Brunettes bassist James Milne continues his American tour diary with some strange encounters with the locals down in the South
Yesterday we went to Wayne Coyne’s place. Situated in Oklahoma City’s friendliest ghetto, everyone in the city who has an interest in this kind of thing knows its location, due in no small part to a new Flaming Lips documentary which reveals its location as 13th St and Gatewood. It’s the modernist, brown brick place with a weeping willow outside in case you’re looking.
This was the capping event in a week of Southern gothic weirdness, of good-natured, nicotine-toothed rednecks who would "sooner ride bulls than catch a ferry to New Zealand", of unnerving religious propaganda lining the freeways, of a strip club in Atlanta where the karaoke show was called "Yer ****** 15 Minutes".
Athens, Georgia is where the true characters started appearing in our story. Steve White, a folk artist recently relocated from Albuquerque, New Mexico, baseball cap and dungaree-clad, invited us back to his tiny studio and regaled us with awestruck tales of Southern folklore. His specialty is the largely untold "true history" of America; his claim-to-fame being revisionist Pez dispensers. The range includes Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, a Mt Rushmore of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley, Jesus and a Statue of Liberty skull.
The evening we spent in his studio, I felt like I had truly tapped into some sort of Soul of America, way beyond all the homogenised truck stops, fast food chains and the mere impression of a continent that you can see out the window of a van travelling across farmland at 110km/h. His stories of visiting Johnny Cash’s grave in Hendersonville, Tennessee, or standing on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, had the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Here was a true patriot, so in love with the great cultural myth of America, and yet contemptuous of the Orwellian disaster the States have become.
We barely had time to stop smiling at the Steve White experience when we arrived in Atlanta and met up with Alexei Plotnicov, a friend from Pittsburgh who was on his way back from a road trip to New Orleans. Alexei is in an Acid Mother’s Temple/Blue Cheer-influenced, instrumental psych-rock band called Midnite Snake, whose album has been on high rotate in the van.
He was travelling with the Snake’s occasional projectionist, Jim, who had much revelatory information to share about New Orleans. This came out in the form of a high-speed rant about rotting bodies in the levee being washed into the city, snake and alligator gumbos that occur every time the city floods. And wait till you hear about the ant balls, huge conglomerations of ferocious fire ants clinging for dear life on to any buoyant object and God-forbid that object be your body. Jim professed an obsession for "calamity and human despair". The birthplace of zombies, voodoo and flood-induced reptilian gumbos is a hotspot for these.
Via Nashville, Tennessee - where I saw neither the Ryman Auditorium, nor Johnny Cash’s grave - via, Memphis, Tennessee - where some of us did manage to get to Sun Studios, the place where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins recorded - we came to Oklahoma, location of the Cherokee Nation, the birthplace of Woody Guthrie and all the Depression-era Dust Bowl lament you can handle. Also, the home of the aforementioned Wayne Coyne, the visionary lead singer of the Flaming Lips, the only band in concert to ever make me bawl uncontrollably and joyfully throughout an entire song. It was such a shame he wasn’t in for me to tell him.