By Rob Hughes
What’s that you say, Dee? You can’t stop rock and roll? The man at the border would beg to differ. So would the many musicians interviewed in this book. Rock and roll can indeed be stopped—detained, harassed, fined, and sent back home to lick its wounds. Canadian metal fans know well the disappointment of arriving at a show only to find out that Band X didn’t make it across the border, or that Band Y is playing without their bassist because buddy got held at customs for a decades-old DUI charge.
Such is life on this side of the U.S./Canada boundary, where randomly applied policies and vague regulations make crossing the border a white-knuckle endeavour for touring bands. In Do You Have Anything to Declare, veteran metal writer/inveterate smart aleck Kevin Stewart-Panko and his American co-author Justin Smith decided to try to figure why it’s so hard to travel between our friendly, free-trading nations. Both of them have toured internationally, and both of them know the pain that bands go through to take their music beyond their home countries.
In the introduction, they make it clear what this book isn’t: it’s not a work of investigative journalism; it’s not fair and balanced. We don’t get a border guard’s side of the story; we only hear from the dozens of metal/hardcore musicians interviewed for the book. However, there’s real substance here, in the variety of voices and the breadth of experiences described. I learned a lot not only about the vagaries of the Canadian/U.S. border, but about what it’s like to traverse other continents as well.
Each entry in the book amounts to a mini case study in international relations. As you’ll learn, a band can have all their paperwork in order and still end up getting hosed if they drive up to a booth staffed by an overzealous new recruit or by a guard who’s just plain bored, who figures that rifling through a trailer full of gear would be a useful way to kill a few hours. It’s the inconsistency of the border crossing experience that drives musicians crazy.
It’s a brilliant idea for a book and for the most part, the idea is brilliantly executed. Stewart-Panko and Smith have done an admirable job of gathering and organizing first-hand accounts from dozens of metal/hardcore scene luminaries, including members of Red Fang, Fuck the Facts, KEN Mode, Jucifer, Brutal Truth, Dying Fetus, and Dillinger Escape Plan. Needless to say, their stories are alternately illuminating, hilarious, and cringe-worthy. Once I got through the introductory material and into the book proper, I got caught up in its momentum. Reading these accounts was like hanging out and shooting the breeze with people intent on one-upping each other—“You thought that was good? Wait’ll you hear this!”
At a couple points the litany of similar voices telling similar stories caused a bit of reader fatigue to set in. However, every time this happened, the book shook things up again by introducing a new topic of discussion. As with most rock books, the text could have benefited from a final copy edit. But whatever—the touring life ain’t pretty, and the book perfectly captures the chaos and uncertainty of living on the road. There are chapters about the U.S./Canada border, traveling through Western Europe’s Schengen Zone, along with a section devoted to bribery and drug stories. The final chapter contains the epic tales, the most heinous, harrowing experiences suffered by a handful of the book’s interviewees. And they are doozies. The escalating frights, tedium and folly documented in this chapter are enough to keep any musician homebound. As a fan, after you read this book, you’ll feel more grateful than ever to arrive at a local gig and see a grimy tour van with U.S. plates safely parked outside the venue. It’s tough out there, folks.