Considering all the years I’ve been a working musician, it was bound to happen, based solely on the law of averages. My car broke down on the way home from a gig.
This incident actually occurred in 1995. I was on the way home from a local job, about three miles from home, when the engine in my ever-reliable 1989 Dodge/Mitsubishi Colt began to knock. Instead of pulling over immediately and shutting off the engine, I foolishly tried to make it home, as the knocking grew louder and louder.
Halfway up the mountain road where I live, the engine gave out completely. After some colorful profanities, I managed to push/turn the car around, and rolled it down the mountain into a convenient parking lot. Fortunate to get a ride from a passing motorist (keep in mind it was about 3:00 am), I immediately fired up my other car and returned to pick up the drums. It cost me $2600 to replace the seized engine. You live and learn.
How can you keep a similar dilemma from happening to you? Start by keeping your vehicle in excellent shape. Abide by the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual, whatever the cost. It’s there for a reason. Of course, it’s very difficult to predict mechanical breakdowns, but keeping your wheels maintained will lessen the risk. It is very important to change your oil regularly. Most experts agree that every 4000 to 5000 miles is sufficient, and check the level regularly, at least once a week. If your car leaks oil, check it twice a week or more, and keep several quarts of oil handy at all times. It’s much cheaper to purchase oil in the supermarket or Wal-Mart than it is to buy from a gas station.
The better equipped you are to deal with a road emergency, the better you’ll handle it. Remember the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. Don’t panic if you break down. Take a deep breath, think clearly and act rationally.
It’s a good idea to carry basic tools, duct tape, a couple of road flares, a flashlight, a white rag to tie around the aerial, a large piece of cardboard and a marking pen for making a “disabled” sign for your window, reflective triangles, jumper cables, a can of tire inflater, a container of radiator “plug” powder in case you spring a leak, a small bottle of anti-freeze/coolant, and if you’re brave, a spare can of gasoline, although I wouldn’t recommend it due to its combustible nature. And of course, it goes without saying, carry a good spare tire and familiarize yourself with your jack and the correct method of changing a flat.
And join AAA or any auto club that offers towing service and reimbursement. The membership cost pales in comparison to the inconvenience of breaking down. Get a cell phone if you haven’t already done so, and keep it in good working order. If you call the auto club, be prepared to give the operator detailed information about your exact location, so the tow truck can find you. You may want to keep phone numbers of local police departments and towing companies in your glove compartment in case you don’t belong to an auto club.
And of course, it helps to have sufficient cash and a credit card in case you need it to pay for towing or repairs. Everyone accepts Visa and Master Card, and many take American Express and Discover. Keep a couple of oil company (Shell, Gulf, Exxon, etc.) cards on hand as well. A little plastic might just save your butt in a tight situation.
If you break down late at night, stay with your vehicle until help arrives in the form of a tow truck or police officer. Put your flashers on and raise the hood, a well known distress sign. Of course, being in the middle of Nowhere, USA can be just as harrowing as an inner city. Be wary of anyone who stops to help. Chances are, that person’s intentions are honorable, but you never know. If you get a bad feeling about a stranger, stay in your car with the windows rolled up and the doors locked, and tell them a tow truck or better yet, the police are on the way.
Try to avoid desolate country roads and inner cities in your late night travels, but if that’s not possible, minimize your risk by sticking with well traveled roads and highways. You’ll stand a better chance of getting help quickly.
And don’t leave your drums unattended in a broken down car! I always carry two old blankets to cover them up. Out of sight, out of mind as they say, but remember, a professional thief can break into ANY vehicle in seconds, no matter what you do to prevent such a calamity. This is especially true in a large city or highly populated suburban environment.
You can always wrap the blankets around you on a cold night. During the winter, make sure you have extra gloves, a warm hat and coat, a sweater, and even an extra pair of socks just in case. Blues guitarist Son Seals once broke down outside Chicago on a freezing night and sat it out until daybreak in sub zero weather. He attributed his survival to warm clothing and a pair of Long Johns. A true story.
And by the way, if you have a problem on the way to a gig, have the courtesy to call the venue, get one of your bandmates on the phone, and tell him or her what happened. This is just common courtesy. Maybe someone will come get you if you’re close enough.
Hopefully, you’ll never break down to or from a gig, but if you do, keep your head, get help as soon as possible, and be a prepared.