Jeff: “Big news in soccer today.”
Jack: “Oh yeah, what’s that?” (Jack startlingly plays along in these conversations)
Jeff: “America beat Germany.”
Jack: “Really? I’m shocked. I know a lot of lesbians who are very happy today.”
(considering the subject matter, a rather intense discussion about the Dalai Lama erupts)
Scott: “Must be pretty motherfucking easy to be zen with all these people waiting on you.”
Mora: “I bet he’s got soft hands.”
Jack: “I think he’s a jerk. Undermining China’s authority like that…”
Me: “There’s a very anarchist statement.”
Scott: “Sometimes when I’m in a jam, I think about what the Dalai Lama would do, but I realize he’d never even be in this spot.”
Me: “Does that help?”
Scott: “No, I feel terrible.”
Jack: “So the Dalai Lama is making your life worse.”
(during a Jeff phone call in the back of the van)
Scott: “You know the worst thing about cell phones?”
Jack: “What’s that?”
Scott: “You can’t yank the cord out of the wall.”
The trials of touring are sometimes quite tangible, as is the case with Jack’s difficulties finding his brown liquor of choice, Johnnie Walker Black. All across the North American continent, barkeeps and corner liquor store proprietors alike know about the light man in the dark hat, he who casts a long, tremulous shadow, he who attempts to find refuge from sun and people who want to talk to him about him, and his deep and gorgeous thirst for the Black label JW. But here, in the land of his ancestors, there is a deep vein of Red and Red alone. Until today. What will be looked back upon as Jack’s difficult “red period” comes to a merciful cessation, and I see the lights dance in my man’s eyes as he sits across from me at a sturdy picnic table, served a sturdy beverage by a sturdy German waitress. I think she sees them too, perhaps thinking back to the last time her services were so heartily required and appreciated.
Jack (on the progression of WW II): “I blame the British. Their hearts were never really in it.”
We meet Goli (short for Goliath) as we sit outside at a cafe. I am not a particularly small-handed man, but his shake easily connected small finger to thumb around my own; he is damned enormous. This is straight-up Hun stock, countenanced with an easy smile and barrel laugh, non-shaking hand making a massive ice cream cone with six scoops (he recites all the flavors) look like a child’s single. Goli drove Sticks and Stones on their first European tour in 1974, when they opened for Slade and T. Rex across the continent. He seems entirely friendly, with the easy confidence of a man who could palm and compress my skull whilst enjoying the rest of his confection.
Jack: “What are you up to today?”
Goli: “Going to the river, having an ice cream, talking about how to destroy the system from within.”
Sandra (upon dripping ice cream on her leg): “I’m a complete mess here. So embarrassing.”
Jack: “Just tell people it was a seagull.”
Me: “Oh, that better: ‘I’ve been shat on.’”
Jack: “It’s supposed to be good luck.”
Rafael and his lady, Kristen, spent 100 euros on laundry today. He lists the contents: one suit, three shirts…
Kristin: “and a few pairs of socks.”
Rafael: “One sock.”
Jack (referring to himself as a source of information): “I heard we play at 10:30”
Anyone else in the band: “Who did you hear that from?”
Jack: “I don’t remember.”
Anyone again, but probably Francis: “That’s because you made it up.”
Jack: “I remember scars on her legs.”
Sandra: “There were no scars on her legs, she got into a bike accident last time you saw her.”
Jack: “You may be the best drummer I’ve ever played with, but I’m amazed you don’t know the terms for common musical things.”
Mora: “That’s because I don’t listen to music. I never really have.”
Gunnar is in rare form tonight, buoyant and talkative as we embark on the interminable walk back to the hotel. A few blocks in, he notices Mora’s (admittedly massive) backpack and cannot get over it. "It is wider…than tall! You look like a letter 'r’!“ He is absolutely giddy the entire way back to the hotel. "Maybe I could put a beer in there, it’s perfect for trash!” It is hard to even know how to react; we literally stop twice along the way for the Gunn to laugh it out against a wall. Sleep deprivation and lack of caloric intake are powerful stimulants, but our somewhat stoic German handler is nearly in tears, and of course it’s infectious. Francis and I can only exchange “what the hell is happening” glances as we marvel at Gunnar, a human being with as odd of humor as any of us.
The hotel is over a punk bar, the tender of which is very excited to see us as he missed us at Fusion festival (who could imagine why?). It’s exactly the sort of place I’d live in were I a Hamburger, small space, good music, red light, funny, cutting bartender. He greets us with shots of some herbal German bitter, which turns out to be cumin. Naturally, Sandra does not want hers, so I take it, and Francis insists on whiskey, so I take his also. The peer pressure of a jubilant Gunnar is a powerful drug, and I hurry upstairs before it all comes crashing down around me. It’s a surprisingly kind intoxicant, and I survey the odd assemblage of records on the wall of our room (The Feelies, Cocksparrer’s “Shock Troops”–not an original, rockabilly compilation), chuckling at the German version of a rock n roll hotel. On the whole, seems not dissimilar to where Sid Vicious breathed his last breaths.
Hamburg is truly a city, with a variety of vantages of the water and the industry rising up out of it. People are out in the streets at least a bit, and you get a neighborhood feel traversing even the small area I have. I have managed to get myself a couple of kilometers west of the club along the port, cutting in up steep staircases and finding the cafe at which I currently sit. I make a lot of reference to the “many animals in a small cage” idea, and it has been my experience that some measure of balance is necessary for this aspect of touring as well. My own domestic profession is quite solitary; there is relatively little collegiality, I do not speak to my colleagues on a daily, weekly, or often even monthly duration. Francis earns most of his keep out of his own basement, utterly solitarily; Mora has people in her employ, but seems not to have a great deal of necessary interaction to do her work well. The point is, none of us is in an office, surrounded by others with whom we must interact daily to earn our keep; this, too, is a unique facet of the touring endeavor.
But at the same time, it is a supremely solitary avocation. I look around at the mass of (literally an figuratively) foreign people walking these streets, an experience I often have in either New York or Chicago by going to distant locales where I am least likely to recognize or be recognized. But no matter how far away from home I am in the two American cities in which I divide my time, they’re still my streets in some way: I’ve trod them before, I’ve sat at that table, spoken with that bartender, seen the same indigent with her same sign, passed that shop even if I’ve never been in. Part of the dislocation is necessary in that you end up in places where concentrations of people are (either artificially at a festival or university, or naturally in a sufficiently sizable city), and you know none of them and will likely see none of them again. You are on their streets as an artist, hoping against hope that enough of them will show up to allow you to move on to the next population, and return to this one at some point anew. The exception would seem to be the performance itself, and I am not so cold or cynical as to suggest that some sort of true communion cannot occur; of course it can and does. But not all the time, and being up there in front of people who are as likely to consider you their favorite act as to be looking at their phones or rolling cigarettes onstage (often all at one event) can make it seem as if your own mood has as much to do with it as anything–I’ve certainly watched bands who were deeply committed but in the end simply unable to forge the connection. There is something to the idea that as long as it’s good and it moves you, the artist, then you’ve satisfied the minimum condition. Fair enough; the extent to which this ordeal is paid down by 90 minutes or so onstage each night is a subject for a different entry. The point here is simply that the those minutes before the hot lights encapsulate a host of concerns which far outstrip feeling a deep, personal connection with given members of the audience. It’s a solitude of a whole different variety.
So as Francis and I walked around a bit today, he detailed for me how important his own solitary moments are, how his favorite day on tour ever was spent completely apart from the band, and I could understand it. For me, it is not a matter of being tired of being around these others; the door is open, I am not a hostage, and I remain around out of a reciprocated respect for the goal at hand and the people who commit to it. In many ways, it is quite the opposite. If you are prone to hanging onto the occasional thoughtless word, ungenerous act, lethargic sloughing off of duty, or obliviousness, you simply will not last. If you are unwilling to occasionally confront or blow up, choosing instead simmering passive aggression, it will be both a long (for you will live in resentment) and short (because most of the day will be remembered the same as the last) experience. It is instead that what while we are friends and I do not overstate my commitments to them and instances when commensurate commitments bailed me out, traveling in this capacity serves to remind me how alone I truly am (again, I hesitate to speak for anyone else on this matter). I am forced to examine myself on a multivalent spectrum: from the perspective of survival and mental balance, on the scale as a musician and performer, how I deal with adverse and absurd situations and the sometimes unpredictable whims of the talented malcontents (for make no mistake, malcontents are we, the modus operandi is to keep moving, do something better, make something better than it was, the pillow of contentment will smother the artist) surrounding me, and, apropos of this consideration, what I need from other people and what I have to offer them. It is easy as an artist to put all interaction through the lens of data for later creation; I’ve justified some rather inane relationships of every variety through this mode, sometimes justifiably, other times not. I do not think it’s cold or unromantic to consider why you keep the people in your life around, and they you. The disconnection of the road, though, leaves relationships in a very sharp relief, and when you are away for a month, there is a host of justifiable reasons why someone may not be who they were, or there at all, upon your return. All relationships need minimum contact, just as they all require minimum space, and hours in a van or ambling around a city or sitting in a mildewy dressing room awaiting sound check or staring at a strange ceiling gives one plenty of time to consider friends and lovers lost, opportunities sacrificed at the crucible of this thing we do, and how crushingly lonely we can be. But I’ve no doubt at this stage that it is in fact the solitude and the loneliness that presses we ragged soldiers onward, and so it is vital, productive, and must be fostered. And so I leave this record, ten days in, sitting by my lonesome, wondering who you are and why you’re reading this, likely as not alone.
Timber Timbre, “Until the Night is Over”: http://youtu.be/3SiJUDo5cEM