So, where were we? Oh yeah, outside of Portland, getting towed.
It threw me, the bad Oregon mojo. Not just getting towed for the first time, but the fact that people there seemed to regularly recognize the Traipsemobile for exactly what it is. They were still complimentary, (uncharacteristically so for Oregonians) but they didn’t mistake it for a spaceship or a storm chaser or a government surveillance van. It’s as if Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak had stopped working, and he suddenly was visible to everyone at Hogwarts. Naked. With a boner. This happened in book six, I believe, “Harry Potter and the Throbbing Sword.”
I was hoping that Washington would be different. I’d booked yet another out-in-the-woods cabin for the purpose of making myself write the “Bernie,” story. The theory being that if I billed my credit card often enough, I’d be shamed into actually working. As Rick Perry says about evolution, “just because it’s a theory, doesn’t mean it’s true.” He may not have said that about evolution. I’m pretty sure he said it about gravity, though.
My point is that found myself and The Traipsemobile on the Mukilteo Ferry from the mainland just north of Seattle to Whidbey Island, a 20-minute journey across a narrow passage at the top of Puget Sound. I spent the trip in my personal cabin, parked in the special oversized vehicle lane. “What’s that dome?,” one of the parking guys had asked before letting me on, although you’d think he’d seen plenty of mobile satellite dishes before.
“Communications,” I said, being a dick. He nodded as if he understood what I meant and waved me onboard. We’re back, baby!
I’ve stayed on Whidbey Island before, but not the southern part. It’s a big place, 56 miles long, 12 miles wide. The northern half is more heavily populated, mostly with ex-military folks, because of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station (exactly the type of facility that would deploy a top-secret laser-powered recreational vehicle, which is probably why the ferry attendant asked no further questions. )
The southern half is all woodsy and pastoral and full of money, the kind of place where Microsoft executives spend their weekends. There are lots of overpriced boutiques and bistros where you can buy wine, books, lattes and locally grown tiramisu. Also lots of tourists and sad-looking hipsters with guitars and moleskin notebooks. They hang out around Useless Bay. Could be a coincidence.
I’d booked myself into the Foxglove Cabin writer’s retreat, mostly by misreading the weekly rate, which turned out to be $400. Not terrible, actually, but more than I needed to spend.
But there was plenty to be had for the money. A serious writer would make tremendous use of the place, I imagine. It’s way back in the forest, down a rutted path, away from everything. There’s wild lavender all over the place. There’s a lovely screened-in porch, a chiminea outside, a groovy desk and reclining easy chair. There’s a fully-equipped kitchen, wi-fi. All the peace, solitude and space for introspection you could possibly want. I didn’t write jackshit.
But I did spend a lot of time in nearby Langley, right by Useless Bay. The weather (Texans, please look away) was perfect: 70 degrees, breezy, bright blue skies with the Olympic Peninsula visible in the distance, water and mountains, sunsets reflected on the Bay. There were fresh Penn Cove mussels, Rainier cherries. There was beer. Lots of beer. Did I mention that I didn’t write jackshit?
So, after a week, I went to Seattle because if I was going to be a useless alcoholic, I might as well do it while listening to live music. There’s a bar in the Ballard district of Seattle, in the northwestern part of town, down by Shilshole Bay. It’s an old shipping and industrial district, that until the last 10 or 15 years has been pretty grungy. Lately though, it’s become hipsterized, not so much as to ruin it, but enough to give it some flavor. If I were going to move to Seattle – something I’ve considered a few times in my life – Ballard is likely where I’d live.
It’s full of used-clothing stores and pseudo-dive bars and diners, places that look vaguely seedy but have 3 or 4 kinds of IPA on tap. Like, for instance Hattie’s Hat, right there on Ballard Avenue. It’s been there since 1904 and the bar looks like it’s pretty much unchanged. This is a good thing.
It’s right down the street from The Tractor Tavern, which is really why I was there. Some folks in Ashland (the ones who’d knocked, unexpectedly, on the Traipsemobile door, just to say how much they liked it) had said it was the best place for live music in Seattle. They were right.
It’s a great old joint, home base for The Maldives, a fine Seattle band, and the bar most likely to have your road-touring Austinites show up on the stage, You can’t tell from the street, but it’s a pretty sizable venue, able to hold a crowd of 300 or so. There was a Seattle band playing the night I was there called Curtains For You and I loved them. They were all poppy and bright and built on harmonies, which seems to be the new Seattle sound. All the young bands here are like anti-grunge (except in attire – that hasn’t really changed other than thicker beards). It’s all about musicianship and influences that seem more Beatles and Squeeze than Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They are making happy music in Seattle. Which is weird.
I bopped around the Sound for a couple of days, from Redmond (where I’m pretty sure I could actually smell Bill Gates’ money) down to Snoqualmie, where I met an old high school friend for Sunday brunch at the Salish Lodge, overlooking Snoqualmie Falls. It was all so very Twin Peaks, which used the location frequently. If I’d seen a backwards-talking dwarf, I’d have gotten the hell out.
Before I crossed the border into Canada, where I had some actual journalism work to do, I hung out for a day at the Château Ste Michelle winery in Woodinville, just north of Redmond and about15 miles northeast of Seattle proper. The grounds , as you would expect, surround an actual chateau, a gorgeous 105-acre estate with long driveways lined by holly trees and a seamless combination of buildings from the property’s original days as a dairy farm and it’s newer zillion-dollar winery operation. In the summer, they have concerts there. Chris Isaak was playing that night. This is why I was there.
My Fort Worth buddy, Johnny Reno, introduced me to Isaak back in the late 80’s, right before “Wicked Game” took off (with the help of David Lynch – see, there’s that Twin Peaks thing again). I’ve seen him play, I don’t know, a dozen times, interviewed him at least 3 or 4 times and was on the set twice when he was doing his Showtime series in Vancouver.
Isaak is smart and funny and a great interview because his go-to conversational mode is self-deprecating one-liners. It’s why he’s great on talk shows, why his stage patter is often as entertaining as the music. He comes out in those Nudie-type suits (or the one made of mirrors), makes fun of himself and his band, tells ridiculous tall tales, hits all the high notes and, more than anything, gives the crowd exactly what it wants. I’m not sure this is always a good thing.
It’s kind of why he’s playing casinos and wineries now, big-money gigs to be sure, shows that draw thousands of appreciative patrons who love him and the shtick and the songs they recognize. But he didn’t used to feel this safe. He always loved doing the lounge-act stuff, but it used to feel more ironic, a wink-to-the-crowd riff in between the songs. But now – and maybe I’m wrong – the suits seem more important than the songs, the shtick more important than the music. He’s not winking anymore. I hate this.
I didn’t say any of this to my favorite member of the band, Kenney Dale Johnson of Borger, Texas, who I like to call The Mayor of Everywhere . He and Reno were best buds when Johnny played with Isaak for a while (the band’s best years, in my opinion) and I thought he was the best thing about “The Chris Isaak Show” on Showtime, the dry Texas counterweight to Isaak’s surfer-boy self-involvement. He’s Isaak’s straight man (and also the contributor of most of those amazing high harmonies on the records) and as good a Texas drummer as there’s ever been. Kenney Dale can pound.
Johnny Reno thinks he ought to have his own cable show and I agree. “Hanging With Kenney Dale” would just be him, big and ominous-looking if you don’t know him, making friends with strangers and doing the Kenney Dale Hang. If you ever went to an Isaak gig in the old days, back when they played bars more than amphitheaters, you’d almost always see him out in the crowd before the show, hanging out with the fans, just happy to be there. On days when I’m not that happy with myself, I do what I can to be more like Kenney Dale.
So, naturally, we did the hang at Chateau Ste Michelle. They put the bands up in one of those fancy estate houses before the show, about as luxurious a backstage-dressing room-green room situation as you’re ever gonna see. There are flower-lined paths, creeks, servants. It’s like hanging out at Versailles. I guess. I’ve never been to Versailles. Not sure, after this, that I really need to go.
We swapped road stories, Kenney Dale and me, they were heading to Canada to do some gigs and I was heading to Canada to, uh, well, drink more beer. We talked about Texas musicians (I urged him strongly to get the new Joe Ely record) and the new Isaak album, “Beyond The Sun” which is a reworking of old Sun Records tunes, most of the ones you know – Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash – and some deeper cuts, which I think are the best ones. Especially “Miss Pearl,” a slash-and-burn rockabilly song from a guy named Johnny Wages.
“Miss Pearl” and “Dixie Fried,” a Perkins song, are great. And I guess it’s a smart thing to do, re-work some classics, appeal to that aging state fair demographic, let Chris show off his Elvis/Roy Orbison chops. But when he does “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” it feels a little too much like Las Vegas Hilton Elvis has already taken over for Sun Records Elvis. I hope I’m wrong about this.
Kenney Dale, he’s just happy to be working, happy to have a good-paying gig, happy to have new songs to play. He likes it out here on the road, although he’s married and living outside of San Francisco and likes being settled down, too. He puts on his show clothes, his fancy-ass boots and his western suit, goes out on that stage and pounds the hell out of those drums. And then, after the show, he hangs.
It was a fancy crowd, being a winery and all. There were deep-pocket benefactors from Chicago in town, a couple with Seattle roots that hire Isaak for charity galas, who have bought some of his artwork. They were nice enough people although I could tell they weren’t sure what to think of the fact that when asked where I was staying that night, I said, “Right down the road, I guess. I’m not sure.” The woman decided I was like a migrating bird, moving north and south with the weather. She’s not wrong about that.
Chris spent most of his time with the fancy folks. Kenney Dale sat off to the side, with a couple of crew guys and me. I tried to leave a couple of times, worried I’d stayed too long. But he told me to sit down and hang a while longer. I wasn’t about to say no.
Eventually, it was time for him to get back on the tour bus, for me to find a place to park and spend the night. Straight and true as a West Texas highway, that Kenney Dale Johnson, The Mayor of Everywhere He Goes. He’s what I aspire to be.