usa tour diary week 3

Monday 28th: WILMINGTON, NC

There wasn’t much rain but still bright lightning strobing every few minutes most of the night and that was enough to keep me awake for hours. The house was empty in the morning, our hosts at work long ago. As we readied ourselves for our drive we fielded a door-knock from a disgruntled postal worker about the position our car. “I’ll ask ya’ll to not block my box!” she yelled and then trudged off with her mailbag swinging and we used that as our cue to hit the road.

Somewhere before we leave the state of Georgia we spot a sign advertising a local shooting range so I ask the girls if they’d mind a detour. They’re rightly uneasy about it and really I am too, but my stubborn curiosity is greater than any misgivings I may have (which is the reason I often end up in compromising situations).

We park and tentatively approach the unprepossessing square brick building. It’s eerily quiet here in the carpark at least; it could be a simple pawn broker or community hall but when we open the tinted glass doors it sounds like someone far away is popping balloons. The guy behind the display counter is more than happy to oblige me, “Sure you can shoot here!” his grin is as wide at the brim on his camouflage-print cap, “Would you like the Glock or the 357 Magnum?”
“You shot a handgun before?”
“Well then I’d suggest the Magnum. It’s a good piece for beginners. The next question is do you want the classic round target, or would you prefer the human shape?”

Amazingly, after submitting a no-fuss perfunctory background check, I am on the range within 5 minutes of stepping out of the car with a small cardboard box of 50 live ammo shells. The girls follow me in there, us all wearing industrial earmuffs, and we gingerly creep past other shooters in their designated lanes separated by makeshift carpeted plywood shields. The low ceiling makes the atmosphere even more oppressive and our innate animal survival instincts are on red alert; there is danger in this room. The girls give in to this feeling and leave me there alone in my booth to clip on my broadsheet paper target and winch it down to the end of the range where mounds of dirt behind take the impact of the bullets in little puffs here and there. The dull muted thump of gunfire around me makes this feel ever more treacherous; with the earmuffs on it’s almost as loud as your own heartbeat.

I look to the left of me and there are two overweight men in cowboy hats shouting instructions to each other and taking turns with a hunting rifle. To the right is a young guy in full camouflage using an automatic machine gun with laser scope who’s bright red dot searches out it’s target of the brain and heart sections of the human silhouette accurately. Pop, pop, pop. Further on down the end a short Asian man presses seductively up against his date, who looks like a Russian Bond villain, long blonde hair and nearly a foot taller than him in high heels as she squints down the sight of a hand pistol and squeezes off shots. They catch me looking at them and stare icily.

I have to do this now and get the hell out of here. I fumble the 6 bullets into the chamber and snap it shut. I cock the hammer and outstretch my arms, fill the tiny gap in the rear iron with the nub of the site and shift my focus to the bulls-eye way off. I search the trigger with my right forefinger. Here goes… I’m not prepared for the power and the barrel lurches off target. The force of it doesn’t match at all with the dull sound. I think I’ve missed the circle completely. My heart is faster now in my ears and a voice in my brain is saying, “Ok, you’ve done it now. Leave the other bullets and get out. Any one of these people in here could be having problems at home, or have just been fired from their job – I mean it is a recession – and are thinking ‘damn the world and everyone in it’ and turn towards me and….” BANG! The next bullet at least has punctured the white paper border around the target, but I’m still leaning to the left. I just pull the trigger without cocking for the next two and they’re in the black now. By the end of the box I’m hitting dead center every time and there’s a litter of empty shells around me and acrid wispy smoke coming out of the chamber.

I find the girls reading hunting magazines on the lounge in the reception and they both give me a look that says, “can we please leave right now!” Before we get to the door my friend behind the counter calls after us, “You can’t leave without a photo, I can take one for you guys. And here’s your target. You did real good for a first-timer.” Instead of bringing over the target though he grabs a selection of guns from the cabinet and thrusts them into our hands and tells us to pose like Charlie’s Angels. I get the AK47. “Say Cheese!”

By the time we finally get away from him the man and his statuesque Bond girl are inquiring to another staff member, “If we come back tomorrow can we bring our children?”

Back in the car our collective mood is dark and pensive. Somehow we feel dirty and ashamed. “You can never show anyone those photos,” Steph makes me promise.

We switch the radio to NPR and Obama’s speech beams out live from the Defense University outlining his decision to send troops to Libya to face-off Gaddafi. His crisp, calm and firm sentences and the gaps between them, even the endearing sibilant whistles on ‘s’ words could make you believe, or want to believe, whatever he says is true. The remaining light drains out of the day and it’s pitch black as we cross the border to North Carolina. I feel like night driving is the closest thing to dreaming while you’re awake; dark scenes change rapidly, you’re eyes play tricks and your mind is free to wander on it’s own.

We pull in somewhere for fuel and when the girls go inside I walk out past the glow and stand by the ditch bordering the road and take in the swath of stars above. In the distance I hear a sharp scraping noise and look up to see sparks out on the highway. From the darkness a car lumbers in to the bowser without headlights and one tire missing, driving on the bare metal rim. They pump in some petrol and drive off again.

We drive; hours flying past. Somewhere along we approach unearthly glow on the horizon. Closer still we make it out to be some kind of tourist attraction service centre, it declares itself as ‘South of the Border’ a blossoming neon faux-Mexican theme town. It’s oddly quiet, most of the attractions are closed, although all lights are still on, and there’s no one around. We stretch our legs illuminated under the buzz and hum of 50,000 watts.

It’s after midnight and we’ve made it to Wilmington. Tonight we’re sleeping in a friends private movie theatre on the second floor of his downtown office building. He’s asleep in the apartment next door but has left out a pile of films for us, most of them Elizabeth Taylor classics in memoriam of her passing a few days ago. We make the bad decision and neglect A Place in the Sun and opt instead for a forgotten 80’s teen comedy 3 O’clock High at the bottom of the stack. It’s like a low-budget John Hughes, complete with a poor mans Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall.


Tuesday 29th: WILMINGTON, NC

My thoughts are still haunted by yesterdays Shooting Range experience. Today it seems even more poignant when I try and use the pool at the Wilmington YMCA to swim some laps. It takes half an hour of paper work, they need a photo for security purposes, fingerprints and even a next of kin! The girl at the reception struggles with putting my information into the computer and curses in words I never thought I’d hear in real life, “Oh Phooey!” I’m assigned a personal assistant to show me to my locker, wait for me to change into bathers and lead me through to the swimming area.

I choose the medium-pace lane and am only in the water a few minutes when I get a crash course in American lap-swimming etiquette. In Australia a person generally swims in a clockwise direction around the black centre line, even if alone. Here it seems that if the lane has only two people you must stick to your own side, going up and back beside each other. When I started out my laps there were three of us in our lane but somewhere along, unbeknownst to me, one third of our gang hopped out. I didn’t make the switch and therefore swam head-on into a guy coming right at me at a swift clip. “Jesus Christ!” he howled and lurched up out of the water like Poseidon himself. “Sorry mate,” I offered meekly, even though in shock myself. “Stick to your own side,” he ordered me, slapping the water surface with his hand for emphasis, which caused the water to splash back on himself. My first experience of lane rage.

Wilmington, little Hollywood of the east coast. The film location for, amongst many others, Dawson’s Creek, Weekend at Bernies and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. And lately the comedy sensation Eastbound & Down. Dave Dondero first brought me here a few years ago, this being his adolescent stomping ground (he once told me of his show here where two weird drunk audience members came up imploring him to follow them to a party. He declined on grounds of suspicion and later found out regrettably they were the actors from EB&D who played Stevie Janowski and Principal Cutler). He’d moved back here and was living in the back room of the cinema owned by his friend Fred. He organised a show for both of us in town and the next day took me fishing out in the Gulf Stream with his high school buddy where we netted bait fish early in the morning in the estuaries around Wrightsville Beach and when we had enough supply putted out to deeper water and the bigger game. They became annoyed when I got seasick while still managing to reel in fish after fish. They had to take me back to land, green-gilled and holding my catch. We fried them up later that night in Fred’s apartment and it was some of the best fish I ever ate.

Tonight the show is in the very cinema on a snug stage tucked in the corner beside the screen, its walls lined with silver tinsel streamers. Fred, our host, is a champion of the Wilmington music scene, once owning a thriving independent record store in town that eventually became yet another casualty of the New Age of Free Downloading. Since then he has held a free community film night in this building once a week, and sometimes hosts shows for touring bands if they can’t get one elsewhere. Tonight he’s trying to decide on an Australian film to play before our set and I urge him it not be Mad Max. He chooses one I’ve never heard of called Body Melt. The title pretty much spoils its main plot-line; the characters contract an infection which causes them to dissolve into bubbling fleshy messes at indeterminate moments. There’s gratuitous sex scenes too. And to mix it up people sometimes melt during the sex scenes. Andrew Daddo, Lisa McCune and Harold from Neighbours thought this film a good career move for them, and therein mutate, sprout face tentacles and liquify convincingly.

People arrive for the show quietly and tardily in ones and twos and therefore the film goes on late and cuts into our set time so Shelley starts while it’s still projecting and they just turn the sound down. It’s disconcerting to hear her pure fragile tunes as a soundtrack to these actors simultaneously copulating and melting in full screen cinematic glory.

There’s no cover charge tonight so I put my cap out at the front of the stage for people to hopefully donate fuel money. They’re attentive and loll around the room on lounges and chairs, smoking and drinking wine and beer out of plastic cups. Someone has brought their pet German Shepherd and he bounds up and down off the stage, loping between my legs while I’m playing my set.

Afterwards we chat with the locals. Fred is tried from working on a TV show all day and his charming southern drawl is flagging so he collects his cat and wanders off to his bed. The cigarette smoke is making me queasy so I go out for fresh air and walk the streets to find the Addams Family pinball machine I’d gotten a Grand Champion score on last year. I am elated to find my tag still in top position, as if proof of some profound enduring legacy, in all its orange glowing dot-matrix glory. TCB!

I play and am doing okay when I feel the presence of a random onlooker behind me and I self-consciously fumble the last ball which leaves me on a score far inferior to last years glory but still enough to punch in my tag.

“Man, are you TCB?” my spectator asks me. I nod humbly and he says, “I’ve been trying to beat that score for weeks.” I feel like a sporting titan, a supple-wristed master of reflex and skill. I stand up straighter and put my shoulders back.
“How did you get it?” he wants to know.
“Well…,” I get technical, “it was a rare game. I got the ‘Search the Mansion’ feature twice, you know where you finish all the rooms and get to unlock the question mark in the attic…?”
“…Yeah, of course…”
“…and that gave me a few extra balls up my sleeve… it was just one of those moments of pure vision.”
He is nodding and digging change out of his jeans pocket and says, “Lets play!”
So here we stay for the next while, chatting and flipping, neither of us doing very well… in fact he beats me mostly but we keep getting enough replays for us to continue without extra coins. When they dry up we turn and shake hands.

When I get back the party has died. The girls are getting ready for bed and there’s only one guy left sitting up the back smoking in the dark and watching old Katherine Hepburn interviews from the Dick Cavett Show on the big screen. I sit with him for a while. Cavett looking like a 70’s porn sailor in white slacks and shoes is as relaxed and disarming as ever and Hepburn in her refined quaver says of acting alongside her lover Spencer Tracy, “I copied him, he’s the style… he is my ideal.” She’s sassy and cheeky and forthright and has one foot up on the coffee table. Soon we’re falling asleep on our chairs so my friend stubs out, powers down and switches off the lights on his way out.

I’m bunking in the back room, Dave Dondero’s old space, and It’s cold and blankets are rare. The girls share the double bed and me on the noisy leather couch that talks back whenever I roll over. We’re all wearing our coats and I can see my own breath.


Wednesday 30th: GREENVILLE, NC

The tinkering rain on the roof wakes me. I get straight up and throw my blanket over the still sleeping girls and head out for a cup of tea. There’s a homeless guy cowering in the door space with a transparent plastic rain poncho on. He asks if I could light his cigarette for him. At first I didn’t understand until he fished into his pocket and his hand was shaking badly as he handed it to me. His head quivered too and I felt his whiskers brush against my wrist as I held the flame up to the half burnt butt in his mouth. He mumbled thankyou and I walked away pondering his situation.

I wonder of his life-story and what random events pinballed him around for all his years until today when he finds himself in this doorway shaking in the rain. Is he a war scarred forgotten soldier? Does he have some hereditary illness that is too expensive to treat? With a socialised medical system he would have a fighting chance. If he has no family who takes care of this guy? I double back and ask him if he wants a coffee. He has a lot of trouble understanding my accent but then he says he can’t drink it. I say, “what about tea?” He says he can’t drink anything without a straw. We walk side by side for a few blocks in the spitting rain trying to communicate and it’s him that gives up first, says goodbye and shuffles off down a side street.

Hours later and tea-sated I return and Shelley is alone in the dark in the cinema watching Reflections of a Golden Eye with Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando. She’s just finished Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and feels strung out, as most people do after watching Taylor and Richard Burton bludgeon each other for two or so hours with their strained marriage. This one, although written by one of Shelley’s favourite authors Carson McCullers, is overly dramatic and when Taylor starts violently flagellating Brando in the face with a horsewhip we switch it off. When Steph gets back we pack the car and drop the cinema key in a nearby shop for Fred to collect later.

It rains all the way to Greenville and the wind blows broad red leaves onto our windscreen where they stick, ride a few times on the wipers and be gone. We find the Tipsy Teapot, a homely cafe and bookshop, where we’d be playing tonight. Run by a generous and earthy lady Delia, she’s there to greet us with warm embraces and free Chai. She says there’s vegetarian food for us too as she re-pins her colourful headscarf and urges us to sit on couches and unwind after our long drive. We all scan the shelves for dinner reading material and I lever out the Tatum O’Neal autobiography A Paper Life. “Take that one with you,” says Delia, flitting back and forth on the phone drumming up business for our show tonight, worried the incessant rain will keep people snug in their houses.

Shelley’s friend Jeff bounds into the cafe, surprises her and is introduced to Steph and I. He’s a local promoter and has another show happening tonight. So as not to hurt our turnout he’s pushed his show back and has invited his friends, his Dad and the band members themselves. He also offers to sort out accommodation for us tonight if we haven’t already.

A few other familiar faces show up, nice people I’d met playing here only few months before. We assemble plastic chairs into a theatre setting and those milling around fill them, Jeff and his Dad right up front. The stage backs onto the shopfront window and the audience can just watch pedestrians if we fail to visually entertain. Tonight they’re lucky enough to be treated to an arrest as three cops descend on some guilty offender and take him away in cuffs. Just after that Jeff’s Dad’s mobile phone goes off with the loudest ringtone I’ve ever heard. He embarrassingly gropes with the buttons to turn it off but I stop my song and tell him he should answer it so we’re all quiet while he tells the caller where he is and what he’s doing.

People leave quickly after we finish. Delia tells us we’re welcome back for breakfast. Jeff has put us on the doorlist at his late show so we pack our gear and drive to find the venue which turns out to be in a shopping mall. It’s packed, smoky and rowdy inside so we head straight for the back and the pool tables. The headliners- Royal Bangs- come over and politely introduce themselves and compliment us on our show. They’re all anxiously excited as they’re driving to New York for an appearance on Letterman tomorrow. Steph and I share tequila and games of pool with them.

Jeff introduces us to one of his friends, a wiry haired loon who kisses the tops of each of our hands, Casanova style and tells us he wants to be a comedian. I tell him he reminds me of 80s British comedian Kenny Everett and he says that’s funny cause his name is Kenny. He goes to the toilets and Google Image searches while he takes a piss and comes back and agrees he does look a bit like that guy. He then goes into an in depth analysis of the book he’s reading on Bobby Kennedy.

The band starts playing and it’s high energy keyboard pop and Steph and I dance amongst the disjointed throng. Shelley sits it out on the sideline and when I realise she’s on an office swivel chair I push her around on the dance floor for a song or two and she laughs like a little kid. Kenny rushes over and stops me with a hand on my shoulder and shouts in my ear over the music, “You know I had that same idea a while ago. Did you see?”
“The chair thing,” he clarifies, “I knew you were a good guy when I met you. We have the same ideas.”

I see Jeff’s Dad sitting at a table by himself, smoking a cigar. I go over and thank him for coming to our show. He says Jeff sometimes brings him along to these things from time to time, and although he finds this music good, he preferred our lower volume.

When the band finishes people mill about and I get tired and bored of waiting so go to the car. There’s random fireworks littering the backseat floor everywhere so I decide to orchestrate a good-luck pyrotechnic display for Royal Bangs and their Letterman spot. I dig out some empty plastic bottles and set up some bottle rockets in a neat row in the shopping center parking lot. When the band comes out to load up their van I light all the fuses and run and duck behind our car. I wait to hear the shush-shushing sound of ignition and then the sky blossoms in colourful sparks and bangs and pops and everyone cheers.

We follow Jeff to tonight’s mystery sleeping venue. A narrow staircase leads up to a clean modern loft apartment and even though there’s a low-key party going on we’re led straight to the bedroom where three mattresses have been placed to fit around the room like giant puzzle pieces. Someone else will be coming in later to sleep in the main bed and we’re told not to worry about it. We stake our claim and close our eyes as the intimate gathering bubbles away on the other side of the wall. The front door bangs open every now and then, people are coming and going. Kenny arrives and even though I met he and Jeff only today I’ve learned their voices.

“What the…,” Steph exclaims from over in her corner, “There’s something alive here.” She lifts the cover hanging beside her bed to reveal a cage containing a ferret darting back and forth. We’re all too tired to care about anything right now.

I wake some hours later to hear Kenny’s hushed baritone engaged in endless monologue seeping in from the other room. It must have been going on some time as it had started melding with my dreams. As I gain consciousness I realise that he is one half of some controlled hushed argument. I can hear a girl softly sobbing. It’s something about a borrowed car, and what responsibilities the borrower has in regards to driving the borrowee around at their beckoning. At first annoyed I’ve been awoken, I start forming prosecution and defense arguments and feel like getting up to adjudicate. But it’s Kenny’s warm deep interminable patter that lulls me back under.


Thursday 31st: DURHAM, NC

I’m next awoken by lips on my forehead and the light brushing of stubble on my skin. A demure purr explains, “in case I don’t get to see you in the morning.” The breath is close and I can smell some indiscernible liquor. I open one eye and confront Kenny’s face hovering a couple of inches above mine in the pre dawn glow, he’s straddling me. I have no faculties alert enough to deal with this. He kisses me gently again and is gone. I’m so tired, I’ll decipher this later, sleep more important.

I wake with a start and daylight is now flooding the room, the girls are stirring restlessly. I creep out to the kitchen to investigate tea making possibilities. There’s a computer at a desk and it’s time I checked for news from home. Distractedly engrossed in an email I don’t hear the footsteps behind me. Suddenly a pair of arms are wrapped around me and I feel that all too familiar stubble on my neck. It’s like braille that spells, ‘I’m back!’
“I just want to hold you for a bit,” Kenny whispers to me, “Is that ok?”
My arms are trapped from typing, “Umm..”
“Is this weird?” but it’s not a question.
“Seems like you’ve had a hard night. Whatever helps get you through.”
We stay locked together like that and after a while the computer screen goes dark as if it’s giving up on me. At the sound of a shower coming on in the bedroom en suite he releases me to go pester the girls for a bit.

Soon the kitchen is filled with bleary-eyed inhabitants seeking food and coffee. Kenny plays some old ska music for me on ipod speakers and gulps from a bottle of vodka, then tomato juice and mixes the two in his mouth before swallowing. He’s on a bender.

The girls and I thank our hosts and drive to the Tipsy Teapot to redeem Delia’s breakfast offer from yesterday. She’s not in yet but the staff believe us enough to dole out coffees and small plates of food for us poor hungry pilgrims. Jeff turns up ever-smiling and we thank him for the door spots last night. As I stand at the counter with him while he orders I look down the corridor and see Kenny pacing back and forth out the back in the parking lot. He walks in through the door towards us and then spins on his heel and goes back out again. “What’s going on with that guy?” I ask Jeff, who’s sipping on the excess of a too full hot coffee to enable him to carry it. He looks out to where I’m pointing and says, “Oh no, he’s been up all night. And now he’s losing it a bit. We told him he should probably stay at home.” Jeff gently places his coffee on our table like a live hand grenade and goes out to tend to his distressed buddy. He’s escorted back in and to our table his eyes are wild pin pricks. He shakes my hand but pulls me into another embrace. “Morning all,” he says in a faint croak, and sits down and after a while coffee actually calms him enough to tell us intense stories about this and that.

I go sit in a hanging 60’s space pod chair at the front of the shop and stare blankly out to the street, like watching television no matter what’s on. This chair thing actually mutes the outside noise and when I test the acoustics my voice surrounds me like it’s coming through speakers. I want to curl up and sleep in this cocoon. Back at the table the girls have been involved in conversations way too intense for the hour of day and come to drag me out by the ear and into the car.

It’s a short trip to Durham. It feels a bit like a homecoming, me having been here about five times in the past year. We’ve very near the little town where my US label Yep Roc operates out of an old hose factory. It’s hard to believe it was not so long ago my manager Matt and I had walked out of that very building in the freezing drizzling rain after having come from a meeting where it seemed I’d be soon part of its roster. I was elated that people so far from my own home believed in my music enough to want to help me out. We only had enough time to celebrate with a can of Root Beer at a service station before I dropped Matt at his waiting plane.

But now Shelley, Steph and I find tonight’s venue and kill time waiting for Steve Gardner to arrive. Steve is the guy who’s basically responsible for me having signed to Yep Roc in the first place. He and Matt had been emailing and he mentioned that he’d enjoyed the Hello Stranger album and wondered if I’d done anything since? Sadly he no longer works for Yep Roc now, but has set up this gig for us and has put a lot of work into it’s promotion. He’s running is as the first of a series of monthly unplugged shows. So no PA. We set up in the corner of the bar and seats are arranged neatly around us.

Various members of the Yep Roc family arrive, led by enthusiastic label boss Glenn and his radiant wife Elizabeth and we’re treated to a meal in a nearby bar.

When we come back from dinner the place is packed and a bolt of nerves flares up in my stomach so I do an about-face and hit the dark footpaths to get my head together. When I return Shelley is just starting and the room is silently leaning into the notes she’s singing and the between song applause is rapturous. This intimacy can be really unnerving, I urinate about six times and go and play my own set.

A few solo numbers and then the full trio, Steph taps gently and I strum lighter so all our voices have enough room to blend and reach the people.

We stick around for a few drinks after so Glenn writes his address on some paper for us to feed to our GPS.

I remember his house fondly having spent last Thanksgiving with Glenn and his family last year in between shows. A nice big brick house with a steep sloping driveway in a neighbourhood of such houses, surrounded by light forest from which the nocturnal deer lope in the fog across the road and into backyards and onward beyond. The thick looming whiteness makes everything quiet.

There’s beds made up, mine a blowup mattress in a rumpus room where their son is up late playing ‘Call of Duty’ with other internet connected gamers elsewhere on the world, probably in more acceptable timezones. He’s wearing a mic and headset and I’m worried I’m distracting him from some serious bloodshed so drag my blankets up to the girls room in the converted attic where they’re both still awake quietly reading magazines. I set up camp on the daybed in the bay window.

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