thesoundcafe.com. Tell your friends, he says.