JUNE 1 - CICLIAMINO BEAT
We drove down L'Autoroute dU Sud past Montpellier, Arles, Nimes, Marseille, Cannes, Nice etc etc and on into Italy, straight from the expansive country of southern France into the mountains, winding roads and a zillion tunnels of the southern Alps. Trying to avoid the megatraffic of Milano, we still got stuck for hours gridlocked on back roads as everyone had the same idea …. finally got onto the A4 east of Milano and the traffic gradually opened up. Got off the autostrada at West Brescia, and headed north along the shore of a massive lake. It seemed like the lake shore went on forever. On and on, rolling in and out of tunnels. Finally got to the end of this lake, in a narrow valley, and kept going north in the middle of nowhere. By the time we reach the club, stiff and sore after being on the road for eleven and a half hours, we are only an hour and a half south of Innsbruck.
There's a little stage set up in a tent by a pool and there is a pool party going on with 60's records being played. It's weird. All around are stunning vertical granite peaks disappearing into clouds above.
Salad, pizza, wine. We met our new tour manager, Franz. His native language is Italian, but his English is with an Austrian accent, sounds like Arnold Terminator. He's a young hipster, with an early Beatles haircut
Opening band had a girl drummer, the guy had a Mosrite, they played some psychedelic surf punk. We played. We rocked but my impression was that we were pretty much incidental to the pool party. After we played, they kept the disco going. Our hotel room windows faced the pool. The noise blasted up until about 3.30. At least the records they played were good.
First thing in the morning, we woke to noisy dirt bikes from a local club racing around in circles behind the hotel. We wearily assembled for coffee, and then got in the van.
JUNE 2 - BERGAMO - CHOCOLATE BERRIES AND THE UNGA BUNGA MAN
Franz was eager to show us around his home town. We got in the van and drove to Bergamo where we had a lakeside lunch. Franz is full of conversation, about anything and everything. He has 2 university degrees, is in his late 20's and has a business partnership called Otis Tours promoting, managing and touring bands.
Franz says: "Even zo I am very vell edukay-ted, I chust vont to tour and play rockanroll, zat all I vont to do, ha ha!".
He and his partner Diego own a beat up Opel van which they use to take bands around. There will be more about this van soon.
Franz is very much into ice cream.
He tells us: "In ice cream I am expert. I tell you. How you vill know if gelateria any good. You see pistachio ice cream, if ees green colour, ees no good. Zey add somefing! … If you vont, we get speziale ice cream invented in my own town Bair-gamo, ees 'straticella'. Because in old time, zey havink too much super giant chocolate after festival und zo … zey chust put in ze ice cream ha ha!!"
So we go to the gelateria. There is straticella which seems to be regular vanilla ice cream with pieces of chocolate in it. There are also ice creams with different kinds of berries and chocolate. From now on, we call Franz "Chocolate Berries". It just seems to fit.
The gig is at an outdoor venue. A group of young people have applied for a permit to use a public park attached to a cemetery, as a venue. All summer they run gigs there. They have set up a bar in a tent, and in a side area they cook BBQ. There is a DJ playing 60's hits. There's a stage with a PA and lights. The smoke rises above the park, and the odor of charcoal grilled pork fat pervades the air.
During the load in, I twisted the wrong way while pulling a heavy box out of the van, straining a muscle in my left upper back. It felt like a dull knife blade sliding in and out every time I took a deep breath or turned in a certain way.
During the show, about 4 songs into it, my left hand went numb. I was worried my neck was involved, but my surgery 2 years ago had been a complete success. I had bone grafts and fusion at C5/6 and C6/7, with a titanium plate inserted to hold everything in place while the bone grafts took. After an awful recovery period, made into sheer torture by the brace I had to wear, the pain went away, my paralysed left arm came back to life. I'd had no neurological symptoms since then. I was horrified to think that something was going wrong with that repair! I had to take a couple of minutes between songs to stretch and relax, and the numbness faded. I worked out later that it was probably carpal tunnel, not the dreaded return of spine problems. The distribution of the sensory deficit was more consistent with the territory of the median nerve, not any of the cervical spine nerve root dermatomes. A huge relief washed over my mind. Carpal tunnel I can deal with. More spine surgery … I shudder at the prospect.
Whenever we finish playing, first thing I do after thanking the crowd is I always grab my pedals off the front of the stage (I only have 2 or 3 … a Boss tuner and an XXL and RC boost device) and I stick them on top of my amp. ( I've lost 3 tuners in the past by having them snatched off the stage by someone in the crowd.. ) Then I go off to wherever I can, to dry off and change out of the soaking wet clothes. I usually even soak through my socks and boots. Best in a dressing room, but some of these small places don't even have a dressing room. Then, with dry clothes on, I'll go back out to the stage and start packing stuff up. At this low level of touring there is no road crew to help. You do it all yourself, from load in through soundcheck and the show, all the way through loadout, and into the van, trying to keep an eye on everything so stuff does not disappear.
When you are trying to pack up the stage, you are always beset by fans wanting stuff signed and wanting their picture taken with you. I always smile and comply. These interruptions can go on a half hour or more. And the many hands shaken, I'm sure that's where the ubiquitous "Tour Cold" comes from.
The guy with a shopping bag of 20 albums, singles and ep's comes up to the stage and hands them to me one by one to sign. Soon there is a pile of rare vinyl on the stage, that is probably worth a couple of thousand euros on e-bay. There's a guy like this, a deep obsessive collector, at every other show at least.
After packing up, Anne and I sat at a picnic table to the side of the stage. The guy in charge of the food was a short guy with curly black hair and a beard. He had a T-shirt that said "Death By Unga Bunga". He brought us bowls of pasta, grilled pork, sausages. He brought us beer. Then bread rolls. Then another plate of meat. Then vodka and soda waters. Amazingly, I was so hungry by this time at about 2 am that I ate everything.
I was looking over at the stage and noticed something weird. Earlier, for the show, I had to plug my Hiwatt amp head into a 2x15 Fender speaker cab instead of the usual 4x12 Marshall cab. It's difficult to get a good tone out of that Fender cab, so in an effort to improve the responsiveness and get some possibility of feedback or at least sustain with the guitar, the speaker cab was raised up on 2 short beer kegs. After the show, looking at it, I was struck by how much it looked like a little robot. It was cute. We took a picture of it.
JUNE 3 - CLUB STRADO / SAVIGNANO
We walked around the Old City. It was built in 1431 by King Luxembourg of Bohemia, on top of a village of quarreling families, which was based around a catholic church built on an early Roman Christian church built around 430, which was built on a pagan temple. And so forth, on down through time. The Bohemians only had it for about a decade, when the Venetians took over, so for centuries Bergamo belonged to Venice. Which is why there are sculptures of winged lions everywhere. The people around here don't consider themselves actual Italians, identifying more locally and with lands to the north.
Over at the club around 2pm, we ran into the Unga Bunga Man who was in the same T-shirt and pants as last night. I asked him, "Hey, man, did you sleep here"? "No I weent haome" Maybe he has a whole set of unga bunga shirts? Anyway we loaded the gear and the new tour manager came to take over from Chocolate Berries. He is Diego … tall, thin, dark, Roman looking chap. He speaks a zillion miles an hour into his mobile while driving.
The van is a beat up pale mustard yellowish affair, underneath layers of grime, roughly the color of baby poop. The front window hasn't been cleaned in years, and it is possible to see light through it but not any details of the outside world. The van has a little sign on the back that says "Otis Tours".
I complained about the seat belts.
"Hey Diego. You gotta get these belts fixed. Two belts in the back don't work."
Diego laughs. "Zees ees Ee-taly. Ees no problem."
"No, you need to have functional seatbelts."
"No, eet ees OK. Van pass inspection only uno mont' ago. No have to worry until one more jeer."
"Yes, but what about the people who have to ride in the back?"
"Bands zey always ride in back, and never zair ees any problem"
"That's because you haven't crashed the van, yet. "
"Reel rockanrolla band don't care about seatbelt."
For a minute I am thinking, he's probably right about that. Seatbelts would be fairly low on the priority list for the typical brainless rock band on the road at this low level of touring. Road safety would be somewhere well below drugs, alcohol, smoking, pissing in empty water bottles, and getting the level of the loudness of the van cd player up to an appropriately deafening level.
Diego offhandedly adds, picking up his phone, "Een my caountry when you play in band, we don't worry zees kind of sings."
By now I realize that in his mind, he's grabbed the high ground … a real rock and roll hip cat wouldn't worry about such mundane concerns as seat belts. He is not only ignoring the voice of reason, but is even questioning my rock and roll credentials! Me, Deniz Tek, Radio Birdman founder! Hall of Fame inductee! 7th greatest Australian guitarist of all time!! … and he's sticking to it!!
How can you argue against safety? I wonder. Argue against prevention of death and disability? I went into this discussion thinking it was axiomatic … a no-brainer. Axiomatic!! I am not yet giving up, but am now sort of off balance and I do not see the sure fire outcome I expected. And when you no longer envision victory, you've already lost.
I continue on.
"Well, you SHOULD worry. Especially, the way these lunatics drive around here, you definitely need belts." I think about maybe adding in a couple of personal horror stories from the trauma room to make my point …I look over …
He's not even listening! He's leaning into his iPhone, texting furiously, not watching the road ahead, which can only in the vaguest sense be seen through the filthy windscreen anyway.
I clutch for one last straw: "And, you know, your insurance won't pay medical claims if the passengers are not wearing seat belts."
It sounds lame even to me.
Diego without looking up: "We no worry about eensurance. Ees OK. Andiamo!"
The question remains, how on Gods earth did Italy become the fifth biggest industrial economy? This is a deep mystery.
We drive down the autostrada and Diego puts on a fabulous 36 track Roky Erickson compilation which has several slightly different versions of all the songs from "The Evil One" and is intercut with dialogue about how he spent his childhood going to horror movies.
Eventually we reach a little club in middle of nowhere. It's a little bar with a recording studio and record label offices above. It's called "Go Down Records". Across the road the farm fields stretch off to the south, with the silhouette of San Marino on the horizon. We load in the gear. Anne and I drink a beer. Art and Steve get pineapple juice. "Shoe Roberto" shows up at sound check. On the 2006 Radio Birdman tour, he came by the show at Bologna to show me his guitar, a red '65 Crestwood Deluxe. (Everywhere I go, I am identified with the Epiphone Crestwood, which has been both a blessing and a curse.) At that show, he insisted I play the guitar, which I did. I noticed he had some pretty cool desert boot type shoes. So I said "cool shoes!" That's all I said. It was just a comment, to make nice conversation. The next day as we were leaving the hotel, there was a box waiting for me at the front desk. In the box was a pair of the same shoes that he had dropped off as a present!
So here he is again, and he attends soundcheck and leaves his guitar, in case I want to play it again.
The support band is called: Los Kamikazes. Art gets a green Los Kamikazes T-shirt. We eat. We drink the local wine, which is presented without labels. The wine is very good, something like comparable to a 1re cru Bordeaux. There is a full moon rising above the Adriatic.
After the show, Anne says to Steve: "You guys played great. You sounded so tough. Can you get any tougher?" Steve says: "Yeah, tomorrow night."
Later she asks Art the same question. No way Art could have heard what Steve had answered but without hesitating, he says "Yeah, tomorrow night".
JUNE 4 - BUCINE
We took a short detour to check out San Marino. We hiked around the old citadel, took a bunch of cool photos. (one of these would find its way on to the back cover of "Detroit" a year later).
In a light rain, we then ascended into the mountains of Tuscany. The van traversed a succession of progressively smaller highways, then roads, then dirt roads, then muddy jeep trails, finally arriving at.. Spectre Castle. It is a small chateau, or a large villa.. with servants quarters made into accommodation for bands. The main building has a bar and a small club. It's a family property, the guy who started the club said his mother owns it. She apparently stays upstairs and tolerates the noise and crowds. I can't imagine it being a viable business, so it must be a rich kids vanity project. It has an octopus logo and a "secret agent" theme. The main room has a stage on one side. Opposite the stage is the bar. The actual distance from the front of the stage to the bar is 3 meters. I measured it. It is literally smaller than most rehearsal rooms. The walls were hard surfaces. They echo against one another, like a hall of mirrors does to light. The sound pressure in there is enormous. The drums alone, unmixed, were deafening.
Ten minutes before going on, I get an overseas phone call with some distressing family news.
After we started playing about half the people walked out. I don't blame them …. I would never go to see a band in there. They were hipsters wearing 60's style clothing, at least the girls were. The guys: pretty nondescript, the usual jeans and t-shirts mainly. I wondered why we were playing there. Why? For what purpose? Yes they paid us, we got nice rooms to stay in, a reasonably good dinner, free drinks. The next day we hung out, swam in the pool, drank espresso. The place was like a resort, built centuries ago.
There was a big white sheep dog and a small brown beagle. The owner said, "Whatever you do, you must ALWAYS close ze gates … " Of course the next day, while chatting, Don Diego opens a gate. There is a shout from owner. Too late. The dogs rocketed out of that gate, blew past me working at an outdoor table with my Mac Book. I looked up in time to see the dogs disappearing into the tree line like greased lightning. Freedom!!
Back in the van, I complain about the lack of air conditioning. The day was hot and sunny, we were driving south in the late afternoon, and my right side was in direct sun and getting roasted.
Diego says: "We don' feex because we never use van in summer. Bands, they don' tour so much in summer. Today ees June, only seem 'ot because global warming."
I say: "But you are taking Nikki Corvette around Germany in July."
He says: "Germany can be cold in July"
I make a mental note to send Nikki an e-mail warning her about this...
JUNE 5 - LATINA
The van headed south, swinging around to the east of Rome and then cutting in towards the coast. We ascended through hill villages where people looked more like figures on etruscan frescoes than the more germanic tribes up north. We arrived at the coastal town of Latina and drove up to the club. We were met at the curb by the local promoter, the support band, and a couple of autograph hounds. We walked in, drank coffee. The coffee variety we want, is macciato. We like cappucino first thing in the morning, because the bright sun of midday is harsh, the nerve endings can be sensitive due to the effects of alcohol fermentation products, and straight espresso at full octane would be too much. It would fry sensitive neural circuits, and be too much of a shock to the central nervous system. Later in the day, say around 8pm, macciato is better as it has a teeny bit of milk in it. Then, right before going on stage, we progress to regular doppio espresso, slammed down, in my case, with a grappa chaser.
After we soundcheck, they serve us the meal at a table right by the stage. It's another nondescript pasta with cheap red wine. Mondo Topless, the support band, does their soundcheck, which is conducted at decibel levels that would make a full artillery barrage sound quiet. We try to eat while this is going on but the volume of noise threatens to shake the fillings loose from our teeth.
The singer comes up to me. He's apparently a fan.
He says:"Weel you play Stooges song thees nite?"
I say: "Sorry … what?" while digging the embedded earplug out of my left ear.
He says: "Weel you play-a ze Stooges? TV Eye?"
I say: "No, we play Dirt, but not TV Eye".
He says: "Ah ha ha, aye sink you very tired from too mainie time zees song."
I think about responding to that, then decide against it. I just smile.
He says: "An thain, weel you play Bairdmon song?"
I say: "Well, yes. We do a number of them."
He says: "Weel you play Do Ze Pop?"
I say: "No, not that one."
He says: "We like to play TV Eye and Do Ze Pop tonite but we waile not if you want play zem."
I say: "No that's OK. Go for it."
We drive to the hotel on the beach. It's actually someone's private residence, that is vacant for the weekend. The promo guy driving the car had some experimental noise on the car stereo. I told him, "Hey, you might like this" and passed up my Chonto Tamura Sonic Insurgency CD. It is furious free jazz. He likes Chonto. "Heet soun like-a John Zorn".
I shower, dress, go back to the gig. We play. I am changing the set slightly every night, so it stays interesting. Regardless of the crowd, it's always a challenge to play as hard as we can while maintaining accuracy. There are defined points in the set also where it is a free-for all with improvisation. In Christmas Eve, I have begun to take out my leatherman tool and use it as a slide. It sounds great and people are amazed. They love novel stuff. When we goof up or crash and burn with a massive mistake, we laugh about it and the crowds love that too …. more than if you played it "correctly".
The accom has some goodies waiting … potato chips, chocolate bars, salami, beer, stuff like that. We tuck in to it after the show.