Northbound again towards and then into Idaho, through the evocatively-named Snowville, Pocatello, Twin Falls, Mountain Home, on to what will be my goal for today, La Grande in Oregon. Both borders of Utah, the southern with Arizona and this one, are probably the most beautiful and not coincidentally empty places in America, and you can see different weather on each horizon. The Twin Falls gas station population is massively obese, with at least two full, neck-to-ankle Carhartt worksuits. The town is on fire, farmers burning the fields post-harvest, and is hung with an acrid smog for fifty miles north of the city. The wind whips me sideways, and gargantuan tumbleweeds, several feet across, pile across the road every couple hundred yards, and it feels like a post-apocalyptic video game as I dodge them while wrestling the gusts.
The smoke clears and I cross and recross the Snake River, down into the valley and then up onto the long tablelands, already black on both sides of the highway from their own regenerative fire. The long, low Boise suburbs, dominated by superhuman mining pits and piles and putty hills, are the only significant human presence I've seen all day, and certainly the only thing approximating traffic. Over the Cascades and it feels like winter for the first time this tour, and right on cue the first snowflakes.
"You come in from that way?" the check-in lady says at the Rodeway Inn, thumbing east.
"Nope, from Salt Lake."
"Oh, the other end. What's it look like out there?"
"Just a little snow."
She shook her head. "They keep saying snow's coming, and nothing."
"Just gonna come when it comes, I guess."
"Yup," and handed me a key.
Down out of the snow-dusted coniferous mountains into a wide and dappled valley and pulled into a rest stop to get online for a minute. I came in behind a white Econoline pulling a U-Haul trailer. When six or seven skinny guys in black jeans, converse, and jean jackets over hoods piled out and headed for McDonald's, my suspicions were confirmed: band van. Turned out to be something called the Generationals, Seattle-bound. We shook hands and wished each other well, while I clandestinely pulled up their Wikipedia page. It mostly details which songs of theirs ended up in which Kindle ads and so forth, which is neither here nor there, but the whole thing reminded me of one thing. A common question I get in interviews is "Do you miss being in a band?" The answer is no, basically, but there is one thing I miss which is the camaraderie that comes with feeling like part of a common touring family, crossing paths in airports, motels, and festival backstage with other black-clad gangs on the same record cycle. Obviously solo people still see other, but it doesn't have the same "Let's have a drink" instant-party chemistry when there's two or three as when there's ten.
It's rare to see green cliffs, but those along the Columbia River that separates Oregon from Washington are fungal, if not lush. One always thinks of the Pacific Northwest as wet, but there are (at least) three distinct regions: the high and dry east, the snow-slick mountains, and then the rainy coast. And the city of Portland, because of its tightly-contained development regulation, sneaks right up out of the national forest.
I've never done well in what are generally accepted to be "hipster cities." It's a combination of seen-it-all - there are great shows every night, everybody's in a band or writes for a blog - and the plain fact that what I do is just not that cool on the face of it. I really do try not to pile on a town like Portland but they make it so damn hard: The sound guy rode into (and I mean into) the club on a tall bike customized to look like a Harley. There were fifty people lined up at one a.m. for artisanal doughnuts. One of the opening acts (who were very sweet) was a ten-piece including electric autoharp, horn section, ukulele, and some kind of Blue Man Group hit-a-PVC-tube-with-a-flip-flop contraption. The club staff was really nailing that elusive mix of willful ignorance and supercilious condescension: don't know who's playing, don't know where to park, don't know when doors are or set times. What they did know is they wanted to get through sound check ASAP. The only venue employee at load-in asked the room, "Who here knows the most about the show?"
I was about to ask you the same thing. Don't you, you know, work here?
But I got to stay at Dave Dondero's new place, and meet his new girlfriend, also very sweet and very Portland, knit cap, stylish glasses, works at a farmer's market. It's the smallest apartment I've ever seen to also contain a fake fireplace, and I slept like a king.
Don, a friend of my wife's, was running a "thrift store fashion show benefit" in Seattle and I headed over to that bar after I loaded in. "Wear your show suit, and come in the back," he'd texted. It was a schizophrenic joint: dive bar in the front playing a Leftover Crack record, red-booth-and-candles restaurant in the back, black box theater off the side. I peeked in: I was late, the show had begun. Don was in a fuzzy pink outfit; his MC foil was in black pajamas with hearts. Don waved me down the center aisle, on mic: "Franz! Come back here!" He gestured to the stateside door, the only way backstage. I snuck in front of the curious, confused crowd...
...through the stage door, to the equally curious, confused gaggle of "models" ready for their star turn, in pink feathers, polyester shirts, too-loose and far-too-tight underclothes, who turned as one and stared.
"Are you in the show?"
"I...guess so? Don didn't really tell me what this was, he just said to show up at this address."
"Do you have your card?"
A guy took pity on me and explained that I'd need to fill out an index card for the MCs, including "your fake name, what thrift store you got your clothes at, how much you think it would cost, what your charity is..."
"I think...I need to leave." And I snuck out the fire exit. I'd gotten a $47 parking ticket.
"Fuck it," I thought. "It's a rental," and crumpled and threw it out the window.
The show, thankfully, was fun as hell, and I needed it. The Comet Tavern is a fine dive and both other bands were pretty good: first the Exohxo; then me, and it was loud crowd and I was still mad about the parking ticket so I was worked up and talkative and yelling and had a generally super time. I passed on the stuffed lion my host in Arkansas had given me to give to his wife (they'd had a youthful, still-to-be-annulled marriage). The headliners were Bad Things, a rowdy accordion-fronted bunch whose songs reminded me a little of the retro-gumbo of Vic Ruggiero, and whose singer reminded me that we'd played together once before: on the World/Inferno Friendship Society tour that keeps coming up in this tour diary, since I'm retracing its steps. He'd been the accordion player in Midnite Choir, to whom I wrongly attributed the flaming trash can in the last diary. That was the Dolomites. Mea culpa. He was cool about it: "We played together a lot."
It was a kind of relief to leave Seattle behind and get back out on the uncontested highways and uncomplicated parking, through the Snoqualmie pass and nine more hours drive to a night off in Missoula.
"Oh, for the love of flowers," said the gas station lady. "I hit the wrong button."
Also overheard: "Well, you can't help who you love's brother is," which is certainly true.
The last three hours drive are downhill, out of the mountains, in the snow, past trailers hauling cetacean windmill fins. Ever since I got the eye surgery ten years ago (from a guy who later became briefly infamous as the "creepy Craigslist doctor." I don't see all that well at night. Well, I never did pay for the surgery, so you get what you etc. etc.
The driving is no better in the daylight. "Ice and snow/take it slow" says the electronic highway sign, and they're not kidding. It must've snowed overnight, and unpredictable stretches of the passing lane are yet unplowed. Certainly the dividing lines are crusted over, and the tires lose purchase every time I cross. At least once, I skid for a good quarter mile next to a truck, and thank god for my New Hampshire snow-driving upbringing. All cerulean and ivory, it's hard to tell where the mountains and snow end and the sky and clouds start. The snow blows in surveyor-straight channels across the road, and the wind is an undertow, punctuated in pairs when I pass a semi truck. I crossed the continental divide between sugared, tumorous rocks. It's winter driving in earnest, and the men in the truck stops are in their work boots, and down vests over grey hoods.
The only other gang checking in at the Holiday Inn in Missoula is clearly another band, but I can't figure out just from eavesdropping who they might be. And what am I gonna do, walk over to their table and say, "Hey, what band are you guys?" I'll just eat my eggplant. I got a frustrating email from Jeffrey Lewis in the morning wondering if we're doing a show together - we're both in Missoula, Fargo, and Billings in the same three days, none of them together. Some promoters really missed a trick on that one. He'd been on the same road and had less luck - slid into a guardrail and messed up the driver's side front of their car.
Billings apparently will be the city in which we answer the question, what do I say when the friendly, handlebar-moustached bartender asks why I shaved mine, when the real answer is "Because too many people started having them and I just didn't want to be associated with it."
Here we have a hangar-like sports bar with a phalanx of frozen drink mixing machines: Wild Berry, Hurricane, 190 Octane, Mango, Strawberry Passion and the like. Probably not in heavy rotation given that it's below freezing outside but manfully churning nonetheless. I'll never understand why some soundguys will test a guitar in just the monitors and ask you if it's loud enough. I don't know, dude, it's all relative. Let's get everything else going first, shall we?
Actually it was a nice show in Billings, which just goes to prove my point that "A-list cities" can't have nice things. It's the provinces that appreciate. A ten-hour drive tomorrow, Billings to Fargo. That makes five of the last nine days coming in at nine-plus. I like driving and all but come on. My dad emails to say he's enjoying my "dour diaries," about which sic obviously, but there's a malapropistic truth there - this is a rough tour.
Scene: a basement apartment, Billings, MT.
"I would have put you up in my parents' house - it has nine rooms, and thirteen bathrooms."
"That ratio seems backwards."
"Yeah, each room has a private bathroom, and then there are...public bathrooms."
"Anyway, I would've had to sneak you in, and you couldn't drink. They're Mormons."
"Well that's out of the question then."
"My brother, when Obama got re-elected, sent a mass email saying he could get us cheap guns if we needed. I told him he probably shouldn't be saying that, given that he works for the Boise police."
"Everyone here thinks the apocalypse is coming. My parents were crying when Fox News called Ohio. They have enough food for thirty people for a month. All my friends know they can come to my house. I have a 72-hour bag."
"All Mormons do. A 'go'-bag. A backpack in my bedroom; it has canned food, changes of clothes, a straw that filters water. My grandmother has four guns in her car, one in the glovebox, on under each seat, one in the trunk. I found one reaching under the passenger seat. I said, 'Grandma, there's a gun here.' She said, 'I know, they may want to rape me!'"
"So, how do you guys know each other?"
"We're...lovers. To use the worst possible term for it."
The others: "And we met on Myspace."
"But none of you live here."
"Are you housesitting?"
"No, they're upstairs. They just have jobs, they probably turned in early."
"Will they be surprised when a stranger leaves?"
"They know we're here."
Goddam this drive. Goddam, this drive. Goddam this - drive.
Through Mile City, Montana, where on the outskirts there is a barnside mural of a rodeo rider, with the motto "Don't let meth be your last ride." I passed a truck with a sticker across the back window proclaiming the driver an "Elkoholic." The plains, mountains, and clouds are distinct layers of blue and white from deep-sea to United Nations. The fourteen bucks I spent in Idaho on a gas station Swiss Army knife knockoff have been definitively wasted: I tried to open a bottle of wine with the corkscrew and the whole thing came apart in my hand.
All the freaks in Billings out tonight: the guy with Buffalo Bill Cody beard and hair, the guy in embroidered velvet tails with top hat encrusted with band pins, the guy in a see-through cowboy hat, with a light-blue bowtie over a t-shirt. David Sedaris is next door at the theatre, so I'd better be extra wry tonight. Around the other corner is the American Legion hall, the basement of which hosted the first Hold Steady show in Fargo some seven years ago. We played for two and a half hours on the basis of two albums' material, after a tray of shots got passed to the stage, after which our sound guy said "Who do you think you are, fucking Bruce Springsteen?" Which, maybe at that point. The rest of the night is a good story but the statute of limitations and a certain remnant of discretion compel me to keep it to myself. Ask me offline. When we arrived at the border crossing Winnipeg-bound the next day, three of us - myself, the sound guy, and another band member - were called into the back room. "We swabbed your passports," a stern guard announced. "And you three tested positive for cocaine. You got anything to say about that?"
First of all, swabbed our passports? We didn't know that was a thing. Second, the sound guy and I shared a look - we knew exactly how that happened. The other band member, who will certainly remain unnamed, must have had his passport and his drugs in the same pocket, if not actually done lines of the booklet; then ours would have sandwiched his when the stack were handed to the border patrol. They gave us the business for twenty minutes but nothing came of it.
The Triple Rock in Minneapolis is possibly the finest venue, all-around, in the world; the scene of some of my greatest nights and most of my greatest shames, including the only night I've ever truly blacked out (or, as I went around telling people the next day, roofied myself). I've never figured out how to eat a meal there without the thought, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing, now I need to lie down, and also I have a full & personal understanding of how everyone in Minneapolis came to look the way they do." The opening band's singer took the dangerous & to my mind unhygienic step of performing barefoot.
On a day off in Minneapolis, I had big plans: I could stay with friends, I could go see a movie, I could catch up on the writing I have to do, I could go see Joe Pug at the Triple Rock and get a free dinner. What I did do was check into a hotel out by the airport, get Indian takeout, and get loaded in bed watching Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen, and young, tap-dancing Abe Vigoda. Never let anyone tell you I don't know how to party.
I had the rare privilege at the end of the Triple Rock show of having a couple of offers of places to stay, which allowed me to put into practice the important and hard-won hierarchy of accommodations, in which, when one has the choice, one can make snap judgments about people who are generously offering their homes. From least to most desirable:
- Young men living together. This will be a mess of third-hand couches encircled around video-game terminals, dishes in the sink, unwashed sheets, band posters, Ibanez guitars with four strings, and clothes-ridden floors. The toilets will be stained and the soap will be unspeakable.
- Couples with cats. In general, couples are a good bet, but - and I know, people with cats, that you don't think your houses smell of cat. They do. You have just stopped noticing. I travel with prescription-strength Claritin for these nights, and am still happy to stay - just a little less so.
- Single men under 35 living alone. This is a crapshoot. You can end up at the soundman's black hole or a rotting Victorian house, huddled on a musty couch surrounded by stacks of old pornography; or you can end up at a lawyer's tastefully carpeted studio when he is leaving for work early and leaves you carte blanche to make coffee and hang out taking advantage of his lightning-fast internet. You saves your money and you takes your chance.
- Married couples with children. They have a nice place but the household is awake at 6am and you are usually staying in the six-year-old's bed, under four-foot-long superhero sheets, tripping over Legos, and there's just no way to not feel dirty. And the children will stare at you in the morning.
- Childless couples over 30, especially married couples. These are people who actually have a guest room, the one their parents stay in when they come to visit and thus is probably the nicest bedding they can afford.
The floor (so to speak) of acceptability, rises the more years you are on tour. At 23 I was (relatively) content curled in the corner of a filthy Viennese squat with a cold-water bathroom two floors down. At 35, floors are off the menu, and I'm about ready to write off couches too. So it goes.
The liquor store in Madison on a Friday night is a zoo. Surely there is some way to convince college kids it's unacceptable to wear pajamas outdoors. The show is on campus, at the student bar, where I've been coming for over ten years with various bands. Aaron Hammes of the Chicago band Deals Gone Bad used to bring World/Inferno there every couple years, basically underwriting our tours, and I'll be taking up my biennial residence on his couch in Chicago in a few days. (Actually, and maybe this is breaking news, he's going on tour with Inferno as their new baritone sax player in a week.) It's always a bit of shouting match, since live entertainment in the pitcher-of-beer student joint is rarely the primary draw. The last time Inferno had been there, we played out on the terrace overlooking the lake, and Lucky stripped down to his briefs, dove in, and came up with a dead fish in his hand, which he left on the snare drum. Then Semra overturned a table on a crowd of particularly rowdy drunks (or, as she put it with no small pride, "I 'Hungry Like The Wolf'ed that table").
This time I'm indoors. There's some kind of ballroom-dance event going on upstairs, next to the dressing room. The venue is cavernous and echoes with Saturday night college drinking. Anna Vogelzang, who's opening, is visibly discouraged by the effort of putting over folk songs in this context. I'm going to have to set the terms.
If you read military history, the generals of antiquity are obsessed with fighting the battle on favorable grounds, and armies will circle and shadow each other for days, even weeks, until the territorial conditions are right. I feel the same way about crowds: under certain circumstances it's better to drive away half the crowd as soon as possible to set the conditions for a decent show.
"Listen," I said. "My name's Franz Nicolay, I'm from Brooklyn, New York, and we're basically stuck with each other for the next 45 to 60 minutes, and I'm for sure going to be yelling at the top of my lungs. So if that's going to mess with your good time, may I suggest the patio, or the foyer, or any other drinking establishment in this drinking town."
It worked. A couple dozen people packed up and left pretty much immediately, and the rest gathered around and we had a perfectly nice show. Then I broke one of my cardinal rules and stayed up drinking with Anna and her husband. Never finish the night with Scotch. That's a rookie mistake.
The pulsing halo of pain didn't truly dissipate until nearly showtime the next night. I pulled off the road halfway between Madison and Griffith for a half-hour nap, then again in the parking lot outside the venue, a coffee shop on a suburban strip about 45 minutes outside Chicago, near Gary. This place just proves my theory that the best shows happen off the beaten track, in towns where tours don't usually come - Duluth, Oxford, Lancaster, Normal, Visalia, Marfa, Hot Springs. The place was full, the opening guy played a homemade "shitar" and stomped on a skateboard studded with bottlecaps and I had my biggest merch night of the tour. The Grindhouse Cafe - check it out on your next to- or from-Chicago routing.
I'd gotten a dozen XXL shirts by accident a year ago, hadn't managed to unload any of them, and cut all but one up and remade them as smalls. Shoulda kept a couple. "You're in the upper Midwest and you didn't bring XXLs?" two different people asked. Hey, they said it, not me. As far as I'm concerned, you can stay slim your whole life or you can enjoy life's pleasures, and life is nothing if not short.
I stayed with Gabe, the cafe owner, and his wife. "I don't know if you went to college," he said, leading me into his basement, "but this might give you flashbacks. This was my original bathroom, until we got married and my wife made me have an adult one." Past the boxes of empty beer bottles was, indeed, a guest room with a space heater wallpapered with posters: [[Iron Maiden]], Joy Division's "Unknown Pleasures," GI Joe, Bat Out Of Hell III. "There's no bathroom down here, but the one upstairs has a bidet." Sure enough, the toilet had a bidet attachment, including settings for "posterior wash" and the presumably more astringent "enema wash." I can't vouch for their effectiveness, but I can report that I slept the sleep of the just, and I can probably handle the crushing 45-minute drive to Chicago today.
Dear Chicago: First of all, POTHOLES. Get right, Rahm. Second, what the hell with $1.50 tolls every five miles on I-90. Please, just charge me fifteen bucks once. Third, there is literally no time when you can approach the town without getting caught in a half-hour of traffic, and I've been testing this for years. Fourth, fun show. Township is the kind of place that offers a roasted fennel soup special, beet salad, and an impenetrable list of beers over 9% ABV. The waitress is friendly, if not entirely attentive, with oversize glasses with powder-blue frames. A couple repeat customers from the Indiana show the night before, and a couple making out during "Felix & Adelita," so that's a good sign - although, like the people that sing along to "This Is Not A Pipe," I'm simultaneously flattered and concerned.
The next morning I went to the bank to deposit some tour cash.
"Is it true there are no alleys in New York?" asked the bank teller, apropos of nothing.
"...There are, and they're paved with...pyrite."
Michigan in November is a bleak drive, flatlands of grey and leafless trees, and a highway patrol every ten miles. I had dinner with my middle sister, an MFA student who lives in the greater Detroit metro area, and her longtime boyfriend, a linguistic anthropologist who had spent the better part of the last two years in the jungle between Bolivia and Peru. I asked him if he had any culture shock when he got back - it's not often, these days, that you meet someone who's been truly off the grid for any length of time.
"A little," he said. "People had to fill me in on the Republican primaries. It sounded crazy."
"A half-dozen lunatics and one relatively normal person. You missed out on some good fun."
"That's what it sounded like."
I asked my sister about life in graduate art school. She said she'd come into it after a half-decade in New York, doing practical graphic design work for Martha Stewart, wanting to do more conceptual work. And now, a year and a half into grad school, using the euphemism "de-skilled" in critiques to describe colleagues' technically-challenged work: "Well," she said, "At the end of the day, you just gotta make the shit look good."
Like I said, for some reason people in the Great Lakes run late shows - last night in Chicago, a midnight set on a Sunday. Tonight a midnight set on a Monday. The bar staff says, "Oh, we have a late crowd here." No, ya don't. You, personally, just don't have to get up in the morning. Everyone else give me regrets and heads home. In any case, it was a decent crowd, decent room, the walls a time capsule of novelty band show posters of the aughts - Elvis Hitler, Chow Nasty. A Sharpied suggestion on the side-of-stage ledge: "Take a pick, leave a pick" - a great idea and one that I'm shocked I've never seen before. And one drunk blonde in a miniskirt who wouldn't shut up. You know the type - up against the front of the stage for thirty seconds, turning around, arms in the air and gyrating, then running to the bar, then up to her boyfriend's ear with some full-voiced opinions. Before the last song, I started my pre-song bit: "I made friends with a 5-year-old last year."
"YEEAAAH! I love you!"
I'd had enough.
"If you love me so much, can you do me a favor? Can you shut your mouth for five minutes so I can finish this set?"
She turned to her boyfriend and began a comprehensive rundown of my jerkiness.
I looked at the boyfriend. "What do you, not give her enough attention?"
He got caught somewhere between a shrug and a threat, and she stalked out. I continued the bit. "This kid - and I don't even know if we're friends anymore, this was a year ago, and that's a long time in the life of a five-year-old..."
A short, round, very drunk man in beard and glasses approached the lip of the stage with a phone held out. "...Hi!" I had to say.
"Hey! My friend just texted...he says, ask you about Tad's Pamela Anderson-riding-Garfield tattoo!"
"Uh...yes, he has one."
"It's from Scott, from Thunderbirds Are Now!" This was a short-lived indie-dance outfit that had opened for [[the Hold Steady]] and Les Savy Fav on a 2005 Australian tour and broken up shortly thereafter. And, right, they were from Michigan.
"That's great," I said. "This is absolutely the best time for us to be doing this...OK, you know what, never mind. This song is called 'Do The Struggle.'"
About halfway through the second verse, the blond marched back into the room, grabbed her boyfriend, who'd missed the moment to exit in a huff, by the wrist, and dragged him out. I mentally prepared for a punch in the nose after the set.
Detroit was to be the last day of the tour, and then I'd take two days to drive back to Boston and return the rental car. But my friends in Pittsburgh emailed to see if I'd be up for squeezing in one more at their friend's gallery, and I've always felt that turning down gigs is bad voodoo, so here we are in Pittsburgh.
Every time Pittsburgh comes up I get on a high horse about it being one of the most underrated cities in the country, isolated enough from the normal routes that it has its own hothouse artsy culture huddled on the banks of the river valley. It's also one of the most beautiful places to approach at dusk, if you burst through the tunnel exit and see the lit-up stadiums and bridges like a free-range snowglobe. We had a sit-down dinner upstairs with the proprietor, a boomer hipster with a white soul patch and Zappa bios on the shelf, and his wife. The opening act, ih a knit cap and a hood decorated like a vintage Gameboy handset, clear goggles strapped around his head, lenses wet with condensed sweat. (His was a pop-electronica act, although he also has a U2 tribute act that tours in suburban Indiana. I have to point out, without other comment, that he closed with a dance version of "Imagine.") His wife, who, before going to work at an insurance call center with my friend, was a from-home phone sex operator. "I can still put it to use," she says. "'For information about mammograms, press one! Squeeze them giant titties!'"
The show had been arranged by my friends Bryan and Jen. Our mutual friend, who went by Jersey Mike, a show promoter and civic gadfly in Harrisburg, had died suddenly at the age of 36 days before, and Bryan asked to say a few words between sets. He retreated to the bathroom for a minute and came out in the blue "Unified Scene" t-shirt (the costume of a certain set of Hold Steady superfan). "Not many of you may have known Jersey Mike," he began, and gave a short and heartfelt introduction and what Mike had meant to them. "It all happened so fast, and it just makes you want to tell the people you love how you feel when you have the chance, and actually...Hey Jen, can you come up here? My partner, Jen..." She joined him at the mic. "I've got something for you, here, it's your mother's ring, I know you wanted it..."
Well, you know the old showbiz saying, always try to follow a eulogy and a marriage proposal. "Well," I said, taking the mic after the commotion died down, "I guess the only thing I can do is leaven all this good feeling with some pessimism. Never trust a man without a horror story!..."
People come up to the merch table, or local tour-phoner interviews, often open with "How's the tour going?" Which I recognize is boilerplate along the lines of "How you doing?" to which the appropriate answer is "Great! It's going great." In this case, in the interests of transparency, I can just answer, it was fine. To quote "Louie," it didn't make me come. It wasn't the best tour I've ever done, or the worst, it didn't reaffirm my faith in music or make me want to quit forever. It had one or two great shows, a handful of soul-crushing ones, and a bunch that would be forgettable if I hadn't written about them here. Just another tour.
Here, let me: TL;DR.