Excerpted from Live Fast Die Young: Misadventures in Rock’n'Roll America by Christ Price and Joe Harland. Reprinted by arrangement with IPG. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
On the flight over I drew up a to-do list. As a birthday present to Gram we planned to end the expedition with a performance, on guitar and ukulele, of one of his most enduring recordings, ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’. This would present no significant problem for Chris, who has been performing the song to anyone that would listen for half of his life. I, on the other hand, have never strummed, plucked or struck anything more taxing than an air guitar. Top of my list then, are:
1. Learn to love the music of Gram Parsons.
2. Learn to play the ukulele.
3. Learn to play the music of Gram Parsons on the ukulele.
Live Fast Die Young: Misadventures in Rock 'n' Roll America
US: May 2012
And for Chris:
1. Grow a formidable moustache.
By ‘formidable moustache’ he means the horseshoe, or what I’m assured is known in the trade as the ‘cockduster’. You will recognise this particular type as the trademark facial adornment of The Village People’s ‘Leatherman’, usually attached to two thirds of Crosby, Stills and Nash, or nestling under the nose of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. It extends vertically downwards on either side of the mouth, stopping level with the jaw line or, on the more adventurous wearer, protruding very slightly below. Easy Rider and CSN were fine by me; Joe’s reference points were more James Hetfield (who favours the more flamboyant downward protrusion described above) and Dave Grohl. It’s no coincidence that these men wield guitars in the fiercest rock outfits ever to have filled an enormo-dome. In fact it’s nigh on impossible to carry one off if you don’t. Anyone contemplating wearing a horseshoe, but who shaves less than three times a day, should proceed with extreme caution.
Which is why I was a little uncomfortable with the ‘formidable moustache’ directive. For one thing the phrase is something of an oxymoron in my case. My beard has never approached respectable, much less formidable, in anything under two months. And Joe has a definite head start in the ’tache stakes. He has been wearing either a full-blown cockduster (don’t you just love the use of the verb ‘to wear’ for facial hair, like it’s something you slip into before breakfast), or more often a goatee beard, for as long as I can remember. So for him ‘growing’ a formidable moustache is simply a case of shaving out a section of stubble approximately one inch by one inch under his bottom lip. (Which is a shame because his beard is an autumn of colour in this area – a fetching vermilion here, a touch of burnt sienna there.) I, on the other hand, must first grow a beard and then shave out as required, which is several weeks in the doing and we only had three. Just as Joe’s moustache was entering the realms of the truly formidable, mine would be somewhere shy of barely discernible, and then it would be time to come home.
And so to LAX airport, the setting for the beginning of a journey conceived nearly three years earlier; a dream of the open road in an open-top car, of two fearless explorers driving coast to coast across the land of the free. The flight from Heathrow had lasted about ten hours over a distance of six thousand miles, but we’d come a hell of a lot further than that. This was the culmination of months, years of planning, of a trip that would see us catalogue some of the most significant landmarks in music history. A friendship built on a fascination for them was, we hoped, about to find its fullest expression. But LAX was also to be where that same dream, of distant vanishing points sucked in over the windscreen of a two-seater, came within a hair’s breadth of being snuffed out.
Renting the car was Harland’s job. I had no reason not to believe it was in safe hands: Joe’s capacity for forward planning is the stuff of legend. We once made a radio programme featuring rock stars reading books, which required us to roam the backstage area of Reading Festival knocking on tour buses and politely asking their confused, unsuspecting occupants to give a recital from whatever literature they had lying around in their bunks (you’d be surprised). Joe, with his eye on the prize, had made
arrangements to be tagged on to the end of the Foo Fighters’ press junket for the day. When his turn came to record lead singer Dave Grohl, the moustachioed rock god politely turned him down on the grounds that he had only ever read one book in his entire life – Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. So unless Joe just happened to have a copy of it on him right now, it was a no-go. Cue Joe, to the astonishment of both Grohl and his press officer, reaching into his bag and producing a copy of the only book that Dave Grohl had ever read, having done his research that morning and popped into Waterstone’s on the off-chance. Cue tape, hit record, and two paragraphs later my prized recording of the bass player from Editors reading Brave New World was looking altogether a little pathetic.
So as you can see, I had no reason to suppose he didn’t have this all worked out in advance. Arriving at LAX, we hopped onto a shuttle which took us to the car rental dealers about a mile or so away from the terminal. On the way I enquired whether Joe had brought all the necessary paperwork in order to pick up our shiny, convertible Chrysler Sebring.
‘Er, they did send me an email, but I don’t think I printed it off. Should be fine – they’ll have our details on file and I’ve got the credit card I made the booking with.’
‘Welcome to Dollar Car Rental. How can I help you today?’ The desk clerk beamed.
‘We’ve made a reservation for a Chrysler Sebring convertible. Name of Harland.’
‘Certainly sir – do you have the reservation number?’
‘I’m afraid not, but you should have our details on file, and I’ve got the credit card I made the booking with,’ replied Joe.
‘I’m sorry sir, but without the reservation number I can’t verify the booking.’
‘Without the reservation number I can’t verify the booking.’
She gestured towards her computer, which resembled something out of a seventies science fiction movie. It had a built-in keyboard and VDU, with light green type on a dark screen displaying a single box labelled ‘reservation number’. Literally nothing else would allow her to process the transaction. This was a bad start. Jumping back on the shuttle, we turned the dial to ‘the future’, hoping there might be somewhere with Internet access – and a printer – back at the airport terminal.
There was. We returned to Dollar clutching the reservation documentation like prized lost treasure in an Indiana Jones movie, finally allowing ourselves to get excited about the prospect of beginning our journey. We were this close to hitting the road at long last, the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces. Our reservation was processed without a hitch and, with insurance documents and driving licences in hand, we made our way onto the forecourt to get acquainted with our wheels.
‘Sorry guys.’ The lot attendant tutted as he inspected the paperwork. ‘No convertibles.’
‘Come again?’ spat Joe, as if to say ‘I dare you to say that again’.
‘Nooooo convertibles today. Sorry. But don’t you worry, I’ll fix you up with an equivalent vehicle in nooooo time at all. I got some great SUVs to choose from.’
‘We don’t want an SUV, we want a Chrysler Sebring convertible. The one we booked and paid for six months ago,’ replied Joe. The veins in his neck were beginning to throb.
‘They’re all booked out,’ replied the lot attendant.
‘B-but… they can’t be. The lady inside said everything was in order.’
Witnessing Joe transform into Basil Fawlty was not, I’m sad to say, a new experience. I had seen it once before when he threatened to set Alan Yentob on a BBC transport executive at Glastonbury Festival. The poor woman made the unfortunate assumption that television’s need was greater than that of radio and gave our fleet vehicle to someone from Television Centre, receiving a torrent of invective for her troubles like a thousand slaps to the head of a cowering Manuel. It was a little like watching Bruce Banner turn into the Incredible Hulk. (The phrase ‘mild-mannered’ was invented for Joe Harland. But so was the phrase ‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’.) The transformation was swift and terrifying, and by now I was starting to recognise the signs: a bead of sweat at the temples, a change in skin colour, the pulsing of veins in the neck.
‘Nooooo convertibles,’ replied the attendant, shaking his head emphatically. For our benefit, he went on to explain how the system at Dollar Car Rental works.
It goes a little something like this (and I’m paraphrasing here): the desk clerks accept payment as normal, process the reservation, reassure the customer that everything is in order and, pausing only to try and sell them a variety of expensive extras such as satellite navigation and additional insurance they don’t need, invite them to make their way outside to pick up their vehicle. There, the underlings on the forecourt are tasked with finding you an ‘equivalent’ car to the one you have ordered. It’s a very effective arrangement as it apparently dispenses with the need to keep in stock any of the cars that have been (a) advertised or (b) paid for.
‘Equivalent to a Sebring is an Aspen or a Land Cruiser,’ continued the attendant. ‘Great cars. A lotta room in the trunk.’
‘I don’t care how much room they have in the trunk!’ exploded Joe, arms flailing, ‘It’s not the trunk I’m interested in! Has it escaped your notice that the Aspen and the Land Cruiser have one very crucial feature in common?’
‘No sir. What’s that?’
‘A fucking roof!’ For emphasis as he delivered this last point, Joe banged his hand hard against a metal sign just over his left shoulder, swore lavishly and profusely, and began to hop on one foot. This was not going well. Once we’d established that all the ‘equivalent’ vehicles available to us had a roof – that is, there were no equivalent vehicles – it was time to see the manager. We went inside, approached the customer service desk and demanded to talk to whoever was in charge.
Clayton the manager, bright of shirt and slight of frame, skipped over all smiles and handshakes, trying hard to affect the kind of open body language he had no doubt learned about in a ‘dealing with difficult customers’ training video. He was going to need all the customer service know-how he could muster, for here were two of the trickiest customers ever to darken his reception area. One of them was angrier than a grizzly bear with a wounded paw, and the other… well, the other had seen an awful lot of high-concept action movies.
‘What seems to be the problem gentlemen?’ chirped Clayton.