For Touring Musicians, Priority Number One Is a Pleasant Number Two
You may have heard the name Eric Paul through his antagonistic — and ultimately incredible — work as the frontman of Arab on Radar and related bands Doomsday Student and Chinese Stars. A pillar in the vibrant and experimental Providence, R.I., art scene, Paul also dabbles in the spoken and written word, detailing all manner of anecdotes, including today's deep dive on being a touring musician and dealing with public restrooms.
I’ve been touring in bands for 20 years now. It has brought me to some of the wildest places on earth, like the Badlands, the Grand Canyon, the Swiss Alps and the Cliffs of Dover. I’ve had the opportunity to experience some of the most breathtaking works of art ever created, including Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, "The Watts Tower" and Adriaen van de Venne’s "Fishing for Souls," which is a painting I have a fascination with and try to visit each time I’m in Amsterdam. But as fortunate as I am to be able to travel regularly, there is still one thing I struggle with — taking a shit in a strange place.
I’m uncertain why I struggle with using public restrooms. At home, I’m not the cleanest person. My shower has mildew. The towels could use washing and there are piss stains around the toilet. But I know the filth is mine. Even with all its imperfections — the crack in the mirror that resembles a scowling face, the missing hinge on the door to the linen closet and the bent blades of the ceiling fan — I feel at ease. My bathroom is an old friend.
Because of the long drives between cities, we are usually on a strict schedule, which means the only bathrooms that are available are at truck stops or at the venues. As you can imagine, neither of these types of establishments tend to pay much attention to the cleanliness of their facilities. So, on tour, you have to get creative. Now, I tend to rely on Starbucks and Target as a dependable and fairly clean option on the road. But back before they were littered all over the country, it was much more difficult to find a clean toilet.
I remember on a lengthy stretch of highway from El Paso to Phoenix, I had an undeniable urge to go. On the road, these occurrences are more frequent than any band member would like to admit — but when you are eating terribly because of the lack of quick, healthy options, you end up treating your digestive system like a wild animal gets treated at the circus. You can feed it. You can water it. You can cage it. And for a while, the animal may seem docile, but if you deny its nature long enough, it will crack and attack its caregiver.
On this afternoon, somewhere in west Texas, my animal had become hostile. It wanted out. I wasn’t able to wait for the next box store or franchise, so a truck stop would have to do. I took a deep breath, waited until the bathroom was fairly empty and jumped into the stall. Just as I started pulling hundreds of strips of toilet paper from the dispenser to mummify the seat, I noticed a large, pink dildo floating around the bowl.
Another time, we were on our way to play the now-defunct Speak in Tongues in Cleveland. Just as we reached the city limits, my gut caught fire. I begged Craig [Kureck], who was driving, to run every red light and stop sign to get to the club faster. I had to go. We arrived just in time. I leapt from the van, passed by the waiting promoter and ran straight into the bathroom. Only this time, when reaching for the toilet paper for my mummification ritual, I noticed written above the wall in what looked like blood: I STEAL SOULS THROUGH ASSHOLES.
But there have been times when nothing could scare away the animal. One of those times occurred while the Chinese Stars were playing Kafemyzik, a very small venue in the suburbs of Lyon, France. The show was completely oversold, and there was only one bathroom for the 200-plus people in attendance. During the opening band, I began having sharp abdominal pains and started sweating like a cold bottle of beer — I had to go. Clutching my stomach and grunting in pain, I hobbled over to the bathroom, only to be greeted by a line of about 15 people waiting for their turn to relieve themselves. I couldn’t wait.
I ran out of the venue and frantically started looking for a public bathroom. But because the venue was on the outskirts of the city and in a more residential area, there was nothing open. I panicked. I ran back to the van, ripped out a bunch of pages from the Mötley Crüe autobiography I was reading, and disappeared into the park across the street from the venue. With the exception of a couple making out on a bench, the park was empty. I looked around and saw a footbridge, and decided that it would be a discreet enough location to unburden myself.
I ducked under the footbridge, pulled down my pants and squatted against a bush. As soon as the cold evening air hit my ass, it happened — a week of nastiness came pouring out, with an ease I had never experienced outside of my bathroom at home. I wondered: Could this be the answer? Should I return to nature? Should I revert back to a time before toilets; before intimidating graffiti; before piss-covered, tiled floors; before grunting truckers; and before the occasional sex toy? I would never be constipated on tour again. I could relieve myself under the beauty of sunshine and the intrigue of moonbeams. I could unwind — inside and out — to the sound of a gentle breeze or a talkative bird. I could befriend a tree, a dead leaf, or maybe even a chipmunk. I could be the animal I was meant to be.
I was jolted out of my pleasant musings by a huge German Shepherd violently barking at me. I waved my arms at it and mouthed, “Go away.” But the dog only barked louder. I then noticed the leash. Oh fuck!, I thought.
“Au Pied! Au Pied!” a man in a deep, raspy voice shouted. The leash tightened and the dog begins began whipping its giant head around to get loose from the restraint. The owner, curious about what had commanded the dog’s attention, stepped down off the footbridge and peeked around the corner. A look of utter disgust rolled over his face at the squatting weirdo struggling to pull up his pants with one hand and trying to wipe his ass with the other. We locked eyes. He yanked the dog by the collar, as if it was my head in it and not his dog’s, and in a thick French accent shouted, “Fucking Americans!” Then stormed off.
How did he know that I was American? For a moment, I contemplated chasing after him to explain. He’d understand, right? Then I remembered that I had a show to play and was already cutting it close. Walking back to the venue, I felt even more disgusting than I had before. When touring other countries, especially Europe, I always feel like a trespasser. Not like a child cutting through a neighbor’s backyard kind of trespasser, but more of a drunk, naked man running through an Amish settlement. I’ve long expected a promoter or someone in the crowd to tell us that we were only there to be mocked or examined as a cultural curiosity. “Come see the American specimens!”
During the eight or nine tours I’ve done in Europe, I’ve concluded that Europeans know something about life that we don’t. Maybe it’s because America, as a country, is so young, so angry, so volatile. We are the troubled teens of the Western Hemisphere. Europeans seem to have outgrown their adolescent rage.
When I finally made it back to the venue that night and stepped onstage to a room of cheering French youth, I had never felt so unworthy of applause in my life. Do I really deserve this? Am I a wild animal? Was I let loose from my cage just to shit all over their sophisticated country? The dog walker was right — I’m nothing but another fucking American.