In 1973 I travelled to the United States for the first time. Six months earlier I’d bin lookin’ for ways to get out of it; had my sights set on Paris, France; no real desire to go anywhere else. But life has a way of comin’ up with the unexpected, just to make things interestin’ and some relatives on Long Island invited us to come over an’ stay with them, to repay a kindness my parents had done for them when they was visitin’ our country. At first, I said “no thanks”. I didn’ wanna go to the United States with its street crime and racial violence and redneck prejudice. But, as the Rollin’ Stones said: “You can’t always git what you wa’ant”; so I compromised an’ agreed to spend two days in New York City, on my way through to Paris. It was all set. Family obligation was fulfilled; an’ after waitin’ for so long, another two days between me an’ Paris would be no great hardship. Then I saw Circlevision.
Circlevision had been part of the US exhibit at the Tokyo Expo an’ it had come down to Australia on its way back to the States. For those who don’ know it, you stand in the middle of the theatre where there are things like hitchin’ rails to hang on to; the screen is all around you, a full 360°; an’ the film is shot in a way that makes it look like you’re right there in the middle of everythin’. Scenes come towards you, slip around either side of you then disappear behind you just like you was lookin’ through the windows of a vehicle travellin’ along a road. In the film I saw, we raced down San Francisco’s Lombard Street in a fire truck; flew through the Grand Canyon in a light plane an’ circled the Statue of Liberty in a helicopter; an’ a whole bunch’a other stuff as well. Yeeeeeehah! It was awesome.
After that experience I decided, right there on the spot, to extend my stay in the US. My planned two days in New York exploded into a two-month North American trip, coast-to-coast, border-to-border. I made a list of all the places I wanted to see and since those was pre-Internet times, I took it along to the local Greyhound Bus office, just to see if the whole thing was possible. I’d only expected a rough estimate, a quick “yes” or “no”; or even a “you can’t be serious, man”; but the clerk I talked to, a young girl as it happened, took out an enormous book of timetables and started plannin’ out the whole damn route for me in detail. I figured that maybe she didn’ get many people comin’ in an’ askin’ what I asked; an’ maybe it was just the most interestin’ thing she’d had to do that day; but by the time she got to Phoenix, she looked up at me – sweetly, I must add – an’ asked: “Do you like music, by any chance?”
“Yes. Yes, I do as a matter of fact,” I replied, intrigued by the perceptiveness of the question. “Why do you ask?”
She smiled over to me, across the desk, an’ said in a voice that flowed like honey: “It’s just that every place on your list has a song about it.” An’ she was right.
When you think about it – an’ I did think about it later that day – that’s not such an’ earth-shatterin’ revelation after all. Americans love their country; an’ love to make music; an’ it’s not such a stretch to imagine that they’d put those two loves together an’ come up with a whole bunch’a songs about places in their beloved country. Nor is it strange that I, who also love music, most kinds at least, should have an awareness of the United States that is based, primarily, on the songs I know; but suddenly, thanks to the diligence and perspicacity of that young female employee of the Greyhound Corporation, in Sydney, Australia, my impending trip to North America had developed a whole new focus. I wanted to leave my heart in San Francisco. I wanted to be busted flat in Baton Rouge. I craved a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue; and in the two months I spent travellin’ in that great country I got all that. But what changed me forever was that I got so much more; more than I could ever have imagined.
The young lady in the Greyhound bus office was my first encounter with the people of North America and it had been such a positive experience, I was energised and bustin’ with enthusiasm for my visit to America proper. My second encounter, however, was not so positive. I was granted a single-entry permit to the US, meaning that if I left US territory for any reason during my journey, I would not be permitted to re-enter; and since I had planned to visit Canada and Mexico en route, this would create a problem for me. So, I headed down to the US Consulate to put things right, lookin’ forward to the same bottomless well of sunshine and goodwill as I had drunk from in the Greyhound office a few days before.
“Next!” a middled-aged woman who looked like she was suffering with haemorrhoids scowled at me.
I explained my situation to her and she stared at me for a protracted moment, apparently made speechless by my gall to question what I’d been given. I felt like Oliver Twist standing raggedy-assed, dirty-faced with my empty bowl in my hand.
“Wait here,” she growled, when I persisted; an’ disappeared into the back office.
When she returned, she was accompanied by a tall, slender man in a grey suit. He was no Gregory Peck. An’ he forced me to repeat my request, listenin’ with a bored impatience.
“Why do you want to come back into the United States?” he asked, as though I had explained all that before in a language that was completely foreign to him.
I was tempted to ask him in return, “Is it really that bad?” but I didn’. I was clearly under suspicion and any false move might have seen even my single-entry permit revoked, such was his power. The long-haired hippie-type that I was, he probably envisioned me Coming into Los Angeles Bringing in a couple of ki’s; and he only wanted to save the customs man the trouble of lookin’ in my bag.
Then he opened the file that the haemorrhoid lady handed to him (yes, I have a file) an’ took a pen from the inside pocket of his jacket, askin’ without avertin’ his gaze from the paper: “Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”
A couple of months later, as I was standin’ outside the White House in Washington DC, readin’ the sign sayin’ that I couldn’ enter because the Soviet President, Mr. Leonid Brezhnev, was visitin’, I wondered if the same question had been posed to him; and even more interestin’; if it had, what had bin his reply.
Now, y’all’ll’ve probably realised by now that I was successful in obtainin’ my entry permit; an’ on June 2, 1973, I boarded a jet plane, not sure when I’d be back again, an’ headed for the City of Angels. But the real story started a few days later when I said goodbye to Hollywood (the North Hollywood bus depot, to be precise) and rolled north as far as Canada, then south again to Mexico, then east like Peter an’ Jack an’ Dennis to The Big Easy, way down yonder in New Orleans, ridin’, sleepin’ an’ eatin’ on the buses, meetin’ new people, talkin’, listenin’, exchangin’ stories.
Leavin’ N’yorlns an’ headin’ north, it seemed like I was on the final leg of my journey to New York City; but my next port of call was Jackson, Mississippi (Johnny Cash); then Memphis Tennessee (Chuck Berry); then in the early hours of the followin’ mornin’, ‘fore the sun was up, I pulled into (Nashville), I was feelin’ about half past dead.
In that year, at that hour, the city was quiet, deserted, an empty shell. I wandered around for a bit, stumbled on a place that was open, an’ went in for a bite to eat. A group of locals who looked like they’d delivered the furniture an’ decided to stay, eyed me up an’ down like I’d escaped from Roswell. I said ‘Hi’ to them and they seemed to shrink inside themselves like they was some of them anemones that you find down deep in the ocean.
‘What can I get you, my friend?’ a giant of a man asked from behind the counter, in a tone that seemed at odds with his words. I was tempted to ask for two croissants and a half a grapefruit; but thought better of it. Besides, I’ve never liked grapefruit an’ I’d just be foolin’.
The good ol’ boys in the corner went into a huddle an’ I was half expectin’ them to pull out shotguns, when one of them stood up, the one they’d elected spokesman apparently, an’ moseyed on up to me to ask me where I hailed from. Not from around these parts, he’d supposed.
‘Australia,’ I replied, warily.
I might as well have said V391 Pegasi b for all my answer registered with him.
‘Scotland,’ I tried again.
Sometimes it’s hard to be a stranger. Giving all your love to just one land.
He turned and relayed the information to the caucus in the corner, an’ they all began to nod with what looked like approval.
Invited, I joined them at their table an’ ate a greasy breakfast washed down with seemingly endless cups of a coffee that was more than capable of stripping the varnish off the furniture. They asked me where I’d been and where I was headed and what life was like where I lived: questions I’d been asked every day since leaving LA, by all manner of folks; but it was clear that, in their minds at least, no place could match their Nashville.
After a whole lotta (hand) shakin’, I left a tip that was way more than I could afford an’ quit the diner with the strong feelin’ that I had just dodged a bullet. I headed off down the street that looked, apart from being brighter now, no different to when I’d last been on it. For a city whose main claim to fame is its music, I felt no rhythm in the streets; but maybe that was because country music has never been high on my personal hit parade. I wandered around a bit more, still hopin’ that Nashville would cut loose an’ sing for me; but in the end, I went to a newsstand, bought me a copy of Downbeat magazine, then headed back to the bus depot to book myself on the next ‘hound to DC, half expectin’ its arrival to be announced in the high, nasal whine of ‘Stand by your van’; but it wasn’t.
When the bus did arrive, I clambered aboard, slung my bag up in the baggage shelf an’ dropped down into the seat below. More passengers sidled along the aisle. Some said ‘Hi’; others were too absorbed in their own affairs. A young woman sat down beside me. I learned that she was headed to Knoxville. Later, I learned that she played saxophone. An’ in between the snippets of early conversation, as we left the city of Nashville behind us, the music in my head began to play again.
On the road again
Goin’ places that I’ve never been.
Seein’ things that I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again.