And so we traveled the blissfully short 3 hour drive from Rosario back to Buenos Aires. You may remember I had left my telephone in Brazil with my iPad charger. Emails back to England had elicited help and FedEx had been engaged to ferry the equipment from Rio to BA. I was looking forward to picking it up in the hotel and for the twitches which come from being estranged from these modern day curses to subside.
“You were expecting a package from FedEx”, said the receptionist. “Yes”, I replied in joy. “The customs have impounded it” he said. “You are #*$¥%}ing joking me”, was my measured response after less sleep in a week than I’m accustomed to enjoying for a Saturday afternoon nap.
It turns out that Argentina’s much admired and completely rational president, Kristina Kirchner, has had a spat with Apple. She demanded they build a factory in her country, they declined, so she banned my particular model of iPhone. I could go to a Customs office in the equivalent of Swansea on Monday, in person and only in person, pay a fine, whereupon my iPhone would be restored to me.
“But I’ll be in Uruguay on Monday and from there I’m traveling back to Brazil and the UK”, was my plaintive cry. All were agreed it was not a promising situation.
At least there was better news from Uruguay. A government minister would be welcoming me to his office on Monday afternoon to present me with a medal as an “Illustrious Visitor” to Montevideo. The only musicians to receive this honour before were Paul MacCartney and Elton John. This was, of course, in recognition for the song “Montevideo” on my cd “Little Big Head”, a song inspired by my last trip to the city which was largely spent in an alcoholic haze of the night time hours in a bar called ClashCityRockers.
So you celebrate getting rat arsed in a city and they give you a medal for it. My kind of town.
“If he’s a government minister tell him to get onto Kirchner and get your phone back”‘ was the solitary response from a geographically challenged, and unimpressed Liz.
And so to the nights show. By now the whole team were running on pure adrenaline and audience reaction to overcome the lack of sleep. Both adrenaline and audience reaction were there in copious quantities.
Tim was in fine form as ever and the Adverts song, “One Chord Wonders”, which we played together as he joined me and the band on stage at the end of my set, particularly went down a storm.
An early night. In bed by 3pm and six, count them, six whole hours of sleep before getting the ferry across the River Plate, a river the width of the English Channel, in the morning.
So, a stupendous if somewhat late night in Tandil. Today a 9 hour haul to the lovely town of Rosario. Now, here’s a fact you might not know: there is one heck of a lot of grass in Argentina. The road from Tandil to Rosario goes straight from south to north through flat terrain of mile after mile of ……………. grass.
Not a lot happened. There was a welcome burst of excitement each time we needed petrol. Especially at one stop where Mariano pulled up at the kiosk to pay. A battered car approached from the other direction which slowed down but didn’t quite stop. The rotund driver opened his door and leapt out, door left swinging as the car hurtled toward us with no one at the wheel and no brake on. Liz leapt onto our car horn and started honking for all her worth. “That’ll stop it”, we thought. The runaway car came to a halt just short of our driver’s door.
Such excitement over we became a little bored. As car passenger backside set in we became so bored, in fact, that we decided to play pub cricket. It’s a childhood game you play on long journeys in England where all pubs have a name. As you pass a pub the person “in” scores “runs” according to the number of legs in the title. E.g. the “Dog and Duck” will score you 6 runs. If the pub name has no legs, e.g. “The Plough”, you are “out”.
There aren’t any pubs in Argentina so we managed to while away quite some time that way on the look out!
Rosario hove into view at 8 pm. Bags dropped at the luxurious Holiday Inn and sound check. We were due to play at 1 am but the audience didn’t start to show up till then. I think you might be starting to get the drift here? So, after 3 hours sleep in 48 we took the stage at 3am.
But that’s when it’s all worth it. Great audience, great show.
Liz, Tim and I left the venue at 5 pm to the cries of incredulous locals. “You are leaving so early?”, they insisted. “Stay a while. There’s plenty of life here yet”. And I bet there was, but after the delights of the Hotel Austral in Tandil the night before, the vast acres of freshly laundered cotton covering our bed in the Rosario Holiday Inn were enticing like a Siren’s song, calling out to tired mariners nearing land after being adrift for eternity on a sea of pampas grass.
Tuesday and a beautifully sunny, mishap free day arrived in Buenos Aires. There’s no blue like a clear day in “BA”, as the locals call it.
Liz and I wandered the haphazard, cobbled streets around the hotel, popping in and out of shops and lunching on the pavement of a “Parilla” restaurant. A mountain of steak, salad, grilled tomato and wine set us back a fiver a head.
8 pm saw the first rehearsal which went on till 11 at Tomas, local Dave Grohl lookalike’s, apartment. Out the back he has a wide, tiled, walled garden. The kind of space you’d kill for in a London townhouse. It was now midnight. Tomorrow was a working or school day depending on the age of our new friends so, after a long day, everyone did the logical thing.
They all called their wives to bring the respective tribes of children round, the barbecue was lit and a delightful few hours were spent into the early hours eating, drinking and talking under the stars, music playing with no complaints from the neighbours.
South American logic, you see? Sleep isn’t very important, having a good time is.
Wednesday arrived and all the parts were assembled. Tim “TV” Smith arrived early in the morning after his 24 hour flight, with a day to be spent staying awake to avoid being completely messed up by the jet lag.
So, a day sight seeing at the stunning Recoleta cemetery. And La Boca, home to Boca Juniors and vividly painted houses. At the lunch restaurant one of the cocktails offered on the drinks menu was “Vodka and Speed”! Perhaps a translation error but we decided to pass as everyone had ordered the “all you can eat pasta buffet” and thought it might be a waste of money after such an aperitif.
Having just come from the cemetery across the road we also passed on one of the main courses, labeled on the English menu as a “Stiff”.
Another 3 hours rehearsal in the evening but this time bed at a reasonable hour before the 5 hour journey south to the farming city of Tandil: home to the most famous sausage, salami and cheese in Argentina and soon to witness the respective Southern Hemisphere debuts of TV Smith and Duncan Reid and the Gaucho Big Heads.
There were 2 support bands that night. Tim was to play at 1 in the morning and myself at 2 am. This was a Thursday night gig, remember, not a weekend. Try getting people out midweek in London past 10 pm!
We checked into the hotel and all were in agreement that these were not the roomiest, brightest nor most recently decorated and furnished spaces we had ever stayed in. In fact, we were all looking forward to checking out. What didn’t bother us, though, was the dull thud of drums and bass coming from the band in the bar downstairs. We wouldn’t be getting to bed before 4pm so, of course, the din would be finished by then and wouldn’t disturb the precious few hours sleep to be grabbed before setting off on tomorrow’s 8 hour drive back north to Rosario. It’s a big country, Argentina.
We arrived at the venue in time to catch The Nylons, a really entertaining Ramones tribute act. They feature a singer who gives a truly remarkable vocal impersonation of Joey. Close your eyes and it’s him.
I’d wondered how Tim would go down here. He’s great of course, but Argentineans like their music with driving guitars and drums. How would our acoustic guitar backed political troubadour fare among a crowd with little grasp of English?
No need to worry. Argentinean audiences are magnificently welcoming and Tim had them eating out of his hand, the reaction growing with each song towards a rapturous finale.
And so it was with us. Absolutely bloody exhilarating. From the kick off with Montevideo, through highlights from Little Big Head and The Boys, to a finale with Tim on One Chord Wonders. Varying degrees of pandemonium ensued. At times a stern, school masterly, Mariano was required at the front to keep things in check. His magisterial gaze even made me feel naughty and I was meant to be on the stage.
Afterwards, having towelled down a bit, there was a deluge of Latin warmth as I went back out to the venue. Photos, CDs for signing, kisses on the cheek, unfortunately from both sexes, hands to be shaken, backs to be slapped and hugs to be exchanged. At one point I was surrounded by 5 extremely interested and gorgeous teenage girls. Not the worst experience I’ve ever suffered but it would soon be dawn and I needed my beauty sleep. But help was at hand as I spotted a nearby Alex.
“Here’s my friend, Alex” I explained to each of them before sneaking off, looking back at a slightly bewildered, but mostly delighted multi instrumentalist. “Mmmm”, I thought to myself. “There’s a song in there”. And, indeed there is. I’d been saying to Tim earlier that I’d a good tune in my head but was struggling for a theme to write the lyrics to. (Note: check out “Just as Good as I used to be” on “The Difficult Second Album”)
Downstairs a band was playing Gaucho, horse riding, cow punching music and people were dancing. Outside, at 4.30 pm in the morning, in the equivalent of Kettering, people were queuing 4 abreast for 50 yards to carry on partying the night away.
The whole of Tandil was up and at it. A multitude of dogs were joining in, engaged either in canine courtship or playing with the traffic up and down the roads.
Back in the hotel the underlying band were in full swing and the paper thin walls were keeping neither their sound nor that coming from the other residents. The latter were either returning back, or just as likely, heading out for a little reverie before work in a few hours time.
We did manage a couple of hours sleep though. On departure for Rosario shops were open and the populus were at work and in school. How, I don’t know, but there is much that is unfathomable about this admirable country.
Tomorrow: the long road to Rosario when our intrepid troops would suffer from “car journey backside”.
So, we last left our intrepid travellers landing in Buenos Aires as night descended with no phone and no directions as to where to go. Would Liz and I be alright? Or would we be left to wander the streets forlornly looking for help?
Of course not. I was just being artificially dramatic to create a cliffhanger ending in the style of the best Brazilian soap operas which play on their TV channels for most of the evening.
Liz had a phone and, in any case, trusty Mariano, my Argentinian friend and collaborator, was there at the airport to meet us.
We were therefore safely ferried to our hotel, bags were dropped, faces were refreshed and off we set to pick up a newly arrived and very much jet lagged Alex, multi instrumentalist and vocalist from the Big Heads. We passed by the rehearsal room to say hello to Dave Grohl lookalike Tomas of The Mamushkas, and Juan and Jose from local legends Katarro Vandaliko, who were lending extremely able backing on guitars and drums for the following gigs in Argentina and Uruguay.
They played us a couple of songs and all was extremely reassuring. Hugs all round and, very worryingly, Alex was starting to assimilate the local culture at an alarming rate by joining in with the custom of kissing male colleagues. Admittedly, there were no tongues involved and the manoeuvre was lips to bearded cheek, but – still not to be encouraged.
Male bonding achieved off we went. It was 10.30 at night and Alex who, even when not knackered, could sleep on a high wire strung between two skyscrapers, was coerced into finding something to eat. As the food was ordered in the bustling restaurant Mariano’s phone rang. “It’s a radio show”, he said. “They want to know if you will do a telephone interview now”. “Does the DJ speak English?”‘ I asked. “They want to do it in Spanish”, was the reply.
Now languages are one of my hobbies. I hate going anywhere and not being able to converse. At the same time I love the greater understanding that a little comprehension brings as you learn how people express themselves. So, I have a completely misleading grasp of French, German, Spanish and, many would say, English. Misleading in that I can appear to be conversant in a language while having no idea what people are talking about.
“I’ll give it a go, then” was my foolhardy response and Mariano passed me his phone.
Liz, meanwhile, was completely oblivious to the fact that I was trying to conduct a radio interview in a foreign language and all she could see was that I was carrying on the completely unacceptable social practice of talking very loudly on a mobile phone in a restaurant. There was only one appropriate response to this and that was to strike up a very loud conversation with Alex to make it difficult for me to hear whoever I was talking to and so stop at once!
And so the interview began. Against a background of a bustling restaurant enhanced by marital misunderstanding the interviewer fired off his first question at machine gun speed. I had not a clue what he’d said. “Que?” Was my Manuelesque response and so the question was repeated. Again, not the slightest shred of comprehension on my part. Panic set in and quick action was required if British honour was not to be lost. I said what came into my head. “Yes, I am delighted to be back in Argentina and really looking forward to playing here again”.
There was stunned silence at the other end of the line. A silence which quite eloquently conveyed the message “what on earth is this half wit doing talking about that, when we’ve asked him something of far greater import?”.
And so a second question was ventured. Again, quite inaudible and unintelligible against the restaurant and wifely din, but a question which clearly contained the words “Margaret Thatcher”, who had died that day.
I had long ago discovered that, as an Englishman, discussing anything to do with “The Malvinas” in Argentina is best avoided, especially by telephone from a crowded restaurant on FM radio in a language which is not your first, in answer to a question not understood in the first place. It was then that I pulled my master stroke.
“I’m very sorry”, I said, ” but I can’t understand a word you are saying because my wife is sitting beside me and won’t stop talking in my ear”.
There was audible relief at the other end of the line from the two male members of the team who collapsed into gales of laughter. They were not dealing with a half wit and normality was restored by means of a macho cliche: the wife who won’t stop talking. Very unfair on Liz and, not for the first time, she had come riding to my rescue by taking the blame for a scrape I had got myself into by overestimating the extent of my abilities.
The aural equivalent of back slapping commiserations were conveyed down the phone and the interview proceeded in English, with no further mention of Margaret Thatcher nor anything connected to military skirmishes in the South Atlantic.
Disaster averted and normality restored: Englishmen conversing in English, the rest of the world joining in, and not a hint of men kissing each other on the cheek.
You know, often when you are on tour you meet the most remarkable people who dismiss their lives as boring while performing feats of heroics. Single mums who hold it together, long distance lorry drivers, firemen (now what have they seen and done which I could never manage), ……………… every day people who have brought families up with all the trials and tribulations that entails.
Last week in Munich was something special though.
Tine, our wonderful German agent/tour manager (who we normally call “Mum”) told me earlier in the evening that the Rock Twins were coming. They are apparently quite a feature in Munich, not least because of their ability to play a song, both of them on the same guitar. And as we were on stage they were there; right at the front smiling and enjoying the set.
After the gig I was found by their friend, Andi who said “There are two young girls who would love to meet you. Do you have 5 minutes?” And thank goodness I did because I then spent an enchanting time with Jessica and Janine.
“Hi”, they said, “we think you are such a great writer. You are the story teller of punk. We love your stories and the way you tell them. Like Joe where you change the gender of the protagonist without changing the name, and like how you use the same word weather/whether in the same line and like ……..”. And so they carried on, taking turns to speak but with one often picking up mid sentence from the other. They gave me a detailed analysis of my lyrics knowing far more about them than me, understanding everything: all the nuances and double meanings.
I answered their questions filling in a few holes in their knowledge such as who Joe was written about and all the time thinking: “This is amazing. It would be incredible for an English speaker to understand so much of what I’ve written, let alone two German girls for whom English is their second language”.
And there was something else that made me feel even more humble. It shouldn’t have made any difference and maybe it shows up a little bit of prejudice in me but I suddenly realised they are both totally blind.
I later learned that they studied as translators and interpreters so my astonishment at their grasp of English was completely misplaced. It didn’t diminish my sense of wonder though for two beautiful, super intelligent human beings.
I came away from our chat floating on air, exhilarated that what I do is so understood and appreciated by two blind, young German girls in a far flung town. It’s such days that make it worthwhile and I’ll always be grateful to the Rock Twins.
I wrote this blog, which first appeared here in Uber Rock, after a tour to South America with TV Smith. The events, all of which are true, were the inspiration behind the song “One Night in Rio” on “The Difficult Second Album”. You can see a video of a live performance of the song at the end:
It’s a long way to Argentina and there’s no flight that goes straight there. Even the BA flight that claims to be direct makes you wait on the tarmac in Brazil for ever while the crew changes, and then takes off again for a few more hours to Buenos Aires. It’s a gruelling journey.
So why not stop over in Rio de Janeiro? Party capital of the carnival world, samba dancing lovelies, and Copacabana beach-footballing geniuses.
It also has one of the world’s greatest disparities in wealth between a rich upper middle class and poor incomers, who live on cardboard boxes or in the “favelas”. Shanty towns on the hills which are in the process of being freed by the police from the dead grip of drug gangs.
There’s a great, Oscar nominated film called City of God. If you haven’t seen it then please do, for a flavour of life on the wrong side of Brazil.
But there’s also the picture postcard side. Sunny people living a sun kissed life, world class bikini clad backsides on the beach, never ending bars, and great, African derived food. A city which, especially during the very short dusk as the sunshine fades and the twinkling lights turn on in the hills, is one of the most beautiful in the world. And all overseen by a towering figure of Christ on high, trying his best to make sure the population don’t get completely out of hand.
And it started very well. Pierre, a local fanzine editor and singer, had hooked me up with Davi, a drummer, and Mauk, a local rockabilly guitar legend, and a plan to play 3 songs as guest at a pre organised gig. We had a sweaty rehearsal on the Saturday afternoon and ran through “Sick on You”, “Terminal Love” and “First Time”, all of which went perfectly, almost from the off. As we still had an hour booked at the rehearsal studio I showed them “Montevideo” and “Thinking” and those went very well too. So our 3 song set had almost doubled in length and had an interesting, rockabilly slant to it coming from Mauk’s vintage Gretsch guitar.
I asked Pierre when I would be playing, bearing in mind the 4 hour time difference between the UK and Brazil that I still hadn’t adjusted too. It was explained there were 2 bands on before me, starting at 11pm, so I would perform about 12.30. Now, I’ve played in Brazil before and so knew that my Northern European sensibilities about time and punctuality would need to be softened. If a Brazilian says he will be round in 10 minutes you have time to order a 3 course meal and probably fit in the coffee, cognacs and cigars as well. “So I’ll be playing at 1.30”, I thought, which would be 5.30 in the morning for me but, what the hell, plenty of time to sleep on Sunday.
Mauk picked my wife Liz and I up at 10.30 in a taxi to go to the gig. “It’s a 20 minute journey” he explained and all was fine for the first 15, whereupon we appeared to have come to a stop. There was animated discussion between the taxi driver and my bequiffed guitarist. The Portuguese language is not one of my strong suits but I’m pretty sure I was getting the gist. The taxi driver was advancing something along the lines of “You want me to drive down there!?” To which the reply was “Sure. It’ll be alright.”
A financial arrangement was struck and on we drove ………… into a world for which an upbringing in an English cathedral town was not the most apt preparation. Imagine Mad Max meets modern day Syria. Empty colonial style buildings either falling down or about to fall down. Cobbled streets with grass sprouting through the stones. Cul de sacs ending in barbed wire barricades. “The Buzzcocks played round here once” said Mauk. “That’s alright then” I said.
There were no snipers, however, and every 50 metres or so was a bar. Our gig was in one of these and and apparently Rio’s red light district was conveniently situated one block away.
I had a look inside the gig. No furniture except a table for the merchandise, one bar, one unisex toilet directly in front of the bar lending some confusion as to who was queuing for what, and a small stage set up with drums and amps. “That’s an interesting looking pa ” I thought. Pa.s, the large speakers through which everything and especially voices are played, usually come in pairs, I.e. 2 sets of speakers, one on either side of the stage. They have on stage monitors, so that the band and especially the singers can hear themselves, and a mixing desk. This pa appeared to comprise of one speaker and amp with a few wires at the back of the stage.
It was a hot evening and even hotter inside so Liz and I, being pale skinned ice dwellers not used to these climes, were kindly offered a table on the pavement outside to while away the short time until I would be playing the relative hop, skip and a jump of a mere 5 song set. I would afterwards, of course, receive the adulation which would be my due, before making fond farewells.
A large crowd of about 300 had arrived to create a happy atmosphere, spilling out of the hot small bar into the street. All were saying hello, thank you for coming, photographs were taken, as ever, more or less successfully depending on how well people knew their mobile phones, CDs and vinyls were signed, and everything was extremely jolly in our little bomb site.
I queued up for the loo in front of the bar. The olive skinned beauty in front of me turned round, talked in rapid Portuguese when she saw me, and then fell into my arms. She was, by her own admission, very, very, drunk.
The first band went on at 12.30. “OK”, I thought, “I’ll be on at 2 am. Six in the morning really but still alright” and returned to our table outside. The vocals could not be heard and I made a mental note to turn down the guitars and bass amp.
It was then that the night’s main cabaret began. The sound of the band had achieved more than accelerate the crumbling of the neighbouring buildings. Along the street marched 50 leather clad, booted, studded and very vacant teenagers. They had clearly been roused from their enhanced reverie by the sound of fresh meat ready to eat and were lined up on the pavement across from our table, arms folded, eyes glaring ready for the signal to charge over and devour their prey.
“Let’s run for it” said Liz. “It’s going to kick off”. “We can’t” I said. “You’ve got heels on, the streets are cobbled and we wouldn’t make 10 yards.”
And if it had been England there is no doubt it would, indeed, have kicked off. The mixture of strong alcohol and teenagers striking aggressive poses would have lead to at least one of the big guys present taking his index finger across the road, jabbing it in the chest of the most aggressive looking kid and asking who the fuck he was looking at like that? From there blood would have ensued.
But this was Brazil. So a couple of very big looking gentlemen did amble across, smiled at the feral near adults and asked what was happening. Soon all was sweetness and light. The kids got bored with threatening everyone and marched off down the street to carry on stoning police cars and taxis, which was what was keeping them amused before.
But by now it was 2.30 am and only one band had played. I went off to find the promoter to “ask” that I play next and, like, “now please”. He had a worried look on his face while he explained that the home made pa had blown up. But, not to worry, another one had been sent for and it would be there in an hour.
Liz and I had a conference with Mauk and Davi. All were in agreement. This wasn’t going to happen and everyone was drifting off home in any case. Which is what we did.
So, all in all a less than successful but completely invigorating evening. Many new friends made, a few CDs sold, promises to come back again and sights seen that no tourist would witness in a decade of weekend jaunts.
Next up Buenos Aires when, as we came in to land on the other side of the world, I would discover I had lost the hotel address together with my phone. All in a day’s work!
In about 2011, as part of a South American tour, The Boys became the first UK Punk band to play in Uruguay. It was the beginning of a love affair for me with a small country on the other side of the world. Montevideo/South America: it sounds like a swinging, lively place. In fact it’s quiet. A little like a Sunday afternoon which lasts all week.
But one small corner rocks like it’s New Year’s Eve every night: The Clash City Rockers Bar.
Well I’m glad to say they liked my depiction of the whole town as ravers. So much so that on returning a couple of years later, thanks to the efforts of my good friend Hugo Gutierrez, they declared me “Visitante Illustre”, the equivalent of the Freedom of the City. The only other foreign musicians to receive that honour are Elton John and Paul MacCartney.
After another long, long night at the “Clash” we trooped over to the Montevideo Parliament where I received the medal and had to give a speech in spanish. No mean feat after the previous night. You can see it here: