Anyway, you don't want to know about all that, so here is the first episode of the dispatches.
I was pretty sure I had all my tour ducks in a row: ordered and received CDs, arranged to pick up vinyl, got packs of strings and picks, checked to make sure the accordion wasn't falling apart. I'd take the clothes to the laundry, come home and pack, and hit the road. I may as well have been whistling a happy tune Friday morning when I went out to the car, and noticed the front driver's side tire was flat. Too bad, I thought, but not a crushing defeat - there's a Firestone a quarter mile from here, I'll just get the donut on there and pop on down.
"Weird," said Maria. "It looks like it was slashed."
I looked. Sure enough, there was a ragged rip on the side of the tire. Not only that, but the whole thing was at a cockeyed angle.
"When did that happen?" said Maria, pointing at a table-sized dent I'd somehow avoided noticing.
"Oh..." I said, fingering the flecks of white paint now apparent on the rearview mirror and across the front corner. "Somebody hit-and-run us overnight."
You can't get very far in a car with one wheel pointed north and one pointed southeast, so we got the poor thing towed around the corner and I got on the phone with insurance.
"Our nearest appraiser is in New Hampshire," said the State Farm lady.
"But I'm in Boston. You literally don't have anyone in Boston?"
"Doesn't look like it, no."
"And I can't have them fix anything until you look at it?"
"No. Someone can get there by Monday, at the earliest. We can provide you with a rental car until the repairs are done."
I explained that by Tuesday I would be, if I had a way to get there, in Virginia; by Wednesday in Georgia, and by the next week somewhere in the Missouri plains.
"Let me call you back."
Well, reader, I have to give credit to at least this corner of the much-maligned insurance industry; because within the hour I was at the wheel of a brand-new rental car for the month-long tour, sponsored full by State Farm. I do love a happy ending.
The first show was Sunday night at Sarah Lawrence College north of New York City, but we had a cat to sit and a wedding to applaud in the meantime, about which I will say in short that advocates of gay marriage are really slacking on one of their strongest arguments: matching outfits. Our friends Dan and Dany - cutely, Dan y Dany, since the latter is Venezuelan (which has got to be the classiest of the Spanish accents) - had identical tan corduroy suits with black bow ties, topped by green wreaths, and recessed to the Talking Heads' "Road To Nowhere." The cat I was sorely tempted to throw off the balcony.
Sarah Lawrence is a petite and sheltered campus just north of the Bronx. I'd been booked by a good-hearted enthusiast named Sam, but as happens more and more these days, my real connections there were with the older folks, in this case a couple of the faculty: Toby, a grad-school friend of my wife's and my banjo consultant (I'd brought him in as a stunt banjo to play an 8-bar passage on my last record for which I didn't have the chops), who runs the bluegrass ensemble there; and the composer and cellist Pat Muchmore, my colleague in Anti-Social Music, who's accumulated a following of students appealed to by his booted-and-Mohawked take on contemporary classical music and pedagogy in general.
College shows can be awkward for a variety of reasons, and this one looked as if it could be: I'd play in a cozy, well-lit library, unamplified, ringed by couches. Sober, I thought, until the accordionist in the opening folk band shared his pint of Jack Daniel's. In the end it was familial and supportive, a couple dozen punks, collegiate folksingers doing novelty covers, and androgynes who cheered in the right places, laughed at the jokes, and roughhoused out the door and back to their dorms.
I bustled around the city running errands the next day - the city clerk had been trying with increasing urgency, during the six months I'd been out of the country on tour, to assess my suitability for jury duty; culminating in the letter threatening fines and jail time if I didn't present myself at the courthouse to, in the end, sign a piece of paper. Civic duty fulfilled, I headed to Philadelphia.
The First Unitarian Church, around the corner from the Mutter Museum, is a religious institution almost entirely bankrolled by punk shows: hardcore in the basement, indie rock upstairs in the main room, acoustic shows unamplified in the side chapel, and patrolled by - at least every time I've been there - dreadlocked patron saint Greg Daly, Philly punk institution, longtime World/Inferno jack-of-all-trades, international man of leisure. He's got a great story, about the drummer from a high-profile indie-folk band who'd come through on tour with a side project. Originally booked for the bigger (500 capacity) room, it'd gotten moved to the smaller (75 cap) room. Still, his big band did well and were good guys, so Greg and the promoters were gonna make sure he was happy, and asked him, "Can I get you anything? Anything you need?" The guy looked at him for a minute, shook his head, and answered, "I could use some fans of my music."
The show, fortunately for me, is with local hero Erik from Mischief Brew, who is still well in mourning for a close friend who'd been killed in a car accident the week before. He's shaken and seems understandably distracted. The pews are full, though, and he plays Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty" and two new songs, one of which may or may not be called "He & She & I Make Three," may or may not be about transgender experience, but is indisputably awesome. We do "Off The Books" and "Fight Dirty" from the album we did together, get back to his place in time to catch the end of the Giants-Cardinals series, and I wake up to the eerie wail of crying pugs.
I have a truly lovely mother-in-law in Arlington, who, on the theory that "It has been my experience that men like soup," has just that prepared for me when I get there the next day. Fortified by said soup, as well as the Ukrainian comfort dish of kasha with friend onions topped with cottage cheese and a fried egg, I had a surprisingly solid show for a suburban Tuesday night. My friend Amy, now quite pregnant, has been to every show I've ever played in the DC area and as a result I feel obligated to bring at least one new song and one new between-song bit each time, so I pulled out "The Day All The Leaves Came Down" for the second time live, as well as "Rainbow Connection" which I'd been doing in England for basically the same reason. My brother-in-law has been on a fitness regime while I've been overseas and is so skinny as to be virtually unrecognizable.
Arlington to Asheville is either seven hours, if you believe the ever-optimistic Garmin GPS, or nine, if your inclination is with the more cynical and worldly Google Maps. No matter who you believe, it's the longest drive until I get out west. Beautiful, though - the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Crooked Road are painted, not the aggressive reds and oranges of the New England fall, but a more muted and matte palette of sienna and mauve.
I had just about burned myself out on podcasts by the end of the UK tour in September - to the point where I was actually interested in listening to music again and excited about some new records: Morning Glory, Hop Along, Shovels And Rope, Future Of The Left, The Cut Ups...But I'm still working my way through the "History Of Rome" series and love me some Melvyn Bragg. The autodidact impulse fills up the hours with the reforms of Diocletian and the final showdown of Constantine and Licinius.
I don't know why it took me so long to figure out that if you need a couple hours of office work/wifi time, skip the coffeeshop and hit the public library. You don't get frantic with caffeine and overheard conversation.
A couple at the Asheville show say I could've stayed at their house, but the guy has court in the morning - "That's why," he says, "I'm in my suit now." For what? "We got busted smoking weed on the sidewalk." "Is that even a crime in Asheville?"
Maria calls with an unsettling story. She'd been out walking by the Charles River - we're living in the Boston area while she has a semester-long post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard - and choked on the scent of decay. On the riverbank lay a man covered with a coat. There's no good option in that situation: best case, you wake up a potentially dangerous, certainly disgruntled, hobo. Worst case, you're face to face with a dead body. She called 911 and hoped for the best.
It's a true culture clash at Wonderroot, a community center in Atlanta with an acting workshop for middle-aged African-Americans upstairs and a packed bill of Fest-bound bands from Bloomington and Pomona in the truly foul-smelling basement. I saw someone I swore was the smiling fellow from Defiance, Ohio; then realized that Ginger Alford's new band was on the bill and that the whole thing was a kind of Bloomington caravan. One dude brags that he's not showering for the two weeks until he gets home, another is hawking a t-shirt with a glow-in-the-dark connect-the-dots of a giant penis. Stay classy, kids.
For all that it's easy to mock the small world of contemporary punk, especially the Punknews/No Idea/Fest axis - for its homogeneity, self-seriousness, privileged slumming, and groupthink - there is still something I find endearing and welcoming about it. I remember talking to Dave Hause on one of our tours together about the differences between the somewhat blindered punk world and the snobby and exclusive indie-rock world; each protective in its own way, but the former simply somewhat oblivious to the rest of the musical world, where the latter can jealous and protective of its walls. The Loved Ones - and my apologies to Dave if I'm misrepresenting this story - had, a few years back, opened for the Hold Steady on a month-long US tour, during which time we were playing the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. Dave put out some feelers to the organizers about his band getting on as well and was soundly rebuffed: "Our crowd wouldn't be interested." "Really? We're out with the band that you have on your site every week!" No dice.
A prominent Chicago music writer and Pitchfork contributor who was a fan and friend of the Hold Steady saw them open for us, loved it, and said something to the effect of "You guys are like Strike Anywhere but you actually dress nice!" Dave recoiled. "You're knocking Thomas, a true punk hero, for the way he dresses?!" "Oh what," the writer said. "You're happy in the punk ghetto?"
I think this is a common prejudice in the "indie-rock establishment" - indie rock, as I always feel compelled to point out, here used as a genre signifier, not in any sense of its independence from mainstream distribution and publicity channels - and I think it stems from the same reason that the indie blogosphere can feel like high-school scorekeeping. A very common progression for serious and emotionally engaged music fans, including the current thirtysomething generation of indie-rock tastemakers, is to have been deeply steeped in punk rock as a teenager and in their high school years. And if there's one thing about serious music fans, it's that their identity and self-conception is nearly coexistent with the kind of music they like. And if there's one thing about teenagers who go to college, it's that they jump at the chance to reinvent their self-conception and repudiate their old one. For music fans, that often involves embracing what used to be called "college rock" - less idealist, more emotionally cool, more self-serious - and, correspondingly, denigrating the punk they grew up on as adolescent and essentially unserious, when what they really mean is they think they, as teenagers listening to that music, were adolescent and unserious. (Real adults, of course, just listen to what they like and are perfectly content to leave it at that.)
Anyway, bias alert! Pitchfork was last seen calling me a "dick," so take my opinion with a grain of salt if you want. But in my experience as someone who's been on both sides, I'll just say this: the indie-rock world covered all kinds of non-newsworthy things I did since I was in the Hold Steady, and as soon as I left, they were done with me (I don't believe for a second PItchfork actually thought my first record was a 7.3; frankly I don't even think that.) But the punk world basically said, "Oh hey man, you're back, cool. Want to do this show?" And for that I will always be grateful. (And say what you will about Punknews, but I do always get the sense that it's written by, and commented on by, people who actually like music, which is not always the case with their indie counterparts.) For musicians who actually want to play music for decades, I can't help noticing that a band that puts out indie-rock hit and doesn't follow it up gets excommunicated. A band that puts out a couple indie-rock hits and then one sort of mediocre album gets excommunicated. But any punk-identified band that has one album that people liked once can tour forever. A punk band that has a string of great records and then makes a sort-of-mediocre record - you'll hear people say, "Yeah, that record sucked, but I'll go see them anyway." And if the next record is good they'll be stoked all over again. So that's QED in my book.
As I got to Athens, I got that feeling in my throat: I'm gonna get sick. I went to the supermarket and bought a giant hunk of ginger and a liter of orange juice and hoped for the best. I learned this trick from Tom Gabel and it's as good as gargling with salt water: slice the ginger root into quarter-size slices and stick them in your cheek like a pinch of Kodiak.
I do try to be on time for load-ins and soundchecks. My setup is pretty simple but accordions and banjos are not quite as easy as just plugging in a guitar and even a ten-minute soundcheck is better than messing with EQ in front of a crowd. My advance sheets had a 7pm load-in and a 9:30 show, but the door guy didn't show up until about 9, and the other bands were still unaccounted for, so I thought "Fuck it," gave the door guy my phone number, and went and checked into a hotel. If I'm going to whack this cold across the forehead before it even sits up straight, it's not gonna be by staying on a random audience member's couch.
When my phone buzzed about an hour later and said Shellshag and the other band had showed up, I headed back down and found them all deep into a round of Jameson shots, which, coincidentally, are another fine way to get your cold in check - at least in the short term. The door guy who was nominally in charge sullenly and insistently ceded responsibility: Start whenever you want. I don't care what order you play in, figure it out yourself. There's a PA onstage, do your own sound.
Thanks for the help, dude!
Shellshag, a charmingly shaggy duo from Brooklyn who I've crossed paths with over the years but never done a show with, shrug. "That's Athens for ya." We decide I'll play first so I can wrap it up early and get a good night's sleep, and seal the deal with another shot.
Most nights, during "The Ballad Of Hollis Wadsworth Mason, Jr.," I do a bit about accordion solos to the effect of "How do you all feel about accordion solos?" Sometimes I get cheers, sometimes groans, but never this, from Shellshag guitarist John: "I don't know, I've never heard one." The white whale! The infamous low-information, undecided voter! Now I'm doing the real ground-game work.
I get that creepy feeling every time I get to Florida, that psychological shimmer in the air of low-level criminal activity, drifters, and public intoxication; but there was something special about entering Jacksonville this time. Cops on the corners, bridges closed, drunks dashing into traffic: it's the Georgia/Florida college football gameday. "Someone's gonna die tonight," said the sound guy.
"Someone's gonna die tonight," said the bartender, separately. "Always happens. Last year some drunk fell between two parking garages and wasn't found for a couple days." A huge water bug scurried under the pool table. I went to the Motel 6. My wife Maria was flying in that night and I wanted to get checked in and leave her the key. She had a conference in New Orleans starting later that week, so we decided she'd meet me here and we'd have a little road trip. Also, she'd gotten an earful about the Fest from the Russian punks we'd met over the summer and wanted to see for herself ("She wants to see smelly suburban dudes with beards playing pop-punk?," said Greg Daly).
The desk clerk was an imposing Middle Easterner with thinning, gelled hair. "Can I get an extra key and leave it for my wife?" I asked.
"Your reservation is for one person." I'd screwed up the booking.
"Can I...make it for two?"
"It is not possible. We are full. You can have only one person." He slid two keys across the counter. Good man. I drove back downtown and played for the opening band, an old friend from Jersey (who had been a circus performer for a while but is now a strip club DJ in Jax) and her older, deeply disinterested boyfriend. And those floor roaches. As I was packing up the mercy, a drunk wandered in and came over. "I missed the show, man, what do you sound like?"
"Mm, maybe better ask her," I said, gesturing to the girl who'd just bought a CD.
"It's kind of like theater," she said. "Like Broadway."
"That's not exactly how I'd put it," I said.
"Well, sounds interesting. I'll take a CD." He bought one and wandered back out for a burger.
Up and at 'em and off to Gainesville Sunday morning and over to Joey from Fiya's house where we'll be staying; we managed to avoid the infamous state-road speed traps and get to Joey's in time to rehearse. Maria & I haven't played together since the end of the China tour in late July - but muscle memory counts for a lot.
The one band I was really trying to see - I'd missed the Dwarves, and was none too happy about that - was Hop Along, mid-afternoon Sunday, so we sped through the set on Joey's back porch and headed downtown. I still don't know how I'd heard about the band - one of those things, I guess, where passing mentions just reach a critical mass (which usually stinks to me of a newly-hired expensive publicist, but that doesn't seem to be the case here). In any case, I'd fallen in love with the feral album, and lyrics mapping the profound ambivalence of obsession, vacillating between selfish demand and self-effacement. But the line was around two corners and didn't seem to be moving. We gave it a few minutes past the posted set time and bailed. Plenty of chances to see any working band next time they come around.
The rest of the night went much as you'd think: A spirit-enriching show. The treat of Kepi Ghoulie, whose "Rock 'N' Roll Shark" I maintain is one of the great Cro-Magnon one-chord mission statements of our times. An increasing number of drinks, which makes the timeline a little muddled. Reggae Shack for jerk tofu and tempeh curry. We finally caught Hop Along, checked out Smith Street Band, saw old friends and met some new, and then just set up shop in the back of 8 Seconds, where Maria whacked away at the boxing machine (settings: "Anemic," "Brutal") while the lesbian security guard flirted with her.
We had plans to shoot a video with Andrew Seward Monday morning but he had late-breaking band practice, so we did laundry and talked politics with Joey. He's a labor and union organizer, deep in the weeds of the Obama ground game and with a lot of interesting things to say about local politics. Which, since it's politics after all, I'll keep to myself; but if and when he runs for Gainesville City Council all the punks better get themselves registered. Next show isn't until Halloween in New Orleans, so there's time for a slow drive.
I had been vaguely aware of something people were calling a "Frankenstorm," mostly via Twitter jokes, but solo tours aren't always the best way to keep up on hometown news, so I didn't fully realize that what was about to happen was a hurricane hitting New York, and that our house in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn was in the evacuation zone for what they assumed would be the flooding of the infamously polluted Gowanus Canal. It was only as we drove to Pensacola, our radio news and Facebook feeds filling with increasingly agitated comments, that we really started to worry.
"Is our renter's insurance up to date?"
"Mm, better call...Nope, we let it lapse when we were overseas on tour."
Damn you, me from the past. "Call the office, see if we can pay it up?"
"There's no way they'll let us do that...Office is closed anyway."
"What's in the basement?"
"Mostly CDs...my keyboard and amp...a couple boxes of old band flyers, photos, and love letters."
"Maybe you'll be happier if all that stuff is covered in toxic waste anyway."
We decided that since there was nothing to do but get more worked up about something we were in no position to control, we'd go to a movie, a long one, until the high tide in New York was past, and then see if our home had gone underwater in the meantime. The New York Observer twitter feed was showing the water up on the streets on the other side of the Canal and over the bridges. It didn't bear too much thinking about. When Hurricane Irene had come through last year, our landlord Felipe had sandbagged around the house, and our subletter this time texted saying that the power was still on and "Felipe is prepared for the apocalypse."
We went to see "Cloud Atlas," which basically short-circuited my critical apparatus. It was laughable, chaotic, impossible to take seriously, felt five hours long, and yet somehow by the end managed to do the thing it was trying to do - whatever that was. I couldn't possibly tell you whether I think it's any good, though. Read the book.
We left the theater, somewhat shaken. Scratch that "somewhat" as the first photo I saw when I checked my phone was a gas station a few blocks from our house underwater, and a string of reports of explosions, power outages, floods. I had a familiar feeling - I'd been away on tour when 9/11 happened - a confused and morally conflicted combination of anger that I wasn't there to be able to protect my house, regret that I'd be missing this communal, if disastrous, shared experience, and guilty relief that I was miles away, in safety.
The owner of the pizza shop - they were closing, but made us a takeout pie - saw us staring at the TVs over the bar, and we said we were from New York. "Well, you'll want these then," he said, and put a couple bottles of Dos Equis in a plastic bag. "I'm not supposed to do this, so don't open them now." ("I thought you weren't gonna drink tonight," said Maria. "Somehow I don't think I can just watch hurricane footage and eat pizza without a beer," I replied.)
On the way home, we heard from our subletter, a painter. The water had come about a block away, but had begun to recede. She still had power. The roof had blown off a restaurant down the block. But it seemed like the worst was over. I can't tell if it's technically irony that the safe place to be, away from hurricane flooding, was on the Gulf Coast heading towards New Orleans, but it feels like it might be.