Today, we've got the second set of tour diaries coming from Franz Nicolay, multi-instrumentalist and member of The Hold Steady and World/Inferno Friendship Society. The shows are in support of his newly released debut. The record is titled Major General and his band features Brian Viglione (Dresden Dolls), Yula Be'eri (ex-World/Inferno), & Jared Scott (Demander). Other guests include Peter Hess (Balkan Beat Box) and lyrics on two songs by Jack Terricloth (World/Inferno).
Portland is an interesting city in the sense that a five-minute drive from the city center and you're in a nature preserve. It makes sense for the kind of couples, like my friend Dave and his wife, who are a mixed-marriage of city and country mice; she from small-town Vermont and he, well, from the world in a way: he's lived in South Africa, Australia, Spain, and a year on a "floating university" boat. But a music journalist now, and needs access to shows…He took me out to a river gorge area with the second-largest freestanding waterfall in the country (or so I'm told). I had a crushing hangover, the causes of which took me all day to piece together and included a plan for a Swedish-American collaboration by Henrik and myself at Levon Helm's studio and a plan for exporting machilada (the Mexican spicy-tomato-beer cocktail) technology to Sweden on the back of Anders' tomato soup business (this is actually true, look for "Moneybrother & Max Tomato Soup" wherever fine Scandinavian soups are sold). But it turns out a two-hour hike up and over something called Horsetail Falls is a fine cure. Even saw a bald eagle nest.
East End in Portland is a fine rock den, a basement cave of filth with a six-inch stage and one working mic stand. I felt my way downstairs in darkness, feeling my way across shredded show posters and past black velvet curtains, and after my eyes adjusted, I could perceive, like something out of Lovecraft, a thin, wrinkled Mick Mars-manque: the local sound guy! Five foot six perhaps, long, straight dyed-black hair, a hundred pounds if he's an ounce, and a acid-washed denim vest, every inch covered with metal patches of a certain age: Hanoi Rocks, L.A. Guns, Rainbow.
The local sound guy is an iconic figure in rock life, of alternating fear and pity: lord of his tiny domain, sullen, capricious, bearing the bitter, Promethean burden of mixing five bands a night, six nights a week, which would make Gandhi a cynic. The engineer in Seattle was a young, red-bearded indie-rocker who spoke as if each breath could be the one that loosed the unbearable, barely-concealed rage of a "Falling Down"-style shooting spree. And this ageless vampire - he could've been 35, 40, or 60 - well, I thought, this man is not going to be kind to my particular brand of cabaret-stylings.
But it must be a matter of contentment with one's place in life, because a nicer man I've not met on this tour. A twenty-something collegian working local sound must be impatient to move on to the better things sure to be his due - but a middle-aged lifestyle rocker is perfectly pleased with a relatively cushy job in which the hours of sunlight are few and the drinks free, and a sense of humor and perspective erases the smaller indignities.
Parenthetically, speaking of Rainbow, I just discovered that Ronnie Dio was born in Portsmouth, NH. People often ask me what bands came from my home state, and it's a heterogeneous crew - Jon Spencer, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry, G.G. Allin (who's buried there) - who all made their fame elsewhere. For a long time that was all I knew of, so am pleased today to announce two new members of the Live Free Or Die Honor Roll: Mr. Dio, and Alex Brown of Gorilla Biscuits/Schism, strictly speaking of iowa but who, I just discovered, was my father's student in the 80s, at the same high school I later attended, so I'm claiming him on a technicality.
It's a fine, relaxing drive from Oregon south into California on I-5, and reminds me of the first time I did the drive, on a World/Inferno tour in 2002. I'd fallen asleep briefly - no small feat in a van that at the time had clown-carred nine band members, a driver, and a vestigial German into the front half of a rented Econoline. All the gear, merch, and suit bags were in the back; then we sat four to each of the bench seats, one driver, one shotgun, one crouched facing backwards in the dog seat between the front seats, and one or two (depending on strays, hangers-on, and significant others) perched on suitcases in the wheel-well just inside the passenger-side door. I stirred briefly and asked Peter, "Are we in Oregon yet?" "No,", he replied, "You'll know we're in Oregon when we go over a pass and you look out and see the most beautiful valley you can imagine laid out in front of you."
I have a funny piece of history with the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon. The bane of tour booking is the empty space between Portland and San Francisco: too long to do in a day, and no obvious place to play in between. In booking one Inferno tour some years back, I went so far as just to Google "punk shows northern California" and "punk southern Oregon" and emailing anything that came up that was more than the smallest flyspeck on the map. We ended up with a house show in Grant's Pass, and there may have been less than two dozen people there, but that was alright, since there were nine of us in the band already and the living room was fifteen feet square at best. So you can imagine, it went over a storm, and the friendly, isolated punks said, "Next time, you gotta come through and play Medford - we've got a real club."
So, as promised, back we came, two years later. And as promised, there was a club, in the sense of having walls, doors, and a stage, but not so much in terms of having employees, except for a hulking lump of a young man who barely turned to respond with monosyllabic grunts to inquiries about loading in, soundchecking, or any of the other usual activities involved with hosting a rock show. Our 16-year-old merch girl was enlisted to do sound - her father ran a studio, so she at least knew her way around a board.
I treated myself to a Motel 6 room last night, and can't shake the idea that I could've saved the forty bucks. Anders said, "Man, I'll give you the ten bucks extra, get yourself a room." Shaking his head, turning to Henrik, "This guy could have the biggest hit in the world, and he'd still be going, 'Hey man, can I sleep on your floor?'" Which I can't, in good faith, deny. The margins in this life are unforgiving and I'm a cheap bastard. I like to think I know how to spend money when I have it - I do have an appreciation for the fine things - but you gotta be a little bit of a survivalist, just in case. You can always make a salad from the fixings bar at Roy Rogers. And always travel with a bottle of Tapatio for your beers and diner breakfasts. Travelling cuisine tips from your friend Franz.
And then, of course, some days I just feel that urge to steal the wine and smash the bottle. "This is just a note to tell you/I broke all the furniture in your house/I know you valued it so highly/but my arm felt so strong, and the sound was so gratifying…"
Passed a black Hummer with a giant decal along the side saying "Bounty Hounter" - but on the back, a license plate that says "JESUS10" and more decals: "I Love Jesus. Do You?" and citations from Revelations. Jesus as armed stalker: a unique interpretation.
Anyone want to eat at the Bass Hole? Just south of Yreka. No? How about getting your wires juiced at Onan Electric?
Sacramento to Visalia is barely three hours so we're going the long way. Unfortunately California's Central Valley is not the country's most picturesque vista - acre upon acre of industrial agri-monoculture, and hot, isolated towns with that desert shimmer in the air and the eyes I associate with heavy meth production (Boise is also this way). Merced, Fresno, Sacramento, Bakersfield; I've played them all and it's never been less than strange. I remember staying at a house in Merced where the hosts had prepared an afterparty of cake and boxed wine, in a house whose sole furnishings were a de-cocooning couch and a truly giant flat-screen television.
Kisa Nilsson gently demands a drive-through of Lodi, & cues up his favorite Creedence song, "Stuck In Lodi" (lots of song-title towns in this part of the country - Manteca, Bakersfield, Modesto - maybe the dullness of the scenery sets touring musicians' minds a-wandering in productive ways). Somehow, karma looks the other way and we neither run out of gas nor pop a tire. Though the dullness of the town really illustrates the pathos of the song. I sure wouldn't want to be stuck here.
But we did find one truly unique stop: a one-road town called Locke, ten miles from the interstate, which was leased as a free-standing Chinatown in the early part of the century, when Chinese workers were prohibited from owning land by state law. It's a half-abandoned, decrepit frontier Brigadoon - but with actual residents, leathery farmers, a bearded, pipe-smoking painter in the main road, a hand-printed announcement of "Nude Painting (Male) - $10, Tuesday Nights", "Al The Wop's" bar and restaurant - "Steak Dinners/Excellent Cocktails". Al's been working there thirty years. They have a barroom upright piano, a whole stuffed ostrich wearing a silver necktie, and what looks like at least five hundred dollar bills metal-tacked to the ceiling, some hanging, taped together in flypaper strips. What's the story, Al? "You gotta pay a dollar to guess how they got up there," he grumbles, and wanders off. Hoo-kay. The main drag is prohibited from being either torn down or restored, since it's a state landmark, so the whole town and its ethereal residents live in perpetual purgatory, neither ghost town nor growing community.
A roadside sign advertises "Dirt For Sale" and a phone number. Times must, indeed, be tough…(Or else it's a leftover promotion for Levon Helm's last album "Dirt Farmer").
One hundred twenty-five people paid to see the show on a Tuesday night in Visalia (I expected a dozen, at best). Sometimes I don't think I know anything about this business.
The music world can fold in upon itself in unexpected and sometimes unsettling ways. I have two doppelgangers of which I know - handlebar-moustached accordion players in three-piece suits - Ralph from New Jersey (we even had a shaved head at the same time), and a fellow from Sacramento who goes by Jack Heart. Not a particularly talkative young man, Jack, but he came to San Francisco and put me up in Sacto and I'm afraid I talked his ear off to make up for it. "Oh, you like that song? Wait, wait, you gotta hear this one…" "Uhhh, I need to go to bed." There's a strange vertigo that comes from trying to present oneself as unique and also slightly out-of-time, you've got to use a cultural and visual language that's universally familiar in its parts but virtually unused in its whole, like isolating Latinate roots in the English language. So you run the risk of other people having the same idea, or offering a fully-formed identity off the rack.
The feeling of eating a burrito with one's double must be not unlike the feeling experienced by Jeff Penalty when he was gracious enough to come to the show in Los Angeles. It's a twice-told tale by now, but some years ago World/Inferno opened for the Dead Kennedys in New York when the aforementioned Mr. Penalty was handling vocal duties, and it was, for me, one of those moments that raised a host of complicated questions about joy, ideology, authenticity, independence, and motivation. Which led to a song, which led to a video, which led to us actually exchanging some pleasant emails and arranging to deliver the painting from the video to his mom. And god bless the guy, it must certainly be strange to listen to a song about oneself - and it's the only song I've written about someone who I wasn't romantically involved with - but of course then it's odd for me because it's really more about an idea than a real person.
I imagine people who see themselves portrayed in movies must experience something similar: There is an actor on screen who shares their names and some of their traits, but whose particulars are wholly malleable in the service of a narrative or allegorical imperative. Everyone constructs their own internal narrative - they say that the goal of psychoanalysis is to make you aware of the narrative of your own life - and sometimes it must be shudderingly incompatible with the third-person version. I wonder what David Frost thinks of his portrayal in "Frost/Nixon": a shallow, over-his-head pretty face blithely confronting the most Machiavellian political manipulator of at least a generation.
There are, unfortunately, more rules in punk rock than there are in real life, and that show broke at least three of them, but conceptually it's the gift that keeps on giving: Do you love the songs more than the band? Do you really care about the band or just a few members? Maybe just the frontman? Do you think he writes all the music? What happens to the killer rhythm section, that, after the fact, maybe doesn't have the songwriting credits to live on; nor have their faces been in as many magazines as the guitarist's, so they don't have the recognition to start a new group; how do they go on playing - even songs they've written - in a credible way? I've been a member of two bands with iconic and charismatic frontmen who, to many, are more or less wholly identified with the band, so obviously the issue is one I spend some time thinking about. More about that some other time.
But back to "Frost/Nixon", if you don't mind. There's a scene at the very end where Nixon, unexpectedly and a little longingly, asks Frost about his famous parties: "Do you really enjoy them?" When Frost answers, yes, actually he does, the old basset hound muses about what it must be like to "actually like people, and have them like you. I've never been that guy. I chose a funny business to spend my life in." There was a profile of Al Gore in the New Yorker not long after the 2000 election that made a similar point; comparing Gore with Clinton: That if you sent Clinton into a room with 2000 people, he'd come out two hours later with more energy than he went in; where Gore would be so exhausted by the effort of socializing he'd need to retreat behind closed doors, alone, to regroup. And for a while I mentally divided people into Clintons and Gores: both can be performers but from different places of need. The former just don't make sense in a room if they're not the center of attention, as my ex-girlfriend's mother once astutely observed about Jack Terricloth; whereas the latter love people as an aggregate but view individuals with dread and a sapping of energy (obviously I hang my hat here). Why get on stage then? It's the way - the only way, if you can't talk to people one-on-one - to let them know that you care, and be reassured in return that they care for you. I'm the Liza Minelli of indie rock - I have the compulsive need to give to a crowd, and an equally pathological need to be loved in return. Which is all an excellent motivator in its own way, as Nixon says, because no matter what you achieve in the public eye, the insistent drip of need is never sated, and you feed the feeling that you can (and must) stay one step ahead of your troubles. So every night is the search for a new stage, where the mess of the world drops away and you're only responsible for one, shining thing.
By way of bringing this full circle: I began by imagining Crystal Gayle and John Denver's coke-fueled afterparty in a Tahoe green room, There is a drag queen in San Francisco who made a small living, like a low-rent "L.A. Confidential", impersonating Crystal Gayle on a phone-sex line. She had one regular customer. I'm making a twelve-hour stop in Brooklyn, playing on the Demander record, then heading to Frankfurt. Will play accordion for food.