Note: Don wrote a song called “The Dangers of Travel” that I sang on The Henrys’ recording “Quiet Industry”. A beautiful song that has nothing to do with the following, except for the title, which I stole.
This travelling thing is not for the faint of heart.
There are the usual uncertainties of the road (food, lodging, language) and those can be challenging enough. But I have been learning these last few years that the heart also has to be able and ready to be broken by the beauty of the land, some of the people you meet there, and by the stories of the place.
Cases in point…
Broken by People
Meet Gudjon. His name translates to English as “God Man”. He was born and raised in the north of Iceland on a farm on the edge of the Norwegian Sea…the very edge. He is a talented painter, carver, stone mason, builder, farmer, fisherman, singer, blacksmith, leather worker, and specializes in the restoration of ancient Viking buildings (he has 2 “practice houses” he built in a field behind his house…along with a handful of other buildings and a Viking boat). He studies runic writing. He tends to his herb gardens.
He was generous with tales of his family and generous with his praise of the previous evening’s concert. A language barrier can purify intent in the back-and-forth of trying to communicate. Of my singing, he said “Takes me on a journey here,” tapping his fingers to his chest.
Emotions were hijacked saying farewell when I realized how much I liked this guy I had only known for 36 hours or so (this kind of raid on trying to be cool is happening more and mo re). As we hugged goodbye, the heart cracked open a bit. Sure, the fracture was to allow admission of one more, but a break is a break and there is scar tissue now, the kind that occurs when you find and then have to leave a kindred spirit.
And God Man was not the only one. There was Helgi the filmmaker who stumbled across us in the north and followed us for a day. There was the Lord of the Manor of Trefacwyn, with whom we spent some magical days in Pembrokeshire, Wales. And there was the Old Caretaker of the Reykholt Hall who bonded with the band for a few hours as we set up, played, tore down and loaded out, embracing me warmly and then bowing to us all from the loading dock as we got into the van and, catching and holding my eye, tipping his hat to me before closing the loading dock doors. I wear no hat, so the best I could do was to blow him a kiss, which he smiled at and accepted as he disappeared. Another kindred spirit, another co-conspirator, another older song and dance man.
Broken by Stories
This Mongolian ger was a long dreamed of thing of our host in Iceland, Elin. We spent a day there, our little band accompanied by Gudjon and a filmmaker from Sweden who had taken a shining to us at our concert the night before, and we cooked a meal, and walked the coast. As of this moment, the ger sits on land that is becoming the flash point in a long battle against foreign interests (Canadian lead) aiming to build a large scale hydro electric dam in the area. 270 square miles of affected area, the large scale flooding of vast lands, the end of three major rivers and hundreds of waterfalls, annihilating the flora and fauna that have been there since before memory, and changing the landscape in the way that only humans have had the hubris to do. As I write this, the engines of the big machines have just been fired up in the little village we left yesterday, the machinery preparing the road for bigger machinery to come, and some of the locals are weighing out the consequences of lying down in front of them.
The heart breaks.
Broken by Place
At the most unsuspecting moments, the land itself steals away the breath along with any certainties of how beautiful “home” is. You’d have to have no pulse to be unmoved by the scenery offered up through the window of the van. The visual hits keep coming, again and again and again, until you start to feel exhausted by awe, the impulse to capture things on your phone finally numbed, and the van gets quiet because there are no more exclamations left in anyones’s belly, no more air in the lungs.
Such beauty can easily cause the heart to ache. And when the moment comes to turn away, to put all that beauty at your back to journey home, the heart breaks. Happened to us in Scotland, happened to us in Wales, happened to us in Iceland.
I will consider myself to be a very fortunate man indeed if my heart keeps breaking like this.
Here’s what I learned in Árneshreppur this morning: the word “saunter” has its’ roots in the words “sanctity, sanity, sanitation (ie.respectful cleanliness)” and “terra”. In a nut shell, Holy Ground.
So, to saunter is to proceed as if one is walking on holy ground, taking time, watching where you step, altering the course when need be…walking WITH the place you are, not ON it. From a distance, this can look aimless. Not so.
It’s the more artful approach to any kind of getting from Point A to Point B…and takes into account the territory you are travelling through and the inhabitants of that territory…be that on land, in your thoughts, or in a performance.
Tonight in this village at North 66° 3’ 4.6002” West 21° 32’ 55.5864” we will be doing exactly that.
And so are all great tragedies love stories, too.
All the great adventure stories, all the great comedies, have love at the centre of them.
As does this story that Ian Mackenzie has fashioned into a short film after some panel somewhere deemed him and the concept a worthy thing and gave him a small whack of dough to keep the wolves at bay and hire some folks to help him. Since 2015, when Stephen Jenkinson and I first went out on the road with little but a notion and a Quixotic mutual “I’m in”, Ian followed us with his camera, capturing the ephemera of touring America, shooting some of the shows, and conducting straight up interviews. It was a tough row to hoe because SJ and I didn’t really know what we were doing and while the idea of the author and the singer figuring it out in front of a paying audience was something to see, I’d have to say we didn’t give him much to work with.
Except for the love story.
That handful of concerts Ian shot turned into 15 or so stops in America and then another dozen in Australia then another few in Canada then another 7 in the UK then another 25 in North America then another 8 in the UK and as I write this I am on a plane to Iceland where we will do another three, and then home to do another 25 in North America and then Scotland and then Ireland and then Istanbul and then Tel Aviv…you get the point.
Somewhere along the way we began to understand what we were trying to do, what was possible to do. We learned theatre had a place in this so we added lights that I’d operate with my feet. We learned that pulse was important so we added a drummer. We learned that texture was important so we added another singer and taught her to play keys. We learned that this was something older than theatre, something like ceremony but older still, something like ritual, so we tore the wall down between us and the audience so that the audience is in on the ritual. We learned that every ship needs an anchor so we added a bass player and asked her to sing, too.
So where’s the love story, you ask? Well, let me ask you: why would we wake at ungodly hours to get to airports, suffer the lineups and indignation’s of the security gauntlet, fly for hours and hours, drive for hours and hours, lug gear in and out and in and out and up and down and down and up over and over and over and then crawl into a questionable bed in a questionable hotel only to do it again the next day and the next and the next? Why would we risk the farm and the physical body to fund the thing? And why would we risk stepping out on to stages in (what is turning out) to be cities all over the world armed not with bullet proof grooves full of helium to lift people out of their lives and make them feel better about all the questionable moves we’ve made as a species but instead seek to crack the rib cage open and bathe the heart in songs and tales that are sorrowful, about endings of all kinds, and actually attempt to get people to sink into their sorrows?
Because of the love of the thing. Because of the life-long love of and respect for the alchemy of words. Because the love of the feeling of lungs full of air and the long note wrapping itself around a phrase, singing what life has to teach. Because of the love for the occasional moment where I can hear an echo of a song I wrote bounce of the walls of a strangers life. Because of the love that we have for the audience that is hungry and straining for a tasty groove to free them from the effects of going down that dark road with us. Because of the love we have playing that groove. And because we sure as hell don’t do it for the money, so we must do it for the love.
And because of the love we have for each other on stage. A slow, earned trust. And because of the love we have for life, for living, for getting up in the morning.
This is a love story that Ian Mackenzie has caught. A 25 minute visual poem carved from umpteen hours of footage after he and a small crew followed us on the road last year and captured some ephemera again, conducted interviews again…the same questions but with different answers. This is not a show reel, but a glimpse into the mechanics of the thing. And if he were to train a camera on us again and asked those questions again, we would have different answers again for him because we keep learning about this thing. The Nights of Grief & Mystery is an alive thing now.
Pretty high fallutin’ words, you say. Yeah. Probably. I’ve stopped being perplexed by life and have settled into the reality that, at the age of 55, I might know a thing or two. I’ve grown tired of pretending I don’t. So here I am on a plane with Stephen, Lisa, and Colleen, a few moments out from Reykjavik, flying east into the sun and so there was no real night for us. We will land, bleary, rent the van, gather the gear, and play in a city, try to sleep, play in a town, and then to the edge of the world to play in a 1000 year old village that is dying. For the love of the thing.
Watch Ian’s movie.
Here’s the answer.
When I started out with The Stickpeople a million years ago, I had a soundman, Leslie Charbon. He was a part of the band. It was a luxury, something I learned when I started touring without him. Every night became a crapshoot, and chances were that the more competent the person sounded over the phone in the days/weeks leading up to landing at their venue, the bigger the gamble when it came to showtime and the more disappointed I would be. Sometimes it would feel like yelling into the wind for two hours.
As the band has grown for the Nights of Grief & Mystery, it has become clear that we need a sound person, so for this tour we bit the bullet and hired Joe Meekums. I had long forgotten the impact on stage of knowing that shit was being handled out front, that we had a co-conspirator out there with a vested interest in helping us get to where we so deeply want to go every Night we do this.
I am (we are) indebted to Joe (quite literally) for being reminded that the words, lyrics, melodies, grace notes, subtleties, silences and roars are all worth being heard out there in the rooms we play.
Thank you, Joe.
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England.
Last night’s gig was sold out thanks to the tireless efforts of a few visionary folk here. I’m shitty at geography, so didn’t know much about this place.
Here’s what I DO know now:
I’m staying in a house once owned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle;
The theatre we played in was built in 1874;
Henry the 8th stood on a tower around the corner from where I’m writing and watched his beloved ship, the Mary Rose, unexplainably sink before his eyes en route to battle the French;
The theatre we played in was where Charles Dickens’ mother went into labour with him;
In a part of England that was flattened by bombing in WW2, the theatre we played in was left standing because it was owned at the time by a Nazi sympathizer who helped guide German war planes toward the harbour using lights on the theatre roof;
The queen of England is here today.
The president of the United States is here today.
Peter Sellers was born above the Chinese food place down on the corner;
The neighbourhood I’m staying in was in lockdown last night, a curfew enforced, and our drummer had to leave the post-gig meal withoutapple crumble and creme fraiche so as not to be arrested after midnight;
There are snipers on roof tops;
Choppers in the air, keeping the tension company.