GK's Travel Diary
Oklahoma City—August 30, 2003
Oklahoma City was a nightmare. I have bombed before, but it's still painful. There was the breakfast speech to the tire dealers in Las Vegas, which I did as a favor to a cousin, and which was the worst speech those tire people ever had to listen to at 7 a.m. But tonight was pitiful. For one thing, it took place on the first Saturday of football season, which, in Oklahoma, is like Easter is in Rome, and anyone who does a show that day deserves his comeuppance. For another, it rained. Hard. It poured so loud the rain on the stage roof sounded like truck traffic on the Interstate. Twenty-five hundred people sat on the ground, in the open, drenched to the skin, and I walked out on stage and did what I could to amuse them and nothing worked. A sick helpless feeling, when you do what you thought was your best, stuff that other audiences liked, but tonight you might as well be speaking Norwegian—I've had dreams like this, in which the audience is dark and silent, a line of trees, and you jump around in slow motion and nothing gets a response. What the poor wet people wanted was a different show. Delbert McClinton would have been a huge hit, or Asleep At The Wheel, or Dwight Yoakum, or a comedian who could get up and do 60 minutes of killer material, but I did not kill, I didn't even cause momentary swelling. I stood up there and twisted in the wind. The low point was when, in desperation, I started to recite poetry—poetry!—and it went over like a stone kite. And then the ultimate humiliation, which is to shake hands with well-wishers who tell you how much they liked it. It brings tears to your eyes. The poor good-hearted people who sit through three hours of sheer misery and then feel obliged to thank you for it. One sinks in shame.
It was silent in the van from the venue to the airport. The driver was veering all over the road, changing lanes, and the van's suspension seemed to be shot. One could see the headline: "Minnesota Man, 61, Dies In Flaming Wreck After Worst Show of Career." And now, heading for Louisville, sipping mineral water, one sits and ponders the meaning of it all. Storytelling, or whatever it is I do, is a fragile vessel and you can't do it in a heavy rainstorm or next to a freeway or in the midst of a train yard. It doesn't work. You can do comedy there, because it has a beat to it and the jokes build. But that sort of comedian can't do 33 different live radio shows a year. It may take him or her a couple years just to hammer together those 60 minutes. I'm not disciplined to do that; I'm a writer, not a performer; I have things I want to say, not necessarily of a killer nature, and if I couldn't say them, I'd have no interest in being on a stage; I have less urge to perform than the average 10-year-old girl. For me, it's all about those moments when something spontaneous and true comes out. Tonight, nothing. I was a dermatologist trying to do root canal surgery. Out of my depth.
Oklahoma City was the wrong venue in the wrong part of the country. The show doesn't play well in Texas or Oklahoma: It's the wrong show, it's too northern. A chill fell on the crowd when Guy Noir picked up a phone and George W. Bush was on the other end: They didn't want to hear it. In Seattle, they screeched for pleasure, and in Oklahoma City they went deadly still. He's the president, and you don't make fun of him here, not if you are from the North. The venue was a rock'n'roll venue. Lots of security everywhere. Guys with security badges who ask you for your ID as you leave the stage for the dressing room at intermission, even though you're in a tuxedo and black tie and were on stage five minutes ago, they want to see your backstage pass. They're serious. Rock'n'roll is big on security, because it unleashes so much craziness, and you never know what meth freaks might do, but with the gentle public radio audience, it's insane to have two beefy guys on either side of you when you go to shake hands with people. But there the beefy guys are, looming, sullen, threatening, and when you ask them to step away, they say, "Just doing our job," and crowd in even closer to make sure that none of these Unitarians stick a shiv in your ribs. It's the absolute pits: The fans, having been tortured and rained on, now shake your hand and are glared at by a couple of Terminators, so that, in addition to being a horseshit performer, you are now an arrogant asshole with a retinue of heavies, like a hip-hop star.
Well, it can't ever be any worse than this. One takes comfort from that. Dues must be paid, and dirt must be eaten, and sometimes the rain must fall. It could be worse. On to Louisville, where we'll play the Palace Theater. The lights will go down, and the audience will be dry, and afterward people will walk up and shake hands, and no goombah will give them the eye.
Santa Fe, NM—August 29, 2003
A big night at the Santa Fe Opera House, which I had only ever seen from the audience, most recently five years ago, Madama Butterfly, with the great founder of the House, John Crosby, conducting. Behind Butterfly as she sang were the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and also to each side—the house is open-sided—and between the orchestra pit and the audience was a shallow reflecting pool the width of the stage. Rather stunning.
Tonight, I was the occupant of the Women Principals Dressing Room with its long bulb-bordered mirrors and dressing tables and red plush fainting couches and Tampax dispenser and shower room (a fleeting fantasy of showering with sopranos). I put on my tux and black tie and met a bunch of University of Minnesota alumni backstage, and we gabbed for a while and sang the Rouser. On stage, the Shoe Band was arranged where Butterfly's house had been and the crowd was hot and I sang my baritone version of Bizet's "Habanera" and we did Guy Noir and "The Lives of The Cowboys," in which Dusty and Lefty wind up at the Ten Thousand Waves spa near Santa Fe, where, in fact, some of our troupe had spent the afternoon.
The Opera House season runs for eight weeks in the summer, six operas in rotation, and after our show the crew will batten down the seats and the equipment for the winter and the snow will blow through the hall as the scene crew works to build sets for next summer's production. It was a wild vision that John Crosby had, to build a major opera company on a windswept hilltop in the desert, but he made one that every opera-lover must make at least one pilgrimage to in his lifetime.
It was a full house tonight and a rambunctious crowd, like last night's crowd at Snowbird in the hills above Salt Lake City. People who had driven and flown in from all over and who whooped and yelled as if we were Willie Nelson or Christine Aguilera. They gave Pat a huge hand for his "Road To Kingdom Come" and Peter for "Teelin Bay" and Stephanie for her ballad, "Ikee," about the town drunk who is down on his luck and has to pawn his Medal of Honor. Tim Russell rejoined the troupe tonight and did some great Schwarzenegger and Bush impressions during the Guy Noir.
Ten Thousand Waves is a beautiful compound on a hill outside Santa Fe, with a pleasant Japanese ambience, and Fred and Sue Scott and Pat and Gary Raynor and Peter and Stephanie and I spent a few hours there, getting massaged, and the braver ones ventured into the co-educational hot pool (swimming suits optional). My massage was with a gentleman named Reno, in a hut open on the sides, and he turned out to be a musician who had played with a California band called Juke Savages back in the Sixties and who remembered playing at the Triangle Bar in Minneapolis, an old hangout from my student days at the U of M. He was a fine masseur and also good to talk with. So I went back to the hotel and wrote the spa into the Dusty and Lefty script and that went over well with the crowd.
Met some old friends for lunch, who told me about a radio host named Amy Goodman (with Pacifica in New York) whom they adore and whom I've never heard and how they love New Mexico public radio, which, they say, is edgier and more opinionated than public radio elsewhere. Their feeling is that public radio is always going to be accused of a liberal bias, the harder it tries to be fair, and so we may as well throw caution to the winds and be a medium of opinion. They described the drought situation here (bad, about three inches of rainfall this year so far), and then on the way back to the hotel a thunderstorm hit and soaked us and bonked us with some hailstones.
That night, the audience could see lightning in the mountains as they watched the show. Among them was Eldon Miller, a classmate of mine from Anoka High School, who played the accordion back then and was handsome as Ricky Nelson and sang well and won the high school talent contest with "Red Sails In The Sunset." He was so good that my little heart burned with envy, and the envy of Eldon Miller was one of the things that lit my ambition. Had there been no Eldon, I'd have performed in the talent show myself, satisfied the urge, and probably gone on to a career as a geography teacher. Eldon went on to be a big success in business and now he and his wife Anne own a home in Santa Fe. I'm glad for him. He is a genuine good guy.
Medford, OR—August 27, 2003
Last night was a good show in Lincoln, Nebraska. A big auditorium with warm, clear sound so you felt the audience with you on every sentence, not like the outdoor venues where you're heaving stuff at them and not always sure if it's landing where you meant it to. The outdoor venues are great for all sorts of other reasons, but in the end ours is a radio show, and clarity counts.
It's quite astonishing to watch Peter Ostroushko play a mandolin piece like "Heart of the Heartland" with its quiet, almost pianissimo, passages and the audience sit there enrapt. Of course, having a sound man like Sam Hudson is a big factor. He's been in the business of mixing p.a. sound since he was a punk and can go from auditorium to amphitheater and get the best out of any venue and all the time he is a scholar and a gentleman to everyone he deals with. Of course growing up in a large family of Baptists does teach a boy manners, but the real reason is competence. Capable people tend to be mannerly. Thanks to Sam, our sound checks are short. Yak yak, plink plink, and you're done. If we were to hire free-lance sound people who, say, had worked most recently for Metallica, the sound check would be four hours long, and we'd wind up shooting them.
Anyway, the show last night was good. Took the monologue and stuck it right up front. Dramatic change. Lights dim, and Mr. Galoot walks out and starts talking about back home and boyhood and so forth, and it's rather amazing to get the audience when it's fresh. They are so avid at the top of the show. Poised. Eager. Like young dogs ready to leap for the sirloin in your hand. Later, of course, they're sneaking glances at their wristwatches and wondering when this gasbag is going to empty and let them go home, but at the beginning, they're bright as pennies. You stand in a little pool of light and look into the blackness with the two spotlights stabbing at you, and you talk, and it's like talking to the best friend you ever had. —— Isn't that pathetic? To regard a roomful of strangers as your best friend. Isn't that the most pathetic thing you ever heard? But sometimes you do, you do.
Before the show, Nebraska Public Radio put on a church supper next door, which was utterly pleasant. A retro supper, with tuna hotdish (an upscale version) and green beans and Jell-O with sour cream topping and traditional weak coffee, the kind you can drink at 6 p.m. Pleasant people at long tables, most of them Lincolnites, but a contingent from Iola, Kansas.
I loaded up a plate and plunked down at an empty seat, and we talked in a neighborly way about weather and politics and children, as one would. Met the early morning person at N.P.R., Hope Stockwell, who is on the air five days a week at 5 a.m., one of those smart, capable, well-spoken, beautiful young women who are so amazing to meet, especially for an old guy who remembers his women peers and how they struggled for toeholds. The early morning people are the soul of radio. Public radio so easily degenerates into just another organization but the early morning people are the ones who carry the torch.
After the show came a line of well-wishers, including an old radio guy, a magazine editor, a U.S.M.C. sergeant (ret.), a state legislator who told me about Nebraska's non-partisan unicameral system, a lady geologist, a family doc and his stunningly beautiful wife who I had to force myself not to stare at, a Forest Service guy, a couple of teachers, and a farmer who listens to the show in his tractor cab. From the show to the airport via bus, and on board the plane, and off to Oregon.
Soon after take-off, the sleepers started to find their spots, arrange their pillows, snuggle into their blankets, and I sat in the back and typed away at my tomato novel. Talked to the flight attendants Nikki and Debbie, and we looked at photos of each other's kids. Nikki has a teenage girl who looks like a Czech princess on a horse, hair pulled back, very elegant. Debbie has a boy and a girl who looks exactly like her. Exactly. I sat in a jumpseat in the cockpit, behind our pilot Ward, for the landing. Klamath Falls passed on the left and Medford lay ahead on a perfect clear night. A long stretch of darkness below, no lights, no roads, and then Medford. We banked left and then came around in a U-turn for the approach. The co-pilot Dave clicked a radio switch on the rudder and suddenly the runway lit up just ahead and we came in for a landing so graceful, planing on the air, the ground coming up to welcome us home, so utterly beautiful, that it made you want to sign up for lessons. To the nervous flyer, every landing feels like an impending crash, and up in the cockpit it's like a long pleasant sigh and the acceptance of gravity and awakening from a dream.
Seattle—August 24, 2003
3 p.m.—Awoke at 9 this morning, having forgotten to pull the drapes last night. Sunlight streaming in. Clear blue sky in Seattle. We're at the Bellevue Club Hotel, in a Republican suburb—it was here that Mr. Bush's supporters organized a rally when he came to town on Friday. I write for a couple hours, on my novel, which is making progress, amazing progress, so probably there'll be some horrible moment of truth in six months and I'll look at the thing and hate it. Then downstairs to search for breakfast.
The hotel is six years old; the club, 24. The hotel has a Japanese feel: restful colors, delicate art, big dark majestic pieces of furniture. Run into Tim Russell in the lobby. He's our inveterate tourist, the guy who can't wait to hoof it around the town and see the museums and all the sights. He's looking at a map and planning a walk, but he comes along to breakfast at a little outdoor café overlooking the pool. Two eggs over easy for him, oatmeal for me. And strong coffee. The 20 oz. latte with an extra shot. And then a second of the same.
One of Tim's big interests is movies; he's seen everything and remembers everything he's seen and can haul up whole scenes from old movies and do impressions of most of the actors. I know zip about movies. I enjoy the ones I enjoy, and 15 minutes later I've forgotten most of what I saw. Tim has been at WCCO radio in Minneapolis for twenty-some years, since he was 20 or so, The Good Neighbor to the Great Northwest, the powerhouse station of my youth, and he's done various announcing shifts there and now is a sort of cultural reporter and reviews movies. A good gig for him. And then for us he does dead-on Schwarzenegger and Bush and Julia Child and Bill Clinton and every other impression, acts, can do double-talk French so Gallic that Francophones double over laughing (plus Swedish, German, Russian, Arabic, and very fast Italian). We talk about movies and radio and about Robert Altman, who attended the show in Ocean Grove a week or so ago.
After lunch, I go to the gym and shoot baskets and then sit in the steam room. It's a magnificent health club. The men's locker room is about a half-acre. Not crowded on a sunny day. The gym is a full basketball court with running track above. Empty. I shoot free throws and then play a game of Horse against myself and then Hippopotamus, which perhaps I resemble out there, but in my own head I still have a semblance of youthful grace. Ever so often, the ball pushes perfectly off the fingertips and hits a swisher. Often enough. My resolve at the age of 61 is to have more fun. Basketball and steam rooms are part of that plan. I am guilty of obsessive work habits, hunkered over a laptop, pushing, pushing, pushing, when a sensible man would know that an hour's break, shooting baskets, walking, steaming, would be good for him and good for the work. Why does one not learn this simple truth, even at the age of 61?
I shoot baskets now, and in the course of it I get an idea how to rework last night's Guy Noir script to make it tighter and funnier and give it a Seattle spin. My resolution to have more fun led me to hire three writers to work on A Prairie Home Companion next season. A huge step for me. I'm not a good collaborator, I think, and have no experience at it, but the show will be funnier and more fun for me if these three work out. Jeff Alexander, Holly Harden, Jessica Nordell. And maybe a couple of free-lance contributors. They're all Midwesterners, living in the Twin Cities, who responded to an ad in the paper, and I chose about 15 people whose writing samples I liked and brought them in for interviews, and then hired those three, who interviewed well. Smart and funny and good resumes and well-spoken, so after listening to them for 30 minutes you think, "I wouldn't mind sitting in a meeting with this person."
Jessica is a Green Bay girl with a degree in physics from Harvard, and Jeff is a weblogger from the burbs who writes funny, and Holly is a St. Olaf grad and serious writer and the wife of a Lutheran minister. And so, in a few weeks, for the first time in my life, I'll sit at a table with three other people and say, "Okay, what is Guy Noir up to this week? And what is Barb and Jim's problem that ketchup is the answer to? And what new use is there for duct tape? And what about Maurice at the Café Boeuf?" I look forward to this. They're all young, half my age, and energetic, and they're going to change my life. I'm like an old housewife who after 40 years allows herself to hire somebody to clean the house. Of course it may not work out, and that's why I only advertised the jobs locally. I couldn't bear to have someone move to St. Paul from L.A. or N.Y. and after a month realize that they and I do not speak the same language.
It's 4 p.m. now and time to get ready to go do a show.
En route from Sacramento to Seattle—August 23, 2003
1:15 a.m. — The cadence of touring is pleasant and predictable and reassuring: You perform, travel, sleep, work, do a sound check, perform. You sleep in a different hotel room every night, and after a week they start to all seem like one: desk, walnut credenza with TV that you never turn on, king-sized bed, chair, closet, Do Not Disturb sign, bathroom with tub shower, shampoo, conditioner, lotion. A good hotel room is one you don't have to crawl around to find a socket to plug in your laptop.
I like hotel rooms a lot as simple anonymous places to sit in and write. Like monastic cells. Dark furniture, generally, and neutral-tone carpet and generic wall art. You can sit here and taptaptap at your novel for a couple hours and then do e-mail and go for a walk and be back in time to shower and go to the venue and start working on the show.
Tonight, for Sacramento, we rejiggered some songs, and I spent an hour in the dressing room reworking a Guy Noir script to get George W. Bush in it and Arnold Schwarzenegger taping a TV commercial and trying to pronounce "California" and getting carried away and launching into German, and Tim Russell played the Pres and the Terminator, and the Sacramento audience laughed as hard as I've heard an audience laugh. Fred Newman's sound effects were a big hit, too—especially the ducks singing "Purple Haze" and the dolphins commandeering the submarine and his hip-hop impression—and also Peter O's slow mandolin tunes.
A three-hour show including intermission, which is our pattern on this tour. You wonder if you aren't pushing the fans a little hard with such a long first half, almost two hours without intermission, but if they're lagging, they don't sound like it. After all these years, I feel I can detect when an audience is ready to go home—it's like a sudden drop in barometric pressure—and none of the tour audiences so far have seemed tired.
Afterward, there were friendly fans waiting at the stage door to chat with. Including, tonight, two blind women who thought that the blind jokes done on the Joke show over the years were funny as all get out. Lorrie and Eve were their names. Lorrie loved the one about the seeing eye dog that peed on the blind man's shoe. The blind man offered the dog a piece of sirloin, and his wife said, "Why reward him?" And the blind man said, "I've got to find his mouth so I can kick him in the ass." Also a young couple who were about to leave Sacramento for someplace yet to be determined, maybe Maui, maybe Bali. Adventurers. And a boy who asked me to tell the penguin joke. The fans tend to be shy and it has taken me years to learn not to be shy myself but to plunge in and grab hold of them and ask pointed questions and be aggressive. Shyness is often misunderstood as arrogance; and I would rather be bumptious than be taken for arrogant.
And now the plane is making its descent into Seattle. We're at a big outdoor venue tonight, and the weather forecast looks good. Seattle has been kind to A Prairie Home Companion over the years; I'll bet we've done 20 shows here and every one drew a big happy audience. A mystery to me, except that Seattle is a big theater-going town. And now we've landed, and the sleepers have awakened and are putting on their shoes, and we stand up and file off and get our luggage out of the belly and board the van for the hotel. It's 2 a.m. I'll be in bed by 3, up around 8, and tonight is another show. I'm looking forward to it. Maybe I'll sing "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" tonight. Haven't sung it since New Hampshire.
Over Iowa—August 21, 2003
It's 1:30 a.m. Central and we're at 31,000 feet over Dubuque, heading west, as the Rhubarb Tour finishes a week on the road. The Bach 1-11 jet took off from Buffalo an hour and a half ago after our show at the Art Park amphitheater along the Niagara.
The 20th was Albert Webster's 40th birthday, and we had birthday cake and champagne after take-off and then, one by one, the troupe began to doze off. The sound man, Sam Hudson, a habitual airplane sleeper, was the first, and then Arnie Kinsella the drummer curled up on a couch in the rear cabin, and Sue Scott and Stephanie Davis, and Peter Ostroushko and his daughter Anna Kim, after a long game of chess, fell asleep, and now only Fred Newman and Carolyn Hontz and I are still conscious.
Fred and Carolyn are looking up their horoscopes. I went forward to visit our pilots, Tommy and Dave, who said there's not much traffic up here, just us and the FedEx guys. We'll land in Denver at around 2 a.m. Mountain and crash at a hotel and get up in time for the afternoon sound check, do a show, and head on to Santa Barbara, I think, or is it Sacramento.
We've been on the road for a week: We did the Indiana State Fair at Indianapolis with a terrific grade school ukulele band and a bevy of queens (including Dairy Queen, Brown Swiss Queen, Holstein Queen, Jersey Queen, Honey Queen, and State Fair Queen); we arrived in Cleveland just in time for the big blackout and did the show the next day on the bank of the Cuyahoga with downtown in the background; we played the big Methodist tabernacle at Ocean Grove, N.J., where I got to stand in the audience and sing "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" and do the News from Lake Wobegon in the dark (very thrilling); in Gilford, N.H., about 10,000 people came to two shows at the splendid Meadowbrook Farm Musical Arts Center; and we did another outdoor show on a grassy hill south of Burlington, Vermont, at the Shelburne Farm, once Denver is the start of the western leg. All told, we'll have done 17 shows by the end of the month.
A grueling schedule on paper but in reality rather pleasant, thanks to good planning, smart leadership, and our chartered jet, which enables us to bypass the familiar rigmarole of commercial travel and ride from the backstage directly to the airport and through a gate onto the tarmac and alongside the plane and climb the stairs and take our seats. And we can fly late at night, the best time to travel, since nobody can sleep right after doing a show anyway. This is a 24-passenger plane, and there are 15 of us, so there's room to stretch out.
The seating is big armchairs and couches (meant for big corporate enchiladas), and our troupe, which is used to flying steerage, is awfully grateful. I know I am. The first PHC tour was by motor home, and we camped in KOA campgrounds, and I cooked the meals on a two-burner Coleman stove. We did that in 1976, when Albert Webster was 13, and now he is managing this tour and doing a fine job of it, too. Each of us got a spiral-bound itinerary when we left St. Paul, with two pages of info about each venue, everything you'd ever want to know, and a precise daily schedule, all of which makes it possible to play music and write comedy and not worry about anything else.
The show is billed as "A Prairie Home Companion," so of course there's the Lake Wobegon monologue and the Powdermilk Biscuit theme and the Guy Noir drama, and beyond that, each show is different. I like to sing "Frankie and Johnny" with Stephanie and "My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose" and the elegiac "Goodbye To My Uncles," which leads into "Angel Band," which leads into a Peter Ostroushko melody, either "Teelin Bay" or "Medicine Bow" or "Heart of the Heartland." It's a three-hour show, and Stephanie's two songs always get a huge hand, as does Fred's sound effects—he does a story involving mutant undersea monsters, dolphins, a submarine, a meteoroid crashing into a power station, and Stevie Wonder, as well as a tap-dancing cat, a man playing "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" on the chainsaw, a hive of singing bees, and two ducks singing "Purple Haze." But the biggest applause comes for Peter's soulful tunes, especially "Heart of the Heartland." Much of the rest of the show is sort of busy and brash and wiseacreish, and when Pete plays that slow stripped-down emotional mandolin music, people sort of rise in their seats and feel transcendant. He rises and bows and is engulfed by applause and sits down and we go back to the other stuff.
It's a good show and people like it and that's reason enough to travel around. And at 61, I can see the day when I might want to sit on a chaise in the backyard with a good book and think my own thoughts and not haul my suitcases on and off planes. And when that day comes, if I still have enough of my marbles, I'll always remember these three weeks, flying around on an airplane and doing one-nighters with all these good people.
And now the plane is rolling to a stop in Denver, alongside three waiting vans, and it's time to go to the hotel and go to sleep.
Travel Diary Archives|
European Book Tour 2004
European Tour 2001
Rhubarb Tour 2003
Sat, Aug 30—Oklahoma City
Fri, Aug 29—Santa Fe, NM
Wed, Aug 27—Medford, OR
Sun, Aug 24—Seattle
Sat, Aug 23—En route from Sacramento to Seattle
Thu, Aug 21—Over Iowa