Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Trip to Florida and Down a Rabbit Hole

Everything comes in fits and starts. I'd love to be one of those people who writes regularly. I used to be but I'm not anymore. So when I do start writing there's always a backlog, a need to explain myself and all the things that have and haven't been happening and how they got in the way, impeded my progress and led to the backlog that so badly needs explaining.
I don't write on a regular basis because I haven't got the time, and that's why I don't do most things, there just isn't time to do them.

The recording process (photo by Jenny Tubbs-Barbato)
Today I was recording which is nothing new - I've been recording everyday since Christmas apart from the days when I was playing in Boston with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (three nights at the House Of Blues between Christmas and New Year), playing the bass for Amy or doing my own tour down to Florida and back. 

Playing the bass with Amy (photo by John Stribley)
And here's the backlog/log jam I was talking about. I was talking about having too much to do but I think I wanted to talk about recording but I got derailed by all the other things I was doing.
Let's start with the touring. That's if anyone's still interested.
I met a promoter from Miami last year after a fairly horrific forty-five minute set at the Tropical Heatwave festival in Tampa, Florida. He asked me if I'd like to do a tour in Florida. I almost said no. I'd just played a set in front of a braying pack of frat boys pouring beer over each other and comparing penis sizes so I wasn't that keen, but it occurred to me that Florida is warm during the winter so I said yes, as long as I could do it it in February.
By some miracle it came about though it was moved to the first week in March to coincide with an offer to play at the Savannah Stopover Festival.
Sometime in late December or early February I realised I was committed to a tour that started in Miami on March 2nd. Miami is one thousand three hundred and ninety miles from my house and I had to drive because I hate flying with guitars and merchandise and playing with borrowed amplifiers, and I know from bitter experience that by the time you've finished with car hire and extra baggage the tour's going to cost more than it pays.
So I panicked and found a couple of shows to play on the way down - Ashland Tea & Coffee in Ashland, Virginia, and The Pilot Light in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Somewhere dull near Winston Salem, North Carolina
I had two days to drive from Knoxville to Miami but there were storms and the bulbs went out in both my headlights so instead of driving half the night and stopping halfway in a cheap hotel in Gainesville or somewhere I stayed with friends in Atlanta and set off very early in the morning.
It took fourteen hours to get to Miami. I stopped along the way, desperate for coffee and some of that famous Florida orange juice, but the coffee on the long road that passes through Florida was just hot black liquid and the orange juice was Sunny D, so I did without either.
I arrived in time for the soundcheck just as the good coffee place on the corner was turning out its lights.


I'm not going to give an account of each of the shows, that would be tedious and anyway I can't remember the details now. They went very well. There were a lot of people (apart from in Miami which was somewhat under attended) and the audiences appeared to be fifty percent female.

Somewhere near Durham in North Carolina I started to type notes into my laptop whenever I got the chance. And that's what the rest of this post is going to be:

Starbucks off I-80 near Durham, North Carolina. Plastic surgery clinic next door, PF Chang concrete horse opposite. I’m sitting at a table by the window. On the other side of the glass, outside, a man and woman are having a meeting. She’s silently talking too much, selling herself. Big white teeth, aviator shades, earnest facial expressions. Building air sculptures with expansive hand gestures. I can’t see the man, he’s hidden behind a sign depicting a delicious Starbuck’s Coconut Milk Mocha Machiato: Starbuck’s Machiato, delicious new ways to love it
The music stopped and now it’s started again. It could be the same song that was playing before. White, soulful and easy on the ear. Words fail the singer, or the songwriter, and the lyric lapses into mmm mmmmm aha… denoting a very high level soul. Now it’s a lady singer, very soulful: whoa yeah, ahmmm stro-o-ong, whoa oh whoaaa whoah yeah….
Two men in polo shirts. Polo shirts tucked into plastic belted Chinos. They meet outside, shake hands. One of them comes inside to order the coffees. The other sits at a table outside. He looks as though he’s suffering from trapped wind. A mid-morning procession, ponytails, beards, phones on belt clips, big wallets in back pockets, spectacles that say I’m interesting, please notice me. 

The hotel room. This is the loneliest part. I usually check in around two o’clock in the morning. I drag myself and my minimal luggage to the elevator and along deserted, close-carpeted hallways. There’s never anyone around and that’s probably a good thing but I find it creepy and I try not to think about The Shining. 
They’re mostly the same - you walk in and the bathroom is on the right, except when it’s on the left. I usually ask for a room with one or two queen size beds but usually it’s one king size - a seven foot square slab of mattress. A raised dais, and altar to orgiastic sex, or more likely a place where two very overweight people, and possibly a dog, can snore and sweat the night away. It’s better not to think about it. 
In the more upmarket hotels the bed will often be covered with a decorative display of cushions and bolsters. There’s never enough space to put them so they end up piled on the armchair which is good because the armchair looks as though it might be inviting someone to sit in it and I worry that some recalcitrant and malignant spirit will do just that and watch me while I sleep. 
Once denuded of decorative pillows the bed looks even more expansive. The pillows are often ridiculously small, four of them lined up, looking like loaves of processed white bread and not taking up enough space, so that the bed has an unmade appearance. 
Sometimes there are only three pillows and I think it’s in case a threesome has been planned and the third wheel is going to stay the night. Or the extra pillow is to place under the lady’s bottom to effect deeper penetration. Sexual frustration and a lurid imagination play havoc in the middle of the night.
I don’t want to sleep, I don’t want to get into the bed. Sleeping alone on the edge of a king size bed is a heart-wrenchingly lonely experience. I delay the moment when I have to balance my head on one of the loaves of bread, switch off the light, and try to imagine I’m somewhere else while the light on the overhead smoke detector blinks on and off in a random pattern designed, no doubt, to not induce a fit in an epileptic insomniac.


View from hotel room window with gas station and Waffle House

I wake up too early. I’m vibrating slightly. 
Unable to go back to sleep, unwilling to stay where I am but unable to move. Think positive thoughts. Draw back the curtain and greet the view - the roof of the Carousel Ballroom, the Caribou Conference Center, the Cumberland Convention Center... some such nonsense. Ventilators and extraction ducts from the Sysco supplied kitchen. 
Double glazing and a high elevation make it hard to tell what the weather is like. You can see the world from here but you’re not connected to it. 
I get myself together and leave as quickly as possible. 

Onstage. Don’t think about it, don’t pre-plan too much. I’m capable of playing the exact same set for twenty nights in a row but it’s never the same. It goes how it wants to go, as long as I let it, as long as I don’t get in the way. 

Sometimes I think I’m trying to hard, pushing the pace, working at the top of the dynamic, compensating for a lack of something in me, or the audience, or in the sound. The amplifier gets pushed into overload too soon and I have to tell myself to back off, relax, turn down. 

Ideas come into my head and get in the way of reading the audience - these people don’t like me, they’re disappointed, they’re wishing I’d play different songs, they think I’m too old, too loud, too quiet, too harsh… I go down a rabbit hole into a world of self-loathing and paranoia. 
If these people dislike me so much why don’t they leave? 
But they don’t leave, they stare at me with expressionless faces, they’re taking it all in , it’s an internal thing. Their faces are blank. I can’t tell how they’re feeling until the applause comes.
I don’t want to be an applause whore.
A couple of people leave. I see them go. They probably have a bus to catch or a babysitter, but for an instant I’m immeasurerably hurt by their desertion. I take it personally. 
Sometimes I get deep into the music and forget the audience are there. I don’t look at the audience most of the time because it’s scary to see a crowd of people staring back at me. I  often can’t see them anyway because it’s too dark, and as I’m playing I become increasingly convinced that everyone has left and I’m playing to an empty room. Then I stop and the applause happens and it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world.
Most of the time I’m concentrating - riding the rhythms of words on the rhythms of the guitar, constantly slipping, adjusting, slipping back in and wondering if I’ve slipped a beat, wondering how it works, pushing the wonder out of my mind. 
Out of my mind and riding the crest of some rising feedback, taming the guitar at dangerous decibel levels through two fuzz boxes and a delay pedal, the tubes in the amplifier compressing the sound as notes and harmonics jostle for space in a sonic bottleneck, the speaker under duress, moving so much air that I can feel the draught from the cone.