Shaking off the sickness now. It made its way from my head to my lungs and on out in 2-3 days, but I’m still tired. 6:30AM lobby call ( guy comes from the bus station on a moped to get you, you get on the back and balance your suitcase and backpack on your lap and try not to fall off as he speeds around corners through puddles – an experience that wakes you up real fast ) yesterday for a 7AM bus back to Phnom Penh, about a 6-hour ride.
I can’t really convey how crazy PP is – you step off the bus and you’re swept up in a stream of people and motos and tuk-tuk drivers trying to get your attention. Your day consists of saying ” ah TAY aw KOHN ” ( ” no thank you ” ) over and over, literally hundreds of times, to guys who want to drive you around. Sometimes they keep the pitch up after you say no, but they’re never dicks about it.
Every single step you take in this city, you have to look around you carefully first, as a motorbike is likely to appear exactly where you’re about to walk. Yes, on the sidewalks as well.
I got a cheap hotel a couple of blocks away from the bus station and I knew I could walk it, but that it would be tough, because of the crazy, broken pavement, and the crowds, and the wacky numbering schemes of the streets ( and the fact that you generally can’t walk on the sidewalks, because they’re full of parked motos and people sitting and eating on little plastic stools ). Plus, there was a huge fire somewhere and screaming cops and soldiers were trying to control traffic, and people were running this way and that, attempting to get a look.
After I checked in, I walked around the block. I think I told you that I met and hung out with a guy from a band here, Cambodian Space Project? In the shopping mall across the street from my hotel, they have their own store, where they sell records, posters, t-shirts and vintage junk guitars and stuff. Can you imagine an American band having their own cool little shop? Well, Dead Moon do, or did, I guess, but I can’t think of anyone else.
I ate, and I knew that I needed to get moving on organizing the next part of my trip, but I was bone-tired and I went to bed at around 4PM, woke up at 10PM, and said to myself, “ Motherfucker, no. Sleep. Full hibernation-mode, and no feeling guilty about it either “ – and slept until about 9 this morning. So I have some strength back now. It’s Sunday, but everything seems to always be open, so I’m going to go to some travel agencies and see what’s up.
Thursday, December 6, 2012 • on the 12-hour train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai – somewhere in the middle of it, but I’m trying not to look at the clock. There are some Swedish dudes across the aisle from me, watching South Park and Arrested Development on a laptop, alternately both plugged into an iPod, making guitar faces, and I wish I knew what they were listening to. They’re nice guys, but they stink. They smell like dirty balls.
There’s a German couple ( she’s much taller than he is, and that makes me uncomfortable, make of it what you will ) behind me with a kid who’s 3 or 4. He’s singing little songs to himself and he’s got a doll, a full-on babydoll – so I guess his parents are doing the non-gendered toy thing, which is cool.
There’s a Thai family in front of me who have a 2-year old ( I’m guessing – she can walk, but she’s still sucking on a pacifier ) who is playing a learning game on her Mom’s iPad ( she has two Moms : the iPad belongs to her butch, shaved-headed Mom, not her lipstick Mom – her lipstick Mom has a dolphin tattoo on her wrist, and I wonder, what is it with lesbians and dolphins? It is seemingly universal ) and she is deftly pinching and expanding and toggling through windows, and the game’s in English too. Watching her doing it is kind of mesmerizing.
We fly into Heathrow. Although the London Olympics are in full swing, the line moves quickly and we are processed efficiently by polite, cheerful professionals in a sleek, modern setting – the opposite of the typical American airport experience. S. takes off for Germany, and P. and L. and I get on a tour bus, a nice one with leather upholstery and an affable British driver. Did I win the lottery?, I think. I’m on tour and I don’t even have to work!
I tell my friends that I’m going to be spending a few days in Northern Ireland, living on a bus with some other dudes, no hotel rooms, and the reaction is either of polar opposites. People who are in bands/ crew/ staff, who enjoy touring, curse me for my charmed life. On the other hand, to those who don’t like touring or traveling ( which, by the way, are two different things : I’ve been to Australia, yes, but I wasn’t hiking in kangaroo country or, you know, enjoying myself, I was backstage, worrying about weird-sounding rented speaker cabinets and my chops ), this plan sounds, at the very least, distasteful.
We drive through the night and onto a ferry at dawn, and soon we’re parked in downtown Belfast, which is kind of similar to cities I’ve been to in northern England and Scotland. It’s grey and drizzly and we lock the bus and hit the street.
P: ” So, what do you guys want to d- ”
Me: ” Guinness. ”
P: ” But should we maybe eat someth- – ”
Me: ” GUINNESS. ”
L. agrees. Guinness.
If you’re into beer or have ever talked to somebody from Ireland about this particular subject, you’ll know that Guinness Stout does not travel well, and that, additionally, the stuff we get in the U.S. is pasteurized. That’s right, they BOIL it – and there’s a protocol to properly pulling a pint which must be followed to the letter, often not done so in America, absolutely done so here, under threat of, probably, lynching. I hoisted a few in Dublin when WZ played there in the 90s ( a gig apparently attended by just about everyone I’m meeting in Belfast, and one which I am roundly congratulated on — I do remember the show being totally out of control, in a good way ), and I’m excited to have another opportunity. I vow to drink as much Guinness as I can.
P. takes us to Kelly’s Cellars ( imagine an ancient Irish pub, and you’re probably pretty close to what this place actually looks like), and explains the situation. This tavern, he says, has been strongly linked to the Catholic, anti-British movement for over 200 years, and was a meeting place for the IRA in the 1970s. There are a couple of older hard men ( the current men’s hairstyle in Northern Ireland is none, as in, nearly every guy I see has a shaved head, which gives me the constant, subtle feeling that thuggery is imminent, and I guess that’s the idea ) at the bar who look like they could eat skinheads for lunch, but everybody’s ( we aren’t the only ones drinking in the morning ) friendly and in a good mood.
” Guys, hey, could you order? I don’t want anyone to hear me talk. ” whispers P. Why’s that?, we want to know, and he explains that although he’s from a Catholic ( Nationalist, assumedly ) family, the town he grew up in, about 20 minutes away, is a Protestant ( Unionist ) one, and if the people in here hear his accent, they will assume he’s Protestant and we’ll be lucky to get away with a mere beating. We wait patiently for, and finally receive, pints, and I’m drinking a Guinness in Ireland, and it tastes like, I don’t know – angels? Clouds? It is very, very good. I reflect on P.’s childhood, going to school with Protestant kids. Things must have been deeply shitty for him, although he is a jolly, wise-cracking guy and gives no indication of it. This place was a warzone not very long ago, but you’d never know it from talking to these friendly, frequently hilarious people.
( later ) We go to where P. is from, and if you have a picture in your head of what farmland in Ireland looks like ( bright green fields, moss-covered stone walls, ancient houses ), well, that’s exactly what’s going on here. It is so pretty that it doesn’t look real to me as much as it seems like something a movie director ordered up ( “ gimme an Irish countryside, and make sure it’s extra-charming “ ). The town, on the other hand, seems vaguely malevolent. Everybody I meet on this trip is Catholic, and I start thinking of Irish Catholics as ‘our team’ ( it’s stupid, but such is the fucked-up power of the political situation here that I can’t help it ), and there are British flags hanging from every window, and Loyalist murals ( we note one of Iron Maiden’s Eddie as The Trooper ), and, on our way to the chip shop ( P.’s been dreaming about this moment for months ), we pass an honest-to-god Loyalist drum-and-fife parade. It shouldn’t be anything more than a curiosity to me, but it’s kind of unsettling.
( still later ) Towards the end of the day, I’m still grappling with a nasty hangover, and P. has the bright idea of getting a local - I mean, he’s from this neighborhood, and he stops and chats with almost everyone who passes by – taxi driver to take us on a tour, which turns out to be one of the best ( definitely not ‘fun’, but definitely best ) things about this trip. Here’s the housing project with the bunker on the roof where British soldiers got choppered in, there are the big gates used to lock down the neighborhoods at night. Here’s the Peace Wall, which separates the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods ( things are quiet now, but the houses that back up on it still have chicken wire screens to prevent people on the other side from throwing burning stuff over ), there’s a fence covered with the names and photographs of people killed during The Troubles. There are a lot of names, and we take a good, long look.
Manila, Philippines. You might think, if you’ve taken a taxi in New York City, that you’ve experienced a crazy hell-ride, but you don’t know what that really means unless you’ve been in a cab in one of the anarchic mega-cities of the future, like Manila.
The driver swerves wildly and repeatedly to avoid hitting people crossing the street, and my walk the day before ( a sweaty 5-mile trudge* up Taft Ave., across McArthur Bridge, up Rizal Ave., and right on Aurora to the entrance to the Chinese Cemetery ) showed me why pedestrians are all over the roads : what sidewalks there are, are completely packed with parked jeepneys, cars, trucks, and motorbikes, so that you’re forced to walk in the gutter. You get used to breathing dust and diesel fumes with vehicles whipping by six inches from you, or you don’t walk anywhere. There are few crosswalks, and the traffic never fucking stops, and if you want to cross the street, you’d better run.
He is young and slightly rakish ( ‘rakish’, here, meaning Oakleys and a bootleg Ed Hardy t-shirt ), but there’s a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror, and he’s very polite, like everyone here. Mass on Sundays and a baby at home, at least one, I betcha.
He puts on a CD as soon as I get in the car.
Me: Is this Linkin Park?
Him: Yes .. do you like this music?
Me: Um, sure. You? ( it seems rude to say anything negative, and I don’t know how to communicate something diplomatic like“ it’s not my cup of tea “ )
Him: Not really. I like Bad Religion!
Me: ( smiling ) Oh, you’re into punk?
( he pauses, not knowing what I mean )
Him: I also like Bon Jovi!
Me: Oh, so, you enjoy music that has loud electric guitars?
Him: Very much!
Me: Me too, I like guitars very much!
I spend the rest of the trip gripping the upholstery tightly and contemplating what our music sounds like, and means to, people from other cultures. I try to imagine what rock n’ roll would sound like to me if I hadn’t ever heard it before, and what I’d make of the distinctions between different styles. Not much, probably.
These aren’t taxis, they’re jeepneys ( learn about jeepneys here ), and although I was intrigued ( I’m not sure why shiny sheet-metal with hand-machined chrome parts isn’t standard elsewhere; these things have a sort of 1940s aircraft-aluminum look to them, and it’s wicked-cool ), I didn’t work up the nerve to ride in one.
* To put it in perspective for New Orleans people : imagine that it’s August in the Dirty Dirty., and you’re walking from the Uptown Whole Foods to Molly’s on Decatur, sucking on black fumes and nearly getting hit by a car every 30 seconds. I swear, if I wasn’t hardened to the weather in the Deep South, I would’ve wilted like a little flower. I managed to figure out how to take the Metro back, thank god.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 • I got up early and took a walk, which is clearly not something people do here, this city isn’t designed for it. It’s nice here, slightly chilly and very dry ( my hair changes with the weather, it’s straighter and less frizzy ) – less crowds on the strip than I remember, and more down-on-their-luck people ( most of them look like they never had any luck at all ) and aggressive panhandlers, roasted by the sun, drinking, shit-talking at your back for ignoring them, all the way ‘til you’re out of earshot.
Also, little old Chinese guys, who look like farmers or factory workers but who you know are millionaires. They are well catered-to : right when I got here I had a big bowl of congee with preserved duck egg, which was nice.
It seems generally less sleazy than before, and hardly anyone’s smoking, but also I haven’t been down to the original part of the strip, where Circus Circus is.
I like the artificial environments a lot, the ones with cobblestones and painted skies that change from day to night. I like padding down endless, silent hotel corridors. I like the insane, vomit-colored carpets and the sealed-off-from-the-sunlight weirdness of the gambling areas.
Here’s a letter I sent today.
Dear Mr. Bragg,
This is a note to thank you for sending me my wallet.
I was on an out-of-the-country trip for two weeks with some friends from New Orleans, and we got back on August 29th, which was exactly when Hurricane Isaac was hitting our town. We flew into Tampa, and on landing there were informed that all flights to New Orleans were canceled and that there was nothing anyone could do about it.
The guys I was with had wives or girlfriends in the city and were anxious to get back to make sure they were safe, so when I suggested that we should maybe sit tight in Florida for a day or two to see what would happen, they were all heavily resistant to the idea. We ended up renting a couple of cars and driving directly into the storm at the exact same time many people were evacuating.
I’m sure you remember how bad the weather got. By the time we hit Mississippi, it was pitch-black and the rain made it nearly impossible to see anything. We were in a big, heavy American car ( a Crown Victoria, so at least the ride was nice and smooth, at first, anyway ), but the fierce wind was making us sway all over the road. We stopped at the welcome center for about an hour and finally decided that since there were hardly any other cars on the road, we might stand a chance of making it if we were very careful and went slowly. I guess my wallet got mixed up with the trash we threw out before we left.
We made it home in the middle of the night. There was a curfew, and the only vehicles on the road were police cars and power company cherry-pickers, but we never got stopped – I guess because of the Crown Vic, everybody assumed we were cops. We couldn’t go into the city, where we live, so we stopped at one of the guys’ parents’ house in the suburbs. It was a crazy scene there, with blown-down trees in the street and roof shingles everywhere, and when we started unloading the car in the darkness ( nobody had power ), I realized my wallet was gone.
I went through Hurricane Katrina, and some lesser storms as well, and most people I know have too, so, to us, the next couple of days after Isaac were more inconvenient than dangerous or scary. There was some property damage, and a lot of people had no power for days, but I don’t know anyone who got hurt or lost their home or anything like that. Some restaurants were even open, so people did what they always do in New Orleans, which is eat, drink, and celebrate. In fact, since the only thing to do was hang out, I probably would have had fun during that time – but I was too busy being angry at myself for losing my wallet, and I had no way of getting any cash beyond the little I still had in my suitcase from the trip.
Anyway, thank you for your kindness in sending it back to me. You shined a new light on what has been an otherwise pretty crappy month.
Goodnight, Moscow. Tomorrow, we fly to Anapa, the Black Sea resort where the final show of the tour will take place.
” Moscow is capitol city, is not actually real Russia “, Andrey tells me. ” Tomorrow, you will see real Russia .” We board an Aeroflot jet ( I notice that the airline still uses their Soviet-era logo, with the hammer and sickle ) and fly into a regional airport, the kind of place where you get off the plane, walk across the tarmac, and you’re in the parking lot. There are no carts, and I find myself humping gear, which I kind of enjoy. There are certain things I unexpectedly miss about touring, and one of them is the spirit of camaraderie you get when you have a group of people and a pile of equipment which must be moved, and each person goes for the heaviest thing. Which is usually the drum hardware case. And a curse upon you, drummers, for that.
We pile into a couple of vans and take off, and this is, in fact, the Russia of my imagination : farmland as far as the eye can see, dust, fields full of melons and grapes, cracked pavement, the occasional battered Soviet bus stop ( Do you know about Soviet bus stops? Check it out ). This is the Real Russia, the country no foreign army could conquer. I have a reverie about doomed German soldiers on a troop train, grasping, as they pass through this endless place, the enormity of the country. I think about the Trans-Siberian Railway, which traverses nearly all of Russia. You can take a train from Moscow to Vladivostok, a journey of about six and a half days. The longest railroad in the world! I would do that. Why am I not doing that? Home is just some other place, with a door and a lock, where you keep your stuff.
The hotel is on the beach, and it’s a new building, but we are surrounded by cracked concrete structures in various states of repair. Rebar and sand. It’s windy, the sky is grey, and when Eugene gets out of the van and takes a look around, he says, ” Huh. Looks like Chernobyl. “
After check-in ( Which is chaotic, because the place is full-up with bands and festival-goers, and because the hotel has just opened, so a lot of things, like toilets, don’t work. There is no elevator, but there is a tour manager, so I don’t have to navigate this mess alone. I am grateful. ), we load up at the buffet in the basement ( good Russian food, stuffed peppers and kashi and cucumber and tomato salad, and I can tell from the freshness and lumpy, non-uniform nature of the fruits and vegetables that it’s all local ) and head outside to the bar. Night falls, and a Russian guy gets in the DJ booth and starts playing shitty remixes. There’s an immediate air of ” oh, HELL no “ among the band, and Pedro goes and gets his CDs and takes over, much to the relief of everyone present. A backyard reggae party ensues.
It’s exactly like backyard reggae parties I’ve been to in New Orleans, and I forget where I am. One of the groups playing the festival is The Skatalites, and a couple of them are sitting by me, and they are cool old people, hanging out, bobbing their heads slightly to the music. It dawns on me : I am listening to Jamaican music with some Jamaicans who helped invent it, in Russia, on the shore of the Black Sea. Everything is everything. Another round of Baltikas, спасибо.
I get up way too late the next day, and am surprised, like everybody else, that it’s nice out. The sea is light blue and warm as bathwater. Sergey, who is Russian, who is standing in the surf next to me, tells me about the many lovely beaches ranging down the coast from here.
GIG. You are probably familiar with Gogol Bordello, so I’m not going to talk about how entertaining the band is ( very ), or that every one of them can play their asses off. What I will say is that I find them to be genuinely interesting and different from all the other bands, and that, while watching them play, I become invested in the transaction between performer and spectator, and I start clapping and hollering, which is how it’s supposed to work. I have FUN. You know?
L→R : Oliver, Pedro, Michael, Thomas, Eugene, Sergey ( Yuri and Elizabeth are somewhere else ).
I’ve seen the band quite a few times, from the audience ( the first time was in New Orleans at TwiRoPa – one of those giant mega-clubs with multiple stages, built in old warehouses and factories, the sort of place I grew up going to .. which got badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina and was torn down in 2007 – and my reaction that night was, what the FUCK is this? This band is crazy! ), and then from the side of the stage. I make my way through the crowd ( what I mean is that I make my way through a crowd of a couple thousand well-to-do Russian kids in swimwear, who are dancing and waving big flags – of soccer teams, the Jolly Roger, and various South American countries – and the festival has a tropical theme, and we are on a beach, so I could just as easily be in The Bahamas or somewhere like that ) and climb up into the soundbooth.
This is my favorite way to watch the gig, from Frank’s perspective. Frank’s running the show up here, but he’s also, in a way, jamming with the band – mixing each song as its own thing, toggling through compressors, pushing different elements to the front of the mix and pulling them back in. Frank is rocking out as hard as anyone on stage. Sergey saws completely through his violin bow and throws the shredded thing into the crowd at the end of the encore. I ask Frank if this is something which happens often, and Frank says, no, but sometimes, when he is playing in his own country, Sergey gets excited.
The crowd files out. This is the last night of the tour, and I have a feeling that we’re going to be up much later than the hotel bar is going to want to stay open, so while the guys are packing up, I drift around backstage procuring all the wine and beer I can get my hands on.
Next : Belfast, Northern Ireland.
There’s garbage everywhere, and it’s very, very hot, so the city stinks to high heaven. All the destroyed trees laying around, those aren’t being collected either. On the other hand, D. is as happy as a clam, as a fat rat in a cheese factory, as a pig in sh.. he’s happy. D. was a chef at a high-profile New Orleans restaurant, but he quit recently to bake at home full-time. Local coffee shops buy everything he can turn out, and he makes more than enough to afford a comfortable bachelor lifestyle. He has plenty of time to hang out, read books, play pool.
D. spent the storm holed up in his house, by candle-light, winning poker money off the other chefs he lives with ( they are all crazy ) and occasionally venturing out to collect bunches of plantains knocked down by the wind. When they ripen, he’ll try making plantain-pineapple bread, or something. He makes it up as he goes along. That’s what we do, down here.
Holed up in the cool dark, playing with my travel journal. I neglected to write anything down about week 2 in Cuba, but I did manage to collect an entire run of pesos ( both systems of currency, the CUP or moneda nacional, and the CUC, commonly referred to as the cook. For more on this confusing system, see here. )
An idea I first encountered wile reading Paul Theroux, and which is a strong thread running through the travel books I’ve been devouring recently ( by Rolf Potts, Chris Guillebeau, and Edward Hasbrouck ) is that the best way to experience other places and cultures is to travel solo. I’ve always felt the opposite; I become more adventurous when I’m with other people, and more likely to disregard my own tiredness ( physical as well as existential ), and I think it’s just plain better to have someone to turn to and say, can you believe this shit?
I believe that the real reason these guys advocate a solitary approach is that they’re professional writers with deadlines, and if you’re with other people, it can be difficult to buckle down and get some work done. After all, if the gang comes by your room with plans of going to such-and-such museum or monument or bar, are you really going to hide out at the hotel and work instead?
Tagansky nuclear command bunker, Moscow : Oliver prepares to initiate the launch sequence which will begin WWIII. Considering that he’s a half-Trinidadian drummer from Los Angeles, the Russian army hat they put on him looks strangely appropriate.
I feel funny, waltzing in at the end of a long, grueling tour when it’s time for sightseeing and fancy hotels and partying, but I’ve toured as hard as anyone ( I’ve slept in vans in Summer, likewise in unheated squats in Winter, been searched by soldiers with assault rifles and dogs at border crossings [ often ], driven hundreds of miles to play to two people, you name it ), and I tell myself that this is a little reward.
Moscow itinerary :
* Hotel bar ( meet charming and perky tour guide )
* Kremlin, Cathedral Of The Archangel ( gigantic bells, Tsars are buried there, awesome )
* Subway tour
* Taras Bulba Korchma Ukrainian restaurant ( Boysenberry Kompot = crack in a glass )
* Tagansky bunker
* Red Square ( GUM Department Store )
* Cruise on Moscow River ( seen : among other things, the famous ugliest statue in Russia )
* Hotel bar ( fade )
A thing which people I know who travel a lot have been talking about : in other countries, if you’re an adult, they trust that you will act like an adult, and that if you do something dumb, you will accept responsibility instead of suing them. When we all crack beers in the van, the driver turns around and says, ” Is new carpet. Be careful, please. ” — and in the bunker, where there’s rebar sticking out of raw concrete and puddles and unlit corners, the tour guide says, ” Is dangerous. Be careful, please. ”
Moscow subway stations : CW from top left, Komsomolskaya, Novoslobodskaya, Mayakovskaya, Belorusskaya.
The entrance to the Bunker is in what looks like a nondescript Moscow apartment building : we climb down 18 flights of stairs and pass through immense blast doors. We walk through endless tunnels and every so often come to large vaulted rooms lined with massive interlocking steel plates. We’ve heard that there’s a nightclub down here and at one point see through some open doors what looks like a disco ( there is a definite smoking-drinking-partyparty vibe ), but our bunker guide, a young guy dressed like a soldier, seems unwilling to tell us about this. His tour spiel English is mangled to the point that we can barely understand him, and we decide that he has learned his lines phonetically.
In the command center, amidst piles of vintage gas masks, there is a multimedia presentation. Screens show images of 1950s schoolchildren, missile silos, fields of grain, Soviet fighter planes. The guide calls for two volunteers to man the missile launch console, and, in tandem, they press various large buttons. Andrey translates the voiceover for us, which is about the cold war arms buildup, nuclear capabilities, and Russia’s heroic confrontation with a dangerous, imperialist USA. The operators insert and turn keys, and the screen goes white : obliteration. Our guide’s version of the story : ” And, uh, nuclear war is declared. Etcetera. “, which gets a big laugh from the crowd.
We exit through a room filled with old military equipment and communications gear, and you can put on a Soviet army uniform and be photographed playing with this cool junk. There are even a couple of AK-47s, and when we examine their bolts and fire selectors, we realize that these are, in fact, fully functional automatic weapons.
Paul, Gogol’s tour manager.
Next : travel to the black sea.
Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow : Gogol Bordello and crew are a truly multinational force, holding passports from eight different countries.
Places Visited :
* Moscow, Russian Federation
* Anapa, Russian Federation ( shore of the Black Sea, Krasnodar region, sandwiched between Georgia and The Ukraine )
* Belfast, Republic Of Northern Ireland
End of trip : GB Intercontinental Airport, Houston : waiting for the third flight of the day, which will get me back to New Orleans, finally. I was looking at misty green Irish countryside and cows this morning, and I am experiencing culture shock after being away for only eight days. On deplaning in the USA after even a short trip, I tend to think of my fellow countrymen as You People, as in, ” what the fuck is with you people? “ — I know it sounds pretentious and ultra-snooty, but, you know what? Europeans would never wear flip-flops on an airplane, and men there tend to dress like men, not little kids in pajamas. If airports get any more casual, we’ll all be flying in diapers.
I haven’t heard any news for days, and I see on the boarding area TVs that there has been another mass shooting, this one perpetrated by a white-power fucktard ( I reserve the term skinhead for people who polish their boots fastidiously and have very good Jamaican music record collections, which they dance to while drinking lager : skinheads : a subculture of which I am rather fond ). They’re talking about the dumb bands the fucktard used to play in, and I assume that these bands are awful, because white-power bands always are. Not interesting-awful, like, say, The Shaggs, or fun-catchy-awful, like, for example, Jan Terri, but boring-awful, which is an inevitability when the band members have so little going for them that they’re proud of being white. ( BTW, All Skrewed Up doesn’t count : they weren’t Nazis yet. )
Arrival : Moscow : the day has been almost flawless, as a travel day can be when you’re heading away from the USA. It’s when you’re heading towards it that there are multiple delays and you have to go through security three times in a row and they take away the tiny screwdriver you use to tighten the tiny screws in your sunglasses. Andrey, the band’s young Russian fixer, meets me at the airport, and we take a cab to the hotel – which is quite swank ( Moscow is, famously, one of the most expensive cities in the world, and I worry about this, but I’m getting a group rate, which isn’t too bad – we are, on the other hand, in the hotel bar every moment we aren’t sleeping or showering, and I make up the difference in $15 beers ) and has mural-size photographs of life in the old Soviet Union on every surface. The table in my room is decorated with marching soldiers.
Later : I head back to the airport with Andrey to meet the band and crew, and we take the subway, which I am excited about. Have you heard about Russian subway stations? No? Check it out. We enter the newly re-Stalinized Kurskaya station and take steeply angled escalators deep underground; Andrey tells me about his life. He’s from Perm ( the city where these airplanes are made, it tuns out ), and his day gig is translating helicopter technical manuals into English, although he is increasingly engaged in tour managing, festival promoting, and playing with his band, Pyatiy Korpus ( Пятый Корпус : The Fifth Corps ). This song’s called Svoboda, Comrady! ( Свобода, Комрады : It’s Freedom, Comrades! ).
The Fifth Corps : It’s Freedom, Comrades!
The Fifth Corps : It’s Freedom, Comrades!
Kurskaya station entrance, a second before Andrey warned me to not let any cops see me with a camera.
Domodedovo Airport, Moscow : Gogol Bordello have been on tour for 6 weeks, hopping around Europe by air during much of that time, and they’re tired, and everybody’s frazzled because the airline has lost all the in-ear monitors and Eugene’s guitars. In spite of all this, they appear to still like each other — in fact, I’d go as far as to say that they’re the most pleasant, friendly band I’ve ever met.
Next: in and around Moscow, travel to Anapa, Kubana Festival gig in Anapa.
Psychic moments here and there. I hadn’t thought about the Cro-Mags very much for years, and the other day, Best Wishes, their second album, flashed into my head, and I took it out and listened to it, and I wrote a long article detailing my appreciation of this much-maligned record. The odd thing is that I was actually working on the piece while the events of Friday, July 6th were taking place. In light of these events, and of the many subsequent well-considered articles on Harley, the Cro-Mags, and what it all means, I’ve decided not to publish what I wrote. It just seems frivolous and an affront to the people involved.
* Compact discs, display of compact discs, worthlessness of compact discs, and the fact that my copy of 1989′s Best Wishes may be the oldest compact disc I own.
* Sound-checking of bass guitar by White Zombie roadie by playing the opening riff of the song The Only One. Sound-checking of guitar by me by playing the riffs from the songs Age Of Quarrel and Death Camps. Commentary on the general hot-shit nature of the guitar playing on the album. Thoughts about guitarists Parris Mitchell Mayhew and Doug Holland. Thoughts about Holland’s previous band, Kraut. Reminiscences about a discussion with the house engineer at Normandy Sound about the extremely volatile nature of the band’s dynamic, and also of hot-shit guitar playing by people who couldn’t stand to be in the same room with each other.
* Thoughts on production techniques of the period. Explanation of why I love the album anyway.
* Discussion of the band’s look in the photo on the back cover. Discussion of NYC street fashion of the period. A remembrance of Canal Jeans, a huge store where vintage clothing was sold in big lots for very little money.
* Discussion of my first meeting Harley in 1985, of being somewhat scared of him and his crew, and of Maximum Rock N’ Roll scene reports. Discussion of talking to Harley on the streets of NYC, and of his unexpected friendliness. Recollections of seeing Cro-Mags band members hanging around the heroin supermarket at 2nd and A. Thoughts on opening for a version of the Cro-Mags in Brooklyn.
I will tell you one thing, though. See how Harley, in the photo, has a pen in the sleeve-pocket of his bomber jacket? This one time, on the Lower East Side, we were talking, and, I don’t remember how we got onto the subject, but he advised me to carry a ballpoint pen with me, always. ” Nobody thinks of a pen as a weapon “, he said, ” but if you get in trouble, you can always stab someone in the neck with it. “
Another box of junk; more things to keep.
A snow globe, containing a couple of 1940s-looking children playing with a snowman. I pulled the little cap on the bottom and drained the liquid, which had turned brown, and with that, the “snow”, which had gone black as soot. The thing had started to melt, as if you’d held a match to it. South Louisiana destroys everything, eventually.
I’m at the corner store, where the people line up to play the lottery and abuse the shopkeepers. This man and woman, the owners, are, in keeping with the old Asian stereotype, totally inscrutable. I buy a Mexican Coke, and I thank the lady in Vietnamese, and she corrects my pronunciation. Cám ơn. What I said sounded to me like ” calm uhn “, and she says, ” no, no, it’s like this : calm UHN ”. ” Oh, right, of course “, I say. She asks me where I learned the word, and I tell her that I’ve been to Vietnam, and that I find the language – a system of alien diphthong mouth-shapes – entirely impossible. She agrees that it’s very difficult. By way of illustration, she writes something down on a paper bag. ” See? “, she says, ” the top word means church, and the bottom word means whore “.
I have a double platinum plaque, a reward for selling two million copies of a certain album; it contains two platinum-plated vinyl records, and two platinum cassettes. Before that, I got the single platinum, with a record and a cassette, and before that, a gold one, with a shiny gold disc and tape. I have gold and platinum awards from various other countries too. They just have the CD, which is not nearly as much fun. I’ve seen gold records from the 1970s which contain a gold-painted 8-track tape.
” Do you think “, I’ve been asked more than a few times, ” that when you get a gold record, it’s actually your record? “
I cracked open the frame, and put the album on the turntable. I needed to replace the needle anyway. Some sort of generic easy-listening jazz, it was, the kind you used to hear in taxi cabs. And it was defective, pressed off-center, so that it warbled.
WE MAKE RECORDS ANYWHERE. We do what we have to do. Through the generosity of a comrade, I am making a record in an old photography studio in New Orleans. I got the band to help me bring a bunch of stuff over there, and we strung a few cables and hung a couple of blankets, and now we’re in business. The vocal mic is in the back room, where they store the chemicals and paper they barely use anymore, where they cut mattes and frame prints. We’ll cut guitar overdubs back there too, but after-hours, because I can hear the attorneys on the next floor muttering between takes. We Do It Ourselves, and we’d rather you didn’t knew we were here.
It smells back there, a little, but I worked in a commercial photo studio not totally unlike this one when I was 19 years old ~
( A nightmare of a swing / graveyard-shift job. I was often the only person in the whole building, sweating, turning off the lights, slamming the transparency holder into the giant Hammerite-grey enlarger, switching on the vacuum pump, feeding the dupes I shot into the E-6 machine, all night long sometimes – I haven’t thought about this since then, but I’d heard that the building had been a draft induction center during the Vietnam war, and sometimes, in the pitch dark, wired on burnt coffee-sludge at 3AM, I would imagine the ghosts of the Chicago boys who didn’t come back looking over my shoulder, saying, man, you’ve got a terrible job. I was a nightmare kid, too, a not-good employee, and it’s a wonder to me now that I lasted sufficiently long at that place to save what seemed like enough money to move to NYC. ) ( it’s never enough )
~ so I don’t notice the odor of developer, much. I like it here, for the same reason that I live in a town as unlikely and inconvenient ( I was going to say ridiculous, but then I didn’t say that ) as New Orleans : I’m most comfortable when I’m surrounded by old things. There are stacks of Mardi Gras photographs from the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and product shots for newspaper ads of the grand old department stores of Canal Street. The guy who used to own the business lets us go to the top floor and look around, and there are thousands of negatives, antique plate-glass ones even, and vintage Sears catalogs, and record albums ( I say unto you, N•O•L•A people, Chris Owens! ), and typewriters, and cameras. I could live up there.
I once had the privilege of being allowed into the archives of the National World War II Museum, where they store uniforms, trench art, field gear. Everything there is made of wood and brass and bakelite, and I was like, so, can I make a cot in the corner? I won’t get in the way, I promise.
What was I saying? Recording. It’s peaceful. The woman who runs the place is sitting behind me, and she’s glowing in the light coming through a big window which was certainly made before the 1920s. She’s editing headshots and passport photos, and I’ve got headphones on as so to not disturb her, and I’m recording the singer of the band, who is in the back room, behind a closed door, screaming into my expensive microphone about murder, and witches, and digging graves.
I do my thing, which is, at this stage of the process, knowing how to set the compressor ( all buttons in! ), knowing when to step in and help, knowing when to let it roll. To the woman sitting in the pool of sunlight, I say that this is some strange job I have, huh – by which I mean assisting this howling guy with the meter and tone of his misanthropic poetry – and she agrees that it is.
I’m wrapping it up, at least for a while. I shut down The Graveyard, my cool little spot in Mid-City ( which is the reason I find myself recording in a photo studio ), and I’m looking at spending at least part of another Summer in New Orleans ( Looking down the barrel of. Everyone who can go, goes. It’s not the nicest time of year to be here, okay, it’s the worst, although the magnolia trees are in bloom this week and this is a striking, stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of thing ) because I have to finish all this music I’ve committed to. Some interesting projects, all different. Almost done. I should make a list of these things and note stages of completion. And then I should go.
A comment by G., who used to play drums in a band you like, and is currently in another band which you also probably like, kick-started a powerful desire in me to go back to SE Asia, and to really, you know, have it this time ( that’s a thing British people say : having it, having it large, meaning to live life to the fullest; the answer to the question-to-self am I having it? is usually, sadly, no ).
He said, if you want to see Cambodia, you’d better do it now, and he was referring to the rapid modernization of that country. Am I one of those people who is under the impression that natives in colorful traditional garb, and rice paddies and water buffalo, and crumbling roads represent a more authentic travel experience than gleaming high-rises and new highways? No, but I want to see the water buffalo. And then maybe I’ll go back in 20 years and look at the sparkly buildings. And I will go, as soon as the worst of the heat and the rains are over. Angkor Wat, man, Vientiane. Fuck, are you kidding?
When I was in Hanoi a couple of years ago, I came across a street full of guys hand-carving wooden chop-mark stamps. Chinese astrological symbols seemed to be popular, so I got one for myself with my sign, which is the horse – not the sexiest thing to be ( although my yang is fire, so, rraaaarrrrr!! ), underscored by the stamp I had made for a friend, whose sign is the dragon. The horse is growing on me, little by little. I sign letters with it. I somehow misplaced the other coolest thing I brought back, which is a souvenir t-shirt from Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. Filing past Uncle Ho’s waxy, eternal body – that was something. That was having it.
The bottle of wine with the real cobra in it, though, that’s here. The customs agent in Houston didn’t want to let me keep it, but he was a nice guy and we talked about it for 20 minutes, and I acted in a way that sometimes works in such situations; a kind of easy-going, down-home, straight-shooter, smile-a-lot demeanor which is not natural for me ( I grew up in a northern city where it is very cold and, well, ” easy-going ” and ” smile ” aren’t words which come to mind ), but which, the longer I live in the deep south, is becoming the way I am.
It’s hot. Already. Hot, like, you look out the window and say yikes!, hot, like, nobody’s wearing any socks, hot, like, put something painted red out there and the blasting sun will turn it to a faded orange in a couple of days. I was saying something to W. along the lines of Summer in New Orleans is just like Winter in Minnesota, but in reverse, in that in both settings one doesn’t do much but stay inside and brood, if one can help it. W. says, “ yep, for the next four months I’m doing nothing but sitting around in my underwear with a sweaty glass of iced tea in my hand “.
W. is kidding. W.’s band is going on tour, in a van with no air conditioning. Yikes!, but when I think tour, I don’t usually think of the coke-mirror, salmon-and-mint-upholstered interior of a Prevost bus. What comes to me, in a vivid way, is what it feels like to be rattling along with all the windows down, the hot, thrumming air overpowering a cheap stereo. Just passin’ through a bright green billowing Summer-world ( I learned a new word, which is viridescence ), unless you catch a flat, and then there you are, out in the haze with the reverberance of cicadas, or crickets, or whatever those Summer sound-makers are. I don’t know, I’m a city kid. Cue the memory of the sticker-encrusted back door of a rock club, pick one. Cue the sound of the guy behind the board saying one two one two, endlessly, and the smell of silkscreen ink on fresh t-shirts being unpacked, and the fragrance of old beer n’ cigs, what a bar smells like in the daytime, before the next punters ( Americans in bands tend to use more British words than other Americans, did you know that? ) stir the air up again.
Of course, touring as I knew it doesn’t exist anymore. P., who tour-manages a band whose members carry passports from something like seven different countries ( not sure why I’m throwing that little fact in there except to say wow! — I ask P. how he manages to keep it together, and he says, breezily, that he’s not afraid to delegate ), tells me about the time, as their bus was waiting to cross into Canada ( to you, U.S.A bands, who are going to do a border crossing, and to you, Canadian bands who are coming to the U.S.A., I say Yikes! .. I mean, best of luck, keep your chin up, it will probably work out in the end ), when the on-board wi-fi went out, and everybody was like what are we gonna do? WHAT DO WE DO NOW? – and here’s what touring is like now, it’s like, you get there so you can play the gig, but, just as importantly, you get there so you can download the next couple of movies you’re going to watch on your iPad.
I think about dog-eared paperbacks of Summer, and the newspapers ( young people used to read newspapers, it’s true, I was one of them ) of Summer, and big, torn-up road atlases with the pages coming out ( of Summer ). I think about being lost, no cel-phone-GPS to guide you in for a perfect-almost-every-time landing. I remember a song, Lost In Germany, by King’s X, which was about the isolation, and the alienation. Are these things factors anymore? Is boredom something that exists? Of course, having stuff to do during an 18 hour drive to Denver, or being able to call someone when you want to, these are good things. I think about a shoe-box full of cassettes, about ten in all. You bought more at truck stops, comedy tapes ( which were engaging for one listen, if that ), and then you got some classic rock, The Best Of Creedence for $1.99, but these didn’t have much staying power either ( having had, I guess, a novelty feel about them ), and you went back to the ones you brought with you.
By you, I mean the whole band. Those old Walkman-style headphones didn’t cut it in the van. You listened to music, absorbed it, together.
Reading. For fun : 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. For learnin’ : Edward Hasbrouck’s The Practical Nomad.
I keep trying to start For Whom The Bell Tolls, and it keeps getting away from me, or at least it keeps feeling like it’s for learnin’ when it ought to be for fun. I don’t know what is the deal, really, because I breezed through The Sun Also Rises and I got a lot out of it ( especially that sense of, oooh, THIS is why Hemingway had such a hold on our parents and grandparents, along with, of course, that sense of, I wish I was rich and bumming around Europe in the 1920s ) – but, then, I was about to go to Cuba, of which Papa H. is symbolic, both pre- and post-revolution, and so I was in a zone. Hell, maybe I ought to try taking Tolls down to Key West and reading it there ( I’ve never been, but people tell me it’s ramshackle and madcap and everybody’s drunk all the time, which sounds exactly like New Orleans, which is where I live, so I never really thought about it much until I was in Havana, looking back at Florida as the closest part of the U.S.A., and it’s close! ), or to a Spanish Civil War battlefield. It could happen.
You know, I was so taken with Rises that I even convinced myself I wanted to go to a bullfight. A couple of months later I was in a town in Mexico, in a little 1950s-time-warp hotel ( and they all, the hotels, seem to be unchanged from the 50s, which is one of the many, many things I like about Mexico. Time-warp means no grounded outlets, though, so if you want to plug in your laptop, you gotta use a ground-lifter, which I do not like doing. Zap! ), and I turned on the TV, and there was a bullfight on there, and I thought, oh, right, I forgot that it, in fact, SUCKS. “ The noble, courageous toreador gracefully dispatches the mighty bull “ – yeah, fuck you, why don’t you torture some kittens while you’re at it?
What I DO want to do is go to a soccer match in Mexico City, which I have heard described by people I’ve talked to ( and also by Daniel Hernandez, in his great book Down & Delirious In Mexico City ) as totally surreal, frightening, and more insane than the most brutal metal show you can think of.
This is a photo I took of that very TV bullfight. Aguascalientes, Mexico.
So, I like Murakami a lot. I like his odd voice ( I can’t imagine what he sounds like in the original, but in English, his tone is very specific and just sort of its own thing ), and I like how sometimes nothing much is happening except that he’s describing, in detail, what the characters are making for dinner, or what records they’re listening to. Some people had a problem with this aspect of the Dragon Tattoo books ( if I’d said The Millenium Series, you wouldn’t have known what I was talking about ), lingering descriptions of Swedes making coffee and frozen pizzas, but I liked that, too. And Hemingway, also, he’s like, here’s what we had to do to get checked in to the hotel, and here’s how much each bottle of wine cost, and we ate this and this and this, and the brown face of the man at the bar .. and etc. Anyway, Haruki Murakami Bingo has been circulating on the internet over the last couple of days, and it made me laugh.
As for The Practical Nomad - if you’re planning on doing any traveling beyond, say, a couple of days at a resort on an island .. well, okay, scratch that : if you are planning on ever taking a trip to another country where you are going to go to some different places and do and see some stuff and you have to make decisions and figure things out ( and maybe you’re not; some people don’t care about travel at all, and some people don’t want to have to think while they’re doing it, and that’s okay ), go ahead and buy it. There’s plenty of inspirational material here about the allure and romance of travel, but there’s also more nut-and-bolts information than I’ve seen collected in any one place. Hasbrouck’s not just a globetrotter but an experienced travel agent, and he gets DEEP into airline pricing systems – which fucks me up, because it’s all so difficult to understand. ” Double open jaw ” – ” internal open jaw, one way ” .. FML. But this book has actually changed my perception of the wider world in a couple of key ways, and has been a big influence on my ideas on how to go about seeing it.