Friday 7 December 2018

One Suitcase, Two Guitar Cases And One Small Carry-On Item, synthesizers, luggage harvesting, the Carlton Vibe Hotel...

I was hoping to write about everything that happened in New Zealand and Australia as it happened but that hasn’t really been possible because the schedule has been intermittently grueling. Last Thursday I played in Brisbane. I got back to the hotel around two in the morning, spent an hour packing my personal effects into one suitcase, two guitar cases and one small carry on item. Then I had three and a half hours sleep - possibly only three hours because I lay on the bed vibrating for quite a long time. I find it difficult to sleep in hotel rooms - I have to divorce myself from my surroundings. Sometimes the only thing that gets me to bed is the consolation that once I switch the light off I won’t be able to see where I am.

I had to leave for the airport at ten to seven to catch a flight to Melbourne. There’s been a lot of flying on this tour, that’s how it’s done here. The flight took two and a half hours. I was asleep before the plane took off. It’s getting to where I sleep better on airline seats than I do in hotel beds.

I met my new tour manager and sound engineer, a young man called Guy, at the baggage claim. Guy is a twenty something years old of Anglo Irish and Samoan descent, I found out these things by degrees. He speaks with an almost posh English accent. I liked him immediately. Another new friend. By the the time we left the baggage claim with my suitcase, two guitars and one small, personal carry on item, we’d invented the term Luggage Harvesting for the crime of stealing bags off the carousel. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen on a regular basis at domestic terminals all over the world - you just stroll into arrivals, go to Oversized Baggage, lift up someone’s guitar and stroll out with it. If everything goes wrong I think I might become a luggage harvester myself. A good part-time occupation for my retirement...

Guy was standing in for Bonnie, but more about Bonnie later. He’d been instructed by Bonnie to take me for a good espresso and something to eat before checking me into the Vibe Hotel and then driving us to Castlemaine for a show that night.

There’s a whole lot before and after that last part but this thing is either going to go in the direction it happens to go in, or not go at all, so to hell with the chronology....

I’m on a plane flying home from Los Angeles. I was in an Air B n B in Echo Park - I stayed there for five nights. It was downhome. It was a dump really. It had a porch with a swing chair but mostly it was too cold to sit out there so I put both switches down on the oil-filled radiator and sat at the piano instead. That was the best thing about this place I was staying in - it had a piano - a Korg digital piano with a full sized keyboard. I was able to turn it down so I wouldn’t disturb the owners who lived in the other half of the house, and who hopefully wouldn’t then be laughing at my rudimentary piano playing.

In between Ubering my way all over Los Angeles I wrote one and a half songs. It may have been one and a quarter songs or maybe one and five eighths of a song but there’s definitely one whole song in there. I recorded a lame demo on my phone and sent it to Amy and she said it was a good one and where did the piano come from?

I took an Uber to West Hollywood and strolled around. I spent a fun couple of hours in the Guitar Center trying out the synthesizers. Some of them didn’t appear to be working, either that or they were beyond my capabilities. I particularly enjoyed the Moog Sub Phatty though I wish they’d thought of a better name for it - Sub Phatty is quite unfortunate. If someone wants to donate one to me I’ll happily rename it the Moog Glorious which is what I think it should be called.

Contrary to what I imagine a lot of people might think I like synthesizers. I always have, not the hideous eighties ones like the Yamaha DX7, though I’m sure that given time I could divorce the sound of that from its hideous personal nineteen eighties associations and allow it to worm its way into my affections. The Sub Phatty / Glorious produced epic, beast like sounds. I wished I could have recorded some of the stuff I came up with on that thing.

Guy The Sound Guy and stand in for Bonnie The Tour Manager told me about a resource in Melbourne - a synthesizer library. They’ve got one of just about every synthesizer ever manufactured. You can go there and book time with a synthesizer of your choice. They’ll deliver it to your cubicle and you can work with it using your own software and laptop. It’s one more reason to love Melbourne. If it wasn’t so monumentally far away, and if I was living a somewhat different life, I’d move there in a heartbeat.

I was staying at the Carlton Vibe Hotel. There are several Vibe Hotels dotted around Melbourne. This one was modern, meaning it must have been quite up to the minute in about 1959 or 1962. I could just imagine Lady Penelope pitching up there in her pink Cadillac piloted by her loyal and trusted chauffeur, Parker. I can imagine her checking in at the reception desk over to one side of the breezy and spacious concrete and glass reception hall with its hints of orange and lime green. The swarthy yet suave receptionist and Lady P herself, their jaws moving up and down as they speak whatever words need speaking with their plastic faces.

And Parker collecting the luggage: ‘Yus m’lady!’

I could have spent whole afternoons watching guests banging their heads on the modern architectural entrance feature that swooped from dangerously low to just above average head height and spoke of...well, Vibe.

I kept coming back to the Vibe. It was my first destination in Australia when I flew in from Auckland. The tour promoter, David Laing, met me and took me straight there. It was his second time at the airport that day, earlier he’d picked up PP Arnold.

That first time I had a room overlooking the pool. It looked for all the world as if I could run from my room, dive gracefully over the railing and into the glittering blue water below. Except that I would have landed in a prickly hedge, most likely impaling myself on some railings that you couldn’t see from the floor to ceiling wall of glass separating my room from the outside walkway.

My room had a king size bed - larger than a king size - Emperor Size if that’s a thing. There was also a single bed that looked quite pathetic beside this monumental sex and sleeping dais. The Emperor turned out to be two singles zipped together on two separate bases that would probably have drifted apart had the bed seen any action, leaving the participants uncomfortably close to the floor in the ensuing bed base ravine.

I’d already decided that I was going to take the single bed because, as I’ve said somewhere before in these ramblings, there’s nothing more lonely than sleeping alone on the edge of a king size bed. You’re not going to sleep in the middle of it of course, even if it’s not two singles zippered together, because that’s where most of the action will have taken place and you really don’t want think about that. Especially when you’re facing another night alone.

The single bed was next to the floor to ceiling windows. There were nets and a big blackout curtain that shut out the impending daylight, but during the night and into the morning I could hear the occasional person next to me, a foot or two away, on the walkway the other side of the plate glass. And to other side of me that useless expanse of nocturnal playground...

I needed coffee. Carlton is very hip but the Carlton Vibe isn’t really in Carlton - it’s opposite a park somewhere between Carlton and some other bit of Melbourne. I scoped out the coffee options and found one within walking distance, a mile or so away. I decided to take a short cut across the park. It was Sunday so I weaved a jagged trajectory between games of cricket. I was very pleased with this even though it was a bit dangerous and big men kept shouting at me - I’d only been there a day and here I was having a very Australian experience.

Monday 3 December 2018

Three Days In New Zealand, a short interlude in a brothel, complaints about airlines and passengers...

I had three shows in New Zealand - Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. I’d only ever been there once - in 1980 I played two shows in a club in Auckland. It was packed both nights and on one of the nights some girls tore the sleeve off my shirt as a souvenir. I’ve got a photo of it somewhere - it  made the front page of the Auckland newspaper.  At one of the shows a guy told me he knew one of the girls and she still had a square of my shirt sleeve. I told him to tell her I need it back.

I didn’t really mind, the sleeve was already torn. It was a shame though because it was a good shirt - I had a great collection of cowboy or western shirts that I would buy for next to nothing in thrift stores all over America. It’s almost impossible to find now, and if ever I do they usually don’t fit which is just as well because the prices are outlandish. It was great being a rock n roll star back then, getting the sleeves torn off my shirts by lovely girls and not caring because there were so many more shirts out there. So many shirts, so little time...

The show at the San Fran in Wellington was not a shirt tearing sort of affair. It’s a great venue, everyone was very kind and helpful, and I loved the sound in there. I got the impression that the audience were approaching the show with as much trepidation as I was. Would they be disappointed if I didn’t come on in a glistening polyester wig, clutching an out of tune Rickenbacker and bulging out of an approximation of the ridiculous suit I wore on the cover of my first album?

I got off to a shaky start with A Darker Shade Of Brown from the last album Amy and I made together, A Working Museum. It was touch over ambitious considering it was my first show in three weeks and the jet lag and all. I don’t why it’s called jet lag, a better term might be Traveller’s Confusion. I’ve been in roughly the same time zone for almost three weeks now and I’m still feeling discombobulated.

The problem with A Darker Shade Of Brown is mostly in the chord changes - it goes to an unexpected C minor and has a whole load of semitones or half step changes. The vocal melody goes from low to really high and that doesn’t help either, not right at the start of the set and at the start of a tour before I’m warmed up.

I got away with it I think. The reaction was good. I followed that with Same which has been my favorite set opener for a long time. I’ve just read a review from the show I did in Hardy’s Bay up the coast from Sydney - it said Same makes no sense whatsoever and it wasn’t until I got onto familiar ground with Reconnez Cherie (a song that really makes no sense) that the reviewer got glimpses of the artist everyone had apparently come to see. That review could stand alongside a letter to a British newspaper that said I subjected the audience at the Holt Festival to forty minutes of quite frankly baffling songs.   But never mind - the review was written by a hoary Aussie punk with a neck tattoo, the letter by Disgruntled of Norwich.

The following day we had to fly to Christchurch. Wellington is known as Windy Wellington and today the weather was especially windy - windy, cold and wet. We got to the airport to find the flight had been cancelled. We were transferred onto the next flight which may or may not be leaving sometime in the afternoon, depending on the weather. 

We went back to the city and dumped the luggage at the hotel. Unfortunately it was too late to retrieve our rooms so we went to get lunch and coffee in a place where the girl behind the counter was wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt. I asked if she’d heard Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in mono but I don’t think she had because she evidently didn’t know what I was talking about. So John Baker and I had the healthiest breakfast we could find (or it may have been lunch) and went across the road to Slow Boat Records. 

And then we took another shuttle bus back to the airport where John engaged random people in random conversations and I tried not to stand too close or fall asleep standing up. We took our seats on a wafty looking plane with propellers and took to the skies sideways, buffetted by the winds of Windy Wellington.

In Christchurch we took a shuttle bus full of people who talked as though they knew each other even though I don’t think they did. The bus took us on a tour of suburban neighbourhoods dropping friendly New Zealanders at their front doors. It’s good to be home...
The driver stopped and waited outside the brand new Ibis Hotel while John checked us in. Christchurch is very new owing to the earthquakes - I noticed that all the houses had new roofs, shiny red or green corrugated metal roofs. The Ibis hotel was quite austere, post-post-modern, post-apocalypse or post-earthquake at the very least. The CBD - Central Business District - or city centre as we might call it was completely destroyed by the earthquakes. The new architecture is cold and austere in sharp contrast to the people who seemed so warm and hospitable.

When we finally got to the venue the opening act, Fresh OJs, otherwise Ollie and Bill From Best Bets Auckland, were already soundchecking which was just as well because we were running very late. They finished up and then moved everything so that I could set up and have a soundcheck myself. They insisted that they could set themselves back up around me and I wouldn’t have to move anything. I thought that was very kind of them. I was more tired than I could imagine it was possible to be and still stay alive but I snapped into action, got set up and did the soundcheck with a minimum of fuss. I always try for a kind of professionalism but without being boring or pompous. Stay cheerful, try not to lose patience and keep in mind that whatever has gone on during the day isn’t these people’s fault. 
I enjoyed their set - I listened as I had my dinner in a curtained off room at the back. They did it as a two piece, rudimentary drum kit and electric guitar. They finished with a rocking version of Jonathan Richman’s Government Center which I thought was quite audacious.

I was a lot more on form for this show. I can’t remember everything I played - a mixture of old and new, a version of Hit ‘n’ Miss Judy in D modal tuning I think - the top and bottom strings tuned down to D - most of Construction Time & Demolition, Sysco Trucks and Transitory Thing From ‘amERICa’. I even did an encore which I think was The Final Taxi and Several Shades Of Green though I usually try not to do encores.

Afterwards I met Alec Bathgate from the Tall Dwarves and his wife, a lovely Yorkshire woman who told me she was transplanted from Glam Rock Britain to New Zealand at the age of fourteen and expected to wear a gym slip for school. Her and Alec have been together since they were fifteen. I haven’t seen Alec since 1993. I was walking down Zulpicher Strasse in Cologne and saw the Tall Dwarves were playing in a basement club. I went downstairs and they recognised me. In 1993 I felt quite marginalized so it was something of a thrill that a band from New Zealand would know who I was. They autographed a CD for me (which I still have) and I arranged to meet them at their hotel the following morning to give them some of my stuff. I went round but they’d gone out so I left a couple of albums with a note. Alec told me they didn’t think I’d come so they went to the launderette instead and were quite amazed and disappointed to have miss me when they came back. I remember not wanting to bother them and hoping it wasn’t an imposition to be foisting my stuff onto them.

We got back to the Ibis Hotel about four and a half hours before we had to get up to catch the delayed flight to Auckland. John showed me around the area where he lives, we even went to his place and I met his landlady, a magnificent hippieish woman of a certain age. She has a beautiful bungalow overlooking the bay. John lives in an outbuilding somewhere in the the grounds. He wouldn’t show me his place which is maybe just as well because like that the mystique at the epicentre of Planet Baker remains perfectly preserved. It may just have been nightmarishly untidy but I’d like to think there was more to it than that.

Taylor Swift was playing in Auckland that night, a huge outdoor event. The plane had been full of young women off for a weekend in the big city to see the show and cut loose for a night or two. We shared our three seat row with a young mother who’d left the kids in her husband’s care. She was very excited. I don’t know much about Taylor Swift except that she spoke out against Trump and the Republican Administration causing a spike in votes for democrats in Tennessee - and for that she gets my vote. Someone told me she gets transported from hotel to tour bus and tour bus to backstage in a large hardshell suitcase to avoid fans and that makes me think I get off very lightly just signing a few records and doing my impersonation of a human dummy while everyone gets their photo taken with me. I don’t mind the endless photographs but I’ve learned to not move a muscle for fear of appearing all over Facebook with a landslide of double chins or looking like a stroke victim.

When I got to my hotel there had evidently been a mix up - they’d given me Taylor Swift’s room by mistake. The bathroom was full of a jacuzzi with folding louvred shutters to one side that opened onto the bedroom. With the shutters opened it was possible to gaze across the jacuzzi to the toilet beyond. My suite also benefited from a fully fitted kitchen and a cupboard containing a washer dryer neither of which I had time to use, and a large balcony from which I was able to enjoy a view of some buildings. It was all very swish, very well appointed.
I opened the shutters,filled the jacuzzi with hot water and got in it. Only one of the speeds worked and some of the air holes were blocked. It was basically a big bath, about the size of a small double bed. The novelty soon wore off so I got out and sat on the balcony in a big white toweling robe wondering how Taylor Swift was doing. It was pretty chilly out there on the balcony because I was on the shady side of the hotel so I went back inside, got dressed and lay on the bed until the front desk called to tell me Rosemary was waiting to meet me in reception. I got quite excited about that for a couple of seconds but it turned out to be John Baker having a laugh. The hotel is apparently a famed hang out for prostitutes. 

We loaded me into John’s car and set off for the venue which was attached to the side of a large sports arena that was hosting a minor league basketball game. The Tuning Fork was, I imagine, originally intended as a sports bar where well developed men with permed mullets looking slightly uncomfortable in unaccustomed suits might attend receptions after sports award events. It had been refurbished as a venue with lots of plush red fabrics and red lighting. It was like a cross between an upmarket brothel and a psychedelic airport lounge. Not that I’ve ever been in a brothel.

That is I think I may have been once... It was in a small town in Belgium sometime in the early nineties. The promoter seemed excessively jolly when he directed us towards the hotel after the soundcheck. He gave us a couple of room keys and when we got there the place was a bungalow of some sort converted into barebones accommodation - hutch sized rooms off a central corridor. My room was very sparsely furnished, just a double bed with a chair at each side, sitting on a tiled floor. A corner of the room from the door to the chair at one side of the bed was curtained off, and behind the curtain was a toilet, a sink, and between the two, in the corner, a dip in the tiled floor with drain, and above that a mixer tap and shower attachment. You could draw the curtain fully back and view the facilities from the bed. And answer the door from a position on the toilet. The only light came from a utilitarian outside light with a blue bulb in it on the wall above the bed. I was touring with my friend Martin Stone. He had the exact same room next door except that his light had a red bulb. Different strokes for different folks I suppose. It made reading very difficult - we were both avid readers. We didn’t notice any goings on, and no one offered us any services, but when we got up in the morning the corridor was full of painted ladies in ball gowns.

I gave the Tuning Fork sound engineer the usual instructions - no compression, very little or no echo or reverb on the vocal. The soundcheck was quick and easy. We went off in search of dinner and my cousin Louis who we met outside a Thai buffet where my dinner went cold as I did a radio interview over the phone. I love my cousins - they always ask me about our grandparents because I’m the only one old enough to have known them well. They died within days of each other when I was fifteen and everyone else was a lot younger.
Back at the Tuning Fork the green room was very well appointed - it had a bar, a small stage and a private bathroom. There were framed set lists on the wall - one from a Neil Young & Crazy Horse show. I wish I’d taken a photo of it. I was escorted to the stage by the front of house manager. We went out of the front door of the sports arena, across a concourse in front of the venue with her holding an umbrella because it was raining, around the back of the venue to a door which lead directly onto the stage. She didn’t actually wish me God’s speed but she could have done because by this time I felt like I was in a budget action movie. She held the door, I climbed aloft and there I was in front of my applauding Auckland audience.

I enjoyed the three New Zealand shows - the audiences were easy to play for, they were open and receptive. I liked them a whole lot better than I like some of the people on the aeroplane I’m on while I’m writing this, particularly the big, young lunkhead in the seat in front. He’s a fidget, a large, ungainly and graceless fidget, constantly adjusting himself with violent movements of the seat. I’ve been waiting for him to recline which he just did. I made him unrecline, explained to him that even though the seat goes back a very long way it’s not the done thing to fully recline. I think he’s a little afraid of me at this point. He’d better behave or he’ll get the coffee treatment. So easily done what with the turbulence and all. And I take it black so it really scolds. I’ve done it once before to great effect. I’ve already had to endure the sight of him in his underwear as he changed from sweat pants to shiny sports shorts because he couldn’t stand the heat. Who ever feels hot in an aeroplane? These things are bloody freezing. 

Airlines should operate a dress code, or at least a strict No Shorts policy. And shoes please, not flip flops. I think that would be quite reasonable considering they won’t allow guitars as carry on and Qantas just charged me a hundred and seventy five dollars for checking a third bag. That’s a lot of money - they’re obviously running a classy operation so I expect a dress code and a degree of decorum. They should teach How To Behave On Airplanes in schools.

Back in Auckland the sound engineer was having difficulty with the instruction in my technical rider concerning reverb. I became increasingly a aware during the set of a a long thick reverb on my voice. Eventually I had to tell him: I’m not the Jesus and fucking Mary Chain! He took it very well but I don’t know where his head was at.

After the show we blundered off into the night taking the opener, Will Saunders, with us. We were going to go to a tribute night to the late and great Fred Cole of Dead Moon but somehow we were too late so I took them to see my jacuzzi hotel room instead. Will took photos which may or may not be compromising though we only tried out the jacuzzi with no water in it and with our clothes on - just a dry run. John Baker put the other white toweling robe on and looked like a budget hotel emperor lounging on the bed as we worked our way through the complimentary snacks. It was becoming apparent that this hotel was a very tacky hotel and I was glad Taylor Swift wasn’t staying here because I don’t think she would have been very happy. I was perfectly happy myself, it was a hell of an End Of New Zealand Leg Of The Antipodean party, worthy of an episode of Flight Of The Conchords.

I flew to Melbourne the next day.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

New Zealand, Planet Baker, “So Glad You’re Not A Midget!”

I was dreading the flight from Los Angeles to Auckland but in the end it wasn’t anything like as bad as I’d anticipated. I did the online check in and chose an aisle seat on the other end of a centre row of four. The other aisle seat had been taken leaving two unoccupied seats in the middle. I figured nobody was going to choose the seats seats in the middle and in the end the gamble paid off.

The person on the other end of the row was an older lady from Florida who was very nice. We had a pleasant conversation and lapsed into our own inflight reveries for the next twelve hours or so. I watched three films none of which I can recall. I listened to a Waylon Jennings compilation, Kris Kristofferson’s first album and Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill on my IPod. and in between I wrote some lyrics which may or may not be any good. At some point I even fell asleep but I couldn’t say for how long.

New Zealand immigration was really easy. I used the automated machine and was redirected to Special Assistance where I was greeted by a lady of Maori extraction who told me I was logged into the system and everything was fine. I collected my guitars, loaded them onto a trolley with my case and sauntered though customs and into New Zealand.

Or Auckland airport. I walked to the domestic terminal in pale sunlight trying not to think about the four hour wait for the plane to Wellington. There were a lot of people, angry, anxious and pushy. They filled the terminal as they queued for security and the delayed flights that awaited them beyond. I pushed through with my luggage cart and gained the sanctuary of the Gypsy Moth Cafe. It was vaguely homely - badly run by a huge staff of ill-trained and, I imagine, under-paid young women who got in each other’s way and muddled through while the manager took up the slack by taking food orders on tours of the premises before dumping them in front of diners.

I had something very bland to eat, principally to stop the airport from undulating beneath my feet. The mid-morning rush cleared and I made my way through to look at the rest of the terminal. There was a newspaper place, a coffee place and a large area of white chairs and tables. Everything was very clean. Announcements wafted over the tannoy - they were mostly unintelligible (to me at any rate) but they all seemed to end in the phrase report to the chicken. I felt as though I was in an episode of Flight Of The Concords. But the entertainment value wore off very quickly and I thought I might die curled up on the grey airport carpet with hawk eyed New Zealanders stepping over and around me on their way to and from who knows where.

In Wellington I was met by a man with a sign who chauffeured me too the hotel in a shuttle bus that had been designated for my sole use. It’s the closest I’ve got to limo treatment in years. I got to my room and collapsed on the bed thinking I might just close my eyes for a few minutes...

The phone rang. 

I didn’t know where I was or why I was where I was.

It was the tour manager, a man called John Baker who I’d been in constant email contact with for weeks in conjunction with press and radio stuff. We’d even spoken a few times on the phone. He was on his way up to my room. I realised I didn’t know what he looked like and the thought entered my jetlagged mind that he might be a midget and I didn’t know how I’d handle that - it wouldn’t be polite to mention it: I can’t help noticing that you’re only er... three feet tall... but if I didn’t say anything it might be awkward, one of those Is Anyone Going To Mention The Midget In The Room? moments.

There was a knock at the door and there he was, all six foot one of him.

‘Hello, I’m John’ he said.

‘Great to meet you John’ I replied ‘I’m so glad you’re not a midget!’

He sat on the chair, I sat on the bed, and we sized each other up. He was wearing a brown corduroy cap.

‘Look, we’re going to spend a lot of time together so I’ve got to ask - are you bald under that hat?’

He looked a little surprised but he took his hat off to show me. I’m not going to tell you the answer. I never saw him without his hat again.

I had a radio show to do - talk about why I hadn’t been to New Zealand in thirty eight years, how great it is to be the guy who wrote Whole Wide World (yes it is), and play a song. I played 40 Years from Construction Time & Demolition. They weren’t expecting that and they seemed pleasantly surprised. Before the radio we spent twenty minutes or so strolling around in search of a reasonable espresso which proved to be quite elusive. John took great delight in telling everyone we encountered how before I even said hello I told him how relieved I was that he wasn’t a midget, compounded this social faux pas by asking if he was bald under his hat, and then dragged him around Wellington for two hours criticising its slovenly coffee places.

He carried my guitars and suitcase from shuttle bus to trolley to check in, from conveyer to trolley to shuttle bus. He told me my system of folding my clothes was all wrong, I should roll them, and to prove his point he accosted random passers by in airports.

‘Excuse me, are you a folder or a roller?’

He was so disarming, so charming, that no one took offense.

‘See Eric, another roller!’

He strode across the top of the baggage carousel like some kind of colossus, retrieving and marshaling baggage. He checked us in and checked us out and did it all with no laptop, no briefcase, just a tattered sheet of paper covered in pencilled notes that he kept folded up in his top pocket.

Whenever we came to a stop he’d reprimand me for standing too close to him.

‘You’re doing it again, what’s is this? Have you no sense of personal space?’

I couldn’t help it - hardly realised l was doing it. I was as far from home as it’s possible to be and I felt safe under his care. The man is like a magnet. Planet Baker is a great place to be.

I’ll tell you more later. I’m just posting stuff as I write it - I don’t want it to slip away from because in spite of all my fears and missing Amy I’m actually having a really good time.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Adrift In Los Angeles

It was strange to be adrift in Los Angeles. I arrived on Wednesday and took a taxi from the airport to the Air B’n’B where I was staying. I should have got an Uber - it would have been cheaper for one thing, but I’d never done it before, just downloaded the app, and I believed it when it said the driver wouldn’t be there for forty five minutes. Subsequently I’ve found that there’ll be a driver there within three minutes but I didn’t know how it worked and I was tired, so I took a cab.

Being the callow rustic that I am I asked the driver if it was possible to pay with a card. I was travel weary and I had a flashback to the days when cash was king and nobody I knew had a bank card. We’re talking about some time in the early eighties here. Actually I never had a bank card until the end of the nineties. Before then my bank account teetered on the edge of an overdraft and I subsisted from week to week or months to month on whatever money I had in my trouser pocket, cash I’d earned from playing gigs or recording desperate French garage bands.

So I regressed, asked if I could pay with a card, and the driver said sure, as long as I gave him a good tip - reason enough to give him a very small tip or no tip at all, but I gave him a decent tip which was more than he deserved though it shamed him into helping me with my luggage when we got to the Air B’n’B in West Hollywood.

The place was one of those tiny twenties or thirties studio apartment bungalows, very Spanish, it put me in mind of The Day Of The Locusts,  one big room opening off a courtyard. The room was furnished with a bed, a chair and a tiny writing desk. It had a bathroom and a small kitchen off to one side. The kitchen was full of a large fridge. There was a tiny fold out table which would have been charming if it hadn’t been almost totally taken up with one of those Keurig coffee makers and hemmed in by a huge microwave perched on a stool with a toaster sitting on top of it. There was a sink, a few cupboards containing basic kitchen stuff and a gas cooker. None of this was of use to me during my stay because I never found anywhere I could buy groceries.

Once I was installed I sat in the room for a while wondering what to do with myself. Obviously I was going to do some of my best work ever while I was here - just me sitting on the chair with my acoustic guitar, my iPad and notebooks spread out on the desk - but for now I needed to eat so I looked at Yelp and found a restaurant one block away. I went out with some trepidation - I was sure I was going to be held up and robbed at gunpoint because I’d gone backwards in time to the days when these neighborhoods were ungentrified and not at all safe. It’s a long term habit - the first time we arrived in New York the band were all wondering what to do. It was pretty obvious to me that we’d head out to Max’s Kansas City and catch the Velvet Underground. Except it was 1978.

I found a place to eat one block away. It was pretty good and I didn’t get mugged either walking there or back. When I got back to the bungalow I didn’t know what to do so I watched a detective thing that I really couldn’t follow, listened to the Archers and fell asleep. I felt some sort of vague obligation to go out somewhere groovy but this being Los Angeles it probably would have taken an hour or two to get there so the feeling soon receded and I gave myself up to doing absolutely nothing in an uncluttered room.

I spent most of the next day walking around because I couldn’t think or anywhere I particularly wanted to go in an Uber. Do you go somewhere in an Uber? Or do you just Uber? Has it become a verb yet like Hoover? Or is it an Uber ride? I walked through neighborhoods of renovated bungalows, marveling at the plant life. I found my way to a coffee place, Groundwork’s on Sunset Boulevard.

I went to the Psychiatry An Industry Of Death Museum on Sunset Boulevard. I’d seen it before but never had chance to go in. It was a harrowing experience. The museum is founded and run by the Citizens Commission On Human Rights. They make the point that there is no medical or scientific basis to psychiatry and society’s belief in it is founded on a misguided supposition that psychiatry’s most eminent representatives are somehow experts in their field, even though it can be argued that they’ve never actually cured anyone, just made diagnosis upon diagnosis and prescribed a lot of very expensive drugs. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

I went back to the bungalow, did a Skype interview with a New Zealand radio presenter Kim Hill, who has a reputation for giving interviewees a hard time. We talked about my book, A Dysfunctional Success. She wanted to know how I remembered everything considering i was a drunk a lot of the time. I pointed out that much of the narrative took place in my childhood and at the age of nine or ten I certainly wasn’t a drunk, and for the rest I sat on walls and hung out in doorways, took notes and concentrated until the memories came back.

After the interview I got out my guitar and notebook but I didn’t do my best work, I fell asleep instead.

The next day I met my friend Jessica Espeleta for lunch over in Silverlake. We were wandering down the street in search of a coffee place when a car pulled up driven by a Mexican looking guy called Mark who was a friend of Jessica’s. He parked up and joined us for coffee. Jessica told me Mark was a good guy and had played with the Beastie Boys. It was Money Mark. I tried not to be star-struck but you know how it is. I’m sure he had no idea who I was and I doubt if he would ever have heard of me so I was cool, just a friend of Jessica’s. He was warm and friendly and we had a conversation about developments in electronic music instruments and how some of them are unfortunately just one trick ponies.


He told us about a mechanical electronic musical instrument he was working on involving piano rolls triggering synthesizers and took us to his studio just around the corner for a demonstration. He showed us some huge organ pipes he’d salvaged and some simple sound generators he was making for kids using magnets salvaged from old microwaves. We talked about guitars, and touring and stuff, and he seemed concerned that I wouldn’t be seeing my wife for a long time. What a nice man - it was worth the trip just for that afternoon.

Me, Jessica and Money Mark

I Ubered my way all over Los Angeles. Apart from Jessica I didn’t see anyone else I knew so most of my conversations were with Uber drivers. I was lucky because they were all friendly and disposed to talk about stuff - the Kinks, Lenny Kaye’s original Nuggets compilation, the odiousness of Donald Trump, healthcare in America... we covered all these subjects and more.

I spent my last day in Los Angeles wondering what to do with myself and basically killing time. I was booked on a fourteen hour flight leaving at eleven o’clock on Sunday night, arriving at nine thirty on Tuesday morning. What happened to Monday? I’ve missed a day and that’s the second time it’s happened. It’s just as well I don’t like Mondays. Actually that’s not true - Mondays are loaded with promise, they’re the start of a new week - anything could happen and some of it might even be good. It’s that Boomtown Twats record I don’t like - Tell Me More... No, please don’t, just put a sock in it Bob.

I rode to the airport in an Uber that had been used to transport the body of a murder victim. I was overwhelmed by the stench of a powerful toilet cleaner mixed with stagnant water and an undertow of something deeply sinister and a lot less wholesome. The driver was a less than friendly Latin American guy with a bad taste in pop radio. He kept switching from one vacuous pop station to another. They were  all playing the same track, the one based on What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor that I discussed in my last post. I think he was using this all-consuming blandness to blank out the memory of the terrible thing he’d done. By the time we arrived at the airport I felt quite queasy.

Friday 2 November 2018

High Flying, Airport Dining, Popular Music That Nobody Likes & A Real Life Roadie From Days Of Yore

There’s nothing like dining at the airport to give you a renewed appreciation of life outside the airport. I’m flying Alaska Air from New York to Los Angeles and there’s no food on the flight which is probably just as well because I imagine it would be some sort of exotic marine life dredged up from the Arctic Ocean, not that I’d be eating it - rule number two: avoid eating on the plane whenever possible. Rule number one is drink as much water as you possibly can. 

I might actually be doing Alaska Air a disservice here. I was checked in by a flamboyant and quite lovely African American lady - I told her I’d never been to Alaska and she confided that neither had she. ‘You’re shaking my faith in the airline’ I said, and she reassured me that she’d been to Los Angeles a whole bunch of times. And I felt wonderfully reassured. I love Americans - real Americans, not those fake Americans you see cluttering up the news these days.

I got through the security check with very little trouble - they let me go through the TSA pre-check, even though I’m not registered  - a bit of charm and a reasonable attitude still seems to go a long way. That and being an elegantly dressed silver haired old buffer. The zips in my Mexican boots set off the detector so I had to take them off and put them on the conveyor belt, and that was a good thing I think because it drew attention away from the fuzz boxes and delay pedal concealed in my carry on, and the fact that I’d forgotten to put my toothpaste in a plastic bag.

I’m in a place called Ruby Tuesday’s. I know... but there’s really not a lot of choice. The grill was broken but they were still serving salads so I had the very salty and presumably pre-grilled grilled chicken served on a balderdash of krispy kale bedded down with over-cooked lightly steamed broccoli and some very cold and clammy sun dried tomatoes. I wish they’d managed to get them in the tin before the sun went in. There was a Caesar dressing in a separate container too, but I don’t want to think about that. 

To drink I selected the Nestle Pure Life (Pro-Life?) Purified Water (Enhanced With Minerals For Taste). Who knows what ghastly scenes this champion of recycled waters might have been party to - it may have even been through the President of the United States for all I know, pissed out onto Russian prostitutes, used to flush the presidential khazi... Why! The very Queen of England herself may have once graced it by bathing in it. But boy oh boy, these mineral enhancements taste good!

I wish we could do the experience without musical accompaniment. Places like this always play that incredibly popular music that I’m pretty sure absolutely nobody likes. A hint of heroism, a dollop of soul. There are very few tunes - possibly three basic models - and two of them have their origins in What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor, though you wouldn’t necessarily know that because this music is created by career-driven professionals. So we’re in safe hands there. 

They get a strange species of teenage baby to sing these things. They’re bred for vocal nasality and raised in cages to keep them pure. When they get too old to perform they’re slaughtered and served up as burgers at music industry awards ceremonies and sometimes at White House dinner parties.

This plane’s okay. I’ve got the whole row to myself. I’m like a king, sitting here in sumptuous leatherette, five miles above the American Midwest with an empty seat on either side of me. I’m looking forward to Los Angeles. I stayed in a West Hollywood hotel for almost a whole week a few years ago. It was a boutique hotel full of people who looked as though they were trying to break into the fashion business. I was a deep disappointment to them - I could tell by the way they looked at me. It was as though my grubby middle aged presence was sullying their dream of a glamorous utopia. I felt like Bill Murray in Lost In Translation.

My room was on the eleventh floor. I’d share the elevator with the aspiring, the beautiful and the plain grotesque. One morning the elevator stopped on the seventh floor and two wannabe supermodels got in. They looked at me with withering disdain and I looked them up and down. ‘Hello girls,’ I said. I pushed the lobby button and the lift said Going Down!

I spent my days riding the city buses and caught a cold that did nothing for my personal glamour. This time I’m going for a degree of sophistication - I was going to hire a car but the Air b n b super host of the cloistered Hollywood bungalow I’m renting advised me not too so I’ve downloaded the Uber app instead. A rental car would have cost me twenty three dollars a day - I imagine I’ll spend more than that on Uber rides but it’ll be nice not to have to have to think about parking.

I’m flying in the face of all my former traveling habits - no laptop, just an iPad, and in line with the latest airline policy on musical instruments I’m checking both guitars - my acoustic in its usual fortress of a case and the electric in a new  fiberglass Gator case which may or may not withstand having the baggage truck driven over it.  The rest of my trousseau is in a carry-on case, so I’m just like all the other passengers now with their enormous suitcases full of bricks that they can hardly lift into the overheads. I’ve finally joined the luggage tribe - it’s a great feeling to finally belong.

I brought the Telecaster this time. I’ve been using the Microfrets which turns playing into a mixture of poetry and abstract expressionism. But there are so many flights involved on this trip that I decided on the Telecaster because I couldn’t bear to have anything happen to the Microfrets. It’s a shame because that was the guitar I played last time I was in Australia, thirty eight years ago. It was a lot younger and less battle scarred in those day. It actually sustained its first ever injury at a show in Melbourne back in 1980. I threw the guitar aloft, said goodnight, and as I left the stage I realised I’d left the guitar in mid-air. I turned round in time to see our roadie, a magnificent relic of the road called Keith, run from the opposite side of the stage and catch the guitar centre stage as the band hit the final crash. He was so shocked he dropped it and  the back cracked. I didn’t mind - we repaired it with a strip of gaffa tape - the good stuff you used to be able to get back then - and it stayed like that for years until the tape wore off and I had to glue it to stop a weirdly disagreeable vibration.

Keith was a classic roadie - rail thin despite a prodigious alcohol intake, with a nose and chin that practically met in front of a mouth that spilled various pronouncements in a thick Birmingham accent. I remember seeing him slide down a dressing room wall one night, hopelessly drunk and slurring:
‘Fuckin’ hell we’ve got to get out of here - it’s goin’ t’ fuckin’ kill me.
The tour manager burst through the door - ‘Ten minutes, you’re on in ten minutes!’
Keith instantly straightened up.
‘Right! I’ll get these guitars on and put the standbys up!’

We were working for him, we were his band.
‘You’re not the best band I’ve ever been with, but you’re certainly not the worst...’
He’d worked with Slade, The Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter, The Glitter Band, Roy Wood’s Wizard... When pressed and plied with alcohol, and if he was in a good mood, he had many a lurid tale to tell. He was usually the soul of discretion, the original what goes on the road stays on the road... He often had articles of lady’s underwear flying from the radio aerial of the equipment truck. Yes - we traveled in separate vehicles, band and tour manager in a minibus, crew and equipment, which would quite often include a massive PA system and lights, in a truck.

Keith was a prima donna. Occasionally one of us would upset him with a chance remark or a less than stellar performance and he’d leave the tour. It never lasted - he’d be back within a couple of hours and there’d be hugs and tears and he was back on the job. And every night as I was about to walk out onto the stage, with the band already in the groove, he’d hand me a half pint of gin and vermouth which I’d down in one go. The force of it would blow my head off as we hit the first chorus and by then we we’re flying.

It’s all a bit Saxondale but it’s a story that demands to be told just the once. I wasn’t always a silver haired buffer - once upon a time I was a rock n roll star.

Albeit briefly. 

I’ll shut up now.

The silver haired old buffer with his Micofrets guitar (photo by Ted Barron)

Tuesday 30 October 2018

This Is Really Happening

I put out a new album last April, Construction Time & Demolition and set off on a sixty date tour to promote the thing. Before that I toured as the bass player for my wife, the great Amy Rigby. Six weeks and four different drummers in the UK and America, and afterwards almost four and a half days off before I started my own tour. People have told me I’m overdoing it, that I’m working too hard, and for once I think people might have been right.

I managed the first leg of the tour without much difficulty though I don’t know why they call it a leg - why not a bicep or a testicle? Toronto was dusty, Memphis was freezing. I packed up after the last show in New York City and drove straight to the airport to fly to England for the UK leg, arm or bicep.

The weather in Scotland was vile and I contracted a cold that got worse.I did two sold out shows in Glasgow and Edinburgh with laryngitis. I got away with it by gargling with soluable aspirin, six at a time in a glass of water. It takes down the swelling, brings the voice back, and as long as you don’t swallow you won’t end up in the emergency room. I consumed a jar of very expensive Manuka honey in the space of two days and got through an entire bottle of echinacea. Two days later my voice was fine again.

I woke up in a Premier Inn in Worcester to a text from my daughter, Luci, asking me to call her immediately. I thought it would be news about my mother, another fall, another hospitalisation, but it wasn’t, it was her mother, Philippa, my good friend and ex of thirty years ago. She’d died very suddenly and unexpectedly. Luci was distraught, devastated. She still is - I don’t know how you can move on from something like that. When she told me what had happened I felt as though I’d been kicked hard in the stomach.

I carried on with the tour in some kind of haze. I did the best I could and more than got away with it but there was always a veil of grief and concern for Luci and the grandchildren. And there was always a bit in the set especially for Philippa. No one would have known but I was saying goodbye with a huge crashing and wailing guitar interlude. By the end of the tour she was gone.

The tour ended in the middle of July. I reached the end of my tether earlier in the month in a hotel restaurant in Salt Lake City. I didn’t cause a scene or throw anything - I wasn’t even rude to the waiter - it wasn’t his fault after all. I just came to a private realisation that I’d had enough. 

It was lunchtime and I thought I’d better get something to eat even though I really couldn’t face it. I was tired of driving and there was nothing within walking distance so I went to the restaurant in the ridiculously jumped-up hotel where I was staying. There was nothing on the menu that I could imagine myself eating. In fact it was all quite off-putting. The word smothered featured prominently in the descriptions of the various entrees and all around me diners were being served with plates of glistening disgustingness.

A toasted cheese sandwich - you can’t go wrong with a toasted cheese sandwich, it’s comfort food, just what was needed. So that’s what I ordered. First the waiter brought out a bread roll. ‘Here’s your complimentary bread roll’ he said, and placed a side plate in front of me with a huge, doughy roll overhanging the sides. It looked like Donald Trump’s head. Then an acre of French fries on an oval plate, and finally two thick triangles of toasted white bread with orange and yellow goo oozing out from between them. All the orange, yellow and white food groups were represented.

I rearranged everything on the plates to make it look like I’d eaten some of it because it wasn’t the waiter’s fault and I didn’t want to spread my misery around. I paid the bill and left feeling like I might easily start crying.

The beginning of a tour is usually great fun, the expectation, the excitement - that This Is Really Happening feeling. The hotel rooms are fun - it’s an adventure, a jag, a beano, and you’re on the lam, a fugitive from the tedium of daily life. But this time, after about four months of checking in and out of of Ramada Inns, Best Westerns, Crowne Plazas, Holiday Inns and the odd off-brand nightmare, the novelty of this air-conditioned gypsy lifestyle started to wear a bit thin. Another hotel room, energy saving light bulbs putting out their eerie, uncomfortable neon glow, loneliness, silence (save for the air conditioner) or the nonsensical jabber of the TV. The adventure, the comical jag, is long gone, and in the morning there’ll probably be Starbucks.

It dawned on me that I was terribly homesick.

The shows were fine, better than just fine, but everything in between was torture. I was pulled over in Ohio by a fresh faced policeman, somewhere between Toledo and Cleveland. Apparently I was doing eighty seven miles an hour. The speed limit was sixty five. The policeman wanted to know where I was headed. They’re not supposed to ask that. He seemed concerned - ‘You look very tired’ he said, ‘I just want to know that you’ve got somewhere to go.’

It occurred to me later that it must have looked as though I was living in my car.

I got to Rochester, New York, played the last show. As I was finishing up the soundcheck a woman walked in who looked like Amy. It was Amy. She’d come to help me get home. Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express were playing a secret late night show around the corner. We got up and did some tunes with them and it was like my very own end of tour party.

It was great being home. I love not having to be anywhere. I hung out at Supernatural in Hudson and at the HiLo here in Catskill. I’d have my two espressos and whole mornings would drift by with nothing achieved or expected. I had a trip to England looming but that wasn’t until near the end of August- I had to clear my mother’s house and put it up for sale to pay her care home fees.

I’d speak to her on the phone as often as I could - it wasn’t always easy with the time change. Sometimes she asked me to speak up, accused me of mumbling, even though I was braying into the phone in an effort to be heard. Other times she was in a good mood and she’d tell me how she was running a police station - ‘I’m the world’s worst person for this job but I’m doing the best I can’. She was looking forward to me coming over and so was I.

The care home called and told me she was refusing to get out of bed and refusing to eat. They’d put her on end of life care. They were ready with the tranquilisers and morphine and whatever else to ease her passing.

British Airways wanted over two thousand dollars to change my ticket so I wrote that off and got the first flight I could, Air India to Heathrow. When I got off the plane and turned my phone back on there was a text from Luci - call me as soon as the plane lands. My mother died shortly after I got on the plane. They told her I was coming and that made her very happy. She went to sleep and never woke up. A perfect way to go but I wish I’d got to see her.

Amy came over and a month went by planning the funeral and sorting out the house. My mother had bought and paid for her own funeral - she said we wouldn’t want to be bothered with it, being distraught with grief and so on (You will be distraught with grief won’t you?!!?) I had to practically ransack the house to find her will. I found it in a drawer with a roll of wallpaper, a garden trowel and a box of broken pencils. There was nothing about her funeral wishes in there apart from the name of an undertaker who had stopped working with the plan and passed it on to a company in Sutton Coldfield.

My mother was laid out in her room at the care home and nobody knew what to do with her so I drove over to Luci’s house and got on the phone to the Sutton Coldfield funeral plan company which turned out to be a call centre in the West Midlands:
‘First of all let me just express how deeply sorry I am that Mum has sadly passed.’
I’d got the rookie, he was reading off a script in a thick Black Country accent.
‘I just need to get some details - now when exactly did Mum sadly pass?’
‘And where did Mum sadly pass?’
I started to join in - ‘Now let me see... where exactly did Mum sadly pass...’
Luci started giggling in the background and I had to turn my own laughter into sobs - ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do this right now, you’ll have to speak to my daughter.’
I passed the phone to Luci who got the full treatment and did the best she could:
‘Now, first let me say how deeply sorry I am that Nan has sadly passed...’
My mother would have been rolling around in hysterics by this point.

In the meantime a tour of Australia and New Zealand was fast becoming a reality I could hardly deal with. I can’t say I’ve been stricken by grief but I’ve been feeling quietly fucked-up. My mother was very old, she was ninety three, she’d lived a long and fulfilling life. Philippa was only sixty one. She died on the Cayman Islands. A photo taken four hours early shows her looking fit and radiantly beautiful. To me she was an immortal. Her passing followed so closely by my mother’s have left me somehow silently and coldly shaken to my core.

It’s going to take a while to get beyond all this. I’m hoping this trip to New Zealand and Australia will mark a new beginning. I haven’t been there for thirty eight years and I must admit to being somewhat slightly terrified. And I’m feeling a great responsibility to stay alive for everyone’s sake.

I’m flying to Los Angeles tomorrow to start the adventure.

Photo by Ted Barron