Apr 8, 2010

Buckner Live

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

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

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

The Blue Ridge Mountains

Saturday 27th March - Day 47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asheville NC

Friday 26th March - Day 46

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 3, 2010


Things we missed in Mississippi.

GODDAM. This country is too big.


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

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

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

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

and this...

and this...

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

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