Sunday, October 16

California, month two | the dust settles

Dusk on the Berkeley campus, 6.30pm, mid-October. Classes are over for the day and students stream from buildings, a steady drift of backpacks, cropped denim, scarves over shoulders. The air is pink and clear. It feels cold after weeks of Indian summer heat.

Maybe it's this first freshness of autumn - the translucent dusk, the realisation I might need a jumper from now on - that's triggered a feeling of my head clearing, leaving behind the hot easy joy of summer for more practical thoughts. This is my year, here. My life in Berkeley isn't permanent, but it's not short-term either. The season is finally turning, but I've settled into rhythms based around sunshine, reading what I want, planning travels, being more selfish than usual, leaping from one exciting thing to the next. This cooler air is altogether more serious: it whispers, 'the high won't last', 'make plans', 'stop, think'. I'm not sure I like it.

My parents both lived abroad in their twenties, in Australia, France, Spain. Mum recalls the nostalgia of booking travel with Trailfinders. I tell Dad about the ongoing Californian drought and the need to save water. 'That's what it was like in Spain,' he says. 'We only had seven hours of running water a day!'

The situation here isn't quite so drastic; or maybe it is, but try telling privileged Americans they can't have running water whenever they want. I was warned Berkeley would be wet, yet it only rains once during these first two months here. I wake to a sense of familiarity that takes a while to place. A faint sound, like waking on grey school mornings in England, of raindrops tapping windows. The slate tiles of the building opposite are slick-dark with water. The shower is light and brief, but what it lacks in force, it makes up for in scent; the odour of wetted air, strong and salty like the sea, or the dampness after a heavy summer thunderstorm.

The weekend I put this post together, though, I get my first proper rain; a steady, lingering, London kind. Soggy leaves in gutters, damp cool to the bones, empty wet benches, hair plastered to my face. The degree of waterproofing on others is astonishing: more umbrellas than I've ever seen in London, rubber hats, wellies, enormous jackets. 'It's because it hardly ever rains here,' a friend explains. 'We get excited to wear all our rain stuff.'

One afternoon I catch the BART into the city with Born To Run, Springsteen's newly-released autobiography, under my arm. I step off at Civic Center. A farmers market draws crowds of locals and tourists to the nearby orange-leaved street. Flags from city buildings ripple in the clear sky. I head a few blocks down to the Hayes Valley 'hood, where I get coffee, pace about in the rapidly cooling air. If Hayes Valley was in London it'd be Notting Hill; clean quiet streets, awning, fairy lights, pristine minimalist clothes shops, Four Barrel coffee, fancy bookstores, hipsters walking dogs. Of course I bloody like it. But I feel uncomfortable. Up until as recently as the eighties it was one of the city's worst ghettos. The scent of gentrification runs heavy in the air here. Good coffee and photogenic sidewalks don't really make up for that.

A group of us congregate at the back entrance of the theatre where Springsteen will be talking tonight, in hope of witnessing his arrival. I'm freezing cold and desperate for a wee, and yet I stand there for an hour, rocking on the kerb, eyes on the road. It's ridiculous. He's already inside the building.

The house lights darken, the stage expectant. The woman next to me hyperventilates with excitement, clutches my arm. 'Ohmygodohmygod,' she says. I know the feeling. It's funny to see Springsteen walk onto an ornate theatre stage instead of a cable-clad stadium stage, but as he does, the entire room rises up in ecstasy.

Even the way Springsteen sits in the grandad armchair is cool. He talks about Moby Dick, Kendrick Lamar, and how physical exhaustion stops you from rooting around in the weeds for that stupid thing your mind wants to torment itself over. Occasionally he reads passages from his book. The first time, there is a sheepish pause: 'I left my reading glasses in the car!' Somebody at the side of the stage lends him a pair. 'Ah, these'll do.' To hear his rugged New Jersey baritone breathe life into the words I've been visually inhaling all week is more than a treat. It feels intimate and important, a perfect welcome to the city.

When Springsteen leaves the stage we rush to the back entrance - a shiny black car appears - a window slips down - he's inside, calling out 'thank you!' - his face so close - smiling out at us for a brief second, until the car is mobbed by men demanding autographs and girls demanding selfies. The car gets stuck at a red light and a stampede rushes out into the street amid exasperated horns. The sidewalks, jammed with fans, catch on to his presence, and his car turns the corner onto Hayes Street serenaded by hundreds of voices shouting 'Brooooce'.

I head back to the BART station tingling. You really start to feel part of a city when you walk its streets at night, on your way home from somewhere or to somewhere else. Everyone on the BART platform clutches a copy of Born To Run, as if we've all just been to a convention of some religious cult. Which in a way, we have.

I cast half an eye over the presidential debates, a little bit curious but mostly just sick of the airtime given to that sniffling, rancid wotsit. Everyone's watching though. I hear his nasal trumpeting from the tv outside the laundry room, and cheers for Clinton from the reception desk where the assistant on duty gazes at his laptop over a bento box.

There's another home game: Cal Bears vs Utah Utes. I know this from the plethora of yellow, blue,  red and white along Telegraph on Saturday morning. I've learned to avoid the student bars on game days, and the pep rallies are no longer a novelty. As an unpatriotic Brit I can't quite get my head around college spirit, until I remember what I'm like at Springsteen shows, or when Federer plays, or my obsession aged fourteen with the Italian national football team. Other international students revel in these college life cliches - red cups, frat houses, team colours - and it's probably partly why they came to America, and that's just as worthy an experience. But for me this side of college life feels like an extension of my experiences back home. I'm more interested in college counterculture; even more interested in the country beyond the campus. College is a funnel for my interests, a means of path-finding.

One Friday lunchtime a 'three-alarm' blaze in a church on my street chokes the air with alarms, choppers, and curious folk. It is the biggest fire I've witnessed first-hand. Hoses and ladders surround the building as the smoke churning up into the sky grows thicker and darker in its centre, paling out over the nearby streets and buildings. It picks up the soft pastels of the Californian air, turning pink, blue and orange as it spreads.

After holding the germs at arms length during a busy week, I spend a weekend sick. On Sunday afternoon I sit outside at Cafe Strada, take it easy in the Californian sunshine with the Springsteen cover issue of Rolling Stone and Greil Marcus' Mystery Train for company. The latter is the perfect book for me right now (and I'm excited to discover he's taught at Berkeley, and lives here too). In his prologue, Marcus writes:

'Since roots are sought out and seized as well as simply accepted, cultural history is never a straight line; along with the artists we care about we fill in the gap ourselves. When we do, we reclaim, rework, or invent America, or a piece of it, all over again.'

This is a bit like what my English professors have been explaining to us about T.S. Eliot and Prufrock and historical tradition; about how when you add to the conversation of history, you automatically change, or rework, every single thing that has come before. And though Eliot ran away from young America, more interested in the older poetic archive, he still became part of American history, simply by way of being American. He sought roots in England, in the classics, in the historical archives themselves, but his American heritage can't ever be erased, only accepted. I'm the opposite of Eliot: running away from England (understandable, given the current state of the things there) to seek out roots in America.

I think about the states, cities, and coastlines I'm knitting into my identity by way of both geography and culture. In spending a year of my life in northern California I become a little bit part of this area. But pieces of me are slowly fusing with other parts of the continent, too, through my love of the cultural significances they hold. California again for the summer aged seventeen when I lingered over The Grapes of Wrath, feeling every grain of dust road under my fingers. New York City, which for reasons unknown has become the 'someplace else' of my dreams and desires. The eastern seaboard in general: Boston, Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore (for Springsteen, of course, and the bands, bars and beaches in his orbit). Wisconsin, and then the prairie lands, for my endless rereading of the Little House books as a child, fascinated by the idea of living in untamed territory, and how despite the bears, Red Indians and yellow fever, the life of the Ingalls seemed more orderly than my own twentieth-century working-class suburban existence. The Deep South, for the gothic novels of Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor and Truman Capote, and where out of the hot swampy land arose the early strains of rock and roll music. I write a list titled 'Dream Gigs For This Year': Springsteen in Philadelphia, The Killers in Vegas, The Gaslight Anthem in New Jersey, Future Islands in Baltimore, The National in NYC, to name a few. I've already ticked one off.

'The smell of eucalyptus bark and high grasses, that uniquely California smell, surrounded me and reminded me that I was a young traveler in a strange land,' Springsteen writes in his autobiography. 'It felt good.'

It's definitely cold, the sky purpling, so I join the homeward current of students. At the edge of campus the hare-krishna hippy has begun his evening shift: he will stand there and dance to his repetitive metal castanet song late into the night. A vegetable stall on the sidewalk offers 'ugly' rejected produce. Students slip in and out of Walgreens for snacks and cold remedies. The smell of Subway lingers in the air. On Bancroft, traffic crawls west towards the sun setting over the bay.

When adventure is a year long, you settle into that state of adventure. It becomes the norm. Your stomach doesn't leap the same way it did when you first stepped off the plane. Your heart don't beat the way it used to, to paraphrase The Killers. The Facebook messages and texts dwindle because the actual moment of change has passed. You're here now, and you have your room keys and your routine, the shops you frequent for bread and coffee, the same faces in the gym, the streets you take without thinking. You're a local and a traveller at the same time, so inevitably you feel like neither.

It isn't homesickness or culture shock, in fact almost the opposite. Daily life here feels more like home than it should. So maybe it's a kind of displacement, instead; a need to stop and take stock of my situation, remind myself why I'm here, and what I want to do before I leave. That I'm not here to settle down. Or that maybe I am, one day.

In Mystery Train, Marcus writes about 'an impulse to freedom, an escape from restraints and authority that sometimes seems like the only really American story there is.' It feels like this impulse to freedom might come to define my own American story, too.

Songs: month two

You're Not Good Enough / Blood Orange
West Coast / Coconut Records
Restless Nights / Bruce Springsteen
Don't Change / INXS
Hot Tramps / Beach Slang
You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover / The Castiles
Give Up / American Wrestlers
Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love) / White Denim
Jinx Removing / Jawbreaker
Hand In Hand / Dire Straits
Your Best American Girl / Mitski
Handwritten / The Gaslight Anthem

*    *     *

You can read about my first month in California here: California, month one | in and out of the game

Thursday, October 13

On not meeting Bruce Springsteen

Earlier this summer I came close to bumping into Bruce Springsteen on a side street in London. Then I ran away, and wrote this instead.

Since then, I've spoken to people who did meet Springsteen on that same street. I've watched others meet him in other places. At meet & greet book signings promoting the release of his autobiography, on the east and west coast, including California. Tickets gone before I could blink. And I've realised what a classic fool I was to walk away from the opportunity to meet him on more spontaneous terms. 

I've stood at a bar with Benedict Cumberbatch, and said nothing. Shared a cafe table with James McAvoy while he ate a slice of cake, and said nothing. Been in a bar with Matt Berninger, said nothing. Yes, I'm a fool. But god, none of that comes close to how much I regret not hanging around to say hi to Bruce Springsteen. 


June 21, 2016

I’d always assumed Springsteen moved from hotel to hotel while travelling on tour. Then I learned that during Europe tour dates he sometimes settles in a certain London hotel for a bit and ‘commutes’ to shows. So he’s living in the same city as me for weeks at a time. 

Anyway, today is midsummer. I’m running errands in the city centre, except right now I’m sitting outside a cafe to try and calm down. Because I walked past that certain hotel earlier, half unintentionally, and there outside the entrance were a handful of Springsteen anoraks, clutching tatty records and looking poised to jump. Like an appearance of the man himself was imminent. I didn’t know what the hell to do so I just kept on walking. I couldn’t stop and wait with them on the pavement: the idea frightened me, repulsed me… and enticed me. I didn’t want to meet him. I wanted to meet him.

So I carried on walking like I didn’t give a fuck. It wasn't long, however, before my feet seemed to wander back down that street again, the other side of the road this time. 

But the Springsteen anoraks had gone. I’d just missed him, then. I didn’t know how to feel about this.

Meeting Springsteen would be the best thing to happen to me, and the worst thing: a dream and a nightmare. On one hand, the teenage dreamer inside me despairs at the thought of a life without some kind of contact with him. Another part of me also feels like I absolutely have to meet him, connect with him somehow, at some point. It’s almost non-negotiable. A bit like when Dylan would trek out to visit Woody Guthrie in hospital. (Leaving aside the fact that, unlike Dylan, I'm not a folk singer on the cusp of reshaping American culture, but whatever.) It's rare to have the chance to meet your hero and most people would jump at it, so I feel lucky to be able to have that choice. To know that you’re within metres of somebody who’s incredibly meaningful to you is a big comfort. And it’s exciting, of course. But it’s also unreal. Bruce Springsteen - along with all the days and nights spent at his shows - all of that is on another plane of reality, and it jars painfully to consider bringing that plane down to real life.

Yeah, to meet him would be wonderful, but not in that slightly sad, stale context. With a few seconds, a scribble of a pen, and another selfie. It’s not that meeting him this way would destroy my idealistic notions of him, or ‘cheapen’ him, or anything high-minded like that. It’s simply that the idea of meeting Bruce Springsteen is too big a thing for my head to comprehend. It’s too much. It makes my brain cells crumble. To link all the years of listening to and learning from his music, and all the hours watching him play and talk, and all the thoughts and words and lessons he's given me - to link all of that with standing on a street corner interrupting a rock star’s day for a few sweaty seconds, among a cluster of balding males - no. It can’t be like that.



Wednesday, October 12

Aarhus, Denmark

Aarhus, Denmark, July 2016, the morning after the Springsteen show in Horsens. Our flight doesn't leave until late afternoon; four hours to see as much of Aarhus as our withered feet'll allow. The city comes as something of a surprise. It's Copenhagen that's spread itself out across social media, from the marble-countered coffee bars and chic hygge all over Instagram, to yet another shot of colourful Nyhavn on your Facebook feed. (I'm just as guilty: stay tuned for my own belated post on the capital.) But Aarhus? Who knew! Granted it doesn't have the size, historical and cultural significance of Copenhagen. If you're looking for Danish city lifestyle in a nutshell, though, Aarhus is a good bet. Canals, coffee, cobbled lanes, a university, art, medieval churches, beaches, and a lot of bicycles.  

Danish brunch at Cafe Faust. 'My tongue's confused, I've eaten so many different types of food in one meal,' you say. It's cloudy, only just warm enough to eat outside by the Aarhus River canal, which opens out into the docks and the Kattegat sea. Here a cruise liner sits out of scale with the dock buildings, corrugated containers, cranes and rail tracks. Tough to get a view out to the horizon unless you step on an actual boat.

In the other direction, the canal tightens and bends through Midtbyen, the city centre. We follow the water this way, through the shopping district, past long lines of cyclists and tall brick apartment buildings, towards the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, the city's art gallery.

Art lover or not, the ARoS is worth visiting because it affords good views over the city, by way of both its height and its famous circular rainbow walkway, perched like a halo about its rooftops. The walkway is a fun novelty, the kind of thing I would've got overexcited about as a child. And that's the point - it's a family attraction, so it's busy and noisy, and I actually prefer the views from the rooftop itself, looking out over Aarhus as dark silhouettes walk a rainbow above my head. 

From the landscape of orange and grey rooftops we head back inside the museum. There's a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition on that I'd missed when it was in London, and a Grayson Perry retrospective. The Mapplethorpe show is really good, of course, and it even ends with a 'dress like Patti Smith' section.

The cobbled streets that form the Latinerkvarteret, the oldest part of the city, lace their way around huge medieval churches, department stores, tiny shops, and countless cafes, linking the station with the university. Møllestien is often cited as the city's prettiest street: a picture-perfect cobbled mews, all colourful cottages, trailing hollyhocks and roses, bicycles propped against spick and span exteriors. The residences here date from the eighteenth century (the street itself of Viking era) giving you a sense of the city's age, though Latinerkvarteret architecture stretches back as far as the sixteenth century and before.

Of course, hidden amongst all this history are several record stores, in the kinds of buildings where you have to stoop to enter, the interior full of musty darkness, unexpected steps and alcoves. There's nothing worse than finding a good record store when you have a plane to catch - what's the word for that half-hearted rummaging you do when you know you should be on your way?

It wasn't just the record stores; I didn't have time to see as much of any of Aarhus as I'd like. Those few hours left me with the sense of Aarhus as an easy-going university city, full of history and culture, like Exeter or York in the UK maybe. The kind of place you spend a few days in, not to 'see the sights' but to slow down, dwell in Danish hygge, make your way round every bar and coffee shop, linger on the streets. Apparently there are good beaches not far away too. I don't know what it'd be like in the dead of winter, whether it'd have enough of Copenhagen's capital city energy to sustain a worthwhile trip. And if you want a photo of Møllestien with the hollyhocks in bloom, you've gotta go in July.

On our way to the airport bus we pass a group of Springsteen fans. They spot my River t-shirt and we talk in broken English about last night's show. They're on their way to Sweden, to see him play in Gothenburg. I am jealous. I don't want to go home. I want my run of cinnamon buns, street haunting, and Springsteen to continue forever.

Sunday, October 2

A mix for unrequited lovers

Disclaimer: I'm not suffering from unrequited love. The other day though, I had reading and work to do, and thus a form of procrastination was required. I felt like making a mix but I had no inspiration for a theme or concept, no grand life event (like moving countries) to occasion. I went for a run. One of the songs that came on shuffle was Robyn's Dancing On My Own, a pop song whose greatness I'll always defend. Immediately following came Future Islands' excellent I'll-still-be-listening-to-this-when-I'm-forty Seasons (Waiting On You), and there was the spark. Unrequited love!

This mix starts and ends with wanting. Except the first kind of want, Springsteen's Dylan cover, is sweeping, twinkling, lamenting; that bittersweet thing only really good songs do, when they straddle two opposing emotions simultaneously. You're resigned to sadness, but you're kind of enjoying it. Bowie's Heroes is another song that does this, and The National's Sorrow: 'it's in my honey, it's in my milk ... I don't wanna get over you'. I always think of the 'you' here as referring to sorrow itself, as well as an actual person.

The kind of wanting this mix ends on, Brandon Flowers' Still Want You, is more hopeful. Like, 'throw as much shit as you can at me, and I'll still be here, wanting you, and I know you'll probably end up wanting me back'. It reminds me of a quote from Tove Jansson's The Summer Book:

'"It's funny about love," Sophia said. "The more you love someone, the less he likes you back."
"That's very true," Grandmother observed. "And so what do you do?"
"You go on loving," said Sophia threateningly. "You love harder and harder."'

This mix will take you on a journey between those two kinds of want; a journey of tears, rain, dancing, desperation, anger, loneliness, glowing lights, and time. Enjoy.

And if there're any glaring omissions, or you just want to share your favourite songs of unrequited love, I'm all ears.

A mix for unrequited lovers

1. I Want You (Bob Dylan cover)  /  Bruce Springsteen

2. Seasons (Waiting On You)  /  Future Islands
3. I Can't Believe It  /  The Animals
4. Release Me  /  Oh Laura
5. There's No One Crying Over Me Either  /  American Wrestlers
6. Crying  /  Roy Orbison
7. Time Moves Slow (ft. Sam Herring)  /  BADBADNOTGOOD
8. Hard To Find  /  The National
9. Dancing On My Own  /  Robyn
10. Still Want You  /  Brandon Flowers