Rootin' Around the USA
"God made the American restive. The American in
and in due time got the automobile and found it good."
- James Agee
It's really that simple. I quit my day job, bought a used car and drove 17,000 miles in 11 weeks. Why? Because I like to drive, I guess.
Armed with a list of accommodating friends, relatives and Super 8 Motels, I lit out for the West one warm, sunny Friday afternoon in late September. As Elvis's "That's All Right, Mama" rocketed out of my muffled speakers, my overloaded '83 Toyota wheezed and lurched its way up 10th Avenue. The leering Lincoln Tunnel entrance seemed to taunt me, daring me to run screaming back to my tiny, East Village rathole to cower in the primeval, New York-induced fear of melting upon impact with the outside world.
But I gunned the straining engine, threw Chuck Berry into the CD deck, and -- Shazam! -- four days later I was rolling through a shimmering stretch of North Carolina cottonfields en route to sleek, mini-malled Atlanta. There, I soon found myself shopping for cookie dough and mindlessly tapping my feet to the tinny strains of Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee" '50s r&b hit as it wafted over the Kroger supermarket's in-store radio network.
Fearing the loss of my dignity, I zoomed outta this New South hell and throttled due north, bypassing the several wonders of eastern Tennessee (Gatlinburg, Dollywood, Ruby Falls) and Kentucky and zigging through Ohio and Indiana towards the practical, orderly Chicago skyline. I got out of the car long enough to shell out $7.50 apiece for bottomless, 33-ounce steins of Leinenkugel beer at a suburban Oktoberfest, where I slam-danced with sweaty, drunk, middle-aged couples to a lederhosen-clad polka band that would occasionally launch into raucous renditions of "Louie, Louie" and "Wooly Bully."
Still recovering several days later, I successfully negotiated the tacky confines of Wisconsin's cheesy House on the Rock . Then I downed some soggy salisbury steak and butterscotch pudding at a Rockford, Illinois, senior citizens' event centered on outhouses and the evolution of public restrooms, asa patriotic Pearl Harbor survivor waxed nostalgic about our nation's defense cutbacks.
This somehow led me south-by-southwest, right down the path of old Route 66 to Eleanor Roosevelt, a new incarnation of the whimsical St. Louis "skuntry" band formerly known as Enormous Richard.
Lead singer and part-time African history teacher Chris King led the band through a reeling, stomping pre-dawn show at the cavernous Other World warehouse/club. The band strained to make its potent mix of crunching guitars, banjos, fiddles and harmonies heard over the annoying din of the throbbing techno-house beat emanating from the club's adjoining disco. I woke up on a wooden fire escape a few hours later, blinded by the rising sun, staring at a string of frog-shaped porch lights and savoring lingering strands of the band's proverb-inspired "Banana Stalks."
Missouri and Oklahoma were a blur of apocryphal Jesse James lore, rolling hills and fall foliage. Near Vinita, Oklahoma, I shelled out $19.95 for a dark, cinderblocked room at a very creepy, Bates-like "American-owned" Oklahoma motel and resolved to return to the Super 8 fold ASAP.
Which I did the next night in the infamous cowtown, Dodge City, Kansas, after skipping along deserted two-laner roads through empty, sunbleached small towns in my futile search for a decent country radio station (there are none left, period) and a strong cup of real coffee in a country where your minimart choices have expanded to include both brown hot water and lukewarm, foamless cappucino-to-go.
I felt more at home in Dodge City, where the bodies of cowboys and gamblers gunned down by shady lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson once lined streets now bearing names like Avenue A and Avenue D.
Getting the hell outta Dodge, I rattled up US 83 to South Dakota, through the frontier tourist trap town Wall Drug and into the imposing chalk canyons of The Badlands , after making the disappointing discovery that the six-ton prairie dog at nearby Ranch Store ("Whee! See Prairie Dogs Free!") was a just one big, wooden hoax.
Wyoming and Montana were a glorious collage of blue skies, rippling yellow steppe and silent empty places, from the solemn Little Bighorn Battlefield to windblown, single-intersection towns like Park City, Montana, home to Pop's Inn, "Where the Sidewalk Ends and the West Begins."
Somewhere near Manhattan, Montana, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street started to stake its claim as the most oft-played CD of the trip. This disc rolled me over The Continental Divide (which has cleaner restrooms than the NYC bar of same name, but rocks just as hard) and on to Missoula's Super 8, which displayed a sign that read, "The Optimist Sees the Doughnut, the Pessimist Sees the Hole." I was just as confused the next morning, when I spied a minimart in nearby Lolo offering "Used Guns, Free Popcorn With Fill-Up."
I passed on all of the above and careened along icy, rain-blanketed backroads through the dark pine forests of Idaho and eastern Washington. I sojourned for a few days in aseptic Seattle, where the Lusty Lady strip joint ("We Don't Dress Up for Halloween") sported 24-hour ATMs and encouraged all patrons to fill out detailed customer satisfaction surveys on their way out the door.
Bad, white-guy blues bands dominated the scene at the the city market in overcast, downtown Portland. A dull evening at an Olive Garden restaurant was enlivened only by sidewalk signage which exhorted, "Teach your grandmother to sell eggs."
Signs for "Weed, Next 3 Exits" greeted me near Weed, California, as I rumbled down dull I-5 towards San Francisco. Here, I spent four hectic days checking out North Beach's countless Beat bookstores and squirmy porn shops (then hyping John Wayne Bobbit's "uncut, full-length" video), slurping up pasty Salvadoran food in the Mission and dodging the faux-hippie street vendors along Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue.
Austin country-rocker Joe Ely closed out my week in San Francisco with a powerful, very loud acoustic set at Slim's, telling stories about the time he opened for a diving pig and gleefully mocking one of the West's most over-mythologized outlaws in "Me and the Billy the Kid (Never Got Along)."
With visions of Texas and New Mexico dancing in the dust of my drive-time daydreams, L.A. seemed a tired, hazy distraction. The recent passage of the blatantly racist Proposition 187 during my stay made the entire state feel like a rusty pot at the end of the cross-country rainbow. My encounter with a moldy, stuffed Trigger at the cluttered Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum in tumbleweed-strewn Victorville just added to the air of delusion.
It was the perfect time for a pick-me-up trip to Vegas, where I landed a cheap room in the brand-new, pyramid-shaped Luxor above a recreation of the River Nile and a glitzy replica of King Tut's Tomb.
Four hours of dinging slot machines, slack-jawed blackjack players and mayonaisse-drenched buffets later, I was back in my room, trying to find something besides "Teenage Vixens" on my in-room TV and wondering who had the nerve to smash the nose on the forgotten Elvis statue sitting forlornly in front of the Holiday Inn along Las Vegas Blvd.
A free-range burro emptied its bowels in front of my unsuspecting car soon after I crossed into Arizona en route to bland, palm-studded Phoenix, where I arrived just in time to catch former New York popster-about-town Serene Dominic along with his new band, The Semi-Detached, in their local debut at the mirrored, padded Roxy.
Serene still proudly wore his trademark floppy fedora and flea-bitten overcoat, which became lathered in sweat as he jerked and leapt around the dance floor through a high-energy set of edgy, tongue-in-cheek power pop originals (two of which, "Who Are You Now, Victoria?" and "Master of My Own Emotions," are featured on the band's new single on Atlanta-based Worrybird label). Great stuff from a Bronx native who now lives in the desert with a talking horse and receives reams of hate mail in response to his anti-KISS articles in the city's local entertainment weekly, The Phoenix New Times.
I spent the next two weeks racing back and forth between Arizona and New Mexico: avoiding head-on collisions with marauding radioactive cacti; chasing the legends of Doc Holliday ("He pulled more teeth than triggers"), Wyatt Earp (he died in L.A.) and Billy the Kid ("He died as he lived"); and catching great Albuquerque shows from Canada's Blue Rodeo and another expatriate New Yorker, ex-Worm/Mighty Sweetone Jono Manson.
Jono's new Santa Fe-based group, The Mighty Revelators, pick up where Jono's short-lived New York all-star band, The Dogs, left off, churning out a mix of funk, r&b, blue-eyed soul and infectious pop.
I headed back to Flagstaff, Arizona, to get thrown off a brooding horse named Princess over Thanksgiving while clutching a copy of Revelators' satisfying new CD,One Horse Town, which features guest appearances from Blues Traveler's John Popper and New York bluesman Ron Sunshine.
Over 500 miles down-river along the Rio Grande in dusty Terlingua, Texas, I stumbled upon a raspy-voiced, middle-aged cowboy, Charlie Maxwell, serving up tuneful originals about life along the Mexican border in an eclectic restaurant, The Starlight Dinner Theatre. While I ate, a nervous, grizzled one-eyed man kept jumping up to go outside and move his rusted-out Datsun, nearly running over patrons searching for the outdoor restroom facilities.
Things just got stranger as I headed east across Texas, from a beer-drinking goat in Lajitas to the diner cook in Marathon who quoted "Finnegan's Wake" as he battered up "the second-best chicken-fried steak in the world" to the twitchy Alamo security guard in San Antonio who kept repeating, "Hell, the whole battle only took an hour and a half."
It only took me 15 minutes to get the lowdown on the hottest honky tonk action in Austin, thanks to some on-the-money advice from Lee Nichols, manager of the local music section at the city's Tower Records and editor of a great alternative country magazine, The Feedlot.
Lee sent me over to The Broken Spoke, a long, low-slung roadhouse that attracts a diverse, anti-line-dancing crowd who swirled effortlessly around a well-worn hardwood floor to the thumping, rocked-up dance beat and Buck Owens-styled harmonies of the Spoke's crackling house band, The Derailers.
Somewhere east of Austin, the bottom dropped out of my quest, probably about the time the greasy, mealy boudin sausage innards tumbled out of their milky white casings at the dark, depressing Boudin King restaurant in rundown, humid Jennings, Louisiana, where a jolly, belly-shaking local warned me, "Yo ass is dead if you don't be careful in New Orleans, shoowee, it is at that!"
All I found in the Crescent City on this particular trip was one big, sweaty, dirty tourist trap, complete with "authentic" jazz musicians aping the standards for drunk conventioneers and their jogging-suited wives, juxtaposed with the local franchise of Lucky Cheng's and Papa Joe's Female Impersonator Bar, "Where Boys Will Be Girls."
So I wearily headed back north, passing through Mississippi and into Memphis in a grey, Deep South haze (too many biscuits and gravy?), which just grew thicker every minute I endured the monotone drawls of the glassy-eyed Graceland tour guides.
I found the glimmer of hope I was seeking in a newly hired sales clerk at the gift shop near the Graceland parking lot. "I just hate the way Elvis does Bing's 'White Christmas,'" she confided. "He just murders that old song!" Telling her to check out the real King on the excellent gospel collection, Amazing Grace (RCA), I made a quick pilgrimage to the quiet, unassuming Sun Studios to pay homage to the site where Elvis, Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash got their start, and then pushed on up the Mississippi River to St. Louis.
Here, over the din of a spastic singer/songwriter yelping out his grating original "Do More Bongs (Life Is Hopeless When You're Dopeless)," I mentally closed the book on the cross-country trek. My case of Merle Haggard's "Ramblin' Fever" at least temporarily cured, Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" began to resonate through my saturated, lard-spattered brain: "I'm going back to New York City; I do believe I've had enough."