Blue Moons and seven-foot transvestites…
WEDNESDAY 29 JULY, 8.30pm (Business Class Cabin, British Airways Flight 183, Heathrow):
The last time we toured to America, we flew Business Class. It turned out that Tony had a “contact” who was able to pull some strings for us at British Airways (I didn’t ask exactly what this meant – Tony has East End gangster blood in his family and I generally find it’s best not to enquire about his methods) and we had our tickets upgraded. Sadly, this time round, on account of the flight being absolutely packed, we have been condemned to flying World Traveller Plus, which is the next rung above cattle.
As a result we are now having to shuffle ignominiously through the Business Class cabin on our way to inferior seats in a perverse re-enactment of that moment in 1980s game shows when the presenter would excitedly announce: “And here’s what you could have won!” (it was always a speedboat, for some reason). You’d watch the forlorn faces of the unsuccessful contestants, struggling to look gracious whilst a small army of bikini-clad beauties clambered all over the star prize, stroking it lasciviously and batting their eyelids. We are having the upmarket wares of high-society living literally paraded about in front of us. The champagne. The leg-room. The seats-that-are-actually-beds. It’s almost too much. I long to turn away, but cannot. Oh the shame.
And then, unexpectedly, I spot a small boy in one of the seats. He’s sitting next to his very glamorous-looking mother. It’s unusual to see young children in Business Class but he looks somehow at home here, at ease, waiting so well-behaved in his window seat. He’s a beautiful kid, Italian I think, a mop of jet black hair and an innocent, thoughtful expression drifting like gentle waves across his eyes. He is playing quietly with a small wooden model of a fire engine. Our eyes meet momentarily and I glimpse the fleeting intangibility of youth in his handsome young face, the soft, unblinking wonder of boyhood – unaffected, it seems, by the transitory comforts that surround him, and I find myself thinking…
“You little bastard.”
THURSDAY 29 JULY, 2.15am (Merrion Square Bar, Upper East Side, Manhattan, New York USA):
Having somehow survived the flight to New York without even the slightest whiff of fillet steak, we arrived into JFK airport at around 10.30pm local time and were met by Ashley, one of our US tour managers. We immediately took a cab to her apartment on the Upper East Side in the expectation of going straight to bed.
Instead, somehow, we currently find ourselves on our fourth round of Blue Moons (a deliciously fruity local beer) in an almost empty Manhattan bar whilst a Phil Collins live album plays over the PA. Now, without doubt, we are officially “on tour”.
THURSDAY 29 JULY, 6.15pm (Union Square, Manhattan, New York):
This is our second performance in Union Square. Our first was last September, as part of one of the more manic episodes in the history of The Lightyears, in which we succeeded in playing two gigs in two continents, three thousand miles apart, in under twenty hours. This time around it’s all a lot more straightforward. We’ve been in New York for a day already and have begun the process of acclimatising to local culture (i.e. eating more than our own body weights at each meal – this morning for breakfast, for example, I ate a pastrami sandwich that contained so much meat I actually felt like it might have been endangering cows as a species) and developing a tolerance for the intense heat you get in the peak of summer in Manhattan.
This evening’s gig, which is part of a summer-long concert series run by the Union Square partnership, is outdoors. Last week’s concert was rained off during one of the city’s dramatic July thunderstorms, but today we’ve been lucky and the sun is blazing. Jukebox The Ghost, a fantastic Philly band who supported us in London a couple of years ago and were the unfortunate victims of last week’s cancelled performance, have joined us on the bill and are just finishing their highly entertaining and accomplished support slot in front of a rapidly burgeoning crowd. Top band – check them out here. When we jump up onstage and look out across the park, I begin to wonder whether this could turn out to be our biggest audience yet in the States, and it turns out I’m right – by the time we’ve played our first few songs and the passing trade have assembled in front of the stage, the crowd has grown to several thousand. This is brilliant. Summer evening, outdoor concert, Union Square, the British invasion – nothing could be better. I’d go as far as to say that it turns into our best ever show in the States.
We play for around an hour and the set includes songs both old and new – recent tracks such as “Johannesburg” and “Speedway 105” sit alongside songs which we haven’t played since last time we were in the USA such as “Miles Away” and “Brightest Star”. We’re having a whale of a time. I spot some familiar faces out in the plaza – fans from Philly who have travelled into the city to see us, friends from previous tours and even a couple of Lightyears fans from London. I speak to one girl afterwards who tells me: “I was walking through Manhattan and heard some band covering “Sleepless” by The Lightyears. Then I took a closer look and discovered it was you!”.
Afterwards we sign a bunch of autographs and have our photos taken with new fans, which is rather brave of them considering how disgustingly sweaty I am (see some of the pictures here). Follow this we assemble a motley crew and head for Revival where our after-party is being held. At Revival we gorge on pizza and more Blue Moons and at some point in the evening end up dancing with seven-foot transvestites to Michael Jackson tunes in a club that is, apparently, also a beauty parlour.
Today has been probably one of my favourite days ever.
FRIDAY 30 JULY, 6.15pm (WAWA Food Hut, Riverton, Philadelphia):
Today we head for Philadelphia. Which means one thing above all others.
THE WAWA FOOD HUT.
Wawa, as far as I’m aware, does reasonably good business most of the year in the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. It’s a popular brand of roadside supermarket-cum-deli and Americans have responded favourably to its easy level of convenience and innovative touch-screen sandwich-ordering technology.
That said, I don’t think I’d be out of line in ultimately attributing the massive success of the brand to the amount of business it does once-yearly when The Lightyears land in Philadelphia.
We just can’t get enough of Wawa. Sure, we have sandwiches in Britain (we invented them) but the typical deal is two, maybe three fillings, limited to a small number of essentially quite similar combinations. Not so with Wawa. In fact, I’d confidently assert that The Wawa Food Hut is a very effective microcosm for the entire American Dream philosophy – in the USA, you can have exactly what you want, when you want it, and in huge quantities to boot. Just like in Wawa. For example, one of the options at the very beginning of the sandwich-ordering process is “2-foot”… a TWO FOOT SANDWICH! That’s insane. It’s like eating a boa constrictor.
On this particular day, we head into Wawa giddy with expectation. It’s been nearly ten months since our last hoagie and we’re all salivating with the thought. In The Lightyears, we tend to fall prey on tour to what we like to call “competitive eating”. It’s essentially a way of asserting masculinity over other band members by out-eating them, often to disgusting lengths, and I’ll be the first to admit that George is running rings around me on this tour. I think the heat may have sapped my appetite. Whatever the explanation, I am destined to lose this particular bout.
After you’ve ordered your sandwich, the little computer prints a receipt for you, listing all the ingredients you have chosen to include in your hoagie. Grinning like a Cheshire Cat, George saunters over to me and says: “Look at my receipt”. He unleashes it. It’s about a foot long.
“How long is yours?”
I’m ashamed to produce it. It’s half the length of George’s.
“Are you on a diet?” goads George.
I think about defending myself by telling him it’s not the size of your sandwich but what you do with it that counts, but I know I’d be lying. I’ve failed. Admittedly my Wawa Philly Cheesesteak is no tiddler, and it fills me up, but that’s not really the point. In The Lightyears, unless you’ve eaten until the point of debilitation, you’ve not really eaten.
Once we’re back in the ridiculously massive truck that we’ve hired to get to Spring City, George begins the arduous process of actually ingesting the behemoth sitting in his lap. When he opens the paper wrapping, I actively wince. I swear I can even hear his heart-rate increasing. There are so many fillings in this sandwich that the bread walls have been breached and are hidden beneath a steaming mountain of meat, cheese, vegetables and sauce. It’s less of a sandwich and more of a dreadful pizza. I can immediately read the look on George’s face – “I can’t eat this like a normal sandwich”, he’s thinking, “because I can’t pick it up. There’s only one option.”
And with that, George plunges face-first into his food like a pig in a trough.
Whilst this disgusting process is unfolding beside me, I take the chance to study the receipt. My jaw drops open. Here’s a rough approximation of what it said:
ORDER #78: PHILLY CHICKEN CHEESESTEAK (12″)
– Extra cheese (3)
– Pepper Jack Cheese
– Grated parmesan
– Extra meat
– Extra bacon
– A little bit of oil
– Extra oil [this isn’t a joke – you really can order this in America]
– Roasted peppers
– Sweet peppers
– Sweet roasted peppers
– Extra onions
– Ranch sauce
– Barbeque sauce
– Tomato relish
– Garlic mayo
– Honey mustard sauce
– French mustard
In some counties in England, it would actually be illegal to eat this.
When he’s done, George is looking distinctly peaky. We are just a few miles outside of Spring City and will need to load our gear into the venue within the half hour.
“Chris…” he begins, struggling even to form words, “Chris… I don’t think I can do the gig. You’ll have to go on without me.”
I turn to face him. He looks like he’s been sat on by a bear.
“George mate, it’s going to be fine. I think you know what to do.”
He nods slowly.
“You’ll have to do the Christmas Walk.”
George invented the Christmas Walk back in the late ’90s. Typically it is used but once a year, on 25 December, at the close of Christmas dinner. In England it is customary on this occasion to eat and drink yourself into a stupor before crashing down in front of the TV to watch Noel Edmonds mince about in a woolly jumper for about five hours. Problem is, George has a habit of eating such a colossal amount of food during dinner that he is unable to straighten his body into a walking position upon leaving the chair, making a normal walk impossible. Necessity being the mother of invention, some years ago he patented the Christmas Walk, an ingenious method of walking whilst remaining in a sitting position. Basically you’re bent over at a sharp right angle, staring at the floor and waddling like an infirm duck. This enables you to muster a brief burst of (albeit limited) movement in spite of your creakingly full stomach. All you need is enough momentum to get you from the dinner table to the armchair. It doesn’t take much. But the Christmas Walk makes it all possible.
And so it was that George found himself Christmas Walking from the parking lot in the quaint town of Spring City, Pennsylvania, to the front door of Chaplin’s Music Cafe, where the second gig of our US tour was taking place. Passers-by regarded him with suspicion. “We’re British,” I explain. “He’s had a little too much cheesesteak. Nothing a quick Christmas Walk won’t sort out.”
FRIDAY 30 JULY, 8.45pm (Chaplin’s Music Cafe, Spring City, Pennsylvania):
Spring City is a small, attractive and incredibly quiet town north-west of Philadelphia. In England, a place like this wouldn’t have a music venue. In England, it wouldn’t even have a post office. But they do things differently in America.
Spring City also has a music store, conveniently situated opposite the venue and coincidentally named George’s Music. Naturally we had to go in there so George could do his “I’m a musician from England and my name’s George” routine. Rather splendidly the chap behind the counter gave us all free t-shirts in recognition of this fact. I left the store and discovered that mine was “Triple XL”. Not altogether useful for me at this stage in my career but I thought about it and concluded that it will come in handy when, after our 11th album has gone platinum and we all harbour such unrelenting and undisguised loathing for each other that we have begun taking separate limos to gigs, and I sit in my keytar-shaped swimming pool all day eating cheeseburgers and Findus crispy pancakes from a bucket and I’m wildly obese and need to be airlifted to gigs, it’ll be just the ticket. Always good to plan for the future, I reckon.
Chaplin’s is a fantastic little venue. The sound system is incredibly crisp and juicy (that’s right – “juicy” is a technical term in sound production) and it’s a great place to see live music. There’s a friendly crowd in tonight and we play, if I may say so myself, a very accomplished and well-balanced one-hour set that moves from the gentle acoustica of “Fine” and “Girl On The Radio” through the sunny upbeat harmonies of “Brightest Star” and “Emily”, closing on the theatrical coda of “The Last Night”. I do a bit of banter about sandwiches, which seems to go down well, and we sample a couple of flagons of the excellent local beer known as “Sly Fox”.
We are supporting a blues/soul act called Brooke Shive and The 45s, who are great fun and sound really superb. They are joined by Andy Goessling of Railroad Earth, who at one point manages to play two saxophones simultaneously. Now THAT’S a trick worth seeing.
Tomorrow – Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
Sunday – Burlington New Jersey.
Keep your eyes peeled for Part Two of my USA Tour Diary 2009 – coming soon!