As a teenager in the 1970s, I fantasized about growing up to tour with a band that would play the songs I had started writing. At first, I dreamed of being the next Bob Dylan, who back then didn't just tour with a band but with The Band. Then, more modestly, I wanted to be the next Jackson Browne. And soon I dialed things back another notch and just wanted to head a band successful enough to open for him.
As a grad student in the 1980s, I finally admitted that none of these dreams would come true. And yet, my old fantasy of going on tour has gotten a new lease on life now, though with an important twist: it's writing books, not songs, that has gotten me out traveling from gig to gig.
To date, I've gone on three "book tours" (a fancy word for patched together sets of signings, campus talks, literary festival appearances, and so on), all of which have been small-scale, largely DIY affairs, done with very limited (though welcome) support from a trio of indulgent publishers. In some ways, they've been nothing like the tours I conjured up decades ago based on Rolling Stone interviews and watching "This is Spinal Tap" and other band-on-the-run movies. The people who turn out to hear me never light matches and plead with me to read just one more excerpt when I end a show. There are no groupies, no limos, no scalpers. And there have been no hotel rooms stocked with special foods when I arrived or trashed when I left.
And yet, many specific things have happened during my book tours that parallel things that bands have enjoyed--or suffered through. I've basked in the applause of crowds (admittedly rarely more than a few dozen strong) and had some shows "sell out" (the quotation marks are needed, since the tickets for these literary festival and community group events have generally been free, not actually sold). On the downside, like a memorable scene in "This is Spinal Tap" set in a nearly empty record store, I've gone to bookstores for signings and had virtually no one else show up. And I've grown so travel-weary on this latest tour, my most elaborate to date, that I've gained a new appreciation for why the song "Running on Empty" figures centrally in an old Jackson Browne concert album.
There aren't quite enough overlaps to compile a top ten list of book tour/band tour parallels, but here's a top five one:
There's more to say about book tour/band tour similarities (and differences), but I'll end with just two final thoughts. And these are directed not at all readers, but rather to one special one, Jackson Browne, just in case he ends up reading this.
First, Jackson, I haven't given up on the dream of getting to warm up a crowd for you. It could happen. After all, you've been a featured performer on a cruise sponsored by The Nation, and I've contributed to that magazine. Admittedly, they haven't asked me to give a talk on one of their cruises yet. But there's a better chance they will someday than there ever was that a concert promoter would ask me to play my songs before you took the stage to play yours.
Second, Jackson, and please don't be offended, I no longer dream about being you when I grow up. Now, I want to be Dave Barry. He goes on book tour and plays in a band.
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He is author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, April 2010)