Sex and Being in a Band

Originally published in Seattle Weekly

“My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly the 10,000 nights I spent alone.”
-Leonard Cohen

It is almost universally assumed that rock musicians avail themselves of copious, practically on-demand casual sex with their fans. The images of rock stars lounging backstage after a show literally covered in a blanket of squirming young girls, or running for their lives from hungry teens willing to perform any deed no matter how depraved are so pervasive they practically define the job. It’s a case of collective wishful thinking, shared by the fans, their detractors, and the musicians themselves, that casual sex is a crucial and inextricable fringe benefit of being a musician. My married friends accost me with salacious and knowing winks, our female fans eye each other at the merch table like hungry cats around a wounded bird, girlfriends past and present peremptorily accuse me of everything short of sex-slavery and will not be assuaged, and interviewers leer and blatantly solicit for details— all while the unglamorous truth flops around like a beached carp.

Whenever I’ve attempted to disavow this myth of constant sex-having, which I’m forced to do whenever I’m introduced as a “rock star” or whenever I so much as shake hands with a girl, I’m roundly ignored and even scorned. I can’t count the times I’ve stood in a group of guys and patiently denied ever deflowering a single teenaged groupie or making it with a Satan-worshipping sex-cult, only to be dismissed as either blatantly lying or shouted down by rousing disbelief and horror. The myth and legend of rock debauchery is too powerful, too precious, for even my closest friends to not suspect that somewhere, after the show and behind some velvet curtain, I must be shagging teeny-boppers three at a time.

Like all fantasies and myths, this one is so powerful because it’s based in fact. People DO go crazy for their favorite bands, and that craziness often gets expressed in sexual form. Teenage fans in particular often don’t have the maturity to separate lust from their other feelings—I know I didn’t. Hello, Jane Wiedlin— but even well into adulthood people will go slightly bananas when confronted with the physical presence of the person who sings their favorite tunes. Likewise, musicians are often quite receptive to the idea of receiving adoration in sexual form. It’s very confusing to be treated like such a special person for an hour a night, and doubly so to be stared at unblinkingly by your excited fans after the show. An attractive person willing to steal you away and lavish you with kisses is a welcome respite from the routine, especially since your bandmates have long ago stopped treating you like a special person. Still, even with both parties striving to make it happen it’s fairly difficult for touring rock musicians to hook up with their fans, and the vast majority of interactions never get anywhere close to sex.

In the first place, the fans are often terribly confused about how to express their desire. They want to give something nice to the band, and they want to take something unique and personal from the band, and sex is the medium of expression they envision first. It’s a good start. They’ve dressed seductively, they’ve been practically molested by the bass frequencies, and they’re a little drunk; it’s a perfect storm! Approaching the band after the show they’re clearly worked up into an excited state, but in the moment of contact they lose their nerve, or aren’t quite sure how to make the transaction. I see it all the time, the searching eyes, the lingering handshakes, and the timidly suggestive comments—but with no plan or vision of the follow-through beyond simply presenting themselves as available and waiting for the musician to do the rest. They seem to expect that if they make enough lascivious comments they’ll suddenly be swept away by a phalanx of Hell’s Angels bodyguards to the palatial backstage where the rock star will materialize freshly showered in a terrycloth robe and cover them with strawberries on a bearskin rug.

Unfortunately most touring bands have a lot of really unglamorous work to do after the show, and after a few tours it isn’t easy to get a “pass” from the other guys to ditch out on the heavy lifting every time some drunk girl asks you to sign her boob. The image of the bearskin rug and the strawberries slowly fades once the girl sits on the curb for half an hour watching her love-interest and his band mates, drenched in sweat, heaving their ripped up amps into the back of their dented, ten-year old van before making the trip to the Super 8 out on the interstate. For a romantic getaway to happen requires more intestinal fortitude than a couple of mojitos usually provides, and before long the smitten fan is led away by her more sensible, and sober, girlfriend. Alas.

In the early years, when you and your band have a little less class, maybe you’ll do some hooking up with fans in bathroom stalls, or in locked dressing rooms or on fire-escapes, and inevitably there will be plenty of lame goose-chases where four guys end up sleeping on the floor of a one-bedroom apartment while the fifth one is four feet away behind a tapestry trying in whispers to convince a drunk groupie that they’ve come too far for her to pass out now. The first couple of tours where everyone is on the make it feels like fun, like rock and roll, because no one has the expectation that rock stars should get laid more strongly than newly minted rock stars. But after a few tours, when the ratio of good experiences to bad ones has started to sink in, the minimum criteria of enticement starts to rise. Sneaking away with a girl sets in motion a whole chain of circumstances, and each one has to go exactly right for the experience to be worthwhile.

A bad night with a deranged and drunk fan can ruin a whole week of subsequent shows. You can get sick, or lose a night of sleep that it’ll take five days to make up, and the blow to your self-confidence can darken a whole tour. I once had a more seasoned rock star laugh ruefully at me when I returned from an ill-fated encounter. He took one look at my dejected and disheveled slouch and said, “I knew she was bad news, she had high-maintenance hair.” After awhile there are almost no circumstances that will lure you away from the comfort of your band mates and your routine. You become superstitious, even paranoid, waiting for the beautiful and fascinating fan who singled you out at the bar to suddenly reveal that she “knew you were a Virgo by your antennae,” or that you “remind her of all of her dead boyfriends.”

Once your band starts doing well you might go through a second phase where you start playing like a high-roller. It’s part of everyone’s rock star fantasy to stroll into a nice hotel at two in the morning with a foxy girl giggling on your arm and say to the desk clerk, “I’ll take a room, my good man, with a King-sized bed.” You feel like a real killer. But do it a couple of times in London, or Berlin, or New York City, and you’ll start to feel like a chump who paid $350 for a plain hotel room to have some awkward sex and then get four hours of fitful sleep. It doesn’t pencil out. The real high rollers are the musicians who can afford to have people carry their bags, set up their gear, and handle all the business while they traipse around complaining about the deli tray and teasing their hair. When you first make the transition from sleeping on people’s floors to staying in hotels it’s seductive to think that the days of wine and roses are upon you, but as long as your band is still lifting its own amps you’ve got no business spending $350 bucks to have sex with a fan.

The fact is that most musicians are sensitive people almost by definition—certainly most singers are, otherwise what the hell are they whining about? And sensitive whiners are perhaps the least suited people in the world to be having casual sex with worshipful strangers. Horny girls at shows don’t take into consideration all the unique circumstances of a musician on tour, and they behave like horny drunk girls everywhere. They decide at the last minute that they’re not over their ex-boyfriend, or they sober up enough on the long ride out to their house that they suddenly realize their roommate is home, or they just get a charge out of teasing, or whatever ten thousand other games get played in bars across the land, without considering that the musician they snared in their web has got to drive six hundred miles tomorrow to play another show. If that musician was hoping to have a little casual sex to break the monotony of touring and give themselves a boost of self-esteem to make it through two thousand more miles, they are in for some unhappy time on the cat-hair covered Papa-san.

The honest truth is that most touring musicians—unless they are complete sociopaths—learn to take it easy with the sex. There are rare occasions when someone extraordinary appears like a bolt of lightning after a show, and for those special people we musicians are eternally grateful. But the person with the unfocused eyes and “high-maintenance hair” is probably not going to shelter you from the storm as much as she’s going to serve you undercooked Top Ramen and vomit on your shoes. Will you want to wake up next to her, especially if she has posters of your band on her bedroom wall? Yikes! That said, see that drunk girl in the polka dot dress and the bright red Mary Janes leaning against the bar and talking too loud to her slightly Gothy friends? I know we have to be in Chapel Hill tomorrow, but she says she only lives twenty-five miles away and if I put a couple of gallons of gas in her Honda Civic she’ll make me a late dinner at her place. I’ll see you guys in the morning.