Thursday, June 9, 2016

amERICa Coast to Coast - The Sioux City Howard Johnson

It’s half past midnight and I’ve just checked into a shabby old Howard Johnson hotel in downtown Sioux City. There’s something a bit creepy about the place - corridors lead off in every direction and turn unexpected corners and to get to the parking garage, which connects with the hotel on the second floor, you have to negociate a skyway. They have skyways in Minneapolis too, that’s where I’ve seen them before - you can walk around the entire city centre through a series of skyways that connect the buildings one floor above the street. They have to have skyways because if you go outside even for an instant any time between late October and the end of March you’ll disintegrate in the sub-subzero winter temperatures. Unless you drown in the snow first.

I drove here from Winnipeg. It took nine hours and the road was very straight, apart from when it tilted slightly and unexpectedly and nearly sent me driving off it into one of the redundant looking fields that cluttered the sides of the road. A man could lose his grip out here.

I drove through prairies from Calgary to Edmonton, and from Edmonton to Winnipeg, and from Winnipeg to the US border where the landscapes stops being Canadian Prairies and starts being just one of those far flung places in America where not many people live, a place that breeds Trump supporters, and where America’s most dangerous live off the grid and prepare for Armageddon.

This place must have been built in the sixties when it would have been the last word in modern, connected to the city by the skyways, heralding the arrival of the space age to the flatlands of Iowa. Now it’s a sad and crumbling dump and they’re busy with renovating it. A sign in the lobby apologises for the swimming pool being closed to guests and for noise and somewhat disturbingly smells caused by building work, as this is for the good of the hotel.

My room smells funny - it’s a non-smoking room but it has a mustiness about it - a hint of cigarette smoke ill-concealed by that spray on/wipe off furniture polish that’s good for nothing more than removing stubborn stains like encrusted semen from teak-effect melamine.

I’m here for two nights. I wish I could open the window but it’s a double glazed panel and it doesn’t open. It’s probably as well, I might get a sudden urge to jump out. Or some unseen force might push me out. This place has been around a while - bad things are sure to have happened here.

So this is how the West was won. I wonder how the early settlers got on without skyways and how they would have taken to them if the skyways had already been here. My mind is jumping around. I think the shows in Vancouver and Calgary coupled with the monumental two day drive through the Rockies to get from one to the other have conspired to disarrange my mind.

I’ve been driving for days. I left the hot summer weather behind somewhere north of Chico in California. I drove for half the night and all the next day to get to Portland, Oregon, in time to play after a sold out show at The Make Out Room in San Francisco. The Mantles opened the show, a delightful band. There was talk of them backing me on part of the set though what I’m doing is really essentially a solo thing - just me alone taking full responsibility, holding myself to account as I work my way through acoustic pop toe-tappers, bizarrely constructed ditties, electric freak outs, weirdness, meanderings and the odd crisis of confidence, hopefully arriving at some sort of triumphant conclusion.

I got The Mantles on with no soundcheck and no real preparation - they ran on with guitars and drumsticks as I started Whole Wide World, played the song pretty well perfectly and disappeared leaving me alone again as though nothing had happened. I got them back for the end of the encore to play I Wish It Would Rain - they’d told me they knew it and they very nearly did. We had a couple of false starts and they tentatively made their way into it. By the chorus they were locked in. A class act!

I should go to bed - crawl under the covers, switch off the light and disappear this depressing room, but I can’t because the bed is as wide as it is long. There are four small and lonely looking pillows leaned up against the headboard of this monstrous monument to sleeping, or more likely to coked-up sex with four groupies and a couple of roadies. Like I said, things must have happened in this hotel. Adultry, incest, bestiality… it’s probably been used for a porno shoot or two. I think I may even have seen a clip with this room in it.

I turned back the bed…no sheets. So I went down to reception, explained the position and asked to change the room - preferably for one with a smaller bed. Now I’m in the room next door which she said was probably nicer though she couldn’t guarantee it. ‘I don’t go up there very often,’ she said.

There was something about the way she said up there that worried me but I’m trying to put that out of my mind. Surely I’ve earned the right to be temporarilly a bit highly strung at this point. If it wasn’t for the thought of wandering through the skyways in search of the parking garage and the car I’d find a nicer hotel and check out. Perhaps I’ll do that tomorrow.

If I make it through the night.


Only nine days until the final date of the tour at the appropriately named Grand Victory in Brooklyn NYC - click the link and buy a ticket !!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Coast To Coast - Cover Story

A woman approached me at a windswept gas station somewhere between Calgary and Edmonton:
‘Excuse me but did you drive here all the way from New York?’
I thought about it because I’m at the point in this tour now where I have to think out the answers to even the easiest questions.
‘Yes, I suppose I did.’
I hadn’t thought about it quite like that so it came as a bit of a surprise to me. 
The woman shook my hand and pretty soon the whole family were gathered and she was asking if I’d mind if she took a photo because she was surely never going to see another New York licence plate in her lifetime. It crossed my mind that life must be pretty dull round here - you get born, the seasons change, you live, you die and you never see an out of state licence plate from somewhere exotic like New York or New Jersey or Pennsylvania or somewhere. There must be the odd bit of excitement, like lightning striking the grain silo or someone going mad - maybe even a murder…
‘What are you doing here? Where are you headed?’
I have to be careful what I say - I went a bit too far the other day at another remote gas station somewhere in Washington state. The attendant was a spotty kid with sticky out ears and an inquiring mind. He couldn’t help noticing my licence plate.
‘You’ve driven all the way from New York! What are you doing here?’
I fixed him with a look and said quietly: ‘I’ve come to kill a man.’
I calmly got in the car taking all the time in the world, gunned the motor and took off at high speed. You can do things like that when you’re wearing a battered straw hat, shades, and driving a large dark blue Buick.
I laughed as I drove away and suddenly felt a chill - what if he calls the cops…? 

I want to tell them I’m a rock musician, a recording artist, a minor rock’n’roll star, on a huge US tour, blowing peoples minds… 
Actually, no, I don’t. But I sort of wish they knew because my cover story is so fucking boring it even does me in: I always wanted to drive across America and when I retired my wife said 'go for it!' So here I am… I expect she just wanted to get me out from under her feet… and I can see them thinking who can blame her?
It’s really depressing pulling off a cover story like that.

Monday, June 6, 2016

amERICa Coast to Coast 3

When I was first approached the year before last to play in Huntsville, Alabama, my first reaction was not on your life. Then I thought how many English musician can say they’ve played in Alabama? I accepted the offer and on the day I drove there from wherever I was the night before in fear and trembling. I was pleasantly surprised. The venue was the brewing room of a micro brewery. There was a small, makeshift stage between the big aluminium vats. The place practically had a dirt floor and there were huge doors that opened onto the parking lot.

The show went really well. There were a lot of young people. One of them told me I didn’t know what I meant to kids in Huntsville. These kids were smart, the sons and daughters of scientists and astronauts. I hadn’t realised that Huntsville is the headquarters of NASA. I wondered why the approach was cluttered with ornamental satelites. I met a couple of retired astronauts and a computer scientist who told me he’d designed software that was currently orbiting Venus. It was a fun night.

I went back last year and played at Vertical House Records. They wanted me to play at the brewery again but my car broke down and I had to reschedule, and the brewery was undergoing certain changes. I was looking forward to playing there again but what I hadn’t realised is that the brewery has become hugely successful and they’ve moved the whole operation into a purpose built building on the other side of the street with none of the ramshackle charm of the original place.

I was playing in the bar. The stage area was defined by an area rug, or more likely a large doormat, positioned between the door and the corner of the bar, with a space in front of it for waiters to trot back and forth carrying orders of pizza. The place was vast, thirty feet high with a tin roof. There was nothing in there to soak up the sound of fifty or sixty chattering people who were there principally to talk shit and drink beer.

The only way to deal with that is to either drown in the hubbub of conversation or turn everything up too loud so that people actually realise there’s live music going on. Then it’s a question of alienating the people who aren’t interested - I find a combination of personal remarks, insults, stories in questionable taste and quotes from Metal Machine Music do the trick. In Huntsville it took about twenty minutes and then I was able to play for the people who’d come to hear me do that. The problem in Alabama is that charging admission requires a special licence so a lot of shows are free. You get a flat fee and in the end nobody’s very happy. they should do something about that.

None of this is easy. The shows are getting crazy. Sometimes everything goes to plan and I feel as though I’m walking a tightrope six hundred feet up with no safety net, other times I might as well be in freefall. Things go wrong - feedback refuses to be contained, guitars detune themselves in the air conditioning, sound engineers blame the shortcomings of their ill-maintained equipment on my amplifier and pedal board and I have to take it apart to appease them and prove to them that my equipment is working perfectly and they should really just replace a cable at their end, and the next night something in my board cuts out.

So far in the last month I’ve had two stage invasions, once in Bryan, Texas and again in Austin the following night:

In Bryan it was a random twerp who’d left a few bits behind from an open mic night and decided to stride across the stage in the middle of my set to pack up and ship out. I caught him on the stop in Semaphore Signals, grabbed him by his hippie t-shirt, asked him what the fuck he thought he was doing. Whatever it was he won’t be doing it again. I slapped his face - not hard but enough to make the point. I told him he was being disrepectful, pulled his glasses off his face and stuffed them down the front of his shirt. I poked him in the stomach and told him to fuck off. I thought I’d gone too far but it seems he’s universally loathed at the Revolution Cafe and I wasn’t the only one who thought he was being rude and intrusive. People have to learn.

At the Hole In The Wall in Austin a guy took it upon himself to jump on the stage and sing Whole Wide World. He wasn’t doing a bad job but Amy was about to come on and sing it with me so I got out of the way and Mike Fickel (my right-hand man in Texas) escorted him off.

The Austin show was tricky because the sound was fucked-up. Basically the PA wasn’t working properly and the sound engineer was trying to play it cool instead of fixing the problem. It was better at The South Texas Popular Culture Center in San Antonio. Of course there had to be a support act - there always has to be a support act, and it’s usually someone who’s stoked, psyched or just plain honoured to be opening - they always say that, and sometimes they actually are, but mostly they’ve got used to saying it in order to secure the booking. In San Antonio it was an English guy with a band. They were ok - the lead guitarist was great, I’ve met him before, but the rest was just some hokey stuff, nothing that would help put a frame around the picture, which is what I believe an opening act should do.

I loathe and despise most opening acts - they show up late, they don’t know what their line-up is, they say they’re solo and then arrive with a bass player and drummer. You have to move everything out of the way for them and that effectively means you have to set up again in front of the audience once they’ve finished. It never occurs to them that you’re tired and road weary and all the rest of it. And some of them even expect to use your amplifier and you’re supposed to be ok with that - hey man, it’ll save you having to move it out of our way…’

I prefer it when there’s no opening act, like in Memphis at Galloway House. I had to cobble together a PA system out of the junk they had there but it was all ok - the place was a foreclosure, someone bought it and now it’s a work in progress. A great sounding room - a lot of wood. It was like a miniature version of the Ryman and there was a pipe organ at the back of the stage.

I had an opening act at Fond Object in Nashville, a two piece, drums and guitar. They were really good and I didn’t have to move anything to accommodate them so I was really happy. I wish I could remember what they were called. I had a great time in Nashville, I hung out with the engineer and producer Andrija Tokic and his wife Missy. I actually slept in the house where he recorded the first Alabama Shakes album, Boys & Girls, and I spent an afternoon in his studio, the Bomb Shelter.

Amy flew in to Nashville and we booked into an Air B’n’B. I’d never spent a night in TJ Maxx before. Time was when people with rental properties used them as a repository for all the hideous shit that friends and relatives had foisted on them over the years. Now they just donate it all to the Salvation Army in exchange for a tax write-off and buy new hideous shit from Target and TJ Maxx with the proceeds.

The following day we moved to anothe Air B'n'B, a rustic and ramshackle cabin in someone’s back yard and that was much more the sort of thing. We spent the afternoon at The Country Music Hall Of Fame which unlike most other contemporary music museum was actually more than worth the time and the price of admission.

We drove to Atlanta and I dropped Amy at the airport on my way to Columbia, South Carolina. The venue is a new venture called Spaze. My friend Woody Jones who works at Papa Jazz Records organised the event. The opening act decided it would be a really fun idea if they played completely acoustically clustered around an upright piano in another room. I put a stop to that idea, explained to them that their job was to help focus the event. By playing in a different room they would effectively be unfocusing the event. I think they understood, but they may just have been going along because they were frightened of me. They were actually rather good - guitar, banjo, Omnichord and vocal harmonies. They just need to get rid of a man bun or two and buy some shoes.

The opener used to be called a warm-up act. Sadly these days it could often be called the pre-show ego act. I’m appalled by what sometimes passes for an appropriate opening act. A lot of promoters are so concerned with getting people through the door that they lose sight of the evening as a whole. Promoters used to work hard on building a reputation for putting on great events - the billing had to be right, the evening had to have a cohesive feel and not be just a scattering of half hour mini events (or sad non-happenings).

I’ve done too many shows where I’ve had to follow a succession of over-excited and mediocre garage and powerpop bands. Too fast, too loud, with the kind of high-energy hysteria that’s really embarrassing coming from a collection of middle-aged men. No cool, no groove, and no sympathy for the event. And when they’ve finished the audience are tired, bored, deaf, and used to shouting at each other over the din. And then it’s my turn.


At least one of these bands will have contacted me offering their service as a backing band, and on the day the promoter will tell me excitedly how every band in town wanted to open for me. I don’t think it’s every band - the good ones are all out on tour. I just get the ones that are left.

In Tucson I had a local character called Bradford Trojan opening. It would have been perfect if he’d been solo but he came with a band - a bunch of dudes in matching white outfits playing frantic jerk-off powerpop. It was completely out of sync with what I’m doing and I don’t think it did much to enhance the evening as a whole.

The opener in New Orleans was a complete cunt with a whole collection of attitude problems. His strode onto the stage while I was setting up and started moving things out of his way. I introduced myself because plainly he wasn’t going to, and he said, ‘You’re obviously not from around here, you sound intelligent.’

No, fuckface, I’m not from around here, I’ve travelled three thousand fucking miles to do this and perhaps I deserve some respect. I didn’t bother saying this because you can’t tell some people what they don’t want to know, He bored the bar staff and the doorman and didn’t bother sticking around to find out what I do. I devastated the twenty or so people who showed up. Those people won’t forget me but I’ve already forgotten that arsehole’s name.

Half of this reads like a collection of complaints but I’m going to post it anyway because it’ll free me up to write about some of the good, funny and strange things that have gone on between Louisiana and Vancouver where I turned right and effectively started heading home by a circuitous route through the Canadian Rockies.


Only another three thousand miles to go. the last show is in Brooklyn, New York, at the appropriately named Grand Victory. See you there!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

amERICa Coast to Coast 2


I was already on the outskirts of Knoxville but I drove about fifteen miles in the wrong direction to get an espresso at a new place I’d heard was good. It was quite ok, except that there were bakery attached (always a bad sign) and the accent was as much on the baked goods as it was on the coffee. There are several things that should not come with an espresso: little biscuits, chocolates, After Eight Mints, cartons or jugs of milk or cream, pieces of cake, miniature Easter eggs, twists of lemon peel… The espresso at this place was pretty good but the mini shortbread biscuit was annoying and I really didn’t need a second one with the second espresso.

The guy who made the espresso and served me, which is a roundabout way of not using the awful term barista, said he was looking forward to the Record Store Day show at Lost & Found, said he’d be sure to be there. I don't think he was there of course but I’m skipping ahead a day.

Mammal Gallery in Atlanta is a bit of a fiasco. The place appears to be run by hipsters, slacker kids with low expectations. There was a good turn out but when it came time to get paid apparently only twenty five people paid to get in. They didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with that as a result so there wasn’t much point in arguing. I don’t imagine I’ll be playing there again.

I returned to Knoxville the next morning with my friend and art agent Shawn Vinson for Record Store Day at Lost & Found Records. I say morning, but it was actually more like afternoon and we were running late because I forgot to set the alarm. We hurtled to towards Knoxville and arrived in time to see Tim Lee and Susan Bauer Lee’s two piece group, BARK. Tim was stage managing the event so when we arrived I called him unaware that he was onstage in the middle of their set and our conversation was being relayed over the PA. Fortunately I was in a good mood so I didn’t say anything curmudgeonly and rude that might have been relayed to the crowd.

After I played a large middle-aged woman asked if she could give me a hug. 'How would you like a hug from a big booby lady?' was how she put it. Suddenly I was enveloped in womankind. She said I smelled nice. She smelled of fresh laundry so it was quite a nice experience. People keep wanting to hug me. It's been quite a week for hugs one way and another.

I’d never been to Brunswick, never even heard of it - when they approached me to play I had to look at the map to find out where it was.

A psychotic woman in a white bunny rabbit costume gyrated around in the middle of the audience. The sound was great in that place - HBGB it was called. the guy who owned it bought the whole block for fifty thousand dollars - record store, antique store, tattoo parlour, venue. Brunswick is depressed. The tattoo parlour probably does the best business.

The psycho-bunny suddenly announced: ‘I eat shit like you for breakfast’. The remark was aimed at me. I could sense a certain tension in the room.
‘That’s a shame’ I said, ‘I’ve just realised I’m doing something else for breakfast tomorrow.’
The room breathed again and I got on with it.

I was hanging out on the street afterwards. It was quite safe - everyone was very nice and the bunny rabbit had marched off home, I saw her leaving.

She came back armed with a baseball bat and a battered old children’s book which she wanted to give to me. She was quite sweet, she spoke with a soft southern drawl which slowly mutated into a generic north of England accent as told me she came from Houston and lots of other places, and how her mother lived in England where she photographed rock stars but that she was staying behind in Brunswick because she had a lot of neices, nephews and cousins who needed her love.

She wanted to give me a hug. She leaned the baseball bat against the wall and folded me in an embrace that got tighter and tighter…and tighter…and tighter still as her bunny rabbit paws riddled up and down my back. It was faintly terrifying and I was glad when it was over. I thought she was going to break my ribs.

When she’d released me she picked up the baseball bat and a rubber elephant’s head that she’d bought with her. I edged away smiling as charmingly as I could without ever turning away. If I turned my back there’d be a huge white flash, the world would turn blood red, and then nothing. Like an old TV set being turned off, a small white dot would disappear into the middle of the screen I’d be no more.


I gained the safety of the venue and watched from the window as she put on the rubber elephant’s head and started swinging the bat. Soon everyone else was inside, grown men cowering from a full-sized psychotic bunny armed with a baseball bat. She looks quite jolly in this photo (taken by Shawn Vinson), but don't let that fool you.

photo by Shawn Vinson

Thursday, April 21, 2016

amERICa Coast to Coast 1


Leaving home was the worst part. I didn’t know what I’d need - shirts, socks, phone charger, notebook, toothbrush, glasses, iPod… It surely couldn’t be enough because I was going to be gone forever. It was cold, unseasonably cold for April, but I’d be returning to the mid-June heat. I was confused. And I still had laryngitis even though I was pretending I hadn’t.

It’s been months in the planning, a coast to coast tour of the US and Canada. Now the day had finally come and I could have quite happily called it off. I had a last espresso at Moto in Hudson, packed a case and loaded my amplifier and guitars into the Buick. I said goodbye to Amy and set off through the rain in the direction of the Thruway heading south.

I was going to leave early in the morning but what with feeling under the weather and not really wanting to go because it seemed I’d only just come back from being away in Europe for a month - I was home for all of five days - so I didn’t set off until something like 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

I stayed in a disgusting hotel in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I found it through Hotwire. I don’t think I’m going to use Hotwire anymore - they’re supposed to be offering cheap hotel deals but quite often it’s the same price as it would be if you booked direct, and if you booked direct you’d know what you were getting before you commited, and wouldn’t end up in some toilet of a hotel where a non-smoking room is one that’s had the ashtray removed that morning.

The next day I drove to Chapel Hill in North Carolina through torrential rain. I had no expectation of playing in Chapel Hill, except that it’s on the way south and I have good friends there. And of course I like playing at Local 506 -  Amy and I have played there together twice. When I arrived the had rain stopped and I knew the sound engineer from a show we did down there with Ian Hunter so things started to look up. There was even an audience, not a huge audience, but they were attentive and it felt like a special occasion. I had trouble with my voice but it was fun and I think I played well.



It seemed to take all day to get to Charlotte and on the way a piece of metal fell off the bottom of  the car. Wires were hanging down underneath but I carried on undeterred. The sound engineer let me know early in the proceedings that not only had he worked at the Double Door for twenty years but he’d also done in-ear monitors for Tom Petty, so he knew what he was doing. I was a little confused by that because he was working at the Double Door now so the Tom Petty gig must have been twenty years ago and I don’t believe they had in-ear monitors twenty years ago,  so he must have taken a sabbatical to do it, in which case one could say that technically he was lying. The monitors were different when I came on to how they'd been at the soundcheck.

The show went well and afterwards the owner showed me a photo of Eric Clapton taken there in 1973. After playing some vast arena he came down to the Double Door to jam with a band of southern hotshots for a smaller audience than the one I’d played to. Sadly the place is closing down - the university are buying up the block and demolishing it. Shame someone can’t buy the university, demolish that and leave the Double Door alone.

I stayed in a large and horrible hotel out by the airport. I got the last room. The desk clerk was a scrawny young woman, lank greasy hair, skin like cigarette ash, chipped white nail polish. She kept calling me hon.
‘It is a non-smoking room?’ I asked, ‘it has to be non-smoking.’
‘Hold on hon, I’ll just go and check.’
She dashed out of a back door and came back breathless, three minutes late.
‘Yes hon, that’s all taken care of.’
When I got to the room it was thick with the stench of stale cigarette smoke. The air conditioner was turned up full and there was no ashtray.
There was little point in complaining - she meant well and that’s how they do things in some states. I wish there was a nationwide ban on smoking in hotels. I slept badly and woke up feeling ill.


Knoxville was fun. I was getting into the swing of it and my voice was coming back. Knoxville’s always fun because it involves hanging out with Tim Lee and Susan Bauer Lee. They’ve been organising a series of shows at Sweet P’s, a downhome barbeque place on the river just outside Knoxville. A simple affair with a vocal PA, no stage and a mixed audience of rabid fans and a cluttering of people who’d come to eat barbeque. 

Tim and Susan played an opening set. Tim gets a huge guitar sound out of a tiny Fender Pro Junior - a volume control, a tone control and a ten inch speaker. Makes me wonder why I’m dragging the Guild Superstar amp around with me. Though when I think about it he has a pedalboard the size of a house, so it’s swings and roundabouts as they say, or in this case amps and pedalboards. (I think I’ve just negated a pointless metaphor there). They played my favourite song of theirs, Magnolia Plates. That song is full of romance - Mississippi where they come from, moolight on fluorescent cottonfields - it almost moves me to tears just thinking about it.

A large hairy man approached me and said he’d been told to give me a hug from my friend Mike Fickel down in Texas. It was Jon Dee Graham. I’d been hoping I might meet him one day. Jon Dee was in the True Believers with Alejandro Escovedo. He was playing later that night in Knoxville. He stuck around for my show and told everyone that he’d been ‘jaw-dropped’. I was somewhat thrilled to hear that and further thrilled to hear him play later that night. I hope I get to see him again when I play in Texas next month.

I checked into a hotel at two in the morning. The desk clerk said: ‘I can give you a king or put you in a room with two queens.’



Monday, April 11, 2016

Jetlag, solvent abuse, three weeks in Belgium

Sometimes it takes longer than you think to get over the jet lag. Heading straight to my mother’s house from the airport was a mistake - she’s ninety years old and she lives alone so you never know what you’re going to find when you get there. This time it was a decorator, a congenital idiot with a dripping paint brush and a can of oil-based brilliant white gloss. He’d already had trouble telling where the skirting board ended and the carpet started. He probably gets a lot of work from older people because most of them can’t see the results very clearly so in the end it doesn’t matter.

But oil-based paint - for fuck’s sake, not in an old person’s house. It takes hours to dry. By the time I arrived he’d been blodging at every surface for most of the morning. The house was overtaken by paint fumes and after half an hour so was I. My mother may or may not have been in the same condition but she fell over early the next morning and I was awoken from a heady and nightmarish sleep to the sound of paramedics entering the house.

‘Don’t touch the handrails or bannisters’ I warned, ‘you’ll get stuck to them.’

My mother was sitting on the floor in her bedroom. She was quite calm, almost amused. The paramedics checked her out - nothing broken, not even any bruising. The first carer of the day came and soon she was up and dressed and downstairs, sitting in her chair having breakfast as though nothing had happened. I glanced at her medical notes - one of the paramedics had suggested that she may have been high on paint fumes and that’s what might have caused the fall.

I felt as though I’d spent the night sniffing glue.

Even though I escaped for a couple of days and managed to get at least one good nights sleep I was still feeling befuddled when it came time to leave for Ostend. My friend Andy took me over in his car with all my junk on a day return ticket.

Neither of us was in a good state - Andy had bronchitis and I was suffering from sleep deprivation and solvent abuse. I remember how in the nineties I would set off for somewhere halfway across Europe with ten pounds in my pocket and a full tank, no cheque book, credit card or phone, just an address scrawled on the back of an envelope, all on the promise of earning some cash when I got there. And that was a normal state of affairs.

It was like the good old days - I didn’t have the address of where we were going to (I was going to get that on the way), I hadn’t implemented any international plan with my US cellphone provider, and my pay-as-you-go UK mobile was out of credit. Somewhere between Calais and Ostend Andy and I both started to freak out. I got my laptop out in a motorway services, tried to get the address. Andy stayed in the car, coughing and sleeping off the effects of powerful medication, though at one point we both got involved in trying to use a payphone. The payphone didn’t work.

We eventually arrived at the apartment where I was to be staying in for the next two and a half weeks. It was on the eighteenth floor with a balcony all around two sides. The outside walls were all glass, floor to ceiling sliding panels of the stuff. The view of Ostend was terrific. There were no curtains.

Andy left to catch the ferry and I was left alone in my temporary new home. The first thing I thought I should do was get my stuff together and maybe change my clothes. I’d been wearing the same clothes for days and I was feeling quite grubby. I looked around for my suitcase but I couldn’t find it. I searched the apartment room by room - the place was quite sparsely furnished so it wasn’t difficult. No suitcase. I remembered that I’d last seen it in the back of Andy’s car. That was where it was. We’d forgotten to take it out. By now it was probably halfway across the English Channel.

Here I was in a minimalist apartment with the lights of Ostend twinkling below and all around as far as the eye could see with just a couple of guitars, a case of leads and effect pedals, a Fender Deluxe amplifier and the clothes I stood up in. I tried to kid myself that it was liberating, romantic even, but it wasn’t liberating at all and I felt quite tearful.

I pulled myself together and went down in the elevator to the supermarket below. If you’re feeling weird, insecure and a little unhinged a foreign supermarket is just the thing to send you over the edge. Half an hour later I was back on the eighteenth floor with a Bag For Life containing a can of highly perfumed shaving foam, a packet of disposable razors (the Delhaize supermarket’s own brand), a pack of two pairs of men’s underpants sporting a label that said DIM, some disgusting toothpaste, a toothbrush, a carton of seedless green grapes, some smoked salmon responsibly farmed in the North Atlantic, a bottle of apple juice and a packet of Ryvita’s.

I decided that I couldn’t possibly walk around in underwear labelled DIM - it’s bad enough for the self esteem in ones that say Next all around the waistband. 

I’m still using the toothpaste even though every time I do I resolve to hit a health shop and buy some decent stuff. 

It took me two and a half weeks to get through the Ryvita packet, each increasingly less crunchy tile eased down with semi-rancid butter I found in the fridge. 

I feasted on smoked salmon and apple juice and absent-mindedly ate half the seedless grapes while I stared out of the window at Ostend on the first night, the rest I threw away a few days later when I saw them looking sorry for themselves on the kitchen countertop. 

I lathered and scraped my face with one of the disposable razors and wished I’d remained unshaved and unperfumed.

I was doing two weeks in Belgium as the musical guest of stand up comedian Piv Huvluv - two twenty minute sets incorporated into his theatre show, one before the intermission and one before the end. He’s done this once before, three years ago with Steve Wyn from the Dream Syndicate and the Miracle Three. Amy and I once did a show for Piv in a club near Ostend. He’s  a successful comedian in Belgium with a part in a TV sitcom. A music fan, one of the good guys.

He started setting the tour up a couple of years ago. I had no idea then that I’d have made an album like “amERICa” to such a great reception. I had no idea what I’d be doing in two years time but I committed to the idea and it slowly turned into a reality. Nothing seems real to me until a couple of weeks before it happens. I’ve given up trying to visualise how things are going to be, it leads to panic and pre-empting situations, a lot of anguish and unnecessary anxiety. My arrangements consisted of booking a plane ticket to London ahead of time. For the rest I was making it up as I went along.

I spent a couple of days wandering around Ostend, rehearsed with Piv in the basement of his father’s magnificent 1970s house and rejoiced when my suitcase was delivered by UPS, shrunk-wrapped in white plastic.

We didn’t know quite how we were going to do the show but it involved a portable record player which didn’t quite revolve at a constant speed, a stack of crackling vinyl and an almost gratuitous Powerpoint presentation. And Piv’s homemade drumkit. He really wanted to play drums with me on a couple of songs. I tried hard to put aside reservations, go along with it, be a good sport and so on.

The kit was mostly homemade - it reminded me of one of my first bands, Addis & The Flip Tops - named after a plastic kitchen bin which was the drumkit at our first ever practice session. Piv’s kit consisted of a big black plastic bin for a bass drum, an upturned plastic bucket for a tom (professionally mounted on a snare stand), and a five gallon plastic jerry can gaffered to a plastic crate with a sandbag in it to prevent it from falling over.. It was augmented by a hi-hat, a broken snare drum and and one crash ride cymbal. The whole lot was set up on a carpet from a children's playroom with a piece of wood nailed across the front to stop the the plastic bin bass drum from moving forwards. He sat on a cheap plastic designer stool from the eighties that bounced up and down as he played, and attacked the kit with such authority that any apprehension I had immediately evaporated. 

We ran through a few things and it was quite ridiculous with the bass drum going bock bock bock and the clacking of the plastic tom tom substitutes but it somehow worked. I think it worked because we believed it would. I’ve always been a fan of the homemade drum kit and Piv was inspired by having seen me with the Beat Group back in 1989 when we toured with a drumkit that was little more than a cardboard box with a tambourine and microphone inside it. We played festivals like that with a fifteen watt guitar amp and a modified Vox AC30 for the bass.

It was pretty tricky playing in a theatre for an audience that had essentially come to see a comedy show. The first night they laughed nervously as I got underway, I think they were unsure if I was perhaps meant to be funny but after a while they were in no doubt that I wasn’t. That is, I think I am, in between songs, but when I’m playing it isn’t for laughs. I hit them a bit too hard and when I came back for the second set a good third of the audience had left. There were complaints - it was too loud, too distorted, and this isn’t for us… The second set, where I figured I’d get a bit more edgy had another third of the audience scattering to the exits.

Before the next theatre show I had a rethink and made the first set a lot more seductive and sort of acoustic and the second set electric but shimmering. A few people still walked out but it got better.

In between I did my own shows - a succession of Belgian versions of the British dogshit pub. At a grimy yacht club on a greasy canal in a place called Grimbergen just outside Brussels I had to repair the PA which looked as though it had once fallen prey to a mishap involving the canal. I had the best sound of all my solo shows in Belgium because for once I was unencumbered by a Belgian sound engineer. The ones in the theatres were fine, if a bit timid but the ones in the smaller venues were sometimes better at puffing on cigarettes and blowing smoke all over the place.

At one place the engineer already had the microphones set up. He indicated the vocal mic, a Shure Beta 57, and proudly boasted how he’d set the filters and equalisation and it should be perfect for me. I thanked him very much and told him I had my own microphone, a regular Shure SM58. He said that wasn’t possible, I used a Beta 57. I said no, I never did, but he insisted - he could prove it - he’d seen a photo of me singing into one onstage with The Proclaimers.
He got quite sulky and told me I should use the Beta 57 anyway because it was a far superior microphone. The PA system was basically a load of old shit, a mismatched collection of old Mackie and Yamaha powered speakers, cobbled together and vaguely pointing at where the audience might be if they didn’t fancy going outside to smoke their cigarettes.

Belgium is a good place to go if you’re a smoker - just stick to the outlying towns and villages and you’ll be able to hang out at the bar, sucking down bottles of viscous brown beer (brewed by monks) in the company of large men with facial hair while you puff smoke smoke over each other. That’s a terrible generalisation and if any Belgians read this I’ll probably get complaints. But it has to be said that the smoking ban in bars is largely ignored in out of the way places.

I met some very nice Belgians while I was there - Piv obviously, Filip his technician,a woman called Ann who runs a wonderful place called Gallerie Beausite on the Ostend seafront. Piv’s friend Bart took us to see The Godfathers on a night off. The Godfathers were great - the last time I saw them was in 1987 in some vast place in London, it may have been the Town & Country. I observed from a detached distance and felt very out of the loop. I was having a nervous breakdown at the time though I didn’t yet know it. I’d stopped playing music because all I’d ever done was bought unhappiness and problems to a lot of people. I’ remember looking at The Godfathers and wishing I could have been in a band like that but it was too late now.

This time it was different. There they were on a low stage in the back room of a grubby bar. The amplifiers weren’t even miked up. It was a thrill from start to finish. I met the whole band afterwards. they said they’d heard a rumour that I was there but if they’d known for certain beforehand there was no question but that they would have had me get up and sing something. I’ve come a long way in the last twenty nine years. And so have they. I’m glad we’re all still around.

I’m getting a bit tired of writing this, it starts to turn into a reportage, but I don’t think every minute of my time in Europe needs to be documented and I’ve got other concerns - I’m heading south, about to start the coast to coast US tour. I arrived home from Europe five days ago with a bad case of laryngitis. I played in Glasgow and got caught in the rain loading out afterwards. It wasn’t the singing, it was the Glasgow rain on top of a Belgian cold.

The show in Utrecht was great but I left without staying in the hotel. I checked in, went to the room and after about ten minutes I started to get a vaguely creepy feeling. I didn’t like it, it felt clammy and somehow well…wrong. And then I realised there was no window. I went back to reception and asked if they had a room with a window but they didn’t, it seemed all the rooms were like that. Suddenly my eighteenth floor glasshouse started to feel rather appealing so I drove back to Ostend through the night and went to bed in broad daylight.

 At the Blue Shell in Cologne the support act was a two piece called The Zhivago Manuel Of Style. They had interesting keyboards propped up on a steamer trunk, a Memory Man pedal, bossa nova beatbox, an acoustic guitar, harmony vocals and great songs.  I woke up in Cologne the following morning to about twenty emails all asking me if I was ok. I started answering - I’m fine, thanks for asking, things are going well and so on, and then it occurred to me that something may have happened. I turned on the TV and saw the first reports of the Brussels bombing.


What can you do? Belgium was plunged into mourning. I wondered if we should cancel the shows as a mark of respect but in the end that’d be giving in to the terrorists. Sometimes I suppose you really do have to keep calm and carry on. As long as it doesn’t involve eating cupcakes or some other such nonsense.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Snatched vs Took: an everyday story of the National Express coach company

She’s a weasly looking older woman, face sagging but still somehow pinched, and topped off and surrounded by a mousey frizz.
‘If you want to change your ticket it’ll cost money’ she says.
‘Well, it can’t be that much - what are we looking at? Can you give me a ballpark figure?’
Must go easy on her.
I know to my cost how touchy National Express Coach employees can be, I was once banned from travelling on their coaches for a whole day because a manager thought I’d snatched my ticket out of her hand. I was later arrested and cautioned by the police after another National Express employee tried to goad me (without success) into a physical response.
That was in 2005. The plane had landed early. I remember feeling quite happy, light-hearted even, after a trouble-free flight, unencumbered by the usual brace of guitars and suitcase of leads and pedals and so on. 
I'd practically skipped along to the National Express ticket office. I was greeted outside by a big blonde woman in a shiny black parka with fluorescent yellow safety stripes and a walkie talkie sticking out of the top pocket. She asked if she could help so I explained how the flight had landed earlier than expected and asked if I could get on an earlier coach. She ask to see my ticket. I handed it over, she looked at it, said I'd have to change the ticket and used it to gesticulate towards the ticket office which was up a flight of steps in a temporary hut. We were standing at the bottom of the steps.
She explained what I’d have to do, and where the coach stop was, I thanked her very much and headed on up the steps, remembering as I did that she was still holding the ticket. She’d been holding the ticket for quite a while, absently gesturing with it. I reached over the bannister - ‘I’ll be needing that’ I said with a smile, and plucked the ticket out of her upheld hand. 
Her eyes turned to stone:
‘You snatched the ticket out of my hand!’
‘No I didn’t’ I said, ‘I just took it.’
At this point I thought she might just be joking but she left me in no doubt.
‘You snatched!’
‘No I didn’t, I just took’
‘Snatched’
‘Took’
‘Snatched!!’
I thought this was all quite funny. 
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I really didn’t mean to snatch but I think you’re being a bit over-sensitive.’
‘Right - that’s it, you’re not travelling today.’
She pushed past me and screamed instructions over the heads of a line of passengers. ‘This man is barred from travelling by National Express today - on no account must he be issued with a ticket.’
I protested, said it was crazy - I already had a ticket - she surely couldn’t stop me from using it.
She told me she could do whatever she liked. I asked to see the manager and she told me she was the manager.
‘So I’ve been barred for snatching?’
‘Yes sir, that’s right.’
I shuffled off in a state of shock and found a quiet corner where I could think about what just happened.

I decided not to take it too seriously, they surely couldn’t stop me getting on the coach - I had a ticket. I waited until it was about time, found the bus stop and joined the queue. I remember talking to a nice retired couple but I can’t remember what we talked about.
The bus rolled up and just as I was handing my ticket to the driver a plump hand snatched it out of my grasp.
‘Oh no - he’s not travelling today, he’s barred!’
The driver looked nonplussed and busied himself with other passengers. 
‘Look,’ I said, ‘this is ridiculous, I don’t know what’s been upsetting you but it’s got to be more than just me.’
‘You are not getting on one of our coaches today’ she said, and fairly stamped her foot. Then she was joined by a male employee who wanted to know what the problem was. She explained before I could.
‘Unless you’re her supervisor,’ I said, ‘I really don’t see that this concerns you - it’s none of your business, it’s between me and her.’
‘Well I’m making it my business.’
He squared up to me, got really close: ‘You got a problem with that? What are you going to do about it, eh?’
I sized him up, figured I could take him on if it came to it and probably inflict a fair amount of damage - I’d been on a fitness kick for over a year, going to the gym and working out three or four times a week so I was feeling quite confident. I also noticed he’d left himself wide open to a knee in the balls.
‘Are you threatening me?’ I asked.
‘No, you’re threatening me.’
‘Right’ said the manageress, ‘That’s it, I’m calling the police.’
I decided at that point that it wasn’t worth hanging around to argue so I told her she should really sit down somewhere and think about her behaviour or maybe just go and fuck herself, and then I walked away.

I was going to have to catch a train. I was walking around the airport concourse looking for a sign for the underground when I was joined by two policemen, one on each side.
‘All right sir, would you mind coming with us.’
They took me to a private room, told me they were arresting me for assaulting a member of National Express staff, cautioned me and read me my rights. I was quite calm about it, told them what had happened - it was really down to your definition of snatching as opposed to taking. I pointed out that there were plenty of witnesses who had seen the National Express employee square up to me, obviously trying to provoke a reaction, and that there was no law against snatching. I admitted to having told the woman to fuck herself but that someone had to do it.
I could see they thought the whole thing was quite funny.
‘You’d better catch the train,’ one of them said. They gave me a form that said I’d been officially cautioned and directed me to the underground by a circuitous route that avoided the National Express office.

It made a great story, how I was arrested for snatching, but I don’t want a repeat, especially after a long flight with too much luggage, so I’m trying to be as tactful as I can with the infuriating woman at the counter.
‘Pwhhrrr - you can go on the earlier coach but it’s going to cost five pounds to change the ticket.’
‘That’s ok, I think I can manage that.’
My original ticket was an e-ticket displayed on my phone. She takes my phone off me and fumbles with it. The phone on the counter has been ringing all the while. She notices it, picks up the receiver, says yaesss into it a few times, puts the receiver down and looks at my phone as if she’s wondering what it is and how it got there. 
‘Now, where was I?’
‘We were changing my ticket’ (easy boy…)
Yaess, you should just be able to catch the earlier coach. That’ll be five pounds.’
I hand over a fiver and try not to grind my teeth as she fills out a new ticket by hand and with a leaking ballpoint pen.
As she hands me the ticket she says ‘it’s running twenty minutes late but it should still come along before the one you were booked on before.’
Keep cool, don’t want to get barred and arrested!
‘But even though it’s running late you have to go out and start waiting for it now.’
Why? I want to ask - in case it suddenly stops running late?
But I don’t dare, I just do as I’m told.