Sep 23, 2010


Top tune, vile video.


The opening lines are lies.

Cape Cod Girls

Walking To New Orleans

I'll tell you what I'm gonna do... because I like your face... because I like your face... and I don't like many...

The Tube was, on consideration, better than Rockpalast. And was so good they got to make GOLD like this.

WARNING: Does contain some STING. But it was good then. And the documentary is still good now, Sting aside. You can see the whole thing on youtube. Make an hour for it.

I Wish I Was In New Orleans

Rockpalast may have been thee greatest music TV show of all time. Odd that it's from Germany.

If You Go Down To Hammond

We'll always love you but... that's not the point.


Map Ref 41°N 93°W

What TV show booked Wire? We didn't know TV was so good back then. We had no idea how bad the future was going to become.
My Bloody Valentine and David Byrne have both covered this tune.

St Augustine

The oldest continuously occupied European-established city and port in the United States. Whatever.
Deserves a proper video though.

Guilty pleasure

But North or South?
Lazy Welsh bastards.



The Great Salt Lake to Laredo

Before they became cocks..

Post approved application to the cock club. (Still good.)


The hits keep on comin'

May 24, 2010

I'm So Bored With The USA

31st March - 13th April
Buffalo NY/Toronto ON

Not really. And I don't think The Clash were either. Their American influences became ever more apparent on their sleeveless shirts. Americans revere them much more than we Brits do now. But I am tired and want to go home. I crave some Warburtons bread and a pint of bitter. And decent cheese as standard. That said, I don't want to leave Buffalo. My friends are here. It helps that those friends get me free drinks and entrance into shows too but even if they didn't, I'd wish I could stay here. Damn immigration laws and damn private health care.

It's been a long trip. I ought to thank all the people who let us stay with them or showed us around or hung out or just cared. I know that might be boring to read so feel free to skip ahead. It won't bother me. I'm more worried about missing someone off the list. But thems the risks... so thank you... Michael, Tara, Geoff, Daryl, Alexis, Erik, Donny, Chantal, Mark, Tim, Sharon, Zeno, Lorelei, Mike, Meri, Mike, Missy, Kevin, Jeff, Donna, Michael, Louise, Jon, Kelli and Ward.

The one state I'd urge you all to see is Montana. Bozeman could be a place to live. And I liked a lot about California way more than I thought I would. New Orleans I owe a second visit too. Being ill there was shameful. Atlanta too. Though God knows I'll never forget the Clermont Lounge. Or Jumbos Clown Room in L.A. On the other side of the fence, I can't imagine me ever setting foot in Oklahoma again. I wish we'd had the time to visit the northern states, the Dakotas especially. And I really wanted to see some more of Kentucky if only so I could write about their state song My Old Kentucky Home which used to open with the the following lines...

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
'Tis summer, the darkies are gay

Darkies? Seriously? Fucking Hell!
And it doesn't stop there. Verse two has the line...

The time has come when the darkies have to part

And verse three, not wanting to be left out, has these charming couplets...

The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darky may go;
A few more days, and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow;

Now it was written back in 1852 and no doubt such a word wouldn't have caused offence back then. Truth be told the whole lyric is, if anything, pretty sympathetic to the darkies' plight. (Though not in any way advocating emancipation or any such foolish notion.) But what really amazes me about the song is this - it stood proudly extant as the official song of the state of Kentucky until... 1986. Then the Kentucky General Assembly changed the word darkie to the word people. Phew.

But I know I have to go back and hear those good folk of Kentucky sing that song. Maybe at the University of Kentucky football games.

I ain't done with these songs and this country yet.

May 19, 2010

The Night Of The Johnstown Flood

Monday 29th & Tuesday 30th March - Days 49 & 50

We so wanted to go and see the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in B'more but it was closed on Mondays (grrrrr). It sounds great though. A waxworks dedicated to African American history that's slap bang in the middle of the hood. We said hi as we drove past anyway. We read some reports on Trip Advisor and a lot of them talked about how bad the neighbourhood was. We figured that was nonsense. We were wrong. So we left town and headed north for Johnstown, PA.

Nearly full circle. Just 120 miles from our first stop in Youngstown, OH. And another Bruce Springsteen song. Sort of.

Highway Patrolman is a typical Springsteen acoustic folksong from the album Nebraska. It has lots of geographical references in it: Ohio, Michigan, someplace called Perrineville and even Canada. But the one that intrigued me most comes in the chorus.

Me and Franky laughin' and drinkin'
Nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band played
"Night of the Johnstown Flood"

I wanted to hear this song Night of The Johnstown Flood. I'd never even heard of it before. Not surprising really, because there wasn't a song called Night of The Johnstown Flood back then. I guess Springsteen figured there should have been or maybe there was a song about the flood with a different name. However, there is now a song called Night of The Johnstown Flood. It came out this year and it's by a band called The Rock Creek Jug Band. I'm surprised it took so long.

So with no song to investigate I had to check out the story of the flood itself. Holy hell what a disaster. On May 31, 1889 after days of heavy rain, a dam burst 14 miles upstream from Johnstown. It took 57 minutes for the 20 million tons of water in Lake Conemaugh to reach Johnstown, a steel town of about 30,000 people. 10 minutes later over 2000 people were dead. And the town was completely ransacked. The photos of the devastation are truly incredible.

What made the tragedy even more upsetting was the cause. The dam had been built to store water for a canal system. But when the railways killed the canals, the dam and the lake it created became the home of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. A very private and exclusive club for the wealthy families of Pittsburgh. Guess what? They didn't really spend the required money and effort to keep the dam secure. After the flood, the victims tried but failed to recover damages from the dam's owners. The only silver lining was that public indignation at that failure helped change American law from "a fault-based regime to strict liability".

The town did recover. In fact, the efforts to re-build it drew donations from around the world and the whole operation was instrumental in the development of the American Red Cross. But I'm almost ashamed to say that the only thing that seemed worthy of a visit to the town was the Museum dedicated to the flood. Thankfully, the museum is good enough to justify the visit. The pictures and articles from before and after the flood are really fascinating. And they show a good 15 minute film which tells the story well. The newpaper coverage, the silent movies that were made about it and the numbers of sightseers who came to see the town afterwards suggest that at one point in history this flood was as famous as any other disaster. And amazing little details like this made me wonder why I'd never even heard of it:

"Train driver John Hess, sitting in his locomotive engine, heard the rumbling of the flood and, correctly assuming what it was, tried to warn people by tying down the train whistle and racing toward the town by riding backwards to warn the residents ahead of the wave. His warning saved many people who were able to get to high ground. But at least 50 people died, including about 25 passengers stranded on trains in the town. Hess himself miraculously survived despite the flood picking up his locomotive and tossing it aside."

It seems impossible to figure out what history and popular consciousness will forget and what it will remember. But for a while Johnstown had the world looking at it. And now... well... it's not on the radar. The little town looks like it's been hit by another disaster... an economic one. Which is bad, but just too common for people to care about. There must be thousands of dying towns in America. Probably always has been. There have been enough songs written about them. Johnstown is in a very remote part of Pennsylvania. Like Virginia, it's way more... way more... if not red-neck then maybe backwoods. It's not really going to draw many day trippers. Long gone are the days when the likes of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club sought their kicks in these parts. And I can't really blame them.

I had thought I'd spend the last night on the road in a town that didn't have a song about it but ought to have had one. So much so that Springsteen imagined one for it. It seemed paradoxical but this non-existent song made the case for my theory better than any real town or real song. But the thought of staying in town was too depressing. The green lushness of Virginia seemed very far away. We were surrounded by bleak, black, bare pine trees and covered by an ashen grey sky. Our friends in Springville, near Buffalo were just four hours away. But the night was going to fall before we could make it back there and the deer carcasses on these dark, twisty roads made us less than eager to try making it there. When it gets dark in America, it really gets dark... roadside lights ain't as common as they are in the UK. So we tried to get as far as we could before night fall. We passed through Punxsutawney, the town of Groundhog Day. We drove around a few hotels and motels but couldn't bring ourselves to stay in one. There was something about this part of the world which was not working for me. In the end we pulled into a chain motel in Du Bois (pronounced, surprisingly, Dew Boys, not Dubois as in Blanche) because, in the words of Uncle Monty, the sky did bruise. And disaster... it was a dry county. I noticed the gas station didn't have a wall of refrigerators packed with beer like every other one we'd been in and I thought that was strange. But when Walmart had no booze I knew we were in trouble. Luckily there was one bar in town. But finding the door into it was something they didn't want to come easy. It was around the back, tucked away under an iron staircase. It looked like a classic cottaging spot to me, but it had been a long day and I needed a beer. Happily I didn't get buggered. But I felt shagged. This town seemed a piss poor place to spend the last night. Getting pissed seemed to be the only way to deal with it.

When we woke up on Tuesday I couldn't wait to get out of the motel, the town or the state. Things seemed to improve pretty much as soon as we crossed back into New York. Within two hours we were driving through Ellicotville, a prettier little ski town than anyone would imagine could be found within 60 minutes of Buffalo. When we'd seen it last back in January it had been, if not quite arctic, then at least alpine-esque. The slopes were now clinging to some paultry grey patches of snow. The hills were shedding the stuff like a cygnet sheds its grey plumage. The sun was out. We stopped and bought sponge candy and micro brew beers and headed back to the arms and bosom of our friends in Springville.

May 10, 2010


Monday 29th March - Day 49

I sold the farm to take my woman where she longed to be
We left our kin and all our friends back there in Tennessee
I bought those oneway tickets she had often begged me for
And they took us to the streets of Baltimore
Her heart was filled with laughter when she saw those city lights
She said the prettiest place on earth is Baltimore at night

Hard times in the city
In a hard town by the sea
Ain't nowhere to run to
There ain't nothin' here for free
Hooker on the corner
Waitin' for a train
Drunk lyin' on the sidewalk
Sleepin' in the rain
And they hide their faces
And they hide their eyes
'Cause the city's dyin'
And they don't know why
Oh, Baltimore
Man, it's hard just to live
Oh, Baltimore
Man, it's hard just to live

Clearly a lot happened between 1966, when Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard wrote The Streets Of Baltimore, and 1977 when Randy Newman wrote his song Baltimore. In just 11 years Baltimore went from being the "prettiest place on earth" (at least in the eyes of a bar loving runaround) to a dying city. Fast forward to 2002 and the premiere of the TV series The Wire which, for the next 6 years, depicted Baltimore as a city FUBAR. Fans of the series (though apostles would be a better word than fans) think it the greatest TV show ever made. And I do consider myself to be a fan. If you haven't seen it I highly recommend you spend £60 and buy the box set. If you doubt me then click here and let Charlie Brooker convince you.

The Wire is set in the hood or the hoods of Baltimore and they look like desperate places. Empty ramshackle rows of townhouses which have clearly been abandoned by the city authorities. They look like this.

And this.

And if you get the chance to go round the back of the houses they look like this.

Total urban decay. And, sad to say, an area where nearly all the population is African American. That's no surprise is it? But how could it be? How could things be so bad for one race in a society? Especially in a society that believes all men are created equal. Because as I see it for ghetto children there is no equality in terms of opportunity and provision. Now The Wire is mostly filmed in streets just like those pictured above. If you watch it you get used to seeing locations just like those. I certainly got the impression that they did most of their filming in a very small localized area. I figured they went to the worst part of the city and filmed it there. I was wrong. They went to lots of different places and here's why... these kind of areas make up a massive chunk of the central area of the city. When we drove around it we couldn't believe how block after block was the same. Right off major roads, sometimes right on major roads. This landscape is the norm for many, many people. I don't know what proportion of the 637,000 citizens of Baltimore live in neighborhoods like this, but judging by the sheer number of bad blocks then it's a lot. Wikipedia tells me 22.9% of the population live below the poverty line. That's 150,000 people living below the poverty line in a city that's less than 40 miles from the White House. That's not right. Driving around it made me feel everything from shame to anger and on to gratitude and then right back to shame.

Then as we were driving down North Gay Street, in the midst of all this decay, we came across one of the most magnificent buildings we'd seen on our trip.

This is the American Brewery (wouldn't you know) built in 1887 by John Frederick Wiessner, a German immigrant (wouldn't you know). It looked magnificent though it had been empty and derelict for years until Humanin, a non-profit organisation, took it over in 2005 and saved it. They then set about using the building to start a regeneration project that they hope will save East Baltimore. I admire their ambition.

Baltimore depressed the hell out of us. It didn't scare us like East St Louis. There were too many folks on the street for that. Lots of folk ignoring the rain, but I guess street life is the only life they know (ahem.) The Wire taught us about the corner boys, the foot soldiers of the drug gangs who deal from street corners. They were there. Only they looked a lot older than the guys in the TV show. There were operating businesses too. A swanky looking rim shop just like in The Wire, but more typically it was corner stores and liquor stores. They looked like they were outposts in a war. It was a mess. Impossible to think how it could be restored. It took over $20 million just to restore that brewery.

Only a few days earlier Congress had passed Obama's health care bill and the day after that we'd tuned into Rush Limbaugh, the notorious right wing talk radio host, and he opened his show with the words, "America is hanging by a thread". He may well be right, but not because of the health care bill. I find it hard to imagine how a country with ghettos like these streets of Baltimore can possibly be looking ahead to better days. This country needs fixing but I don't think it'll get fixed. The will isn't there. Not yet at least. Americans who listen to Rush and Hannity and Glen Beck still think America is just great. They're in denial. They don't want to see the problems. Of course all those people who voted for Obama were voting for change so maybe I shouldn't be too pessimistic. But I fear that it won't last. In the end America can forget about change because they can just sweep their poor under the carpet and let places like Baltimore and East St Louis decay, hoping they won't fester and bring forth some kind of revolution. And sad to say I get a stronger sense of revolutionary fervor from the right wing of America. The scary future might be a lurch towards the right under the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. God help us all if that happens.

May 6, 2010

Oh Shenandoah

Sunday 28th March - Day 48

If you thought yesterday was a dull day to read, well this one isn't even going to reach those low thrills. So be warned.

Following on from the joys of the Blue Ridge Parkway we planned to drive along the Skyline Drive today. But the weather had other ideas. The road has risen before us a lot on this trip (and not in the good way that Johnny Rotten was singing about on Rise.) And, unlike in Britain, when the road starts to climb here it keeps on climbing. For miles. Sometimes it's an ear popping fast ascent and other times, like today, it's a looong slooow steady engine droning cruise which takes you into the clouds. Literally. When we reached the entrance to Skyline Drive we were in fog. And fog, Carol tells me, is a cloud that has touched down. We couldn't see more than 50 yards. The toll booth/entrance to the Skyline slipped slowly into vision from the mist, looking like something from a John Le Carre cold war novel. The Skyline Drive pretty much carries on where the Blue Ridge Parkway leaves off. It was created in the same era, it's very high up (clue in the name) and it runs along the Blue Ridge. But it differs in three ways ways: 1) it's shorter, just 105 miles long 2) it's in the Shenandoah National Park and 3) they charge you $15 to drive it! That's another thing that's starting to make me value Britain a little bit more. We don't have to pay to go into our National Parks. True the car parks within the parks ain't cheap but it seems pretty standard to have to pay to drive through a National Park in America. We have yet to pay for that privilege. We would have down in Yellowstone, but as all bar one of the roads road is closed in winter we didn't even have the option of paying. Because yesterday's drive was so beautiful we would probably have paid up today, but there's not much point driving the Skyline when you can't see the sky. Or the edge of the road. Or the 3000 foot drop that's just over the edge of the road. So we turned around and headed for Baltimore.

The song that brought us to this part of the country in the first place is probably the oldest song on our list. Oh Shenandoah is a classic expression of love for either a girl or a place. I've always read it as being about the place but some think it's about an Indian chief's daughter. Either way, as it's folk music there are different versions so you can suit yourself. My money is on the original being about the land because it was a sailor's song, and given that there's going to be another girl in the next port I think that what the sailor is yearning for is home.

To my ears it sounds like an Irish ballad. And seeing as how it's been in existence since at least 1882, it's not surprising that it doesn't sound 'American'. Britannia was still ruling the waves back then with the help of men from all over her empire. So I expect that the old world supplied the main cultural influence on the men who wrote songs about the new world. And according to the mighty Wikipedia a man called J.E. Laidlaw of San Francisco reported hearing a version sung by a black Barbadian on a ship from Glasgow in 1894. But it fascinates me that though the music still sounds British/Irish, the songwriter clearly sees himself as American and that land as being his land. The USA may have been less than 100 years old when Oh Shenandoah was first penned but already the white settlers were prone to a sentimental romanticisizing of the place that was every bit as heartfelt as any Irish ballad.

Is this a well known song in the UK? I'm not so sure. I'm from an Irish family and got bitten by the folk music bug when I was a youth though I doubt my non-folk loving contemporaries would know it. But any serious muso should know it. Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Bryn Terfel has sung it. Instrumentalists cover it too and they are equally diverse... from Bill Frisell to James Galway to Keith Jarrett. It's become a standard for classical crossover tenors and jazz soloists with an eye on some sales. And of course it's meat and drink to the folk, country and bluegrass gangs. Others who couldn't resist it include Robeson, Dylan, Van the Man, Judy Garland and Jimmy Rodgers. Ok so not everybody... Slipknot haven't done it (yet) but Thin Lizzy did so you get my point. Here's a couple of versions you might like...

So we drove through Shenandoah and it was wet and green and looked like Ireland. A bit. It also looked at times like it was home to the sort of men in the film Deliverance. You know, the ones who liked pigs. Looking at America from across the water we think the rednecks live far south, or out west. But they live all over. We were picking up Washington radio stations while driving past shacks that looked like they were auditioning for parts in teenage slasher flicks. Not too many Democratic Party members in those parts I suspect. And yes, appearances can be deceptive, but the local radio talk show made me pretty sure the appearances were accurate. The hot topic of debate was the Virginia Governor's willingness (seemingly nailed on) to sign a bill which will change things for members of the public who have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Up to now those poor oppressed free citizens were not allowed to carry their guns into places that served alcohol. Unbelievable I know. You may have the right to carry the gun but not into a joint that served alcohol. Despite the cross my heart swear to die promises that they wouldn't get steaming drunk and start shooting... they still weren't allowed to take that concealed weapon into a bar. Or a restaurant. Or anywhere that sold booze. But Let Freedom Ring, the gun lobby had seemingly convinced the Governor that it was downright evil to stop good, God-fearing, gun-loving citizens from taking their heat into a bar. So now (or soon) you can sit next to your buddy at the bar as he glugs his Miller, or your wife in a restaurant as she sips a cheeky little chardonnay, and still get a boner because you can feel that cold steel strapped to you.

The words "fucking" and "insane" spring to my mind.

The shacks and radio show told me I had to get out of this place. So I put my foot down and headed for Baltimore, Maryland. Or as it's also known (because of the gang wars)... Bodymore, Murderland.

(For unbiased reporting of all gun law issues I cannot recommend But I can recommend it for scary mentalists who love guns waaaaaay too much. Fancy some Gun Talk Radio? You got it.)

Apr 8, 2010

Buckner Live

As promised... a little taste of the Richard Buckner show we saw when we were in SF.
This is one guy, one guitar and a few pedals.

It's not everybody's cup of tea. But I love it.

Thanks to Berkeley Mike for taping it. (That's something else that happens way more in America than it does in the UK.)

The Blue Ridge Mountains

Saturday 27th March - Day 47

That was a number 2 hit record in the UK in 1975. No wonder we needed punk rock. (Though in no way should that statement be construed as a slight on Laurel & Hardy. They were brilliant.)

Anyway. Glory hallelujah I recovered. Saturday morning came with lots of sunshine and a sense of wellness. It was a lovely day and we spent it driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Which, as this helpful little map shows aren't just in Virginia.

But they are blue. Ridge after ridge each one a little further away then the last get progressively blue as the peaks become ever more fuzzy in a haze that's created by the sweat of pine trees. No seriously... the trees release this chemical called Isopreen and that's what turns the haze blue. It sure is pretty though. It really does looks like this.

Now we've spent a lot of time on this trip on interminable interstate roads that will make any British driver appreciate the beauty that surrounds our motorways. Not every mile of them of course but take the M62 eastwards out of Manchester and try and say that the Pennines aren't beautiful. (Don't go west out of Manchester for heaven's sake... that way leads to Mordor, or Liverpool as it is also known.)And it seems a long time since we had a really beautiful drive. Maybe it was back in New Mexico. But the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most beautiful roads I have ever had the privilege of driving along.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a single lane road. It's classified as a National Parkway and runs for 469 miles from North Carolina to Virginia (where it becomes Shenandoah's Skyline Drive.) It's a very special road, most of it is over 3000feet high and the land on either side of the road is maintained by the National Park Service. It was commissioned as part of FDR's New Deal though it wasn't completely finished until 1987. FDR and his policies are hated by right wing Americans who fear anything socialist. But if our current depression (which I think is mostly bollocks) were to lead to anything as wonderful as the Blue Ridge Parkway I'd be very surprised. I'm surprised I hadn't heard of it before. Or seen it in any number of car commercials. It's a road made in advertising heaven. Maybe it's good that it's not so well known because it's pretty empty. We joined the parkway at Asheville and drove for over 300 miles and most of the time we didn't see many other drivers at all. It's not as wonderfully lonely as Wyoming but it's a welcome change for us British drivers and reminds us just why driving in Britain is mostly hellish.

Maybe the roads were particularly empty because the it was still considered out of season. I've been surprised by how much things shut down here for winter. There were parts of the Parkway that were still shut for the season despite it being April and sunny. But it's mountain country and the road is thousands of feet high. Or maybe it's quiet because there aren't any modern attractions on the roadside and America has become so used to it's strip mall lifestyle that it doesn't want to be too far away from a big parking lot, a Subway and a Dollar General. But if so then praise the lord and pass the people some more burgers because a road as lovely would be spoiled by over use. See the English lake District on a Bank Holiday weekend for details.

If you want to look at it using google maps then click here. But better still... go and see it yourself. It's really special. It's 460 miles long and not one billboard. Happy 75th birthday Blue ridge Parkway.

Asheville NC

Friday 26th March - Day 46

After 46 days on the road I am tired of the radio. No, not tired... fucked off. We must have listened to nearly a thousand radio stations whilst we're on the road. Admittedly we don't stay with them long. But they don't stay with us long either. You have to turn that dial real often in America as the signal disappears so quickly. In Britain, radio is the king of the road. You can listen to Radio 4 from one end of the country to the other, or at least switch to Radio Scotland when you get north of the border. Other national stations are available, including Radio 1 to 5 and Talk Sport. But when we hit a good station here chances are it's going to be gone in 20 to 30 minutes of interstate driving. Radio seems to be a very local medium. Take today as we drove up through Georgia into South and then North Carolina. Our good friend Ward texted us a frequency to tune into. WNCW has a weekly half hour Zappa show and we caught the end of it. They were even playing San Bernardino. But the signal was weak and came and went. It was broadcasting out of Greenville but it just wasn't designed for road warriors. Swings and roundabouts I guess. With all these small stations you get some crazy stuff. You can always listen on the internet but that's no good in the car.

What has surprised me most about radio in America is that Country is king. It is by far and away the most common format for a radio station to follow. In some parts of the country it's damn near the only format you'll hear. The next most universally found format would be Christian radio. They vary a lot. In more metropolitan areas they play Contemporary Christian Music which I often find fascinating. In the more rural parts there's more focus on preaching and bible studies. One was seriously preaching that what lay at the root of most of the world's ills was a belief in Evolution. That sort of stuff is fascinating to listen to and does a disservice to the vast majority of card carrying church members. If you think all Christians are reactionary nutters then you really need to get out more. Or at least outside your own circle. I was also fascinated by how often the theme of the preaching was fighting pornography. Seriously and blimey. I wonder if there is a market for Christian porn? There is Christian heavy metal after all so why not? It would be for use by married couples obviously. We could set a lot of it in the courts of the kings of Israel. Watch this space, this time next year I'm going to be rich. In the south east we came across a few Christian community stations that had "Swap Shop" type shows. Guys would ring in and offer something like a trailer that they wanted to exchange for a pick up. Bafflingly, a lot of those callers wanted to swap guns. One of them was offering a sniper rifle with a scope. Praise the Lord and pass the ammo.

No matter the format of the station you do hear the same songs again and again and again. All the songs on Guitar Hero II that Brits had never heard of and wondered why they made it onto the video game... they are all on the radio all the time. Stuff like Crazy On You by Heart or Jessica by The Allman Brothers Band (it's the Top Gear theme tune), these things get played daily somewhere in America. One thing that struck us was how seldomly we heard black music. The one track by an African American that we heard repeatedly was this one:

How many place names? A few. Anyway. Today was another sick day. I did hope to go see this place called Helen in Georgia which is the subject of this song by Wayne Robbins & the Hellsayers.

In case you're too lazy to click the link, Helen is a fake Bavarian town set in the Georgia mountains. 35 years ago the good folk of the declining logging town (the population today is only 420) came up with the idea of changing the appearance of the all the buildings in the town so it looked like an alpine village. Brilliant. And now it's a little tourist hot spot. But I had my own fever and so we headed to Asheville, NC which, according to the Lonely Planet, has the highest per capita freak ratio of any town in the country. It's a college town of course, it has a food co-op and street kids with dreads drumming. It's a couple of thousand feet high, on the edge of the Blue Ridge mountains, so it's cold as well as cool. Not that we saw much of it. Still ill (did you spot that one?) I went to bed early. But at least it was in a motel that Richard Buckner stayed in. It also had a sign up in the foyer which said local people wern't allowed to check in. When I asked the woman behind the desk why, she said she didn't know. Weird.

Oh and Asheville was home to the 1930 Country act The Callhahan Brothers who had a song called Asheville Blues. This is them singing Springtime in Texas. The whores.


Wednesday 24th and Thursday 25th March - Days 44 & 45

I almost forgot another Mississippi tune... Hendrix's Peace In Mississippi.

Which was also covered by Earth who are one of my favorite bands. When we were planning this trip a must-see place for me was Tallahassee simply because Earth have a tune called Tallahassee.

Apart from being a great track, it also intrigued me why this doom metal band from the north west would write a song about the capital of Florida. Looking at the video for the track I'm guessing some bad shit went down in that town. Bad shit is, or at least was, par for the course for Earth's main man Dylan Carlson. He lost years of his life and music to smack and he will be forever infamous as the man who bought the shotgun that Cobain killed himself with. He was also the man who gave Cobain his first singing gig. Funny how that isn't as well known.

But I remain one of the few Brits who've been to America and not been to Florida. The reason for this is after NOLA we headed straight for Atlanta. Another boring long drive just so I could be ill in the house of another friend. 468 miles and a seven hour drive. First of all through Mississippi, where the ratio of crazy drivers to people who want to live seemed to be about 1:3. Still at least that kept things interesting. The I-65 which cuts across the south west corner of Alabama was the most boring drive I've ever done. There's just a lot of bare trees. Hardly any exits and at times not a single radio signal to be picked up. Funny thing is that the first time I ever drove in America I took the same route, only going south, and I found it fascinating. Coming from Britain where motorways are congested and six lanes of traffic are separated by a thin strip of metal, a big ass American interstate with its huge meridian and no signs of life by the side of the road blew my mind.

Atlanta looked huge but I can't really tell you much about it because I was ill again. We stayed with another Postcarder, handsome Jon, who looks like a young Keifer Sutherland, has beautiful southern manners and likes to smoke natural products. I've been meaning to go and enjoy the high life in Atlanta with Jon for a long time but my timing was really bad. Not only was I ill, but Jon had a work conference starting the day after we got there. Still we could go out for one night right? Well, half a night. After a few tacos we were about to move on to the next whiskey bar (little Alabama Song reference for you there) when I started shivering like a skinny stripper in a northern town. It was time to go to bed. And it wasn't even 11.

I managed a little better the next night. Enough to take in an Irish bar (where they have a monthly Father Ted night - respect!), the house where the woman who wrote Gone With The Wind lived (sort of... they rebuilt it), a sports bar (with English soccer on) and the Clermount Lounge. The sleaziest strip club I ever saw. And I swear we went on the recommendation of a woman (thank you, Louise.) The Clermont Lounge is Atlanta's first and longest continually-operating strip club (opened in 1965). Located in the basement of the Clermont Motor Hotel (now out of business) on Ponce De Leon Avenue, in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood. Seriously, the Poncey-Highland neighborhood. It sounds and looks like a location from a noirer than noir trashy novel. It's a remnant of a former America, just like an AA baseball field in a hick town. That's why Louise liked it. It was amazing. I can't really bring myself to describe the dancers because it would seem cruel. And I don't want to be cruel. But if I were to, I'd be using words like cellulite, droopy, bloated. Still more power to them. And their fans. Especially the smooth dude in the silk Lionel Ritchie World Tour bomber jacket. There was a good little bar band and a super hot tattooed bar tender (Sandra Bullock's hubby would have dug her.) Seemingly it's where celebs like Brad Pitt like to come to party when they are in town. I wish I hadn't been ill. If I'd stayed longer I might have become drunk enough to spend a little more money in there.

We also didn't get to see the star of the Clermont, an African American woman called Blondie who is at least 50 but can crush a beer can between her jugs.

Apr 3, 2010


Things we missed in Mississippi.

GODDAM. This country is too big.


Monday 22nd and Tuesday 23rd March - Days 42 & 43

I was just ill in New Orleans. After 41 days of travel and a week at SXSW we drove 512 miles in 8 hours and went out in the French Quarter. Drank, ate, slept and then woke up feeling very ill. I think I beat the throat cancer but now it turned into lung cancer. I was coughing up some nasty phlegm. We were staying with another Postcarder, Michael, and his wife Louise, who also have a super cool place to live. It's a Creole cottage, and it has its very own bar. Here's me looking very comfortable there. You may also notice that I have somehow brought the spare tire from our car into the bar. I don't know how that happened. I've been eating such healthy food here in America. And drinking moderately. Now I know you'll blame the booze on my illness but even though we did have lovely cocktails, as well as some food (deep fried chicken, the south is a lot like Glasgow) and some more drinks in a dive bar that we had to go in because they were playing War Pigs, that is not why I woke up ill on Tuesday. The usual cure of breakfast proved too weak for whatever was ailing me and despite it being a beautiful day in NOLA I couldn't take advantage of it. Michael and Louise both work from home so I really tried to stay up. I even went and sat in the Cathedral of Saint Louis for half an hour. It reminded me of the famous Brendan Behan quote “I'm a Communist by day and a Catholic as soon as it gets dark.” Sadly Jesus chose not to cure me and even though NOLA looked like no other American city I just had to go back to our hosts and rudely sleep through the day. Though I recovered enough to go out for some food and drinks again that night, I can't really tell you much about the city. But here are some random observations:

1)It looks like a former French Carribean colony and is all the better for that.
2)The sidewalks are shot (and I'm pretty sure they were before Katrina). Seriously broken up sidewalks like you'd see in a war movie.
3)You can drink on the streets! (Watch your feet.) It's a 24 hour drinking town. One bar even has a launderette in it.
4) The city has a lot of cemeteries. We visited the one where Buddy Bolden is buried. Somewhere. No one knows where though. (If you are not familiar with Buddy Bolden then I suggest the novella Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje. I give you a money back guarantee that you'll enjoy it. But you will need a proof of purchase if you want to claim on that.)
5) The road called Elysium Fields is the finest civic failure I've ever seen. It was meant to be the Champs Elysees of NOLA but it just never took off. So it's a very wide boulevard with a grassy meridian and very few signs of life. You can check it out on Street View. It looks like this:

Talking of signs of life, Michael took us for a ride around the Lower 9th. It wasn't what I was expecting and it's certainly no East St Louis. Maybe the sun had a lot to do with that. Certainly Brad Pitt does. Now we saw a lot of Katrina/Lower 9th stories in the UK but I was completely unaware that Brad Pitt had set up a charitable foundation called Make It Right to get some amazing homes built in the Lower 9th. Places that look like this...

and this...

and this...

I don't know, maybe it's possible that it's common knowledge and I'm just ignorant. Highly possible. But assuming it's not, it strikes me as odd that stories like this don't get much coverage. I wonder why. Still it's amazing to see these modern structures rising up amongst the condemned and abandoned shacks and urban prairie.

Oh and if you are wondering why there's no mention of music on this page (other than Buddy Bolden) it's because there are no songs that mention New Orleans. None whatsoever.

Mar 28, 2010

What English Folk music at SXSW taught me

Actually it started back in Kenmore, Western New York. In a shop called Spiral Scratch. A more unassuming record shop you could not find. I defy you to. It carries vinyl mostly. It's the underground incarnate. It's a model for how there might still be a future for a retail outlet in the music business. As long as the business aspect comes second to the music aspect. I imagine the rent on the shop is very low. James Ellroy loooowwww low. Which might mean we'll never see its likes in the UK. Too bad. Anyway. I bought thisthere. John Barleycorn Must Die by Traffic. Just $4 on vinyl. It reminded me of a record by a young British folk artist called Tim Van Eyken. Back in 2007 his version of Barleycorn picked up the award for Best Traditional Track at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Ever since I've been meaning to pick up Stiffs Lovers Holymen Thieves, the album that spawned the track. When we were in the astounding Amoeba Records in LA (another very viable model for a 21st century music retailer) I checked out the used English folk CDs and what do you know. Banged it in the CD player in the mighty Terrain and what's the first line on the record?"There came three men from out of Kent." That's right, a geographical reference. And there's plenty more where that came from on the record: Ratcliffe, Worcester City, passages from England to Australia. English folk music is full of English place references. Of course it is. It's folk music.

This was reinforced whilst watching the English Folk Music showcase at SXSW. Nevermind that the bill included a band from Scotland and that the star of the night for me, Olivia Chaney, did tunes from Ireland and France. It was billed as Looking For a New England, which meant it could be marketed as English and attract Arts Council money with postcards based on Marmite and Newcastle Brown Ale. Traditional fare. Just like the music. And I mean that in a good way. That's what people who love British folk music want by large. New versions sure, but old stuff. Stuff that feels old. There's a version of Barleycorn in manuscript that dates back to 1568. Even the stuff from the more recent centuries that was performed by these young turks from England (and Scotland) had plenty of geographical references.

And then it struck me. Of course American rock and pop music is full of geographical references. It's folk music. This is true of hip-hop and jazz too. So like all folk music it sings about place. And I'd been asking the wrong question. It's not why do Americans sing about America so much, it's why do British rock and pop acts not mention British places as much? And the answer is because when Brits make rock and pop music we're contributing to American folk music. That's why the Beatles talk about Jojo from Tucson Arizona and Mick Jagger doesn't meets birds in gin-soaked bars in Twickenham. We love this music so we want to make it authentic. Of course, from time to time we'll chuck in a few British places but it can sound a little forced or ironic. Or maybe a throwback to older British folk traditions that no doubt underpin rock 'n' roll.

When driving through LA listening to a classic hip-hop radio station it hit me just how very "American" the music was. I'm sure listening to a few jigs and reels in a pub on the west coast of Clare has a similar effect. The music comes from the people of that land. Then I drove past an African American church and thought how "American" gospel music is. Same for rock 'n' roll. I know I'm in danger of picking up an award for stating the bleeding obvious, but it's all too easy to miss woods for trees. And I think in the UK we are prone to forgetting that this music came from a different land and a different people. Even if their roots lie back in the old countries things changed.

It was all so obvious all along.

Mar 26, 2010


Tuesday 16th to Sunday 21st March - Days 36 - 41

SXSW is hard. It's not like Glastonbury. You don't get to hang out in a field and get in touch with your inner hippy. You get to hang out with some older hippies and realise they look that bad because running around after music is hard. We took it easy this year. So we didn't see the 50+ or 70+ bands of previous years. We only saw the following bands. (Youtube links for the best ones.)

Brent Best
Lil Cap'n Travis
The Atlas Moth

The Cardinal Health
Chip Robinson
Brent Best (again)
Wanda Jackson

Pink Nasty
Smokey Angel Shades
Get Cape Wear Cape Fly
Billy Bragg

Slow Club

The Crookes
Slow Club (again)
Pete Molinari

Quest For Fire

Bobby Bare Jr
The Wooden Birds
The Cave Singers

The Law
Twin Atlantic
Olivia Chaney

Jackie Oates
Trembling Bells
Jakob Dylan (with Neko Case & Kelly Hogan)
The Unthanks
Gina Villalobos and the Midnight Voices
The Waco Brothers
The Legendary Shack Shakers
Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express

Two Cow Garage
The Capstan Shafts
Through The Sparks
Best Coast
Slow Club (once again)
The Black Angels

And even though we took it real easy it still bloody hurt. It didn't help that we stayed in three hotels during the week but still... I am too old for this. My throat is hurting. It might be cancer. Well... it might be.


Monday 15th March - Day 36

Fredericksburg is the German capital of Texas. Lots of hun went to German seemingly. The 2000 US census recorded 47 million people claiming German heritage, the largest single ethnic group in the USA. And yet the apparent influence of German on the culture is very small. I guess two world wars helped undermine that. Fredericksburg is very small but it's still very German. The main street is also called Hauptstrasse. Not sure how the locals pronounce that but it's still very cute, if not a little weird, to see German architecture in the town. Sadly it's overrun with day trippers and chintzy gift shops. It's to Texas what Bowness-on-Windermere is to the Lake District.

To make matters worse the grand Bavarian Inn (pic above) was closed. Monday seems to be a day when a lot of things close in small tourist spots in America. At first it seemed dumb to us but then I guess Americans with their 3rd world vacation time allowances don't do long weekends. Still Tuesday would surely be a better day for a place to have it's day off wouldn't it? We ate at the Auslander Biergarten which at least served real German beer even if it didn't serve real German food. When it comes to serving up Euro grub its the cheese that lets America down. I'd say the only Europeans who would be happy with the quality of the cheese served in American restaurants would be the Dutch. (The perfunctory "belegen" signifier tells you all you need to know about the paucity of Dutch cheese culture.) God know Britain isn't France but our cheese choice is made to seem like the haut-est of cuisine compared to the almost ubiquitous limited options of American, Swiss or Provolone.

But I didn't come to slag off America. I cam to enjoy it. And even though I'm not sure if the tunes on itunes and AMG called Fredericksburg are about this town we were mostly here to kill a day before SXSW. And to salute the town because to Fredericksburg's enormnous credit the pact that was signed by the towns folk with the Comanche Indians in 1847 (known as the 1847 Meusebach-Comanche Treaty) is believed to be the sole pact between whites and Native Americans that has never been broken. Wow! That is shameful shit isn't it? European settlers really fucked American people up didn't they? So lets hear it for the damen und herren of Fredricksburg. Even if there is another unbroken pact with injuns those good folk of Fredericksburg deserve respect because their treaty was the only treaty made between private citizens and the Comanche, which was endorsed by the Federal government. It seems you can trust a Fredericksburger.

And finally the Ditzel motel that we stayed in was really sweet. It had chickens roaming round the front and back and we had the room next to reception so we could get a strong wifi feed. Which might not recommend the place to the business traveller but made it ever so appealing to us. Check this street view screen grab out.

Mar 16, 2010


Sunday 14th March - Day 35

I haven't mentioned the landscape for days have I? That's because it's pretty dull. And today was the dullest of all. The I-35 stretches from Laredo, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border to Duluth, Minnesota, at Minnesota Highway 61. I assume it's a trip to do it from start to finish. It ends up in the birthplace of Dylan after all. But the I-35 corridor that runs from Denton TX to Austin TX is horrible. It's the Texan answer to the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester. Only being Texan it's bigger... 228 miles of traffic. Even on a Sunday. It was sunny too which always makes traffic worse for a rain lover like me. OK it wasn't bumper to bumper, but not far off. And when we got to Austin, a city I love (though as it gets bigger I love it less and less) it really was bumper to bumper, 5 miles an hour stuff. And seemingly all because there was a kite festival in Zilker Park. They should never have given those hippies gas money.

In retrospect, we probably could have made better use of our time than heading to Denton. Especially because it gave us only two nights before we had to be in Austin for SXSW. And nothing between Denton and Austin had any appeal for us. So we set our sights on staying in Fredericksburg and visiting Luckenbach on the way. A total of 312 miles but most of it was awful interstate. The only highlight of the trip was a rest stop when I rang my Mum back in the UK as it was Mother's Day over there. In a 10 minute conversation she was able to bring me up to date with three deaths. (She likes to do that. I expect she's not alone in that.) So RIP to my old headmaster Mr McNally, my uncle Tommy (who I met twice maybe - Mum came from a big family) and the ex-husband of another relative. Happy Mother's Day all.

When we finally got past Austin the countryside started to improve. Texas Hill Country is greener than you'd imagine Texas to be. It undulates a little bit too so even though it's not outstandingly beautiful it comes as welcome relief. It is also home to a legendary country music venue in Luckenbach Texas.

Luckenbach is an unincorporated community. Which means it's not part of any municipality. It appeals to the sort of people who fear big government and believe in the myths of freedom. The sort of people who have bumper stickers that say, "If you think you can trust the government... ask an Indian" but those Indians probably wouldn't trust a man with a bumper sticker like that either. Anyway, that's not why Luckenbach is famous. Nor is it the fact that citizens of the town claimed that one of them had launched the first airplane years before the Wright Brothers. Which seems unlikely for a town that at its peak only had a population of 492 and fell back to just 3. That was when it put up an ad that read "Town — pop. 3 — for sale." And somehow someone thought that was a good deal. Hondo Crouch, rancher and Texas folklorist, bought it for $30,000 in 1970, in partnership with Kathy Morgan and actor Guich Koock. Hondo used the town's rights as a municipality to govern the dancehall as he saw fit. I may scoff, but if Crouch had lived he'd have seen his investment pay off. In 1973, Jerry Jeff Walker, backed by the Lost Gonzo Band, recorded a live album called Viva Terlingua at Luckenbach Dancehall. That album became an outlaw country classic. Four years later (and a year after Crouch's death), Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson immortalized Luckenbach with the song 'Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)'.

I have to apologise here for previously taking the piss out of guys who tape themselves covering songs on guitar so they can post them on Youtube. At least they aren't making slide shows to accompany records so they can post them on Youtube. (The only people sadder than the slide show artists of Youtube are the bloggers who embed the works of those visionaries.)

In the book Are You Ready for the Country? author Peter Doggett wrote that Jennings later told audiences that 'he hated the song and admitted "The guys that wrote the thing have never been to Luckenbach. Neither have I"'. However, many now have. Notable concert appearances in the town have included Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett. Sadly nothing of that quality was on show when we rolled in on Sunday afternoon, the now traditional time to sit out by the creek and have a beer. The old store which sells Luckenbach Texas Population 3 stickers and t-shirts and stuff was actually as cool a vendor of tourist tat as I've ever seen. And if someone really good was playing in the very rustic dancehall then I'd consider selling a kidney or even a gonad if it got me a ticket. But based on what I saw, Sunday afternoons there might be a bit lame if you want great music. The band were terrible and the crowd was made up mostly of guys who had spent way too many hours polishing their Harleys and growing their bellies. If you dig big shiny hogs (either biological or mechanical) then a sunny Sunday afternoon in Luckenbach Texas is for you. If you're in the neighbourhood... it might be worth a look to see what's on.

But Myths are fragile. Sometimes it pays to stay away.

Mar 14, 2010


Saturday 13th March - Day 34

For the past few days I've been waking up with a very sore throat. I think I'm knackered. I feel knackered. We did 7 hours driving on Thursday and 5 hours on Friday. Thankfully today we only did 3 hours but because we were trying to get into to town in time for a free concert where they were going to open the gates at 3pm, we had to get up early and drive pretty hard. I mention this because I have nothing to tell you about Denton Texas. I wanted to see the town. It's supposed to be nice. I love Damien Jurado's song Denton, TX too. But all we did was check in to the motel, and go sit in a field and see a disappointing show.

Band 1. If a band called Star Death & White Dwarfs were going to be any good they were going to be metal. And unashamed of admitting to a familiarity with Games Workshop products. Sadly they were hipsters who did a cover of Madonna's Borderline. Not good.

Band 2. Midlake are a very dull live band.

Band 3. I love the Flaming Lips but this show was a disaster. The power went out three times.
Still it had its moments:

If not for the music then at least for the spectacle.

Then we went to bed. This country is too big. And Texas is too big in itself. The sun has rose and the sun has set and I ain't got through Texas yet.


Friday 12th March - Day 33

America likes to maximize its pleasure. Things can't just be good, they have to be "the best!" When we were in the beer bar Stout in LA a fellow customer urged us to try the burgers there. "You'll hear this a lot" he said, "but seriously these are the BEST burgers in LA." We went back the next night and they were good burgers but I don't know if they were the best burgers in LA. I'm not sure such a thing could be objectively demonstrated to exist. But because of the guy's claim we had really good burgers and were left feeling a little disappointed. We've now learnt that the so-called best burgers, cocktails, strippers or whatever won't be as outstanding as the acclaim would lead us to expect.

I mention all of this because today we visited our first Hall of Fame. It's another example of America's desire to maximize pleasure. No point listening to a band that's not in the rock 'n' roll hall of fame is there? (Well yes, of course there is.) Even things like music have to be quantified in terms of quality. Halls of Fame are not a big deal in the UK. They did set one up for English football in 2002 but I can't tell you a thing about it. And I expect that's true of nearly all English footy fans. But apart from that one, I'm not sure there are any other Halls of Fame in the UK. So, of course, I really wanted to take in a Hall of Fame somewhere on this trip and in Anadarko Oklahoma we got our chance.

We didn't really know what to expect from the National Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians (unfamous American Indians need not apply) but our hopes weren't high when we drove through the arse end of Anadarko (no relation to Donnie Darko) where one house that seemed to still be occupied had been half flattened by a tree. It was no East St Louis.... but not far off. The Hall of Fame was actually pretty sweet. Though garden of fame would have been a more accurate description. Each inducted Famous American Indian has a bust set on a plinth, and these are set out around a lawn. There is a small information center where we got chatting to a lovely 80 year old "full blood Kiowa" woman. She really was delightful company until she came out as a racist. In the info center were three busts that had fallen from their plinths when a tornado had ripped through the town last year. When she told us about the tornado and how bad it had been we said we'd seen a tree lying on a house as we drove through town. She asked whereabout in town and when we described it to her she said "oh, black town". That sounded odd - was black town her name for the part of Anardarko where the black community lived? Turned out it was as she revealed to us her low opinion of African Americans. She even said "I'm a racist." OMG. Then went on about how the Indian braves wouldn't scalp a black man. She also revealed how she was the only Indian in town (she didn't use politically correct terms like Native American) who voted for McCain. Obama wasn't her guy. I'm sure she could have talked to us all day but, horrified and confused, we made our excuses and left.

The motels in Anadarko didn't look too appealing so we pushed on for Lawton Oklahoma the subject of the Lightnin' Hopkins song Lawton Oklahoma Blues. I'd guess that at least 90% of the town have the blues. It doesn't look like it would be a pretty town at the best of times, but it looked particularly ugly when we got there a day or two after a severe ice-storm. Every street had massive piles of dead wood that the storm had brought down. Lawton's pretty big for a grim town in the Oklahoma panhandle. It had plenty of hotels too which puzzled us. Why would anyone want to stay in that town? Why would so many people want to stay? The only thing I can think of that would explain it is the Comanche Nation Casino. Whatever the cause, getting a room wasn't easy. We tried America's Best Value Inns which are usually one of the cheapest motels but it was $90 a night. We then found a strip with a row of independent motels that looked a little seedy. They all advertised jacuzzi suites too which made them seem like they might book out rooms by the hour. We checked into one and then checked right back out. I'm not a fussy man and I'm not a hygiene freak but the room smelled so damp that I pulled back the bed cover to discover a pillow with three mould colonies growing on it. The receptionist offered to swap the pillow but we were out of there. As we drove away we saw a street sign saying 'No Cruising' which made me reconsider the musclebound guys who had been looking at me in the car park of the motel. I thought maybe they didn't like the look of this long haired bloke... now I think this strip of motels may be where Oklahoma's rural gay community comes to party.

We did eventually find a motel and then went to check out the casino. Well, there really didn't seem to be anything else to do in town. The Comanche Nation Casino wasn't much smaller than the Reno casinos. But it didn't waste much space on restaurants and bars. Or gaming tables for that matter. The folk of the Oklahoma panhandle clearly just love to play slots. It was 11 o'clock on a Friday night and the place was packed. It was pretty horrible. Which all in all was becoming our impression of Oklahoma. Take this exchange which happened when the security guy at the casino asked for our ID and we showed him our UK driver's licences.
"UK... where's that? Ukraine?"
"Er... no it's the UK."
"Where's that?"
"You know... the United Kingdom. We're British"
"Well, I don't know, I'm from Oklahoma."