Exclusive! On the Road With Grinderman
Ratso Sloman takes SPIN behind the scenes with Nick Cave and his traveling band of merrymakers.
Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman is a best-selling author whose work includes On the Road With Bob Dylan, Scar Tissue with Anthony Kiedis, and Private Parts and Miss America with Howard Stern. His book The Secret Life of Houdini inspired Nick Cave to dedicate “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” to him, although Larry claims no relationship to the Larry in that song.
I have a fairly standard routine when my friend Nick Cave and the gang come to New York City. Go to the show, hear some great music, let them soak in the adulation at the meet and greet, then pile into the van and head straight to Arturo’s for a large coal-oven pizza with sausage, pepperoni, and extra cheese. Sated, we bid each other a fond adieu until the next time. Except for this last Grinderman tour. Through a bizarre confluence of circumstances, I wound up training it to Washington, D.C., motoring in a 15-passenger van to Atlanta, and then riding the deluxe Grinderman tour bus to Nashville and Memphis. It was a journey that encompassed chicken hearts, a tattooed mannequin arm, Elvis’ favorite pizza place, and a woman wearing huge antlers on her head. What you are about to read is 100 percent true.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 14—NEW YORK CITY
For some reason, we decide to have absinthe shots prior to arriving at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square for the Grinderman show—we being me, my wife Christy, my friend Shilpa Ray, and Nick Hundley, the bass player in Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers. Shilpa is an amazing harmonium player/vocalist/songwriter. I gave Cave a copy of her first record, and his comments to a Canadian reporter (“She has a great voice, she writes great songs, great lyrics”) went viral, and in every subsequent article about her, she suddenly became “Nick Caveapproved.”
Thank God we were fortified with a hint of a hallucinogenic. The Best Buy Theatre is the apotheosis of the middle-Americanization of Times Square—cavernous, soulless, fittingly spitting distance from an Olive Garden. As we make our way in, we hear the dulcet tones of Armen Ra wafting over the soon-to-congested main showroom. Armen is a gay Persian theremin player (is there any other kind?).
We watch the show from our perch on the balcony. The band is dynamic and assertive, much tighter than the last time they played in New York, opening for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden. Nick seems to be in fine voice, but when we parade back to the dressing room, he curbs our enthusiasm. “This place is so sterile,” he says.”Difficult to connect with the audience. It was like we were doing a TV show.”
After the set, we head backstage for a short reception. Among the boldfaced revelers are Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, and Waris Ahluwalia, who played the chief steward in The Darjeeling Limited. After a half hour of hobnobbing, it’s time to make our move. Arturo’s? Extra cheese, pepperoni, and sausage?
“No, Rats, don’t think we can handle that,” Nick cautions. They’ve been on the road for less than a week and haven’t adjusted to American food and are suffering. “What is it with this country and it’s food? It’s like visiting fucking Bombay,” says Nick. Multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, who has an even more delicate constitution, has been alternating between calling Ralph on the big white telephone and firing napalm out of his other end.
We wind up at a Japanese tapas place on St. Marks Place. Shilpa, Christy, and Warren are excited, especially Warren, since his wife is Japanese, and he has a familiarity with the more exotic detours of Japanese fare. The three of them begin ordering for the table: skewers of chicken hearts and gizzards, beef tongue, quail eggs, and French fries with spicy cod roe and mayo sauce. Nick looks pale. “Do you have any, like, plain rice?” he asks the waitress.
Halfway through the meal, the esteemed record producer Hal Willner joins the fray. He reports that his next project is going to be a collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica. From there the conversation takes an even odder turn. We talk about Michael Jackson, Jesus Juice, and speculate whether the Gloved One had sex with Bubbles.Finally, we ponder the finer points of bestiality. Shilpa Ray has to pinch herself. She can’t believe (1) that she’s sitting between Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and (2) that the table talk is about fucking sheep.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 15—NEW YORK CITY
Today is a day off from performing. Just as well. Warren has been throwing up all night. But Grinderman is slated to appear on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, so there’s a 10 A.M. lobby call for the drive up to the NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center. The soundcheck is uneventful, and we all take the van back to the Sheraton on Canal Street. Drummer Jim Sclavunos, bassist Martyn Casey, and Warren get out to get some shut-eye, but Nick and I commandeer the van because Nick has some shopping to do.
His destinations: the Yankees store in Times Square (Earl, one of his ten-year-old twins, wants a Yankees cap “with a flat brim”). Then it’s on to Fantasma Magic, where Nick spends an hour trying to find some coin or card tricks that Arthur, the other twin, hasn’t already mastered. Finally, we invade Kidrobot on Prince Street, where Nick grabs an armful of figurines and plushes, two of each kind.
The Fallon appearance goes great. To celebrate, Nick, Warren, Martyn, Jim, Jim’s wife Sarah, his octogenarian mother, and I go to the Old Homestead for some steak.From there, Nick, Warren, and I hop a cab to the Delancey, a bar near the Williamsburg Bridge, where Nick’s friend Janine Nichols is performing solo. Regrettably we get there for only the last two songs, the final tune being an exquisite cover of Nick’s “Love Letter.” But the night takes a wrong turn as we squeeze into a booth with Janine and her sister. Now we’re trapped and we have to listen to the entire set of the evening’s MC, a brassy woman, accompanied by a pianist, who is singing songs, cabaret style, about two-headed babies in formaldehyde and even a ditty from the point of view of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. “You should manage her, Ratso,” says Warren, wiping tears from his eyes. “She’s another fucking Susan Boyle.”
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 16—NEW YORK CITY/WASHINGTON, D.C.
The boys have departed for Washington and beyond, and I’m back to my routine. Or so I thought. Nick rings me up. It seems that someone had accidentally knocked Armen Ra’s theremin off its stand in New York, breaking the delicate instrument. And since this is a one-of-a-kind theremin, there’s no chance of getting it repaired in time for tonight’s gig in D.C.
“Ratso, do you reckon you can get Shilpa to hop on the train and get here in time to open for us?” Nick asks.
At that very moment, Shilpa is waiting on a particularly obnoxious customer at the high-end jeans store she works at in Soho. She’s spent the last hour with this jerk, bringing out jean after jean, only to hear him loudly complain each time, “These jeans are no good. My cock is too big to fit into them.” She’s about to slit her wrists when I call her. “Can you go to Brooklyn right now, grab your harmonium, and meet me in two hours at Penn Station? Nick Cave wants you to open for Grinderman tonight in D.C.” On the dot, Shilpa is at Penn Station, harmonium in tow.
Hal Willner, who missed the New York show, joins us on the train. Hal is the perfect traveling companion. He’s got an iPad so we can view YouTube videos of obscure Borscht Belt comedians. Plus, he’s got an iPhone app that makes it appear you’re snorting huge lines of coke off its screen. That one went over particularly well with the prissy businesswoman who was sitting next to him, surely wishing that she had kept walking just a few more yards and entered the quiet car.
Tonight’s gig is at the fabled 9:30 Club. We get to the club just as the doors are opening, and Shilpa has to do her soundcheck while the early Grinderman fans rush up to the stage to get the best spots. After soundcheck, she repairs to her dressing room and downs a bourbon to steady her nerves. She hasn’t played solo much lately, and never for a crowd this big. But she strolls onstage at 9 P.M., a diminutive figure almost dwarfed by her harmonium and proceeds to layer her magnificent voice over the otherworldly strains of her exotic instrument.
“Holy shit,” Hal says, watching from the balcony. “I never could make out her lyrics when she played with her band. They’re great.” By the end of her set, Hal is already planning to get Shilpa into the studio to do “Pirate Jenny” for the sequel to his Rogue’s Gallery CD of sea chanteys.
Hal’s not the only one impressed. In their dressing room, Nick and the guys are listening raptly to Shilpa, perhaps silently wishing that the theremin replacement part would be held up in Customs.
As good as I thought the New York show was, tonight’s is much hotter. Critics have described Cave’s stage movements as “lurching,” but they’re hardly that. He’s actually quite agile, and there’s an elegant quality to his exhortations to the crowd. But Warren is another story. Pure hairy id, he’s sequestered on one side of the stage, surrounded by his loop machines and pedals and guitars, sometimes playing a dervish fiddle or pounding the cymbals with his maracas. Or, when the sprit moves him, wailing into his microphone as he writhes on his back in a maniacal tribute to St. Vitus.
You may have discerned by now that the post-concert meal is one of the most anticipated events of the day, so Nick asks me for a recommendation for dinner, but my go-to place in D.C., a pizzeria, is long closed. So Nick, Warren, Hal, Shilpa, and a few of Nick’s D.C. friends wind up at a yuppie restaurant that stays open late. Warren, after four nights of gastrointestinal battle, improbably orders a side of chili. “He just likes the attention,” Nick notes.
Hal is a great raconteur, and he begins to talk about odd sexual couplings among celebrities, which segues into our relating our own stories about celebrities we’ve fucked. I recount my liaison with one of the stars of Russ Meyer’s legendary film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but Nick blows me away with his one-night stand years ago with a renowned and extremely temperamental diva. They went back to his hotel and got busy. Hungover the next morning, Nick drank the glass of water that was on the night table. Water that contained the diva’s contact lens. “She never quite forgave me,” he says.
Turns out that the injured theremin isn’t getting repaired so soon, so Ton, the road manager, asks Shilpa if she can stay on the tour through the Southern swing. Shilpa calls her bass player, Nick Hundley, who jumps at the chance to drive her from town to town in the Happy Hookers’ new 15-passenger van.
I was half tempted to jump ship and go back to New York with Hal on the 3:30 A.M. Amtrak, but Nick kept egging me to stay on for the Southern dates. So that’s why I’m curled up on a tiny couch, while the newly arrived Hundley and Shilpa share the huge air mattress that dominates my friends Tim and Elizabeth’s living room in Georgetown. Every time Hundley, who’s a big man, tosses and turns on his side of the bed, Shilpa gets catapulted straight up into the air.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 18—ATLANTA
Despite having only one spare pair of underwear, I decide to soldier on. As Nick told me, “Your wife ain’t gonna forget you, Rats.” We get to the Atlanta venue, the Variety Playhouse, well before the gig, so Shilpa, Hundley, and I take a stroll. We’re in the hipster district of Atlanta, and we decide to get some lunch at a local gastropub. Shilpa and I both have the shrimp and cheese grits. This turns out to be a bit of mistake when, hours later, moments before she’s set to go on, Shilpa requests some Imodium. I tell Jacek, the assistant tour manager, and seconds later, he appears with an envelope bearing three little white pills. I have a suspicion that Shilpa has tapped into Warren’s stash.
Shilpa goes over terrifically in this beautiful old theater. Downstairs in the Grinderman dressing room, Jacek peers his head in. “Five minutes!” Warren starts pacing. “History’s about to be rewritten. Totally,” he mock shouts. “They’re going to fucking rewrite the rock books tonight. They said rock’n’roll was born with Elvis. They were wrong. It was born here. Grinderman 2010.”
“I thought it was born on the last Grinderman tour,” I suggest.
“That was the little kickoff,” Warren says. “This is the full flowering.”
“Jacek, can I have a throat tea?” Nick asks. “If we’re going to redefine rock’n’roll.”
They may not have redefined rock’n’roll, but they did kick ass in Atlanta. Matt Crosbie, their soundman, is convinced that this show was the best of the tour. “Of the European tour too?” Nick asks. Matt nods. So it’s a jovial mood in the dressing room after the gig. Shilpa marches in, followed by a few local friends.
“Oh, God, that was amazing,” she enthuses.
“You’re too fucking good,” Nick’s right back at her.
Tonight we don’t have to make a culinary choice. Apparently, the owner of Holeman & Finch Public House is a big fan, and we’ve all been invited to dinner the upscale restaurant. But first we have to navigate through about 40 people who are waiting patiently outside for Nick’s autograph. We run the gauntlet, and Matt, Warren, Martyn, Nick, and I climb into an old Buick Roadmaster that’s been provided for them, a distinct step up from the vans that normally ferry the guys from the hotels to the gigs. As we get in, we see that one of the road crew is talking to a beautiful girl in the crowd.
“I think she was on my side of the stage,” Warren says. “No matter how old you are, chicks still look good, don’t they?”
“Yeah, but in the old days it was all about drugs,” Nick reminisces. “There was nothing more beautiful than a woman with a handbag full of smack.”
We take off for the restaurant. Warren starts talking about his amazingly acrobatic pratfall during the set. During one song, Nick pulled Warren to him and then let go, and Warren did a full-on somersault. “Lucky I don’t have a few more years on me or I might have been getting a hip replacement this evening,” Warren says.
“Did it hurt?” I ask.
“I wasn’t ready for it so I kind of just fell and it didn’t hurt at all,” Warren says.”In New York, Nick threw a tambourine and it hit me in the face. I didn’t even remember it until one of the road guys asked me if it hurt.”
Warren sinks back into the plush seat of the Roadmaster. “Are you going to drive us around America for the rest of the tour?” he asks the local driver. “We’d pay you well.”
“Does this car have the Internet?” Nick asks.
The car goes quiet for a second.
“I can hear your tinnitus,” Nick tells Warren.
“I can hear yours!” Warren counters.
Holeman & Finch is by far the best restaurant any of us has ever encountered on the road. Nick had told us that they were noted for their special hamburgers, only 24 of which are made each night, but that was really a misrepresentation of the amazing array of locally sourced, fresh food this kitchen is pushing out. We start with an amazing charcuterie plate that features head cheese, gherkins, pickled green tomatoes, house-made pastrami, pork loin, salami with peppercorns and fennel seeds, an anchovy paté, pickled mustard seed, pickled banana-style peppers, smoked lard, and a chicken liver paté.
Everyone is too blown away to speak. “These pickled banana peppers are beautiful,” Nick finally says. “They sneak up on you.”
“That paté’s amazing,” Warren enthuses.
The waiter comes to clear the plate.
“We thought everything was beyond belief,” Nick tells him. “The only one I had difficulty with was the pickled mustard seed.”
Now the serious food comes. Plates of pork belly on soft grits, pork shoulder on tea-braised collard greens, fish and chips made from Virginia flounder and, special for us, numbers 21, 22, and 23 of the fabled burgers.
One of the owners, Greg Best, ambles over to see how we’re doing.
“The collard greens were a revelation,” Nick says.
“It’s funny,” Greg says. “We set out to do all these interesting fun plates, and now we’re known for our hamburgers!”
“You just have to embrace it,” Warren counsels. And then he gets the hamburger recipe: 70 percent chuck, 30 percent brisket.
“This was the best American meal I’ve ever had. The steak tartar looked interesting. I bet it’s beautiful,” Warren tells the owner.
“A lot of Americans bury the tartar with richness—lots of egg yolk or crème fraise, but we do the opposite. Hey, you’re doing it,” he says to Warren and rushes to the kitchen and comes back with three portions.
Grinderman are coming to town. Forget your daughters, lock up your sous chefs!
By now we’re about to burst, but we’re content, content enough to tolerate this thirtysomething woman who comes over to the table and plops down next to Warren.Turns out she’s the girlfriend of the wine purveyor to the restaurant, and they’re here with about ten people for a local wine appreciation society dinner. Her name is Sarah and she talks nonstop.
“Can I tell you something?” she asks Warren rhetorically. “I think you’re a genius musically. I think you’re phenomenal.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Warren says.
Then she turns to me.
“I’m Sarah. What do you do?”
“I’m the spiritual advisor to the band,” I answer.
“He keeps us on the straight and narrow,” Warren elaborates. “Gets us all up in the morning to do meditation and exercises.”
“I don’t always succeed,” I add.
Suddenly Sarah is obsessed with everyone’s age. When Warren tells her he’s 45, she protests.
“No, you’re not. You look younger than 45. I’m about to be 32.”
“I would have guessed 20,” Warren says gallantly.
Finally, Sarah introduces herself to Nick. With that over, she gets down to business.
“I have one question for all of you right now. Where have you not been where’d you like to go to?” she wonders.
“Home,” Nick says.
“Where’s home?” she asks.
“Between Britney Spears legs,” he answers, drolly.Sarah makes a face. “Eww. At least pick someone good.”
This repartee is interrupted by the arrival of a giant plate of desserts that Greg has sent out. There’s a dish of bacon-caramel popcorn, a sticky toffee pudding, some crème brulee, and some fried apple pie with vanilla ice cream. Everyone digs in.
“This is obscenely good,” Nick enthuses about the brulee.
Warren gets the recipe for the bacon-caramel popcorn from Greg.
Finally there’s only a sliver of crust from the fried apple pie left on the plate.Nick hesitates and then spears the crust and finishes it off. Everyone cheers.
“I’m going to have to squeeze into that suit tomorrow,” he tells me.
Meanwhile Sarah is yapping away with Warren, Martyn, and Matt, a captive audience. Nick surveys the scene. “It’s times like these that make me appreciate the fact that my wife doesn’t speak much,” he tells me.
Fueled by a couple of Brandy Alexanders, Matt provides a soundtrack for the ride back to the hotel. He starts with a “dangadangadangadang” C&W beat and then improvises some lyrics.
“I just got out of bed with my sister. Hee haw!”
Nick picks up on the thought.
“My sister’s menstruating,” he begins the old joke. “How do you know?” “I can taste it on my brother’s dick,” he drawls.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 19—ATLANTA TO NASHVILLE
It’s a 10 A.M. lobby call, an extra hour of sleep, because we’re crossing time zones on the way to Nashville. Even still, the only people from our group in the lobby of the humongous Westin Peachtree Hotel are tour manager Ton, typing away on his laptop, and Nick, resplendent in a striped suit, purple shirt, and maroon socks. He’s sitting next to Ton at a table in the lobby, sipping from a Starbucks coffee cup and talking to his wife Susie who’s back home in Brighton, England.
“Hello, darling. I miss you, babe. Is everyone okay? Nothing terrible has happened?”
It sounds like Susie is telling Nick that a photography crew from a British magazine is going to invade their house for a pictorial.
Nick winces. “Can’t you just tell them that I live in the basement and we meet up upstairs when our stars are aligned or something?”
Susie asks how the tour is going.
“Atlanta was brilliant. You want to come and live here? Ratso conned himself a job doing some kind of fucking tour diary or something, so he’s with us and that helps.”
Nick hangs up. I thought that I heard something about a new dog?
He nods. This is the third attempt at having a dog in the Cave household. The first time, two years ago, Susie tried to sneak two Pekinese in while Nick was on tour. He told her that if those dogs were there when he got back, he’d drown the fucking things. Then there was a very cute Jackadoodle, also bought when Nick was on the road.
“When I got back, something had happened, and the dog would just stand in the middle of the room and shake,” Nick recalls. “It was the most timid, neurotic thing I’d ever seen. Seriously fucking traumatized. But real cute, you know. Just a little ball of chocolate fluff. When I walked in the door, Susie’s got tears in her eyes and she says, ‘We have to take him back. I just can’t deal with this thing. He just stands there and shakes. I think he’s ill.’ Susie took the boys to London, and she said that when she got back in two days, she wanted it gone. I’m like, ‘What the fuck? I have to do that?’ The thing was, as soon as Susie and the kids left, this little dog just started hopping around, just the sweetest little thing. And I bonded with this dog instantly. I literally fell in love with it. He just followed me around, with his little tongue hanging out, happy as can be, but I knew I had to get rid of him. So I rang up the dog rescue place, and it took me three times to ring this guy without bursting into tears.”
Nick mock sobs. “‘I have this…this dog here. You’ve got to come and take it away.’ And the little dog is bouncing around. The guy came and took him, and I’m wailing away, giving him its little doghouse, blubbering, ‘And you can, uh, uh, take his water bowl.'”
“What was his name,” I ask.
“Lucky,” says Nick.
And now Otis awaits Nick at home. Otis is a Basset Hound. Otis is staying.
Shortly after 10 we pile onto the bus. Jim, his wife Sarah, Matt, and Martyn immediately head for the rear lounge, which Jim has dubbed “the Dionysian” room. Which leaves Nick and Warren in the front of the bus, “the Apollonian” section, although Warren and Apollonian seem to be a contradiction in terms. Within minutes, Nick’s ensconced behind his desk. On the way to Nashville, he will answer e-mail, peruse photos from the New York gig sent to him by a fan, read a review of the D.C. show from the Washington Post (“And a show like Tuesday’s leaves one wondering if he now fronts two of the world’s best live bands,” Nick recites out loud with uncharacteristic immodesty), work on the back story for one of the characters in the script adaptation he did of the novel, The Wettest County in the World (for a meeting that friend and director John Hillcoat is having that very day with a prominent actor), and squeeze in two interviews with San Francisco papers.
In fact, he’s on the phone right now with the first of the two. He’s answering a question about Grinderman’s show at Madison Square Garden. “That was our second gig. I don’t think we were booed off. Were we booed off?” he asks Warren and me.
“No,” I attest.
“We were asked to turn it down,” Warren says.
“The volume may have been challenging, but I’m not sure we were exactly booed,” Nick answers. He pauses and listens to the next question.
“My fans are scared of me? Is that right? Some of them are, maybe. Some of them scare me, to be honest. The only things scarier than Nick Cave are Nick Cave fans.”
Call time for the ride to the soundcheck is 2:30 P.M., but Martyn is already in the hotel lobby. He joined the Bad Seeds when Mick Harvey decided he didn’t want to play bass anymore. Martyn had played in the legendary Australian group the Triffids but was pumping gas at a Western Australian station 21 years ago when he got the call to go on the road for the Bad Seeds’ Good Son tour. So he’s seen many iterations of the Bad Seeds, and for him, Grinderman is a nice break.
“No disrespect for the Bad Seeds, but the Bad Seeds is an organization.
Sometimes it seems like a wooly mammoth stumbling along. Grinderman is much more agile. Easier to move. With four people, its easier to change what you’re doing,” he says.”Nick has this particular way of playing the piano. Very much that 4/4 on the beat, Presbyterian hymn approach. It’s always a battle to make that rhythm more interesting.A lot of the songs that Nick brings to the Bad Seeds are written in the office. But Grinderman is purely from the four of us sitting in a room.”
“Describe Grinderman,” I prod. “Is it greasier?”
Martyn takes a drag off a hand-rolled cigarette.
“Greasy? It’s probably more extreme. It’s also what Warren brings. He gets to really let loose. He gets a whole room to himself in the studio because he’s so fucking loud he has to be locked in his own little cage. He comes up with a loop and that’ll trigger something for the rest of us a lot of the time. I can see where the public perception of Grinderman versus the Bad Seeds might be confusing. But this is not some sort of stripped-down version of the Bad Seeds. This is a totally different idea.”
And what does he think of the critics who feel that Grinderman is the expression of some sort of midlife crisis?
Martyn shrugs. “I don’t know about midlife crisis. My whole fucking life’s been a crisis.”
After soundcheck, Nick multitasks again. He’s on the phone with Hillcoat to see how the meeting with the famous actor went.
“Tell him if its any incentive, I’ll write him a sex scene. Something twisted. Something unforgettable.”
After a short nap we drive back to the club. This place is so small that Shilpa’s dressing room is actually a couch in the hall outside of Grinderman’s room. As we walk down the steps, we hear Shilpa laughing heartily at something.
“You heard me cackling like a witch,” she says, embarrassed. Then she shows us a mannequin arm she found in the parking lot in Atlanta after the gig. It’s got weird occult symbols draw on it and a large SUCK DICK FOR SATAN tattooed on the upper arm. Shilpa then declares that to commemorate the tour, she is going to get a tattoo of some iconography and a lyric from the Grinderman 2 album. Her bandmate Nick has a friend in Tennessee who will ink her for free.
This venue, the Cannery Hall, has one of the oddest configurations for a music club I’ve ever seen. The stage is to the left of a long bar and faces out for a few hundred feet. But the room is L-shaped and the majority of the space has a view of the side wall, not the stage. By now, Shilpa has gotten over her stage fright and, with a day of practice on the harmonium, is adding new songs to her set. She has propped the mannequin arm against one side of her instrument and there’s a large black feather boa, courtesy of one of the soundmen, draped over the mic stand on the other side. And she is killing. Nick, who never sees opening acts, has crept to the side of the stage and watches Shilpa attack “Erotolepsy,” one of her finest songs. Later on, during his set, he dedicates “When My Love Comes Down” to “the amazing Shilpa Ray. Wasn’t she great?”
I watch the Grinderman set from the first row. Grinderman attract the dispossessed, the marginal, and the beautiful losers of Nashville. Like the girl up front who’s wearing raccoon eye makeup and a huge set of antlers on her head. A heathen child if I ever saw one.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 20—NASHVILLE TO MEMPHIS
It’s 9:45 in the morning, but already Ton has his hands full. Matt is in the lobby with him, dark glasses on, still feeling the effects of the numerous Brandy Alexanders he imbibed at dinner the previous night.
“You have to eat something. An egg, anything,” Ton is trying to steer Matt into the lobby café, but Matt is having none of it.
“Well, well, well,” he slurs, in his best Elvis impersonation. “We going to get some fried turtle!”
All around us the lobby is filled with geriatric Christian conventioneers, which only fuels Matt’s impishness. In fact, he doesn’t break his Elvis character even as we board the bus. He gooses Nick as Elvis. He sings an Elvis medley. He starts mixing a new drink, brandy and root beer, which, for all I know, might have been Elvis’ favorite libation. Jeff, our driver, finishes loading the bus and slips behind the wheel. “Let’s get Elvis to Memphis!” he shouts and we take off.
I whip out my new toy, the Sony Bloggie HD video camera, and I play back portions of the previous night’s show. Warren and Nick are enthralled.
“Damien’s lights are so beautiful,” Nick says. “You never know what they look like onstage.”
I’ve zoomed in on Warren as he writhes on his back on the stage. They both laugh.
“We should have a little cage around you,” Nick says.
“Hey, I’d get into that if I saw that at a rock show,” Warren retorts.
On the screen, Warren spins around on his back with his feet in the air, coming up only to grab the mic and shout “Evil!” on the chorus.
“No wonder the girls stay away from me,” he moans.
“Are you kidding?” Nick says. “You’re the sexiest man in rock’n’roll.”
Instead of going straight to the Hyatt Place Memphis, we have asked Jeff to make a stop at Graceland. When we make the turn onto Elvis Presley Blvd., which is littered with cheap chicken joints, mattress stores, and a Days Inn with a huge sign that reads, BEFORE ELVIS THERE WAS NOTHING, everyone has migrated to the front of the bus.
“There’s the back of his airplane,” Matt shouts as he spies the Lisa Marie, a converted Delta jet. Everyone’s looking near the plane for his house, but I tell them that it’s actually across the street.
“There it is,” Matt says. “I can see the pillars at the top of the hill!”
We all pile off the bus and march up the driveway toward the house.
A middle-age female security guard jumps out of her booth. “Step back please. Can we help you?”
“We’re here with a musical group,” Matt says. “We’ve got a real large bus and we just want to walk around the garden.”
The security guard shakes her head. “You’re not allowed to. You need permission.”
“Is that right?” Nick steps in.
“You can go across the street and buy tickets,” she suggests.
“How long is the tour?” Jim asks.
We march back down the driveway, and Ton exits the bus with Sharpies so we can sign the Graceland wall.
Nick leans over and inscribes something.
“What’d you write?” I ask.
“A secret that I have that will shock the world,” he says solemnly.
Everyone but Nick and myself decide to take the tour. After chatting with some locals who inquired about who we were, and who told us that Jerry Lee Lewis, who lived nearby, used to give guided tours of his house wearing a robe and slippers, Nick and I re-board the bus.
“I hope it goes well with Matt,” says Nick. “He’s liable to sleep on Elvis’ bed.””They cordoned off his bedroom. You can’t go on the second floor,” I say.
Nick shakes his head.
“Rules don’t mean anything to Matt. It’s a matter of honor,” he says.
The bus pulls out.
“Why didn’t you go on the tour?” I ask Nick.
“I’m a big Elvis fan,” he explains. “That’s why I’m not going. I don’t want to see all that shit. I’d rather go to Jerry Lee Lewis’ house and see him in his robe.”
Nick and I arrive early at the soundcheck. While he’s waiting for the rest of Grinderman, he walks out into the hall and noodles on a piano. Then he comes back into the dressing room. I met Nick years ago, backstage at Lollapalooza, and we’ve since grown very close. I ask him about his first gig in New York, back with the Birthday Party.
“The first gig we played was at a club that, after the contract was signed, had changed into a singles bar. They no longer booked rock’n’roll. But they had to honor the contract, so we went in there and played two songs to about eight indifferent people,” Nick remembers. “After those two songs, the manager came out and said, ‘Enough.Enough. Get off. I’m not having this kind of shit in my bar.’ I told him, ‘One more song.’ I was wearing a pair of real nice gold lamé pants that had split at the crotch in the worst possible way. We went into a frenzied 20-minute version of “King Ink,” during which I dove down off the stage and wrapped my microphone cord around a woman’s neck. She looked like Farah Fawcett. She was digging it, I think, but people were kicking at me, tearing at me, trying to pull me off. After that, our next three dates were canceled.”
Half an hour later, the rest of the band rush into the dressing room. It seems that their cab back from Graceland broke down and Matt went into a nearby building for a drink. Said building was Coletta’s, a windowless red brick pizzeria built in 1923 and operated continuously by the same family. A pizza place that was Elvis’ favorite hang.
“It was amazing,” Warren says. “We asked them what Elvis ordered when he was there, and they said barbecue pizza and ravioli. They told us a great Elvis story. He came in there one day with the sheriff. He had this big case with him and put it down on the table and flipped it open. The sheriff thought he had some guitar to show him, but Elvis pulled out a submachine gun! I asked the old woman there if Elvis went there with his friends, and she said, ‘No. Just his bodyguards.'”
Tonight is Shilpa’s last night, as it seems that the theremin is fit to go and Armen will rejoin the tour in Chicago. She does her usual five-song set, but the crowd is so appreciative that she breaks into the old Etta James song “I’d Rather Go Blind,” a request from Martyn. Backstage, while Grinderman wait for the crowd to fill in, Matt grabs a bike and starts pedaling around the hall. A few seconds later, we hear the crackling static of the walkie-talkie of one of the venue’s security guards.
“What the fuck! Some guys riding a freaking bike around in the crowd!”
The security guard runs down the hall. Seconds later, Matt strolls back in.
“It’s alleged that someone was riding a bike in the audience,” he says.
I was foolish enough to watch the show from the first row again, so I can’t hear a thing backstage later. In fact, I can hear both Nick and Warren’s tinnitus. The band is sitting in the hallway, when Shilpa comes out of her dressing room.
“I cried during your set,” Shilpa tells the guys.
“All right, Shilpa,” a friend of the band interrupts. “It’s time you told the truth. You broke that theremin.”
“No way,” Shilpa protests.
“If the theremin would happen to fall over again, would you be ready to join us again?” Nick asks innocently.
“Man, I feel like a call girl,” Shilpa blushes.
The last supper. We’re seated around a large round table at some shitty restaurant that’s trying too hard to be hip. Sadly, the food was all downhill after Atlanta. But Nick has more on his mind than food. He’s leaning over me, giving Shilpa a pep talk. He’s telling her that she may not have the confidence in herself right now but that when’s she’s up there all alone on that stage, playing that strange instrument and pouring out her heart, that’s what art is all about—a sublime combination of beauty and terror.
“After the show, someone said to me, ‘Grinderman were great, but Shilpa Ray was sublime. That girl has guts, standing up there alone and doing that.'” Nick tells Shilpa.
All of this is almost too daunting for Shilpa to take in.
“You don’t want to be part of that bullshit indie scene,” Nick continues.
“It is bullshit,” Shilpa agrees. “I had a promoter tell me last year that I’m never going to fly because I know how to play too well. ‘Try to play as badly as you can,’ he told me.”
“Sidestep that bullshit,” Nick counsels.
“Indie rock has become as retarded as the mainstream,” Shilpa says. “They write lyrics about nothing. Everybody’s ironic about everything.”
Nick asks her how she got into music and she tells him how her father forced her and her sister to study traditional Indian music. “My dad turned me on to the Stones and the Airplane when I was really little. But when I was eight, he banned all Western music. He was really strict about academia. We had to learn harmonium and tambura. It was really regimented, lots of practice.”
“But it’s all in there now,” Nick observes.
“Oh, I totally appreciate it now,” Shilpa admits.
“And one more thing,” Nick says. “Don’t get a tattoo.” When I told him about Shilpa’s plan to get a tattoo of the album art’s flame-haired snake charmer on her arm, he was disgusted.
“Well, I really wanted to get a reproduction of a monster drawn by Sukumar Ray, this great Indian children’s poet and illustrator, the Shel Silverstein of India,” Shilpa says.
“Rather you do that than have a Grinderman thing stuck on your arm because you were a supporting act for four dates,” Nick moans. “Go home. You can get a tattoo anytime.”
But Shilpa’s Nick starts protesting. “But not for free from an amazing artist.”
He pulls up his sleeve and shows us a tattooed reproduction of a Ralph Steadman illustration that his friend had done for him.
Nick looks at me and rolls his eyes.
“Let’s go out for a smoke,” he says to me, knowing that I don’t smoke.
We make our way outside. Nick pulls out a cigarette. But before he can say anything, four other people follow us out, on the pretense of having a cigarette. Each of them try to engage him, whether it’s to come visit their studio or check out their music. Nick politely listens for a bit then turns to me.
“Don’t let her get that tattoo, Rats,” he says, wryly. “Her body is just on loan.God owns it.”
Back at the hotel after the meal, Warren and I go up to Nick’s room and we watch the footage I shot that night. We’re all bushed and I’ve got to get up early and catch a plane back to New York while they motor their way to Chicago. So we say our goodbyes and I go to my room.
At 3:16 A.M., I send Shilpa a text. “Nick and Ratso both say, ‘Don’t get that tattoo! Trust these older boys.'”
Half an hour later Shilpa replies. “You guys win. No tattoo.”
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 23—NEW YORK CITY
Back in the New York groove. Shilpa is back at her jean shop, waiting on obnoxious customers and processing the amazing five days she’s had. I go back to working on my latest book. That night, at 8:53, my Blackberry signals an incoming e-mail. I click it open.
“It has suddenly got fucking freezing here. Chicago was blasting icy winds this morning, and now we’re heading for serious weather apparently. Bad enough to stop us from flying out. Chicago show was great but we miss you, my friend. As a protest at your absence, we sat in the stinking band room and ate greasy, highly suspect tacos and went to bed early. Love, Nick.”