I often describe my job as being a government roadie. “Roadie” is the term for the crew that travels with a rock band and is responsible for getting the stage, sound system, lights, etc. ready for the big performance. The roadies are the “deus ex machina” that makes the magic happen. I’m using that archaic term in the most archaic sense, as the ancient Greeks used it to refer to a convention in dramatic theater whereby, according to Wikipedia, “a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage.” Roadies are the machine of the gods.
Of course, I use the roadie analogy in an attempt to make my job seem cooler than it is. I always wanted to be a roadie for a metal band, until I realized it required familiarity with electrical and mechanical systems, a lot of hard work, and a high tolerance for miserable living conditions (i.e, a van). Very few bands achieve fame and fortune, and their roadies are equally subject to the vagaries of life on the road. I decided my prospects for a comfortable living were better, if less glamorous, as a public servant. The analogy provides comfort as, rather than wishing I was something else, I take comfort in the ways my job is similar to a lifestyle to which I once aspired.
Lately, my job duties make me feel like a specific roadie: John Marshall. Mr. Marshall, in addition to being a guitarist for a band called Metal Church, was a roadie for the biggest metal band of all time: Metallica. As their road crew guitar tech, John’s job was to ensure Metallica’s guitars were tuned up, plugged in, and ready to be played. This was a behind-the-scenes job that was vital, albeit invisible.
On two occasions, John was asked to step onto the stage with Metallica and play those guitars he tuned. In 1986, Metallica’s lead singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield broke his wrist skateboarding. Actually, James broke his wrist while failing to skateboard. James again demonstrated his proclivity for doing things wrong in 1992 when, during an infamous concert in Montreal, he stepped into the path of a pyrotechnic effect just as it ignited. The resulting geyser of flames set James’ hand on fire, making it impossible for him to play guitar for a few weeks. On both occasions, John Marshall was asked to play James’ guitar parts while the band toured and waited for James to heal.
John did his job well, but he did it from the back of the stage. He didn’t get in spotlight, but he did give up being a roadie in order to actually play the music the fans were there to hear and keep the Metallica train rolling on their path to become and maintain their status as the biggest metal band in the world.
In a sense, this is the position in which I now find myself at work. As I said, I work for a government agency, and we regulate people and businesses. No handing out benefit checks for my division; we deliver obligations and penalties. Over the last twenty years, I’ve been involved with dozens – perhaps hundreds – of projects related to the way we do our regulatory work, but I’ve always been backstage with the other roadies. I was busy tuning up the instruments and setting the lights for the decision-makers and action-takers. Recently, however, I’ve taken tentative steps onto the stage as we work through a particularly gnarly regulatory challenge. The decisions I am helping make and implement could have significant impacts on a lot of people. It’s my “on stage with Metallica” moment, but not as much fun. In fact, it’s scary.
I am conscious that this analogy may appear to be an attempt to imbue a certain rock star cachet to the work in which I’m engaged, but that’s not my intent. I recognize that being a public servant is much less glamorous than being a rock star. In my experience, there are no groupies in public service and trashing hotel rooms is frowned upon when traveling on government business. Perhaps if we did hand out benefit checks, we would get more adulation for our efforts, but as it is, we play a rather grim sub-genre of heavy metal (if you’ll tolerate the metaphor).
Here’s to you, John Marshall, for doing whatever it takes to keep the band on the stage. The show must go on, and you, sir, are an inspiration to me. I hope my band has a successful tour. There will be some tough crowds, but I’ll do my best and hope they don’t ask me to step into the spotlight to play a solo. Now that would be scary.