On other days I’ve started to buckle under the weight of all the travel of the past four months and stimulus overload. Do you get that too? A good way to clear the mind is just look at a photograph of a good friend from home, or close your eyes and pretend it’s years ago and you’re back sleeping in the bed in the house you grew up in. Right now I’m trying to take myself back to the day on the steps of my Grandparents house at the farm where my Pop lists all the dogs he’s ever owned and their relative qualities. “You never can tell which one’s gonna turn into a good snake dog…but the snake will always get them in the end.”
I have to snap out of it. On the other side of my eyelids Spain is rushing past me. I’m on the train traveling to Madrid to meet Gary Olson, my old friend and frontman of Brooklyn pastoral popsters Ladybug Transistor. We’re doing this tour stripped back -I play my set solo and then back up Gary for his- and they are calling it ‘My Dear Crooner’ on all the posters and promo. I have to learn the guitar chords for his songs so listen to them on headphones as I go.
Pedro is the man responsible. He’s a local label guy and promoter and has brought us here. He comes to our claustrophobic hotel room to introduce himself. His warm mischievous smile and sad eyes are at odds. His eyebrows are proper arches which makes him either curious or surprised at all times. He reminds me of the actor Jean Reno. Along with him is Eric, our French support act for these shows: El Brindador. He’s a lean, handsome Serge Gainsborg in a cardigan, to give you an approximate visual reference. He’ll also prove to be the unofficial translator, as Pedro makes up in enthusiasm for what he lacks in English. We all shake hands like it’s an International summit.
Midnight Tapas outside. Gary is walking different directions with his laptop looking for wifi like he’s divinging for water.
After spending just a few hours with Pedro I can tell he’s one of the good guys; extremely passionate about what he does. Music comes first and business second. As he smokes and looks away from the group with eyes pointed up at the buildings you can feel his brain is firing with ideas.
He buys a round of some local digestif. Salute!
“How long do you know Gary Olson?” he asks me.
“Gee,” I have to think, “About ten years.”
“Uh!” his eyes widen, and he mimes swatting a ball with a sweep of his arm, “You met him playing tennis?”
Gary and I sit in the square after lunch practicing the songs for the benefit of the pigeons and passers-by en route to siesta. 12 in all to learn, some great tracks from the ladybug new album. With each new song locked in does my brain expel an old one? We put the guitar case out (and add our own coins so it looks good) as it can’t hurt. An old guy and little girl sit on a bench listening to us for as long as it takes them to eat their ice creams.
The first show is in an old classic rock club, but tonight looks more like a cocktail lounge. A heavy black curtain at the back of a curved stage surrounded by little tables and chairs. I learn some basic Spanish for my set: “Esta canción habla..” (this song is about), “Mi nombre es..” (my name is), “Que son un público atractivo,” (you are an attractive audience). It seems to be going okay until I try to relate some graffiti I’d read scrawled on the wall of the band room concerning Satan. People look confused and I find out later that it was written in Latin. Some of my faster songs – mostly ones with many lyrics- seem to draw blanks.
When Gary and I play next, a drunk guy in the audience shouts and waves his empty beer bottle in the air after every song. I suppose this to be a local custom and encourage him by thanking him personally over the mic but find out later that no, he’s just drunk.
There’s a massive Nation-wide protest movement happening. Tent clusters have sprung up in the city squares. There’s an anarchist feel to the whole thing, lots of punk haircuts and piercings, but there’s older intellectuals with wild grey hair and floppy jumpers in the mix too, even some suits. Double bedsheets with black slogans in house-paint: DEMOCRACIA? QUE DEMCORACIA? hang here and there. Tables with books laid out for sale, Spanish translations of Orwell and Huxley and lesser known incendiary texts and leaflets. In Madrid the protest covers a massive area and people have set up temporary homes with caravans and generators and portaloos, and little suburbs have formed within the tight-knit cluster. People sit in circles cooking food on camping stoves. A guy in the middle of one group plays Bach on a harp.
It’s 3am and Gary and I have just walked our friend Mercedes back to her apartment and are now considering the tent city. We enter through a gap and find ourselves in a maze of streets and shops. The whole thing is covered by acres of blue tarpaulin. In the wind tonight they flap like ship sails and boys climb poles to try and secure them with ropes and string. There’s a makeshift cafe selling hot food, unconcerned by the late hour.
Homeless drunks have morphed with the group on the fringes and are ebullient with all the activity in their usual place of rest and their dreams of a vagrant city have come true. They try and share their wine unsuccessfully with the industriously active protesters.
“Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca,” was a premature remark made by an overconfident general in the Spanish Civil War. When the town of Huesca, cradled safely by the Pyrenees, held fast to the enemy it became a running ironic joke amongst the militiamen and duly reported by George Orwell in his book Homage to Catalonia. Here we are 70 odd years later and coffee is on our minds too. While the other are loading gear into the community center I go off for supplies and find a little cafe open and order takeaway Cafe Solos as a beautiful stylish old woman sits at the counter sipping hers, continually clearing her throat like a truck driver.
After soundcheck, while the others go for what they tell me later was the best meal of the tour so far I go walking into the narrowing streets up towards the cathedral. In the square below the tent protest community is holding a circle debate so I stand to the side and wish I could understand. Next to me there’s a giant map of the world with the countries shaped out of bottle caps. It’s even topographical, mountain ranges are given another layer of caps. Some small girls are playing nearby and one of them says something to me in Spanish. I gesture that I can’t understand and as I turn to walk away she shrieks, “Where do you come from?!” in practiced English and I’m startled. She stands indignant with her hand on a cocked hip. I point to a little Heiniken cap that could approximate the location of Gympie, Queensland, and she smiles, “Oh Australien!” and breaks into a victory dance.
Pedro and I sit at the back of the hall and discuss last nights show.
He’s looking serious, “I don’t have your trust yet… but I must say, and this is only my opinion… you may think different.”
“Last night I feel you are too much entertainer. I wait for the sentimental songs. I wait for Scenes of a Separation and such like this on your last album.”
“But I played Butterfly Bones,” I interject, “Isn’t that sentimental?”
“….but you don’t have to play these funny songs,” he strums an air guitar and adds, “Chuck Berry… no!”
“Oh, you mean the song about the 17 bus?”
“Si, si… in Spain most people don’t hear all these words, they cannot understand English, maybe one or two.”
“Yeah, I feel that,” I understand what he’s saying and remember the shows with the Magnetic Fields here years ago were hard too, “It’s different in Australia and America where people request those songs. It’s just the way I’ve been playing.”
“Si, but no need in Spain… I think you are emotional singer, with much beauty. You don’t need to play funny. Is this what your life is like?”
At the foot of the stairs to the Church of San Lorenzo sits an old lady in black smock and head dress like a film extra. She sees my camera and pulls a shawl over her scowling face. I reach the top and the church doors are locked and bolted. The Saints by the door are lined up like the Usual Suspects poster. This church’s namesake Lorenzo was born in town here and thanks to the Romans, BBQed into prosperity and sainthood. Hence the ‘grille’ has long been the symbol of this town and adorns walls and shop doorways if you look for it. Looking back down the houses below seem poorer and some building’s ends have fallen away exposing new rough outer walls and these are covered in bright amateur graffiti. Sheets and cloth hang to dry from narrow balconies. Kids are playing nearby and the voice of a young girl sings the quarter tone melodies of something Arabic and the reverb off the side of the church is generous.
I sit on the stairs and think about what Pedro said to me. Should I be offended? You can never be everything to everyone. And everyone can’t like everything about you. He must know. I’ll try and approach it differently.
The sun has sunk below the building line and the clouds are bushels and very serious about their being pink. The swifts are darting in every direction possible, joyously chirping, trying to colour in every part of the sky, the last of the day.
I play the show putting more thought into just singing. The applause is warm and I can feel a tangible connection. It could be a relationship based on melody. At times I close my eyes which feels unusual, I usually like to see faces. With my eyes closed my mind drifts back to where and when I wrote certain songs, or people they might be about. After the show Pedro comes bounding into the dressing room and does a pantomime bow.
Gary and I are holding our stomachs and groaning. The past week has been have been a carb and starch frenzy and I’m craving raw fish. I’ve been asking Pedro for Japanese. He says for the third day in a row, “No, not today,” and adds, “tomorrow we have sushi in Valencia,” not realising he’s sounding like a modern day George Orwell.
In Barcelona Gary leads me back to the hotel he stayed at a week ago for Privavera and we sneak past security and elevate ourselves to the rooftop and a one lane lap pool overlooking the ocean. 40 minutes of swiming back and forth and then a spell in the sauna like Frank and Dean. We are Crooners after all! There are other men in there too, swathed in white towels, quietly staring into the steam. We talk across them like we’re on a business junket.
“How’s the merger?” Gary asks me.
“I have to go to Switzerland tomorrow to shore things up. Then I’m back here Saturday,” I say, “Also depends on how the Dow Jones is looking.”
Gary throws on too much water on the hot rocks and it overloads and everything shuts down, lights included.
Pedro has done his best throwing this tour together last minute. The only venue he could find available in Barcelona is a new gaudy nightclub by the sea. Gary and I have our names in huge block letters in the window display outside and two female models are in the window as well, dancing with oriental umbrellas. There’s a fashion parade and techno booming downstairs. It vibrates up through my feet as I play. Models in leather pants are standing around trying not to pick at the molehills of free corn chips at each table.
We drive through a Sergio Leone landscape, dry and sun bleached. I read the lines and hilly undulations as we go but it’s in a language I’m not versed in. Little villages here and there, you can see how they leak outward from the Medieval old towns, buildings seemingly carved straight out of the rocky earth. Church towers are capped with the nests of White Stalks.
Poor Eric looks tired today, and although it’s probably a culmination of booze and late nights, I suspect it’s also all the translating. He explains to me that as he’s a Bordeaux native, when he hears something in Italian, the train of thought must pass first the French station before it arrives at English.
An Argentinian Rum rep is giving a cocktail tutorial to the staff of the club as we soundcheck. Gary and I loiter in the background to get some tips. He’s a smooth-talking, peroxide-haired Brit, all gelled and Lynxed-up. He hands us various colourful concoctions to try too. Gary talks to him about his job and he tells him he basically flies around the world, “getting pretty girls drunk for a living.” He lights a bit of orange peel and the oils make it fiz and spark into a Daiquiri, “This trick has got many a bartender laid over the years.”
Gary is impressed by his confident sales patter and says to me later, “He sounds chauvinistic but he basically telling the truth,” and then thinks for a bit and adds, “We really need our own bartender to take on tour.”
I get back from a brisk walk around the center of town to find Pedro outside the club in deep negotiations with the venue owner.
I ask what’s wrong and he says, “We haven’t sold one ticket,” he looks as if he’s really upset and keeps shaking his head and blowing smoke from a cigarette, “never in my life has this happened.”
“maybe they’ll come late?” I try and reassure poor Pedro.
“There is much happening tonight in Valencia,” he says, “it is a bad omen. And I feel sad for you… you came so far.”
“Hey, it’s cool,” I tell him, “I’m just happy to play in Spain. I’ve never been to these places before. We’ll still sing our little hearts out.”
We move inside and poor Eric just performs to just us and the bar staff, but he plays a relaxed and wonderful set. There’s a certain liberation in disappointment. Then suddenly things start happening. As I’m setting up a few people straggle in. Half way through my set a good crowd has assembled. I get Eric up to translate long monologues for the audience and it’s good comedy. By the end of Gary’s set the place is seriously jumping. Pedro needn’t have worried, he’s proudly pacing the room and nodding to the music.
Afterwards, as we pack up a disco comes to life around us and we have to fight through the people. The British bar tender is back in crisp white shirt and black vest, juggling bottles and flinging shakers. He keeps passing elaborate tropical drinks over to us and winking as we take them.
We all stumble back to the hotel and in the foyer Pedro asks if I want one of the beers he’s carrying in his jacket pockets and I say, “No thanks. I don’t drink.”
“Sure,” he teases, “So it’s from swimming that you have red corals in your eyes.”
The next morning we head north again. We’ll be leaving the coast to head inland soon. On our way out of town Gary shouts, “Quick swim!” from the back seat and Pedro pulls over. Old men in Speedos with skin cooked like pie crust. The water is a clear warm broth and even the seaweed brushing our legs looks like freshly chopped lettuce.
Gary says this lifestyle suits him down to the ground. He wants to retire here and spent his days on the beach and make friends with the tanned locals, siestas every day. He wanders off in search of tiger nut Horchata.
Drive towards the last show in Zaragoza and Pedro lets me program a playlist on my Ipod. It sits on the dashboard in front of him. He’s tolerant at first but starts getting restless. I’ve tried to program to everyone’s taste. Ironic classics and new stuff they mightn’t have heard. When my karaoke favorite ‘Arthur’s Theme’ comes on he skips it instantly.
“You don’t like Christopher Cross?” I ask.
“No,” he shakes his head with eyes on the road, “I am boss.”
“Fair enough,” I answer as I really can understand some people can’t stomach Christopher Cross. Plus Pedro has driven the entire time, he should have music veto rites.
Two songs along it’s the Clash and he raises his finger again and it looms over the skip button like a chicken hawk. Gone. The Chills make it to the second verse. Bang. INXS. Forget it.
Strangely, it’s an old Chad Morgan song that piques his interest. He hands me a notepad and pen and asks me to write it down. Elizabeth Cotton as well. For the Go Betweens he even nods along. Next a song comes on written by a personal friend of mine and I’m nervous. Right at the chorus the Finger of Death strikes.
“What?!” I’m offended, “what’s wrong with it? I thought you’d like that one!”
“Sorry, I am boss.”
It’s hazy how I got here. I can hear Gary groaning in pain somewhere in the room. The little triangles of light poking from the edges of the curtain really seem to hurt. I can remember the show last night in the theatre and how people were surprised I wore socks on stage. Somewhere else later on we were locked into a cafe after midnight and a small feast of tapas prepared. The cafe had many homemade signs with the word ‘Champs!’ (mushrooms) in different sizes, everywhere. They were proud of their Champs. I recognised many of people in there as audience members from the show. They were insisting on us drinking shots of local liqueur. The group moved on. After another bar shut at 2am I expected the night over but someone grabbed my hand and led me into a room across the alley. “…they’re waiting for you to come and play…” I really didn’t understand, “What?” There was so much cigarette smoke in the place it felt like we were all wrapped in cotton wool. It gave the room texture and it really looked like the 1970’s does on TV.
More shots. Apparently this was a private club but someone had talked our way in. Eventually I was holding a busted-up flamenco guitar which had 3 strings left. The house lights went off, lo-fi disco lights on, and a guy with a razor blade voice holding a microphone on a long lead stretching across the room like Mozzarella put his arm around me and introduced me to the crowd like a Spanish game-show host. He lead me to a chair I’d stand on as a proxy stage. I could only think of Van Morrison. I’ve been going through a Van Morrison phase. People danced and sang. I danced too. A lot with the raspy compere. He was trying to dance the tango with me. Gary was grinning like a pirate. We were both wearing ceremonial neck scarves when we left. I wish I could remember everyone I talked with. I DO remember Gary and I saying goodbye at dawn, skipping up the alley hand in hand, Wizard of Oz style.