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."



Thursday 11th March - Day 32

Why do people write songs about places? Why did Neil Sedaka decide to set this irritating catchy pop song in Amarillo, Texas? Well, seemingly it was the only place he could find that rhymed with pillow and willow. It's not a terribly well-known song in America. However, in the UK and in Germany it's huge. Tony Christie, a poor man's Englebert Humperdink, made it a hit in 1971. And then in 2005 it was re-released for charity with a video fronted by the British comedian Peter Kay. Kay is a rare comedian who is popular with the broadest of mainstream markets as well as making really clever cult TV shows. (Phoenix Nights is a tremendous series set in Bolton, Lancashire not Phoenix, Arizona.) The video is a rare and stupifying collection of British household names many of which will be complete unknowns to Americans. It's willfully and unashamedly cheesey and makes me feel conflicted. But it has to be saluted for being the only pop video to feature Shaun Ryder & Bez from the Happy Mondays as well as Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen. And if that isn't weird enough, then you can add Shakin' Stevens and Heather Mills to the mix. And five dwarves wearing Bolton Wanderers footy shirts.

I've got nothing to say about the town as we just used it as a rest stop on the way to Denton Texas where there's a free concert happening on Saturday. The west Texas landscape didn't look that inspiring... though we did see real tumbleweeds. And we drove past what claimed to be the largest cross in the western hemisphere. It looked identical to one we saw in Ohio. Very odd indeed. The sign promised us a "spiritual experience never to be forgotten" but, heathen fools that we are, we passed on that. I might save myself for the biggest cross in the world, but I guess I'll have to go to the eastern hemisphere for that. Which is surprising because my money would have been on America being number 1 in that field.

Highlight of the day though was seeing the real place that inspired the body shop (garage) from the movie Cars. It's called the U-Drop Inn and it's in a town called Shamrock. It's not operational anymore, but that's the price of progress. The interstate goes right by the town but back in the golden days Route 66 went right through the heart of it. Modern roads save time but we lose lots of other stuff. Still at least they had the good sense to preserve the building. It's beautiful.

Mar 13, 2010

Lyrics Quiz 4

So so easy. So so easy.

1. I went from Phoenix, Arizona, All the way to Tacoma, Philadelphia, Atlanta, L.A.

2. I'm going to Wichita, Far from this opera for evermore

3. Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit

4. I'll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula,

5. In South Carolina, there are many tall pines

6. The desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold, so the story ends we're told

7. See the girls in California, im hoping its gonna come true

8. Holly came from Miami FLA

9. Left my home in Georgia, Headin' for the Frisco Bay

10. I met a gin soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis.

Mar 10, 2010

Truth or Consequences

Tuesday 9th & Wednesday 10th March - Days 30 & 31

We took the highway till the road went black
We marked Truth or Consequences on our map

Last to Die - Bruce Springsteen

I first became aware of a town called Truth or Consequences back in 1989. What an incredible name for a town. And looking at it there on the map, stuck in the arse end of New Mexico, it was impossible not to be seduced by the romance of the name. Surely it was linked to some morally fraught real-life cowboy drama. There had to be a gripping story behind the name. We didn't have the internet then so I couldn't just check it out on wikipedia. Which protected me from the sadly prosaic truth... Truth or Consequences only took its name in 1950. And it did so to be part of a publicity stunt for a radio game show of the same name. The show later became a TV show. Seemingly it's very well know amongst Americans of a certain age.

Ok, so it may not be as legendary a story as I'd hoped for, but it was still enough to make me want to check out the place. Plus the town used to be called Hot Springs, so after discovering the joys of hot spring bathing in Chico, Montana there was no way we were going to miss T or C. It was here or Las Cruces. But all I knew about that place was that there's a jail there.

But that would probably have been okay too as I fell in love with New Mexico. Arizona had great skies, as did Wyoming and of course Montana. But none of them could compete with the skies in New Mexico.

Enormous. With Simpsons title-esque clouds rolling over almost constantly. The land was pretty cold too. As soon as we crossed the border from Arizona we saw a ghost town. A place called Steins. I thought places like this just didn't exist anymore. Or if they did, they didn't look like they make 'em look in the movies. But in New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, they do. I don't know why Land of Enchantment is the New Mexico state nickname. But it fits like a glove. It seems like a cross between the wide open plains of Wyoming and the arid deserts of Arizona. It's a curious mix of sunshine and cold which I've never experienced before. Driving along in glorious sunshine I'd have guessed the temperature was in the low 70s. But it was barely above 40. And the reason is altitude. T or C sits at an elevation of over 4800 feet. That's higher than any point in Britain or Ireland. Thats very high. It's also very windy.

From what I could see of the good folk of T or C, plenty of them were well used to being very high. The town is an oddball mix of vaqueros and new agers all brought there by the hot natural spring waters that bubble up in the town. There are seven lodges in town that you can check into and partake of the waters. We spent a while cruising round trying to pick the right one and I don't think we could have done any better. La Paloma is a bit new age, which might put some off, but it's run by a very down to earth child of Aquarius who reminded me of Chuck Barris. When he checked us in he told us about how the natural springs in the area had been sacred to the native Americans and how the land around was a place where they didn't even hunt. Geronimo, he said, had hung out around here, possibly right at our feet, as the La Paloma baths were filled naturally unlike some of the other lodges where they had to drill down to reach the water. He had a respectful admiration for the way the Indians lived before the white man came. He described the area around as the church of the American Indians and talked animatedly about how terrible it must have been to have people come in and blow up your church. He even used the T word. We bonded.

La Paloma has 8 little two room cabins, which used to be used by construction workers on the Elephant Butte dam. Our little home was as cute as pie. All second hand furniture and full of character. Walking in we both knew one night wasn't going to be enough. And after our first bath we were certain. Five rough around the edges but wonderfully basic baths were housed in a very plain almost agricultural white washed concrete building. Water temperature ranged from 93 to 105°F and they were so relaxing that they even made the piped in new age music sound good. We could use them anytime we wanted, even in the middle of the night. Sorry we have no pictures of us inside the bath house. But here's a shot which I think gives you an idea of how they made us feel.

Three other things we discovered about T or C, NM.
1) It has an Italian restaurant called Bella Luca which is way better than a town of that size or in that part of the world has a right to expect.
2) Property prices in the area doubled when plans to build Spaceport America just thirty miles away were announced. That's still in the pipeline.
3) And it's home to the artist Delmas Howe. I hadn't heard of him either. But if you are a fan of gay cowboys then his art is for you. And I'm not trying to make a joke there.

Howe loves New Mexico and his adopted home town of T or C. And it's easy to see why it's a fit for him. There's a mix of people here that you wouldn't get in a big city or a more accessible state. But I did read that at some of Howe's recent shows there had been some anti-gay demonstrations by the more conservative folk of the town and that was a little depressing. But it's out of character with the town as far I can tell. Having said that, Howe's recent works have left the cowboys of his Rodeo Pantheon behind and he's now working in the same style on a series he calls Stations. These paintings combine what he calls the "sexual theater" found under the piers of NYC in the 70s with the images of the stations of the cross. It's a little more provocative.

Oh and yeah... people have written songs about the place. But not as many as you'd think. The most notable act would be The Soledad brothers. But I'd also like to draw your attention to a guy called Drew Danburry who has a song called Artex Died In Truth or Consequences, NM. He also wrote a song called It's Illegal To Frown In Pocatello which is based on a real life true fact. The city of Pocatello, Idaho (also the place where Judy Garland's character in A Star Is Born was... er... born) once passed a law making it illegal to frown. I wanted to go there but it just didn't happen. I would, however, like to direct you Drew's video tribute to Britney Spears. Be warned, many of you will hate this. I, however, love it.

Yuma and Tucson

Sunday 7th & Monday 8th March - Days 28 & 29

We spent our first night in Arizona in a town called Yuma. Damien Jurado has an uncharacteristically cheery song called Yuma. And back in the late 50s Johnny Cash sang the theme song for a TV show called The Rebel, which was about a confederate soldier called Johnny Yuma who wonders the west helping folk. Sort of like Kwai Chang Caine did in Kung Fu, or the dog with no name in The Littlest Hobo. There's also a story by Elmore Leonard called Three-Ten to Yuma which spawned two films, one from the 50s and one from this decade, and Frankie Laine did the theme song to the first one. Plus, if you stick Yuma into the iTunes shop you'll find quite a few other artists you've never heard of who've written a song called Yuma. And I'm really not sure why. Yuma is pretty non-descript. It does have a cool-sounding name and it is pretty much on the border with California making a good stopping place for road trips across the south west. Which may be why it has more than its fare share of neat old fashioned motels. Like this one. Sadly we'd already checked into a crappy budget Travelodge before we saw it. We'd already turned down the chance to spend upwards of $80 to stay at some of the more upmarket chains. Yuma had tons of them too. But we're on a budget. Top tip for future road trippers... don't just go for the motels at the side of the interstate. The other side of town usually has the ones that managed to survive after they built the bypass. That's where the character and value lie.

So because we spent ages driving around town looking for a place to stay, I can say with hand on heart that Yuma looked pretty dull. There's a prison there and Cesar Chavez was born nearby. Who? I'm glad you asked that because I've been asking the same question for years. It seems to me that there are as many streets and avenues and boulevards named after Cesar Chavez as there are named after MLK. The man's birthday is a public holiday in 8 states and Stevie Wonder refers to him in the song 'Black Man' which is on Songs in the Key of Life.

Farm workers rights
Were lifted to new heights
By a brown man

If that's whet your appetite to know more about the man, then here's his wiki page. (I wonder why left-wing American heroes don't have a high profile in Britain's popular knowledge of America?)

The big benefit to Yuma though was Mexican TV. Mexican wrestling is insanely addictive. It makes WWE look like it was scripted by Shakespeare and acted out by Olympian athletes. Mexican Deal Or No Deal was fantastic if only for the sexy banker. (Surely there is something to be learned about a society by how they revamp internationally known TV shows.) But best of all, Spanish language ESPN showed English Premier League football live. So we went to Walmart, bought beer and had a TV party.

We only stayed in Yuma because it was about halfway between L.A. and Tucson. From L.A. we could have gone to Flagstaff, AZ and then on to the Grand Canyon. Or to Phoenix. But we had read so many good things in the travel sections of the broadsheets about Tucson being a really cool little city that we decided we wanted to see it. And in retrospect... I think we should have gone and seen the Canyon.

I have long suspected that I don't share enough in common with Sunday paper travel journalists and Tucson confirmed that for me. Tucson isn't terrible. But it's not that great either. It has this hotel that people rave about called The Congress which is a nice funky boutique hotel but nothing so special. And on 4th Avenue it has an "alternative" neighborhood with hippie shops and food co-ops and bars and the like, but it feels like it hasn't really changed since it got gentrified in the 90s. And about 30% of the shops were closed on the day we visited. It reminded me of visiting a northern English mill town on half day closing back in the 70s.

On the plus side, we did see some Warhols for free at the city art gallery and some original Ansell Adams prints at the University's Center for Creative Photography. Being in the university district made me suspect that the reason the town doesn't feel so energetic is because students have changed. Students seem a lot less radical than they used to be. They seem much more clean cut and focused on careers. Maybe I'm talking crap though. I have nothing to back that up other than the impressions I got from looking at the kids on campus. I'm probably just jealous of their youth and good looks. Part of the problem is that Tucson is really out of the way and overshadowed in size by Phoenix. There is a really nice-looking music venue in town but looking at the listings it seems they get good acts once a month. That's why they can advertise the good acts in street art. It's cool but it also says this town hasn't got enough going on.

Tucson, like Yuma, has more than its fair share of old motels and this time we found a great one.

I'm sure I'm being too hard on Tucson. It's surrounded by amazing landscapes and it did allow us to see Saguaro Cactus. They are the classic ones with protruding arms that animators always put in cartoons set in the west like Deputy Dawg. They only grow in the Sonoran Desert and there are thousands of them alongside I-8. They all look different and can live for up 200 years. It's not as thrilling as seeing an American eagle, but it's as close as plant life gets to giving you that kind of thrill.

The best thing about Tucson though... we stayed in a motel where Elvis once stayed. And it was one of the best motels we've stayed in. Sadly we didn't get to sleep in the King's room. It was already occupied when we checked in. But the Flamingo Motel was just great. I was sold by the history and the sign. But reading the reviews on trip advisor it seems that for some Americans things like that are not a good sign. I guess that's why places like the Holiday Inn Express can charge twice what these old motels charge.

But they can't give you this...

...or a room where Elvis slept.

Little Fluffy Clouds

Saturday 6th March - Day 27

It's just too big... can't fit it all in.

That's a phrase I've heard a hundred times if I've heard it once... but now I'm saying it myself. And not just about America. I'm talking about California. We've just spent 9 of the last 10 nights in this messed up bankrupt state and we haven't even scratched the surface. We could have spent 56 days in this state, though I wouldn't really want to. I'm pretty sure we could have spent 56 days in L.A. alone... and perversely I'd have liked that. There would still be songs to visit. But we're here to see America and today we headed south and east towards Arizona... taking in a couple of song landmarks on the way.

For starters we headed down the San Bernadino Freeway... just like this.
If you didn't like that... then face it, you don't like rock 'n' roll. I accept that some of you harbor prejudices against the likes of Frank Zappa (even though there are no 'likes of Frank Zappa') but listen again and this time fast forward to 3:25 and I defy you (and you know who you are) to dismiss Johnny Guitar Watson. Damn! That last two minutes of boogie with Johnny Guitar singing like he was a preacher possessed by a spirit of one kind or another... that's a combination that goes back to the source of rock 'n' roll. That track, when it came on the car stereo, demanded I turn it up and drive like a reckless absconding fool down Interstate 10 into an increasingly dull concrete hinterland that stretches... what, 50 miles? east of Los Angeles. It made me pity all those fools who live so close (and yet so far) from a great, great city. It made me think of Scousers.

Beyond San Ber'dino nature starts to take over. And it's very different from Northern California. It's a hot, semi desert like nature. However it's not really desolate because you have to pass through the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm. There are over 3000 turbines. Massive turbines on both sides of the road. It's a surreal and thought-provoking landscape just outside of Palm Springs. Beyond that we passed a place called 29 Palms. Which, as well as being California's answer to Seven Oaks, is the name of a song (with dreadful verses but a catchy chorus) by Robert Plant. In the early 90s, Grunge was so influential that they released that Zeppelin Box Set which sold so well. And on the back of that exposure Robert Plant had a new hit record and even sang it on TOTP. Strange days. (The video btw is an outstanding period piece. I bet that woman is regretting not wearing a bra now. Gravity always wins.) At about that time Plant also recorded a song called Big Log. I think it's about a place in America. I hope it's a about a place. (Though I know I've had bowel movements that would inspire me to write a song if I had any musical ability.)

Shortly after 29 Palms we headed due south on Highway 86 until we joined up with Interstate 8 which pretty much draws a line under South California. It passes two places right on the border with Mexico called Mexicali and Calexico. Do you see what they did there? Clever huh? Its something that happens elsewhere in the states too, like Texarkana. Can you guess where that is? Calexico is also of note to us as it's the name of that great band from Tucson Arizona. (I fully intend to start a list of bands named after American places. There are a ton of them. What have we got? Bradford?)

The last section of I-8 was truly astounding. You see that big, sand-colored area on the screen grab of the map below?

Well, that's exactly what it is. Sand. Big, honest to goodness, Lawrence of Arabia sand dunes. Spectacular. The most desert-like desert I've ever seen. (As long as I ignored the sand buggies and the quad bikes racing over it.) Oh and that white line on the picture - that represents the border with Mexico. Well that's there too. Only it's not white. It's a a bloody ugly border fence. It looks like this. And guess what? I don't like it. Though based on what they say on the radio I think most of those right wing talk shows hosts love it. (They seem to blame California's bankrupcy on illegal immigration.) Never liked the idea of walls to keep people out. Always associated them with... I'm trying not to use the F word here... erm... with "controlling regimes". Who started it anyway? The Romans? At least Hadrian built a cool-looking wall. And to compound my liberal (kneejerk?) reactions... a little further down the road there was a road block where we all had to slow down and say hi to officers from the US Border Patrol. It reminded me of my family holidays in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s. In case your wondering... that's not a good thing. I guess America feels it has enough Mexican restaurants now. And that may well be true. But a wall? Wow. I had no idea.

Luckily, by the time we crossed the state border into Arizona, I-8 was too far from the international border and my lily-livered sensitivities could forget the wall and concentrate on verifying that Rickie Lee Jones wasn't kidding when she talked about the skies in her childhood home. In case you're wondering what I'm talking about.... it's Rickie Lee Jones who got sampled here.

Rickie Lee told the truth. Arizona skies are amazing.


P.S. Alan Parsons spoke the truth too. Watford skies... not so amazing.

Mar 9, 2010

I Love L.A.

Thursday 4th & Friday 5th March - Day 25 & 26

"Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at the bum over there man he's down on his knees"

I really didn't think I would. But I do. I love L.A.

Most Brits I know who've been there didn't like it. I think they were expecting New York in the sun. Lots of Americans slag it off too. But I'm with Randy and Young Dre. I love L.A. Maybe the key is to stay away from downtown. That's what we did. But Hollywood and Santa Monica and Venice Beach and Compton. LOVED it all. We only intended to stay for one night... we stayed for three. L.A. is like America turned up to 11 and at the same time it's like nowhere else in the country. In fact L.A. is a country in its own right. Like the Bay area, it's full of little cities that sit cheek by jowl and have their own character and scene. One Postcarder called Oliver, who's from Germany but spent years studying in America and never wanted to leave, said what fascinated him about the country was the contradictions. L.A. lives up to that. For example, the traffic is insane but there are pedestrians and cyclists everywhere. They drive like assholes but say hello on the street. And here's my favorite example of how America contradicts expectations and manages to reinforce and demolish stereotypes - mainstream American beer is shite and yet America has the most passionate, vibrant and commercially successful beer makers in the world. Budweiser is piss poor beer. It tastes of nothing. And yet Budweiser is the number 2 selling beer brand in the world. What's number 1? Bud Light! Holy Mary mother of God is there no hope? But yes, there is actually. Alongside the Buds and the Coors in the cabinets in the gas stations there are always a handful of microbrew brands. We went to a fantastic bar called Stout that has about 30 different world brews on tap and a hot barmaid who knows a great deal about beer. She was happy to talk IBUs. When was the last time a British barmaid, or man for that matter, told you what the IBU of your beer was?

We went to Stout with Kev Lathrop, another Postcarder, who then took us to a great and incredibly cheap Thai restaurant on Sunset Strip that made me think of the kind of joints frequented by LAPD detectives in James Ellroy novels. The furnishing looked pretty old. From there we went to a strip joint called Jumbo's Clown Room. Kev says it was my idea, I say it was his though I didn't need persuading. It's where Courtney Love used to dance. And it's not really a strip joint, because the girls don't take their clothes off. Admittedly they aren't wearing very much, but still there's not even a nipple. I was hoping to see pasties which have fascinated me since I bought this Tom Waits album back in the 80s. I was hoping for the kind of place that Benjamin took Mrs Robinson's daughter to in The Graduate. Carol was just hoping she wouldn't be the only woman in there. Well, I was a little dissapointed because the pasties were only visable through sheer mesh fabric but Carol was happy there were plenty of women in there. Was it seedy? Well a little, but not sexually seedy. Was it erotic? Not really, though the dancers were fit, in both senses of the word. Was it enjoyable? Hugely. Some of the moves those dancers pulled on the pole were breathtaking. Pole dancing ought to replace synchronised swimming at the Olympics. And here's the thing, it was everything we expected and nothing like we expected. It was also like being in a scene from a movie which I guess is what brings a lot of the hopefuls to the town in the first place.

Santa Monica wasn't as posh as I expected. It has the air of a nice middle class home counties town like Chalfont St Peter, only it's sunny and has an amazing ocean front drive and a beautiful beach. And the people are much healthier. And then right next door is Venice beach which is a bit like some of the more touristy parts of Amsterdam, only it's sunny and has an amazing ocean front drive and a beautiful beach. And the people are much, much, much healthier.

Moving across large swathes of America at this kind of pace really highlights how different so many of these places are from one another. And L.A. mirrors that too. Each part of town, each little city in its own right, is very distinct. And one man's Los Angeles is... well it's not the same as another man's Los Angeles.

You can see and hear that in I Love L.A, by Young Dre. Is it a cover version of the Randy Newman tune? I really don't know. I presume Young Dre is aware of the Newman song I Love L.A. because they play it at the sports stadiums when the Dodgers, the Kings and the Lakers win. They even play it when the Galaxy win. I can't hear any similarity other than the title. But maybe that's the point. This is another L.A. the one immortalised, some would say glamourised, by west coast rappers like NWA and Snoop Dog. And thanks to those guys one of the places I definitely wanted to see in America was Compton. I'd never heard of Compton before NWA released the incendiary Straight Outta Compton. They made it sound like a war zone. But that came out in 1988. NWA are closer in time to Neil Young writing about Ohio than they are to today's music. I figured a lot would have changed in Compton in 22 years. Crack isn't the curse it once was and I'd read about major changes designed to revive Compton. One which was aimed at combatting gun violence was called the Gifts for Guns Program. It gave citizens the chance to turn in a gun to the cops in return for a $100 check for various goods. This begs the question, how cheap must a gun be in order to make $100 seem like a good deal? But I felt pretty sure that Compton was going to be OK.

I knew that according to the murder stats, Compton was no East St Louis. Still, reputation counts for a lot. When I shared with Postcard that I'd been to East St Louis some folks told me there were worse places. This is typical of Postcard, we'll have a pissing contest about anything. Say you've been somewhere scary and someone else will say "it's not as scary as...". After driving through the parts of East St Louis we drove through, I couldn't imagine a more dangerous place. But some Postcarders took it upon themselves to say places like Southwest DC, West Philly or Baltimore were worse. But again, the murder stats don't back this up. One Postcarder, Eric who lives in St Louis, did back me up by saying East St Louis was very intimidating and worse than any other American neighborhood he'd seen. He even said "East St Louis makes The Wire look like Melrose Place". And Postcard being Postcard someone fired back at Eric "Have you ever driven through Baltimore?" not expecting the reply "Born there, grew up there, been through there recently, lost in neighborhoods that freaked me out. East St Louis has parts that are bleak in a very, very different kind of way".

Now the point of all this is to say I felt I'd seen the worst kind of urban deprivation in America and I also felt that bluster and hype might inflate the sense of danger about some cities. My favorite video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas certainly did that. But the gangs of Los Santos (the mythical L.A. in the game) were clearly based on the NWA hay day. So I fully expected things to be a whole lot better. And I was right. Compton seemed fine. More than fine. Poor, but not insane like East St Louis. There were bustling strip malls and great Mexican food joints (we stopped and had fish tacos) and there was even a Par 3 Golf Course. Like so many other American stories as presented in song, Compton as presented in song by West Coast gangsta rappers is a myth. Only 40% of the 90,000 residents are African American so it's just not the hood that Ice Cube and Easy E made me imagine. It's true there ain't many white folks in the city and I'm sure there are major Hispanic street gangs, but it's a mixed place. And I think that changes the atmosphere. Of course, people still get robbed and shot in Compton but I bet they do in Hollywood too. If I'm honest, I'm sure I'd feel safer walking the streets of Hollywood at night than I would the streets of Compton. But I wonder how much of that is subconscious racism on my part. The only irons we saw on a beautifully sunny day in Compton belonged to the old boys at the Compton Par 3 Golf Course.

I told you L.A. was full of surprises.

Hollywood Nights

Wednesday 3rd March - Day 24

The aim today was to get to L.A. From Santa Cruz that's 339 miles and 6 hours of driving though one big chunk of that, 250 miles to be exact, was going to be on Interstate 5. Easy.

This gave us time to go and check out the beach and the wharf at Santa Cruz. It was cold and wet, just how I like it, but it still shocked me to see guys surfing. Now I can't really comment because I can't swim (yes that's right, I can't swim, it's no big deal) but it looked very cold and very dangerous. And admittedly very exciting. And attractive. I'm guessing no good surfer dies a virgin.

But as cool as it was, watching these guys ride waves which looked about 4 foot high (though I have no idea how they measure these things), it wasn't as thrilling as seeing pelicans and sea lions up close.I once saw a pelican eat a pigeon in St James's Park in London. No one beleives me when I tell them that story. But Santa Cruz pelicans are too mellow for that. They just hang out at the fish counter on the wharf all day like loafing oafs in all night chemists. (I hope these hidden lyrics are being spotted by at least someone.) Sea lions by the way are huge. I don't know if these snaps demonstrate how huge. But even Kevin Smith would agree that they are too fat to fly Southwestern. They wear it well though. And we did squeal like children when we saw them lolling on platforms under the wharf. Oh and yes the seagull with the attitude at the top of the page was also from the wharf. Not as thrilling as seeing a pelican or a sea lion, but he was another Santa Cruz slacker. (Anyone who lives near the sea knows that ALL seagulls have an attitude but these guys did seem a little mellower.)

Anyway, enough of the third rate (ok fifth rate) natural history commentary. It was 11:00 a.m. when we left Santa Cruz and we fully expected to be in L.A. before sunset. The first hour or so was another incredibly beautiful drive across another car commercial worth road and Interstate 5 was as long and as straight and, some would say, boring as advertised. I passsed the time by monitoring our fuel consumption. If you have no nerdy qualities then please feel free to skip forward now, but for those of you who get distracted by numbers then this bit is for you. The car has one of those displays that tells you how many miles you have left in the tank. This can go up as well as down depending on how you're driving and as California is one of the most expensive states for gas we really wanted to make every drop last. The display will also show the average fuel consumption and the instantaneous fuel consumption. So when I managed to get behind a truck I could use the slipstream to increase our instantaneous MPG and therefore the number of miles in the tank went up. Trust me this stuff can be fascinating for some of us. Anyway the important point is that when we were about 75 miles away from L.A. we had, according to the car's calculations, enough gas to be able to cover 125 miles.

Then we hit the Grapevine. It's a stretch of road that climbs to a height of over 4000 feet to pass over the Tehachapi Mountains. It climbs really quickly too. Within about 10 minutes my ears popped 7 times. It's so steep that it works as a sort of bottleneck for trucks which is why the interstate swells to 6 or 7 lanes in some places. It also guzzles gas. Fuel consumption was down to single figures on the climb and at this point we had no idea how high the pass was. Maps don't tell you this kind of thing. The temperature gauge which had been in the 60s all day fell to just above freezing. Darkness was falling, traffic was crazy, the road was like the up haul of a big dipper and the prospect of running out of fuel at the top of a mountain bigger than any in England was becoming more and more real with every dropping digit on the car display. By the time we were down on the other side of the mountains the car reckoned it had less than 20 miles left in the tank. But now we had to contend with L.A. traffic. 7 lanes of some for the most dangerous driving I've seen outside of Italy. People switch lanes like someone promised them a bunch of virgins in paradise. I missed at least three exits due to either cowardice, discretion or both.

It was all worth it in the end. As we drove through North Hollywood this came on the radio.

Something told me I was going to like L.A.

Mar 5, 2010

Santa Cruz (You're not that far)

Tuesday 2nd March - Day 23

There really isn't much in Nevada. We faced a seven hour trek to Vegas, or we could go back to California and head to the coast and south. (Nevada's capital Carson City was just 30 minutes away, but I'm sure that's a poor man's Reno. The only thing in its favour was that I thought it had been immortalised in song by the Boo Yaa Tribe (America's premier Samoan family Hip-Hop group. But actually there were rapping about Carson City, CA.) Vegas or Southern California... two major iconic American locations but really when it comes to their place in song... as much as I love Elvis and ZZ TOP... there really was only going to be one winner.

So in just 4 hours or so we could expect to be in the quaint port of Santa Cruz which, unlike Vegas, wasn't that far. At least not in American terms. It did however mean another trip over the Sierras. But as we'd breezed over that 7000 ft high road pass yesterday and it looked pretty spring-like, we weren't worried. We also were not aware that overnight someone pressed the winter rewind button. Today we couldn't see the peaks. We climbed into cloud. Cloud that was chucking down first rain, then sleet and then snow. Actually down is the wrong word. The wet and the white stuff was coming on horizontally and slush was building up on the road, so switching lanes to pass the crawling trucks meant risking a little fishtailing. Not that all trucks were crawling, the empty ones were just as eager to switch lanes. I had flashbacks of the trucks in the TCR TV ads from years ago. I'm on the wrong side of the road, in a car as big as anything I've ever driven, at an altitude that doesn't exist where I come from and I have to fight the trucking maniac from Duel on a road covered in Slush Puppy. I'm not sure I can take much more of this. So Southern California has to be a good idea.

The route took us back to Berkeley and through at least half of those Bay Area cities. Which means I do now know the way to San Jose. Which is nice. Traffic was heavy but, with the mountains far behind us, the late afternoon sunshine bathed the houses lining the hillside of Oakland in a lovely golden light. Things were looking good and the Pacific was calling. My only reservation was that we were heading for Santa Cruz. And why you might ask? Well because I hate The Thrills.

If ever there was a band that should be sued for a breach of the trade descriptions act it is Dublin's The Thrills. In case you are lucky enough to have forgotten them, they became very popular in 2003 with an album called So Much For The City which they wrote when on holiday in Santa Cruz. The tossers. What a bunch of face slappable miserable derivative gits. Part of me applauds them for being into what was then a not too fashionable sound, but the shallow and souless spin they put on the west coast sound sucked. That it sold tons of copies and lead to them sharing a stage with folks like Ronnie Wood and Peter Buck just pisses me off even more. Still I guess the fact that these lazy Jackeens should go all the way to Santa Cruz to record a record is related to this all-pervasive power of American place in popular music. And plenty of other artists have tracks called Santa Cruz too. People as different as J.J. Cale and Bobby Vee and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band have recorded tunes about the town. As have a number of Hispanic artists (though they may be singing about any of the many place outside of the USA called Santa Cruz.) But curiously there more than a few British musicians who have penned tracks called Santa Cruz. These include Fatboy Slim, Lloyd Cole and most impressively Martin Simpson and Aidan O’Rourke who are two of the biggest names on the UK folk music circuit. (I do mean real folk not Laura Marling stuff.)

Maybe the reason the town is so popular is because in 1992 it became one of the first American cities to approve marijuana for medicinal use. Santa Cruz also became one of the first cities in California to test the state's medical marijuana laws in court after the arrest of growers by the DEA. The case was ruled in favor of the growers. But don't think that means the town is a just a hippie enclave. There certainly is that element there and young white kids with dreadlocks and guitars hanging around. (I expect they inspired Pat Metheney's track Santa Cruz Slacker. Click here for Jazz. Great!) But it would be wrong to define the town by that side of it alone. Those kids are hanging around outside an odd mix of posh boutiques and surf shops and liberal coffee shops and two downtown independent movie theatres. And then there's the boardwalk and the wharf - a very old fashioned, little bit grotty, seaside resort. We of course stayed in a sketchy motel in that part of town. The Sea Breeze Inn has definitely seen better days. When we parked up we did wonder about the shouting coming from one room. And alarm bells should have started ringing when I surfed the TV and found myself watching the same four channels again and again. Four TV channels in America? That's not the level of freedom that terrorists hate. And later when we left we were intimidated by the three scowling 40 somethings sat smoking by the pool, which was still 3 months away from its annual clean. Now I can't be sure but I think it was two of them, one male and one female, who we heard having a stand up fight later that night. The voices shouting things like "Get your fucking hands off me" and "Bitch just kicked me! What the fuck!" certainly had the same lived-in qualities that we'd seen in the trio of smokers. But we were too polite to peep through the curtains and check. So while outside on the balcony, doors were being kicked and insults were being hurled, inside our room sheets were being drawn up... the better to cower behind. The row receded when the male protagonist left, but I knew he would be back. I didn't think it would take him until 4 in the morning to get high enough to return, but there you go. Maybe he was struggling to come up with a reason to return. In the end he had to settle for a really lame one... "Give me my water back bitch. You've got my fucking water on your floor!" His voice sounded wrecked. His mind probably was too because he started hammering on another door. Which brought out a guy who sounded like Hulk Hogan. "What you kicking my mother fucking door for. Mother fucker." More people got involved but we wisely didn't. Eventually the police arrived and the water seeker, who no doubt had seen this movie before, was escorted away whilst shouting insistently "I'm not resisting, I am not resisting." All in all a pretty exciting night. It certainly made up for the lack of TV channels.


Monday 1st March - Day 22

Lots of songs make me want to go see a place. I want to see the places mentioned in the song. I want to see what the songwriter saw. That wasn't likely to happen with the song Reno. But I still wanted to go there.

Some of these songs I just love so much it's like a pilgrimage. Bruce's story of a desperado getting laid by a hooker in the poor man's Vegas is one that breaks my heart very time I hear it. The poor john can't help but think about another woman, even as his new temporary girlfriend is going down on him. His 100 bucks (I'm presuming he didn't pay the extra $50 for the ass) didn't get him what he wanted. Not even close. And yet Springsteen doesn't think it could have been any other way.

Somehow all you ever need's
Never quite enough you know
You and I, Maria, we learned it's so

All the lost souls don't end up in San Francisco. Some of the more ordinary lost souls look for temporary relief in Vegas or, if they have less money to play with, Reno.

It's just over 200 miles from Berkeley to Reno. The last third of which took us over the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains. At over 7000 feet high, the roads at the top were lined with snow but it looked like old snow and the sun was shining. The ski resorts were still relatively busy but you could sense spring in the air. We were sure glad we weren't driving this road in the kinds of weather we saw in Nebraska and Iowa.

The eastern base of the mountains marks the border between California and Nevada. Two very different states. Nevada is mostly desert and mostly (86%) owned by the Feds. There are only two cities of any great size and one of them dwarfs the other. There are 2.6 million Nevadans and over 1.8 million of them live in the Las Vegas Metropolitan area. Reno is the next largest city and that, including the surrounding area, has a population of just over 300,000. Demographics like that are behind the reason why Nevada has such liberal laws regarding gambling, marriage, divorce, prostitution and other fun stuff. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, Nevada's population was the smallest of all the states and shrinking. People had come to discover silver in the mines but the barren desert land wasn't much fun to live in. So, just like Wyoming did when they offered women the vote, Nevada decided to offer something that other states didn't. According to historian Lawrence Friedman, Nevada's "strategy was to legalize all sorts of things that were illegal in California. After easy divorce came easy marriage and casino gambling. Even prostitution is legal in Nevada, in any county that decides to allow it. Quite a few of them do."

Folks go to Vegas for holidays but when it comes to Reno "the biggest little city in the world" it's strictly cash and gash. And maybe some meth.

It might look pretty good in this picture... but that's about all there is to it. There aren't that many casinos in town, but they are pretty big. Not that that's helping - one of them called Fitzgeralds has gone out of business. It closed down on November 30, 2008 and yet it still stands like the corpse of a dinosaur on the strip. You can peer through the glass doors and see a cavernous black room full of unwanted machines.

We stayed at Circus Circus and had a good time. We made full use of the 2 hour happy hour when margaritas were just one dollar! We ordered a caesar salad to share and it was too big for the both of us. God knows how America doesn't have an obesity problem. And we joined the casino's loyalty scheme which gave us both $10 to play on slots. Not being gamblers we cashed out as early as we could and walked away with $14. Which wasn't far off being half the cost of the room. High rollers we ain't... though I do have dreams about the slot machine we played.

Is that how it starts?

All The Lost Souls Welcome You To San Francisco

Saturday 27th & Sunday 28th - Days 20 & 21

So we spent Saturday in SF. Drinking at Vesuvio where the bar manager, Mike, is another Postcarder. Vesuvio is an old Beat hang out, so the 6 hours spent there sitting at the bar, buying drinks from a barman and a friend... it was a little Neal Cassady fantasy day. San Francisco does have a very different vibe from other big American cities I've been in. It's the home of the hippies after all. And of course there is a big gay community. And there are way too many songs about the place. Here are just a few:

Eric Burdon and the Animals - A Warm San Francisco Night
American Music Club - All The Lost Souls Welcome You To San Fransisco
Call Caedmon - Ballad of San Francisco
Vic Damone - Christmas in San Francisco
Arctic Monkeys - Fake Tales of San Francisco
John Lee Hooker - Frisco Blues
Buddy Guy - Hello, San Francisco
Butt Trumpet - I Left My Gun In San Francisco
Tony Bennett - I Left My Heart in San Francisco
Scott McKenzie - If You're Going to San Francsico
Flowerpot Men - Let's Go to San Francisco
Sony Holland - On a San Francisco High
The Animals - San Franciscan Nights
Judy Garland - San Francisco
Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks - San Francisco
Alkaline Trio - San Francisco
Beach Boys - San Francisco
Cordelia's Dad - San Francisco
Olsen Brothers - San Francisco
The Village People - San Francisco (You've Got Me)
Richie Havens, Phoebe Snow - San Francisco Bay Blues
Chris Isaak - San Francisco Days
Cab Calloway - San Francisco Fan
NOFX - San Francisco Fat
Mickey Newbury, Joan Baez - San Francisco Mabel Joy
Jim Nemeth - San Francisco Rose
Marty Robbins - San Francisco Teardrops
Sanford Clark - Streets of San Francisco
American Music Club - The Grand Duchess Of San Fransisco
Global Deejays - The Sound of San Francisco

Plenty of evidence of SF's gay heritage there, so I'm going to pick out a song by American Music Club.

AMC is one of those bands where really only one member counts. In this case it's the songwriter Mark Eitzel who grew up in an American military family overseas but now lives in SF. He seems to epitomise the way San Francisco has become a haven and a home to non-mainstream Americans. Eitzel's gay for a start, though he was for a very long while the lover/carer of a woman who loved to self-medicate. His music is not cheery. Here's an exchange from an interview with the celebrated writer Dave Eggers that sums Eitzel up...

DE: The album you've made is pretty bleak.
ME: The world is bleak.

My fellow Brit Postcarder Girvan is a big fan of Mark Eitzel. So I asked him to share with us why he likes his music so much.

"He is one of the best songwriters in the world. We know this is true
because Rolling Stone said it in 1992. His official bio brings this
up, but not before informing us that he is bald. He has certainly
written many of my favourite songs. He has an excellent turn of
phrase, and the ability to be extremely funny and crushingly
depressing, often in the same song. He also has a voice that makes the
hairs on the back of your neck stand up (although mostly live, he can
hold back a bit on the records). He is very unpredictable - you never
know what mood he's going to be in for a show, but you can always get
something out of it. But mostly I like Mark Eitzel because he has the finest monobrow in rock."

On Sunday night we went to see another show by another screwed up musicians. Wait, hold that because I'm not sure that Evan Dando is a screw up. I just think he doesn't care about career stuff. He played a solo show at a joint called Cafe Du Nord which is in one of SF's gay neighbourhoods. And yes he did sing Big Gay Heart. (Watch him sing it on Top Of The Pops back in the 90s here. I know, I was surprised too.) Dando still looks beautiful, in fact he may be even more beautiful than he was when he was the lead singer in The Lemonheads. He still has a beautiful voice, in fact it may be even more beautiful. For an hour and a half he just stood on stage and fired off one great song after another. He ought to be a huge star, but it seems to be his choice that he isn't. A few years ago he was due to play about 4 shows at the SXSW festival. He played the first and then cancelled all the rest. It seems he likes to party. Well he looks and sounds great on it.

SF is a hell of a town. We didn't give it enough time I know, but one of the things that really freaked me out was just how familiar it looked. And not because of having seen it on TV. But because I've played it in a video game. A couple of years ago I got totally hooked on a game called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It's a game where you run around, steal cars, shoot people, run wet ops for the CIA, bust up gang bangers, have illegal car races etcetera. The game is set in a mythical US state called San Andreas which has three main cities: Los Santos corresponds to real-life Los Angeles, San Fierro corresponds to real-life San Francisco and Las Venturas corresponds to real-life Las Vegas. They did such a good job that when we were driving around certain parts of SF I kept recognising landmarks.