|A brutally honest report from the road that the Blues Explosion man wrote for us in 2005
Words Jon Spencer
Photography Alfie Deliss
In April 2005, after 14 successful years on the road, the Blues Explosion found themselves supporting The Hives on tour in Britain. In this exclusive diary, Jon Spencer contemplates why he still spends so much time away from home, whether his “work is done”, and how peculiar hot custard is.
April 17, Edinburgh. Took care of some business at the internet café down the road from the Liquid Room where we played. The Optimo DJs are supposed to do their thing after the show, but when I stick my head out the room is empty, the lights are on, and there is no music. “What about the DJs?” I ask. “Oh, they packed-up and left coz everyone fucked off after the gig.”
April 18, Newcastle. “Why are you supporting The Hives? I’d-a thought it’d be the other way round.” The Hives are a very good band. Very entertaining. They play a damn-fine rock’n’roll show. Watching them tonight makes me feel good and excited — because they are good (and funny) — but also a bit envious. Why isn’t the Blues Explosion this successful? Why not me? After a while I have to stop watching them. I start to feel too conflicted and depressed. There is no way for us to win with their crowd. I have supported many bands over the years but for some reason this Hives thing is more troubling. I think it is because they are close to the Blues Explosion in some ways. Perhaps my work is done? At least there is someone here to carry on. I feel somewhat comforted by this thought, but mostly seasick. The next morning while brushing my teeth I am hit with the idea that what The Hives are lacking is Sex and Menace, two big parts of rock’n’roll. Pelle, the singer is cute and very charismatic, but that’s different. After my little epiphany I feel somewhat better.
April 19, London. After the show I met famed/infamous manager Alan McGee. Said he saw us years ago supporting the Beastie Boys at Brixton Academy, maybe 1994? It was a very rough show — we were pelted with change. He commended us for a job well-done and said that I should feel good/proud coz “we were there first/done it first”. I said that 10 years have passed and now we are opening for The Hives. He says people know what’s what and that they will come round. All it takes is a hit and that is easy: just get someone else to write it! Like Bowie did for Iggy with ‘China Girl’. Alan is so nice and pleasant. I start to imagine it… naah.
April 20, Leeds University. Students are a pathetic bunch, aren’t they? These University shows are pretty lame because (A) the students and (B) we play in dining hall/function rooms — spaces not really suited for rock’n’roll entertainment and there are no dressing rooms, only small closets located in the basement, after many stairs and hallways — and students. Today The Hives tour manager, an American I think, gives me and my band and crew a whole lot of shit coz we are running a little behind with our soundcheck. We were late, the times had been changed, but there are ways to get along and get things done. This guy was a real jerk. Judah says, “Man, we are professionals.” Russell: “We’ve been doing this for 14 years.”
April 21, Camber Sands, All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. Not a Hives show. I should make it clear that I do like The Hives. They are a very good rock’n’roll band and so far have been friendly and nice (as have most of their crew). But today we are on our own. This will be the second time BX has played ATP. We did the very first one in ’99 when it was called Bowlie Weekender. On the drive to the site I listened to a rough mix of that show and it was really good, but it’s always strange to hear old shows. Get in at around 4pm. Yuka Honda (ex Cibo Matto) is playing with Sean Lennon and it’s nice to see her again. I pass Lydia Lunch, one of my NYC heroes, on the chalet steps. The festival is held at an old holiday camp and the bands are given “chalets”, aka motel rooms, to stay in. She says hi. She is playing right before us/overlapping us on another stage so I catch a bit of her set but then I gotta get ready to do my thing. It feels very nice to have our own show, not be bound to 40 minutes, and to have the crowd with us. We play very well. Afterwards I meet up with my friend Toby who just shot a video for the Heavy Trash record I just did with Matt Verta-Ray. Also met with Barry, one of the ATP promoters, to discuss some super-secret future plans.
I should note that I have not been drinking on the tour so far. Well, not really. It is a long trip and The Hives shows are short and over with so early, so it does take some doing not to drink. But so far I have been doing a good job of it. Except for tonight. I give myself permission to get loaded. Which is exactly what I do. Hang out with Toby, watching Peaches, meeting strange people etc. Peaches is very good and has exactly what The Hives are missing: Sex and Menace. Afterwards I congratulate her on her set, especially the songs in which she plays gtr. She says that Julia Cafritz, from Pussy Galore, was a big inspiration! The evening starts to drag on. I meet Mr. Vincent Gallo, the current ATP curator. He is small, kinda elf-like, but very nice. Seems nervous. I thank him for the invitation and then beat it. The next day is rough. I am very hungover.
April 22, Cambridge, Corn Exchange. This is the hangover day. Rough. I don’t start to feel better till after the set. I miss my family very much. I am nervous, paranoid, overwhelmed. But at the same time I am totally locked-into the rhythm of the tour. Machine-tuned, relentless. Cambridge is very cute, quaint and pretty. The venue included. I watch a lot of The Hives set tonight. They are good. Fun. How can I complain? What kind of bitter old freak have I become?? I feel like Dick Nixon. You won’t have me to kick around anymore!
April 23 Liverpool. Another fucking University gig. The city is a mess. Seems like the whole place is being torn up and renovated. There is a generally old and ugly feel to things. A big banner proclaims Liverpool to be the European culture capital 2008. Good luck! Better step on it, fellas. The show is fine. We get very psychedelic at the end. I am worrying less about what to play for these kids. Talk to the two brothers in The Hives about their song ‘Diabolical Scheme’, which I think is on their most recent record. Great James Chance-style freaky psuedo-soul ballad number. Sounds kinda like some old BX stuff too. They say they got the idea for the strings from our song ‘Bellbottoms’. Live, they insert an over-the-top pause in which all band members freeze, silent, until the crowd goes nuts cheering and clapping for them to resume playing. Then back into the song. Brilliant. An old trick, but great to see. Judah leaves the building muttering about “that fucking Britney Spears shit”.
April 24, on the road to Wolverhampton. Food. This is very important on a tour. Food and sleep — they come at a premium. Much worry over both. I am always hungry because it is a lot of work to play a BX show. It’s funny, as a kid I hated sports and now I do something very athletic. The Hives carry catering with them. The food has been very good and it’s nice to be able to rely on dinner ready at 6pm every night. Must eat no later than two hours before set! The Hives cook is a great big fat English guy who swears constantly at everything and everybody. “Ya fucking cunt!” etc. Tonight I had trout with almonds, brussel sprouts, potatoes, and some salad. Desert was a rhubarb crumble. I normally don’t go in for desert while on tour, but I had to make an exception for the rhubarb crumble. My mother grew rhubarb. She made pies. Strawberry-rhubarb was my favorite. The crumble is OK. It was served with warm custard, a peculiar British thing.
Sleep. Like I said, it is also of great concern. I am always worried about not getting enough or not being able to fall asleep. So far I have been doing pretty well. Most nights a good seven hours and then some napping in the van during the day. Sometimes I treat myself to some sleep-promoting medication. There have been a few restless mornings. Waking up early like an old man. My father used to sleep till noon on weekends when I was a kid. Now he is up at 5am. Been having some bad dreams — my son caught under the wheel of a truck, my wife leaves me, Jack White reunites with Rene Zellwegger. Y’know, the usual. Geeking-out. I have been frequenting comic book shops. Treating myself to Frank Miller, Mike Mignolia, R. Crumb, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, etc. Lavish and lovely collections. Roger, the backline tech for this tour is a comics fan too, so we’ve been talking it up. We are both into Dr Who as well, and it has been great to be in the UK with the new series on. I have managed to catch a couple of the episodes (backstage, on TVs in the local crew break rooms) and liked them. Next week’s is a Dalek story, which, sadly, I will miss, but I have been enjoying all the Dalek magazine covers and press in the UK.
While in Liverpool I went to a comic book shop near the hotel, bought a bunch of stuff, then called the shop to invite them to the night’s concert (they had on loud grunge music). Next day I went back in and they were playing Plastic Fang. I kept my head down, made my purchase, and ran. I suppose my plan was to try to scam some discount action but I could not bear to do it in the end.
April 24 Wolverhampton. There is another band on this Hives tour — the D4, from New Zealand. Nice guys. They have taken to hanging around our dressing room. The D4, particularly the drummer, are WWII obsessed. The way they figure it, there isn’t much difference between playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band and flying a WWII bomber. (Maybe Lemmy was the first to postulate this theory?) Except that if it came to war, they say they would have to shoot the bass player in the head, first-thing. The bass player nods his head. See? Not much difference.
After the show I find a bottle of champagne in a bucket of water in my hotel room. (We are staying on the outskirts of town, right next to a horseracing track.) There is no note. I get very freaked-out.
April 25, Norwich. Another university show, but somehow these students don’t seem so bad. I found out that the champagne is from my wife. It was our anniversary, or one of them. We were married twice. Once for us and our friends, and then once in a church proper. Gets a bit confusing so we just try to celebrate the day we met. After the show (the last of The Hives tour) I pass around the champagne. Touring can be hard. I do miss my wife and family. I know that it takes a toll on them. It is hard to play at this game and be so far away from them and home. My wife gets depressed. My son gets into trouble at school. Real problems. How to handle it? The champagne helps. Celebrating what we have helps. Playing a show is nice. I can feel good. But it doesn’t last, the good feeling. Sitting backstage in Norwich, surrounded by people while The Hives rock’n’roll, I’m thinking that this is not a good way of life. There is no center. Nothing holds. I guess maybe that is why I am so attracted to it.
April 25, much later. The Norwich International Airport Hilton. Where does it all end? In the middle of nowhere. One of those ugly, non-descript prefab concrete aberrations of late 20th century architecture that clog our world. My room is a jumble of furniture. Two desks. A large, standing electric fan. Nothing fits. Everything about the place is a bit run-down. In the lobby there are pictures of upcoming tribute acts that will appear in the lobby bar. Really awful-looking photos. 22.50 pounds for the show, including dinner. Freddie Mercury tribute. Tina tribute. “Summer Nights” Grease/’50s tribute. Elton John tribute. The Hives tribute.