“It’s better to burn out, than to fade away” 

Neil Young sang it those of us who live and breathe the music business tend to live it. But we do more than that. We wear that mantra as a badge of honor. The whole concept of being “a lifer”—it’s easy to attach nobility to that label with regard to your career isn’t it? Even easier to live in the moment and the romance of a life spent making music.

Ya know, recently we lost a couple of bigger than life personalities in the world of music and show production; namely Patrick Stansfield and most recently legendary monitor engineer Davey Bryson. Those are two gentlemen who demanded reverence simply by the mention of their names; Patrick for being the patriarch of the production and tour management worlds and Davey will go down in the tribe’s history as one of the most legendary combinations of personality and monitor engineering talents the business has ever seen or known. 

Davey’s antics outside the arena were just as legendary, especially when measured by the size of his heart and his willingness to step in front of an oncoming train for anyone he called a friend. Both men were certainly “lifers” by definition, and what they brought to this business with regard to elevating the art within their area of expertise may never be fully quantified or appreciated. 

Now, while I only knew Patrick via a very close mutual friend, Davey and I actually shared a few tour busses together in our time. And I’ll admit, I’m a tad conflicted to be writing this because, generally, what happens on tour, stays on tour. But in this case, I feel compelled to go out on a limb here and share a little story about Davey. It’s one that I’ve only shared with a very select few people, so I hope that select few are okay with me sharing it, too. It’s a story that perfectly sums up the reverence that Davey’s presence brought both to the stage and to his station in life. 

Okay, here it goes…

For a good chunk of the 80’s and 90’s Davey was the monitor engineer for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. And Davey loved this gig. He always spoke very fondly of it to me and to anyone else who would listen. Now, this was before my time working and touring with Tom but it was also during a time in the early 90’s when the Petty camp had started to court me as the FOH mixer for their tours. And so, they invited me down to see a show and meet with them at the Pacific Amphitheater in Cost Mesa, California where they were set to perform. That’s the setup. Here’s the action.

I head down to the gig for sound check and the show. It’s in the afternoon and I’ve already met the manager and the band and hung out for a bit. It’s all very chill. The band is on stage sound checking and I’m hanging out behind Mike Campbell’s guitar rig just kind of taking it all in. While there, I take a mental note of how fantastic it sounds on stage and at the end of a song Mike, who was playing mandolin on this particular song, saunters over to his guitar rig where Petty joins him shortly after and they meet for a brief conversation for which I’m just in ear-shot. 

Mike says to Tom “Man, the mandolin is pretty loud in the side fills don’t you think?” 

To which Petty quickly responds “Hey, YOU go tell him. I’m not going over there!” referring of course to Davey at the monitor console.  

I could hardly contain myself, and thought “Now THAT is a monitor guy in control of his surroundings” In my 35 years of touring, I saw only Davey and one other monitor engineer ever approach that kind of presence and command with regard to the artist and the gig at hand. It was impressive. Hell, it was more than impressive.

It was legendary.

Most tributes to legends after their death would involve some sort of “moment of silence.” But I’m 100% confident in saying that this would not be Bryson’s style at all. In fact, Davey, would have demanded anything BUT silence. 

So, if you’re so inclined, and want to pay homage to Davey Bryson; first and foremost throw on some Frankie Miller and crank it to the point of distortion, then raise a glass filled with something very strong, followed by a good hearty laugh with your mates, and then take yourself straight to your desk and dial in the loudest “check 1-2” you can possibly get from a wedge and a microphone; and then resign yourself to the fact that, not only are you not in the same league, you’re not even playing the same game compared to what Davey could have achieved with the same wedge and microphone. Tribute complete.

Believe me, if Davey is in heaven, God’s ears are surely ringing right now from the deafening sounds of his infamous “1-2 … check 1-2” booming off of a stage at unimaginable levels and all with a thick and distinct Scottish brogue. Followed, of course, by a good dose of Davey’s irrepressible and instantly identifiable laughter.  At which point God will glance stage left and ponder, “I wonder if it might be a bit loud for us here in heaven? Maybe I should ask him to turn it down a bit…” And Davey will look up with a facial expression that leaves no room for interpretation and that needs no explanation. A look that says “don’t even think about it!” God will certainly do like every other artist and choose the better part of valor and simply carry on. 

For some reason the events of the past couple of days surrounding Davey got me thinking about a conversation I had with a dear friend of mine while on this year’s tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. 

During some down time one afternoon, I was chatting with my longtime friend Kevin Cassidy who heads up the Petty lighting crew. Kevin and I go way back to my earliest days as a fledgling audio dude in Kansas City where we both were trying to find a foothold that would help get us in to this business. (I can’t help but find irony in the fact that we both ended up on the same tour for many years this late in our careers.)

As many of you who followed my daily activities this year already know, on the tour I sponsored daily seminars on show days where I would allow anywhere from 20 to 30 people to join us at the arena early in the day and I would demonstrate technology and techniques with regard to the tour. At any rate, Kevin, who was always a casual observer during the sessions, took note of the fact that many attendees of the events asked me the same question: “Hey Robert, how do you get into this business”. And upon reflection I realized that he was right – I do get that question all the time. But then he landed the hammer – and REALLY got me thinking as he followed it up with the typical Kevin Cassidy wit.

“How come nobody ever asks you how to get OUT of the music business?”

BOOM! And there it was, the question that I had never been asked before. A question I had never actually even contemplated myself. First, it hit me over the head like a bag of hammers. And then it dawned on me – first in my quirky internal voice that said “Wait. Why would anybody want to get out? I mean, who would even consider such a thing?” Which was immediately followed by, “Well, I’m glad no one’s ever asked me that because, frankly, I wouldn’t have the first clue what to tell them.” 

But as the day wore on, the thought gnawed on me followed by what can only be considered as some serious reflection. Kevin’s obvious—though seemingly innocuous—question really resonated with me. I’ve been thinking about it off and on ever since. So, here are a few observations. 

 First, a word from Captain Obvious… 

“Those who do what we do for a living are not normal human beings.” 

Yeah, insightful right there, huh?. It doesn’t take a sociology professor to figure out that we of the road crew persuasion don’t subscribe to the same group of life values as the average member of the general populous. We’re certainly not the CNBC demographic, that’s for sure. 

First, we’re ALL independent contractors, More accurately; we’re T-shirt wearing gypsies who get a paycheck, a meal ticket and some per diem. We generally don’t know where our next gig is going to come from. 

We rarely make use of resumes. We were masters of “networking” before it became fashionable to say that you did such a thing. 

There are certainly no automatic contributions to an IRA taken out of our paychecks while on tour. There’s no profit sharing plans with those that employ us. No benefits, certainly no insurance. I doubt that the word pension has ever been uttered during casual conversation on a long bus ride. 

We typically didn’t go to college and if we did, our major has long since been forgotten. We tend to live in the moment, and that moment is generally either in a hotel or that other cocoon like existence in our itinerary called the “venue”. As a matter of fact, we generally don’t spend much mental energy on planning anything further out than the end of the tour we’re currently on. 

In the end we are more Mike Rowe than Bill Gates. Certainly more “Dirty Jobs” than “The Real World”. In short, we work under the big top and we do so willingly—without a net or a Plan B.

And with all that said; we all live and breath with a stark realization kept in a very deep place. It’s a realization that all of us stuff way down to the bottom of the Halliburton suitcases that carry our life’s priorities. You know, that one place where you always find the orphaned dirty sock at the end of the tour. 

Dig all the way down and you will certainly “find” the realization that one day, this will come to an end.

And then what?” 

It’s reminding me right now of a sobering line from the movie Money Ball where a young Billy Bean is looking for “guarantees” from a major league scout as said scout is offering to sign him to a major league contract. The scout says…

 “We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game Billy, we just don’t… don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but eventually we’re all told.”


Resonates doesn’t it? I’d be willing to bet that many of us “lifers” actually pray that we’ll leave the bounds of this earth before we have to face such a sobering reality. 

For those of us that do this for a living, we rarely acknowledge, let alone respect or fear, the potency of the drug called “touring.” Frankly, its more addictive than any drug we’ve ever taken. In fact, if you couple it up with some of the actual drugs we’ve taken, it becomes doubly potent and addictive because the touring drug will make you forget the crash or hangover and remember only the high.

It only takes about two weeks at home before you conveniently forget what it was like trying to sleep during all of those bumpy bus rides or the horrible service at hotels and airports or the grind of multiple-deadline-ridden-16-hour work days. It takes no imagination to recognize that life beyond the bus door can look pretty bland and unrewarding by comparison. And lest we forget, like all other addictions, countless marriages and families have been sacrificed to feed it’s call and then left dead in it’s wake. Yep, once you’ve tasted it, it’s a hard monkey to shake. 

So do you have your escape route planned? How will you respond when you realize you can “no longer play the child’s game”? There’s certainly no single answer for everyone and a very select few ever get the proverbial “golden parachute”.  What is your plan for when the smell of diesel fuel and awful tasting catered coffee is no longer calling your name? 

I’ll tell ya what, here’s what I’m going to do. I think when I retire I’ll start a support group for wayward roadies. We can all sit around and tell our best road stories. Luckily for all of us, the likes of Davey Bryson has provided us with enough material to keep us talking for years to come. 

In the words from one of Davey’s fellow countryman “every man dies, not every man really lives.” God’s speed Davey Bryson. You truly lived and celebrated life enough for all of us.