Uniform / All photos courtesy of Michael Berdan
My lower back is driving me insane. It's a slow, dull pain that is just mild enough to keep me from audibly complaining about it to my travel companions. This is day number two of a short round of shows through the Northeast and Midwest, and I don't want the people around me to think that I'm weak. That being said, it feels like my spine is rebelling against the rest of my body with the ultimate intention of breaking my mind. Fuck it, though. We're three hours outside of Chicago and Uniform is on the road with Cult Of Youth, who are some of my best friends in the entire world. Everyone's spirits are still high, all of our jokes are still funny, and most of the anecdotes we've saved up from our time with our families, at our jobs, and on our past tours are still fresh. I am not going to sour the mood by running my mouth about something as trivial as my body quietly breaking down.
We played in Philly two nights ago. Somewhere in the middle of our first song my nose started to bleed. This is a fairly common occurrence these days and has been for the last handful of years. Sometimes I'll accidentally punch myself in the face or get hit with the microphone; sometimes somebody in the audience will take a shot at me. Most commonly though, I'll simply be moving around at a good clip and the blood will begin to flow. I either wipe it away, putting the bodily malfunction out of my mind or I try to use the sight of that unexpected crimson fluid for added effect and pretend that it's all part of the show.
These physical glitches that I regularly experience aren't without precedent. The fact of the matter is that I spent a good number of years putting weird shit up my nose and down my throat, all the while tossing myself across stages and into unforgiving crowds on a nightly basis in my old bands. Only a fool or an asshole would fail to recognize that this behavior might have resulted in a degree of permanent damage.
For a while. this lifestyle was nothing short of a dream come true. Having grown up worshipping at the feet of your standard transgressive icons, the more debauchery that could be thrown my way. the more it felt like I was earning a seat among my heroes. I made temporary acquaintances in temporary locations that would get me fucked up for free and not judge me for wanting to stay that way. Each city brought more drugs, more booze, and more "friends". Every night I would crash out on some random floor in some random well-wisher's apartment, drunk and high out of my fucking head, without a care in the universe or a thought about tomorrow. There was a very real possibility that I could have died at any moment, but not one single fuck could have been given on my part about that fact. I suffered from a complete inability to intellectually conceptualize thirty years of age and in many ways was hoping to die young so that I wouldn't have to do anything with the rest of my life.
Back at home I held down a "tour job" that paid well, demanded little, and allowed me to take as much time off as I wanted. On top of that, luck found me in a cheap apartment with tolerant roommates and a patient landlord who didn't mind waiting an extra week or two every month to collect the rent. For a college dropout with no marketable skills outside of the ability to ingest enough alcohol and narcotics to kill a herd of elephants and yell strings of obscenities while simultaneously jumping off a stack of monitors or getting punched in the face, this was the life.
Veins at Chaos in Tejas
It was all fun until it wasn't, and the years of heavy substance abuse eventually caught up with me. Once the booze and the drugs disappeared, it took a long time to be able to socialize in a normal way with people who were getting fucked up, and even longer for me to be able to play music in front of a crowd. However, after receiving a lot of help, exercising a lot of patience, and doing a lot of work, I was able to perform just as hard and with as much passion as I ever was. The process was ultimately simple, but I would never condescend to call it easy. Regardless of how hard this was, it was the single best decision I have ever made.
All of this brings me to who I am and where I am now: a 34-year-old man with ulcers that feel like boiling oil when they flare up, who also experiences chronic bloody noses, who is currently sitting on a bench that is fucking with his lower back in a tightly packed van. It's not the most comfortable situation in the world, but I am nothing short of fucking thrilled to be here all the same. Tour (and playing live in general) means something much different now than it did in my twenties, and I could not be happier about it.
Remember that tour job I was talking about earlier? Well, I still work there. The thing is, having been at the same gig for ten years means that, over time, I've taken on more responsibilities. While I used to be allowed to take off for months at a time to go fuck around across the country, these days present me with a set number of vacation and personal days that need to be adhered to under the possible penalty of termination. Playing in a low- to mid-level band has never exactly played the bills, so my priorities need to be straight if I expect to keep a roof over my head back home.
When we do go on the road, making sure that our guarantees are met as well as they can be has become increasingly important. If we can sell a few records and T-shirts. it's a great help. The days of being in a position to get paid in beer and coke are over for me. I still never expect to make money on the road, but the hope is to at least break even in order to justify the time away from work.
I never want to hang out for an extended period of time after a show is over and try to get somewhere comfortable and quiet as quickly as possible. Nights alternate between crashing on couches and floors at friend's places or getting cheap motel rooms. The older I get, the more the couch game fucks with my body. Same as it ever was though, this is worth it in order to save a few bucks. Everyone I stay with on the road these days is either an old friend or someone I've had a good amount of correspondence with, so it's cool to be able to catch up. If my travel companions want to party late night, that's their business, but it's not fun for me. When I find myself in a situation where anything harder than booze or weed is around, I have to bounce, without exception. No disrespect to anyone who enjoys hard drugs from time to time, but just being around when that shit is out in the open fucks with my head in a major way.
Homesickness happens more quickly now than it used to. Every time I get in the van or hop on a plane, I leave my fiancée and the dog behind. I've got a good family thing going on and sometimes it's hard to be away from that. Sporadic texts and phone calls get easily misinterpreted as being more emotionally distant than they actually are, which leaves me feeling tripped out. I long for my girl. I long for the dog. I long for my fucking television and my fucking shower and my fucking bed and my fucking routine.
So what's the point? Having mentioned a litany of physical, social, economic, and emotional reasons that touring has become an increasing pain in the dick as I get older, one might justifiably wonder why I feel compelled to do it at all. If going on the road simply brought headaches, heartaches, and muscle aches the logical course of action would be to avoid doing it. There has to be something deeper and more gratifying at play.
My friend Drew McDowall and I were driving around one rainy night recently. Drew's been in the game since the early 80s, and has been a part of more heavy-hitting projects than any musician could ever hope to be. He's got a couple of decades on me in age, and several millennia on me in wisdom. As we talked, the conversation turned to my bitching about the logistics of playing live and the compulsion to continue doing so. Drew quietly smiled and said nothing, so I asked him what his motivation for continuing on after all of these years is. His answer: Spirituality. When Drew plays music, he goes outside of himself. Through the use of the language of music, he reaches a meditative state and becomes a part of something greater. To be that vulnerable in front of people who possibly identify with something that you are channeling; to reach these spiritual planes together with the crowd is nothing short of magic. I'd never heard the musician's relationship to the physical act of playing to an audience stated so clearly.
We all perform live for different reasons, but Drew's humble explanation that night speaks in a very direct way to my personal need to play. This is my identity. This is how I connect with the world. When I play, I go blank. Nothing matters outside of the moment. While it lasts everything makes sense and life has meaning. Despite the varying levels of physical discomfort, economic insecurity, and emotional longing it is all worth it. The struggles strengthen the practice and renew the purpose. Playing live is pure, crystalized life. Getting the chance to do it every night for periods of time is more than just an honor and privilege; it's a reason to exist.
At the end of the day, author Hubert Selby Jr. put it best in his essay "Why I Continue To Write" from LA Weekly in February of 1999. To quote: "Being an artist doesn't take much, just everything you got. Which means, of course, that as the process is giving you life, it is also bringing you closer to death. But it's no big deal. They are one in the same and cannot be avoided or denied. So when I totally embrace this process, this life/death, and abandon myself to it, I transcend all this meaningless gibberish and hang out with the gods. It seems to me that that is worth the price of admission." Of course he is talking about writing in this statement, but it can be easily applied to lifers of all artistic mediums.
Logan Dean Worrell (Noisey correspondent, bass player for the punk band Vaaska, and crowning jewel of the state of Texas) and I were on the phone the other day. Logan is also in his thirties now, with regular work and a girlfriend who he nothing short of adores. We started to chat about how we roll on the road, then and now. Eventually the conversation turned to the bands that we both regularly play with these days; who are often comprised of people that are much younger than us. We see these kids living it up to the fullest; partying hard as fuck and playing even harder day after day and night after night. We remember our times of living that exact same kind of life fondly. At one point he says to me, "I respect what these kids are doing but it sounds fucking exhausting." All I could say back was, "That's because it's not our time anymore. I'm good with that."
The party is over, and I am indeed good with that. While peers my age are dropping out of the game left and right in order to pursue careers and add to the population crisis, the idea of stopping has no appeal to me. Maybe some warped ego shit is at play in my head. Maybe I continue to do this because I don't want kids yet my basic psychological make-up demands some bullshit legacy to carry my bullshit name. I honestly don't know and don't really care. What I do know is that when I play I am alive, and that is worth all of the discomfort in the world.
Michael Berdan is in a bunch of bands. He is not on Twitter.