Roadies of Fortune (Part 2): Tech Ants on a Tourbus
If you wanna understand a rock tour, you’ve gotta get to know the roadies. If you wanna know the roadies, you’ve gotta understand the ants and apes.
Originally published in ColdType | Issue 213 | September 2020
What would I say if Studs Terkel rose from the grave and asked me about my job?
Being a roadie ain't half bad. If you don't have the chops to be a rockstar, you might as well tour with one. Yeah, it requires a brutal initiation to get backstage, but if you pass that trial by fire, you become part of a tight, worldwide tribe. It's like a blood pact without borders, except with chain grease instead of blood.
The top tour guys are the wittiest, hardest working men and women to ever pick up a wrench. Visualize a towering commie memorial, erected in honor of working people—one guy with a rope, another with a hammer, another pointing forward with a donut in hand. Keep the square faces, take away the totalitarian economy, add some smartass inscription about “your mama,” and there you have a true image of roadiekind.
These wild animals taught me the meaning of common cause. They taught me that accurate ideas, communicated clearly, produce effective results. They taught me the necessity of hierarchy and intelligent social organization. And they taught me respect for superior knowledge. I may never attain my mentors' status or skill levels, but they've given me something to aspire to.
The touring gig also offers world travel, free booze, sweet hotels, Dionysian dance parties, and for those with a talent for it, the occasional wayward groupie. Your crew laminate might not pull 'em like a gold record, but hey, it beats a fast food hat.
My first tour was a blast. By sheer luck, I got hired as an automation tech for a cornbread synth-country band. It gave me an eye-opening panorama of podunk America. For instance, during one heartland hootenany, me and the hottest catering girl this side of Kansas watched a mass of mud-covered cowpokes reenact Woodstock. They were happy as pigs in shit, raising cups of Bud Lite to the sky, totally unaware that leaky port-o-potties were feeding their soppy wallow.
On my second tour, our team ran an aerialist system for the world's #1 dysgenic hip hop act. That gig took me to the far shores of Japan and Oceania. As our road crew traveled from city to city, visiting various Buddhist temples and one karoke strip club, I came to perceive a dark Oversoul moving within the gears of our Machine. It could be that my brain's agency detection circuits were acting up again. But from what I could tell, this voracious entity ate individual minds by the thousands, then whipped the physical husks into a synchronous whirlwind.
That whirlwind kicked up millions of dollar bills, and a few landed in my pocket. So I can't get too preachy. Still, the underlying pattern struck me as sinister. Corporate entertainment is manufacturing consent on an industrial scale. Case in point, the same talented set designer who created these two hypno-pop spectacles also designed sets for Barack Obama's major speeches. Beneath the diversity of synthetic joy, I heard a single, auto-tuned call of Cthulu.
Don't get me wrong. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to that sleek mechanical god. The pay was good, and for a class conscious prole from the dirty South, the education was priceless. What better way to learn about human nature than watching the masses get seduced and consumed, night after night, in a vortex of moving lights?
Backstage labor is a fascinating microcosm of the wider human species. I came to see the global working class as a series of intricate ecosystems, some independent and some overlapping. Rigging may not be “rocket science,” as our employers like to point out, but our trade does require expertise in primatology and entomology. Every show, we command troops of tool-slinging apes in a hi-tech antfarm. My own feet-hands are calloused from the effort.
Up in the steel, high riggers are well-positioned to see the human swarm as a bipedal insect colony. From the arena's rafters, touring techs and their subservient stagehands look like tiny, hardworking ants. A steel-climber can extend his forefinger and thumb, and squash them one by one. Like any other ant, bee, or termite, these eusocial ground-pounders go about their specific tasks—each according to his or her own caste—building an elaborate structure that will host their glittering queen.
Why this obsession with ants and apes? Because you can't understand the human condition without getting to know our predecessors and analogues in the natural world. Our lives are shaped by the same underlying principles, as are our gods.
In his landmark 2008 book, The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt grounds his theory of moral foundations on an older idea: “We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves. We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.” This ratio is not a genetic analysis, of course. It's a metaphor for our conflicted psyches—our “primate minds with a hivish overlay.” (For a more ancient analogy, see the angels and demons on either shoulder.)
Haidt details the evolutionary origins of this duality: “Human nature was produced by natural selection working at two levels simultaneously. Individuals compete with individuals within every group, and we are the descendants of primates who excelled at that competition.”
Anyone who's witnessed a big dude bully his smaller coworkers, swelling up with alpha energy, knows this is true. Roadies are notorious for that behavior. Ironically, that same will to power inspires a pack's envious beta pups to undercut the top-dog at every turn. It drives ambitious subordinates to suck up to their bosses, go over their heads, and then stab them in the back.
Cruel as it appears to the innocent observer, this viciousness actually makes people feel good about themselves. As Haidt puts it, “This [primate competition] gives us the ugly side of our nature. … We are indeed selfish hypocrites so skilled at putting on a show of virtue that we fool even ourselves.”
But human evolution also produced a strong tendency toward groupthink and teamwork. This glues our puny monkey minds into a unified superorganism, if only periodically. Haidt explains this oddity by way of group selection:
“[H]uman nature was also shaped as groups competed with other groups. As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. … Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.”
It also facilitates rock tours and labor unions.
Before the Great Germ Panic of 2020, there were more than 3,500 shows on the road. The smallest were one-bus acts pulling a single trailer. The largest were self-contained societies that traveled with over a dozen tourbuses—twelve bunks each—followed by two dozen semi trucks loaded with expensive gear. All together, they burned enough dinosaur blood to melt a hundred glaciers.
These productions featured as many genres as consumer taste would allow: trad rock n' roll, futuristic hypno-pop, country, blues, Latin, R&B, hip hop, K-pop, techno, jazz, gospel, death metal, kid's shows—you name it—not to mention the Broadway plays, political rallies, sporting events, televangelists, corporate boosters, and more recently, pro video game tournaments. All of these productions used the same equipment, more or less, and drew from the same labor pool. Each was a portable incubator of mass consent, rolling across the globe.
These huge Machines were made possible by the hard work of professional technicians, aka. “roadies,” who spent months of their lives, or sometimes years, dedicated to a single production. As with the wider human hive, the structure of this tech hierarchy—organized by the managerial brain and supported by local muscle—resembles the various eusocial societies found in nature: ants, bees, termites, naked mole rats, and a few amicable species of shrimp.
Teamwork is an ancient survival strategy. Bug scientists say the first insect colonies coalesced around 100 million years ago, after the emergence of flowering plants. According to the archaeological record, humankind began forming elaborate hierarchies around 10,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture. Pyramids and ziggurats were soon to follow.
In the 20th century, Babylon hit the big time. The first major rock tours took off in the 60s, coinciding with the British Invasion. Well-preserved specimens of the primitive roadie can be observed in the 1970 documentary, Woodstock, during the precarious stage-building scenes. By the mid-80s, most chart-topping acts were playing under massive lighting rigs. By the 2000s, tour culture was a well-established way of life—a long line of tech ants on a tourbus.
Monkeys are mischievous, but any entomologist will tell you that ants can be real assholes. These hive-minded insects pick on their nestmates and regularly make war on their neighbors. Down in the tunnels, collectivist workers call this “allyship.” Their behavior is well documented in the 2009 compendium The Superorganism by Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson.
A few ant species are known to kidnap the pupae of neighboring colonies and force them into slavery. Many species will capture and enslave innocent aphids. The worker ants herd the aphids toward a flower, let them feed, and then slurp the honeydew secreted from their rumps. Some will bite the aphids' wings off to keep them from flying away. The ants repay their slaves by protecting them from bigger jerks out in the wild.
Each ant colony's sterile workers are beholden to a horny queen. In many species, larger soldier ants actually produce eggs, only to have them gobbled up by their fat, decadent monarch. This pecking order goes all the way down. Every society has its shit-kickers, and myrmecologists have observed strong worker ants pushing their smaller sisters to collect garbage and haul it to the dump. Obviously, labor unions are crushed before they ever hold their first committee.
Nature abounds in paradox, though. Despite their occasional bitchiness, ants are some of the nicest creatures you'll ever meet. They'll fight to the death for their sisters, and if you've ever seen these ladies lug a dead beetle back home, you know their work ethic is second to none. They're also charming conversationalists. When two ants meet on a trail, they'll tickle each other's feelers, speaking with a rich vocabulary of biochemical flavors. As with humans, expert communication is the key to their collective intelligence.
Take an ultra-cooperative ant colony and break it up into its constituent parts. At the center is the egg-laying queen, who's had her fun with foreign gigalos on the wing. From there, it's a working girl's world: the young brood-tenders and older foragers, the leaf-cutters and fungus cultivators, the tunnel-diggers and hulking soldiers on patrol. At the bottom of the totem pole, the morticians and trash-collectors do all the dirty work.
Following the flow of life, an ant's soul lies between her DNA and the “rain or shine” of the environment. In more primitive species, there are multiple queens, free-wheeling males, and greater genetic diversity. Each worker will perform various functions as needed—sort of like a small indie rock tour where the audio engineer also tunes the instruments and runs the lights. The only other roadie sells t-shirts and flirts with the fans. Both of them load the trailer after the show.
In the most complex colonies, however, each ant has a single queen, and for the most part, identical genes. Incredibly, this unity produces a stark division of labor—a rigid caste system—that isn't the product of genetic differentiation. By the luck of the draw, each individual is slightly larger or smaller, a bit older or younger, etc. From these small differences emerge the elaborate roles and duties that add up to a single, astoundingly clever superorganism.
Once you understand ant behavior, you're halfway to understanding a rock tour's road crew.
The late Bon Scott—AC/DC's original frontman—was the first rockstar to reveal how the infernal creator organized tours in the beginning:
Let there light...
Let there be sound...
Let there be guitar...
Let there be drums...
Let there be rock!
It's unclear whether these directives came from above or below, but as technology advanced and adoring crowds gathered, they certainly came true. All the Logos needed was apes and elbow grease.
Every tour is an intricate sensory Machine that's assembled, operated, and disassembled by an army of technicians. People imagine a bunch of fuzzy dudes pushing roadcases around and scratching their balls. That's not untrue, exactly, but there's more to it.
Here's how it works. The most complex shows employ discrete teams who specialize in rigging, audio, carpentry, lighting, video, pyro, automation, backline, wardrobe, merchandise, catering, trucking, and security, all of whom are directed and harmonized—within reason—by stage managers, tour coordinators, and ultimately, the production manager. Talk about “primate minds with a hivish overlay.” These touring techs are supported by legions of local stagehands, riggers, and van runners. International tours employ translators. Some locals double as unlicensed pharmacologists.
These workers crawl through an arena's tunnels, animated by urgency and guided by a single purpose—they must prepare the central chamber for the queen's arrival.
Their jobs ain't easy, bro. Each workday starts at dawn and ends long after midnight. Every morning, the trucks arrive, rigging points go up, speakers get flown, the stage is built, lights are focused, video walls are calibrated, explosives are wired, winch motors are tested, instruments are tuned, costumes are prepared, bowls are packed, and dinner is served. Almost time for showcall. At the end of the night, the stands are cleaned by penniless trash-collectors.
At the pinnacle of this pyramid is the star. The purpose of every production is to attract the multitudes into a venue, pry open their third eyes, and project this queen into their collective consciousness. Her beauty is tuned to the human psyche—as it exists at present—but warped ever so slightly in the direction of progress, whatever that may be.
The crowd is immersed in the creator's dream. If the show's a success, they'll squeal with delight and come back for more. Their consent has been manufactured. “Go, house lights.”
For over a decade and a half—up until the Global Lockdown—I functioned as a cell in various hi-tech superorganisms. It's been an honor. This career allowed me to meet the loveliest human beings in the world, and one or two of the nastiest. None of them look like bugs to my eyes—at least, not up close. A few resemble apes, but for me, that's a compliment. After all, I'm one of them.
As we sit here twiddling our foot-thumbs, waiting for doctors to find a cure for germaphobia, I've had a moment to remember the good times. Charcuterie and wine with the Crusader in Barcelona. Philosophy jokes with the Queen's astrophysicist at Chicago's House of Blues. Tropical trees and dragons in Thailand's green lung. A sunrise on still water in Portland, Maine. Slow motion and whispers, legs interlaced in my tourbus bunk.
The roadies who've passed on are still close to my heart. Jamie Lupinetti was among the finest men to crisscross this earth—lost to lymphoma as spring dawned. He was surrounded by fellow riggers with steel hands and hearts of gold. We miss you, Pops.
It's a thrilling job behind the curtain, but it can wear you down to nothing. Of the thirty techs on my first tour, at least six are gone.
The bass tech was found in his HVAC duct, dead of a broken heart. One of the carpenters—a legendary stage manager in a past life—drank himself under the soil. Our lighting crew chief, solid as a rock, took a final motorcycle ride. My own automation crew chief buried himself with coke and booze after losing his girlfriend to cancer. Our head rigger, a kung fu master and one funny motherfucker, died young at 47, the day after his birthday. Our production manager recently suffered a fatal heart attack, but was relieved to learn that everyone smokes cigars in the afterlife.
What did these men die for? That's a pointless question to wild souls who live for the moment.
These days, the moments drag on as our savings evaporate. Sometimes I imagine all those massive arenas sitting empty around the world. A pin drop would shatter the silence and ripple through the dead air, with no one but ghosts to hear it.
I can still see the throbbing crowds, their faces rippling under the moving lights, who for six decades filled these techno-domes and stuffed promoters' pockets with filthy lucre. At least we got our cut.
Every night you'd hear the fans scream like a flock of grackles, singing along with the brightly plumed demi-god onstage. Their heads are still bobbing out there, somewhere, hidden behind closed doors—blue screens reflected in their eyes—a billion balloons just bouncing off the walls.
Here in the New Normal, we find ourselves frozen in place, together apart. Either the queen lost control of the antfarm, and the workers have lost their minds—or the workers have lost their minds, and she's never been more powerful.
Originally published in ColdType | Issue 213 | September 2020
Check out the editor’s full photo spread (PDF — pg. 18-21).
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“Roadies of Fortune (Part 1): Grid Monkeys in the Mist” — Singularity Weekly
“NWRS 2021: Learning to Navigate Complexity” — in Protocol: The Journal of the Entertainment Technology Industry — Vol. 26, No. 3 | Summer 2021
“A Family Tradition: From Rigging Pioneers to Polished Professionals” — Protocol | Spring 2019
“Rise Above: The New World Rigging Symposium in Review” — Protocol | Spring 2018
No petty insults (unless they're funny). No proselytizing. No shameless self-promotion. Trolls and tiresome squabblers will get booted.
Please, stay sharp and be civil.
Fantastic writing. I can't wait to read your first novel. Or even your first sci-fi short story. When can I look forward to that? The world needs more of your words.
What an interesting life you've had.
Happy Thanksgiving, Joe.