As the leader of a popular band, traveling to play shows became the new normal - and made the process of adjusting to a stable, stationary life all the more trying.
It was 2:45 pm on a Tuesday, and I stood paralyzed in the frozen food section of my small Brooklyn grocery store.
I hated it. I hated the fluorescent lighting that exposed every silver strand in my dark brown roots. I hated how the air conditioning colonized goosebumps across my sun-freckled arms. I hated how I had no idea how to actually feed myself, after nearly a decade of gas station dinners, drive-thrus, catering and green room riders. Somehow, it felt easier to find something edible at 2 a.m. in a midwestern Walmart -- while hallucinating on Ambien, because I had to sleep in a hot van with five people who snore -- than it did navigating the Key Food in my hometown.
I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. “Honestly, the worst part of coming home from tour is the grocery store,” admitted my friend, a merchandise manager with a thick Bronx accent. He had a twin bed until his early 30s, which he slept in about a quarter of the year, and I’m almost positive he still has no idea how to make a grocery list that includes more than just coffee grounds.
For both of us, it’s not hard to get nostalgic about the years of sleeping bags and hotel beds -- waking up to the accidental swipe of a rumble strip, or laughing until we cried on the floor of a stranger’s house. It has, after all, taken up a third of my life.
I went on my first tour in 2009. Back then, I was in a scrappy punk band writing songs in my college dorm room and exchanging shows with friends along the east coast. About two years later, I lost my job at a magazine, and it seemed like a sign from the universe. We’d recorded an album in my mother’s basement and a twist of fate -- a Twitter DM from a producer/guitarist in a popular band -- spiraled us into the type of success that meant we were only home for a few weeks at a time.
Since then, we traveled more times across the country than I can count, playing in basements, small clubs and bars, but most usually, as the opening band for larger punk tours. By 2012, we were pulling up to the loading dock of a House of Blues in Houston with the 2002 Toyota Sienna that was handed down to me when I got my learner’s permit. The venue manager asked us to pull around our tour bus, and we told him, “You’re looking at it.” He was puzzled, and in an instant, we knew we’d outgrown our scrappy roots. What followed was a blur of milestones: our name on a marquee in Times Square, playing for thousands in the U.K. (and spilling glitter all over the Forum’s green room), and scoring a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of free shoes.
At the end of each run, my friends and I would hang our all-access passes from our bed frames like badges of honor. It was proof that we had been there, that we had made it to the other side. “Tour was over, we survived,” a friend tweeted upon his return. It was a Blink-182 lyric we’d habitually repeat to ourselves, ignoring the grim meaning behind the song. None of us ever dared to talk about what surviving actually meant. When you’ve outlived your life on the road, where do you go in the afterlife?
The musicians I know are split into two camps: the kind that revel in routine, and the kind that get lost in their addiction to the chaos, clinging to instability because, for so long, it was the only constant besides the Law & Order episodes that somehow play on repeat in every hotel room, everywhere.
My friend, a beautiful lavender-haired singer, falls into the former camp. She once stood on the Red Rocks stage, and now finds comfort cooking vegan meals with her boyfriend, a fellow touring musician, in their apartment two blocks from the beach. I see the latter in the first man I ever gave my heart to on the road. We kissed in his van in a stormy Florida parking lot, and I still think of him every time I hear the sound of rain on a car windshield.
“After [the instability of] touring, I needed stuff to be reliable and stable,” he told me, “but I’m still afraid of finding someone normal. I don’t think I can be attracted to someone totally well-adjusted.” He hasn’t been on the road in half a decade. I am very much like him.
It’s hard for me to say exactly why I took such a long pause from touring. It falls somewhere around being utterly exhausted, contracts running their course, shuffling through booking agents, and getting stuck between album cycles. It just sort of tapered off, but I also think it’s best described by what happened the hour before I left for my very first tour. While packing up the minivan for the two-hour drive from White Plains to just north of Albany, I slipped and broke my arm. I still played the three shows we had lined up, so no one believed I was truly injured, no matter how much I cried that it hurt. I went to the hospital a week later and got an x-ray. It was just a slight fracture, but a fracture nonetheless. I spent the next six years on the road like my arm -- just a little bit broken.
I grew up in a normal family. We lived in a small upper middle class suburb outside of New York. I shared a room with my twin sister until I was 13. I used to read her diary when I was bored. She hid it under the second panel of her Ikea bed frame. I dreamed about being an artist as an adult, but not so much that it was dangerous. I had only left the country twice, and once was by accident; Canada is a lot closer to New England than it actually seems.
Compared to that Maine vacation where we got lost in Montreal, touring was a thrill. It was also an adjustment. Occasionally, I’d get overwhelmed and beg my team to let me slow down. I’d plead with them that I just couldn’t do one more overnight drive, but every time, they’d tell me that I was lucky. That people like them don’t work with hobbyist musicians. “Did I view this as a hobby?” they’d ask. Of course I didn’t. So, I sucked it up. I went on Prozac. I played the shows. During travel days and the rare stretch home, I slept for what felt like months, and for the 25 minutes I was on stage, I couldn’t imagine a better reality.
The thing about tour is that it’s an unending series of highs and lows. There is no high like staring out past the venue spotlights to a sea of blurry faces screaming your words. There is no greater ache than the one that chains itself to your soul when you first discover the impossible blackness of the West Texas desert at night. You will never feel closer to any single human being than you do picking apart your fears at 4 a.m., because you’ve exhausted every other part of your biography and you need to talk about anything to keep yourself from falling asleep. You learn to live without the middle ground, and you don’t miss it. It’s like choosing Grape Nuts when you could have Lucky Charms. Who would do that?
By the end of Warped Tour ‘15, my hair was thinning, my right hip had a permanent bruise from where my guitar smacked against it, yet my body -- which subsisted on mostly Smartfood popcorn and McDonald's fries -- felt resilient. Like a cockroach, I survived no matter what happened, but I admit, I was relieved to crawl into a bed that didn’t move. I needed a break, which was a short-lived feeling.
Chaos is a powerful drug, and the same way I built up my tolerance for it, I struggled with withdrawal once I was home. It’s not dissimilar from the way your legs quickly get used to the swells of the ocean on a cruise ship, but you start to stumble when you finally walk on solid ground.
A huge part of tempering that chaos is finding a home in anything that’s vaguely consistent. Your actual home starts to feel foreign, so instead, you find a home in that small pang of loneliness between a cup of lukewarm 7-Eleven coffee and the sun rising over the Utah canyons. It becomes your mismatched socks, every day like a ritual, or the hole in your 1997 Dodge that you patched up with roofing tile. It’s in Starbucks, first thing in the morning, no matter where you are. “They don’t have iced drip coffee in Europe,” my friends would say, as if a tiny piece of themselves had been amputated when they walked through customs before each U.K. or European run.
For me, I always searched for a home in other anchorless people, tangling ourselves together like two buoys swept out to sea. We’d leave behind notes for each other on green room walls and in backstage bathrooms. We were never too far behind. This doesn’t work as well when you’re waking up in the same bed every morning. It starts to feel like a bad hangover -- whiplash from a life of constant motion -- and I admit, I had a propensity to recreate the chaos like it was the hair of the dog.
When I returned home from my most recent cross-country tour, I felt lost in my own city and bored with the prospect of existing in a flat middle. Instead, I made a habit out of tethering myself to others who felt as foreign as I did and as uncomfortable with the idea of sitting still. There was a drummer with Scottish roots, a British diplomat who spent six years living in a hotel in Africa, and a French artist, who had the same crippling fear of boredom and aversion to the grocery store. We’d sip wine and dissect the uncharted corners of our heaviest emotions, fighting the sunrise like those all-night drives. We relished in our dissolving middle ground, and he taught me how to count my breath when I couldn’t sleep. He left me the moment my anchor started feeling a little bit too heavy.
On tour, when the days reset like after you’ve died in a video game, heartbreak doesn’t really feel like much. The reason your relationship failed doesn’t matter. In fact, most disappointments don’t really matter, either. It’s easy to be preoccupied when you’re never alone. I’d watch my failures shrink in the rearview mirror with each passing city skyline. I’d wake up, baptize a new version of myself in the motel shower, and start all over again. It’s like being on the lam, but you’re running from actually having to process your own emotions. I suspect this is why so many of my friends who started touring as teenagers still seem teenaged at heart.
Unfortunately, real life doesn’t allow you to escape those things. When you’re home, the days string into one another like Christmas lights. If you don’t confront your problems, they’ll black out the whole rest of the strand, and you’ll find yourself stuck trying to find the short circuit. My lavender-haired friend admits this was the worst part about coming home -- every time the van dropped her off, she’d be forced to confront a former boyfriend she knew never really cared about her. It was easier to love him from afar.
Today, I’m learning how to embrace that type of loneliness. I still struggle with the frightening responsibility of being a person people can actually rely on, a person who is there, but when my grandmother calls, I get to actually visit, to sit at her kitchen table, my lips sticky with cherry juice like I’m eight years old again. I get to hold my newborn cousin while his hands are still too small to wrap around my finger. I get to see the light in his mother’s eyes, and wonder if I’ll ever feel that kind of love. I often fear that I won't.
In truth, I wake up each morning thrilled that I get to live in this apartment that leaks when it rains. Every Sunday, I kick open the iron gate that sticks in the summer heat and walk the same few blocks to sit at the same bar. It reminds me of the breakfasts we’d share while traveling out west, relentlessly gossiping over biscuits and black coffee. I remember that place in New Mexico where I scraped my knee, the parking lot in southern California where I accidentally smashed my iPhone, the night I chipped my front tooth, which now feels like the ghost of a past life every time I look in the mirror. For just a moment, I let the chaos pull me back in-- at least until the waitress asks, “Do you want your eggs scrambled or fried?”
Tour never truly leaves your soul. I still catch myself eating a dinner that’s nothing but Hot Cheetos and convenience store ice cream. My socks never match, but I’m relearning how to be comfortable in the middle ground -- and to put down the hair of the dog and just drink some water. I’ve just discovered that the real reason people don’t always eat Lucky Charms is because enough of them will make you absolutely sick, so I’m trying to make healthier choices. I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’m terrified that it will be boring, but I also owe it to myself to try.
Mariel Loveland is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician behind the alternative pop project Best Ex (formerly Candy Hearts). Her writing has been featured in Insider, Alternative Press and Vice. She’s releasing new music any day now, she swears.