Journey Through The Heartland

I don’t like to drive. I don’t own a car, and often go six months or a year without getting behind the wheel of one. Yet I just finished driving almost 3,000 miles around the Midwest of America, and it was worth every minute of it.

The reason for this trip, at least in theory, was to tell people about my still relatively new book, How to Ru(i)n A Record Label, and maybe even to sell a few copies of it, but I’m finding that, book or no book, I enjoy traveling, meeting people, telling stories, and answering their questions.

The new book. If you haven't read it yet, I hope you'll consider doing so.
The new book. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you’ll consider doing so.

When I wrote my first book, Spy Rock Memories, I took the more conventional approach, appearing in bookstores as authors usually do, and reading several excerpts from it. It seemed to go over well enough—at least many people complimented me on it, and they bought quite a few books—but I’ve always found the standard “book signing” format a little boring and frustrating.

Most authors only read one or two excerpts—imagine going to see your favorite band and having them play only one or two songs—and the whole thing seemed geared to getting past the audience engagement as quickly as possible and shifting to the real focus: selling books.

Obviously I’m happy when people buy my books, but I’m even happier when they ask questions or make comments that indicate they’ve read them or have an interest in the subject matter they cover. Many writers understandably complain about the burden of solitude, since the greatest part of their work is, by nature, done alone.

I felt similarly when I started writing, and contrasted the lonely wait for some—any—feedback from my readers with the instantaneous and often rapturous reaction enjoyed by bands who take their songs out on the road. But now I’m discovering that going out to meet and interact with the public around my books can be just as satisfying—sometimes even more so, since as yet (hope I’m not tempting fate), nobody has spit at me or thrown things, both of which happened more often than I would have liked when I was touring with bands.

Another thing that’s happened this year is that I’ve all but given up on simply reading from my books. Once again using the band analogy, how much would you enjoy watching a lead singer perform with her or his face buried in a notebook? If people make the effort to come see me, I want to see them, too, and so nowadays I almost exclusively tell stories, some lifted directly from the book, others only vaguely, if at all pertaining to it.

I do read a little excerpt from the final chapter. I originally resisted doing that because I didn’t want to give away the ending, but once I realized that almost everyone knew the ending anyway, I found that that excerpt invariably got a great reaction, and now I’ve done it so many time I can practically recite it by heart.

The Mass and Larry chat show, Indianapolis. Photo by Leah.
The Mass and Larry chat show, Indianapolis. Photo by Leah.

Everything else is totally off the cuff, and if you knew how shy and tongue-tied I was as a child and for much of my adult life, you’d be as astounded as I’ve been. My main problem now is not coming up with things to say, but knowing when to rein it in, getting a sense for when the audience has heard enough for one sitting, because left solely up to me, the stories would keep on flowing far into the night.

In the first weeks after How To Ru(i)n A Record Label came out, I did appearances in Baltimore, Oakland, Fort Worth, London, Austin, Santa Rosa, Eureka, Portland, Seattle, Richland (WA), Bend (OR), and Chico (CA). All of them were great, but the one in Oakland, at 1-2-3-4-Go Records, was especially fraught with emotion, because my mother, who has steadfastly supported me in my writing, had just died, and also because so many of the people who played vital parts in the events chronicled in HTRARL were there to listen to me.

In the space of less than 24 hours, I went from accepting accolades and congratulations to delivering a eulogy at my mother’s funeral to attending a first birthday party for the daughter of my longtime friend and musical and business partner, Patrick Hynes. I can’t imagine what I could have done to add to the rollercoaster of emotions and gratitude I experienced that day short of getting married or blasted into outer space.

After that I took a few weeks off (and also got started in earnest on my third book, which I hope will be done in the next year or two), but by mid-March it was time to get on the road again. This time I headed toward my ancestral homeland, the Midwest, beginning and ending in Michigan, where I was born.

Despite spending most of my childhood and teenage years only a few miles away, I’d never known about or visited Dearborn Music, which has been there since 1956, but it was a brilliant place to kick off the tour. Apparently they’d never hosted a book event before, but you’d never have known it, and a really good crowd—some of whom had attended the same high school as me, albeit a few decades later—made me feel right at home. Thanks especially to store owner Rick LeAnnais and to Detroit-area local Chris Grebinski-Policicchio, who put us in touch.

illinois spring crop
Springtime on the Illinois state line.

Then it was off to Cleveland, where Mac’s Backs, a longtime stalwart bookseller, organized an event in the B-Side, the basement bar of the Grog Shop, where so many Lookout bands have played over the years. I was a little worried about what kind of atmosphere I could expect in a bar, but once again, the audience was great, and visiting Cleveland also gave me a chance to relive (and recount) some memories of the amazing events of the previous year, when I watched Lookout alumni Green Day being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ryan Eilbeck, one of the multi-talented twins behind the incredible Ohio band Delay, now has a day (and sometimes evening) job managing Used Kids Records in Columbus, and he welcomed me to their stage (every record store should have one!) to tell stories about not just Lookout, but also the time in 1971 when my gang of hippie no-accounts was literally run out of town by the Columbus police after we pulled a snatch-and-grab operation at a local supermarket.

Next up was Cincinnati, where my old friend Mass Giorgini had set up an event at an arts-and-culture space called Chase Public. This was a classy event from start to finish—I actually had poets Sarah Hanselmann and Francis Pospisil opening for me—with an all-but-packed house. It was also the first day of truly springlike weather, with the trees outside in full flower, and Cincinnati looking really quite good in the sunshine. Extra props to the excellent Sidewinder coffee shop just around the corner!

 Me holding forth at Chase Public.
Me holding forth at Chase Public.

Mass Giorgini joined me on stage for part of this event, serving as interlocutor/interviewer, almost as if we were on late-night television. He’d reprise that role two nights later in Indianapolis, at Indy Reads Books, which featured big comfy chairs and mood lighting—definitely one of the most elegant and literary of our events. In between, I spoke at Ivy Tech Community College in Lafayette, Indiana, longtime home of Mass’s studio, Sonic Iguana, and where, until recently, he was an assistant professor.

Then it was off to Springfield, Illinois (insert Abraham Lincoln and/or Simpsons reference), where Luke from the Copyrights had helped set up an appearance at the very inaccurately named Dumb Records. The weather was freezing, but the crowd was exceptionally warm, and this would turn out to be one of my favorite events of the whole tour. So many people came up to thank for coming to Springfield, while I was saying, “No, thank you for being here and giving me the chance to talk to such a receptive and knowledgeable audience.”

The next night was another highlight: a kid named Dillon Dunnagan wrote to me on Facebook asking if I’d consider coming to St. Louis, and when he had trouble finding a suitable venue, Matt Dauphin stepped in to offer the 4 Hands Brewing Company Think Space. A huge crowd turned out, possibly the largest of the tour. It was also the liveliest, not to mention rowdiest, possibly because of the free beer 4 Hands were liberally passing out.

But though by the end questions were being shouted rather than asked, everyone was incredibly nice, and they bought more books, records, and t-shirts than the next three events combined. They were thrusting $20 bills at me and telling me to “keep the change;” at first I protested, but eventually I realizing there was no point arguing. It’s harder than I thought to convince a mildly intoxicated person not to give you free money.

One of the few not-so-fun aspects of my trip: driving through Chicago.
One of the few not-so-fun aspects of my trip: driving through Chicago.

Next came Chicago, where I was the guest of the excellent Quimby’s, probably that city’s best bookstore. Everything about this event was wonderful except getting there; navigating Saturday night traffic in Wicker Park helped remind me why I normally eschew driving cars, and why my mental health has improved greatly as a result.

Sunday—Easter Sunday—was spent in Iowa City, guest of the band Lipstick Homicide, whose standout performance on The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore gained them a slot opening for Green Day in New York City, and their lovably eccentric label boss, Servo Jeffersen, of Bloated Kat Records.

This night saw the smallest crowd of the tour—I had no idea that people might want to do other things besides watch punk rock bands and authors on Easter Sunday night; I mean, how many chocolate eggs can you eat, anyway?—but it was no less warm (inside, not outside; the frigid weather outside reminded me of Alaska or Greenland). I especially enjoyed meeting the parents of two Lipstick Homicide members; Rachel’s mom was right up there in the pit for most of their show.

Made it to St. Louis! Somehow I was expecting the arch to be gold, not silver.
Made it to St. Louis! Somehow I was expecting the arch to be gold, not silver.

I’d never traveled through northeastern Iowa before; Servo told me it would be a beautiful ride, and he wasn’t lying. I wish I’d had time to stop and look around Dubuque, a town I’d never given much thought to before, except as an emblem of middle-of-nowhereness, but which looked really intriguing in the (finally returned) sunlight of spring.

Next to last stop was Milwaukee, at Rush Mor Records, where a big crowd turned out, including my old friend Stuart, who unaccountably migrated to Wisconsin from London (actually Croydon, but let’s not split hairs) almost two decades earlier. Once the tour manager for the electrop UK sensations Bis, he now runs a toy shop, which may not be as great as leap as you’d think. He’d lost his cherry-red hair color (the hair itself was still marvelously intact, but none of his cheeky accent or love for Chelsea Football Club.

Then I finally had a day off, most of which was spent catching up on much-needed sleep, followed by another day where I was free to wander around my old stomping grounds from the MC5-Stooges-White Panther Party era, Ann Arbor. Most of my audience that night would be University of Michigan students, one of whom, Zachary Gelfand (a temporarily exiled New Yorker), had set up the event.

I wound up talking more about Ann Arbor history, including my adventures with Diana Oughton, the onetime girlfriend of President Obama’s alleged “terrorist buddy” Bill Ayers, who would later go on to blow up herself and two other young people while making bombs for the Weathermen in 1970’s infamous Greenwich Village townhouse explosion.

Doesn't Cincinnati look lovely in the spring?
Doesn’t Cincinnati look lovely in the spring?

I was surprised at how little today’s young Ann Arborites knew about their city’s countercultural history, but gratified by how receptive they were to learning about it. As a result, I’ll be headed back that way this summer to talk about it some more, in an event organized by my old friend (and recent City Council candidate) Jaime Magiera.


And that was it. The next morning I was on my way, in a driving rainstorm, back to Brooklyn. Fortunately, the rain was the only thing doing the driving from this point on, as an airplane would do the work from here on out. It was good to get home—although it won’t be home for much longer; I got the news just before setting out that my house has been sold and will soon be demolished to make way for yet another luxury apartment building which of course I’d never be able to afford to live in.

But in the meantime, I’ll savor the New York spring for a few days, then head out for dates in San Diego, Los Angeles, and—I’m especially looking forward to this one—Gilman Street in Berkeley, pretty much sacred ground for everything that happens in How To Ru(i)n A Record Label. Following that, a series of dates in the United Kingdom. If you live in any of those places, I hope to see you real soon. And if not—as I often write when autographing my books—thanks for reading!

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