I am on my way to Cleveland, Ohio. En route I have a five-hour layover at Chicago O’Hare. I chose this option for three reasons: 1) if my first flight is delayed, I am less likely to miss my connection (this has happened before); 2) if everything runs to schedule it’ll give me a nice big window to plug in and recharge my laptop and get plenty of work done; 3) the talk I’m flying in to give isn’t for another three days, so I don’t mind an epically long day now since I can plan on a decent seven hours or so in bed tonight. Last night I got in just over three hours after an exhausting day directing and performing in a video and photo shoot, learning some songs, playing those at a gig in Soho, and then hanging around to lend a guy another drummer my gear for the headline set.

After a minor altercation with a silly lady on the plane who walks into me from behind and argues that there’s no need to look where she is going, things go smoothly – the line is short at immigration, my bag is one of the first to appear on the carousel, and I discover (albeit too late for this trip) that TSA regulations have recently changed to allow passengers to leave iPads in briefcases when passing through airport security. I look forward to the day that I leave mine in there, only to find regulations have changed again and I am subjected to a full cavity search by a gloved and greased border guard. My mind wanders to the time I stood just behind Sen. John McCain at security here a couple of years ago, and everyone asked for his autograph. Nobody asks for mine, even though I have “I drum, therefore I am” (the title of my recent book!) emblazoned on my snare drum case – I guess it’s cool to be incognito. McCain should be so lucky.

I find a power outlet and sit down to work. Torn between editing a book proposal, drafting a blog entry and writing an article for Rhythm magazine that was due at the publishers yesterday, I decide to check Facebook. O’Hare has a generous policy of granting travellers 20 minutes free wifi access, so I reply to messages from students, Tweet a sincere haiku I composed about drumming, notice that I have insufficient time to download the audio from yesterday (tantalisingly a Dropbox link away until I get to my hotel eight hours from now), and then lose my connection just as I try to access my work emails.

Everyone around me sounds like a movie character. I suppose that’s normal, since most of the films we are fed are made in the US, and characters would naturally be composites or cariacatures of real-life Americans. It amazes me, though, just how much the Hispanic guy with a clipboard behaves exactly as Modern Family would have me believe he should, and how the black guys and gals serving beverages have Leon out of Curb Your Enthusiasm off to a tee. A guy sits down next to me and in a voice straight out of South Park calls a credit card company to advise them his name is Guthrie Shaffer. My fellow patrons of O’Hare all walk like Americans.

My people-watching is interrupted when an American Airlines pilot sits to play Scrabble on his iPhone, stands to get something from his bag, trips on my MacBook power cable, sends the adaptor flying and bellows “shit!” across the concourse. There’s another scene from “Curb” as a fellow AA pilot joins him, and they talk planes, engines, brakes, wives, and college fees for their daughters. Close to them a trio of pilots from another airline gathers, and one of them (a thinner, less Essex version of a successful theatre Musical Director I know) rails against the hike in gym membership fees for pilots at O’Hare – “it used to cost that for the year!” Clearly a Union Guy, he has all the gossip, and his colleagues are trapped, so they get to hear it all. The Scrabble-tripping-pilot leaves his phone and headphones plugged in next to me and takes off for his flight. By the time I’ve noticed, he’s long gone, so I interrupt the fomenting labour dispute, and Gym Fees strides off with purpose and his rival’s handset.

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According to my reading of Google Maps’ representation of Cleveland, the Agora Theatre and Ballroom is a short walk from my hotel, and Downtown (with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum) just a little farther down the road. Waking up on my first morning in Ohio I check my emails, reply to urgent ones, and prepare for my customary morning run – hopefully to the Hall of Fame and back. It’s only when I have been out for a few minutes that I clock the descent of the street numbers – I began crossing 100-and-somethingth, and have now reached 101st. The 90s pass slowly, and I realise that a Downtown loop would be a two-hour mission. I have no intention of putting in a half-marathon before breakfast and a much-needed day of reading and writing. I’m giving the biggest talk of career in two days’ time, and have to know I’ll be ready. Plus I’ve a date tonight with heavy metal, so time is tight. I decide to run as far as the Agora, which should be at 55th, then turn back. Signs inform me that I’m in Uptown, which is full of hospitals, dental practices and a sprawling Cleveland Clinic. Suddenly civilisation disappears, and I’m pounding through a post-apocalyptic landscape reminiscent of documentaries about central Detroit. Signage of a different hue advises me that Midtown is one of Cleveland’s primary centres of rejuvenation. I am unconvinced, as abandoned buildings and vacated lots echo to the sound of my breathing and footfall. A bus occasionally passes. Quickening my pace, I reach the Agora, which may once have been glamorous, and turn back toward the Courtyard Marriott, welcoming the hastening security of the town cars and mirrored surfaces of private healthcare facilities Uptown.

Work on my talk goes well, and by 7.00 pm I’m basically done, enough that I can head to see the Metal Alliance Four on tour motivated, but calm. After a very brisk 45-minute walk, the Agora appears like an anonymous motel in the middle of urban nowhere. The neon sign would proclaim that the Theatre is world-famous, but there is no hyphen, and the lights are out in the world. Inside, someone has stripped the venue of paint as yellowed plaster and concrete greet me along with the sound of HM cranked to well over 11. I have forgotten my ID, so the fat seated bouncer concedes he can let me in as “under-age” if I’ll let him draw crosses in black marker on the backs of my hands so I can’t buy beer. I accept, and head to the Theatre auditorium where I spit and scrub the prohibition off my hands, buy a huge can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and check out Befallen in the Ballroom, where more neon lights fail to shine. The sound is enveloping and intoxicating, as the crowd of fewer than 100 stands appreciatively in front of these loose but committed death metal die-hards in hoodies and plaid. I return to the Theatre for the second half of 1349’s incredible set. The drummer is phenomenal – that he can play that fast for so long is astonishing. Metal drumming is often faked on recordings, but Sondre blows my mind with a flawless performance. Behemoth are next, and they too are good, but their show lacks the intensity of 1349’s. Their songs are shoutier and more predictable, and I can’t help feel that the louder sound and flashier lights are compensating for an unconvincing show by a half-arsed band. By the sixth or seventh song the strobes in my face are doing my head in and I can’t look at the stage. Midtown is no less bleak than before, and I tense at the handful of stumbling strangers who share with me the city night. The Pabst assists my striding home, taking a full minute off my time. I am back by 11, and for a nightcap grab a Blue Moon from the bar.

The following night I have a ticket for Nile – more death metal at the Agora. I don’t fancy the walk, though, so book a cab. The driver is incredulous that I walked the route twice last night (I don’t admit that I ran it in the morning as well), saying it’s really unsafe and I’m braver than him. Feeling naive, lucky and stupid, I accept his business card; I had planned on walking back after the show, but I call him later instead. Rather a roaming charge than be mugged or worse. And Nile are effing brilliant. George Kollias is probably god.

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I intend to look around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum while I’m in Cleveland. It’s one of the reasons I’ve booked to be in the city for two days ahead of my talk at Case Western Reserve University. I was flattered and surprised, however, when, a couple of days before I leave the UK I received an email from a colleague, offering to hook me up with some people at the Rock Hall (as it likes to be known). I was copied in on an email to the Director of Education, who in turn copied me in to an email to the Manager of Artist and VIP Relations, asking her to ensure I am well looked after (I can only imagine it’s a quiet time of year for VIP Relations.)

En route to the Hall of Fame, the cab driver seems to think there are two kinds of musicians – ones he’s heard of, and those he will do soon. He therefore decides that I am an “up-and-coming drummer”. I don’t spoil his day with the details of how and why I and most musicians contentedly fit neither of his categories, and as I leave the cab he tells me I’ve brightened his day. Must have been the $4 tip. It’s raining, and the squashed glass-and-steel pyramid of the Rock Hall beckons me indoors. Inside I am met by Shelby and Jason. Jason is the Director of Education, and has half an hour for me. We spend an hour together, though, as he shows me around the exhibitions, pointing out cool stuff (Johnny Cash’s guitar, Muddy Waters’ guitar, John Lennon’s Mellotron – the one the Beatles actually used to record Strawberry Fields), and adding in awesome details like “we are the only museum that the Elvis Presley Estate works with”, so they routinely switch exhibits with Graceland. I thought I would hate this place – glass showcases crammed with memorabilia from people who succeeded despite not-necessarily-superior-artistry-or-songs in an industry that makes and breaks fortunes and lives with callous disregard for people and peoples and ethics, creating tastes and demand and commodifying the previously meaningful – but I love it here. I love ZZ Top’s bearded drum set, the sincerely eclectic and non-patronizing approach to the music’s complex past and present, the balanced and honest dealings with issues of race (if not gender, so much), and I really dig the epic model of The Wall from the Pink Floyd album occupying much of the 4th floor. There is a strong sense here that they’re curating (rather than creating, which had been my fear, although inevitably they do this too) a history of my favourite kind of music.

It’s pouring with rain as I leave to head across downtown to the Library and Archives. Craving fresh air, I stand expectantly by the vacant taxi rank. A cab pulls up and the driver asks if I am Mr Sergeant. I tell him I am not, and he says to get in anyway – Sergeant is nowhere to be seen (quite possibly because it is raining and he’s sensibly waiting indoors). The driver asks what I’m doing in town, so I tell him. He asks who I’ve played with, and I run through my muddled mental list of tenuous connections to remotely famous musicians. He is sort of impressed by Richard O’Brien, but rightly points out that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not really rock and roll. Herbie Flowers means nothing to him, and he’s clearly not a Deep Purple fan. I offer to get out. Changing tack, he says I must be decent if the University is paying for me to be here. “Flattery will get you everywhere”, my judo instructor used to tell me; I was never sure about that, but it seems to be a mantra in the (I feel, somewhat over-zealous) tipping culture of the United States. Of course I tip my driver heavily, despite the fact I only work three days a week and my wife has been on maternity leave for a year and we can’t afford any of this. After all, I am a university lecturer, this guy’s a cabbie, I’m white, he’s black, and the class rules are clear. I consider again the probability of success were I to attempt instigation of a tipping culture for drummers and music teachers in west London.

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Library and Archives are housed in a conspicuously new and functional building on the grounds of Cuyahoga County Community College on the outskirts of Downtown Cleveland. I am greeted by Andy, Director of the facility, who shows me into his office and asks me to sign copy of my book. I am flattered, astonished and taken aback that this place would even stock my work, let alone want a signed copy (after all, who the hell am I?!). I feel momentarily star-struck in my own presence. He apologies twice for troubling me with his request, apparently unaware (surely not?!) of how rare is my being asked to sign books for the collections of world famous institutions dedicated to the preservation and documentation my favourite art form.

Andy is, like his colleague Jason at the Hall of Fame and Museum, very generous with his time, showing me around the young library and vast archives. Amidst unsorted collections of donated LPs and boxes of papers from people I should have heard of, a few items give me chills. I see and touch the original hand-written telegram from the Wiltshire Police to Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend, informing her of his tragic and dramatic death in a car crash in Bath, England. I leaf through Hal Blaine’s datebook – Blaine, almost certainly the most recorded drummer in history, played on thousands of records, films and TV shows in LA in the 50s and 60s, and he has the phone numbers in here of literally everyone. I nearly pull out my iPhone to photograph some of this, and then check myself. Andy is committed and knowledgeable, giving me the certain impression that the future history of rock and roll is in safe hands. He even gives me a ride back to my hotel. What a nice chap. I wonder what will befall the records of my significant contemporaries – everything we have is in iCal, the “cloud” or a Google doc.

Back at the Courtyard Marriott, I pop into the Starbucks franchise Bistro for an espresso and a turkey ciabatta. The guy serving asks “are you in a rock and roll band?” to which I reply that I am, but none that he’d have heard of. He then asks “do you eat bats, like Ozzy Osbourne? In my head I remove the comma from his question and reply with a witty “no, I have a whole different technique”. However, I suspect he’s just after a tip because he’s young, black and hip, and can’t be into anything so unfashionable or white-British as rock. And then the whole catastrophic scene from the movie Crash plays in my head too, where Ryan Phillipe’s unconsciously racist police officer unleashes his wild supressed anger and all goes horribly wrong in his car; so I just laugh and say that no, I don’t eat bats, but that maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong.

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In a cruel distortion of the This is Spinal Tap lost-back-stage scene from this city, I am beginning to think I might never leave Cleveland, Ohio. Waiting at Gate A3A, Cleveland Hopkins, I grow glad of my impending six-hour layover at JFK. I have been lucky with the day so far – I woke up ahead of my alarm, spry although mildly hung over. I had a decent gym session (25-minute run, did two short sessions with weights, a few press-ups) and made it to check-out in time for my cab. As I was getting the valet parking charges removed from my bill (I hadn’t driven a car on this trip), a guy from across the lobby asked if he could share my cab to the airport. Happy to split the cost (although disgruntled at the loss of working time and the need now to chat politely to some dude for half an hour, but Britishly powerless to say so), I agreed. Turned out we both face changes tomorrow (he would begin a new job, and my wife is due back to work after maternity leave). I ended up dispensing advice to him for his girlfriend, about to graduate as a classical violinist. Tempering my counsel should prove handy practice for the talk I’m giving the next day to my own undergraduate music students, ominously entitled “Next Steps: Professional Development”, like I am in a position to help. The saving I made on the cab fare made up for about half the “sundry [beer] costs” accrued on my hotel bill. Airport check-in was quick and painless, and Security equally smooth. Opposite my gate is Starbucks. Starving, I order a sausage muffin and a scone with my “tall blonde roast” (?!) coffee (she disappoints somewhat). And then another scone (the danger of proximity to cakes). I edit the video of my talk from yesterday into a movie of just under an hour, and add titles, pleased I’d downloaded a couple of tutorials about the new and utterly counter-intuitive version of iMovie. Then the fun begins.

There is a “technical problem” with our plane. The flight will be delayed by at least an hour. Or possibly 10 minutes. But probably closer to 90. So please stay in the gate area. My laptop battery drained from movie-editing, I hunt for a power outlet. We are soon told that the plane is mechanically in great shaper (good to know), but that the GPS is not working – in such a condition, we will of course not be allowed into New York air space (subtle deflection of responsibility for the situation from airline to New Yorkers. Deft, I feel). After an hour-and-a-half, the plane’s SatNav is fixed. No one boards when groups 1 and 2 are called, so confusingly I board first with group 3.

Once everyone else is in, sat and belted, a very frail, old lady is assisted aboard by her son, his wife, and the sole flight attendant. They walk comically slowly, as if mocking the arthritic, or deliberately holding up the flight yet further. They are seated, and the plane remains stationary. As the female pilot (I actually had no idea this was even a thing) tells us half an hour later that we are almost cleared for departure, the daughter-in-law behind me begins shouting and yelling about three lost passports. After much conspicuous unpacking and repacking she and her relatives are escorted from the plane with the same Python-esque urgency with which they had joined us. Once the family is departed, the pilot appears in person to explain that in order for the funereal group to be allowed to remain at or ever to leave the airport, they need their suitcases, which are now being dug-for among everyone’s luggage, which has just been removed from the hold. This will probably take ages to resolve, and everyone is very sorry, not least the captain, whose frustration shows through her cracking professional veneer. The flamboyant flight attendant comes around with glasses of water and frees granola bars. Saves me having to buy lunch at JFK, at least. The woman next to me starts to cough, admitting she’d thought she was over her bronchitis.

 

 

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