Tour of Duty

On the road, a rock girlfriend finds coked-out indie rockers, aging groupies, and enough dirt to fill a season of Behind the Music.

300 bodies sweated liquor into a thick canopy of mist at the Night and Day, a claustrophobic club in Manchester, England. Its Old World charm had been updated with screen-print portraits of Courtney Love and Johnny Rotten. It smelled of a beer-drenched sauna.

The Black Keys owned the stage. Dan Auerbach, a stout, red-bearded 24-year-old, paced behind the mic, tuning his guitar. To his right, Patrick Carney's gangly, 23-year-old frame slumped over his drum kit.

Without warning, Dan's arm swung a fuzzy A-chord from his guitar. Pat smacked down on his snare, shaking sweat from his shoulders onto a group of girls standing behind him.

The audience perked up, whistling and hooting approval as they recognized the opening to "Have Love, Will Travel." The Black Keys ramped up to the chorus and the crowd raised their fingers, pointing in rhythm with the guitar.

"If you need lovin', oh baby, will travel," the room chanted.

I knew the line well. I'd seen the song performed a gazillion times. I knew when Dan hit a sour note or Pat missed his cue.

I also knew the line because that's why I was here -- I was traveling with Pat, my boyfriend of five years.

In 2003, we embarked on a three-month tour of Europe, Australia, and the United States. I expected it to feel like one big vacation. We'd stop at weird roadside attractions, snap pictures of ourselves in the Badlands, and eat at exotic restaurants.

Instead, I got a front-row seat to the seamy side of rock: a former teen heartthrob strung out on drugs, a snaggletoothed groupie prowling for one last hurrah, and a backstage brawl with an overrated N.Y.C. band.

Manchester was only the beginning. After two encores, the Black Keys retreated backstage to a damp basement with two collapsible chairs and a bucket full of beer in melted ice. I watched them wring sweat from their shirts into pint glasses.

The sound man, bald and tattooed, walked in and grabbed a beer. He turned to me, introduced himself, and asked, "So, you're the groupie then?"

I met Pat the summer before our sophomore year, when he was at Firestone High School and I was at Our Lady of the Elms, both in Akron. He was friends with a boy I had a crush on. One night, I stalked them at a movie theater. I was playing Ms. Pac Man in the lobby as they walked in.

Pat looked like a '70s basketball player -- a slender torso attached to long, skinny legs ending in high-top Chuck Taylors. His long face was exaggerated with Mick Jagger lips and thick black-framed glasses. A Sonic Youth T-shirt hung from his coat-hanger shoulders. He was exactly my type.

It would be five years before we started dating. By then, he was a line cook at Gasoline Alley, a yuppie deli in Bath. A D-student at the University of Akron, he channeled his ambition into pickup bands with his friends.

Although Dan and Pat had played together since high school, the formation of the Black Keys was a fluke. Dan -- a subdued brooder who walks like a bulldog -- asked Pat to record his three-piece band, the Barnburners. When no one showed up, Pat filled in on drums. They sent the collection of gritty, blues-infused numbers off to record labels. The songs became the bulk of the Black Keys' first release, The Big Come Up.

It was an apt name, as the album put the duo in the same orbit as a constellation of fast-rising indie bands. It received a four-star Rolling Stone review and landed on a "Best of 2002" list in the influential English rock mag Mojo. Critical darlings Sleater-Kinney and Beck invited the Keys out to open. Next came appearances on Conan and Letterman. The second album, Thickfreakness, sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide.

Meanwhile, Pat and I moved into a $475-a-month apartment in Akron's Highland Square.

It was supposed to bring us closer, but it was more like sharing space with a phantom roommate who sometimes called from the road. At the time, I was finishing an internship as a cub reporter for The Akron Beacon Journal and wondering whether I should put down roots in Ohio.

One muggy August night, when Pat was in town for a rare two-week stay, we found ourselves sitting on our surf-green futon, drinking beers and watching TV. I had my feet on his lap. He was leaving for tour in a few weeks, and he suggested I come along for the ride.

"We'll never get to do this again," he said.

Dan had already invited his girlfriend, Tarrah, a svelte ex-cheerleader who reads Star magazine. It would be like a rock and roll double date. Besides, it's not every day that a girl from Akron gets a free trip around the world.

After the sweat-soaked show in Manchester, we returned to the Columbia in London. The unassuming Georgian hotel is a monument to rock and roll excess. Led Zeppelin and David Bowie famously stayed there. Oasis was banned after throwing a shoe and a bottle of Jack out the window. They immortalized the hotel in the song "Columbia."

We were there for the summer festival season, which includes Leeds and Reading. Because of the Columbia's central location, it served as home base for most bands on the festival circuit, including Jet, Bright Eyes, the Datsuns, and the Polyphonic Spree. Even bands that stayed elsewhere came there to party.

One night, Pat and I returned to the Columbia and found the hotel bar overflowing with bands. We decided to stop in for a beer.

Inside, we gawked at members of Interpol standing like sickly GQ models, looking bored. London girls with long bangs and eyeliner splayed themselves on the floor, shoving powder in their noses with their pinky fingers.

As we sipped our beers, Conor Oberst and Har Mar Superstar popped by our table. Oberst, a waifish boy with long bangs, records under the name Bright Eyes and is the latest singer-songwriter to inherit the mantle of This Generation's Bob Dylan. Har Mar Superstar is an indie-rock Ron Jeremy who found fame by singing ironic pop songs in gold lamé underpants.

After some small talk, the two politely invited us to do drugs in Oberst's room. We declined. As they tucked in their chairs, Pat asked what kind they were doing.

"Blow," answered Har Mar.

"Nobody does cocaine," I said. "It's so '80s."

"That's why I like it," he said.

When the bar closed, the party spilled into the lobby. A frizzy-haired, middle-aged woman in Bermuda shorts said she knew where to find more beer. She led a small search team through the hotel basement in pursuit of a storage room purportedly stocked with booze. As we followed, she spun tales of her heyday as a rock groupie.

"These are my old stomping grounds," she said. "I blew John Bonham in a room upstairs. Keith Moon fucked me with a banana and licked Marmite out of my hair."

We never found the beer. Angered over the lack of liquor, members of the Hiss -- a garage-rock quartet from Atlanta -- began smashing wine glasses against the walls. As we left for our room, the aging groupie was jumping up and down in delight.

The next day, we arrived at the Leeds Festival, where I met Evan Dando, my teenage crush. I used to cut his picture out of Sassy when he was still the remarkably pretty lead singer of the Lemonheads. But his well-documented drug abuse ultimately led to the band's demise.

Before meeting him, I'd read that he'd sobered up. Seeing him behind the festival's tent, I realized that Dando's rehab had been of the Robert Downey Jr. variety.

Though he still had the stringy mane and chiseled features I'd swooned over, his behavior was erratic. Two fingers on his left hand were bloodied and bandaged; he claimed it was from a fight with a glass refrigerator. Between nursing tallboys, he randomly hurled his chair into the air and punted full cans over a chain-link fence.

By the end of the night, he was trying to organize a game of wiffle ball while we exhaustedly loaded up the tour van. As we pulled out, he ran in front of us, forcing the driver to slam on the brakes. Dando simply stood and stared into our headlights, his eyes glassy blue beads. After a long moment, he slunk out of the way.

The following evening, Pat and I were sharing a bottle of wine in the hotel lobby when we saw Dando appear at the front desk. He was barefoot in bright pink pants, requesting a fresh Band-Aid for his mangled finger. We asked how his night had gone.

"It was amazing," he said. "My girlfriend and I did coke and walked around the streets of London until dawn. It was gorgeous."

A few weeks later, we were on a plane for Australia. Pat and I were still suffering from our last night of drinking at the Columbia. We immediately reclined our chairs and fell asleep.

I was awakened by a flight attendant asking Pat and me to put our chairs up. She said the young girl sitting behind us was the victim of a shark attack. Her injured leg was resting across the back of our chairs.

Turning around, I saw a doe-eyed 11-year-old, her mangled leg covered in a navy blue airline blanket. At that moment, I realized there were fates worse than a hangover.

Twenty hours later, we arrived in Perth, a compact city on Australia's western coast. Our tour manager drove us to an apartment replete with a kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms with crisp linens, and a veranda. We ate eggs and drank flat whites -- the Aussie version of a latté. It was the lap of rock luxury.

The Black Keys are to Australia what David Hasselhoff is to Germany. The band's rock-star status granted comforts we could never afford back home. We even had real laminated backstage passes and spiral notebooks mapping out a busy itinerary of radio appearances.

In Melbourne, Pat and Dan played for 2,000 people -- almost three times the size of their biggest shows in the States. Backstage, Pat kept peeking through the curtain as he nervously puffed on his Camel Light. Each time, his eyes grew wider with disbelief.

The Keys' tour manager went onstage to hype the crowd with some call-and-response.

"When I say 'Black,' you say 'Keys!' BLACK!"




Dan's guitar wailed with the opening riff of "Thickfreakness," and the curtain rose, revealing a sea of people. Pat slouched under the spotlight, his eyes pasted to his drumkit, like a middle school kid reciting a book report.

Knight Rider, he wasn't.

For once, Pat and I had the chance to do two hours' worth of sightseeing. We went to a wildlife refuge where we fed peanuts to wallabies and held a baby koala named Lucy. She weighed no more than a newborn. Her intimidating claws gently hugged my shoulders as her breath wafted warm eucalyptus.

The next morning, I woke up to Pat and Dan signing piles of autographs on the dining table. In an hour, they'd be picked up to do a day of press. I decided to go off by myself.

I caught a cab and went to the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. I admired abstract sculptures and Aboriginal crafts. Afterward, I walked to a sterile Japanese restaurant with long tables. I sat near a window and pretended to read a book so I wouldn't look lonely.

A few nights later, I was watching the Black Keys on stage when I began feeling ill. I excused myself and walked back to the hotel, where I sat on the toilet for an hour.

That's when Tarrah came back to the room. I didn't have time to warn her. She opened the bathroom door to find me spewing red wine and minestrone soup. By the time I was finished, the bathroom looked like a murder scene.

I never knew what the cause of my illness was, but I suspect it was the tour taking its toll -- dehydration, lack of sleep, and too much stimulation. Whatever it was, it plagued me for weeks.

We visited Bonsai Beach, and I was barely able to keep down the best fish and chips I'd ever tasted. As people flew kites and bleach-blond boys surfed, the cool ocean air reminded me that I was half a planet away from home. I couldn't stare over the horizon, because it made me ache to think how far away Akron was.

I just wanted to be home.

We got back to Akron at 6 a.m. on a Saturday. I knew it was too early to call anyone, but I was desperate to see a familiar face. So I phoned my best friend Erin, who agreed to meet me outside Angel Falls, a coffee shop just up the street from our apartment.

It felt so good to hug her. I gave her the souvenirs I had bought her on tour -- a pair of earrings and some fancy soaps that smelled like lemon peel and sand. But it was a short reunion.

Two weeks later, Pat and I flew to L.A. for the MTV2 Shortlist Awards. The Black Keys were nominated for "The Next Big Thing" honor, which is music's equivalent of the Sports Illustrated jinx. Fortunately, they lost by one vote to Damien Rice, who promptly disappeared into obscurity, at least in the States.

The awards were a parade of famous faces and cool bands -- Beck, the Streets, and Cat Power. I sequestered myself on a concrete bench outside, chain-smoking.

Before long, I had company. I looked up to see Macy Gray -- a giant, taller than six feet, not counting her prodigious Afro. She waved away my smoke with her long silky scarf.

I had heard she was from Canton, so I told her I was from Akron. "Do you go back to Canton much?" I asked.

"No, not really," she said. "My ma's still back home raising my son."

Just then, Pat yelled for me. He excitedly pointed toward a lanky, homeless-looking boy. It was Jesse Camp, once the crusty darling of the MTV series I Wanna Be a VJ. Only a few years earlier, he was hosting TRL. Now he was wearing Zubaz and being turned away by security.

"Dude! Don't you know who this guy is?" Pat asked the guard. "He's Jesse Camp. He used to work for you guys."

The security guard reluctantly stepped aside. Camp thanked Pat by giving him a cigarette. It was a GPC menthol 100. "That is so sad," Pat said, choking back laughter, once he was out of Camp's earshot.

We followed Camp into a room where girls were handing out free Nike swag. Pat eyed an old-school jumpsuit that screamed Run-D.M.C. Pat asked if he could have it, but the woman behind the table told him no. We thought she was joking, but she never cracked a smile. I guess Pat wasn't famous enough.

A month later, Tarrah and I were driving the van alone. Dan and Pat had flown to London for a special BBC performance. We had to shepherd the equipment from Dallas to Omaha.

One night, we locked ourselves in the hotel room with a bottle of wine and applied bright-green mint julep facemasks. We both felt like half-humans, following around our boyfriends, neglecting our own careers.

"I'm sick of bars," Tarrah said. "I'm sick of music."

When we reunited with the boys in Iowa City, everyone was irritable and anxious. That night, Pat and I ate at Subway. His skin was leathery in the neon light, and he had big bags under his eyes. He was stressed and jet-lagged. On top of it, he was also worried about me.

I told him taking the girlfriends on tour was a bad idea. "This isn't 'Take Your Girlfriend to Work Day,'" I said. "This is a job. This isn't vacation."

The next show only reinforced that feeling. Tarrah and I sat in the back of the dingy club, hawking T-shirts and CDs. Next to us was a band called the Ex Models.

They were as pretentious as their name, an artsy band from Brooklyn with messy hair and fancy sweaters. The Ex Models' bohemian posturing received a cold reception from the show's blue-collar audience. The band decided to take it out on us.

As I dug through a box of powder-blue T-shirts, I overheard one of the Ex Models talking trash about the Black Keys, who were just beginning their set.

"Wow, is this the blues?" one of them joked. "What are these guys called? The Black Guys? Do they play in blackface?"

I tried my best to ignore them.

After the show, we lugged our equipment toward a steep fire escape. Before the steps, we found the drummer of Thee Shams, a quartet of scruffy boys from Cincinnati. He was solemnly staring into his kick drum. One of the Ex Models had poured water into it, ruining an expensive piece of equipment.

Out in the parking lot, the other Shams stood in front of their rusted minivan, staring at the Ex Models' new 15-passenger van. For a group with little clout, it was a nice way to travel -- especially considering they were making only $100 a show. It only added to the frustration I felt about the tour, and I finally exploded.

"Hey rich kids!" I yelled. "I hope you plan on buying this guy a new kick drum with your trust-fund money!"

The Ex Models' drummer -- a tall, bespectacled redhead -- appeared from behind their van. "Did you call me a rich kid?" he asked with menace in his voice. "At least I'm not misappropriating black music!"

"Oh! You're going to beat up a girl?" I asked.

"You're not a girl," he sneered. "You're a whore groupie!"

His bandmates pulled him back, and the Ex Models drove off. When my adrenaline died down, I wiped tears from my eyelashes and laughed.

A few hours later, we arrived at a Motel 6. As we grabbed our suitcases from the van, the fire extinguisher rolled out onto Dan's foot and broke his toes. The blood oozed through his boot.

It was time to call it quits. But we still had one more obligation.

A week after we arrived back in Akron, we were already packing again. Our apartment smelled stale. Dust had settled over everything we owned.

As we loaded our stuff into the van, Tarrah sat in the passenger seat, her tiny feet propped on the dashboard. Surrounding her was a nest of half-empty water bottles and coffee cups, Starburst wrappers, cracked CD cases, and a cardboard box full of frozen beer scrounged from various backstages. She looked like she hadn't moved since the last time I'd seen her.

At the airport, the security line was at a standstill. After an hour and a half of waiting, we'd hardly budged. Our flight was about to board. I frantically tried to wave down a ticket agent, but Pat kept saying he didn't care if we missed our flight.

"I don't want to go on tour again," he said. "Not like this. Not right now."

Twenty minutes later, we were dashing across the airport, buckling our belts on the run. Pat was in the lead when suddenly he stopped, dropped his bags, and threw his arms in the air.

Our plane was pulling out of the gate. Pat burst into laughter. The next flight wasn't until 5 a.m. the next day.

Pat and Dan left to get a snack. They returned with piles of sprinkle-covered neon ice cream and a decision: This was no way to start a tour. Pat glanced down at Dan's smashed foot, like our choice had already been made.

The drive home was surreal. We were supposed to be on a plane to France, not on I-77 South. After Dan dropped us off, Pat immediately went to bed.

I stayed up, sitting on the futon, staring at the television, not really watching. Being on tour for so long, I didn't know what to do with myself anymore. It felt weird being still, having nowhere to go.