Rock & Hard Places, An Extract: Andrew Mueller Goes To Woodstock
, June 8th, 2010 10:15
In a chapter from his recently expanded Rock & Hard Places travelogue, Andrew Mueller recalls the horrific oomska of 1994's second Woodstock festival. Plus a Q&A with the author by Alex Ogg.
I don't go to festivals anymore. It would be neatly piquant to be able to report here that the unmitigated calamity that was Woodstock II was the last festival I attended, but it wasn't; one or two further straws still needed to flutter down atop the hefty log dropped, that dreadful weekend in 1994, upon the camel of my enthusiasm for outdoor rock'n'roll. The precise moment at which I understood that my days as a festival-goer were over was, in fact, the opening night of the 1996 Reading Festival. I was, that evening, in a position which, I am certain, would have been envied by most of the tens of thousands in attendance: I was backstage, festooned with the wristbands, stickers and laminated access passes which can serve to make the better-connected festival attendee resemble a commanding officer in some hastily convened guerilla military. In my immediate vicinity were liberal quantities of drink, numerous people willing to buy me same and the aristocracy of contemporary rock'n'roll. On top of all that, I was being paid for my attendance, covering events for a national newspaper. I thought: this is pretty much the supreme realisation of all the wildest dreams I ever harboured as a teenager bent on becoming a rock journalist. And then I thought: if I push off now, I can be back at the hotel in time for Frasier.
At the time, I felt burdened by the commission of this monumental heresy, much as Spinoza and Julian the Apostate must have upon rejecting all that they had grown up believing—though my recantation prompted neither formal process of excommunication nor Persian arrow in the gizzard. Eventually, however, the truth proved as liberating as the truth always does, and the truth is this: festivals suck. Like the religious faiths foresworn by the enlightened, festivals are organised dementias, collective determinations to ignore logic. The entire prospectus is a monstrous falsehood.
If you set out to design an environment hostile to the enjoyment of music, you could construct nothing more diabolical than a festival field: an acoustically moribund arena in which the minority actively interested in whichever hapless troupe are occupying the stage struggle to hear anything over the din of herds of idiots yammering into phones, yelling after their friends and blowing whistles (any adult who blows a whistle in public for purposes other than officiating in a sporting fixture is — and it behooves us to be very clear on this — an irredeemable simpleton who genuinely deserves to be kicked to death). And the idea — which lurks, still, in the advertising and marketing of all festivals — that these ghastly events are a manifestation of a counterculture is plain risible. Even the annoyingly mythologised free festivals of the 60s and 70s, held when rock'n'roll was comparatively innocent, and before Glastonbury grew as sponsor-spangled as a Formula One meeting, accomplished nothing beyond the only demonstrable good that festivals accomplish today: luring battalions of morons away from the cities for the weekend, thereby making the comforts of civilisation that much more agreeable for the rest of us.
The festival cult is not merely grotesque, but actually faintly unsavoury. Broadly speaking, two sorts of people attend rock festivals. The first sort is under the age of 24, and charged with the giddy exuberance of youth. Given the likelihood that they will, as I did, grow out of it, there is nothing wrong with their attendance at such things—indeed, any regular user of public transport will concur that there's a reasonable argument for incarcerating them in such remote encampments on a full-time basis. The second sort is everybody else, who urgently need to take a fairly withering look at themselves. In disdaining, even just for the weekend, the everyday technological miracles of modern urban existence — indoor plumbing, paved thoroughfares — they also implicitly reject the moral advances that our urban centres have encouraged to flourish. For all the flowery feel - nice rhetoric that inevitably accompanies festivals, the reality is utterly reactionary. A rock festival is a total monoculture: beneath the stupid hats lurks less diversity of thought, culture and race than you'd find at a Ku Klux Klan picnic.
A rock festival also represents, for all its pretensions to equality and brotherhood, a brutally stratified class system. Try the stuff about how we're all one, man, on the bouncer keeping the riffraff out of the backstage enclosures (where, I can assure you, nobody expects the corporate freeloaders to endure the indignity of non-flushing toilets; those are strictly for paying customers). A person who spends money on festival tickets is contributing their small but infuriating bit towards hauling us back to an age of sun-worship and witchburning. If you think I exaggerate, read on. Woodstock II was the nearest thing to a post-apocalyptic society I ever wish to visit.
When I try to be charitable about festivals, I wonder if maybe they subconsciously represent a pure, if misguided, attempt to expiate the guilt about the comfort and security that we enjoy on a harsh, chaotic, unforgiving planet. Maybe, much like the Filipino Jesus freaks who volunteer to be nailed to crosses at Easter that they may feel the pain of Christ, millions of privileged citizens of the first world spend money to endure weekends in conditions that, if foisted on ragged-trousered, soggy-socked foreigners, would instead see them buying charity records and/or demanding that the UN send soldiers to do something about it. Perhaps festivals are, at a subliminal level, a message of solidarity and hope to the wretched of the world: to the refugee who may happen across coverage of such an event on his dung-powered satellite dish, and think, "Wow. Well, I also live in a tent, subsist on awful food, suffer oppressive proximity to hordes of malodorous crackpots, and have to crap in a pit. But at least I can't hear The Stereophonics."
The simplest explanation that fits the facts, of course, is that every person who voluntarily attends a rock festival is completely off their trolley. On that front, any reader who gets as far as the first paragraph of the ensuing dispatch may find themselves wondering if the author hasn't a case to answer as regards his own sanity, with specific regard to his apparent bonhomie vis-à-vis The Cranberries. It does require a degree of contextualising. I had followed them to Woodstock at the behest of long-expired British music monthly Vox, on the grounds that I'd been faintly partial, at this early stage in their career, to The Cranberries' pastoral folk-pop noodlings. I had been a quarter of the crowd at their first London show, and once travelled to the Scottish town of Wick to watch them play in front of 27 people at an arts and poetry festival.
Back then, however, their music possessed a certain winsome charm and Dolores O'Riordan actually sang — which she was very good at — as opposed to squawking like a territorially aggrieved corncrake, which is what she has largely done in the years since. Granted, by the time of Woodstock ‘94, The Cranberries had released 'Zombie' — their ham-fisted, if well-meaning, analysis of the Northern Irish question, with its TANKS and its BOMBS and its BOMBS and its GONNS — but they were still a way off perpetrating the truly fearful To The Faithful Departed album, which is without much doubt one of the very worst records ever made. Seriously, look the lyrics up online, after first disabling your browser's bad rhyme blocker. Scan through 'I Just Shot John Lennon', or any of the songs about Bosnia, and just try to imagine how the earlier drafts must have read. Anyway. Woodstock II. The horror. The horror.
The rain starts gently, pattering on the roof of The Cranberries' dressing trailer like polite applause. There are a few half-guilty glances and giggles as Dolores O'Riordan and her band realise how perfectly they've timed things. They were the first band to play on this ominously overcast Saturday, and now they're free to make their escape. As they congratulate themselves and commiserate with us, the rain builds to a thunderous ovation.
"Here," says Fergal Lawler, proffering a leftover bottle of red wine. "You're going to need it."
There have been better-organised car accidents and less self-important Soviet funerals. We've only been at Woodstock '94 a matter of hours when it dawns on us that we may be witnessing—nay, actually participating in—the greatest American fiasco since the Bay of Pigs.
Back down in New York City the previous day, the usually mercilessly cheerful television weather forecasters could not have appeared more grim if they'd delivered their reports dressed in hooded robes and carrying scythes. So apocalyptic were their predictions for the Woodstock weekend that I'd been apprehensive about venturing upstate without several cubits of oak, and manuals on elementary boat construction and animal husbandry.
I had tried to reason with my travelling companions, Vicki Bruce of Island records and Vox photographer Ed Sirrs. I pointed out that we were comfortably ensconced in a fine hotel on Park Avenue, that Woodstock '94 was going to be broadcast live on pay-per-view television, that we could cover the event just as thoroughly while staying dry, clean and within walking distance of the bars and restaurants of Manhattan and if they didn't tell anyone, neither would I. They didn't listen. They thought I was joking.
And so we join the 300,000 befuddled souls gathered in these New York state paddocks. We are being rained on, pissed about, ripped off, spattered with slime and generally tormented like no other assembly in human history, with the arguable exception of General Haig's 4th Army, and at least the footsoldiers freezing in the trenches of the Somme had been able to get a drink, and hadn't had to listen to Del Amitri.
For no, we cannot get a drink. There is no alcohol available on site. Indeed, in the backstage press tent, we cannot even get a cup of coffee. Americans, while admittedly useful to have around if you're trying to liberate a continent, are the last people you should call if you're trying to organise a party. I've had more fun in Sweden. It would take a leaky press tent full of mutinously muddy, bored, annoyed and sober journalists three days to list everything that is wrong with Woodstock '94, and speaking as one of those journalists, I can report that our deliberations are exhaustive. In fact, the only area in which Woodstock '94 lives up to its declared ambitions of, like, bringing people together as one, man, is the manner in which scores of personal and professional British media rivalries are forgotten in the cause of a good self-pitying whinge. "This is hell, isn't it?" announces one damp British writer to the assembled hackery, huddled in the press tent, our chairs sinking slowly but inexorably into the mud. "Utter fucking hell."
There are jails which permit their inmates to get away with more than organisers allow the punters at this crazy, zany homage to the anarchic, devil-may-care, do-what-thou-wilt spirit of the original Woodstock. We are not allowed take our own food onto the site (well, the concession-holders jacking their prices a hundred percent and more over the odds are only trying to make a living). We may not spend US dollars (greenbacks have to be converted for festival scrip, the reason for which is a mystery to everyone). We are strictly forbidden tent pegs. At a festival at which tens of thousands have arrived expecting to camp out, this last edict verges on genius.
It's only Saturday afternoon. It's going to get so much worse. We can tell. The rain is now hammering against the tent with all the ferocity of a vengeful God and, it has to be said, he'd have every excuse. Out in the fields in front of the stages, humanity is returning, literally and spiritually, to the primeval ooze.
The music on the Saturday commences with a set by Joe Cocker, a veteran of the original Woodstock. He's touting the same act that he has been for thirty years, which is to say he still looks and sounds like he's shat himself and it's running down one leg. The crowd go mad, but Americans will clap at anything. Baseball, for example. As Cocker delivers 'With A Little Help From My Friends' like it's being forced out of him with thumbscrews, I traverse the swamp to Woodstock's other stage.
Things here are, if anything, worse. I hadn't been expecting great things from Woodstock on a musical level, but nothing had prepared me for the horror of Zucchero in full flight. Zucchero is Italy's idea of a pop star, which explains why Italy, over the years, has been to rock'n'roll roughly what Rwanda has to package holidays. Zucchero resembles nothing so much as a drunk Albanian taxi driver in the process of emptying a karaoke bar. He is followed by Youssou N'Dour, today's token world music artiste, who is something of a stranger to Mr. Tune, and then The Band, or part thereof. They play for a week, then bring on someone from The Grateful Dead, and play for another month.
With blood beginning to collect on my palms and visions of St.Francis dancing in my eyes, I strike out for the press tent, hoping to reach sanctuary before night falls and jackals begin emerging from their lairs to pick off the fallen and unwary. By now, the walk from the South Stage to the backstage area is at best ankle deep, and at worst capable of swallowing troops, horses and cannons. On the liquefying hills and slopes along the way, those who have surrendered to the conditions hold mud toboggan races on stretchers stolen from the medical tents. Gangs of mud-covered vigilantes roam the site looking for clean newcomers to haul forcibly into the slime.
One forlorn form, naked but for a pair of shorts and an all-over suit of steaming slime, totters around in the downpour clutching a smudging, hand-written sign that reads 'I Want Drugs'. Alone in the middle of a vast mud lake, a drenched youth sits in a half-submerged deckchair, cradling a sodden hardback book, having clearly plumbed Colonel Kurtz-like depths of dementia. Woodstock now looks like the set of one of those nuclear armageddon films that were so big in the 80s, and I am walking through a crowd scene from the day after the bomb.
In the press tent, the atmosphere is souring further. Two distinct, mutually hostile camps have formed: i) the British media; ii) everyone else. The festival organisers think we're being a bit hard to please. "You have things like this in England, don't you?" asks one. "Yes," replies the journalist, without lifting his head out of his hands. "But with the one crucial difference that ours are, in some respects, any fun at all." The American media, meanwhile, charge around us foreign types, waving television cameras and tape recorders, asking us What We Think It All Means. "It's a bunch of bands playing in a field, it happens all the time in Europe, it doesn't mean anything," is one common response. "Piss off," is another.
Almost excitingly, from an Australian perspective, among the visiting press is Ian 'Molly' Meldrum. Meldrum spent the 70s and 80s hosting a television rock programme called Countdown, on which he mumbled a great deal, crawled like a millipede cowering from sniper fire to anybody foreign or famous who deigned to turn up, and promoted a succession of desperately witless local acts. Countdown is often recalled with fondness by people who grew up in Australia during this time, in much the same way that people will, a few years down the road, laugh about a night in the cells. Call me humourless, but I don't think the man who delivered fame, however fleeting and local, to (for example) Kids In The Kitchen, Pseudo Echo, The Uncanny X-Men and Indecent Obsession at the expense of (say) The Go-Betweens, The Triffids, Ed Kuepper and The Hummingbirds should get off quite so lightly. The thought of seizing his trademark cowboy hat and tramping it into the mud occurs to me, as does the idea of kicking away the crutches with which he's walking today. But no. He's here, and he's him, and between them that's punishment enough.
Outside, the music is degenerating as fast as the weather. The North Stage hosts tedious crusties Blind Melon, tedious weightlifter Henry Rollins and tedious nobody Melissa Etheridge. These acts are introduced by a ridiculous bullshitter in a tie-dyed t-shirt who spouts interminable cosmic drivel about how we're all "beautiful" and "making history, man". History is what he'll be if he comes within chair-throwing range of the press tent. I realise that, all things considered, I'm quite looking forward to Crosby, Stills & Nash, which is a new experience.
The only act to properly sum up the squalor of the weekend are Nine Inch Nails, who address the crowd, with commendable accuracy, as "miserable, muddy fuckheads." Reznor and company are plastered from head to foot in brown goo after a pre-show punch-up, and are a welcome torrent of cleansing venom. Their triumphantly misanthropic set ends with 'Head Like A Hole' and a comprehensive demolition of their equipment. After that, Metallica's gruff barking, pointless widdly-widdly soloing and dim macho posing is only ever going to look a bit daft, and does. We beat a retreat to the strains of redoubtable heavy metal pantomime queens Aerosmith. How we chuckle at 'Walk This Way' as we blunder through the dark, damp undergrowth in search of our car.
IT rains all night. The swimming pool in the middle of Pollace's Crystal Palace Resort in Catskill bursts its banks at about two. Me, Ed and Vicki sit on the porch behind one of our villas and drink too much. Pollace's Crystal Palace Resort is a kind of Italian-American Butlin's, a couple of dozen white weatherboard villas clustered around a tatty mermaid's grotto constructed of theatrical maché rocks and artificial waterfalls. The clientele, aside from us, consists of Italian-American families who each have a dozen wheelchair-bound grandparents and a thousand screaming children. The decor of the reception area resembles the plunder of inept archaeologists who've excavated a Bulgarian discotheque.
Still, the staff are friendly, and excited beyond reason that they have "you British press guys" staying with them.
"WOULD ANDREW MUELLER... "
It's six o'clock in the morning. Christ.
"...PLEASE COME TO RECEPTION IMMEDIATELY... "
It's booming from the loudspeakers that sit on poles around the resort compound. It's some consolation that everyone else is being woken up by this.
"WE HAVE AUSTRALIA ON THE LINE."
What are they talking about? I stand unsteadily up and get hurriedly dressed; it's only by great good luck that I don't get my trousers over my head and my shirt around my knees. I squelch barefoot through the pouring rain in the dawn half-light to reception.
"There's this radio guy on the phone for you," beams the bloke at reception. "He's calling all the way from Australia!" He's beside himself. "Are you, like, famous or something?"
Not that I'm aware of. I exploit my celebrity as far as asking for a cup of black coffee, which the reception bloke positively sprints off to organise, and pick up the phone. It turns out to be a researcher from Radio National back in the old country, who's got my name and contact number from someone in London, and wants to know if I'd be okay to be interviewed about the Woodstock catastrophe by Philip Adams. Adams is a reliably amusing and acerbic commentator and columnist, and something of a childhood hero. On one hand, the idea of bantering on air with the great man is no problem at all. On the other, I'd prefer not to do it on the strength of two hours' sleep while sweating tequila through my palms.
"How's it going, Andrew?" comes Adams' unmistakable, sonorous drawl. And so, after years spent dreaming of just such a moment, the first word I speak to the distinguished broadcaster is, "Shithouse." "I can imagine," he laughs. "I've seen the pictures on television. Though if you could give us a slightly more tactful perspective once we start, I'd be grateful."
I get through it okay, suffused by the coffee provided by the receptionist, who smiles ecstatically and hops from foot to foot while the interview takes place. At the conclusion of an epically self-pitying rant wishing all the miseries of the pit upon Woodstock's organisers, Adams says, "Well, Andrew, you've acquired a most engaging mix of Australian cynicism and English detachment," which, until I get a better offer, will do as an epitaph.
Back at my villa, after two more hours' sleep, I am woken again, this time by a knock on the door. It's Ed Sirrs.
"I don't care," he announces, "if it means I never work in London again. But I am not going back to that terrible fucking place today."
Ed is no lightweight. He has braved the most violent of moshpits, the most inadequate of stagefront security, the most temperamental of musicians. He is probably the best live rock photographer working, and does not baulk at much. But his mind is made up, and I for one will not hold it against him.
Indeed, a few miles up the road, Vicki and I wish we'd had the same resolve. The entire Woodstock site now has the consistency and colour of French onion soup, but smells a good deal worse. You'd get further in a punt that you would in car. All the roads into the festival area are closed. We try to reason with a security guard, using the time-honoured means of waving our laminates and trying to sound as foreign and as important as possible. We claim to be Peter Gabriel's management, Bob Dylan's children and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' trombone section. "I don't care who you're here with," he tells us. "You can't drive a car where there ain't no road."
We're still seven miles from the gate when we abandon the car in a ditch by the road. A bit further along, some enterprising yokels from nearby farms are running a tractor shuttle from the point at which the road is closed. We pay a man with no front teeth and eyebrows on his cheeks ten dollars each for a lift as far as he can take us, which is to a roadblock four miles from the entrance. We walk the rest of the way, proceeding against a steady human tide—an exodus of filthy early leavers, refugees from the disaster occurring over the ridge. The only good news is that by the time we squelch into camp, we've missed The Allman Brothers and Traffic. I hadn't realised they were still alive.
"I'm not sure they are," says someone who saw them. Surveying the now half-submerged press tent, it's clear that we've actually been quite lucky. There were some whose devotion to duty was such that they stayed until the end of Aerosmith's set, with the result that they weren't able to get out of the site at all, and had been forced to sleep here on whichever tables and chairs hadn't sunk down to the mesozoic layer. There is a Woodstock poster still clinging to one wall of the tent, bearing the festival slogan '3 Days of Peace and Music' in stars-and-stripes-coloured writing. Over the '3 Days,' 'Peace' and 'Music,' some sleepless soul has written, with feeling, in red marker pen, the words 'FUCK', 'RIGHT' and 'OFF'.
Today's bill is no less dismal than yesterday's, featuring sets by The Neville Brothers, who I forget while I'm listening to them, Santana, during whose performance I swear I grow a beard, and Jimmy Cliff's All-Star Reggae Jam. There are few more frightening phrases in the language than 'All-Star Reggae Jam.' All three acts, though atrocious, play to large crowds, and I have to wonder how many of these people are so mired by the sludge that engulfs everything that they can't move even if they want to.
Cometh the hour, though, cometh some unlikely heroes. In the late afternoon, Green Day appear. Their daft Buzzcock-ish pop romps are perfectly agreeable in and of themselves, but their singer, Billie Joe Armstrong, displays an instinctive understanding of what the weekend is about, or at least what the weekend has degenerated into. He goads two sections of the audience into a mudfight. This, inevitably, leads to an avalanche of earth landing on the stage itself, and the weekend's only stage invasion. Green Day's set is abruptly curtailed by venue security, but Billie Joe frees himself of their grip, runs back onto the stage and begins heaving great handfuls of mud back into the crowd, before being removed again by the bouncers who are supposedly protecting him. It's a fine, fine performance and one which, when replayed on the television monitors in the press tent, draws a heartfelt standing ovation from the by now almost hysterically irritated media.
It's on the North Stage today that Woodstock II achieves some sort of redemption—ironically, through a figure who famously snubbed the original Woodstock. Bob Dylan appears just as the clouds break, for the first time in forty-eight hours, to reveal an appropriately apocalyptic sunset. Behind the stage, it looks like the sky is on fire, and Dylan and his band rise to the backdrop. He delivers 'It Ain't Me Babe,', 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' and 'Masters Of War' with chilling conviction; where his voice these days often resembles an asthma sufferer blowing into a kazoo, tonight it's as startling and forceful as it must have sounded when he first imposed it on an unsuspecting rock'n'roll landscape. During 'I Shall Be Released', his face, up on the giant stage-side monitors, looks transported and tear-struck, as if looking for escape from his myth in the raging red sky above us. The expression stays with him during 'Highway 61 Revisited'; he now looks like a man with nowhere to run but the endless road ahead, and it's just about been worth coming here and putting up with all this nonsense to discover that Dylan, of all people, can still sing it like he means it.
The only way to get out afterwards is pay two inbred solvent-abusers a hundred dollars each for a lift in their van. I sit between them in the front, trying not to think too hard about the possibility of our ride ending in shallow graves in the surrounding forest. Our mercenary rescuers bicker about my directions to our stranded car.
"Hey," says one. "I think that's, like, near the titty bar."
"Yeah,"says the other. "We could like, drop these guys off, and go to the titty bar, and spend all their money."
"Yeah," agrees the first. "That'd be, like, cool."
They have their radio tuned to Woodstock's on-site station, which is now playing highlights of Dylan's set. When 'I Shall Be Released' comes on, I hum along, quietly.
Courtesy of Foruli Classics/foruli.co.uk
Copyright Andrew Mueller 2010
All rights reserved
Andrew Mueller's hugely engaging travelogue Rock And Hard Places has been dusted down, revamped and repackaged with the addition of bonus material (think classic album deluxe edition - and we won't be leaving such analogies there). (Buy it here. Across an expanse that takes in Afghanistan, Sarajevo and Beirut, alongside mallsville America and Smallsville England, it provides a quizzical insight into a world that seemingly grows odder by the annus, relieved in a happenstance fashion by vestiges of sanity and humanity in the most unlikely boltholes. Alex Ogg spoke to its author.
Andrew, what have 10 more years on the clock taught you about life? Are there any of the old chapters you view differently now through feedback, further interaction with the artists or, erm, personal growth, that you might have liked to have amended? Can writers fall into the trap of dismissing what is sometimes their best work because they are always convinced that the new stuff is more composed and mature, just as some musicians do?
Andrew Mueller: The new version happened pretty much on a whim. I thought it might be a fun thing to do, and at least one of my publishers also turned out to share that opinion. The temptation to amend the chapters did loom, yes: there's always a desire to rewrite things you wrote a week ago, never mind half a lifetime ago (the oldest piece in the book, an account of spending a few days in Hollywood with Courtney Love, dates from 1991). However, aside from excising a few passing references to contemporary phenomena, which I simply couldn't be bothered to write footnotes for, I left them as they were. This was partly rugged journalistic integrity, mostly laziness.
That said, for every passage or observation that made me want to build a time machine just so I could travel backwards to meet my twenty-something self and slap him around a bit - mostly for being, in a couple of instances, a little too pleased with himself, and somewhat less clever and amusing than he believed himself to be - there was another I was, when returning to it after having not looked at it for years, pleasantly surprised by. I'm still especially fond of the two pieces that lead the collection off: a tour story on Radiohead in the US in 1995, and an visit to Afghanistan to solicit the opinions of the Taliban in 1998.
Yes, the Taliban chapter. Noting that you are a keen cricket fan, being an Australian and all, and completely avoiding snidely mentioning the Ashes, you will doubtless be delighted that Afghanistan are competing in the 20-20 World Cup.
AM: My feelings about Afghanistan playing in the 20/20 World Cup are mixed, due to a belief that 20/20 cricket represents at least as grave a threat to western civilisation as theocratic fanaticism.
Regarding the entreaties for you to join the jihad amid a surreally timed earthquake - was there not one pang of your agnostic western liberal conscience that briefly essayed the advantages of temporary conversion?
AM: The timing of the earthquake mentioned in the chapter was beyond hilarious, and one of those coincidences you wouldn't dare invent. But no, I wasn't tempted. It didn't strike me as likely that a regime which couldn't organise running water or reliable electricity would be capable of wreaking natural disasters at will.
Finally, you relate the whole journey with levity and without condescension – but were you really confident enough to question the Taliban hierarchy in the way you portray in the book? Or was it the equivalent of the rock band interview where you strike out any hesitant moments in the transcript to make you sound as if you've pursued an intellectually rigorous but delectably witty line of enquiry throughout?
AM: It's a fair question, but yes - the account of the trip is an accurate reflection of my thoughts and actions, as are they all. While I always try to tell a story as engagingly and (where applicable) amusingly as possible, I never make things up, partly because it renders the idea of journalism pointless, and mostly because I'm too lazy. As I say in the new introduction to that piece, I've since felt a bit weird about the somewhat glib tone of it. In retrospect, I could possibly have reined in some of the ridicule of the Taliban's more picturesque nonsense in favour of emphasising the fact that they were/are, you know, Just Plain Evil, and everything. But that said, we've scarcely wanted, this last decade, for demonisations of militant Islam, and it has struck me more than once that ridicule and mockery might well be more effective weapons. There's a certain (usually young, male and dim) mindset that actively enjoys being characterised as a menace and an outlaw. But nobody likes getting written up as a dingbat and an idiot.
Moving from the Taliban to Radiohead, which some wags might suggest is not as huge an ideological shift as you might imagine. I was interested in your assertion, perhaps playful, that a secondary book is in the works chronicling those aspirants on whom you have alighted and granted critical blessing, who ended up also-rans, either by dint of rapidly ebbing (or misdiagnosed) talent or rampant egomania. Go on, name names.
AM: The reference to the putative follow-up cash-in chronicling the less glamorous departures of the travelling rock critic was, of course, entirely whimsical. On the extremely unlikely grounds that I could ever bring myself to write it, it would stand precisely zero chance of ever being published - although if someone else wrote and published a similar volume, I'd certainly read it. I shan't name names, though, as it really isn't fair. Most of the time, it wasn't really the fault of the band - if only because most bands, like most people, will make at least a desultory effort to be courteous to somebody who is going to write about them. There's just only so much joy you can wring, whatever the company, out of a damp Tuesday night in Strasbourg, or a journey by van between Birmingham and Exeter.
Your portrait of Hartford, Connecticut, is spectacularly unflattering. Did you ever get any comeback on that? Have you, in fact, ever gone back?
AM: Nobody from Hartford, Connecticut, ever wrote in to complain about my treatment of it, no. This is obviously because every citizen of the city was in complete agreement of my assessment, as the only other explanations are that nobody reads what I write, and nobody cares what I think – two possibilities, I'm sure we can agree, so remote as to be inadmissible. I've never been back, but this is not because I am scared.
The chapter initially revolves around our Oxford brethren desperately trying to plan a jape in response to the expected end of tour jocularity of REM. And their general discomfort with the hurdles presented by the conventions of ‘the biz'. We have a band attempting, with some success, to remain stoical in the face of a monumental change in their condition. The reader infers approval here, but when you compliment the boy Yorke on his reluctance to suffer fools gladly – isn't that what adult life is about, though? Isn't there an implied elitism at work in that conclusion?
AM: Your question about my approval of Radiohead's somewhat ascetic aversion to the fripperies of success is an annoyingly good one, specifically the part about whether learning to suffer fools is a necessary part of growing up. Having given it considerable thought, I still think the answer is no. One should certainly learn to respectfully disagree with smart people who've thought things through and arrived at different conclusions to yourself - in fact, reading and talking with people like that is about as valuable an education as one can get. But I cannot perceive the virtue in tolerating or indulging the genuinely stupid - the superstitious, the dogmatic, the bigoted, the complacent, the professionally indignant, the just plain thick - or indeed reacting to them with anything other than indifference, contempt and (if there's nothing else to do) mockery. Life is, as Thom himself observes when we return to the subject in a later chapter, too short. Is there an implied elitism there? You betcha. But when did elitism become a bad thing?
I found this an interesting contrast with your own regal sounding speaking tour which, rather than being propped up by publishing minions happy to do your bidding, seemed to revolve around scraping together enough money for train fares and coffee. Then being harangued by people who have only turned up to get out of the rain.
AM: It would be disingenuous to say that the semi-calamitous book tour chronicled in the book was in any way humbling - I'm generally at peace with my irrelevance, and therefore set forth with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. As for submitting my work to consideration by critics, I was also - and remain - entirely relaxed about that. This is partly because I have to be - having spent much of my professional life dishing it out, I've no choice but it to wear it with good grace if I get the occasional bucket tipped over me. But it's mostly because both the books I've written have been, for all the flaws they all doubtless have, the absolute best I could have done at the time. If people like them, I'm honoured and thrilled. If people don't, I really couldn't care less. The exception, of course, is the cloth-eared, semi-literate hack who recently gave my band's album two stars in Maverick magazine. Him, I intend to crush like a bug.
Can we talk Iceland next? After all, it's pretty topical. This was before the economic collapse and volcanic ash, of course. How does it feel, as an Australian, to be told by a native that her menfolk "drink too much and never show their feelings". This cannot have happened too often to you.
AM: Indeed. I reported that woman's assertions about Icelandic men because they struck me as charmingly innocent, verging on quaint, which I thought sort of said something about Iceland's general otherworldliness. And/or I just thought it was a funny story.
So why does someone with such a loathing of aeronautical conveyance become a travel writer in the first place?
AM: The fear of flying I was having around this period has since lapsed into a less pervasive mixture of discomfort, boredom and irritation. There is still very little about the experience that I enjoy, but I'm not frightened anymore. The cure was a flight home from Basra aboard a Royal Air Force transport aircraft in 2005, which somewhere over Turkey flew into the sort of turbulence commercial jets almost never experience. I thought I'd been on some bumpy flights, but this was just hilarious - we were all but flying sideways at one point.
It wasn't merely the fact that the antique Lockheed TriStar stayed airborne, but that everyone else aboard - including quite a hefty contingent from the Parachute Regiment, if memory serves - was so utterly unfazed, to the point of barely looking up from their crosswords. Added to which was the calming effect of the Ealing Comedy tones of the pilot, who announced - I quote pretty much verbatim - "Awfully sorry about the bumpy ride this evening, ladies and gentlemen, but we're being held at this altitude by a Turkish air traffic controller who I rather think is taking something out on us." And as recently as January, I unenjoyed an aborted landing in a blizzard at midnight aboard a twin-prop approaching an airfield in Nevada.
Let's look at one of the new chapters in the book, following Bruce Springsteen around the US. And having no access. But given that the whole book starts out with the observation that "almost all tour features in almost all music journals are frauds perpetrated against the reader," you seem to have fallen in love with the subject matter as you proceeded. The subject matter being Boss fans as much as the man himself. I'm particularly thinking here of how astute and articulate you found them to be, such as the woman who asks the pertinent question about what a British audience sees in such an emblematically, emphatically American artist. And of course, that wouldn't have happened if the PR had granted you access and it would have been a lesser piece (probably). Would you agree that rock journalism tends to be too welded to a formula and dependent on a corporate drip-feed?
AM: Short answer: yes. Long answer: perhaps ironically in this context, that Springsteen feature holds up really well as the sort of lateral thinking that music publications could and should be doing more of. The thought had originally been that we (Uncut, in this instance) were going to get a Bruce Springsteen interview, which then didn't happen. My instinct, naturally, was to sulk briefly and forget about it. It was Michael Bonner at Uncut who made the excellent suggestion that I go on tour anyway, and write about Springsteen as reflected through the people and the places encountered en route, and I think it worked really well. It's probably my own favourite piece in the book, in fact.
It does take a bit of nerve for a magazine to place that much faith in i) the writer, and ii) the willingness of the readers to consume a longish authored piece with no input from the artist, but I think it's something print titles especially are going to have to do more of. A monthly magazine (or even a daily newspaper) can't compete with the internet on news, or access to music, or even on interviews - where an artist of Springsteen's stature especially is concerned, there's always going to be as much of that stuff out there as anyone can stand reading. But I think people read online and print differently (well, I do, anyway). If I'm reading on a screen, I'm always tapping the scroll key, searching for whatever it is I'm trying to find out. When I read for pleasure, especially at length, I want ink on paper.
So, my - admittedly self-interested - view is that if rock journalism is going to survive, it's going to have let writers be writers, and hope/assume that the readers are happy to do the same. And I - again, admittedly self-interestedly think they would be.
What's the one great travel adventure of your life that you haven't had yet.
AM: My great unrequited travel ambition is North Korea. I've tried several times, but I'm not optimistic. The authorities are not overly keen on journalists, and while the internet has made many aspects of life easier, it has made sneaking into countries under false pretences very close to impossible, given that your cover can now be blown with a search engine and a few keystrokes. It's probably just as well, really - my last foray into undercover border-crossing, into Serbia during the twilight of Milosevic's rule, nearly came unstuck when the photographer and myself became consumed with fits of the giggles upon relating our preposterous story at customs; mercifully, the officer on duty had a similar sense of humour, and waved us through.
And the one artist you haven't managed to capture in words as you would like...
AM: On the music front, that's an ongoing process. As with any journalism, the best you can hope for is to hit "send" in the reasonably secure knowledge that you've told the story as accurately and entertainingly as you could, given whatever time and resources were available. There are still some musicians I'd like to interview (Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, among others), and others I'd always be happy to interview again (Steve Earle, Randy Newman, Bono, Merle Haggard, Drive-By Truckers, actually loads, now that I think of it). In general, though, I think that if you think you're always getting it absolutely right, it's probably time you knocked it off.