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)