I’ve been on five tour buses in my life, the big kind that look like modern kitchens with marble-top counters mixed with the triple stacked sleeping quarters of a submarine, all squished into one rolling corridor. They belonged to Joan Armatrading, The Swell Season, Damien Rice, Donna The Buffalo and Ingrid Michelson. All stood completely stationary, not one of them moved an inch while I was on board, as I was merely visiting friends (or the opening act) while these rock n rolling hotels were parked outside the venue. Still, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what it might be like to tour in that manner. I’ve been told the novelty wears off pretty quick but just like spending a Christmas in Southern California or Australia, with people singing carols in shorts and t-shirts, I like the idea of having the experience, at least once. The bottom line is that neither I, nor most of my other touring friends are on the road like that and that’s perfectly fine but even so, in my years of being the quintessential troubadour, traveling by public transport, in rented or borrowed cars and vans, I have still managed to have some pretty amazing and sometimes bizarre adventures. Here are some highlights:
In A Northern Industrial Town
In 1987 by all accounts, I was one of the first buskers in the wonderful walled city of Derry in Northern Ireland. The RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary- Northern Irish Police Force-) would glare at me with equal parts confusion and suspicion, hands firmly upon automatic weapons, in case I might incite a riot with a Republican Rebel Song or some other dirty Free-State infraction but after a time we each became reluctantly familiar and left one another to ply our respective trades.
Closing time arrived like an airline emergency slide and soon enough we were poured out onto slanting Waterloo Street. I was propped precariously against a wall, looking like seaweed swishing in the undertow, while my friends went to get a cab back to Gobnasceal, a stark Catholic enclave in the middle of a stark Protestant housing estate on the city’s Waterside. The world appeared to be a blurry merry go round but the music still ringing in my ears, the slurred lights and warm summer breeze made it a very pleasant hedonistic experience.
Suddenly an even shorter than me, motorcycle jacketed twenty something appeared from the periphery and began raving in my ear, in a language I refer to as, ‘Drunken Northern Irish”, which contrary to local opinion, bears absolutely no resemblance to English whatsoever (Sober Northern Irish is a distant enough cousin). I was lambasted for nearly two minutes and as far as I can remember, I replied briefly, after which my fellow piece of swaying seaweed began to scream at me, outraged. Particular words began to come into clear focus through the universal translator of adrenalin; memorable words and phrases like, “Going to get my brothers,” “Guns,” and “Kneecaps.”
This went on loudly for a solid two minutes and it became apparent that I may have upset this young two bit James Dean. I straightened myself up as best I could, took a deep breath and responded calmly. My adversary paused, laid his hands on my shoulders, leaned his head against mine, took a deep breath and began to coo like a dove in my ear about what a great guy I was; what a great singer I was and that we should really get together to see some concerts in Dublin.
To this day I have absolutely no idea what I said to offend this guy or what diplomatic acrobatics I performed to appease him. He all but rolled on down the hill, passing my friends in zigzags as they returned with the cab, ping ponging off the parallel buildings their hollers of the colloquial, “What about ye mucker. Are Ye ready to go mucker?” To which I understatedly replied. “Yep.”
Go West Young Man
In Jan 1996 I was honored to be invited to perform at what was then, the Point Depot in Dublin. It was a sold out 10,000 seat show, for the tenth anniversary of the passing of Phil Lynott, of Thin Lizzy. I had a lovely conversation that night with Phil’s mother Philomena, after my well-received renditions of two of Lynott’s more obscure songs from earlier albums (Which ones, I can’t recall right now). I told her I was going to spend the summer with a friend in the Seattle area, at which one of Philomena’s friends chimed in excitedly that she had a sister in Seattle and could probably get me a slot on a “Social Conference,” while I was there. Contact info was exchanged and subsequently I was hired for the show.
The Pacific North West is a beautiful part of the world, a great mix of nature and culture, though Seattle was at the tail end of its grunge phase then, which made me feel completely naked without tattoos. I stayed on the trendy Capitol Hill with my old friend Devora, learning to play pool in the majority (but very tolerant) lesbian bar across the street and we drove highway 1 down the West Coast to LA (Where I played another Lynott tribute at the Palace in Hollywood). It was a momentous trip and endeared me greatly to Southern California and the West Coast in general.
The day of the Social Conference arrived and I made my way to the venue, a university setting a short drive from Seattle. I found my contact, a tall, slender, very friendly woman of about 50, who told me how delighted they were, that I could be a part of the day. I exclaimed with a broad smile myself, that I was equally delighted and told her it wouldn’t take me very long to set up my gear, if she would direct me to where the PA system was set up. My wonderful, warm, friendly contact replied, “PA, What’s that? I calmed myself and gently explained, it was the sound system through which I would be performing. Quizzically she replied, “Oh, we thought you were bringing that with you?” I held my spinning innards intact, wiped beads of sweat from my brow and replied that I was under the impression there were two to three other acts on the bill and that one of them would be providing the sound, to which my kind, very obviously benevolent and still serenely smiling contact replied, “Nope, it’s just you.” I looked past the door of the conference room to see 200-250 people buzzing around a couple of mini-bars. My contact (no idea of her name now), clearly used to making things happen in difficult circumstances, proposed that there was a fireplace at the end of the room with an extended hearth which rose about a foot above the floor and that I could just stand and perform there. I mentally tallied my fee and said a solid, “Sure!”
After unpacking my guitar, positioning myself on my perch, I began to pour out my introspective, socio-economic, family politics laden, Christianity examining, original works. I was two songs in when I realized that all but two of the crowd were women. On a break, in what was to be a two-hour show, I asked what kind of Social Conference we were all attending and was told, “We’re an order of Nuns! We’re here making decisions about what endeavors we will focus our attentions on in the coming years. I almost passed out. I was playing, solo, acoustically for two hundred or so, plain clothes Nuns. Lovely! I asked who the two guys were and feared that I already knew the answer and yes, of course, they were local Priests...
I trembled back to my lonely spot on the hearth, while my contact, Sister Benevolent (I am making that up) corralled a number of other nuns closer, obviously in an attempt to make me feel better about the constant chatter from the more distant Sisters ensconced at the mini bars. My “audience,” which now numbered ten out of the two hundred, consisted of two Nuns who very obviously hated everything I was singing about and clearly resented being co-opted into this misadventure. Sat beside them, were two or three others who were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and were just really game for anything and anyone who made an effort (God bless them…). Three more were perhaps part of a radical fringe, which seemed really into it. They hung onto almost every word. The radical fringe were bookended by a solitary overly excitable Nun who seemed really ecstatic about everything I did, pretty much everything, though after talking to her later, I realized, it was more because I was a just, you know?!.. a guy. It seemed that any guy in this sea of X chromosomes, was a shining star in her mind. I excused myself for a fake toilet trip.
I sang myself almost hoarse to get above the din, I squirmed, I sweated profusely through my performance, eventually getting to wearily pack my gear, collect my fee and return stunned to the car to make a bemused trek back to Seattle and shook my head in wonder.
And Now For Something Completely Different
Lastly - one of the first gigs I did in the US after haphazardly moving here in 2000 was a county fair in Pennsylvania. I was scrambling to put together whatever paying performances I could muster, as my visa only entitled me to work as a musician (Long story). A friend dropped the gig in my lap and I was very thankful for it and so, I sang from the back of a truck trailer in a large field, to a trickle of passing people. Afterward I sat myself down with a growing crowd of onlookers, on the hillside opposite the stage. I actually experienced a warm glow about my new life as a working musician in the United States, just as the next act arrived. A rotund gentleman sauntered on stage, causing my jaw to drop as he lead three large llamas to center stage and readied them to do various tricks. Yes, my friends, one of the first gigs I did in the US, gave a pack of llamas, top billing. Ah, the glamour.
So perhaps I’ll never get to do the whole rock n roll tour bus routine, I’ll never get to throw a TV set out a hotel window (Not my style anyway and I don’t actually know anyone who has). I may never have great riches bestowed upon me for my work but I have to say, I am happy enough with being a working musician with at the very least, a wealth of stories to tell.