It's 1998. I am twenty-one years old. I have a record deal with Atlantic Records, a publishing contract with EMI, and a song shifting around the top of the Billboard modern rock charts. I am the drummer.
Every morning, a man named Gary wakes me in a different discount hotel. Gary is my road manager. I sleepwalk to the van, place my head on a pillow pressed against the window, and listen to my headphones until I fall asleep. I sleep in my own bed one dozen times this year.
We navigate with road atlases and pencils. We do not have cell phones. Maybe Gary does, but it’s for business. The rest of us use payphones when we need to, but usually we don't need to. We float around the country in our own silent cloud. We film an interview for CNN and never see it. People tell us we are on MTV; we don't see it. I do a phoner with some local daily over the hotel room line, but never know if it makes it into print. At a gas station in Virginia I buy a Rolling Stone that includes a photo of me and I want to tell the cashier but then become too embarrassed and just purchase the magazine in silence.
Each new town looks the same. We only see the club. Each is identical to the one we played the night before, run-down and depressing in daylight. At night, the lights impart some magic to these rooms. Afternoons reveal what they really are: dilapidated bars that smell like spilled beer. In the hours between soundcheck and showtime, I walk around.
One day I go for a walk with a Dwight Yoakam album on my headphones. The music I listen to this year is by nature oblique, unrepresented in the collections of most people I know. I escape into the odd cultural corners of free albums provided to me by various label reps. I don't listen to any of the bands we are on tour with. For the most part, these groups have hit songs that are easy to like and members who are kind, talented, and handsome. There are no drugs. There is a surprising lack of stupidity. But I don't care much for the music. I'm not a snob. I have no indie cred. I'm just not into it. I don't know what I'm into. But that's neither here nor there. What I'm doing is listening to Dwight Yoakam on my Discman, and I find a cracked and empty parking lot behind some shuttered industrial building. I think this is Cincinnati. I am a few blocks away from the venue. We have five hours till we go on. The lot is empty and feels like it has been for decades. I sit on the loading dock in the dappled sunlight of a tree whose limbs have been broken by truck traffic and hope against hope that that night's show will be cancelled. It is snow day logic. This world! Where is the danger? I don't see it. I can't believe how innocent it all is. It is like the country is just a series of empty concrete surfaces, all waiting for me to step onto them and look around.
In October we play at an amphitheater, opening for a popular band with whom we are touring. They have the number one song in the country. The members of this band are very nice and two of the three wear eyeliner. They are somewhat famous for their hair. I do not care for the music. It is a good tour, though. Before the show, backstage, my band argues about who we are going to allow to travel with us on our new tour bus. Girlfriends, friends, family? We agree the best policy is to take no one. Our singer, however, who is one of the most considerate people I know, wants to bring his girlfriend. She is nice and pretty and makes all of us happy. We'll only have that bus for one month. But we don't know that yet. We think this is our permanent world and we are scared of securing its borders. Our capacity to give what we should to each other has run low. So we tell him it's not a good idea to bring anyone on the bus. Onstage that night, because of the lights, I see nothing other than the first three rows of spectators. There are thousands of people there, yet I am unclear on the count by tens of thousands. It is ten thousand, or twenty. Or more? Somebody says it is more. Amphitheaters are like playing in a sea of Novocain. Despite the volume all sound feels diffuse and quiet. Everything seems too far away. As a city population cheers, I think about how it was unfair of us to tell our singer not to bring his girlfriend, but I can't imagine a way to tell him so. Or maybe this isn't the night we argue about that. Maybe this is another night, the night we argue about tempos. It doesn't matter. What matters is that I don't even know that I'm playing.
In Charlotte near the end of the year, we headline a large theatre. At the close of our set, we play our hit song. It opens with four measures of primal thump – the snare drum cracking on each quarter note: bang bang bang bang. I launch into it and the crowd begins to bounce, jumping in rhythm to each beat. I still remember the light. The sun has not yet set and streams in through the room, backlighting in silhouette a sea of bouncing heads. How do I say this? I have run out of compassion for my band members, for myself, for the music itself. I'm ashamed at what I think. I look out at the crowd and, in my least charitable moment, ask why are any of you people here? I feel like anyone who wants to dance to the music I am playing is someone with whom I can never spend time. Later I work even better jobs for other major labels, other bands, I play on The Tonight Show, record for films, make a living. I am a very good drummer. But I guess that night in Charlotte is when I know my music career is over.