Ricky Don't Lose My Number Ricky Martin won't give me no bucks, so I have to work for a living. My band Soul Coughing has a song called "Super Bon Bon," which goes: super bon bon, super bon bon. Ricky Martin has a song called "Shake Your Bon Bon," which goes: shake your bon bon, shake your bon bon. Pretty much everyone I've ever met in my life has called up my answering machine upon encountering Ricky's ditty?and it's pretty fucking difficult to consume any kind of media without encountering it?and informed me that Ricky Martin "owes" me money. Gee, thanks, pal. Trouble is, my little band doesn't have the money to go up against the armies of lawyers retained by Sony, and perceived righteousness is a secondary consideration to legal charges.
We're renegotiating our deal. Contrary to popular belief, few bands on major labels make any money from royalties, due to the one-sided math of the advance/recoupment equation, but rather through contract renegotiation. It took us like two months to figure out who we had to call to say, Oi, we wanna renegotiate.
But I have no actual life. The Rock, she is my lady. So I've worked up an acoustic show and here I am. I spent a bunch of months recording stuff on a cassette eight-track?a body of work my former road manager Gus refers to as "Sebadoughty"?and now I'm on my way to Antwerp. The route from airport to airport is a massively expensive one, straight through the middle of London. We drive past every major landmark on the tourist agenda, from the Houses of Parliament to the Millennium Dome. And somewhere between every landmark is a Starbucks.
There weren't any Starbuckses the last time I was here. This is alarming to anybody who pretends to care about culture, but I'm a touring musician, and Starbucks is the best friend of any touring musician. Besides the caffeine addiction, once you've been on the road for a while you start seeking the comfort of neutral, anonymous spaces?you want to stay in the hotel, you want to eat at Cracker Barrel, you want your environment to be the same if slightly altered in every different city every day. You can ask anybody working at any hotel in any American city where the Starbucks is and they'll be able to tell you. The only cab ride I've taken that's more expensive than this one was in Florida, where a bunch of roadies and I took a cab 30 miles from a hotel in the middle of nowhere to a Starbucks in a mall, leaving the meter running as we went in for our triple grande no-foam lattes. Sure, it's all fine and good to resist the clutches of the evil empire and all, but have you ever tried the espresso in a mom-and-pop joint in St. Louis?
The next day I'll meet a guy from a Belgian newspaper for an interview, and he'll pelt me with questions about New York, because my professional role in Europe is as a representative of New Yorkness. And, like all the European journalists who hang on to my every pronouncement about Katz's pastrami, he'll launch into his own little testimony about his New York holiday last year. And this guy goes: "What I love most about New York is the Starbucks! There's one on every corner! The coffee is so good!" And bear in mind, at the newspaper he works for, this is the jazz guy.
I'm met in Antwerp by a guy named Pete, who's road-managing the tour. Yes, I need a tour manager for a four-show tour. At this point?six years touring?I couldn't find an airport to save my life. Pete's from a place called Barton-upon-Humber, in Yorkshire. He kind of looks like Droopy Dog; he's 40-ish, having started roadie-ing when punk rock was happening in the UK. To me he is the ultimate English roadie; polite, deferential and he's been working with bands on roughly the same level since he started working with mine in 1994. American roadies tend to be careerists, jumping from one-van tours to one-bus tours to two-bus and one-truck tours as the years go by. Pete started out doing hardscrabble tours in splitter vans, and he's hauling bands across Europe in splitter vans today. He sticks hard to his professional habits. He writes out a rooming list for the hotel and has the desk staff xerox it, despite the fact that there're two people in our touring party and it would do just as well for him to simply tell me he's in room 219.
The Antwerp gig is in a big plush hall; it's some sort of big literary deal. I'm on with a bunch of Flemish authors reading from their works. The next night is the Paradiso in Amsterdam, where I play the little room upstairs while The The plays the big hall. As is more or less traditional in Holland, a big fat drunk guy with a mustache is thrashing around to my gentle acoustic sounds in the front. He's wearing a "One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor" t-shirt.
It's the first time I've ever gone to Amsterdam and not gotten stoned. I discover that it is no easier to walk the streets of Amsterdam?on which the nonresident is constantly having bicycle bells rung at him and being cursed out for walking in the bicycle lane?straight. The audience and I have a chat about this. I urge them all to move to Den Haag, where the brain-space used to stay out of the way of the trams can be used for better purposes. Like, say, inventing cold fusion. The show goes well?the Dutch, being stoned, are easy to amuse?and that night I'm happy but too jetlagged to sleep. So I stay up in the hotel room watching Dutch music television, a flashing parade of kiddie-techno videos. Anybody still insistent on the outdated argument that American culture is the world's stupidest has never seen this.
The next day Pete and I fly to England. I was dating a limey lass, so I myself sort of lived here?I say sort of because that year I spent eight months on the road and four over here with her. It was a deep and heady year?the apex of drum 'n' bass and the debut of the Spice Girls. I mean, I was there when The Sun?the newspaper that evidences dumbness as more than a U.S. phenomenon even better than Eurodisco?came out with their nicknames Posh, Baby, etc. And it was an all-consuming hipster phenomenon. Absolutely everybody had a favorite. They were giddy with it. I was giddy with it too. After all, here was the death of super-serious Vedderism, the triumphant return of pop, but this time coolly aware of its own kitsch, sly and sarcastic! Little did the Brits know that the Spices would be the last UK pop export to make it in the U.S. After the Spice Girls, boy bands from Orlando would blow huge while English boy band mainstays like Boyzone would barely register.
The relative value of the U.S. as an export market for British music is a subject of much obsession over here. Because if a band breaks in the U.S. it's selling enough records to make a living, whereas breaking in Britain isn't nearly so much of a windfall?to sustain themselves, bands have to break France and Germany and Benelux too. And each country has its own record company and market to negotiate. It's not easy in the least. (Not that breaking the U.S. is simple; limey artists tend to be bewildered at the amount of grassroots touring you have to do to break the U.S., coming, as they are, from a country where if you get on the playlist at BBC Radio One you're superexposed throughout the country. They fly over, play New York and L.A. and San Francisco, and puzzle over why the single didn't catch.)
When I was in London, jungle music was at a dizzying pinnacle. The girl and I would go down to the Blue Note in Hoxton Square on Sunday nights, when the Grooverider was kind of the Radio One of jungle; anybody in the country who cut a dubplate would submit a copy to Grooverider, the don of dons, and if it was good?and good at the time was fucking great?he'd play it at the Metalheadz Sunday Sessions. The records we heard that year?"Shadowboxing," "Rock the Funky Beat," "It's Jazzy," "Warhead"?were just astounding. I have never been party to a more exciting scene, a scene with more glorious promise.
Of course, by the next year Roni Size would win the Mercury Prize, and then everybody was charging tens of thousands of pounds to remix Sarah McLachlan songs, and the promise quickly dissipated. That, and jungle never really came up as the next flavor in rap music, as everybody anticipated. Timbaland clearly listened to a shitload of jungle when devising his skittery typewriter-funk sound, but by taking out the neck-breaking 16th notes on the tamborine he took out the jungle. Nowadays two out of three promos on BET are synched to jungle tracks. And they all share the same two or three snare drum sounds that everybody was using in 1997.
I play Birmingham?the English town that makes Philly look like Florence?and then Pete and I take the Virgin train (Richard Branson gives out Virgin mortgages through Virgin financial services over here, too) to London. I play the Water Rats that night. I have a particularly satisfying exchange with a heckler. He kvetches, I kvetch back. Then a guy next to him yelps, "He's the NME writer!" Meaning the notoriously bitchy English music weekly. "You're not supposed to be here, man," I say. "You're supposed to be in the next room, at the bar, with your notebook."
We end up the evening drinking at the Columbia Hotel, a terrible, stinky rock institution with the distinction of having a 24-hour bar. There're two other bands getting drunk in there at 2 a.m., one of which I discern is Mogwai. Then sleep. The next day I try to resist, but there's no way I could; I'm out the Columbia's doors and headed to the Starbucks on Queensway. I bump into Pete in the lobby. He's been out shopping; he's toting a Gap bag. I feel tremendous guilt going to Starbucks, and resist inviting him along?not wanting to burden a non-American with a Starbucks habit?but he asks where I'm going and I break down and invite him.
When we get there, the girl behind the counter is an American. The purple couches?identical to every other Starbucks?are packed with English yuppies stuck to their mobile phones.
"Triple grande no-foam latte," I tell the girl.
"Uh, I'll have what he's having," says Pete.