Guitars, Pontiacs, Hillbilly Music etc etc

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 23, 2010

IT is, with some regret, that this entry begins with some sad news. Not quite a death, more the very serious, soon to be upgraded to terminal, state of health of some constant companions throughout the journey.

Yes, it is with great sadness that this article has to reveal the rapidly deteriorating health of the pair of shoes which have carried me around the world.

Until they finally fall apart completely, they will still be worn – unless it is raining, when the water pours through the increasing leaks through the worn-through soles and disintegrating sides. They are, quite literally, on their last legs.

My feet became a bone (or collection of bones) of contention on the trip, but their perilous state through the mosquito-nibbled, infected in-growing toenail, blister-ridden days of North America cannot be blamed on the shoes.

Not even the less than pleasant smell can… oh hang on, maybe that one was down to the shoes. Or my socks. Or me.

Whatever, we went through a lot together since that joyous day we met in the Go Outdoors shoe department in early March.

Sad to report, the relationship was not totally monogamous. There were other shoes.

There were occasional flirtations with a brand new pair of ‘smart’ shoes bought simply for wearing on the boat and spent most of the journey rammed into the bottom of my rucksack.

A pair of sandals captured more of my attention, but we had a messy, painful break-up in a welter of cheese, recriminations and blisters after an unscheduled walk back to camp in New Ulm.

There was even, oh the shame, brief liaisons with Phil’s ‘jangles’. But that was purely because his were always easy to find at the front of the bus and were the only other ones that fitted me.

But, despite those dalliances,those size 12 grey and black Regatta Isotex shoes stayed loyal and carried me through the town squares of Europe, the less than salubrious back streets of St Petersburg, the wilderness of Mongolia, Beijing’s Forbidden City, the sun-drenched city walls of Xi’an, the ice and snow of Hengshau Hanging Temple, the decks and basketball court of the Diamond Princess, the sodden streets of Vladivostock, the trails of North America’s National Parks and the streets of its big cities. And into a few bars.

For the final five weeks of my trip, the right shoe spent endless hours on the accelerator pedal of a little white Pontiac, clocking up 6,000 miles in a five-week trip which rattled through some of the big cities, musical hotspots, small towns and scenic drives of the eastern half of the United States.

Not going to bore you with the full inside tale of every stop, but after two weeks of goodbyes in New York, Boston and back again my route took me, sweltering the entire way, to (deep breath):

Washington DC, where the temperature gauge hit 106 and at least six bottles of water were consumed walking up and down the National Mall; Front Royal, Virginia. which is merely the front door to The Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, between them more than 550 miles of twisting, sloping tarmac draped along the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains and providing the most fun you can have in a car with a top speed limit of 45mph; Greenville, South Carolina, scene of a quite spectacular thunderstorm; the extremely big Clemson University Stadium (known as Death Valley); the extremely cool college town of Athens, Georgia, and the extremely hot Pensacola Beach, Florida, thankfully with an extremely welcome, and welcoming, beach bar just yards from both the water and my room.

From there it was back through Alabama, flying through Mobile, Birmingham and Montgomery, while stopping at the US Space and Rocket Center (sic) at Huntsville (Rocket City, USA – home to Space Camp) and over the Tennessee border to the town of Shelbyville. They were in the middle of celebrating their 200th anniversary and while there were plenty of vintage cars and a chilli cook-off to savour, there was no sign of a lemon tree. Or any bars within walking distance of the motel.

That carried me to a 10-day reunion with Nick which saw us play football for England against Ireland in a hostel match alongside the Parthenon in Nashville (where we did OK for the oldest players on view) before savouring the music, Sun Studios, Rock n Soul Museum, a Barry John lookalike and Minor League baseball in Memphis and racing through Mississippi to New Orleans.

And let’s stop the whirlwind tour just to catch our breath, mainly because New Orleans deserves more than being dismissed that quickly and you really can’t sum up this  city in just one paragraph.

Admittedly, our three-night stay was not packed full of sightseeing. Partly because the thought of paying more than $40 to be bussed out to see the areas left desolate by Hurricane Katrina just seemed a bit wrong and partly due to the weather which kept me in the very friendly, very comfortable hostel for most of Sunday.

Venturing out once before dark that day, to make the less than 10-minute walk to the local Wal-Mart for supplies and to solve an emergency underwear situation, nobody has been so glad to get inside an air-conditioned building.

It was not just unbelievably hot, but it was remarkably heavy and steamy – the muggy air a hangover of Hurricane Bonnie, which was downgraded first to Tropical Storm Bonnie and then, kid you not, to Tropical Disorganised Collection of Showers and Thunderstorms Bonnie, which had dumped what seemed a pretty organised collection of showers on me in quite violent fashion on the run (yes, it was that bad) from the Charles Street Streetcar back to the hostel the night before.

But, of course, we did get out and about around the French Quarter.

Both of us were surprised at quite how tawdry Bourbon Street was with strip clubs promising live sex shows (we didn’t go in) intermingled with the countless collection of bars (we did go in) offering live music and a bewildering array of drinks offers with which to enjoy it all, most of which a waitress in The Famous Door poured down my neck from a series of test tubes.

Hangover notwithstanding, going back in the daylight was equally as eye-opening. Wandering off Bourbon Street and around the side streets of the French Quarter gives an insight into a fascinating, vibrant, unique piece of Americana at odds with much of the rest of the city, let alone the rest of the country. Definitely one to go back to.

While Nick headed back east on a Greyhound, the Pontiac was pointed across Lake Pontchartrain, through Louisiana and into Texas, stopping for a couple of nights in Austin – another extremely cool college town boasting a university stadium which dwarves anything in this country, a bewildering selection of bars with live music and friendly locals with which to enjoy it all – and onto baking Dallas, where they really should clean up that white cross on the road next to a grassy knoll. It is clearly visible from the sixth floor window of the neighbouring (ex-)book depository.

From there it was time to start heading back east, through Arkansas, which saw the start the ever-changing collection of bracelets and bangles hanging from my right wrist in the cute, biker-ridden town of Hot Springs and wandering in Clinton’s steps in Little Rock before haring back through Tennessee, into Kentucky.

Finding Elizabethtown virtually shut on a Sunday – and sadly bereft of Kirsten Dunst – it was north through Louisville, via a visit to the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory, and shot up to Cleveland and the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame Museum, which while still a fascinating few hours of anyone’s time, hasn’t really been freshened up from my last visit four years ago.

The final few days took me across Upstate New York, via the excellent Baseball Hall of Fame in leafy Cooperstown, roads shared with horse-drawn Amish carriages and down the Hudson Valley to New York and one final weekend with Phoebe, which ended – almost inevitably – sometime around 4am in Greenwich Village.

And that, a host of small town stops apart, is the abridged tale of the five-week trip – bar a few key points and tips which will be addressed in the next couple of entries.

Well, actually no – that’s not quite it.

It appears my right shoe is refusing to go quietly after spending so long wedged down on the accelerator pedal. It opted to end the trip in style, judging by the post which arrived this morning (via two redirections) with a Tulsa postmark, addressed to Cardiff, England.

It was with a mixture of confusion (never been to Tulsa and have never met anyone from Tulsa) and annoyance (the rent cheque from my tenants redirected with it a week ago has still not turned up) that opening it the Alamo car hire logo popped up at the top of the letter.

It was almost binned as the standard ‘thank you for your custom’ letter it appeared to be, until the dollar signs lower down caught my eye.

For the last 50 or so miles, after the only major missed turn of the entire trip, was some sort of felony.

Instead of merging from the New York State Thruway onto the New Jersey Turnpike and enjoying a simple run down the Interstate to the Lincoln Tunnel and into Lower Manhattan, I ended up paying $10 to cross the River Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge, got lost in Yonkers and sat in a nose-to-trail traffic jam through the Bronx for more than an hour with a horizontal petrol gauge.

That was not news, but it also appears missing that turn meant not going through the right toll and a fine (with Alamo’s $10 admin fee) of $24.16. That’s about £16.

It all raises one simple question: How do you miss an entire toll booth the width of an Interstate?

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Left Of The Dial

Original posted in London to New York blog, Cardiff, September 9, 2010
 
Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade
Picked another one up in the very next state… I’ll try to find you, Left of the dial’
Left of the Dial – The Replacements, 1985
 

THINGS have changed since Paul Westerberg sketched that classic picture of trying to tune into a friend’s new band on the American alternative/college radio stations, tucked away on the left of the dial.

It still holds true about stations fading out on you and the need for constant re-tuning to pick up something worth listening to.

Actually scratch that, they don’t seem to fade out as such, more magically retune to a default setting which is guaranteed to be playing John ‘Cougar’ ‘Soddin’ Mellencamp. Altogether now: ‘Little ditty, about Jack and Diane…’

Sod the fact that Jack has long since left Diane with four kids in the trailer park and even a last-ditch attempt to save their relationship on Jerry Springer ended with Jack facing charges of assault and the eldest child being recognised as the ring leader of a cow-tipping ring. They still play that song everywhere you bloody go in a perpetual medley with The Black-Eyed chuffin’ Peas.

No, let’s not get this party started. Let’s play something people might actually want to listen to as they hit the open road in sweltering heat…

Sorry, but these are the sort of things which get to you when you drive 6,000 miles in five weeks around the USA in a little white Pontiac, playing the twin games of seeing if the temperature gauge tops 100 degrees Centigrade again today and desperately trying to find something worth listening to on FM radio.

Left of the dial these days seems to bring you just two things – God-fearing bible-bashers, paranoid their listeners will rush over to the dark side (that’s the Devil, not AM radio) if they don’t mention Jesus at least once every 10 seconds, or right-wing talk shows raging against Obama and calling for him to be impeached, either for having the cheek to win an election or just because it’s too damn hot.

Occasionally you’ll get right-wing God-fearing talk show hosts going on about Jesus and Obama, but best not to hang around on those channels long enough to find out how close they got to comparing the President with the Devil.

Apart from that, your choices are local sports phone-ins (wildly entertaining in a ‘are they really having a half-hour debate about the third-string wide receiver at the local high school?’ sort of way), national sports phone-ins (much the same, but debates about the third-string wide receiver of the Cincinnati Bengals. Or Lebron James. Or Brett Favre) or, eventually, some music.

Music radio comes in three distinct categories – country, rock and pop. Wait long enough and all three of them will eventually play Jack and Diane and you are pretty sure to get Don’t Stop Believing thrown in as well.

The country stations are not just kept to the South, although down there it is hard to find anything else (unless it is country rock), but crop up all over the place and ram the dial from left to right.

Occasionally they will pull in unsuspecting listeners with something that’s only vaguely country, but it won’t be long before someone’s warbling about their lost love running away with their pick-up truck on the same day their dog died by throwing itself off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Actually, that’s a bit harsh from someone a bit partial to the odd bit of country (more the alt-country, American variety than the populist Grand Old Opry stuff) and did stumble across two little gems which will always bring back good memories of the trip – check out Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer by Billy Currington and Drinkin’ Bone by Tracy Byrd (which we first stumbled on performed by a drunk Canadian at a karaoke in Banff). You may notice a link…

The rock stations differ only in their interpretation of the term ‘rock’. Some opt for anything with a guitar which is not necessarily, but not totally excluding, country. Others opt for the heavier, metal-based form of the genre, although even they get dragged back to more mainstream fodder – presumably to please the advertisers. All of them will, before too long, play Journey and that bleedin’ Mellencamp bloke.

Which leaves us with the pop stations. Like their rock brethren, they do have the excellent habit of running about 45 minutes of consecutive music together each hour before a big lump of adverts. Sadly, most of the music will be shit.

The odd station will veer more towards the vintage market and throw you the occasional bone of a good tune to get you interested and ensure you stick with them for the next few miles in the hope of another one.

Instead, you will get anodyne rubbish, mixed in with the hourly ritual of Don’t Stop Believing, Jack and Diane and those really, really annoying Black-Eyed Peas. At least they come up with recognisable intros. “I’ll change that tune in…”

All this ended up with two outcomes – enough time listening to ESPN Radio formed firm opinions on the Cincinnati Bengals third-choice wide receiver, Lebron James, Brett Favre (shouldn’t have come back Brett) and whether the Tampa Bay Rays can stay the distance in the AL East title race (Go Sox).

Secondly, it meant that by New York honed back into view, I knew what was going on in the charts, could sing along to not one but two Katy Perry tracks (much to Phoebe’s amusement) and had even downloaded a couple of tracks making waves in the ‘hit parade’ (Eminem and B.o.B if anyone is interested).

But amidst all of this, every so often the spirit of Paul Westerberg was summoned and something more akin to his words would spring from the speakers as the radio sifted through the left of the dial.

First of them came climbing towards the highest point on the staggeringly gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway – a 450-odd mile ribbon of sinuous, breathtaking road through Virginia and North Carolina (which we would have got to it this in this entry but for getting sidetracked by the rant about American radio).

Given the gradient, the succession of sweeping curves, the onset of rain and clouds as the road shot up (even with the temperature gauge way up in the 90s) and the steep drop off to the left, perhaps playing with the radio dial should have been replaced by fully concentrating on the road.

But it was worth it for that unmistakable, slightly distorted rhythmic opening, the first thumps of Bill Berry’s snare and straight into Michael Stipe’s very personal murmur, all sounding like it was recorded in somebody’s basement.

Never has Radio Free Europe sounded so good as, cranked right up, the Pontiac careered (as much as you can do with a 45mph speed limit) around the last few upward bends and pulled into the car park at the viewpoint.

Those already there were torn between watching the, supposedly, glorious view disappear as the clouds rolled in to engulf everything or the strange-looking bloke sat drumming (badly) on the steering wheel of his hire car and singing along to whatever was blaring from his stereo.

After taking in what was left of the view and used the facilities, not only was it sheeting down with rain and the cloud cutting visibility to mere yards, but all that was coming from that station was a despondent hiss – never to be heard from again on the, very careful, way down the other side of the hill, back to glorious sunshine and, probably, Don’t Stop Believing.

Refusing to stop believing produced, just once more, my reward while heading south down the interstate through Alabama from Athens, Georgia to Pensacola Beach, Florida.

Fed up with the completely humourless, know-it-all host of a sports phone-in centred on the football rivalry between Alabama and Auburn Universities, the dial was turned full left in search of something worth listening to.

And, somehow, heading south on the I-85, up popped the Cocteau Twins, followed by The Cure, followed by… actually, can’t quite remember. But Auburn University college radio had somehow transported me back to the late 1980s with their Old Time Lunchtimes – akin to a re-run of a vintage Annie Nightingale Request Show from a Sunday night in my teens, without the letters (written in purple) from lovelorn goths.

Which is why, pulling into a service stop to stock up on cold drinks, The Sex Pistols were blaring out of my car, Pretty Vacant attracting the sort of looks it hasn’t engendered since 1977.

With high anticipation and having scurried back to the car, starting the engine only found… distortion and the eerily familiar sound of a radio station going out of range.

Sadly, pulling out onto the interstate, Johnny Lydon’s sneer was replaced by the inevitable…

‘Little ditty about Jack and Diane, two American kids growin’ up in the heartland…’

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