Monday, March 23, 2009
I'm catching a red eye out of Newark NJ. In my ears I have some field recordings of Son House , Willy Brown and Leroy Williams - a soundtrack of such raw and brutal honesty that it has the effect of making every body in the strip-lit forced air of the terminal look naked.
A friend of mine once voiced the opinion that if God had meant us to fly, he would have provided more legroom. Havng clocked up a considerable pile of airmiles since then, I would have to offer the addendum that he would also have made airports enjoyable, but that's just me being grumpy, sitting as I am with a growing flu, jetlag, and a missing guitar, thanks to my expert airt travel providers who shall remain nameless. Althought the idea of a missing guitar might seem to warrant some alarm as a professional guitarist, I'm feeling eerily calm, due mainly to the fact that this isn't the first or indeed the second time this has happened.
On one occasion, a reluctant delivery guy who's job it was to re unite me with the main tool of my trade, suggested that I wait til the morning - "How will I recognise you?" he offered as a reason to go home early rather than deliver. "I'll be the one onstage without the guitar" I suggested. "How" he queried "will you recognise me?" "Won't you be the one holding my guitar?" I politely offered, to which my worthy opponent succumbed. and shortly after arrived at the venue where, like a silver screen romance, our eyes met and we knew at once we had found each other. He should never have doubted our bond. Kiss me, you fool.
I've always felt that the word 'Terminal' should never be used in any association with an airport, serving as it does only to reinforce the purgatorial aspect of the waiting experience, and one can only wonder if purgatory offers little battery powered sudoku games, bags of over priced trail mix and a wide variety of inflatable neck rests to browse through as the minutes turn to hours.
But we are incredibly adaptable creatures, and there are always games of our own invention- like guessing if the airline representative's visage is a study in consummate professionalism, or they are genuinely interested in helping . Bless 'em - their task is not an easy one, and many times have I watched the hapless traveler , unable to curb their ire, burn mercilessly at the hands of the all powerful flight attendant who , with a well practiced "we'll re-route you, sir", dooms the poor unwitting victim to an extra leg on their journey, who then slowly loses energy and succumbs, like an insect gradually drowning in the deadly ooze of a venus fly trap, struggling in vain to free it's legs and quietly wondering to themselves "wha' happened?"
Primarily of course , airports are not as much about the arriving as the leaving, which may well be what lends them a sort of character-less-ness (?), and the waiting does make for some great people watching, and even the delays serve to bring us all to one common level - the delayed. Oil man, fireman, musician, kid, drunk, mom, monk, gambler; we can all be late, lose our luggage, or find ourselves in a hotel we thought we'd never see. I'm going to sign off because it appears my flight's on time. I guess you never can tell.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
This may seem odd, but having spent a few days in Tacoma's climate, it makes sense that there's a glass museum here. Bear with me. The weather here is changeable, with varying degrees of cloud cover in any stretch of daylight hours, so the light here offers an ever-changing hue from the streets, and presumably,a kaleidoscopic spectrum of refraction in in what I'm told is a bewildering array of glass sculptures in the afore mentioned Museum of Glass.
I say "presumably" because my schedule didn't allow for the leisurely perusal that i hoped for, but I did get a chance to take in the town.
Built on the Puyallup Valley, Tacoma's architecture is an interesting mish mash of turn-of-the-century grandeur, and working waterfront practicality. The theater we played, The Rialto, was originally built as a silent movie theater with full pipe organ,and has some of the best natural acoustics I've ever heard .
Just a few blocks down to the Puyallup River, tamed gradually over the last century by engineers, and you stand in the heart of a working dock, and all of it happening under the watchful gaze of Mt. Rainier (above), the most prominent peak among four others around the valley.
The five peaks are the focus of legend among the native Puyallup tribe , who tell of five sisters who were turned into peaks, one of which, mt. Rainier, was told by the gods to "be grandmother" to the valley below, which she did, via the high rising Puyallup River, providing the fundamentals for life to flourish in the valley below.
This was my first sojourn to the Pacific Northwest, and to make a completely subjective obsevation, I couldn't help but notice how 'mid-western" it felt, rather than "coastal". In short, as I sat in Alfred's cafe, with a calzone and a pint of Manny's Pale Ale, it felt more Chicago than San Francisco. Friendly folks, used bookstores and , as one expects in this state, very good coffee at every hands turn, as indicated by the tiny bathroom size drive-thru espresso cabins perched in every Mall parking lot. That's jut my take, but if you have anything to add, let me know.
Rolling into Havre (pronounced "Hav -er") is something that prospectors and pioneers have done since the birth of this nation, and we may have been the first Irish band to do so.
We didn't get funny looks from behind curtained windows, or the canned music didn't come to a scratchy halt when we entered the hotel lobby, but if it had, we wouldn't have been too surprised.
The town still has the feel of a western frontier, perched up in the high lonesome plains about 2 hours from the Canadian border , and the noon day sun was steadily melting muddy snow from the quiet streets.
Between soundcheck and gig , I had time for a quick walk around the town, which presented me with the occasional bar/casino, closed down cafes and stores, and in the thawing afternoon, a train yard which , for the enthusiast, evokes all the wide-eyed romance so many of us little boys-on-the-inside enjoy , with a statue of James J. Hill, founder of the Northern Line, and resident of St Paul MN ( one of my favorite towns) front and center outside the station. Yeah, I spent a little time.
Casinos and motels dot the main drag, which is also padded with some of the more modern and ubiquitous fast food chain peddling burger or "chicken"
The gig came and went, the sun rose above the snow-flecked town, and our time in this little patch of our great planet was coming to a close. Plus, I was hungry.......
I opted for "4B's", the 24 hour diner across the street with a casino attached, and grabbed a booth . In the corner , four R.O.M.E.O.s ( Retired Old Men Eating Out), chatted over coffee, until one of them explained he'd better go "or she'll wonder where I am".
a smiling young local girl served me coffee and eggs, breezing around the fading decor making sure we all had enough of everything, and about a half hour and eight bucks later, it was time for the road again . Pulling away I wondered what it must be like to live here. I'm guessing I'll never know.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Recognised as Montana's oldest town, locals will proudly tell you that this is where Montana started - much to the chagrin of our Butte-born driver. Situated as it is high up on the Missouri River, fur trappers and hunters quickly established Fort Benton as a trading hub, and today still draws hordes of outdoors enthusiasts as well as history buffs eager to follow the tracks of Lewis and Clark on their pioneering journey westward to the Pacific, which was pretty much where the band was heading after this stop, and we griped that although Lewis and Clark didn't have the relative luxury of air travel, neither did they have to check instruments, or go through security - it's all relative.
With a population of around 1500, Fort Benton is a pretty tight knit community where agriculture and rail along with tourism keep everything ticking over, and the streets stay quiet as the river rolls by, where , as the girl in the diner put it, "not a lot happens, and that's just fine."
Arguably, Fort Benton's most famous citizen was a border collie named Shep, who lived in the 1930s and , after his master's death and removal by train to his final resting place, waited patiently on every inbound train thereafter for his master's return, digging out a home for himself underneath the station platform, and living on scraps from the station agents and employees that came to adopt him; a small town story that perfectly befits this small town.
Where possible, I like to leave the last word to the town itself.......
Landing on a snowy night in Billings Montana, I wondered if the Montana of memory would be waiting for me in the cold light of day, or if I had just made the whole thing up over time. Tomorrow would tell, and by the time I had checked in to my hotel and pulled my boots off, I found myself taking a 12 story look at a sleeping town, feeling far from home and missing the warm smile that for the next 11 days would have to be imagined at the other end of a telephone. Bill Withers was right, I thought; ain't no sunshine when she's gone.
The hotel was a stone's throw from the town's birthplace - the Billings Stockyard, established by Frederick Billings, then president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and as I drifted off into a well overdue sleep, my last memory was of a lonesome whistle riding the frigid dark, and the low rumble of boxcars past my window.
Morning, and somewhere on these snow covered streets, i figured there must be a place to eat. Seeing as this was new terrain for me, I decided to take the scenic route, and soak up what I could. One thing came back to me from my previous Montana experience - the friendly locals. People say hello on the street with a natural ease. I had grown up in a small own where this was once the norm, but seems to have vanished with the new breed, but here in Montana, it's still part of a person's day.
Eventually I found myself in Mc Cormick's cafe, chowing down on an omelette made with the freshest ingredients I think I've ever tasted, in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere of locals and travelers. I was reminded of William Least Heat Moon's observation that a diner can be gauged by the amount of calendars hanging on the wall - a good one having upwards of four, a bad one only one if that.
But in the thirty years since he made that observation, I guess a lot has changed, and although there wasn't a calendar in sight, I couldn't have asked for a better respite from the blowing snow.
Montana knows what it is and is completely comfortable in it's own skin. I felt no sense of striving - just doing. It seems, to me at least, that people tend to their work, and say hi to each other along the way - maybe a testament to the state's rural and ranching past or not. I don't know .
Before the show, I waited in my hotel, and scanned from my window the now thawing streets, and saw that Billings is a flat grid surrounded on all sides by steep bluffs, an industrial town with the outskirts dotted with generic chain stores, and downtown supporting local businesses old and new. After leaving Billings in the rear view mirror, I'm left with the confidence that wherever I am when I think of Billings, Billings is just working ahead, and ready to say hi whenever I get back.