On The Road: Travels Between Rock & Hard Places With Andrew Mueller

Andrew Mueller rummages through his now borderline-classic book, Rock & Hard Places, reissued and revised this October, and digs out ten pivotal moments from his years on and off the bus

Andrew Mueller’s Rock & Hard Places is something of a cult classic; now on its Nth reissue, the part-travelogue, part-biography, part-musical history has more than proved its worth. Often touted as a worthy contemporary successor to P.J. O’Rourke, Mueller’s work transcends mere music journalism: from war to Woodstock, Rock & Hard Places is a chronicle of the full spectrum of human endeavour. Here he shares with The Quietus ten of his own most enduring music-related moments.

Radiohead – ‘My Iron Lung’

There are two Radiohead tour stories in Rock & Hard Places. The first takes place on The Bends tour in the US in 1995, the second on the road to Paris with Hail To The Thief eight years later. The contrast was interesting, and kind of heartening. The Bends was the sound of a young band realising that being a famous rock group was, in a great many respects, awful. Hail To The Thief, a relatively orthodox Radiohead album following the two-part letter of resignation from the rock’n’roll rat race that were Kid A and Amnesiac, was the sound of a workable equilibrium being reached. I’ve interviewed a lot of people who’ve been daubed, at some level or another, with fame, the most coveted and least valuable commodity of our era (a thing which, weirdly, operates in contradiction of everything known about the relationship between supply and demand – in an age in which pretty much anybody who can be bothered can become a bit famous, why is fame still so prized by so many?). Anyway, the ones that impress me are the ones who embrace it and enjoy it, wholeheartedly and unselfconsciously (Springsteen, U2, say) or quietly and unfussily opt out of it, as far as possible. ‘My Iron Lung’ is the beginning of Radiohead figuring out how to do that.

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Long Walk Home’

I set off to follow Springsteen’s Magic tour in the US in 2007 in something of a sulk – I’d been hoping to get to be able to do the proper on-the-road-interview. When that didn’t happen, the journal in question – Uncut – made the excellent suggestion that I go anyway, see some shows, talk to the fans, learn something about Springsteen, and about America. I love being a journalist in America, not least because it’s easy – walk into a bar, order a drink in an ostentatiously foreign accent, and people will queue to tell you their life stories. In accordance with Simon Price’s dictum that artists tend to get the fans they deserve, Springsteen’s are an unusually perspicacious and affable bunch, and he has rare by-partisan appeal. Before and after the shows – St Paul, Cleveland, and Auburn Hills – I met as many born-again Christian Republican gun nuts as I did peacenik Democrat tree-huggers. It would be incorrect to say that Springsteen was the one thing on which they agreed, but he has become a sort of avatar of commonly treasured American values. ‘Long Walk Home’, a send-off to the George W. Bush era, felt like a revival hymn at all three shows, especially around the line – an obvious hat-tip to Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie From Muskogee’ – about the flag flying over the courthouse, and what it says about what Americans will do, and what they won’t. It’s interesting how completely impossible it is to imagine a British artist writing a line like that, still less getting away with it.

Def Leppard – ‘Animal’

I was never much keen on the Lep, still less everything they stood for. However, late in 1995 I generously set such reservations aside when I learnt that they were staging a come-one-come-all jolly to Morocco as part of their attempt to set a record of some sort by playing three shows on three continents in 24 hours. The first of these gigs occurred in a cave on the outskirts of Tangiers: their record company chartered an aeroplane, the fourth estate for the use of, so that this momentous event might be chronicled with appropriate thoroughness. Needless to relate, Def Leppard ended up playing their acoustic set to an audience substantially comprised of hopelessly sloshed hacks in souvenir fezzes. I do, however, recall being impressed, before gratefully submitting to unconsciousness, that those finely balanced harmonies on the chorus of this extremely stupid song were no mere figment of Mutt Lange’s Cape Canaveral-sized mixing desk: they hit them absolutely spot on. Consummate professionals, as your metal types very often are.

The Cure – ‘Friday I’m In Love’

As late as halfway through 1990, I’d been living in a room in Sydney, the decor of which was dominated by a poster of Robert Smith (the Boys Don’t Cry one, in which he’s facing away from the camera). Through a series of strokes of tremendous good fortune, at some point around halfway through 1992, circa Wish, I was on The Cure’s tour bus heading into Chicago, hiding beneath a table as various of the band’s members – running off post-show adrenalin and, plausibly, other stimulants – pelted each other with toast while Smith bellowed ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ from the foetal position in the corridor. The discovery that the band venerated as consumptive poets by millions of impressionable teenagers like my recent self were in fact essentially a gang of mascara-smeared football hooligans wasn’t as shocking as it might have been. While pretending to have the vaguest idea of what Faith and Pornography were all about, I’d always furtively preferred The Cure’s more playful moments anyway.

Drive-By Truckers – ‘Zip City’

Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera is my favourite album of the 21st century, and ‘Zip City’ – at least according to my iTunes play count – is my favourite song on it, just edging out ‘Greenville To Baton Rouge’ and ‘Life In The Factory’. I spent a few days with the Truckers in Atlanta and Tallahassee in late 2008, on their joint tour with The Hold Steady. It was the first time I’d done the proper sleeping-on-the-tour-bus thing for years, and it was a bracing reminder of what a melancholy vocation it is, especially if you are – as all of Drive-By Truckers are – a smart, thoughtful adult human being. The line that has stuck with me from this trip was a throwaway from Cooley, one of Drive-By Truckers’ two songwriters, and one of the most naturally funny people I’ve ever met. After the somewhat underwhelming, half-attended show in Tallahassee, he sighed “The one hour of the day I don’t want to be alone, and where is everybody?” It’s the best summation of the touring musician’s life I’ve ever heard. I can’t believe he hasn’t used it in a song. Afterwards, we went to George Clinton’s house to see his flying saucer, so the evening wasn’t altogether wasted.

Merle Haggard – ‘Okie From Muskogee’

Chosen in honour of the one new piece crowbarred into this new edition of the book, which is an amalgamation of meetings with two septuagenerian constituents of country music’s Mount Rushmore in early 2010 – Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard – I interviewed Nelson on his tour bus in New York City while he was waiting to do “Letterman” and got pretty much the same interview everyone else does. Amiable anecdotage delivered with a beatific smile, and without any suggestion that he had the foggiest interest in who he was talking to or who they wrote for. I interviewed Haggard at the diner in Redding, California, where he has breakfast most mornings, and was treated to more than two hours of reflection, recollection and argument, and a lift back to my hotel in his gunmetal grey Hummer. ‘Okie From Muskogee’ is still one of the cleverest country songs of all, either and both a withering satire of redneck paranoia, and a sincere, straight-faced statement of all-American decency. “People,” said Hag, “who’ve grown with some intelligence, like you and I have, find all kinds of different things to celebrate in it. I think the connection, between people, politicians, religions and all the rest of it, is pride. Everybody wants to be proud. I think that’s what it shares.”

U2 – ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’

This was never my favourite U2 song, and still isn’t, really – in its original incarnation, it was the sort of thing that used to put me off them, at least pre-Achtung Baby. It makes this list for the version of it that Edge sang at U2’s show at Kosevo Stadium in Sarajevo in 1997, when they took the vast “PopMart” circus to what had been, months previously, a battlefield. I think if I was allowed see one show again, that’d be it. In and of itself, it wasn’t the best show U2 have played – Bono’s voice was nigh completely gone, for starters (U2phobes may insert own joke at this point). As an occasion, it was extraordinary, a beautiful and redemptive triumph beyond any gainsaying: all that pious, big-hearted, flag-waving hippy crap about music bringing people together being proved entirely and gloriously correct.

127 Band – ‘Hamash Dood Bood’

Rock & Hard Places also contains a bunch of not-really-music-related foreign correspondence – the “Hard Places” component of the side-splittingly amusing title. I met 127 Band while working on one such piece, for Monocle, which involved travelling as one of about a dozen passengers on what must be the most commercially pointless air route in the world – the IranAir service linking Tehran and Caracas. 127 Band are an interestingly odd rock group based in Tehran, where they suffer the immense disadvantage of living in a grim theocracy ruled by humourless dingbats, and the minor compensation of being – unlike their western counterparts – a rock band in a place where being in a rock band is still genuinely subversive, rebellious and dangerous. I am forever indebted to vocalist Sohrab Mohebbi for one of the best definitions of the mean-spirited stupidity of tyranny I have ever heard. “Somehere in this city,” he told me, “there’s a grown man, who gets dressed in the morning, kisses his wife goodbye, and goes and sits in an office and gets paid to decide that my band can’t play in front of 30 of our friends.”

Andy Williams – ‘Moon River’

Like most people who get to travel for a living, and who have the supreme good fortune not to see their job as a draining imposition from which they require holidays, I can find myself, if uncareful, becoming quite the travel snob. So it was usefully humbling to visit, one weekend in late 2008, a place which only exists as somewhere for the world’s least adventurous tourists to visit, and have about as good a time as I can imagine having. The place in question is Branson, a sort of remedial Las Vegas nestled in the Ozarks by the border of Missouri and Arkansas. It’s where all the entertainers you assumed were long dead are in fact alive and playing twenty shows a week to busloads of pensioners from the mid-west and the south. I went under strict instruction from the editor who sent me to disdain the cheap shot, and to try to enjoy Branson on its own merits. This proved easier than expected, there being little not to enjoy about being able to see, in a single day, the Christmas shows of three lesser Osmond brothers, Roy Rogers Jr and Andy Williams. With go-karting and mini-golf in between.

Chip Taylor – ‘I Wasn’t Born In Tennessee’

Chip Taylor is best known for writing ‘Wild Thing’. He’s also Angelina Jolie’s uncle. More interesting to me than either of those facts is the sequence of astonishing solo albums he made in the early 1970s – wry, witty, exquisitely produced country. A lot of it is, as a lot of country music is, best thought of as meta-country, i.e. country songs about country music and country singers. A version of ‘I Wasn’t Born In Tennessee’ – which includes a lift from Haggard’s ‘Okie From Muskogee’ – was a hit in Holland in 1975 for a band called The Walkers, who I don’t think had a clue what it was about. My band, The Blazing Zoos, who feature in one chapter of Rock & Hard Places, attempting a one-date tour of Albania, learnt ‘I Wasn’t Born In Tennessee’ before we went to Amsterdam at the end of 2010 to open for Drive-By Truckers at the Paradiso. Introducing it, I asked the (largish) crowd if anyone remembered The Walkers. One exultant, overjoyed voice near the back of the room went “Yesshhh!” I still wonder if he was in the band.

The Paperback reissue of Rock & Hard Places is available now on Foruli Books

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today