Austin, Day Thirteen
I decide to investigate a new morning venue. These are the critical choices I have to fret over. In a funky vinyl slash coffee shop I am greeted by Craig, a man in his early fifties with long grey hair and a Texan drawl, who is charm personified. He is the epitome of southern ease. He volunteers the intimate details of his life with no hint of self-obsessiveness and enquires after mine without nosiness or suspicion. He has that Texan air of gentlemanliness which mixes grace with a wry mischief. You immediately like him and relax. He’s an ex state employee turned quality caterer. We gossip about Withered Hand which is a pleasant surprise and he talks about his son, who is late for his shift at the shop. The big seventies stereo in the corner belches mellifluous country music with a brew of irony and love. He pours me coffee and puts a slice of freshly baked banana bread on the grill to warm before serving it up with a dollop of cream cheese. I scan the New York Times as he gently chatters about lighthearted things exuding an arch wisdom that makes me laugh. His son arrives, hipped out with a vintage baseball cap and T-shirt – retro redneck ironic, I’d call it. I’ll be here again. This is the kind of hospitality Scotland seems incapable of supplying. You know those tourist board adverts where the highland hotelier is glowing with conviviality? Yeah, right. Get straight to your room right after dinner and fuck off in the morning. And no, you can’t, whatever it is you’re about to ask for. Now pay me and never darken my fucking door again. Put that in the advert.
As I wend my way back up the hill after breakfast I meet a young dude pushing a heavy trail bike along the street. He offers me a buck to give him a push to get it started. I decline payment and he wheels it up an incline so he can jump on while I give the saddle a boost from behind him. We try it twice without any joy. Both times it sputters and dies before running out of hill. He admits defeat saying he hasn’t had it going for a while. I wish him luck and continue back up the slope in the sparkling autumn light, nuts and leaves strewn under my feet on the concrete sidewalk. *
Later I meet keys man David (pronounced Dah-veed) in a despicably trendy place called the Hillside Farmacy. Note that spelling. It denotes assholery. One of our servers is rocking a style one can only describe as gay Hitler Youth. He has my undying admiration. Side parting and khaki lederhosen. He wouldn’t last very long in Shettleston that’s for sure but this is liberal hipster east-side Austin, gentrified and Bohemian-lite. And that’s cool, that’s good. But I’d love to hear just one comment from an east end Glasgow weasel at a bus stop. “Owh, where er you goin’, Master Race?”
We nip into a tremendous music shop which exclusively stocks vintage keyboards. There are great banks of oscillator modules that look like telephone switchboards in the window. They have a Fairlight, the unbelievably costly early sampling keyboard, complete with cathode-ray tube terminal. It looks like something from the eighties BBC sci-fi series Blake’s Seven. The last time I saw one must have been in Sarm West in Portobello in 1989. It belonged to Trevor Horn, of course – one of the few people who could have afforded one at the time. By then it had been superseded by a multitude of cheap digital sampling technology and sat gathering dust only three or four years after its heyday. It sits in that shop now reminding me of the space shuttle that was being trundled down the roads of California recently – a vastly expensive redundant curiosity bound for a museum. Bring me an orchestral stab and make it toppy.
At last I get to record some vocals and am crestfallen when the cheapest mic in the studio sounds better on my voice than the most lavishly expensive, the Neumann U47, which we have been using thus far. But I can’t deny the evidence of my ears. Out goes the microphone you see in early studio shots of Aretha, Dylan and The Beatles and in comes something most folk think is only fit for a kick drum. At least it’s still going through a beautiful Neve mic amp from the seventies. We used the same ones at Linford Manor in 1988 for Kiss This Thing Goodbye. They sound remarkable and are much sought after. And they look like something from the original TV adaptation of Orwell’s 1984. If I’m honest, it’s got to look good as well as sound good. That’s really important.
We break for pizza and sit in the warm evening with traffic growling all around us. Beyond the city limits is the enormous state of Texas falling silent in the receding heat. And beyond Texas, the endless plains and the high mountains, the measureless deserts and vast forests, great lakes, swamps and epic rivers. A continent under one flag and with one cause, the pursuit of happiness.
* I am aware of a strange homoerotic subtext to this episode, mainly due to the words buck, boost and saddle. But what really struck me later was that somebody would offer a man thirty years his senior a dollar to help him. Was this to show he was genuine in some way? I thought it was quite sweet at the time.