Driving west – Rochester. I listened to Jean Stein’s West of Eden and wondered about her, a sad end for an interesting woman, she jumped from a window of her Manhattan apartment last year. A lot of madness and depression pops up in her oral history of Hollywwood and Los Angeles, and over the whole thing hangs the shadow of her ending her own life. It’s one of those books I was excited about on release (she was responsible for Edie many years back) and I moved it around the bookstore, hoping it would catch someone’s eye but it never did.
Stayed at my friend Rick and Monica’s cool mid-century house – we had chicken from the outside grill, the first hint of spring in the air, and Monica helped me iron towels to turn into merch. My friend Ted was doing his first solo shift at the bookstore/bar, covering for me, and he called for help closing the register. I’d only just trained him the night before. I felt like an expert pilot on their night off, helping a frantic stewardess land the plane while downing imaginary highballs in the corner of a dusky hotel bar, the muscle memory kicking in: “That’s right, now you subtract the tips from the total and add in any checks – any checks? and that there will be your drop. That’s right – don’t panic – you did it.” It helps to remember things you’ve got down, when you’re setting off into the unknown. Starting off on tour is always the unknown.
Next morning I got up very early to drive to Cleveland. I had an appointment at 11 AM to screenprint some of my tea towels at a print workshop/collective. I realized as I pulled into town about 10:15 I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go, so I went to the neighborhood where the Beachland club is, thinking it had something to do with there. I found a coffee place and cursed that I was wearing dark, heavy clothes – temperatures in the mid to high eighties just didn’t seem possible.
Found the workshop and a nice young woman set up the screen and really did most of the hard pulling of the ink with the squeegee while I placed and lifted towels. She was just so good at it.
When we were done I got in the car and automatically started heading for the neighborhood where Hazel and I lived her last year and a half of high school. Past a once derelict part of town that now appears to be taken over by Cleveland Clinic, then along Euclid past Case University, and up Mayfield through the quaint Little Italy street that thankfully still looked pretty much the same.
I found myself getting sentimental much of the time I was in Cleveland – it must be because it was the last place I lived with my daughter before she went off to college and I moved to France with Eric. We had a nice, simple old apartment across from beautiful Lakeview Cemetery and I worked a series of pretty grim jobs to make ends meet while I got a new album out and started touring for it, in between taking Hazel to look at colleges and do that whole application process. It had snowed constantly, my van got stolen, and I spent most of my time alone, but we’d had sweet moments with our dial-up internet and watching TV shows and films from the DVD store on Coventry. I think I’d just gotten on MySpace…
A night off before my gig and Cindy from the Beachland took me out to eat at a nice bistro she’s involved with and I loved the Cleveland vibe of the bartender & the hefty plates of food – they do eat in this town! The next day I was driving around again and tuned into the Beastie Boys and then Roxy Music on a local radio station. I heard them talking about this interesting artist who’d been putting great albums out for years and who was playing at the Beachland that night – they were talking about me! Part of me was tempted to drive right to the station and pound on the studio door: “I’m here! I’m here, let me in” but I enjoyed hearing tracks from my album on the car radio, it rocked the Subaru so hard I almost started crying on Richmond Road.
The gig got off to a great start when the young guy who advanced the show greeted me at the door complimenting my boots and the streak in my hair: “It’s like Keith Richards – what, did you just decide to try something a little different?” he asked. Yeah, like not dying my hair, I said. It’s hereditary, I think – my mom had a silver streak in the same place. “Native American?” he asked – that was a first. “No, Italian.”
It was just a fun night where everything worked and I started to get into this playing alone thing because you can play whatever feels right for the moment and just go with it without feeling like others on stage are tapping their foot or looking at their watches. Not that they ever do but I know how it feels to stand around on the bandstand not wanting to look useless so I’m hyper-sensitve to that. And when you have a band, you’re together to create together, but when you’re alone, it’s only you. Some old faces from the past including my friend Mike DeCapite who surprised me – he’s from here, wrote a great book about it called Through the Windshield, and is the one who warned me of the loneliness of Cleveland but what can I say – the place feels like a home away from home in some ways.
I have homes all over the country, really. That’s a beauty of going around and around again and again playing places – the visits layer up and the memories make the towns your own without having to endure the ups and downs of life as a local. There aren’t many cities I play that haven’t at one time or another been a candidate for “I could live here”. That’s part of what is so seductive about touring – you give a piece of yourself each time so you’ve got a stake in the place. Even if nobody else showed up to see you – you were there.
Back up to Rochester. It has that nice old architecture like Cleveland but is an easier size. The Bop Shop is a huge store full of records on top of a huge basement full of records. This is another place that’s figured in my life supportively several times over the last dozen years as has Tom the owner and our nice friends Rick and Monica to the point where Eric and I had it down as a possible spot to move to in America – “even if we have to go to Rochester, we’d be okay”. Still, I was worried no one was coming to the show except a few friends who were there when I walked in, and Norma and Richard who’d come from Ontario. I went down to the basement to get ready thinking “whatever it is will be fine”. I stared at this album cover tacked to the wall, an older blowsy lady named Belle Barth. She’s wagging a finger at the camera with a salty look in her eye and the album title is “If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends.” Without really wanting to, I made Belle Barth my new patron saint right then and there, and when I came back upstairs all the chairs were full. The audience was great and I really enjoyed playing and felt like I was getting the hang of this thing.
Columbus felt so far away – I had to backtrack through Cleveland. I finished West of Eden and started listening to Before The Fall, a thriller we’ve sold a lot of at the bookstore. A little self-consciously hard-boiled and philosophical (the author really has it in for hipsters) but makes the time go by. After a few hours I wondered how the narrator could read the words in such a fast, clipped voice without swallowing their own tongue and then realized I had it on something like double speed. When I slowed it to regular human pace, I found myself drifting off, so had to speed it back up again.
The Columbus show was in a suburban basement – it felt magic down there with twinkly lights and a nice crowd, many of them longtime fans. I used to go on the radio a lot in this town, WCBE was the station, but I have a few stinging memories too, like the local paper running my perky promo photo with the caption: Is it Amy Rigby – or Shelley Long? Back when everybody kind of hated Shelley Long. Also the time my car broke down just outside of town and I got towed to a weird hunting/tackle shop that supposedly also repaired cars and I felt sure I would probably never get out of there, just find work waitressing at Bob Evans and marry a hunter.
Anyways, Columbus fully redeemed itself. Belle Barth would’ve been proud. There was a reporter there from the Dispatch doing a story on house concerts, and I read a little bit of Bob Dylan’s speech from the Nobel banquet (not the awards show of course), where he says it’s easier to play for 50,000 people than 50 – that 50 is a bigger test of your honesty. I think about that quote a lot.
Cincinnati – most of my gigs there have been on the other side of the river in Newport, Kentucky which I believe is where Skeeter Davis comes from? A show where Todd Snider didn’t make it and I rewrote Beer Run to entertain the crowd, a show where Todd did make it and I opened and later got so stoned that I went around and around the big circular hotel next to the highway for what felt like hours looking for my room. Eric and I played in Southgate House upstairs bar back in 2008 and they said the phone had been ringing off the hook all day about the show and when we came back from eating dinner, Lisa from the band Wussy was playing a set and as we came up the stairs Eric said “That’s the sound of somebody singing in an empty room.”
Ten years later I came to play a Sunday night gig at the Northside Tavern, set up by Mark Messerly from Wussy. He and Chuck Cleaver of the band opened with great solo sets and where I thought I’d be battling bar chatter, it was a rapt audience who were with me on every word. Big tall ceiling that let the sound wash up and over, I was in a dark heaven.
A day off to do some driving, I made it to Kentucky north of Lexington.
“Are we on central or eastern time here?” I asked the desk clerk at the hotel I’d checked into to sleep and answer emails and promote the rest of the tour and do some booking.
“Uh – I’m not sure,” she said. Wow. I found a Kroger to get a salad and settled in with an Adam Sandler movie on TV. There was even a pool and a hot tub.
Next day I found a great coffee and bike shop in Lexington and then took a little drive around. They seem to have a great fear of speeding drivers in this town, everywhere were traffic-calming devices and speed liimit signs decreeing UNLESS OTHERWISE POSTED THE SPEED LIMIT IN LEXINGTON IS 25 MPH outlined in bright red or flashing lights. It made me wonder what had or has gone on here, are the citizens madman speed demons more than other places? I remember allowing myself to be forced into wearing cat ears on stage at a show in this town years ago when I was doing gigs with the late Duane Jarvis. I still think of DJ often, it’ll creep up on me in odd places like this – little flashes of killing time and having laughs in pockets of the US I never expected to find myself. Yet here I was, back again, looking for a hat shop because I remembered me and Duane buying hats in this cool old shop. I used the GPS to try to find something called Mad Hatter – could that be it? – but it took me to a quiet residential street, eerily deserted at two in the afternoon and I thought “you can’t repeat the past.”
Now I’m in Knoxville. It’s been a trip. I’ve got memories of here too – a gig with DJ in a church turned theater and a radio show in a tiny trailer out in the country. Opening for Bob Mould at the Bijou Theatre. Staying with Martha Hume and Chet Flippo, the great country music writers who are both gone, in their beautiful house outside of town, with Last Roundup and then the Shams – thinking, wow, writers own a house? I was obsessed with Martha’s book You’re So Cold I’m Turning Blue and Chet’s biography of Hank Williams Your Cheatin Heart, and then through Stephanie Chernikowski got to meet them and they were wonderful to me.
Anyway, Knoxville’s always been odd gig central and this time was no different. I had dinner with Tim and Susan Lee who’ve lived here since the early 2000’s when I played in the deserted downtown square on a hot summer night. Now the downtown is booming, the lights of the Tennessee Theatre lit up for two nights with Jason Isbell, Richard Thompson opening – the world has turned upside down. Steve Earle was down the street at the Bijou. I was scheduled for this noon radio performance broadcast live from the Knoxville Visitors Center in downtown. One of those “you never know who’ll drop in” and “hopefully it’ll be fast and painless” kind of gigs we do because, well – why do we do them? Cause I’m here and they asked…because I like community radio. We do them to prove we exist? Maybe Steve Earle will wander by and say hello. Maybe Richard Thompson will stumble in, whip his guitar out of the case and join me.
I arrived for the soundcheck and a couple guys were slumped in chairs in front of the stage area. Turned out they were the other act and were supposed to go on second because there were two of them and only one of me, but they were very sick and so were going to go first and then probably on to a hospital. I kept a few yards away from them and started to set up my stuff. One of them rallied enough to ask if my amp was a reissue or an original, and to start making all kinds of suggestions about how I should use the type of amp he had because he hated to see a woman or even just a person struggling with a heavy amplifier – through his illness he was a great humanitarian. The host of the show came in and told the guys maybe they really should go to the emergency room, and she’d be happy to have them on another time.
Then Red the host started putting reserved signs on all the chairs and I heard her telling visitors there’d be a few stools at the back, but that we had a large group coming in who’d be taking all the seats in front of the stage. Maybe Jason Isbell and the whole crew and band? Richard too, and Steve for old time’s sake.
“A middle school group from the Episcopalian School of Knoxville are coming in for a field trip,” I heard her tell someone else and then I started getting nauseous.
Suddenly the set I’d put together to span thirty years & a new album in half an hour could not work. These are children. What did I have to say to them? My new album is called The Old Guys.
Twelve year olds – on a field trip. Do you remember field trips at that age? All I can think of is boys, how field trips were opportunities to be with them in circumstances different from the classroom. The forts and museums and farms we visited were merely sets to walk around in, to judge your position in the hierarchy outside the classroom. See that woman in a ruffled cap churning butter? Uh, kind of. Mostly I’m just hoping Jeff or Sonny or Tommy will notice me. I’m wondering why Mary Beth is sitting with Karen and not with me.
So I was about to be the lady churning butter, only up on a stage. I started crossing songs off the list – words I couldn’t say in front of twelve year olds, sentiments or ideas that translate perfectly to a room of people in their fifties, forties, even thirties and twenties but – tweens? What would Belle Barth do? Trust me – she would’ve stayed in Miami, or Frisco, or Vegas-no, Reno. She would’ve been out the door and canned her agent.
While this was all going on I got a text from a friend at work that she wasn’t covering for me that day as I’d mistakenly thought, so suddenly I was scrambling to cover my bar shift back in New York while I was dreading going on stage in Tennessee. I remembered all the times I’d been shelving books or pouring beer thinking “And when I get back out there, playing my songs…” and here I was about to do just that but had forgotten about the bizarre circumstances performing artists find themselves in on a regular basis. I had to stop myself from thinking just how peaceful it would be at the bookstore right then, I’d put on Arthur Russell and take chairs off tables…
Instead I got up in front of the tweens and the passersby and I actually felt warmth and attention from the whole crowd, even the kids. Maybe I was just churning butter in their eyes, their crush reflected in my pickguard. Maybe I was bawdy Belle Barth – “If I embarrass you, tell your friends” , a salty older lady they’d kind of tell their parents about later when pressed for something, anything about that field trip to downtown Knoxville. But I got through it and added another layer to the map of possible places: here, here I can really, really become myself.