Wed 30 January, New York...... He brought his banjo in, wrapped in a shroud. Dressed in a dark suit, his hair was side-parted and slicked down with hair oil. Tall and pale and slightly stooped, he wore a black moustache. He looked like across between a 1920's door-to-door Bible salesman and that odd character from German pop-synth band; Sparks. His banjo playing was rudimentary, and his songs sounded like Tom Waits on real bad acid. But I liked the man with no name.I was at the Jalopy Theatre in Brooklyn, New York on a bitter cold January night. Every Wednesday, they present the Roots n Ruckus event, a night of folk, old-time and blues.
Earlier I had seen another guy play. He reminded me of a young Townes Van Zandt, dark, tall and skinny and with a genuine Southern nasal whine. He sang some great old songs, but I didn't catch his name either. All these guys had a habit of mumbling their introductions. Free food was being served down at the back. Ladies drifted by with plates of pasta. I didn't eat. Didn't need to. I had a beer and soaked in the atmosphere.A bitter wind was blowing as we made our way down Columbia Street, ancient skeletal trees bending in the breeze, trashcans waiting to be emptied. Two well-dressed guys in a big black Sedan drove by slowly, rolled down the window and asked for directions to the Brooklyn Bridge. We were useless with directions. At Carroll Street we took the F Train to Manhattan. That night I dreamed a dream. I was in some foreign city. Nothing unusual about that, however I felt both lost and at home at the same time. The north wind was blowing hard, driving through the sky big, black, heavy clouds. A high sea was raging and dashing its huge, slow, foamy waves along the coast with the rumbling sound of thunder. The waves followed each other close, rolling in as high as mountains, scattering the foam as they broke. I quickly crossed a wide majestic bridge and made my way to an area of bustling activity. Labyrinthine streets brought me to a small bar, where I met somebody I knew. It felt like Xmas, or some festive season. The ladies were of east European aspect. Everybody seemed to be expecting something to happen. I had a gig the following night and a storm was coming.
Fri 8 February, Arnhem…..There’s a great line from a Mercury Rev song that goes "bands, those funny little plans, that never go quite right." And it’s so true.Before xmas, I had the rather misguided notion that we should, and could record a new album in a matter of a few weeks and have it out really fast. Although we've got about twenty songs down it looks likely that a new album will have to wait until the tail end of the year. Instead, a batch of singles will be released throughout the next year, the first on the vernal equinox, and the next one on the summer solstice. It makes sense that the next one should be made available on the autumnal equinox, with the last one seeing the light of day on, you guessed it, the winter solstice. Each single will be available as a download, as is the fashion these days. Marking time on the wheel of the year is a concept I'm keen on.
Having my head full of Sonic Youth songs was not the ideal way to approach a few solo acoustic gigs, so I put on Okkervil River’s great LP “Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See” and even took time to rehearse. I flew into Brussels and from there made my way by train up into The Netherlands, arriving in Anthem a bit late. I had been off the booze for over two weeks and was feeling all the better for it. However, reality bites hard and I knew there was no way I could get through three gigs in two days without a drink or two. The bar lady said "would you like a drink ?" so I had a beer and before long somebody got me a Geneva Gin as well. There's an axiom of the occult path that proclaims 'man know thyself' and it serves well. The gig was at the wonderful Oranje Koffiehuis. I hadn’t been there before, but everyone, the staff, the locals, the audience were good people. So much so, that I didn’t even make it to my hotel. Eric invited me back to his pad for a late drink and he put on records by Grinderman, Keith Caputo and Motorpsycho, who are Norwegian, if memory serves correctly.
Sat 9 February, Antwerp…Breakfast was a boiled egg, bread and cheese. I’m not big on coffee, but this morning I had some, and after Eric had given me a few CD’s, including the recent album by Nick Cave’s new band Grinderman and the soundtrack to the movie The Proposition, plus a few other CD’s we went off on our merry way. Eric took me down to the train station and not being in possession of a credit card, he kindly used his piece of plastic to buy my ticket. I reimbursed him with hard cash; we shook hands and parted company. It was a bright sunny day, but still bitter cold.
The train rolled on towards Nijmegen, a city considered to be the oldest in the Netherlands. The first mention of Nijmegen in history is in the 1st century of the Common Era when the Romans built a military camp on the place where Nijmegen was to appear; the location had great strategic value because of the surrounding hills, which gave (and continues to give) a good view over the Waal and Rhine valley.As we crossed the River Waal, an enormous barge slowly drifted by, on the way to god knows where, it’s unseen cargo remained a mystery to me.The phone rang and it was Arnt from Belgium wondering about my estimated time of arrival. As we spoke, confusion set in and I nearly got off at the wrong station. Onwards to Roosendaal where I had a twenty minutes wait before the next train. The sun was going down and it was going down real slow, casting long shadows all along the platform. Elderly moustachioed gentlemen strolled by chatting in Flemish. I felt like a man from another time. Two Buddhist monks in traditional saffron robes waited on the 17.35 train. I wished there was a bar open, and there probably was, but it could have meant carrying my bags down three flights of stairs.A few hours later I arrived into Antwerp Central. Asked directions outside but nobody could help me out. A Norwegian lady approached me with map in hand and helped me try and locate my destination. She even insisted I keep her map as she was off home to Norway. However, I had the address wrong, so I just thought to myself, to hell with this, I’m taking a taxi.
Before long I was at Den Hopsack. Had some salad and soundchecked. I was on the phone to Andrew in Dublin when along came Frank. Always good to see Frank. Ten minutes later I was on a street corner on the phone to Åsa when along came Inneka eating an ice cream cone. We strolled back down to Den Hopsack and Inneka did a set with a little help from Frank and Wim, who used to be in that great band De Bossen. I played my set and all went well, although I ‘ve played better gigs in my time. I felt rusty.
With Arnt we hopped into a car and sped right across town to the 219 Bar where I was to play another gig. The gear for the DJ was unsuitable and the PA just wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do. We attempted a soundcheck but that’s as far as it went. Gig cancelled at the last minute. Meanwhile the crew we had with us re located to some other place where Wim was having a birthday party of sorts. Luc from Kinky star in Gent arrived and drinks were drank and stories told. At some time around 5am I got a lift to Central station, where I had to wait for close to two hours to catch a train to Brussels. It was a bleak and freezing cold morning. A depressing way to spend a few hours. Somehow or other I managed to miss the train, and in a bit of a panic, I managed to get the next one and I got to the airport a little weary and bewildered, but still in one piece. I treated myself to a glass of red wine before getting on the flight to Dublin and falling asleep straight away.
Sun 17 February, Tilburg…On Friday we had rehearsals, as I desperately tried to remember how to play 7 or 8 new songs. We’ve been recording them, but that’s a different story to letting rip as a three-piece. But it all began to come together and we ate pizza and Chris crashed out in my place. A few hours later we scrambled out of our respective beds, grabbed a quick coffee and Maurius, my friendly Romanian taxi driver pulled into the driveway. We met with Les at the airport and off we went. On arrival at Brussels airport I bought the tickets to Brussels North and ended up waiting on the very same platform I waited on eight days ago, when I was bound for Arnheim. Today we’re heading north into the Netherlands again; only this time our destination is Tilburg, located in the southern province of Noord-Brabant.
Not much is known about the earliest history of Tilburg. Documents from the year 709 C.E. show the name Tilburg for the first time. After that the sources remain silent for some centuries. In the later Middle Ages Tilburg was more of a local 'region' than a village or city, although a couple of small hamlets provided its population centers. One of them was known as 'Eastern Tilburg' (Oost-Tilburg), which was later reflected in the name of Oisterwijk ('Eastern Quarter'). This village centered around a small (probably wooden) castle or 'Motteburcht' on an equally small hill, which became derelict and was torn down after a few centuries at most. Apparently King William II (1792-1849) always bore a warm heart towards Tilburg. "Here I can breathe freely and I feel happy", he once said about the town. I sort of feel the same way about it myself.
I know we played Tilburg before, back in 2000 and possibly in ’98 too, but I’m a bit vague on that.On arrival, I’m heartened to find our hotel, the imaginatively titled Hotel Centraal, is right across the street from the Station Centraal. We checked in and had a drink or three at the bar. I had agreed to do a guitar work-shop at 4.30pm so I needed a lie down to get my head together, so at 3pm I hit the hay while Les and Chris went off out on a ramble around town. Promoter Will arrived to collect me and we walked the short distance to the Paradox Club. The guitar clinic was an odd affair. I’m no whizz kid with a guitar, so instead I talked about song writing and showed the small gathering of people a few of my licks, mostly modifications of old rockabilly riffs, and I pointed out the similarities between the licks used by Marc Bolan and Eddie Cochran and Charlie Feathers. I talked about the importance of getting the most out of three notes, a thing Johnny Thunders had down to a T. A couple of guys got up to jam, and Chris sat behind the kit and jammed along too. Later, we had dinner, sound checked and waited….and waited.
The gig was well received, a good crowd, who got into it, and it really was great to play so much new material. We managed to get through about 8 new songs without a (noticeable) hitch.Afterwards, CD’s were sold and Les went to the toilet for a puke. A girl at the bar asked me if we ever played Galway. I said the last time we played Galway was about three years ago. “I’m moving to a place near there” she said. “Where ?” said I. “Claremorris, have you ever heard of it,” Sabine replied. I told her that I had grown up about four miles from there and I knew the place well. A long night followed, chatting to people about music and life in general. The following morning, Les had recovered from his vicious stomach bug to regale us with tales of his once successful , but alas short lived, solo career in Japan. We had time to kill in Schipol Airport, Amsterdam and spent it well, smoking cigarettes, and drinking beer. What else would you do in an airport at 11 am?
Fri 22 February, Dublin.....A bunch of people arrived down to The Cobblestone that I hadn't seen in years, Gary from Cork, Fergus, Leo who lives in Portugal these days running some sort of classy health farm. It was great to see my old friend Sheila Sullivan again. She passed on a message from journalist Jim Carroll who apparently reads this diary. Jim used to write nice things about a band I was in five lives ago, and then stopped writing nice things about me. I suppose I did lose the plot for a while. But then, who doesn't. So, hi there Jim, hope your keeping well. Sheila was a Racketeer for a couple of years, but wisely took early retirement. However, being in the Racketeers is a bit like the The Eagles song 'Hotel California' ..."you can check out, but you can never leave..." Two years ago Sheila guested with us at our gig at the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Kilkenny, and of course she played violin on "She Said" from Silver & Dust.I played my set and I seemed to keep it pretty much together with Les joining me on two of the new songs, "The Women 'Round Here" and "Sweet Angel." I strapped on my old electric Epiphone Casino for the last song ("Racketeers Lament") and got a wall of sweet distortion and feedback and that went down well. After a short intermission Patrick Freyne and his Bad Intentions played their set and they were great as I had imagined they would be. Then I DJ'd for the rest of the evening and didn't get a chance to chat to as many people as I had hoped....next time I'll bring a tape.....remember those things, tapes ?
Thurs 20 March, Dublin........... I noticed all the real good Van Morrison clips on youtube have been taken down, including the piece of film of him performing that most beautiful song about such a dodgy place, 'The Streets of Arklow.' The performance dates from just a few months back from a show in the US. Magical it was, but with all the big record companies getting themselves all worked up over copyright laws, it's been taken down. It reminds me of the early 80's when record sleeves bore the legend 'home taping is killing music.' How silly it was.
I found some new footage of Dylan doing a gig in Buenos Aires and he's back playing guitar again, after years of slamming away at his keyboard.
The deep baritone of Walter Jackson boomed out of the speakers, shaking the wall and bringing the sweet sound of soul to the north end of the building. It was time to put on Fabienne Delsol again. Her wonderful 7inch of bright yellow vinyl arrived in the post from those great people at Damaged Good Records in England. 'Im gonna Catch Me a Rat' is a great slice of country garage pop with French Fabienne sounding sexy and cool. The flip side is three minutes of melancholic psychedelia with melody. I wish there were more records like this in the world. Word came through that Mac of Mac's Records died. He was one of the first people I got to know when I moved to the big bad city. Many years later we recorded together when he recited poetry over a track that ended up as a Captain Hex B side, but it wasn't his fault it didn't sell. I once asked him for a job. This was back in about 1993. Times were hard and I was really broke. Poor Mac looked real perplexed and started to tell me that there was more to running a record shop than just hanging around playing records all day. I knew that, I wasn't stupid, but it brought it home to me, there and then, that I was unemployable. He was a good guy, Mac. In recent years I would drop into his shop Final Vinyl on Camden Street to root around for records and CD's. He always had a story for me.
I missed the Church service, instead I caught up with folks in the pub across the road where we paid our respects and knocked them back. Met with Enda McDonald, who I hadn't seen in about twenty years, Acko, Bootleg Paul, Frank from The Baby Snakes, currently hustling for the Master Musicians of Joujouka. Tom Cook was there who had managed a few bands over the years and in more recent times had a wildlife radio show. Not a lot of difference there, studying wild life and managing a band.I had to go and do one of my occasional DJ gigs over at the Belvedere. On arrival I discovered a room full of very drunk and very messy Welch rugby fans. I suppose it could have been worse. I played records by Charlie Feathers, The Stones, Faces, Patti Smith, T Rex, Tommy Blake, Howlin' Wolf, Holly Golightly, Roy Orbinson, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, The Gun Club, The Stranglers, Blondie and many more. Had a few drinks, made a phone call and my taxi arrived and we cut across town. Back at home I fell into bed with my book on Henri Toulouse Lautrec and read about his life hanging out with the hustlers and the whores, the dancers and dipsomaniacs. I always loved his posters, lithographs and paintings and he sure was prolific. I drifted off into the Land of Nod dreaming of Henri taking boat rides to Bordeaux, or a barge up into the Netherlands on holiday, always travelling by sea, if possible. Mixing his mad cocktails for his friends and drinking gallons of wine after a trip to the circus on a sunny Friday afternoon. Spending hours down at the Moulin Rouge drawing his good friend Jane Avril.
I awoke to the sound of hailstones lashing down like miniature golf balls, setting off car alarms across the square and throughout the neighbourhood. People ran by on the street shielding their faces from the onslaught. I put on a Charlie Parker record, made myself some tea and had toast with orange marmalade. A good way to greet the day. I've currently got 119 TV channels and they're all rubbish. Occasionally I'll find something worth watching. At 5am last night I discovered a documentary on Tibet as it was before the Chinese came. Old film footage from the 30's, 40's and 50's , lovingly restored, showed a country unlike anyplace else on the planet at that time. Great costumes, but a little obsessed with religion. Later, Les and I got some new mixes down and 'The women 'round Here' is ready for virtual release. Angela Carter is fuelling my imagination again and there are a few new songs floating around up near the ceiling. I have to coax them down onto paper or tape or both.