The Maestro is clearly moved by what he has just heard. I’d put us around Bobcat Flats between Fallon and Ely on US 50 in Nevada, which likes to call itself the ‘loneliest road in America’. An article in Life magazine from 1986 quotes someone from the AAA saying of this 287-mile stretch: ‘There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.’ It doesn’t seem to me all that lonely, least not these days, but it’s quiet enough. ‘I think I need to hold off a bit before we listen to the C major,’ the Maestro says, at the end of Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin, recorded by Nathan Milstein in the mid-1950s. ‘And that’s with one “l”,’ he growls. The Maestro likes to growl. He has a generally kind nature which can turn choleric at any moment for no apparent reason.
We’re crossing a large swatch of land called the Great Basin. There are mountain ranges to either side, yellow sage along the roadsides, alkali wastes, military bombing ranges, ranch land, state parks. ‘Just when you thought he was bringing it to a close he manages to keep on going,’ the Maestro mutters to himself, shaking his head in wonderment. I ask him the next day what it was that affected him so deeply. ‘I wouldn’t have the words to say,’ the Maestro offers, reluctantly. ‘Maybe something about Bach and the landscape.’
The Maestro plays the fiddle. I don’t know how diligently he keeps up with it these days, but there’s one on the crowded backseat of his ’91 Camry along with a portable plug-in keyboard. He keeps his hand in by studying piano with Mr Natural, or the individual on whom Robert Crumb’s comic-strip character Mr Natural is based. Mr Natural teaches out of a storefront in the Haight in San Francisco, where the Maestro and I are long-time neighbours.
The Maestro regularly drives between San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin, where he recently began keeping an apartment. He was raised in Madison. In fact, we were at college together at the University of Wisconsin 40-some years ago but, despite having friends in common, never met. I am the de facto replacement for the Maestro’s usual companion on these trips, his Rottweiler-and-something Tara, who, like the Maestro, was sweet-natured but unpredictable. ‘I wouldn’t be trying to pet that animal,’ the Maestro would mutter darkly to dog-enthusiasts who thought to approach Tara unbidden. Tara is gone now. That set the Maestro back for a good long while. I don’t know that he’s still not over it.
Fifty Septembers ago, John Steinbeck set out across America with his old standard poodle Charley as company. It was election season, as it was this September: Nixon-Kennedy. Steinbeck was 58, younger than the Maestro and myself, and near the end of his life. One can feel it in his writing. He was a smoker and drinker and on his third marriage. He had had a couple of minor strokes. In two years he’d be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and six years after that he’d be dead. It’s long been fashionable for literary taste-makers to look down their noses at Steinbeck, and if you look for him in Louis Kronenberger’s otherwise exemplary Atlantic Brief Lives: A Biographical Companion to the Arts, you’ll be out of luck. Hard on the heels of Gertrude Stein comes Stendhal.
I only read Travels with Charley very recently, I suppose because I knew I would be making what would likely be my own last big road trip. I’m in the pink, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not big on road trips and hadn’t really made one in 35 years. This was an opportunity to see the rocks of Utah and Nevada that I’d been admiring from 30,000 feet for more than half my life, and I had a two-week gig in St Louis in late September I needed to make. I knew that, what with the Maestro and his new iPod, which he somehow beams off the car radio, we’d have a crackerjack listening experience along the way.
Bill Barich writes in his new book, Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America, that ‘at the core of Travels is a bleak vision of America’s decline that he chose to mitigate by telling jokes and anecdotes.’Barich, who thinks less of the book than I do, writes that Steinbeck told his editor Pascal Covici that the US was suffering from ‘a sickness, a kind of wasting disease’. ‘Americans, overly invested in material toys and saddled with debt, were bored, anguished, discontented, and no longer capable of the heroism which rescued them from the terrifying poverty of the Great Depression.’ ‘And underneath it all,’ Steinbeck continued, ‘building energies like gases in a corpse. When that explodes, I tremble to think what will be the result.’
The Maestro was watching the speedometer and my hand on the stick, with its cruise control button, like a hawk. We were driving south on US 93, the Mormon Trail, to Cathedral Gorge State Park, where we made a right turn onto 319, heading into Utah at the town of Panaca. In The Nevada Desert, Sessions S. Wheeler writes of the ‘great, jagged mountains of banded limestone rising high above desert valleys … To some it is austere and frightening; to others it has a lonely grandeur which is friendly and comforting.’ I was sort of digging the lonely grandeur when the Maestro called up some Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews on the iPod, New Orleans brass funk. I hesitated before remonstrating because the Maestro is, after all, the Maestro, and of unpredictable humour. ‘Do you suppose we might find something else to listen to?’
The Maestro turned up the volume. ‘No.’
I regard myself as neither an especially able driver nor an inept one. (Few males will admit to the latter.) ‘Functional,’ is how I would describe my driving. I have been told I drive ‘like an old lady’. An older woman told me this. I admit to an appalling sense of direction. (No other male will admit to this.) And I am given to reverie, as no doubt others in my line of work occasionally are. But although 93 is a straight road the Maestro is in conductor mode, glowering with concern in my direction like Toscanini staring down a dodgy woodwind section.
Olivier Messaien was commissioned by Alice Tully to write a piece inspired by the canyons of Cedar Breaks, Zion and Bryce in southwestern Utah. The composer enjoyed a mild form of synesthesia, which allowed him to hear colours. The red and orange of the sandstone cliffs got him going, along with the ‘immense silence’. A devout Catholic, Messaien’s tone poem Des canyonsaux étoiles is meant to ‘glorify God in all his Creation’. It’s an unusually orchestrated and gorgeous piece in 12 parts; the last part, ‘Zion Park et la Cité Céleste’, is especially haunting. The locals were so excited that they renamed a mountain after him, near Cedar Breaks.
I don’t really do eternity or quietude, and the open-air museum of forms we encountered that long day filled me with anything but that feeling. I might as well have been snorting coke for eight hours. I’ve never seen anything in my life so startling and visually commanding, bend after bend, mile after mile: earthworks, citadels, the funerary monuments of Petra and Aleppo, Afghan battlements, cliff fortresses, vast kilns. I imagined I saw before us rock-carved Hindu temples c.1000 AD: the ornate towers of the Bhubaneswar temples; or, even more, the Sun Temples at Modhera in Gujarat and Konarak; or, above all the rest, the temples of Khajuraho with their erotic friezes, the female figures, half-turned towards the viewer, ever in movement, frozen in alluring gesture – nature imitating art imitating nature. All of it carved by the wind into the Navajo red sandstone.
So what sort of sound environment did the Maestro come up with for this remarkable drive? Messaien? More Bach? Ligeti’s glacially mutating sound clusters? Not quite. Best as I can recall, we started out with Merle Haggard as we climbed along 9 out of St George towards Zion, past scattered groups of houses that looked provisional and out of place in the inhuman landscape: from a distance like lichen and, on closer inspection, like blight. Monk and Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Nat King Cole (the After Midnight Sessions with Sweets Edison, Stuff Smith and Juan Tizol), Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys, Ray Charles. And towards the end of the day, with the setting sun doing something wonderful with the sandstone in the precincts of Lake Powell, we had a medley that included Clarence Williams (‘You’re Bound to Look Like a Monkey When You Get Old’), Van Morrison (‘Caravan’ and ‘The Healing Game’), and Valaida Snow, the remarkable, hard-swinging woman jazz trumpeter and vocalist, singing ‘Nagasaki’ in July 1937:
Hot ginger and dynamite,
Boy, I drink nothing but that each night,
Back in Nagasaki where the fellows chew tobaccy,
And the women wicky-wacky woo!
And Laura Nyro. ‘I know her. I forget her name. She’s dead, right?’
‘You don’t know shit,’ the Maestro snarled. He was rendering me a service that, nowadays, in the absence of my mother and father, a number of my close friends feel obliged to perform. They are reminding me, in case I had forgotten: 1) I don’t know shit; or 2) I’m full of shit; or 3) (when stronger medicine is required) I am shit. I’m grateful for this but I don’t know why it was necessary to wait another 20 miles before sharing Ms Nyro’s name with me.
The literature of car trips across America usually revolves around colourful local characters the narrator meets along the way. This is true of Steinbeck, Kerouac, William Least Heat-Moon in his Blue Highways and so on. Even the insufferable Henry Miller, in his 1945 volume The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, has his unrelieved bombast interrupted by a mechanic in Albuquerque called Dutter. The Maestro and I weren’t doing interesting locals. I have no doubt they were there to be found in the hills, but we were following a plan, a loose plan to be sure, but a plan of sorts. This involved spending our evenings in Super 8 motels. The Maestro knew every Super 8 from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi which allowed dogs. Why we had to stay at dog-friendly motels when there was no longer any dog seemed to be beside the point. We would lunch at fast-food places along the way. This was not good. In the evenings we would dine where we could, usually a chain restaurant like Ruby Tuesday’s, where the task was to find something that came without ‘special sauce’. The Maestro would have a shot of Jim Beam straight up. I’d have a double Maker’s, rocks. We would return to the Super 8, check the map, and retire to our respective rooms. The Maestro would follow the fortunes of the San Francisco Giants on his computer. I would read about rocks until I could no longer read about rocks. Thus our evenings ended. Our days began early.
Our Utah adventure was meant to conclude at the aptly named town of Blanding, population 3000 and something, in southeastern Utah. On arriving there we learned that there was an all-terrain vehicle convention and there were no motel rooms for at least 120 miles. The streets were empty, although there were, here and there, a few over-sized motorised tricycles with big fat tyres. It was mysterious, all right. It had already been a long day, and the Maestro had decided that it was less taxing for him to do the driving than to scowl at me for hours on end. The Maestro is an excellent driver and most at home behind the wheel. He made his living for 40 years driving a taxi, an occupation from which he has now retired so that he can devote himself entirely to following the ponies, a subject on which he is expert.
There is nothing, or hardly anything, between Blanding and the Colorado town of Cortez but a great deal of particulate faecal matter in the air and some sort of bug, in plague-like abundance, attacking the windshield. The road is dark. The road is long. The Maestro is not finding a clear radio channel to accommodate his iPod. To my alarm, in the dark of night on a narrow two-lane road, in the middle of truly-fucking-nowhere, the Maestro pulls over to the shoulder and puts his head in his hands. This is not good. He maintains that posture for some time. But then he rallies. He takes a deep breath and attacks the radio in earnest until he finds a quiet place. He turns on the car light. Ten billion shit-covered insects swarm the vehicle. He has found what he was looking for. It is Clifford Brown and Max Roach. It is 1954 in Los Angeles. With Harold Land on tenor and Bud’s younger brother Richie Powell playing piano, George Morrow on bass, they are playing ‘Daahoud’, and playing it as well as it can possibly be played. The Maestro takes a deep breath. ‘Like medicine,’ he says.
We drive up a mountain in the Colorado Rockies. We have lunch along the way in Telluride, as there are no McDonald’s along this scenic stretch. The town is a horror, a yuppie hell-hole, like Berkeley’s Fourth Street Mall but at 8700 feet. We drive up the mountain. We drive down the mountain. Phillip Walker, the New Orleans bluesman, is singing ‘I Got A Sweet Tooth for You’:
You’re like a cake and ice cream
You’re a chicken ’n’ rice
You taste so good to me woman
Each and every night
I got a sweet tooth for you, baby
I’m gonna lip-tease you…
We are driving across America, making time: the fields of amaranth, grain elevators and silos of Kansas. Dead cows by the side of the road. Clouds shaped like cows. A hawk glides over the Boone Creek Baptist church. We’re crossing the Ozarks, listening to Woody Guthrie:
Hitler wrote to Lindy, said ‘Do your very worst,’
Lindy started an outfit that he called America First
In Washington, in Washington.
We pull into the Super 8 in Springfield, Missouri. We ask the woman behind the desk if there’s a place downtown we could get a drink and a decent bite to eat. The fellow standing beside us, waiting for his receipt, says: ‘What downtown?’ There are no more downtowns, haven’t been for a thousand miles. The next night we stumble on a Victorian bed and breakfast in Cape Girardeau, placed between two gas stations on the edge of the black ghetto. Gay owners, ornate fixtures, very upholstered. We can’t believe our luck. There is no Cape Girardeau, just chains out on the highway and a slum here on the banks of the Missisippi. And this unexpected oasis. They serve food. One of the partners, ‘the Chef’, is very, very serious about his food. We have a couple of drinks. We make ready to dine. Two local middle-aged couples dressed in warm-weather-midweek-out-to-dine-Midwestern-pastel-cotton-sportif are seated before us. They are in good spirits, sharing news and comparing their days. The Maestro is outraged. ‘Why do I have to listen to these philistines talk the shit they talk?’ he broadcasts at alarmingly inappropriate volume. The couples fall silent. I make a face. ‘Ah, they can’t hear me, I’m talking to you, not to them,’ and stalks off to get his iPod on which he plays first Diana Krall’s recent disc Quiet Nights, one of my contributions to his iPod. It is lovely listening, no question. Then he plays Etta Jones’s Don’t Go to Strangers. We’re now killing off a bottle of red. ‘How come you’re such a fuddy-duddy?’ the Maestro barks. ‘These idiots behind us don’t even know the owners here are homosexuals.’
The Maestro wants to drive down to Memphis, to have a drink at the Peabody Hotel. That’s rather a long way to go for a drink but the Maestro has sentimental memories of this particular hotel, something about the management letting ducks loose around the fountain. It is a very nice hotel, carved mahogany, coffered ceiling. The woman tending bar is Polish. This delights the Maestro, who tries out a bit of family Polish. There is no Memphis. Just the Peabody and Beale Street. And Beale Street isn’t Beale Street anymore.
The Maestro wants to go to New Orleans. No time for that, I say. I had wanted to go and hang around Davenport or Rock Island, up the river, find an old hotel by the water, listen to Jack Teagarden play the trombone and sing ‘You Took Advantage of Me’. I had wanted to read the poems of Dave Etter, a poet of the region dear to my heart. I had wanted to reread his book Go Read the River. Maybe the first book of poetry I ever bought, at the uptown New York Port Authority, 178th Street, in 1966. I had wanted to read the book, read the river, listen to Jack Teagarden, and drink some whisky on a verandah at the end of September on the Mississippi. ‘Where have you been for the last 40 years, Aug?’ the Maestro says. By which he is implying that there is no old hotel down by the river where I can sit at dusk reading the river, reading Dave Etter, listening to Jack Teagarden and drinking whisky.
We are driving back from the Bonne Terre maximum security prison outside St Louis listening to Charlie Feathers: not the Maestro and me – he’s gone on to Madison – but my host Professor D.J. and me. That’s Charlie Feathers, the Memphis musician. Sam Phillips at Sun Studio never knew quite what to do with Charlie; tried to steer him to the country end of things when he was more truly a rockabilly. Too bad for Charlie. Made for a difficult life, or more difficult than it should have been. He’s a better listen than Elvis or Johnny Cash or the rest of the white boys that came out of Sun.
I was reading my poetry to the convicts at Bonne Terre. I’d say it was the most enjoyable reading I have ever given, even better than the one at the Harold Park in Sydney, a pub attached to a harness racing track, 23 years ago, but everyone in the audience was drunk at that one. The prisoners seemed to like me just fine; not so much one of the social workers in attendance, who stood up at question time and said: ‘You know what I think, having listened very carefully to your reading? I think you have a lot of anger.’ I told her there was plenty to be angry about. The killers really got a kick out of that one. At one point, in answer to a question – one of those questions you always get about how you go about writing – I said that there were a lot of fragments of uncompleted poems orbiting around in my head at any given time, like space-garbage around the earth. When Professor D.J. introduced me he told the audience that I often ‘struck a sardonic tone’ in my poetry. I would not gainsay the professor. At the end of the reading some of the killers approached me, each more timidly than the one before, to shake my hand and to thank me for the reading. I was very touched; to be honest, as touched as I have ever been by an audience after a reading. One particularly large con, older than the others and more than a bit reticent, came up to me and leaned over: ‘You know what?’
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘I got a lot of that sardonic space garbage orbiting around in my head, too.’