Atlantic City April 27th 2008
People ask me what I’ve been doing the last ten years since I toured here. It’s a difficult question to answer without sounding like an alcoholic recluse. I’ve been watching television: Ten series of Big Brother, fifty DVD box-sets, God knows how many Matches of the Day. I watch every football show broadcast. I have watched every hour of Wimbledon, all day and every day since 1998. I watch obscure film noirs and 1940s Westerns. World Cups, European Championships, Champions Leagues, World Series, Olympic Games, Pop Idol, Later With Jools, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Question Time, Extras, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage. I have watched documentaries about murder cases, wars and famines. Quiz shows, panel games, sit-coms and period dramas. Property shows, How-To-Dress-Like-A-Cunt shows and the news, the news; flitting between continents, sport , weather and global desolation. And I have been nursing week-long hangovers. Grinding, edgy, deranged whirlwinds of hangovers. Sweating in coiled sheets, shivering in hot showers, wincing at the world and shuffling shakily around newsagents with a Private Eye and a Mojo and a pint of milk. The guitars and piano glare at me resentfully, unplayed and dust clogged. I slump on the couch with my feet on the coffee table and grasp for the remote, point and shoot.
That’s about it. Anything else would be an embellishment. And for all this I am paid a King’s ransom. It is a wonderful life.
But for now I’m working and work is good, “My life is good,” Randy Newman has it. Or to paraphrase Thomas Szasz: There is not a modern western psychiatric ailment that can’t be ameliorated of banished by one therapy – work. And to travel is romantic. What changes without stirs within, brings up rare memories and provokes amused reflection. Look out of the window, what do you see? Nature and infrastructure locked in the embrace of a war and Nature’s winning. People and their primate displays. Status, strength and sexual power advertised everywhere. The great drive to dominate and procreate blatant and desperate right before your eyes. The Beaver’s dam, Dawkins calls an extended phenotype – not flesh and blood but an entity made by genes just the same. Our buildings, our homes, our clothes, our books and bags and pianos and guitars, guns and missiles – all built by DNA. You can see our efforts as a kind of mad bacterial rash that briefly flashed across the thin crust of our interesting planet. It’s reassuring that we’re so alive, so blind and busy. There may be a bang or it may be a whimper but what a thing it is, this fervid occupation.
We pass through Baltimore, rust-coloured and work-worn with great container ships berthed at the docks disgorging stuff sucked from the world. To be stuffed back in again somewhere, living-room then landfill. Nothing escapes this world but radio waves and religious fundamentalists. We hit traffic, get clogged up, snarled in the strings of automobiles and then break loose into open road. The sun beats today, you can feel it throb through the glass. Every tree and plant on the roadside is leafing or blossoming. I count ten different colours of green. New overpasses are being constructed, cranes lift improbable weights onto slim columns and great banks of fresh earth are piled into slopes to be sewn with grass-seed and become home to insects, rodents and rubbish. The traffic in front of us is inexorably pulled to its destination – it’s a train with the links between us set in the drivers’ minds. We change lanes just to prove we have free will but it’s a process and we have no power. It’s the road that takes us to the sea, not the vehicle. I look at other riders in their private worlds. Truckers with their wrap-a-round shades and set jaws high in their cabs, working women fidgeting with their hands and glancing over worriedly. Mostly they stare ahead as if mesmerized by a dream.
We are pulled over by the lure of coffee and find ourselves thrust into a frenzied tumult of vacationing families crushed into a maze of calorie dispensers. Hell. In the restroom I take a blind man by the elbow and guide him to the sink, which is automatic. I wonder if he sits down in a cubicle or uses the urinal. His white stick looks pretty versatile. He is immaculately dressed and quietly cordial. The only person in the place with any style.
We take a powder. Back in the thick sluggish traffic we watch a Harley rider bum a light from a woman smoking with her window down. The going is slow. Peter fiddles with the radio and speculates that if this is what passes for music it’s a wonder anybody actually likes music. I have a secret yearning to stick with the country station but I’m no DJ. Akiva requests my MP3 player and Peter selects tracks. I dread to think what monstrosities live in that little Pandora’s box. He goes for “Blood and Chocolate” by that lippy little squirt, Elvis Costello. Of course, “I Want You” is a masterpiece but I wouldn’t want to have dinner with the guy. Nick Lowe is a different proposition. How sweetly he has aged. History will judge him the better writer.
We cross three state lines today: Virginia/ Maryland/ Delaware/ New Jersey. I see a Glasgow, Delaware on the map. I hear a distant bell ring; not a difficult peal to ignore. We plough on – road, road and more road until – oh, shit – there it is.
Imagine a huge Stalinist chemical works clad in cardboard casino fakery with the word “Trump” stuck on top of the towers. A hideous mess of cheap architecture and vast ugly video billboards. I had a romantic image of Atlantic City from old 1940s newsreels but then I remember Louis Malle’s film made in the eighties filled with real footage of demolition teams tearing the pre-war buildings down with wrecking balls and mechanical claws. I hate what they’ve done to Vegas but this is unforgivable. There is a photographer here to follow me around the eastern seaboard for three days and we struggle to find a single location in which to shoot.
We are playing in a “House of Blues” which is contained deep within a giant of a hotel called The Showboat. Our rooms are a fifteen minute walk from the stage in the same building. Utterly spooky, everything is lit up like a Christmas tree and deserted. The corridors are wide and unfeasibly long, the carpets incredibly garish, the lobby cacophonous and dizzying. As we check in there is a juggler beside us and a woman wobbling on stilts who appears to be dressed as the ghost of a Victorian prostitute. It must take an army to clean this place. The noise, a cocktail of slot machine chirruping and five different MOR pop soundtracks is Hadean. I am energised by the absurdity. Peter and I look at each other in bemusement through a sound-check in the most cavernous sounding hall I have ever come across. It’s like we are performing inside an old spring reverb unit from a Fender Twin. Or a subway tunnel. An audience of around thirty five turns up in a room that could comfortably accommodate a thousand. It’s wonderfully surreal and stupid. We muse how perfect a few mushrooms would be to render this scene hyper-crazy, vivid and hysterically funny. Not one person in the Showboat Casino complex is smiling or laughing. Maybe they’re losing. Maybe it was all lost for them years ago. Everyone is sleepwalking through hell and thinking it’s a holiday.