We are sitting having complimentary breakfast on the roofdeck of the Sofitel overlooking the Vieux Porte de Marseille and bitching.
The sun glints off the morning swells and the aluminum masts of the sailboats, which bob like a vast paddling of sleeping ducks along the quay. Below us lies the Palais de Pharo, and, just across the narrow harbor mouth, Fort St. Jean, past which a ferry is lazily steaming out to the Chateau d’If, the island prison from “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
I’m with Doug, the keyboard player, and Jamie, the drummer. When we’re not touring with Tears for Fears we’re 50-something Valley-dads in polo shirts and Priuses. But right now we’ve been on the road for four weeks of a seven-week European tour and we are over it. On the bus we have been compiling a list of our complaints. These include, stale Ritz crackers, no laundry, not enough movie choices on the bus media player, too hot at gigs and too cold at gigs.
Of course it’s a joke but underneath there is real frustration. This is the nature of the touring beast. All happiness and dissatisfaction is relative. Any hint of inequity is toxic. Here in Marseille we are miserable because, while the Sofitel Vieux Porte, where we are spending two days off, is fine, Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal, the principals, are at the Cap d’Antibes Beach Hotel and Domaine de Manville in Les Baux-de-Provence respectively. That rankles. Marseille is, we decided, a lovely place to live but you wouldn’t want to visit here, while Cap d’Antibes and Les Baux-de-Provence are, well, they’re simply next level, exquisite, Provence at its rosé swilling best.
Let me back up, this snit has been brewing for a while. When we first arrived in London for rehearsals we were all staying at the Corinthia off Trafalgar Square.
The Corinthia passes the primary test for touring musicians; when you walk through the lobby most of the other guests look at you as if you don’t belong there. And, we saw Mike Campbell from Fleetwood Mac every day at breakfast, met Stevie Nicks (swoon) leaving the bar, and sat across from David Blaine doing card tricks our last morning. All good, all as it should be.
But then, after a one-day trip to Manchester, we returned to London and the purse-string minders had pulled a New Coke. The A party (that’s the Artists), returned to the Corinthia while the B party (Band, that’s us) was exiled to the St. Martin’s Lane Hotel, a couple of blocks, yet a world, away. It was cheap and disposable in all the ways the Corinthia was elegant and substantial, offering whimsical design in lieu of quality. That night, in our thin-walled rooms we texted each other pictures of our respective dead potted plants and began to stew.
And then Copenhagen happened. Copenhagen was the first big break in the run. Time to relax, recharge and bank sleep. People had spouses coming in, it was a little mid-tour vacation. Or not. The A party, and more irritatingly, both tour managers, were staying at The Nimb. Go on, Google it. Right in the center of Copenhagen, The Nimb is a boutique hotel combining, “Scandinavian design traditions and Moorish aesthetics.”
All right, I know that sounds a little weird, but trust me, it’s pretty swanky. Anyway, while they were there, strolling around town and the hotel-adjacent Tivoli Gardens, we were at the AC Bella Sky. The Bella Sky is a pair of conjoined, misshapen blue and white towers in the middle of nowhere between the city and the airport. The rooms are completely devoid of any trace of art or decoration. What minimal furnishings there are, are purely and puritanically functional, as if Ikea had been commissioned to design cells for a Federal Super-Max prison.
The result is a space most conducive to reflection and self-examination, to considering the decisions in your life that have led you here. Bitter Scandinavian winds lash the surrounding barren marshland. In mid July we had to dig out sweaters and jackets to brave the 10- minute walk to the train station where one could theoretically board the automated tram into the city, 20 minutes away.
Even the C party, the Crew, were staying in town. And apparently at a pretty nice hotel. This was utter humiliation. While the A party was dining at Noma on moldy asparagus and God knows what other marvels Chef Redzepi summoned, and the crew were downing Danish Hof and aquavit along the harbor, we were in the outer boroughs trying to figure out the trains. The pot of resentment was bubbling in earnest now.
In fairness, we are pretty spoiled. It is not unusual for bands to have tiered accommodations, but it is for us. Historically, Tears has always been an exceptionally generous organization, we fly business on long flights and, generally, stay where the artists stay. But, this time the tour had come together late, and it was Europe in the summer, meaning prices were ludicrous and availability limited, so there we were. In the Ikea Super-Max. With dead plants.
Here’s the thing, bands on tour tend to devolve into older models of hominid society. Much older. Think hunter-gatherers, Crusaders, shrieking Dothraki hordes, or, more reasonably, Dust Bowl circus carnies, traveling town to town, entertaining (and swindling) the rubes. The point is, there is a natural tendency to focus all feelings of community within the tour bubble and to dehumanize the world outside. There is us and there is not us.
Continuity is everything. Familiar faces, the reassuring sameness of the backstage rider: Deli platter, cheese plate, one bottle of Woodford and two Malbecs, coconut water, muscle milk (God knows how that even got on there), a case of Fiji, and, crucially, one bag of Double Chocolate Pepperidge Farm Milanos. In every dressing room. Every show. This is reality. Nothing outside the bubble is ever this real.
By the end of the tour we will have been gone for 50 days, including rehearsals, playing 26 shows in 41 days, traveling by plane, train, bus and car through England, Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Israel. It’s the entire 19th century English gentleman’s Grand Tour crammed into seven weeks. Under these conditions the delicate fabric of our society can get stretched thin.
After Marseille we are all reunited in Nîmes. The A party look tan and rested. When they say they have missed us and been a little bored in their Provencal spa retreats, eyes roll but the collective sense of humor is buoyed by the setting. The Arena atNîmes is an absolutely breathtaking Roman amphitheater. With the possible exception of Red Rocks in Colorado, it is the most visually extraordinary venue we have ever played.
But, the respite is short. Tonight we bus to Lyon after the show. After that show we get back on the bus and overnight all the way across France, to Carhaix in Brittany. After that show we head to Valencia in southernmost Spain. This drive is so long we’re supposed to do it in two stages, an all-nighter to San Sebastian, a day off there, then overnight again to Valencia, playing a show the night we arrive. It is going to be exhausting, and, we know from experience, unkind to aging spines.
The A party will not be joining us on the bus. They have arranged to fly (although, in fairness, their itinerary doesn’t look like a lot of fun either). Backstage we all agree, it looks grim. But then Roland has an epiphany. Yeah, we all think, cancel Carhaix. But that’s not his solution. He has something better in mind. The literal transmutation of money into time: A Private Jet.
It’s not that bands don’t do it this way, some famously do. I remember seeing U2 and learning that they were hubbing out of Paris, flying in private for every show. And then there was the tour we did in America with Hall and Oates. Daryl apparently flew home every night. But we’d never done it.
Private is magic. Deus ex machina. David Blaine’s got nothing on us. This is an improbable escape from an impossible situation. We’ll fly day of show to Carhaix, play the show, then get back on the jet and, in an hour and a half, we’re in Valencia, where we’ll wake up . with an entire day off. Paella on the beach. This changes everything.
It’s all arranged and just like that everyone’s mood shifts. Band of Brothers, all for one and one for all. We got this. After the Nîmes show we drive to Lyon, get in at 3:30 in the morning. Yes it’s a Sofitel, yes the A party is at the Villa Maïa in vieux Lyon but you know what? We don’t care. We have a private jet.
Lyon is beyond lovely. If you’re thinking of going on holiday to France, go to Lyon. It’s smaller than Paris and everyone will be speaking French. I’d just been to Paris and it was overrun with tourists, everyone speaking English or Chinese or, really, anything but French. And the food. Lyon is known for its cuisine and with good reason. Every dish we collectively sampled was amazing, from the simplest sandwiches to the filet with obligatory Lyonnaise potatoes to the confit of duck at catering before the show. It is a town that takes its food very seriously, and it shows.
The show was at another ancient amphitheater, the Theatre Romains de Fourvière. Apparently it is a local tradition for the patrons to throw their seat cushions at the stage to show their approval. At the end of the show it was literally raining little green pillows. Amazing. Afterward we ended up at Look, a little bar in the old city that stays open until four in the morning. Serge Gainsbourg on vinyl, quirky owner doling out gratis black Russians for no apparent reason, eclectic clientele all unabashedly chatting with friends and strangers in muddled French and English. It is the Paris I remember from my twenties but haven’t seen since. Go to Lyon. But don’t tell anybody. Don’t ruin it.
The next day, after a leisurely lunch of sandwiches de poulet we are driven to the tiny airport in Bron that services the private jet crowd. It’s not what we expect. There’s just a bare little space with a counter, like the Alamo car rental office at a run down regional airport. We’re a motley group, a little disheveled, everyone in shades, Carina, the background singer, with toddler in tow. A contrastingly well put together family is coming in from the runway at the same time, father with sleek, brushed back long hair and sock-less slipons, mom with understated elegant traveling ensemble and twin little girls in white linen dresses. This is what private jet travelers are supposed to look like.
There’s a single small jet out the window refueling. It’s really small. Alarmingly small. The pilot comes in. He’s a tall German, relaxed, confident, top of his white uniform unbuttoned. He ascertains that we are in fact his clients and invites us out to the plane which is apparently nearly fueled up. The tone of this world starts to come into focus. It isn’t diffident or condescending as it first seemed, rather it’s casual, assured. It reminds us of the old Ladies Room skit on SNL. We are guests in a private club. If you are here, you belong.
Newbie tip, if you happen to gain entree to the private jet club, nothing gives away your arriviste status quicker than having to open your luggage on the tarmac to get the liquids out. That was us. Private jets fly at around 40,000 feet and their luggage section isn’t pressurized. In other words, your little bottle of shampoo is a bomb. It has to come in the cabin. The protocol is the exact opposite of commercial. Going through private security on our post-gig flight to Valencia no one blinked as a cardboard box with an open bottle of bourbon and two Malbecs bobbled through the scanner.
Flying across France was gorgeous. At 40,000 feet you see the curvature of the earth and yet there were no clouds to obscure the patchwork of Burgundian farms below. No clouds, that is, until Brittany. Suddenly, there was a dense, solid cover, like the potatoes on a shepherds pie or the crisp on a fruit crumble. The flight attendant came out from a consultation with the pilot and said, and I am quoting exactly here, “We’re going to try and land but the weather is really bad down there.”
Wait. What does that even mean? “Try?”
Of course, she meant try to land at the intended airport with plan B being a landing at an alternate strip. But in the moment, as pretty fearful fliers (as at least three of us were), this was bad. We were white-knuckling the entire way down. It was the scene from the movie “Almost Famous” when the band thinks the plane is going down and everyone confesses their deepest darkest secrets. We descended through clouds, seemingly forever. And then, with almost no warning we saw and touched down on the runway at the same moment. The visibility was zero, cloud sitting on ground. We’ve all been through dozens of instrument landings flying commercial, all I can say is in private it’s a different thing.
But we were down.
We played the show in the Carhaix rain and got Mercedes SUVs back to the airport for another quick and painless flight and another SUV. And in the morning we woke up in our hotel in Spain. A couple days later we flew to Tel Aviv (commercial coach, and wow, was that a come down) for a show at the Menora Mivtachim Arena. We all stayed at the same hotel in Israel, the exquisite Setai in Jaffa. All was, at least for the moment, right with the world.
Luxembourg, who knew? A little bit France, a little bit Germany, utterly charming.
One day to Instagram all of Europe? Go to Ghent. No one will know the difference. Half a dozen Cathedrals, canals, piazzas, beer and genever (a close relative of schnapps but a lot sexier) all in a few blocks.
France? (As mentioned above) Lyon.
Harry Potter? York.
Cathedral? Have to go with Cologne (although York is pretty great too).
Foodie? Copenhagen. Nordic is so right now right now.
Moving? Consider The Netherlands, particularly The Hague. Everyone rides bikes, is tall and fit and seems inordinately pleased with themselves.
Charlton Pettus is the guitarist for Tears for Fears and the author of “Exit Strategy,” which is available in paperback from Hanover Square Press.