A Pompey Muso: Lost in America Part I

Portsmouth writer and S&C regular JS Adams recalls a frightening episode in his music career when he found himself stranded in Austin, Texas amid some dangerous characters, with only a hat and glasses to his name.

It’s about nine at night, the sun has gone down and I am lost in Austin, Texas. It wouldn’t be so bad if I lived here in the USA but I don’t. I’ve been in this town less than a week and I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere. I have no money, no phone, no car, no watch, no way of contacting or reaching anyone. All I have in the world are the clothes I’m wearing, a pair of frog shades and a cowboy hat, all of which cost me $4.50. Now I kinda wish I hadn’t spent that money but at least, in a way, it helps me play the part of the pseudo-American. That might be necessary for survival.

I have no idea what to do other than fake it and hope for the best. I am alone, dumped on the side of the road like an abandoned child left to fend for himself. I feel like I’m in a movie all of my own not unlike After Hours in which comedian Griffin Dunne gets lost late at night in deep ghetto-land New York and finds himself in several crazy life-threatening situations with various colourful characters. I have become Griffin Dunne and everyone looks scary and the cops are nowhere to be seen. But fuck it. There’s no point freaking out. What would Clint Eastwood do in a situation like this? Be cool. Just be cool. So I deal with it. If I am to die here so be it. Let’s get shot, mugged, kidnapped, stabbed in the face, whatever. Bring it on.

I am a true wanderer on walkabout. Hey brother can you tell me where I’m at? Got a pair of frog shades and a cowboy hat. I keep on rambling along what I soon learn is Congress Avenue, a ridiculously long street that stretches nearly half the length of the city, crosses the Colorado River and terminates at the familiar sight of the Congress building itself, which seems to be a duplicate of Washington DC’s.

Austin’s South by Southwest music festival has attracted all the crazies like moths to a flame. I pass by animated drunks who dance in circles around me, bible-bashing nut cases who want my soul. But I keep in character: the pseudo-American, cool and calculating. I say little and nod at passers by. I have become America, I have become Clint Eastwood and I can deal with it, because the high plains drifter ain’t got nuthin’ on me.

Let me backtrack: I play guitar in a four-piece electro-pop band. There’s the singer who thinks he’s Marc Bolan (and every other cock star rolled into one), there’s the mad sound engineer doubling as our bassist, our introvert hairy drummer whose drums are louder than his bite, our highly stressed and very young manager and of course, me, on electric guitar. This is why I am here in Texas and ultimately why I am lost. Flaky musicians. You turn your back on them for a couple of seconds and they take off  down the highway without you. WTF! Did this even happen in Spinal Tap?

I distinctly remember in that mockumentary the drummer exploding, the band getting lost behind the stage and the Stonehenge gig being a total disaster of centimetre proportions. I think of that parody and the similarity to my own situation and wonder why the hell I joined this band anyway. It’s not really my kinda music, I’m more of a Bob Dylan, alt-rock and folk kinda fella but anyway I got a free ticket with them to play at here in Austin, Texas. So here I am, a Pompey boy going straight from my digs in London to this mental two-week festival that happens here every year.

Originally from Portsmouth, our band was all about sensationalism. We dressed loud, played loud and acted crazy but I still felt like a hat-stand by comparison. I struggled to keep up with them and, at thirty-six, I was no spring chicken but with no ties, nothing to hold me down. I rambled with them out of a sense of belonging to something that was more real than the Job Centre, more real than the stuffiness of being quaint and English and living a mundane life.

To be honest I didn’t really wanna come to America, not like this anyway. I only said I would because I was drunk at the time but in the cold light of soberness the reality of being in a real rock band began to dawn on me. Holy shit! We really are going places. We’re not just doing crappy pub gigs anymore, we’re actually playing the USA!

This all sounds idyllic apart from the fact that (a) there was no record company supporting us whatsoever and (b) we really had no idea what we were doing here. None of us were getting paid either. I’d had fifty dollars to my name, the last of which went on a pizza to feed the band. Because I had left in England in such a hurry I didn’t make time to format my credit cards so they’d be compatible with US cash machines. That was why I was now ‘out of gas’. I also didn’t think to bring a converter to charge my phone so that was dead too.

To make matters worse the singer had kept manipulating situations. He never dropped the cock rock act for one second. He was the quintessential rock star rebel with that fuck everything and never listen to anyone vibe, to the point that it almost broke up the band on a regular basis and ultimately, was the reason why I was totally lost in America.

Scroll back three days ago. We’ve made it to Austin and checked into the modest hotel. Nothing but waffles and maple syrup for breakfast every morning. Tensions in the band are running high. That evening after a whole lot of new chaos over who was going to pay for the pizza THAT THE SINGER HAD ORDERED, I ended up paying the $20. An hour later, I was alone in the hotel room with the singer and found myself pacing up and down in order to keep focused while I said what needed to be said about his rock star behaviour: the eccentric, childlike interest in the banal, the endless manipulations, the playing with the afro hair and always wanting everything his way. I could have character assassinated him but felt fisticuffs could have been on the menu, so politely tried to explain how his persistent Jim Morrison/Bolan-esque antics were fucking up the band. He lay sprawled across the bed like a cat, posing and grinning, regarding me alluringly while fiddling with his hair.

‘Like…I dunno wot you mean man…wot ?’

‘This!’ I said. ‘You’re not Mick Jagger and you’re not Jim Morrison! Jesus!’

He grinned at me like a child and burst into laughter. With a big sigh I realised I had to give up on this. His faith in the God of Cock was unshakeable and conveniently deniable. And since I was in his world and not my own, I ended up falling deeper and deeper into his cock-rock bullshit, shaping me into the ever complaining musician who points out the faults of the rest of the band while looking like the least dedicated member. I’d read about The Doors drummer John Densmore and why he got fed up with singer Jim Morrison for the very same reasons.

I realised – probably way too late – that I was in a band with overgrown kids. Our manager was just a kid himself but for whatever reason they accepted me as part of the group. But what the hell was I doing all of this for? Notions of rock stardom? Would this somehow help my flailing career in any way whatsoever? I wasn’t even playing music remotely like the stuff I was into but I guess I had nothing and when you’ve got nothing, you got nothing to lose. I think Bob Dylan said that.

And with that uncertainty, the band spent half the time getting lost and the rest of the time arguing and in between all that, there was a handful of gigs. It was probably the only thing we didn’t fuck up. As a band we actually weren’t half bad. Even though our original bassist couldn’t make it to the USA (because of a drugs charge) we winged it anyway with our resident sound engineer, who stepped in and joined us as our replacement bassist. He was a large man, a real brash rocker type in sleeveless denim and a bandana, who partied hard and lived to the Pepsi Max and looked exactly like Zed the bonkers Hell’s Angel biker in Police Academy 2.

I probably sound like I hated these guys but to be honest I loved them. I guess we were all loose cannons in our own way but we got on, most of the time. You have to. I might bitch about them but no more than I might bitch about any of my annoying siblings. Being in a band is not just about playing the music, it’s a whole lifestyle choice that you share with like-minded lost souls and that ethos forms the basis of the camaraderie within a tight knit band and the ideas you want to share with the world.  At that moment, your band is your family and you love them. As a band we did everything together to the point of being married: sharing beds in the jolly two-star hotel, four miles out of town, eating pancakes, waffles and maple syrup every morning. You end up sharing everything to survive. To live the rock ‘n’ roll dream. To be free.

And out of some sense of fuck it all, our electrified souls where bursting to rock, to break free of our limitations and push the barriers of what can be achieved if you believe in what you are doing. None of us wanted the work in crappy office jobs or factories anymore. To us it was like a death sentence. The Beatles knew that, that’s why they got the hell out and toured. They lived and breathed it. The Doors, Nirvana and countless others knew it only too well. But we were none of those bands, we were far too rock ‘n’ roll for our own good. It’s not like we even did drugs but there was the demon drink and perhaps that’s all it takes between success and failure. There are the bands that make it and then there are the bands that don’t. I guess we were the latter.

I sort of had this ethos born out of a certain naivety, because when you are in a touring band like I was you all stick together, sharing some notion that the music you create will somehow change the world. Many rock bands tend to share this same ethos but in the end you only end up changing yourselves.

But as the days passed, I became increasingly weary of the uncertainty of touring with a group this chaotic, this unpredictable, whose singer took rebellion to the next level and incited revolution in his own band by taking us off somewhere random and putting us all in situations of jeopardy. We had just played around the British Isles during which it was a chore having to deal with the various dramas that ensued. Every day brought another fuck up; like not having anywhere to stay after a gig in Manchester and then having to rough it all night in a freezing bus shelter in the winter cold or the time we got stuck at Dublin airport because there weren’t enough plane tickets for the whole band to fly back to London. Or that time we lost the manager and singer and then found them passed out blind drunk in a taxi at two in the morning, with the taxi driver demanding to be paid, when all I really wanted was to get back to our digs and crash out. And then there was the classic: running out of petrol and having to push the car off road and wait for the manager as he took the petrol can off into the night fog looking for fuel.

Contrary to the rock and roll myth, most professional bands ain’t like this. They’re boring; they do a gig to a few hundred people and nothing goes wrong, other than a typo on the posters or a faulty microphone and then it’s back to the hotel afterwards for hot cocoa and bed, and if you’re lucky there might be a an episode of Country File on catch-up TV. But I wasn’t in a professional band. I was just a guitarist touring with a mobile lunatic asylum.

Now Texas beckoned and would take me to whole new level of random shitness and not knowing what might go wrong next, but I bit the bullet and hoped to get back to England in one piece. But then it happened again.

‘Seafood,’ said the singer, playing with his hair in the mirror. ‘I fancy some seafood.’

The world has just ended. His words resonated in my ears, much like sticking your head in a large brass bell while a hunchback clangs it incessantly. The singer wanted seafood but if there were subtitles to this latest escapade forming in his head, they might have read ‘Let’s go take a random walk somewhere and get totally lost.’

To be continued…

Photography by Moshe Tasky.