Most tours in my memory are filled with sun. This one was filled with rain. Rain, indefatigable rain. Thread-soaking rain. Rain every day. Rain into May. Rain across the Southeast. Rain in the Northeast. Rain in the Midwest. Rain across the nation. Rain in Philadelphia, PA. Even in the Motor City. Ooh yeah. There was no outrunning the rain. When we were driving east we consoled ourselves by saying, "Well, we're traveling in the same direction the weather travels, so we're just unfortunately keeping up with the rain." Then we headed south and still it rained and we said, "Well, we're just cutting through the storm. Fierce storm. Wide, too. It's a bummer." And then we headed northeast and still it rained on us. "Again we're traveling with the weather. Who booked this tour anyway?" and I would slink down low in my seat and change the subject. But then we started heading west and it. Kept. Raining. Which just seemed like bad luck. We just couldn't drive our way, play our way, pray our way out of the rain. And so it was a month of rain. Rain almost every single day.
In short: Rain.
Which for most bands would not make a tragedy. And if I were in most bands I wouldn't dwell on it so much. But I'm not in most bands, I'm in my own band. And my band makes a good portion of its living on the street, and when you're in a band that depends on playing on the street...well, rain can be a problem. Rain falling on delicate instruments and CDs is a problem. Rain in tourist areas makes the tourists go inside. The tour had been a struggle already, and rain made it more so. We weren't getting many breaks, and when that happens you start to look at all cracks in everything and start feeling sorry for yourself. Every mile of highway in America was under construction. Every town we went to happened to be hosting the circus that night, and of course everyone's going to go to the circus and not our show. Maybe we didn't pray to the Traveler King enough. That thought crossed my mind. Nathan did two offerings at the start of tour, when things were still going well, and then nothing the last three weeks. Why do we question our faith in deities that have always been faithful to us?
Oh, and the economy. Maybe the economy doesn't actually affect little insignificant things like our tour. Or maybe the economy ONLY affects the little things, and leaves the big things unscarred. Either way, you can always be safe in saying that the economy is a factor, because it's something you can't actually see, and therefore you can never really be proved wrong.
And when things are going wrong on top of the ship, you can be sure that things are going wrong underneath. If the mast is cracked, then the barnacles are probably drunk. So it was with our ship, at least, as a certain unsavory faction had erupted in the belly, like you would expect to happen in any large vessel. A new den of sin was breeding, named simply The Den, and it was born the exact moment that everyone realized the middle captain's chairs could swivel around so that four people could all sit in the back and face each other. Which led instantly to the first in-van poker game in the Nick Jaina Band, which of course would, if unchecked, probably lead to in-van legalized prostitution and a flickering neon sign with a martini glass and a curvy girl standing next to it. Poker was something that had to be squashed right away, but I was too busy driving and finding directions to Columbus, Ohio to do anything about it. And as soon as poker in the van was discovered, no one wanted to drive anymore. Everything was a game, The Game, the one long game, a game I could never join because they were too deep into the game and I hadn't been there for the first deal. Were they even playing a game, or was the game just that they got us to THINK that they were playing a game? That would be a pretty good bluff.
Either way, it had been two weeks of tour and we hadn't had a chance to busk yet. Just no time to do it, mixed with no particular places in which to do it, mixed with... well, do I need more reasons? We just hadn't done it yet. And so, we drove for two weeks across America, a constant rain cloud hanging over us, and on top of that cloud an invisible cloud of economic troubles raining its economic woe on the rain cloud, which in turn rained extra hard on us. And underneath our tires were the gutted freeways of a nation trying to put its people back to work. Roads being repaved, rebuilt, moved around. Lanes being added or subtracted. And God maybe knows because I sure don't what they're trying to do with the roads around New Orleans. They've had the same half-finished onramps to nowhere for 10 years, and still there are orange caution cones and people who look like they're trying to build something, when they are clearly making no progress at all.
So anyway, we were in New York City, driving up to Union Square, looking to busk for the first time. Union Square, where six months ago Ira Glass from This American Life went to interview random people when they he was doing a show on the state of the economy. Really, the Undisputed Heart of the Urban American Economic Ideal. It was not just important financially to us that we were there, it was important symbolically, like sticking a thermometer into the roasting carcass of America to see how it was doing. A little rain was falling, we were tired from having driven from New Orleans in just two days, and we were a little discouraged about the viability of getting people on a street corner to buy our CDs. But still, we had to try. I dropped the boys off with all the equipment and set out to look for a parking spot. In midtown Manhattan. At five pm...Dun dun dunnnnn...And somehow, there was a whole strip of parking spaces just a block away. I parked the van and got out and looked at the parking sign, scrutinized it, made sure I was understanding it properly. That's how you have to approach parking signs in New York City, like you're the prosecution cross-examining the witness. You read it carefully, then step away and collect your thoughts and look at it again. Ask the sign leading questions, try to get the sign to trip up under the intense pressure and tell the truth. (Me: "Did you order the Code Red?" Parking sign: "I did the job I..." Me: *DID YOU ORDER THE CODE RED?* Parking sign: *YOU'RE GODDAMNED RIGHT I DID!* And then the bailiff comes and hauls the parking sign away in handcuffs and you get to park there for free forever.)
Because if you DON'T do that, if you DON'T completely scrutinize the parking signs in New York from every possible angle, you'll miss some little technicality, and your car will be towed away and stashed in this horrible place near the Hudson River and you have to go bail it out like you're bailing your four-year-old son out of jail, the one you left all alone at the shopping mall and he was so distraught he ended up driving a security guard's golf cart into the coin fountain. So it's YOUR FAULT. The shame is all yours. I know this because I did it once, in Brooklyn. I parked in a space and I looked at the sign and it said, "No Parking Monday or Thursday" and then when I came back in a few hours my car was gone and the sign suddenly said, "No Parking Monday THRU Thursday." Which is a big difference when it's, for example, Wednesday.
But none of that happened this time. I parked the van and walked up to the boys, who had set up in Union Square. And again, the economy was on our minds, or whatever is on your mind when you're supposed to be thinking about the economy. And I picked up my guitar and started to tune it, braced myself for the possibility that perhaps busking in this New Economic Climate wouldn't be as lucrative as busking in the Salad Days of last year.
And I was only still just tuning the A string when several guys with video cameras came up to us and said they were from New Zealand and were there in New York to film a commercial about a new sausage and could they tape us playing a song? And Scott said that would be fine, but that we were there to make money so they would have to try to not get in our way, and the guy said, "Well, we'll give you two hundred dollars..." And he pulled out two honest to God crisp hundred-dollar bills and gave them to us. And we said, "OK."
And that's how we sold out to a New Zealand sausage company.
But wait, could it happen that fast? What were we even agreeing to? They hadn't even heard our music yet. Well, it was their idea anyway. So we started playing a song and the men walked around and filmed us while someone with a paper plate fed us slices of sausage on a toothpick. And they only stuck around for one song. And they gave us two hundred dollars. So, maybe somewhere in New Zealand there is a commercial of me trying to sing a song while a sausage slice is stuck in front of my face and I awkwardly try to eat it even though I'm, you know, SINGING A SONG.
But don't let that fool you about the state of the economy. New York was good, but other places were still rough. And there was also that constant rain to deal with. A few days later we got in to Burlington in the early afternoon, hoping to have a repeat of our infamous stand there last fall where we made, oh I don't remember what it was, something like $45,000 in the first 20 minutes. The story has grown over time. Regardless, it was an important place to us, and as we pulled in to town the rain just started pounding harder and harder. The boys stayed at a coffee shop to play cards while I walked down the street to a Thai place, where I ordered what was both The Most Expensive and The Most Mediocre plate of Thai food in my life. sat there by myself in my dark blue blazer, which was ruined from too much time in the rain, and I quietly wept. The waitress didn't know what to do. I didn't either. I wanted to return my dish, but it's not something I'd ever done before. Can you return a dish, not for reasons of it being bad, but just because it wasn't as good as you thought it should be based on the price? I don't know. I thought about making a speech in front of the manager, but I had other things to deal with.
Then somehow, as I got back to the coffee shop, the skies parted a little bit, and there was still about an hour before the sun would set. We quickly set up our instruments on Church Street and a few tourists crawled out of their hiding places and gathered around us and got closer and closer as Nathan encouraged them to do so. By the last song I was singing tenderly, Thai-food tears wiped out of my eyes, as dozens of people sat in the fading Vermont sunlight, lovers holding each other tighter, people quietly reminding themselves they should call their mothers the next day, and we made off once again like bank robbers after coming across what had initially seemed like an unrobbable bank.
I mean, we survived. We got through it all.
We then headed down to Baltimore. We had to cut through more rain to get to a little outdoor pavilion where Leonard Cohen was playing. We had missed him in other cities and felt like the time was right to see a 74-year-old singer who only tours every 15 years or so. I don't think it would be overly crude to say that maybe it was our last chance to see him. Sara even flew in from Portland just for the opportunity. We sat out on the lawn and waited for him to start. Naturally, the skies darkened and it started to rain. When the man came onstage, however, it didn't matter. We stood there with a soggy sleeping bag held above our heads while he knelt on the stage in a sharp suit and hat and sang with a clenched fist for three hours. "Love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah." There were nine people onstage with him, but he could've been there on his own and it would've been just as good. He took his hat off after every song to greet the applause. He had the simplest look of joy on his face, like he was my grandfather who just won a lifetime gift certificate to Denny's.
One song he didn't sing that night, but which has been going through my head for days is "The Old Revolution." The opening lines go like this:
I finally broke into the prison
I found my place in the chain
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows
Leonard Cohen is one of the few songwriters who has words that you can just chew on for months and months and yet there's still flavor left in there to taste. That third line is such a positive one, even though it sounds bleak at first. He saying that there is still hope even in the darkest situations, even in the terrible situations that have thrown yourself into, the times where you crawl into a hole and wait for suffering to be piled on top of you. Even in those moments, the clouds pull away and beams of light shine through. That's the kind of music that I hope never stops being played, even after the writers of such songs are very very far away, or resting deep in the ground.
Photo courtesy of Nick Jaina