Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Caffe & Zigarren

I wrote this in 2002, during a tour of Belgium and Germany, and never posted or published it. Since I'm too jet-lagged at the moment to write anything new, I instead offer this tale from the archives. Enjoy.

"Your seat cushion" the announcement went, "is also a flotation device. In the event of a water landing…"

"place your head between your legs and kiss your sorry ass goodbye!" I muttered.

This was the third time I was hearing the safety announcement on this flight, and we were yet to leave the ground. Granted, it was the first pass in English, but you don’t really need to understand the words to get the point, all you need to do is watch for the props: the disembodied seatbelt, the yellow cup, the elastic strap.

"If you are traveling with a child, first place the cup firmly over your mouth, and then..."

Grab the kid by the shoulders, shake the crap out of him, and scream: “we’re all gonna die, you little shit!”

This being a flight to Belguim, which is essentially a tri-lingual country, we got the saftey lecture in Flemish, French, and English. As if any of it would help if we went down in the North Atlantic. The folks on the Titanic had it all over us – at least some of them lived.
We had been grounded for the last three hours with a mechanical problem. The maintenance crew had gone for parts. That’s just how they announced it: "The maintenance crew has gone for parts.” That bothered me. “Parts” brought to my mind a discomforting scene in which one of the airport mechanics is standing at the counter at the local Pep Boys:

“Uh….yeah. You got a reverse-catalytic spetzer-valve for a ’93 Boeing 707?”

“Well, no…they’re back-ordered. But you know, you can substitute a valve from a ’88 Fokker 2000! Just file off this tab here and strip the threads. You may want to take along a couple a tubes of hot-glue, just to be safe.”



Tomorrow I would be playing the Beersel Blues Rock Festival, just outside of Brussels, then heading to Germany for a week of shows. I say tomorrow, but it would really be today. When going to Europe, the pattern is always the same. Leave L.A. in the evening, arrive overseas the next morning. Sleeping on the plane is not an option. I’ve tried everything. Large amounts of alcohol. Small amounts of alcohol. Sleeping pills. Sleeping pills with alcohol. I’ve tried reading the sanitized, leaden prose in the in-flight magazines. The booze and pills made me high enough that the lack of sleep no longer bothered me, and the in-flight magazine made me want more booze and pills. Nothing made me sleep.

Now I just stay up all night. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

My motel room was out in the ‘burbs, near the festival grounds. I looked out the van window, fascinated, as always, by how Europe has all the same sort of roadside stuff we do – gas stations, caf├ęs, refineries, office parks…but everything is smaller. And cleaner and tidier. Europe always makes me feel like I’ve been shrunk to HO scale and become the inhabitant of a model train layout.

After a few hours of unsuccessfully attempting to sleep off the jet-lag, the runner came to take me over to festival grounds. There was a crowd of about 3,000 under the mainstage tent. In the middle of the seething mass stood a giant screen projecting what was going on onstage for the people in the back. As I did my set, my eyes kept wandering to the giant TV screen. I would start watching the pixelated me in action, and almost forget to keep playing. One side of my brain yammering: "Hey look - you're on TV!" The other side saying: "It’s live, dumbass – keep playing!"

After the set, the schmoozing and the autograph scrawling, I wandered backstage to find some grub.

I located a couple of steak brochettes and a pile of fries and made my way to one of the backstage picnic tables. Condiment choices were only two: ketchup or mayo. The ketchup came in a container that looked as if it were designed to hold some sort of automotive product – brake fluid, perhaps. The cap was a perfect plastic representation of a lug-nut. My eyes saw imaginary grease stains on the thing. I knew it was purely psychological, but I could not bring myself to eat the ketchup. That left only the Mayo.

They’re big on mayo here in Belgium. Salad with a cup of Hellmann’s where the dressing would normally go. Fries with a large, quivering mass of mayonnaise on the side. And speaking of french fries, I had not even eaten my first one that night when someone approached, unsolicited, and informed me that the Belgians invented French fries, and those French sonzabitches stole the idea. This, I would find out, was a very big deal in this country. It seemed like every person I was introduced to during my stay in Brussels would say: “Hello Bob, very nice to meet you! Did you know that we invented French fries?”

I briefly considered my condiment choices, and decided on plain.

I headed back out to the backstage area just as Candye Kane’s set was reaching critical mass. She had those poor bastards whipped into a frenzy I feared some of them would not survive. She made me damn proud to be an American playing the blues.