The Mercy Of The Road.
I’ve been touring Europe for nineteen years – sometimes twice a year. In one sense it’s simply work. In another sense, it’s a mysterious adventure. I’ve had passports expire, illness, missed shows and all manner of carefully arranged travel gone wrong. I once woke at five am to catch a train to a bus to an airport in Italy only to find my flight was the following day. What do you do? In Italy you get a bottle of wine and some cheese at the airport and ease your claptrap mind while eating and drinking on a bus back to where you left from and do it again the next day. These tours are invigorating and exhausting in equal measure. The days before leaving, my mind is a Rube Goldberg machine falling through trap doors, rolling along tracks and dropping from heights as I anticipate whatever trouble awaits until I’m safely in a rental car driving eighty miles an hour on the opposite side of the road. Perspective. I cross and uncross fingers and toes. I ask the eight-ball questions. I’m a mess of questions and doubts until I’m standing in front of that first beautiful crowd who came to celebrate and commiserate life’s small victories and profound tragedies along with me. Then I find my mind simultaneously quiet and in flames for 90 minutes until it’s time to pack and leave the altar.
The first show this year will be Glasgow. A great city with more testosterone than a street fighter. Pour a pint mate – make it two. My back problems are always an X-factor on these tours. I first injured my back when I was when I was touring with Amanda Shires. She was initially my side person while still in her own wonderful band Thrift Store Cowboys. Her talent and charisma quickly elevated her position to duo partner. That year (2007?) I had crushed a disc in my back just a few months before the tour. I was in excruciating pain. Mind numbing, screaming silently pain. Amanda carried everything like a pack mule. I could barely lift my guitar and could only stand for as long as the show – two hours tops. It’s a memorable tour for the fire that lit up my spine as well as the great shows. I sold a suitcase of cds the size of Donald Trump’s ego. Nothing stealthily slips a ten-pound note from a middle aged man’s leather like a sparkler such is Amanda.
I’ve played Denmark, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, England, Scotland, Germany, Ireland (where I’ve not once started on time – “Have a Guiness! They’re coming. Not to worry Rod!”) Wales, Italy and Spain. I have a soft spot for the U.K. as I see mirrored there my own quiet way and a kind of inner-strength I can’t help but admire. They fought the Germans from their back yards. I’ve always thought the British working class to be the toughest people I’ve ever met. If I had to pick a street gang I’m going to Newcastle or Birmingham. Don’t let the track suit fool you. Those guys aren’t running from anything. I’ve had a few shaky walks to the hotel with guitar in hand. But for the most part they are young men seeking out the tests of youth and an antiquated sentence of masculinity. Toxic? Probably. But tough? Bet your ass.
I drove halfway to Tampa to catch a direct flight to Gatwick on Saturday. Years ago, I would have done this drive in one shot – eleven hours. No longer. My age is starting to grab at my ankles and makes the drives harder now. When I started this life, I would routinely drive eight hours, unpack, soundcheck and do it all again the following day. The marrow of those younger bones has left my body. It’s simply age playing a strong hand of aces. I grab a coffee from the Microtel Inn lobby, a quick shower and I’m on my way. CNN is all about the whistle blower this morning. I arrived at a friend’s house in Florida for a night off and visiting. Then a whole day to tighten up loose ends and print a few things, check in for my Saturday flight tomorrow. I’m greeted by tiny geckos in the backyard, a comfortable bed and a cold beer. Afternoon beer is good as long as I don’t have a show.
It always brought the worst of me
I can’t control the thirst in me
Your history got a glimpse of me
Your memory gets the best of me
Always writing. Always playing with words and melodies. I have more than I can count. It’s the unending drip from a rusting desert motel faucet. Writing is thinking and not thinking at the same time. It’s almost impossible to describe. First flight is tomorrow. If I’ve screwed anything up it’s too late now. It’s all in the hands of fate. Box cutters? Stalled engines? Erroneous bookings? An illness? Most people don’t understand (not that they should) how profoundly vulnerable one is out there touring alone. Of course, there are many people who make the tour happen but in the end; it comes down to me, my ability to navigate whatever white waters I find and that precious 90 minutes. Everything else is a guess, dice tossed into a cloud of expectant questions that fall and tumble to whatever numbers they will land on. I’m hoping for sevens.
The usual nerves set in now. Flight day. Where is my passport? Will they charge me extra for the guitar? Do I have the dates correct on the COS? Have I packed enough cds? Will there be trouble with my license when I get to the car rental? There are so many pieces that can go wrong. And so, the nerves start sparking like an arc welder. I spend a few hours looking for my insurance card; panicked and sweating like Jerry Falwell in a whore house. The insurance company sent me an email copy of the card. Just need to get it printed before I hit the car rental desk. There is always one last thing hanging like a tag from the back of your dress shirt.
Norwegian Air direct from Tampa to London Gatwick. Nothing could make me happier. Connections mean lost guitars. A lot of coughing so I psychically hold my breath while physically shallowing my breath is well. I was worried I wouldn’t sleep but I got about 3 hours in so I’ll survive. I’ve made it on less. Now immigration then the rental car and I’m back to work. Bob Paterson, my agent, has booked a great tour. Fourteen shows in fifteen days with some decent guarantees, a day off in the middle, turn in the car, off to The Netherlands.
Second full day at a friend’s house in Whitley Bay went late last night but was nice catching up on all the news and philosophy. A relaxing day follows. Today I need to start getting serious about the tour, start rehearsing, get a merch bag etc. get all the small things lined up. The nerves are lessened now that I’m here. Today will be a day of planning and organizing then one more to relax and I’m off and running.
After all the booking, switching dates, negotiations, flights, car rental, rehearsal and planning; it begins. It’s a daunting thing to walk into a room of strangers and say, “listen to me.” We have about forty or so folks tonight. Small plate in the scheme of things. Strange to think in twenty years time, I’ll be gone, they’ll be gone. It won’t even be a memory for anyone. Yet, I care about how it all goes down as my nerves monkey with my confidence and I’m left wondering if I’m a fraud. All artists feel this from time to time. I’ve never met a single artist who doesn’t experience this feeling. So, pull your britches up boy. Time to pick up your hammer and get to work for a month.
First show was excellent. Anthony Toner opened and was wonderful. He’s an interesting writer and very at ease with the crowd. A very funny guy and smart too. My set was only slightly clunky with a few muffed chords and a small lull in the set when I got to the heavier section. I’m toying with breaking up the new songs so they’re not all lumped in together. Tonight will be two separate sets so I’ll be able to experiment a bit. The crowd was fully in and fairly packed. I drank a bit too much after the show but won’t do that tonight as I have an extremely long drive tomorrow.
Third show in. Great set again, wonderful crowd but slow merchandise. This is telling. The music business is changing quickly with streaming seeming to have won the war. I’m near Robert Plant’s hometown. There was word last time I played here that he might show up. It might have wrecked me but who knows? Maybe I’d have risen to the occasion. Travel in England is odd in a very peculiar way. A road was closed and the diversion was epic; the tiniest roads through every mossy village outside of Birmingham to get to the show. The hotel is comically dire and profoundly funny in its lack of any attempt at anything. It’s a BBC sitcom. The pub/hotel is called The Horn and Trumpet. The locals told me they call it The Horny Strumpet. No explanation needed.
Tonight is show number four in Nottingham. The first overseas town I played, as I remember, about 20 years ago. The promoter had to change venues so it’s a bittersweet night. The first show with the new venue. I’m a bit tired already but yesterday was a very long day so I’m putting it down to that. Arrived at the hotel early and had the luck of as early check-in. This is very rare in England as they tend to stick to the rules. I’m just concentrating on the shows; giving everything I have to the shows and trying to feel each song as I sing it. No opener tonight so I’ll do two sets. Turned out this was one of the most emotional shows I’ve ever played. Every note a tear. Every chord a ripple of electricity. Inescapable and inexplicable. I did not see it coming. This show will stay with me for a long time. I have no idea what connected me so profoundly to the songs and my voice tonight. The crowd felt it as well. A mystery.
Sitting at The Greystones after a harrowing drive across the midlands from Northwich I heard Waterloo Sunset on the pub p.a. There were literally tears in my eyes, then The Who. It’s impossible to describe how monumental it feels to hear these beautiful classics in their homeland. It’s as though you went into an Arizona saloon and Clint Eastwood was sitting at the bar. As an American kid, the context and essence of the songs is completely turned on its head and the beauty and power of the songs expands tenfold leaving this child of the early seventies a puddle. Who would have guessed a welder’s son from a nowhere town in rural Maine would have this experience? Exactly nobody. And yet here I sit marveling and my own small fortune. There will be maybe fifty people here tonight and I will give them every detail of my DNA freely and without hesitation. Why? It’s all so insignificant and yet not to each of those fifty. They put their shoes on, went out into the rain, drove for forty minutes to hear these songs. And I will goddamn serve them on a silver fucking platter because I am them. The shiver I get from John Moreland is not less than the chill I get from Leonard Cohen. So be it. Come the faithful fifty. Let’s see what happens. One long set which I prefer to two sets. I don’t like stopping then starting again. Something about bringing the thing to a boil then starting from scratch. Interesting show. The crowd was loud and engaged at the front end then I had to work hard during the middle and they sort of exploded again at the end with two encores. Very strange. I found it hard to get out of my head as I couldn’t see any faces and had a difficult time judging what was working. Bit of a mystery. Left early to get back to Whitley Bay. Nice quiet chat and dinner with friends and in bed before midnight. I’m desperate for sleep. Ten shows in a row starts tomorrow. Spent the morning listening to Small Faces hits. So very British which is a strange thing to say. How do you define what that is, yet you recognize it when you hear it. What are those elements? The accent? The slang?
I’m now on number four of the ten in a row now. The shows have been quite good as I bear down on the set-list. An older fan came to three shows and didn’t seem to mind that it was basically the same set each night. I’ve been singing well if not a bit ragged. I’m trying not to talk post-show which is very difficult at the level I play at. I do envy the folks who don’t have to constantly meet and greet which is nearly impossible for me. That’s where my voice goes out – yelling over the chat and the p.a. ringing the walk out music. My ears are absolutely compromised at this point. I notice now I have to watch a person’s mouth carefully if I’m to successfully engage. I wonder about my career. In one sense it’s a great success. I make a living making music. In another sense it’s getting more difficult as I get older. There’s no denying that fact now after twenty years. I’m feeling very philosophical about the whole thing and trying to gauge where I go from here. This is the overriding theme of this tour. “What now?” Things are very tentative with Brexit looming as a black cloud over the country. Many folks worried over what waits in terms of travel, customs, Northern Ireland and work Visas. The going is getting very tough now. The next six shows will be real work. Praying my voice holds out.
Such nice folks last night. It’s amazing how people welcome you into their home and world with the thinnest thread of connection. I’m having trouble sleeping lately as usual. Tonight: The Greys in Brighton. Feeling not nostalgic but something I can’t quite put my finger on. Fatalistic? Early radio show tomorrow in Bristol then wait for the show all day. Play the show, drive to the B & B, sleep, then a long drive into London followed by a long drive after the show to where I’m staying then drive after that show to Gatwick Airport turn in the car and get to my hotel room to fly out early the next morning for Holland and play that night. I need to psychology pace myself which sort of means turning myself off except for onstage. Not an easy task. I’m a machine at the moment; all moving parts must be greased and timed correctly. All the extras are starting to pile up on me. I can carry the weight. Probably.
The scent of burning peat punctuates the air. It’s been wet for near on a week. Winter is pedaling toward the island quickly now. The days are dark, rainy and cold; the kind of cold that burrows under your skin and keeps you in bed in the morning. “Blighty” they nicknamed the country and it’s a spot-on joke. England gets the kind of chill and wet that makes the most pastoral rural farm setting absolutely gothic. Black birds hover in glistening trees keeping watch. We all scowl and push on. Hearty people these are.
Great night at The Greys in Brighton. Almost full. Tiny room but has a real vibe. Very personal show with some new fans and some stalwarts. My voice still holding up though losing a bit of control on the top end. BBC Radio Bristol went well. Full-on interview, one live song and one from Shame The Devil. The producer used to work for the WWE so we had a funny chat about old time wrestling. He knew all the old wrestlers. Sat in the car while waiting for a few hours and napped. A car nap. Not the best but I’m at the mercy of the road. Looked be a low turnout, very slim on the pre-sales sheet. So I’ll rally and try to make it more intimate. I often wonder how other artists deal with the psychology of a low turn-out. Turn inward? Resentment? Anger? Phone it in? Gratitude? I don’t know. I try to let people know I’m not bothered and happy to be playing just for them. This approach doesn’t always work to be honest but that’s the goalpost. I looked out into the room to the lowest turnout yet. Maybe eighteen. Interesting that the first half of the tour was pretty full and this week has seen a few dwindling crowds. Eighteen in a room this size will be very tough. Second look and it doubled, possibly tripled. My voice was finally feeling the miles and felt weak but in the end it was a great show. Sold an absolute ton of merch. Thirteen cds sold before the doors even opened. Folks were dropping by to buy cds who couldn’t make the show. It was quite funny and very unusual. Might have been the biggest night for merch though there were only about fifty there. We used to pack them in the old St Bons venue but a change of venue is tough after 18 years. In the end it was another success and though I’m getting worn out I’m hanging tough. Four more before a day off.
Next night in Leytonstone was a success as well, though a very long day. Left the B & B at 12:30 arrived at the host’s house at around 1:30 am. Nothing like a thirteen hour day to leave refreshed and ready. Woke up far too early so took a Valium and a shot of whiskey to go back sleep, not wise but it did the job. Got up at 11:30 and puttered and organized. Had late lunch with my host and a few of his friends. They got talking Brexit and it was fascinating to listen. They came from opposite sides but both were very knowledgeable and thoughtful. The show later had a slim crowd but it was a tiny room and a house concert so it was fine in the end. A harrowing drive in the spitting rain to Gatwick. 2 hours to drive 45 miles. I had to keep calming myself down as I was dead tired and ready to explode with all the snaking diversions through maddening London. The M25 was closed. Crazy. They close the busiest highway in the country. Just close it down. Not a single lane open. I returned the car, got into the hotel cubicle and drank wine with a sandwich and a shower. A bit of nonsense with getting the guitar on the plane but in the end here I am. On the flight sitting next to the Gibson. The last 48 hours has me trashed.
Beautiful room tonight in Boger Netherlands. Alas, probably the limpest show on the tour. I tried very hard in the first set but admit I was a bit defeated by the second set. It was like trying to light a wet match. I could feel myself trying not to give up. Utterly gorgeous room and nice audience but I was simply not able to get the fire lit. Played a very good and angry version of Springsteen’s “Badlands” as the encore to exorcise the bad taste. I felt bad for all of us – the crowd, the promoter and myself. Hoping tonight will wipe away the defeat but I have a suspicion it will be a repeat…and…I was totally wrong. One of the best shows on the tour. I brought it hard and it payed off. It was a full room at the Rambling Roots Festival; possibly three hundred or more. Sold a bunch of merchandise, had a coffee and goodnight Utrecht. My intrepid longtime friend Martin got us back to Enumatil by 11:30. A lovely dinner was waiting. The last day in The Netherlands has me feeling philosophical again which for me is dangerously close to depression. They are twins that live in the room upstairs together. It’s interesting that a great show doesn’t lift you the way a tough show haunts you. I’m guessing that’s because it’s the job to be good. So, an extraordinary show simply means I did my job but a lousy show by confluence or otherwise stays in my skin like a stinger. Waiting, waiting, waiting…sometimes I don’t even know what I’m waiting for. Tom Petty was spot on.
The rain today is a drizzle and casting shadows of melancholy with each drop. Aloneness on the road is a blessing and a curse. I’m free, mobile, nimble. There’s nothing to negotiate. But I’m tethered only to my nervous thoughts, ego and insecurities. There is no dock to tie onto.
One car, three trains, one bus, to one plane to Norway. Amazing that this system of travel works at all. It feels like it’s bursting at badly repaired seams. There is no grace to it at all. Cram them in and shuttle them along. Train broke down? Tough shit bubba. Figure it out. Packed flight. Had to take someone else’s overhead space as my bag is as bursting as this plane. Vinyl at my feet with my computer. Automated safety announcements as the lady in KLM blue mimes the moves. She’s not bad but Marcel Marceau can rest easy. And off we taxi – bumping around Schiphol then into the black October sky. This is another very long day. I was awake at 7 and won’t reach the hotel until after midnight. Let’s see what Norway brings this time around.
First day in Norway was very quiet. The travel to get here was a marathon and left me rudderless. Woke up, had a bit of breakfast, went back to bed until noon. Rested all afternoon until soundcheck. Went up to the venue, quick check and back to the hotel. Basically, a hotel day. Nice place. It was very comfortable for a cold wet day.
Trondheim; just a full-on great show. Full but not sold out. Totally quiet. They were hanging on every word. A small victory then couldn’t sleep and got about 4 hours. Hoping I’ll fade into Morpheus’s arms on the train to Ringebu. The elusive remains. If Bono still didn’t know what he was looking for what are my chances? Right there with you my Irish friend. Foreign tongues ripple unrecognized syllables then instantly switch at my dull eyed “pardon?”. It makes a person feel inadequate. Why should my own language be the default? Then again, I just paid ten dollars for a single beer so they got me there. Waiting On A Train. Not a terrible song title; not a terrible wait. Warm and packed up to go, sitting in this ultra-modern hotel in the middle of Trondheim. Steel and glass. A circular gray staircase seemingly designed to mimic a bird cage. Someone was having fun with this one.
A low turnout in Ringebu. They were very nice folks but it was trying to light that wet match again. My host was wonderful and again I’m struck by how generous some people are. My friend Morten took a few good photos that are deceiving as they look like something is really going down but it was definitely the quietest show of the entire tour. Still, I played pretty well so at least I didn’t cave, I fought for it. Part of what is interesting about this life is that every single night is different. Each show has its own feel and nuances. A difficult show can bring out the fight in you. A great show can lift you up when you badly need some affirmation. It’s a mental chess match with yourself.
Sitting on the second train in Lillehammer towards the airport in Oslo. Trains, planes, and automobiles indeed. Hats off to you John Candy. A very long day of travel to get to Haugesund but arrived and the show was a bit of magic. An encore of “Haunted Man” that really worked. The right song for the right moment. Saturday – a badly needed day off. Laundry, bills, emails and general catching up on neglected bits. Two more shows sitting out in front of me and the tour will be done and dusted. I’d love to fly on a good note.
It goes like this: as the show gets close I get a sort of unsettled feeling and nerves start firing. I question everything. Will my voice hold up one more night? Will the promoter be happy with the turnout? Will the sound-person use too much compression? Will a forget any lyrics? The list is endless. Then the closer the start time approaches those thoughts slowly dissipate and a singlemindedness takes hold: Play a great show for whoever shows up. Bare your heart. Don’t fake anything. Don’t look for laughs – if laughs show up – invite them in but don’t hunt for them. Play like it’s your last show. This doesn’t always work but it’s the template I try to keep at hand.
Nice, albeit short, show in Haugesund to some appreciative folks. Off to the last show of the tour in Bergen. Only two seats open for tonight so that’s a good feeling. Should have a good energy for the evening.
The last show was a winner. The energy was a bit lower than I expected but it felt good; very personal and I relaxed into it after the first few songs. The stories had that nice flow that felt in the moment and unrehearsed. One last day to sort and pack for the flight back. Finally got the merch stock down to one suitcase. Sun shining through the giant window in my hosts living room. I’m watching YouTube videos of myself. Surreal. How did I get to do all this? It was all elbow grease. Just work and a tiny wavering flame of faith. My parents always told me I was stubborn.
My last day in Norway-spent at a hotel at the airport. Planned on watching films and having lunch and just relaxing but I’m a bit wound up for some reason. The ever-present anxiety sits near and keeps shifting its eyes my direction. Early morning darkness gives way to the hotel lightbulb glow and the gurgling of the kettle. Instant coffee. Dry creamer. The News. A few precious minutes on the bed then I’m gathering my things for the flight back. Bergen to Gatwick to Tampa. All the planning finished. All the boxes ticked. I’ve forgotten more than I can remember already. I watched Up In The Air for maybe the twentieth time yesterday. Something about the film resonates with me. Clooney’s character’s unwillingness or inability to land someplace. To stay. To grow up in a sense. The utilitarian home. The lack of home. I see a piece of me in that character as I board yet another flight. A plane that isn’t even bringing me home after all this tour brought to and asked of me.
It’s just bringing me to…the next show.