1. Bob Seger, “Turn The Page”
Like most people, musicians occasionally let off steam by complaining about their jobs. Much of the time, these gripes are hard for listeners to relate to—who wouldn’t want to travel the country and enjoy the spoils of adoring fans, free booze, easy sexual conquests, and lots of money for doing something that seems really fun? Because touring is sometimes like Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page,” a song that reveals certain realities about life on the road that have nothing to do with the good-time fantasies that the rest of us buy into. “Turn The Page” lays out the themes explored by other convincingly dire songs about touring—the endless miles between gigs, the monotony of shows, the loneliness felt by performers even (or perhaps especially) when they’re in front of audiences, and the sense that touring is a punishing treadmill that’s impossible to climb down from. In “Turn The Page,” touring isn’t some crazy adventure; it’s payment for a Faustian deal for riches and stardom that costs the performer his home and humanity.
2. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Lodi”
By the time Creedence Clearwater Revival released “Lodi,” it was well on its way to becoming one of the best and most popular rock bands of its generation. But John Fogerty still wasn’t far removed from his days as a club musician, when he would have “to play while people sat there drunk.” While “Lodi” isn’t based on actual events—Fogerty had never even been to Lodi when he wrote it, much less gotten stranded there—the song speaks to the experiences of bands that travel long distances to play gigs in small towns for a smattering of (mostly intoxicated) patrons. For Fogerty, those awful nights can be chalked up to dues-paying, but for most musicians it’s as good as it is ever going to get.
3. Jawbreaker, “Tour Song”
For the thousands of small-time bands who make the rounds in a cramped van, touring is tedious and occasionally soul-crushing. Jawbreaker’s litany of calamities in “Tour Song” explains why: There are sparsely attended and unpromoted gigs, hostile crowds, free shows, broken gear—“Every little thing, every little thing, every little, little thing, every little thing, every little thing must go wrong,” howls guitarist-vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach. The song opens with him leaving a message on someone’s answering machine: “It’s Sunday, we’re broken down in the top of Massachusetts looking for a hotel room, show’s off. [Laughs.] It’s pretty heavy.”
4. Silkworm, “Miracle Mile”
Few songs about touring are as specific as Silkworm’s “Miracle Mile.” The band plays for 15 people and $30, there’s a sound guy who is strung out on Ex-Lax, and the sleeping bags get stolen by an addict with shitty pants. But Silkworm reserves most of its spite for the mechanics who jeopardize the band’s van, which on tour functions as a lifeline; it’s both a home and a way home. They “got ripped off by these assholes at a Fort Lee garage” who “didn’t weld that motherfucking leaf spring.” Only a band well-versed in van troubles on the road would know how to reference a leaf spring.
5. Motörhead, “(We Are) The Road Crew”
Before chugging away cosmically in Hawkwind, Lemmy Kilmister briefly worked as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix. When he later formed Motörhead and growled “(We Are) The Road Crew,” he was speaking from experience. The song details the relentless grind of touring that the stage-scoured Lemmy had found himself trapped in: “Eating junk, feeling bad / Another night, I’m going mad,” he gripes, before adding, “My woman’s leaving, I’m so sad.” Granted, he’s about as eloquent as Tarzan, but Lemmy admits that it’s no one’s fault but his that “another beer is what I need / Another gig, my ears bleed.”
6. Lynyrd Skynyrd, “All I Can Do Is Write About It”
Before dying along with two other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd in a plane crash in 1977, frontman Ronnie Van Zant already seemed to be tired of his rock-star life. Granted, Skynyrd had its fair share of songs about the joys of being rich and famous. But they were always tempered by introspective, even morose songs like “Am I Losing?” and “Simple Man,” where Van Zant pondered the increasing difficulty of life in the stage lights. His growing depression in the face of touring is most sweetly, sadly summed up in the acoustic “All I Can Do Is Write About It.” “Well this life that I live, it’s took me everywhere / There ain’t no place I ain’t never gone,” sings an exhausted Van Zant, “But it’s kind of like the saying you’ve heard so many times / Well there just ain’t no place like home.” The fact that touring literally killed Van Zant mere months after recording “All I Can Do Is Write About It” makes the song’s homesickness that much more devastating.
7. Jerry Jeff Walker, “Life On The Road”
Given that so much of country music involves mournful ruminating about one thing or another—usually about relationships, but in a pinch, practically anything will do—it’s no wonder that there are so many songs about the hard life musicians have to bear. For instance, Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1996 rolling lament “Life On The Road,” which grumbles about the necessity of seeing the world by bus “just so y’all can look at us.” His specific grievances are pretty mild, though: While he complains that touring “ain’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he doesn’t get too pointed, apart from the way the bus rocks and rolls, and the way he never knows where he is unless the driver tells him, and the necessity of packing all-black clothes because they’ll get washed “upon your back.” Mostly, though, the song is a basic description of touring that reads as though Walker wrote it on that bus while glancing around himself for inspiration: “You get a bed and a TV set / You get an ashtray for your cigarette / You get HBO, well, that’s life on the road.” (Just don’t confuse it with The Kinks’ unrelated 1977 song “Life On The Road,” which is more about general wanderlust and life dissatisfaction, and features a lot more gay sex than Walker’s version.)
8. Loudon Wainwright III, “Motel Blues”
If there’s one thing that’s great about touring, it’s the groupies, right? Not so, says Loudon Wainwright III, whose “Motel Blues” chronicles a one-night stand that’s downright depressing. In the song, “a lonely rock ’n’ roller” goes looking for companionship once the TV stations stop broadcasting at 2 a.m. He’s doing it out of boredom; sex is the only alternative to staring “at them ugly grass mat walls.” He finds a young girl who he begs to “save my life,” which sounds like a corny line but it works just the same. The next morning, he advises the girl to ignore the judging glances of the workers at the motel’s front desk; he promises to buy her breakfast, “they’ll think you’re my wife.”
9. Iron Maiden, “Wasted Years”
The 2009 documentary Iron Maiden: Flight 666 shows the veteran metal band shaking up the tedium of touring by letting frontman Bruce Dickinson—a licensed pilot—fly the group’s tour jet. Long before that, though, Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith wrote the epic song “Wasted Years,” in which Dickinson sings about the travails of traveling the globe in perpetual pursuit of metal godhood. “I close my eyes and think of home / Another city goes by in the night,” he wails like a Viking stuck in the dull cycle of raping and pillaging. “Ain’t it funny how it is, you never miss it ’til it’s gone away? / And my heart is lying there, and it will be ’til my dying day.” For a group whose reign of unabashed triumph hasn’t abated in 30 years, it’s a candid and personal moment of doubt.
10. ABBA, “Super Trouper”
There’s much more angst to ABBA than many casual listeners realize, and “Super Trouper” is a perfect example. The group had always preferred the studio—where its pop symphonies could be perfectly orchestrated and executed—over the stage, and the title of “Super Trouper” refers to the blinding lights used in the increasingly huge stadiums ABBA found itself playing in. Anni-Frid Lyngstad sings of the odd, almost surreal detachment that comes from living such a life: “I was sick and tired of everything / When I called you last night from Glasgow / All I do is eat and sleep and sing / Wishing every show was the last show.” Eventually she puts her happy face back on and claims the lights shine “like the sun,” but lines like “How can anyone be so lonely / Part of a success that never ends?” sounds more hellish than happy. The romantic tensions within ABBA at the time are no secret now, but it’s interesting—and heartbreaking—to hear how isolated the individuals in this band of two married couples were during the height of their mega-success in the ’70s.
11. Blur, “Look Inside America”
In 1993’s “Miss America” and 1994’s “Magic America,” Blur seemed to have a pattern going. But its passing obsession with the United States culminated on the band’s self-titled album in 1997, which ditched Blur’s signature Britpop in favor of a grunge-and-indie-rock-influenced sound that seemed to celebrate and spoof America at the same time. “Look Inside America” was that album’s USA-centric tune—and in typical Blur fashion, it wields a sardonic blade that cuts both ways. “Got to play a second-rate chat show / A nationwide deal, so we gotta go,” deadpans frontman Damon Albarn as he catalogs the many depressing, soul-sucking ways the music industry has forced the group to whore itself out while on tour. “And the whole world could have passed through me / But I don’t know that it means much to me.” No wonder Albarn’s next project, Gorillaz, let him hide behind the virtual persona Stuart “2D” Pot.
12. The Who, “Postcard”
What seems at first like a jaunty travelogue detailing the Who’s exploits on the road is instead a plea for help from a never-ending nightmare in “Postcard.” There are “people who hurt us” in Germany, “bad vibes like confetti” in Italy, and a litany of other complaints from other parts of the world. The song itself is a letter back to a home that may or may not even exist for songwriter John Entwistle and the rest of the band. The final line (“We’ve done very well, but we’ve been to hell and heaven as well”) not only features a call-out to one of Entwistle’s most famous songs, but serves to underline the difference between fame and happiness. The Who might have been recognized around the world, but “the money’s all gone,” prompting the band to once again undertake the Sisyphean task of touring.
13. Neil Young, “Tonight’s The Night”
Neil Young was a twitchy, shy sort, and totally unsuited for rock stardom. It seemed inevitable that he’d eventually record an entire album inspired by the wages of his reluctant rock-star status, and he finally did it with 1975’s Tonight’s The Night. Less predictable were the circumstances that directly inspired the record, the deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and Young’s friend and longtime roadie Bruce Berry, both of drug overdoses. “Tonight’s The Night,” which bookends the record, serves as a eulogy to Berry, a diligent “working man” who used to idle away the nights strumming away on Young’s guitar when he thought nobody was watching. The second verse tells of Young’s grief at hearing that Berry had died “out on the mainline.” “Tonight’s The Night” isn’t an anthem to road-weariness, but a creepy exaltation to the road-weary, to those who plug away night after night until they’re swallowed whole.
14. Drive-By Truckers, “The Opening Act”
The story of a fat man falling off a mechanical bull is much more prominent in this melancholy country-rock tune than tour-van horrors, but that’s the point: The song describes the humiliation of being onstage in front of a crowd that was ignoring the band even before the paramedics showed up. “There’s a band onstage that used to be huge / They’re on but no one’s listening / And they’re asked to turn down and they politely oblige.” And they’re the headliners. The lap steel sounds even more mournful about this state of affairs than it would for simple romantic troubles—at least the band onstage got some time in the sun before being banished to mechanical-bull purgatory. The singer’s just the opening act.
15. The Bottle Rockets, “Indianapolis”
Although the song predates Brian Henneman forming The Bottle Rockets—a demo version from 1991 features an assist from his pals in Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar—“Indianapolis” is most associated with Henneman’s band and is something of an anthem for life on the road. Ten days into a tour, a “fuel pump that’s deceased” strands Henneman and his bandmates in hell/Indianapolis—he really can’t tell the difference. Sitting in a bar four hours from his hometown, Henneman feels his loyalty wilting—“If I could catch a ride, I really think I’d ditch this band”—and his anxiety about the repair cost growing. Twisting the knife is the music at the bar: “I’ll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time.”
16. The Rolling Stones, “Torn And Frayed”
If touring really is such a bad life, why are so many musicians resigned to living it anyway? A clue is found in the Rolling Stones’ “Torn And Frayed,” a country-tinged rocker from Exile On Main St. Mick Jagger sings about the various aspects of touring life that drags musicians down—substance abuse, rootlessness, “dressing rooms filled with parasites”—and how this wear and tear eventually becomes visible to the audience. But none of it seems to matter “as long as the guitar plays,” a nod to the power of music “to steal your heart away” no matter the circumstances. Life on the road might be a bitch, but the music always seems to make it worth tolerating.