Thursday 28 November 2019

Driving To Chicago (with detours)

The weather in Memphis was unseasonably cold. It had rained all through the previous day and the temperature was set to drop to something catastrophically below freezing. I hardly left the house where I was staying and had spent the whole day shivering and trying to get warm. Wet weather gets in my bones, the only way I can counteract it is with hot, dry heat, warm clothing and a lot of exercise. 

I put this down to growing up in a house without adequate heating, just tepid radiators and an open fire which shot flames up the chimney and heated up the heavens and settled into a disgruntled glow so that you had to practically climb into the grate to feel any benefit. The floors of our chilly family bungalow were solid concrete, topped with thin Marley tiles, except for in the living room and hallway where they were high polished parquet glued to the concrete. There were two small, handmade rugs, pegged by my dad when he was in hospital, one in front of the fireplace, another running the length of the sideboard in a desperate attempt at cosiness. The ceilings were just compressed cardboard sheeting, about half an inch thick and joined where they met with some sort of vaguely decorative strip. There was no insulation, just a big space between the ceiling and the roof tiles, the loft, which housed the water tank, and the folding Christmas tree and decorations that came out once a year for two weeks in the season of jollity.

I think my life began about twenty years ago when I moved into an apartment with a fully functioning central heating system. Before that I just shivered and waited for summer.

It was twenty degrees Fahrenheit in Memphis. The door handles were frozen. It’s a 1997 Buick Le Sabre, 64,000 miles on the clock. It came from Florida so it’s not used to this sort of thing. It has green tinted windows to protect against the glare of the Florida sun. In this ghoulish light I feel as though I’m in a David Lynch movie, about to check in to a dubious motel to perpetrate some unpleasant and antisocial act. 

I I had to tap and massage and coax the doors open, and then they wouldn’t stay shut until I’d run the engine for a while to warm things up. I finally left Memphis with the aid and hindrance of the GPS which couldn’t decide which way was up. I crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas, headed out onto the open road and settled in to the seven or eight hour drive, which actually means nine or ten hours including stops and hold ups.

About an hour and a half out of Memphis I had to stop for gas. I chose a gas station as carefully as I could - there were a whole lot of Citgo gas stations along the way but I don’t like to stop at those because at Citgo gas stations I’m always approached by dubious characters who ask me for money and rides. It’s a complication I can do without, though I suppose it may be like attracting like - I’ve been told I look pretty dubious myself, and it’s true that after several days of touring middle-class, white Americans tend to edge away from me. Though I never ask them for money except if they’re the promoter.

I’ve also heard that Citgo petrol is inferior stuff that rots the engine and leads to all kinds of problems later in the life of the car, though I don’t know if this is true. I saw a Shell station - old school, reputable - you can’t go far wrong with Shell: Keep going well, keep going Shell, you can be sure of Shell, Shell, Shell... that particular advert jingle is at least fifty years out of date now but the indoctrination of my youth lives on so I swung off the highway and pulled up to a pump.

It was damned cold out there in the middle of Arkansas, so I thought I might have a look in the shop to see if I could find a pair of gloves. It was a truck stop, one of those places where truck drivers can buy extra air horns and manly gadgets for winching down loads or whatever it is they do, and mesh-backed trucker caps with sports team insignia emblazoned across their padded polyester fronts, and belt buckles that say Big Boy and Arkansas, and even a small dreamcatcher - they always sell dreamcatchers - it seems every redneck truck driver needs a dreamcatcher to set off his dream machine. 

Not that I’ve ever seen a truck driver buying any of this crap. But then I’ve never seen a Gideon placing a bible either though they must keep doing it because I regularly have to throw them in the trash or out of the window. The other night in Indianapolis I personally placed both the Book of Morman and the Gideons Bible in the freezer compartment of a large refrigerator that happened to be cluttering up my hotel room. Creative thinking at its absolute finest - the bin was already full of the Proudly Brewed by Starbucks paraphanalia, the window wouldn’t open wide enough, and besides I was concerned that the dropping of two bibles from the eighth floor might kill a passerby. Not that anyone had any business passing by at two o’clock in the morning, but I’m a responsible adult, not just a mere creative, so into the freezer compartment they went.

I found some gloves next to a rack of key fobs with christian names, and a selection of bumper stickers: The Welfare State Is Not  A Career... Daddy’s Girl... Uncle Sam Wants You To Speak English... American Born & Raised... Work Harder - Sixty Million Welfare Claimants Need Your Support... I looked across to the counter where a young black girl was hard at work. I wondered if she was even making minimum wage, how many hours and how many other jobs she had, and if she had healthcare. I left without buying any gloves.

The interstate was lined with dumb signs: When You Die You Will Meet God... I Could Hear Mommy’s Voice When I Was In Her Tummy... Call 1-800 TRUTH... Nursing Home Injury?... A picture of a pig with a quiff alongside the letters: T•R•U•M•P - and underneath the simple legend Keep America Great.

I'm wondering what’s to keep here. What’s so great? Record numbers of people die in mass shootings every year, a quarter of a billion people don’t have health insurance, and all I’m seeing as I travel though this great land is ignorance, hatred and dilapidation. And endless shopping malls that all look the same where people can buy badly made crap they don’t really need, and eat their way to diabetes. Out here in the heartland of America I’m not seeing much evidence of the opulence, the benefits of a trillion dollars in subsidies funding tax cuts for the mega rich, but I’m seeing plenty of support for the administration that put it in place. And I can here them right now: if you don’t like it buddy you can always leave... 

Yes, I could leave - I’m just a humble immigrant after all - a green card holder, an official US  resident, with no voting rights, even though I own a house here, I’m married to an American and I pay US taxes. In the past I’ve raised the issue of taxation without representation, which I’m given to understand is unconstitutional, and the response has been - you knew what you were signing up for with a tacit suck it up stuck on the end. The very phrase suck it up sounds to me like an admission from the people who use it that conditions here are no more than a pool of cold vomit.

So I spend plenty of time wondering why I do stay here as I hurtle up and down various interstates. I got acceptance and recognition as a musician here in America in a way I never did when I lived in Europe, and this has probably given me a musical confidence that has in turn helped me along to wider acceptance and respect in the UK. And I’ve done my best recording work while I’ve been living in the US - A Working Museum together with Amy, ‘amERICa’, Construction Time & Demolition, Transience, plus a whole load of production including Amy’s album The Old Guys.

We arrived in America in September 2011 with a dwindling bank account and a couple of over-filled suitcases. Everything we owned was coming in a shipping container. We needed to tour to earn some money, and in order to tour we needed an album, so while we were waiting for the shipping container to arrive I bought some cheap tools, blocked up an archway to the dining room and built a stud wall to separate the open plan living room from what became the hallway. The newly created room became the studio, I’ve been recording in there ever since. 

I’ve been planning to move the studio into the basement which we’ve just had made watertight. I’m hoping I can get the vibe of that wonderful room down the stairs and into a bigger space. But that’s a matter for another time. What I wanted to say is that even though the country is in a terrible way I had a great time doing the shows on this tour and seeing so many old friends. I experienced nothing but kindness from friends, promoters, promoters who are friends, and even sound engineers; and if there’s one thing I’m thankful for now that Thanksgiving is upon us again it’s kindness. I wouldn’t personally be anywhere without it. The world needs more kindness.