(Mirrored at fnicolay.tumblr.com)
AYE, ‘TIS THE HOUR OF ABANDONED HOPE
I’ve been coming to Germany to play shows for thirteen years. I’ve played more shows in Germany than any other foreign country with the (possible) exception of England. And yet there’s something about coming to Germany that can be more frustrating than anywhere else. Maybe it’s the righteousness – “Because of our history,” one kid told me last year, “we are now careful to be the ‘good’ country that does everything right.” I believe it, and sometimes it can feel like they’ve gone too far in that direction, like the pedantic refusal to jaywalk under any circumstances. Sometimes it’s an attention to bureaucratic detail that goes beyond the bounds of reason: In almost every (poorer) country in the world, you can buy a pre-paid SIM card, slip it into your cheap phone, and make your call – here, I had to call (how can I call without a phone, you might well ask?) and give name, date of birth, and address in Germany. Sometimes it’s the belief in ruthless honesty for the greater good. I added a classic example of the latter to my long mental list of post-show German honesty, after this, my third show at the Ramones Museum in Berlin:
“Was that you playing on a roof with Against Me?”
“I guess, probably.”
“I wanted to push you off.”
“That’s a weird kind of joke.”
“It’s not a joke.”
“You didn’t like it, then.”
“No, it sounded terrible…I liked it tonight, though.”
He bought a “Do The Struggle” vinyl.
It was a family affair at the Ramones Museum. I’ve been there three times in the last four years, to this storefront cafe and punk mecca around the corner from the expensive-looking Slavic streetwalkers. Flo, the owner, was on his way to a weekend vacation on the Baltic Sea but hooked me up with some Ramones-branded baby clothes before he left. Last year, an old acquaintance – an exchange student who’d lived with my great-aunt and uncle two summers when we both were young teenagers – showed up. This year, it was an old friend of my aunt and uncle, and her friend; though I’m not sure if they liked the show. Flo put me up and the rock and roll hostel around the corner at which, like an old fart, I scowled at the sixty kids on laptops in the lobby and put in earplugs against the high heels in the hall. Also, I thought, when they put a shower stall in the room but the toilet down the hall – well, they’re basically telling you what you need to do.
It was snowing in Kiel, a northern port town on the way to Denmark. Dickie, the club owner, took me out for superb Vietnamese food. He has a silken beard and a reassuring thickness that reminds me of Andrew Seward. He’s from a village of 300 a few miles away, and would prefer to live there still – “but I can’t get a driver’s license, so I live here where I’m two minutes walk from the club.” He’s in his first couple days of sobriety and nicotine gum after an epic bender last weekend. My usual Kiel contact, a myopic elf named Kocky, who I’d met years ago when his band the Suburban Scumbags used to open for World/Inferno at the local squat, is sick and homebound.
There’s no reason to expect anyone to come tonight. It’s well below freezing, the snow is blowing, and my last two or three times through Kiel have been desultory pass-the-hat affairs at the local vegan cafe. “This was a last-minute show,” says Dickie, and I groan, because I’d asked the guy who books me about these shows back in the fall. One couple is at the club when we return – they’ve driven three hours in the snow from Hannover.
“Let me know if there’s anything you want to hear,” I tell them. “Probably it’s going to be a private show for just us.”
Well, it just goes to show you: it was a packed house. One of those shows that makes you think, against all evidence to the contrary, that sometimes it still works like it’s supposed to, that if you keep coming back eventually you’ll break through. This one will keep me going for another week.
Dickie and his girlfriend Annika have a band room in their apartment, two levels of bunk bed, like an eight-year-old’s dream, that can probably sleep eight or ten – though I wouldn’t want to share it with a bunch of band guys. It’s just me tonight, though, and I’m gonna sleep lengthwise just ‘cause.
I haven’t heard from the guy who booked these German shows in weeks, so I just got up and drove to Heidelberg on faith. It was snowing for the first three hours and raining for the next three, hundreds of miles of storm, and when I got to what I thought was the venue – a squatted-looking house by the train station, with a hung effigy, garden plots, and graffiti art – it’s locked up. Maria finds some kind of phone number on the internet, but no-one answers. I’ll wait an hour or two, I figure, and if no-one shows I’ll go find a hotel.
Luckily it’s only a half hour or so before Tina walks up, gregarious, with a partly-shaved head. It’s all gonna be ok, except I discover that I – like a damn fool – left a bag with my show hat and shoes, cables, and tuner pedal at Dickie’s club. It’s a couple hundred bucks worth of stuff, and I don’t have his contact. There’s always fucking something.
The Heidelbergians are friendly, collegiate; this is an American-style punk house of privilege, authorized by the city – in fact they’re going to be moved in a few months – not the serious, politicized squat in Lublin. These are kids who are going to volunteer here for a few years and move on to jobs in media, publishing, and advocacy (as has the guy who booked me in Heidelberg the last few times, for which they gently needle him in absentia). In the meantime, they’re liberal with sweet breads, wine, a shockingly delicious vegan slop (a kind of nutty curry) and squash soup. The crowd is small on a cold Sunday, but we pack into the room with the fireplace and have a cozy show. The soundguy is mixing from an iPad, sitting in the crowd next to his girlfriend. Tina loads me up a case of Club Mate, a German stimulant soda I love, and we part friends.
There’s a supermarket under the hostel so I load up and it looks like I’m running a tiny deli in the front seat. It’s still, somehow, snowing, but the drive to Brussels is relatively clear until I reach downtown rush hour, and the last couple miles take forty-five minutes. Downtown Brussels is pretty dull stuff, glass-fronted bureaucratic buildings. But the Chaff is a charming little cafe on a cobblestoned square, and everything under a few inches of blowing snow. This is obviously a building that’s been here a few hundred years: The stairs to the upper levels, and bathrooms, are weathered nearly brown and are practically vertical. They’re having a wine tasting and tapas table. The promoter, Rodolphe, is an adorable Belgian in a cardigan, scarf, and what I can only describe as a couture leather fanny pack.
The crowd is polite but subdued to the point where I consider it a victory to get even a slight chuckle – except for two guys who’ve taken the train in from their town sixty kilometers away, and will have to leave early to catch it back – so I get their requests and fit them in early, and sign their copy of Chuck Ragan’s book. My friend Eva is in town from New York, working on a Yiddish song project and performing – we’re overlapping tonight and in two days in Paris – and we share a beer and some grousing about travel and collaborators.
At this point I’m pretty well ready to turn in, but the theater company from next door has just wrapped their performance and are settling in for some drinks, says Rodolphe apologetically. It’s ok, I say, and watch some TV upstairs on my laptop. I don’t mind – it’s the first downtime like this I’ve had since I arrived twelve days ago.
But it’s after two when we finally leave, and Rodolphe wants to take me to a late-night beer boutique on his block. I don’t mind that either – these are spectacular Belgian beers, with a plate of runny cheese and sinus-scraping mustard. So it’s after four by the time we get to his place. He’ll stay upstairs and I can have his bed.
Somehow, it’s still snowing in the morning – day three of this blizzard. It’s only 180 miles to Paris, which should be a three hour drive, but we were up so late and the weather is rough, so I figure I’ll play it safe and just head down there. The old neighborhood we’re in – Rodolphe calls it the Kreuzberg of Brussels, referring to the hipster area of Berlin – is wet, white, and quiet.
I’m not saying the driving was great, but I grew up in northern New Hampshire, so I can handle some pretty significant snow driving. It had begun to pile up against the guardrails but at least the center lane was clear. We crossed into France, mile after mile of fields and low towns hubbed by a church spire.
It was somewhere about an hour from Paris when the traffic stopped. I’m not surprised that there’s been an accident, I thought. But they should have this cleared pretty quickly – hour at most. Both lanes of traffic pulled to the side and a cop car and an ambulance made their way through the center.
An hour passed, then another. People got out, stretched, pissed in the snowbanks. Three hours had passed. I hadn’t had breakfast, but luckily I had my supplies from Heidelberg. A man walked back with news: The big trucks were barred from driving, but there weren’t police to organize them so that we smaller cars could pass. So, it seemed, we could be here all night, or at least until someone took charge.
My phone buzzed. “Are you on your way to Orleans? – Fabien.”
I had a rush of adrenaline and panic. Orleans? I was on my way to Paris! Am I that much of an idiot? I checked the calendar. Sure enough, Paris was tomorrow.
I entered the new address into the GPS with a sinking feeling, and it was with some relief that I saw Orleans was only an hour farther. If this traffic ever got going again, I’d make it.
“On my way,” I texted.
“OK – the bar is open until midnight, so whenever you get here is fine.”
Four hours passed when the line of traffic finally began to crawl forward. Exhilarated, I took the first exit – it was eastbound, toward Calais, but at least I was moving, and I could cut south shortly. It was getting close with Orleans though; the show had been supposed to be from seven to nine, and my estimated arrival now was 9:30 and creeping toward ten. I texted Fabien.
“The bar says no-one will stay after ten,” he replied. “You can come here, but I think it is better if we cancel and you stay in Paris. Do you know someone there?”
I didn’t, really. I called Maria. “Can you do me a favor? Can you book me a hotel in Paris and text me the address?”
In the meantime, I’d found another southbound highway. This would all be fine, I’d get to Paris in ninety minutes and have a nice night off. Maria texted back with a hotel – “It looks crappy, but I think it’s the best bet.”
When I saw the traffic begin to slow, then the red emergency lights start to blink ahead of me, then realized that we were once again stopped and trapped, the despair set in. I cursed myself for changing highways. I cursed the French highway department for their incompetence. I cursed myself for my life choices and swore I would never do another tour, I would learn a trade and fly right. I heard a beep as my phone battery died, and opened my laptop to find that it had, too. I ate my provisions: five bananas, two yogurts, a package of Wasa-brand sesame wafers, a whole packed of sliced, herbed cheese, and a liter of multivitamin juice. I read the entirety of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books on my phone. I listened to five hours of the “History of England” podcast, from Alfred the Great through the Norman Conquest, and tried to identify the irony, if there were any, of being stranded so close to the Norman heartland. I turned the car off and let the heat drain away, then turned it on full blast. I finished the reading and all the podcasts. A couple cars went rogue, forming a third lane in the deeper snow, and I joined them for a glorious third of a mile or so. I pulled out my pillow, curled up and decided to give up and sleep, but every time I did the line would move forward a hundred yards for no obvious reason.
It was nearly 12:30 when the movement started, and sustained – I’d been trapped for seven hours, in addition to the four hours on the other highway. And I was still almost ninety miles from Paris.
We wove, single file, in between and around the miles of hulking, cold trucks, which formed perfect bulwarks for banks of windblown snow. It took nearly an hour just to creep along the mile or so of trucks before we got to the open highway and got up to a cruising speed of thirty, or if we were lucky, forty, miles an hour. I was looking at arriving in Paris at three if I was lucky – more than two more hours of white-knuckle driving. Plows, or highway patrol, were nowhere to be found. The rest stops had Ibis hotels, but half the rest stops’ entrances were blocked by trucks or by snow, and at the others, the hotels were filled with truckers. On one exit, even the exit from the highway – the toll booths – was blocked, and re-routed to the empty highway patrol building.
By this point I was nearly the only person on the highway. It was pushing three, and I was on my third bottle of Club Mate, shivering with cold and caffeine in equal measure.
It was after four when I finally pulled into an arctic Belleville. The hotel, on a cobbled side street, was locked. I pounded on the door until a middle-aged Arab shuffled over and opened the door with a malevolent glance.
“Do you speak English?” I said, hopefully.
I handed him my passport wordlessly and he checked me in.
Not wanting to get up in five hours to check out, I asked, “Deux nuits?”
He shook his head. “Tomorrow,” he said, indicating I should come and deal with that in the morning.
I’d logged onto their wifi while he was checking me in, and ran back downstairs to quickly Skype Maria and let her know I was OK. He gave me a look as I passed the check-in desk. I logged onto Skype, hit call – and the internet signal disappeared. I ran upstairs and grabbed my laptop. He saw me and said, “Internet, n’est-ce pas.”
“What the hell? I saw it! I got my email just now!”
”Internet, n’est-ce pas.”
Motherfucker had turned it off so I’d leave his lobby.
I took a Xanax and waited for the nerves and the caffeine to let me sleep.
The hotel was a relic and would make a great setting for a horror movie. Railcar-sized rooms with a small sink. Bathroom downstairs. The door handles are positioned too close to the frame, so they don’t actually turn all the way; and the doors themselves have outgrown the frame so they won’t close without a deafening hip-check. The shower at the end of my hall is out of service – scrawled in ballpoint pen on the door, so I guess they don’t expect to bring it back in service anytime soon. And, I discovered when I went to the shower a floor down, there’s not hot water anyway.
I got up around 10:30 long enough to stumble downstairs, throw thirty-four more euros at the desk guy (“You love it too much to leave, eh?”) and note that someone on the second floor was, for some reason, practicing the tuba.
It was mid-afternoon before I finally made it out, to a dripping and sodden neighborhood of Arabs and Asians, smoky tabacs and Chinese buffets. The snow that had caused all this trouble looked to be six, maybe ten inches.
Then ensued the usual hoo-ha of getting a new SIM card. Here’s a tip: look for the Africans. I’m sympathetic to the French complaint about Anglo hegemonism, but the truth is I just don’t speak French, and the deal with my job is that I’m in a different country every week, and the best I can muster, in a country which I don’t come to regularly, is the basic pleasantries. In many countries, people are willing to work with me, and we can communicate in a kind of multi-lingual pidgin. In my first hour on the streets of Paris, in depressing fulfillment of stereotype, I had two people throw goods at me in disgust, and a third roll his eyes and wave me out of his store. Probably only Americans are this rude to foreigners, and I had a flash of empathy for visitors to New York who don’t speak English.
Thus: look for the immigrants; specifically, the kind of call center/internet cafe/lottery kiosk/money transfer storefronts that advertise a fauvist collage of calling card brands in the window. Sometimes they’re Indians, sometimes Palestinians, sometimes West Africans; but always cosmopolitan, brusque, and omnicompetent in the dizzying glossary of PINs, calling codes, hacks, and shortcuts of international communication.
(People often ask me whether my show, given the verbiage and reliance on English in my show, works overseas. And by the end of this French leg, I will have decided that France was the first country where I really felt it to be a problem. I don’t have a strong theory yet about why that is, but I suspect that there’s something in some of these more developing countries – an aspirational quality – that either leads to more kids with a strong command of English or a tendency to overstate their understanding. Whereas the French, with an international and colonial language of their own, are more likely, like the British and Americans, to let foreigners like me meet them on their turf.)
The venue is a basic rock bar – they even have Brooklyn Lager – with a concrete box of a back room. French cuisine is no friend to the vegetarian, but I found a kind of ravioli, really just pasta squares, embedded in a stew of cream sauce; and a tiramisu with apples flambeed in brandy. Show was fine. The opening act made me consider that just as a generation of young female songwriters could be considered the direct progeny of Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco; the contemporary equivalent is shaping up to be Joanna Newsom: eye-fluttering, precious, with the self-imposed vocal tic that turns sibillants into “sh”s. (It’s called a “sibilant lateral lisp.” I looked it up.)
And so to Le Havre, a port town – the name means “haven” – that was completely destroyed in the Normandy invasion, and rebuilt quickly and on a foundation of rubble by an architect named Auguste Perret, who shared the 50s obsession with the dubious aesthetic values of concrete. The two main landmarks are a hotel, built on monumental scale facing a plaza which reminds me of nothing so much as Sukhbataar Square in Ulan Bataar; and the St. Joseph Cathedral, a brutalist masterpiece if you like that kind of thing, that manages to look both skeletal and threatening. The inside walls are also bare concrete, no paintings, no tapestries, just grey aggregate and stained glass accents. “Amiens Cathedral could have been built only in the past,” Rebecca West quotes Heine, “because men of that day had convictions, whereas we moderns only have opinions, and something more than opinions are needed for building a cathedral.”
“Yes, I like it,” said the promoter Bertrand. “It is like a church from ‘The Matrix.’ They say it is a grey town and depressing. We share the climate with England. But they also say we have a special light in Normandy – it is where Impressionism came from” – a famous Monet painting of sunrise is set in Le Havre – “so I like when the sun comes out, it shows colors that you can’t see otherwise.”
He’s the kind of punk promoter you meet all over the world – a band (the Pink Flamingos), a cool girlfriend, Against Me and Hot Water Music posters, a sleeping room for bands, a serious guy. He has a day job as a librarian at the university: “I used to like it, but in the last few months not so much. I love books but the job is not about books, it is about producing statistics for the government. The more people that use the library, the more money you get. So I am eight hours a day telling teenagers to be quiet, to not be in the phone, because we need them to keep coming. For the numbers.”
His girlfriend teaches English at the same university. The government, she complains, has instituted standards of language learning that prioritize conversation and brute communication over grammar. “The students say, they’ll understand me in England – yes, they’ll understand you, but it is still wrong!” Both of them point out, though, that in France it’s essentially impossible to lose your job, so it’s a pretty comfortable situation.
The show is in the basement of an Irish pub called Mac Daid’s. “It is the only place left in Le Havre to do shows. There is a very strong neighborhood association, and they call the police, and have had everywhere else shut down. But the owner of this place is friends with the mayor and the police.” Is it a conservative town, I wonder? “It is not really a conservative town, but it is only upper class and lower class, and very little middle class – and it is middle class people who go to punk shows.”
Le Havre was the biggest rock town in France in the 1980s, all the British bands came over on the ferry. “Vincent, who is opening for you, is from that generation. He is like the local Tom Waits.”
In fact Vincent, who goes by Vincent L., is pretty great, and something about him reminds me of New Model Army’s Justin Sullivan; bald, muscular, intense and throaty, with a couple guitars, a table of percussion, a leopard-print floor tom, and a looping pedal. I suck down about twelve of the mini eight-ounce Stellas that are the drink deal for tonight, and make a French exit – pun, I guess, intended – from the afterparty. In the morning I’ll go for a run by the canals. Broken mussel shells, dropped by seagulls, crack underfoot.
Apropos of nothing, I would like to note that French public toilets tend not to have seats, which one can’t imagine the benefit, and it produces a heart-sinking instant and then glum resignation.
For the first time, I feel like I’m driving into spring. Brittany is all wet green and goldenrod, fabulous multilayered meringues of cloud, alternating patches of sunburst and rain shower. Lorient turns out to be a fabulous, soggy, colorful, near-deserted port town, with a piratical swagger, and I instantly feel at home. At the risk of again falling into geographical determinism, it really does remind me of the Cornwall and Wales with which it has historic and ethnic ties. The sky is full of seagulls, and thick moss covers all the corrugated-tin roofs. The shipping containers and tankers are in bright primary colors, as if in defiance of the thick black and menacing cloud shelf. The Galion is a fishing-town bar: a painting of ships behind the stage, a small piano with candle holders dripping with wax and my name revolving on a primitive, colorful mini-marquee. There’s a tall, cylindrical woodstove and a pile of firewood. There are framed pictures of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Kid Congo Powers, and the owner Jean-Baptiste may be the world’s foremost Gun Club fan. (When I get to his apartment at the end of the night, even his wifi network is named “gunclub.”) He was a bartender at tourist beach bars for years, and even did a stint on a Caribbean Cruise ship, but six years ago opened this place.
I went for a walk. Next door to Le Galion is a gallery built into a stack of old shipping containers. All the streets are covered with graffiti. The shoreline is dominated by the rotting concrete hulk of a WWII German U-boat base, which was the proximate cause of the levelling of Lorient, though it’s been rebuilt in a more appealing manner than Le Havre. I can’t resist crumbling things, especially massive crumbling things, and I wander around its mossy bunkers. The walls are covered in netting to catch the falling bits.
Across the street from the club, I saw an abandoned warehouse with some cool-looking graffiti, and I went and took some pictures. As I was leaving, an unmarked car pulled up and two cops came out and stopped me. One of the benefits of not speaking the native language is the authorities eventually give up in frustration – it’s just not worth the hassle to hassle me. But if it turns out any suspicious activity went down, I’m sure it won’t be too hard to find Fritz Nichols of Brokelyn, New York.
“They’ve got nothing better to do,” said J-B, shaking his head. “It used to be a squat over there and I guess they’re still keeping an eye on it.”
The show was mostly for local drunks and regulars, plus two guys in Frank Turner/Dropkick Murphys/Teenage Bottlerocket gear who’d seen me playing with Tom Gabel on YouTube. More than one person tells me that the town has really felt the economic crisis, that “there used to be a lot more people coming to the bar,” but now people have to stay home. I had to stick around while J-B closed up shop, and struck up a conversation with the young guy who was barbacking for him. “Steve – but you can call me Zissou, like the ‘Life Aquatic’ movie. It’s my nickname.”
He’d been in the United States the year before – in New Hampshire, actually – and hitchhiked up to Quebec, across Canada to British Columbia and up to Juneau. I’m impressed. “Not many truckers pick you up because of the insurance. But anyone who does pick up a hitchhiker, you can bet they’re the coolest person around.” He’s saving up to head down to Australia and New Zealand and maybe stay.Bon voyage and bonne chance, Zissou.
It’s back into barren winter, northbound under the grayscale meringue of seacoast clouds, to the old Norman center of Caen: a name which I continue to find unpronounceable, something like a demure cough. The historic town center is almost subsumed in an industrial ring called Mondeville. The venue is inside the gates of an industrial park, by the natural gas holding tanks; a warehouse party at the studio of an aging visual artist. I’m second of three, four if you count the DJ, in what will be a Saturday-night shindig for the fortyish artsy crowd. It’s cold and raining and my health is finally beginning to crumble. The opening act is a a dapper lesbian with a darabuka accompanist, well-received by a crowd of friends; and I’m huddled by the space heater with my Rebecca West. I get a polite, distant, and patient reception. The nominal headliners are a duo from Nantes of a kind that would have flourished in the late-80s Lower East Side. One is a dead ringer for Liam Gallagher, the other for Tuli Kupferberg; and I suspect Suicide looms large in their pantheon. The promoter finally takes pity on me and assigns two of his friends to grudgingly guide me to their friend’s filthy apartment.
I punch my tourist card on the off-day: the fanciful island fortress of Mont St-Michel, the Bayeux Tapestry, Omaha Beach (“Americans like to go there,” suggested Bertrand from Le Havre helpfully), William the Conqueror’s castle and tomb. But on a day off I truly prefer indolence, preferably induced by the kind of rich, spicy (Indian in this case) food that fosters sloth. After a spat with the hotel clerk over wifi – I have one assignment for the day, to write a string arrangement for Ed Hamell with just a YouTube clip to work from, and I suggest to the clerk that perhaps he prefers that I don’t drag my accordion into the lobby for two hours – I set about trying to turn the room into a sauna. Via radiator and hot shower I may finally banish the week’s chill from my bones.
In my first days through Paris, people kept referring to La Miroiterie (“The Mirror Factory”) as “a great venue.” Even the Palestinian who sold me a phone card knew of it. In my heart of hearts, I was envisioning a classy, shiny supper club, or maybe a cabaret. So that heart of hearts sank a fraction of an inch when I pulled up to a filthy squat.
Albeit a picturesque one; through an iron gate, down a sewage-stinking alley terminating in a burnt-out car and a rotting tree trunk. The walls were covered in graffiti: Chaplin, dancing ghouls, children flipping the bird. One courtyard was devoted to band name portmanteaus: Boy George II Men, Johnny Cash-A-Lot, Metallicat Stevens, Sick Of It All & Oates, Bauhaus Of The Rising Sun, Gil Scott-Heron-DMC, Wanda Jackson Five, Squarep-Usher; and my favorite, the obscure and inspired Cackle Sisters of Mercy.
The performance space was a dungeon of sweating, stinking concrete bunker, with an unsturdy wooden balcony for the soundman, Pat, in the back and a grinning gargoyle painted over the stage. Pat delivered his gear in a stolen shopping cart.
Shivering, I drank and talked shit with expat New Yorker Jason. He had interviewed me years ago for a Brooklyn paper and had since moved here, romantically, to escape a breakup and finish a novel. We swapped gossip and invective about mutual friends and gobbled down some curry the promoter had heated.
I had corresponded with the promoter Julien in 2004 or so after he’d discovered the Guignol/Nanuchka split and had swapped CD-Rs by mail: Balkan tunes, and a French band called Radikal Satan. We’d finally, briefly, met at the anarchist info shop Wayward Council at the Fest in Gainesville three years ago. At that Fest, in fact, he’d met a younger American woman who was now his wife and living with him in Paris.
Jason and I were invited upstairs into the warmth of Anna-Sophie’s apartment. She was a 37-year-old painter and squatter deep into a few bottles of white wine with a friend. She pulled out that week’sInternational Herald Tribune. There was a picture of her, and a story about the now 14-year-old “squart” (squat-cum-art space), due to be shuttered after standing on principle and refusing to go legit. Sic semper squatteris.
The show was actually fantastic – loud, responsive, ecstatic.
Which is why it was so much more devastating when I discovered my bag with my passport, laptop, and all my tour cash, somewhere north of 2000 euros, had been stolen from the backstage. Pat said he’d seen the tall, drunken guy who’d been heckling the show – whose hand I’d shaken from the stage, even – walk off with a black leather shoulder bag. But everyone else had left, and he gave me a sort of “shit, sorry, bro” line and disappeared as well. (There’s a generation of difference between the pessimistic libertarian squatters of the 80s and 90s, to whom the world is a series of addictions, battles with the police, and internecine strife; and the communally-minded idealists you meet these days.) Jason was kind to me while I cursed, cried, swigged from his bottle of Jack Daniels, and vowed to head straight home. Touring musicians, of course, are vulnerable targets. We are usually carrying a significant amount of cash, sometimes have a language issue, and almost always have to be hundreds of miles away the next day; so this sort of thing is a kind of occupational hazard. But frankly I’d rather not talk about it any more.
The next day was a throbbing mess of rage, despair, generosity, and clenched, shivering anxiety at the U.S. Consulate, a locked-up La Miroiterie, the local police station (where I managed to file a report despite the lack of a common language with any of the officers), and on a self-flagellating drive to the provincial town of Le Mans.
Thankfully, this was a cozy neighborhood joint with a smiling and likeable promoter. Originally booked for a theater, the show was an odd fit for a railroad-style bar. The other act was a trio pitched somewhere between Nick Cave and Low; a couple, one Aussie, one Kiwi, both living in the Milan area, and a Sicilian drummer with glasses and a brown, curly ponytail. One benefit of the location change was that we would sleep in the upstairs apartment – I’m rooming with the Sicilian. It’s a bar crowd whose priorities are elsewhere, and the other band is distressed over the sound, which I’m to discover is indeed a horror. But the promoter is thrilled, buys a bunch of merch, promises a bigger show next time, and sends me on my way rejuvenated and with a belly full of pasta. I send the Aussie/Kiwi/Italians on to La Miroiterie with a warning.
I was, though, able to indulge in a small piece of redemption. Among my stolen items perhaps least valuable on the open market was the Rebecca West book, but I’ve managed to get Amazon.it to send a copy to my stop in Padova in a few days; in a better edition even, with a Christopher Hitchens introduction, and this feels like a kind of victory.
No-one had heard of Doyet, nor could anyone agree how to pronounce it. Somewhere southeast of Tours and four hours from Le Mans, I was directed off the highway by the GPS and onto some five miles of country roads. After a while I saw a town’s lights – but the destination was far sooner than that, at what was little more than a crossroads. A dog barked. I saw a dirty glass storefront window with my picture in it. This was Doyet.
Francois and Alexandra have been running a kind of pub out of this room in the front of their house, with a linoleum floor and a tap-less bar, for eleven years. They speak virtually no English, and I have them pegged as provincial tavern-keepers and wonder at the accident that brought me here – but it transpires that Francois has a punk band, called Sabotrage, and brings touring acts through here once or twice a month. I can’t imagine bands playing this tiny parlour – I’m playing acoustic – but he does have a PA.
Their two children star. Nils, seven, in a flat brown cap, holds a miniature guitar; Laurent, two, has a cold and a runny nose. I replace the high E string on Nils’ guitar, we compare hats, and I’ve made a friend for the night. He regards me with an amused condescension when I don’t quite follow his French chatter.
Alexandra leads me through a curtain into their cluttered and dark house. They keep sixteen chickens, for the eggs, and assorted rabbits and small fowl live in cages in the front room. She cooks me a massive skillet of one goose egg and one duck egg and chases it with an unexpectedly subtle cheese plate. It’s a heavy local scene; a dozen of the town drunks plus curious neighbors, and one they refer to as”…a special guy.”
He’s a punk out of water: shaved head, red-laced Docs, flat cap. He interrogates me by listing band names: “Dropkick Murphys?” Yes, I know of them. “Rancid??” Sure. “Slackers?” Yeah, I played some shows with Vic, and Ara and I briefly crossed paths in World/Inferno. “Aha! Slackers very good!” He clasps his hands in front of his chest in appreciation. “Stubborn All-Stars!”
“Leftover Crack?” I guess tentatively.
He just about explodes with joy. To all and sundry, he exclaims the glories of that band, and describes the 9/11-themed back cover of their record I’d played on (“Fuck World Trade”). “Leftover Crack!” He shakes his head in amazement. “They are…best!”
“The most influential punk bands in France are Leftover Crack and NOFX,” says Francois. “And Bad Religion. I know half a dozen bands in Paris that sound like Leftover Crack.”
“I am Trojan skinhead!” the special guy explains. Meaning, I think, that he can pass, like a Trojan horse, in the more extremist circles. “Anti-fascist! Anarchist!”
It’s a rowdy show. One guy has to be escorted out, and I worry briefly about the safety of my car, which is parked right outside the door where he’s lurking and smoking. Nils, the seven-year-old, has been given a pinch of red wine in a plastic cup.
It’s Francois’ birthday after midnight and he wants me to stay up and have champagne – but I sneak away, not without some guilt, up the nearly vertical carpeted stairs into Nils’ vacated bed. The bedroom is nearly lightless and the competing neighborhood roosters are overambitious, underway in chorus well before sunlight. How was your birthday party last night, I ask Francois in the morning. “It didn’t happen,” he says. “Everyone left.”
“NYC! Me too!” says a guy at the show the next night. I don’t get it right away – he’s referring to their hometown of Nancy. “It’s a joke for French people.” Unlike the sodden, alternately grey and green farmlands that constituted most of the countryside I’ve seen so far, Nancy has a dusty haze that’s somehow both dry and Mediterranean. It sits in the bowl of a giant, shallow valley, whose outskirts are studded with the Lego-like, almost Soviet white housing projects; while the inner city is a tan adobe warren that tends to the Spanish. I was pulled over at a rest stop on the approach, for no obvious reason, by a pair of motorcycle customs police. After a thorough search and a phone call to HQ, they let me go. Damn Swiss border.
It’s an apartment show organized by the “association” Off Kultur, in the person of two Johanns and an Edith. They put on house shows in various locations, tonight at the airy apartment of a pair of young music-video directors. The crowd is young, artsy but obviously successful: it’s a loft party for upwardly mobile hipsters who lay on the floor, eat instant pizza, and guzzle wine, cider, and champagne. I get a gratifying reaction – “We say here, you were giving dreams” – but they aren’t merch buyers, and it was a pass-the-hat – more specifically, hold-out-the-hat-at-the-entrance – show, and my heart sinks when, flush with success, I’m presented with a bag of coins. “It’s so nice to have such great shows, and for free!” one woman enthused.
I’m up early to meet one of the Johanns. The banjo pickup failed in Le Mans. It had been shaky in Lorient, too, and the sound guy Frederic, friendly and with the handsome, slightly simian Gallic cheekbones, took it home to have a look. He’d returned in the morning with the caution, “It’s fixed now, but I don’t know for how long.”
The meter had run out on Fred’s fix. Johann and I went on the hunt for a guitar shop, which ultimately led to a village a half hour away (I left Johann in town), to the shed of a young luthier by a country river. It was cold but sunny and he was successful after an hour and a half, and I drove south, past a shanty town in the shadow of a soccer stadium, into the dry and dusty Lorraine fields, and it’s a six hour drive to northwest Italy.
There had been a house show “booked” in Zurich – that is, it was on the list from my agent in Germany. But I had neither address nor contact, and when he finally responded to my increasing terse emails, he said he hadn’t heard from the kid who was supposed to be putting it on. It was fine with me. The last time I’d played Switzerland, meeting up with the Revival Tour, I’d been dinged for three hundred euros in customs charges as they pulled out and counted all my merchandise. My plan had been to rent a hotel room on the French side of the border and leave all but a day bag’s worth of merch there overnight. But frankly this was easier – a night off to ease the drive to Padova.
The southbound drive toward Grenoble and Lyon was dull, several hours of farmland; until finally I dove into a tunnel and across a series of stunning viaduct bridges and into the foothills of the French Alps. The haze is gone and the snow is back and the country smells like the American West, specifically Colorado. There’s even country music playing in the gas station. The hills look literally broken and upended, the striations pointing skyward. The car starts to strain and my ears start to pop, and before me is the lumpy, frosted popover of Mont Blanc. The tolls in France (and, I will soon discover, in Italy as well) are extortionate. Bertrand in Le Havre had said that many bands don’t tour France, or tour it on the train, just for that reason. The highway to (30 euros) and tunnel through (40 euros) Mont Blanc are no exception. The toll-taker at the mouth of the mountain has an appropriately chest-length, Viking red, dwarvish beard, and I’m through the chevron teeth that frame the tunnel entrance.
I’d booked a hotel room in a town variously rendered as Aosta, Aoste, and Advise (founded in its current form in the time of Augustus Caesar as a retirement home for the veterans who had wiped out its native community); and the descent on the Italian side was miles of mountain tunnels flashing in and out like geographical Morse code. I slid down into a vertiginous valley and then up again on miles of near-vertical switchbacks up one cliffside – then an extra hour, back down to the valley floor and up the other side, when the GPS led me astray. Deer darted before my headlights and I passed fewer and fewer cars. I stopped to inquire at one cliffside hamlet called St. Nicolas, and the hotel manager just pointed at the top of the peak, saying “It’s very isolated.”
It was with intense relief that I finally found the nearly-unmarked hotel in a silent village perched two thousand meters above sea level, nearly half a vertical mile above the city, and six kilometers from St. Nicolas. To be fair, it was a stunning view: stars, the Milky Way, and dissipated airplane trails shone in the moonlight above, the lights of Aosta far below, and the snow-covered and dagger-sharp peaks across the way. The hotelier made me a strange stew of white bread in broth, cabbage and cinnamon, with what seemed like an inch of cheese melted over the top. After a day without hot food, it was immensely satisfying in the empty restaurant and then debilitating, and I retired upstairs. The bed was a cot with an antiquated radio set into the wall above the “headboard,” The room was decorated in brash red and white, with thin, stubbled, wicking towels. I scribbled my tour diary up to date and collapsed into sleep.
“I’m sure glad I don’t have to do this in the snow,” I’d thought the night before as I wound my way up and down the serpentines that tattooed the valley walls. So it was with no small twinge of dismay I awoke to see exactly that outside the windows.
But spiralling back down I did go, and the snow burned off as the sun came up. Fog insulated the valley, and the smell of wood smoke is in the air. Streams of it vent from the valley walls – the snow must make this a good day for burning brush. The highway slithers over and around the green river basin, hugged tight by a melange of crumbling manors and five hundred years of crenellated castle walls. Piles of stone, set aside for walls, are ubiquitous; as are nested-tile clay roofs. From time to time, a car with Swiss plates and skis strapped to the roof passes; then pickups with off-road vehicles, dirt bikes, and Italian tags.
Then it’s down into the fields of Piedmont, and very little of interest happens for the next three hours.
I’m staying outside Padova, near Venice in the northeast, with old friends Amy, a composer from New York, her Italian husband Finni, who does children’s theater, and their seven-month-old son Giordano. She’s been expatriated for four years (though they’re moving to Chicago shortly) in a small duplex in the Padovan suburb of Dolo. It’s Finni’s ancestral homeland, and it’s a slow-moving collection of boarded-up villas, rotting paster walls, tan and tile, palm and cypress. A moldy, avocado-colored canal winds through the middle, and if it is moving at all it’s imperceptibly, though some old men are fishing.
The canal, says Finni, was built to transport the rock mined in Padova (the caves created in hills hollowed out by mining still exist) to Venice for its construction; and then for horse-drawn barges that brought the Doges of Venice to their country villas. He points out one such walled estate: this one was confiscated and claimed by Napoleon when he conquered Venice. Finni is performing a half-puppet, half-live action version of a fairy tale called “The Selfish Giant,” apparently by Oscar Wilde, about a giant who won’t let children play in his garden. He’s doing double duty as the giant and as a talking tree. We need to stop at his childhood home to pick up a suit. His father, dapper, balding and mustachioed, had been assistant tailor to his brother, Finni’s uncle, a bespoke men’s tailor, for years; until chafing at playing second banana and becoming a nurse. He still has the skills to alter the suit pants on the spot.
We pass a sculpture in the center of a roundabout that looks like a modernist aluminum dragon with a red high-heel shoe in its maw. “It’s in honor of the shoe. This was a shoemakers’ area. Not so much anymore, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s people made a lot of money on shoes.”
We’d had a packed house the night before. It was a kind of North American night: in addition to Amy and myself, a Canadian with a piano had reminded me that I should add Regina Spektor to that list alongside Joanna Newsom. She was on tour with a violin player, in Europe for three months. I asked where they’d be tomorrow. “I’m not sure,” she said. “We are dreamers, you know? We don’t know what we’re going to do when we wake up.”
In any case, I needed an accordion reed fixed, and had emailed Amy to see if they knew a repairman. Finni called an accordionist he’d worked with on a children’s theatre production maybe twelve years prior, and was referred to a guy in the next town over.
“He says,” Finni warned, “the guy is very old-fashioned. It’s not like a shop; he’s working in his garage.”
“Listen,” I said. “That is every accordion repairman I’ve ever met: a grouchy old guy in a village with a shed full of tools.” The retired eccentrics of the previous generation, with free time on their hands.
“He needs a reed fixed,” said Finni to the repairman – balding, bespectacled Giancarlo.
“Is he sure?” he grumbled. “People always come in with a ‘simple fix’ and it’s a mess inside.”
“Tell him,” I said, “it doesn’t have to make it perfect, just make it work.”
He opened up the instrument. “Is he married?” he asked Finni, about me.
“Hm. It’s bad. He is ruined…This accordion is really a mess. I can’t imagine how it plays.” He scourged the tip of a soldering iron with a stiff wire brush.
When he was a child, he’d gone to a music store and wanted to study accordions, but his parents made him go to university, and he’d ended up in a military academy. He entered the Air Force as an airplane repairman and technician (he retired as a colonel, he said, making a pun on the Italian words for “colonel” and “testicle”), and was posted to the region by the Fantini accordion factory, where, in his spare time, he went and studied with the accordion builders of the area. When he retired, he’d set up a shop in his garage.
“Someone did a bad job with this,” he said, poking around in the guts. A previous repairman had replaced some of the “leathers” – the slips of leather that cover the reeds – with a synthetic. If you do one that way, he said, you have to do all of them. He replaced a few, putting used leathers in instead of new ones – “they will fit better than if half are old and half are new.”
Finni asked him about the brand – the accordion is a Galanti, an Italian make from the 1960s. “He said it’s not an original Galanti. Galanti company went bankrupt, and someone from the same region just started using the brand name, since, who was left to sue them?” (He retracted this later, saying the internal mechanism looked like Galanti after all.)
He grumbled and cursed, having fixed the original problem long ago and spotting others as he went. It was a typical retired man’s garage: tools, spare parts, a glucose monitor, a few framed and hung awards, a dusty and unplugged rotary phone, a radio boom box, a space heater, stacks of LPs and periodicals, some floppy and MiniDisks, a souvenir Russian fur hat with a red star, dozens of archaic headphones.
“Well,” he shrugged, “it’s not a good job, but it’s a quick job.” An old military buddy buzzed the doorbell, here to pick up his own instrument. “I will pretend” – for the sake of his own pride in his repair work – “that I didn’t do anything at all.”
It was no matter to me: the F bass reed was fixed; like a cortisone shot to get an injured athlete back in the game, I just needed to the poor instrument to live another month.
He refused money. “The 27th is my birthday, and I’ve decided to stop working then. I wanted to sell the house, but my wife won’t let me. She wants to give it to our son, so now I won’t have any money. I should have saved my own. Instead I spent it on drink and hookers!”
“Places do not exist. A place is just my idea of it.” – Michael Ackerman, Fiction
The tour began as a litany of logistical issues.
When my wife and I found out she was pregnant, I knew I’d have to rejigger my touring plans for the year – I’d thought I’d do a month in Europe in April and May, maybe UK in the summer, and something else in the fall. Now, with a girl coming in June, I sure wasn’t going to do any 250 dates in 2013, and in fact had better do most of what I wanted to accomplish pretty darn quick.
So, I figured, Europe it is, and earlier: I’d do some more Poland and Germany, since I hadn’t been there with the new record, and definitely some France, where I hadn’t been at all. Maybe a month, and then fly over to England and do two weeks there, and then I’d have the important stuff covered. Then I got an email from my old friend Anders, a Swede who records as Moneybrother, with a scheme for a two-songwriter bill; three more weeks in Germany and Austria but I’d save on rental car and more plane flights and baggage fees to England. So, ok, my four-week Euro extravaganza had become seven jam-packed weeks. Keep yer head down and stay healthy.
Anders wanted to meet me in Dusseldorf, in the far west of Germany, and my tour started in Poland and ended in Vienna, but no problem, I’m an American and thus OK with long drives. But when he cancelled the first week of his tour to care for an ailing girlfriend, my replacement dates found me ending in Romania, with two-day drives on either end.
So! Logistics. I used to check three bags – banjo, guitar, and a duffel with merch and clothing; and carry on the accordion in my backpack. But I discovered last year that if I put the banjo in a soft case, I could carry it on as well. This scheme to save an extra bag, though, was thwarted when the people that so my UK merchandise store lost, or shipped to some other band in a truckload of T-shirts, all the merch I’d stashed there. (So any band that inexplicably received a box of Franz Nicolay gear, let me know…) So a whole suitcase of merch it would have to be.
This can be a real stress going to the airport, especially in this day and age when everyone, especially Germans, want vinyl. To bring 40 LPs is essentially 40 pounds of luggage weight, and the max for most airlines is 50, so I’ve become adept at repacking on the spot, in front of annoyed check-in ladies and impatient fellow-passengers, handfuls of vinyl between suitcases and carryons. In addition, every airline’s excess baggage fees and specs are different, constantly changing, in disagreement with their own websites, and ultimately subject to the whims of the individual check-in agent. In this case, the woman said, “Normally this would cost $100 for the first extra bag and $300 for the second,” raised an eyebrow at the overweight merch bag, charged me for one, and sent me on my way. Good people, Swiss Air.
The flight was a red-eye to Dusseldorf with a sprint-to-the-gate stopover, including passport control, in Zurich. I made it, but my guitar didn’t – or, as the helpful lady at baggage in Dusseldorf put it, “They are still playing with your guitar in Zurich.” It would arrive on the next flight three hours later, and they gave me a free lunch at the airport, so no harm done. I had to stop and take a half-hour parking lot nap, but made it to the hotel in Dresden for the night. It was a family concern and they’d left the key in an envelope. No wifi password though. I pressed the button for reception.
“Yes, this is Franz Nicolay, I wanted to get – “
“We have left for you the key.”
“Yes, I got it, thank you. Can I get the wifi password?”
“No, we will give it to you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow…I’m leaving, I mean, this is a hotel.”
“We will give it to you tomorrow.” She hung up.
In the morning, they wouldn’t take a credit card, and she blew out her lips dismissively when I didn’t have exact change for 27.55 euros.
One of the several regulations that one has to fudge to make a tour like this function is that, strictly speaking, I’m not allowed to take the rental car into Eastern Europe, a statutory relic that must have something to do with insurance coverage and varying legal standards. I crossed into Poland, stopped to use a truck stop bathroom, and had five minutes of pure panic when I couldn’t get the ignition to turn. I immediately entertained a paranoid fantasy in which the rental company had GPS devices in the car which deactivated the ignition when it sensed I’d crossed the border. Which, if you think about it for even half a second, would be an insanely sadistic thing to do, to strand a foreigner at a random Eastern Bloc truck stop. So it was with some relief that I finally got the thing going and carried on.
Lest this sound like a litany of minor aggravations, I’m pleased to report that the club had booked me into a clean, if chilly, hostel above a strip club in the Wroclaw town center five hundred meters from the venue, across from which was free overnight parking. Parking can be a real headache in these old Hapsburg-era cities with a rynek, or central market square, usually with an classic town hall, clock tower, cobblestone pedestrian malls, and impenetrable signage – and it’s in exactly this part of town where you’ll usually find the coffeshop venues and hostels.
This particular coffeeshop had indeed been on the rynek, but two of the partners had bought the building and turned it into rental properties, and the third, Jerry (I’ve found many “Jaroslaw”s go by “Jerry” for the purpose of talking to Americans) had taken the name and reopened it in a freestanding building by the river. It has a vast rooftop deck, which is so much a signature of the place that when it’s closed in the winter people think the shop itself is closed, much to Jerry’s frazzled annoyance. “It’s a tough business,” he says. “I have parents who can help me cover a rough spot, you know, sometimes you need a loan for a day or two, and you go to the bank and they say ‘No way!’” He’s trying to start having live music on the roof: “One side is shopping mall, other side is church; someone would have to really hate us to complain.”
He’d gone for a year of university in Latvia when his best friend there, an Afghani, said, “Why stay here? Every European country looks the same.” Jerry considered this fine advice and decamped to Singapore for a masters in project management. He organized an apartment sight unseen over the internet, and arrived in the Singapore airport expecting to meet the fixer. When nearly the whole day had passed with no sign of his supposed landlord, he took a taxi to the Chinatown and rented a room from a street vendor. The man, a seventy-year-old Chinese, had him wait in the foyer while he cleared out his things from one room in his apartment; then stayed up all night working the international currency exchange on four stacked computer screens.
“At seven in the morning,” said Jerry, “Everyone started yelling. The noise was incredible from the street. I thought, ‘Is someone dying?’ Then I realized it was always like that, I had just never been in an Asian city before.”
The first day of tour always answers two questions – what did I forget to bring (pajama pants), and what got broken in transit (the accordion). I did some accordion surgery and we went across the street to the shopping mall for a quick dinner of crepes. “These escalators,” groused Jerry. “I come here every other day and they are always changing the directions, so you have to walk by new stores.” The urinals were almost too tall for me to use.
Wroclaw center (which is advertising an appealing even called the “Festival of Good Beer”) is a kind of island, surrounded by branches of the Oder River, and there was a devastating flood in 1997 that inundated somewhere between a third and a half of the city. The authorities had wanted to blow the levees in the suburbs to save the city, but suburban residents had “chained themselves [to the levee], like Greenpeace,” and the city flooded. “It would’ve been better if everyone in Wroclaw gave a zloty each, and gave it to [the suburban residents] to rebuild!” In the end, the flood had been a blessing of a kind, since “the EU gave reconstruction money and everything in the city was renovated.”
The show was a success in the end, although I’ve noticed Polish audiences are particularly reserved, and I thought throughout the set that they didn’t like it, or they didn’t understand what I was saying – although some people laughed at the jokes, and I noticed a guy in the front row translating my banter for his girlfriend, which created little time-bomb laughs thirty or forty seconds late. But then they called for an encore, and, relieved, I got to relax a little and play a handful more songs.
Another inevitability of a tour beginning is the “first night bender.” Jerry brought carafes of red wine to the stage, and kept saying, “After, we will drink vodka.” Sure enough, a tumbler of what must have been three or four shots of vodka on ice ended up in my hand and down my throat, and we went en masse back to the central square and into a basement club, where the DJ was playing a cover of “Come On Eileen” and the cigarette smoke was so thick I had to take my hoodie into the shower with me the next day in a vain attempt to get the reek out of it. “The vodka is speaking in me,” said Jerry as he poured rocks glasses of black currant juice alongside the pitcher of beer, and I have only a crumpled McDonalds’ receipt and a strong recollection of a hangover so incapacitating I had to stop every twenty minutes on the drive to Krakow and close my eyes.
The benefit of the first-day bender is it calibrates you for the rest of tour and you remember your limitations, and luckily the show in Katowice the next day was cancelled under vague circumstances so I had a night off on the outskirts of Krakow to recover. I stopped by my wife’s cousin’s house to pick up the CDs I’d had shipped from England, had an indulgent dinner, and slept for twelve hours. I won’t have another day off for three weeks.
All of which let me get up early, take an excruciating run in the cold, grey Krakow suburbs, and play the tourist. On a Sunday, the Wawel Castle – embossed and gilt wall-coverings of leather and cordovan; carved wooden heads staring down from thirty-foot ceilings – is free, though the cathedral where the kings and Chopin are interred was not. I heard the “broken trumpet tune [which] is played each day to commemorate the advent of Tatar armies” (Eva Hoffman, 1993) from the tower in the square. The show tonight is in Gorlice, which is essentially a village in the Carpathian foothills, near the Slovak and Ukrainian borders, and the drive, while barely over sixty miles, takes a couple hours through some kind of a national forest, past a town called Lazy and another called Okocim (the namesake of a B-list Polish beer), and roads which are, if the civil engineers were perfectly honest, not really wide enough for two cars to pass. I’ve often made a connection between geography and the resettlement of immigrants to the United States, for example that it’s no accident that so many Poles settled in the Midwest and upper Midwest – most of Poland looks exactly like Wisconsin. But here we’re in a rural land of low, albeit mostly deforested, mountains, not unlike southern Missouri, or the Smoky Mountains. (The standard of architecture is somewhat higher than the trailers and shacks of those regions, though.) The villages are demarcated by a highway-side Virgin Mary altar at the entrance and exit of each, and often the most striking and colorful thing in the town is a sprawling, slopeside graveyard blooming, even in the chill of March, with the brightest of flowers.
The churches themselves are rather more modern than you’d expect, tending toward the tall triangles, roofs nearly reaching the ground, that were popular in the 1960s. (I did see one deep-brown, wooden onion-domed structure which must be for the orthodox Lemko that straddle the Ukrainian border.) My best guess is that there wasn’t much left, structurally, around here in the wake of the Second World War, and that most of the building must in fact still date from the ’60s.
The other thing one notices on a Sunday evening is that everyone’s bundled up and walking along the side of the road, whole communities on their way to a five o’clock mass. When I arrive in Gorlice, the only sign of life will be the sound of the priest’s intonations and soft singing, lightly amplified as if there were anyone outside in the cold. At the crossroads is an old socialist-realist monument in concrete and rusted iron, rarer in Poland than they farther east, quickly-cast sculptures of figures my host can only identify as “some war heroes.” An empty glass vodka bottle is carefully placed in front of the sculpture, like an offering.
The pub, which, when I finally locate it, is the brick basement with an arched ceiling of a local art gallery with “Vita Breva, Ars Longa” painted in large letters across its facade. Two teenage rock louts are jamming at the far end, both on electric bass, one extremely drunk.
“Is a very nice panther suitcase,” he says jovially, pointing at the leopard-print suitcase I’ve borrowed from Maria for merchandise. “Are you gay?”
“It’s harder to lose when it looks like that.”
“Ha ha! You are right. It does not blend in.”
His friend, who has a bearded goatee, doesn’t speak much English; but their other friend Jarik spent a year in Guelph, and we agree on the superiority, in many ways, of the Canadian way of life. He plays in a Lemko rock band called Dollars Brothers. “Everyone else is playing folk music in the traditional way; we are mixing it with rock and funk…Only the singer is Lemko, maybe he will come tonight.” They’re having trouble recording, though: “We recorded twelve songs with a guy here who I think is deaf. There’s another guy, though, he just moved here from America, and he was doing sound, and he brought all this good gear.”
I asked him if he knew the wifi password. He and the bartender exchange a sheepish look: “The internet is not working now; they did not pay the bill.” That’s ok – they’ve got a deep catalog of Motorhead and team handball on the TV.
I go looking for food, but the town is dark. A paved central square slants downhill, under a pedestrian bridge, and I see one lit sign that says “Chili Pub & Pizzeria,” and inside I find Jarik and Edita, who might be a couple but it’s hard to say for sure. They call and confirm that their friend has food for me at the pub – lentil croquettes, sauerkraut, and some kind of of boiled spongy thing in a gloopy mushroom sauce, as it turns out.
Jarik, a jazz guitarist who works at the local music store, talks touring. He knows the lifestyle, it turns out: he’d been in the band for the Finland Circus, the biggest circus in that country. “It was interesting but hard…I played with them two seasons, seven months, April to October. You are going to sleep at 1pm, up at 5:30, sometimes six days in a row until you get to a city where you can rest for a day or two…In Finland, they drink Friday night, Saturday night, and Wednesday night. Why Wednesday? I don’t know.”
“They actually have one of the biggest ambient music festivals in Europe here,” he claims. Generally, though, “this is the kind of place people move away from. Only the old people are staying.”
Why are you here, then?
He shrugged. “This is my home.”
We walk back to the pub and meet their friend – “also a musician, he is playing blues, folk” – “ballads,” their friend clarifies – “he is named Arik, we are Jarik and Arik. He wants to maybe jam with you later.”
“Hm,” I say noncomittally. “We’ll see…”
In the event, once church let out, everyone came to the bar, and it was a loud, drunken, fun bar show. An older man with white crew cut and a black push-broom mustache shook my hand repeatedly and talked me down on the price of a CD in a mix of Polish, German, and Russian. “You have forceful…” He mimed the movement of playing the accordion and singing. “Powerful!” He asked me a series of questions I couldn’t translate, and I turned to the teenagers at the next table for help. They burst out in embarrassed laughter.
“He wants to know, are you a Jew?”
We stayed at the bar for a while, Jarik, Edita, her reserved husband; Mantek and his slim, gothy girlfriend, and a few others; including the Lemko singer of Jarik’s bands and two lady friends of his. The air would be filling with cigarette smoke but for the fact that everyone is smoking e-cigarettes. “Well, we had communism, we couldn’t get good drugs, we only had cigarettes and cheap wine. Now we have these!”
The Lemko break into a capella folk song – it’s a habit I’ve seen in Carpathian Ukraine as well: in the words of Rebecca West, describing a similar scene in Macedonia, “It was as if they had put their arms round the neck of the emotion of unrequited love and were leaning on her while, preoccupied with her sadness, she led them to the end of the song.” The man takes the bass and his two friends take the soprano and alto parts. “All the Lemko songs are about love and war,” says Jarik.
The party is moving to Mantek’s place, and we stumble out. It’s pushing 1am – the Polish concerts are starting mercifully early, eight usually – and we pause outside a bakery. Edita runs in and returns five minutes later waving a bag of steaming rolls. Her father works there, and she’s scored us hot fresh bread.
The party settles into their living room, which is decorated with erotic, vaguely S&M-themed paintings. Unable to find a bottle opener, I attempt to open a beer with a bottle of cooking oil, and splash the front of my shirt with oil when it pops open. I must be drunker than I thought; and my hosts are kind enough to throw the shirt along with the rest of my laundry into their washer and I excuse myself to the spare bedroom.
In the morning, they are both the worse for wear – the party, apparently, went on until four in the morning – and breakfast is somewhat silent. I’m nearly mauled by their psychotic Labrador Laura, and we decide it’s time to take her out and get me back to the car.
I ask if there’s a post office on the way – I want to send Maria a postcard. They snort, and take me around the corner, where the local post office is a desk in the corner of what looks a little like a 99-cent store. A beefy man stands behind it, weighing a package wrapped in cling-wrap. I hand him the postcard, and he stares at it.
And keeps staring at it, reading it, in fact. “You don’t need to read the thing,” I say.
He says something to Mantek to the effect of “What does he want me to do with this?”
“It’s a postcard,” says Mantek, and points to the address.
“Amazing!” said Mantek later. “He works at the post office, it was like he’d never seen a post card before!”
It’s really not that long a drive back to Krakow, and I decided to do a little touristing, at a place called the Wielicka Salt Mine, now in the Krakow suburbs. It had been a functioning salt mine for seven hundred years, founded by the wonderfully-named Boleslaw the Bashful and operational up until the early 1900s. It’s hundreds of miles of tunnels and cathedral caverns literally carved into rock salt; briny lakes and barely-translucent walls, fortified with tree trunks painted white with fire-retardant calcium and sprouting tumors of “cauliflower salt.” The guide for the English-language group is a melancholy scarecrow named Jerzy in an antiquated, multi-buttoned jacket that makes him look like a 19th-century train conductor. He is as dignified in his delivery of the statistics of the massive mine as he is of his timeworn jokes (“They say if you put coins in the pool it can bring you luck. They say this also works with the pockets of the tour guide.”) There is a nauseous anti-vertigo in the consciousness of 135 meters of rock salt between one and the surface.
On the way to the club, the suburbs sprout the tangle of airborne wires – tramlines and antennae – that are the visual cue of an Eastern European city. The club is a basement punk bar (a new, larger if labyrinthine, location for a long-established club) on the central strip of Kasimierz. It’s the historical Jewish quarter, somewhat renovated for tourists, of which there were a few gangs of Hasidim just to fill out the picture. I go next door for inauthentic, though spicy, Indian food.
“Did you get my email?” says the promoter, a young kid named Wyrak. There’s a straight-edge, vegan, animal-rights, hardcore band from Switzerland – hoodies and shorts, vegan brownies at the merch table, and a vinyl EP labelled “Positive Side” (“Change Yourself,” “Second Family”) and “Pissed Side” (“Mercy For Animals,” “Positive Impact”) – that’s just showed up in town on their way to Russia, and he’s putting them on at six – and they’re also staying at his place. “There are six of them, they will stay on the floor, you can still have your own bed.”
I ponder sharing a room with the six Swiss and Wyrak and make plans to stay with Maria’s cousin Marta.
You don’t need to drive far east of Krakow before the land takes on the pancake-flat blankness of Nebraska, with the same accents of long-haul trucking, industrial farming equipment, and desultory highway construction stretching to Ukraine and Belarus to the east and north. Two villages have small warplanes on pedestals in their central squares. I’m beginning to see the dark brown wooden houses, log cabins off squared-off trunks caulked with cement and dirt, that are the traditional houses from here to Kamchatka, but this far west they are still the archaic exceptions among the brick and cinderblock norm. (Once I cross to the eastern side of the Wisla River, they become more prevalent.) Cranes’ nests perch atop electrical poles like fur hats; and the barren trees are infested with some kind of tumbleweed-looking green hairballs several feet across.
I passed through a truly awful-looking town called Ternobrzeg, which consisted wholly of a series of free-standing housing projects standing in a field. Its two sights were, first, what seemed, improbably, to be a truncated air traffic control tower; and second, an incongruous socialist-realist abstract sculpture topped with a white Virgin Mary. Men in crew cuts, sweatpants, and hoodies stalked the crosswalks with no obvious destination .
The only place worth stopping, Marta said, between Krakow and Lublin, was a town called Sandomierz. It was at first interesting only in the sense that it was the only elevated land, if only by a few hundred feet, for what seemed like hundreds of miles around. And it retained a cobblestoned old town. This was a seat of medieval power ranked only behind Krakow and Warsaw in its time; now very quiet indeed. (Sandomierz, incidentally, is the setting for the Polish version of the “Father Brown” TV series, in which a local priest solves mysteries.) The restored and whitewashed castle sits on a cliff over the river and such is the flatness of the surrounding country that you can see for miles of fields and trucking; and to fill up its space, the town has made a bizarre combination of archaeological display from the Neolithic (mammoth skull, bone combs) through the Roman and Renaissance – alongside some truly tacky modern, and I assume local, art. A slim blonde runs ahead of me turning on lights as I go room to room.
There’s a cathedral as well, and a controversial one at that: it’s got wall-size frescos covering the interior, one of which depicts the “blood libel” – that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian babies. Some have argued for its removal, but for now it remains, accompanied by an explanatory note.
It’s a gorgeous church, actually, and I enter as a three o’clock Mass is just beginning, though for only three or four parishioners and an unseen priest chanting over a public address system. There’s a huge white-and-gold organ in the rear, and the organist strikes up a hymn, and the priest has a lovely voice.
The GPS tried to send me to an abandoned ferry terminal to cross the Wisla, a rotting wooden dock which didn’t seem likely to have been in operation in a decade. Lublin, when I got there, was a ring of yellow cereal-box housing projects around a somewhat downtrodden city center. Eastern Poland was, until the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, the most economically depressed region in the European Union. Eva Hoffman quotes a Warsaw native that “since Cracow had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was never as poor as this part of Poland, which had been under Russian occupation until World War I. The Russian occupations, he says bitingly, were always the worst.” The day I arrived in Lublin an article ran in Slate entitled “Don’t Invest In Eastern Poland” (Matt Yglesias arguing that despite the relative prosperity of the rest of the country, the relative ease of internal migration meant that the ambitious and talented would just move west – same reason, he argued, why the economic disparities between, say, Mississippi and Massachusetts don’t automatically even out).
Like Baltimore and Detroit, though, some punks are always going to try and tough it out. The club tonight is a squatted space in one of a trio of short, abandoned homes covered in graffiti murals across from sixteen stories of a city bureaucracy. A familiar youth center/Food Not Bombs joint with a couple of creeps haunting the parking lot. Of which I’m one.
Michal is one of the collective of twenty or so who run the place. He is genial and energetic, long and light brown hair poking out from under a black wool cap; he’s been up for two days “finishing projects.” I asked him about the history of the buildings.
“When Poland came back on the map after World War I,” he says, the brick building opposite was built, on an artificial hill, for “financial institutions,” and these three little wooden villas were built for its directors. During the second World War, they served as a kind of officers’ club for the occupying Gestapo; then in the post-war decades were variously an orphanage, primary school, private college, and underground cafe. When the cafe owners, who themselves were in a grey area regarding legal occupancy, moved to the country seven years, the punks took it over as a show space. Not long after, a few of them moved in, too.
“We are a little tired of doing events…We get a lot of Ukrainian and Belorussian bands coming as their first stop on a European tour, from Minsk and Hrodna mostly. In Brest is more New York hardcore-style crew, they keep to themselves, we don’t really have a contact with them.”
I asked him about doing shows in Belarus, which, as the last old-style dictatorship in Eastern Europe, is a fascination for me. “I think it is expensive for an American to get a visa,” he said, “But it would be worth it. The atmosphere at the shows would be really good.”
He said something about going to get dinner, and I offered to drive. We went about five minutes into the old town and he came back with a girl and a few Tupperware of couscous, pasta, and cabbage salad. “Emilie will ride with you,” he said, “and I’ll meet you at the club.”
I made an attempt at small talk. She said she’s not a member of the collective, but she cooks food for them sometimes.
“Well thank you,” I said, as we arrived at the club. “I appreciate it.”
“I don’t make it for you,” she said.
“This is Natalia,” said Michal, of a short, dark-haired woman in a parka (whom I later find out is a Ph.D. student in political science with an interest in municipal architecture who dabbles in show booking). “You are going to stay at her place, and she is friends with the Georgian guy who is gonna open.”
The Georgian turns out to be a very serious guy named Shota – a spelling I cannot confirm – from a village sixty kilometers from Tbilisi who has obtained a deep love for American country music after hearing Ringo sing “Act Naturally” and figuring out who Buck Owens was. He is about six feet tall, thin as a rail; the long curly hair and beard of a ’70s rocker to go with bell bottoms, fringed leather jacket, denim snap shirt and cowboy boots.
He’s been living in Krakow for the past six months and had spent the six months before that learning what the Poles say is surprisingly good Polish. All of this was to try and get on a Polish country music festival in the northeast, up by Kaliningrad, that’s in its third decade.
“Really?” says Michal. “That’s a dangerous festival. Three people got stabbed last year, It’s a festival for rednecks.”
“This place” – Shota indicates the chilly squat with great sincerity – “is my dream to live.”
The Poles give each other ironic looks.
“When the weather gets warmer,” says Michal, “you’re welcome to it.”
“I would love to have this in Georgia, musicians living together. We have some youth centers but they are only for young teenagers to hang out.”
When singing, his accent transmutes into pure Jimmie Rodgers. He does a pitch-perfect Hank Williams, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” and, of course, “Act Naturally.” (Plus “Sweet Baby James” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which make me think that some distinctions are lost in translation.) He opens with a charming original to the effect of, “I’m from Georgia, the country not the state,” and so on; and waxes lyrical about his fantasy of a southern honky-tonk that I’m not sure still exists, if it ever did. Houston and Dallas are sure to disappoint him, but I hope he makes it to Austin someday.
I head to the apartment Natalia shares with a guy whose name I didn’t catch, on whose floor I’m staying, and we sit up for a while talking literature – her roommate is reading a biography of Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish travel writer of whom I’m a huge fan. Apparently it’s not entirely flattering.
“Poles like our heroes to be pure heroes,” says the roommate. “So when someone writes a book that says, hey, he’s a human, people get upset.”
We talk Jack London, the American adventure novelist whose prose must translate particularly well into Slavic languages, because I’ve always found him taken much more seriously in the former Eastern Bloc, where he is a fixture in bookstores, than he ever is in America. Later, I am surprised to find my impression prefaced in full by Rebecca West, writing of Zagreb in 1937: She meets a playwright who says that his milieu considers the greatest writers of ther modern times to be Conrad, Gorki, and London. “We blanched,” says West. “We thought that in fact these people could have no taste, if they could think…Jack London great. We were wrong…Writers like Shaw and Wells and Peguy and Gide did not seem to [the playwright] artists at all: they wrote down what one talks in cafes, which…is not serious, because it deals with something as common and renewable as sweat. But pure narration was a form of great importance, because it gathered together experiences that could be assimilated by others of poetic talent and transmuted into higher forms; and he liked Conrad and Jack London and Maxim Gorki because they were collecting experiences which were rare, which they had investigated thoroughly be undergoing them themselves, and which they had tested with an abnormal sensitiveness.” It is a not unconvincing argument, though it may be trumped by the simple one that an active, plain, and unsubtle style lends itself better to translation than a poetic one – as anyone who has tried and failed to appreciate Pushkin in translation might attest. But it is a tribute to the luck of an artist’s work to search out a suitably appreciative audience independent of his agency or his localized reputation. “Because of the limitations of language,” says West, “we are debarred from seeing something that is obvious to unsealed eyes as the difference between a mule and a Derby winner.”
They ask my my favorite American writer and it’s surprisingly hard to answer – the best I can come up with is Mark Twain.
In the morning we stop for coffee at the shop they run, and head back to the club, where I’ve been parking in. The mud lot, which was deserted the night before, now has literally hundreds of cars – workers at the surrounding office buildings who use it for free parking. But they’ve left cell numbers in the windshields and I’m shortly extricated.
“I begin to understand why travel writers are always alluding to what they’ve been reading, even as they are scaling a glacier or plunging into a deadly swamp,” says Eva Hoffman. “Faced with the unformed world before me, with the plethora of places, personalities, and accidental encounters, I crave the shapeliness, the ready-made order, of a written world.” I’m reading, or re-reading, two travelogues as a kind of conceptual bracketing. The first is by Hoffman, another Polish (expat) writer I admire, whose Exit Into History is a travelogue of her return to Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, just after the fall of Communism, and covers a lot of what Winston Churchill called the “famous cities” of Eastern Europe that I’m also visiting. The second, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb And Grey Falcon, a doorstop of a meditation on Yugoslavia, its neighborhood, history, and precarious and doomed prospects as she travels between 1936 and 1938. If nothing else, the pair give me a certain confidence, or insouciance, in regards writing about one’s description, even analysis, of places based on glancing impressions and casual conversation.
Warsaw has an unreconstructed, even sublime, ugliness: rebuilt on an essentially blank slate after the second war, in which Hitler vowed to turn it into a second Carthage, wiping it off the map, and nearly succeeded; it was rebuilt in a style somewhere between Hapsburg aesthetic gigantism and Communist utilitarian gigantism. Each block feels like a half-mile, and you can feel the stone sidewalks in your sore soles in short order.
I’d been recommended an exhibit called “The Invisible World,” which was intended to introduce the experience of being blind to the sighted, with blind people as guides. I had the idea it was something like an art exhibit of work by the blind; but it was more like a small-scale theme park on the second floor of a mall. In a lightless room, you are guided between models of an apartment, a street, a forest and hunting cabin, and an art gallery. In the initial decompression room, I feel a vertiginous fear, but the tour itself is too quick and superficial leave the impression I’d imagined.
I went to the cafe. It was a two-story coffeeshop on a traffic roundabout with the evocative name “Galeria Funky,” and the owner was a sixtyish dandy with a white walrus mustache named Edward. He’s owned the place for a little under a year and is new to the business of live music – I’m his second concert, after an American jazz combo. But he has the enthusiasm of the newcomer. He walks me to the hostel and checks me in, attends to the kid setting up the PA; he’s made door-size posters and has a framed photo of the preview in the national newspaper beside the door. He disappears before the show, and returns dressed in a style approximating mine, in a black porkpie hat, black jacket, red pants, with red sunglasses in his jacket pocket for an accent; and introduces the show with aplomb.
Kasia, who booked the Polish week for me, had emailed me months ago about this show, with a particular request: “I think they are looking for more like an American comedy or spoken word act? So maybe you could tell more stories?” I said I could, that the show was more or less the show but I can try to be funny at greater length if it helps.
It helped as far as I could tell. I asked Edward at the end of the night if he was happy.
“It was not what I expected,” he said. “But it was very good still.”
I am used to losing, or as I’ve come to think of it shedding, a few personal possessions over the course of a tour: suits, hats, cables, the odd box of merch. I have built-in redundancies, so I can even survive the loss of a laptop with my phone, or vice versa. But the one thing I can’t do without on a foreign tour is the GPS unit. So it was with a- not an escalating, more like a free-falling – panic that I realized, after a lazy breakfast, that I didn’t have my trusty Garmin Maggie.
I checked both closets at the club. I emptied my bag. I went to the car and emptied the glove box and the boot.
I sprint-walked back to the hostel, where I knew I’d checked today’s route the night before, and thus was the last place I’d had Maggie in my hands. The room had already been cleaned, and the cleaning ladies disavowed any knowledge.
I ran back to the club and car, and repeated my purges.
I went once more to the hostel – I knew I’d left a little bottle of Dr. Bronner’s in the shower, and that had been gone. Surely…
Poznan, the year before, had been the panic, too: the highways of Poland were under frantic construction leading up to the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, and the road northbound to Poznan had been completely closed. We’d arrived at nearly 8:30 for an 8pm show, and loaded in and set up in front of a packed audience. I was playing the same club, in the same automobile-free town center, this tour, and I’d vowed to make it early.
But now I was cutting it close. I ran the nearly mile-and-a-half to the Warsaw train station, where the hostel manager had told me there was a mall. I’d seen it the day before, a bizarre miscarriage of modern architecture that looked like a black tarpaulin draped over a pile of basketballs. Up the stairs and in the back was the Polish equivalent of a Best Buy. I had about enough time to grab a new GPS and run back out.
“Hi – do you speak English?”
The store worker nodded.
“I need a GPS for Europe, including Eastern Europe, that speaks English.”
He nodded again, led me to a bin, grabbed a box, and said, “This is the best one.”
I paid cash, ran to and through the checkout, back past the gothic old Palace of Culture (now a cinema multiplex), through what I instantly filed away as “the park of crying girlfriends,” to the car, fired up the new device, and hit the road. I would just about make it before doors.
The sweat was starting to dry and my mood was settling. There was a brand-new highway between Warsaw and Poznan (which, as the Lublin punks pointed out, had been given preference over the Lublin-Warsaw route). I’d be there in three hours. Maria called.
“Let me call you right back,” I said confidently. “I’ll be on a highway in a sec.”
It was about then I realized I was being U-turned around some construction. Apparently, in the hurry to finish the highway, the on-ramps from the middle of the actual city were…incomplete.
The next hour or so was a mess of out-of-control heart rate and despair, as I circled the city center and headed in the direction of the first sign that said “Wroclaw” – not the right city, but sort of in the right direction. I headed out of town to the objections of the increasingly agitated GPS. I got to a country McDonalds and got online. It looked like I could cut north through some villages in a few miles. I squealed off the highway onto a dirt road, then cut back into speeding traffic, then off behind some trucks.
Reader, this story has a happy ending, but only just. At least I made it to Poznan before showtime this time.
As I said before, I have noticed one thing over now two Polish tours, which is that the Poles are – at least in this circuit, with the kind of music I’m making now, a reserved sort of audience.
“I’ve heard this from performers before,” said one man to whom I expressed this opinion. “For Poles, a performance is like church – we want to be respectful, and give you your space, and sometimes people think it is because we don’t like it.”
It took a few days to adapt, I admit. But after the second encore in Krakow, and the second encore in Warsaw, and the encore in Poznan, I was willing to believe it – crowds that I thought couldn’t wait for me to leave, asking me to come back. After two days of spring weather, it was snowing in Poznan in the morning. I walked over to the club and called Kamil, the genial manager with the shaved head. He had travelled for years but stayed in Poznan out of idealism: “It’s the only place in Poland where everyone knows what ‘anarchism’ means.” He volunteers at an infoshop called “Vengeance,” and just won a large cash settlement and an apology from British police after “an incident,” so he’s hoping to use it to go to South America. “Probably I’ll stay there.”
I drove to Berlin in the snow.
Northbound again towards and then into Idaho, through the evocatively-named Snowville, Pocatello, Twin Falls, Mountain Home, on to what will be my goal for today, La Grande in Oregon. Both borders of Utah, the southern with Arizona and this one, are probably the most beautiful and not coincidentally empty places in America, and you can see different weather on each horizon. The Twin Falls gas station population is massively obese, with at least two full, neck-to-ankle Carhartt worksuits. The town is on fire, farmers burning the fields post-harvest, and is hung with an acrid smog for fifty miles north of the city. The wind whips me sideways, and gargantuan tumbleweeds, several feet across, pile across the road every couple hundred yards, and it feels like a post-apocalyptic video game as I dodge them while wrestling the gusts.
The smoke clears and I cross and recross the Snake River, down into the valley and then up onto the long tablelands, already black on both sides of the highway from their own regenerative fire. The long, low Boise suburbs, dominated by superhuman mining pits and piles and putty hills, are the only significant human presence I’ve seen all day, and certainly the only thing approximating traffic. Over the Cascades and it feels like winter for the first time this tour, and right on cue the first snowflakes.
“You come in from that way?” the check-in lady says at the Rodeway Inn, thumbing east.
“Nope, from Salt Lake.”
“Oh, the other end. What’s it look like out there?”
“Just a little snow.”
She shook her head. “They keep saying snow’s coming, and nothing.”
“Just gonna come when it comes, I guess.”
“Yup,” and handed me a key.
Down out of the snow-dusted coniferous mountains into a wide and dappled valley and pulled into a rest stop to get online for a minute. I came in behind a white Econoline pulling a U-Haul trailer. When six or seven skinny guys in black jeans, converse, and jean jackets over hoods piled out and headed for McDonald’s, my suspicions were confirmed: band van. Turned out to be something called the Generationals, Seattle-bound. We shook hands and wished each other well, while I clandestinely pulled up their Wikipedia page. It mostly details which songs of theirs ended up in which Kindle ads and so forth, which is neither here nor there, but the whole thing reminded me of one thing. A common question I get in interviews is “Do you miss being in a band?” The answer is no, basically, but there is one thing I miss which is the camaraderie that comes with feeling like part of a common touring family, crossing paths in airports, motels, and festival backstage with other black-clad gangs on the same record cycle. Obviously solo people still see other, but it doesn’t have the same “Let’s have a drink” instant-party chemistry when there’s two or three as when there’s ten.
It’s rare to see green cliffs, but those along the Columbia River that separates Oregon from Washington are fungal, if not lush. One always thinks of the Pacific Northwest as wet, but there are (at least) three distinct regions: the high and dry east, the snow-slick mountains, and then the rainy coast. And the city of Portland, because of its tightly-contained development regulation, sneaks right up out of the national forest.
I’ve never done well in what are generally accepted to be “hipster cities.” It’s a combination of seen-it-all – there are great shows every night, everybody’s in a band or writes for a blog – and the plain fact that what I do is just not that cool on the face of it. I really do try not to pile on a town like Portland but they make it so damn hard: The sound guy rode into (and I mean into) the club on a tall bike customized to look like a Harley. There were fifty people lined up at one a.m. for artisanal doughnuts. One of the opening acts (who were very sweet) was a ten-piece including electric autoharp, horn section, ukulele, and some kind of Blue Man Group hit-a-PVC-tube-with-a-flip-flop contraption. The club staff was really nailing that elusive mix of willful ignorance and supercilious condescension: don’t know who’s playing, don’t know where to park, don’t know when doors are or set times. What they did know is they wanted to get through sound check ASAP. The only venue employee at load-in asked the room, “Who here knows the most about the show?”
I was about to ask you the same thing. Don’t you, you know, work here?
But I got to stay at Dave Dondero’s new place, and meet his new girlfriend, also very sweet and very Portland, knit cap, stylish glasses, works at a farmer’s market. It’s the smallest apartment I’ve ever seen to also contain a fake fireplace, and I slept like a king.
Don, a friend of my wife’s, was running a “thrift store fashion show benefit” in Seattle and I headed over to that bar after I loaded in. “Wear your show suit, and come in the back,” he’d texted. It was a schizophrenic joint: dive bar in the front playing a Leftover Crack record, red-booth-and-candles restaurant in the back, black box theater off the side. I peeked in: I was late, the show had begun. Don was in a fuzzy pink outfit; his MC foil was in black pajamas with hearts. Don waved me down the center aisle, on mic: “Franz! Come back here!” He gestured to the stateside door, the only way backstage. I snuck in front of the curious, confused crowd…
…through the stage door, to the equally curious, confused gaggle of “models” ready for their star turn, in pink feathers, polyester shirts, too-loose and far-too-tight underclothes, who turned as one and stared.
“Are you in the show?”
“I…guess so? Don didn’t really tell me what this was, he just said to show up at this address.”
“Do you have your card?”
A guy took pity on me and explained that I’d need to fill out an index card for the MCs, including “your fake name, what thrift store you got your clothes at, how much you think it would cost, what your charity is…”
“I think…I need to leave.” And I snuck out the fire exit. I’d gotten a $47 parking ticket.
“Fuck it,” I thought. “It’s a rental,” and crumpled and threw it out the window.
The show, thankfully, was fun as hell, and I needed it. The Comet Tavern is a fine dive and both other bands were pretty good: first the Exohxo; then me, and it was loud crowd and I was still mad about the parking ticket so I was worked up and talkative and yelling and had a generally super time. I passed on the stuffed lion my host in Arkansas had given me to give to his wife (they’d had a youthful, still-to-be-annulled marriage). The headliners were Bad Things, a rowdy accordion-fronted bunch whose songs reminded me a little of the retro-gumbo of Vic Ruggiero, and whose singer reminded me that we’d played together once before: on the World/Inferno Friendship Society tour that keeps coming up in this tour diary, since I’m retracing its steps. He’d been the accordion player in Midnite Choir, to whom I wrongly attributed the flaming trash can in the last diary. That was the Dolomites. Mea culpa. He was cool about it: “We played together a lot.”
It was a kind of relief to leave Seattle behind and get back out on the uncontested highways and uncomplicated parking, through the Snoqualmie pass and nine more hours drive to a night off in Missoula.
“Oh, for the love of flowers,” said the gas station lady. “I hit the wrong button.”
Also overheard: “Well, you can’t help who you love’s brother is,” which is certainly true.
The last three hours drive are downhill, out of the mountains, in the snow, past trailers hauling cetacean windmill fins. Ever since I got the eye surgery ten years ago (from a guy who later became briefly infamous as the “creepy Craigslist doctor.” I don’t see all that well at night. Well, I never did pay for the surgery, so you get what you etc. etc.
The driving is no better in the daylight. “Ice and snow/take it slow” says the electronic highway sign, and they’re not kidding. It must’ve snowed overnight, and unpredictable stretches of the passing lane are yet unplowed. Certainly the dividing lines are crusted over, and the tires lose purchase every time I cross. At least once, I skid for a good quarter mile next to a truck, and thank god for my New Hampshire snow-driving upbringing. All cerulean and ivory, it’s hard to tell where the mountains and snow end and the sky and clouds start. The snow blows in surveyor-straight channels across the road, and the wind is an undertow, punctuated in pairs when I pass a semi truck. I crossed the continental divide between sugared, tumorous rocks. It’s winter driving in earnest, and the men in the truck stops are in their work boots, and down vests over grey hoods.
The only other gang checking in at the Holiday Inn in Missoula is clearly another band, but I can’t figure out just from eavesdropping who they might be. And what am I gonna do, walk over to their table and say, “Hey, what band are you guys?” I’ll just eat my eggplant. I got a frustrating email from Jeffrey Lewis in the morning wondering if we’re doing a show together – we’re both in Missoula, Fargo, and Billings in the same three days, none of them together. Some promoters really missed a trick on that one. He’d been on the same road and had less luck – slid into a guardrail and messed up the driver’s side front of their car.
Billings apparently will be the city in which we answer the question, what do I say when the friendly, handlebar-moustached bartender asks why I shaved mine, when the real answer is “Because too many people started having them and I just didn’t want to be associated with it.”
Here we have a hangar-like sports bar with a phalanx of frozen drink mixing machines: Wild Berry, Hurricane, 190 Octane, Mango, Strawberry Passion and the like. Probably not in heavy rotation given that it’s below freezing outside but manfully churning nonetheless. I’ll never understand why some soundguys will test a guitar in just the monitors and ask you if it’s loud enough. I don’t know, dude, it’s all relative. Let’s get everything else going first, shall we?
Actually it was a nice show in Billings, which just goes to prove my point that “A-list cities” can’t have nice things. It’s the provinces that appreciate. A ten-hour drive tomorrow, Billings to Fargo. That makes five of the last nine days coming in at nine-plus. I like driving and all but come on. My dad emails to say he’s enjoying my “dour diaries,” about which sic obviously, but there’s a malapropistic truth there – this is a rough tour.
Scene: a basement apartment, Billings, MT.
“I would have put you up in my parents’ house – it has nine rooms, and thirteen bathrooms.”
“That ratio seems backwards.”
“Yeah, each room has a private bathroom, and then there are…public bathrooms.”
“Anyway, I would’ve had to sneak you in, and you couldn’t drink. They’re Mormons.”
“Well that’s out of the question then.”
“My brother, when Obama got re-elected, sent a mass email saying he could get us cheap guns if we needed. I told him he probably shouldn’t be saying that, given that he works for the Boise police.”
“Everyone here thinks the apocalypse is coming. My parents were crying when Fox News called Ohio. They have enough food for thirty people for a month. All my friends know they can come to my house. I have a 72-hour bag.”
“All Mormons do. A ‘go’-bag. A backpack in my bedroom; it has canned food, changes of clothes, a straw that filters water. My grandmother has four guns in her car, one in the glovebox, on under each seat, one in the trunk. I found one reaching under the passenger seat. I said, ‘Grandma, there’s a gun here.’ She said, ‘I know, they may want to rape me!’”
“So, how do you guys know each other?”
“We’re…lovers. To use the worst possible term for it.”
The others: “And we met on Myspace.”
“But none of you live here.”
“Are you housesitting?”
“No, they’re upstairs. They just have jobs, they probably turned in early.”
“Will they be surprised when a stranger leaves?”
“They know we’re here.”
Goddam this drive. Goddam, this drive. Goddam this – drive.
Through Mile City, Montana, where on the outskirts there is a barnside mural of a rodeo rider, with the motto “Don’t let meth be your last ride.” I passed a truck with a sticker across the back window proclaiming the driver an “Elkoholic.” The plains, mountains, and clouds are distinct layers of blue and white from deep-sea to United Nations. The fourteen bucks I spent in Idaho on a gas station Swiss Army knife knockoff have been definitively wasted: I tried to open a bottle of wine with the corkscrew and the whole thing came apart in my hand.
All the freaks in Billings out tonight: the guy with Buffalo Bill Cody beard and hair, the guy in embroidered velvet tails with top hat encrusted with band pins, the guy in a see-through cowboy hat, with a light-blue bowtie over a t-shirt. David Sedaris is next door at the theatre, so I’d better be extra wry tonight. Around the other corner is the American Legion hall, the basement of which hosted the first Hold Steady show in Fargo some seven years ago. We played for two and a half hours on the basis of two albums’ material, after a tray of shots got passed to the stage, after which our sound guy said “Who do you think you are, fucking Bruce Springsteen?” Which, maybe at that point. The rest of the night is a good story but the statute of limitations and a certain remnant of discretion compel me to keep it to myself. Ask me offline. When we arrived at the border crossing Winnipeg-bound the next day, three of us – myself, the sound guy, and another band member – were called into the back room. “We swabbed your passports,” a stern guard announced. “And you three tested positive for cocaine. You got anything to say about that?”
First of all, swabbed our passports? We didn’t know that was a thing. Second, the sound guy and I shared a look – we knew exactly how that happened. The other band member, who will certainly remain unnamed, must have had his passport and his drugs in the same pocket, if not actually done lines of the booklet; then ours would have sandwiched his when the stack were handed to the border patrol. They gave us the business for twenty minutes but nothing came of it.
The Triple Rock in Minneapolis is possibly the finest venue, all-around, in the world; the scene of some of my greatest nights and most of my greatest shames, including the only night I’ve ever truly blacked out (or, as I went around telling people the next day, roofied myself). I’ve never figured out how to eat a meal there without the thought, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing, now I need to lie down, and also I have a full & personal understanding of how everyone in Minneapolis came to look the way they do.” The opening band’s singer took the dangerous & to my mind unhygienic step of performing barefoot.
On a day off in Minneapolis, I had big plans: I could stay with friends, I could go see a movie, I could catch up on the writing I have to do, I could go see Joe Pug at the Triple Rock and get a free dinner. What I did do was check into a hotel out by the airport, get Indian takeout, and get loaded in bed watching Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen, and young, tap-dancing Abe Vigoda. Never let anyone tell you I don’t know how to party.
I had the rare privilege at the end of the Triple Rock show of having a couple of offers of places to stay, which allowed me to put into practice the important and hard-won hierarchy of accommodations, in which, when one has the choice, one can make snap judgments about people who are generously offering their homes. From least to most desirable:
- Young men living together. This will be a mess of third-hand couches encircled around video-game terminals, dishes in the sink, unwashed sheets, band posters, Ibanez guitars with four strings, and clothes-ridden floors. The toilets will be stained and the soap will be unspeakable.
- Couples with cats. In general, couples are a good bet, but – and I know, people with cats, that you don’t think your houses smell of cat. They do. You have just stopped noticing. I travel with prescription-strength Claritin for these nights, and am still happy to stay – just a little less so.
- Single men under 35 living alone. This is a crapshoot. You can end up at the soundman’s black hole or a rotting Victorian house, huddled on a musty couch surrounded by stacks of old pornography; or you can end up at a lawyer’s tastefully carpeted studio when he is leaving for work early and leaves you carte blanche to make coffee and hang out taking advantage of his lightning-fast internet. You saves your money and you takes your chance.
- Married couples with children. They have a nice place but the household is awake at 6am and you are usually staying in the six-year-old’s bed, under four-foot-long superhero sheets, tripping over Legos, and there’s just no way to not feel dirty. And the children will stare at you in the morning.
- Childless couples over 30, especially married couples. These are people who actually have a guest room, the one their parents stay in when they come to visit and thus is probably the nicest bedding they can afford.
The floor (so to speak) of acceptability, rises the more years you are on tour. At 23 I was (relatively) content curled in the corner of a filthy Viennese squat with a cold-water bathroom two floors down. At 35, floors are off the menu, and I’m about ready to write off couches too. So it goes.
The liquor store in Madison on a Friday night is a zoo. Surely there is some way to convince college kids it’s unacceptable to wear pajamas outdoors. The show is on campus, at the student bar, where I’ve been coming for over ten years with various bands. Aaron Hammes of the Chicago band Deals Gone Bad used to bring World/Inferno there every couple years, basically underwriting our tours, and I’ll be taking up my biennial residence on his couch in Chicago in a few days. (Actually, and maybe this is breaking news, he’s going on tour with Inferno as their new baritone sax player in a week.) It’s always a bit of shouting match, since live entertainment in the pitcher-of-beer student joint is rarely the primary draw. The last time Inferno had been there, we played out on the terrace overlooking the lake, and Lucky stripped down to his briefs, dove in, and came up with a dead fish in his hand, which he left on the snare drum. Then Semra overturned a table on a crowd of particularly rowdy drunks (or, as she put it with no small pride, “I ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ed that table”).
This time I’m indoors. There’s some kind of ballroom-dance event going on upstairs, next to the dressing room. The venue is cavernous and echoes with Saturday night college drinking. Anna Vogelzang, who’s opening, is visibly discouraged by the effort of putting over folk songs in this context. I’m going to have to set the terms.
If you read military history, the generals of antiquity are obsessed with fighting the battle on favorable grounds, and armies will circle and shadow each other for days, even weeks, until the territorial conditions are right. I feel the same way about crowds: under certain circumstances it’s better to drive away half the crowd as soon as possible to set the conditions for a decent show.
“Listen,” I said. “My name’s Franz Nicolay, I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and we’re basically stuck with each other for the next 45 to 60 minutes, and I’m for sure going to be yelling at the top of my lungs. So if that’s going to mess with your good time, may I suggest the patio, or the foyer, or any other drinking establishment in this drinking town.”
It worked. A couple dozen people packed up and left pretty much immediately, and the rest gathered around and we had a perfectly nice show. Then I broke one of my cardinal rules and stayed up drinking with Anna and her husband. Never finish the night with Scotch. That’s a rookie mistake.
The pulsing halo of pain didn’t truly dissipate until nearly showtime the next night. I pulled off the road halfway between Madison and Griffith for a half-hour nap, then again in the parking lot outside the venue, a coffee shop on a suburban strip about 45 minutes outside Chicago, near Gary. This place just proves my theory that the best shows happen off the beaten track, in towns where tours don’t usually come – Duluth, Oxford, Lancaster, Normal, Visalia, Marfa, Hot Springs. The place was full, the opening guy played a homemade “shitar” and stomped on a skateboard studded with bottlecaps and I had my biggest merch night of the tour. The Grindhouse Cafe – check it out on your next to- or from-Chicago routing.
I’d gotten a dozen XXL shirts by accident a year ago, hadn’t managed to unload any of them, and cut all but one up and remade them as smalls. Shoulda kept a couple. “You’re in the upper Midwest and you didn’t bring XXLs?” two different people asked. Hey, they said it, not me. As far as I’m concerned, you can stay slim your whole life or you can enjoy life’s pleasures, and life is nothing if not short.
I stayed with Gabe, the cafe owner, and his wife. “I don’t know if you went to college,” he said, leading me into his basement, “but this might give you flashbacks. This was my original bathroom, until we got married and my wife made me have an adult one.” Past the boxes of empty beer bottles was, indeed, a guest room with a space heater wallpapered with posters: Iron Maiden, Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures,” GI Joe, Bat Out Of Hell III. “There’s no bathroom down here, but the one upstairs has a bidet.” Sure enough, the toilet had a bidet attachment, including settings for “posterior wash” and the presumably more astringent “enema wash.” I can’t vouch for their effectiveness, but I can report that I slept the sleep of the just, and I can probably handle the crushing 45-minute drive to Chicago today.
Dear Chicago: First of all, POTHOLES. Get right, Rahm. Second, what the hell with $1.50 tolls every five miles on I-90. Please, just charge me fifteen bucks once. Third, there is literally no time when you can approach the town without getting caught in a half-hour of traffic, and I’ve been testing this for years. Fourth, fun show. Township is the kind of place that offers a roasted fennel soup special, beet salad, and an impenetrable list of beers over 9% ABV. The waitress is friendly, if not entirely attentive, with oversize glasses with powder-blue frames. A couple repeat customers from the Indiana show the night before, and a couple making out during “Felix & Adelita,” so that’s a good sign – although, like the people that sing along to “This Is Not A Pipe,” I’m simultaneously flattered and concerned.
The next morning I went to the bank to deposit some tour cash.
“Is it true there are no alleys in New York?” asked the bank teller, apropos of nothing.
“…There are, and they’re paved with…pyrite.”
Michigan in November is a bleak drive, flatlands of grey and leafless trees, and a highway patrol every ten miles. I had dinner with my middle sister, an MFA student who lives in the greater Detroit metro area, and her longtime boyfriend, a linguistic anthropologist who had spent the better part of the last two years in the jungle between Bolivia and Peru. I asked him if he had any culture shock when he got back – it’s not often, these days, that you meet someone who’s been truly off the grid for any length of time.
“A little,” he said. “People had to fill me in on the Republican primaries. It sounded crazy.”
“A half-dozen lunatics and one relatively normal person. You missed out on some good fun.”
“That’s what it sounded like.”
I asked my sister about life in graduate art school. She said she’d come into it after a half-decade in New York, doing practical graphic design work for Martha Stewart, wanting to do more conceptual work. And now, a year and a half into grad school, using the euphemism “de-skilled” in critiques to describe colleagues’ technically-challenged work: “Well,” she said, “At the end of the day, you just gotta make the shit look good.”
Like I said, for some reason people in the Great Lakes run late shows – last night in Chicago, a midnight set on a Sunday. Tonight a midnight set on a Monday. The bar staff says, “Oh, we have a late crowd here.” No, ya don’t. You, personally, just don’t have to get up in the morning. Everyone else give me regrets and heads home. In any case, it was a decent crowd, decent room, the walls a time capsule of novelty band show posters of the aughts – Elvis Hitler, Chow Nasty. A Sharpied suggestion on the side-of-stage ledge: “Take a pick, leave a pick” – a great idea and one that I’m shocked I’ve never seen before. And one drunk blonde in a miniskirt who wouldn’t shut up. You know the type – up against the front of the stage for thirty seconds, turning around, arms in the air and gyrating, then running to the bar, then up to her boyfriend’s ear with some full-voiced opinions. Before the last song, I started my pre-song bit: “I made friends with a 5-year-old last year.”
“YEEAAAH! I love you!”
I’d had enough.
“If you love me so much, can you do me a favor? Can you shut your mouth for five minutes so I can finish this set?”
She turned to her boyfriend and began a comprehensive rundown of my jerkiness.
I looked at the boyfriend. “What do you, not give her enough attention?”
He got caught somewhere between a shrug and a threat, and she stalked out. I continued the bit. “This kid – and I don’t even know if we’re friends anymore, this was a year ago, and that’s a long time in the life of a five-year-old…”
A short, round, very drunk man in beard and glasses approached the lip of the stage with a phone held out. “…Hi!” I had to say.
“Hey! My friend just texted…he says, ask you about Tad’s Pamela Anderson-riding-Garfield tattoo!”
“Uh…yes, he has one.”
“It’s from Scott, from Thunderbirds Are Now!” This was a short-lived indie-dance outfit that had opened for the Hold Steady and Les Savy Fav on a 2005 Australian tour and broken up shortly thereafter. And, right, they were from Michigan.
“That’s great,” I said. “This is absolutely the best time for us to be doing this…OK, you know what, never mind. This song is called ‘Do The Struggle.’”
About halfway through the second verse, the blond marched back into the room, grabbed her boyfriend, who’d missed the moment to exit in a huff, by the wrist, and dragged him out. I mentally prepared for a punch in the nose after the set.
Detroit was to be the last day of the tour, and then I’d take two days to drive back to Boston and return the rental car. But my friends in Pittsburgh emailed to see if I’d be up for squeezing in one more at their friend’s gallery, and I’ve always felt that turning down gigs is bad voodoo, so here we are in Pittsburgh.
Every time Pittsburgh comes up I get on a high horse about it being one of the most underrated cities in the country, isolated enough from the normal routes that it has its own hothouse artsy culture huddled on the banks of the river valley. It’s also one of the most beautiful places to approach at dusk, if you burst through the tunnel exit and see the lit-up stadiums and bridges like a free-range snowglobe. We had a sit-down dinner upstairs with the proprietor, a boomer hipster with a white soul patch and Zappa bios on the shelf, and his wife. The opening act, ih a knit cap and a hood decorated like a vintage Gameboy handset, clear goggles strapped around his head, lenses wet with condensed sweat. (His was a pop-electronica act, although he also has a U2 tribute act that tours in suburban Indiana. I have to point out, without other comment, that he closed with a dance version of “Imagine.”) His wife, who, before going to work at an insurance call center with my friend, was a from-home phone sex operator. “I can still put it to use,” she says. “‘For information about mammograms, press one! Squeeze them giant titties!’”
The show had been arranged by my friends Bryan and Jen. Our mutual friend, who went by Jersey Mike, a show promoter and civic gadfly in Harrisburg, had died suddenly at the age of 36 days before, and Bryan asked to say a few words between sets. He retreated to the bathroom for a minute and came out in the blue “Unified Scene” t-shirt (the costume of a certain set of Hold Steady superfan). “Not many of you may have known Jersey Mike,” he began, and gave a short and heartfelt introduction and what Mike had meant to them. “It all happened so fast, and it just makes you want to tell the people you love how you feel when you have the chance, and actually…Hey Jen, can you come up here? My partner, Jen…” She joined him at the mic. “I’ve got something for you, here, it’s your mother’s ring, I know you wanted it…”
Well, you know the old showbiz saying, always try to follow a eulogy and a marriage proposal. “Well,” I said, taking the mic after the commotion died down, “I guess the only thing I can do is leaven all this good feeling with some pessimism. Never trust a man without a horror story!…”
People come up to the merch table, or local tour-phoner interviews, often open with “How’s the tour going?” Which I recognize is boilerplate along the lines of “How you doing?” to which the appropriate answer is “Great! It’s going great.” In this case, in the interests of transparency, I can just answer, it was fine. To quote “Louie,” it didn’t make me come. It wasn’t the best tour I’ve ever done, or the worst, it didn’t reaffirm my faith in music or make me want to quit forever. It had one or two great shows, a handful of soul-crushing ones, and a bunch that would be forgettable if I hadn’t written about them here. Just another tour.
Here, let me: TL;DR.
We got into New Orleans the day after the hurricane in New York, staying with NYC transplants Karen and Justin, who settled in the Arabi neighborhood just east of the Lower Ninth, which I’ve heard described as the “ghetto for white racists.” Their house, near the massive Domino’s plant that provides a good percentage of the sugar processed in the US, seemed brand-new, but was a post-Katrina re-fab job. They’d had to check a box on their lease denoting that they understood that this was a “Katrina building,” about which I guess it’s better not to think too much if you’re going to live in it. They’d rented it from a landlord who went by “Shark Eyes,” who they’d never actually met. Justin had only had phone conversations in which Shark Eyes both talked to him and narrated his inner dialogue: “I can’t come down and show it to you myself, I’m out of town. (OK, you have an interested client but you’re not in town, you’ll see if your friend has an extra key.) I’m going to call my friend and see if he has an extra key, OK?” The neighbors were thrilled they’d moved in – the previous tenants had been running a meth lab.
Karen, a wraith-thin, patchouli-scented animal-rescue devotee, runs a largely Internet-based custom clothing concern. Justin, somewhat younger but equally skinny; curly-haired and knob-featured, is a freelance journalist with a fascinating past. He had lived up in the Baffin Islands, by the Arctic Circle, with Inuit families: it was a weird dynamic, he says. “All the men had stab wound scars in their chests, and all the women had black eyes.” He has a cartoon on the fridge illustrating the “Inuit food pyramid” – all meat: seals, walrus, narwhal. Now he has a gig writing a weekly column about death practices of various cultures for a morticians’ blog and is plugging a self-published book about standing in various locations in New York City for 12-14 hours at a stretch and recording what he saw. After figuring out how to deal with the fire ants, they’ve just acquired a new paranoia: the brown recluse spider, which causes necrosis – flesh death – within ten minutes of a bite. They found one in their mailbox a few weeks ago. Their neighbor has a white, webbed scar on the back of his skull from a brown recluse bite while he was in prison, to which they attribute his (maybe) mental retardation. There’s a crayoned map of the route to the hospital taped to the fridge.
We had the day, so we went on a swamp hike in a park named for the 19th-century privateer, or pirate, or import/export man, or ally of Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans, or all of the above, Jean Lafitte. We crept along boardwalks built over old cypress-lumber canals that led to long-decayed plantations, eyeing stalks that looked like tree frogs, frogs that looked like leaves, black snakes that looked like sticks, small gators that looked like half-submerged logs, and giant gators that looked like nothing except giant gators, or maybe dinosaurs, snoozing murderously within four feet of the walkway. A shirtless man stumbled past us and almost stepped on a green ribbon snake.
We told the park ranger about the ten-foot alligator we’d seen. “Oh sure,” she said. “We have a couple of those. To be honest,” and she lowered her voice, “I wish they’d eat those pit bulls someone let loose in the northwest part.”
“Oh sure. Pet owners, who don’t want them anymore, they let them loose in the park. They don’t stand a chance. Meantime they’ve been chasing people around.”
I’d spent Sunday night at the Fest getting increasingly drunk, and when I get drunk I get schmoozy, and wake up with a phone full of emails and phone numbers of people I’d propositioned for tours, made plans for shows, or just exchanged mutual compliments, and I’m a good professional so I try to follow up, but sometimes it gets messy.
Vid: a phone number for an “Ian,” next to an email for the Smith Street Band. Surely this must be a band member, so I text something diplomatic to the effect of “Nice to meet you, have a good trip home!”
The phone beeped. “Franz. This is Ian Graham, from Cheap Girls.” We’ve met enough times, not least when he lowered himself from the balcony of a Hold Steady show in Michigan. “Come hang out in New Orleans tonight.”
Shit! Right. My friend Paul, who co-puts on my shows in Southampton, England, and whose rats had eaten my t-shirts while I slept on his bedroom floor in September, was doing merch for the Front Bottoms/Cheap Girls tour, and I’d made drunken plans to come hang out on my NOLA night off. I left Karen & Justin drinking sake cross-legged on the floor and drove over to the Circle Bar.
Cheap Girls were unloading gear from the back of their van and setting up drums by the sidewalk. We exchanged pleasantries and gripes about the difficulties of getting any traction in New Orleans show-wise, and I went in to watch the end of the Front Bottoms set. I knew their name but none of their music, and it struck me as something in between a lo-fi John Roderick and the obscure LES-squatter motormouth Roger Manning, though what do I know.
Here I thought I was just going to a bar show on a Tuesday night – and this was just set up on the floor, British pub-style – and it turned into a whole scene. A couple people told me, rather breathlessly, that Kyle Kinane was coming by (which he did, just as Cheap Girls had finished – they picked up their instruments and played another for him). Fake Problems were hanging around, en route to the start of their tour with Against Me!, and I got buttonholed by Derek, who unrolled a line of such florid flattery I started to think he was fucking with me. I can never quite get a handle on whether those guys are on drugs, taking the piss, or are just that energetic. I went home, shook out my pajamas – brown recluse spiders, don’t you know – and curled up on the air mattress.
The next day we moved over to the Sheraton, where Maria had been provided a hotel room for her conference. We were sharing with two of her colleagues, but still.
“She’s a plastic surgeon?” someone had asked me.
“No, an ethnomusicologist.” But sure enough, they were sharing the hotel with a plastic surgery convention – who had merited a “Welcome Plastic Surgeons” banner on the lamppost outside – which made for a fun lobby guessing game.
Maria said we were lame for not having costumes. We’ve been driving, I said. No excuse, she said, and Karen gave us some makeup to spice up our usual show outfits. With white pancake, red lipstick, and liquid eyeliner, I looked like nothing so much as a drunk old queen, who just wants to get up behind the mic one last time and croon an old Judy Garland number. Which is not so far from the truth.
We were booked Halloween night at the Hi Ho Lounge in the Bywater, first of three supporting Debauche, who someone described to me as “the New Orleans franchise of Gogol Bordello.” I’d booked the show through the band’s accordionist, a friend of an acquaintance. Now, the first thing I noticed when we arrived was that we’d been awkwardly added around the edge of the sidewalk chalkboard. The second thing I noticed was that the sound lady, hired by those two bands, was in a crappy, harried mood, and the third thing was that she didn’t know we were playing.
Both the other acts were pushing ten instruments apiece, and there was one line left for our three instruments and two vocals when their sound check ended around ten. Some negotiation ensued, with the well-meaning but somewhat overmatched house guy, and our line-check started. No banjo. No accordion. Lines were replaced, cables were accused of malfunction, and now it was pushing 10:40.
“Fuck that,” I said. “I don’t want to play a guitar-only set in New Orleans on Halloween. Let’s get out of here.”
Maria talked me into taking the accordion through the guitar line, and she’d hold the banjo – for show, since the line, or the pickup, or something, never did work. We played four or five songs that way to near-total indifference, packed up, and loaded out.
I’ve toured in close quarters with some people infamous for post-show tantrums. Mostly, they were musicians ten or more years older than I, and I became adept at babysitting them, or at least getting them to a room where they could fall asleep on their own and hit the reset button for the next day. And, while sympathetic, I always felt on some level, “suck it up. This is what you signed up for, and some nights you’re not getting impeccable sound and an attentive crowd.”
Which is why I’m not proud to say I threw a fit while Maria drove us home, weeping, makeup running, regretting every career decision that brought me to this godforsaken place. It had been an all-or-nothing tour so far; a couple of great shows bracketed around a run of soul-crushing shows. Maria was torn between trying to comfort me and being a little mad that I’d “half-assed” a winnable show, and she was probably right: I’ve always tried to be the kind of entertainer that makes the best of a bad night and the better of a good night. But some nights you’re sabotaged, some nights you sabotage yourself, and some nights your despair of every life choice you’ve ever made and there’s no choice but to go to bed as soon as possible.
(Postscript: I went to the repairman the next day and all my pickups and cables were fine.)
Night off in Vicksburg, of which I shall simply repeat that I’ve always found that there’s nowhere so Southern as southern Mississippi, to which I’d add that nothing so strange as hearing the Indian guys at the motel and gas station counters speaking with a hybrid Indian/deep South accent.
I rolled into Hot Springs, Arkansas, a place I’ve never been, around sundown. It’s one of the oldest places in the region, as hot springs often are, with a massive old hospital squatting on the hill. It’s from the sanitarium days when hot mineral baths were generally assumed to have medicinal qualities – which, as an aficionado of Russian baths, I have no reason to dispute. Anyhow, it’s a minimum-security mental health facility now – or, as the sound guy puts it, the “crazy house.”
He describes himself as a “coon-ass. You know what that means?”
I admitted I didn’t.
“Cajun. Southwest Louisiana. I used to play some accordion myself, zydeco.”
He’d toured in bands but had settled down to a comfortable living doing live sound and mastering. He agreed that New Orleans was a tough town.
“You can win it if you hit it real hard,” but it’s a locals-only zone for the most part.
“By the way,” he added as I got ready to soundcheck, “We have a strict no-’Wagon Wheel’ policy.”
“You’re not the first club who’s told me that,” I replied. “Knoxville was very adamant on that point. Even had a sign.”
“Oh yeah, I bet they get that the worst of anyone.”
“You don’t have to worry about me.” I said. “At least not on that front.”
Maxine’s was a brothel in living memory – “My girlfriend’s grandfather, who’s 82, he knows a lot about it” – and Maxine was the eponymous madam. Capone and other bootleggers ran booze through tunnels under Central Ave. that still exist. “I used to work with a DIY space right down the street that had one of the tunnels, boarded up, running right into it.” The owner and his Polish wife have more stories about the bad old days: Owney Madden, notorious gangster and owner of Harlem’s Cotton Club, had a place here that hosted the Rat Pack and just closed a decade or so ago. Maxine herself had come into this place when she was still alive, with her lawyer, looking to sue over the use of her name; but she’d decided she liked what they were up to and left an autographed copy of her memoir: “Call Me Madam.”
It’s a hopping main drag on a Friday night, with just a hint of the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge neon about it. A ventriloquist/magician is performing across the street. A group in 19th century clothing pass by the front and hand me a flyer – the community theater, promoting a “steampunk” production of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” which seems redundant.
I opened for David Olney, a Nashville singer-songwriter of the 70s school. Townes Van Zandt once said his favorite writers were Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and David Olney (Olney retorted, in a NY Times interview, that the statement had probably come from “somewhere in a bottle of vodka”). His songs have been covered by Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris. One of those mid-level heavyweights, and dressed the part, in black brimmed hat and black-rimmed glasses. He’d seen the Frank Turner 7″ on my merch table and was intrigued: “You do songs like Noel Coward?” Not exactly, I said, but we started talking vaudeville and I told him I’d do my Jimmy Durante cover.
He and his partner Sergio take the stage. Sergio is thin, heavily bearded, with a red vest and tight pants, a central-casting Telecaster-slinger. “There’s a traveling salesman,” said Olney. “He wakes from a nightmare in a hotel room. Grabs a book from the nightstand and throws it against the wall, then realizes it’s the Gideon Bible. He picks it up, runs his finger down the page, stops at Revelations. Chapter 10, verse 13, which says – and you’re from Arkansas, so I know you know this – it says, ‘No man stands so tall, as when he stoops to pick up a ukulele.’”
It’s a mix of classic-sounding originals and crowd-pleasing covers – “Chain Of Fools,” “Who Do You Love.” During a quiet number, a drunk girl and her boyfriend set up shop right behind me, and carry on a running commentary. I turned around: “Hey, take it easy, huh?”
“What, I should be quiet? Is he shushing me? Shhh! Shhh!”
She ran to the front of the stage and started pounding on it with her palm, then jumped onstage, ran behind the two men, and started dancing. She had dyed red hair, two lip piercings, and what is colloquially called a muffin top. The owner jumped up and tried to drag her off. She swatted at Olney’s guitar, whooped and heckled.
“This song,” said Olney, “answers the question: If you were a vegetable, which vegetable would you be?”
“Who gives a shit?…I’d be a banana. Hahaha!”
“I bet you would be…This song’s called ‘My Little Sweet Potato.’”
I went to get a drink and overheard someone at the bar say, “Oh hell, drunken Abby showed up!”
Then there she was at my elbow, whiskey breath in my face. “Are you gay?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You want to meet me?”
“I think we just met.”
“You want to meet my friend?”
“The hell with you anyway.” She spun around and huffed off.
I’d mentioned from the stage that I was looking for a place to stay, and a clean-cut, tattooed guy offered his couch. “It’s in Bill Clinton’s high school,” he said. Sure enough, it was an institutional brick behemoth instantly recognizable as a high school, from its high ceilings to its linoleum floors, converted into loft spaces. His was in what had been the gym: swinging doors, wide windows, and the ghost of a young Bill Clinton no doubt experiencing, for the first time, some of the urges that came to define his reputation…
I thanked the guy in the morning. “No problem,” he said. “Just one thing. Can you give this” – he handed me a small stuffed lion – “to a girl named Roxy, who’ll come to the Seattle show?”
I got cut off and flipped off twice by dudes in muscle cars on the way out of Hot Springs. The drive to St. Louis was a solid nine hours through the Ozarks and true to form, it was deep into some “Winter’s Bone” shit. I’ve rarely been given such a stink-eye as when I walked into a gas station in a hamlet called Cave City in northern Arkansas (“Home Of The World’s Sweetest Watermelon – Go Cavemen!”), by a 300+ pound lady at the counter, three middle-aged men leaning on a pickup truck hauling a muddy four-wheeler, and a bone-thin creep in a wife-beater who looked like, and I say this not to crassly stereotype but simply as description, a cross between The Simpsons’ Cletus and Breaking Bad’s Skinny Pete.
There is nothing like driving through the deep South to make an urban hipster rediscover their otherness. I remember passing through the I-10 eastbound corridor on a tour ten years ago, that stretch along the Gulf Coast where you leave Louisiana, pass through bites of Mississippi and Alabama en route to the weird world of the Florida panhandle. We’d spent the night before in the amoral New Orleans miasma snorting speed and smoking weed in a gazebo outbuilding with a couple who ran a bed and breakfast where we were staying. Their friend had just died of cancer and, parallel with mourning, had managed to pocket the terminal pain medication, Fentanyl patches and the like, and we were trying it on for size. After the husband went to bed, the wife made a play for Jack; after her boyfriend went to bed, another girl came out on the balcony where I sat watching the sun come up and kissed me. In the morning, we stumbled the couple blocks to the Sugar Park Tavern, the pizza kitchen/bar run by an ex-WIFS sax player, and I vomited on the stoop. We had a fifteen-hour drive to play in Miami that night – we were hoping we could arrive right at set-time. Everyone was pale with multiple-front hangover. We stopped at an off-brand gas station somewhere in Mississippi, incongruously situated next to a crumbling graveyard. Ten of us, black-clad, Jack in an ankle-length black leather coat, filed quietly in to buy ginger ale and Advil, while two African-American ladies and a young boy watched in amazement. As we passed, the boy stage-whispered to his mother: “Momma! I see dead people!”
It was all nauseous, roller-coaster hills through autumn-thinned forest, all the way to the St. Louis suburbs.
I can never come to St. Louis without thinking of the first time I played there, with World/Inferno Friendship Society on a package with Against Me!, Sage Francis, and Cobra Skulls. We played at a two-story dive called Pop’s in East St. Louis, across the river in Illinois. The address was Monsanto Drive; prosaically, since it was built in the shadow of a demonic Monsanto plant (an East St. Louis pillar since the 1860s), which lit the area with its exhaust flares. Pop’s sat in the middle of a several-acre parking lot, empty but for a 24-hour strip club a few hundred yards away. Pop’s, itself open all day and night, was ringed by concrete blast barriers: to prevent, the manager explained, drunks from driving through the building.
A couple of guys checked out the strip club, most of Inferno napped in the second-floor balcony, and Sage Francis read a book behind his mercy. Sage, incidentally, was the first guy I’d seen who drove his own small rental car, sold his merch, and carried his beats in an iPod, traveling light and solo. “That guy’s on to something,” I thought, and filed the idea away for later.
The city of East St. Louis is the most devastated place I’ve ever seen – worse that Detroit, worse than post-Katrina New Orleans; just empty, half-collapsed buildings, a handful of people slumped on stoops, looking like a world in which a neutron bomb had hit in the ’60s and the habitations were stalked by malevolent tribes. I couldn’t believe it. I googled “what happened to east st. louis,” and the article that came up actually explained it: a perfect confluence of poor Reconstruction-era black migrants from the deep South, a welfare system overwhelmed, white flight, political corruption, crushing and illogical taxation in the name of corruption, and predatory bankers. Read it here if you’re interested.
After the show, a skinny guy with a white beard asked me if I wanted to buy any mushrooms. “Sure,” I said; he led me out to his pickup truck and we got in the cab. For a hundred bucks, he handed me a half-gallon clear glass Mason jar with a snap lid, with an inch of dried mushrooms on the bottom.
“The hell am I supposed to do with this?” I thought, and smuggled it to the van shoved like a tumor under my coat.
The 500 miles across Kansas to Denver has got to be the dullest drive in North America (possible runner-up points to Winnipeg-Calgary, but I’ve only done that once). The only upside is I finally got to the end of the 75-hour “History Of Rome” podcast, so go ahead, ask me anything about Roman currency debasement and the military reorganizations of Marius and Diocletian. Or, not that it’s relevant, what happens to international powers with drastic income inequality and mercenary armies who can’t or won’t integrate their immigrant populations and have such broken political systems that their most talented citizens decline to participate, and only the most craven end up in charge. The best lack all conviction, and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity. As they say.
Still, I passed an Obama get-out-the-vote canvasser this morning and applauded as I jogged by.
The bar was a proper dive and when I walked in the bartender and her customer were comparing notes on their experiences as Planned Parenthood volunteers and watching CNN. The opening act was a theatrical all-girl act trying to rouse a distracted crowd. “Take your tops off!” heckled the lesbian bartender. “I can’t hear you with your shirts on!”
During the set change, I thought, “This is funny, the sound guy is playing some kind of live record.” It took me a few minutes to realize it was a live recording of me. I ran over to the sound booth: “What the hell are you doing?”
“I thought it might be cool to play some of your music, so I Google it and came up with this YouTube clip.”
“You’re playing a YouTube clip of the shit that I’m just about to do?”
“…I thought you’d be into it.”
“Buddy. Nobody wants their own shit playing over the PA before they go on.” Good lord.
My set was well after the election was called, even after Romney’s concession, and I got a big cheer by opening with “Let’s not talk politics, what do you say?” A couple drunk black fellows stuck their heads in halfway through on of my pre-song bits, yelled, “Whoo! Obama!” and left. I agreed, but they’d blown my punch line.
The dog at my hosts’ house, a ratty footstool of a hound, bit me on the calf with reassuring regularity every time I entered or exited the house. “Oh, don’t worry,” said its owner. “He’s just trying to herd you.” I watched Obama’s victory speech on my laptop and thought, savor it – this is a true statesman, and we won’t see his like again for a generation.
There are two routes from Denver to Salt Lake City, one scenic and southbound through the Rockies; one north to the Wyoming high plain, then cutting down to Utah. I’d done the first in April on the Kevin Seconds/Kepi Ghoulie tour, so I figured I’d try the other this time. This is also the week of terrible drives – 9 hours to Denver, 9 to SLC, 15 to Portland – so I was in no mood to make it any harder, even for the sake of scenic mountain passes.
You can’t see the elevation increasing as you enter Wyoming, there are no massive peaks, just a popping of the ears every half-hour, a thinning of the sky into whey-spatter clouds, and a subtle shift in the color of ground from the tan Kansan prairie to the lavender of the high plain. I passed the I-80 high point, some 8500 feet above sea level, and saw snow for the first time this year. The rest stop, on Happy Jack Road (“This highway is sponsored by: The Gman”) has a fifty-foot stone pedestal topped by a massive bust of Lincoln, and the flag whips so violently it sounds like a bonfire. In a way, the most white-knuckle driving in the country is not snowy switchbacks descending the Cascade Mountains, but straight-line east/west driving in the Great Plains, with the broad side of your van catching southbound 40-mph winds that have been gathering speed for a thousand miles from Canada. You can judge your speed by the blood-blots of long-gone deer on the pavement.
There is something otherworldly about coming upon Salt Lake City after plains driving. You can see why the Mormons would have seen it – and Utah in general – as God’s country. It is, in addition to being, as Marc Maron says, America’s only functioning theocracy (I can think of some Southern towns that would beg to differ), a city unlike any other in the country, to enter it at sunset is like walking down a glowing carpet, hazy with dust, in the shadow of hulking and cinematic mountains. And then to have a hell of a time finding a drink after a nine-hour drive, like a man deserves.
I played Kilby Court once before, in 2002, on a World/Inferno Friendship Society tour. We’d played Seattle the night before, on a Saturday, with their local affiliate of the Tom Waits franchise, called Midnight Choir, fronted by a half-Japanese accordion player who played seated, next to a trash can with an open fire. At intervals, he’d throw some kind of powder into the trash can and the fire would flare up. Afterwards, I asked him what the powder was. “Non-dairy creamer,” he said. “It’s incredibly flammable.”
We’d packed up that night, loaded out, and driven overnight the fifteen or so hours, got a $300 speeding ticket in southern Idaho, and arrived in Salt Lake for a Sunday show at Kilby. There is nothing quite so desolate as a Sunday night punk show in Salt Lake. The city can feel inhuman at the best of times, with its hundred-yards-wide street. I remember the club as literally a shack with a dirt floor, down a dark alley, with the eight or ten underage punks of Salt Lake who could get out of the house on a Sunday night doing their damnedest to make it a scene: a lone fire-twirler in the parking lot, and a kid in a head-to-toe cow costume. The owners made woodblock posters for each show, and made two or three refrigerator magnets of the design too. Peter Hess still has the one from this show in his kitchen. It has a buffalo head, for some reason.
It’s been ten years, and they’ve got a real floor, stage, and PA; but the basic structure is still a concrete-block bunker with corrugated aluminum siding. Definitely the same handful of giggling, underage hipsters. This sound guy played the radio call of the Jazz/Lakers game over the PA between sets. A creepy drunk offered me his couch to sleep on, and I was sorely tempted, but my instincts are better than they used to be.
Must be some kind of post-election Mormon grieving period.
(God, some places, though. Thinking about that tour makes me remember another show, about a week before we got to Salt Lake, at another classic stop on the American punk-toilet circuit, the Che Cafe in San Diego. We’d played Austin and then had a two-day drive through the desert westbound. We’d ridden our show suits hard and put them away wet; literally, soaked with sweat in our suit bags, which then sat baking in the southwestern desert sun shining through the back windows of the van, until we opened them in southern California and found off-white explosions of mold all over every one. We found a same-day dry cleaner, an old Korean woman, but when we pulled out the now-probiotic suits, she balked. “No, no, absolutely not. I cannot clean.”
“Listen – they don’t have to be good. We won’t sue. Just do your best.”
We pulled up to the Che Cafe, another bunker, this one on a college campus, and found a couple kids hanging out doing god-knows-what. “Hi, we’re World/Inferno, we’re here for the show?”
“Oh…oh yeah, man…Listen, here’s the thing. There’s a big party tonight at the Locust house, and we don’t think anyone’s gonna come to the show. And actually, we want to go to that show too…”
“So we took a collection for you guys, for your gas money and stuff.” He handed us a rolled-up paper bag with about $23 in nickels, dimes, and pennies; and half a stale baguette.
“You think you can call them and see if we can get on the show?”
But that was a non-starter, so we said the hell with these fucking slackers and drove down to the house in question. Sure enough, the Locust was playing and it was packed, spilled out on the lawn. We shot fireworks at the crowd from the van window and sped off.)
|Miles driven to and from Salt Lake||1,300 in 25 hours|
|Amount spent on gas to and from Salt Lake||$161.66|
|Amount spent on two shitty motels to and from Salt Lake||$108.15|
|Amount made in Salt Lake||$0|
American tours are for the birds.
Apropos of nothing, here’s a question I like to ask music enthusiasts: Is there a band as universally beloved and acclaimed, but less influential, than the Minutemen? Or, to put it another way: Everyone talks about the Minutemen, but can you think of any bands that sound like them? Was their sound just too idiosyncratic to be copied or built upon, and their true influence is just the “jam econo” idea? I can only think of two examples. One, The Big Boys, are too contemporaneous to really be considered influenced. Which leaves the somewhat terrifying thought that the only true musical heirs to the Minutemen – busy, sloppy basslines; clean, funk-influenced guitars, sung-spoken vocals – are…the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
I was pretty sure I had all my tour ducks in a row: ordered and received CDs, arranged to pick up vinyl, got packs of strings and picks, checked to make sure the accordion wasn’t falling apart. I’d take the clothes to the laundry, come home and pack, and hit the road. I may as well have been whistling a happy tune Friday morning when I went out to the car, and noticed the front driver’s side tire was flat. Too bad, I thought, but not a crushing defeat – there’s a Firestone a quarter mile from here, I’ll just get the donut on there and pop on down.
“Weird,” said Maria. “It looks like it was slashed.”
I looked. Sure enough, there was a ragged rip on the side of the tire. Not only that, but the whole thing was at a cockeyed angle.
“When did that happen?” said Maria, pointing at a table-sized dent I’d somehow avoided noticing.
“Oh…” I said, fingering the flecks of white paint now apparent on the rearview mirror and across the front corner. “Somebody hit-and-run us overnight.”
You can’t get very far in a car with one wheel pointed north and one pointed southeast, so we got the poor thing towed around the corner and I got on the phone with insurance.
“Our nearest appraiser is in New Hampshire,” said the State Farm lady.
“But I’m in Boston. You literally don’t have anyone in Boston?”
“Doesn’t look like it, no.”
“And I can’t have them fix anything until you look at it?”
“No. Someone can get there by Monday, at the earliest. We can provide you with a rental car until the repairs are done.”
I explained that by Tuesday I would be, if I had a way to get there, in Virginia; by Wednesday in Georgia, and by the next week somewhere in the Missouri plains.
“Let me call you back.”
Well, reader, I have to give credit to at least this corner of the much-maligned insurance industry; because within the hour I was at the wheel of a brand-new rental car for the month-long tour, sponsored full by State Farm. I do love a happy ending.
The first show was Sunday night at Sarah Lawrence College north of New York City, but we had a cat to sit and a wedding to applaud in the meantime, about which I will say in short that advocates of gay marriage are really slacking on one of their strongest arguments: matching outfits. Our friends Dan and Dany – cutely, Dan y Dany, since the latter is Venezuelan (which has got to be the classiest of the Spanish accents) – had identical tan corduroy suits with black bow ties, topped by green wreaths, and recessed to the Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere.” The cat I was sorely tempted to throw off the balcony.
Sarah Lawrence is a petite and sheltered campus just north of the Bronx. I’d been booked by a good-hearted enthusiast named Sam, but as happens more and more these days, my real connections there were with the older folks, in this case a couple of the faculty: Toby, a grad-school friend of my wife’s and my banjo consultant (I’d brought him in as a stunt banjo to play an 8-bar passage on my last record for which I didn’t have the chops), who runs the bluegrass ensemble there; and the composer and cellist Pat Muchmore, my colleague in Anti-Social Music, who’s accumulated a following of students appealed to by his booted-and-Mohawked take on contemporary classical music and pedagogy in general.
College shows can be awkward for a variety of reasons, and this one looked as if it could be: I’d play in a cozy, well-lit library, unamplified, ringed by couches. Sober, I thought, until the accordionist in the opening folk band shared his pint of Jack Daniel’s. In the end it was familial and supportive, a couple dozen punks, collegiate folksingers doing novelty covers, and androgynes who cheered in the right places, laughed at the jokes, and roughhoused out the door and back to their dorms.
I bustled around the city running errands the next day – the city clerk had been trying with increasing urgency, during the six months I’d been out of the country on tour, to assess my suitability for jury duty; culminating in the letter threatening fines and jail time if I didn’t present myself at the courthouse to, in the end, sign a piece of paper. Civic duty fulfilled, I headed to Philadelphia.
The First Unitarian Church, around the corner from the Mutter Museum, is a religious institution almost entirely bankrolled by punk shows: hardcore in the basement, indie rock upstairs in the main room, acoustic shows unamplified in the side chapel, and patrolled by – at least every time I’ve been there – dreadlocked patron saint Greg Daly, Philly punk institution, longtime World/Inferno jack-of-all-trades, international man of leisure. He’s got a great story, about the drummer from a high-profile indie-folk band who’d come through on tour with a side project. Originally booked for the bigger (500 capacity) room, it’d gotten moved to the smaller (75 cap) room. Still, his big band did well and were good guys, so Greg and the promoters were gonna make sure he was happy, and asked him, “Can I get you anything? Anything you need?” The guy looked at him for a minute, shook his head, and answered, “I could use some fans of my music.”
The show, fortunately for me, is with local hero Erik from Mischief Brew, who is still well in mourning for a close friend who’d been killed in a car accident the week before. He’s shaken and seems understandably distracted. The pews are full, though, and he plays Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” and two new songs, one of which may or may not be called “He & She & I Make Three,” may or may not be about transgender experience, but is indisputably awesome. We do “Off The Books” and “Fight Dirty” from the album we did together, get back to his place in time to catch the end of the Giants-Cardinals series, and I wake up to the eerie wail of crying pugs.
I have a truly lovely mother-in-law in Arlington, who, on the theory that “It has been my experience that men like soup,” has just that prepared for me when I get there the next day. Fortified by said soup, as well as the Ukrainian comfort dish of kasha with friend onions topped with cottage cheese and a fried egg, I had a surprisingly solid show for a suburban Tuesday night. My friend Amy, now quite pregnant, has been to every show I’ve ever played in the DC area and as a result I feel obligated to bring at least one new song and one new between-song bit each time, so I pulled out “The Day All The Leaves Came Down” for the second time live, as well as “Rainbow Connection” which I’d been doing in England for basically the same reason. My brother-in-law has been on a fitness regime while I’ve been overseas and is so skinny as to be virtually unrecognizable.
Arlington to Asheville is either seven hours, if you believe the ever-optimistic Garmin GPS, or nine, if your inclination is with the more cynical and worldly Google Maps. No matter who you believe, it’s the longest drive until I get out west. Beautiful, though – the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Crooked Road are painted, not the aggressive reds and oranges of the New England fall, but a more muted and matte palette of sienna and mauve.
I had just about burned myself out on podcasts by the end of the UK tour in September – to the point where I was actually interested in listening to music again and excited about some new records: Morning Glory, Hop Along, Shovels And Rope, Future Of The Left, The Cut Ups…But I’m still working my way through the “History Of Rome” series and love me some Melvyn Bragg. The autodidact impulse fills up the hours with the reforms of Diocletian and the final showdown of Constantine and Licinius.
I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out that if you need a couple hours of office work/wifi time, skip the coffeeshop and hit the public library. You don’t get frantic with caffeine and overheard conversation.
A couple at the Asheville show say I could’ve stayed at their house, but the guy has court in the morning – “That’s why,” he says, “I’m in my suit now.” For what? “We got busted smoking weed on the sidewalk.” “Is that even a crime in Asheville?”
Maria calls with an unsettling story. She’d been out walking by the Charles River – we’re living in the Boston area while she has a semester-long post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard – and choked on the scent of decay. On the riverbank lay a man covered with a coat. There’s no good option in that situation: best case, you wake up a potentially dangerous, certainly disgruntled, hobo. Worst case, you’re face to face with a dead body. She called 911 and hoped for the best.
It’s a true culture clash at Wonderroot, a community center in Atlanta with an acting workshop for middle-aged African-Americans upstairs and a packed bill of Fest-bound bands from Bloomington and Pomona in the truly foul-smelling basement. I saw someone I swore was the smiling fellow from Defiance, Ohio; then realized that Ginger Alford’s new band was on the bill and that the whole thing was a kind of Bloomington caravan. One dude brags that he’s not showering for the two weeks until he gets home, another is hawking a t-shirt with a glow-in-the-dark connect-the-dots of a giant penis. Stay classy, kids.
For all that it’s easy to mock the small world of contemporary punk, especially the Punknews/No Idea/Fest axis – for its homogeneity, self-seriousness, privileged slumming, and groupthink – there is still something I find endearing and welcoming about it. I remember talking to Dave Hause on one of our tours together about the differences between the somewhat blindered punk world and the snobby and exclusive indie-rock world; each protective in its own way, but the former simply somewhat oblivious to the rest of the musical world, where the latter can jealous and protective of its walls. The Loved Ones – and my apologies to Dave if I’m misrepresenting this story – had, a few years back, opened for the Hold Steady on a month-long US tour, during which time we were playing the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. Dave put out some feelers to the organizers about his band getting on as well and was soundly rebuffed: “Our crowd wouldn’t be interested.” “Really? We’re out with the band that you have on your site every week!” No dice.
A prominent Chicago music writer and Pitchfork contributor who was a fan and friend of the Hold Steady saw them open for us, loved it, and said something to the effect of “You guys are like Strike Anywhere but you actually dress nice!” Dave recoiled. “You’re knocking Thomas, a true punk hero, for the way he dresses?!” “Oh what,” the writer said. “You’re happy in the punk ghetto?”
I think this is a common prejudice in the “indie-rock establishment” – indie rock, as I always feel compelled to point out, here used as a genre signifier, not in any sense of its independence from mainstream distribution and publicity channels – and I think it stems from the same reason that the indie blogosphere can feel like high-school scorekeeping. A very common progression for serious and emotionally engaged music fans, including the current thirtysomething generation of indie-rock tastemakers, is to have been deeply steeped in punk rock as a teenager and in their high school years. And if there’s one thing about serious music fans, it’s that their identity and self-conception is nearly coexistent with the kind of music they like. And if there’s one thing about teenagers who go to college, it’s that they jump at the chance to reinvent their self-conception and repudiate their old one. For music fans, that often involves embracing what used to be called “college rock” – less idealist, more emotionally cool, more self-serious – and, correspondingly, denigrating the punk they grew up on as adolescent and essentially unserious, when what they really mean is they think they, as teenagers listening to that music, were adolescent and unserious. (Real adults, of course, just listen to what they like and are perfectly content to leave it at that.)
Anyway, bias alert! Pitchfork was last seen calling me a “dick,” so take my opinion with a grain of salt if you want. But in my experience as someone who’s been on both sides, I’ll just say this: the indie-rock world covered all kinds of non-newsworthy things I did since I was in the Hold Steady, and as soon as I left, they were done with me (I don’t believe for a second PItchfork actually thought my first record was a 7.3; frankly I don’t even think that.) But the punk world basically said, “Oh hey man, you’re back, cool. Want to do this show?” And for that I will always be grateful. (And say what you will about Punknews, but I do always get the sense that it’s written by, and commented on by, people who actually like music, which is not always the case with their indie counterparts.) For musicians who actually want to play music for decades, I can’t help noticing that a band that puts out indie-rock hit and doesn’t follow it up gets excommunicated. A band that puts out a couple indie-rock hits and then one sort of mediocre album gets excommunicated. But any punk-identified band that has one album that people liked once can tour forever. A punk band that has a string of great records and then makes a sort-of-mediocre record – you’ll hear people say, “Yeah, that record sucked, but I’ll go see them anyway.” And if the next record is good they’ll be stoked all over again. So that’s QED in my book.
As I got to Athens, I got that feeling in my throat: I’m gonna get sick. I went to the supermarket and bought a giant hunk of ginger and a liter of orange juice and hoped for the best. I learned this trick from Tom Gabel and it’s as good as gargling with salt water: slice the ginger root into quarter-size slices and stick them in your cheek like a pinch of Kodiak.
I do try to be on time for load-ins and soundchecks. My setup is pretty simple but accordions and banjos are not quite as easy as just plugging in a guitar and even a ten-minute soundcheck is better than messing with EQ in front of a crowd. My advance sheets had a 7pm load-in and a 9:30 show, but the door guy didn’t show up until about 9, and the other bands were still unaccounted for, so I thought “Fuck it,” gave the door guy my phone number, and went and checked into a hotel. If I’m going to whack this cold across the forehead before it even sits up straight, it’s not gonna be by staying on a random audience member’s couch.
When my phone buzzed about an hour later and said Shellshag and the other band had showed up, I headed back down and found them all deep into a round of Jameson shots, which, coincidentally, are another fine way to get your cold in check – at least in the short term. The door guy who was nominally in charge sullenly and insistently ceded responsibility: Start whenever you want. I don’t care what order you play in, figure it out yourself. There’s a PA onstage, do your own sound.
Thanks for the help, dude!
Shellshag, a charmingly shaggy duo from Brooklyn who I’ve crossed paths with over the years but never done a show with, shrug. “That’s Athens for ya.” We decide I’ll play first so I can wrap it up early and get a good night’s sleep, and seal the deal with another shot.
Most nights, during “The Ballad Of Hollis Wadsworth Mason, Jr.,” I do a bit about accordion solos to the effect of “How do you all feel about accordion solos?” Sometimes I get cheers, sometimes groans, but never this, from Shellshag guitarist John: “I don’t know, I’ve never heard one.” The white whale! The infamous low-information, undecided voter! Now I’m doing the real ground-game work.
I get that creepy feeling every time I get to Florida, that psychological shimmer in the air of low-level criminal activity, drifters, and public intoxication; but there was something special about entering Jacksonville this time. Cops on the corners, bridges closed, drunks dashing into traffic: it’s the Georgia/Florida college football gameday. “Someone’s gonna die tonight,” said the sound guy.
“Someone’s gonna die tonight,” said the bartender, separately. “Always happens. Last year some drunk fell between two parking garages and wasn’t found for a couple days.” A huge water bug scurried under the pool table. I went to the Motel 6. My wife Maria was flying in that night and I wanted to get checked in and leave her the key. She had a conference in New Orleans starting later that week, so we decided she’d meet me here and we’d have a little road trip. Also, she’d gotten an earful about the Fest from the Russian punks we’d met over the summer and wanted to see for herself (“She wants to see smelly suburban dudes with beards playing pop-punk?,” said Greg Daly).
The desk clerk was an imposing Middle Easterner with thinning, gelled hair. “Can I get an extra key and leave it for my wife?” I asked.
“Your reservation is for one person.” I’d screwed up the booking.
“Can I…make it for two?”
“It is not possible. We are full. You can have only one person.” He slid two keys across the counter. Good man. I drove back downtown and played for the opening band, an old friend from Jersey (who had been a circus performer for a while but is now a strip club DJ in Jax) and her older, deeply disinterested boyfriend. And those floor roaches. As I was packing up the mercy, a drunk wandered in and came over. “I missed the show, man, what do you sound like?”
“Mm, maybe better ask her,” I said, gesturing to the girl who’d just bought a CD.
“It’s kind of like theater,” she said. “Like Broadway.”
“That’s not exactly how I’d put it,” I said.
“Well, sounds interesting. I’ll take a CD.” He bought one and wandered back out for a burger.
Up and at ‘em and off to Gainesville Sunday morning and over to Joey from Fiya’s house where we’ll be staying; we managed to avoid the infamous state-road speed traps and get to Joey’s in time to rehearse. Maria & I haven’t played together since the end of the China tour in late July – but muscle memory counts for a lot.
The one band I was really trying to see – I’d missed the Dwarves, and was none too happy about that – was Hop Along, mid-afternoon Sunday, so we sped through the set on Joey’s back porch and headed downtown. I still don’t know how I’d heard about the band – one of those things, I guess, where passing mentions just reach a critical mass (which usually stinks to me of a newly-hired expensive publicist, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here). In any case, I’d fallen in love with the feral album, and lyrics mapping the profound ambivalence of obsession, vacillating between selfish demand and self-effacement. But the line was around two corners and didn’t seem to be moving. We gave it a few minutes past the posted set time and bailed. Plenty of chances to see any working band next time they come around.
The rest of the night went much as you’d think: A spirit-enriching show. The treat of Kepi Ghoulie, whose “Rock ‘N’ Roll Shark” I maintain is one of the great Cro-Magnon one-chord mission statements of our times. An increasing number of drinks, which makes the timeline a little muddled. Reggae Shack for jerk tofu and tempeh curry. We finally caught Hop Along, checked out Smith Street Band, saw old friends and met some new, and then just set up shop in the back of 8 Seconds, where Maria whacked away at the boxing machine (settings: “Anemic,” “Brutal”) while the lesbian security guard flirted with her.
We had plans to shoot a video with Andrew Seward Monday morning but he had late-breaking band practice, so we did laundry and talked politics with Joey. He’s a labor and union organizer, deep in the weeds of the Obama ground game and with a lot of interesting things to say about local politics. Which, since it’s politics after all, I’ll keep to myself; but if and when he runs for Gainesville City Council all the punks better get themselves registered. Next show isn’t until Halloween in New Orleans, so there’s time for a slow drive.
I had been vaguely aware of something people were calling a “Frankenstorm,” mostly via Twitter jokes, but solo tours aren’t always the best way to keep up on hometown news, so I didn’t fully realize that what was about to happen was a hurricane hitting New York, and that our house in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn was in the evacuation zone for what they assumed would be the flooding of the infamously polluted Gowanus Canal. It was only as we drove to Pensacola, our radio news and Facebook feeds filling with increasingly agitated comments, that we really started to worry.
“Is our renter’s insurance up to date?”
“Mm, better call…Nope, we let it lapse when we were overseas on tour.”
Damn you, me from the past. “Call the office, see if we can pay it up?”
“There’s no way they’ll let us do that…Office is closed anyway.”
“What’s in the basement?”
“Mostly CDs…my keyboard and amp…a couple boxes of old band flyers, photos, and love letters.”
“Maybe you’ll be happier if all that stuff is covered in toxic waste anyway.”
We decided that since there was nothing to do but get more worked up about something we were in no position to control, we’d go to a movie, a long one, until the high tide in New York was past, and then see if our home had gone underwater in the meantime. The New York Observer twitter feed was showing the water up on the streets on the other side of the Canal and over the bridges. It didn’t bear too much thinking about. When Hurricane Irene had come through last year, our landlord Felipe had sandbagged around the house, and our subletter this time texted saying that the power was still on and “Felipe is prepared for the apocalypse.”
We went to see “Cloud Atlas,” which basically short-circuited my critical apparatus. It was laughable, chaotic, impossible to take seriously, felt five hours long, and yet somehow by the end managed to do the thing it was trying to do – whatever that was. I couldn’t possibly tell you whether I think it’s any good, though. Read the book.
We left the theater, somewhat shaken. Scratch that “somewhat” as the first photo I saw when I checked my phone was a gas station a few blocks from our house underwater, and a string of reports of explosions, power outages, floods. I had a familiar feeling – I’d been away on tour when 9/11 happened – a confused and morally conflicted combination of anger that I wasn’t there to be able to protect my house, regret that I’d be missing this communal, if disastrous, shared experience, and guilty relief that I was miles away, in safety.
The owner of the pizza shop – they were closing, but made us a takeout pie – saw us staring at the TVs over the bar, and we said we were from New York. “Well, you’ll want these then,” he said, and put a couple bottles of Dos Equis in a plastic bag. “I’m not supposed to do this, so don’t open them now.” (“I thought you weren’t gonna drink tonight,” said Maria. “Somehow I don’t think I can just watch hurricane footage and eat pizza without a beer,” I replied.)
On the way home, we heard from our subletter, a painter. The water had come about a block away, but had begun to recede. She still had power. The roof had blown off a restaurant down the block. But it seemed like the worst was over. I can’t tell if it’s technically irony that the safe place to be, away from hurricane flooding, was on the Gulf Coast heading towards New Orleans, but it feels like it might be.
I found myself this month in the funny position of having personal experiences that bear on two internet hubbubs, both of which have to do with musicians and money – Grizzly Bear and what indie rock “stars” might expect to make while at the height of their career; and the complications of Kickstarter and crowd-funded recordings. Travis Morrison recently said something insightful:
“Fans and artists are in a really tough and unprecedented dialogue–negotiation actually–that I’ve definitely seen us going in the direction of for fifteen years. The normalizing layer between artists and fans, namely the major labels and entertainment industry, is gone. That filter is gone. Now artists and fans are talking to each other straight…It’s a much more immediate cycle and everyone’s kind of growing up and actually realizing that the artists and the audiences used to blame the music industry, that if they could just be left alone together everything would be great, but it’s actually not so…There’s actually a lot of sticky points between the artists and the fans. It was kind of a convenient boogey-man to blame, the record industry. And that’s kind of gone now. So there’s going to be a lot of bumps, there’s going to be a lot of miscommunications, just like any new friends or new situation. Especially when money is involved, when people are giving each other money there’s going to be a lot of pointing fingers and a lot of aesthetic criticisms and it’s going to get really messy…[T]he deeper things, like the direct patronage and the direct conversation is unprecedented and it’s going to have a lot of raw moments before it’s all over.”
I’m not sure I have any productive new insight on either question, but in the interest of transparency, what I would like to do is give hard numbers, as someone who was both in a high-profile indie rock band (The Hold Steady) and also recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign (to fund my new album “Do The Struggle”). Hopefully this will be informative and helpful to the discussion. This is not a personal issue in any way, just raw numbers for the sake of adding substance. I do have a couple points about a possible subsidized future for middle-class musicians in the jazz/classical model, which I’ll make at the end.
First the Kickstarter money:
My Kickstarter project to fund the album “Do The Struggle” was funded in October 2011. The statistics are as follows:
195 backers, totalling $11,283 pledged.
RECEIVED FROM KICKSTARTER: $10,374.95 after Amazon & Kickstarter took a combined commission of $908.05 (about 8%).
Backer breakdown (costs are approximate since mailings had various sizes, contents, and destinations):
61 at $10 (digital download of the album): gross $610, cost to fulfill: $0; net 100% of donation
63 at $25 (signed copy of the CD): gross $1575, approx. cost to fulfill: $450; net 70%
24 at $50 (signed copy of the CD; all four of my chapbooks): gross $1200, approx. cost to fulfill: $310; net 75%
9 at $75 (signed CDs, chapbooks, postcards from tour): gross $675, approx. cost to fulfill: $170; net 75%
23 at $100 (signed CDs, chapbooks, named in liner notes): gross $2300, approx. cost to fulfill $300; net 87%
2 at $250 (signed CDs, chapbooks, named in liner notes, digital copies of album demos, custom t-shirt): gross $500, approx. cost to fulfill $25; net 95%
1 at $350 (signed CDs, chapbooks, named in liner notes, record a cover song of donor’s choice): gross $350, approx. cost to fulfill $13; net 95%
5 at $500 (signed CDs, chapbooks, named in liner notes, private home concert): gross $2500, approx. cost to fulfill $65; net 97%
1 at $1000 (signed CDs, chapbooks, named in liner notes, reward of donor’s choice): gross $1000, approx. cost to fulfill $13; net 98%
Median donation: $25
Median per-donor fulfillment cost: approx. $13
Major recording costs:
- $244.97 for rehearsal space rental (9 hours @ $25/hr., plus tax)
- $7500 to producer/studio for 15 days (16 songs in 3 days of tracking, 12 days of overdubs & mixing) at $500/day
- $750 to additional engineer for 3 days of overdubs in his bedroom at $250/day
- $500 to drummer (for 3 3-hour rehearsals and 3 12-hour tracking days)
- $500 to bassist for (3 3-hour rehearsals and 3 12-hour tracking days)
- $975 to various additional musicians, in increments from $75 to $200 each, depending on contributions.
- $1391.83 for mastering
TOTAL MAJOR RECORDING COSTS: $11,861.80
Kickstarter rewards fulfillment costs:
- 51 CDs to be signed & mailed from UK for overseas donors, purchased from Xtra Mile label wholesale at GBP 5 (US$8) each: $408
- Envelopes & postage for mailing (within UK and UK->Europe) GBP75.02 (US$120)
- 77 CDs to be signed & mailed domestically to US/Canada donors, self-pressed at $1.12/unit: $86.24
- Envelopes for US mailing: $30.79
- Production costs of 284 “Complicated Gardening Techniques” zines (71 donors, each receiving 4 zines, at a per-unit cost of $1.59 from Staples): $451.56
- Postage mailing chapbooks to overseas donors: $247.64
- Postage for US mailing: $267.96
- Postage for 9 donors receiving postcard correspondence, each receiving 4 postcards apiece, some mailed internationally: approx. $50
TOTAL KICKSTARTER REWARD FULFILLMENT EXPENSES: $1,662.19
Also, it should be noted that Kickstarter funding is considered taxable income – so in theory I will also be liable for approximately $3000 in taxes; however, given all the deductible expenses related with the business of freelance music, I should be able to minimize that. Ultimately about half of the total recording costs were still out of pocket.
I present these Kickstarter numbers with no particular thesis or conclusion other than that the bottom line is I was able to make a record that I would not otherwise have been able to make in its current form. In addition, I would offer a warning to musicians embarking on a crowdsourcing campaign to be careful to budget for costs associated with fulfilling the rewards. I came to feel, a couple times, like one of these Groupon casualties overwhelmed by demand; and had to mail rewards slowly and in waves, while I saved up another couple hundred bucks to send the next group.
There’s also an interesting story to be told about the contradictions between the wide but shallow base of small donors and the smaller but deeper large donors. These numbers seem to confirm my friend Chris T-T’s premise that artists are better served cultivating a smaller number of higher-level donors and offering rewards that are less “tangible” and thus cheaper to fulfill. The bottom level of donation ($10, $25, $50, $75) constituted 80% of the donors (157 of 295) but only 36% of the total money raised. The top 32 donors ($250 or more) constituted 59% of the total donation the top 9 ($250 or more) 23%; and more important, since their rewards were non-tangible (cover songs, house concerts) and cost nothing to fulfill, the $25-$75 donors netted me (after the cost of fulfillment) 73% of their pledges; vs. the top donors’ 98%!
This math seems to indicate that it’s more efficient to offer more personal and intangible rewards at a higher donor level at the expense of a broad base of small donors. However, although the bottom 30% of donors don’t combine to equal one of the top 3%, there is a public-relations advantage to broadening the small-donor base – the “Obama method” of small-donor fundraising vs. the Citizens United method – in terms of encouraging people to feel invested in the project.)
Now to indie-rock money:
NY Mag’s back-of-the-envelope math figures a hypothetical “The Indie Four-Piece [b]eloved by Pitchfork and signed to a small label, [who]record a new album every three years” might net “$966,350 (or about $126K per member per year).” That includes “$100,000 for placement in a cell-phone commercial, $5000 to soundtrack an indie film, $10,000 to soundtrack a teen cable drama” (none of which happened to THS, though we played more than the hypothetical 30 shows a year.)
In my experience, it was a good deal lower than that. Let me focus on 2008 and 2009, the two most successful years of my time with THS. In years previous – I joined the band starting in 2005, but we didn’t begin “full-time touring” and I didn’t leave my day job until after the release of “Boys And Girls In America” in October 2006. Prior to that, each band member would receive small ($500-$1500) cash payouts at the end of a 4-6 week tour, after the van rentals and merch and gas had been paid for. In-town or one-off shows went into the band fund.
For most of 2006, I was without a permanent residence – I’d been evicted from my apartment for falling three months behind on rent; left my things in my ex-girlfriend’s basement (where they stayed for several years), and spent my nights between tours in a cycle between friends’ and sisters’ couches, the Hold Steady van, the World/Inferno rehearsal space in what is now the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and a couple of times, the couch that lived on the roof of the old Northsix club. During this time, the band made the cover of the Village Voice, played Conan and Letterman for the first time, and opened for the Rolling Stones.
In September 2007, we went on salary. The Hold Steady, LLC, was incorporated, and the financial manager the band had hired asked us what we thought was the minimum we could live on. The consensus was around $2000 a month (this is New York, remember: my rent these two years was $500/month, for a windowless 4×8 closet in Bushwick with a loft bed that a friend of mine had built by throwing up two sheetrock walls around the corner of her apartment).
My paycheck – drawn from the band fund made up of gig money, merch sales, album royalties, etc. – was $1750/month, or $21,000 per year; after withholding, that was a $1,433/month check.
For context, MIT calculates that a living wage for a single adult working full-time ($12.75/hr x 2080 hours) in New York City is $26,520.
We received bonuses at the end of 2008 and 2009. In 2008 mine was, after withholding, $2,568.63; and in 2009 it was $4,936.58.
We got $20 per diems cash when we were on the road. We spent approximately 200 days on the road in 2008 and 2009, so that’s another $1000 per year.
So that’s approximately $45,000 over two years or average $22,250 per year (I am speaking just for myself here).
I was lucky enough to have one more revenue source, which is a small percentage of some of the songwriting credits: 15% of one song and 50% of another on “Separation Sunday;” something like 11% overall of “Boys And Girls In America,” and somewhat less than that on “Stay Positive.” The two primary songwriters had signed a joint publishing deal with a publishing company who wanted to administer 100% of the latter two albums, so they ended up giving me one-off contracts for each: a $10,000 advance in 2007 for “BAGIA” and another $10,000 in 2009 for “Stay Positive.”
For those songwriting credits I also received ASCAP royalties (for radio and TV airplay, mostly) of $4,267.10 in 2008 and $2,629.06 in 2009.
As far as benefits: when a band member got sick in October 2008, the THS LLC got a health plan, which I enjoyed for 14 months until I left the band. I hadn’t had a health plan, except for a short period in 2006, in six or seven years at that point; and haven’t since.
So, in summary: I had approximately $25,000 in after-tax, Hold Steady-related income in 2008 and $33,000 in 2009; though only $17,196 was guaranteed annually (that $1433-a-month salary).
During those years we were critically acclaimed, played dozens of festivals in the US and UK, appeared on Letterman, Conan, Ferguson, and Jools Holland; supported Dave Matthews and the Counting Crows on tour, and played our biggest-ever rooms on a co-headlining tour with Drive-By Truckers.
I left the band in January 2010 with a one-time cashout of about $13,000 (after withholding), which amounted to 1/5 of the year-end band fund (by their accounting). I will still get a 1/5 share of royalties from the recordings I appeared on as a band member, and publishing and mechanical royalties. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I estimate these totaling in the vicinity of a couple thousand dollars a year, diminishing if the band becomes less active.
So my total Hold Steady-related income for five years (2005-2009), comes to something in the $80-100,000 range.
Once again, I would like to make clear that my aim here is not complaint, and this is not “why I left the band.” These years were the most successful of my professional career in terms of exposure and acclaim; they set my life on at least a steady financial footing for the first time in years, and the work we did in those years is something I’m very proud of. My point is that if my experience can be generalized, the idea of a performing indie/pop musician as a long-term, sustainable profession is in serious question. (Here’s Ted Leo making a similar point.)
In January 2009, I put out my first solo album, did a two-week solo tour and came back with almost $3000 profit, on shows which frankly weren’t even all that well attended. But it was an eye-opener. Even with shows a fraction of the size of Hold Steady shows, if I could make average just $100 at the door and $100 on merch over the course of a tour, that was already four times the $50/day that constituted my THS salary. And the math has more or less played out: in 2011, the first year that I spent as a full-time solo touring artist (I spent four months of 2010 as a touring keyboardist with Against Me! at a salary of $150/day – which one magazine referred to as a “blatant cash grab”), I had a gross income $63,424.54 ($32,811.60 in gig money, $21,900.80 in merch sales); though, crucially, with business expenses of $56,612.93 (including plane tickets, excess baggage charges for instruments and merch, car rentals, and other travel expenses; $14,802.37 in gas and $21,900.80 in wholesale merch costs). So just slightly over the break-even point.
Last year, Future Of Music did a wide-ranging survey of full-time musicians in various genres to determine the ratios of revenue streams which make up the livelihood. I would like to out myself as the Indie-Rock Composer-Performer case study, and you can see how it all broke down in the years I’ve outlined.
I write this all with the full knowledge that, to quote something else I saw Travis write: “There are two things people don’t like to see musicians do. Making money, and not making any money.” One thing they hate even more than that is to hear musicians talking about money. There is a streak in some music fans which would prefer to think of musicians as a kind of black box that produces an album every year or two from whole cloth as if by magic; and I think it’s a useful exercise to open up the black box.
If we want Spotify and torrents and $2.98 Amazon album specials, we should consider accepting the idea that indie rock may come to be subsidized in the same way that we accept that jazz and classical music are subsidized by various (private and state) entities as a valuable piece of American culture that can’t be fully supported by the market. Many musicians and fans alike have internalized a martyr narrative that can be destructive to the former and sadistic of the latter, if not leavened with some understanding of realities.
I’m interested to read and respond to comments and other analysis. I hope this is a conversation that can be productive and informative for everyone involved.