Many of the best and most honest books about rock & roll are tour diaries. Besides having constantly changing locales, books about life on the road tend to reveal musicians and the people around them at their most fascinating extremes. There's something about being far from home and trying to entertain suspicious strangers that brings out both the best and worst behavior in bands on tour.
Musician-inventor-writer Quintron makes it clear early on that his road memoir Europa My Mirror (Goner Records) won't be some romanticized whitewash about the wonders of traveling. “We played every night, and for the most part it was great, but I won't bore you with the details of good nights,” he writes. “Broken down on the side of the road with no clothes and a dull spear is where all worthwhile tales begin, and that is where I will start this one.”
Quintron goes on to chart the daily disasters, overall treachery and saving-grace surprises of a six-week Western European tour with an unsentimental worldview and morbidly cutting wit. He and his wife, Panacea Theriac — aka puppeteer-musician Miss Pussycat, who drew the book's cartoonish illustrations — have built up a devoted cult of fans in the underground-music scene with their curiously bizarre concerts. Their “swamp tech” performances combine rootsy soul and garage-rock frenzy with electronics, puppetry and other theatrical elements, as organist Quintron pumps out music and light on a variety of instruments he invented. The New Orleans duo have toured with The Cramps and worked with The Oblivians, but that résumé seldom impresses the various border guards, innkeepers, French policemen, German doormen, restaurateurs and duplicitous promoters they meet along the way.
Nobody escapes Quintron's withering judgments, from thieves who steal his one-of-a-kind instruments (“In Bordeaux, you might as well just break all the windows yourself on the way into town and start handing Drum Buddies and blue jeans out to strangers”) to naive rock bands (“Only touring musicians and the wealthy characters on Downton Abbey are so out of touch with reality”). He rages about the institutionalized cruelty of early wake-up calls and passionately advocates for a new kind of cheap-motel etiquette that allows weary musicians to sleep in. Among other things, Quintron reveals where to find the worst paella in Spain and examines the horrors of a Portuguese McDonald's.
The swamp-tech inventor gets turned away at a hip Berlin techno club and reminisces about his tenuous encounter with a grumpy Lou Reed. Along the way, Quintron falls in love with a perceived fatalistic Belgian mindset: “Perhaps it’s the strong beer and gin-soaked cherries, but I think there is some other mysterious component at work — a natural desperation for sonic chaos and fleeting glimpses of oblivion.”
He discusses U.S. history separately with French cops and street prostitutes but comes away existentially disillusioned that he has learned nothing. Quintron admits to partying as much as the next rock & roller but also advocates a relatively sane kind of moderation so that you’ll actually make it alive to your next show: “A round of applause cannot be heard through coffin walls; all the world is not a stage; and beer is only for breakfast once or twice a week.”
Even as the various cities and countries roll past the windshield like a foreign film, the group's actions always return to the van, the one constant in Quintron and Miss Pussycat's life on the road. “Part of the beauty of touring is that it forces you to fit your entire life into one single bag. Daily existence and goals take on a Zen simplicity: drive, eat, load, play, drink, load, eat, sleep, repeat. Your address is the van, your bedroom is your suitcase, and you must protect both at all costs so that you can fulfill your mission. Nothing else matters. All the drama, utility bills and headaches of home are temporarily hidden from view and therefore insignificant.”
Later in Europa My Mirror, Quintron declares, “I always say that you can't really know somebody unless you have either worked with them or traveled with them. Touring involves both, and, believe me, five weeks in a tour van could earn you a new best friend, or a lifelong enemy. None of your quirky flaws can be hidden, and each day requires a forced collaborative effort to solve a myriad of problems.”
The keyboardist admits that touring isn't for every musician. But Quintron reserves a special place in his heart for those who take the risks of going on the road. “There are many examples of musical geniuses who could not suffer the touring life. But this book is dedicated to that rare breed who derive their sense of purpose by being constantly in motion.”