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Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Detroit City


Detroit

Taxi was booked to take me to LaGuardia Airport. The driver, a New Yorker, was amusing, enlightening and communicative, he cracked me up. Talking in that inimitable yankee way about the American Health Service he stated; “You got plenty of money, you got the best chance of the doctor saving your ass!” It reaffirmed my desire to stay fit while I was over here!
I asked him of his whereabouts during the 9/11 crisis. His story of helplessness, witnessed from a distance, was chilling. He told of a friend who was right there, close to the towers, but escaped the carnage. ‘He just ran and ran like hell to get away from there. Ran all the way home, took him about four hours. He’s never been the same since, haunted, reclusive, traumatised beyond belief’. I can believe it. Reminded me of a poster I saw at the Staten Island Ferry station informing people who were affected by 9/11 that they could still be due compensation. 17 years on and that terrible day remains a haunting memory. A hundred years from now it will still be a haunting memory.
LaGuardia deals with internal flights and so I wasn’t expecting much hassle, how wrong can you be! Turned away at the gate because I hadn’t printed a boarding pass from a machine. Four machines nearby weren’t working! Two wouldn’t accept my credit card, needed to pay for my baggage. Two wouldn’t read my passport when I inserted it! Maybe I wasn’t doing something right but eventually after watching a fellow passenger struggle with the same problem and finally achieving some success I followed her before the machine kicked back into action. Through to the departure lounge which was less than adequate for the numbers milling around I found a table away from the main area and perched myself there for over an hour. Soon it was time to find my gate for the flight to Detroit. Sitting around where I could find a space, which was on the floor, watching the travellers and officials go about their business was fascinating. Some were even turning up with their dogs! I couldn’t believe it. Surely they hadn’t bought a ticket for Fido? The guy checking people in and out was a right card. He immediately caught my attention with his patter. Talk about full of bullshit! Sat there laughing to myself which I think he noticed and only encouraged him to ramp it up. ‘Morning marm. How long you been with this guy?’ ’40 years?’ ‘Awesome!’ ‘Fifi! Welcome to New York.. great name Fifi.. have a great weekend!’ This continued non stop. He was a right character. Clearly enjoyed his job.

The flight was under an hour but when we landed in Detroit it took me another hour to get out! The airport is a sprawling place. When asking where the baggage reclaiming hall was I seemed to be walking forever. I was getting exasperated but others were as bemused as me. After about five miles (sic.) I arrived fully expecting to see my suitcase going round and round on the belt. Well surprise surprise, it wasn’t! I was on the verge of giving up hope when it duly appeared much to my relief. Aching to get out of the airport there was then a pantomime trying to find and then engage a taxi. Back and for, through doors and up and down elevators. Finally I was pointed in a direction where cabs were lining up, and a queue of about twenty people waiting patiently. This was going to drag out until a driver shouted down the line, ‘anyone else going to the centre?’ Five of us dived in and away we went. At last!

The Courtyard Hotel was right on the front, by the Detroit River. Fantastic hotel! Spacious, huge room, great view, for a change! I couldn’t wait to get settled in and then to get out. Temperature was still in the 80s as I strolled in a direction that looked like it was taking me towards some a activity. Not far from the hotel a ‘beach party’ was in full swing with a reggae band entertaining the punters in the heat. Basically it was a big kind of swing park with imported sand, deck chairs and lounges. A good crowd cheered the band on enthusiastically. I got myself a beer and found myself a pew. Stayed for around three quarters of an hour before deciding I needed a meal. My first impressions of Detroit were good. At least where I was at the moment, appeared a tidy and clean place. No litter to be seen. Not like back home. The city has had a gloomy past what with race riots in the 60s, shootings, the gradual demise of the motor industry which gave rise to it’s nickname Motor City. All that is left, as far as I could see and would gather during my stay here was office buildings, skyscrapers still bearing the name Ford, rusty derelict factory sites. Staring up into the sky you can get the sense of what it must have been like back in the days when the city was alive, bustling, assembly lines pumping out vehicles by the thousands every week. A 24 hour town. Bit like Corby with its steelworks during the 50s and 60s I mused. Pondering this I hooked into a Mexican restaurant which was alive and bustling, assembly lines pumping out Fajitas and Burritos. Lots of people, lots of noise, music trying to break through the din. A celebration party adding to the mayhem. Women, all dressed in black, screeching and screaming. Didn’t think it was a funeral wake but you never know in this part of the world. I was too tired to look for anywhere else to eat so I sat on a stool at the bar, ordered some Burritos and a beer. Even though I was starving, I still wasn’t prepared for the size of the meal when it arrived! God almighty! Delicious it was! But just too much. One time, long time ago, I would have scoffed these meals no bother, not any more, but I gave it a good go.
I had a couple of days to spend in Detroit and was looking forward to discovering the place but tonight I was weary. I decided to walk down to the riverfront, get some clean air in my lungs, take in the landscape before heading back to the hotel and a nice cool Blue Moon beer to polish the day off. Thoughts of New Orleans came back to me, where I had first encountered this ale. Tomorrow was Saturday, and a trip to find the building they call Hitsville, the Tamla Motown Studios, was on my agenda.

The sun was shining through the huge window when I woke up. 17 floors up this was a view to die for. The Detroit River to my left. A Riverboat steamer moored up on the right, a huge tanker ponderously making its way up towards the Ambassador Bridge that crosses over into Canada. I tried to figure out where the tanker was coming from, where it was heading to. How did it find itself here? Seemed to me that here in the heartland of the Great Lakes it was a maze. Detroit is surrounded by Lake Erie, Lake St Clair, Lake Huron, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario. The sea is miles away. Got to be a labyrinth of connecting canals I guessed.

There was a music festival in Detroit this weekend. Celebrating the city’s musical heritage. Headlining were The Jacksons, minus the absent Michael of course. Wasn’t a fan of them but nonetheless it was free. 
First was a trip on the river, scheduled in my mind for Sunday so I took a walk down to the Steamboat to suss out the situation regarding bookings, times etc. A black guy sat on the gantry, the only person around so I asked him if he knew anything. ‘Sure’ he said, ‘just come down half hour before you want to go, 12 o’clock or 4 o’clock. Pay when you board.’ Well that sounded easy enough. Mission accomplished I headed into town for something to eat before heading for ‘Hitsville’. A restaurant on a corner looked inviting, as did an apple and ice cream dish along with a mug of coffee. Chatting to the owner/ waitress gave me an insight into Detroit. She asked me where I was from,  where I was heading for. She was very friendly, informative, very proud of her city, despite its past and reputation. On her advice I hailed a taxi to take me to the Tamla studio. Where the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the rest recorded so many great hits of the 60s. Took a good half hour to get there and when I arrived I was surprised to find how small it appeared. There was a good crowd hanging around as I made my way to the shop at the front of the building to look for the ticket office. To my dismay the woman told me; ’Sorry Sir, next tour is two thirty’. That was four hours away. There was little else to do so I decided my next move was to go in search of Rosa Parks Boulevard (12th Street) which was the scene of the race riots in 1967.

Rosa’s story reads.. 
‘A key figure in the Civil Rights Movement and the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott of 1955. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, was ordered off and then arrested by the police. Found guilty of violating segregation laws she was given a suspended sentence and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. Leaders of the black community led by Dr Martin Luther King organised the bus boycott which lasted for over a year. Harassment and threats to Rosa, her husband and mother eventually saw them move to Detroit, where her brother resided.
Rosa later became an administrative aide in the Detroit office of Congressman John Conyers in 1965, a post she held until her 1988 retirement. Her husband, brother and mother all died of cancer between 1977 and 1979. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, to serve Detroit’s youth.
In retirement, she travelled to lend her support to civil rights events and causes and wrote an autobiography, ‘Rosa Parks: My Story.’ She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, the highest honour the United States bestows on a civilian. (Other recipients have included George Washington, Thomas Edison, Betty Ford and Mother Teresa.) When Rosa died on October 24, 2005, aged 92 she became the first woman in the nation’s history to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. She rests in peace in the city cemetery.’

Anyway, as it turned out, the boulevard named in her honour was less than 200 yards from Hitsville. Thinking I could salvage something out of this trip I discovered that the Boulevard seemed to be about ten miles long! Illusions that the scene of the infamous race riots in 67’ was just around the corner were soon dismissed. Enthusiasm evaporated into the hedgerows after about a mile and I turned back, got a taxi into the city to concentrate on the festival that was due to start in mid afternoon.

Last year Aretha Franklin was the headline act which would have been great. Sadly she has since passed away but today there were a number of acts of varying degree performing on six stages scattered around in marquees. Bars were taking a pile as hundreds maybe more enjoyed the scene. Best of all was a ‘mobile’ bar which was a sort of tandem pedal driven taxi. Don't know how to describe it really. Up to eight revellers perched on stools either side of a bar. To move they all had to pedal simultaneously before wandering off around the streets singing, shouting and drinking. Looked a real hoot have to say. Great fun. I had checked out the rota on the website to find out who was appearing, where and what time. Having entered a few marquees in the afternoon there was nothing really to grab me music wise. Hip-Hop and stuff like that but there was a great atmosphere.
The one that stuck out was a guy named Mark Farner and his band due on the main stage at 6pm. Farner was an original member of Grand Funk Railroad, a 60s band supposedly America’s answer to Led Zeppelin. 
Meantime I went to check out some of the bars. One less than salubrious place had the temerity to ask me for ID. Three heavy looking young guys barred my way. I tried to amuse them by saying something corny along the lines of ‘do I look like a troublemaker or under age?’ only to be met with a stone faced scowl and a repeat of the demand for ID. Oh well. I produced a bus pass with my mugshot and they eventually let me in. I had imagined that it must be a real cool and ‘in’ place going by the fuss those guys were making but when I entered I found a sparsely filled dingy long bar. A dump in other words. One beer and I moved on. I resisted saying something to the 'heavies' still standing guard. A downtrodden looking building caught my attention. All around had been demolished bar this establishment with ‘Jacobi’s Bar’ imprinted on the brickwork. Nobody on the door, curiosity took hold and I went in to find another dingy bar, but the ambience was terrific. Good music from a jukebox was being played, nice friendly barmaid, good beer too. This was more like it. My type of bar, rough and ready, nothing fancy about it. I sat at the bar and stayed for a couple of beers, feeling chilled. 

A good enthusiastic crowd were already in attendance for the Farner band when I arrived. Obviously a well known and well loved character I figured. He didn’t disappoint. With a superb heavy rock band behind him they ran through a load of numbers, many of which I didn’t know but were reminiscent of George Throrogood and the Destroyers whom I’m a big fan of. The crowd were soon on their feet, singing and swaying along. Farner has a gruff sort of voice, not unlike Rod Stewart, rasping out the vocals. Great stage presence. They were on for a hour and it flew by. Exhilarating, it was all too soon over. With the crowd baying for more, they obliged with an encore. Great stuff.

With two hours to spare before The Jacksons made their appearance at 9 o’clock I made my way back to Jacobi's. A snack and a beer and I headed back to the arena in the hope of getting a good viewpoint for the show, and found the area almost overwhelmed with people. Nearby tenement buildings with the traditional fire escapes overlooked the arena and stage. They too were crammed with people. Excitement was building…9.30. and the Jacksons had failed to show. There was a lot of activity on stage, stagehands fiddling around with cables, climbing up the scaffolding to the overhead lights, re-adjusting guitar stands.. generally to my mind, just farting around! And I wasn’t alone in thinking this. Disgruntlement began to surface. ‘Even Black Sabbath don’t keep you waiting this effin’ long’ I overheard. That made me smirk. Probably thinking the same as me! By ten o’clock The Jacksons had still not turned up. The heat was getting unbearable. The crowd more restless by the minute. Fed up hanging around to watch a group I never liked anyway I walked off in disgust. To my surprise, a good many others were also giving it up, deciding to head off as well. Talk about an anti climax. 
The night was finished off with a Blue Moon in the hotel bar before I retired, feeling exhausted.

Next morning, showered, dressed and ready to go I couldn’t resist the smell of bacon and eggs, pancakes, wafting from the dining area by the reception. Can’t recall the name of the concoction I ordered but suffice to say, it was enough to feed three people! Scrambled egg, bacon, fried tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms in a wrap, apple pie and cream as a side, all washed down with a mug of glorious Americano coffee. 

The boat trip was at noon. Sitting on the top deck to take in the views was a nice relaxing way to end this brief stay in Detroit.
Final lap of my  tour was Chicago. ‘The Windy City’.

Monday, 2 July 2018

New York, New York, so good they named it ….


                                              
                                        New York, New York, so good they named it ….

A city everyone says you have to visit. So it’s the first stop on a trip that will also take in Detroit and Chicago. I left home at 5.30am on June 12th 2018 for the drive to Heathrow. Plenty of time thought I. Surely at this time of the morning.. and all was going well until I hit the M1 and even worse the M25. Which reminded me of why they call this stretch of motorway the biggest car park in Britain! Interminable. Took me 3 hours! Luckily I had plenty of time but it was still a nightmare. 
Hot and bothered, never mind tired, confusion set in as I finally approached the Purple Parking car park, a ten minute courtesy ride from Terminal 5. 
Trying to pay attention to my sat-nav after turning off the M4 I missed the turn off at a roundabout, went round twice, cut some bloke up that was ungraciously greeted with a blast of his horn before getting on the right road. Then I drove into the Premier Inn Hotel next door to the car park. Clear as mud I said to myself, frustrated. Exiting the Premier after taking advice off a taxi driver I eventually arrived at my destination. I had made it. Dropped the car off and hopped on the awaiting bus.

The flight was excellent. Six and three quarter hours was passed watching a couple of films, a Michael Caine sort of documentary ‘My Generation’  and the brilliant ‘Darkest Hour’ which I’d seen at the cinema. Service on British Airways is superb I’ve always found and this was no different. Meals, free, though I suppose they are hidden in the cost of the flight, and free drink thrown in as well. What more can you want? Arriving on time at JFK the passage through customs etc went smooth. I’ve heard some horrific stories of trying to get through passport control at this airport so this was a pleasant surprise. I jumped a taxi to take me to the Washington Jefferson Hotel in Manhattan. Took over an hour, traffic was the same as in Britain, horrendous but it gave me a chance to view the famous skyline. I gave the driver a tip, the journey set me back 70 dollars. As the fare was actually 52 dollars I thought I was rather generous but the cheeky sod still looked disappointed, grunting something I didn’t quite catch. Talk about extracting the urine! On your way pal! It was mid afternoon, I had a few hours left of this day and I had an itinerary more or less sorted so I didn’t want to waste time. 
My room on the seventh floor was tiny, here we go again I thought! Adequate, view looked onto the side of a building with fire escapes prominent but I didn’t expect to see the neon lit Times Square or the Statue of Liberty. Reminiscent of West Side Story I thought to myself. Bed was single, not that that mattered much as I was on my own. Television didn’t work unless you put money into it but again that didn’t bother me. I hadn’t flown thousands of miles to watch the box. 
Central Park and the Dakota Building where Beatle John Lennon was shot in 1980 was to be my first sightseeing foray. ‘Turn left onto 8th Street sir, and keep walking’ the Consigliere informed me. The humidity was high, the street long. Crowded, with everyone it seems, walking towards you with their cellphones held in front of them, wires connected to their head, many talking to themselves, which always looks ridiculous to me. A few years ago these people would have been marched off to the funny farm but that’s the way it is in 2018. I’m thinking this and gradually getting peed off having to step aside these morons until I decided ‘right, I’m not moving’. So I reversed it and people started side stepping me! That was more like it! 
Received an occasional cursory glance but I was adamant. You walk into me, it’s your fault!
The heat didn’t help or the fact that New York is five hours behind us at home. It was beginning to feel like a long day. Then there it was, Central Park. The place I’ve heard so much about. The entrance I found myself at was the Columbus Circle, one of the busiest road inter-sections in the city apparently. A monument to Chris stands proudly in the middle of this mini roundabout, and proud he should look having found this place three or four hundred years back. For some reason I always thought Christopher Columbus was British but checking out this useless piece of information, it turns out he was Italian. There you go, learn something every day!
Wandering aimlessly around in search for the ceremonial Strawberry Fields Garden dedicated to John I decided to leave the park and stroll the road Central Park Way running parallel. Looking for someone who hasn’t got an iPhone stuck to his head. Three young lads relaxing in the shade on a bench pointed me in the right direction and also the Dakota Building. They probably weren’t even born when that fateful night occurred but they knew the Beatles. Everyone knows the Beatles! The Dakota was just off this main road, a hundred yards or so down. I recognised it immediately from memory of photographs, stood there in silence for a bit, remembering where I was when I heard the news of Lennon’s assassination. Sitting in my Royal Mail lorry on the dock at Oxford University Press, Corby. I took some photographs, not very good as it happened with the sun in the wrong place but I got a few. Two uniformed security men stood astride of the Gates and the door of the Dakota, youngish looking guys. I walked up to them, interrupting their conversation with, I don’t know why I do it, asking them the bleedin’ obvious! “This is where John got shot?” I asked, knowing full well it was. With a look of abject boredom on their faces, one of them looked at me as if I was dumbo. And nodded. Didn’t even open his mouth. I did think to be fair, they probably get asked that stupid question a thousand times a day, but I can’t help myself! I didn’t really expect a full rundown and commentary of that fatal night 38 years ago but the two of them could have at least looked interested. 
Job done I walked back to Central Park and continued the search for Strawberry Fields. Which was just opposite the road from the Dakota. Success! Felt as if I was getting somewhere. Two of my ‘priorities’ marked off the list on the first day. Nice one. Truthfully there’s not much to see. A plaque with ‘Imagine’ ingrained on it in the middle of a path, a fenced off section with shrubs and flowers, people mingling and resting on the grass. Appropriately peaceful with an opportunist busker sitting on a bench with his acoustic guitar, playing, well it had to be, ‘Imagine’. Nice moment. Time was moving on, getting hungry and thirsty I treated myself to a hot dog off a vendor, who looked disgusted when I gave him the correct money. I know the tip culture over here but hang on, throwing in an extra dollar or two when buying a sausage! Don’t think so. I walked around the huge lake, the Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir it says on the map, recognising various views from pictures I’ve seen, decided to head back towards the hotel - and got completely disorientated and lost!
I always like the idea of ambling along, trying to find my way around, but after an hour or two this was getting tiresome. I knew if I could get to 8th Avenue it would be fine. The way they work with a grid system of roads in America sounds simple but I obviously left the park through a different gate. Eventually I gave in, and asked a guy holding a placard on a corner who had approached me to ask my views on the Liberal Democrats or Donald Trump or something. I told him I didn’t have any, resisting the idea to tell him I couldn’t give a toss. Instead I told him I was knackered, lost, just arrived in New York, hungry, dying for a beer, my feet were aching! He told me I was miles out of my way! Pointed me in the right direction and I left him to carry on his campaign.
Half hour later I came across a police car parked up alongside Central Park. Always wary about approaching the police in America but they were good. Told me I was on the wrong side of the park, and just follow the sun! Which was a big round bright blob in the sky so it should be easy. McCartney’s ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ immediately came into my head when the copper said that. Funny why I think of things like that!
Sure enough, keeping my mince pies on the distant sun I arrived on the road that I had started on, near the Dakota Building and headed back towards Columbus. And 8th Avenue. The heat was oppressive, 8th was thronging with people, many still obsessed with their cellphones. I escaped into a bar, had a lovely cold beer, chilled for a while watching the televisions, they don’t settle for just one over here do they? I ascertained that it was now around 10 o’clock which meant that back home it was 3am and I’d been up for nearly 22 hours. Time for bed! Slept like a log!




                                                         Wednesday 13th June
Madison Square Garden

New York, you think of Times Square, Ground Zero, Greenwich Village, Broadway, Harlem, Brooklyn, Central Park,…only scratching the surface of this great city.  My first port of call today though is Staten Island. 
A Uber taxi took me to the Ferry. First time Ive used this and have to say it was very efficient. Like the idea of knowing the price of the trip before you get picked up also. The ferry terminal was busy, awash with day trippers, like myself.
The highlight of this hour long return trip is to get a close up view of the Statue of Liberty. And its true what they say, ‘its not as big as you think’. Photo opportunity though and the Manhattan skyline was impressive from the boat. Whilst gazing at this serene setting the Airbus plane crash in 2009 came to mind! The aircraft that ditched into the Hudson River just up from us towards Midtown Manhattan, not far away from where we were. I tried to imagine witnessing such an event. Which also made me think of 9/11. Hard to visualise let alone imagine what that must be like. A flock of geese had hit the Airbus engines just after it had taken off from LaGuardia airport. Which is where I’m taking off from for Detroit in a couple of days time. Somehow you get a different perspective visiting places like these from watching the news on the television. Miraculously the pilots managed to glide the Airbus safely into the water. All 133 on board survived. Remarkable.
The sea air, or maybe I should say river air, gave me an appetite, I was starving on disembarkation. The Brooklyn Bridge is nearby, another famous landmark which I decided to head for. Wandering about I came across Wall Street. Couldn’t see the Stock Exchange, must be another long street I hazard, but I did come across an eatery with tables set outside which looked welcoming. I ordered a bagel and a coffee and I swear it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Wonderful. Relaxing watching the world go by, opposite was a garbage lorry. With two Stars and Stripes flags attached to the bonnet! Blimey I thought, they love their flag that much they even have them on dustbin lorries. Can you imagine that at home? Quite extraordinary really. 
With my engine now stoked up I made my way to the Brooklyn Bridge. Gareth had text to tell me, if I had time, to try and find a bar called The Charleston he and his band The Victims had played in Williamsburg, other side of the river. It’s a bit like walking across the Golden Gate in San Fransisco, you have to do it! That’s what they say!
I had the address of  the bar, had read the map and was confident I could find it. Gareth had told me that the Charleston was right opposite the metro stop, which was the first station after the Williamsburg Bridge. Which was up river according to the map, couple of bridges away but maps can be deceiving. Walking for ages with a feeling of getting nowhere fast, two police officers idly chatting away was targeted for advice. They looked a tad bemused when I told them where I was going. Never heard of it! One of them kindly got his cellphone out and looked it up. ‘Your about an hour away if you’re walking’ he said. I told him it couldn’t be that far and asked him which direction it was. They both looked slightly amused, ‘who’s this mad Englishman’ written all over their faces! ‘OK, turn left up there by the lights and keep walking!’ I thanked them very much for their help and set off. Then it started raining. Welcome to a certain extent in the heat but still a little uncomfortable after a while. Coming to a crossroads two women traffic controllers were taking shelter in a doorway. To confirm I was in the right direction I thought I would ask them. They too looked surprised and advised me I was better getting a cab! Soaked to the skin with the rain I had to agree!
I flagged a yellow cab, showed him the address and off we went, took a good twenty minutes, which equating to walking, was what those police people were telling me! The cabbie dropped me off outside the Charleston, a dark and dingy looking place it first appeared. But it was a punk venue. Not the first I've been to following Gareth and his bands around and I thought for a minute that it was closed. To my relief, it wasn’t and I entered to find the place deserted with a barmaid painting her fingernails and a big heavy black chap acting as security. Gave me a big welcoming smile though, ‘morning Sir, what can I get you?’ Always polite over here I mused, nice. I ordered a Brooklyn Beer which has become my favourite already. For the sake of conversation I told the barmaid my son had played here a few years back. ‘Really?’ she asked. I asked her if it was alright to take a few photos. ‘Of course’ she said with the big guy looking on. ‘They’re a Swedish band’ I told him. No reaction at all to that, never mind. As I was about to start snapping, the barmaid asked, ‘would you like a free pizza?’ I thought she was having me on. ‘It’s free with a pint’. Well how can you say no to such an offer? ‘That’d be lovely, thank you.” I replied. The bar was elongated, with familiar punk decoration, pictures, heavy lighting. Atmospheric venues these are and I can well imagine loving this if I had been forty years younger. Or to be more precise, if venues had been like this when I was in my twenties. The pizza came out from a hole in the wall, a small square where the chef was poking his head out, looked amusing to me. Love these barmy sort of places! Sat at the end of the bar, I was soon joined by a couple of other punters, obviously locals by the way the conversation was going. The big guy was restless, sticking his head outside for something to do, moving a chair or two about. ‘Excuse me” I said to him. That stopped him. ‘Can you do me a favour, take a picture of me sat here at the bar?’ I gave him my ipad and he took a couple of pictures. ‘That alright?” he asked handing it back. I checked them and thought, ‘Christ, why do I always look so bloody grumpy!’ ‘Hold it, can you take another one? I’ve got to learn to smile when I’m having a photo taken” I said chuckling a little to him. Pan faced, he took another. ‘That alright?’ ‘Yeah, that’s better, thanks’. And he went back to tidying a few tables up.
So good I was feeling, I had another pint. ‘Another pizza too?’ Barmaid asked me with a lovely smile. ‘Blimey, no thanks” I said politely. They do have a good appetite over here in the States don’t they, to put it one way. 
Could have spent an hour or so in here but other things to do. I bade my friends farewell and went out to explore the neighbourhood before getting the metro back across the river. 
It was still warm and humid, rain had eased and I got off at the wrong station on 8th Street. Could have done without another long walk, my feet were aching, felt like they were swelling up. Wrong sort of shoes for this I decided. The respite of the hotel pulled me in. A break in the cool was needed before venturing out again.
Times Square was just two blocks away. Don’t know what I was expecting really but it wasn’t what I thought. I imagined a kind of huge sort of exaggerated Market Square or something, with all the neon lights of course. Which was something to see I have to admit. The area was rammed with people, a couple of street entertainment shows taking place which was, well amazing.  A group of young guys doing back flips and all sorts of acrobatics. Can’t help but watch with disbelief. How the hell do you do that? Moving on I walked past the famous Brill Building almost without noticing it. So this is where Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Mort Shuman and Doc Pumas and all the rest of those great composers wrote all those classic 60s pop songs. Saw the Carole King story/musical ‘Beautiful’ only last year in Manchester as it happens, brilliant. I thought of Kenny Lynch also when I stood there at the doors of the Brill. I met Kenny last year with my friend Bip Wetherell. He gave us a great story for the Clem Cattini biography. Telling us about the time he worked over here in the Brill during 1962. Fascinating. Walking around Broadway, 5th Street the scene in the film Crocodile Dundee came to mind. Paul Hogan sitting astride a cop on his horse. One of the funniest films of the 1980s.
Refreshment was needed and lo and behold I spotted a bar called Smith’s Bar! Had to investigate, might have been a long lost cousin or something, obviously it wasn’t. It turned out to be a pokey place but I was hungry so I ordered what was described a ‘Dublin Fish Style’ meal. It was crap! As was the beer. Feeling adventurous I asked for a pint of ‘21st Amendment San Fransisco Ale’. Wish I hadn’t have bothered. Bloody maiden’s water! A pint of ‘Bronx’ was marginally better but I gave in and went back to the Brooklyn Lager. Well you have to try don’t you?
It had been another full day and I still hadn’t been to what was at the top of my list, Greenwich Village. One full day left on this brief visit, I intended to make the most of it. I had received texts off friends telling me I should visit such and such a bar if I have time, see a show, Empire State Building. There’s so much to do in New York you have to prioritise. 
Maybe next time.


                                                      Thursday 14th June
MacDougall Street
Greenwich Village has fascinated me for years. Situated in the Lower Manhattan district of New York the Village was the epicentre of the Beat culture during the 50s and 60s. The bohemian capital it has been called. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs all passed through this pocket of New York City. Like saving the best until last, I set off to walk, all the way down 8th Avenue, which according to my map, I would then take a turning left, then right and into Washington Square, the gateway to Greenwich. 
Temperature was well into the 30s, 9.30 in the morning and as I found, New York was bustling, people going about their business in every direction. On my way I passed one of the world’s legendary venues, Madison Square Garden. I was surprised how small it seemed, from the street anyway. You have these preconceived ideas and images about certain landmarks and buildings. Was this where all those great boxing fights involving  Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammed Ali took place? Where The Beatles, Elvis played? Well as it turned out, it is and it isn’t. This is the third MSG, as they refer to it nowadays. All built on the same site. It’s more relevant to note that this is where George Harrison held his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, John Lennon played his final gig as a guest for Elton John in 1979, Elvis played here in the early 70s. It’s now better known as a sports arena, home to the New York Knicks Basketball team.
An hour later, and I’m finally coming towards the end of 8th Avenue, feeling dehydrated, looking for my left turn which was Greenwich Avenue.  I walked another mile and found on the corner of 6th Avenue and West 8th Street, Jefferson Market Garden, with refreshments available from mobile street vendors. I took advantage and sat on a bench in the shelter sipping a nice cool Apple juice, watching the world go by, as you do. A few elderly gentlemen chatting away, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Old Friends’ from their album ‘Bookends’ came to mind. Young women with their babies in pushchairs taking a breather, street cleaners gathering up items of garbage. Sat there for about half hour, enjoying the rest and relative tranquility. Time to move, another glance at my map and I headed off down West 8th Street towards 5th Avenue which should take me right into Washington Square, the Village!
It had taken a while, but eventually there right in front of me, at last, was the Washington Square archway. 
Research tells me that the arch was built in 1892. It celebrates the centennial of George Washington's inauguration as President of the United States in 1789 and forms the grand southern terminus of Fifth Avenue. Who said ‘you learn something everyday?’ 
The arch stands at the front of the Square where in the 60s buskers, poets, street entertainers congregated on Sunday afternoons to revel in communal spirit, play their instruments, get drunk, get stoned, sing folk songs. The scene grew until it got too intense for the NYPD. The chief of police, in his wisdom, decided they couldn’t be doing with people having too much fun and sent his force down to stop the singing and disperse the crowd. Riots ensued as the revellers cried for ‘freedom for speech and freedom to sing in America’. Many were arrested by the heavy handed police, thrown into the back of ‘meat wagons’. It’s all on film. And this is where it happened in 1961.

Digesting this I moved on towards MacDougall Street where I was pleasantly surprised to find immediately, the famous Cafe Wha. Animals bass guitarist Chas Chandler discovered Hendrix here in 66’, Dylan and his cohorts were regulars here before him. Disappointingly it was closed but it was still midday. Getting hungry I walked around and came across an inviting looking bar called The Lantern which was just opening. They had the opening ceremony of the World Cup on their television as well. Perched on a bar stool for a couple of beers, ordered a cracking Mexican Fajita meal and watched the Russia Saudi v Arabia game. It was lovely and cool as well. Outside, the temperature was well up, exhausting. Another hour of walking around MacDougall and Bleecker Street, buying a couple of t-shirts, checking out record and book shops, in which I bought two, and I made my way back, deciding that the last night in NYC would be spent down here in the Village. A pit stop for a refreshing beer on the way back to my hotel was opposite a fire station. And lo and behold, they were called out while I was sitting there gazing out of the window. Impressive and once again my thoughts turned to 9/11. These guys or their predecessors would have been involved. What must have they been thinking as they raced to the scene of the Twin Towers? What must it have been like to be standing around here going about your everyday business and watching in horror as those twin towers disintegrated before your eyes? God only knows. Terrifying.

The Village was swarming tonight. I went looking for The Bitter End in Bleecker Street. Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Jackson Browne, just a few of the thousands of artists who’ve played there. To hot to go in, there didn’t appear to be much action going on either, I called into Willie’s Bar next door which was air conditioned, colourful and quirky. Signs and anecdotes, cartoons adorning the walls and ceiling. Some good music being played on the system too. From ‘Willie’s’ I headed back to MacDougall Street to seek out where the once famous bar The Gaslight was. This was another regular haunt for Dylan and the folkies. Closed in 1971 it is now a tattoo shop.
MacDougall was thronging with people, bars were rammed but the one right opposite where the Gaslight used to be,  The Four Faced Bar, had an unoccupied round table near the doorway. Got myself a beer and settled down at the table to take in the buzz. A couple came in, looking for a table, glanced around and were deciding to move on until I told them that the two stools next to me were free. They looked relieved, thankful for some respite. ‘No problem” I said, ‘Take em’. Russell and Kerry had just arrived that day from Canada and were originally from Sydney, Australia. Russell was on the same trek as myself, searching out the Dylan and other famous haunts. ‘Massive fan’ Kerry said, nodding at Russell. We discussed various things about Dave Van Ronk, the Clancy Brothers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the 60s, knowledgable he was too. Ramblin’ Jack is still around, aged 85 and still playing. Pity he wasn’t around here tonight. That would have been something. Being cocky, I admit, I asked Russell if he had found The Gaslight yet. He looked at me hopefully, obviously hoping I would enlighten him. I pointed out of the window. ‘Right there’ I said. They looked out at across the street. ‘Where?’ Russell asked. ‘The tattoo shop’. They looked gobsmacked. ‘I checked it out earlier’ I told them. ‘It was number 116’. They looked as disappointed at what I had been. It was nice meeting them and chatting away. Total strangers but its always interesting to discover other people’s backgrounds, outlooks, history. I left them to it and moved on to take in another couple of bars, soaking up the atmosphere and thrill of being in this place. A feeling I had when I went to San Fransisco some ten years before. I had achieved my goal for New York. Next time I’ll get round to visiting other landmarks and venues I didn’t make this time. Even a show, but I reckon you’d need more than three nights to achieve everything. 


Sunday, 7 January 2018

1973 Marty Wilde about Alas Jon Smith

1973 Marty Wilde about Alas Jon Smith

Alas Jon Smith
Two brothers who had paid their dues were twins Mick and Tony Haselip of Weldon. Tony had originally replaced Rhubarb Tree bound guitarist Graham Henderson in the Pacifics in 1966 before forming Magnetic Storm with his bass playing brother Mick. After a brief affair with the Lykes of Witch, they were now together and turning pro with another set of brothers, Stuart and Jimmy Irving and Kettering drummer Steve Short under the name of Alas Jon Smith, embarking on a tour of United States army bases in Germany beginning at Wildflecken in Bavaria. The base was originally a training centre for the Wehrmacht, the German Army 1937-39, and now a military training camp used by all NATO partners. One of its most famous residents was Elvis Presley back in 1958. Tony; 'Mick, Stuart and myself all completed apprenticeships with British Steel Corby before going to Germany with Alas John Smith. It was our first job as professional musicians, it said so on our passports and we were proud, but as events unfolded it turned out to be a real eye opener. It seems unbelievable now but we had to play 5 x 45 minute sets each night and we were working 6 nights a week. We were always broke, the deal was that we got paid 25% of our wages + expenses out in Germany and the 75% balance was sent back to the UK for safe keeping, we were told that this was the only way to avoid paying tax in both countries. It seemed logical at the time and we gave it no more thought. Later on, after returning to the UK we had another adventure trying to trace our money, we went to see the agent Harry Goldblatt (honest it’s true) in Bournemouth, but he had disappeared. We never did get the dosh, but that’s another story. I remember on one occasion shortly after arriving in Germany we played at a US base (pre re-unification) at Wildfleken on the border between East and West Germany. It was where the Americans had their crack ski-troops, just in case the Russians decided to attack across the mountains. It wasn’t only the war that was cold; it was the middle of winter with temperatures down to -20c. We got to the base easily enough, but that evening the snow was relentless and at about 8pm the guardroom told us that the main Autobahn was closed. The Officer in charge of entertainment kindly offered to put us up in the sergeant’s quarters, a decision which he was later going to regret. They were basic amenities a bunk and a sink but we had little choice and gratefully accepted his hospitality. That night the club was packed, a captive crowd as there was nowhere else to go, we finished as normal at about midnight and it was then that the CO suggested a game of poker, the deal being that if we lost we played a song and if he lost he bought a round of drinks, that went on until about 3am, we stopped when the drummer Steve Short fell off his drum stool, we were all totally bladdered. The kindly Officer then offered us a lift to quarters in his 2 cars, he had a 4x4 pickup and a gleaming Cadillac saloon, both cars were parked outside the club at the bottom of a small hill, we helped him to ‘gently’ clear away the snow so that he could show off the paintwork, he told us the story of how he had managed to con the Army and got them to fly them both out from his hometown in Texas, they were his pride and joy. He drove the pickup with Stuart Irving and me sitting up front and his Sergeant drove the Cadillac with Mick, Steve and Jimmy checking out the drinks cabinet in the back. The road was total whiteout and so slippy that even the 4x4 struggled to get up the hill, his first attempt failed he slithered to a stop just short of the crest, so he reversed back down the hill, couldn’t stop and wrote off both his cars in one hit. I often wondered afterwards what his insurance company would have to say about that. Whilst in Germany we were based in the Hotel De France at Wiesbaden near Frankfurt, it was a good central location and most nights we managed to get ‘home’ to the hotel, but some gigs were too far away. On one occasion we played at a base in South Germany that was very close to the Swiss border. It was too far to travel back to Wiesbaden so during the evening we arranged to stay overnight in the officers lounge, the local hotels were much too expensive but fortunately one of the troops we met had a girlfriend that worked in a local hotel and he arranged for her to get us some bogus receipts, the agent paid us extra for overnight stops, nice one. We finished the gig, packed away the gear and settled down for the night in the Officers lounge. It was a large room with about seven sofas and a dozen armchairs. I got comfortable and quickly fell asleep. The next thing - I was abruptly woken and heard shouting and screaming, Stuart was dragging me off the sofa towards the door I could hear him saying ‘come on Tony be quick’, I shoved him away, ‘what’s going on?’ I was confused, I turned and saw two US marines both drunk, they were shouting something about smelly feet, one of them kicked the plate glass door which smashed into pieces I then noticed that they had guns and were pointing them at us. We legged it. Driving became more and more difficult the longer we stayed in Germany. The old Ford transit was struggling with the extra mileage and extreme temperatures; it wasn’t long before it took four of us to drive it. One person on the steering wheel, another with a piece of string connected to the carburetor (the accelerator cable had snapped), another on the windscreen wipers (the motor had packed in) and another de-misting the windows (the heater didn’t work). Still we had all that money waiting for us back home, we could buy new gear, take a holiday, it was nice to dream.' Steve did most of the driving down, he was more knackered than the rest of us. I remember traveling down an autobahn when Steve suddenly dozed off and veered over onto the other side of road, with a big artic Italian wagon coming the other way. Steve panicked, just in time! and avoided a collision but we ended up facing the wrong way. The lorry chased after us, with a wee Italian driver going nuts. It didn't help when Stuart Irving gave him the finger! He managed to hem us in and jumped out threatening like a wild man. We were crapping ourselves but Steve started backing up and we escaped from the scene! Crazy!' Alas Jon Smith survived their many escapades in Germany and on their return auditioned successfully for legendary British Rock 'n' Roll star Marty Wilde who was set for a tour with his mate Joe Brown. John Grimley, who had joined Alias a month into the German tour when Mick and Tony Haselip returned home, recalls their first meeting with Wilde. "We were actually auditioning for a Jersey gig at a place in Derby, which we lost out on but Marty's manager Hal Carter, a well known figure who counted the Kinks amongst his clientele, just happened to be there and invited us to audition for Marty. We traveled up to Hull for this, set our gear up and Marty asked us to play a rock and roll song, a ballad and a pop song while he walked around this big hall in his sheepskin listening to us. At the end he asked us, "Have you got any stage gear?” We showed him our suits and that sealed it. “I like your sound, you'll do for me." It was the start of a terrific few years for us, leading to a three year gig for me with ex Move bass player Ace Kefford. Strangely, Marty asked which one of us was Jon Smith. "None of us" I said. "Who's Jon then?" I told him my name was John and he replied, "Do you know what my real name is?" to which I said no. It's Reg Smith, call me Reg from now on!" “Our first rehearsal was at the Corby Bowling Alley, soon to become the Stardust Centre, where we ran through Marty’s hits Sea Of Love, Bad Boy, Teenager In Love etc. with me and Stuart providing the backing vocals. That was the day when Shafts opened its doors as the Exclusive Club and we were supposed to be playing along with Boot Z. Then all of a sudden, we were told we were making our debut with Marty that same night in Bedford at the Royal County Theatre Club as a late replacement for the Peddlars who called off because their drummer had fallen off his drum stool and fractured his arm!' Nevertheless, despite the short notice, the band received an encouraging report for its debut in the showbiz page of the Bedford Chronicle? 'It was memory lane once again at the cabaret presented by the RYTC when Marty Wilde came on stage and did his thing. His backing men are the Alas Jon Smith Group and they presented a few numbers on their own before the top of the bill. This group was a little slow starting but once they got into the swing of things were really quite good and interesting to watch, particularly their lead singer, a very versatile funny young man by the name of Stewart. It has been said about Marty,, and quite truthfully too, that the basis of nearly all pop music is rock and roll and listening to the big voice of Marty you could see why. It was a pleasure to see a male entertainer who didn't have a tiny wasp waist and dainty little black patent leather dancing shoes. He was a big man, full of masculine charm and he turned on more than one female in the audience. Marty and his group had a right old go at Blue Suede Shoes and a Red Indian chant that had to be heard to be believed. The bawdy Old Bazaar In Cairo was done with much wit and laughter all around. Many old hits made the rounds, among them Teenager In Love, Rubber Ball, Donna, Singing The Blues. There was a great deal of variety and one of the best numbers was Joni Mitchell's Woodstock. Very nicely done and the Jon Smith backing group really outdid themselves with it.' John; 'Next day, without Marty, we drove up to North Shield for a gig. That was a sign of things to come. We played two gigs a night for two weeks with Marty and then two weeks gigging without him. It was a hectic schedule playing venues such as the She Club in Liverpool and the following night a Working Men’s Club in Bristol. One week we played in Barrow In Furness and the next night in Welwyn Garden City! Two years of living out of a suitcase, some of the digs weren't particularly brilliant either. If you were booked into what they called 'theatre' digs, tbat was fine, you would get a breakfast at lunchtime. Even the sleeping arrangements were iffy at times. We played in South Wales a lot, Swansea sticks in my mind for a joke we played on Jimmy Irving. The landlady showed us our room and told us there was one double bed with nylon sheets, and two single beds, one with nylon sheets and the second with cotton. Jimmy immediately spoke up and said "I can't sleep under nylon sheets, I'm allergic to them, I'll have to have the single bed with cotton sheets. He then went to the bathroom - and we all jumped into the single bed with the cotton sheets before he came back. Just then, the door opened - and who should be standing there but the landlady! "Well I never!" she exclaimed in that lovely lilting Welsh voice, "what do we have here then?" She thought we were a bunch of gays!."No, you've got the wrong idea!" I said. Jimmy came back in, wondering what the hell was going on and we explained to the landlady it was all a bit of a laugh. She saw the funny side of it thankfully. It was in Swansea me and Steve Short had an altercation. We'd finished playing this club and had a few drinks. Steve was having a go at me about something or nothing and we ended up fighting each other! Marty intervened, just as the bouncers turned up and threw us all out. "I've never been thrown out of a club in my life!" Marty shouted. "You have now" I said. Normally a gig began with Alias Jon Smith playing a couple of numbers before Marty casually strolled on, walked up to the mic, say “Good evening” and then without looking, stretch his arm out behind him, where I would then pass him his Gibson semi acoustic and we'd go straight into Elvis's Burning Love. It was corny but good crack. One night, I passed him a cheap plastic Woolworth’s guitar! He took it all in good fun though! I’m glad he did for he was a big bloke! Ricky Valance, the one hit wonder star, (Tell Laura I Love Her) overstepped the mark one time, making a sarcastic remark about him on stage. When he came off Marty pinned him up against the dressing room wall by the throat, threatening to do him over. Probably the highlight was a short Rock ‘n’ Roll tour we did with Billy Fury, Billy J. Kramer and Heinz. Both Fury and Kramer were nervous wrecks, used to drink a bottle of whisky before going on stage. Joyce and his kids Ricky and Kim would often show up at gigs, this was long before Kim became a huge star! 11 year old Ricky was signed up by Jonathan King as a hopeful answer to Donny Osmond and we played on a few sessions with him for his album. We finished playing with Marty when we eventually got tired of being ripped off by his manager Hal Carter.


Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Bayou Country


‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, the unmistakable Albert King riff wafting out of the bar I was walking towards on Natchez Street. I was setting out early for a night of bingeing on music and had only turned the corner from the St James’ Hotel. New Orleans is a remarkable place and as every hour passed my wonderment only increased. As a kid I remember Elvis singing ‘New Orleans’ in his film King Creole. Freddie Cannon’s ‘Way Down Yonder In New Orleans’ and particularly a big favourite of mine to this day, Bern Elliott and the Fenmen’s version of ‘New Orleans’ - not to be confused with the Elvis song, different completely. Now I’m not trying to claim that from an early age I was impressed or infatuated with this city. But there was something exotic sounding and mysterious about it. Anyway, I couldn’t resist going in to this bar. A trio were playing, the main man a singer/guitarist, must have been around sixty odd, belting out this great blues song. The bar wasn’t that full but it turned out that the band had been playing for nearly two hours at this point. Quarter of an later they were packing up! Well it was a good taster for the night at least. With that I continued in the direction of Bourbon Street, Surely one of the most famous streets in America, along with Beale Street, Memphis. Well from a music point of view it is! 



Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is a must place to visit. Its a bit like Covent Garden, street entertainers everywhere. Outside one bar I was in a young guy was haunched over some pots and pans and buckets, banging away like he was Buddy Rich. Can’t say it was brilliant to be honest, after ten minutes it was getting on my tits. But he was getting some dollars from passers by. 


I called in at a bar where a band was playing Creedence Clearwater and Bruce Springsteen. Perched on a stage high above a bar, The Hangovers they were called. Just as I was enjoying it, they finished for a break! Still, as I sat there pondering my next move, a side door opened to a connecting room and lo and behold, another band was playing. Great stuff. I went through and it was a Cajun band, magic. A big guy sat there on a chair in his shorts playing the fiddle and singing in that French style, reminiscent of the the soundtrack of Southern Comfort. One of my favourite all time films, set in Louisiana. The fiddler was accompanied by an accordionist, bass player and drummer. The backdrop to the stage was of a Louisiana swamp complete with alligators. A couple of pints and I moved on after an hour. Right opposite was a bar with a soul band on stage belting out Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave. Unbelievable. And the bar was completely empty! Amazing. Much as I regretted having to leave them too it, next bar had another soul band and was packed. Talk about competition! This nine piece were crammed on stage overlooking the crowd and it was The Commitments all over again. Sitting at the bar I was amazed watching the punters buying drinks. It seemed or I suppose it is the custom to drop the bartenders a tip with every round you buy. It looked natural, almost nonchalant. Not for me though. I worked behind the bar for years in Corby and you would get plenty of drinks bought you, but money? These people were getting their change and slipping a dollar or two back onto the counter as if they were shedding peanuts. And they were accepted with not as much as thank you. Different world…


Time was getting on and I was getting hungry. Everywhere looked packed out. I decided to make my way back towards Canal Street to the Crescent City bar. On the corner of a junction on Bourbon Street three policemen on horses stood there, doing nothing in particular. Just observing. What cracked me up was one copper sitting atop of his mule looking and texting somebody on his mobile. Like he was sitting bored in a bar or something. Funny.
Walking towards the main street where the Crescent City bar was, there was a bit of a commotion going on. Flashing blue lights by a set of traffic lights. People were stopping and watching what was going on. I paused, a guy was leaning over a railing smoking a cigarette. Taking in the scene. A cop car had chased this car down the street, stopped him and the two police got out, guns ready. The feller in the front car stepped out, held his hands up. The police checked him out, frisking him. at this point this character in front of me turned and said; “they got him!” I said somewhat surprised; “ yeah, er, I can see that” 
“They were chasing him, he was smoking a joint out of his window” 
“Right” I said, not knowing what to add.
“They got him” he repeated.
“He’s had it”.
Ok, well after this riveting bit of conversation I moved on and left him to spectate. Thing was, it was like an episode out of a TV film or something. Weird. You dont get this in Corby I mused.
The Crescent Bar was packed as all the bars were but I sat at the bar right next to a jazz trio. Lovely and calm after the earlier rumbustious sort of bars I had ventured into. I ordered a cajun dish and chilled, reflecting on the sights I had seen on this trip this past week. From Memphis; Beale Street, BB King’s Bar, Graceland, Sun and Stax Studios, the Hi Tone Bar where Gareth’s band The Victims had played. New Orleans and the Steamboat trip on the Mississippi, Bourbon Street, the bars. I was feeling quite exhausted, tired but thrilled. 


Next day I was booked on a Swamp trip to the Bayou. Has to be done. ‘Born On The Bayou’ a Creedence Clearwater song came to my mind. ‘B’ side of ‘Proud Mary’. A bus took us a few miles out of the city, over the famous New Orleans Bridge. We arrived at a shack where our boat awaited us. Looked like the boat in the film ‘Jaws’. A dozen or so of us boarded. The driver or captain was an entertainer himself. suppose he has to be but he was full of stories and bullshit. Great guide he was. The trip lasted around two hours, the captain stopped the boat and fed a few alligators with marshmallows. Surprising to say the least. How did he know the gators liked cakes? The guy never shut up, taking the piss out of a couple of punters he had obviously singled out for some fun. I kept my head down! It was a great laugh though and the stooges responded accordingly. Soon we were back and heading back to the Big Easy. 
I spent a few hours buying T-Shirts and souvenirs, a pork pie hat. I went back to the Cajun Bar also. Different outfit this time but next door The `Hangovers were playing again.
Perched on a stool I was alarmed for a minute when the barman started ringing a bell loudly and vigourously, blowing a whistle for all his worth simultaneously. 'What's going on?' Couldn't have been 'last orders' but then he stopped and everything calmed down again. And the band played on, never stopped actually through this racket!
Suddenly, two couples came in, stood at the bar and ordered two beers and two cocktails, called Shark Attacks. The barman went mad again! Ringing his bell, whistling.. ah I got it! Cracked up when the penny dropped! Shark Attack! Get out of the water! Haha well who thought that one up!


This week had been rather hectic, taking everything in but I had enjoyed every minute of it. Being on one’s own wasn’t a problem. Can please yourself but I do have to admit that likewise it would have been nice to have had some company… but I’m used to it now. Only downer of the week was the flight home. I had a crap seat on the plane and was knackered and uncomfortable the whole eight hour night flight. But, I will go back to New Orleans again some time, fingers crossed. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

Rollin' On A River..

Mississippi.


The St James Hotel was located just ten minutes away from the French Quarter. First impression was that it was dated, tired looking and over the course of the next few days, the impression didn’t change. A far cry from the Sheraton in Memphis but the staff were lovely. Warm, friendly, helpful. I checked in after the long excursion, showered and with the night still young headed out for something to eat and a first look at the city known as the Big Easy, the Crescent City, take your pick. With a trip on the Mississippi steamboat booked for next day I decided to seek out the quay and ticket office to exchange my voucher and save a bit of time in the morning. If i thought the humidity was awful in Memphis, New Orleans was a couple of notches higher! Barely had I walked twenty yards and my shirt was sticking to my back. Not far short of unbearable.
Maybe it was because I was shattered but New Orleans seemed confusing, roads going off in every direction. The receptionist in the hotel had gave me a map and pointed out where I would find the ticket office, but it still took time of going in circles to get my bearings. Finally I saw it and was relieved to find they were still handing tickets out. Mission accomplished I looked for a bar and some food. Right opposite the Steamboat ticket office was the Crescent City Bar, right by the famous Jackson Square and Brewery. Which I have to admit, I had no idea about. Famous? It’s in acknowledgement of General Andrew Jackson who led the Yankees to victory over the British in the infamous Battle of New Orleans. Lionised in song by Johnny Horton and Lonnie Donegan. ‘In 1814, I took a little trip…along the mighty river they called the Mississip..’
Lonnie’s song was going to be wedged into my head for all of this trip I could see!
The Crescent City Bar was busy, a jazz trio of sax, guitar and double bass entertained whilst I took a pew and ordered a beer and a dish of Brewhouse Shrimp Salad. It was delicious. Music was wonderfully laid back jazz, perfect. 


Making my way back to the St. James’ took ages. Turning down side streets and looking for main thoroughfares, the area was quite compact as it happens but with tiredness, drink, it was slightly disorientating. I went into another bar for respite from the humidity and a beer, and to ask the bartender to point me in the direction of my hotel.
The bar was busy and after waiting patiently I gave up. I walked outside, and lo and behold, there was the St James Hotel right opposite! Told you I was knackered! I slept well.


Today was a day I had been looking forward to ever since I booked this trip some months before, a Steamboat River trip on the Mississippi. The heat was suffocating again but rain was forecast so going by that I decided on wearing a light shirt and shorts and I also bought a hat. Queues were forming early for the 11.30am start. I sat under the shelter of trees nearby and waited. The Natchez Riverboat was right out of an old film set, big massive wheel at the back. Creedence Clearwater’s ‘Proud Mary’ suddenly infiltrated my brain..’rollin’, rollin’ rollin on the river..’ Loved that record and Creedence. Saw them at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970 which was a great thrill. However it wasn't Proud Mary or Green River that was blaring out from the boat but a racket which went on for the duration until we sailed. Apparently it was a tradition in the old days when the steamboat was set to sail the captain would turn its’ Calliope, a steam organ on to warn customers of its imminent departure. It is quite enchanting for a while, noisy and fairly melodic and I have to say, after fifteen minutes of it, rather irritating! I joined the queue and got talking to a nice couple from Edinburgh. The chap turned to me and said; “hope this noise isn’t playing for the whole trip!” Unappreciative but it was said lightheartedly. 
I had a premium ticket which included a dinner for the two hour trip. The Dining Hall was magnificent. A Creole Jazz combo adding a terrific atmospheric feel to proceedings. The waitresses and bartenders all dressed appropriately in old style costume. I marvelled at it all. It was like being transported back in time to the 1800s or early 1900s. The three course meal was surprisingly good as well. Surprisingly because normally these things are a disappointment but on reflection it wasn’t a Great American Theme Park I was visiting. If you get what I mean. A couple of glasses of Savignon to wash the meal down did the trick too. 
Satiated I made my way to the top deck to get a better view of the river and surrounding areas as we sailed past. Clouds were blackening and a cool breeze was getting up which sent a few people into the sanctuary of the bar. The weather didn’t bother me and before long it was lashing down! A few of us sat it out. It was refreshing after the humidity we had been suffering and being an old postman ‘a bit of rain never hurt any twat’, as I used to say. Mind you, when I used to come out with that Sue always used to retort; ‘well what are you moaning about then!’ Funny what memories come into your head at times!



The Captain’s mate or tour guide on the bridge gave a commentary throughout, telling us about the Battle of New Orleans fought out ‘on our left’ and also the area where Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city further down river. That disaster which occurred in 2005 still hangs heavy over the city. 

There are some things you only dream about and for me a riverboat trip on the Mississippi was one and I sat taking it all in, the history, the views, could hardly believe I was doing it. In such moments my mind drifts to what Sue would be making of it all if she was here. Not that she would have been envious Sue was quite indifferent to these sort of adventures but I still do wish she was here to share such moments.
The return back to New Orleans was magical. The skyline, the bridge, the great merchant ships slowly ambling their way to their destinations unknown. 
While I sat there in a chair by the railings lost in my own little world, the rain became heavier by the second. My thoughts took me to what it must have been like during the hurricane, terrifying beyond belief I should imagine. I mean well over a thousand lost their lives. How do you comprehend that?

Amidst the dark clouds and the squally rain, blue skies tried to pierce through the gloom. Everybody except a handful of us faced it out, the bars on the upper and miship decks were crammed. I took the view that as uncomfortable the rain and wind was, it would soon revert to type and we’d be dry and baking again soon enough. I didn’t want to waste a moment. Coming round the bend in the river to see that marvellous road bridge over the Mississippi was something to savour. 

It was soon over and I was back looking for a Blue Moon beer in the Crescent City Bar. Checking the photographs I had taken and savouring the atmosphere. Before heading back to freshen up for the night i called in some souvenir shops to buy T-shirts and a New Orleans mug for my collection. The next couple of days were going to be concentrated on sightseeing and spending time in the French Quarter, and taking in what I came here for. The music.


Monday, 17 October 2016

Way Down Yonder in New Orleans



‘Good Morning America..How Are Yer?’

It’s 06.50am, I’m standing on the platform of Memphis Central Station, tired, cold. It’s still dark, a queue is lining up in readiness for the train called the City of New Orleans to roll into town. I’ve been here for over half hour after being dropped off by taxi. Despite feeling knackered I was really quite excited about this trip and finally out of the darkness two lights emerged in the distance, slowly getting brighter as they neared the single platform. The train which left Chicago some 10 hours before on the 900 miles journey somehow looked tired as well. Creeping into Memphis Station as if it was on its last legs. A mass of people waited in line for the guards to sort out the tickets and seat allocation. The train waiting patiently but enjoying the break. The City of New Orleans I learned wasn't the actual name of the train but the service. Like we used to have the Thames Clyde Express in Britain all those years ago. Allocated my seat, I was upstairs, the spacious coaches a far cry from the cramped replicas we have here in Britain. I stretched out, plenty of room, a few people chattering away slightly annoying at this time of the day but I closed my ears to them. One thing I was disappointed about was that I had half heartedly expected to hear Willie Nelson and the Highwaymen singing the anthem..

‘Good Morning America, How are yer?
Say, dont you know me? I’m your native son..
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans..
And I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done..’

Well, not really, but it would have been nice..I sang the song in my head instead.

Eventually, twenty minutes late, the huge double decker train pulled out of Memphis, slowly making its way through the suburbs, crawling along as if it wasn’t in the mood to face the remaining nine hour trek across Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. 
Stuttering along it gave way to freight trains, which seemed a mile long, at every juncture. I settled into my seat, thinking that at this rate we wouldn’t get to New Orleans until the next day! Took an hour for the train to start really moving. All part of the adventure though and I was determined to enjoy it as much as I could.
We settled into a pattern, the train chugging along, passing endless barren landscapes, the occasional small town, wooden houses and shacks scattered around, a church. All looked archetypical of the Deep South.


To pass the time I had my iPad ready for the opportunity to take photographs through the window. The train was going slow enough most of the time. Then out of the blue came an announcement from the train driver. Straining my ears I was somewhat amazed to hear; “First stop on the journey will be Greenwood in about two and half hours for a smoke stop”. I kid you not. He continued; “We will stop here for about ten minutes if anyone wants to get off for a smoke but don’t stray away from the platform’. 
Well I could imagine that happening on British Rail! Not. There’d be uproar!
And the train did stop. Passengers scrambled for the doors, stood outside in the cold, puffing away. I couldn’t believe it. My mind wandered to the Rockingham Arms Pub Quiz Nights on Mondays back home. Quizmaster John Day giving the quizzers a five minute warning to go outside for a last drag before the start. Followed up by; “the quiz will begin in one minute”. And the punters, gasping, stubbing out their cigarettes and rushing back to their seats. Cracks me up every week. 
Nobody as far as I could see, got on at Greenwood. 
Next stop was to be Jackson, another couple of hours down the line.

Getting hungry I went to the Buffet and Dining Car, a coach with virtually large floor to ceiling windows, lounge seats, very comfortable. I bought a cheeseburger and a coffee, headed back to my seat and settled down to ‘people watch’.
A party of three were in front of me, all in there 60s, a guy and two ladies, one I ascertained was his wife. They had been ahead of me in the queue on the platform at Memphis. I had noticed them, they were very quiet, probably tired like I was. Now, a few hours later, they had come to life. The guy was particularly irritating, not only to me watching but to the two women as well! Up and down like a jack in the box, faffing around, fawning over his two ladies I could see he was getting on their nerves. “Why don’t you sit down and relax instead of changing seats, and give us some peace to read!” one finally said.
He did, for about five minutes. Then he was up again; “Anyone want anything to eat? drink?’ They were obviously peckish and a debate about what they should get ensued for about ten minutes. I’m sitting, watching, taking this all in. God almighty! I was chuckling to myself. What a pain!
Off he went. He returned around twenty minutes later with some bags of food and drinks. “Right, what do you want?” he said to the older lady and proceeded to describe every piece of scran he had bought, cheeseburger, beef burgher, crisps, Tuna sandwiches, biscuits, bar of chocolate..The three of them eventually sorted it out and got stuck in.. 
“Nice little picnic this..” He couldn’t even shut up when he was eating!
It passed the time of day watching this cretin.


Jackson
The train kept a rollin’, as the Johnny Burnette song goes, miles of scrubland, Plains, the occasional river, a road leading to nowhere..through a town called Yazoo City. We stopped once again to let a freight train through, it went on forever! Never seen such monster trains like these. It must have took a good fifteen minutes to get past us, boxcars and wagons transporting everything from cars, fuel wagons, containers of all shapes and sizes..incredible. There seems to be a right of away for freight trains over passenger trains in America which again is remarkable when you consider the rail network and system we have in Britain.

The outskirts of Jackson appeared, June Carter and Johnny Cash’s song came into my head.

‘We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout,
We've been talkin' 'bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out.
I'm goin' to Jackson, I'm gonna mess around,
Yeah, I'm goin' to Jackson,
Look out Jackson town.’

I was shaken out of my day dreaming by another announcement.
“We will be arriving at Jackson in around fifteen minutes. if anyone wants to get off for another smoke, we will be here for about twenty minutes. Don’t leave the platform, the driver won’t wait for any stragglers.”
And hordes deserted the train and filled up the platform. The guards included. It was like looking at a Smokers Corner at school as cigarette smoke polluted the air. 

Just like John Day at the Rock, the driver gave everybody a warning that the train would be on its way again in five minutes. I watched as people stopped chattering, took a last drag, stubbed out the cigarettes and clambered back on board. Satisfied that nobody was left behind, the driver set off for the final leg of the journey to New Orleans. By now, he and his co-driver, I assumed, would be into the 16th hour of their shift driving this train. Chicago to New Orleans apparently takes 19 hours.
As we slowly pulled out of Jackson it gave me the opportunity to take some more pictures, very satisfying. There was a feeling that this indeed was the heartland of America, of Mississippi, suddenly it seemed so far away from home..

We were shortly traversing the bayous of Louisiana. The railway track right next to the lakes, over rickety wooden bridges, through swamps. How did they build this line? Amazing. Miles and miles of nothing but swampland, the haunting Ry Cooder soundtrack to the film Southern Comfort came into my head. Looking out of the window, it was murky with drizzle, I wondered what wildlife exists out there. Alligators? Wouldn’t like to fall in and find out that was for sure.


All of a sudden the train comes into a clearing, there’s signs of life with a road bridge adjacent to the rail track appearing. We are on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain; ‘a brackish estuary located in south-eastern Louisiana, covering an area of 630 square miles with an average depth of 12 to 14 feet.’
That big, I thought it was the sea. 
Still no clear sign of New Orleans, turns out we are riding on what is called the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway; ‘composed of two parallel bridges in Southern Louisiana. The longer of the two bridges is 23 miles long. The southern terminus of the Causeway is in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. The northern terminus is at Mandeville, Louisiana. The bridges are supported by 9,500 concrete pilings.’ 



The driver breaks my train of thought, if you pardon the pun; “We have to apologise that the train is running late but we should pull into New Orleans at around 16.40”.
Well, what is another hour when you’ve been on the train for eight hours already?
Finally we arrive in The Big Easy but there was another twist to come yet. The guards warn everyone that first of all, “the train has to go forth, then reverse into the station. So, when the train stops, don’t open the doors and get off! Thank you for your patience.”
Bit obvious but I suppose Health and Safety is rearing its over in the States too.

After nine hours I emerged out of the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, weary. I grabbed a taxi and asked for the St. James Hotel, located in the heart of the city. The yellow taxi was shabby, looked like it was falling part, as did the driver, an ageing black man, but he was polite, chatty, very nice. He dropped me off with a parting shot; “Want a taxi for when you go home Sir?”
“I’ll give you a shout, thanks” I replied. He gave me his card.
“Have a great time in New Orleans sir”.

I intended to.