Wednesday, 5 August 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 barely perceptible increments. There was 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 torrential 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.