Milwaukee 20th April 2008
We pull over at The Ironworks Restaurant truck-stop off of I-94 and sit around the counter on vinyl swivel-seats. Fake veneer abounds and there is the small miracle of ashtrays at every place setting beside the mahogany brown upturned coffee mugs waiting to be filled and refilled. You can still see the old phone points built into the counter where truckers would phone home before the age of the cell-phone. I used to use these all the time – it was such a luxury talking to someone in the Scottish morning from your midnight booth as you waited for your eggs over-easy, usually half-cut on weak American beer.
Our waitress, well past retirement age and quick as a whippet, gets our mugs upended and takes our orders. Later she tells us how her husband, who worked for the Denny’s chain of greasy-spoons, used to get “ticked off” with air travel. We immediately sense that here is a woman not to cuss around. My tour manager, Akiva, uses the delicate phrase “pain in the…butt”. Her eye make-up is thick with broad deep-brown outlines. She’s a smoker and a sprightly one, a widow now at a guess, and provides us a grandmotherly reassurance. On the way out we buy crooked comedy teeth from a bubble-gum machine.
A billboard for Chubby’s Gentlemen’s Club drifts buy. Somehow I feel Chubby is anything but a gentleman and too depraved to even call a rogue. I clamp on headphones and hit play.
I always find the people who adore Bruce Springsteen enough to make any sane person despise him but on the road in America he makes extraordinarily compelling sense. That solid 4/4 beat impels your car through the country like a whip lashed at carriage horses. The lyrics are soap operatic myths pitched somewhere between 1930s Indiana and 1980s Philadelphia. A three state wide world. Already he’s amassed a vast catalogue of essentially the same story told in minutely different ways and you cannot help but admire its compassion. Four-square on the off-beat, with just enough slant to be special, he’s the Elvis of the eighties.
We head south out of the sticks into the fringes of the Rust-Belt and the town that made Schlitz famous, Milwukee. I have a good friend here, Bobby, whose lovely parents suffered days of The Dels camping out in their apartment in ’86. Bobby is an ex-indie label guru turned newspaper-man and big-time Weller fan and he makes a person laugh with a lyrical irony. At the Chicago show he sat stage-side and shouted obscure demo-tape titles at me. Some of them even I don’t remember writing. He has his requests in for tonight, I shall see what I can do.
The show is at Shank Hall, a venue with which I am familiar. They’ve re-modelled since 1997 but it is essentially as I remember. A miniature stone Pi hangs halfway up the back wall of the stage in homage to Tap’s “Stonehenge”. There is a single spotlight dedicated to it and Paul, the house technician, picks it out at moments of high pretension. Afterwards I go out to meet friends and respectful members of the audience spontaneously form a line and wait politely for me to finish my conversation before asking for autographs. Very Milwaukee, very Midwest. A tall man skips the queue to show his adventurous spirit. His hand is like a big over-filled leather bag when I shake it. I can see his ancestors wagonned-up with shovels, rakes and hoes. A pioneer in plimsoles and designer frames.
The hotel bar is called Aqua and, bizarrely in a place populated by old age pensioners, plays pumping dance music in a room whose tables are made of perspex and contain furiously bubbling water lit in lurid pinks and greens. We stomach a single drink before heading for the sanctity of our rooms. In the morning a haar steals across the shoreline of lake Michigan blotting out the sun before burning off. We load up for the airport, checking the nooks and crevices of the van for stray items amongst the pistachio shells and potato-chip packets. I find a photograph from years ago given to me by a fan. Who is that guy?