Why Don't We Do It On The Road?

10 days on the road with Friends Like These

Where the hell are we?

If you can't pluck a soggy pork rind from under the passenger seat and call it "breakfast"...

If you can't figure out how to make truckers' speed from two cans of Red Bull and a packet of Pop Rocks...

If you can't sleep facedown on a stranger's kitchen floor with your nose stuck in an overflowing ashtray...

If you can't go along for the ride, you'll never survive on the road.

We're 1,200 miles from home, moving at 45 miles an hour, and for the thousandth time, some ridiculously melodramatic VH1-style commentator has commandeered the voiceover in my brain, repeating the Top 100 Guidelines for the American Road Trip. By now, I know the rules: If you can't keep repeating the rules, you'll never make it through the week.

But how can you tell when you've made it through the week? Lying here with my eyes closed, it's hard to keep track of such things. I don't know what time it is and I don't know what day it is--which doesn't really matter, anyway, since you can't chart hours and days on a road map. Today is not Friday or Thursday or Monday. Today is New York. I know that much. Then, over the treble-heavy whine of an old Queen cassette, the voices fill the rest in.

"How would you rate the tightness of this highway, Johnny?"

"I'd rate it at a level of 10-year-old boy."

Suddenly I remember two things: 1) that I'm curled up in a vehicle that's backing up at high speed on a major Manhattan expressway, and 2) that I'm on tour with a rock band.

If you can't live it and if you don't love it, what are you doing here?


Three days earlier in Minneapolis

If you can't pack up your toothbrushes and hairbrushes and suitcases and guitar cases and drum kits and first-aid kits and bass strings and bass drums with absolute confidence about touring, your father may start to get worried.

"I told my dad that we were going on tour with a writer," Steve Murray explains, plopping his cowboy hat down on his head and carrying his bass guitar out of his practice space in St. Paul. "The first thing he thought of was Almost Famous. He said, 'Don't let what happened to those guys happen to you.'"

Now, one can understand the elder Murray's trepidation about the second national tour of the Minneapolis band Friends Like These. After all, his main touchstone for the experience is a movie where an LSD-addled lead singer nearly kills himself by jumping off somebody's roof and a teenage roadie gets deflowered by a pack of STD-ridden groupies. But I want to console Mr. Murray that this tour needs to happen. For the first time since his son joined the group a year and a half ago, Friends Like These are performing for packed crowds locally. Minneapolitans are starting to hear themselves in the group's songs: the groupies knocking back watered-down two-for-ones backstage at the Triple Rock, the musicians who spend their winters wishing they hadn't wasted their summers, the tiny music scene where everyone has kissed everyone else's ex and everyone has played in everyone else's band. These people are the band's people. But they can't be their people forever--local musicians burn out like that, fading back into the same city that put them on stage. Which is why Friends Like These will eventually have to find out whether people in New York and Illinois and Boston are their people, too.

That time has to come soon. Their debut album, I Love You, which earned them a Minnesota Music Award nomination, also left them a thousand dollars in debt, and as that number grew, the band was forced to stop recording their sophomore full-length two-thirds of the way through the process. They asked John Hermanson of Alva Star to mix four of their new songs for a self-released EP, Deliver Us from Evil, promising to repay him three thousand dollars when they got back from tour. "The worst is having someone like Johnny believe in you enough to put his own money on the line," says Friends Like These singer John Solomon. "He has kids to feed and he isn't exactly doing stellar himself."

Friends Like These know they won't be able to pay Hermanson back by selling T-shirts and CDs to kids in Chicago and Baltimore. But maybe touring will bring them a few degrees closer to a record contract. That's the thing about blowing all your savings on something you believe in: If you don't get what you want, you're just a sad dreamer. If you get what you want, the history books will say you were always an optimist. To paraphrase singer Nellie McKay, everything you do that makes you a stupid person before you get signed makes you a smart person afterward. For John Solomon, this leaves only one option. "Head down," he says. "Plow forward. Hope for the best."


The next day, driving between Minneapolis and Chicago

If you can't buy a private jet, how do you travel 3,300 miles? Metallica rode the lightning. Queen rode the wild, wild wind. The Doors rode the storm. Friends Like These ride a Dodge Ram with bird droppings streaked across the windows.

Next Page »