El Paso to Phoenix, October 2nd & 3rd
Another morning, another fucking beautiful day, still in Texas. But not for long. The route out of El Paso hugs the border with Mexico for a while before cutting north into New Mexico and turning west for Arizona. Mexico lies just beyond touching distance, only discernible as a different nation by the marginally more ramshackle nature of its housing. An ugly fence, like a stern and humourless drill sergeant, frowns along the frontier for a few miles until succumbing to the heedless power of the landscape. There is no border, just two cultures and economies smashing against each other and melding, melting into one: Amexica. Only the mulish attitude of politicians, harvesting fear votes, prevents this territory from being the same country. The absurdity of the frontier is no less acute than that between North and South Korea. People pour across the official channels – roads, bridges and ports – every day to work, see family, do business. Sometimes it’s impossible to figure out who’s in whose ghetto. Because the real ghetto is the state of mind of those who think it necessary to divide human beings into camps of the entitled and the undeserving. Of course, in Europe we are smug about this. But we are no different. Instead of the Rio Grande there is the Mediterranean. Pale skinned wage slaves sunbathe while trafficked Africans either drown or are interned.
We are pulled over into a customs and immigration control post. A buzzcut goon wrestles with his leashed sniffer dog, detecting what we cannot fathom – unamerican behaviour? Two charming uniformed agents, a man and woman, check our passports and politely quiz us. You sense they understand the ironic thanklessness of their duties. The spin cycle of desperation: you try, you get caught, you get repatriated, you try again. Amnesty for everyone is the only sensible option.
Last night in El Paso we caroused in a little gay area just by the hotel. From our brief acquaintance it strikes us as a happening little city and yet another surprising revelation on our all-too-quick traverse around the country. As we cruise onward to Phoenix, I look out across the scrub to the isolated mountain ranges that erupt on either side of the van. The soil has reddened and the flora flattened. Rusting rugby posts of pylons carry power lines across the territory, looking from a distance like an endless queue of stick-men. The railroad rejoins us as we forge relentlessly west. The other ocean is somewhere out there and soon we’ll hit the true limit of our travels: the sea.
We veer off the freeway to take breakfast in an Iron Skillet, our favourite truck stop restaurant. The place is unavoidably redolent of an outtake from Breaking Bad. As we load back into the vehicle I notice something strange. In spite of the arid scrubland all around us sizzling under clear blue skies the air is cool, fresh and clement. There is a complete disconnection between how this area looks and how it feels. Union Pacific engines sidle past us in the sun, dragging mile-long wagon trains. The red soil gives way to pale green grasses with odd stragglers of soaptree yuccas poking up in their punk hair-dos. Signs warn of dust storms and extremely impaired visibility. Sentinel telegraph poles count out our progress. America envelops us and squeezes us onward.
We hit Phoenix in the late afternoon and weave through the traffic to our hotel. The thermometer is up in the nineties and the sun blasts though my shirt like a blowtorch. We have crossed six or seven huge states in less than a week. This is real touring and it’s utter joy. The knowledge that the end is near is so sad I put it out of my mind.
The gig is in a little club on the edge of downtown, that catch-all term for the parts of US cities that have skyscrapers. Our tech guy, Brian, is smart and cool so we forgive him the oddities of the house system. Brian seems to do everything in the venue and asks, after soundcheck, if it will be alright if he “decorates” the stage. I assure him it will most definitely be fine and when, three hours later, I walk onstage I’m flabbergasted to find a whole array of designer candles tastefully arranged around the stage. It looks like a TV show. Thanks, Brian – nobody ever did that before and I like it.
The small crowd are friendly and chatty and I like the cut of their collective jib. It’s a standing venue, only the second we’ve done after Rough Trade in Brooklyn and that helps. There’s a Friday night feeling in the room and they are good listeners. Our dressing room is an old Airstream RV and I’m immediately transported back to the endless days spent on tourbuses. I’m utterly perturbed that it doesn’t just drive us away to LA after the show. You’ve not known luxury travel till you’ve been on an American tourbus. You can take your cruise ship and shove it up your arse. Give me two lounges and an air-conditioned bunk and I’m in heaven. Well, as long as the crew aren’t racking out lines all night and playing Nirvana’s Lithium on repeat.
I take the air on my tiny balcony back at the hotel. There’s a golf course out back and a colonnade of palm trees leading to the entrance. Golf is shit. Manicured and manufactured lawns greedily drinking all the water in a desert. Obscene. Golf is shit. Played by buffoons and balloons in execrable clothing. Played by the type of people whose prime response to poverty is the articulation of disgust. I look out over the winking lights of suburban Phoenix. A few piercing stars make themselves known through the gloom above. The rich are getting richer and increasingly isolated from the world that made them. What meritocracy? When will we tear this travesty apart?