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 a comment Bruce Springsteen makes on a bootleg that I think about whenever I’m lugging my bags through an airport and double-checking that I’ve got the laptop I’ll be using for my power point, plus the right adapters and cords I’ll need. The singer looks back ruefully at the time early in his career when he was already being called “The Boss,” yet still had to carry an amp to his shows.
I often use slide shows made up of striking images of China, which let people have something to look at as they listen to my talk. This reminds me of my very first rock concert, for which the band “Yes” had a great light show. Nearly 40 years on, I can’t remember a single song they played, but I recall quite clearly some of the psychedelic special effects—and perhaps some people who come to my talks will have no memory of what I said ten years on, yet recall an eye-popping shot I showed of a Chinese cityscape.
Bands frequently mix up the songs in a set, playing only some favorite numbers in every show. Similarly, when touring with China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, my latest book (and the one I’ve done the most touring to promote), I organize most presentations around 5 common misconceptions American have about China (that’s about all I can do justice to in a 40 minute “set”). But I don’t always focus on the same quintet of subjects. There are three I always bring up (like the fact that China’s population is far less homogeneous than many Americans assume), but there are two slots that vary from place to place. This helps keep me from getting bored with my presentation, which is crucial, since when a speaker is bored (or a singer), the audience will be too.
Sometimes hearing a song on the radio or on T.V. (or increasingly coming across it online) inspired someone to buy a ticket to a concert when the group that recorded it comes to town. And I’ve discovered this year that 3 or 4 minutes of airtime can give a book tour the same kind of boost a hit single gives to one by a band. Getting to do a segment (about the same length as a single) about my latest book on NPR’s “Morning Edition” (and later having that interview get an additional lease on life online) is a one reason that more people are generally turning up for events on this tour than on my two previous ones.
I got a taste of both the main plus (an unusually big crowd) and the main minus (members of that crowd wanting me to finish up) of being an opening act for a popular group when I did a signing of my 2007 book China’s Brave New World at Book Expo America. This was because I was assigned a table from 10-11 that Dave Barry and his sometime co-author Ridley Pearson were scheduled to have from 11 to 12. A few people stopped by to have me sign my book which, following a Book Expo America tradition, was being given out free by the publisher to interested attendees (largely bookstore owners and librarians). But when I looked up most of the people I saw were those in the ever-growing line of people eager to meet Barry and Pearson. I tried to pretend that they were actually my fans, but as they shuffled their feet and kept looking at their watches, I just couldn’t pull it off. So I decided to end my time at the table a bit early, and at 10:45 I ceded the limelight to Pearson and Barry—who was not just signing books at the fair, by the way, but also performing with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band he formed with other high profile authors such as Stephen King and Amy Tan.
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)
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