When I first stepped into this cathedral in Wales a couple years ago, I was more than a little undone by the 1500+ year story of the place. When Christianity started to move into this part of the world, it often set up shop near or on sites that the more local gods already inhabited…places that were already considered sacred by the locals. St. David’s has our man setting up shop in 500AD or so. The building convulses a few times (conquerors, fire, raiders, an earthquake) but much of the material is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years old.
That is a lot of memory in that old stone and wood.
Places like this were mostly about wielding power. Have you ever seen the Welsh coast?? The whole thing is a cathedral and the very last thing one would need in a place like this is a building that god purportedly lives in.
So, to me these places are full of sadness and impotency and I’m sure all us visitors are wading hip-deep through old prayers that were sighed upwards toward the heavens only to be blocked by the cathedral ceilings and fall back to the stone floors. Not to mention the garden variety bad stuff that goes along with places and people of power. All this can make a walk-through more than a little intense, if you’re so inclined.
I am so inclined, so this time I kept my guard up, kept my hands in my pockets, and kept my distance from the truth of the place. I became a tourist. A tourist with a mission: to take a Vain+Alone shot.
First time in Scotland for the lot of us on stage.
Why would I be shocked about our reception in Edinburgh? The foot stomping calls for an encore; the random couples dancing and clinging to each other throughout the night; the calls for “Carry Me” (where the hell did that come from?) and being sung home by those full voiced people at the very end of the night…? Why was I shocked?
My grandmother was born in Dundee.
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.
For tickets, go to
Or, I don’t know Where I’m Going, But I’m Going There Anyway.
In a few days we take to the stage for what will be the two final concerts of the Nights of Grief & Mystery North American Tour 2018. According to our timekeeper, we travelled for 39 days, were in/out of airports 23 times, changed timezones 11 times, and travelled about 22,500 km. We played to over 6,400 people in 25 or so cities. Most of The Nights (I don’t really like to call them shows) ran around 2-and-a-half hours, and the band played for almost all of that. Those are the numbers, for those who like that sort of thing.
What follows here is an attempt to encapsulate what I know to be the soft centre of the experience for me, made up as it was of landings of all kinds. We had plenty…the kind you do in airplanes, the kind you do when the van rolls to a stop at the venue or accommodations, and the kind that is knowledge of a particular sort that makes itself known to you in no uncertain terms, elbowing its way into your life (as opposed to knowledge that ‘settles’ or ‘dawns’ on you).
From a moving vehicle, some of the geography held surprises; like how NYC seems appear from nowhere in the middle of a great forest; how odd it is to see cactus and still think of Looney Tunes; how you can still be surprised by winter in Winnipeg in October; how you can fool yourself into willingly moving through the pollution of L.A; how silence can fill the vehicle when passing Tent City after Tent City along highways on both East and West coasts.
We moved a lot on this tour, on the ground and in the air. Airplane to airplane mostly. The ability to not acknowledge the toll all that movement takes gave way to it being mandatory to acknowledge it… the staggering movement of the machinery, visible and invisible, dedicated to hurtling humans through the air or down the road, and being a part of that, complicit, going from town to town, the invisible mechanisms under those airports and the moving of baggage.
That is when it came to me, a sick feeling, seeing the luggage snaking behind some guy towing it across the tarmac towards the behemoth plane and you know underneath the airport is an absurd system of belts and scanners and people prodding, checking, bumping, nudging your shit and everyone else’s shit. Sometimes it felt like everyone from everywhere decided to fly that day, no one wanted to stay home. I saw all that and I said out loud, We should do a tour where we move through space and time like it shows on our poster: we should do it behind a mule and cart.
It’s a serious consideration, and we began to assemble the list of people we could draft to build the caravan, drive the mule, etc. It’s a real list, but it will have to wait.
In the air, a particular sorrow would take a seat in me whenever we approached a landing. I would look down after breaking through the clouds and there I would be met with a bird’s eye view of the sum total of our greatness, shingles and concrete laid out in a thoughtless grid, uninspired and, even from up there, carrying the feint smell of endings. And here we were, flying in to play for people who paid a decent ticket price to hear us speak and sing about endings of all kinds.
This hit me hard flying into LA, which I’d never been to before. A lot of American place names carry with them a certain mythic quality if only because they appear as characters in so many novels, movies and other culture ephemera. Meeting them face to face is often like all the stories you hear of the folly of meeting your heroes: they are rarely what you had dreamed them to be and Los Angeles and its neighbouring regions are the hotbeds of the creation and sustaining of that American myth.
Note: When I was a kid, I thought The City of Los Angeles translated into The City of Lost Angels. Even as a kid, I had a handle on the more subtle sense of the word ‘lost’ to mean ‘bereft’. If ever there was a town full of angelic beings who had no clue as to their lineage, no sense of their destiny, suffering from a collective amnesia as to their purpose, and so, making their way through the days/nights as best they could, settling on a pale version of ‘meaningful’, it would be Los Angeles. So maybe I wasn’t all that far off in my definition as a kid.
From the air, the ground was a carpet of rooftops as far as could be seen under a layer of smog with a few spires of buildings rising out of the downtown core (where we were to play) that reminded me of Wizard of Oz for some reason. This is where all the glitter comes from? I thought. This is where all the light is bent around reality and fashioned into something else?
All I could see was the underside of a bad idea. On the ground, even the palm trees looked like they were trying to escape. I know we are going to get to the stage. We will go through all the challenges on the ground, and these are banal challenges… will there be enough audio firepower? Enough of a sound check? Do we have drums? What if my rig doesn’t work? What if the van is too small? What if we miss our connection? But you know, even in the air, that you will figure it all out, and you are going to get on that dark road heading out of town. You know this as sure as you know anything, even when you are impossibly streaking across the sky, even up in the unreal blue of the beginning of deep space…you know you will be on the humble ground, on a dark road, heading out of town. Those words again…on a dark road, heading out of town…
When you fly in over a place like Los Angeles and you know that you are going to be talking about endings of all kinds, and you are flying over an ending, those are heartbreaking moments for me. Those few seconds right there, trying to bring these two things together gently. We are night after night in one building or another, four people and a sound system, reminding people of the end and what is there waiting to be earned. It sounds ridiculous. And I’m shaking my head in sorrow, and I can’t focus on all the good people who will be helping us in and out of town, putting us up, driving us around, can’t focus on whatever the beauty the land does offer still, can’t focus on what most would call “the upside” of the venture…all I can feel is sorrow. This is the best we could do with our time here? This is the expression of the best part of us??
You’ll tell me I’m being negative, that its a matter of perspective, that most cities look like hell from the air, and that, anyhow, I’m a cynical asshole. I won’t argue with any of that. I’ve spent most of my artistic life peering into the negative spaces and my cynicism is well earned and it doesn’t keep me from recognizing beauty. I’m just not the guy you’re going to find cheerleading the modern definitions of creativity, righteousness, love, justice, and freedom in our cultural and political systems. After all, you are reading words from a guy who is in a band that almost printed the tour tee-shirt No Love Songs To The Anthropocene Era! (words courtesy of Jenkinson, of course).
Landings…the other great landing of this tour came from confronting the quality of the words of my songs as they had to night after night share the oxygen with Stephen Jenkinson’s conjureings. Even though we have presented different iterations of this material together for a few years now, this last tour seemed to illuminate how much farther up the mountain I have to go, or, conversely, how much deeper into the cracks and crevices I need to peer. Humbling and enervating at 54 years old to know I’m not operating at the top of my game. Along with that, though, like a salve comes this other kind of landing: that I am, indeed, doing what I’ve been put on this earth to do. At the end of this tour, which was the result of the hard work of many, many people and a foolhardy and Quixotic endeavour none the less, it occurred to me that I finally understood what ‘having faith’ meant– the kind that we try to have in ourselves, in our unlikely dreams for ourselves, in those wordless versions of ourselves that we can’t defend or describe, even if our marriages or relationships or households scream and demand, WHAT IS THE PLAN???!!!?? and you open your mouth but nothing comes out, because…
Because this: the arrow doesn’t know the target or the bow, but it flies anyway. Its flying is independent of the target and the bow, and loose in the air it knows neither and could speak of neither, but it flies on anyway. And that has been me in life, and that was what came to me at the end of this tour. I can’t claim to know my beginning and I’ve no certainty about the ending (except for knowing it will come), but right now I know I’m flying/falling at the behest of Something(s) or Someone(s) having set me in a bow, pulled until the tension was unbearable, and loosed me into the recurring unrepentant nights and the unrelenting dawns that mark time on this planet, towards a mystery known only to the archer.
And that is OK with me.
And that is faith, it seems to me.
I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going there anyway.
Photos: 1,5,6, Kathleen Dreier; 2, 3, 4, gh
A great band featuring my friend Don Rooke (of The Henrys and Quiet Industry fame) on lap steel etc for the evening. I sing four songs: four American God, American Way, America Lost, American Love songs. It is a lot of America for this singer. I’m a fairly linear guy and not much of a lyric “interpreter”, so when I sing “I expect to touch His hand”, I know the intention and can’t pretend otherwise. Likewise a bit of a thing to sing any line with the words “our forefathers”. I’m having a good time finding my way through these songs, though, and I know the shows will be great. A ton of talent under the roof.