Brian Kehew's Backstage Blog

Brian Kehew’s Offstage Blog: Sleep! 9 October 2020


Looking through old tour photos, I’m reminded me of the struggle for good sleep, a core subject that is rarely considered by those who dream of touring. For normal people, sleep is such a part of our everyday lives that it’s typically ignored. It’s a stable part of your day and is already planned for each night; it’s no big deal. For us, it often becomes a big deal when we’re on tour.

Sometimes I tell people some truths about life on the road. One of my concepts is a warning; if you have any special needs for uninterrupted sleep, you may be in trouble. If you need full darkness or silence to get real sleep – look elsewhere. That’s not likely to happen every day, as it’s impossible to control your surroundings once on the road. We sleep on hard flight cases and floors, behind LOUD speaker stacks during a concert, or hanging under a huge stage in a baseball stadium. Airport lounges, buses, ferry boats, bright sunlight, all of that. On the road, sleep becomes a major factor, and flexibility is the key.

Jetlag: Let’s begin there, although something that any world traveler may face. In my own case, living in Los Angeles, any Who events in the UK are eight hours ahead of my standard time. When your body says “it’s time to go to bed” then it’s actually time to get up and work there. A normal traveler hopes to have two-to-three days of easy sightseeing after such a long flight and time zone shift. But for touring, you’re brought in only a day or so before you’re needed to work. Despite the difficulty of going to bed eight hours earlier (good luck with that) and getting up eight hours early, you have to be awake and work. These are often “start days” when we’re setting up for the first rehearsals etc. of a new tour. Not at all easy work, much tougher than a normal show day during a tour.

It’s a general rule that traveling Eastward is harder: Getting up earlier (as mentioned above) is more difficult than staying up a few hours later (as you do when traveling to the West.) That being said, once you’re settled in after a few days – you’re usually fine. Until the the work times require you to drop that new sleep schedule.

Touring does vary widely between luxury and punishment. Some days are lovely, such as a day off to wander around Paris or New York. We can’t complain. The other times, the schedule is something that no rational person would put up with. If we’re playing a big festival, The Who are usually headliners – so are playing last. The night (or early morning) before the show, we can go in and set up early, maybe even do a soundcheck or line check (just see if the instruments work, without needing the actual band present.) I recall quite clearly the 2005 revived Isle of Wight festival. We were allowed to set up once the previous night’s acts had cleared out all their equipment, so our “in” time was roughly 3.00-4.00am. We’d all tried to get a little sleep before going in, but it’s pretty hard to wake up in the middle of your sleep and get to work. As a bonus, it was really cold, and the wind started blowing in across the sea. Brutal conditions, and hard to think clearly. (No, the band did not deign to join us!) Once set up, around 5.00-6.00am, we head back to the hotel to try and get a few more hours’ sleep, and then wake again during the day to return to the fest. It’s nice to have setup time, but your sleep schedule is shattered for that day – plus it’s kind of an important event; so you still have to be good, and don’t forget the late-night load-out after and some kind of bus ride to a ferry where you have to exit and get off the bus again mid-snooze; maybe you’ll get some shut-eye then?

Some of the crew have a challenge nearly every work day. Our overhead rigging team have been mentioned before – they and our production team are usually first-in and last-out, starting at 5.00am or 6.00am and finishing at midnight or later. Often the riggers get the middle of the day off – so they have to grab some sleep there on a bus or couch. And again some sleep after the show with the rest of us; a split sleep schedule – that’s rough. Our backstage production team is needed very early to setup dressing rooms, work with catering for the first and last meals, set up the offices, meet the building people, etc. And their jobs usually run all day without a serious break. Their ability to sleep in office chairs among a noisy work environment becomes a character trait that is rare but welcome.

I’ve mentioned our buses a few times in the blogs; they really are sleeper-coaches. Those small and cozy bunk-beds are kinda nice, once you’re used to them. Certainly, they’re not like a private room, but nicely at-hand when on tour, and ready to accept any crew member as soon as they sign off on their long day. Walk out of the arena or hall, hop on the bus in the parking lot, climb into bed, and dream now or later.

During the days off, many of the crew sleep-in to catch up; a smart practice. Some never leave their rooms, and have their meals brought up. It allows you to sleep whenever it comes, day or night.

Some of our crew have hammocks on tour, they rig them beneath the stage or anywhere two posts allow them to strap in. It’s better than the usual crashing spots – on top of flight cases. ALL of us hate having our photos taken while we’re sleeping; yet we all do it to each other. I’ll put up some of my own right here, fair is fair. They are rarely flattering, but the photos tell a story; a simple chance to get some much-needed rest.

I recall a tricky night somewhere in Australia where, with long day finished, we checked into a tiny hotel. Our instructions were “be up and ready to leave in 90 minutes . . .” 90 minutes – that’s a tough one. Beyond the 20 minute short rest, your body starts to shut down deeply and it’s VERY hard and painful to wake up that soon. Just one extreme example, but it’s what we get sometimes.

Now we have plenty of time to sleep and dream. Dreams of a return to touring and sleep and the places and people. Hopefully, someday!

Onward! . . .

Above: Mr Kehew grabs forty winks

Photographs © Brian Kehew and William Snyder