New York to Kansas City (2015)
Jess Morgan’s Travel Journal – part 1
You know what it’s like when you have to be up early for something important, waking up at half-hourly intervals in the night thinking each time “oh crumbs* I’ve slept through my alarm.” Even though ‘time-sensitive’ makes for a more self-settling descriptor than ‘fraught’, flying a day later than planned and to a different airport, with that double edged sword of a tourist visa and a guitar case – I just want to finally be up in the air and be done with all the wiggly bits in the middle.
* – insert your own choice of early morning expletive. My swearing lacks any sailor-ish gusto on an empty stomach.
First leg of ground transportation kicks off in New Jersey and with a chance to soak up some excellent accents. It’s evening time and there’s a bitter wind down on the platforms. Arriving at Penn Station in New York, I’m reminded of the last time I took a similar journey – in and out of Penn to get a glimpse of Asbury Park – boardwalk and Stone Pony, as any self respecting Springsteen fan would. That was five years ago. Crumbs.*
Despite having been here before, I get my first chance to utterly balls up the subway system. Getting the L to Morgan Avenue should be as quietly familiar in its silveryness as the Jubilee line from Central to Stratford. After a fair bit of zig-zagging underground I catch the L train to Brooklyn. The snow in Williamsburg is piled up high on the roadsides. Pavements have been cleared here and there, but you could still find yourself following a path cut through the snow only to find it suddenly stop and you need to dig yourself a way out. The keys to my borrowed apartment have been padlocked to a post somewhere down McKibben Street.
The Rockwood Music Hall is back in Manhattan. I find food down the street at a diner which must be either rite of passage for Rockwood musicians or predictable New York Newbie behaviour because my friend Annie, who is both seasoned New Yorker and wonderful singer-songwriter, could pinpoint my location just by the salt and pepper shakers.
I have the midnight slot at Rockwood. Watching the bustle of the room swell as the acts took to the stage over the course of the evening I hold out little hope that I’ll get away with playing any quiet songs tonight. I’m not too proud to admit that some of my stuff just doesn’t cut it in a bar room now. It catches me by surprise when suddenly things get very quiet in the room. I’m touring with my Blueridge BR43 – which I call The Workhorse. It’s kind of an unwritten law that guitar players with any slight leaning toward Americana have one guitar they must call the workhorse. Anyway I picked that guitar up 2nd hand from Northern Guitars in Leeds on a day when I had I think a bad mood and a student loan pay-out. It’s been a pal to me ever since. The spruce top means it’s a little harsh and bright for my stuff ordinarily but it’s lovely and immediate which is perfect for a songwriting session. The Workhorse however, is tired and upset and remains to be, despite my best efforts, pitifully out of tune throughout my set at Rockwood tonight. Nevertheless, I enjoy playing and being heckled by the audience. Little sparks fly across and back as I if I’m in a room full of my loveliest friends.
Next day I have a terrific view over the city and the Chelsea area from the restaurant on the 5th floor of Soho House. My name is on the door which makes me straighten up my posture and maybe my tie too if I were wearing one, and I make my way up to the bar to meet a friend. Every inch of this place is shining spotlessly and stands in complete contrast to the shabbiness of the bread-and-butter-for-backpackers loft with its makeshift quarters from stud-wall and cheerful coloured sheets, where I woke up today. I’m being treated to lunch by Michael Park who I only know so far through e-mail although I know the Scots twang from podcast episodes of The international Americana Music Show. As well as very kindly including and talking up my music on his radio programme, Michael was the first person to plant the seed of the Folk Alliance conference in my head – my final destination and the reason really for the entire trip. We talk about New York and about what to expect at Folk Alliance, about Michael’s experience as a journalist based here in the US and how like in music the idea of gaining not just simply success but momentum is the easiest thing to expect but the hardest thing to realise. After lunch we take a cab through to Brooklyn Proper and Michael fills me in on some of the neighbourhoods he’s known and seen change over that last ten years he’s been based in the city.
I’m heading now to meet a friend who lives in Brooklyn and we’re taking her kids who are both pre-schoolers to their music class. We meet another Brooklyn Mom and her kids and we all walk like a parade alongside Prospect Park, snaking piles of snow and icy puddles. Music class is an absolute hoot. The couple running the class have a great ‘set’ of songs and activities which they perform with such energy while at the same time being attentive to each child so that everyone feels included and positively praised. It felt great to come in off the cold street to somewhere warm and buzzing. It’ll take a long time before I lose the voice in the back of my head saying “whaddaya mean Lima beans?!”
Later on I take the subway north as far as Bedford Avenue and walk back through Bushwick / Williamsburg (I’m never sure which counts as which). I’ve heard that this a good street for some decorated hipster-spotting but it’s pointedly cold now and the streets are eerily quiet, so much so that I stop for a hot beverage and a snack and as it turns out Eddie the sandwich guy’s phone number written in marker on a tear off of wax paper.
The next few days I get to spend on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, couch surfing with some very dear friends from back home who have been based out here for a while. I spend a whole afternoon in Greenwich Village seeing if I can get my hands on one of the records I’ve made it something of an obsession to get a good vinyl copy of and at a fair price – that’s Tupelo Honey – Van Morrison and I’m Just A Prisoner – Candi Staton if anyone’s counting. I don’t have much luck with the records but I do take pictures of birds in the La Guardia corner gardens and have coffee in the Cornelia Street cafe.
Free from the guitar and my duffel bag, I start to enjoy the subway again. The six train is ground to a halt just after 68th street and an old man with bow legs and his grey hair mashed into a baseball cap yells out “come on jackasses!” It’s a minute or two’s delay says the announcer. “Jackasses,” again. A stop down the line one of New York’s many subway beggars enters the train and he’s singing ‘Under the boardwalk’ most curiously in two voices – one smooth and soulful, one low down and shudderingly croaky. He taps out the rhythm with his stick on the dirty car floor. Musically it’s a treat – and I actually do want to give him a couple of bucks, but everyone is stony faced and wind braced with the hatches firmly down. I’m not brave enough to start a trend. Unphased by the cold reception, the singing beggar leaves the train, his voice saying with a distinct up note “don’t forget to smile, it won’t mess up your hair.” The sourpuss in the cap says “this is fucking shit, don’t give him any money… Jackass.”
The days in New York pass much too quickly. I’ve eaten and drunk like a trooper, heard some great music and had my mind blown by street art, modern art and Egyptian paintings.
More snow fell on Monday morning making the pavements slushy and slippery with more frozen rain hurling down from above. It was probably a good day to be spending on a bus. The Sprinter coach to Virginia Beach went from Times Square and I was met by the nicest bus driver of all time who let me take my guitar on board and even helped me find a good place to stash it. He showed me an ad hoc mobile phone slideshow of his own guitars and said he’d played all over the US and Europe too. The driver’s microphone on the other hand seemed like it was still something of a novelty instrument. Our coach party were to endure a flurry of announcements and digressions sprinkled like yet more snow over the course of the 7 hour trip in the style one might expect from James Joyce and incorporating as many obscure tangents.
The wind buffets the bus as we heroically cross the Chesapeake bridge safe into the arms of a supermarket carpark which doubles as the drop-off point for Virginia Beach. It’s a few degrees warmer here and I’m relieved to be able to take off my big coat for a while. I have enough time to gawk at the tidal wave of peanut butter based confectionery before meeting my cousin Ben and trying to wedge a hiscox case into the back of a particularly slimline Pontiac.
Up ahead are a few days of family time, during which I conquer my fear of spiral staircases and sharks at the aquarium, realise I am beyond terrible at line-dancing, and try hush puppies for the first time, by which I mean deep fried cornbread style doughnuts – not shoes from Clarks – served in a basket… with extra butter. Crumbs.*