Peripatetic Postcards

Long Day's Journey into Oslo

Last year, about this time (give or take), I was heading for Dresden. That was an eventful trip. I had originally dubbed it “the trip out of hell” because of a dirty trick someone pulled on me that led to the cancellation of my ticket (and during the World Cup, to boot!). But faithful readers of this blog know that, to paraphrase the inimitable words of Stealer’s Wheel, “everyone’s agreed that everything turned out just fine”.

In fact, that was one fantastic voyage. Dresden was a great little city, if a bit under-developed and, okay, drab. Still, roll in Leipzeig and Berlin, Frankfurt and stops inbetween, and Germany was a revelation. The personal growth stemming from that trip, too, wouldn’t be traded for a library of books (well, okay, maybe a stack at B.Dalton). But I changed in palpable, significant ways.

Which is what peripatacity -- the restless urge to explore and experience -- is all about.

Leaving it up to the next dot on the world map to qualify as “trip out of hell”. And, I may have just found it. On the long, never-ending road to Oslo.

Aside from the standard three hours of trains from Sendai to Narita, there was a short 90 minutes in the airport (enlivened by the full-dress koto accompaniment), followed by 10 hours to Copenhagen, 45 minutes drifting aimlessly through a neon and glass shrine of make-shift shops, then a one hour hop to Oslo, followed by 10 minutes in Duty-Free (where disembarkees acted like a frenzied pack of rats liberated from 17 days on a starvation diet into the hold of a grain store), another 10 on a frigid train platform where my breath seemed to freeze-dry into crystals in front of my mouth, then 25 minutes on a mid-speed bullet into the city center. 6 minutes dragging three bags later, I was in my hotel.

Well, say it that way and it doesn’t sound like any biggy, but, believe me, the minutes added up. By Copenhagen my nerves were jangling; I had entered an altered state. I might even have voted for George Bush just to get a chance to lie down in bed for 15 hours. 10, 2, 4 – I didn’t care – set me to soak in a tub of Dr Pepper and set me to snooze.

As I snooze what I think about is the way that societies reduce representations of themselves into cultural shorthand; iconic expressions (codified into things or acts) which actually have little -- if any -- connection to contemporary self (writ either at the macro -- i.e. national -- or mico -- i.e. indiivdual human -- level). How is it that kimono and koto become symbolizations for Japan? I mean, after finishing their music, those women knock off for a drag on a Marlboro, a bottle of "ActiveDiet" post-water, and a quick call on their cell to their married boyfriend. The representation is mere illusion. And Norse helmets? How many Norwegians do you see walking around with those on their heads during your daily trek to Oslo station? Who is it we think these signs are speaking about and what do we think they are really communicating?

Well, that's the cultural criticism portion of my late-night mental sojourn.

Many hours later, I am up and out. Well, at least on my way to eat in the cafeteria on-site. They told me it would be easy to get there, just take the elevator down to 2, then follow the stairs. Actually, that leads me into an alley out back. But from the alley I can spy the cafeteria – across the cobblestone. To get there, though, I have to retrace my paces up the stairs (which -- like Ulysses S. Grant -- I am loathe to do on pure philosophical principles), then down a long corridor, right and down another and finally: there are the stairs! Along with a sign “to dining room”.

Even jet-addled me can fathom that I must be on the right track.

Once at the foot of those stairs I run smack dab into books. I guess for those who wish to pass the time. But what I wonder is why folks would come to Oslo to read? I mean, don't they possess the creativity or initiative to entertain themselves? Well, just in case, for such folk, there is a T. Jefferson Parker (cool) and a couple of Danielle Steeles (far less cool). They’re in Norwegian, which I suppose would make the Parker a frustrating read and the Steele a more tolerable one.

All things considered, I think I will be taking my camera out into the streets, window shopping, museum gazing, and people watching. You know, sampling the fruits of peripaticity.

The breakfast is one of those standard European affairs – lots of cereals, breads, platters of meats and cheeses, fruits and assorted cut vegetables. By now we all know the drill. There are also slimy and whipped and battered and mixed bowls of stuff like anchovies in sour cream and cole slaw in mustard, and pickled beats and pickled pickles (of all things). The juice is fresh, the coffee can be had with skim milk and there are packets of hot chocolate for your sweet teeth.

Standard fare, perhaps, and every day the identical menu, but since I’m not paying, who can complain? That is, I am supposed to be paying – 50 Krone per (which, according to my computer’s currency calculator, tops out at about 8 bucks or 1000 yen a sitting) – but because of inefficiencies (or else extreme courtesy?) in the staffing, no one seems to be asking me for a room number or else cash up front. They’ve asked at the front desk twice now whether I wouldn’t like to consider adding breakfast to my stay-plan, (the paranoid in me suspects this could be a case of: “hint, hint . . . we’re onto your game”) but they seem to be satisfed with my explanation that I’m fine as I am. Sure I am, since no one is marching in with a gun to compel compliance.

Yeah, I know, my duplicity shocks you. Me being such a straight arrow in life’s wars. But, I guess I look at (or is that “rationalize”?) it like the U.S. military: if they ask I’ll tell; until then, I’m just living my life, doing my job.

And since it is time to go do my job, I'll get to it. Now that my long day's journey to here has resolved into completion.

And since I have survived.

At least long enough to tell you about the next leg of the journey, this next day.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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