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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Rolling into Clarksdale


I was standing outside CS’s in Jackson, Mississippi in what looked like a bad neighbourhood. The place was closed. Projects to one side and to the other a big old burned out house that might have been a bar, restaurant or hotel in some far distant and grander time.
An old black man shuffled down the street carrying a rusty ironing board and a bucket with belongings in it. The sun was merciless and we were the only people out in it so we said hello. He put down the bucket and the ironing board in the shade of a flowering Magnolia tree and asked me if I was headed for Galveston.
‘No’ I said, ‘I’m just trying to find out when this place opens.’
‘What is it? Is it a restaurant?’
‘Yes, I think it is. A restaurant of sorts.’
‘Now…you’re not from round here are yer?’
‘No I’m not - I’m from England’
‘Shut the fuck up! I bin to England. I was in the US Air Force.’
He shook my hand and didn’t release his grip for a very long time as he delivered a rambling and inconclusive travelogue which dwindled out and left me none the wiser.
Then a disposable lighter appeared, held in his mouth while he fumbled with a dubious tin that opened to reveal a collection of cigarette ends.
‘You going someplace? I really need a ride.’
‘I’m not really going anywhere, and anyway there isn’t any room in my car.’
‘That’s OK, I could sit on the trunk…’
I liked him but I could imagine him developing into quite a problem, and truthfully I wasn’t going anywhere, or at least at that point I didn’t know where I was going.
So I bid him good day and slunk off, returning by a circuitous route to the car which was parked on the other side of the building. I drove away as quietly as possible. I felt bad that I hadn’t given him some money, but I would have felt that I was patronising him if I didn’t hang around for the request which was bound to come - and anyway I’d just spent a fortune on car repairs and lost a gig in the process so I wasn't feeling flush.
Perhaps I should have got in there first, asked him for a donation.
I parked in a side street in the shade of another flowering Magnolia and consulted Hotwire for a hotel. It was a bad neighbourhood, not even transitional. It was scary but the doors were locked and the Buick, being dark blue, looks sinister enough that no one was going to bother me. Passers by gave me nervous glances. They might have thought I was a private investigator.

The day before I was hanging around in St Louis, waiting for the car to be repaired when I should have been in Huntsville, Alabama. These things come on so slowly, creep up in almost inperceptable increments. A slight flapping sound, the odd creaking noise coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the front passenger side wheel. It came and went. It was probably just my imagination. It came back again and the car started to shake at sixty miles an hour. But it was nothing. Was it? Please…?
I made it to Pittsburgh through torential rain, saw two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law and a niece, and the next day I clattered on to Columbus, Ohio. There was definitely a noise but it faded at sixty five or seventy miles an hour and sometimes it went away all together.
It was probably just the road surface.
The venue was one of those arty places - post shabby chic if such a thing exists. If it had been in the United Kingdom it would probably have been affiliated to one of the major breweries. I don’t know how that works over here. The management got very excited about having me play - they googled me and found out that I’m hugely famous so they started following me on Instagram. They weren’t the promoters or anything, that was Ken Eppstein of Nix Comics, but it didn’t stop them from putting an advert in the local paper. Ken didn’t want me to see it but his wife showed it to me and we had a good laugh about it. They’d super-imposed a photo of me on their standard advert, an array of fancy cocktails and Hollywood searchlights: he’s travelled The Whole Wide World and now he’s here at Strongwater!
They were expecting in excess of at least a hundred people. The staff were busy moving the furniture out of the cavernous warehouse of a room where I was going to play. I made them put some of it back. The acoustics were taxing to put it kindly. Polished concrete floor, brick walls, high ceilings. A fabulous echo with no off switch.
Later on the people crowded round, formed a human mattress and it sounded pretty good. It was an event, a good start.



The creaking and flapping noise had slackened off in the morning - the car just needed a good rest. I searched for coffee and found a bike shop that was also a coffee place. Just like Moto back home in Hudson - they serve coffee, they sell bikes, and their espresso is the best. Now it seems they have a Mid-Western twin.
Except that when I got there they sold bicycles and they had no espresso machine. I had a French press made with great care. I would have preferred an espresso but it was OK.

The drive to St Louis was long and when I got there, to the Schafly Brewery where I was going to play, the front wheel noise was horribly apparent - I could no longer dismiss it as just one of those things. I had visions of violent and bloody death on the road to Huntsville. Something had to be done about it.
The Schafly Brewery is modern and purpose built, a brewery, bar and restaurant. Bands play there, anything from rockabilly to blues rock, the whole spectrum of bar band dross, doubtlessly littered with smug and forlorn singer songwriters who trot out James Taylor covers and slip in one or two of their own when they think no one’s listening. Which they aren’t. 
It was a tough gig but at least it was a gig. People came to hear me play, and after I’d fucked off the happy hour crowd with dischords, feedback, insults and dissonance it was a good show, even though I hadn’t yet quite hit my stride.
I stayed with our friend Rick Wood who puts on stellar house concerts. In the morning he helped me find a garage that had a reasonable reputation for honesty and efficiency and so on, and I had the car fixed for more than what I actually paid for the car in the first place. The entire steering system was shot. I knew it wasn’t great because even this time last year it was losing steering fluid.
By the time the car was fixed it was too late to get to Huntsville in time to play. I’d already called and explained the situation. I called again, told them I could be there by ten but they said it wasn’t going to work because I was supposed to play at eight and they had another show booked for later. So we cancelled and I set off for Jackson feeling thoroughly dejected. I really enjoyed playing in Huntsville last year - I was looking forward to it being a highlight of this trip. Hopefully we’ll be able to reschedule it for sometime soon.
I booked into a hotel on the outskirts of Memphis in the middle of the night, slept through the morning and arrived in Jackson way too early.

I checked into my hotel on the outskirts of town, sat on a chair and stared at the wall for a while, got up and drove back to the venue. By this time the promoter and the owner had both arrived. They moved some furniture out of the way and I got set up between a pinball machine and an antique giant screen TV. The whole inside of the place seemed to be covered with stickers, and disturbingly quite a few of them were Republican stickers from the last three US general elections. The owner was white, both the cook and the waitress who seemed to be running things were both black and in their sixties. I was told later that this place was where the Republican candidates hang out when they come down to campaign in Jackson.

People arrived and everybody wanted to talk to me. They wanted to show me round, take me to see the graves of obscure bluesmen - they photographed themselves standing next to me, asked me how Dave Edmunds was doing and did I ever see Elvis Costello? I expected the mayor to walk in any minute and present me with the keys to the city. 
The opening act played. He was tall and confident, not short and full of self-doubt like me. Competant too, maybe a little too pleased with himself. I was complimentary and I meant it. 
By the time I’d finished my set most of the gladhanders had left. I didn’t go down very well. they didn’t get it and I didn’t really pull it together. Maybe my new song White Bread pissed them off. I did a version of Broken Doll for a guy I know who was sitting in the front row. It’s his favourite song of mine. I never play that song but I played it for him and it came out well, it surprised me and on its own I think it was worth the price of admission.
The opening act had to stay because he supplied the PA. Afterwards he packed up and left as quickly as he could. I said goodbye. He couldn’t make eye contact. I found the whole experience quite depressing. It wasn’t the right venue and the audience were expecting something different to what they got. It happens.

To get to Baton Rouge I realised I’d be passing McComb, Mississippi, where the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane came down. I felt I had to stop there and somehow pay my respects. I love Ronnie Van Zandt’s voice and the story of that plane crash haunts me. I did some internet research and found the co-ordinates of where the crash actually was. I wrestled with the idea  - was it ghoulish? In the end I didn’t know why but I needed to go there.
It was scary - I drove off the highway and down a road through a holler - trailers that had somehow mutated into houses, still really just trailers with bits built on, damaged by hurricanes and never quite repaired but still inhabited. I turned off a road and then another road, I pretty well drove in a circle around the crash site which seemed to be deep in a forest of pine trees. I got out of the car and looked around but there was no way I was going into that forest. It was one of the creepiest places I’ve ever been. I listened to most of the first album there and felt sad but almost overcome by some kind of gloriousness.

I drove on to Baton Rouge and realised that in my haste to leave Jackson I’d forgotten to stop for breakfast - I’d had nothing to eat all day and now it was too late, there was no time - I had to get to Lagniappe Records and do the show.
I had a good feeling about this one from the outset and I wasn’t wrong.
Lagniappe Records is Tess and Patrick, and a strange bird that flies around the shop and sits on your shoulder when you’re not expecting it. They were a delight. Tess opened the show, Gibson SG and vocal, and then Toby Hartleroad from Columbus Mississippi. Toby normally plays with his brother Max on drums and their cousin Miles on bass and keyboards. Tonight he was solo - Roland Juno going through heaven knows what and an amplifier, the same with Bentley Rhythm Ace drum machine, and a vocal mic going through a delay pedal and heaven knows what too. It was loud, ungodly and magnificent. Imagine if Devo had been younger and cooler, with real attitude instead of just a pose, and had came from the deep south instead of the rust belt. And yes, they look like the Hanson brothers from Slapshot, even though they'd never heard of it!


The Hartleroad brothers
My set was slightly haphazard due to not having a chance to eat. I couldn’t eat beforehand because I didn’t want to miss the other acts. It was fine though, and I felt much more confident than at the last three shows. It was great to finally get in front of an audience who were all into it.
I had a day off the next day - I should have taken up an offer to play in New Orleans but I didn’t realise it was so close - only an hour or so down the road. Next time… 
Instead I spent a relaxing day off in Baton Rouge hanging out with Tess and Patrick who were having their last day off before moving themselves and the record shop to Lafayette. I think they’re probably open for business by now so if you’re in Lafayette….
They took me for a drive past Huey Piano Smith’s house. Apparently he’s a Jehovah’s Witness these days, a recluse who never leaves the house except presumably for weekly trips to the Kingdom Hall. Seems like a waste to me but then it’s his life.
We had a good time, hanging out in parking lots talking deep into the night. I hope I get to see them again soon. I’m a big fan of the southern United States, there are some very smart people down there, it’s not all like a lot of people (including me at one time) assume it might be.

The next day I set off for Dallas. They say Texas is it’s own country so I’ll perhaps tell you all about that another time and skip forward a week.

I couldn’t drive across Mississippi without stopping at the Clarksdale crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil - well, that is I could because I’m not much of a tourist on these trips, but Tess and Patrick told me about a guitar shop in Clarksdale that has every guitar you’d ever expect to find in the birthplace of the blues, and all at very reasonable prices.
A sweltering Tuesday afternoon in July wasn’t perhaps the best time to pitch up there. The shop wasn’t open. I climbed out of the car into the heat that wrapped itself around me like a moist and over affectionate animal and studied the door with it’s big CLOSED sign. 
A perspiring black man wearing a grubby airtex shirt and shorts that were either nylon satin finish or soaked in sweat scooted  up to me.
‘Weer you come fro’ man’ he asked
‘I’m from England’
‘Now, you might heard tell of me,’ and he gave me a bluesman sounding name of enough complication that I immediately forgot it. I admitted that I hadn’t heard tell of him but he was undeterred.
‘If you have got the tarm then I gotta song I gonna sing for you - have you ever heard a song called Amazing Grace?’
‘Yes’ I said, ‘It’s a Scottish folk song’
That threw him for a second but he rallied:
‘If you got the tarm to listen to ma song then I gonna sing it for you now’
‘Alright, go on then’
He threw back his head and sang with the maximum of soul, arthritic fingers clawing at nothing like a hanging man in his death throes. A little flat but fairly passable. Sweat poured from his face and neck. He finished on ‘…I once was blind bu-ut nowwww.’ A split second went by during which time we both realised he’d landed the thing a bit early and then he added I seeeeee to finish it off as best he could. 
He asked for a donation. I gave him some dollars. He thanked me insisting that he didn’t drink or take drugs and scooted off in search of his next victim.

I wandered up the street in the other direction and found a bar called The Stone Pony that served food. They obviously don’t get much custom in there on a Tuesday afternoon - I was the only customer and it seemed to me that the entire staff were taking turns to come out and take a look at me and ask if everything was all right. It wasn’t all right, it was fairly disgusting - some sort of pasta dish with a lot of cream - but I wasn’t going to tell them, they were all so earnest, and besides, I’m English, so I smiled and said it was lovely and rearranged it on the plate to make it look like I’d eaten some of it. In retrospect I think they were checking me out to see if I was some famous visiting father of the British Blues. Apparently those people come to Clarksdale all the time.


I swung back by the music shop but it was still closed so I got in the car and took a drive around. It was way too hot to walk anywhere. I drove into Yazoo Street, found myself on John Lee Hooker Lane, saw a cafe and parked next to it in the shade of a tree.
The cafe was painted in light, jolly colours - pistachio green, lemon yellow, cornflower blue… A middle-aged white guy wearing share cropper dungarees and a mauve angora beret was picking the blues on a sickly green Telecaster. He sat on a stool on a little raised plynth. A sign above his head said World’s Smallest Stage. He paused in his picking to welcome me in. I did a double take - ‘Are you English?’ I asked.
‘No mate, Australian.’
A middle-aged lady appeared and asked what I’d like. I ordered coffee and she asked for payment up front. The Australian carried on picking, accompanied now by a gangling black kid who clattered out a rhythm on anything and everything behind the counter with a pair of carpenter’s pencils.
Another pause: ‘What brings you to Clarksdale?’
I told him I was passing through and hoping to visit the music shop but that it was closed. I asked him if he was the owner of the cafe.
‘Yeah - I run this place but occasionally, about this time of day, I take a break and play some music - remind myself why I came to live here in the first place.’
The experience was beginning to feel somewhat secondhand, a sanitised, white version of the blues, competantly executed but lacking in any devil-may-care audacity. The Telecaster was new, and played through a Roland busker’s amplifier that you might buy at the Guitar Center. I thought about my green Microfrets guitar sitting there in the trunk of the car. I was almost tempted to bring it out and ask to join in, just to be able to say I’d sat in in the birthplace of the blues. but good sense and modesty prevailed. They would have freaked if they’d seen my battle-scarred guitar - it’s the real deal.
I asked where the famous Crossroads were, drove back down to John Lee Hooker Lane, parked the car, took a few photos, checked the music shop for signs of life (there weren’t any) and wound up outside the Ground Zero Blues Club.



A grubby looking white guy speed-waddled across the road towards me.
‘Hey man - you want me to take a photo of you in front of the club?’
It occured to me that he might just waddle off with my phone, and anyway I don’t need to be in a photo to know that I was there so I gently declined the offer.
We got talking and pretty soon I knew that his name was Steve and he played the harmonica and sang, and had a band called The Clarksdale Blues Revue who were playing at the Ground Zero juke joint tomorrow night if I was sticking around…
We talked about guitar players - Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley… about Duane Allman, his work at Muscle Shoals, particularly on Wilson Picket’s records
The Clarksdale Blues Revue were losing their guitar player, looking for a replacement - perhaps I might like to try out… I didn’t think so, I don’t imagine The Clarksdale Blues Revue would sound good with a Hound Dog Taylor knock off on the guitar. That is - they might, but they probably wouldn’t agree with me.
I’d love to, but I’m leaving town.
I stopped in a store that sold reissues of every blues record ever made plus the odd John Mayall album. I bought an album of Robert Johnson (everything he ever recorded on one CD) and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s album I Do Not Play No Rock ’n’ Roll (which I used to have until it was misappropriated in a 33s & 45s moment).
Avoiding the perspiring scooter, who had made another appearance, and a couple of other panhandlers who were emerging from the periphery, I got back in the car, turned the AC up full and drove off in the direction of the Crossroads where Highway 49 crosses Highway 61. I thought about selling my soul to the Devil but when I got there it was just a busy intersection - a roundabout with a couple of tacky blue electric guitar cut outs on a pole sticking out of a neatly trimmed box hedge, and a sign that said The Crossroads. The Devil was long gone, and in his place there was a Chicken Filet.
I took a few photos, declined an offer from two black men in a freezer truck to buy some steaks, and drove off for that night’s show at Proud Larry’s in Oxford.




Monday, June 29, 2015

Bubblegum With Dementia

‘And why would someone know to book you to play in Toronto?’
‘Because I’m famous - I wrote the tune they use in the McDonalds commercial’
‘Really’ (flat voice)
‘What sort of music do you play?’
I could hardly say Rock Music, just me sitting there alone, posing as an old buffer in a Buick Le Sabre, so I said the first thing that came into my head:
‘It’s Bubblegum…with dementia’
She handed back the paperwork, and threw my Green Card at me as an afterthought
‘Enjoy your stay in Canada’

I wasn’t sure that I was going to. I’ve been pretty nervous about this show, the NXNE Festival in Toronto. everyone else on the bill seems so young, vibrant, fresh, up and coming, exciting and positively now. And then there’s me - feeling in comparison like a sixty one year old has been - yes, I’m sixty one, so I must be a has been, if I ever even was.

I haven’t played for a while, not one of my own solo shows, not since last December. I’ve been busy recording a new album, and recording Amy for her new album - separate albums, two careers, two income streams… It might possibly even work. Amy and I have played together for a long time now, I’m used to it, it’s comfortable, it’s easy, I love it, but it’s time to move along - we’ve both got things we need to do. Sometimes I almost feel that the next stage is just something we’ve both got to go through and then we can get back to playing together again.

So here I am in Toronto, still desperately trying to compile a set list. I forget about songs, lose faith in the ones that bubble into my consciousness - I make lists of every song I’ve ever written on every album I’ve ever made. The list bewilders me so I look for a distraction and try to convince myself that a set list will somehow magically occur.

It doesn’t.

In my room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel I’m experiencing a crisis of confidence. I put a post on Facebook: Slowly losing my mind in a hotel room in Toronto. People posted helpful suggestion - Toronto’s a cool town, go out and explore… No chance of that, not before the execution - the show that is. No rewards, just constant low-level anxiety and a feeling of anguish.

I often wish I could start again, come at playing music fresh, fully formed but without the baggage. As much as I try to re-invent there’s still the baggage, a sense of obligation, as in people come to see me because of things I’ve done, like Whole Wide World, or Reconnez Cherie, or Take The Cash. Like it or not you get known after a while for certain things. I really don’t mind playing Whole Wide World - fuck it - I love playing Whole Wide World some nights, it’s every boy’s dream after all - it’s a hit! If I get a bit jaded (and I can honestly say I don’t) the audience’s enthusiasm for the song lifts me up and turns it into a glorious moment. But how can I do that in the context of something new without doing something lumpy and embarrassing like singing it acapella or performing it in a drone style, or worse as a rap number? I don't think I'm going to do that.

I force myself to eat and that makes me feel a bit better about everything. Then I go to the venue. The organisers, the crew, they’re all kids. The stage manager is barely twenty. She’s never done it before. They seem really pleased that I’ve actually showed up. A crew of teenage boys help me load in my equipment - two guitars, one case with leads and pedals in it, Guild Superstar amplifier that none of them can lift alone. They take it all very seriously and put everything in a corner of the tiny, grimy backstage. They want to make sure it’s going to be safe. They discuss putting some kind of tape around it as a sort of cordon but I disuade them of that idea.

There’s no soundcheck so I have a quick discussion with the sound engineer. He’s a bit older than the others. He tells me not to expect too much of the monitors, I tell him I’ve already figured that out, I’ll be using an electric guitar, no acoustic, so all I need in the monitors is my vocal and electrified harmonica. I warn him that I’ll probably be playing quite loud and he says that’s fine, he likes volume coming off the stage. This surprises me, I’ve never heard that from a sound engineer before.

Then there’s time to kill. I stroll through a residential neighbourhood and meet up with a woman called Claire who’s taking photos of me for some sort of online magazine covering the festival. I can never understand why anyone would want to take a photo of me because in the end I just look like a bloke - here I am standing in front of a tree, propping up a lamp post, loitering outside a shop… She’s very nice, good company - we talk about the nature of creativity and she takes photo with a real camera, one with film in it.

Suddenly it’s time to play. I still haven’t written a set list so I go on with a notebook open at the page where I last desperately tried to concoct a set list and play a completely unrelated set of songs. The anxiety falls away, I’m here in the moment, playing a few tunes for these people who seem so happy to see me. Someone shouts for I Wish It Would Rain and I excuse myself from playing it. ‘I’m sorry’ I say, ‘I just don’t feel like playing that one tonight, here’s another one…’ 

I think the set went something like: Same, Joe Meek, Several Shades Of Green, Just For You, Paris In June, Local, Sysco Trucks, Whole Wide World. I know I ended with Whole Wide World - I didn’t mean to be tacky but it was a forty minute slot and it just fell out that way, and I wanted it to follow Sysco Trucks as a sort of nod to the Canadian McDonalds TV ad that features Whole Wide World. 

I have a laugh about Rush playing in Toronto on the same night. The hotel lobby was full of successful looking middle-aged men - lawyers and businessmen - looking just slightly not quite comfortable in their various eras of Rush t-shirts - all together they present a fairly awe inspiring Rush Through The Ages tableau. I talked to one of them in the elevator - he told me he’d seen Rush ninety two times. Tonight would be show number ninety three. He was excited.

I’d prefer to be Bubblegum With Dementia than Mullet Rock.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

In Search Of The Whoop Woo Moment

Making albums isn't for the faint hearted. I set myself a deadline to finish - the end of February - that old pop scene immediacy is a thing of the past. It takes months to get a record out now. Planning, a degree of hype, the orchestrated campaign...
I haven't met deadline of course, but I'm pleased to have one: without it things tend to drag on, perspectives change, the sound changes - you lose focus, confidence, cohesion. If I was a guitar, bass and drums three piece it might be easier. If I could write twelve songs, demo them, bundle them all together and assemble a team of players who would learn them before we got together in a great studio under the care of a more than competent recording engineer... things would be a whole lot easier. But it might be boring, and anyway, it's not what I do. I want the adventure to happen in the studio, for the process to be the thing. I don't want to conceptualise. The way some people make records the actual playing of the tunes might as well be a formality.
Not always, but it's not my approach - it's not where I'm at. I quite often start recording before I've even finished writing the song. I like to be out of my depth, to not know what I'm doing, to be adrift, insecure, puzzled and perplexed. Though like isn't really the word for it. Sometimes I hate it in the same way that a mountaineer might get to hate the north face of the Matterhorn, but it's how it is.
My friend Brian Dewan says I approach recording the same way that other people approach gardening - I get out there and see what has to be done. Brian is a keyboard genius and co-inventor with his cousin of the Dewanatron, a strange series of custom built instruments for creating electronic music. Brian is crazy enough to get along with it and the two of us have had some great studio adventures together.
I'm getting quite a collection of finished tracks together - ten at the last count and another two or three on the way. I also have a load of tracks that didn't work for one reason or another, songs, sketches, electronic meanderings, loops, jams... I keep going back to them trying to find some purpose in them, some way I can incorporate them or build on them. I've always been like that - I've thrown away more songs than other people could ever dream of writing.
There's a mountain of lost songs too, stuff that never got finished, cassette, mini-disc and tape demos, blatherings in notebooks, backs of envelopes and A4 paper, the jottings of an idiot. Going through all this stuff is disheartening but occasionally something comes out of it.
I've learned to try not to discount an idea too quickly - stick with it, work on it, change it... The best lesson in this for me is The Stones recording Sympathy For The Devil in the Jean Luc Goddard film, One Plus One. When they run the basic idea it really isn't very good and I find myself waiting for the disembodied voice in the talkback: drop it - what else you got?
But they stick with it and end in triumph with the whoop woo thing. I've been waiting for that whoop woo moment ever since I first started recording back in the mid seventies.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Guardian Angel Comes To Call

I was exhausted. Frazzled after a breakneck drive to Berlin I had an afternoon radio interview to do and followed by a solo record store appearance. I played seven songs and signed a lot of autographs - I felt like Johnny Leyton on that TV show where he mimes to Johnny Remember Me.
Later on we were setting up the equipment in the Crystal Club when an apparition walked in, a beautiful older man with silver hair and an anorak. I was staring at him, thinking how I knew him from somewhere, then I realised it was Captain Sensible. He'd beamed down from another planet like some strange guardian angel to make sure I was all right.
Actually he was making a guest appearance with a band who were playing in the venue next door. He stuck around for our soundcheck, then lovingly carried my guitar down to the dressing room for me and made us all a cup of tea. It was like having a celebrity valet. He showed me to a grubby off-white vinyl sofa, bought me a cup of tea, sat down and asked me how I was. He admired my guitar, I gave it to him to play and he caressed its curves, complimented the patina and remarked that it was ageing beautifully. We talked about the importance, now that we're both grandfathers, of maintaining a certain amount of onstage dignity (which in his case means keeping his clothes on for the duration of the set).
Then he was gone, off next door to do his gig.
During the show I mentioned how he'd appeared and made us all a cup of tea, how Amy was disappointed because she's spilled her Special Captain Sensible Cup Of Tea, and what a lift it had given me to see him, in the middle of a tour, thousands of miles from home, in a strange land with the mid-tour blues...and so on. I didn't think we'd be seeing each other again because his show exactly coincided with our own.
We finished the set, encore and everything, and were just about to leave the stage when there was a commotion and the Captain was in amongst us, red beret and wraparound shades and all, making a speech about how great I was. I couldn't be doing with that.
'You'll have to give us a song now you're here - let's do Happy Talk!'
For a long time Happy Talk was the Captain's bete noire. A novelty hit that turned him from a borderline clown into a full time joke for a while. A shame because he's an intelligent man and a hugely talented musician. Not that I'd ever tell him that of course. He's recovered from all that now and always seems quite reconciled with the Happy Talk part of the story.
We completely butchered the song and it was magnificent. Someone said it sounded us though we were all playing different songs but it made perfect sense to me. It even had a modulation, or key change (from A to G), due in part (I like to think) to my quick insertion of a mindless progression of jazz chords. Barry had a handle on it, which I found slightly disturbing, and so did Amy - she played the organ like a cabaret hack on a cruise liner. When they start doing punk cruises we'll be first in line for a job.
It was a one-off, I don't think we'll be doing it again. It cheered me up no end though. Some of the audience looked puzzled -I suddenly realised that half of them didn't know who he was, and the other half thought he was a lookalike.
I should have taken photos but I was busy, and everyone else seems to be taking them, though the Germans aren't the shutterbugs that the American's are. Everywhere we play in America big men stand next to me while other big men take our photo, me looking slightly bemused, big man of the moment looking either pleased as punch or super cool. Sometimes they check the photo and get their big man mate to take another, but it's never because I don't look good - and I generally don't - it's all about them, they have to look just right.
Shutterbug... I like this word.
And the German version - Schutterbug.

01 ZURICH, El Lokal TICKETS
02 STRASBOURG, La Popartiserie facebook.com/pages/La-Popartiserie

05 LEON, SPAIN, Purple Weekend Festival – THE LEN BRIGHT COMBO
06 LEON, SPAIN, Purple Weekend Festival – WRECKLESS ERIC solo
10 HULL, New Adelphi TICKETS
11 GLASGOW, Broadcast TICKETS
13 LONDON, 100 Club TICKETS ON SALE NOW
14 BRIGHTON, Prince Albert

Monday, November 24, 2014

Getting Ready, Mixing With The Stars, Getting Ready To Go Again...

I'm sitting in the overcrowded boarding area in Terminal 5 at JFK airport. This is about the most relaxed I've felt since we got home from the Ian Hunter tour last Tuesday and I realised we'd have to get ready to leave home yet again.
I always feel hopelessly ill-prepared - I make mental lists and try to hold the information in my head until the pressure of trying to remember all this trivial shit becomes too much and I succumb to making an actual list:
glasses...set list...notify the bank...gutters...dodgy volume pot...socks...
Eventually I start crossing this stuff out, either because I've done it, like climbing up a ladder and clearing leaves out of the gutter; or because I can't remember what it was I meant, like socks; or because I'm running out of time, as in dodgy volume pot, which I'll deal with when we get to England if I can locate the UK soldering iron amongst the touring paraphernalia stashed in our friend's attic.
I have to remember where I've put my passport even though I know where I keep my passport, but it seems important to remember where I've put it, so I do, and store the information in my head, and then I convince myself that I might have forgotten, so I rush home with a palpitating heart and check that the passport is where I've put it, which of course it is...
It's a bit like an Edgar Allan Poe story but I can't think which one in particular at the moment.
I've decided which guitar I'm taking - the big green Microfret. I thought of taking the Mexican Telecaster which sounds great but doesn't have quite the character and fucked-up-ness of the Microfret, possibly because the strings are all the same distance apart.

A week goes by in a blur - rounding up equipment, rehearsing, renting a van, loading it with equipment, catching a ferry in the early morning. Cologne, Nijmegan, Utrecht...

And here we are, three shows in, having a day off in Utrecht. Amy and I decided to go off in search of the old town - canals, historic buildings, coffee houses and the ubiquitous coffee shops, which of course we avoided seeing as how we're already spaced out.
We met up with Barry Payne and the three of us spent an afternoon cluttering up cycle lanes, cafes, and at one point even a camping shop, which is a good thing because now we've got the camping bug out of our systems for another year.

It's hard to believe that just two weeks ago I had a show in Huntsville, Alabama, and then we were in Nashville with Ian Hunter. That was a great show to end the tour with. Afterwards, in a dressing room full of people, I met a very enthusiastic fan called Tom who told me how happy he was to see us play, and what a huge fan he was:
'Do you live in Nashville? I asked him, feeling a bit like Prince Charles on a royal visit.
He told me he did.
'And what do you do here?' I asked, inclining my head slightly and putting on an interested expression.
'I'm a bass player'
'That's good! So am I - I play bass sometimes with me and Amy. You got a band or anything?'
'Yes, I've been in the same band for years'
'Must be working out then - what are you called?'
'We're called Cheap Trick'
It took some effort to come back from that but I managed. I told him how I'd opened for Cheap Trick at the Hammersmith Odeon back in 1979, and how impressed we were by their roadies who all looked like Greek gods to us. He told me the band were all huge fans and were quite awed at having me open for them. I told him we'd assumed they were arrogant American rock stars because none of them talked to us, and he said that they'd all been too shy.
I remember that night very well - Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds turned up in just perfect time to miss my set, which was a shame because we'd actually been really good and gone down well. 
I had a halting and almost completely one-sided conversation with Roy Wood who seemed very tall and imperious, though that may have just been an illusion caused by my fan worship of the man.
The stars caroused with one another and I ended up in the corner of the backstage bar with my bass player. 
A seedy looking man, an American with a ratty moustache, beige slacks and an open-necked shirt, the collar of which spanned the width of an impossible tweed jacket turned to me:
'I love your band'
'Thank you' I said
'Caught you last night too, at the Chelsea College Of Art... amazing'
'Thank you,' I said again, and edged slightly down the bar.
'If there was anything I could ever do for you...'
What could this guy ever do for me, I thought. He looked as though he'd just come out of prison and been given some clothes.
I exchanged looks with the bass player and we edged a bit further.
'...play a little guitar myself' I hear him say '...used to have a band myself out of Detroit, name of the MC5'
We turned and looked. He held out his hand -
'My name's Wayne, Wayne Kramer'

And here I am, thirty six years later, killing time in a hotel on the outskirts of Utrecht, getting ready to drive to Hamburg in the morning.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On Tour With Ian Hunter #5 (the trouser incident)

We stayed in Decatur GA with our friends Shawn Vinson (my art agent) and his wife, the painter Ruth Franklin. Shawn took me and my ailing amplifier to a place called Acorn Amplifiers, run by a couple of young guys - they were probably in their mid-thirties, but they're all young to me. They were into Traynor amps but understood the convenience of using a Vox AC15 and confirmed what I've been thinking, that a well set up Fender Deluxe would be much better.
The Vox starts to crush up to early and sometimes it just isn't quite loud enough. Before I know it my big fat guitar sound has turned into a wasp in a bottle and I can hardly hear it. They got it sorted out but it hasn't been ideal for these shows, next time I'll probably use my forty watt Traynor head with a cabinet.

I imagine I've just lost half my readers - no one wants to hear about amplifiers! You want to hear about clothes, and swanky hotels, and hanging out with the stars.
I could document this tour with conversations I've had with Ian, sitting on dressing room sofas. After our soundcheck at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta I went down into the dressing room and there was Ian, alone, sitting on the ubiquitous sofa.
'Hello Eric, you're looking good today'
'Really? Must be a trick of the light'
'Well, whatever it is it's working for you'
'In that case I'll stand here forever'
'No, don't do that, come and sit down'
We talked for a while about soundchecks - Ian says he has to do them. I said I just want to know that the acoustic guitar's at the right level in the monitor and check my amp's working alright. Apart from that it's really just a question of checking for holes in the stage. We agreed that it's a placebo thing really. He says he's got to do it, if only to check the vibe of the place and decide what shirt to wear. Of course, by the time he gets on the stage the band have soundchecked the whole thing into submission and it's just a question of fine tuning things.
I asked him the other day for advice on taking a band round Europe - it's been a long time and I'm a bit nervous. He said all you need are a few regal gestures and don't go near the stage until the band have finished soundchecking. I can't see that working somehow but it's a nice thought. If any of them read this they'll take the piss out of me for it.
We discussed the importance of playing something with the front of house turned off - you can always here it bouncing off the empty dance floor when the room's empty, and it sounds big and exciting, but as soon as the floor gets covered up by an audience it's like playing into a mattress, and if you're not prepared you'll suddenly find you need three times as much of just about everything in the monitors as you did at the soundcheck.
Then I came up with a great invention - the soundcheck mattress. It's a huge mattress that you wheel in and put in front of you to simulate audience bulk during the soundcheck. Ian was very impressed -
'The roadies could pump it up and deflate it when you've finished!'
'Fuck off' I said, 'I'm not having an inflatable one - I want the full Dunlopillo posture sprung memory foam job, with the reclining feature, just in case anyone wants to read during the soundcheck.'
Ian produced a pair of black jeans: 'We found these lying around, are they yours?'
'I dunno, what size are they?'
'Thirty waist, thirty two leg'
'They might be, that's my size'
'Well, you better take them then, nobody else else wants them, and they're your size'
'Thanks Ian! I didn't even know I'd lost them'

I was glad that my trousers hadn't gone missing because I was planning to wear my hand painted country 'n' western outfit, and that involves the black jeans (which I haven't got round to painting yet).
Dennis, the keyboard player, was impressed that I knew how to iron a shirt. Ian was worried that my shirt might be better than his. I offered to lend it to him when we'd finish but the offer was declined.
I went to get changed.
I found I had two pairs of black jeans.
Ian liked my outfit, particularly the bollo tie which looks like something stolen from a southern European cemetary. Jim Mastro looked worried, he couldn't find his black jeans. It's a funny thing - the whole band seemed to say at once 'Eric's got a spare pair...'
'They're mine! Give them back!'
'I don't know where I've put them' I said, 'you'll just have to go on in your underpants.'
I think I might have been set up. I found out later that on a previous tour they'd been stealing each other's clothes and sending ransom notes.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

On Tour With Ian Hunter #4

Charlotte was an odd night. A big old barn of a place with a raked floor - probably an old movie theatre - and sadly covered with rows of chairs with a fifteen or twenty foot gap between the first row of chairs and the front of the stage. Not enough room for people to stand in without getting a hard time from the people sitting behind them, especially fo us, the opening act.
I like to play for people so it helps when they're close up, not sitting in rows a large room's width away. The stage sound was weird, my amplifier was playing up and we couldn't somehow settle into it. Afterwards I was privately beating myself up - I felt quite down because I didn't think I'd played well, contrary to what people in the audience were telling me. I don't know if this is because it's sometimes not as bad as I think it is, or because I've got high standards and I'm actually quite good, or because I've got no means of rational evaluation.
I had an interesting talk with Ian the other night. He was raving about the Motorco show in Durham, what a great audience they were, what a great venue it was, and how he definitely wants to go back there. He's just like me, it takes him time to get some kind of perspective. I asked him after the show if he'd enjoyed it the answer was an emphatic no, which surprised me. I reminded him of that and he said 'Oh yeah, of course, the first thought is always a negative one.'
I quite often feel vulnerable after a show, tired, drained and insecure. We always have to head out to the merch stall which can be hard but I like it because the enthusiasm of the people really lifts me back up. I like hearing their stories but I'm baffled as to why they all want to have their photo taken with me. The other night I told a friend that was hanging out that my real job is a male photographic model, I just do the music as a hobby.

After a night in a disgusting La Quinta hotel that reeked of stale cigarette smoke, even though it proudly proclaimed itself a non-smoking facility, we discovered a food hall in downtown Charlotte with a really good coffee place. Amy found it on Chow Hound - she worried about the name which was Not Just Coffee but I rationalised it as not just run of the mill coffee, and not meaning a glut of sticky buns, frozen sandwiches and chemical coffee flavourings, and I was right.
The names of coffee places can be deceptive - we found one in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, called Cofftea and I didn't want to get out of the car, but it turned out to be one of the good ones. I draw the line at Java-Me-Like - it's not possible that someone who calls their place Java-Me-Like is going to know anything about making a decent espresso. The same goes for Once Upon A Coffee Cup, though I haven't yet found anywhere called either of these names.
Right now I'm wondering what Huntsville, Alabama, is going to offer. The place is full of astronauts, rocket scientists and hip kids so it'll probably be good. More later...

Oh dear... the good place was closed because it's Sunday, and this is the south where drinking coffee on the Lord's day is considered by some to be ungodly, so we're in the place with the bottles of coffee flavourings, the sticky buns and the big sandwich menu. And strychnine espresso. Still, after last night I can forgive Huntsville anything.
I played in a micro brewery, in the brewing room, surrounded by stainless steel vats. Great sound and an audience that ranged from old guys in Stiff Records t shirts to the young and beautiful who were an absolute delight. I played two sets - The Downside Of Being A Fuck-up, Birthday Blues, It's A Sick Sick World, Joe Meek, You Sweet Big Thing, Reconnez Cherie, The Sun Is Pouring Down and Several Shades Of Green.
I started the second set with Semi-Porno Statuette, Duvet Fever, Paris In June and If It Makes You Happy, then Amy joined me and we butchered You Can't be A Man Without A Beer In Your Hand on two guitars that were having a tuning disagreement. It was cold in there - something to do with the brewing process I suppose. Having got vaguely in tune we carried on with Don't Break The Heart, Rebel Girl Rebel Girl, Are We Ever Going To Have Sex Again (Amy forgot the last verse and the whole thing broke down so she took another run at it and still couldn't it so I paraphrased it which didn't really help - she's washing up and he comes in and tries to do her from behind while she's watching CNN... It ended in chaos to great applause and we acquited ourselves with a passable Kilburn Lane. I finished the set alone with Someone Must've Nailed Us Together, 33s & 45s, Whole Wide World and True Happiness.
I can't wait to come back again, but hopefully on a day when the good coffee place is open.

I jumped ahead there and missed out Atlanta but perhaps I'll get to that after tonight's Nashville fiasco.