Having drummed for South London’s finest – the likes of Fat White Family, Misty Miller, Zulu and Phobophobes – last year Dan Lyons went solo (premiering his debut single exclusively with HERO).
On a mission to spread his music far and wide, this month the Margate-based musician swapped England’s Kent coast for America’s west to play Austin, Texas’ renowned SXSW festival. Along the way, Lyons penned his adventures for a special three-part diary.
Having premiered part one last week – as Lyons landed in LA – now comes the second chapter of his journey. Here the musician hits the road to Austin, Texas.
An English nobody in the land of the free: Part Two – The road to Texas
Having picked up the giant Ford Expedition – an intimidating SUV rolled out onto the production line during George W Bush’s time in office – complete with built in sat nav, wifi, and a plethora of other mostly useless add ons, we high tailed it out of the City of Angels through the mountains that form the valley it sits in. Passing those big billboards and a man who sat at the edge of the road giving the thumbs up to anybody who noticed his existence. We were on the open road.
I’ve always wanted to taste that particular slice of American pie, the road trip. Henry Miller and his prodigal sons Kerouac, Ginsberg, and pretty much every other beat poet has at least once painted a picture of the open road as a path for discovery. The road trip is there to give the embarkees a sense of unparalleled freedom, to teach them how to survive on their own, and perhaps more importantly, to make them miss their homes and remember what they have waiting for them there, good or bad. Not being able to drive has rather stunted this particular dream. I’ve always been completely terrified of the other people on the road. The fact that somebody else’s mistake can be the difference between your living or dying is still a daunting prospect.
But here we were. Heroic designated drivers Jeremy and Sam were at the wheel, and we had somewhere to be, only three States in two days. Easy!
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” – Jack Kerouac
As we left the state of California and came off the freeway, we met the Interstate Ten (I-10), a construct that would become both an anchor and a sail for us over the next two days. In L.A, and other big cities in the U.S, first impressions usually inspire in me a sense of awe, and excitement – a new metropolis, untrodden ground. But in the great wide open of Arizona and New Mexico, I got a crushingly existential perspective of my position almost immediately. The incredible size of the world and the universe against a single human body makes ones shadow seem unnervingly small.
We sped through surreal vistas as cacti held their hands to the sky and prayed for rain, and eagles circled and soared overhead. Sign posts to Palm Springs triggered false memories of wrinkled grey men holding hands underneath sun visors made from fluorescent pink and green plastic.
It’s difficult to put into words what it felt like as we travelled through that baron and empty place. As if time had stopped, we were on a giant treadmill, facing East but headed nowhere at all. Blocks of red and blue blurred into each other and the white lines on either side of the road formed borders on the windscreen, the image within slipped in and out of focus like a kaleidoscope. I remembered a David Hockney print I bought many moons ago at the Tate that had never found a frame.
The mirage, that cruel trick played by mother nature – fallen for every time – like some inside joke between her and the thirsty. The skies so blue, and clouds free to take whatever shape they like. Big fluffy ones sitting atop wispy ones, they seem to be painted onto the sky. We sleep in the back seat, resting on each others ribs, cramped, with seat belt clips pushing against our hips and big rocks whizzing by. I imagine Roadrunner meeping, and the cartoon universe slowly fades away until we wake.
We were in Texas Canyon, Apache country, near the Dragoon Mountains. Justin (Maurer, a friend from LA) had told us of a time that he had done the same drive, and of an overwhelming feeling he got as he drove through the stronghold as the sun came up. He felt reinvigorated, but also terrified as he imagined the fearsome Apache warriors and the blood that had been spilled during the battle of Dragoon Springs, less than two hundred years ago in eighteen sixty two. This is hallowed ground. The Cochise stronghold. Huge boulders are scattered like spilt marbles across the desert. What greenery there is lives in the shade of these behemoths. I imagined scorpions and snakes.
People often envisage North America as being a relatively young country, devoid of any real history, ‘discovered’ in fourteen ninety two and only becoming it’s own nation in seventeen seventy six. We, over here, and probably lots of people within quite a few pockets of America itself, don’t really imagine that there was much going on before then. But this is a wild, ancient land. Once home to indigenous people who worshipped and respected their surroundings for what they were, their lifeline, and recognised the true power of habitat – its ability to enhance life, and to destroy it.
I thought of the Cadillac Camper and Highland Park, and further still, back home to England where we had left our small flat locked and bolted to the unforgiving lashings of the ‘beast from the east’. I thought of Sid outside the Police station, of the people I knew in London, that sprawling, unhappy place. For so long had I been attached to people and their problems, too weak to deal with my own. Reeling at the viciousness with which these ‘friends’ speak about one another, and how as soon as a person has left the room they become the subject of ridicule or bitter comment. All is fair in love and war, but life in that particular square mile of Lambeth felt like I was walking through no man’s land with a target on my back.
Growing up is a strange process, a series of curious looks over the shoulder and realisations that you wish you had come to before. I wonder whether it carries on like this forever, never quite getting it right until eventually you have enough and stop bothering with people altogether.
The reality is that there are people in my life that I really couldn’t be without. People who have been good to me, even during my sometimes outrageous episodes and despite my shortcomings. There are those who disappear, and reappear at jolted interludes. I’ve come to the conclusion that those who have fallen by the wayside are probably best left to fend for themselves.
As the sun went down behind us, the moon started to shine properly, all the cacti and jagged edges of Arizona did too. A spooky place, only added to by the surreal advertising of a roadside attraction called The Thing. The billboards advertising this ‘thing’ were relentless, with one every ten miles or so for about two hundred miles. We drove on, and despite my curiosity, never did find out what it was. Passing the stars and leaving behind the distant glow of Tucson, we entered New Mexico. There was a moment shortly after crossing the border when everybody nodded off at exactly the same time. Very scary. I only woke up because my chin was on my chest and I had dribbled on myself. We entered McDonalds and dosed up on caffeine.
You really get a sense of the scale of this country when driving through it. We went in a straight line for two days on the same road, and could have driven for another two before we hit the coast. We stopped at the Motel 6 in Las Cruces, a stones throw away from Ciudad Juarez – number 20 on the ‘Highest murder rate in the world’ list, and bedded down for the night.
The motel was just as you would imagine, all doors facing outwards and overlooking the car park. We chose smoking rooms, which was a bad call, decades of dead smoke imbibed by the plaster and bedsheets made the whole place smell like an ashtray. Visions of Bates sitting there in his little room, plotting, popped into my head. Another distant echo of pop culture reverberating through the cold, white stone walls.
We entered Texas, the Lone Star State. There were huge earthy mountains with perfectly flat tops, giant breast shaped mounds appeared as if from nowhere and the blue skies and red ground of Arizona disappeared, replaced with rolling hills and trees. Jeremy had done most of the driving on the first day. a rough total of eleven hours, now it was Sam’s turn. We rolled along, sleep still in our eyes, soaking it all up, and began to get excited about our first gig – a showcase at a previously unopened venue called the 720 Club, on the corner of Red River and 6th Street.
I must have slept a lot on that second day, because a lot of it is a blur, a surreal ride through a town called Fredericksburg made the journey to Austin even more peculiar, we drove past signs to Frantzen Park and through the Marktplatz. A picturesque German village slap-bang in the middle of the desert.
Freya and I had been trying to warm up our voices in the back of the car for most of the trip. Drinking Kombucha (something I have a new found lust for) and massaging our larynxes like neurotic housewives. American cigarettes and something called ‘Cedar Fever’ had rendered our voices almost totally obsolete. Playing through the songs the night before at the Motel, we sounded like Lindsay Lohan and Steve Tyler after a long night in. I had serious doubts about whether we were going to be able to perform. But, as the old adage goes, the show must go on…
The skyscrapers of Downtown Austin sprouted from the horizon, and we found our way to the Convention Centre and artist registration. We had made it. Another metropolis, untrodden ground. And we still had an hour to spare.
“Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.” – Hunter S. Thompson