Guardian Tour Diary 1997
I wrote this piece for The Guardian in 1997 (I think) and received a fair amount of flak from US fans for its sneering tone. I can see their point but I was trying to be sympathetic to them while undermining the rock-star persona by being honest. I probably got it wrong, but it’s a document of its time so here it is in its original form before the G2 editors got their (rather capable) claws into it.
One Week on the Wheel of Pain: How to Brownnose with Impunity
You plane, you deplane. You’re a foreigner, a form-filler, you’re a hasn’t been who might be in the land of the wannabe. You have come here, willing and supine, ready to wear the promo smile for the people, to sing your song for the sake of the sell. Live on-air, live in-store, a week of grease on the week of release, welcome to the wheel of pain.
8:00am. You stretch-limo to WXRT and play your pretty new tunes on borrowed guitars. Attempt razor-sharp sarcasm in airy exchanges with morning jock, Lynn Bremer. Time-lag, however, renders your wit limp, lumpy. You sound whiny. You’re a whiny Limey.
11:00 am. You stretch, you de-stretch. The sheet says to expect 1500 people at the in-store. Five hundred or so watch you play a tune or two then stand around embarrassed when the power goes. Ah, when the power goes. 1500 people suddenly appear as you sit down to sign sleeves. You ask number 62 who it’s for. “It’s for me”, she says. You ask if that’s with a “y’ or an “i”.
Your morning acoustic performance has been elbowed. Suddenly there is acres of real time. You panic. Six hours to kill. You open your Sheraton net shield. Minneapolis is nowhere to be seen. Reception soothes you. “Uptown is five minutes away, sir”. You know from extensive experience of America that this translates as ten miles in a taxi – but six hours is six hours.
Uptown Minneapolis is what they now call a “Starbucky area”. This means that you can walk between cafés and clothes shops without resorting to wheeled transportation. You wander, read local free-sheets, try on thrift shop suits, worry over your absence of style. Should you be swaggery Mick-Jaggery or homely Jarvis-Cockery? Either way you know you’ll look like Arthur Askey and feel a fucking fool. An in-store ensues. Friendly north-midwesterners file past your signing station. “You guys are incredibly awesome”, says one. “I love your metaphors”, says one more. You try to resist the innuendo. Resistance is useless.
Thursday, New York
7:00am. You drag yourself awake after four hours slumber in the icy air-con of the Sheraton Manhattan, your headphones around your neck , the Wu-Tang Clan in the Discman. Always nice to drop off to some deranged polemical ranting.To WRNN where a morning zoo awaits. This is where DJs acting like teenagers on their first line of speed “fun” over the air at unfeasibly early hours of the morning. The real zoo is out there where the audience is fed daily doses of shit by these keepers of the short attention span. You play your songs, ply your trade. At least on radio your grin can be dispensed with as you act the ape through a thin grimace of disgust. TV land beckons.
1:30 pm NBC TV Studios, Conan O’Brian Show taping. You’re here, o joy of joys, to play your noo cut to the nation, coast to coast, your mug mooning in every home. Your group’s spot is between ad break 5 and 6. It occurs to you that chat shows are adverts for commercial breaks, not really programmes in a proper sense. You are, in a way, the incidental entertainment during the intermission, the turn that keeps the dopes glued to the brightly coloured river of crap that no one needs but everyone just has to have. You do your bit, break for the train station – Philadelphia waits for you at the end of the line.
You train, de-train, check in and kip.
8:00 am, WRML. Another morning zoo, you trot out the same old stuff. Today’s DJ is a kind of trainee Howard Stern whose own success you can only explain by his apparent possession of a whole half-brain. In the kingdom of the brainless the half-brained man is king. Your jock, on the other hand, possesses only a deft ability to find innuendo in every inanity you utter. You call his bluff and ask him if some silly slang they are all fnarr fnarring over means clitoris. Sudden, desperate guffawing smothers the conversation like teargas, dispersing any ugliness bearing the banner of reality. No fun there.
2:30pm In-store, Downtown. A veritable Artie Fufkin situation arises. No instruments, no amps, no people. While hanging around waiting for the gear and looking for whose ass to have ironically offered up, folks by the name of fan miraculously start to appear. You sing, you sign, you sling your hook. Philadelphia is the birthplace of a free world of sorts so it seems appropriate that today’s in-store yields the grandest of free CD hauls for the band. Popularity is an empty reward; the scams are the real satisfaction.
The great cushioned submarine of the tour-bus drags you back up north to Boston, everyone gleefully unwrapping their bounty like kids at Christmas. Best blag has to be an absurd Bob Wills record. You yodel along like nervous hounds before a hunt all the way up the sleek freeway.
12:00pm HMV In-store. You wake up feeling like shit, like someone’s put a breeze-block in place of your torso. The familiar signs are there – cold, shivering, aches and pains – bus flu. You muddle through your performance as best you can. Boston folk, cold but polite, sympathetically cheer. You take requests and play your hits, the children in the crowd blank, bored and embarrassed at their parents’ sides, unsure of their allegiances. You do the singing, limp-wristed and turbo-sweating, smiling that weak smile of the sick – thank you nurse, only a few more days. You return to your Swiss Hotel room and are immediately absorbed by the bed. A posher than normal place this, the main differences being chocolates on the pillow, Q-Tips in the toilet and a desk lamp that is a bronze horse, one leg ceremoniously lifted, a sad idea of elegance. The tour manager’s call wakes you and you mini-van to the Open House Party, a live syndicated radio show beamed by satellite from a house outside Boston to second-rate radio stations all over Canada and the States. They take calls. Stacey from Dayton, Ohio wants to hear 2 Unlimited, says she’s going clubbing tonight and wishes her best friend a happy birthday. The sprawling mass of extra-metropolis America comes home to you in an instant, a disconnected place littered with dead ends and false hope even for these suburban whites who call in. A place of low aspirations and even lower achievement. They are your bread and butter, those semi-rural states where your band does its business: Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana. You know in that moment that glamour will never touch your world; a solid constituency of straight-laced music lovers is your bedrock. New York is not calling, Milan is not on your sheet.
You plane, you deplane, taxi down the emerald-edged English motorway and flop into a furnished flat. There are birds bleeping in the rafters, motorcycle messengers on the streets. You’re a hasn’t been who might be, buying a pint of milk, opening a new roll of toilet paper, drinking a cup of tea with the newspaper. A little day off from the wheel of pain, a beautiful sky, a moving movie, a record you’ve brought back from a trip abroad that shakes you up, makes you play it again and again.