Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thin White Rope and Scandinavian Short Stories

(Originally posted on MySpace on Sunday, March 18, 2007)

It's been a hard, political week and the temptation to write another ranting diatribe is very strong. It's only going to get worse in the next year and a half as the Presidential race heats up. But I'm going to resist the temptation and write some more Thin White Rope road stories instead, which should make everyone a little more comfortable.

Earlier this week, I went to the Knitting Factory here in Los Angeles to see a group of Finnish bands that were touring the country together in the hopes they can attract some sort of major attention. One of the bands playing is called 22 Pisterpirkko (22 Blackbirds). 22 Pisterpirkko have been around in Finland for several decades now. I saw them open for Thin White Rope during our first trip to Helsinki. It was during the summer and I remember being amazed because as we were playing the show, the sun was still shining through the skylight in the building even though it was the middle of the night. (The second time we were there was in winter and that time the sun just barely touched the horizon for an hour before disappearing and leaving everything in darkness for the next 23 hours.) I really liked 22 Pisterpirkko, who reminded me at the time of a sort of XTC influenced quirky pop band. Seeing them this week, they sure have changed, paring down their sound to more of a blues-pop sound of the type that LA's own Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are also doing now. Very nice. I enjoyed their short set quite a bit and it was great to see them again after all this time.

But seeing them again got me thinking of the several tours that Thin White Rope did of Scandinavia. The whole area was a somewhat strange and very beautiful region. The first time we went up there, it was winter and I remember thinking it was really the land of the Christmas tree. There were snow-covered pines as far as you could see and I expected Santa Claus to come flying down out of the sky any moment. It was also the beginning of my obsessions with moose. A local in Sweden told me that moose were all over the place and I was chomping-at-the-bit to actually see one walking around the forest. I never did though, although I couldn't stop talking about it. The band joked once that I would finally see a moose while driving down one of Sweden's highways late at night. A moose would walk out into the road and the last thing I would see is a giant moose head coming at me through the windshield. For some reason I always had this image of Bullwinkle saying, "Button up my sleeve" as I ran him down. It sounds funny, but was really quite disturbing. I still have nightmares about it. I'm not quite as obsessed about moose as my friend Andy is. He's actually eaten one, a fact that I'm extremely jealous of. But I do have a moose spotlight on one wall of my living room and, thanks to our friend Nate, a blow-up moose head on another wall.

Speaking of eating things, Norway was the first place I ever ate reindeer. It was in burger form and was very delicious. And I loved those plates of potatoes and meat we ate there. But those tiny open faces sandwiches they eat there are ridiculous and expensive. The Scandinavian countries were one of the only places where I would break down and eat McDonalds instead of local food stuffs as many times it was all we could afford on tour.

Another food story took place in Denmark. We live in California, which is one of the best places in America to get Mexican food. Just about any place in the southwestern USA has great Mexican food from California to Texas and up to Colorado. For some reason there's also great Mexican food to be had in Chicago as well. I've never really figured that one out. And the one type of food that we would really miss while on tour was that same Mexican food. When we returned home from tour, a Mexican restaurant was almost always the first place we headed as soon as we were off the plane. But Mexican food in Europe was a cuisine to avoid at all costs. At the time, Europeans just didn't understand what makes that particular food a great thing. Maybe it was the lack of the right chilies or other herbs, but they just couldn't get it right and I remember horrible Mexican meals in Berlin and London before we quickly decided that while on tour in Europe, Mexican food was to be avoided at all costs. So when we arrived for our first ever show in Odense, Denmark, we were very disappointed when the local promoter announced to us that he was taking us to the local Mexican food joint for dinner that evening. We protested, but he insisted and we found ourselves in a small restaurant in town ready to eat god-knows-what. But we ended up being very happy that the promoter had insisted and we had a really great meal. It turned out that the chef had actually traveled to Colorado and New Mexico to get training and he was importing the correct ingredients to create Mexican dishes as they should be created. Who would have thought that we would find food like this in Odense of all places? We were all very happy campers for several days after that.

(I should point out that I've heard that Europeans have finally gotten a grasp on Mexican cuisine and supposedly there are many fine places to eat that particular food now all throughout Europe. I know that when Skip and I visited Paris in 2000, we had a Tex-Mex meal and while I wouldn't call it great, it was acceptable and eatable. And I saw several Mexican places, including a fast food stand, in Zurich while there last year. I even saw one in South Africa and regret that I didn't at least try it out.)

But let's get off of food and back to winter in Scandinavia. One winter tour, we had several days off in the middle of Sweden and our Scandinavian promoter put us up at his house to save some money, although he wasn't there at the time. His house was in Hultsfred, a small town in southeast Sweden where they also throw one of Europe's biggest rock festivals every summer. It's a beautiful area, but we were justifiably bored being that it was the middle of winter and there was really nothing to do. (And I was getting tired of trying to find those moose that everyone told me were all around.) At times like that, we always turned to alcohol to while away the boredom and this time was no exception. The house we were staying at was right on the shore of a lake and after several hours of drinking, we decided to go have a look. It was very late at night and everything was covered with snow and a fine mist was covering the ground. None of us had ever walked out on a frozen lake before, so we carefully started making our way out on the ice. There were about seven of us and we kept going quite a ways out over the ice until we finally heard it start to crack. At that point we ran back to the shore. We did this several times, trying to go out a bit further every time. But finally we grew bored of that and we ended up back at the house drinking and falling asleep.

The next morning, several locals met us and we told them about the night we had enjoyed. They were horrified. I guess the lake in question is known as very unsafe and they were fast in telling us how we had put our lives at risk with the shenanigans we were up to that night. It may have been true, but I still find it hard to believe that it was THAT dangerous. And for those of you out there that love the TWR album, "Sack Full Of Silver", you'll be glad to know that the song, "On The Floe" came from that experience.

We played in Norway several times. The first time we played Oslo was what I remember as one of the most fun shows the band ever played. The opening band was a band from Gothenburg, Sweden called Union Carbide Productions. I was very glad to be playing with this band as Lydia Lunch had told me that they were a current favorite of hers. They were a heavy, noisy rock band in the style of the Stooges and were supposedly a great live band. We arrived at the club to find out that while we had a giant dressing room, the Union Carbide guys were not given any kind of accommodations. They also weren't given any food or drink. We always had plenty, so we invited them into our dressing room. They were great guys and a lot of fun to be around. The singer was dressed in a nice suit and tie and kept asking if he looked okay. We assured him that he looked great and finally it came time for them to hit the stage. The place was packed with extremely drunk Norwegians and Union Carbide started off with a blast of noise. Before the first song was done, the singer had ripped off his clothes and was performing naked. It was an amazing set, but the Norwegian audience reacted with a big yawn. After seeing Union Carbide get that reaction to their incredible set, I was a bit worried what would happen when Thin White Rope hit the stage. But I didn't need to worry; for as soon as the band began to play the audience went wild. But by the end of the set most of the audience was passed out. It was like a carpet of living, drunken humans covering the floor of the club. I've never seen people who could drink like that.

After the show, we found the Union Carbide guys wandering around. They were having a major problem. It turns out that their road manager had met someone and taken off with that person in the band's van. They didn't know how to reach him and the club wanted them to get their equipment out. At this point, we didn't know what to tell them, as we had to leave immediately for a show in Sweden the next day. But they told us not to worry as this sort of thing always happened to them and they always figured it out. I loved those guys. (Just for your information, Union Carbide Productions split up and reformed as The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, a band that I currently think is one of the best bands playing these days.)

Another tour of Norway took us across the country to Bergen. We played Oslo and immediately started the long drive across the country from east to west. On a map, it doesn't look that far, but the drive takes you up mountains and down mountains, down fjords and across fjords and back up fjords. And there are roads that only one car can fit on and you find yourself constantly backing up to let other cars by. It took forever to make that drive and we arrived in Bergen very late, although we still had time to eat and play the show. The promoter asked me why we just didn't take the train? Gee, thanks for letting me know in advance and I gave our Scandinavian promoter an earful for that transgression.

But still, I'm actually glad we made that drive. It was one of the most beautiful I've ever been on and there were places on the top of mountains that looked like we were on Mars, the landscape was so alien and strangely colored. And driving down fjords and taking ferryboats across them was an amazing thing. But I'll never forget the American tour bus we came across about halfway there. We stopped for some snacks and drinks and the bus pulls up. We were wearing our usual array of vulgar rock n' roll hats and shirts and the old people on the bus did what most Americans tend to do and figured we didn't understand English. They were loudly talking about how horrible the Norwegian youth is and one old fart described us as "a bunch of dummies". When we finally told them we were Americans ourselves and we understood every horribly stupid thing they had said, they literally ran to their bus and took off in a flash. I've always found the arrogance of Americans to be amusing even while it is frustrating and sad.

(One of my biggest disappointments when the band broke up is that we were supposed to do a major tour of Norway the next summer that would have taken us above the Arctic Circle. That would have been a great experience.)

But I have to admit that even we weren't immune to acting like stupid Americans when we wanted to. There are dozens of stories I could tell and the following is just one of them.

On our first trip to Finland, we found that we had to take a huge Ferryboat across the Baltic Sea. We would leave from Stockholm in the late afternoon and arrive in Helsinki in early morning. We just drove our van on, locked it up and headed to our reserved rooms. The ship was the largest passenger ferry in the world and it was basically a small city floating over the ocean. There were restaurants, shops and even nightclubs on board. As usual, I opted to hit the sack after dinner as I knew we would be arriving very early the next day and I would have to get us through customs and find the local promoter. But as usual, the band opted to stay up, drink and go crazy. This time, Guy decided to visit a dance club, where he proceeded to take off his clothes and try to get older women to dance with him. I heard all about it the next day, but I guess Guy was very disappointed. Whenever he had done stuff like this elsewhere, it always caused quite a scene. But this was Scandinavia and the sight of a naked American trying to dance was just boring to the people on this ship. After a few minutes of being ignored, he just gave up and went to bed himself.

The last Scandinavian stories I have take place back in Denmark. The first time we played there was in Copenhagen at a free show in the park at Frederiksberg. We were surprised when 20,000 people showed up to enjoy the show. We had never played in front of that many people at one time and certainly not for that many who showed up just to see us. It was a wonderful and fun show. But the promoters of the show own a farm about an hour south of Copenhagen and that's where we ended up spending the night. It was a beautiful place and I loved staying out there. The owners had built a recording studio and many local bands spent time out there recording their next records. When TWR played the Roskilde festival during their final tour, I got in touch with the promoter and even though he had nothing to do with that show, he allowed Skip and I to spend several nights out there. We arrived a few days before the festival to find that the owners had slaughtered a sheep and cooked it in a pit in the ground with some potatoes from the farm. They served us that with some retsina (Greek pine wine) and it was one of my favorite meals of all time, sitting out in the Danish countryside watching the sun go down and eating the freshest and tastiest lamb I've ever had.

We played in Copenhagen several more times and it was always an enjoyable place. The next couple of times were in a club in an area of town called Christiana. It was a rather scary neighborhood. It was a "free" area that had been taken over by young hippies and junkies. The city government rarely interfered with them. The club was a good one though and had a restaurant above it that was considered one of the best restaurants in town. I loved eating there, as the food was always excellent and unusual, usually tending towards game. It was the first place I ever had wild boar and they served a weird and tasty fish with bright green bones.

But it was the second time we played there that I remember the most. We had a new sound guy with us, Michael, and his girlfriend Jennifer. She was selling merchandise for us on this tour. To say that these two were somewhat pigheaded is an understatement. I had warned them over and over about leaving valuable stuff in the van while we played shows and they just wouldn't listen to me. I especially stressed it during this show since it was such a dodgy area of town. They promised me that they would leave all their stuff at the hotel. So we play the show and had a great time and I went down to get the van so we could load up the equipment and I find that someone has smashed the driver's side window. At first I thought it was an act of vandalism since there was nothing in the van to steal. But after I went upstairs to tell the band about it and call the police, Michael and Jennifer went into a panic. It seems that they had left their cameras, money and passports in the van under a blanket. I was furious. They lost quite a lot, but I lost a whole day as I had to spend our next day, which was supposed to be a fun day off in Copenhagen, fixing a broken window and arranging for passports at the American consulate so those two could get out of the country the day after where we were heading for Germany. Fun stuff. But I can say that they never left anything in the van again, and probably don't leave anything in their cars to this day.

There were other stories from Scandinavia, like playing the small college town of Bo in Norway several times where we met some interesting characters, or the punk club in Sandviken, Sweden. But I'll save those for another time. And next time I talk about TWR, I'll probably tell the exciting tale of terror in Germany about the haunted castle on the Rhine or perhaps the haunted Italian hotel in Bassano Del Grappa. Or maybe I should save those tales until October.

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