“In my hotel room! Got some Chinese food, got some HBO, I’m settled in for the night!” said Christa (that’s Christa Hillhouse, my bass player on this tour).
“I thought you were picking me up.”
“You never told me anything about that. Uhhh…can you catch a cab?”
I had been on the road for two months, coordinating details about hotels and cars and vans and bands and rental instruments from New York to New England, Perth to Sydney. And finally, here in Chicago, I had fucked up. Left myself stranded at O’Hare with no ride and no hotel room.
I took a seat on my suitcase, pulled out the iPhone, and pointed my browser towards hotels.com. 10 minutes later, I had scored a sweet deal on a room at the venerable Allerton Hotel, right on the Miracle Mile in Downtown Chicago. Sometimes the best results are due to poor planning.
I dragged my baggage down to the CTA station, and caught the train headed for The Loop. Even after flying all day, and still in the last stages of a brutal Australia jet lag, I was filled with the wonder and exhilaration of a child. I had not played Chicago in years, had never taken the subway here, had never stayed at an old-school downtown Chicago hotel. It was a minor adventure, but an adventure all the same.
It was a week before Thanksgiving, and the city was decked for the holidays. I arrived at the Allerton. A fine jazz singer named Erin McDougald was running through “April in Paris” with an exceptional band in the lounge barely 15 feet from the checkout desk. It was bliss, a gift from the gods of all I love. I headed for my room on the fourteenth floor, planning to come back later for Erin’s last set. I needed a shower, a change of clothes and a Chicago Dog. In that order.
Advice from the bellhop regarding the location of a good Chicago dog sent me on a 10-minute walk to Portillo’s. A real institution of a place, and a beacon of local color in the midst of the depressing chain crap I had to walk past on the way there. Almost everything true to the character of the city had been forced out by the usual bright lights and bullshit of Hard Rock Café, Mc Donalds, Cheesecake Factory, etc. They will not stop til every place is the same place, and we all feed from the same trough, and all who do not toe the corporation line will be marginalized as foot-dragging throwbacks. Oh wait, that day has already come. It has, in fact, been here all of my adult life. I was born too late to be a hippie radical, but I understand the concept…anyway, where was I?
Portillo’s, besides being the home of a fine Chicago Dog, was also famous for the Italian Beef – kind of a Chicago Dog with roast beef and au jus instead of the hot dog. So I got one of those, too.
Sated beyond all expectations, I headed back to the hotel, caught the last set, and repaired to my room under the gloriously archaic neon glow of the Tip Top Tap sign.
Day two. Back at Portello’s, I am reunited with musicians and poets I never see enough of. The musicians are Christa Hillhouse and Marc Singer. I have been touring on a shoestring for 12 years now. Almost everybody tours on a shoestring nowadays…it’s a brave new world out there. The way I make it affordable is to have five bands. West Coast, Central, East Coast, Europe, Australia. This keeps the expenses for flights and backline and hotel rooms to something I can actually afford. I have a public FTP folder online with charts and MP3s for all of my songs. I hire players, they download the charts and tunes, I show up, we play, sounding as if we’ve been rehearsing. At this point, it’s a well-oiled machine. There’s always a drummer and bass player. If the money is great, I’ll add a guitar player and a horn section. Christa and Marc are my “Central” band. Based in Omaha, they do any gig I have west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies.
The most amazing thing about these guys is that I found them in Omaha, of all places. Christa formed a band in San Francisco in the early 90s called Four Non Blondes, sold six million records and went all the way to the top of Rockstar Mountain. Marc was a session drummer in LA throughout the 70s and 80s. Toured with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jerry Jeff Walker and Taj Mahal. Hit records he played on include “Another One Bites The Dust,” and “Copacabana.” And he played with Elvis. Presley, that is. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Both Christa and Marc found themselves in Omaha because of people they fell in love with. And they both have a never-ending supply of amazing stories to tell.
The poets are Michael Rothenberg, his partner Terry Carrion, and David Meltzer. I met Rothenberg back in 1991. I had just moved to LA – a green 24-year-old kid, fresh off the boat from New Jersey. I had lucked into a publishing deal with Criterion Music. Dan Howell, who is sadly no longer with us, was my man there, and he introduced Michael and I. “You guys have GOT to write songs together!” he said. And so we did. Rothenberg is pure artist, unsullied by any commercial considerations. Yet he still makes his living as a poet. Because he’s that good. He has also become known at the editor of Philip Whalen’s work.
My entire income has been tied to music since the age of 18, so as hard as I try not to get stuck at that intersection where art and commerce meet, sometimes I still do. Working with Mike always reminds me of what’s important.
Meltzer is a legend. One of the original beats, a contemporary of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac, he was present at the birth of a whole new artform. Even at 72, his eyes shine with the curiosity of a child…he is always the youngest person in the room. So many people – most people – follow the rules, deny their hearts, peak in high school, and are walking around dead by the age of 30. Meltzer will go to the ungently into that good night with no regrets. Curious, engaged, charismatic, and fully alive to the end.
I want to be David Meltzer when I grow up.
We shared a long and laugh-filled lunch, one of those moments that make the road such a worthwhile place to be. Then we were off to soundcheck.
Marc and Christa and I headed for The Hideout in Christa’s truck, guided by the trusty GPS. We landed in front of a wood frame house in an uninhabited warehouse district. “This can’t be the place!” we said. But upon entry, we discovered it was indeed the place. A little slice of hipster heaven, away from the generic tourist jazz, blues, and rock clubs on Rush Street.
There was a battered old upright piano on stage. One of those very tall, hundred year old monsters; scarred with generations of cigarette burns and missing most of the ivory from its keys, as if it had a mouthful of broken teeth. I have done battle with pianos like this for three decades. Starting with the one I played as a child at my grandmother’s house. My entire life is just a blip on the timeline of one of these instruments. As I approached the beast, I expected that it would be tired, worn, rotten, out of tune, and barely functional. It was none of these things. It was amazingly well cared for, shockingly so, considering it’s bashed exterior. All the keys were working smoothly, it was in tune. It was a pleasure to play! And there was a pickup installed in the back. All I had to do was sit back and wait for the sound man to arrive. Sweet.
The concept of the Rockpile Tour was for Meltzer and Rothenberg to put on shows in various cities and feature local musicians and poets along with their own work. Tonight there were many people on the bill. The night kicked off with an avalanche of excruciating noise from an avant-garde group led by a local music professor. At first I thought I was just too unhip to get what was going on, Then I came to my senses: I didn’t give a shit if I got it or not. I don’t ever want to be that hip. I retreated to the dressing room and waited for it to be over.
I played solo piano behind a couple of local poets. Then Marc and Christa joined me for my set. We were shockingly conventional-sounding after the atonal self-indulgence that had preceded us. It was a little disconcerting to find myself in this position. Anywhere else, I would be the artsy act on the bill…not that I’m all that artsy, but context is everything.
The audience, hipsters all, responded with enthusiastic relief. There’s music you pretend to like so other cool people will think you’re cool, and then there’s the shit you crank and sing along to and cry over and live your life to in your car when you are alone. I was fulfilling the role of the latter.
That was just fine with me.
The night continued on with a constantly shifting cast of players backing various other poets. Then Terri came on, and we set up the funkiest groove of the night while she mesmerized the room. With Michael we built to a frenzied peak before Meltzer’s closing set. He was riveting, as always. His delivery is as close to singing as you can get without singing. We set up a mid-tempo blues, and he speaks his poetry with the rhythmic finesse of a great jazz singer. At the end, the musicians leave the stage, and he gives us goosebumps with a solo reading of “When I Was A Poet.”
Live poetry reading gets a bad rap for being silly, precious, self-important, and about as exciting as watching grass grow. Which is a real shame, because when it’s done right, it’s nothing but greatness. This makes me wish that everyone could see what I saw this night.
For the next two days, we parted ways with the poets and played two regular Malone band shows. The first was at Foundry Hall in South Haven, MI. We didn’t know what to expect, and what we got exceeded all expectations. The place was conceived and run by a singer-songwriter named Andru Bemis, and it was a funky DIY musician’s heaven. Andrew himself was onstage tuning the piano when we arrived, after which he moved behind the board to do our soundcheck. This guy did everything! Great sound, great acoustics, theatre-style seating for 120 or so. We were fed by the awesome staff and waited backstage. Wondering whom, if anyone, was going to show up to see us play in this remote, idyllic little Norman Rockwell town on the shore of Lake Michigan. By the time the opening act went on, the place was full. We were elated, we knew it was going to be a great one. And it was.
The next day was Club Soda (get it? Get it?) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The guy that ran the place was a real sweetheart, the food was great. It looked like it was going to be ok. But it was a pitcher-plant gig. Pure 80’s fern-bar hell. Small town midwestern yuppies-with-training wheels. Someone actually came up and tried to hand me a napkin with a request on it while I was playing and singing. Just standing there, one foot away while I gave all that had to the indifferent crowd, unable to understand why I wouldn’t stop what I was doing so she could tell me to play “Piano Man.” Christa finally told her to fuck off. When it was over, we left skidmarks getting out of there.
Christa and I were sharing a room at a Holiday Inn Express somewhere in some part of Indiana. One of those places you see too often in America that is every other place and no place all at once. I was shaken from my slumber at 8 am sharp by Christa’s boombox bumpin’ “Straight Out Of Compton” at full volume. It was better than coffee…made me want to take out my gat and pop a cap in someone’s ass.
We had an excruciating drive ahead of us – Fort Wayne to Omaha. Eleven hours of straight flat interstate. The gig was at five o’clock. When I booked it, well…it seemed like a good idea at the time.
By the time we got to Omaha, we were knackered. But the show goes on. It was more than worth the drive. I have played Omaha quite a bit over the last few years and have a loyal and wonderful fan base there. The horror that was Fort Wayne was erased from our collective memories. Marc and Christa went home to their own beds with their respective loved-ones, I hit the hotel room and slept for 12 hours.
We rejoined our Rockpile cohorts in St. Louis for the final show of the tour at the RAC Arts Center. There was a crazy woman running the place. One of those people we sometimes encounter who believe that their arts venue would be perfect if they just didn’t have to deal with all the fucking artists. A spiritual twin to the sound guy who hates musicians. The place was full, and the show was much like the one we did in Chicago, minus the avant-garde buzz-kill. We all parted ways, feeling lucky indeed that we got to do this.
I arrived home one day before Thanksgiving, with much to be thankful for.