Touring Without the Drinking
I toured with bands for years before I quit alcohol. Then I had to figure how to rock out and maintain sobriety. Here are a few dos and don'ts I've learned on the road.
I'm kind of a rock star. Or, I'm someone who gets to play music with rock stars. Ok, I'm hardly a rock star—just a hired gun who's toured with a slew of them over the years. There is nothing unique in being a sober alcoholic who can't wrap their peabrain around the idea that life looks different than it should. But living a life away from the comforts of a homegroup and a bed—the only constants the active alcoholics you live and work with—is a road less traveled among my AA peers.
I hit my bottom after a few years of touring with an infamous drugged-up band. It was my first big gig and I gleefully went off the rails with the rest of the gang. After a few years I got off the road, got sober and slept for what felt like a year. I constantly whinged to my sponsor about not getting called for any gigs. She reminded me that I was probably not prepared to be touring yet and that the universe was taking care of me. She was right. Sponsors are the worst and the best.
I listened kindly while we watched one of my bandmates get beaten with a dildo by a topless “cop.”
At two years sober, realizing the only way to make a living as a musician was touring, I finally got a call for a gig I felt good about. I was nervous but I had worked most of the Steps and felt like it was time to get back to doing what I did best and see if it would take me out. My initial fear was leaving my physical sober network at home to hit the road. I was terrified to leave behind my concept of God—the Group Of Drunks. If my home group was the only thing between me and a drink, how did I stand a chance alone in a hotel room somewhere, while my sober network were happily dining on fries a thousand miles away? The only way to find out was to show up and not drink and wrangle some third-stepping, via Skype and the phone.
I'm open about my sobriety to anyone I come in regular contact with—my bandmates and crew, the bus driver and other musicians I run into. I've met other sober alcoholic musicians in the most amazing places as a result of my openness. My colleagues sometimes come to me with their fears about their own drug use. I've had more than one former junkie ally themselves with me in “our sobriety,” as they gleefully smoked a felonious amount of marijuana every day. I don't judge. I just gently poke fun and take my support wherever I can get it. An artist I was touring with got whiskeybold enough to slur to me that he had a problem in the New Orleans Hustler club at five O'clock one morning. I listened kindly while we watched one of my bandmates get beaten with a dildo by a topless “cop.” Service is service.
Every tour manager I've worked with has enthusiastically helped me get to meetings and kept a supply of non-alcoholic beverages on the bus. A singer I worked with years ago still sends me a gift every year on my anniversary. But of course, everyone can't be completely sympathetic to the trappings of a sober alcoholic. I had to learn to ask for what I needed, and needs are not very rock and roll. I didn't drink and I played “hot stove” for a while, trying new things and making adjustments with my sponsor when I started to feel crazy amounts of pain.
Things that work: hitting meetings whenever possible and sharing like my tongue was on a swivel and played at both ends; asking for quiet in the bunk area at night after a certain hour; asking that certain areas of the bus be weed-free; asking to have a hotel room if the party came back to the bus (not always possible on lower budget tours, since the bus usually leaves at four in the morning, after the crew finishes loading out); and insisting on healthy food on the rider while also writing 10th Steps and gratitude lists on a regular basis.
Things that don't work: getting stuck in a bar at the gig after-party, being held hostage by someone's drunk shrimp-breathed backstage guest, or fucking every late-night fried food joint directly in the face with my per diem.
Getting to meetings on tour can be a challenge. Meetings in smaller cities are typically in the morning before the bus rolls into town, and in the afternoon and evening during the soundcheck or gig. Sometimes the venue's hired “runner” for the day can take me to a meeting, but often it's up to me to pay cab fare, and it can get expensive. Assuming I can figure out the intergroup website in foreign countries, there isn't always a guarantee that a listed meeting will exist, or be in English. So I make meetings my day-off priority when everyone else is at the movies or bowling or at the strip club.
I found that attending meetings and connecting with alcoholics as a sober bank account provided me with limited withdrawals of serenity until I could make the next physical meeting. This is how my "Group Of Drunks" keeps me sober. I just have to work harder than before to stay connected. Sometimes it's a system held together with chewing gum and staples, but so far it's worked. I haven't had a drink and I can still live in a sweaty tin can with 10 or so of my coworkers and their cubic ton of character defects without committing actual homicide, which is a miracle.
It's been a great life and a great challenge, but I know I can't do this for much longer. No matter how high-end a tour is, I'll still have some nights where I have to eat at a McDonald's and am expected to work on no sleep. Most tour buses can't accommodate “solid waste.” And everyone's had a night of turtlewalking around a rolled-up town in the middle of the night, hunting a bathroom. Living with coworkers is nightmarish for a “normie”—an alcoholic could power a distillery with the incurred resentments over 300 days of touring. It's not necessarily what I imagined an “adult” life should look like. I dream of a cinematic version of a farmer's life, working from dawn to dusk and getting to sleep in my own bed, fellowshipping with my homegroup and maybe hugging my sponsees' necks regularly.
I'm finding it more difficult to maintain serenity and a sense of wonder when I start out again on a worn-out highway so flat I can see the back of my head. I know that flux is the greatest perceived enemy of my sobriety, no matter what I do for a living or where I find myself in the world. Whether I'm working on a proposal from my couch, or playing music in front of 100,000 people in Germany, I can be at peace or be miserable. It's really up to me.
Taylor Fury is a pseudonym for a sober musician currently on tour.