Viewing entries in
Uncategorized

Comment

The Long Story

The retired Army man drove me back to the hotel with more stories from his days in the Royal Guard. He apparently had them timed. "There's a story I want to tell you, but we don't have quite enough time for that one. Let's see, how about this one?" The shuttle had 15 seats, but it was just me and the driver. I sat in the front seat with him and enjoyed the sleepy streets. I had a head full of Morris dancers, children's parades, and meat pies. Shrewsbury smelled like a breath of warm ale. Baskets of bright petunias and begonias hung under the street lights along the river. My heart was raw from too little sleep and too much beauty.

I've been sober for six years. There's no relief from reality. It's ultimately rewarding, but I spent most of the evening trying not to cry.

Back at the Hampton by Hilton, I pulled my guitar from behind the seat. I shook the driver's hand and wished I had a couple of days to sit with him over coffee and listen to stories. He should write a book. It would have to be posthumously released, maybe even after most of the living royalty are dead.

A car swung into the parking lot of the hotel. A familiar tune was rumbling inside. The car turned around in front of me and stopped short of pulling into a parking space. Kai Welch opened his door and my voice came blowing out. Abigail Washburn sat in the passenger seat with a styrofoam takeout box of fish and chips. They were listening to the copy of The Law and the Lonesome that I gave them.

"It's great!" Kai said.

"You want some of this?" Abigail asked.

"No thanks. I'd be up all night."

Inside the Hampton by Hilton, the Sweetback Sisters were having a beer at the bar. I chatted with Jesse, the fiddle player, for a while. I told Zara I'd send the song I wanted her to sing, as soon as I got back to my room.

I bid everyone good night and went back to my room to work. It was 1am. I surfed around for a couple of songs that Maddy Prior suggested we do together. She emailed me with a couple more ideas and links to them. Youtube wasn't cooperating, so I bought the songs from iTunes. I sent Zara the duet and then sketched out the chords for the songs Maddy had sent me. None of them were simple.

Before the 1960's, it's hard to find any examples of guitar accompaniment on fiddle tunes from the UK. Ballads were sung a cappella. Even now, no one agrees on what the chords are. It's up to accompanists to arrange their own chords. Many use this opportunity to put their own stamp on a tune, coming up with new arrangements and chord substitutions that update the harmonic content of the ancient melodies. When two guitarists show up to a session, there has to be a negotiation over the chord changes. One of them might just sit and drink for a while.

In American roots music, most songs have standard chord changes that apply to many other songs. Thousands of blues songs have the exact same chords. It's a simple language. The meaning is in the tone. Bluegrass is only about 70 years old. It's been recorded since it began. Country music began with a recording session in Bristol, Tennessee in 1927. No one disputes the chord changes in American roots music. You get them off the album.

I had no doubt that the Sweetback Sisters could play my songs as if they already knew them. Maddy's songs were a different story. I charted out Long Shadows and played it until I nodded off in my chair. I laid my guitar in the case and crawled into bed.

The Sweetback Sisters had a 10am soundcheck. Jim Moray taught them the first and last songs of the set. We all met at noon and rehearsed what was left in an upstairs room on the festival grounds. We only had an hour. Maddy and I came early and worked on Long Shadows until the others showed up. I played my songs once and the band said, "Done." Rua had their own thing going on; no one would sit in with them. Caroline Herring had no time to rehearse. She would just show up and play her songs. The whole show would be an hour and a half long. Jim kept massaging the set until it seemed just barely possible for us to pull it off.

I had one more meat pie for lunch, my third one of the long weekend. They poured brown gravy on top and heaped a scoop of mashed potatoes on that. It was soul food for a drizzly day.

The Sweetback Sisters played their last full set on the Main Stage. I went backstage and listened. They're so damn good. Traditional southern music meets western swing at a backroad honky-tonk. Jason Loughlin is one of the best guitar players I've ever heard, and I've heard some doozies. If you like instrumental music, check out his solo record "Peach Crate." The drummer came out from behind the kit and the whole band sang an a cappella number about moonshine. I almost cried again. It was everything I love about America in under three minutes. The pioneer spirit. The proletarian pride. The sense of humor in hard times. Even a biblical reference.

I hustled over to Main Stage Two to meet up with Jim Moray and the other artists who were playing this collaborative set. Rua and Nick Cooke were trying to figure out if they knew some tunes in common. Faustus was on stage. Backstage was cacophonous. I had to go out back and hide behind someone's car to tune. I still barely knew Long Shadows. I put earbuds in my phone and played along with it. I had to turn it up to hear it above the backstage rumble. The aluminum tone was violent at that volume. Earbuds and mp3s are God's way of making it easier for me to accept my inevitable hearing loss.

The Sweetback Sisters came in from Main Stage at the last minute. They hauled their gear back up on stage and set up again, all smiles. There were four mics across the front for vocalists. No one knew exactly which mic they were going to use. They were there for whoever needed one in whichever configuration happened to be on stage at the time. There was a microphone for my guitar and no one was sure if they'd be able to hear me when the whole band was playing. Everyone had sympathy for the soundman. There was no time for more than a line check.

Jim Moray kicked it off with The Sweetback Sisters backing him. I looked around for a schedule to see when I was playing. There wasn't one. Jim was the only one who knew exactly what was happening.

Rain started falling, dripping in the doorway between the backstage and the stage. Everyone had to pass through the running water to get to the stage. I was standing backstage with Maddy when she turned her palms up and looked up at the ceiling. Little drops were making their way through the back wall. My guitar was not happy about the moisture. I looked around outside to see if there was a place I could retune my guitar out of the rain and away from the noise of whoever was on stage. The sound system was broadcasting to two thousand people. Try tuning a guitar over that.

There were a couple of portable toilets in a half-trailer in the lot behind the marquee. Most of the time that I wasn't on stage, I was in the toilet with a tuner.

Singing with Zara Bode was a sensual treat. Right before we went to the bridge of the song, I held up my left hand with all five fingers to let the bass player know we were going to the five-chord. The drummer thought I meant for them to stop, so he did. I sang the bridge, gave Jesse the lead, turned back to Stefan and mouthed, "SORRY." He came back in on the downbeat.

They invited me to stay on stage and play the next couple of songs. I spoke the language. We all shuffled off for Rua and clog-dancer Hannah James. They set the stage on fire. Caroline Herring walked up from another stage and right back onstage for her songs. Maddy Prior was a secret we kept from the audience until I introduced her. She came on to sing harmony on my love song to a waitress. The audience laughed at every line of the first verse, thinking I was singing the song to Maddy. I almost started laughing at the whole chaotic brew. Jason absolutely killed the solo and the audience loved him for it.

We ended with everyone on stage in a We-Are-The-World pile-on, hammering a suped-up Chuck Berry-style version of The Hog-Eye Man, with this astounding lyric, "Sally's in the garden punching duff. The cheeks of her arse go chuff, chuff, chuff." Hannah James even danced a wood-splintering clogging solo. How would you market that band? Can you imagine being in the elevator when you get to pitch your idea to the Geffen A&R guy?

"We're an upbeat blues rock folk band with a clog dancer."

They'd be fools to pass on it. The audience lost their minds. I lost mine. Jim played his guitar like it was on fire and he was trying to put it out. I screamed some far-off harmony. I don't think anyone could hear me, not that it mattered. It was just madness, a thundering folk orgasm to burn the last fumes of the bank holiday weekend.

We encored with Maddy Prior leading Rolling Home. Two thousand people waved their arms back and forth in opposite rhythms, loosely guided by the tempo of the song, anemones in a coral reef of bright rain jackets.

I had a train to catch.

I hugged everyone I could find back stage. I hugged sound techs. I might have hugged some innocent bystanders, just to be sure. We all promised to be in touch.

When I got to the merch tent to check out my CDs, The Sweetback Sisters were there, signing autographs. People were still buying CDs, so I waited ten minutes and caught my breath. I'm so glad I did, because that's when Jason gave me a copy of "Peach Crate."

The manager of the store handed me a wad of pounds sterling and a big, empty suitcase. "You were the top seller of the festival." I couldn't believe it. Y'all are definitely getting a picture of the chicken coop.

The festival grounds were sodden with the rain. I squished across to artist reception and found my driver. Everyone was trying to leave the festival at once. The parking field was too wet to cross. All traffic was funneled onto the one paved road that left the campus, bottlenecked down to a single lane at the top of the hill. Steve swung the big shuttle out onto the road and joined the line. We sat in a long row of brake lights.

I said, "I think we have time for that long story now."

Comment

Comment

Baby Egg

The phone in my hotel room rang at 11:15pm. The driver had come to pick me up and take me back to the festival for late night fun. I apologized to him for his wasted trip and rolled back over, wide awake and exhausted. My wife emailed me all night from Eastern Daylight Time. We lost another chicken to a raccoon. That makes four chickens we've lost while I've been gone. The current coop is failing and I am not home to fix it. A husband on the road is no husband at all. She is burying chickens and terrified for the survivors' safety every night. We agreed that she should hire a carpenter to finish the new coop that I've started. I tried to convey my unwritten construction plans to my surrogate from across the ocean in an email.

Rowan, our two-year-old, is learning how fragile life is. He gathered an egg from the coop and cradled it in his hands all the way back to the house. He dubbed it the "baby egg." He took it to his room and made a crib for it. He spoke to it softly and nursed it at his breast.

I fell asleep at 4am. I showed up on the festival grounds at 9am to warm up for my flatpicking workshop. The Sabrina marquee had about 1500 seats. I had no idea how many would come to the workshop. I told everyone to bring guitars.

The soundman showed up at about 9:30 and said, "We don't run sound for workshops. I'm just here to set up some things."

At 10am, there were 60 people. Half of them had their guitars. I set my metronome up on some rigging and started talking. After a few sentences, I asked, "Can everyone hear me?"

The answer was a resounding no. I went and found the soundman.

By the time they got sound up and running, there were a hundred people. We strummed and cross-picked at glacier speed, a microphone pointed down next to my boot above my little quartz metronome. The plastic TOCK echoed off the yellow and blue PVC walls. A few people didn't have a pick, so I handed out a couple from my pocket. I revealed all my secrets, which are not many. I stopped the metronome and played a song to show what the pattern sounded like up to speed. We learned bass runs. I chanted, "DOWN. UP. DOWN. UP. DOWN. UP." I took questions and one woman asked me, "Can we take you home?" We had a blast. When people are eager to learn, being a teacher is the best job in the world.

The hour and a half that seemed like a lifetime before the workshop went by like an album side. At 11:30, I had to ask everyone to clear out so that the crew could set up for the day of shows. A few people ran back to their camps to put the inspiration to work. I got an email from a lady two days later who said that her fiance had still not put his guitar down.

People brought CDs to me for autographs. "Let's all walk over to the merch tent and I'll sign them there," I said. I stopped and autographed some on the way. When I got to the merch tent, Nikki asked me, "Do you have any CDs left? We're sold out of your new one and the others are going fast."

That's the best news I had all weekend. "I gave you everything I have. Can I use the signing tent?"

She said, "Yes, of course. We've never had a signing after a workshop before!" Thank you, Shrewsbury. I'll put up some pictures of the new chicken coop, so you can see what you've paid for.

Back at artist reception, there was a serious round table meeting happening. Everyone had a computer or a phone. It resembled a war room. I stood and wondered at it, but I didn't really want to know. I sat down beside Caroline Herring to chat, but she got up and went over to the table to join the conference. I kicked off my boots and hat and went horizontal.

When I woke up, I learned that KT Tunstall's father died. Her set was canceled. She was the festival headliner, the very last show of the whole long weekend. The festival sells out months in advance every year. The directors were concerned. Surely, some people bought tickets for the festival just to see KT. They wanted to give the fans something special to replace what they'd lost. For eight hours, they called every agent and manager from Glasgow to Nashville, to find a replacement of her caliber. If the right artist had been available, they would have flown them from the US without question. This was their baby egg.

I know the feeling. I hadn't seen anyone except the acts preceding me. I can't enjoy an artist when I have work to do. I worry my show to bare threads until my boots hit the stage.

With my workshop over, my time was finally my own. I got a schedule and started making marks. Abigail Washburn was playing in minutes. I walked across campus to see her play where I had played Friday night. She walked out and plucked the clawhammer groove that I knew so well. On paper, it's the way every clawhammer banjo player in the world plays, but somehow only Abigail sounds like Abigail. I've listened to her Song Of The Traveling Daughter a hundred times, if once. After a couple of songs, a guy I'd never heard before, Kai Welch, came out and joined her. He was not her support. He was her equal, the whole set.

I walked backstage. I knew what to say to Abigail. I knew I'd meet her someday and I'd said it in my head for years. They were both genuine and gracious. Kai shone with a bright light. Abigail went over to their car and handed me the new CD. It's out on Rounder records. My best guess is that the CD cost them seven dollars. Artists on record labels don't make a habit of handing out CDs. I said, "Are you going to be here for a minute?" I walked back across campus to the merch tent, checked out one of my few remaining CDs, and walked it back over to them, unwrapped and signed. I left them alone to pack up.

I walked back over to reception and had a cup of coffee and another chat with Maddy Prior. She had changed into a bright yellow jacket with black polka-dots. With her two-toned hair, she looked like the art teacher I always wanted. I enjoyed her company.

There was a plan brewing for replacing KT Tunstall's set and I was part of it. They were moving Treacherous Orchestra over to the Main Stage for the last set there, after the Sweetback Sisters. The Sweetback Sisters would break down and set up again over at Main Stage Two. They would be a backing band to get Maddy Prior on stage - she had never played the festival - , the blistering Rua McMillan Trio, Jim Moray, Nick Cooke, Hannah James, Caroline Herring, and me. The show would be an hour and a half long. The directors put Jim Moray in charge of building the set, and they wanted a real set, a true collaboration, not artists-in-the-round. Americans do this kind of collaboration all the time. Evidently, UK'ers do not. All the Americans said, "Cool." Everyone else was dubious.

I let Maddy know right away that I wanted to play with her. Sing a harmony. Anything. I pumped optimism into the idea. I'd never seen or heard most of the people involved. Maybe I just wanted to get back on stage in front of this awesome audience, but I do believe in positive energy. Jim was nervous.

Several people recommended that I see the Sweetback Sisters this weekend. They were playing at 9pm and I had already marked it. The singers, Emily and Zara, were sitting at a table nearby. We shook hands and met. The schedule was written in the European 24-hour style and I was confused. I thought their show was at 7pm.

I got up and walked past Emily to one of the directors. I said, "I'm going to go see the Sweetback Sisters on your recommendation."

"When do they play?"

"Right now. You want to go?"

The director looked over at Emily, ran over to her and said, "You're playing right now!"

Emily turned white, jumped up from her table, and said, "What time is it!?"

Someone knew better and settled the question. "No, no, you don't play for another two hours." I apologized and excused myself in the same breath. Emily glared at me. That wasn't exactly the way I wanted to start a relationship with the Sweetback Sisters.

When I showed up for their set at 9pm, there was a sign on the marquee, "Tent Full." A dozen people waited outside for seats to clear. The band kicked in with a swing. The ladies' voices were like a brass section. The Tele player ripped up one side and down the other. The fiddler was as hot as there ever was. Some people left and the door attendant invited me inside. "No, thank you. I like it out here." There was no way I was going to show my face in there. A band that good, I had to figure out how to reintroduce myself as someone other than the primate who gave Emily a heart attack in artist reception.

I danced in the street until they were done. One more thing to do tonight. I walked all the way back over to artist reception, also the backstage area for the main stage. In the room where everyone hung out, there was a television screen with the current show playing. Richard Thompson was on. I'd never seen him live. People lined up by the thousands to get in. I knew it would be that way and gave up on getting into the show earlier in the day. I thought I'd watch the show on the screen backstage. The sound was down and most of what I heard was the low end rolling around through the PVC walls.

I saw one of the directors and asked him if there was any way I could get into the show. Neil said, "Sure. Let's go this way," and we walked through the backstage access. He took me around to the front of the stage and walked me between the main speakers and the barricades that held back more than three thousand people. We walked right up to the edge of the stage. "You're welcome to stand here and watch the show."

It was easily one of the top five concerts in my life. Most people knew every word. I'd heard him a hundred times in the radio and didn't understand the words, but tonight, maybe because my ear was getting used to all the British voices, I could understand every line. I was happy for it all to be a revelation to me. Mr. Thompson has won so many accolades for his guitar playing, it would be hard to match the expectations, but he went far out beyond anything I could have imagined.

I could have easily shaken his hand and said a word after the show, but I didn't. I asked for a ride to the hotel. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to hear anything else. I wanted it to last forever. It was Richard Thompson's workshop for me. I wanted to carry the inspiration back to my quiet room and build a little nest for it in my dreams.

It was not to be. Before I could leave the tent, Maddy Prior walked over to me and said, "I'm thinking about singing Long Shadows. Do you know it?" Then she leaned over to me in the cacophonous tent and sang into my ear. All that I'd heard was washed away by a single wave, a completely different kind of music, a voice from the most ancient ache of a lonely winter. It was a fair trade, and a reminder that I had one more job to do.

I saw Zara from the Sweetback Sisters standing close by. I walked up to her and said, "I want you to sing a duet with me."

Comment

Comment

The Man In The Moon

I wanted to stay up on Friday night and see if a good song circle developed, but the last shuttle ran to the hotel at half past midnight. If I stayed, I'd have to stay all night. I didn't have a tent to crawl into if I got tired. I had to play an afternoon slot on Saturday. I gave up and went back to the hotel. I thought I'd get a good night's sleep and maybe stay up on Saturday night. Jet lag licked my face all night. I got up and wrote. I finally went back to bed at 6:30am.

I woke up at 9:30 to eat, because breakfast closed at 10am. I called in to the festival and asked them to pick me up at noon. I could only keep one eye open at a time.

The hotel had a continental breakfast, though England is most specifically not the Continent. There was salty back bacon which they called simply "bacon," sausage, baked beans, scrambled eggs, and potatoes like what I'd call tater tots. Pardon me, croquettes. The staff put out little boxes of cereal and muesli in a jar, some fruit including an endless bowl of blueberries which saved my life over the weekend, a commercial beltline toaster with white and brown bread, yogurts in a small fridge, and a great coffee machine that made anything I wanted, one cup at a time. I wanted to unplug it and take it to my room.

There was a television at one end of the room that was always on. On the news this morning, Neil Armstrong had taken his last step.

It's not news that he died. He was an old man and the world only tolerates us for so long. It was news because it made us remember that day when humanity's leash was suddenly two hundred thousand miles longer than we thought it was, that Sir Edmund Hillary was only a forward scout, that perhaps we were the favored race of a great supernatural power and it was possible to outlive our own planet.

Staring at the tube, too tired to understand plain English, my mind wandered. I thought three things in quick succession.

One: A month ago, in the Yukon, I met a carver who grew up in a small First Nations community in the far north. He was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and could just barely read and write. Growing up, his knowledge of the world was a small circle of boreal forest and tundra. He wasn't even aware that there were other First Nations people. Then, when he was 15, he got on a plane and flew to Toronto for a student exchange program. He may as well have flown to the moon. He was a brave young man.

Two: The day Neil Armstrong made his one small step, my wife made her giant leap into this world in the back of a car at the corner of route 22 and 172 in Bedford Village, New York. Her father, a dentist by training, delivered her and cut the umbilical cord, and then drove his wife the rest of the way to the hospital. My sweetheart still waits for no one and makes an unforgettable entrance wherever she goes. This is how I remember her birthday.

Three: Do people really eat baked beans for breakfast?

A fellow sat down next to me with two pieces of toasted bread. He stacked bacon on top of one, piled baked beans on top of the bacon, squirted HP sauce all over the beans, topped this mess with the second piece of bread, and then clamped his face down on it. Baked bean juice squirted out of the bottom onto his plate. That answered that question. I went back for more blueberries and took a box of cereal for the room.

The driver was another retired Army man with lots of great stories about working in the Royal Guard. I got more dirt than a tabloid on the 30 minute drive to the festival. It was a guilty pleasure and woke me up with laughter.

When we got to the festival, I looked at the schedule and just happened to notice that my name had three appearances beside it. I had a workshop at 10am the next morning, "Flatpicking for Songwriters."

I've been offering that workshop to festivals for three years and Shrewsbury is the first festival to present it. When I saw it on the schedule, I was elated that I finally got to teach it. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell me and I hadn't worked up a lesson plan. It was just a concept. The workshop was an hour and a half long. I didn't want to just play songs and talk about how I play. I wanted people to bring their guitars and learn how to do it themselves. So, sometime Saturday, I had to come up with a method.

When I arrived backstage for my set, the act before me was midway through. They sounded like a string quartet playing modern arrangements of traditional tunes. The fiddles played against each other, pushing dissonant notes together. Their timing was sexy and breathtaking, holding beats out long and then pushing the time forward, but always locked together like the tides. Sometimes they sounded Scandinavian, sometimes more Celtic. I checked the schedule to see who it was. Vamm.

I went out to the side of the stage and looked. Three young women played two fiddles and one mandola. It was hard to believe there were only three of them. It was enchanted music.

The audience carried me along with their grace and the fact that they slept more than I did. I've never been too tired to play songs, but I do need an interested party. I gave an American history lesson and sang a song about cooking a whole hog. They were terrific singers. A drizzle hissed on the tent. I remembered and mentioned my Sunday morning workshop.

As soon as I was done, I walked over to the merchandise tent. It was a complete music store, a local record company with classic folk stock from their stores and then a table dedicated to the festival artists. They were happy to see me. "You're doing quite well," they said. I went out and sat down in an auxiliary tent off to the side, where I could sign CDs.

It pissed rain. New fans brought CDs to me and stood under the white awning while the rained pounded and dripped down in long runs. Everyone had their Wellies on, except for me. My boots were half alligator, half cowhide, and all dumbass in this weather. I danced around the boggy spots all weekend. I also had on a set of long underwear the whole time.

When the rain finally slacked, I headed over toward artist reception behind the main stage for coffee and maybe some curry, a kind of spicy meat stew thick as gravy. The British brought back two things from India that now seem essential to this climate: tea and spicy food.

On the way, I ran into some young guys playing the fiddle tune Blackberry Blossom. The banjo player was ripping. They all looked about twenty. One guy played a snare drum on a stand. He scanned me and said, "Get your guitar."

I fell in and picked the tune. It just happens to be one of about five that I can really shred on. We all shook hands and they picked another song to play. Their harmonies were classic. The banjo player was unstoppable. A crowd gathered. The sun came out. People undressed a bit.

Blue Horyzon was their name. They picked the songs and I played along. By the time the second chorus came, I knew it and jumped in on the harmony. It was the jam I'd wanted the night before.

The clouds came back over and a breeze picked up. It dropped five degrees Celsius in a few minutes. I was tired of being cold. I remembered my mission to get some curry and a coffee and I bid Blue Horyzon adieu.

The last time I wore my long johns all week at a summer festival was just last month in the Yukon, where I met the carver. After that festival, I jumped on Bob Hamilton's bus and rode back to Whitehorse. Bob owns Old Crow studio. I hung out with him for a couple of days and recorded songs.

His 19-year-old son was home from school and had a friend over for his birthday. The younger Hamilton made supper for everyone and a birthday cake for his friend. In the corner of the living room hung a record player, suspended on chains. The teenagers spun vinyl, mostly from the seventies. Ry Cooder. Al Green. Blondie.

After dinner, young Hamilton broke out Steeleye Span. His friend flipped out. The boys sang along with every word and played air guitar. They sincerely loved it. We passed the record cover around.

Here in Shrewsbury, UK, I walked into artist reception, set my guitar down, filled up a paper bowl with curry, and sat down at a table beside an interesting-looking lady. Her hair was dyed in layers, white on the outside and dark red underneath. She saw me and said, "I enjoyed your set last night."

"Thank you. I'm Jonathan. What's your name?"

"I'm Maddy."

Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span. She was not playing the festival. She just came to hang out. I said, "I have a story for you. If things don't work out here, you have a following in the Yukon." We hit it off right away and all weekend. I emailed Bob Hamilton later and said, "I have a story for you…"

On into the evening, I looked over and Kate Rusby was standing backstage. I thought about talking to her, but I couldn't. One superstar at a time. There's still a part of me that feels like I'm a pretender about to be uncovered. Like Kate Rusby is going to say, "What are you doing back here? Security!" That's no state of mind in which to walk up to her. I sat and wondered if I had a song that she might sing someday.

I wondered if I might sleep tonight. I wondered if I'd be able to put together a lesson plan for tomorrow morning. Alan, one of the festival directors, came over and said, "We can get you a taxi back after shuttle hours, if you want to stay up late tonight. Just let me know." I thought I should go back to the hotel and take a nap, come back later and play some songs under the beer tent or wander the camps listening for songs. Maybe I'd find Blue Horyzon.

I grabbed my guitar and walked out of the tent. The driver was standing there, looking out over the campus. I turned to see what he was looking at. The clouds had blown away. The half moon glowed soft and bonewhite, an enchanted boat in the dark ocean of the night sky.

He said, "Neil Armstrong's family said that we should wink at the moon tonight. That it would be a fitting tribute." I winked at the moon. It felt exactly right. Maybe Neil Armstrong looked around when he was up there and wondered what he was doing and if he was entirely worthy of being there. Just for a second. Then he did his job.

"Take me to the hotel, Will."

Comment

Comment

What Do I Know?

I couldn't figure out how to turn the lights on in my hotel room. I flipped every switch in the place. There was a lamp on the desk, one behind a chair, two over the bed, and three more on the ceiling, but I just wanted to take a shower. The bathroom was far enough from the window that I couldn't see in there, even at midday. I must have flipped switches for thirty minutes. I tried some in tandem. I flipped one by the door and then tried all the other ones again. I finally gave up and called the desk. I'd been up for twenty-four hours and had a day ahead of me. I thought it was probably something simple and I just didn't have a brain left.

A woman answered the phone. "Did you put your key card in the white box by the door?"

"My key card? You mean the one I used to open the door?"

"Yes. You have to put it in the white box by the door to turn on the electricity."

"Oh wow. Okay. Thank you."

I walked over to the door, pulled the key card out of my pocket and slipped it in and out of the white box, the same way you'd open the door. Eureka. Every light in the room came on.

I got undressed, grabbed my razor and toothbrush out of my bag and walked into the bathroom. All the lights went off.

I walked out of the bathroom and flipped all the switches by the door again. I went and dug my key card out of my pants pocket and swiped it again. All the lights came back on. I laid down on the bed and waited. About four minutes later, all the lights went off again. Surely I didn't have to turn the lights on every four minutes.

"This is room 31 again. I put my key card in the little white box by the door, and all the lights came on, but they only stay on for a few minutes."

"Okay. I'll have to come down there."

I put my clothes on. I thought about just wrapping myself in a towel, but it didn't seem culturally appropriate in Shrewsbury, UK. Everyone here seems to be in a constant state of slight embarrassment. I got the first clue from Simon the cabbie who drove me here from Birmingham airport. We were talking about his six months traveling in the US on Greyhound. He professed his amazement at how total strangers in the US would just talk to you. "They don't do that much around here."

There was a knock on the door. I answered and the young woman came in. She looked at the little white box. "Can I see your key card?" I gave her the key card.

"You have to leave it in. Otherwise, they shut off. It's a way of saving energy, right? So you don't leave the lights on all day while you're away. That's why we use your key, because you'll take it with you. It's also why we gave you two keys, so you could make a quick trip to the desk or something without turning off your electricity."

"Is this standard in the UK?"

"Yes it is."

"I've never seen it before. Thank you for showing me."

I took a hot, hot shower, the post-airport shower. You know the one. When I felt sterilized and a little out of breath with the heat, I flipped it to as cold as it would go, which wasn't very cold. Quite comfortable, actually. I stayed in a little while longer to cool off and close the pores again. I learned this from my Danish hosts back in February. "Always finish cold." They jump in the lake after a sauna or rub snow on their skin if the lake is frozen.

I've been alive for almost forty-two years and I still learn rudimentary lessons almost daily. How can anyone think they know anything? Granted, some things seem obvious.

Charles Darwin grew up in Shrewsbury. His name is everywhere here. He attended the Shrewsbury Unitarian Church, founded in 1662 and built in 1689. The lease was extended in 1707 to 999 years, so they'll have to decide whether to renew by 2706. It'll be here before you know it. The church was destroyed by a mob in 1715, and rebuilt with government funding before George Washington was born.

Darwin made some scientific observations and wrote books. He didn't invent evolution or deny the existence of God. He saw natural selection originally as a mechanism of design. I wonder if he knew what kind of ruckus he was starting?

Natural selection seems obvious to most of us now, readily observable in this age of invasive species and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Some folks, however, are very slow to come around. In a town with thousand-year leases, where the man who wrote the book on natural selection was born about five seconds ago, I'm inclined to give them another minute or two. What do I know?

Last night, I asked the receptionist which was the best way to walk into town. She said, "Walk into town?" with her eyebrows raised. She knew the way, but I take it she doesn't get that question often. It's only two and a half miles.

I walked it in my boots. Whenever I crossed a street, or even a driveway, I had to stop and think about which side of the road the cars would be coming from. Invariably, I looked in the wrong direction first. Even as I rode home from the festival tonight, I had a hard time guessing which lane the driver would use in the roundabouts. I'm not sure how long it would take me to get used to it, but the old lessons have pulled up the drawbridge and will not come out tonight.

As I walked, every time I passed someone, I looked at them until they either looked at me or passed me without meeting my eyes. If they met my eyes, I smiled and said, "Good evening." Several people greeted me, but I didn't understand a word. Nothing sounded like "hello" or "cheers." More like a mummy murmuring agreement through his wrappings.

My destination was The Golden Cross, a funky hotel with a bistro downstairs. It's been an inn since at least 1495, though the building is somewhat older and its origins are lost to history. I read the menu online and immediately knew where I was headed. My route took me by Shrewsbury Abbey. The Abbey was built in 1083, so their lease is probably about to run out. Back then, the land where the Abbey was built was considered the suburbs, but it's pretty much in town at this point, what with all the development that's happened in the last thousand years.

Shrewsbury was cleverly built into a tight horseshoe in the Severn River. The only land route into Shrewsbury is about 900 feet wide, and that of course is where they put the castle. From the Abbey, I crossed over the Severn on English Bridge. There I met the only people who smiled back at me on my walk.

Three young girls had tied their hair together and were walking in a flank. The one in the middle was dyed blond and the two outside were dark-haired. I was wearing some fancy cowboy boots and a straw hat. When they saw me, they took just a second to regard me as an oddity before they realized what an oddity they were. We all broke up laughing.

In the old town proper, the streets were narrow and windey. There were tight pedestrian alleyways, slated and cobbled. I had to be vigilant about crossing the street and looking in the proper direction. The village is so small I could have found The Golden Cross in minutes by simply walking every street in a spiral. Just before the door of The Golden Cross was a burrito joint. The building was older than Christopher Columbus's footprints on San Salvador Island. He was looking for Indian food, and here was his accidental legacy.

Inside the old wooden door of The Golden Cross, a mother was having an early dinner with her children. Most of the tables were reserved, but the manager found a spot for me. I had a something-mint soup, the soup of the day. I asked the waitress about five times to pronounce it again, but I never got what the "something" was. It sounded kind of like "peer" or "pier" or even "pear," but it definitely did not have pears in it. I suspect peas, but it didn't sound like "pea."

It was delicious. I savored it in between sips of water, so that my mouth could experience it all over again like new. Then I ordered duck confit rillettes with pineapple-chili salsa. I'm glad that was actually written on the menu. I might have never figured it out from the waitress's mouth. I'm learning English as a second language. At what point does the American tongue become a different species?

Several people waited on me, and I never completely understood either of them. No one came to collect my bill. I had to flag the waitress down and ask for change. I'm still not sure what the customary procedure is in this country, this town, or just The Golden Cross. They've been doing it for five hundred years. They probably have a system.

I explored the downtown and walked through the old market hall, built in 1596. It was built with stone in four months and is considered one of the earliest forms of prefabricated buildings. They don't build 'em like they did back in the 1200s.

It was nearly dark when I got back to the Hampton by Hilton, my chain hotel in a business park on the edge of town. I don't think it'll be here in a hundred years, but what do I know? Maybe concrete and particle board will be romantic someday.

Tonight, I went out to the Shrewsbury Folk Festival site. Had I not had a guitar and a suitcase full of merch, I would have walked there in an hour. It was nice to ride with Will, a local retired Army man hired to drive for the festival. When he learned that I walked into town and sought out The Golden Cross, he resized his estimation of me. I told him I was in the Navy and then we really got on.

The festival blew my mind. Thousands and thousands of campers. Three enormous tented venues far enough apart not to bleed music into each other. Of course it's in tents, it rains all the time here. It rained tonight. It's raining now. I told my audience, "When we say 'It's cold' in North Carolina, this is what we mean." They laughed. I was serious. I had long johns on.

The tent that I played in was not the largest one, but it was huge. The soundman was wrangling a new digital board and the feedback during soundcheck was terrible. I threatened to walk off stage after about five solid squealers. I hate that I lost my temper even a little bit in this famously cool-headed culture, but it was like hitting your head on a cupboard or your finger with a hammer. You get amnesty for about three seconds. The soundman apologized profusely and I apologized to him.

After my soundcheck, I asked the artistic director how many chairs I was looking at. "Fourteen hundred." I thought, Shit, nobody here knows who I am. I'm playing second slot on the first night of this festival on a side stage. There are going to be a hundred people in this massive, empty tent. Okay, I have to play a killer show so that more people will come tomorrow afternoon when I play again. Maybe some people will hear me outside and come in. Ya gotta start somewhere.

A young band from Coventry played before me, The Jaywalkers. Three young machine-gunners playing bluegrass. Blistering chops and harmonies. They sung an old Flatt and Scruggs song and that put me in a good mood. I smiled at the power of my country's music. I peeked out from behind the black curtain. It was hard to tell for sure, but it seemed like every seat in the house was full.

By the time I went on stage, there were nearly two thousand people in the tent. By the time I finished, there was a queue outside the tent trying to get in. The audience was so attentive and gracious it was almost terrifying. I asked them to sing along and I swear two thousand people sang all at once in perfect unison. It would have parted my hair, if I had any. I did not want to leave the stage.

It's almost 6 in the morning here and I'm just sleepless in a hotel room. I wanted to stay at the festival grounds tonight and jam, but I wouldn't have had a ride back to the hotel. I thought, Well at least I'll get a good night's sleep and be fresh for tomorrow. What do I know?

Old Will was napping in the driver's seat of the van outside artist's reception when I decided to leave at near midnight. I woke him up and he drove me home. On the way out, I told him how amazed I was that two thousand people came out to see my show tonight, even with two other stages going. How do they know who I am?

Will said, "Did you see what they wrote about you in the program? They said they've been trying to get you here for four years. I would have gone to see you, if I could have." I hadn't even looked at the program. I have now. They wrote fresh copy for every artist. No regurgitated bios. No smarmy accolades. Each one is a recommendation from the heart.

I really have to go to bed. If I had more time, I'd write a shorter entry. I think I'm going to be ragged tomorrow, but maybe it'll be just ragged enough. What do I know?

Comment

Comment

Gute Fahrt

This morning, I woke up to Alpakawurst and a perfect cup of Italian-engineered coffee. Alpakawurst is exactly what it sounds like and I'll explain how I got it later. Two nights ago, I arrived in Basel at 23:55, where my host Stephen greeted me on the platform. He was waving his arms and shouting to me, but really, there was not a soul besides the two of us and the employees of the velobox (bicycle rentals) downstairs. I wondered if it's possible that someone would rent a bicycle at midnight when it's 15 below zero. If so, I would like to meet them. Stephen asked me if he could help me carry some things, but I felt like my adventure was not yet over somehow. There was an emotional inertia and I needed a cool-down exercise to come down from it.

It turns out that I have met Stephen before. He reminded me of this in a recent email, but what can I say? The people skills department of my brain is terribly mismanaged. I meet people, get their names, use their names, learn about their professions and families, and then I have to get in my mental smart car and I just don't have enough room for all of them.

Stephen presented Jonathan Byrd and Dromedary in the cafeteria of a corporate building in Burgdorf, Switzerland in 2006. There were a few of his English students(not English, but Swiss learning English) there, who apparently still talk about the day, an unexpected and strange beauty in a modern, sterile facility. We had a question and answer session. When you almost outnumber the audience, you can skip the pretense and have a conversation.

As Stephen and I exited the train station, we came to two enormous, thick, sliding glass doors. Beside the doors, there was a card reader and Stephen slid his parking slip into it. The doors slid silently open. They must have weighed 300 pounds apiece. It was a kind of magic. We walked into the parking garage. I would have eaten off the floor. Above us there were two rows of round, opaque lights, perfect circles about five feet across. I was trying to think of what this reminded me of. It was like Blade Runner, but cleaner. Like Logan's Run, but more modern.

We loaded the car, drove to the exit, and Stephen inserted his card. The machine said, "Gute Farht," which I will get a kick out of until the day I die. It means "good driving," or 'drive cautiously," but c'mon, that is funny. I don't know a single 2-year-old who wouldn't laugh at that. When you need an exit on the autobahn, just look for the ausfarht. "Aus" means "out," and the monkeys in my brain are rolling on the floor and slapping each other every few miles. Kilometers. Sorry.

While we're on the subject of bilingual puns, the German word for cockroach is Kakerlake, which is nearly indistinguishable from Cackalacka. Now that I'm in a German-speaking country, I finish a song and say, "That's from my latest CD, Cockroach."

We cruised the autobahn, Stephen holding a GPS tablet on his leg. When he drove too fast, it would moo at him, like a cow. Don't speed in Switzerland, folks. They don't bother with personal introductions. They just send you a ticket. Rob McMaken got one in the mail, in Athens, Georgia, after our tour in 2006.

Stephen said he had a GPS because he never drives here. The train system is so clean and dependable. Why would you drive to Basel?

It was -15 C. The highway was spotless and threaded the mountains through handsome tunnels, each one stenciled with the name of its region. Stephen told me that his wife used to go jogging in them before they were completed, so that she could sing inside as she ran. Stephen is a copywriter for the Omega watch company. He flies all over the world to hang with supermodels as the company creates their ads. Omega is the official timekeeper of the Olympics, so he has to go to those, too. That's his work. His passion is acoustic music.

He tells me that I'll be staying in the bottom two floors of their house. It's not the style to which I am accustomed, but it will do. He tells me that the sound system we are using was designed by a Swiss man. It's called Rundklang, or "round sound." The speakers project sound in 360 degrees. He says that the man who designed the system will be at the show and it would be great to know what I think about it.

We arrive at the clean little village of Pieterlen and climb the narrow roads to their house. I hand Stephen my guitar and I lug my suitcase up the stairs. As far as I can tell, there are only two directions in Switzerland: up and down. The Swiss get a better workout going to the kitchen for a beer than most people do at the gym. There are apartments with outdoor elevators that travel diagonally up the mountain to your floor.

Monika is there to greet us and she becomes the tour guide for my house. There is a marvelous little coffee machine with dark, medium, light, and decaf. Here is the filtered water. This lamp beside your bed works by simply touching any part of it. This light switch does not do anything (It is actually labeled as such in German, and in the universal red "x.") There is a metal shutter over my picture window that rolls down over the outside like another wall. I have rolled it down in the middle of the day and, were it not for a tiny bit of light at the top and bottom, I would think I was underground.

We go back downstairs to my kitchen/living room suite and she asks if I'm hungry. I'm so hungry I could eat the curtains. We break out some deli meats, a spreadable cheese with horseradish, and some bread with pumpkins seeds that I might remember for the rest of my life. Stephen is a great conversationalist and we do know a couple of people in common, including Tim O'Brien. They are delighted to find out that Tim and I wrote the first song on his last CD together, "You Ate The Apple."

Its after 1am and we're all fading, so they leave the house to me. I go upstairs. There's a great bath and I use it. I send one of the last Facebook updates, trying to spread out my crazy day so that you can all read them without getting overwhelmed. I save one for the morning. I try to imagine when the best time to post the stories is, when Europeans and Americans will all be awake and online. But it makes my head hurt.

I can't sleep. Sneaky old jet lag has gotten into my bed somehow. I write. Play games. Read. Finally, at 5am, I fall asleep.

Comment

Comment

Connected To Everyone

I don't know if I'm on the right train. I know that I am still in the Netherlands somewhere, but I don't know where. I look everywhere for information that matches any number or letter than I have on my schedule, and there are many numbers and letters, but no matches. Several people enter and exit the bathroom in front of me. To my right, there is a couple in love, making moonie eyes at each other and listening to one earbud each of an iPod.

Someone gets off and, before I can move, the drunkest teenager of all slides into the chair. The two guys who came out of the bathroom together come back and go into the bathroom together again. For a long time.

It was then that I looked down and saw a DKNY bag that I remembered from the interminable, freezing wait in Utrecht for the confounded bus. Maybe the bag wasn't unique, but the tall black man carrying the bag, and nothing else, was.

"Do you speak English?"

Yes. He did speak English and I was on the train to Dusseldorf. He was gentle and had a quiet laugh. We chatted until a seat came empty. I had to sit down.

When I sat down, I looked up at the ceiling and there it was, a decalled train map all the way from Venlo to Hamm. Dusseldorf sat bold in the middle. When I looked down again, Tobias was sitting across the train from me, smiling. I live a charmed life.

He said, "Are you writing in your journal?" I was indeed holding my phone and writing about him. Maybe writing is conjuring, after all. I had confessed to him earlier that he was going to end up on my facebook page. He grinned then, and now.

He checked my info against the bahn.de site on his cell phone, to make sure I got where I was going. Then he turned his head and looked away from me, to give me permission to keep writing. Yes, I have written every letter of this on my phone.

In Dusseldorf, Tobias and I said our goodbyes and good-lucks. The only thing I had eaten since two eggs and two toasts at 9am (while my Dutch host watched me and chatted and did not eat a bite) was a cookie from a package that Celine had given Tobias for the trip. "She involves herself with other people," Tobias said, and he meant that she cares. He's going to be all right. I have a feeling.

He offered one last time to help me carry my things down the stairs and I declined. "You have five minutes to meet your train. I have twenty." He agreed and was gone.

I lugged my personal burdens down the stone stairs and up the stone stairs to what I thought might be my next platform. Teenagers smoked in the hallway between.

There was a blue and red tower that said "info" and had directions in German and English. I pushed the button, just to verify that I was in the right place. A voice spoke in German and English and I was a bit shocked with the fidelity. I looked at the tower just below eye level and it said, "Neumann." The maker of the world's best microphones made the info tower at the train station. If you want the best thing in the world, just look for "Made in Germany."

A lost woman on the platform asked me a question and I asked if she spoke English. "No speak Englis." I felt her pain.

I rambled up a ways and met another guy I'd seen in Utrecht, three trains and a bus ago. What are the odds? He said he was headed to Frankfurt and would probably miss his flight to Brazil. This train arrived 30 minutes before his scheduled takeoff. He said he hoped the flights were delayed too or it would cost him the ticket. I told him I thought he'd make it, that in the absence of empirical evidence, I had faith that he would make the flight. He said something about coffee and damn that sounded great. 50 p from the machine 12 feet away. And it was good. How do they do that?!

The train pulled up as I got my coffee and I realized I couldn't get my stuff on the train without help. My new companion helped me lug. This train had nice shelves at the door, so I didn't have to hold all my stuff around me in the seat, legs draped over suitcase, bag in lap, guitar under three people's feet.

I can't pronounce his name, but it was something like Pelinõ. He asked if he could sit with me. I said, "Please," and I meant it.

He was a lawyer in Brazil, in the middle of the country, along Paraguay and Bolivia. He said the summer was terrible, hot and rainy, so he saved up all his vacation time and put it together with the end-of-the-year holidays to make one 42-day chunk and he spent it in Europe in the winter. He said they were the second-largest producer of beef in the world and that the city he lived in was fueled by that industry. After that, he said, marijuana and cocaine smuggling were probably the biggest businesses. A woman came by and checked our tickets, the first time this whole day that I'd been asked. Isn't that amazing? She understood why we were on the wrong train, the whole damn country is on the wrong train, and she kindly told me which platform my next train would be on.

He got off in Köln(Cologne) and I was puzzled as to why I was here at all. My friends from earlier in the day had split up to come here. I realized that I could have come here with them. We had definitely taken different trains. My head spun around the train-web of Europe for a moment, with times and numbers flashing in my head. Could I have gotten here sooner? Whatever. I got here. And it was a good story, as my first friend of this trip and I had agreed it would be.

I remembered that my hosts still thought they were picking me up at 9pm. I had written emails to them, but never found wifi to send them. So, I made one precious phone call. Stephen answered with an American accent and, bless my heart, I almost cried. He offered to pay for a hotel room in Basel, or that he and his wife would drive to Basel at midnight and pick me up. "About 87 kilometers" he said. Okay, if he's American, then he's been Swissified. Only the Swiss would say, "about" 87 kilometers. I look forward to meeting him.

I told Stephen that if I could wake up in his house, I would be a very happy man. It's 11pm now and I only just realized I'd better purchase a bottle of water. The first water I've had all day. I guess it's been nice not to need a public bathroom. I should probably use the one on this train before I leave the Germans behind again.

I hung up and looked out the window for the first time in a long time, and the lights of Köln flashed by me. In the apartments along the railway, each light was different, a lamp here, a chandelier in that one, a yellow window with its light hidden from view, a television, each one a racing snowflake, a fingerprint, as unique as the people who ate their supper by them, each one lit by the same fire, a power station somewhere in Köln, and I realized that I was burning the same fire in this train, burning through this great, lonely city, connected to no one. Connected to everyone.

I transferred in Mannheim to my final train, where I bought this bottle of water. The machine was another engineering feat that went up and cradled my water and brought it gently down to the opening. I walked around to the other side and a woman was cursing another machine that had just taken her money. It's good to know that they are not perfect. Only very good. She hurled one last curse as we had to board the train.

I noticed that this train was beautiful and spacious, with leaning chairs and tables in between. Automatic glass doors. I looked down at the floor and it said, in a bright red strip, "1. Klasse." There was no one in the car. I thought, what the hell, maybe they'll ask me to move after I've had twenty minutes of luxury. A woman came immediately and offered me a chocolate cookie. You damn right I took it. I leaned my seat back and savored it as only an empty man can.

When another woman came to check my ticket, I showed her my Eurail pass and she said, "Thank you. I vish you a good chourney." and she walked away.

I looked at the pass and realized for the first time that I HAVE A FIRST-CLASS TICKET. Had I known that, I never would have seen Tobias again or known his name. I never would have had my Brazilian companion. I never would have seen two men go into a train bathroom together - twice. I never would have seen beautiful old Muslim women and their silk flowers. And countless other things I haven't even told you.

I think I have a first-class ticket through life. I was always on the right train. In 25 minutes, I will arrive in Basel, where my hosts will pick me up and drive another "about" 87 kilometers to take me home. I'm glad I chose the adventure. Thanks for hanging with me, alone there behind your liquid crystal spark of the fire. Maybe you feel like you're connected to no one, but I want you to know: you are connected to everyone.

Goodnight.

Comment

Comment

Tobias

6. Tobias My suitcase made it but I almost left it behind. I got off the bus at the station in den Bosch, like everyone. I looked for someone who might be going to Frankfurt, so that I could have a German-speaking ally there and I chose wisely. I chose him because of his glasses and jacket. Don't ask me how. There's a look.

But as I walked beside him, almost to the entrance, I realized there was 69 pounds missing. I wheeled and trotted back to the bus, where the driver was keeping one hand on the suitcase. Somehow, he knew that an enormous orange suitcase did not belong to anyone he'd yet seen. Maybe he noticed me before, as he knocked me over into the crowd. Maybe it's the hat.

I got the suitcase and ran back into the station to get in line at the information desk. The young student fell in right behind me. The man before us was going to Frankfurt as well, so I relayed the information and we ran for the train that was leaving that moment to Eindhoven. As I write this, I still don't know where that is or where I am. I have faith.

There was an elevator but no time to wait. The young man asked me if he could carry my suitcase and I said, "You'd better not. Here, take my guitar." We hustled down the stairs and arrived just in time to see the doors closing. Down the line, there was a shout, and we saw a worker blocking an open door on another car with his body and waving to us. We were on.

There were no seats. We ended up standing in the middle of an aisle, with my guitar and my big orange suitcase blocking the pathway. As we rolled, I found a way to create a path as people begged their way past. We were rolling to Eindhoven.

We chatted. Tobias was his name. Our other friend, back from Australia, was seated close by and seemed to know the schedule. He was going to Köln, which wasn't Frankfurt, but it's close and in the general direction.

I'm not really going to Frankfurt. I'm going to Basel, which is where the international train terminates and I have to take a local train to a little Swiss town called Grenchen. I make a mental note that Frankfurt is no longer important when asking directions.

Tobias is great. He's going to school for math. To be an accountant, maybe work in banking. So we talk about me mostly. Which is how it goes. But I love what I do and I love talking about it.

I explain that I am known for my stories, but that sometimes there is no story, sometimes there is only a coyote crossing the river. But there are things that an artist can say that no one else can say, but we have it in our hearts, and when we hear it said by the only one who can say it, we agree and are joyous that we are not alone inside ourselves. Or we disagree and feel the passion of that, that we must not be alone in our disagreement. And those who disagree and those who agree will all agree that we care, that we may not have the same answer, but now we know the question and we know that the question lives inside others. And we are not alone. And that is why art is important.

Tobias says he has heard this explanation before and retells it from his experience. We have found a common passion. I ask what artists he likes and he pulls out his phone and shows me a painting of a man standing on a mountain, looking over a stunning alpine scene, the clouds roiling below him, each peak an island in a sea of vapor. He says to me, "The artist is very religious. I think these three distant peaks represent the three... I don't know the word."

"The Trinity?," I offer.

"Yes, the Trinity. And these smaller hills, um... up to him?"

"Closer."

"Yes. Closer. They are the people. The society, I think."

You don't have to wonder why I love this young man. We talk about psychology. Socialism. I offer that in America, we are all from different places, so we don't stand together as a culture to help one another, whereas in Europe, the cultures are old and they stand together as countries, proud of their cultures. He counters, Yes, but not so much in Germany. And I ask why.

Tobias says that Germany is still ashamed of the war. That when Germany is strong, the world says shame on you. He says it is like a card that they hold, that whenever times are good, like now when Germany has weathered the recession better than any other European country, the world pulls the card and says, you should be ashamed of your success. You should help other countries. Tobias says that the recent World Cup win was the first time in his life that everyday Germans took to the streets with German flags and painted their faces with German colors and were proud to be Germans. And I don't give a damn about sports, I never have, but I imagine what a day in heaven that must have been, to finally be proud to be German, to shed the greatest guilt that the world has perhaps ever known, the sins of their grandparents for God's sake, just for a day. To feel, for a moment, like a worthy people. To climb the mountain and gaze upon God and not forget all that separates us, the roiling world below us to which we must return, but look! There is God!

I remember a similar scene in Naples, Italy when I was in the Navy. Italy had won the world cup and naked Italians danced on their cars in the world's largest and most ecstatic traffic jam. And I note to myself, that's why sports are important.

I confess to him that I just read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and I know I'm taking a chance here. But Tobias doesn't miss a beat. We talk about psychology, mass consciousness, how people will agree with a wrong thing if they feel outnumbered or informed by a supposed expert. And I talk about how playing to 5,000 people is like playing to one person, or even 20 people in a room that bursts at the seams with the bulk of 20 people. But every empty seat is like a hole I have to fill and the space between them makes them five different people again. And I have, in this time, given him a CD, and we have since arrived in Eindhoven where he went to check information and I watched his bag, and I went for a coffee while he watched nearly $8,000 worth of my things, and the coffee was free because "it is cold and the trains are delayed," and we have gotten on a train to Venlo, and now we are walking off of that train and Tobias says, "Yes, the empty seats are questions that make people wonder how good you are, even if you are great." And we laugh when we realize we finally know a common story, the famous and brilliant violinist who plays in the subway in Washington, DC and is ignored, even avoided, by thousands.

Now we're standing on the platform and I'm not sure I want to go to Köln, as these guys are doing. I grab my things without asking Tobias to look after them, I don't know why, and I go into information to get a reality check.

The man tells me that to go to Frankfurt is not on my way, that I should go to Dusseldorf, then Mannheim, and then on to Basel. I can be there by 23:55. Midnight. He shrugs his shoulders to say, "That's the best you can do." He points out the window and I think what that means is that my train is leaving. I don't know for sure but if I want to catch that train, there is no more time for discussion.

I hump like a mad Marine back out to the platform and, for some odd reason, the train has not pulled all the way up. Everyone is running to get on the train, a hundred yards down. I don't see Tobias, so I refuse the first door and keep going to the third car. I can't go farther without missing the train, so I jump on.

The train is stuffed full as a sausage. I stand in the doorway and stack my belongings around my feet. It stinks. I realize the bathroom is right in front of me. There's a pissed-off looking man in a German Army jacket, waiting his turn. I look for Tobias. Damn.

I try to ascertain whether I am on the right train, having lost my friend and interpreter who also had a cellular Internet connection that didn't cost $20 per megabyte, as mine does here. The pissed-off man is standing in front of a screen with information and I ask him to move. He moves, glaring at me, and I compare the schedule the information guy gave me with the info on the screen. Nothing matches. The army jacket guy knocks loudly on the door of the bathroom. A voice murmurs inside.

I ask around for English speakers, but most people are German or immigrants. I point to the floor and say, "Dusseldorf?" and everyone just shrugs.

The pissed-off guy finally walks off in a huff and several drunk teenagers take his place. They all crack fresh Heinekens and drunk-dial their friends. The bathroom door opens and two men come out together. One is sniffing loudly. They ignore everyone and talk excitedly to each other as they walk toward the front of the train.

I still don't know if I'm on the right train. And I wish I'd said goodbye to Tobias.

Comment

Comment

The Better Story

A few centimeters of snow has turned into a natural disaster in the Netherlands today. My train from The Hague to Utrecht stopped just short of the station and idled. I had to catch a train to Frankfurt at 12:10. As noon rolled around on our stalled chariot, I knew I would not make the train. It was in fact 12:30 before we finally pulled about 100 yards forward, into the station. I looked for the ticket desk and pressed my way through thousands with my guitar, a backpack, and a suitcase that I know for a fact weighs 69 pounds. I found a line and stood in it until a lady announced, in three languages, "If you are going to Germany, go outside all the way to the left. There will be a bus that will take you to a station from which you can catch a train to Germany." Practically the entire mass of people emptied out through a quarter mile of corridors, down a flight of stairs, past a compressor-powered hurdy-gurdy where people collected donations for something I never figured out, and out onto the bus platforms. The first bus filled up before I could get on. I waited 30 minutes for another bus and it became clear to me that, because I had a suitcase that had to be loaded before I could get on, I would never get on in the crush of people. I went back to the ticket counter to see if I could get to Switzerland through Brussels and Luxembourg. Transfer through France.

The escalator wasn't working and I had to lug everything up a flight of slushy stairs. Blocking my way to the office, a security guard entertained a crowd at the door. He had a great smile and was obviously trying to protect the ladies inside from a riot. As I got close, he leaned into me and asked what I needed. I said I needed to get to Switzerland, but maybe I could go a different route and avoid Germany altogether. He said, "Yeah, but you'll never get out of here. You, you, and you, FOLLOW ME." He spoke in the language of confidence and everyone understood.

We followed him like the pied piper as he told us about the new station they were building and joked that he was now a tour guide. He led us back out to the buses and said, "Everyone going to Germany, go to the last platform." In English first, then Dutch, then bad German. I can only assume that if you want the most people to understand you among Germans and Dutch, you speak English. Another man supplied a megaphone and our friend from security became an entertainer for hundreds, answering questions, repeating directions, cracking jokes. He never lost his smile or his cool.

In fact, another bus came, but people flooded into the street and rushed it full before it even made it to the platform. I fell in with a few young people on their way to Frankfurt and they all complained that we were too nice and we might never get a bus standing here. One guy had just come back from Australia and was not prepared for negative temperatures. He said, "I'm speaking English because my lips are too cold to speak Dutch." He was a brilliant guy and kept going around to people, asking questions while I watched his suitcase. He wondered out loud whether he should catch a bus back home and take a car to Frankfurt, or wait here possibly for hours in the cold to catch the bus to the train.

I said, "Which one will be a better story?"

He said, "You're right." And we shook hands on it. The other two were a beautiful young couple, a young German student and his Dutch girlfriend. She was only waiting with him to hold on to love to the last minute. He was going back to Frankfurt for school. "I don't think you're going to make it tonight," my new buddy said.

A new bus came, commandeered from some other route, and the security guy made sure it made it to the platform. The crush began. I threw myself into the human funnel with burdens that nearly outweighed me. The security guy stepped into the doorway, allowed passengers to disembark, and held back the masses with that smile. He forced the driver to close the back door, lest the dam break back there before anyone could board up front. He boarded people one by one, and the driver squeezed by us to open the luggage compartment. He actually had to push me over to get there. I had nowhere to go and fell against the pressure of the crowd. I got upright again and shoved my big suitcase back toward him. The girl from the young couple shouted, "Hand it to me! I'm not going." I pushed as far as I could reach along the icy curb and she grabbed it. I turned forward and wedged my guitar in front of me. I haven't seen my suitcase since, but I didn't see it on the curb as we pulled away, either. But who knows? There must have been another hundred people on the platform and I couldn't see everything. I have no empirical evidence until we get to den Bosch, but I have faith.

Faith is not evidence. Faith is not believing against all evidence. Faith is believing when there is no evidence. I believed in that girl, whose name I later found out was Chelline.

Anyway, the security guy grabbed my arm, blocked the crowd with his body, and said, "Get on." I don't know why me. Maybe it's the hat. Maybe it's because I told him earlier that I appreciated his help and that I didn't want his job today. But I'm on the bus. Possibly with 69 pounds of CDs and long underwear. I definitely have my guitar, most of my clothes, and my electronic devices. Oh, and a fantastic toothbrush.

The bus is jolly. Everyone is laughing like old friends. I think the happiest people in the world are the ones who have just survived a disaster.

Comment

Comment

Breakfast

I'd like to take Europeans out to breakfast. All of you. It's a great meal; perhaps you've heard of it. An egg or two. Perhaps some meat. You don't have to get crazy like the English and have every part of all your domestic animals in one meal, but it is possible to make it to lunch without feeling faint. Just after I got to The Hague last night, the trains shut down. The snow and cold had frozen the relays, the joints where trains switch off from one track to another. In such a tight system, many trains use the same tracks. The locals were indignant, saying they had promised that this wouldn't happen again this year, that they had fixed the problem.

Imagine the subway shutting down in New York City. It's how they get around. Still, when people start complaining, my eyes glaze over. I'm just so damned grateful to be alive and here we are with a guitar and a case of beer; whatever will we do?

The trains are running again today. I have to get to Switzerland. It's eastern North Dakota-flat here, a snowy pool table, but the Dutch fields are gorgeous, laced with canals, dotted with fat sheep, the picture of efficiency. In a land with so little room, rural land is sacred. There are little subdivisions of cottages in places, organized communities of gardens for people who live in apartments in the city. The plots are cheap and people use them well, growing flowers and vegetables and keeping the garden sheds loved. What a singular joy it must be to dig in the good earth when you live in a closet. To trade the songs of birds for the flushing of your neighbors' toilets.

We just passed through the largest greenhouse complex I've ever seen. Square miles of them, centrally heated. I could see the beating heart in the middle, a small silo, an office, and a plume of steam.

I had a nice tour of The Hague this morning on the way to the train station. We passed the International Court of Justice, where countries can take each other to court to settle fishing rights, borders, and other sticky issues, in a civilized fashion. My host said, "There are 9 judges. They are paid an enormous amount of money and they work about three months out of the year." When I first saw it, I thought it was a cathedral. Stunning.

Later, we rounded the corner and she said, "These are the royal stables." A stately city block, with double wooden doors two stories tall. "Of course, they keep cars in there now. Not the queen's personal car, but the official ones."

"This is one of the royal lanes in The Hague. At the end there is the Escher museum." There was a large, famous piece rendered large outside, the one where a flock of geese become farm fields. "The balcony there is actually gold leaf." Which was obvious. She didn't have to tell me that.

And then the parliament building. "The oldest part, where you see the towers, dates back to the 11th century."

We turned left and there was an enormous concrete block, six stories tall, with narrow windows and no visible door. The front entrance was shuttered with metal armor. Around it, there was a high metal fence, surrounded by a moat, surrounded by another high metal fence. I said, "That must be the prison." She said, "That's the American embassy." I laughed out loud, not because it was funny, but because it hurt so much.

I think that building could be converted to a diner, and the Dutch could be converted to breakfast eaters. Six stories of hash browns, scattered, smothered, and covered. First, we take The Netherlands. From there, we can dominate the continent with beautiful calories. We'd have to give up our terrible coffee, though. That's where the partnership is formed. Our food, their coffee. We can make history. Or at least breakfast.

Comment

Comment

The Magic Pocket

Over here, credit cards have chips in them. Mine doesn't have a chip and mostly is not accepted, regardless of the company knowing I'm over here. But check it out: problem solved. I just played my first Dutch gig! I spent every last pfennig of my pocket money to get to this door and now my pocket is full of money again. It's a magic pocket! Big thanks to Joanna Serraris for feeding me big cheesy pasta, giving me two eiderdowns because I'm a southern boy, and bringing the crowd. One guy bought seven CDs; I only have five titles with me. Someone videotaped and got my set lists. What fans! How much fun to teach you about NASCAR, the War of 1812, big trucks, chicken wire, wild ponies, and white oak. How riveting to see my country reflected in your eyes, to be amazed again at the Great Experiment, the wild bucking castaways of Spanish ships and failed religions, the almighty More is More. So great to get you singing, "If you got it, a big truck brought it." Wow.

The room I'm sleeping in has a copy of Bill AND Hillary Clinton's biographies. Quick show of hands from the Americans: anybody have two biographies of contemporary Dutch political figures? Yeah. Me neither. I suspect that it's not because we're more awesome. Quick: who is the prime minister of Canada? Ah ah ah, no googling. Does anyone really believe that Americans are receiving a competitive education? There's nothing like visiting the neighbors to jerk the curtain back on your own Oz.

Tomorrow, to Switzerland on a train. What kind of fool am I? I gotta get a different currency again. But I'm gonna yodel in Switzerland! What kind of cool am I? To hell with credit cards and ATM machines. I got a Lone Star boot full of Old World loot!

I'll be the one not wearing black.

Comment

Comment

London Heathrow

London Heathrow. Met a couple of Australian dudes and it took me a minute to figure out they were speaking English. God help you if you're sensitive to fragrances over here. I think I'm the only person in this whole airport not wearing black. Or navy, to be fair. Anyone who thinks that the Native Americans are gone needs only to come to Europe and see what white people actually look like. The bathrooms are incredible. As if they were built yesterday. On the plane, seated next to me, a young man who was far too tall for his seat spooned muesli from a plastic bag. Later, he read a mass of photocopied pages from Antonio Barcelona's 'Clarifying and Applying Metaphor and Metonymy.' It was, as far as I could tell, a big heap of deconstructionist bullshit designed to keep Mr. Barcelona employed at a university. I'm not judging the book by its cover, but by a few photocopied inner pages. My apologies to Antonio.

The pilot came on and said that we were in a queue, and that there were five planes ahead of us, and that one took off every minute so that we were five minutes from take-off. On the inside of the young man's left wrist was written "Oxfam," in ballpoint pen. He scribbled "pilot" on his right hand, for no reason I could find on the photocopied pages.

As we rose over London, de-icer swirled on and poured from the wing outside my window, blue-green as a swimming pool. I wondered how much glycol rained on London and where, once a minute, all day. Throughout the flight, it glistened across the broad silver plain of the wing and pooled excitedly in any crevasse it could find.

Paul, the young man, was working on his PhD, something like "Hidden Implications in Political Speech." Metonymy, by the way is calling something by something else intimately related to the thing you're actually talking about, like "he has a good head for numbers" or "Washington vetoed Kyoto today." There's a more specific force at work in the city of Washington. It's so sneaky, we don't think about it much.

A sign read "toilet at rear." I like to think that, on British Airways, they knew what they were doing when they made that sign.

Paul had just returned from two weeks in Ghana. Vacation. He lives in Berlin, but had booked the return flight from Amsterdam. Paul said he had friends in Amsterdam, but they were all out of town and he had not contacted them until he'd landed in London this morning. "It's okay. I will get very stoned and then take the train back to Berlin. It's a good place to kill two hours."

Immigration was barely there. Everyone spoke perfect English. Security rode bikes. Outside baggage claim, a place called Juggle Juice had a "smoke cabin," a glass closet that fit about four people standing. A slight hint of reefer hit me. I didn't really expect it in the airport. American airports are basically military installations at this point.

At about this time, I realized that I'd drunk several glasses and bottles of water, two orange juices, two coffees and a tea and hadn't peed since 6pm last night. I tried. I really did, but I think all that moisture just humidified the cabin.

I tried to buy a train ticket. My credit cards didn't work. My ATM card didn't work. I changed 53 bucks to thirty-some Euro and spent about eight on a train to The Hague. I hope I have enough for the cab to my hosts house, cause it's too cold to walk. The snow is gorgeous, falling thick and even, brightening up this flat, wintry land. Everywhere looks great with a fresh snow.

Let's hope I don't have to busk for cab fare. At least I recognize the English language here. In Holland.

Hey! There's a trailer park. That makes a brother feel at home. Boy the snow is great. Even the trailer park looks cozy.

Comment

Comment

Starting Over

A few weeks ago, my 2006 mac started acting strange. Of course I have it backed up. It finally shut down entirely. I haven't had a day in one place to get it fixed, so I bought a hard drive yesterday and youtubed the repair on my kitchen table. The backup will not restore. I'm flying to Amsterdam aware that I may have lost everything. Hundreds of thousands of words of a novel I'm working on. Journals. It's okay. Creativity abhors security. The forest needs a fire. I'm good with it. I know how the book goes.

I bought a suitcase and stuffed it with 220 CDs and all my clothes. My carry-on has a winter coat, gloves, boots, scarf, and the offending backup drive, in hopes that it will work after I threaten to flush it at 40,000 feet over Greenland.

At 11 today, we went to the fire station. It was awesome. The guys gave us a first class show, spraying water, extending the ladder on the truck, and dressing Mary up in all the gear. Rowan was scared and crying at first, and then finally crawling into places he shouldn't oughta go. On the way home, all he could say was, "T(r)uck."

At the airport. The suitcase was 4 pounds overweight. I somehow got three pairs of corduroys and two microphones in my carry-on and made weight. $60. Cheaper than shipping 220 CDs.

Rowan and Mary and I took the same elevator and escalators until we were all worn out. Okay, Rowan could have kept going. In security, my section of the belt looked like an assembly line at Foxconn. They tested my credit cards for bomb dust. They are dangerous, but not like that. The man behind lusted after my boots out loud. He had an unfamiliar accent and tortoiseshell glasses.

My favorite things about RDU are 1)even the TSA is friendly and 2)there's a used bookstore. How genius is that? I bought Cat's Cradle and Steppenwolf, and sold three of their Cormac McCarthy books to other customers. I sold All The Pretty Horses to the cashier, reading the "nation and ghost of nation" section to everyone in the bookstore out loud. It's not like me to be quite so outspoken, but she said she didn't like Cormac and I had to say to hell you don't, listen to this. She smiled when she knew she'd been beat.

I'm homesick already. Honestly, I spent the last two days terrified. Sick to my stomach. I can recreate the novel. Rowan will never be two again. I love you, buddy. I'll send you some songs after I redownload Audacity.

Comment

Comment

The Natural

I love when people say, "You're such a natural." It means that 25 years of hard work has finally paid off. I recently listened to a recording of myself from 12 years ago and I couldn't finish a single song. I didn't even bother to back it up. I listen to my own records more than anyone I know. I love The Law and the Lonesome. The Sea and the Sky. They are beautiful films of great times that I had with some of the world's best musicians. Trust me, I was terrible and I've come a long way. I just wanted it. Maybe I should keep that a secret. But there are not many people willing to put 25 years of their life into being a natural.

These little flat warbly videos I've been making barely convey ideas, much less what I am seeing. They pretend to convey the light of the world, but they do not even convey a white goose in a blue sky. The entire Canadian Rockies becomes a mist in the compression, a trick of gasses where the plastic blue sky meets the dusty dander of a felted city.

Worse, when the camera comes out and the red light flashes, people change. Some lose their ability to speak at all. Others lose a previous talent for silence. Others still begin reaching for their stories in a panic, like employees caught leaning on the water cooler.

Why get nervous when the camera is rolling? When the tape is rolling? You should be relieved that we have stopped actually looking at you.

I pay cash for everything possible. I want to hand this dirty money to the teller and take some dirty money in return. The credit card machine will never smile at me. It will never sigh and roll its eyes at the weather. The machine will never know someone who is going to school in my hometown, will never have hiked the Appalachian Trail or acted in a production of The Cotton Patch Gospels.

I filmed all that Corin Raymond said about Keith Richards today, but I missed the spiritual sunshine on his face. The dream of being as wild and self-assured as that creature made of pure rock 'n' roll. I could have filmed a drunk whore reeling in the middle of a Calgary boulevard, fingering her crotch and bellowing through her rotten teeth at commuters, staggering out into the street like a lost wild animal, but you wouldn't really get the panorama of sadness. The shame that the witnesses took on. I could show you the prairie west of town, but it doesn't look like it's worth $250,000 an acre.

I tried to capture a mountain from the plane. A mountain. With my eyes, I could see that it was immutable as time, an invincible weight. In my screen, I couldn't distinguish it from the clouds around it. In my screen, I didn't feel the breathless surrender of being so small. The joy of being warm, high above this ruthless element. The fear of being lost in this trackless wilderness without a weapon. I turned it off.

There is a sharp, rotten still life beside me on this table in Kim Beggs apartment, a bowl of fruits and vegetables left unloved for a week. There is cold outside these windows that radiates into the warm apartment. There is a patient energy in the tiny old evergreens covering these mountains. There is the unmatched emptiness of the Yukon, more honestly represented by the stark lettering on this page than by any photograph I have seen of the place. And I have seen some doozies. Do some primitive cultures really believe that the camera steals your soul? I think the camera barely gets your likeness, and the soul? There are very few photographers who can do that, masters like Rodney Bursiel. He's a natural.

your fan,

jbyrd

Comment