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’
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.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

amplifiers, guitars, amERICa, stuff like that...

I imagine it’s all in a days work for a lot of artists, but the reception my amERICa album got took me by surprise. Putting out an album with a real record company, in this case Fire Records seems to involve more work than when you do it yourself. There are dates and deadlines and stuff the has to be done and if the dates and deadlines and imperatives are not all met the whole thing will unravel and everyone will end up hating you (me that is), and they’re all working so hard and I mustn’t let them down and so I carry on trying to get through all the stuff - recording and mixing and mastering and booking dates and writing stuff for an artist biography and so on when all I really feel like doing is to crawl under the table, cover my head, assume a feotal position and rock myself into thankfully mind-numbing stupor…

I finished the recording bang on schedule and waited until way beyond the scheduled deadline for decisions to be made about the track listing and the mastering of the album, and for the artwork to finally materialise. I flew to England to visit my family in such a state of desperation and paranoia about the deadlines that I took half the artwork with me in a suitcase - torn pizza boxes, some with the remains of various toppings painted into my arse-about-face versions of the Stars & Stripes. I thought I’d finish them off on my travels but I didn’t of course. They rode around England on the back seat of a hire car, flew back home with me to Catskill where I posted them to John Foster who finally put the fantastic cover together.

I’d stopped touring for a while so that I could record. I was a bit off touring anyway because I hadn’t had a good time on the last European tour. We had a drummer who was…to put it kindly - unsuitable. Things like that throw me out of alignment. I’d come home feeling depressed. I had a bit of money stashed away that I could live on for a few months so as soon as Christmas was over I immersed myself in recording. I’d get up, drive across the Rip Van Winkle bridge, marvel at the frozen Hudson river, enjoy a couple of espressos, drive back across the bridge (this time marvelling at the snow covered Catskill mountains), and all the time I’d be thinking about the new album that was unfolding in my chaotic recording studio.

Some days I’d take time off from recording and work on the house. I’m supposed to be fixing the place up which is a thing that hangs most of the time in suspension midway between joy and despair. I rewired the kitchen and built in some new cupboards. I could have been an electrician or a carpenter.

By May I was getting ready to tour again. It’s strange now to think now that less than a year ago I strolled onto a stage in Toronto with no idea what I was going to play, having passed the afternoon in a private crisis of confidence. I fell right back into it. I drove south, played in assorted venues, a couple of micro breweries, one or two record shops and the odd juke joint. I was figuring out how to do the next thing - play the album live. 

By the end of October I was feeling confident. I even had an acoustic guitar sound that worked. I started out with a Framus - I love Framus acoustic guitars. I had the electrics salvaged from an electro-acoustic - under the bridge piezo thing and a pre-amp with a microphone sticking out of it that you could mix in. It was unreliable so I tried an LR Baggs soundhole pick-up instead. i went through two of those, the standard one and the deluxe model with 360 degree extra-sensory perception or some such bollocks. Neither of them sounded good so I went with a DeArmond soundhole pick-up, the genuine 1970s item. The sound took me straight back to my youth, David Bowie playing solo with his Framus 12 string, Family in 1969 at the Brighton Dome on the day their third album came out. I rounded out the sound with a six band MXR graphic equaliser and went on tour with that until September.

I was hanging out in Atlanta for a couple of days with my friend and art agent, Shawn Vinson. We did the round of record shops and music stores and I stumbled across an Alvarez acoustic guitar. It vibrated in my hands, sung out warm and full, and felt just right. I called Amy, told her about it: 
‘You don’t want an Alvarez’ she said, ‘I had one back in the eighties. It was a piece of shit.’
I thought perhaps she was right so I forgot about it for a few days. I was looking for an acoustic guitar to keep at home. I’ve got several but they’re all somewhat esoteric and beaten up. I wanted one that would make me feel legitimate as a singer songwriter on the odd occasion, an instrument that wouldn’t lead me into the same old avoidances and detours that guitars with weird vibrations and dodgy frets always do. I went back and looked at it again. The third time I went back I bought it.
Amy was skeptical. She’s got a Gibson J45 which is a bit like having a Mac in a roomful of PC owners, you know the kind of thing. One day she admitted to having tried it and conceded that it does sound really good.
I didn’t want to start cutting holes in it and fooling about with the under-the-bridge pick-up shit. It had come without the manufacturers choice of electronics which I think is infinitely preferable in a new acoustic guitar. I tried the LR Baggs option but it sounded squawky and didn’t bring out any of the inherent tone. The DeArmond had already found its spiritual home on the Framus so I looked around and found a Seymour Duncan soundhole pick-up. I put that together with a secondhand LR Baggs Gigpro acoustic guitar pre-amp. They’re meant to clip on to the guitar strap which is an idiotic idea. I took the clip off, hardwired the unit to a power supply and velcro-ed it onto the top of the DI box on my pedal board. And that’s the acoustic rig I’ve been using ever since. It goes direct from the pre-amp into the PA and splits off through the pedal board and into a Fender Deluxe Reverb.

This is turning into a real gear nerd piece. The rest of you can skip ahead to some of the other stuff further ahead, but I’m going to stick around here for a bit and talk about amplifiers.

For sometime I’d been using Vox AC15s for solo gigs. Amy and I have one that we keep in England - she uses it when we play together and I was using it  for solo gigs. I’ve got another one here in the US. It gets a lot of use in the studio. I used it for solo shows for about a year but it never really gets loud enough or full sounding without breaking up. Last year I started looking around. I was going to buy a Deluxe Reverb but I found a Guild Superstar - a forty watt combo with one fifteen inch speaker. A relic of the early seventies. It weighs the same as a Vox AC15 but it’s taller and unwieldly. I put wheels on the bottom and fitted it with inset carrying handles. The reverb and tremolo are fabulous - the tremolo was modified by the previous owner, with a switch that puts it down to half speed. The reverb tank has a label on the side:


It’s a great sounding amp in all respects but it’s big and bulky, and it takes up real estate in the trunk of the car so I'm looking for a Deluxe Reverb to use over here.

For the UK and European tour dates last year I bought a secondhand Deluxe Reverb 65 reissue that had been race-tuned by someone who knew what they were doing. My double fuzzbox thing tends to fuck the input tubes but it’s never let me down and it’s never not been big enough. And neither did too many soundmen ask me to turn it down. Not that I ever would.

I’d just finished setting up at the Junction and I was playing my guitar, going through the pedals and into the amp. The soundman blanched:
‘You’ll have to turn down considerably!’
I’ve learned not to rise to this kind of thing. I looked surprised, smiled at him:
‘It’s perhaps a bit early for those kind of judgements’ I said, ‘you don’t know what I’m going to do yet.’
He looked embarrassed and beat a retreat.
I had it firmly in mind from the beginning of the tour that getting wound up and upset about things was a pointless waste of energy that I’d need to get through such a lot of touring so I avoided sugar as much as I could, ate healthy food, drank gallons of water and tried to seek out good coffee places.

I wrote this next bit on my way to the first of the European dates which was in Munich:

I’m on the ferry, Dover to Calais. I must be keen because I arrived early and got put on an earlier boat. I feel like death warmed up and the onboard Starbucks express-o is doing nothing to change that. The last good espresso I had was in an initially unpromising place in Nottingham called (promisingly enough) Wired. Since then I’ve been down in Margate constructing a stage set for my London shows. The construction is too big for the stage because I omitted to get the stage dimensions ahead of time. I like Margate in spite of its desperate lack of decent espresso possibilities. You can’t go round judging places on their coffee. That is, you can, but it’s limiting so I take the broad view and suffer the strichnine-like bitterness as uncomplainingly as I can.

The Nottingham show turned out well. I was there for two nights - the night before the show I did an instore appearance at Rough Trade Records. An easy start to the tour: play for half an hour, sign a few records, plug the show and hit the hotel. I hadn’t bargained for Guy Fawkes Night and a GPS with a personality disorder.

I rented a car, a Peugeot 308. Satelite navigation was extra so I bought my own with me, a TomTom thing that clips into a support suckered onto the windscreen. A stupid fucking idea - who invented the sucker cup system? Probably the same mentally negligible divot who invented the CD jewel case. It doesn’t work - once you’ve got it suckered onto the screen it’s generally positioned itself so it obscures the view, and then you can’t get it off to reposition it. The only benefit is the excersise - abdominal crunches everytime you try to programme it. Unless you’re blessed with Amazonian arms you can hardly reach the damned thing, and clipping and unclipping the thing is dangerous - I’ve very nearly dislocated a rib trying to do that.

So I got without the sucker thing, chucked it in a bin at some motorway services. What you need is Velcro, but that takes advance planning and there’s never time for that. I tell myself that it’s only going to be inconvenient for one journey, balancing the Sat Nav on the cup holder and so on, but one journey turns into six journies and then half a tour and you get used to the inconvenience, and the undercurrent of irritability that seems to accompany every journey. 

But it’s better than peering around the permanently suckered lump on the windscreen. I’m sure that everyone who’s used one of these things knows that the only time the thing will come off the screen is when you’re late for something, in rush hour traffic and presented with three different road choices - take the wrong one and you’re going all the way around the one way system again. And that’s when the sucker cup finally gives out and the stupid thing tumbles off the screen and falls into a dark recess of the passenger footwell.

Here in Dresden it's time for the one man group hug
With touring it’s best if you can laugh your way through it. Though it was a bit difficult to laugh my way through a wet Tuesday night in Dresden, especially after the communal dining experience - vegetarian pasta dish, hearty Germans all friends together, the support act, the promoter, the sound engineer, artist friends of the venue…all talking together in German and politely ignoring me because for some reason people usually assume I’d like to be alone. When the show got underway I holed up in an unheated back room until it was time to go on. The people were actually very nice, it's just hard to be a lone foreigner sometimes.
A few nights before I’d stayed in Dresden on a night off between Vienna and Berlin. The night before in Vienna was the night of the terrible massacre in Paris. It must have been going on while I was playing, or afterwards when I was talking and laughing with friends. I didn’t find out about it until late in the night - someone posted a comment on my Facebook page: thank God you’re not in Paris.
I was glad not to be playing the following night.
The morning after my night off I found a friendly cafe that served an excellent espresso. I wrote this Facebook post:
I'm in Dresden in a hipster coffee place. The espresso is very good. When I ordered I asked (n German if they spoke English and the answer came 'of course!'
I didn't think there was any ‘of course’ about it - I remember when speaking English in Dresden would get you the worst room in the hotel, your dinner spat in, or a blank refusal of service. 
During World War II the RAF bombed the hell out of Dresden, apparently as a reprisal for Coventry, even though Dresden could hardly have been classified as a military target. 
The generation who experienced this first hand are dying out. Hopefully the rest of us are moving on as we eventually have to. 
I can't imagine how some wounds can ever heal, how forgiveness and reason can ever be arrived at, but something about being in Dresden this Sunday morning is giving me some kind of hope.

The day after the show in Dresden I headed back to the same cafe. I bought a hand cranked musical box mechanism in an art supplies and handicrafts store next door. I went in to buy a notebook and bought the musical box thing on an impulse. I thought it might come in handy one day.
By the time I’d driven through torrential rain to Hamburg and arrived at the venue I’d decided to screw the mechanism onto my Telecaster. I asked the promoter if he had a screwdriver and some small screws. When I showed him what I wanted to do he was thrilled to bits, said it was imperative that we get this done in time for tonght’s show, so that’s what we did. I screwed the thing in behind the bridge and I’ve been using it ever since. It vibrates through the body and the pick-ups amplify it. It sounds very creepy, especially through a delay pedal.
Some reviewer in London didn’t like what he referred to as the electronic twiddly bits which apparently added nothing of value to my set. I remember when The Len Bright Combo was going, back in the mid-eighties - people said our one chord jams and long freeform freak outs were gratuitous. These people were usually quite smug in their own puritancial misery. They made me wonder how a creative act could be anything other than gratuitous and why gratuitous carries such a negative connotation. By virtue of that fact that more people abhorred what we were doing than actually liked us The Len Bright Combo was an almost entirely gratuitous project.
And so it goes on. It’s not as if I’m playing to thousands of people who queued up in the rain, spent the night huddled in nylon sleeping bags on some grimy city street for the privilage of buying an overpriced ticket for a stadium show that won’t be happening until sometime next year. It’s a small scene I’m in and I figure I can do pretty much exactly what I want. And that’s what I’ve been doing, electronic twiddly bits and all.

I’ve got more to say but there’s already too much to read. When I came to the Fire Records office and saw the vinyl copies of amERICa for the first time I was almost moved to tears. It’s the best album cover I’ve ever had. And it seems it might be the best album I’ve ever made.I was doing exactly what the fuck I wanted, no eye on the prize, no people-pleasing. It was a thoroughly gratuitous exercise. I’m glad it worked out.

I’m driving up to Albany now to pick up my ’73 Deluxe Reverb which may or may not be a lost cause. I’ll probably write a post about that, and my modified Telecaster. Another post for gear nerds.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Autumn Stoned

I’m coming round to the idea of Autumn. I was conditioned to not like it at an early age because Autumn meant back to school and I didn’t like school. New boys standing in a bemused and confused huddle, stared at by older boys who slouched against the railings deciding which one to beat up first. The smell of the brewery in the air which I thought was the smell of autumn leaves. Even now, thousand of miles away, when autumn turns the crowds of trees around here into something akin to a badly knitted fairisle sweater I think of the old Kemptown Brewery in Brighton.

Then autumn meant leaving home, going to art college, and that meant lots of sex and swinging times, and smoking marijuana with interesting people. Except that the reality involved a diet of tinned food and learning to use the laundrette, and being too shy with girls and drinking too much instead, and staggering home alone to a damp flat where the other inmates lay around on rotting couches, too stoned to apply Hartleys Strawberry Jam to another slice of Mother’s Pride white bread, and falling asleep fully clothed on a dodgy bed supported on paint cans from the time when we thought the disgusting hovel we lived in was going to be some sort of groovy seventies pad. 

The first months of college were a disappointment. The winter that followed was a living hell. When the spring came things got better. I put my trust in spring and summer.

I made my first record in autumn, waited for some sort of big bang, but nothing happened. I got through the winter on a succession of menial jobs - table clearing in a cafeteria, moving large items around in the basements of several department stores, clearing out the old Tannoy factory in West Norwood, cleaning toilets at Tarmac Roadstone in Greenwich (a low point) - subsisting with my girlfriend in the tiniest room of the huge Edwardian ground floor flat we managed to stumble across back at the end of the summer when we could hardly believe our luck. Now it was the only room we could afford to heat.

Spring came around and my track came out on a compilation album and everybody loved it and John Peel played it on his radio show. I left my job as a table clearer in the cafeteria at Swan & Edgars department store in Piccadily and became a freelance home hadyman with postcards in every shop window in Wandsworth - clipping hedges, mending garden gates, repainting woodwork… life was quietly idyllic.

I became friends with Ian Dury. His band Kilburn & The High Roads had come to an end and he was making demos, planning a solo career, wondering what was going to happend next. We formed a band to play my songs - Ian on a fire damaged Olympic drum kit, his girlfriend Denise Roudette on the bass. A True Romance rhythm section but only when they weren’t fighting. We played in the afternoons at my place and when we’d got good enough we recorded a B side for my track, the one everyone liked from the compilation LP. It came out as a forty five at the end of the summer and by the autumn it was a hit.

We went on tour and by Christmas we’d all fallen out with much fear and loathing. My burgeoning drink problem (which should have been noticeable to anyone who met me since the age of fifteen) was out of hand.

From then on autumn was all about new albums and touring - high hopes for a bright and glossy future. By winter I usually felt that I’d disappointed everyone, that I’d fallen short of the mark. Sometimes I just plain fucked it up and everyone, me included, felt let down. Bitterness and ill-feeling would follow and the winter was often fraught with misery.

In 1985 I stopped drinking and left the pressure of music industry record deals behind. I’d learned not to expect too much. Autumn was a time of rollneck sweaters, scarves, and interesting hat and jacket choices. We’d formed The Len Bright Combo. For once the winter wasn’t a disappointment.

I still preferred the spring, and summer was always best, especially in my period of being a bit of a slacker in France in the late eighties and early nineties. Winters were somewhat taxing due to a lack of heating, insulation or running hot water in my converted dancehall holiday shack, but I got by - installed a couple of woodburners, one I found in the street and another, a thirties one that would be worth a fortune now and which I bought for next to nothing at a scrapyard. I took up residence at the beginning of a hot summer in 1991. Never thought about heating or winter or any of that. I was happily scraping by in a bohemian paradise. 

The summer rolled by and the nights drew in and got chilly, I became aware of the aroma of wood smoke. Exciting fashion possibilities offered themselves, necessitated by the need to wear more clothes. One morning in mid-October I sat huddled in a woolly dressing gown (bought in a charity shop in Bakewell, Yorkshire) at a formica topped kitchen table liberated from a derelict French farmhouse and it crossed my mind that I really ought to address my situation. I went on tour in Germany instead and didn’t come home until the day before New Year’s Eve.

And so it goes on, autumn after autumn. Here in upstate New York the leaves are changing colour. It's quite the tourist destination - people come here from miles around to marvel at tree covered hillsides that look like chaotic, russet-toned fairisle sweaters. We're going to Walmart to buy a leaf blower. I’ve got a huge list of tour dates. By December I’ll be scraping ice off windshields, fighting off a cold, feeling vaguely tearful in some British motorway services…but for now I’m feeling quietly optimistic. I’m signed to a proper record label, Fire Records, and for the first time since the very early days of Stiff I actually like the people I’m dealing with. I’ve got a new album coming out on November 13th. I’m going to try not to fuck this up. I don’t think I will.

pre-order the new album "amERICa" from Fire Records

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

At The Dentist

‘Musician… says here you’re a musician. What style? Rock? Country? Open wide, wider… that’s it’
‘Music isn’t at all like it was back when we were young, not as good… some of these are very loose, a lot of motion. Yep, you’re going to lose most of these my friend.’
‘The Beatles - do you like The Beatles?’
‘Turn towards me…open…wide…wider, that’s it. My son doesn’t like The Beatles. He likes music that’s unlistenable. He's got tickets to see some guy yelling his head off at Madison Square Garden, no music, just this guy yelling his head off, and drums. Rap - you know what that is? Crap, that’s what that is. That’s not music. Oh yeah, these are completely shot, they’re all gonna have to come out.’
‘No guitars. There are some great guitar players in rock. Eric Clapton - he’s a great guitarist, no one like him. Unique.’
‘I love music...real music. My son, he tries to explain music to me but I don’t know. I don’t understand it, I can’t tell the difference between melody and rhythm, but I know what I like.’
‘The Police - I bet you like The Police! She doesn’t know who we’re talking about here, too young. ‘
‘Sure I know them, they sing a song I like.’
‘Which one?’
‘I can’t remember, but I know I like it. It’s one that The Police sing.’
‘Turn to face her…that’s right. Keep it open… wider…more suction. I went on a six hour road trip with my son and to pass the time we had a Diana Ross / Beyonce face off, listened to everything that Miss Ross has ever recorded. I think my son is finally beginning to understand why Beyonce isn’t fit to shine the shoes of Diana Ross.’
‘Hmm…that’s the best I can do for the moment. You can rinse and spit over there in the sink if you want.’

tour dates:

14 FLORENCE ALABAMA 116 East Mobile
16 BIRMINGHAM ALABAMA Southside Lounge
17 HUNTSVILLE ALABAMA Vertical Records
18 TENNESSEE private function
03 CALGARY, The Palomino Smokehouse TICKETS
17 JERSEY CITY Monty Hall / live WFMU broadcast TICKETS
06 NOTTINGHAM The Poppy & Pint TICKETS15 BERLIN Monarch
17 HAMBURG Hasenchaukel
19 HAARLEM Patronaat
21 FREIBURG The Swamp
28 BURY (Lancs) The Met TICKETS29 CHORLETON The Dulcimer
30 CAMBRIDGE The Junction
01 COLCHESTER Arts Centre info/tickets
03 LONDON St John’s Church, Hackney TICKETS
04 SOUTHAMPTON Cafe Reflections
05 PENZANCE The Ritz Bingo Hall TICKETS
06 WORCESTER Marr’s Bar
11 EDINBURGH Citrus Club
17 LEICESTER The Musician