Feb 25, 2010

Support Your Local Serial Killer

When we passed through Tacoma it reminded me that Neko Case, who grew up there, wrote a brilliant song called Deep Red Bells which is about the Green River Killer who was responsible for at least 48 murders. I've already mentioned Springsteen's Nebraska (about Charles Starkweather) so it's got me to thinking about other songs about a serial killer (or similar) who is associated with a particular city.

Sufjan Stevens wrote a song called John Wayne Gacy, Jr on his Illinois album which is about a man who between 1972 and 1978 raped and murdered at least 33 young men and boys.

Zappa has a song called The Illinois Enema Bandit which is about Michael H Kenyon who in 1975 pleaded guilty to a decade-long series of armed robberies of female victims, some of which involved sexual assaults where he would give them enemas.

And finally Elliot Smith wrote the brilliant Son of Sam which is about David Berkowitz who killed six people and wounded seven others in the course of eight shootings in New York between 1976 and 1977.

Given that serial killers usually have a patch, it follows that a song about one would be a sort of a place song.

Any other suggestions are welcome.

Feb 24, 2010

Welcome to Aberdeen

Monday 22nd Day 15

I'm letting Carol, a native of the original Aberdeen, write about our trip to Kurt Cobain's hometown. Take it away Carol...

People often like to interpret coincidences as somehow meaningful rather than pure chance. As a teenager in Aberdeen, Scotland I was thrilled to discover that Kurt Cobain grew up in Aberdeen, Washington. I'm not sure what I thought the deeper meaning was, but it had to be significant, right? Now, 20 years later, as we approached Aberdeen WA another coincidence... Get Together by The Youngbloods was playing on the radio.


As we entered Aberdeen we saw a sign with the words 'Welcome to Aberdeen. Come As You Are', the second line a subtle memorial to Kurt added to the sign in 2004. We passed through the usual strip malls towards downtown Aberdeen - what little there was of it. A couple of blocks further on, we stopped by the Tourist Information office where Ged managed to find A Walking Tour of Kurt Cobain's Aberdeen. I don't need to tell you what's on it, you can see for yourself here.

We drove (a walking tour? Really?) round some of the many spots where Kurt lived/slept. This included the Melvins' drummer Dale Crover's house where Kurt would sometimes sleep in a cardboard box on the porch. Unfortunately it seems that his last Aberdeen residence (a "ramshackle hovel" according to the walking tour) has been razed. We could get a pretty good idea what it was like though from the surrounding properties. The two houses next door had been gutted and were cordoned off with police tape. I'd describe it politely as a deprived area. I can say a couple of good things about it. It was very close to downtown. Actually, on second thoughts, I can't think why that would be a good thing. However, a real positive was my new number one thrift store just around the corner. Kurt might even have got his lovely green cardigan there...

The shift from the transitory life Kurt was living in Aberdeen to the fame and wealth he achieved with Nirvana was huge and, though it's extremely sad, it's not surprising he found it so difficult to deal with.

Thank you Carol. I checked on iTunes and there are lots of songs called Aberdeen by acts I've never heard of. (Obviously ignoring Scottish legends like Andy Stewart and the Aberdeen FC Squad.) I'm guessing these songs are about Kurt's hometown. But I can't be bothered listening to songs I'm sure are shit. However I will recommend the work of the great Damien Jurado who seems obsessed with Aberdeen and its nearby small (seriously small) cities of Hoquiam (Kurt's actual birthplace) and Montesano. He has songs named after both of these, namechecks them in other lyrics and even has a band with his son named Hoquiam.

Feb 23, 2010


Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st - Day 13 & 14

Lots of songs about Seattle. They just don't spring to mind easily. I suspect it's because the word Seattle is just too damn anglo-saxon to sound cool. Not that it stops people trying...

Roy Ayers - I Did It In Seattle (I know, I know... this blog has sorely under served the Jazz world.)
PiL - Seattle
Perry Como - Seattle
Jelly Roll Morton - Seattle Hunch (Score two for Jazz.)
Steve Vai - The Boy From Seattle
Nirvana - Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle
The Brighton Port Authority - Seattle

And there's a ton more by acts I've never heard of. In fact, the far from comprehensive All Music Guide lists 115 songs called Seattle. Plenty of these pre-date the 90s, but Seattle became ground zero for the commercial rebirth of ROCK in the 90s thanks to grunge and the bands who played it (or denied they played it).

Seattle may have been the focal city for the world when it came to grunge, but the whole of Washington State was home to disaffected white kids who liked heavy music. Kurt Cobain was from Aberdeen, The Melvins were from nearby Montesano. The witch Courtney Love named an album after the state's capital Olympia which also spawned the much better female rock band Sleater-Kinney who took their name from an intersection in the city. But Seattle was the magnet that drew in the kids and it was where bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and others formed.

Now everyone knows it rains a lot in Seattle and as such it's easy to jump to the conclusion that a dreary landscape fuels such intensely miserable music. But... news just in... Seattle is beautiful. And just like Spokane, Seattle hosted the World's Fair too. But unlike Spokane, Seattle got a worthwhile and lasting landmark out of it namely the wonderfully retro-futuristic Space Needle. Built in 1962, it's only 184 metres high, so it's not a super high structure. But looking like it's steeped straight out of The Jetsons it's as cool as hell. And as it's not that high it's a lot more fun to go up than say the CN Tower in Toronto. It's certainly high enough to see how unique Seattle is as a city, surrounded as it is by mountains and lakes and the huge Puget Sound. So I don't buy into this idea of a miserable, rain drenched city being the key factor in the birth of grunge. (Besides I love rain.)

Now admittedly the weather this weekend was beautiful... we hit 60°F! (Frigid Bones has now officially retired). And I can't dismiss the influence of the Harlem Globetrotters who were in town and when we visited the Space Needle we were surrounded by lots of kids on a high from seeing another defeat for the Washington Generals (yeah, take that whitey!) So maybe I was swayed by the mood... but still... what stood out for me was how... and forgive me for using this word... alternative Seattle is. I did hear it's the "least churched state in the union" but that's not what I mean. I'll give you an example. Some bars declare themselves hate free zones and we saw one with the sign "If you are racist, sexist, homophobic or an asshole, do not come in." (I passed the test on the first three criteria... just missed out on the last one.) There was certainly a big gay presence in the city. And walking round the Capitol Hill bars did put me in mind of the Northern Quarter in Manchester. Another independantly minded city, based far away from national media capitals that was once the focus of a music scene.

That said... it's high time both those cities kicked up some worthwhile new shit. Or at the very least some props ought to be given to the city for spawning Earth a pivitol band in the doom/drone/stoner/sludge spectrum which is so much more relevant today than grunge. They even gave Kurt his first gig.

The One Where We Saw A M*****-******g Eagle

Friday 19th - Day 12

Actually we saw the eagle yesterday. But I mention it today because when we told the lovely lady at The Lewis & Clark Motel this morning she couldn’t have been less impressed. It was like someone visited Liverpool and said "I saw a scally today." But sod her, because it was amazing.

We were coming over the Bozeman pass (5819 ft) and just ahead of us on the side of the road was a bird which seemed to be about the size of a Labrador. It was picking at the carcass of some road kill with its back towards us and something, maybe the sound of our car, made it take off. Holy cow it was huge, its legs were so beefy they could have filled Wayne Rooney’s shorts. As it started to fly off we pulled alongside it and each passing second brought its head into clearer view. We already knew it was an eagle but the thrill wasn’t complete until we could see it’s snowy white head and bright yellow beak. It took about 5 seconds to get past it but it was such an adrenaline rush… “Look… it’s an eagle, it’s an eagle… oh my god it’s a mother-fucking eagle!!!” Trust me, no other profanity fitted and no other profanity has ever been more appropriately used. The beast looked like it wouldn’t hesitate. It was the cock of the mountain and the king of the air and it didn’t give a toss who knew. Wow. The woman in the motel said “I guess it must be impressive if you ain’t seen one before… I grew up seeing moose in my back yard.” I’d like to say something derogatory about growing up in the middle of nowhere, but I can’t because her middle of nowhere is ace.

And whilst I'm tidying up... I also forgot to mention that when we went to the hot springs, I had to buy a pair of hot spring appropriate shorts first. We stopped in a town called Livingston and went to one of the busiest thrift stores I’ve ever seen. It was right next door to the Chemical Dependency Treatment Centre so I guess it was well positioned. I bought a pair of North Face shorts for $2 and couldn’t help but think of Paul Calf’s immortal line “I’m not wearing dead man’s pants.” (Pants, dear American friends, means male knickers in the UK.)

Anyway… we passed over a few high passes on our way through Montana and I’m not sure where the Rockies started or ended. According to this map there are 66 separately named mountain ranges in Montana (it does what it says on the tin) but on the big map it just says Rocky Mountains. Regardless, they are beautiful and snowy February is just the time to see them.

Friday’s plan was to make it as far west as possible so we wouldn’t have so far to drive on Saturday to make our appointment with Seattle Postcarder and genuine one-off Zeno Seiler. We had three destinations in mind. Each in a different state. A pathetic 210 miles would take us to Missoula in Western Montana. A more impressive 366 miles would land us in Coeur d’Alene in the middle of the narrow Idaho panhandle. Or if we pushed on just another 33 miles we would make Spokane in western Washington.

Nanci Griffiths has a song called Midnight in Missoula. Unfortunately it’s from the later part of her career. The part that was built upon the truly sappy From A Distance rather than the great new wave of country honky-tonking tunes she was slipping out in the 80s. I expect many will disagree with me, but Nanci used to be cool. How cool? Well, cool enough to do acid with Townes Van Zandt. And that Nanci would have been right at home in Missoula as, between 2004 and 2006, the north west of Montana reported the highest rate of illicit drug use in the USA, with 9.5% of the populace being lovers of Marijuana. They loved it so much that in 2006, voters in Missoula County passed Initiative 2, which set possession of pot to be the lowest priority for law enforcement. Funny thing was… marijuana arrests actually went up in the next 2 years! Old habits die hard for cops I guess.

But we flew (see what I did there) past Missoula and as we crested what was surely the Rockies we began to come down to earth in Idaho. I don’t know if it was coincidental or if the border marks a real change in climate, population and landscape, but Idaho was instantly different to Montana. It was bathed in sunlight and the mountainsides were covered in firs and small houses. The state is known for growing potatoes (there’s even a candy bar called an Idaho Spud) but in the panhandle they dug coal and metals not spuds. The narrow valley that leads to Coeur d’Alene looked like it had been populated during a gold rush with houses crammed in, in no discernable pattern on the hillsides.

Coeur d’Alene literally means "heart of an awl" but no one really knows how it got its name. It is in a beautiful spot though, based around a large lake, surrounded by pine covered hills that hold several ski resorts. When we passed through, the sun was shining and the temperature gauge was reading 50° F. It looked idyllic but we passed on through because…
1) There aren’t any good tunes about Coeur d’Alene (the most notable is by Dean Magraw who is one of those guitar virtuosos whose talent is only matched by their pointlessness) and
2) Coeur d’Alene used to be home to an annual march by the thankfully now bankrupt Aryan Nation.

So Spokane beckoned. A place I’d never heard of before I began researching this trip. Never even heard it mentioned. Which is why I thought it was pronounced Spok-ANE, as in window PANE. But the e is silent and it’s pronounced Spok-ANN as in Ann of Cleaves. I ought to have heard of it I guess, it’s relatively big (200k population) and it was the birthplace of Bing Crosby. It was also the site of the 1974 World's Fair but I have no real idea what the World's Fair is. I just know that sometimes a city will say hey we hosted the World's Fair like it’s a big deal. Maybe it is. If you stick Spokane into iTunes you’d find about 25 tracks named after the town, but most of 'em are crap… except this one.

Now if Tom T. Hall doesn’t want to be in Spokane then neither do I. That feeling only intensified as we drove into town on insanely busy four lane roads that had beggars at every intersection (they even have drive-thru begging in America). We’d just spent 4 days in Wyoming and Montana… we couldn’t cope with this.

I had one more place up my sleeve. A town called Ritzville another 61 miles west. A two bit hayseed town that somehow became immortalized in a song by Seattle Grunge pioneers Mudhoney. As time was on our side because we’d made great progress today, we went for it and pulled into town at about 6. I wanted to like Ritzville. I really did. It has what is surely the world’s only quilt & liquor store.

But Ritzville didn’t like us. There were two motels that we weren’t scared of in town. And we had a coupon for one. When you stop at rest stops on the Interstate they have these free magazines full of coupons to get a discounted stay at a motel. We had one that would get us a room in the branch of America’s Best Value Inns in Ritzville for just $40. But there was a real nice looking independent motel called the Empire and it said rooms from $36 on the sign outside so I asked there first. The guy said a room for two would cost us $43 so I showed him my coupon for his rival which was just 100 yards away and asked him if he wanted to match that price. He shook his head said he couldn’t. What? For three bucks he was going to throw away a booking? I didn’t care about the three bucks as much as I cared about not checking into a motel run by a simpleton. It wasn’t like it was high season in a popular tourist destination. So off we went to America’s (and Ritzville’s) Best Value Inn. There was a sign on the door. “Back by 7. Sorry for any inconvenience.” What? Well we know a sign when we see one (and this one was taped to the door so we couldn’t miss it) and pressed on. I could have gone back to the Empire, but pride and common sense made a further 45 mile drive to the next town inevitable.

Going back to Ritzville, don’t ask why
It’s as good a place as any to go and die

We spent the night in a town called Moses Lake. There are a couple of tunes about it on iTunes. One by an act called Janie and Joe who I have nothing to say about. The other is by a band from Utah called Forgotten Charity. They have 97 fans on Facebook and their song The Ghost of Moses Lake is pretty good in a Postal Service kind of way.

Apologies for the long bloody post. But it was a long bloody day. 500 plus miles.

Feb 20, 2010

I'm Moving To Montana

Thursday 18th - Day 11

I might be movin' to Montana soon, Just to raise me up a crop of Dental Floss

I used to think the Frank Zappa song Montana was sort of taking the piss out of the simple cowboys of Montana. I thought it captured one of the intrinsic tensions in America, namely being home to communities as diverse as the liberal outlandish folk of big cities like LA and the conservative homely folk from the remote parts.

I don’t know, maybe Frank was just joking. By and large you don’t have to listen to the words Zappa sings. He himself said words were only used in songs to help people who were too dumb to really understand music. I’m not going to take him literally, but there’s some truth in it I’m sure. (Certainly the best bit of the song Montana is the solo. And Tina Turner’s backing vocals.*)

Even if Frank wasn’t joking, I can now say that Montana is much more complicated than that. And we just had a great day. (Possibly even a contender for the Top 5 vacation days of all time list.)

We woke to snow. But snow with sunshine and a big blue Montana sky. Big Timber looked like the setting of a Stephen King novel last night… now it looked like a rural paradise. The Crazy Mountains were a stunning backdrop to this little town. (That's it in the picture above.) Even the firearms in the local store looked amazing. There must have been 500 different kinds of rifles. And they all looked beautiful (to me, Carol disagrees on this). It must be easy to become a gun nut in a town like this.

Then we set off for a place called Chico Hot Springs.
No connection to music about America there… just pure self-indulgence. About 30 miles north of Yellowstone National Park, at an elevation of more than 5000 feet, in the wholly appropriately named Paradise Valley, is a resort called Hot Springs. Resort is too grand a word but I’m not sure what else to call it. It’s not a village, it’s a hotel and a bar and a spa and a pool where you can bathe in hot natural mineral water. We spent a couple of idyllic hours there just bathing in the open air, under a deep blue sky, in glorious sunshine, drinking in the views and a beer. The air temperature was below freezing but the water was close to 100 F Fahrenheit. The pool has been there since 1897. I can give you a money back guarantee that you would love it if you went. I can’t swim (gasp) and I don’t normally care for these sort of things but I’m so glad I went. And we really had to drag ourselves away.

We ended up in a town called Bozeman. What do you mean you don’t know any songs called Bozeman? There are four different acts with tracks called Bozeman on sale in the iTunes shop right now. (Other MP3 vendors are available.) Take your pick…

1) Bozeman by “hardcore punk/ noise rock” band Steel Pole Bath Tub who actually come from Bozeman (That’s another category of place name song the This Is Our Home)
2) Bozeman by Carolina Still; a band from North Carolina who play “old-time, bluegrass, hillbilly, Americana, honky tonk, rockabilly and punk.”
3) Bozeman by Donerail, a rock 'n' roll band from Portland Oregan
4) Bozeman by Tim Barry who is the lead singer of a punk band called Avail from Richmond Virginia but also writes (sort of sappy) Americana folk music.

(Actually pick Steel Pole Bath Tub. They are the best of the four by a long way.)

Now why would a town called Bozeman have four tracks written about it? Well because it’s bloody ace that’s why. I said Casper reminded me a little bit of Austin Texas, but Bozeman is way closer. In terms of the vibe and the population if not the architecture. It’s a small, buzzing, creative oasis in a rural state. But it’s even more independent than Austin. So instead of the awesome Whole Foods (the best supermarket I ever saw) Bozeman has it’s own just as awesome (only smaller) Bozeman Community Food Co-Op http://www.bozo.coop/ It’s a small town of just 30,000 people but it’s young and it’s growing. It’s full of people who look like they snowboard and it gave birth to Steel Pole Bath Tub.

It’s just a shame it’s named after it’s founder John M. Bozeman (1835 - 1867) who in 1860 left his home in Pickens County, Georgia and headed west in search of gold. But then in his own words saw it was more profitable to “mine the miners" than to mine for gold. So to grow his market he blazed what’s known as the Bozeman Trail, which was basically a massive fuck you, might is right, two fingered salute to the Shoshone, Arapaho, and Lakota nations. And we all know how that ended up.
Montana is very white. According to the 2000 census… 92.9% white. And Native American people are the next biggest ethnic group but they account for only 7.36% of the population. We Europeans sure did overrun this place didn’t we? (See previous Little Big Horn post.)

As much as I like Bozeman (and I like it a lot) it does concern me that the only Native Americans I’ve seen in Montana were at a rundown gas station on reservation land and working at the Big Horn Monument. I guess that’s how the reservation works. It seems a shitty deal to me. Up there with East St Louis… which reminds me that we haven’t seen an African American since we left Missoula.

Still I managed to suppress my liberal guilt and enjoy Bozeman with its shops and bars. And we especially enjoyed the motel we stayed at, The Lewis & Clark. I could go on about the banana bread breakfast, the free cup cakes and apple cider, the two cute cockatiels, the jigsaws and the steam room and all manner of things you don’t expect from a cheap motel. But I’d rather say just look at it.

All American readers know who Lewis & Clark were but I’m guessing most Brits don’t. They were two British explorers who mounted the first overland expedition undertaken by the United States to the Pacific coast and back. The only reason I ever heard of them was thanks to the Long Ryders.

This kind of awareness of a nation’s history inspires a lot of American popular music. Not so much British music. As we’ve been driving we’ve been listening to a lot of right wing talk radio. It’s repugnant to our left wing sensabilities but it’s also entertaining. But either way it's happening. At night on TV the news channels have more space for op ed pieces. America is so much more politicized. I think because it's still fighting over what America is. In Britain, I don't think we give a shit. Not nearly as much. Why is that?

Of course there are swings and roundabouts to this. Montana was home to the Unabomber and on the news tonight there was a story about a guy who lived in Austin Texas who flew his plane into the tax offices. People are closer to being agitated all the time. And some of the right wing talk show hosts like Sean Hannity and Glen Beck seem to think a revolution is coming. America seems so vast and so diverse that I wonder if it can hold together. I could live with living in Montana, not sure if I could live with living in America. (Hey that's a James Brown song!)

*According to legend, Tina Turner heard a rough cut of the song and volunteered herself and her girls The Ikettes to sing backing vocals. Afterwards she called her then-husband Ike into the studio to listen. After a minute Ike goes… "What the hell is this shit?", and left.

Feb 18, 2010

Casper to Big Timber

Wednesday 17th - Day 10

Montana. It’s another beautiful word isn’t it? I’m convinced the beauty of the names here in America helps when it comes to song writing. It’s just not cool to write a song called Derbyshire. Anglo Saxon words don't sound pretty. Better than Dutch though, but we don’t have towns with names like Missoula or Helena. Of course there are American towns named after British towns… but not many that get popularised in song. Besides the towns in Montana that are named in the British vernacular tend to lean towards that Native American tradition of plain speaking proper nouns… so they have a different charm from say Burton-on-Trent. Places like Twodot, Montana. Or Big Timber, which is a town in a county called Sweet Grass.

Now Big Timber, Sweet Grass, Montana sounds like a place I'd like to see. And not just because it reads like the cast list of a porn film. I also found three songs named after the place without even really trying. But it wasn't really on the route I wanted to take.

I confess that I didn't know all these songs and places before I started to plan this trip. (No shit, right?) So when drawing up a route I’d look for distinctively named towns on the map and then drop them into the itune shop or All Music Guide. (AMG often threw back songs by the sort of people who post videos of themselves covering songs on youtube. I don’t hold with the idea that the popularity of an artist, or the lack of it, is any indication of quality. Well, usually I don’t, but there are some lonely souls out there who have taken the time and the trouble to put themselves on AMG and yet they and their recordings don’t trouble Google in any other way. Those guys are usually unheard of for a reason. But I digress.) So when planning the journey north from Wyoming to Montana I wanted to go through Yellowstone, and there are more than a few songs named after that National Park. (Not so many called Lake District though.) However Yellowstone is closed for the winter. Mostly. The only road in that’s open in the winter time comes in from the north west and we were in the south east. So now we had to go round Yellowstone, Big Timber became a target. Albeit one that was 358 miles away from Casper. That's over 5 hours of interstate driving. But this is not the mid west. The interstate in Wyoming is gorgeous and thankfully Montana took over just where the Equality state left off. We stopped off at the site of Custer's Last Stand (I know the last song posted doesn’t fit the format but it just felt right). And we learned that those mountains that we had seen grown from pale shadows on the horizon to fully blown fir and snow covered beasts were not the Rockies, but the Big Horns. Which take their name from Big Horned Sheep. (Stop sniggering.)

Montana was snowier than Wyoming. (Yes we were going north, though we were still only a little further north than Bordeaux in Europe.) And as the sun was making the snow look all slick and shiny and the big blue sky seemed bigger and bluer than ever, Montana was pushing Wyoming for the title of most beautiful state so far. At least it was until we hit the outskirts of Billings. From there the I-90 west bound was pretty grim. Fortunately, night fell as we moved beyond a really grim-looking oil town called Laurel so we couldn’t see much apart from the lights of trucks driving towards and past us at 75 miles an hour. Or to put it another way... night fell, so unfortunately we couldn’t see much apart from the lights of trucks driving towards and past us at 75 mph. I tried to keep up with them because it meant I could see where the road curved, but as it twisted between what I now know are the mountains of Montana (it does what it says on the tin) I would lose a bit of nerve and ease off the gas only to leave us isolated in the darkness. If it wasn't for the satnav I wouldn't have had any idea where and which way the road turned next. (Am I starting to sound like the Woody Allen of drivers?)

Evidently we survived and pulled into Big Timber at about 8:00pm. It looked deader than all the skunks we’d seen (and smelled) on the edge of the highway that day. It was very, very dark. So dark we couldn’t see the Crazy Mountains which the town lies in the shadow of. And yes they really are called the Crazy Mountains. They used to be called the Crazy Woman mountains, but I can’t decide if they shortened the name to make them sound less or more scary. We passed on the Lazy J motel because it looked like a hybrid of the kind of motels I associate with Anton Sigur and the one run by Norman Bates. We also passed it by because we are pussies. We did settle on the Big Timber River Valley Inn, and the man behind the desk seemed nice enough. But I wasn’t going to let my guard down. This is the state where the Una Bomber lived. And this is the town that inspired Himsa, a “metalcore/melodic death metal band” from Seattle, Washington to write a song about it. Himsa are scary. Their name comes from the word Ahimsa, which in Sanskrit means "to abstain from causing harm". Removal of the "A" gives the word opposite meaning. Himsa literally means 'violence' in Sanskrit. That’s pretty twisted imho. As is the video to their song Big Timber. You might want to have an adult with you when you watch this.

Little Big Horn

We saw the site of the battle of Little Big Horn. Made me think of this Roy Harper song. (Manifest destiny my arse.)

I Hate The White Man.mp3

Feb 17, 2010

The Showboat Motel Casper Night

Tuesday 16th - Day 9
The whole of the USA was there to choose from, but the one non-negotiable destination was Casper, Wyoming. A city of less than 50,000 people in the middle of the least populated state in the union? Yes. And this is why.

Richard Buckner could well be my ultimate favorite artist. He has written songs that have gripped my mind for years. Yes, pop music is great and rock 'n' roll is even greater, but most music has its limitations. You'll excuse me for being precious here (I swear I'll be crude again soon) but Richard Buckner makes art. That's why he hardly sells any records and a few years ago said he was retiring from music. (He didn't, thankfully.) The Ocean Cliff Clearing is not an easy entry point into Buckner by any means and it still baffles and intrigues me after over a decade of listening to it. If you do a Google search for the lyrics you'll find a lot of lyric sites draw a blank for this tune. (Yes, I am that cool.) And as for the ones that do... well I think they get them wrong. Quite a bit. But even when I can be sure of the words he's singing, I don't know what they mean. Carol and I used to jokingly shout "All together now" and then sing along with the line "The Showboat Motel Casper Night" not knowing that Casper was a city and that within its limits there is a motel called The Showboat. But once we knew that we had to visit it. And that enthusiasm wasn't dimmed when we read the following reviews on Trip Advisor...

“There were about ten thuggish people hanging around the lobby, the desk clerk was more involved with hanging out with what looked to be locals. This hotel felt very unsafe."

“If I would not have had a touch of a stomach flu when I checked in, I would have immediately checked out.”

“We weren't looking for anything fancy, just a nice, clean place to sleep. We didn't get any of the above.”

“We thought it was odd that it wasn't carpeted.”

And... the crowning glory...

“I do NOT appreciate being solicited in the lobby of a motel while I am obviously checking in - or at any other time - during that visit.”

Didn't see any of the above sadly (the no soliciting sticker on the door is working) but we did see a motel that time forgot. The landlady (or Madam?) was an imposing figure with old school sailor-style tattoos on both of her formidable forearms. I'm not sure what she made of us, but she couldn't have hated us because we were given the room next to the lobby just so we could get wi-fi. We couldn't complain about the cleanliness of the place. Not that we would have dared. One member of staff was a Hispanic looking youth dressed like a south London wannabe gangsta and his job seemed to be standing in the lobby staring at the TV with the kind of focus you normally only see on a predator when it's closing in on a kill. And special mention must go to the little Asian cleaner who seemed to be vacuuming every time we stepped outside our room. She didn't even stop when we were checking in which meant I had to ask the boss to repeat herself at least ten times.

But what really made the place special was the decor. Every wall was made out of some weird kind of white pre-fabricated material that looked like it had been designed for an industrial unit or a lunatic asylum. It would make a great location for a slasher movie. The Marriott it isn't, but a lot of these chain motels are crappy. The Showboat isn't entirely independant, it's now under the umbrella of the National 9 brand, but it's a special place and long may it live. (Of course it might be a little different in the summer when it's full of cowboys and oil workers.)

Casper was a pretty special little town too. It put me in mind of Austin Texas, only smaller, colder and poorer. (Plus no no annoying UT students.) It had a real nice western wear store called Lou Tauberts which has been there since 1919. And two movie theatres (or cinemas as we'd call them) in the tiny downtown area. There was a brew pub selling 1$ drafts and another selling penny pints. Which are just what they say they are... a pint for a penny. And... an independant record shop called Sonic Rainbow that was totally cool and yet a little upsetting. It carried the smallest stock of CDs I've ever seen. Not sure if that's down to the evils of downloading or just the size of Casper. But I can't imagine it will be there for long. Is it telling that they don't have a website, just a myspace page?(It did have cool Earth and SunnO))) posters on the wall - though nothing by them in the racks.)

Casper is great. I don't know what kind of hell Richard Buckner went through that night he stayed at the Showboat, but I'm glad it inspired him. All together now...

By the way, Wyoming is the most beautiful part of America I have seen so far. The drive from Cheyenne to Casper was stunning. The way houses were scattered randomly across the fields on the outskirts of towns had the same sort of feel as alpine villages in the summer, only set in rolling, scrub grass covered dunes on the edge of British golf links, then stretched out onto a very wide canvas and framed with Wild West rocky outcrops. It's like they took the mesas of the south west and put them in the north. It's colder, but you still feel there are cowboys and injuns beyond the horizon. The landscape is magical, and I thank either geology, God or Bob Ross for it. I'm a serial tourist, I (almost) always go back to the places I visit but I think Wyoming is the only spot from this trip that I'm sure I want to see again. (Except for maybe ESL - but that's because I missed the strip clubs this time.)

And one other thing about Wyoming. It's nicknamed 'The Equality State' because it was the first state in the union to grant women the vote. That was back in 1869. Though a local told me it was granted because the horny cowboys wanted to do anything they could to lure more females to the state.

Frigid Bones needs a new name. No snow today and we finally broke the 40°F barrier.

Feb 16, 2010

I Can Still Make Cheyenne

Monday 15th - Day 8

This blog has become less and less about music. I'm becoming more preoccupied with tales of near-death experiences. I'm hoping by the time we get past the Rockies we'll be in kinder climes. The rain of Seattle will remind me of Manchester and all will be well again.

I was concerned about what would happen today, already a little anxious about driving on these roads in these conditions surrounded by crazy drivers. Then the Weather Channel had footage of a 43 car pile up on a bridge in Kansas City that looked insane.

But we didn't want to stay here. Besides we have a schedule to stick to. We're due to land in Seattle at the home of another Postcarder on Saturday. If we were to lose a day then it would make it much more of an inconvenience to stay with someone who had to get up for work early the next morning. I know, it's one of the drawbacks of being a free-loader. So the schedule said we had to make it to Cheyenne in Wyoming by the end of the day. Bad news... that's 477 miles away. Good news... it's just one road. Bad news... it was the road that got closed yesterday, has drifting snow and crazy drivers.

Inspired by the George Strait song I Can Still Make Cheyenne we left the motel at 8am, the earliest start yet. The temperature was 13°F which was bad for two reasons: A) That's minus 10.5° C which is the coldest daytime temperature I've ever experienced. And B) I do have a touch of triskaidekaphobia. Daunted, we set out to join the slow moving line of pussies on I-80. A line that grew steadily as, in the 20 miles it took us to reach Lincoln, we saw at least 20 vehicles in the ditch or the meridian. One of which was an overturned Ford pickup truck and another a mangled semi. For the first two hours of the day we did less than 80 miles. It was very tense. And then we both nearly had coronaries when a lump of ice about the size of a cricket ball flew off the back of a tow truck (driven at speed by a crazy in the outside lane) and smashed straight into our windscreen. It didn't break the windscreen but I couldn't tell if there was a chip in glass. Paranoia took hold and I didn't want to use the windscreen washer in case it cracked the glass. So now not only were we experiencing a living death in the slow lane we had to peer out of a snow and crud encrusted windscreen too.

At a conservative estimate I'd say we saw at least 50 vehicles wrecked or abandoned on I-80. It was really hurting my brain to understand why. But then an Iowa native explained, "Wise and prudent drivers are able to stay on the road in weather even much worse than this. The nob-washes that end up in the ditch are often folks who were born around here and falsely believe that they are genetically pre-disposed to have excellent winter driving skills, and therefore drive as fast as they like regardless of the road conditions. When I see ditched cars a sense of Darwinistic superiority wells in my chest. Winter driving skills are a myth. Fear is the rule on the road".

Good to know. And now I can feel self-satisfied again. And enjoy driving through the state.

Back on the road things were getting better... as we headed further west the weather cleared, the snow in the fields started to thin out and the flat Nebraska landscape transformed from a desolate frozen nightmare into a benign if dull rural plain. We started to breathe again. And pulled into a rest station to test the windscreen. It passed.

Ten minutes later we were back on the road. Twelve minutes later we both shat ourselves when a chunk of ice about the size of a paving slab flew off the top of a truck and headed at speed straight for the windscreen. We instinctively cowered as it homed in. We instinctively screamed as it smashed against the glass. I instinctively swore blue bloody murder. And then instinctively patted myself on the back for ditching the Cobalt and upgrading to this truck when I saw that the window was still intact. It was the biggest spike of adrenalin I'd had since East St Louis. I am so ready to do an endorsement for the GMC Terrain.

By the time we reached Wyoming the snow was completely gone, as was most of the traffic, and the landscape had ceased to be rural. It was now more like the rough rolling grass plains that I'd describe as moorland. Like the Pennines or Northumberland. Though unlike those beloved Northern English badlands, the sky was blue and big and the sun was yellow and big. And on the far western horizon, sketched in the faintest shade of grey... a massive mountain range. (I'm presuming they are the Rockies.) Wyoming was seducing me.

Cheyenne was a little disappointing though. It's not a good sign when a city doesn't seem to have a downtown. But the people were really friendly - a sign of living in the least-populated state in the union I guess. You run in to people being dicks a lot less often and so you are nicer. It's enough to make people whistle.

Why do people put videos of themselves doing covers on youtube? Seriously?

The Diary of Frigid Bones: A massive change, but then we did cover nearly 500 miles. From 13°F (-10.5°C) this morning to a giddy 38°F (3.3°C) by mid afternoon in Wyoming.

Des Moines to Lincoln

Sunday 14th - Day 7

The Weather Channel is like Crystal Meth. It’s that addictive. It could be worse than Meth, I’ve never tried it but a friend of mine (let’s call him Lavern) has and he says World of Warcraft is harder to kick than Meth. Well, I think my Weather Channel addiction must be up there with Laverne’s Warcraft habit. I watch it every morning before hitting the road and every night before hitting the pillow. I love it so much I wonder why there’s no Weather Channel in the UK? I guess the answer is because the weather isn’t extreme enough. Here, it is. And this morning in Des Moines we woke up to another blanket of snow. But as we weren’t staying in a motel… no Weather Channel. But despite the layer of fresh snow lying on top of the season-long accumulation on the ground, and despite the big soft fluffy flakes floating down, our host Tim said we’d be ok and Interstate 80 would be clear.

So we set off with the temperature gauge at 16 F and poor visibility. We crawled through downtown Des Moines but saw very little of it before hitting a scary, slushy Interstate 80.

Now forgive me for going on about the weather but it is insane at the minute. The Weather Channel is calling it February Fury. Places in the south are getting snow. Places like Dallas. And even eastern seaboard cities who get bad weather are getting record snow falls that they can’t cope with. The federal government in DC have been staying at home because of snow, just like school kids. But here in the depths of the mid west they’re used to snow, they know how to deal with it, right? Well if that’s so then how come the interstate between Des Moines and Omaha Nebraska is littered with vehicles that have slid off the road? A lot of American motorways don’t have a central reservation they have a meridian. That’s what they call the 25 foot wide grass strip that runs between the traffic flow. And on the other side of the hard shoulder there’s a ditch or a borrow pit. This does mean that if you screw up you end up marooned on grass or, in this weather, submerged in snow drifts. On the 136 mile stretch between Des Moines and Omaha we must have seen 15 cars in the meridian or the ditch. What gives? Don’t these folks change their driving style when the weather’s bad? Fuelled by Fear and concentration I was gripping the wheel with a white knuckle intensity and sitting up ram rod straight. Yesterday the only road casualties we saw in Missouri were dead deer (man I wouldn’t want to hit one of those) but today these farm boys seemed to be flying off the road with gay abandon.

Then we saw Omaha and it looked so grim and hideous, like someone took all the 10 ugliest Arndale shopping centres and slapped them together. It occurred to me that the car crashes weren’t accidents, people were doing it on purpose to avoid going to Omaha.

Omaha despite, or maybe because of, the grimness has quite a few songs written about it which have been recorded by artists as diverse as Groucho Marx, Johnny Otis, Big Joe Williams, Stan Freberg, Moby Grape, Preston Love, John Stewart, Damian Jurado, Waylon Jennings, Chicksaw Mud Puppies, Counting Crows and Pat Methany.

But we didn’t intend to stop there ever. The main reason for visiting this state was this:

The song is inspired by the actions of Lincoln, Nebraska native Charles Starkweather, who, in 1958, went on a killing spree during a two-month road trip with his teenage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Their story also inspired the movies The Sadist (1963), Badlands (1973), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Starkweather (2004). And a made-for-TV movie Murder in the Heartland (1993) is a biographical depiction of Starkweather starring Tim Roth. (They also so fascinated the young Steven King that he kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about them.)

The song is also the title track of my favourite Springsteen album. I wanted to drive from Lincoln right across Nebraska listening to Nebraska. However the weather didn’t want us to get there. After Omaha the number of abandoned vehicles increased. Not so much because of falling snow but because of winds blowing snow drifts across the highways. Nebraska is a flat state, it’s part of the northern plains and there’s not much to stop the wind. Some sections of the road were temporary white outs. The smart and the scared (I was the latter) were crawling along in the inside lane. The young and the dumb were whizzing past us on the outside. And no doubt causing the kind of accidents that eventually caused the state troopers to shut the highway. Just 20 miles from Lincoln we were all shepherded onto exit 186 only to spend over an hour crawling to a town called Ashland. Sometimes the traffic would be stationary for so long the drifting snow would start to build up on the side of the car. We tried a back road but that was worse. The drifting snow was so bad it was like going through a car wash, but with snow instead of water. In the end we turned around and headed back to towards Omaha and checked into the first motel we saw. It was like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in there. By 4pm the motel (which was so crappy it didn’t even have a lift/elevator - not a big deal I know, but if you’re an overweight American it is) was full. It turns out that the Interstate had closed because of a fatality on I-80. A semi had crashed into a car killing the 20 year old woman who was driving it.

Feb 15, 2010

Iowa Songs

I know, I know I should have been doing this all along for each state. But it's tiring... all this driving. Besides that's what the 1200 songs tab at the top is for. Sort of. Or at least it will be. When it's done.

The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines - Joni Mitchell
It Sure Can Get Cold In Des Moines - Tom T Hall
Des Moines - The Drams
DMI Trap - DMB (Des Moines Boyz) (Not easy keeping it real in Des Moines)
Iowa City - Eleni Mandell (Lovely stuff)
Iowa City Adieu - The Autumn Defense
Keokuk - Ferrell Stowe
Leland, Iowa - Kevin Costner & Modern West
Sioux City Sue - Gene Autry
Spillville, Iowa - Tim Neumark
Iowa - Dar Williams
Iowa - Slipknot
Iowa Indian Song - Bing Crosby


Map Ref 41°N 93°W - Wire (The Snow Queen stopped me seeing this landmark.)

Des Moines via Marysville

Saturday Day 6
From St Louis to Des Moines... no fast roads. Look at all the interstates in East Missouri, they go east to west. No one wants to go to Iowa. Except us.

We headed north because tonight we're staying in Des Moines. Staying with a guy from the Tom Waits list which is called Rain Dogs. And the reason why is because of this song called Burma Shave which was on Tom Waits' 1976 album Foreign Affairs.
The song is a story about a young buck who just jumped his parole and passes through a small dying town called Marysville and whisks this young girl away from her dull life. For a short while anyway. Then they both die in a car wreck. It's terribly romantic. Anyway, each verse of the song ends with a reference to this place called Burma Shave.
He says... I guess you'd say I'm on my way to Burma Shave
Then she says... I'd rather take my chances out in Burma Shave
And then after the fatal crash the lyric goes... Just a nickel's worth of dreams and every wishbone that they saved, lie swindled from them on the way to Burma Shave

Now Burma Shave is a brand of shaving foam. But not one that's sold in Britain so, like the East St Louis reference, that was lost on me. As was the reason behind it being used as a place in the song. Between 1925 and 1963, Burma Shave was advertised on highways with a series of small signs, spaced for sequential reading by passing motorists. Each sign would be the line of a funny poem and the last sign was almost always the name of the product. I found this out when someone gave me a cassette of an interview with Waits and he mentioned this kind of advertising having an effect on him. He remembered one of the poems which went...

Don't drive along
With your arm out too far
It might go home
In another guy's car
Burma Shave

Waits said that as a child when he saw these he didn't realise what Burma Shave was, he thought it was the name of a town. A town that was always being sign posted, but somehow his dad never got there. So it became a mystical place to him, a sort of Shangri-La. And that's why he used it as the destination for the two star-crossed lovers in his song.

The song is such a great song lyrically. With just a few lines it painted a very clear picture of the protagonists and the town Marysville which is described as "nothing but a wide spot in the road." So it was another must see for me. However... there are at least 10 Marysvilles in the USA. Plenty of Maryvilles too. So I asked the Rain Dogs list and this guy Tim helped me try and get to the bottom of it. Anyway to cut a long story short we came to the conclusion that there was no specific Marysville.

But Tim suggested one near Des Moines that would fit the bill as much as any other place where a young woman would say everyone in this stinking town has got one foot in the grave and I thought that would work. Burma Shave is a mythical place and so is Marysville. This one was close enough, it had a railway nearby like the song mentioned, the countryside around was farmland which tied into the images of the song. So we set off from mild St Louis where snow was only lying on north facing roads. Seriously weird driving down roads with 6 inches of snow on one side and not a drop of the white stuff on the other. It was 306 miles but no interstate so we were looking at 6 hours of driving. During which time the snow by the side of the road thickened and the number of country music stations on the dial did likewise. If only it was good country. But then I could say the same about the rock stations. We passed through Hannibal, MO which had the front to call itself America's Home Town because it was the childhood home of Mark Twain. He lived there from the age of 4 to 18. I love Twain for many reasons, not least because he disproves the maxim "Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and
any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brain."

Hannibal MO is also the name of a song by a band/artist called Dolorean. It's a cheery murder ballad though one with a twist because I'm not sure the narrator kiled his girlfriend, he just chickened out of the suicide pact. Still he got convicted. I also like it because his girlfriend was going to study creative writing on the east coast... so some might say she was asking for it. You can listen to the maudlin track here. I have no idea why the track is called Hannibal, MO, nor why the writer set this peculiar murder ballad here. I'm hoping blog reader and Dolorean fan Heather will tell us.

Anyway we did make it to Marysville, though each turn onto a smaller road filled me with fear as they became ever more icy. And for good reason. Marysville is nothing but a widespot in the road. A snow covered widespot. Just houses scattered across a field really. I'd go for a ride with a guy who looked like Farley Grainger if it helped me get out of that place. Marysville makes John Cougar's home town look like London. There's small towns and then there's small towns. America needs to start using terms like hamlet and village it would help. As would not calling two cow sheds and a shack a city. You can see Marysville on this Google Map grab. There's no street view, but I'm sure it got overlooked for very different reasons than East St Louis.

I like that it has its own cemetery. For a town with a population of just 54 people. I told you it was depressing.

The Diary Of Frigid Bones. It was over 30, just, for most of Missouri. But it had fallen to about 24 by the time we reached Tim's house. It had also started to snow. Ominously snow.

Feb 12, 2010

East St Louis

Friday (day 5)

I Broke Down In East St Louis, the Kansas city line...
Train Song, is my favourite song on my all time favourite album. I bought Franks Wild Years by Tom Waits in 1985. I was on a day trip, to Liverpool of all places, with a girl called Nicola Clark who broke my heart on at least three occasions. I had no idea where St Louis was at that time and until recently I didn't know that East St Louis is a separate city from St Louis. It's just across the Mississippi river, but it's separate. It's even in a different state - Illinois rather than Missouri. I just assumed East St Louis was the Eastern part of St Louis, like the East End of London is still London. What was also lost on me was that East St Louis is not the sort of place you want to break down in.

East St Louis has one of the highest crime rates in the United States. According to the FBI's data of 2007, its murder rate hit 101.9 per population of 100,000 which is far worse than other notoriously dangerous cities. If you've seen the TV show The Wire you'll know that Baltimore, Maryland is often referred to as Bodymore, Murderland because of its high murder rate. Well Baltimore's murder rate (43.3) is just over 40% of East St Louis's. The population of East St Louis is 98% African American, so it's no surprise to learn that it's poor. Nearly a third of the residents live below the poverty line and poverty leads to crime and crime plus guns equals murder. So for those who know, East St Louis is shorthand for "Don't Go There Whitey" and most Americans do know and that's why it crops up in songs and movies and TV shows.

Well I really wanted to see some of it for myself. I didn't plan on going at night and I didn't plan of staying in town but after scoping out the look of the place on Google Maps street view I thought it didn't look too bad. And because there's a famous Casino there called Casino Queen, which has the awesome tag line "The Loosest Slots" (fnaar, fnaar) and was the subject of a song on Wilco's first record. It's also got a few strip bars and I was starting to think it was one of those places that people think are worse than they are. Sure it was going to be a bit sleazy but not dangerous. In the mid 90s I lived in Brixton in South London for a while and quite a few folks (always white) thought I was brave. Of course it was just nonsense and Brixton was fine. I reckoned East St Louis would be the same.

But OMG East St Louis scared the living shit out of us. I have never seen as blighted a place as that. Carol's seen slums in India and I've seen a slum in Pakistan but East St Louis was frightening. In fact you can't really compare the two. Because for all the poverty in Asia, it's not like that in these poor places in America. There are cars in East St Louis, sure many of them are wrecks but there are some big cars too. And no doubt lots of consumer goods like TVs in the houses. But just as surely there are guns too and that's what scares us Brits. And it's far worse than those Baltimore streets in The Wire. It's all detached houses, though many of them look like shacks, and in the 15 or so blocks we saw there were at least 10 burnt out houses. In the yards of some houses there were numerous big mean-looking dogs, and looking down some forsaken streets we saw guys pushing shopping carts just like Bubs in The Wire.

What made the trip even scarier was we ended up there by mistake. We'd just been to see the Cahokian Mounds and were on our way to Sauget. Both are really interesting places that I only learnt about from Uncle Tupelo songs. Sauget is a village of less than 300 residents but it has been blighted by some really big, bad, polluting industry. And the Cahokian Mounds are the remnant of an ancient civilisation that died out in the area in 1400. The biggest mound there was the largest man-made structure in North America until the 20th century. It's a World Heritage site and curiously unknown or uncared for by Americans. But we didn't make it to Sauget because the TomTom satnav took us through East St Louis. And not the part with the strip clubs. As we got further and further into the residential area and the neighbourhood was getting worse and worse, the satnav kept directing us down roads that just didn't really exist anymore. These parts, I have since learned are called "urban prairie" and they spring up where where vacant buildings have been torn down and whole blocks became overgrown with vegetation. I started trying to navigate by sight but every turn just seemed to make things worse. In the end I had to do a 5-point turn (it's a big truck) and head back towards the highway which took us to Casino Queen and there we sat coming down off the fear inspired adrenalin rush.

If you check this Google map out, you'll see that they didn't sent the Street View cars down the residential side streets.

View Larger Map

So back to Tom. And you really don't want to be like the hero of Train Song, the eponymous Frank of the album title. East St Louis is the last place you want to break down in. It's rock bottom and you'll want to go back home. But as Tom says a train can take you away from here but a train can't bring you home. That line always moved me. It seems to express a sentiment that lies at the root of many American place songs. The pull of the frontier can create a yearning that can lead you astray. And you only realise what home was after you left it.

What's really depressing though is that East St Louis is home to many. And having seen it I'm ashamed for America and for the whole of the western world the the systems we live by. East St Louis has been a hell hole for years and very little has been done to save it. As Detective Bunk says in The Wire "Some shameful shit right here."

Feb 11, 2010

First Snow In Kokomo

One of the first and few tunes Aretha penned herself. And not the place the Fake Beach Boys tortured us with. We were going to go but snow stopped us. I think that is ironic. Either way didn't want to not share this tune.

South to Cincinnati

Despite the last post being all about KSU, we didn't get snowed in in mid Ohio. We just got moving. So forgive this brief(ish) catch up.

Wednesday (day 3)
Mid Ohio looks so rural that it's shocking to look at the map and see how far east the Midwest stretches. It didn't snow overnight but it was very, very cold and still very, very white. The roads were cleared in a way that would put every British council to shame. Driving was still frightening, especially when the wind blew the snow across the road and little snow devils would dance and snake alongside the wheels of the cars in front.

We headed south. Aiming for Cincinnati. I think Cincinnati is a beautiful word. I always assumed it was a Native American word, but it actually has a worryingly imperialistic background. In 1790, Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, chose the name after the Society of the Cincinnati, which lauded George Washington as being akin to Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who was called to serve Rome as dictator. It still a beautiful name wherever it comes from. And it sounds good in a song. Here are just a few: Cincinnati Lou by Merle Travis, Cincinnati, Ohio by Connie Smith, South of Cincinnati by Dwight Yoakam, Susie Cincinnati by The Beach Boys and The Lights of Cincinnati by Scott Walker.

The landscape changes a lot when you get to Cincinnati. Instead of flat plains, it's a place of steep and numerous hills. It's not a pretty city - the residential areas we passed through look a lot like some of the older parts of Eastern cities like New York or Philadelphia. They look a bit run down, though it was a horribly grey day so the weather didn't help. The city is on the Ohio river. That's where its fortune came from in the early 19th century when steamboats made the Ohio the main trade route of the northern states. So it's a working town, a blue collar place. And like Buffalo it's sports crazy with the stadia of two major sporting franchises right in the middle of the city. The Paul Brown stadium is the home of the Bengals and the modestly-titled Great American Ball Park is home to the Reds. You can see both of them as you drive across the scary bridges that cross the Ohio into Kentucky. So many American bridges look they were made out of a giant's Meccano set. And they scare the hell out of me.

In the evening we dropped by the home of another postcarder, who like many of those people is a musician. His band Magnolia Mountain were voted best American act in the 2009 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards and are about as professional as an outfit can be while holding down regular jobs. The band were rehearsing at Mark's house and we dropped by to watch them. First tune they played when we arrived was called A Little South of Birmingham. And they didn't even know the rationale behind the trip. Watching these 7 people play together with such ease, and their ability to change things in the music without the need for a didactic demonstration really rammed home to me the difference between musicians and non musicians. I love music but I can't play it. I was in a band when I was 16 but The Gigha Mumyz were very primitive. I'd describe us as avante garde, but unusual or peculiar would be better words. Think Pere UBU with less talent and more fun. Anyway I digress. After the rehearsal I was asking the band about why they thought there were so many songs about places in America. The first answer, probably the obvious one, was it's so big. But one member expanded on that to say the place you came from in America defined your culture. And I think that could be key. In the UK it's your social status that defines you first. Or at least it used to. Why else would middle class art school students suddenly act all uncouth when they joined a rock n roll band?

Frigid Bones' Diary: Started off at an insanely low 14° (-10°C) but soared to at least 20° F (-4°C) by mid afternoon.

Thursday (day 4)
Our first 300 mile day. Split between Indiana and Illinois. Indiana is one of those states with way more songs about the state than songs about towns within it. But even then it's hardly served well. If the weather hadn't forced us south we'd have gone to Kokomo just to pay homage to Aretha. I'd say The most famous song about the state is surely Indiana Wants Me by R.Dean Taylor, who as a white Canadian is surely the strangest man to ever get a Motown contract. But that's not as strange as the video... be warned the effects aren't very special.

The song is one of those jaunty little pop songs, where people only really listen to the chorus, so they don't notice it's about some nutter who killed a man because he said something rude about the nutter's girl. And now the nutter can't go back to Indiana. Which isn't too bad really. I'm not sure I want to either. Actually when we were driving north from Lawrenceburg we hit police road blocks, so maybe R. Dean did go back.

Goal one today was Seymour Indiana, the birthplace of John Cougar Mellencamp. Not the coolest guy in the world I'm sure. He does have two very silly surnames after all. But Mellencamp (or Cougar if you prefer) has built his career on a lot of songs about the Midwest. Even Brits know (and love?) Jack & Diane, those two American kids growing up in the heartland. Like Middle England, the Midwest is pushed by conservative media as the heartland. The sort of place where real Americans live good lives in small towns. That mythology lies behind Cougar's (or Mellencamp's if you prefer) song Small Town. Even if you didn't know the song you could guess a lot about it. According to the song, John tried the city but he moved back to his small town. He even brought his fancy-ass city wife home with him and she loves it too.
Thats her on the left. So maybe I shouldn't take the mickey out of Cougarcamp too much. And surely it made sense to go to the town that spawned him and see if I could get a sense of the wonder of small towns.

The plan didn't work. First of all it's not that small. I saw a lot smaller on the way there. And apart from a bar called Bubba's Place (which was closed) there was nothing I could see in Seymour that held any interest for me. I think when he says Small Town he means Dull Town. I'm not as adverse to strip malls as many folk are but Seymour looked as dull as hell. At least kids growing up there today have the Xbox to stop them from writing corny songs.

So we headed out of town and headed for Illinois. On the way we saw a lot of churches. I thought Texas loved Jesus but from what I saw Texas has nothing on
Indiana. All the main Protestant denominations like Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, as well as lesser spotted species like Menonites. Though my favourites were the independent ones that kept it simple: Christian Church or Bible Church. And when you couldn't see a church you could still see lots of signs advertising churches, or Christian camps or Christian Centers for the Treatment of Addiction. It's another way in which Britain and America differ greatly. Church attendance is plummeting in the UK but here the market is booming. Even Jack & Diane knew they wouldn't escape it. "Gonna let it rock, Let it roll, Let the Bible belt come down, And save my soul."

Frigid Bones' Diary: It thawed out today. Hit 33° F by the time we reached St Louis. Above freezing!

Feb 10, 2010


In a nutshell then... for anyone who doesn't know what the song Ohio is about... on May 4th 1970 some students at Kent State University in Ohio were protesting against the US invasion of Cambodia. The National Guard were called in and somehow the troops discharged 67 rounds, killing 4 students and wounding 9 others. And Neil Young wrote the powerful protest song Ohio. When I was planning this trip I knew the site of the tragedy was somewhere I had to visit.

KSU is a big college, it even has its own airport, but as big as it is I did expect the site of the shooting and the memorial to the victims to be easy to find. The events were recently voted the most memorable Ohio news story of the past 75 years so surely a sign or two would lead me to the spot. Well after half an hour of driving round the snow bound campus I began to suspect that maybe the powers that be didn't really put too much effort into remembering their past.

To be fair there is a large-ish memorial on the grounds. But a "granite plaza" with a "granite sidewalk and bench" is easily overlooked as just some non-descript street furniture. And yes there are plans to build a visitors center, but the low cost sign that told us this really didn't inspire much confidence. This year is the 40th anniversary of the shootings so I'm not going to hold my breath for the visitor's center. Disappointed, we moved on to the car park next to the memorial. There, spread out over about 40 yards are the four spots where Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder died. I'm glad the spots are marked but the manner in which this has been done seemed to be a new low for KSU. To start with it's in a car park and each death bed is marked with 6 short pillars. Set amongst the cars of the current students they look like spaces that have been set aside for repairs. The campus seemed to me to have as many car parking spaces as Manchester City Center. So why they had to cram as many cars as possible into the land that lay between the four fatal spots beats and disappoints me.

There is a little more to the site but you only find that out when you read about it. Looking at the young and happy faces of the current students standing in that car park was confusing. They seemed indifferent to the tragedy. I wanted the ground to be in some way revered. But at best the spots looked common place. At worst, an inconvenience.

I've often wondered if the song Ohio, as good as it is, should really have been called Kent State. Maybe then people would remember better. Maybe then the University would have stayed in the spotlight. Maybe then the memorial wouldn't be so disappointing. But Ohio is a more beautiful word than Kent so Neil gets a pass on the grounds of poetic license.

As I was leaving the campus, I started to wonder if having a memorial mattered. It was 40 years ago. That war is over. Perhaps I was being too precious about it. Then I turned on an Ohio talk radio station and heard the right wing host banging on about Iran and its suppression of student protests. And I wondered... when he'd been preparing for his show... did Kent State even cross his mind?

Feb 9, 2010

Youngstown to... fail

The plan for today was to go to Sandusky, the Roller Coaster Capital of the World. Why go and see a place with an amazing amusement park in the middle of winter? Well there's the appeal of seeing things at their worst. The sort of feeling that I like to think inspired Morrisey's "coastal town that they forgot to shut down" line. Come Armageddon and all that. But Sandusky is also the name of of a jaunty little instrumental track on the Uncle Tupelo album March 16-20, 1992. To be honest, I don't think visiting the place would have given me any insight into why the tune was written or why tunes are named after places, but it was on the way to Detroit and I really wanted to see Detroit. Yes I know it's meant to be a hell hole, and that Lonely Planet recently listed it as the no.1 city they didn't want to visit. But what nonsense, I mean... c'mon, it's the home of Motown and the MC5, it's the birthplace of Techno and the nursemaid of House. Plus there's Eminem and Kid Rock. Not to mention all the kickass tunes named after the city: Panic in Detroit, Detroit Rock City, Detroit is Burning... in fact there are so many songs about that city that there's even a wiki page that lists them.

And then there's this one... a classic of the genre...

But the Weather Channel was on Def Com 2 this morning and with threats of up to a foot of snow landing in Detroit, we decided to head south and west and try to outrun the snow. By about 12 we saw our first jack-knifed lorry (truck) in the central reservation so we started to think about getting off Interstate-71. But the exit lanes looked so bad I passed a couple by on account of my lack of nerve. A couple of others I passed because they weren't visible. We had hoped to have made it to Cincinnati or at least Dayton (home of the greatest indie rock band of all time) but now even Columbus was looking unlikely as the snow was coming thicker and faster all the time. Then I got lucky, the car in front of me started to indicate that he was going to take the next exit so I thought I'd follow him. It nearly went tits up when he started to fishtail but at least that meant I was able to learn from his mistakes.

So here we are, stuck on the outskirts of a town called Bellville, which is the name of a Django Reinhardt but I expect that's about some gypsy dive in France. So after just two days, the plan to only stay in towns with songs named after them has failed. We walked across the road to the Amish restaurant but it was closed due to the weather. (What has happened to the Amish? One brochure we saw for an Outlet Mall boasted valet parking for Amish horse drawn buggies.) So we were forced to have a crappy BK burger. We're now faced with driving the 4 miles into town or buying diner from the Shell Gas Station across the road. Pray for us.

The only saving grace of today was a short detour to Kent State University to see the site of the shootings that inspired the Neil Young song Ohio. I'm not going to write about that now though, I'm going to save it just in case we're snowed in tomorrow.

Frigid Bones Diary: It was about 30°F most of the day, then fell to about 22°F when it was snowing. I always thought that too cold to snow line was more made up nonsense. For British readers... thats 0°C and -6°C. i didn't go out tonight.