Seattle and Portland 15th May 2008
I am moving along the highway between Seattle and Portland through the lush pastures of the Pacific northwest. Farmsteads nest cosily amongst the cows and tall pines and blossoming roadside shrubbery. No matter where you are on this continent you always know it’s North America. You’ve seen every region – mountainous, arable, rocky and desolate in countless Westerns, road movies and documentaries. Not an inch uncovered by celluloid, only the interior life lived in these locations remains mysterious to those of us from abroad and that’s as hard a nut to crack as any. Don’t be fooled, the North Americans are a complex people and those representations of their national character, be it Kennedy, Monroe or Jimmy Stewart are less archetype than empty caricature. Everyone here, it sometimes seems, is as much Melville’s Ishmael as Coppola’s Captain Willard, Hulk as Annie Hall or Houdini as Huckleberry Finn. With, God help us, a smidgeon of Gordon Gekko.
Much of the route to Portland resembles Perthshire, the fertile, rolling garden of Scotland rich in soil and gentry and like there you can feel a heat emanating from the dense riot of early summer vegetation. It presses at the van windows as we rock to songs of the eighties on satellite radio. No commercials, no DJs just wall-to-wall hits: ZZ Top, Bon Jovi and Rod Stewart in his hideous 80s over-produced pomp. Beautiful lakes float by and the clouds hang low over the thickly wooded rises and we fire through pretty metal bridges spanning slow meandering rivers as the cheapest sounding music ever made from pop’s lost era drives us onward.
The show last night took place in a swanky dinner theatre club called the Triple Door in downtown Seattle, a clean and lovely city with tree-lined avenues and hills and expanses of ocean water. Formerly Grunge capital, U.S.A. now a laid-back metropolitan flagship for the 21st century digital economy. Amazon is throwing up its new corporate headquarters surrounded by home-grown Starbucks outlets and alternative professionals going about their cutting-edge business. You can see life is less of a straight fight to the food table here than in L.A. The venue, with its state-of-the-art sound system even webcasts your show as a matter of course. With a hundred or so present at the event, chewing on hip fusion fare and sipping nicely rounded reds from boutique wineries, I wonder if the virtual audience even doubles their number. Live all over the world – to an audience of seventy. I am narrowcast through the broadband like a minnow in the Mississippi.
Portland brings a muggy heat absent up north. Our venue tonight is a revamped 50s motel called Doug Fir, excruciatingly self-conscious in its cool ironic chic. I want to kick it from its complacency but I’m complacent myself; just too old and beyond it to care for its little tricks like blackboards for doors and pink condoms on the bedside table. It is a patronizing folly but as their patron I must mention the efficiency of the staff lest I appear, heaven forfend, ungrateful. I am given a wristband and meal ticket at the soundcheck. I have credentials, I am in their club. I will always be one tattoo short of a dude, a haircut short of a hep-cat but I can mingle amongst their number on nights like these and smile inwardly at all that wasted effort like the ultimate reverse snob that I undoubtedly am.
I crawl into my small square room to listen to Portishead’s Magic Doors a third time before taking a walk into nightfall and the encroaching final show. On my way back I stumble into a local writer who was one of the original coterie of Del Amitri enthusiasts back in our “difficult” period of the mid-eighties. As Rod the Mod, Filthy Collins, Journey and Heart pumped out their coked-up, treble-heavy formulaic radio rock the Dels debut must have seemed like a message from the moon to those few misfits and messed-up kids who came upon it on college stations or in collector’s record shops. He shows me some letters I’d written to him at the behest of our then manager, Barbara Shores, when he was a college DJ and fan in 1986 and I am stunned by the delicate balance of homespun chattiness and bare faced shmoozing therein. Always a whore for the work, I think to myself. If I’d have run for high office back then I’d have romped it; the Mayor of Meretriciousness, Janitor of Counterfeit Pain. He jokes that he believed it all until he realised I had been only nineteen when I wrote those lyrics and had obviously made all that angst up. I laugh. All I remember is being lonely and desperate and wanting to fall in love. The rest was invention but when you’re so young and hungry for it all it’s not so hard to invent. I read his kind plug in the local listings free-sheet and see that he’s a fine writer with a cunning twist of phrase and clever choice of adjective. Though I have to look “logorrheic” up. Tendency to extreme loquacity. So, a self-eating snake of a word for a self-obsessed snake!
It occurred to me yesterday as I realised I would have not a spare second to poke around Seattle that I’m unlikely to pass these ways again. It has been a great privilege to return to the scenes of my prime and, considering the financial constraints understandably placed on an aging rock singer long past his peak with nothing but a bag of mid-life reflections and tales of disappointment, it won’t happen again, to my great sadness. I could write a hundred hammering hits and run myself fit and suck the teat of the devil till I’m blue in the face but I’ve had my crack and it’s a young man’s game: Why should they ever let me back?