There’s that moment of a tour that will cap it all off, the moment you can’t plan but only hope for, where it all comes rushing past like an end-of-life montage: the high-fives, the low bows, the brushes with greatness, the grit and dust while you scramble on all fours around a dark stage trying to read an amp setting or a set list. For me the moment usually involves a plastic cup of tepid white wine and an inflight movie at 35,000 feet when I just. let. go. But before that can happen there has to be:
Worcester. There needs to be a gig where you’re tested. Remember Bob Dylan’s Nobel acceptance letter? “But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried…”
50? Try way less. It’s not the club, which is really nice, or the sound, or the people who traveled from up the road, other towns (anywhere but Worcester) to see me. It’s the way the guy who advanced the show (be here at 5, soundcheck at 5:30, doors at 7:30 etc) never mentioned there was roadworks closing the entire block the club was on. So after suffering the Festival of Lights traffic crossed with heavy rush hour in a cathedral town bisected by a river and not one street that doesn’t turn sharply before going up or down a hill, I threw up my hands and drove into a cul-de-sac also known as a dead end with no way through but to call the very nice promoter and have him walk over and ride shotgun to get me out of there.
The amp that I had repaired in Nottingham started acting up again, or I think I realized I didn’t really know it at all, sort of like ending up on a vacation in a labor-intensive place like Marakkech or Mexico City with a person you’ve barely had coffee with, or maybe they worked two cubicles down at a temp job years ago but you felt like you could be friends if given time, and now you’re staring down dysentery together.
Then there was the support act – the scheduled guy sadly broke his arm so had to be replaced by a suitable singer-songwriter who was suddenly ill and so there was a sub for her, oh why? She might bring a few friends – I envy the person who has that kind of friend who can drop everything at a moment’s notice and make their way across town down a closed-off street during Festival of Lights. I probably have those kind of friends but – they don’t live in Worcester.
Who does live in Worcester?
And then there’s dinner – it’s Thanksgiving. And the bar staff at the club suggest Wetherspoon’s down the street cause it’s cheap and it’s easy and – it’s packed with revelers from the Festival of Lights. Did I mention it gets dark VERY EARLY in the UK in November? They’ve been celebrating Festival of Lights for a good two or three hours already and it ’s only six thirty. I take a corner table, out of the way of several large groups, and try to hail the waiter who tells me “I am not a waiter. I will, however, bring you your food.” And then he dashes off and I wonder what drugs they take here in Worcester and I stand in line with a group of men at the bar and find a menu and when it’s my turn to order I get bangers and mash because anything else I ask for I know I’ll need to repeat and repeat again cause they won’t understand my accent. And when I order a small glass of white wine the barman says “Medium wine!” and hands me a fishbowl on a stem.
The not a waiter actually high fives me after he delivers my plate and when I finish the bangers and mash I hear the two guys at the next table haltingly ask him in German or Dutch accents: “We are not from here, but are looking to go hear some music tonight, is there somewhere you suggest?”
The waiter says “Well you have the club just down the street which is good on the weekend but it’s Thursday so they’re definitely closed.” Then he hustles off to high five some more customers and I do a full Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall , stand in front of the out-of-towners and say “There is music there tonight – it’s me, I’m the music.” Desperate times etc. The guys are too polite to say anything but “Oh ho ho, that is wonderful, what is this music you play? We will be there.”
And then the teenage opening act is singing a ditty about baked beans on toast and then I’m playing for the nice people who’ve come to see me and the teenager’s sitting in the small audience talking so obliviously that I see people turning to look at her. I have to stop and tell her to be quiet, and so then I have to play with a chunk (x 2 cause she did have one friend) of the audience chastised and even though I told her to feel free to go talk in the other room she sits there the whole time. I give my best for the people who’ve come and even play a few songs I don’t pull out any other night cause I want it to be special but when I finish, the girl scurries up to the stage to pick up her pedal. So that was why she had to stay, and bitch that I am down deep I feel oddly satisfied. I say hello to the kind people who came from Birmingham and Wolverhampton and Coventry to hear me. I try to keep positive but at the end of the night I watch YouTube videos of nerdy guys talking about Vox AC15 amps and drink the little bit left of a screw top bottle of wine I’ve been carrying around for two weeks and eat the Premier Inn pack of biscuits and it’s all so grimly perfect I have to laugh. Next morning I go for a stroll and the town is charming when you’re not trying to get somewhere and do something.
And then there’s London Friday night and all my dreams are realized – well, not quite because I had to use my rental car as a dressing room but it’s a full house and I bring my Worcester angst with me which never hurts – you can’t have things go too well all the time, a little suffering keeps this from being just a jolly holiday where I sell my albums and share my soul. But London loves me and I love London.
It occurs to me after I’ve played sets on Resonance radio in London and then at the Emsworth Sports & Social Club, and I enter the sauna in my hotel on Hayling Island panting from swimming, there’s a guy sitting on the bench in the dim room and I nod and take a spot in the opposite corner and there’s nothing wrong, it’s all very Scandinavian but I feel exposed all of a sudden in my wet bathing suit and bare skin and I feel like crying because I realize I willingly put myself through this every night I get up and play – not the bare skin and bathing suit part but just being exposed and vulnerable and when I’m doing it it’s imperative that it be real and honest but I can’t even say why or how that happens, except that I always think of the moments I’m writing a song and the way it all makes sense as the song is coming and I just go with that feeling every time I’m onstage. And only when I finish do I think “what have I done”. But, just like in the sauna, where the other guy’s sitting there exposed too (not, exposing himself, just – in a bathing suit) if the audience are with me it’s like that old saying from movies “just imagine they’re all in their underwear” cause standing up there you’re definitely in your underwear. So a talking girl is a person in an overcoat when we’re all in the sauna and…I wish it was easier to just tell somebody hey, take your coat off.
I listened to Jeff Tweedy’s autobiography for most of my trip, at first I thought he was going to be too slacker and have to poke fun and holes in everything he was telling me but he got real and he got deep and funny and I really loved him by the end of the book and I cried and wished he could ride with me longer. When I wasn’t riding with Jeff I was reading Roger Daltrey’s book and a lot of things about the Who finally made sense and it was a blast and maddening to be in the Who and I was right there on the hang glider in Tommy and swinging a mic onstage with Rog and he mentioned Hayling Island and them staying in a hotel there while they made Tommy and I thought my hotel’s carpet looked familiar.
I played one last night in Folkestone and I felt at home, and so relieved the show was sold out – the owners of Lime Bar Cafe Andi and Cath made me feel we were all in it together but that it meant a lot to have me there and I realized how much I’ll miss playing in the UK, even the challenging parts – maybe because it is a small country it feels all connected in a way the US can’t, you travel from Boston to Cleveland then down to Nashville and sure there’s some overlap but they’re each their own little universe and tribe. It’s the tribal bit of the UK that can make you feel so included, or like you can have all the bangers and mash in the world and you’ll never fit in. But I don’t do this to fit in, do I? Do I?
I saw my daughter in law and two of the grandkids for a little bit of lunch and then packed my guitars carefully to go back home, said goodbye to the amp I’d made peace with and the VW Golf rental car I’d fallen in love with. On the flight to New York I tried to watch some worthy films but I knew what I really wanted was Mamma Mia Here We Go Again. I’d put it off on the flight over cause it just wasn’t time yet. And I know there was a lot of stretching going on to extend the last ABBA movie for another go around. But they had me with the Rock Follies tribute in the opening scene and when the Harry character in 70s Paris was dressed like 70s Wreckless Eric and they did Waterloo in a cafe with a kooky older ensemble of dancers and characters I just wished the whole plane was watching the movie with me. The main female character goes to bed with three different men in the course of a few weeks and nothing bad happens to her, she just has a baby and ends up being friends with all of them. The singing and dancing is preposterous and some not great ABBA songs are dredged up and I know this actor is pro-Brexit and that one’s had Botox. Cher and Andy Garcia singing Fernando tried a little too hard and I like our version better. But when Cher moved those familiar hips up onto the stage – I worshiped her when I was a kid – and started singing “I was sick and tired of everything, when I called you last night from Glasgow…” well maybe it was exhaustion and the Chardonnay kicking in but I was a goner. “Super Trouper, lights are gonna find you, shining like the sun…smiling, having fun – feeling like a number one.” Even for a tiny crowd I just want to be a number one for a little while. Don’t we all?