After vowing never to do a tour diary – or at least not to blog on tour – Rhett gives in. For his hometown paper. But hey, we’ll take it! More tomorrow. I promise.

This is what I do

By Rhett Miller

(Original publication: September 23, 2004)

Chicago – Wednesday, Sept. 8

I land at Chicago O’Hare Airport a little after 3 p.m. Stewart Airport, my little Hudson Valley hometown airport, flies exclusively to Chicago where you can connect to any flight going anywhere, so I feel like I live in Chicago O’Hare, which makes the fact that I get lost trying to find baggage claim even weirder. I blame it on sleep deprivation. I was in Puerto Vallarta attending my baby sister’s wedding, and only got into the country at midnight last night. Then 12 hours at home (one load of laundry, repack, and change two diapers on Max, my little best friend) before schlepping off for the beginning of a two-month trip to support “Drag It Up,” the new album by my rock ‘n’ roll outfit, Old 97’s.

And boy do I feel old. Three terminals later, I collect my bags. As I’m piling them onto a luggage cart and consulting my mental checklist to make sure I’m not forgetting anything, alarm bells go off. I have forgotten something at home. Nothing important, only MY NUMBER ONE ELECTRIC GUITAR! Yes, the guitar that I play on stage the majority of the time I’m performing with my band, the Really Old 97’s. Deep breath. Call management. Find a solution. Get in taxi. Start crying.

I have been crying a lot these days. Well, not exactly crying, but becoming teary-eyed. Sometimes actually crying. Maybe it’s the aforementioned sleep deprivation. Maybe it’s the idea of missing Max’s 10th and 11th months of existence. Maybe it’s the fact that I turned 34 years old a few days ago and for the first time in my life, received not one single birthday gift – not even a card.

Maybe it’s the approach of September 11th. Erica and I were there. We lived in a building 100 yards south of the second tower. We ran in our pajamas through the rubble as the second tower collapsed. We picked smoking pieces of metal and glass out of each other’s hair once we got far enough away to stop running.

These days we don’t talk about it. It doesn’t come up. But it’s there.

I take a taxi to the Hard Rock Hotel. We’ve never stayed here before. We used to stay in a Days Inn on Diversey that gave special deals to touring bands – musicians called it the Rock ‘n’ Roll Days Inn. They had band photos on the wall of the breakfast room. Breakfast went until noon, which at 11:45 on a Sunday morning was an awesome place to run into your crazy rock ‘n’ roll friends. But the hotel’s changed hands or something and they no longer allow bus parking, so we’ve floated between random Chicago hotels for the last couple of years. And now we’re at the Hard Rock. We must have made it!

My floor is the Cheap Trick floor. Very kick-ass. A matching outfit and guitar of Rick Nielsen’s from a 1980 tour of Japan. Was he really that skinny? We all were once. The Really Old, Fat 97’s.

I’ve got to get in a better mood. I’ve got a rock tour stretching out as far as the eye can see, and if I’m not careful, we’re talking full-on nervous breakdown.

Dion the bellman asks the dreaded question. “So are you in a band?”

“Yeah. We’re called Old 97’s.” I enunciate, because our band name doesn’t make any sense to anybody and I’m sure Dion has never heard of us. It’s kind of a joke that he hasn’t. Chicago is our town. We broke big here before even in our hometown of Dallas. We’ve owned Chicago for years.

He squints and says, “Yeah. I think I’ve heard of you guys.” Kind of him to lie. Then he asks a funny question. Well, really it’s the logical next question – should I have heard of you? – but it’s worded unusually. “Have you ever won any awards?”

This makes me chuckle. I mean, what am I supposed to say? The band and I won so many Dallas Observer Music Awards between 1995 and 2002 that they eventually banned us from the ballot, but that’s not going to go very far with Dion. What else is there, a Grammy? Right. I’d have to do a children’s album, polka album or a spoken-word recording to even stand a chance of “recognition from the Academy.” Do I explain to Dion that I’d abandoned those dreams? That sometimes my wife Erica and I get excited about whatever project I’m working on and whisper in the dark safety of our bed about how cool it would be to win the Grammy for Best New Artist? About the imaginary irony of the impossible daydream? Do I tell Dion about how the corporations haven’t just taken over the political infrastructure, they’ve also taken over the kids and their record collections – and succeeded in dumbing both down to the extent that somebody like me who tries to incorporate subtext and emotional depth into his pop music might as well be singing in Japanese over a recording of a dozen jackhammers?

Instead I tell Dion, “Well, we’ve done Leno. Twice. And Letterman twice. And Conan three or four times. And Kilborn twice. And Carson Daly and Sharon Osbourne. ” This is the award people care about: Getting To Appear On Television. I’ll abandon all hope of a normal existence, neglect my health and my family, subject myself to crushing rejection and abject humiliation. Please, please, please just let my face adorn the piece of furniture that is the centerpiece of every American home and family. Dion is impressed.

Twenty minutes later, I’ve washed up, packed a satellite bag for the night’s activities, and gone down to the lobby where I’m supposed to meet Ken, our guitarist, at 4:15. Another 20 minutes go by. No Ken. I call Mike, the tour manager, who says, “Oh, Ken just showed up here at the club. Grab a taxi and come on down by yourself.” What, is it still my birthday or something?

In the cab on the way to the gig, I call my mom. I just want somebody to tell me that they love me.

Boston – Wednesday, Sept. 15

Today is Max’s 10-month birthday. He screams the whole time Erica and I talk. She tells me she thinks more teeth are coming in. She holds the phone up to his ear and I tell him the baby jokes that always make him crack up. I pretend to sneeze – ah, ah, ah, achoo. This joke kills. He laughs. And suddenly Max comes up with a milestone. I ask him, “What does a doggy say?” The answer is, of course, the quick, out-of-breath panting sound one associates with an excited puppy dog. I make this sound. Then, for the first time, Max makes the sound also. He’s laughing and doing a fantastic imitation of a panting puppy. Then he tries to kiss the phone, which involves opening his mouth as wide as it will go and sticking his tongue out and shoving the whole sloppy mess on the phone receiver while Erica laughs and laughs.

This is what it feels like to be simultaneously ecstatic and despondent.

I am in a laundromat in Boston. I carried my laundry bag six blocks from the bus, which is parked across the street from Fenway Park’s Green Monster at a club called the Avalon, where we’re gigging tonight. I needed a little alone time. The first week of the tour has had some great moments (Chicago at the Vic was something of a lovefest; Detroit was our best visit ever to that sometimes bleak city – beautiful weather, good dinner and an excited crowd; even the day off in a suburb outside Toronto was beautiful and rejuvenating), but overall it’s been a bit of a whip, as Ken likes to say.

Thank God the bus is nice. It’s a ’97 (natch) Prevost. Blue blue electric blue. Self-leveling hydraulics. Bright white interior that could really use some posters or tapestries or something. When we started touring in buses, we were in Eagles and Double Eagles. These are the old-school standard, but they generally feel pretty worn down. For instance, the curtains that enclose you in your coffin-shaped bunk have a funk that belies the years of God-knows-what. Also, the Eagles us
ually have a mural painted on the side. I remember one that depicted a busted-up dinghy on a beach in front of a glorious, pink sunset. We talked about hiring an artist to airbrush a pirate’s skeleton in the dinghy or a unicorn flying through the sky.

But our Prevost’s pretty slick. I’m in the lead-singer bunk, which is the middle (they’re stacked three high, 12 bunks in all), driver’s side front. I don’t know why this is supposed to be the lead-singer bunk, but I’ve heard it from more than one driver. There is nobody in the bunk below or above me. This is nice. Just knowing that there’s another human being (Noah, for instance, our merch guy) one foot away from you makes it tough to sleep sometimes.

It’s tough to sleep anyway. There is always something exciting going on in either the front or back lounge: a video-game football tournament, a classic tour-bus movie, a lively discussion about how terrible something is, the consumption of beer, etc. I tell people it’s like living in a submarine. Really it’s like living in a college dorm that has been shrunk to fit inside a submarine.

Last night’s gig in Buffalo was the toughest of the tour so far. We’ve never played the town before – the closest we’ve come was Albany years ago, and that still gets brought up as the worst gig ever. The nightclub is in the process of re-opening and we’re the first show. It doesn’t help that they haven’t gotten their liquor license yet. All four band members are pretty good nowadays about getting up for a rough gig, and these 250 people (a paltry figure relative to the crowds to which we’ve become accustomed) are excited to see the show. They paid good money and they probably caught a decent buzz sitting in their cars before the show started. They deserve to be rocked as much as the next town.

Even so, there is a certain amount of inner pep-talking I’ve got to do to find a way to go out there and shake my ass like I’m ostensibly being paid to do. Which makes it tough when Ken decides to push my buttons. He starts by saying we should lop a few songs off the set list, pointing out that it’s a Tuesday night and that these people would probably be grateful to go home a little earlier. I know that by “these people” he means himself. He suggests some songs that could be cut. When I protest that I spent a long time (like I do every night) making the set list and that if you take a song out, the resulting segue is likely to be clunky or boring or just not as good, he tells me, “Man, it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what songs we play, or what order they’re in or any of that.”

This cuts me to the quick. Forgive me if I do a little math here. Let’s see, a conservative estimate of the time I spend each night composing a set list would be an hour (usually it’s more like two). Over the past 10 years we’ve averaged around 200 shows a year. That’s 2,000 hours I’ve spent trying to figure out what will work best given the night and the audience and the album we’re working and the crossover from nearby towns we might have just played or be about to play and all the random requests from the fans and all the random demands from my bandmates (like, “I’m sick of ‘Buick City'”; “I wanna do some Buck Owens tonight”), etc.

Two thousand hours. Eighty three days. I’ll never get those back. And he goes on, sensing that he’s touched a nerve, a masochistic gleam in his eye. I see him do this to other people. Noah, for instance, our merch guy. Noah gets a lot of grief. All pretty good-natured. And he puts up with it. He’s put up with it for 10 years. But Noah’s a good sport and he has a thick skin. Not me. I’m fragile. Frighteningly so tonight.

“Ken, why have I worked so hard then all these years putting together set lists?”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s like your hobby.”

And then we walk out on stage. I’m sure he thinks it’s funny to get my goat, but I spend the better part of the gig thinking of comebacks, rejoinders and follow-up arguments: “From now on you get to make the set lists; let’s see how you like it.” But I don’t say anything. I just roll it up into the proverbial little ball and shove it down. What choice do I have? He’s my bandmate, my brother, and I’m stuck with him.

So today I’ll spend some time by myself. I’ll talk to Erica. She’ll make me feel better, she always does. I’ll make tonight’s set list while sitting in the back lounge trying to ignore the repulsive things happening on the reality TV show Philip and Ken are watching. I’ll feel the love of the Boston crowd, of which there will be a great deal. I’ll cover a Pixies song during my solo acoustic portion of the encore. I’ll tell Ken in the dressing room after the show that he hurt my feelings in Buffalo the night before. And guess what? He’ll apologize. He’ll say that he was just having a bad night and took it out on me. Later we’ll play some video-game football. Maybe I’ll win this time. Probably not, but maybe.