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or many an American touring band, the Dodge van has been the home away from home for thousands and thousands of miles. Enduring all manner of comedy, slobdom, speeding, fist fights, friendship, love, drug abuse, crashes, neglect, personality disorders, meltdowns, alcoholism, egomaniacal rants, tears, trysts, traffic and weather, the Dodge (and sometimes Plymouth) vans could be counted on to get you from gig to gig. Even when they did break down it was usually a minor ordeal and nearly every town had a mechanic that knew the old Mopars in and out. Best of all, the Dodge was easily serviced for the do-it-yourselfer and pro alike. The only other make that could come close was the vaunted Ford Econoline, but I always found them a touch more difficult to deal with mechanically so the Dodge always came in first place.
Over the years, my bands had several Dodges. Our favorites were Sportsmans from the early to late '70s. They were good looking, innocuous enough to avoid too much attention, and, when equipped with a 360 4bbl, they could haul two half stacks, an SVT, a drum kit and four or five weirdos at 75mph over the Rockies on I-80. Even the vans with a lowly 318 could do it… they just did it a little slower. (I never tried it with a Slant Six and I would only recommend it to folk outfits with minimal gear.) The Sportsman ruled thanks to all the generous windows… sweeping views of skylines, coastlines, mountain ranges and monoculture keep bored and potentially hostile bandmates relatively entertained. I once toured in a cargo van and the results were psychologically and physically scarring.
Most bands kept the low profile stock look on their vans to avoid unwanted attention and some went so far as to put bumper stickers advertising causes or beliefs that were in fact far from their own… although a few totally hardcore punk or metal bands would fly the freak flag and the middle finger for the world to see. Still, every band eventually gets pulled over or, worse, searched at the US/Canadian border. During the bad old “zero tolerance” days, this was a harrowing experience in which you would be treated like a criminal and detained for at least one, if not several hours. It was as if you were trying to go from East to West Berlin with a vanload of dissidents. There is still a bit of this flavor left up there and every band eagerly swaps tales of their crossings. One of my favorites is a story from the band Sink Manhattan back in the mid '80s. After the drug dogs were brought out, the officer walked over to the band and announced, “our dogs alerted all over your van,” to which a bandmember quipped, “I hope you cleaned it up.”
Once you got your “new” Dodge band van, the first thing you would do (after a butcher install of a stereo) would be to build the infamous plywood loft to stow gear under and to sleep dangerously on top of. Touring is hard work, especially in the United States with drives of eight to ten hours or more a day being the norm west of the Mississippi. Long drives mean early wake up calls after a late, late night. Band members will often vie for the loft and many times I’ve gone to sleep up there knowing full well I would be crushed in a roll over or be shot through the front windshield like a human cannonball. None of that seemed to matter when faced with the other choices of sore neck, another go at the same magazines, or that fantastic view of American Agribusiness.