Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Stick Men Tour, part I: Syracuse

Ah, the glamorous life of a rock star. You know, the loud music, the adoring fans, the free-flowing booze. Every night is an orgy of drugs and women and sex and bowls of peanut M&Ms with the brown ones painstakingly removed. We all watched the Motley Crue episode of “Behind the Music”.

Sure, those guys might have punched out a cop and did lines off of a hooker’s ass right before walking out on stage, but 80s hair metal played by 20 year old douchebags who wear eyeliner is quite different from being a middle-aged prog rocker. At least, that’s what I discovered over the weekend.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I first found out that Michael would be touring with his band, Stick Men, for five weeks in Europe. I mean, it should have been obvious what to expect. The band consists of Tony Levin, former bass player for everyone under the fucking sun, and Pat Mastelotto, drummer for everyone under the fucking sun and Tony’s King Crimson band mate. Tony is 63 and lives in a lovely house with his lovely wife in lovely upstate New York. Pat is 53 and lives just outside of Austin, Texas. And Michael, who is 35. He’s the youngest member of the band by a nearly 20 years, but he’s a self-described hermit who drives like an old man and is usually in bed by 10pm. Not someone I would consider a nutty, party-loving rock and roller. Tony and Michael play the Chapman Stick (a 12-string [6 guitar strings, 6 bass strings] instrument that looks somewhat like a guitar with no body and is usually tapped with the fingers instead of strummed or picked. It can also be bowed like a cello or violin, a technique that Michael himself pioneered) and their music is hardly what you would hear on the radio or at the local discotheque. Although technically considered “progressive rock” (or “nerd rock” as I like to call it), their music is more accessible and less alienating, I find, then some of the really PROGGY prog rock. Needless to say, girls aren’t throwing their frilly unmentionables wrapped around their hotel keys when Stick Men take the stage. You’ll most likely find 57 year old fat dudes with receding hairlines, wearing Crimson or Dream Theatre tee-shirts, denim jacket pockets stuffed with twelve-sided dice and calculators, at their concerts.

Still, Michael is hot. And he’s really talented, friendly and funny. So the deeply damaged part of me worried about what things would be like in Europe, if the women there were more sophisticated than here in the states, and amazingly he would find himself surrounded by prog rock groupies getting all hot and bothered after hearing “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic” or anything played in a time signature of 9. And five weeks is a long to time to be away from home, and it gets lonely out there on the road, and blah blah blah my own insecurities. It took about 6 days for me to realize just what it was really like for Michael overseas: Endless van rides and questionable hotel rooms with no WIFI and nothing a vegetarian can eat and sleep deprivation and homesickness and, in Michael’s case, illness in Portugal and a shattered tooth in Germany. I saw hundreds of pictures of Europe, many were crowd shots taken from the stage during a show. I think I counted about a dozen women total, and most of them looked VERY reluctant to be there.

Over the weekend, I got to experience what a Stick Men tour is like, albeit on a much smaller scale than the grueling 30-odd shows over 37 days European tour. I feel extremely edified and extremely stupid for ever being concerned about the idea of Michael being on the road.

The first show on the East coast tour was in Syracuse last Friday. I left work early, and we hit the road at 11am so we could make a 3pm load-in and sound check at the venue. Unfortunately, the excitement I felt earlier about getting out of Saugerties for the weekend, going on a roadtrip with Michael (one of my favorite things to do in the whole world) and getting to see him play live again was shattered on Thursday night, when I developed severe lower back pain. I had experienced something similar back in October, which resulted in a midnight trip to the ER and a serious kidney infection that required a strong antibiotic and pain medication. I spent Thursday night before our trip to Syracuse wide awake with pain, struggling to find a position on the couch that didn’t feel like someone was skewering me with sharpened bamboo and cursing the universe for laying this shit on me right before going on a trip I had been excited about for weeks. I had to make a difficult and potentially dangerous decision that night: Stay home and seek medical treatment, or gird my loins and make the trip. Ultimately, I did the stupid thing and decided to go and have a fun weekend if it fucking killed me.

After a completely sleepless night, I managed to muscle my way through a 30 minute drive to work and arrived stupid early in the morning. Luckily, one of my co-workers is a pharmacy in high heels and gave me a fist full of Tramadol and muscle relaxers for the road. They helped. A lot. I found that the Tramadol made me slightly nauseous and inexplicably itchy, but delightfully giggly and amiable. Michael was a useful distraction, too, and we wiled away the three hour drive, exploring forgotten inside jokes, making fart noises, hurling expletives at other drivers and speculating on what people would think of us if they ever heard one of our typical conversations. Before we knew it, we were dropping our bags off at the hotel room and heading off to the venue.

We were early. We are always early. Michael has a thing about it. The Lost Horizon in Syracuse is a little rock club located in a largely industrial and commercial part of town, hardly the type of environs you would expect to feature live music. Conveniently, it was also located next door to a strip club called Paradise Lost, with a neon sign in front that stated it was a “tlemen’s club”. We spend a lot of time trying to suss out what a “tlemen” was, but whatever they are, they seem to wear a lot of Hawaiian shirts and don’t have day jobs. It takes Michael about 15 minutes to set up and plug in, while it takes Tony about 30 minutes and Pat a whopping hour and change. Dude’s got a lot of shit. Acoustic drums and patches and doo dads and screens that light up and blink and shiny objects that you can bang on other shiny objects and all sorts of crap. I sat on a couch with questionable stains in the back, nursing my throbbing kidney and playing Mahjong on Michael’s laptop, attempting to not slip into a coma from being awake for 32 hours straight. Fortunately, Stick Men like to play loud, so sound check kept me alert.

We managed about an hour and a half at the hotel before the show for a quick shower and change. One of the perks of touring is the hotel shower. At home, Michael and I race through a three minute rushed scrubbing, because 2 and a half minutes after we turn the water on, it’s ice cold. I can’t remember the last time I lingered in the shower with the hot water cranked to the point of almost being unbearable, feeling like built-up layers of road grunge and club grime and car sweat were peeling away to reveal real flesh underneath. My Silkwood shower was great. I almost ran a bath right afterwards, something else we can’t do at home, just because I could.

Back at the venue, we skulked around in dark corners for a while, nursing vodka, while an opener played, until it was time for Michael to do mandatory band bonding before going out on stage, and I muscled my way to the front. I picked a spot right in front of Michael so I could get some good shots, which was great, except that I realized I was inches away from a wall of pulsating house speakers. Stick Men play LOUD. And they should, because if it wasn't, it wouldn’t be right. Something would be missing. Their music is so densely layered with sound upon sound, tone rubbing up against tone, it has to be loud so the audience can at least start to comprehend how much is going on in every song. And chances are, unless they come to multiple shows, they’re still going to miss things. I love music like that. I love discovering nuances that I didn’t hear the first time around. I like surprises.

The last time I heard Stick Men play live was back in January, when they opened for Eddie Jobson's group UKZ at Town Hall in Manhattan. They were good then. Before that, they spent a week at a percussion festival in Poland, and I saw multiple videos of them performing. They were good then, too. On Friday night, when I heard them in Syracuse, they were a different band. The long European tour had morphed Michael, Tony and Pat into a three-headed rock monster, alternating between completely blowing my mind and eardrums with bombastism and ethereal beauty. They opened with "Welcome", a song from from Tony Levin's album "Stick Man", a brisk chunka-chunka piece, followed by the mellower, melodic "Sasquatch". "Sasquatch" was originally recordered for Michael's home-produced solo album and has taken on a different life as a Stick Men collaboration, and for years has been one of my favorites of Michael's.

But what really jumps in boo-boo, as Patton Oswalt would say, is bowed stick. There's just something about the sound of the bow sliding across the strings that tugs on me. I've often joked with Michael that bowing makes me feel feelings. And it's subversive. Strings on a Chapman stick are meant to be tapped, but one of the reasons why Michael is a musical innovator is because he isn't interested in what the stick was created for. He's interested on doing incredibly cool stuff on it, even if he has to get out a bow or a guitar slide or a spoon or a hammer. That's sexy to me. So when Tony and Michael break out the bows during "Slow Glide", another song off of Tony's "Stick Man" album, I like to stop watching them and start watching the audience. They never expect it, and they never fail to look delighted. They like surprises, too.

(Speaking of constant surprises, and I didn't realize this until the second show, but Pat never plays the same thing twice, another reason to love Stick Men. But I'm saving my long and gushy disseration on why I heart Pat Mastelotto's drumming for another blog, lest I run out of things to say later.)

A lot of people haven't learned yet that Michael that is actually an amazing vocalist. I love singing with him. In fact, he's got a song we wrote called "Central Park" posted on his myspace and facebook profiles (it's not even a little bit proggy). While I love hearing him speak Adrian Belew's part in "Indiscipline", and I get a kick out of hearing his "Cookie Monster" voice in the tune "Sleep is Wrong" (written by the band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), I long for the days when Michael will at last be able to SING with Stick Men and not singspiel his way through a couple of noisy tunes. But I digest.

After three encores, Stick Men went out into the house for a sign-and-schmooze with the fans. I stood back and observed dozens of people line up to get Michael's autograph and to talk shop with him. Watching fans fawn over him is a surreal experience, given that I live with the man. There were times when I was overcome with urges to walk up to the dudes in line and whisper into their ears, "hey, did you know he farts in his sleep like everyone else?" God, he's going to kill me for posting that. Eh, what the hell.

I eventually gave up on fan-watching and retired to the outside to sneak a dirty, sinful cigarette. While I sat on the stairs, watching "tlemen" drift in and out of the strip club next door, I was approached by an audience member. "Hey," he said to me. "Why didn't you get his autograph?"
"Why didn't you get Michael Bernier's autograph? I saw you standing nearby but then you walked away."
I chuckled. "I don't need his autograph. He's my boyfriend."
"Oh," he exclaimed. "Congratulations!!"
"Um, thanks."
I was hoping that would be the end of it. I'm no good at small talk, and I felt a little uncomfortable with the concept of getting congratulated for being someone's boyfriend. But he continued with the inappropriate commentary.
"Hope he gets paid well," he said. Clearly he never received the memo that says it's tactless to delve into a complete strangers' personal financial situation.
"We do okay," I replied, hoping that would shut things down.
"Well, whatever he gets paid, it's not enough."
"Yeah. Tomorrow, I'm writing an angry letter!"
He exploded with way too much laughter.
"You're a funny girl!! Hahahaha!!!" Thankfully, he walked away, much to my relief. It was to be the first of lots of inappropriate behavior I would witness over the weekend.

Never in my life have I been congratulated on being someone's girlfriend. I was tempted to respond that Michael's pretty damn lucky, too, considering that I'm fucking awesome, but in spite of the awkward manner in which it was stated, I actually do feel pretty lucky to be Michael's girlfriend. But not Michael the Stick Man. I'm lucky to be his girlfriend because of Michael, the man; Michael, the father; Michael, the friend. Michael, the person who makes dinner for me at night after I've worked all day. Michael, the helper who tucks my seven year old daughter into bed when I have a boss-induced migraine. Michael, the superhero who can conquer piles of dishes and laundry and then put new brakes in my car. Michael, the co-conspirator who writes hilarious comedy sketches with me. Michael, the masseuse and back-scratcher. Michael, the guy who gets me. Michael, the passionate musician and artist who never does ANYTHING halfway. For a thousand reasons a random fan could never understand, I am very lucky.

And with that, I promise to keep my gushing to a reasonable minimum in the future.

Coming up, part II: Buffalo


  1. Loved your blog! Looking forward to your comments on the Buffalo show. I was there and was really impressed with the band. Didn't get to talk to Michael unfortunately. Spent too much time getting a pic with Pat and chatting his ear off. One of my drum heros ever since David Sylvian. Anyway - your post was hilarious.

  2. Thank you for the behind the scenes in Syracuse, I was in the pit enjoying the Three headed monster with you. It was great to see tha band at their peak, all of them truly incredible, yet on the edge. I have neve been a fan of Crimson, became one that night. It is my hope that they capture some of the live vibe on their next cd.

  3. Thanks for that great post! Keep on blogging I look forward to your future posts. I hope to catch Stickmen Live sometime in Charlotte, NC. I saw Tony here several years back with the California Guitar Trio and he was amazing.