Wednesday morning has us driving west, blazing at top speed along the Trans-Canada hell-bent to arrive in our next gig-town, the mighty metropolis of Regina, Saskatchewan. None of us know anything about the place except that it's small and of little strategic importance. It is isolated, has produced a few good hockey players but no major rock acts, and has a funny name that rhymes with pussy.
I'm jazzed up, wound as tight as um, a guitar string, excited to be driving. This highway is perfect for me, with long simple straight-aways, good for passing farmers in half-ton trucks and moms in mini-vans. I want to pass people. I want speed. Jason is sitting next to me, staring blankly out the windows at the passing fields and bluffs of trees. Gina, Matt and Mark are jammed into the back seat. They play "I Spy" and "Punch Buggy" and a bunch of other games that kids play in the back seat on long car rides to drive their parents crazy.
It's pretty quiet up front until Jason starts talking. "You know what pisses me off, Terry?" he asks. "I nailed the solos last night. Every solo. Remember how you and Bobby gave me so much shit for being a lousy guitarist when we started out? I never made it through any of my solos. Well, last night I nailed every one of them and there was no one in the bar."
"That's touring, man," I tell him, swooping around a little red compact on a curve. "I guess the important thing is that you hit the solos. We have to think about properly recording some of this stuff. Especially now that you're playing it properly."
"It's frustrating though, isn't it? We played in Thunder Bay for beer money and then played Winnipeg for nothing because no one showed up. We finally start playing really tight sets, and we get nothing for it."
"That's how it is when you're starting out, dude. Don't worry. We're getting paid for tonight."
"Yeah, not much," he says. "Shit, I have to say, this is not what I expected. We're paying out the ass for everything. We're not even breaking even so far. Shit, where's the money? I figured on tour we'd be getting enough cash to fuck around a bit, you know? Have some fun."
"Well, we are getting drunk almost every night," Gina chimes in.
"Yeah, and it's coming out of our pockets. At least if there were some people in the crowd, maybe they would buy some beers for us."
"If we could manage to play a proper show for a full house," Matt adds.
"It's all philosophical, aye mate?" says Mark. "It's like, would you rather play an awesome show in an empty pub or play a shite show in front of a thousand people?"
"Or how about this," I add: "Would you rather play in front of a thousand people for twenty bucks or in front of twenty people for a thousand bucks?"
"I'd want the thousand bucks," Jason answers. "I'll play for free after I can afford rent on my own apartment."
"Okay," Gina says, "Would you rather play shitty wedding music in front of two thousand people or awesome rock in front of twenty?"
"I would play the shitty wedding music until everyone was drunk," I say, "then I would start with the awesome rock. People always get pissed at weddings. Sooner or later I could start slipping in the head-banging stuff."
"So what if it's a Mormon wedding and no one drinks?" Matt asks.
"I don't think Mormons dance," Jason says, "so I don't think they would hire a band."
"Maybe they don't dance, but they could still listen to a band."
"Who would hire a band if they couldn't dance?"
"Guys," I say, "I don't think anyone in this van actually knows anything about Mormons, so maybe we shouldn't make any assumptions about whether or not they dance or hire wedding bands."
"Would you do it Terry?" Gina asks. "Say the band doesn't make it. You keep getting older, and sooner or later the only place you have to play is in some shitty wedding band. Would you still do it? Playing waltzes for grannies to dance to? 'Love Me Tender'? 'Under The Boardwalk'?"
I smile and stare down the highway.
"Come on, Terry," she continues. "A nice powder blue tuxedo with suspenders. You could grow a little mustache. Probably get to kiss each bride. It might be fun."
"That ain't rock and roll," I say.
"I said that's not rock and roll!" I bang my fist against steering wheel. "Goddamnit! You fucking kids! You're not getting it!" I slap Jason's shoulder. "You! What the fuck are you here for?"
"I'm here to play guitar," he says, taken aback.
"Yeah, right," I say. "You're here because you want to get famous. You want to be rich. You think if you tour a couple times everyone will know who you are and you'll get signed to a big fat fucking contract and you can stop working. You can show up at noon for your video shoots and get blowjobs from different groupies every night. All of you fuckers. None of you get it."
They are all quiet. Shocked, I guess, and I don't stop. "You people are not paying attention! There are no agents waiting to sign half-assed wasters who think that they're hot shit because they finally figure out how to play their solos half-way through the tour. There are no contracts in our future. If we are here on the road playing shitty bars for whatever shitty money they give us, it's because we want it. We are a working band. We are playing rock and roll anywhere they will have us. This is what we are here for. This is not the means. This is the end."
No one says anything after that, all the rest of the way to Regina. I feel rotten, like the teacher who yelled at the class until the kids didn't want to learn anymore. But shit. All I want to do is play some rock and make some money. Why is that so hard?
The Trans-Canada Highway leads us right into the heart of Regina. We actually don't have to make a single turn until we are right downtown, half a block from the venue. It's a nice little Irish pub named O'Shanahan's. The bartender gives us the lowdown: one local opener, then Machine Within A Machine and The Clutch Dogs, then a local kid would take us to a house where we can crash for the night. After the fighting in Thunder Bay and the near-miss in Winnipeg it all seems too easy.
We do our load in and sit at a table to order dinner. Everyone is pretty quiet, and I figure they're all still bitter for my rant in the van. It would appear I've poisoned the atmosphere, so I get up. "I'm going for a walk," I tell them. "Ask the server to just leave my food, and I'll eat it when I get back. I won't be too long." None of them say anything, so I leave them and walk out into the city.
I figure it will be best to just let them cool out for a while, and talk through what I said. Maybe it would be good for them to spend some time talking about what a dickhead I am. Whatever it takes for them to get their heads together.
The front doors of O'Shanahan's look out into Victoria Park, a nice block of grass and trees. It's still green despite the season. There are picnic tables set out on the patio for the smokers. I look at them with envy and start walking, looking for a convenience store to get some cigarettes.
The walk lets me clear my head and think about the people I'm sharing a van with. These four people all have the same simple dream: they want to make a living playing rock music. If possible, they want to play at the highest level, become stars and play in front of huge audiences and make huge bags of money doing it. And yes, it is possible. Every year there are hot new acts that make it big, wankers from small towns in Texas or Connecticut or Missouri who get huge and live the dream. So what's the problem with dreaming?
The problem is me. Here I am, closing in on forty years old, and I've been playing rock music for my entire adult life. I'm an excellent player. I can write songs, I can sing, and I can play lead, rhythm, or bass guitar. I've been a part of several terrific bands and I've played with some outstanding musicians. And despite all that, I'm still at the bottom of the rock and roll food chain. And there are thousands and thousands of men and women like me all over North America.
It doesn't matter though, because I love what I do. No, I've never played in front of the huge audiences, and one look at my rat-hole apartment will tell you that I've never made much money, but it doesn't matter because I love getting on a stage and playing rock music, whether it's for five people or five hundred, beer money or a grand. I just want to play.
But guys like Jason, Gina and Matt? Would they stick around if they knew they would never make it big? Would they bother to play the music if it was just for the music and not for the dream? Mark would. I know he just wants to get fucked up and have a good time. But Jason has dollar signs in his eyes.
I come around a corner and spot a 7-11 a few blocks away. I go and get a pack, then cough while I stand in the parking lot smoking one. I had half a cigarette a few days ago with the blonde in Thunder Bay, but other than that it's been a while. And smoking after not smoking is disgusting.
I walk back to O'Shanahan's and I find my dinner waiting for me, my chicken burger and fries cold on the plate. The members of the band have headed upstairs to play pool. They can see me from the balcony up above but they don't acknowledge me, so I eat alone and head to the bar to read a newspaper while they relax.
A few hours roll by and I head outside for another cigarette. I see four guys sitting around one of the picnic tables. They have on black hooded sweatshirts, black jeans and runners, and two of them are wearing sunglasses even though the sun went down an hour ago. I make a bet with myself and approach the table.
"Hey guys," I say, "mind if I sit down?"
They all shrug and two of them slide over to make room for me on their side.
I pull out a cigarette. "You the band that's opening tonight?" I ask.
"Yeah man," one of them says. "How could you tell?"
"You look like a band. I'm Terry. I'm in one, oh, actually I'm in both bands that are here from Toronto."
"Oh, cool," they say and we have a round of introductions. This guy is the rhythm guitar, the drummer, blah, blah, blah. I can never remember names.
"How's the tour gone so far?" one of them asks.
I grin. "See this cut?" I ask, pointing to the jagged mark across the bridge of my nose. "That was from the first gig. It's gotten worse from there."
They trade looks that say oh shit.
"No, it's been great, guys," I tell them. "Some things have been fucked up, but we've played some good shows. Have you guys ever gone on the road?"
"Just short trips out of town. One or two hour drives."
"You've got to go on tour, guys. That's the only way to see of you're a band or just some guys who get together and play music."
"So how has your band held up?" the singer asks.
"I'm still not sure," I tell him. "You'll see tonight."
We sit and trade stories for a few hours before they head inside to set up their gear. They're good guys, and I wish them good luck. Before they leave me I ask them if they have any advice about the local crowds.
"Yeah," the drummer tells me. "Don't make any Regina-Vagina jokes. Shit, it's just not funny, but everyone makes the joke. Trust me."
I nod and they head inside. I sit for a few minutes and head in as well, heading upstairs to find my two bands.
2007 Nolan Whyte