hzl vs. VS
On our '93 tour, following a typically sizzling set at Chicago's petite and legendary Lounge Axe, a couple of very cute women come up to chat and buy merchandise. They tell us they're forming a band and ask if they can open for us our next time through. Sure, we go - they are perfectly charming.
By February '95, the tables have turned: their band Veruca Salt has a huge hit, Seether, which is all over MTV, and they're embarking on their first national tour. On which they now ask us to accompany them, as their opening act.
To minimize the well-known stresses of touring, it's advisable to carve out as much time away from one's band-mates as possible. In furtherance of this admirable plan, and as an incentive to explore, I bring along a little spiral notebook...
I t i n e r a r y
G = great show
T = terrible show
F = without Fred
V = without Veruca Salt & Squashblossom
March 10 DeKalb, Illinois
11 Indianapolis T
13 Grand Rapids F V
14 Detroit G
15 Toronto T
17 Albany G
21 New Haven T
22 Philadelphia F
23 Hoboken F V
24 New York T
25 Washington F
26 Norfolk F
28 Raleigh F
29 Charleston G
April 1 St. Petersburg F
7 Champaign, Illinois
9 Chicago G V
Thursday, March 9th
We take off directly into freak gale-force winds slamming down the Columbia Gorge. The pilot is not in control of the plane: every hundred feet of ascent, we're hurled back down five hundred - we can do the math - each gust more sudden and more bone-shaking than the last, and progressively squeezing explosive triple-A syringes of adrenaline straight to the heart. Fear-sodden, I force myself to stop praying for a moment to scope out what everyone else is doing: my bandmates, everyone else in view too, are perfect surreal mirrors of the exact look of pale and distracted non-chalance that I feel on my own face, strenuously trying to look like I'm not praying or anything. Oh, it's an omen.
Friday, March 10th
I always wake first. You'd think older people would need more sleep.
And so, a morning ramble. It's cold and sunny, and I haven't yet remembered how much I love Chicago. Unwitting, I descend on Lincoln Park and start happening across the most enchanting figures. First of all, a perfect and serene larger-than-life bronze Shakespeare. Guarding - or heralding - what can this be - the Zoo?
They must have opened just this minute, because it's all deserted. Just me and a crew of, like, incredible animals.
a) Frisky and buff, young hippopotami trotting - no, galloping - no, frolicing - around their suite in the otherwise empty Large Mammal House.
b) A truly monumental 16-foot humanoid giraffe, non-chalantly munching an enormous cud, one huge fore-hoof up on the front rail, his expression exactly that of some jaded Chicago pol bellied up to the bar.
c) A rampaging rhinoceros the size of a bus, looks like he's of a mind to tear the place down, notices there's someone watching and roars down on me, swivels round his - and I'm sorry but I'm going to have to use the Hazel word - truly monstrous butt and shoots a fire-hose gusher of - there is really nothing else to call it - rhinoceros urine right at me, missing by inches because I jump back, and leaving a 12-foot lake on the pedestrian walkway. Another splendid metaphor of escape - what has this tour in store for us, anyway?
At DeKalb for our first engagement (Northern Illinois University), we attempt to engage a motel room from the Motelier from Hell. The three of us stand in a semicircle and watch Brady shamelessly waste his considerable charms.
In the sparse and antiseptic student bookstore during the ever-excruciating wait between sound-check and show, is revealed anthropologist Nigel Barley's comment on the proceedings: "We are all overdrawn at the moral bank. The slightest challenge by authority draws on deep wells of guilt."
In the middle of Veruca Salt's I'd have to say more-or-less tepid set, Louise Post very distinctly admonishes the crowd: "Please! Take your antabuse, and your saltines, and take one giant step back!" My confusion is complete.
Saturday, March 11th
Sitting around interminably in our club's shitty green-room, Jeff Dean, Squashblossom's dear and exuberant drummer (well-trained at Harvard Law for a career in violent hitting), extemporizes on the folly and inevitable dissolution of elites and their elite regimes. I eat it up.
Sunday, March 12th
We had a friend drive our rental van out from Seattle, but repeated freezing and thawing has just completely rotted our 50-pound bag of organic carrots. The fates forbid puny attempts to counterweight the rock-tour junk-food tornado. Serendipitously, here by our motel this morning comes a juggernauting flock of domestic geese. They get way excited and all start yelling when I cut open the bag and dump it out for them.
We're driving through a forest of sorts - spindly little trees - but all of a sudden right up on us, a great big solitary old-growth wonder!
Lying on the ground cut up into sections.
At the Cleveland club, nice big wood-floored stage - I'm ready for a little excitement - but then Veruca's sound-guy, actually quite a nice old-school freak-brother dude, informs me that I may no longer use my full water-pitcher to enflame the crowd. He cites (one-time Sha Na Na) Henry Gross' guitarist's fatal 70's in-concert electrocution. It extremely pisses me off to have my professionalism questioned and my act curtailed. If I was a singer of course I could spew gallons of beer over everything, but I'm only the fucking go-go dancer, so forget it.
Monday, March 13th
We spend a calm morning in a quiet outlying neighborhood of Cleveland. Here is someone's private jet-plane, wrapped as if by Christo in fabulous blue fabric. Here is a pet store, its front window a carnival of hopping bunnies. Here is a rather modest, kind of pretty, memorial to 7 million Ukrainians starved to death in one of Stalin's intentional famines, festooned with fresh flowers today, 60 years later.
Later, I get hissy with my band-mates, and fucking bail out of their stifling bullshit. Find a depressing motel in dreary strip-mall Grand Rapids. Nothing remotely grand here. Or rapid.
Tuesday, March 14th
The Greyhound lets me out right around the corner from an old pile of a building sporting a baroque-lettered sign proclaiming John K. King, Bookseller. It's a huge and cavernous establishment, doing a brisk business in its first few rooms, but the upper floors are practically bare of people, if crammed with books, half of them covered in yellowing library cellophane and dust - a gold-mine, excepting that one climbs up to find the richest veins. 2 hours later I descend with an embarassingly tall stack, including Russian and Polish rarities (Israel Emiot's memoir of Jews in Siberia, indispensible) and crowned by a mint autographed copy of Wilson Tucker's forgotten (except by Stephen King, who plaigerized it for Firestarter) masterpiece, Wild Talent. The prices are ridiculously low - the Tucker is $4.95 - and the fee for shipping them back to Portland is nominal.
Downtown Detroit is, um, unusual. My amble towards the club brings me through a scattering of big modernistic office buildings, but whose ground-floor retail spaces aren't the banks and clothing stores and upscale restaurants you'd see in a "white" city, but faded chicken joints, Woolworths, video arcades, and not a few stores simply boarded-up with graffitied plywood. The broad avenues between the buildings are all eerily empty but for vagrant knots of street-people. Until all the (presumed) suburbanites with jobs in the mirrored slabs begin to emerge for their afternoon commute, the visible population of downtown Detroit is 95% African-American. Besides secure underground parking, these high-rises must also all boast interior bars and cafeterias, because, save for a small touristy strip (eleven Greek restaurants in one two-block stretch) at some remove, there is not a cafe in all of downtown into which a yuppie would not be willing to starve before entering.
I do find a giant graffiti, visible from 2 blocks away: "Witness the destruction of your city!"
A block from our club a large historical marker declares that on March 12th, 1859 (112 years and 2 days ago) 200 feet north of this spot, the city's leading African-American families hosted Frederick Douglass and John Brown, debating the tactics of abolition. This time, the one advocating "by any means necessary" was the "white" devil, but the parallel to King and Malcolm X is still striking.
So I pace off the 200 feet, and sit down on the grassy verge to savor the history, only, a moment later, to find myself staring at the legs of "security". This young African-American gentleman informs me that if I'm not an employee of Blue Cross - gesturing towards the imposing building across the way - I'm not permitted to sit here. I mention the nearby marker, and though he's never noticed it before, he seems interested in the lore.
While cruising Veruca Salt's slightly-nicer-than-ours food platters, I meet Jim Shapiro, their drummer - a powerful and perfectionistic artist, and a witty and self-effacing individual.
Sound-check over, it's time to walk some more. Find my map. Find the Detroit River on the map. It's only 3 blocks, on the other side of a forbidding cluster of mirrored high-rise monoliths, the "Renaissance Center". Yeah, right. It's stark and empty as the tundra, except not even microscopic life-forms here. The protected parking lots announce, "No alcohol on premises," and then, at the riverside, this sign: "No trespassing, loitering, or fishing." God (or the city fathers in this case) forbid that hard-working business folk might gaze down from on high and see scurrilous ragamuffins in illicit intercourse with Nature.
Here is the great river, very wide and very swift and very smooth. Very smooth, that is, except for a parading army of the absolutely cutest little icebergs, wide-dispersed remainder of the upstream thaw. The water is an strangely creamy blue-green, and icily clear. I'm able to catch one of the littlest icebergs in my hand and it is unearthly elegant in its convoluted simplicity: cold, clear, clean glass.
OK, so these little islets, a thousand of them, are passing by under the three-quarters moon at, oh, 7 miles-an-hour, quite evenly, like beautifully deformed little white paraplegic ducks in electric wheelchairs, and I get into my head the prospect of the view from the Renaissance Center roof. Wondering on the way how to elude security, settle on no more than adapting an air of exaggerated purposefulness, and manage only the barest distracted nod at the dude at the welcome-desk, who stares, but doesn't persue.
The 13th floor - I'm expecting floor-to ceiling bland plastic corporate "dÈcor" - is completely unfinished, no walls, no light-fixtures, silent, 360° of windows reflecting all the lights of the now suddenly dark city. It is too utterly eerie and pressurized, though, so with no sign of roof access, back down I go, 13th floor elevator, and out the door, security's eyes boring into my back, past the obligatory toxic USA Today vendor-box, past a bunch of Psychic Fair flyers (Psychic Fair?), and dash between lethal volleys of last-minute commuter traffic, across to the safety of my old historical marker.
Well, hey. Once again I pace off the 200 feet to find, standing here quietly in the dark, my security guard. Still on duty, but this time he is friendly and open, startlingly bitter, and critical of his employers and the city powers.
At our show, it's a good stage and a good audience, but I'm starving for props. At stage left hangs Steve Lack, the wry Veruca Salt bass man, so I ask him to find me something, anything. He hands me a small chair. This crowd would just love me to stomp it to smithereens, but still inhibited by the stupid water-pitcher lecture, I find I can't, and content myself with smaller, if still pretty inappropriate, uses for it.
After packing up, I head out the front for some cool air, overhear this pair of young Detroit headbanger dudes as they're leaving, "Man, that second band sure blew away that last band." "You got that right." Sweet.
But the next morning, my casual driving style gives everyone fits. This will get me in trouble, but they're a bunch of fucking pussies.
Wednesday, March 15th
Toronto has a mad prolific graffiti artist who exhaustively decorates public waste-bins and anonymous sidings with rabid rambling anti-abortion messages. They often refer to, "tiny, tiny little babies," and always end with, "Long live the Pope!"
The wildly international throngs of people crowding the city's sidewalks make an earthshaking contrast to Detroit.
I swear every block has at least one boutique with its windows presenting bald manniquins, and in fully half of these shops, the bald manniquins are wearing accoutrements for sado-masochists. Must be a Canadian thing.
Architectural Art: A large storefront with a huge retro automobile crashing out through the bricks above the entrance. Another faÁade consisting of dozens of old destroyed or mangled bicycles all woven into a disintegrating mesh of deteriorated and partially recognizable appliances and equipment. Lovely.
This club is fairly large but extremely worn, and has a pathetic vibe of smashed hopes about it.
Somebody tells the story of the frustrated sound-man who tells the perrenially obnoxious local lead vocalist, "Ya know how I always have to ask you not to slobber all over my mikes?' "Yeah. So?" "And ya know how tonight before you went on, I once again pleaded with you not to slobber all over my mike, and yet you went ahead and did so?" "Yeah. So?" "Just thought you should know: that's the one GG Allin put up his butt last night."
Then Brady tells the story of the University of Washington fraternity that sent as a gift to the prissiest sorority on campus a huge box of jelly doughnuts, then waited for the inevitable thankyou note before mailing the large-format photograph of their entire brotherhood arrayed in front of their frat-house, each man with a doughnut insouciently displayed upon his rigid member.
Then who should arrive back-stage to hobnob with the band but the immortal Geddy Lee of Canada's great gift to metal, Rush. Pete and Brady about cream themselves.
As usual, I'm searching backstage for usable stage-props, ladders, chairs, cinder blocks, anything, but there's nothing. In our shabby green-room, however, there is one of those old 1950's motel table-lamps, with the two cone-shaped green translucent fiberglas shades hanging down on flexible metal stems, except one of the shades has broken off its moorings and hangs limp, and the other is missing a bulb. Well a bulb is easily scavenged, and also an extension cord, and the thing makes a great prop: I can swing it around by its cord within inches of my bandmates' heads, can tie it to myself and manically illuminate my surroundings.
Except, no sooner is our set over than a woman I have never seen before charges up to me backstage and puts her face right up into mine and screams at me for "breaking" her special personal antique lamp, and she will not stop, or observe that the stupid lamp is in exactly the condition it was in before, or accept my apology, or notice Steve behind her absolutely cracking up at the spectacle. Of course I am quite exhausted and endorphinated from the show, and consequently altogether emotionally vulnerable to this insane harridan (and why exactly is she leaving her antiques in the rock bands' green room?), so I spend the next hour repairing the idiotic thing, returning it to a level of functionality it has obviously not seen in decades.
This morning I get to drive again. Divine relief. But then a city bus guns up beside us to cut us off, instantly releasing those despicable inner juices, and we are racing, side-by-side, and my 3 passengers are absolutely petrified, but the die is cast, and now our lane is suddenly so narrow that it is far less dangerous to pull ahead than to let the son-of-a-bitch overtake me, but my bandmates most definitely don't see it that way and are shrieking bloody murder, which does not really make it any easier to execute - poor choice of words, perhaps - this tricky maneuver. The tragic thing is, that although I am 10 times more skillful a driver than any of these people, they are never ever again going to let me drive the fucking van. And the ironic thing is, that they fucking hired me to go berzerk while actually maintaining a steely control, but would rather believe my stage persona than myself. Ah well, I really have no other choice than to be flattered that my act is so convincing. But still.
At our first rest stop, Steve pulls out the god damn green motel lamp - he has stolen it - and presents it to me as a definitive war-trophy.
Thursday, March 16th
I call my daughter from a pay phone and hold the receiver out at arm's length. "Are you at the sea-shore?" No. Niagara Falls.
Friday, March 17th
Great hollow horsebarn of a dive on the rural outskirts of Albany, New York, called, with rich incongruity, Saratoga Winners. The tawdry little marquee reads, "Veruca Salt/38 Special" - we are riding in on the coattails of the ancient dinosaurs of Southern Rock.
With a little help from moi, Steve Lack dominates the pool table. For quite some time we are untouchable.
These Albany yahoos, unaccountably, love Hazel. In fact, they seem to love Veruca Salt too. It seems to me, that in the first flurry of shows, we put Veruca Salt's energy so constantly to shame, that they have by now managed to reach down and find a new level of intensity.
Saturday, March 18th
Boston. We have not had very good shows here in the past. Perhaps this is partly why my bandmates are getting hissy with me. Anyway, time to take in the neighborhood.
Right away, here is another marvellous larger-than-life realist heroic bronze statue. Carved into the pedestal is the title: "Poetry and Patriotism give of their laurel and oak, for which Erin weaves a wreath for her Heroes". Daniel French, 1893. Poetry and Patriotism are a couple of tired-looking boys with, respectively, a lyre and a helmet to differentiate them; Erin is a young beauty; and a passerby some weeks before has twined a red rose into the fingers of each of the charming three. The patriot looks a little like Brady.
As Chicago's Shakespeare announced the zoo, this trio introduces the Back Bay Fen. Shocking to come upon a bit of the natural world so deeply within the concrete vastness of the megalopolis. A fen is properly a water-covered lowland, but in this place the water has been nicely relegated into a meandering channel and it supports a winding urban park, an attractive community garden, a massive colony of dramatic 13-foot-tall reeds with great fluffy grey inflorescences, and adjoins and lends its name to Fenway Park, the perfectly massive ballpark that overshadows tonight's nightclub, where indeed one of these hastily broken-off magical grassy stalks will dance with me this very evening.
At show's end, I'm carrying Brady's amp-head out the front doors and here is a formidable-looking well-dressed and steely-eyed African-American man in his late 30's, leaning against the wall near the doors. He catches my eye and with a steady gaze offers this comment, "Very impressive." A curious thing to say to a middle-aged man who's been prancing around in a dress and pretending to be mentally deranged.
Sunday, March 19th
In all the different Boston districts so far, here is one common thread: dog leavings on the sidewalk. Here is another: magnificent old deteriorating houses. In some neighborhoods, this charming architectural holdover: cobblestoned curbs.
One other special Bostonian phenomenon, undoubtably a product of the town's quite unAmerican willingness to allow things to age gracefully: finely weathered objets trouvÈs everywhere abound - as prevalent, in fact, as the dog shit.
Tonight, it's Providence, Rhode Island. A pretty cool Old Town-type district. Our club is lavishly decorated with brilliant life-sized portraits of most of the pivotal figures in late 20th century music, by one Dan Gosch: Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jackie Wilson, John Lennon, Sam Cooke, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, Bob Marley, Patsy Cline, Professor Longhair, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, and Doc Pomus. Where are Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan? Ah, but they're not dead yet. But then, where is Otis Redding? A mystery. Unlike the usual run of celebrity portraits, these are uniformly inventive, faithful, and gorgeous.
During Squashblossom's set, I pass through the audience and make a rough count: There is approximately a 15 to 1 boy-to-girl ratio tonight. Interesting, perhaps slightly distressing, considering that all three bands are woman-dominated.
Pete approaches me before our set and says, "Fred, you know how I've always asked you to make a special effort not to invade my space during the show?" I go, "Well, yes." And he goes on, "Well, I've been thinking about it a lot and I've decided that I really trust you now - it's been 4 years - not to mess with me, so, like, go ahead and feel free to interfere with me from now on, if you feel like it." Oh joyous day! I am uncharacteristically speechless with the emotion and pleasure Pete's hard-won trust is giving me.
In the event, I gently remove his hat while he's singing, and he stops the song and demands that I return it. Was I set up or what? And to compound my wounded self-disgust, when, backstage after the set, Pete comes up to apologize, I completely lose it and tear him a new ass-hole right in front of all our tour-mates, frozen in mid-conversation. So now it's Pete that everyone feels sorry for.
If Veruca Salt has been sucessful in emulating our power and intensity, they have also taken note of Jody's nightly preaching of her girl-power indy-rock gospel, and tonight, in the middle of their set, Nina and Louise have apparently noticed the moshing frat-boys crowding and jostling the women up front, so they stop playing and launch into a lame faux-bleyleist rant at the audience. Excruciating.
Monday, March 20th
Desperately in need of rest, we waste our day off in classic band dithering and bickering. I jump ship again and get a Greyhound to take me to New Haven.
Tuesday, March 21st
Outside of Hartford sits a veritable Mount Everest of discarded appliances. It would be easier to appreciate the art of it were it not for the endless industrial and corporate crap choking to near non-existance the occasional sweet-looking reed-fringed waterway. We're coming up on New Haven, venerable bastion of learning (Yale). Ah, here must a harbinger of this great center of culture: it's the immense Marlin Firearms factory.
Once into town, the frightful juxtaposition of rich and poor, black and white, surrounded by industrial ugliness and strip-mall wasteland conveys a whole new understanding of the term, "ivory tower". The effect, especially the blatant racial separation (hordes of wealthy white students protected by the high walls of the university - from legions of the African-American underclass) is so tragic as to seem almost comic.
Wednesday, March 22nd
Last night's show was wretched, the club corrupt. I'm burned to a crisp by fatigue and fever and for a third time bail out of the rock tour, catch a train to Brooklyn and the delirious comfort of my wonderful in-laws' guest-room. Sleep through the Philly show.
Thursday, March 23rd
It feels like pneumonia. All day sleep. Miss the Hoboken show.
Friday, March 24th
Sleep. Rise in the evening. Have to take the subway uptown to negotiate transport funds: if I'm to continue on this tour I'm going to need reimbursement for bus fares or car rentals.
New York subway riders, strangers, will speak to each other so easily, so casually, it dismantles the instinctive paranoia of the auslander. When riders of dissimilar "race" go to sit next to each other, there is a kind of shy smile exchanged, as if in solidarity with all who are beyond that shit. There's no comparable sensation back in the Northwest.
On the ride, a young partly-Hispanic woman addresses two friends whom she has evidently not seen for a while - imagine her thick, elaborately bored, gum-chewing, but lilting, Brooklyn accent:
"Yeah. Like when I was in there? They diagnosed me schizophrenic, manic-depressive, bi-polar, homicidal -" "Look out," says I, very softly, to myself. "Yeah look out," she turns and says to me, "Be afraid, yeah, you better look out!"
It's stupid to indulge in my high-energy act when my energy is essentially non-existant, but I came all this way, and it's New York City. Compounding my folly, this club has an enormous stage - a heaven-sent boon under normal conditions - which serves to amplify the flaccidity of my effort.
On the return to Brooklyn in the wee hours, at one of the downtown stops, everyone is ordered off the train over the worst p.a. in the galaxy, and the straggling crowd of us follows this endless labyrinth, up stairs, through tunnels, down stairs, along tracks, and then the whole thing again in a different direction. I feel very unwell, am dragging a heavy bag, have a small wad of cash on my person, it's 2:30 a.m., I feel like there's a large sign on my back that says, "Please mug me," when the few remaining members of our safari debauch onto a nearly deserted platform. I get to rest, sitting on my upended suitcase.
A small Asian or Latino man of indeterminate age approaches a lanky sort of preppy/folkie type who has a guitar round his neck. They converse for a minute, then the guitarist's aimless strums meld into the opening bars of "Killing me Softly", which the small man accompanies with little vocal harmonies. The next song, "Stand By Me", is more confident, and by its end the ten bystanders have increased to thirty, we're all more or less facing the duo in a semi-circle, some swaying, and the harmony guy has thrown in an improvisation at the solo. Time to rock: they break into "Proud Mary", 3 or 4 people singing now, 5 or 6 dancing, a train comes barrelling into the station, and in a moment we are all rattling away.
Saturday, March 25th
12 hours later. The herb shop I'm looking for in the East Village is simply not there, so I head for Union Square to catch another train back to Brooklyn. On the way, here is a daredevil - an inline skater hitching a ride behind a taxicab doing at least forty.
Right on top of the subway entrance are some street musicians: a small band consisting of keyboard, trap set, electric bass, trumpet. They are wailing. These are serious, emotional, technicians. Notwithstanding the organ, drum kit, bass, horn, and amps each look to be worth 20 or 25 bucks, tops. The trumpet, especially, looks too impossibly battered to be adequate to its task. Yet they seem to be pulling in some major money - at set's end, it takes several minutes for the line of fans to finish stuffing bills into their tin box.
Over to the right of the band is a queue of skate punks and inline skaters taking turns doing a backwards jump thing on a long step, definitely in time to the music.
Twice in a row, at random, heavenly music and a captive audience captivated. Perform for New York and New York will perform for you.
My bandmates play D.C. tonight. I sleep.
Sunday, March 26th
Sleep all day. Miss the Norfolk show.
Monday, March 27th
Oh good - our day off. Sleep.
Tuesday, March 28th
Today the New York Times' eloquent rock critic Jon Pareles is very good on Hazel, praising us slightly more than Veruca Salt - he notices their inexperience. He clearly missed Squashblossom, or he would have praised them, too. He accurately notes that my "antics" detracted from our set.
The star of the Greyhound to Raleigh, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., is the man who snores really loudly the whole distance - save for two short cigarette breaks.
By Richmond, Virginia, the entire Greyhound operation - drivers, ticket clerks, and passengers - has turned African-American. Interesting. How do the poor white folks travel? Trailways?
I'm technically in time to go on, but the club looks so unappetizing and I feel so squirrelly from the bus-ride, I say forget it and go find our motel.
Wednesday, March 29th
Brady rents me a Taurus with his credit card - no, not a burly hooker-boy, just a Ford. Pete rides along as we head to Charleston, South Carolina, following our ailing van. Halfway there, we stop at a garage.
I wander over to where a mechanic has the hood of the van open. He looks at Pete and says, "We haven't got the part, but I'm sure we could just -" and he glances right at the one African-American guy standing around with his other garage cronies, and then back at Pete, " - nigger it together somehow," he says, in a stagey and brazenly inadequate undertone.
During Veruca Salt's set, I'm all the way at the back of the room, chatting with the tour's t-shirt guy, a nice Deadhead dude named Tim, but a half-dozen times I get a thought half-articulated when it's suddenly gone and I find myself riveted to the stage: Jim Shapiro (their drummer) is kicking butt up there.
Thursday, March 30th
Charleston, the Cradle of the South, is a little magical. Despite its legacy of the Confederacy and slavery, the nearby Sea Islands and the smell of the sea, the courtly locals, the aura of the ancient rice (distinct from, and preceding, cotton and tobacco) monoculture, the tourist town, the Navy town, the charming (and symbolic) old brick and whitewash architecture, all combine to give the place a twisted romantic aura. Having all three bands click can only help, too.
An outgoing African-American employee of our motel drives me over to the Ford dealership to drop me off so I can pick up our van. When we enter the office, he warmly and volubly greets the middle-aged woman receptionist, whose "racial" makeup could really go either way, as if she were a sister, only to be coldly rebuffed. She is positively seething to be treated with such familiarity. I examine her features, but cannot decide whether she is "black", and passing, and upset at having her cover blown, of if she is "white" and angry at being taken for "black". His employers were as "white" as hers, so was he passive-aggressively expressing his resentment at her ability to "pass"? Was he deliberately tweaking the bigoted "white" lady? Or was he just being friendly? And who am I to be scrutinizing these people and making glib judgements?
The most noticeable and remarkable thing about the South is how it reveals the depth of the entire country's racism. Both the egregious racist incidents and the equally surprising moments of curious racial harmony pointedly contrast to the covert racism of the North and West.
It is feels shocking and dirty to play a music show for 1000 white kids and 2 (if we're lucky) African-Americans in Portland. To go to as overwhelmingly an African-American city as Detroit and do the same feels doubly gross. But in the South, all this is somehow made to feel much more normal and acceptable. The inevitable token African-American club employees for a moment mask the blatant segregation, but here in these clubs, the fear of masses of black folks seems quite palpable. It opens my eyes to the reality behind the seeming paranoia of almost every African-American I know or meet.
Friday, March 31st
This is my great and beautiful daughter Melita's 21st birthday.
I awake in my comfortably modest private room at the rural pacifist christian retreat where Jody's sister Susan has been living, outside of Comer, Georgia. At this moment it is the most sweet and peaceful spot on earth: warm with a hint of a breeze through the trees, fresh and quiet and no-one around. But I can smell a used bookshop in nearby Athens so I head for the car. On the way, I stop in the woods for a pee, from where I can see a pond through the foliage, so I climb down between little pines and birches and brush, take a running leap across the quick rivulet that joins the (now I see) two ponds, spot a colony of turtles out on a half-sunken log, and change direction. When several of them slip off their perch at the sight/sound of me, I slow down to very Butoh-like slow. Well, here half-buried is a very old and weathered but intact brick, so what else to do but balance it on my head like finishing-school or Hazel, it will regulate my movement to be still and graceful enough to get near. A heavenly moment. There are a half-dozen varieties of unfamiliar bird-song, and when I attempt a half-gibberish half-whispered reply, the turtles all crane their slender necks to see who it is.
Tonight we are playing Atlanta. Our set is unremarkable, except at some point I look over and realize that Veruca Salt is standing in the wings and watching us play, and that they have watched us play every single night. I don't know if you realize how rare this is in the rock world. Even when I am a huge fan of a band with whom we're sharing a bill, I usually miss their set due to preparing for, or recovering from, our own show. This is far higher praise than to invite us to tour with them. They must really like us. Well, I really like them, but I don't watch their show every night.
Saturday, April 1st
As Florida approaches, the landscape subtly transforms into a lush green jungle. And no billboards. Quite outré and lovely. Ah, here is a billboard, but it is exquisite: it says "Crystal Lake" in ancient peeling 50's-postcard-style letters, and offers up an ancient peeling young bathing-beauty, leaning back to get some sun on her.
A sign says "Suwanee River" and we (me and my Taurus) pass over it, and look. It is scrumptiously lush and winding, packed with vegetation, "cute" in scale, as compared to Oregon's rivers, somewhat as Vermont's mountains are cute compared to Oregon's. One can see, even at 65 m.p.h., the enchantment of it. Of being "down upon" it.
Approaching now are certainly the ugliest billboards in the United States - and that's saying something. (Actually, I'm surprised Florida hasn't lived down to my expectations sooner.) Due to their content - the worst ones, in depressing travesty of the Crystal Lake sign, exhibit huge graphic "sexy" babes - these are even more atrocious - it doesn't seem possible - than the multiple-sign, vista-annihilating "souvenir" stands of the Southwest.
My roadmap depicts time-zones in the very lightest print. And for that matter, why should Florida be in an earlier time-zone that Georgia? Because it's Florida, Stupid. Anyhow, as a result I arrive at St. Petersburg half-way through the Hazel set.
St. Pete proves to be a half-way misnomer. It is definitely a burg, but Pete ain't no saint. He adamantly vetoes sharing gas money. Renting the Taurus was my own "choice" and the fact that I'm willing to swallow the rental fees and all my Greyhound tickets, not to mention chauffeur his sorry ass down the Eastern Seaboard is of no interest. I kind of go off on him - blessedly away from an audience this time.
St. Jody, on the other hand treats this most superficial of crowds to one of her extended philosophical meditations upon rock music, the sources of inspiration, the trials of being a woman in a man's role, the business of art, and the existential agony of existence. This margarita-sipping spring-break college crowd responds with an extended ovation.
On a midnight walk (to cool my jets) I find that this crass little city has a lovely little head-shop. It's closed, but its window prominently displays a greeting card that reads, "If the Russians can get rid of the Communists, why can't we get rid of the Republicans?"
Sunday, April 2nd
On the drive to Orlando, of some relief is the fact that the grotesque billboards are now all facing the other direction. Curious, but nice.
Orlando has the second old-growth tree to be seen all tour, and this one has not been cut and sliced. It is, in fact, on the property of our club. It's of some subtropical species unknown to me, so I snag a sprig so I can find out what it is, and as a talisman.
Pete and I make up before the show. Neither of us is so callow as to think it's possible to perform with any conviction or grace when there are hard feelings.
At one point during our set Jody announces, "This next song goes out to all the sexual deviants in the audience." Maybe 2 people attempt a timid "Yaay". A couple of songs later, she is rambling on about what Oregon is like, freely exaggerating as is her custom - loggers, tree-huggers, but when she mentions 'meth-chemists", half the crowd erupts in a macho roar.
Actually, they are a fine audience, and I think this reaction is not so much approval of powder drugs as an inarticulate attempt to convey approval of Jody's stance (and cojones). It is a boy-heavy crowd, and as thoroughly working class and local as the St. Pete crowd was bourgeois and tourist-laden, and so perhaps is not quite ready to roar its approval of sexual deviance.
Monday, April 3rd
Right down from Atlanta's world-class rare book dealer are botanical gardens. This is a broad and rolling parkland of widely-spaced and substantial old trees. It is a rare spring day of tender blossoms and a balmy breeze, and a sign at the edge of the park announces, "The creative impulse is divine". You know I'm down with that, man.
The sign goes on to say, in slightly larger letters, "Author's Grove", and names 40 or so writers, many from the South, and lists a sponsoring organization for each one. Among those listed are Sidney Lanier, Joel Chandler Harris, Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry, Rudyard Kipling, William Shakespeare, Emma Lazarus, Jack London, Oscar Wilde (!), Louisa May Alcott, a good 20 I've never heard of, and several anomalies: President Warren G. Harding, Mother Goose, Poe a second time, and Uncle Remus. This last, folklorist Joel Chandler Harris' stereotyped African-American character, is sponsored by the "Children of the Confederacy". Scary.
But that is all that is scary here. Dogwoods blooming, the breeze scatters a rain of blossoms now and again, people are strolling around a big winding pond, some inline skaters glide by. Each time that otherwise solitary "black" and "white" couples pass by each other, they exchange gentle and friendly greetings. Whoa.
Once again, here is a beautiful public sculpture. This one is just about staggering in its symbolism and prophecy. A pedestal of rough stones mortared together in the style of a nineteenth century jailhouse, with short lengths of heavy chain attached at both ends to each of the four corners like places to hitch up to. This base supports a great black larger-than-life set of jail bars, with the door standing slightly ajar, the whole topped by vicious coils of barbed wire, again a little larger and scarier than life. And the bold black metal legend: "Free Nelson Mandela".
Across the hill, a bunch of inline skaters have set up 20 mini traffic-cones in a line and are doing them backwards in a kind of braid, slaloming one way on one leg, the other way on the other. They are all guys, and all are able to pull it off, plus one tall excellently bald woman who almost can.
Back around the pond, I cross paths with a couple of stocky, well-put-together frat-boy-looking types, clean, they obviously work out, could pass for Marines or college wrestling team-mates. The walk with an eager jounce, like they're off to kick butt. And completing the picture? They're holding hands. I'll say it again: Whoa.
Well, I've given all my cash - and the rest of the contents of my pockets as well, for some reason - to the creepy cop just this side of the Florida line. And now none of the local ATMs is speaking to me. And I'm basically out of gas. But the Squashblossoms have invited me to share their Super 8 motel room twenty minutes north of here (Atlanta) in Marietta, so what the hey.
Marietta is the most hellish place on earth. Square miles of generic suburb weaving around a centerpiece consisting of a Lockheed plant/Air Force base of gargantuan evil aspect, reminiscent of the "after" photographs of Chernobyl. There is no Super 8 Motel. There is no Western Union office that hasn't closed its doors 5 minutes before my arrival. Finally, it's getting dark, and now I really am out of gas, so at this last Western Union place I pound on the window and obviously look pathetic enough for them to let me in and pick up some life-giving dollars.
As I high-tail it out of there, I remember with a sudden rush of comprehension: this is Newt Gingrich's district.
Tuesday, April 4th
I'm driving across southern Tennessee: here are darling wee calves along the roadside who trigger pastoral reveries, and here are a pair of Canada geese coming in for one of those slow-motion landings. Right before the entrance to Chattahoochie National Forest sits a cabin that flies a Confederate flag. A not-so-subtle disinvitation.
In Nashville, thank god, the New York Times is once again within my grasp. Today it describes geophysicist Ronald Cohen's researches into the composition of the earth's core by computer analyses of the contrasting velocities in different directions of individual earthquakes. "My hypothesis is that it's like a diamond at the center of the earth, just one single crystal." A ferrous crystal, he goes on to say, 1500 miles in diameter.
In other good news, the head of the United Way gets nailed for embezzling a million. They let him off for the rapes, though.
A couple of historical markers in downtown Nashville. The site of Sarah Estelle's sundries shop, 1840-1860, the revered founding place of the city's dynamic African-American business and social life. Also, the Underground Railroad stop at 104 5th Street, the oldest remaining house in town. This plaque puts "Civil War" in quotation marks. The plaque celebrating the Underground Railroad!
On our club's dressing-room rest-room wall:
Next-door-neighbor of the Beast
Wednesday, April 5th
No time to stop at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, or the very popular Beer Museum. There is a small, messy and neglected bookshop in Cincinatti (and there is no other kind there) that urgently requires my presence. Here, squatting unnoticed on a cramped floor-level shelf is an 1896 edition of the George Chapman translation of Homer's Iliad ($4). Composed c. 800 BC, translated c. 1600 AD, beloved of John Keats. The pages are completely brittle, but these old English couplets do justice to the Poem of Force:
"and now Achilles comes, now near
His Mars-like presence terribly came brandishing his spear,
His right arm shook it, his bright arms like day came glitt'ring on,
Like fire-light, or the light of heav'n shot from the rising sun."
So I pick up a soldier, hitchiking on the road to Columbus. But it turns out that the fatigues and duffle, in this instance, are rather those of a violent methedrine survivalist psychopathic ex-con walking-time-bomb. Named Billy. I leave him off at Mound Street in Columbus, and I'm kind of exhausted from being especially nice every second. Maybe, for some reason, he was spooked by me, or maybe he needed to display his suppuratingly sexist and racist rants to a kind and forgiving pair of ears. Maybe he was just loaded and tweaking.
Thursday, April 6th
Downtown Indianapolis has all these gigantic ornate War Monuments and heroic architecture very much in the Stalin mode, all juxtaposed with de rigeur mirrored bank high-rises and insurance company headquarterses. It's all lethally stark and artificial. I am so out of here.
Friday, April 7th
Seagrams sells Dupont to buy MCA from Mitsubishi. This tour's ultimate controlling powers change hands in an eyeblink. Hazel, Veruca Salt - we are microscopic appendages on, little tiny advertisements for, one multinational or another. Aren't you?
In our green room at the club in Champaign, in the course of several dovetailing conversations, it emerges that the seventeen musicians and tech staff on this tour share among them fifteen liberal arts degrees from prestigious colleges and universities. Yup, we are all a bunch of spoiled, pseudo-punk poseur wannabees.
At 1 a.m. I'm driving due north out of Champaign directly into the heart of an electrical storm, no chickening out at a motel - no motels. Dead ahead, huge lightning bolts big around as a thigh stomp the horizon. A horizontal bolt, complete with irregular branches tentatively connected to the sky or earth, stretches impossibly the entire length of the arc of horizon before me. Nature can slap you down in a second.
Saturday, April 8th
Although this is the big Veruca Salt homecoming show, in a giant theater in the north end of Chicago, the show itself is unremarkable. There is one rather embarassing moment for me, but it is really only interesting for the technical skill involved. I ask Veruca Salt if I may dance with them for one song, and they all seem to think it a fine idea. But then all sense of proportion flees and I make the mistake of getting up on Jim's drum kit. While he is playing. Not missing a beat of his furious attack, he starts screaming at me to go. But I am just so bad at obeying my betters - I jump down between him and his kit. This does not make him happy - but falter he does not, in fact the fury of his pounding actually goes up a notch. All I can say is, Bravo Jim!
Sunday, April 9th
Even though we're beat to toast, the good old Lounge Axe is as comfortable as an old shoe, and the prospect of playing one more show without all the baggage of Veruca Salt and their humongous entourage and thousand-strong frat-boy audiences is a positive pleasure. I fall right to sleep in direct line to the amplifiers during the (extremely loud) sound-check, and wake somehow quite refreshed.
The crowd this night has come primarily for us, at long last, and it lends us a certain devil-may-care confidence. So we rock harder and wilder than we have in months. Brady ends up riding my back like Boy on a Dolphin, while he murders his bass, and I leap and roar and gibber.
Loading out the front of the club, on the way past the bar, a woman calls me over. "Hey Fred," she says. I don't know her. "I bet my friend here that you have kids at home. Do you have kids at home?" What is this? I wonder, but I tell her, yes, I have three daughters. And she goes to her friend, "See?" And then she goes to me, "I could tell. They must really love you. They're really lucky to have you for a dad. I bet they're really proud of you." This last, waving a hand towards the stage.
What? What did this woman see? I wonder if it has anything to do with my playing horsie with Brady.
The train back to Portland is grueling, and the facilities and conventions of rail travel frustrating to the point of madness, and the whole twisted racial drama subtext of the past month is re-enacted in 50 fresh, if ancient, variations, this deranged photo-negative overground railroad, with the helpful "black" conductors and stewards easing the escape of the world-weary "white" passengers, and I mostly give in to recurrent sadness.
This anomie is prompted, at various times, by, among other things:
a) The gathering physical and emotional letdown of the tour's cessation.
b) The patchy-snow covered small farms of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
c) A fire barrel, burning unattended.
d) Dreams of my precious lost child.
e) Fragments of long-abandoned asphalt roads, appearing and disappearing at far-flung intervals.
f) Calves. Herds of deer. Buffalo.
g) A fluttering hypnosis induced by rows and rows of geometrically planted trees or bushes or grain.
Rattling down the Columbia Gorge at dawn, sadness turns to something else.
First anger, as you see how the dams dam the river, and think about the megalopolis in the Northeast (that cyberpunks call Boswash - the single city that sprawls between Boston and D.C.), and the megalopolis planned for right here, based on this river's power-generation at the cost of its ecology: Electricity bought by the taxpayers and ratepayers and stolen by the politicians to give to the aluminum companies for Boeing and other masters of the world.
Around Camas, the beauty of the landscape/waterscape is so intense in the dawn light as to remove the anger, back past sadness and all the way to sorrow. It's raining and raining and these excruciatingly brief moments of the most pure untrammeled beauty are all that remain.
Veruca Salt is named after the girl-child incinerated alive in one of Roald Dahl's cheerful children's books.
Radio Stations - The Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky all have great radio stations. Not so Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, except a couple with very weak signals. Florida had a way-sophisticated classic jazz station, an all-Jewish station that was a scream and played a good and eclectic assortment of music, and an absolutely frightening Christian station that played an eerily listenable bastard spawn - Christian Rap. And there was a spectacular show of obscure 60's garage-rock out of Nashville.
Newspapers - all dreadful. Every daily I saw made the Oregonian look like the New York Times. The competing Christian Right dailies in Indianapolis win the prize, though. Atlanta had a little enviro-paper, but other than that and the Ohio homeless paper, I didn't see a daily, weekly, or monthly that didn't suck.
DeKalb has a decent student bookstore.
Detroit: John K. King, musty but huge and interesting.
Toronto seems to have a dozen rare book shops, but they're picked pretty clean; there seemed to be an art-book shop, but it was locked.
Boston has McIntyre & Moore in Cambridge, which has a decent selection, and the proprietors are nothing but sweet, but they need to alphabetize.
New Haven: slim pickins.
The Strand in New York has declined noticeably in two years. It advertises itself as having the most titles in the U.S., but it has half the titles, half the organization, and half the quality of Powells in Portland.
Charleston has some small but worthwhile places, helped considerably by the wealth of good local history.
Atlanta's Old New York Bookshop is fabulous. Highest quality and selection, nicest folks, reasonable prices.
Cincinatti's shops are most dishevelled and sad.
Chicago has many disheveled and sad used book shops, and a couple of gems, like the original Powells and, right across from the Lounge Axe, Bookseller's Row.
Economics - We signed onto the tour in large part for the money - a $350 guarantee for each show, better than we usually get, even though our food, lodging, and transport costs had to come out of that. On the other hand, the word guarantee implies making more than that if the show is well-attended and the numbers pass a certain mark. It wasn't til the tour was over that we studied the realities of this deal. The math is really very simple: about 1500-2000 people per show, paying 13-15 dollars apiece, and spending, say, 10 dollars apiece on beer. So. $40,000 a night, of which we get $350. And remember that for at least the first half of the tour we did most of the heavy lifting. Also, guarantee, shmarantee, we never saw a penny over that 350, even though most of the shows were sell-outs. One wonders what Veruca Salt's 'guarantee' was. $5000? $10,000? $20,000?
All-ages - Another reason we took the deal was that we were assured that the whole tour was all-ages shows. What all-ages means is that people come more for the music than the alcohol, and results, as a rule, in 100% better shows. Again, the reality was disheartening. What they were calling all-ages was in reality "18 and over" - that doesn't sound so different does it? What it effectively meant, though, was, through the miracle of lax or non-existant i.d.-checking, masses of bombed teenagers, few girls or women, and the exclusion of fans who either disdain fake-i.d., are turned off by heavy drinking, or simply look too young.
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