High and low times in the Midwest

Pittsburgh

Oh, bleak and odd pockets of the Amerika! You notice you’re entering the Midwest like a slap on the face, a gentle slap though. Ok, a friendly tap on the back. As I experienced before, as soon as you exit the East Coast and start pushing inland, everything gets a little weirder. The good side of weird, mostly. A fun sign of change is always the shift in tone and length of the Greyhound driver’s introduction talk after we leave the station. On the East Coast, drivers are short and straight-to-the-point, but there, the speeches there tend to be longer, beefier and rougher, sometimes involving humor of some sort, as for example: “Keep your conversations on the phone short and at a low volume, no one cares about what you gonna do and who you’re gonna do it to wherever it is that you’re headin’ “. These legendary speeches (often coming through long-time broken speakers in a concerto of feedbacks and mutters) sound as dated as if they were recorded in the 80’s sometimes, as for example a very often stated: “If you happen to use some of those electronic devices, CD players or K7 players, please keep the volume low in order not to bother the other passengers…” What? K7, CD player? Who uses that in 2011? I love you Greyhound drivers, old-fashioned, rough-around-the-edges beasts in uniforms, i love leaving the driving to your reliable hands and eyes… It makes me remember that as you go South, it gets even weirder, weirdness is geographically exponential! I remember this Texas driver last year actually telling jokes all throughout the ride, even when passengers kept calling him out on his outrageous unfunniness.




But I digress. Pittsburgh it is. Strips of snow scattered across the magnificent land, bare naked trees letting the pale winter sun through their scraggy arms, hitting us with low light and weak heat through the bus window. Because we exited on the wrong side of the bus track (yes, never seen before: there was a special one-way lane built only for public buses, on top of now-defunct train tracks), we got lost in a ghost neighborhood, very Detroit-like: huge houses as decaying remains of a glorious industrial era, now broken-windowed, boarded-up and with a ridiculously lush backyard. We went into a burger joint to ask for directions after having been misdirected a couple times and the rude and obnoxious burger-maker got upset about the fact that we couldn’t give him a cross street to work with, giving us rough and useless talk as quoted: “C’mon guys, you’re from fucking France! Well I know where fucking Paris is, it’s by the fucking Eiffel tower or something! See, I know my fucking geography. Now give me a fucking cross street for Christ’s sakes, how do you reckon I can you help you lost dughs out without one fucking cross street? How the hell do you travel like that? Help me help you dudes!”. We thanked him kindly and left before he would yell louder and attempt to put us through his meat grinder for some free French-imported burger patties. The tricky part was to leave without seeming to rush, going for the door in a gentle, very gentle move so that it didn’t look like we were totally just fleeing that loonie’s den.

A creamy soup was waiting for us on a stove after our hour walk through these depressing neighborhoods and we could head to the Rock Room with a restored soul after having recovered from those erratic walks. Located in Polish Hill, a interesting mix of bad-ass punks and resting grannies, this venue was on the good side of weird. Thank god, the show room was separated from the bar room, where giant HD TV screens were showing with cranked-up volume some awful “America’s most violent home videos” type of show consisting of footage of people beating each other up, breaking things or hurting themselves. The line-up regulars were cheering in joyous “oohs” and “aahs”, often in sync, when someone’s car would get smashed by a baseball bat or when someone’s nose would be punched inside his head, or some romantic scene like that. We tried to convince the tight circle of bleached blonde women playing the casino machine in the corner to come listen to live music from abroad, but gambling on a screen still sounded more fun. Famous for its 15 cents perogies on thursdays and lively characters, this was a quirky and oddly charming spot, mixing neighborhood bullies, self-conscious hipsters, notorious drunks and plain old hippies for the same purpose of partying, except with different ideas about what it exactly means.

Also, our hosts had this pretty-awesome bumper sticker: “In 1492, the Native Americans discovered Christopher Columbus lost at sea”. Garett showed us the Harry-Potter like Tower Of Learning or something alike, owned by some university that takes indoor decoration very seriously (I guess you have to justify the insane student fees), and one bagel later, we were out of the Burgh.

Columbusted! Columbus stop

Between deep and agitated naps on the trembling bus window, I managed to catch glimpses of Ohio: flat as a pancake, just like we were warned it would unravel. Under the chalky grey skies of this wearisome winter, I have to admit that this zone didn’t look too inviting, and after getting my soda pop at the gas station for the usual 10-minute stop, I would rush back to the bus illico presto to ensure I was not to be left out in these repellent areas. Quite crazy how everything blends when you move every single day. Where were we yesterday again ? Who did I say that too ? Did I dream this dream in a bus or on an inflatable mattress ? I’m constantly striving to find ways not to repeat myself when I talk about my music project, my tour, my girl, my dog, Montreal, France…A good exercice for a writer, I guess. When the bus dropped us off, we faced another one of those downtown vortex that sucks out all life of the streets after 5pm, and got involved in another public transportation frenzy to find our ways to our host, but we were the welcomed with amazing warmth, in the form of strong hugs, homemade grilled-cheese sandwiches and board-games fun.

The local folky songwriters Brian, Fred and I found ourselves in a rather rare situation that night: waiting for the booker/owner to open up the venue! Usually closed on a Sunday, I guess it messed up their schedule a bit, so we chitchatted in the biting cold until 9.15pm for the doors to be unlocked, but Yalan and Jarod’s warmth, kindness and music-friendliness made up for this little inconvenient episode. It was fun and weird to have both performers and the (few) friends who came to the show waiting outside for the venue to open so that the show could happen! On top of the wonderful staff, what also balanced out the initial disappointment was the absolute splendor of the tastefully-deorated place, most definitely the most beautiful music venue visited on the tour, with incredible asian-style drapes and exotic objects, hyper-comfy couches, a vintage juke-box, fantastic gear and room sound. Too bad the crowd never flowed in, they would have loved it too. Columbus may be rough to start with but on a sunday night, it was really begging for emptiness and failure. It might be the biggest college town in the Us, but on finals week, the timing was a little off and there was dangerously close to no attendance that evening. There was probably something better on TV or at a sports bar or strip club that night too, working against a successful night.

Fred opened up with a mellow set of songs interspersed with tasteful guitar work, coated with a mastered electric sound and strumming technique. I liked when, out of nowhere, he said with a hard-to-read smile, “I’m so old…”. Brian, of the old protest-song school and a supporter of the local Occupy movement, strums weekly his guitar out in the cold there to warm the occupiers with his topical songs “Come on and join us, we’re the 99 percent!” and consorts. You can’t help but respect his solid dedication to causes, and it’s engrossing to still encounter songwriters who trust in music for carrying a meaningful message to rising generations. Alas, I felt bad he had to yell “We need PEACE, NOW!” in front of…pretty much myself (Mika was on his computer, so it doesn’t count) as the attendance grew dimmer when the night progressed.

A bunch of dollar-store chips were swallowed, words of gratefulness exchanged, a Jimmy John’s sandwich was ordered (my favorite chain of the area!) Fun fact: a friend of our host spotted her through the window when we were in the store at 2am, came in and gave us the longest and tightest hug a stranger ever offered to us, followed by “What’s up bro” and other classic lines. Americans, yo.

Cincinnati

This was a peak of our trip, two days in a very inspiring city, full of surprises and great people. The locals joke about the fact that their city is not that great by having stickers that say “Cincinnati is just OK” instead of the usual “I love Cincinnati“, but if this is OK, then we love it! Luck striked again: we arrived just in time for the weekly Couchsurfing community potluck in someone’s lavish apartment, implying fantastic people, Twister entanglement and delicious home-made dishes galore. Walking through Cincy on our first and only day of the tour without a Greyhound trip (long sigh of relief) was great, visiting high-quality contemporary Weston art gallery downtown (where I read highly inspiring local zines) and spending lots of time in up-and-coming hood called Over-The-Rhine, swarming with gem-like independently owned shops, like the incredible YES art gallery specialized in silk-screen printed books and art. This neighborhood was the craziest contrast ever between very scary people, street corners, totally abandoned old brick buildings and very recent fancy restaurants, beautiful second-hand book and clothing stores, art galleries…It was interesting to witness a neighborhood in the thick of massive transitioning, with the obvious and extreme cohabitation of the old ghetto and the first artification/gentrification installments.

The two shows were fun, first a show in a cool and crowded coffeehouse in the student part of the town, Clifton, with on top of the usual laptop tribe 20-something people from Couchsurfing that our host had kindly rounded up for the occasion of me passing through, then a weirder but awesome late-show in a yoga/meditation center. I got to hear there the impressive sound and technique of Gigawatson, emulating his idol Dub FX with energetic vocals and thoughtful lyrics processed through effect and looping pedals, delivering an entertaining mixture of hip-hop, reggae and electronic music. My guitar work feels like it’s getting tighter from playing a lot but my vocal delivery feels sloppier as I feel like I’m straining to get across noisy audiences in big rooms like the noisy coffeehouse that night (It was a very long and packed room and it was hard not be distracted by the constant back-and-forth of people coming in, the excruciating coffee machine sounds, the waitress flying inches away from my guitar every minute to deliver orders in the kitchen…). How also hard it is to connect with your songs deeply and consistenly when you play every single night! I’ll think twice before blaming Neil Young next time he doesn’t look 100% into it on stage…

Us high-plains drifters had come upon an ideal shelter, and had some time to cough up the dust settled in our lungs from our uneven recent days (Yes, Wilmington, it’s you I’m alluding to), but it was time to get in line for another Greyhound bus, and hear another obese driver yell out “Step ahead please, get your tickets ready, OUT OF THE ENVELOPE!”

Indianapolis

Repeated trouble finding healthy food and reliable wi-fi. We watched with perplexity the bored waitresses from Johnny Rockets dance the hippy hippy shake in a mall, moving like poorly-oiled robots: if a customer chooses this specific song on the restaurant jukebox, they have to get out from behind the counter and do this choreography… About six people (a hard-to-break record) asked us during our stay in Indianapolis: “But why did you come to Indianapolis ?”. After a while, I started to ask myself the same question. Even locals agree that Indy is somewhat of a cultural black hole at the crossroads of the US (See? I’m not just a French snob). We still spotted some nice architecture and friendly people, always with a faint “Let’s get the f*** out of here as soon as we can” undertone though. Very conservative and religious, it is the city with the most war memorials in the country, even more than Washington D.C.!

The highlight of the stay was definitely accompanying our host’s protest group “Jobs with Justice” to a pacific protest in front of the Republican Speaker of the house of the Indiana State Bosma’s house door, recently locally famous for trying to push a law making unions weaker in the state (summarizing here for course, find more online). Believe it or not, about 20 people drove half an hour in the “suburbs for the wealthy” and parked in front of this big-shot politician’s massive house with the intention of singing Christmas carols (with adapted lyrics of course) at the doorstep until the cops chase us away. We rang the doorbell, and his wife and 20-something daughter opened. They got really excited, thinking we were actual Christmas carolers, but then their smiles turned backwards as they heard the changed-up lyrics: “On the first day of Christmas, Brian Bosma gave to me, twelve billionaires toasting, eleven bankers counting, ten lobbyists shmoozing, nine bosses milking, eight managers firing, seven bucks an hour, six days a-working, life in poverty! foreclosed homes, three part-time jobs, two percent raise and right to work bill under the tree!“. I also liked the “No-Haired Preacher” one : “Bosma says right-to-work sets us free / lower wages mean more jobs you see! / you can choose any job that you please / Wendy’s, Taco Bell or Mickey D’s!” The girl actually looked at her mom and said: “Hey wait, that’s not how the song goes..”. Once they understood they were a facing a bunch of crazy liberals singing off-tune in the rain to piss off the man of the house, they waved shyly and shut the door, leaving us under an increasing shower that soon shortened our protest-performance (not because of lack of dedication of course, they lyrics sheets were just getting soggy, therefore unreadable). The two women were probably itchy to fly the finger but they were on camera, so they had to smile, rule of thumb! Oh, and we had candles too to look even more the part, but the wind blew our efforts.

Chicago

The grand-ma sitting next to me (window seat, jealous!) drew owls frenetically for an hour on a little heart-shaped notebook. It looked like it was her way of releasing the stress of being cramped in a smelly space full of improbable people, from Amish family whispering a slanted German to recently out-of-jailed dudes (easy to spot: always wearing white and carrying a single plastic bag filled with all their belongings). A sharp and strong wind cutting the cheeks like razorblades greeted us welcome, windy city indeed. The bean in Millenium Park, the Macy’s window displays, the fantastic Shedd world-class aquarium and our sneaking in the 40$ jellyfish special exhibition. After another exhausting Greyhound trip, it was utterly relaxing to be around this quiet animal world, like being cooped up inside a Planet Earth episode, even if I should say they could cut down a little on the fake Amazonian jungle sounds (rainfalls, monkeys, got it, it’s the jungle!) constantly blasting through speakers. Otters are my new faves.

I decided to cancel my last show in Michigan because of transportation technicalities and exhaustion issues, so we’ll have more time in Chicago to check out more exhibitions and try out Jimmy John’s sandwiches. I’m sitting on a bathroom seat underground the Reggie’s Rock Club where I just played and where we’re staying in the “green room”, it’s 4 am and my mind is sore. Mika is snoring unshamefully on a leather couch, it’s been quite the work for him documenting all this craziness, we can’t wait to share the precious footage. (You shall seen events that weren’t even mentioned in this blog, wow! Exclusive content on the way)

This jolly journey is then drawing to an end, voices and melodies are ringing in our ears, faces are meshing in our wired heads, miles are printed painfully on our damaged feet. It feels like we now deserve some serious holidays. And at last, not to feel a highway thundering under us every day. Of course, we’ll miss it all as soon as we’re home for a while, stuck in a luxurious and boring bubble of comfort, but isn’t that the whole push-and-pull charm of it?!

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One thought on “High and low times in the Midwest

  1. Laurie says:

    Well thanks for the write up I guess…. At least you didn’t put me down.

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