A TRIBUTE TO THE ROAD MANAGER – PRAISE AND A PRAYER
“I have no use for bodyguards; I use two highly trained certified public accountants instead.” – Elvis Presley
When Elvis Presley’s fiancée Ginger Alden found him unconscious in the Graceland upstairs bathroom at 2:00 pm on August 16, 1977, she called to Joe Esposito, Elvis’s longtime road manager. Joe immediately ran upstairs, surveyed the situation, and went right to work. He called for an ambulance from the bathroom phone and he attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage, but to no avail. However, by the time the paramedics arrived, the bathroom and the adjacent sitting room had been cleaned up, as well as the vomit from the shag carpet in the bathroom. Anyone who has ever done the road manager gig for any length of time knows exactly what to do in these kinds of circumstances.
This month’s dictum is a shout out, a testimonial, some observations, a couple of pratfalls and a warning to the unsung hero of the touring business – the road manager. These men and women are also known as tour managers, the distinction being that on larger tours, the tour manager oversees everything and the road manager takes care of the artist(s). On mid-level to small tours, the road manager does everything. Everything.
At first glance, this road manager gig would seem to be the best job in the music business. It’s a total power trip for a control freak. Everything must be done the way you want it to be done. If you say the show is off, it’s off. If you say everyone must be in the van by 8am, that’s what everyone does. One does not question the road manager. He or she rules. Except that’s not always how it works. There’s also a downside.
First of all, EVERYTHING IS YOUR PROBLEM AND YOUR FAULT. If the drummer gets drunk and leaves his passport in an unknown bar, that’s your problem. If a rental amp blows up, that’s your fault. If it SNOWS – that’s your problem AND your fault. Everything that could go wrong will go wrong and it’s your responsibility to clean it up, make it work, and make it look like everything’s fine.
To the artist, it’s all about the music; but to the road manager, it’s all about the money: “We’re not paying for the extra security!” “Put all of the leftover catering on the bus!” “Where are the receipts for these deductions?” (On tour, it doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you get a receipt.)
You’re the first one up in the morning and the last one to bed at night. (Not the last one to sleep; just the last one to bed. Actual sleeping goes in this order: crew, road manager, keyboards, bassist, drummer, singer, guitarist. And note that there’s difference between going to sleep and passing out, as there is between waking up and coming to.) Added perk: an unwritten rule of the road is that the road manager gets the single room; everyone else doubles up, if they get a room at all (see: Crew).
As road manager, you have to wake up in the morning and assume that EVERYONE with whom you will come in contact during the next sixteen or so hours will be out to screw with you in some way or another. And so not only do you then have to become ever vigilant, you also have drop your professional demeanor and become an UNQUALIFIED JERK to everyone within shouting distance when the situation demands it, which is quite often. It’s the only way to get through the day. And you have to initiate it or else someone is going to cut a corner and take advantage of you and hope you don’t notice. It wears you out. Fast.
But if you are good at being a jerk at the drop of a hat and, even better, enjoy doing it, this could be the job for you. And if you’re REALLY, REALLY good at it, you will be rewarded with better jobs and better pay and better tours. But there’s the rub. In the music business, if you’re really good at something, especially road/tour management, then you get typecast and you can’t get out. It’s the devil’s bargain. You will forever be considered a great road/tour manager but you will not be considered good for anything else – you’re trapped in a second-class position, albeit well paid and always working, but it’s a dead end. There is no advancement or promotion. So you’re stuck in a job that requires you to be a jerk all day, every day. What to do??
HOW TO DEAL WITH BEING A ROAD MANAGER
- Do it badly and get fired. (Not good for your chances of finding another job in the biz.)
- Quit. (Even worse for your reputation.)
- Do it really well. (As noted above, you’ll get more jobs and you’ll be well compensated.)
- Do it a little better than competently. (But enough to hang onto the job for now until something else comes along.)
Years ago, when I decided I was never going to able to play keyboards as well as Rick Wakeman, let alone be in a band as good as Yes, I switched over to the Road Manager job for a few years, by doing it a little better than competently, trying not to be too big of a jerk. While I was on the road, driving the van, dealing with God’s-gift-to-women-and-song musicians, sleazy club owners and drunken crews, staying in cheap motels and eating bad food at all hours, there’d be this guy from the Warner Bros. Records Artist Relations Department along on the tour. But he would be flying between cities, getting limos, staying in nice hotels, taking people to dinner, buying drinks for everyone, and leaving early. So I said to myself, I want that job. So I started doing favors for him – extra backstage passes, getting the guitar player up before noon for a radio interview, stuff like that. When I got back to LA, I went to the Warners home office in Burbank. I found this guy’s boss and told him that I knew how to do that job backwards and forwards. He bought it and gave me the gig.
And so here are my accolades and a prayer for all road managers today: I respect and admire the job you’re doing, the touring business would fall apart without you, but for God’s sake, get out as soon as you can.
FOOTNOTE: There are big differences among American, British and Australian road/tour managers. Anyone who has ever dealt with all three has certainly experienced the inevitable cultural differences in approach. However, that discussion is way beyond the scope of this blog. Just be aware. Very aware.
FURTHER FOOTNOTE: After Elvis died, Joe Esposito went to work for Jerry Weintraub, road managing Michael Jackson, The Bee Gees, Karen Carpenter and John Denver, but apparently was not present at any of their deaths. He has consulted on many Elvis documentaries and dramatizations and has authored several Elvis books (as I would, were I he). He has accepted his lot in life and my hat is off to him. Thanks, Joe!
EVEN FURTHER FOOTNOTE: Just in case the above banner photo flew right by you, that’s Elvis, Joe Esposito, Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire at Nancy Sinatra’s Las Vegas International Hotel Opening Show post-party on August 29, 1969. You shoulda been there. Bada-bing.