“Tony says you should come in and talk to him,” says the garage owner’s wife when I call to ask why my van is making a roaring noise so loud I can’t hear the radio with the window open. “He can’t really ‘splain to you over the phone.” This can’t be good.
It isn’t. But I decide to put it out of my mind for the moment, because I’m flying to California.
I’m traveling light: one guitar to carry on, a medium-sized roller bag; purse. I drive the van to Albany Airport. It’s fit to sit in Economy Parking for a week but not much else. At 265,500 miles it doesn’t really owe me a thing.
On the parking lot shuttle, a guy climbs aboard with a wide case. It looks like a crossbow. Don’t let it be a crossbow, I think, and ask him without meaning to “What’s in the case?”
“A crossbow,” he says. “Going down to Texas to do some hunting.” Please do, I think. Go as far away as possible with that thing.
I’ve got a terrible cold and the flight to San Francisco is really hard on my ears. I get off the plane and can’t hear a thing. Partly it’s that the airport is completely silent at 10:30 at night.
Stephanie meets me at the 16th and Mission BART stop. There’s a girl with dreads and tattoos playing and singing for a big crowd in a little plaza outside the station. Young people sit cross-legged on the ground and there’s something sweet and retro about it. Everybody says this town is too expensive for the old counterculture types you associate with San Francisco, so little things like this that may have seemed annoying in the past feel good.
Stephanie feeds me soup in the yellow kitchen of the pretty apartment she shares with Chuck. He’s back east and will stay with me and Eric in a week. Meanwhile we talk about touring and books and music. She reveals herself to be a real friend by showing me how to use a neti pot
I chat with Elmer at Hertz Rental Car, tell him I’m going south to Paso Robles to hang out with friends. It’s easier that way. I've learned this trick from Eric, because in England if you tell them you're a musician sometimes they won't rent you a car. We always tell them we're going to see the grandkids over there. In the US it just saves time. Elmer tells me he’s going to Tahoe to play poker. The words “I’m going to Tahoe” have the most evocative ring, I see Frank Sinatra with a tennis racket, Raquel Welch in skiwear rather than Elmer off-hours from Hertz.
Driving south on the 101 in my rental car – it’s a Toyota Yaris – this weird thing happens. There’s lots of traffic but there’s a flow to it all, less aggression than back east. You can go fast or not go fast, everyone just blazes their own trail instead of trying to make you bend to their will. I relax. I realize how bad things have gotten with my van back home, the roar and the fumes and different broken doors and locks, because I’m in a brand new car now and I LOVE IT. I start imagining that I’m this normal person who makes car payments and just DRIVES A NEW CAR. Why the hell not? I sing along to bro country, under the spell of golden hills while a freight train glides past.
I sit in traffic behind an old Toyota minivan up on the back of a truck. It feels cosmic, heroic. It’s that bizarre lunar module the dB’s had; Duane Jarvis had one too, and I marvel how this one hung in there so long.
When the cold medicine wears off and the traffic lightens up, the local public radio station is holding their fund drive and I’m so in love with the car and public radio and the 101, I feel like pulling over and calling to pledge. Instead I exit to blow my nose and find myself in a KFC drive-through. Grease and salt feel like the only things that can cut through this cold. I ask through the intercom what’s the smallest thing they serve: popcorn chicken in a cup with potato spears – it’s delicious. I think.
Vic and Jenn own a winery in Paso Robles, Vines On The Marycrest. I love their wine. I love a lot of wine but I know there is something special about theirs, it’s like a musician you discover who isn’t well-known but the art and craft is all there. “Mom, your idol is sleeping on our floor,” their son says to Jenn. Eric and I played at their annual harvest weekend event three years ago and it’s fun to come back and get to spend a day, sampling wine and even getting to visit a few other vineyards courtesy of Vic.
“Try our von rouge,” a tasting wench says at one of the elegant wineries we visit. A guy in khaki shorts and ballcap comes up and asks her for some of that “van rogue”. I only wish Eric were here, he would truly love this little slice of Americana – Sideways is one of our all-time favorite movies.
I play outside and it’s a soft night, I’m getting used to playing on my own again and have a few odd moments where I try to launch into familiar songs but there’s no Eric to my side and it’s like a couple of strings are missing off my guitar – I can’t think for the life of me how they go. Other ones that I haven’t played in ten years roll off my tongue and out of my hands without thinking.
After I play, I talk to people and one woman tells me she listened to my first album for all the drives she made from CA to Texas to visit her dying mother, I have to make a joke to keep from weeping.
I get up very early next morning to drive to Santa Cruz to play on the radio. Car Talk is on the NPR station, I’m a fan of this show and not just because they’ve played both Til The Wheels Fall Off and Astrovan. The miracle of radio keeps Tom and Ray the brothers together even though Tom passed away last year, but it really chokes me up when one says “Don’t drive like my brother” and the other one chimes in “Don’t drive like my brother”.
I’m just coming through Gilroy when I tune in KPIG, the station I’m headed for like a bright blue arrow in my Yaris. Please Stand By is the long-running Sunday morning live music show hosted by Sleepy John who also promotes shows around here. He’s reading a feed store ad while the morning’s first act tunes up. I’ve stayed at his house many times and he’s even taken me surfing in Santa Cruz. His voice is the sound of sand and pot smoke and wet dog fur, sunshine through the pine trees.
I have a show at 2 in the afternoon in Felton. It’s at Don Quixote’s, part Mexican restaurant, part Music Hall. There’s not really a dressing room and I end up going onstage in the clothes I put on early this morning.
It’s a good crowd. I’ve always liked playing in Santa Cruz, they make their own rules for life. I apologize to the audience: I have never played a show in a plaid shirt before. It’s the default setting for male musicians who don’t know what to wear onstage and now I’ve joined their ranks.
“I was so glad you said that about your shirt,” a woman confides at the merch table after telling me how much she loves me. “I’d just said to my friend ‘She needs better clothes’.”
Back in San Francisco I return the rental car and Elmer tells me he made out alright at the poker table up at Tahoe. Now I’m on foot and public transportation. There’s always been a dense layer of street people here and that doesn’t seem to have changed much or maybe it’s gotten worse. I see this couple: he’s gaunt and stubbled, grins at babies; she looks like the chicest woman in town from twenty yards away, striped French jersey, straight jeans and white sneakers, dyed reddish brown hair, pale face – it’s only close up I see the scalp through her hair, clenched jaw, mad eyes. History – there’s a special brand of west coast history and it’s so unpinned from the map back east I can’t even begin to guess at her story.
I play a few songs at the Makeout Room for Tom Heyman’s once a month show, it’s casual and everyone is really good. I remember playing here years ago and a load of drunks making so much noise I had to tell them to shut up or I may have even cried or pleaded, it’s a bit of an exorcism for me to stand up here again. I'm growing up.
I’m meeting a friend at Ocean Beach in the morning. I start to walk across the sand to see the ocean and there’s an older man next to me hobbling on a cane. “Beautiful morning!” I say to him, and then I see this office chair alone in the sand and I really want to take a picture but the man is right beside me, practically racing me - I realize he’s making a beeline for the chair too. Maybe it’s his chair? I feel rude but I have to hustle past him and beat him to the chair so I can get a photo without him in it. I snap my shot and seconds later he plops into the chair.
A little later in the café I’m having breakfast with my friend and the man hobbles in and sits right next to me. I want to apologize to him about the chair but out west I never know what I’m dealing with – back east we’d end up laughing, but here?
I get on the train and am admiring this chic woman in black blouse, navy linen trousers and brown sandals when I realize it’s the mad-eyed woman, yep there’s the gaunt stubbled guy grinning at a child. She juts out her jaw and motions to him to get off at Embarcadero stop. San Francisco is a small world.
I take the train to Lafayette and Joyce meets me. I’ve been a fan of hers since Seventeen magazine printed her “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life” piece – I was twelve. I’ve kept up with her writing and eventually wrote her a letter and she answered me back! That was over ten years ago and since then we’ve kept in touch, but this is the first chance we’ve had to hang out. It’s a thrill, she’s got those same incredible eyes that looked at me so soulfully from the pages of Seventeen all those years back and she is still that girl but a woman of the world too. And funny. We talk all afternoon and I play a few songs for her and husband Jim on his Martin. I pull out my phone later and see she’s written up our afternoon, I feel honored.
Stephanie and I have dinner in the Mission. I could talk to her forever. She travels the world playing in Mission Express with Chuck Prophet and is an ace musician and person. We go home and watch this clip Caryn Rose made of Patti Smith doing Gloria this very night at Olympia in Paris. Patti spits on the stage, twice, and struts and stomps proudly in her boots and it does give a woman hope.
I read M Train all the way home. It makes me cry a lot, and my ears open a little.
Back at Albany Airport I unlock from the passenger side cause the driver side lock doesn’t work, then roll down the window a bit even though it’s cold, because of the whole problem Tony had to talk to me in person about. He said the fumes would make me sick. But – it’s almost winter.
Iris DeMent is talking to Terry Gross and turns out Let The Mystery Be is the theme song for The Leftovers tv show. Way to go Iris, one of the best.
The news comes on and they say Toyota is recalling many million cars for faulty power windows that could result in fires and death. They read out the models: ”Camry, Corolla, Highland…Yaris.”
There is no normal.