On The Dial: Stand By Your Van

Music and automobiles are quite synonymous with each other.

On this site, we explored the idea of how much we take our audio systems for granted. Though we no longer relying solely on terrestrial radio to entertain us. We can now plug in or sync a whole host of devices to the infotainment suite to keep us motivated over the miles.

We also explored how music and culture are linked with the iconography of automobile. Many songs had been penned, arranged and performed giving a spotlight any particular vehicle. There are songs that either praise them, use them as props or simply to kick them in the fender.

However, there is another piece of iconography for which music and the automobile are forever linked. That pertains to anyone who happens to be a musician.

Think about the history of automotive literature. Think about those photos where one has to demonstrate the cargo space of a wagon or a crossover. To demonstrate that measurement, you load it up with varying loads of musical instruments. Drum kits are a huge measuring stick. If you have a set for which you cannot fit each drum into the larger one, you may have a challenge putting it all inside your vehicle.

Another point to witness is whether you are near a club where live music happens practically every night. You always know which act is struggling by how they get to the venue. Local groups always come in their own vehicle, which often has a tale to tell. The drummer always drives a wagon or something with a cargo hold. Guitarists, bassists, DJs, keyboardists, the horn section – maybe some sedan or coupe will do for them.

The most obvious image of this idea of a band, its gear, and a vehicle is the band on the verge of "making it." Grant Lawrence on CBC Radio 3 spotlighted stories of independent bands that travel across Canada (or across the border into the USA) in a full-sized van. The degree of condition of the van, or whether they are lucky to rent a trailer for their gear or not, varies, but you always often hear of stories of breakdowns, broken heaters, bad road food, stolen vans and equipment and other interesting tales from the tour.

These segments were called? "Stand by Your Van."

Then, there are those who had a record deal or huge coffers to spend on touring. Once they ran in a van, they have graduated to tour buses with bunk beds, flat screen televisions, showers and space to write and rehearse. Sometimes, you see a gear trailer behind the bus. You might even see a flotilla of semi-trailers amongst a line of buses and other support vehicles.

A few years ago, I checked out some videos on YouTube of AC/DC's frontman Brian Johnson and his other life as a racing driver and enthusiast. It is obvious he is a rock star, but Johnson seems quite approachable. His specialty is vintage racing with two prototype racers to run. If you think he would have a tricked out motorhome or tour bus for him and his wife to spend race weekend in, guess again. Though he runs in his Rolls-Royce Phantom, Johnson and his wife stay in an Airstream – a trailer. It is all part of the passion Johnson has for motorsport and vintage cars.

Johnson is not alone in balancing the pursuit of music and automobiles. I once found solace with my musical pursuit. Since 1988, I took up hand drumming as that outlet, mainly with Afro-Cuban drums. When I began exploring automotive writing, somehow the drum I had at the time – a lovely LP Salsa model quinto in a blonde wood finish and chrome hardware – ended up becoming a part of that.

I am now on my fifth LP conga since late 1989.

Back to the point of local musicians driving to their gigs, though I had gig to speak of – bringing the drum actually served as a test in itself. Consider that the average conga drum is about 30 inches tall and 15 inches in diameter at its fattest point. They are not small by any means, but big enough to sit in the back seat.

In retrospect, it was a happy accident that I provided a test in cargo sustainability. Consider the sensitivity of conga drums. If I put a drum in the trunk of a car, I better have something uber-protective to put in it – or tie it down in some way. A conguero will tell you that nicks and dents on the shell are not cool. It will also mean a complete retuning of the drum before performance. The flip side of it is that even the most protective of cases may prove too large for most trunks today.

After finding this out, any of my drums will end up in the backseat of normal automobiles. If I found myself with an actual cargo hold, then it would be in a case somewhere in the back. Preferably, it would be secured with everything else that goes along for the ride. Even in those cases, the drum would end up in the back seat out of its case, with its head on a pillow and a seat belt secured for longer distances.

There is another side of drumming I could get into. I would refrain from taking up much more of your precious bandwidth.

The experience of hand drumming taught me about the value of musicianship when transporting your precious instruments in an automobile. It made me appreciate the bands that run in full-sized vans across the country from gig to gig through varying weather and other calamities on the road.

If you think this just a canned overview of what it is like to be a musician with your instrument and other equipment inside your vehicle, may I suggest reading Henry Rollins' book, Get in The Van: On The Road with Black Flag. Trust me on this one – it is not for the meek. Then again, we are talking Henry Rollins.

For another perspective, I offer this experience from a decade ago. For graduate school, I did an internship with one of the vocal ensembles in the Twin Cities – One Voice Mixed Chorus. They were on their fall tour, in which I had to miss the first day due to work. The next day, I set off to meet them at their hotel in Alexandria, Minnesota in a rented 2011 Kia Sorento. The SUV provided more than ample room for my luggage – and my drum.

While the chorus traveled by tour bus, there were a few of us who brought our own vehicles to be a part of the caravan. A concert stop in Morris at the university and an overnight stop in Wilmar provided a full experience of what it was like supporting this fine vocal ensemble. Though they left the next morning for a performance in Gaylord, I headed back home. My mission was accomplished by being "part of the chorus."

Things have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic has sent us home to stay safe. A lot of concerts and gigs have been cancelled or postponed. Musicians are doing their best to keep active at home. This has manifested into virtual gigs using many different channels – including SiriusXM, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media portals.

The "van" may be parked for now. The music continues to flow. Soon, they will back at a venue near you, playing their hearts out, and heading from town-to-town for the next show.

It just goes to show how much we should truly appreciate the work of these traveling troubadours – solo and otherwise. We salute our most creative folks as they "stand by their van" en route to their next gig.

Of course, your definition of "van" is valid here.

All photos by Randy Stern

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