eurospill part 2

I had been in Scotland for two days when I started seeing “yes” stickers in apartment windows and on car bumpers and streetlamps. I asked our driver, a proud Scotsman engorged with fifteen centuries of esoteric Scottish military history, a merrie portly sexagenerian with an enormous feather jutting backward from his hatband at all hours, what it was all about. After he had reminded me that the independence referendum was a month away, and clarified that the angels were all solidly lined up on one side of the question, I asked him to describe the opposing view.

“Some people,” he explained, with a little sorrow, “are afraid of change. Fearful. ‘Tis the long and the short.”

“What’s the other team’s slogan?” I inquired. “No?”

He grimaced. “Better together,” he said, in the way Anita Bryant might say up the anus, or Donald Sterling jungle fever.

During my two weeks there, I talked about independence with many people, in bars mostly. They talked, rather. It was on everyone’s mind. When someone asked me if the upcoming vote was exciting much discussion in America, I had to deliver the disappointing news. They weren’t very surprised. People in Europe have a dislodgeable view of America, one that seems to be based on Fox News and old Western serials. All right, gun homicide statistics as well, it’s not all fanciful. They are happy to think of Americans as slack-witted apes, and that Sally Timms and I, two very bright and evolved specimens, are standing right before them, will neither weaken the prejudice nor soften its expression. My own prejudicial view of the Scot national character is that it is two-sided -- forthright and nonsense-intolerant, but with a soft spot for serious trouble. I submit the three pillars of the Scottish economy: financial services, oil, whiskey. While I was there, I personally saw little of petroleum and less of money. The thing I saw the very least of, though, was “no” voters. They were like the ghostly Nixon enthusiasts of 1972. 

The trip was plotted a little sadistically, I thought. One day we went down the west coast, to get a ferry -- more exactly, a “rigid inflatable” -- to play music on an island, Jura, that was accessible only by these cursed rigid things. Upon leaving, we went straight back up, to the Isle of Skye. It was a beautiful August day and our feather-clad driver pointed out the Five Sisters of Kintail, the ridge on which the battle of Glen Shiel was fought in 1719 between Britain and Spain, with some local clansmen assisting both sides. I’d tell you more, but you’re American so it wouldn’t interest you. The driver knew about every drop of blood spilled on every hillside in west Scotland since the 4th cent. A.D. He said almost all of his knowledge came from a single book, a definitive 19th-cent. work which authoritatively compiled over a millennium’s lore. Privately I thought that in America such a book wouldn’t last an hour in any university history department without being savagely denuded, deconstructed, and shamed. 

Another day we crossed the North Sea, choppy and wine-dark that day, and many in our number were, or looked, ill. One night while we slept in a single room in a youth hostel, the driver dozed in the car in a nearby lot. By day there were nine of us squeezed with our instruments and bottles and sundry goods in a van, a squarish EU-dimensioned contraption midway in acreage between an American 15-passenger and a medium SUV. Our journey, though, might have been CEO-grade compared to a few intrepid fans who followed us town to town on public transport. One young man, Jack, I befriended easily. He was a four-eyed math major from Cambridge, lugging a backpack of books by Ruth Ozeki and David Sedaris. We’d show up at a venues on a remote speck of land, hundreds of one-lane-road miles from the last, and there would be Jack, waiting for us, fresh off the bus. He bore his privations with British fortitude. I complained, lavishly.

A feature of Scottish rural life I took great exception to was the roads. They are one lane’s width -- scarcely -- and to take a winding curve on a steep hillside at 55 kph, as our patriotic and possibly dotty driver was prone to do, struck me as stomach-churning folly. The method when coming suddenly to an oncoming vehicle is for both drivers to hit the brakes hard and stare at each other, chicken-style, until one backs slowly up, back down the road as far as necessary until coming to a wide spot. I was generally the middle guy in the first bench seat back, and I was heartened that mine would likely not be the first body thrown through the glass and into the air, but that was the happiest thought I could gin up. Behind me was the perpetually amusing man called Lu, short for “Lunatic,” who, I was to find out later, was formerly in the seminal punk group The Damned, and was currently in John Lydon’s band, Public Image Limited. Butliterally currently, in the van. “Goddam it, Lu,” I said softly and tersely. “This guy doesn’t know what’s around these curves he’s whipping around any better than we do, he’s just used to driving on these roads. I mean, probabilistically speaking....” But Lu was sleeping. He was dreaming about his children in faraway Siberia.

The other people in this band, the Mekons, were also weird. The instruments they played were: acoustic plugged-in guitar, electric saz, violin, accordion, and unplugged-in banjolele. It was like a dogged investigation into a narrow frequency range. Lu was the sazist, and he had a fondness for an effect that sounded like Shaft fucking a whore, whonka-whonka-whonka, an effect, which, needless to say, is incongruent with Turkish tradition. Susie, the violinist, who was very thin, dignified, and beautiful, found the Shaft sound dreadful, and spent many soundchecks shuddering and glowering; during the first week she directed a lot of loud disapproval Lu’s way, as though he was being willfully immature and needed only a woman’s wagging finger to stop making the Shaft whore-fucking sound, but by the second week she relented -- it was one more lost Scottish cause. Lu genuinely liked the sazploitation sound. I liked it as well. 

On the isle of Jura there are 200 people, many more sheep, many many more bottles of whiskey, and some number beyond fathoming of rocks and trees and clods of dirt. Inversely, on the not-to-be-found-on-Jura roster, are: clothes dryers, showers, soap, coffee, and toilet paper. At least this described our cabin, the one where Jon, Eric, and I were housed. “How will I dry my clothes?” I whined to our host. My trip was five weeks long, and I had timed the clothes-washing opportunities with Swiss precision.

“This is not America, but Jura,” she reminded me primly. “We do not use dryers here. But our clotheslines seem to work to everyone’s satisfaction.” They didn’t to mine. The weather on Jura, it turns out, is one hour of howling wind followed by two hours of howling rain. By the end of the second day of our three on the island, my clothes were much wetter than when they had come out of the washer. The wind, in a delirious frenzy, had whipped one-third of them off the line and scattered them across the adjoining pasture. My laundry troubles had by then become a comical leitmotif for the rest of the band, who were laughing openly at me, and pointing at the fumes coming off my person. After a couple soapless baths and four days in the same under- and outerwear, I was feeling itchy all over, notably in the rectum.

“My asshole,” I complained one evening to my dear friend Jon Langford, “feels like it’s been usurped by a cotillion of red ants. I can’t go this long without bathing, I’m too pampered by U.S. indulgences. I feel rotten. I need to wash up. To my scandalously naive American mind, this means: water coming in jets from above, with soap in a dish on the side.”

“Robbie’s asshole,” Jon announced treacherously to the group at dinner an hour later, “is hosting a tribe of ants, he says.” Possibly awed at the literary quality of the description, the diners declined, for once, to laugh. Jon, though, could and did laugh at almost anything that happened. If the event wasn’t inherently humorous, he alchemized it into verbal comedy, repeatedly. For instance, at our show in Dundee many days later, during a slack moment between musical selections in our set (there were many!) he improvised a tale about the Scottish isle whose inhabitants were famous for having blown up the “World War I soap boats.” He spun the dross of misery into the gold of amazing stage patter. And his determination to lighten rooms wasn’t restricted to the stage. If he saw you start to frown a bit and stare dejectedly out the window at the passing rocks, he’d actually lean right into your face and say funny things until you smiled. I’ve liked him for many years, but after traveling extensively with him, I was head over heels smitten with the guy.

Susie’s launching one afternoon into a discussion of the Robert Burns poem, “Cock Up Your Beaver,” was not the kind of thing Jon was apt to pass by in silence. “Pardon me,” he said, leaning forward from the back of the van. “Did you just say, ‘Cock up your beaver?’”

Susie tut-tutted. “It’s not a dirty poem,” she said. (Let me say, you have to imagine, not just a pretty woman reproving you for thinking cock up your beaveris a suggestive phrase, but reproving you in an educated London accent.) “It’s not about sex, Jon.”

“It’s not?” Jon said incredulously. “What’s it? A recipe?”

“The beaver, if you must know, is a kind of hat, and Burns was satirizing the ignorant lads from the highlands who move to the city and demonstrate their urbanity by cocking their brims. It’s a very famous poem.”

Jon, who was three sheets to the wind, it being 1:30 P.M., began improvising raucously. “Cock up your beaver/Cock up your beaver/Cock up your beaver/It’s New Year’s Eve,” he sang, as the too-small van careened around a narrow pass.

Although the other musicians weren’t as funny as Jon, they were all funny enough, and more to the point, we all, Americans and Brits alike, met on the field of comedy -- subgenre, British. The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, Python, Ealing, Flanders and Swann, George Formby, and Derek and Clive are fairly sacred names to me; a strong affection for these entertainers/entertainments glued me to the Mekons more than anything else. Also we all liked whiskey. Maybe you’ve heard the long joke with the cowboy and the lesbian at the bar, where the lesbian tells the cowboy in great detail what she does as a lesbian, and then asks the cowboy what he does. He replies uncertainly, “I thought I was a cowboy....” Well, I thought I was a drunk. Then I met the Mekons. Their drunkenness approached the heroic, the hard-to-believe, a drunkenness as sky-reaching as the drifts of snow in nineteenth-century snow disaster stories, or green groaning piles of turtles in Dr. Seuss. No day trip was so tight that multiple pub stops, starting about noon, couldn’t be shoehorned in. No night ended without jugs of peaty brown swill upended, and no night ended as early as it decently should have. There was staggering, backslapping, laughing into tears, bobble-headed nods into unconsciousness, loss of motor function, and out-of-doors vomiting. But that was all me; the Mekons were so at one with liquor that, with a couple notable and unbloggable exceptions, no amount of it changed them.

On Orkney, post-show, I slipped into one hotel bar while the rest oozed into another. It was here that I met the one person I was able to find in all of Scotland that seemed to have considered independence with some dispassion. He was a chemical geologist and was sitting in the bar with his wife and sister-in-law. “When you look at countries like Norway, they clearly thrive after gaining their independence,” he said. “I’m British-born and do have some sentimental feelings for union, but I think it should ultimately be decided on the basis of what’s best for Scotland, which is, I’m convinced, to manage its own affairs. She” -- indicating his wife -- “is more pro-union, on the other hand.” But she, typical No, wasn’t talking.

The only talking Nos I did hear from were either British or British-born. One lady, born in Glasgow but a Londoner of many decades’ residence, confided that she thought Scotland would be acting foolishly, rashly, and indeed ungratefully to cut loose of England after having been bailed out in the 2008 crisis. Another man from London, though outraged by what he considered veiled threats from Cameron as the 18th of September loomed, and though sympathetic to the aspirations of small nations, pointed to the implausibility of Scotland’s participating in giant transnational bodies like the EU and the IMF, and of its banishing so many nuclear submarines to the south of England -- he too thought this so much arrant foolishness. On the tiny island of Hoy, in the Orkneys, I overnighted at the home of a man British-born but identifying emotionally with Scotland. He was a Yes man, but riven. Opinions on the issue lined up so neatly with national point of origin, even among the highly educated, that whatever polemics I heard for either case began to strike me as a little suspect. There was a steady drone warning of dire consequences for an independent Scotland -- and all of it was coming from the British! However, I wasn’t getting a reliable sample, because I was fraternizing with so many goofball bohemians. Only one chemical geologist.

On our trip from Hoy to Strathpeffer, one grey and rainy day, we were passing through a quiet northern village when Sally cried, “Pub!” Rubber screeched, and presto, we were entering its Stygian chambers. But we had made a mistake. I don’t know just what Sally said to the barkeep, but he and the locals were instantly disenchanted with our arty crew of bogus ruffians. “Go, go, this is not good, go,” Sally urged us quietly through clenched teeth as she turned to the door. A few of us, me included, moved quickly to the parked van outside. But two had gone somewhere to buy whiskey or food or something, and another two were off to another tavern. These Mekons were like bloodhounds for drink. One of those now missing had the van key, and the rain was coming hard. I had brought a jacket on the trip but had left it at someone’s house along the way. My shaving kit, a notebook of charts, Jonathan Richman’s phone number on a scrap of paper, and a check for $348 were also at mislaid like fairytale bread crumbs at a string of locations behind me. I was wearing Sally’s boyfriend’s smallish sweater, and it was getting seriously damp; but after two weeks in Scotland, you hardly notice that. All of a sudden there was a violent noise behind me -- a citizen of the bar, thick-lobed, livid, was banging the pavement and shouting, “Hey! Get this van out of here, now!” A brawl was imminent -- exciting! Eric, the accordionist, made off down the street to try to find driver and key. He was moving fast but not running, and the local bellowed at him thunderously. It was all shaping up like one of those medieval skirmishes on which the Scots are so well-read.

It took longer than it should have, and seemed longer yet, but at last our party was rounded up and we pulled away, all feeling like weak-limbed aesthetes suddenly and rudely thrust into the bleak unyielding heart of reality -- David Copperfield in the wine bottling plant. I felt like that, at least. As we pulled out, I issued a valedictory cry of “Better together!” through the open window at the locals, pitching it so that they probably couldn’t hear it, but timing it so that our rate of acceleration would save our hides if they did. Sally shook her head grimly. “The ugly side of Scotland,” she said softly to me. “I’m sorry you had to witness that.”

A nicer view was vouchsafed us on Orkney (“a byword for remoteness” --Guardian), where we were welcomed by the distinguished essayist and playwright Duncan Maclean. Duncan set up a memorable, well-attended show for us in the town center, and also arranged for us to nose around the Ness of Brodgar excavation with Professor Mark Edmonds of the Univ. of York. The Neolithic temples and other dwellings there, discovered only a couple years ago, predate the pyramids and Stonehenge -- Edmonds said, as I remember, they went up between 3500 and 3900 B.C. I missed a lot of what he said because the wind there on the beach maintained a decibelage that must have put a severe crimp on early man’s capacity for light banter. I watched the good professor’s mouth move as we trudged around the burial tombs, tiny temples, and mysterious circles of narrow cylindrical stone that were the Neoliths’ version of our Thursday night TV viewing. Some of the spaces and entryways were dauntingly low and narrow, yet these strange humans were on average only an inch or two shorter than modern man, the archaeologist shouted over the gusts.

Twenty of the seventy islands in the Orkney archipelago were tenanted, although Hoy looked a toss-up. For sure the population did not include one person who knew how to run a P.A. At Hoy’s desolate ferry terminal, I picked up a brochure that included a helpful poetic mnemonic to help outsiders learn and distinguish among thirteen of the islands. It is a good example of the Scots’ pride in their local minutiae, and of other things too:

At catching fish I am so speedy/A big black scarfie from EDAY

If you want something with real good looks/You can’t go wrong with FLOTTA fleuks

There’s not quite such a wondrous thing/As a beautiful young GRAEMSAY gosling

To take the head off all their big talk/Just pay attention to the wise HOY hawk

All stand to the side and reveal/From far NORTH RONALDSAY, a seal

When feeling low or down in the dumps/Just bake some EGILSAY burstin lumps

You can say what you like, I don’t care/ For I’m a beautiful ROUSAY mare

I can always set the world on fire/Because I’m the greatest, a whelk from WYRE

I like my porridge fine and dandy/For I’m a gruellie belkie from SANDAY

Do not listen to that crusty creep/But hark to the voice of the SHAPINSAY sheep

If you want something to stick all day/Get yourself a limpet from fair STRONSAY

What’s the finest bird in any flock?/Have you heard of a WESTRAY auk?

Though you look for a month of Sundays/You’ll find naught like PAPA WESTRAY dundies

Well! If you can’t keep the Orkneys apart after that, you’re a hopeless case. How many of life’s fuzzily similar set members -- for instance, Americana acts -- could we easily commit to memory by following the anonymous bard’s slipshod technique?

If you like long grey hair, and pipes you might kill for/You can go much wronger than JIMMIE DALE GILMORE

Am I a slew of songs about a past wild and checkered?/Then I am JASON ISBELL’s new record!

If your TAYLOR I.Q. is really dreadful/Remember, JAMES has no hair, while CHIP has a headful

But you truly can’t tell a fart from a belch/If you mix up KEVIN and GILIAN WELCH

Who is as spry and frisky as a colt?/None of the members of SON VOLT

All who love harmonies piercing and unruly/Bow before BUDDY MILLER, and his freaky wife JULIE

What makes a noise that’s dire, yet awfully hard to hear?/ROBBIE FULKS’s career

Please cut the carbs by quite a bunch/If you are the one preparing JOHN MORELAND’s lunch

And speaking of cooks, one who does not look like death/Is the one they call ELIZABETH

To avoid sharing royalties with a girl/Don’t marry seven of them, like STEVE EARLE

Though no homosexual, I’d fancy a fling/With Bloodshot’s LUKE WINSLOW-KING

And if Luke casts me out like an unclean beggar/Then I’d gladly settle for LINDI ORTEGGER

I’m no old-timey maven/I once recoiled from MIKE CRAVER, thinking him WES CRAVEN

Which is why the nouveau old-timers call me Pops/My knowledge runs more to RED CLAY RAMBLERS than CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS

And, with the LUMINEERS/Completely disappears.