Once upon a time, eons ago really, back in March 2020; before the Hell Plague descended upon humanity and obliterated life as we knew it; before the Toilet Paper Riots, the Meat Panic, and the rash of *Presidentially sanctioned Clorox Drips, I had a job. Debatably, it was the Best Job In The World—
No, I was not a travel writer with a platinum expense card on extended assignment. But CLOSE!
I have been, for the past several years, a touring video director for several English rock bands — the mesmeric Florence + The Machine, and the outstanding young hard rock duo called Royal Blood. I produce huge concerts, all over the world.
Until the pandemic swept in and shoved the touring world off of a cliff, I was living my literal dream. After decades of doggedly pursuing a job that maybe a few hundred lucky souls in the world get to do, I was pursuing my professional passion at a level that was approaching a personal nirvana (the metaphysical state of being, not the band, though that would have been GREAT too!)
Now, lurching through another quiet day of lockdown solitude at home in my Emma cabin, I can’t help but ponder the nature and viability of what I do for a living.
When will live events happen again? How will I ever land another tour now that large crowds are a real danger to everyone involved?
The inner-dialogue about this present state of my career can match the din of a 747 taking off in my head at times.
In an effort to balance out the doubt and salvage the desire to continue to chase my dream, I oft relive the countless adventures and indelible moments, gathered gleefully over two years like so many perfectly ripened apples—”building blocks” of professional connections, personal friendships, experiences and growth that had recently begun threatening to add up to something of a verifiable life.
Such as it is. Or was. Those contacts are now all similarly laid off, scattered. The companies that we worked for are all shuttered. My network, the lifeline to a carefully hewn career is a jumble of frayed ends.
I jest a bit when boasting that I had the best job in the world.
Most folks would turn tail and haul ass in the opposite direction if you told them that they would have to give up any semblance of a normal family life in order to “sleep” in a coffin-sized tour bus bunk surrounded by a dozen snoring rapscallions; lucky to get four hours of sleep while bounding from city to city, crossing international borders deep in the night — only to get up and unload trucks into an empty arena: exactly the reverse of what you had just done a few hours and hundreds of miles ago…18 hours a day…for months on end.
Some people just ain’t cut out for show biz, baby! You gotta need it. And you have got to love it.
Give my crew a splash of lukewarm coffee in a paper cup, a hot electrical panel thrumming with 100 amps of stable juice, four hours to rig the projectors and screens, to unpack and assemble the master control “fly pack” and build the cameras (we typically utilized seven on tour, but I’ve used as many as twenty for some big festival shows), some decent local stagehands to help run miles of assorted cabling, a clean FACS (industry term – meaning to test and approve all equipment), two hours of a splat nap before the show, some killer nosh from catering, a triple shot of espresso just before the band takes the stage…add a sold out crowd raring to be entertained by their musical heroes, a dynamic act to work with, and I am all SET, my friends!
As acts go, Florence + The Machine are as creative and energetic as they come. Florence Welch is the 34-year old lead singer and artistic force of Florence + The Machine. The South London product that has quickly gained international appeal for hundreds of thousands of devoted fans based on the deep connection that she engenders through her dramatic lyrics, climactic rock anthems, and her regal, even goddess-like charms. Demure and intensely private off the stage, she comes alive and embodies her art on stage in a way that perplexes and inspires me still, even after a hundred shows.
I have directed thousands of concerts in my life, for countless performers. Never in my life have I witnessed another human do more with natural talents, artistic and athletic instinct, than Flo.
She is a star who leaps and spins with the grace of a ballerina; sprints around the arena with the speed of an Olympic track star; struts, jukes and jives with all the attitude of a seasoned burlesque performer— all while singing full-throated (no lip-synching here, Mariah) for 90 minutes— night after night.
In two years of shows, I never once heard her miss a single lyric, or sing off-key. Flo is a FORCE.
I dance with this force. Lead her, in a way. My job is…was (SHALL BE AGAIN SOMEDAY!) to choose – at just the right moment – shots that show physical expression and artistic detail telling all the little stories that make up an artful show design so that folks way back of the arena, or festival, can see everything, down to the tiny lantern tattoo that graces her middle finger. So that anyone in that space can get a clear sense of every purposeful and kismetic artistic nuance. My job is to help connect Florence with her fans, visually, so that they can then dive into the visceral as one.
By studying the songs religiously—to the point of knowing each beat of a 90-minute show, by practicing along with her and the band while they rehearsed choreography, and by gaining the trust and earnest artistic efforts of some of the best camera operators in the world, I enter a Zen-like state of “flow” when directing. I feel no pressure even though, with millions of dollars in equipment, contracts, and professional relationships put on the line to vouch for my right to sit in that chair, pressure surely exists.
When the band–a fantastic menagerie of incredibly talented (and uber cool) players who wield the harp, piano, keyboard, fiddle, guitar, bass, drums and percussion to build lush and climactic rock anthems– takes the stage, I fade the show up to life from blackness with a slow pull of a lever, breathe deeply, and tap into that flow.
In it, every movement of Florence is anticipated. Camera angles and movements within the frame are worked out and requested via intercoms originally created for Vietnam chopper jockeys— sturdy enough to cancel out the noise of a blaring rock band and 80,000 screaming fans… I call cameras calmly, blending multiple shots into one image, using negative space of the screen to fill my canvas with colors, shapes, and movement, often asking for and utilizing focus tricks on the front and back end to accentuate Flo’s mystical movements. We all just sort of dance together.
Most nights, the result of our work is absolute magic! How many can say that about their jobs?
It is not uncommon to step away from the switcher after a show and literally HOWL with pleasure over the special moments we’ve captured and fed to an obviously thrilled audience.
I thoroughly love the job…even the obscenely long days and longer nights; the grueling load outs of logistically challenged venues, such as the notoriously difficult Madison Square Garden. The cold showers in dressing rooms that have been plundered and desecrated before your turn once the trucks are loaded. The occasional errant attitude from any number of potential grouches (working those hours, in those conditions, with that kind of money on the line, one can easily manage to run afoul and get sent home for barking up the wrong tree. To quote my boss, the legendary live director Mark Haney, “concert touring is 10% skill, and 90% knowing how to get along with everyone on the road,”) Even the long slogs in howling blizzards to get to the next gig. I love all of it.
Sitting here at home on the deck of my old cabin in Emma on a day so fine that it ought to be trademarked, I sway gently in my great-Grandma’s mahogany rocking chair, reflecting. I stare out at the pasture grass just waking to spring’s embrace. I can still feel the motion of the road beneath me. This is not entirely uncommon. I am, if anything these days, a road warrior, even when not working.
But last year? Last year was a special year of travel— even by my vagabond standards.
Fancy yourself a traveller, too? This roadie life sounds pretty good, right? Before you go and trade in your closetful of neon jumpers for a haggard suitcase full of black shirts and shorts, ask yourself…What would you sacrifice to see all of the places that you’ve longed to experience your whole life?
In one year of the Florence + The Machine “High As Hope World Tour,” I made three trips each around North America and Europe, hitting most of the big cities more than once. We played in 23 countries, including Australia and New Zealand (Puhleeeeze take me in if the Dictator Cheeto wins again, NZ. Hell, even if he loses…)
From August 2018 to October 2019, I was in a vehicle that drove 50,000 miles, flew in 100 different planes covering well over 200,000 miles, and spent somewhere north of 400 nights in bus bunks, hotels, and getaways all around the world. I was home for 5 days.
A tour as big as FATM High As Hope World Tour is a logistical wonder: 6 tour busses and upwards of 18 semis haul close to 100 people and an arena-full of equipment. It is akin to a small army, in that we are largely a self-contained unit. We bring all of the band equipment, the stage (a one-of-a-kind wooden structure designed to look like mountainous elevation gradients), the lights, sound, video. Even our own catering department— food, security, wardrobe, and even a favorite couch or two. (I myself am scheming to add a mobile gym that packs in road cases, but haven’t reached that kind of pull yet!)
The whole experience is a bit mad, really.
It’s easy to lose oneself to the rigors of the road when going at that pace. My first time around Europe was a bit of a free for all. I had never really had the chance to see some of the places that we played, so I made the most of each. I explored catacombs filled with millions of skulls underneath Paris; stepped trepidatiously through bombed-out churches in Germany; walked haunted forests in Transylvania under a full moon, guzzled the finest homemade wines in Italy and drank half of the Guinness that Ireland keeps on tap. I ate from the endless buffet. I saved the wax and wick from the candles that I burned and fashioned new candles to torch all over again.
Keep that pace up for a while and your 48th birthday suddenly feels like a reach.
After a long run across Europe, I was beyond ready for home. It would soon be Christmas. I was in love, when the woman that I had been planning to start a new life with explained upon my return that she had undergone a metamorphosis, and “transformed into a butterfly” in my absence. I wondered what exactly she meant until she flapped her fancy new wings and flew away, never to be seen again.
That kind of Christmas break has a way of making one take a good hard look at oneself and make some crucial lifestyle changes.
Rather than die heartbroken, bitter, and lonely in my bunk (every roadie’s nightmare), I chose to tour in a different way going forth.
I wasn’t about to let a flying bug crush my dream.
For the next six months I ate so clean that I squeaked when I walked – nothing but vegetables, seeds, nuts, and a few eggs. I quit drinking booze and imbibing in every other delicious, distracting intoxicant. I worked out at every opportunity, in every ratty hotel gym, like I had something to prove. I lost 55 pounds, got off of blood pressure meds, and, eventually, once my own metamorphosis took hold, never felt better.
This change has had a lasting effect on just about every aspect of my life. I started running. It got me out, exploring deeper into the cities we were traveling to. I took myself on a healthy solo honeymoon. I rented a van, camping and tramping all over New Zealand for a month after the band played Auckland. I took only back roads and ate so many farm stand blueberries driving around the Kiwi countryside that my skin was slightly sapphire-tinted when I rejoined the tour. I decided to stay on the road henceforth.
Later, after a successful headlining show on a perfect summer Saturday night in London’s Hyde Park–a feat of artistic performance and film and video production involving a massive video wall utilizing specially curated content and camera trickery that took weeks of careful planning and rehearsal, I took a Swiss model that I met during the build-up on a week-long first date sailing trip up the coast of Croatia.
It went about as well as you might imagine.
Nonplussed, my European summer adventure continued. During another short break from shows, I rented a tiny French rocketship, filled it with rented golf clubs and all of the fresh vegetables that I could find in Edinburgh (not an easy task, it seemed), and ripped all around the Scottish Highlands on the “North Coast 500” trek–a truly spectacular week of driving, golfing, hiking and family research.
In September, Flo and the band played the penultimate shows of their tour at the incredible Herodion Amphitheater at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
Framed by steep, crumbling marble columns, hand chiseled out of the bosom of the mountain that the Acropolis perches upon, the theater has stood for two thousand years. After a year and a half of arenas and festival grounds, it was the perfect setting for Florence to say goodbye to her most devoted fans who had followed us all over the world.
On the way home, I realized that I had chiseled out a whole new version of myself in the middle of a year-long tour. I really went for it.
I guess, in a way, I still am.
I have a journal that I keep on my office desk. Snoopy is on the cover. When I’m home, which used to be quite rare, pre-plague, I made sure to write a page recapping what work I had done in the intervening weeks or months.
This morning, I flipped back to the first page, just to see what I had written there. The entry was July, 2018, just before I had embarked on the Florence tour. One passage stood out:
“A rare office day at home after months of travel & shows, with endless more of each in the year ahead.
The only question now is, when does it end?
Answer: WHEN IT IS TIME.
Clearly, now is that time.
I know deep down that this Great Pause is necessary. I realize that live events are a sacrifice for the greater good. Yet, as grateful as I am to have this downtime, I pine for the opportunity to make more big show magic. If I am lucky enough to avoid the ravages of COVID and the societal craziness that roils in its wake, I yearn to get back on the road, doing what I love.
But, for now, like everyone else, I wait. I wait for that new, old life to begin again, with stage fog memories drifting through my mind. I wait, with a high hope, for more.