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In the early 1990’s, the dry heat of Palm Desert in California gave birth to a sprawling music scene that imbibed the heavy legacy of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and other monolithic proto-metal bands, and spat out scorching psychedelic hard rock jams that collectively became known as ‘desert rock’ (or ‘stoner rock’). Across oceans and desert plains, two up-and-coming South African bands are subsequently drinking from a well that that scene helped build, and are now spawning their own dynasty of desert rock.

The Palm Desert Scene evolved from a small group of interrelated bands that emphasised collaboration, jamming, and extended use of psychedelic substances, which fortified a unique sludgy synthesis of blues, metal, and hardcore punk. Whilst some of these groups have achieved a modicum of success outside of California, none match the combined influence and prominence of the Homme trinity: Kyuss, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Eagles Of Death Metal. Unsurprisingly, all three of these bands have involved the desert rock deity Josh Homme (the ‘Ginger Elvis’), whose towering physical and musical presence has helped this potent brand of rock achieve worldwide acclaim.

Self-described ‘Karoo rock’ quintet Kuduchild seem to have channelled more of Homme’s first band Kyuss, with lumbering drums, chugging rhythms, raspy vocals and a strong metal influence on their twin-guitar setup. The band, which formed in 2011, is on the cusp of releasing their debut EP with new bassist Louis Neilson, having recently recorded it with Alan Simmonds (part-owner of Ragazzi Bar and the Woodstock-based Sound Surgeon Studios). On Thursday 22nd August 2013, Simmonds’ live music venue in Cape Town played host to this galloping gang of musical mammals, beginning with the ominous thundering hooves of Kuduchild’s drummer Aidan Billing (affectionately known as ‘Blood Arms’) on ‘Down She Goes’.

 

Aidan Billing of Kuduchild - Live at Ragazzi Bar - 22 August 2013 - Photo by Francois De Villiers

Aidan Billing of Kuduchild – Live at Ragazzi Bar – 22 August 2013 – Photo by Francois De Villiers

 

Stretching their limbs, the band found their feet with the bluesy ‘Milk Teeth’, as each instrument joined in one-by-one, and singer Matthew Kennedy asserted himself with a resolute, likeable stage presence. But the badass ‘Kill It Hard’ was where they upped the ante, playing with the nagging urgency of a punk rock band. From then onwards, the Kudu’s roamed between chunky doom-laden Black Sabbath riffs (‘Klank Klank’), vigorous heavy metal (‘No Bones’), and mellow mid-tempo rock (‘Hey There Mama’). Kennedy indicated that the latter is a long-time live favourite (“Those who’ve seen us a few times might recognise this”), and showcases the band at its best, with a dramatic shift in intensity as the bridge gallantly strides into a Rage Against The Machine-esque stomper.

 

Matthew Kennedy of Kuduchild - Live at Ragazzi Bar - 22 August 2013 - Photo by Francois De Villiers

Matthew Kennedy of Kuduchild – Live at Ragazzi Bar – 22 August 2013 – Photo by Francois De Villiers

 

A notable element in Kuduchild’s setup is the improvised, free flowing relationship between their guitarists Etienne Buys and Nick L’Ange. From song to song, and even within a song, the pair alternate roles, blurring the line between lead and rhythm as they each fire off searing guitar solos at will. This enterprising dynamic came in handy midway through a gritty cover of Unida’s ‘Black Woman’. After a blisteringly fast guitar duel, Buys’ amp malfunctioned, leaving L’Ange to pick up the slack with aplomb. The one-two stadium-sized punch of ‘Black Beast’ and ‘Hit The Brakes’ closed their set with decisive, stabbing hooks and meaty, militaristic drum parts by Billing, particularly on the former track.

 

Kuduchild - Live at Ragazzi Bar - 22 August 2013 - Photo by Francois De Villiers

Kuduchild – Live at Ragazzi Bar – 22 August 2013 – Photo by Francois De Villiers

 

The links that plucky Cape Town-based trio Red Huxley have to the Palm Desert Scene recently became more tangible in what is a rock ‘n roll fairy-tale come true. After seizing the attention of Eagles Of Death Metal guitarist Dave Catching backstage when the band toured South Africa in August 2012, an offer was extended to them by the legendary desert rocker to produce their debut album. Additionally, he invited them to his studio in Joshua Tree, California, which is known as the centre of the Palm Desert universe: Rancho De La Luna. A highly successful and ground-breaking crowdfunding campaign via the website Kickstarter in March 2013 ensured that their dream (titled ‘Road To Rancho’) came to fruition this past July. Fortunately, their exploits in the desert were captured on film by Motion City Studios, and the series of videos provide an absorbing, fly-on-the-wall look at the making of the album.

 

 

Despite professing similar influences to Kuduchild, Red Huxley’s approach is rooted in Homme’s later, more well-renowned work in Queens Of The Stone Age, as well as drawing on an eclectic mix of artists outside of the PDS that include Foo Fighters, The Black Keys, and Them Crooked Vultures (Homme’s side project with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones, of Led Zeppelin fame). Thus they exhibit a more dirty, garage blues-based sound that skilfully veers into heavier territory.

Red Huxley’s time with Catching in California has definitely paid off, as they revealed a devastatingly taut set the following night on the same Ragazzi stage. The gig was their first one back in Cape Town since their trip, and the eager crowd were treated to a few new songs and some invigorating takes on their previous material. As expected, hits such as the toe-tapping ‘It’s Too Late’ and ‘My Own Way’ (with its infectious guitar line) were definite crowd-pleasers. Although all three gents should be equally praised for concocting the chemistry between them, the charisma of lead singer and guitarist Dylan Jones plays a big role in his success as frontman of the band, and it shone through whatever he chose to do on stage. Whether shooting off seismic salvos from his axe, engaging with the crowd through some laidback stage banter, or launching his lusty howl off into the night, the bearded Dave Grohl lookalike knows his way around a stage.

 

Dylan Jones of Red Huxley - Live at Ragazzi Bar - 22 August 2013 - Photo by Pierre Rommelaere

Dylan Jones of Red Huxley – Live at Ragazzi Bar – 22 August 2013 – Photo by Pierre Rommelaere

 

One of the new tracks arrived with a backstory, as Jones recounted a request from Catching whilst they were recording their album to write a fresh track, so “we got our shit together and wrote something desert-y”. The result was a dark, sinister masterpiece, bookended by a slow, menacing riff. The hefty rocker showcased Jones’ strong vocals that adapted to the gloomy mood, which was promptly switched to an upbeat, sunnier disposition on the following new song, incorporating vocal harmonies with bassist Matthew Pullen.

Despite baring what seemed to be their best, the band still kept some cards close to their chests for their final songs. Jones acknowledged the sing-along status of ‘Coming Home’, with its propulsive, primal drumming from Murray Stephenson, and teased the crowd with an extended outro to a new track that magically transitioned into the barroom bender that is ‘Love Drunk Dirty’. The performance was unpredictable as it was thrilling: after an ecstatic guitar solo, the tempo was brought down to a simmer, as Jones quietly sang “Come on baby, you know we’ll both be screaming to the morning”, before being cranked up again only to meet a false ending. By that point, the crowd was mere putty in Red Huxley’s hands, and the band’s triumphant return to Cape Town was capped off with a monumental extended jam.

 

 

It’s still amazing to consider that an important sub-genre of rock rose out of one small American city in the middle of an unforgiving desert, through days-long jam sessions on ranches doubled up as studios (collectively known as ‘Desert Sessions’) or ‘generator parties’ that powered the local fan base hungry for live music. Although South Africa is a much smaller society, pioneering musical wellsprings are still few and far between, but they also have had a widespread impact on the local scene, such as Bellville’s predominately Afrikaans rock bands that fuelled an early 2000’s renaissance of punk and alternative rock in the nation.

But whatever the connection or inspiration is – whether it’s found in a desolate expanse of dirt in California, through a kindred bond closer to home with the Karoo, or just through the passing of the torch from one musician to another – the allure of the desert does strange and wonderful things to musicians caught under its spell.

There is an African proverb that states “it takes a village to raise a child”. Within South Africa’s arts community, the artists themselves need support from everyone, and not just from parental sponsors with deep pockets. Thanks to the concept of crowdfunding, the extended family can now lend a helping hand, and have direct input in organizing live events for artists of their choosing.

The revolutionaries from City Soiree (a Cape Town-based performing arts organisation) identified two major issues facing artists, particularly those of a less-mainstream variety: unreliable forms of financial support, and lack of opportunities to perform their work. By tapping into the collective devotion found in the artists’ fans, Gerhard Maree and Jaco le Roux created Troubadour, a crowdfunding platform that places the power in the consumers’ hands. Through pledging an amount towards a concert’s target, live music lovers dictate the fate of the next gig they attend, and the concept can be scaled from Tuesday the 20th of August’s intimate inaugural affair in the South African Slave Church Museum, to larger, perhaps more traditional venues.

But for now, Maree is happy with the simplicity and self-sustaining nature of the campaign. In his thank-you address to the congregated faithful, he made a pertinent observation: “You might notice that there is no alcohol branding on the walls of this venue, because we literally don’t need it”. With an approach as refreshing as its execution was resourceful, the first public Troubadour event brought together three virtuosos under one holy roof for an evening filled with collaborative displays of craftsmanship.

A unique venue such as this was perfectly suited to Derek Gripper’s technically titillating classical guitar playing, whose diverse style was infused with the musical aromas of Mali, Turkey, Brazil and India (to name a few). Unaccompanied (and almost unbelievably), he wove together fragments of unorthodox melodies and vocal incantations, maintaining an esoteric, unpredictable rhythm that left the audience wondering where in the world a song was going, both musically and geographically. On an intriguing piece entitled “Where Is Mandela?”, Gripper began to reveal added layers to his dexterous dissertation on the instrument, so dense that it was as if two guitars were playing at the same time – one focusing on a percussive drone, another providing an urgent melody. Tales of the songs’ origins interspersed the catalogue of chords, as he passionately spoke of guitar lessons on an exquisite Turkish beach, finding inspiration in a religious sect’s music, a lament for the downfall of a 19th century Guinean ruler, and learning to play the kora (a 21-stringed harp-lute from Mali). His forays into the Malian melody-maker had resulted in an album called One Night On Earth, which was coincidentally released the last time he performed in this historically poignant venue.

 

Derek Gripper - City Soiree 'Live For A Night' - 20 August 2013 - Photo by Malherbe Pelser

Derek Gripper – City Soiree ‘Live For A Night’ – 20 August 2013 – Photo by Malherbe Pelser

 

The grumble and rumble of an electric guitar heralded Sannie Fox’s arrival to the pulpit, her undulating grooves prickling with tension. Supported by Werner von Waltsleben on percussion, the Machineri front woman’s smooth and controlled croon cooled the bubbling bare-boned blues, and echoed throughout the cavernous yet cosy church. Flaxen-haired Fox highlighted the collaborative nature of this ground-breaking event, instrumentally sparring with Gripper on a rendition of a song by Malian composer Ali Farka Touré, as well as vocally bathing with Siya Mthembu (lead singer of the final act, The Brother Moves On). The former saw her take on the challenge of singing in another African language, as the aural acrobatics began to unfurl from the two gifted guitarists. On the latter, her warm vocal chemistry with Mthembu was on display, underpinned by a sexy looping guitar riff and a toe-tapping tempo. But on set-closer ‘No Good’ was where the songstress really pulled out all the stops, foisting a catchy melody over a deep, gurgling riff, assertively declaring “it’s no good, but you do it all the same”.

 

Sannie Fox - City Soiree 'Live For A Night' - 20 August 2013 - Photo by Malherbe Pelser

Sannie Fox – City Soiree ‘Live For A Night’ – 20 August 2013 – Photo by Malherbe Pelser

 

Shape-shifting thespians The Brother Moves On unveiled a first look at their new soulful acoustic set, blending performance art, storytelling and freeform musical expression into a bewildering yet brilliant mix of entertainment. All clad in a revolutionary ensemble of khaki safari suits and red berets, the unconventional Johannesburg troupe traversed a wide range of emotions, moving from a mournful ambience to a heavenly, dreamlike state. Violinist Galina Juritz supplemented these opening pieces, full of vocal harmonisations and gentle, cascading guitar interplay.

 

The Brother Moves On - City Soiree 'Live For A Night' - 20 August 2013 - Photo by Malherbe Pelser

The Brother Moves On – City Soiree ‘Live For A Night’ – 20 August 2013 – Photo by Malherbe Pelser

 

Eventually, the enigmatic Mthembu began his amusing song introductions, which although humourous in nature, were the platform for communicating the performance’s solemn overarching metaphor. According to him, the group were the “eccentric launch of the Freedom Front”, and each song was a spotlight on a particular social issue, whether it was violence against women and children, post-apartheid reconciliation, or the universal power of a funeral song to cut across literacy boundaries. Thus, the quintet rooted themselves in a meditative state of mind, swaying along to shuffling jazzy beats and throbbing rhythms from both double bass and bass guitar. Tying together this wondrous web of sound were the capricious vocals of Mthembu, which ebbed and flowed from a deep, operatic style to a soaring, gospel-influenced tenor, marked with stark, scratchy interludes. If this versatility didn’t ensure rapt attention, his sudden declaration of “Comrades! Back to the agenda! No falling asleep!” definitely ensured that the audience was kept on the edge of their pews.

Based on this first event, Troubadour has the potential to make a tangible and personal impact on both the careers of performance artists and the fulfilment of their fans: overheads were kept low, artists were paid, and the audience had intimate access to a bespoke musical experience. As a model of marketing live music, crowdfunding cuts through the middlemen and brings the talent closer to those who consume it. Placing the success of a gig on the shoulders of attendees might seem a bit risky, what with the fickle nature of music purchasers in this internet age. But surely the prospect of seeing your favourite artist up close and personal, thanks in part to your own pledge of commitment, would be enough to entice even the stingiest of enthusiasts?

In South Africa, we have some way to go before crowdfunding reaches the level of cultural significance that initiatives such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo hold in the United States of America. But a soiree as sweet as this one could be the catalyst for a change in how live music is organized and presented in our nation. It is time to let the troubadours wander, and not have to wonder from where their next pay check is coming.

In a country bearing the scars of a turbulent, unjust past, being honest and expressive about our identity as South Africans can be a rather confusing, risky and confrontational act. It is now almost two decades into democracy, and political correctness still often pervades our discourse, or is countered with racially-charged rhetoric, presenting an uneasy middle ground where an increasing number of born-free’s are left feeling ambivalent or indifferent, wondering what all the fuss is about. And in terms of creative expression through music, large swathes of the rich history of African and South African music might seem less relevant now to a culture raised in a globalised society. So what does it then mean to have a ‘Proudly South African’ story, and does every person have one to tell?

A past as storied and segregated as our nation’s resides in an ever-shallow grave, forced to be reassessed, acknowledged and used to create a future where many of those living in it are disconnected from those revolutionary roots, and not necessarily out of ignorance. Amidst this paralysis of analysis concerning identity, simple but authentic outlets of emotion are often the best antidote, returning to the raw instincts of our nature and who we are. Former Beatle John Lennon was a famous advocate of primal therapy, which was a means for him to elicit the repressed pain of his childhood. Whilst the process of such therapy might be a bit extreme, the act of looking inward and confronting your base self is a universal route towards expressing a story that is yours and yours only.

 

John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono both underwent primal therapy in 1970. His first post-Beatles album 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' had many songs that were directly affected by his experience in therapy

John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono both underwent primal therapy in 1970. His first post-Beatles album (‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’) had many songs that were directly affected by his experience in therapy

 

Take South African super group BEAST for example. Their formation, as documented in a Benitha Vlok-directed companion film to their debut album, came from a childlike notion of two friends wanting to do the same thing and, even if it was a ludicrous idea, follow through with it. Rian Zietsman and Louis Nel (guitarist and drummer of alternative rockers Taxi Violence, respectively) both wanted to play bass in a band and assuming that role in duality, got to work on laying down some tracks (despite both never having played it before). Sasha Righini, drummer of the melodic indie rock group The Plastics, got behind the kit, and BEAST had limbered up, ready for an exploration into the dark, grimy corners of garage rock.

As with any beast, the grunts and moans of the band’s instrumental attack are its lifeblood, pumping sludgy sub-human fuel through the veins. But BEAST found its voice in Inge Beckmann, songstress of the avant-garde electronica act Lark, now appearing in a frighteningly sexy form as grungy she-devil. Her operatic feminine shrieks cut through the growling riff-fest, with simple, biting lyrics, a dynamic vocal range, and a punky attitude to boot. This back-to-basics approach removes all pretension, leaving a lean, unapologetic, minimalist monster. Whilst BEAST’s actions might speak a lot louder than its words, Beckmann’s blunt, yet evocative tales spill out over the eight-song set like gasoline over a wildfire, sparking on album-opener ‘Fill The Hole’ in brutal one-liner fashion (“Blind the lover/Kiss her mouth/Drive the dagger/Now hang yourself”), or flowing in the stream-of-consciousness effluence of ‘Walls’ (“Walls in my head vibrate when I drill holes in them/Rapidly rising rampart/Enemies are closing in”). Vivid character sketches emerge in the ominous ‘Man In Between’ and comparatively light ‘Cat Lady’, whilst ‘Hand of God’ sees her snarl apocalyptic omens with religious fervour.

 

Inge Beckmann singing Mudhoney's 'Touch Me I'm Sick' in their 'Smoke Swig Swear' short film

Inge Beckmann singing Mudhoney’s ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ in their ‘Smoke Swig Swear’ short film

 

The song writing process was lucid, seemingly off-the-cuff, and admittedly fun. To quote Beckmann “our credo is kind of like what bands (the Seattle grunge scene in the early 90’s) were like…they weren’t that concerned with what they sounded like; they just had a good time.” It’s the sort of ethos espoused by countless jam bands, jazz collectives or freestyle rappers over the years, where groups of talented people have congregated together to see where the music takes them. Whether these sessions become a catalyst for a deeper search for meaning – that’s for the artists to decide – but the act of collaboration can be a chaotic yet honest one, with the opportunity for innovation.

BEAST’s preposterous twin-bass setup is relatively unique, especially in the South African music scene, but Zietsman and Nel have felt their way towards something that works for them, the former playing a lower, rhythm-led role akin to a normal bassist, whilst the latter employs a higher, chord-based attack. On most songs, this matrimony manifests as a churning colossus of punk-influenced metal, occasionally channelling Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘robot-rock’ style, particularly on the deliciously melodic ‘The Grape’, where interwoven mid-fi murmurings are propelled by Righini’s relentlessly powerful drumming. But overall, BEAST is left as untamed as it should be, which is not to say that substance is sacrificed for style, but rather that it does not get in the way of a rollicking ride to the heart of rock ‘n roll. Even the album title (Smoke Swig Swear) lays the band’s intentions bare, and to be honest, they don’t care how you interpret their primal urges.

 

BEAST Album Launch - 23 February 2013 - Photo by Gerhard de Kock

BEAST Album Launch – 23 February 2013 – Photo by Gerhard de Kock

 

In the keynote speech from this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference, Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame) outlined his path to rock stardom, and how he found his voice through persistent practice and solo adventuring. He recounted a story of how he learnt at 12 years old to create his own one-man-band through the creative use of his old handheld tape recorder. The results were not revolutionary, but they were his: “To my chagrin, though, what I got was not Sgt. Peppers. Rather a collection of songs about my dog, my bike, and my dad. Nevertheless, I had done this all myself, therefore making the reward even sweeter.”

Whether you’re taking tentative steps towards greatness a ’la Grohl, or making an unrefined return to the wild as in the case of BEAST, finding your voice through music shouldn’t be fraught with concern as to how it relates to the society you’re in. Everyone has a story to tell, and perhaps without political, religious or broader social connotations, it might not be ‘Proudly South African’ (at first). But tap into your inner beast, and you can reveal a story that screams something uniquely yours. Call it “Primally South African”.

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned ‘battle of the bands’ to bring out the best in burgeoning local talent, and the final round of the Rolling Stone South Africa Rockstarter search at Mercury Live on Thursday 15th August 2013 saw some fascinating performances from the last two gladiators left in the arena. But the added ‘battle of the sexes’ element ramped up the high-stakes pursuit of the lucrative grand prize.

The first competitors were the feisty femme fatales of Cortina Whiplash, a Gauteng-based rock outfit that brought showmanship equally matched with substance. Whilst donning Venetian masks and dousing lead singer & bassist Loandi Boersma in gold paint, their aggressive metal-tinged attack flirted with elusive reggae ramblings, backed by the strong, sultry vocals of Boersma. Opening with a slow-burning cover of Radiohead’s ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, the ladies’ confidence soared throughout the set, imbued with a distinctly ‘girl power’ humour. This was especially evident in guitarist Tessa Lilly’s admission “there’s nothing worse than trying to headbang with an ill-fitting bra” – a refreshingly female take on stage banter. Not even a lengthy break in between songs for complex tunings could dampen the girls’ spirit; what it did was show their willingness for experimentation with an energetic and exciting formula.

 

 

The boys from the appropriately-named Ballistic Blues were next into the arena, and got off to a rollicking start, forging their blues-based salvos with an upbeat, rock ‘n roll rhythm. The Cape Town-based band’s earnestness and chemistry were clearly on display: lead guitarist Tyan Odendal playfully interacting with drummer Francois Keyser’s kit mid-song, as well as each member exuberantly singing along to lead singer Nick Forbe’s howling tales of “sleeping in other peoples’ beds” and “Oppikoppi, and all the dust that gets up your bum”. Beneath that mountain of frizzy hair emanates a gravelly, nuanced voice that deftly carries hits like ‘No Harm’ and ‘Roll Along’ from their self-titled EP. Shuffle-blues is another potent weapon in the Blues’ arsenal, slowing down the tempo, but never sacrificing the intensity and sexual energy of their impressive musicianship.

The dust had barely settled before the more senior headliners for the evening, The Black Cat Bones, took to the stage, whilst behind the scenes, representatives of Rolling Stone South Africa, The Kraken Rum, and VH Music & Publishing deliberated over the final decision. This allowed for lead singer Kobus de Kock Jr. to hold court over the Mercury crowd, his throaty vocals smoking under the riff-based melting pot of blues rock, causing a delirious deluge of dancing. The Bones’ structures are tight and simple, but win one over with sheer force of will, as they delve deep into the heart of blues.

Midway through The Black Cat Bones’ barnstorming set, the four-month long nationwide search culminated with an unprecedented result: both groups would share the honours, and with it, a feature in Rolling Stone South Africa, an album recording at VH Music & Publishing, as well as the opportunity to serve as worthy ambassadors of The Kraken Rum for a year.

There was much to celebrate, and both bands joined the Bones onstage for an impromptu collaboration to cap off their hard-earned shared victory. Whilst lead singers Forbes and Boersma danced and sang alongside the irrepressible de Kock Jr., the young Odendal precociously duelled with Bones guitarist Andre Kriel during some rousing Zeppelin-esque stompers, capably keeping up with the powerful rhythm section.

When one witnesses the confidence and talent of these two groups in a live setting, any hesitance in picking just one winner is justified.

Two gladiators entered the arena that night, and two left it victorious.

 

Tyan Odendal (lead guitarist of Ballistic Blues) plays alongside Andre Kriel (guitarist of The Black Cat Bones

Tyan Odendal (lead guitarist of Ballistic Blues) plays alongside Andre Kriel (guitarist of The Black Cat Bones

Three Scottish rockers, balancing mainstream success with personal struggles such as depression, alcoholism and miscarriages, decide to make a double album. The scales tip, the opposing forces weigh out, and the catharsis is palpable…

Biffy Clyro - Publicity Shot for 'Opposites'

It’s a heart-warming tale for the left-field lunatics of alternative rock, whose propulsion into international recognition that started with 2007’s gritty-yet-accessible Puzzle, followed by 2009’s anthemic smash-hit Only Revolutions, signalled a proverbial crossroads in the band’s 15 year creative history. Fans of their earlier work demanded a return to the quirky, dissonant, grungy riff-fests of The Vertigo of Bliss and Infinity Land, whilst legions of new devotees adored the apparent radio-friendliness of hit singles ‘Mountains’ and ‘Many of Horror’. The latter, a gorgeous power ballad, also netted a Christmas Number One single for the winner of the 2010 X Factor Show, Matt Cardle (retitled to a less-macabre ‘When We Collide’). With that sort of publicity, the path to prosperity is a swift and wide one, as headlining tours become a reality, and popularity allows for a succession of increasingly polished, plainer products to be fed to eager music consumers. 

One way of releasing a large amount of musical product to the masses is the double album, and in choosing to make one, Biffy Clyro needed to know that it is a divisive and potentially dangerous form of record. Many suffer from pitfalls such as poorly-executed concepts or inevitable filler material, whilst with some projects, artists produce their best work on the format, innovating and experimenting with the increased length available to them. Without a clear artistic vision or worthy material to sustain it, the double album is a risky gamble – critical success, or ego-trip mess? 

Some famous double albums: The Who's "Tommy", Stevie Wonder's "Songs In The Key of Life", and The Clash's "London Calling

Some famous double albums: The Who’s “Tommy”, Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key of Life”, and The Clash’s “London Calling”

Amidst their stratospheric rise to fame, there were internal sufferings for the trio, enough so that the future of the band was on tenterhooks. Drummer Ben Johnston’s alcoholism had descended to grievous levels, resulting in frequent blackouts, missed rehearsals, and on one occasion, an accident where he cut his ear. Twin brother James (bass) felt most affected by his brother’s actions, sinking into deep depression and guilt for about two years, weighed down by a kinship responsibility. In addition to these pressures, lead singer and guitarist Simon Neil’s wife suffered a succession of miscarriages, and the accompanying grief. Although these tragedies could’ve derailed their dreams, instead they provided song writing inspiration for Neil, helping him navigate the seas of despair towards a brighter place; a journey full of ideas and concepts. 

It’s no surprise then that Opposites is an album of contrasts, both subtle and overt, yet the sprawling body of work is very much unified and seamless. Each disc is given a title, and with it, bearing the moods and lyrical outpouring fitting of the name. ‘The Sand at The Core of Our Bones’ is a bleak and dark chapter rooted in the past, brutally examining the difficulties of life and crumbling relationships, with the occasional tinge of nostalgia and the bubbling ferocity of rage. ‘The Land at The End of Our Toes’, on the other hand, looks forward to the future with a more optimistic lens, musing on one’s hopes and fears, and finding ways to make things better and more wholesome. 

Don't be fooled by the theatrics (seen here on their live album/DVD at Wembley Arena) - Biffy Clyro are still as eccentric and earnest as their early years

Don’t be fooled by the theatrics (seen here on their live album/DVD at Wembley Arena) – Biffy Clyro are still as eccentric and earnest as their early years

The first disc begins with a run of anthems, starting with the slow-building synth-laced epic ‘Different People’. The upbeat, euphoric music matches the twisted optimism of the lyrics, and is the great showcase of Neil’s gorgeous vocals, bathed in reverb. First single ‘Black Chandelier’ is revealed next; unexpectedly plain upon first listen, but morphs into a typical barnstorming Biffy bombast after the bridge. The track has seen decent crossover success on pop radio, reaching 14 on the UK Singles Chart, as well as ascending to number 1 on the UK Rock Chart. Staccato slices of guitar punctuate ‘Sounds Like Balloons’ over a galloping rhythm, before an unexpected harp interlude reveals the unwieldy disc titles in the chorus. Surprisingly, they make for catchy sing-alongs.

Third single ‘Opposite’ wanders into mid-tempo ballad territory, but fortunately avoids cloying sentimentality with sharp, hard-hitting lyrics (“You are the loneliest person that I’ve ever known/We are joined at the surface but nowhere else”). It’s a brief respite from the punchy, buzz saw riffs of ‘The Joke’s On Us’, the chattering computer beeps and monster riffs of ‘A Girl And His Cat’, or the cinematic pop-rock of ‘Biblical’. The latter, which is the second single from the album, glistens with orchestral touches, and has a chorus fit for festival faithful to bounce along to, but ‘The Fog’ is where the first disc gets really interesting. Slowing down the pace, the dark and hazy song is minimalist and sorrowful (“The fog has cast a shadow homeward/We’re losing our direction/So forget the whole thing”), anchored by a keyboard part that wouldn’t be out of place on an 80’s sci-fi flick. It’s one of the band’s most daring moves thus far, and the glorious noise rock outro builds to a crescendo of doom. The album never lets the listener truly settle, and whilst wallowing in the pool of accumulated emotional outpouring, the tempo is suddenly ramped up on the punky, punchy ‘Little Hospitals’, replete with its snarling, snotty vocals and bizarre lyrics (the winner being the opening lines of “I’ll turn your baby into lemonade/Suckle lemons and trade, trade, trade”). And how does disc one close off? With ‘The Thaw’, a swinging ballad, complete with twanging country guitar elements that suddenly lurches into a magnificent stadium-sized sing-along. Even the pacing within songs cannot be trusted.

Biffy Clyro - Live at T in The Park 2010

Simon Neil onstage live at T in The Park 2010

A common question asked of double albums is “could it all have been condensed into just one album?” Biffy answered this with a single-disc edition of Opposites, trimming the 20 tracks down to 14 – a relatively rare and compromising act. By releasing both editions, the band has shown that whilst the artistic narrative of Opposites is important, it’s still flexible enough to lose a track here or there, and not lose integrity. As the album careens into its second disc (‘The Land at The End of Our Toes’), the quality and range of ideas on display is vast, and it’s a quantity that normally sees an artist stockpile them for later releases. But Biffy is just warming up, and the pompous and heavy ‘Stingin’ Belle’ sets the tone for the emotionally brighter half, with lyrics as stinging as its title (“Grow some balls and speak your mind”). The song is a rousing spiritual successor to ‘The Captain’ from Only Revolutions, with an oh-so-Scottish bagpipe bridge that brings it to a triumphant climax.

A throbbing bass line highlights the urgency of ‘Modern Magic Formula’, whose lyrics, as the title implies, hint at a ‘magic formula’ that’ll solve the problems in a relationship. Reconciliation is on the horizon, but Neil, with typical acerbity, admits that “I’m trying the best I can, but there’s a white flag burning in my hand”. ‘Spanish Radio’ marks another bizarre-but-it-works creative detour, employing an exquisite trumpet intro and acoustic flamenco-style guitars to create a completely new sound for the band. The album’s fourth single, ‘Victory Over The Sun’ is a dour, meditative and nostalgic affair, but is lyrically strong, with possible references to Johnston’s drinking issues (“Collapse in front of all of your peers/Stop bleeding, keep blocking your ears/Eating babies, drinking black brandy/Squinting all night through your demonic haze”). The darkness soon makes way for the sunniest Biffy song yet: the power-popping ‘Pocket’. If it weren’t for the brilliant unorthodox lyrics and Neil’s trademark Scottish burr, one might mistake them for a completely different band, and the catchy, toe-tapping, piano-led rhythm is one of the unexpected highlights of the album.

As we reach the final few songs of the album, the mood has dramatically shifted to a more positive space, but with a bitter yet determined viewpoint. This attitude fuels the intriguing and loopy ‘Trumpet Or Tap’, with its waltzy tempo, bluesy guitar notes, and humourous vocal patterns. A moment of sombre reflection is found next on ‘Skylight’, and similar to ‘The Fog’ on disc one, shows Biffy making a mature attempt at a subdued but ominous ballad. “If this is an accident then where’s the hurt?” asks Neil on ‘Accident Without Emergency’, a return to stadium-rock posturing with lumbering drums that show no signs of flagging energy levels. Quite the opposite in fact; ‘Woo Woo’ is one of the most boisterous songs on Opposites, and with a title like that, how could it not be? Unashamedly giddy and upbeat, Neil makes grand declarations in the midst of a personal renaissance, such as “I wanna change, I wanna listen/My selfish ways have reached their limit”, and naively yet passionately implores “I will love you for the rest of my life/Can you love me ’til the end of time?”. These pave the way for the album’s final statement, ‘Picture A Knife Fight’ – a mirror image of opener ‘Different People’, interbred with ‘Pocket’.

Biffy Clyro - Live at Leeds Academy September 2012

The Johnston twins (Ben on drums, James on bass) onstage live at Leeds Academy, September 2012

Opposites confirms that whilst Biffy’s music still flows with eclectic electricity, their confidence in the power of bombastic, stadium-sized anthems has increased from Only Revolutions. Catchy hooks abound throughout heavier and quieter moments alike, and the band is clearly aware of its talents in shaping their post-hard core, grunge and prog rock influences into radio-ready pop. That’s not to say that this album is merely Only Revolutions, Part 2; experimentation has been sought out in earnest, and melded with the band’s oddball humour and macabre lyrical backbone. As stated before, listeners will hear (in varying levels of contrivance) bagpipes, harps, kazoos, a mariachi band, tap dancing, church organ and tubular bells, in addition to the band’s rock-standard angular-but-booming guitars, pulsating bass and delirious drumming. It is these little complexities that break up the relentless onslaught of emotion and thunder which stadium rock can so easily fall foul to, and provide a fresh, unsettling and intriguing look at the genre. The melodies soar, but the stop-start dynamics will often cut them in full-flight, bringing them back down to earth with a biting line – whether it’s on guitar or in lyric-form. It makes for fascinating listening.

Double albums are bold statements regardless of the source, and Biffy’s dogged decision to weather through the making of one was as much about dealing with personal demons as it was making a definitive artistic declaration. Some of the best art is born through a labour of inner turmoil, and the timing of both factors in this case has resulted in not the leanest of albums, or even their best one. The process behind it, the relentless passion, determination and commitment that went into it; that is what marks Opposites as probably the most important Biffy Clyro album thus far. It’s an album that saved the band, and the road ahead is as unpredictable as the twists and turns found within these songs.

Biffy Clyro - Live at Isle of Wight 2012

Biffy Clyro performing at the Isle of Wight, 2012

New York City is considered by many to be the ‘capital of the world’, and whilst others might be more populous or influential in certain aspects, its towering influence over global society continues a decade into the 21st century. NYC is the go-to place for tourists, and I’ve personally had the chance to experience the city’s magic twice in my life: as a tween in December 1999/January 2000, and as a teenager in July 2002. Now it was time for a third bite of the Big Apple.

On both previous occasions, I was a child and accompanied by family, which, as stated in my Nashville post, considerably effects how you remember and perceive a place you’ve visited. Those sojourns were jam-packed with visits to a multitude of landmarks that every traveller needs to experience at least once, such as Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Central Park. But returning for the first time as an adult, I realized how many opportunities I had missed, and how much was still out there to be explored in this microcosm of American and global culture.

My 12-hour overnight bus trip from Ohio started things off in unfamiliar territory, bringing us over the border from New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel, and into Chinatown. Waiting for me on the bustling streets was my final host: an American lass whom I had met about one-and-a-half years earlier at a music festival in South Africa, whilst she was visiting her younger sister. We had kept in touch since then, and when it came time to book flights before my trip, I asked her if she had a couch to spare for this intrepid traveller. Fortunately, the answer was positive, and for my last few days in the USA, I could be accommodated in her two-bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queens.

We took the first of many subway rides to her home at the end of the N line, and I quickly acquainted myself with the fascinating electronic information boards on the trains, which inform you of how many stops are left to a particular destination. This was the most advanced system I had seen on all the subways I had used in the States, and would prove to be incredibly useful in the upcoming days. After setting up camp in the corner of her lounge and getting some much-needed rest, we went for a stroll on a cool evening through her neighbourhood. Semi-suburban NYC is full of trees amongst the apartment-lined streets (at least in Astoria), and it felt like walking through a shrunken, more peaceful Manhattan. We grabbed a burger at the proudly-local Petey’s Burger (which gave Five Guys’ heavenly bun a run for its money), and embarked on a bar-hop of sorts through Ditmars Boulevard and the surrounding streets. Everything was within walking distance, sort of like my time in San Francisco’s Haight Street. A pitcher of rum-flavoured beer (?) from Astoria Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden provided a memorable end to my tour of Astoria’s drinking establishments, and we returned home at a respectable hour, ready to traverse the city streets over the next three days. With my meticulously-debated-and-updated bucket list in hand, I was already getting into that NY State Of Mind.

 

 

 

Thursday

On my first day out, my friend didn’t have any shifts at her work, so I was accompanied by an actual New Yorker from start to finish. We arrived in a gloomy Manhattan, caught in the middle of a downpour, and retreated indoors to the breathtaking Metropolitan Museum of Art. My bucket list was tailored for a very tight budget, and the Met obliged with its ‘pay what you wish’ admission policy. The massive museum occupies 190,000 m2, making it the largest art museum in the USA, with some of the most significant art collections in the world. To be honest, I was very much out of my depth as to what determines that significance, but my friend’s extensive art history knowledge and the sheer grandeur of the place ensured me that I was walking amongst very hallowed pieces of art.

Due to my novice status in the art appreciation realm, and the time available to us, we cherry-picked sections that would appeal to me. Starting off with a modern photography exhibit, we moved onto some modern art, where the likes of Monet and Van Gogh had my friend captivated. It wasn’t until we reached some truly epic Renaissance paintings when I began to wander between each piece of work, jaw-to-the-floor. The level of detail was astonishing, especially over some of the larger paintings (and by large, I mean taking up at least 5m of width or height). I couldn’t keep serious for too long; my unrefined, playful approach to art appreciation eventually resulted in the two of us making funny poses in front of our favourite paintings or sculptures. A temporary exhibit devoted to the influence of the punk sub-culture on fashion was a particularly interesting one, blaring music by the Sex Pistols against a backdrop of bizarre works of fashion that would be a little unwieldy to wear on an everyday basis. We also made a stop at a section that presented historical musical instruments, showcasing an assortment of lutes, harps, and other antiquated but ornate tools of the trade. My 10-year-old self wouldn’t have wanted to miss out of the medieval armour and weaponry section, so we made sure to admire some of the exquisitely maintained battlefield equipment before heading back out onto 5th Avenue.

 

 

The sun had finally come out, and whilst meandering through Central Park, I was amazed at how such a large piece of verdant land could be found in the middle of one of the largest cities of the world. There are multiple reservoirs and lakes, playgrounds, running paths, and even a zoo (which I vaguely remember visiting in 2002). Our destination was Shake Shack on the western side of the park, where we’d devour some delicious SmokeShack burgers in exchange for the hard yards we put in roaming the most beautiful part of the city.

 

 

I was a late-bloomer with regard to being a Beatles fan, and whilst I probably have more of McCartney’s optimism, I’ve always admired the soul of Lennon. Ever since I first heard of the Strawberry Fields Memorial in Central Park, it has been a musical pilgrimage I’ve anxiously looked forward to, exacerbated by the fact that I had actually walked through Central Park as an unformed and uninformed teenager in 2002. The 2,5 acre section in the park is dedicated to John Lennon’s memory, opened five years after his assassination outside Dakota Apartments (which is directly across the road). We first visited the Dakota, where John lived for the later part of his life, and where it was taken too soon on the night of December the 8th, 1980. I had read the official reports and seen a few pictures of the building’s exterior, but standing on the very spot where my hero died, tracing his staggered steps to the security hut in front of the building; it was a very solemn and sorrowful experience.

The mood changed to a more happy and placid one when we entered Strawberry Fields itself. Green benches surround the focal point of the memorial, which is a large stone mosaic entitled ‘Imagine’ (after one of John’s most famous songs). The memorial is usually filled with flowers and tributes left behind by Lennon fans, but as it had just been raining, we encountered a single tribute: a solitary flower, with a handful of strawberries. With both of us wearing matching Beatles shirts, we sat on one of the benches, whipped out one of our phones, and quietly sang along to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (from where the memorial gets its name). In that peaceful moment, at the heart of a serene woodland, I tried to reflect on what The Beatles and John Lennon mean to me, and the colossal impact that they have had on this world. As a patron of peace, I’m sure John would’ve been happy with the quiet tranquilty of his own memorial.

 

 

The last part of our afternoon was spent at the American Museum of Natural History, a few blocks away from Strawberry Fields on 8th Avenue. Just like the Met, it has a budget-friendly admissions policy, is incredibly large, and is celebrated around the world for its variety of collections (which include specimens of animals, plants, fossils, rocks, meteorites, and human cultural artifacts). We quickly browsed some the natural history exhibition halls, which consisted of many intricate, life-like dioramas, but the section I was most interested in was the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which also housed the Hayden Planetarium. As a child, I was fascinated with astronomy, and still retain a sense of wonder about the cosmos. Tapping into that curiousity, we attended a show inside the huge planetarium that hangs from the ceiling of the centre, where the voice of actor Liam Neeson narrated the formation of the universe, and studied a compelling exhibition called ‘Full Moon’, which consists of high-quality, lesser-known photographs from the Apollo missions to the Moon. It’s just the kind of place to get lost in for a whole day…

 

The Hayden Planetarium inside the American Museum of Natural History

The Hayden Planetarium inside the American Museum of Natural History

 

 

Friday

Who likes to sing a tune when having breakfast? Or have one sung to you? Breakfast at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square was an entertaining start to the day, after which I’d be left on my own to wander the streets of NYC whilst my friend went work at another nearby restaurant, Times Scare. All the waitrons are aspiring Broadway actors and singers, and perform an array of show tunes whilst serving your food. My friend’s flatmate works there, and guaranteed us a fabulous show in addition to a hearty American breakfast. I was thoroughly impressed with her ability to pour a good cup of coffee whilst singing the lead part on a Disney classic, and the same could be said of the rest of the multi-talented and professional waitstaff. They were quick to remind us that many Ellen’s employees actually go on to make it big in Broadway, such as the lead actor in ‘Mamma Mia!’ that was currently showing not far from the diner.

 

 

I had visited New York pre-and-post 9/11, and as a child, I remember the only change that affected me was the increased security checks whilst travelling. We didn’t think to visit Ground Zero in 2002, as it is located in the Financial District quite a few miles south of Times Square and the more ‘touristy’ areas. But a lot had changed in a decade, and the World Trade Center complex had seen the One World Trade Center building (or ‘Freedom Tower’) grow almost to completion, and a beautiful memorial develop over the bases of the old North and South Towers. The time was ripe for a visit, and I set off south down 8th Avenue on a gorgeous, sunny day, temporarily forgetting that miles are more than kilometres – a common traveller’s mistake.

The longer-than-expected route first took me past the legendary Madison Square Garden concert venue, and then through the leafy Greenwich Village. It is now mostly residental, but used to an artists’ haven in the late 19th to mid 20th century, and the quaint, predominately brick buildings contrast sharply with the statuesque pillars of steel & concrete that now dominate the New York skyline. Nearing the Financial District, the gargantuan prism-shaped One WTC building emerged into view, literally scraping the sky. It is so unbelievably tall that when I reached the WTC complex, I had to get on my knees to capture it all in one photo. A temporary tribute centre was located a few streets away, where passes were given out to the actual memorial, and the centre contained numerous artifacts and literature on the terrorist attacks and the subsequent rebuilding, both emotionally and physically.

 

 

As expected, a stringent security check was required before entering the memorial site, as construction is still ongoing. Once inside, the plaza contains a field of trees, but the two massive building footprints of the fallen Twins dominate the area. They have been turned into pools of water, with large manmade waterfalls cascading down their sides, surrounded by memorial space containing the names of victims from the 9/11 attacks, as well as the 1993 bombings. The arrangement of the names was of particular interest: an logarithm was used to place victims together who knew each other, also considering company affiliation, first responder teams, and personal requests from family members. In addition, cutting-edge pedestrian simulations were conducted to test the design of the site to simulate how visitors would utilize the space. The amount of thought that had gone into the layout of this memorial was staggering, and as I circled each pool, gazing upon the thousands of names cast in granite, the name of the memorial (“Reflecting Absence”) definitely rang true. It made me think of my father, who had been in New York on a business trip just one week before the attacks, and had actually stood in the lobby of the North Tower. He fortunately returned home a few days later, but after 9/11, many did not. Even if you didn’t lose a family member or friend, a visit to this memorial puts the everyday trivalities of life into perspective.

 

 

Moving from Ground Zero, another item on my NYC bucket list was the Statue of Liberty. Due to the damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the island on which she stands is still under repair, and ferries to and from it wouldn’t be available for another few months. I approached a friendly New York City cop and asked him where the closest point on the mainland was to Liberty Island, so I could at least get a look at the iconic statue. His helpful response was surprising; he told me of the Staten Island Ferry, which was a) free, b) departing every 45 minutes, and c) as close as you could get to seeing the Statue of Liberty. It turns out that The Strokes were wrong: New York City cops, they are quite smart. Standing on the deck facing New Jersey allowed for some magnificent views of lower Manhattan, Ellis Island (formerly the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States), and Lady Liberty herself, with my 30x zoom coming in handy for capturing that famous face.

 

 

Returning to the mainland, I planned on meeting my friend halfway up the long Manhattan section of Broadway, which is the oldest north–south main thoroughfare in the city, best known for its theatre industry. She got off work in the late afternoon, and decided to take me to see her alma mater. The East Village is the student capital and home of New York University (NYU), and once again, I was amazed at how integrated a young vibrant community like this was with the surrounding area. Starting the evening off with a Brooklyn Lager in a basement bar, we searched for a truly unique dinner option, and found it in Japadog. This quirky and fun takeaway joint, only found in Vancouver and NYC, sold Japanese-style hotdogs, which included toppings such as teriyaki sauce, seaweed, Kobe beef, and shredded cabbage. The fusion of flavours was delicious, and if you pay the New York branch a visit, make sure to get the deep-fried icecream bun!

 

 

 

Saturday

My final day in the United States saw me return to that bustling tourist hotspot, Times Square. On a Saturday morning, the square was teeming with tourists and flashing billboards, and it was a typical example of feeling so alone in such a large crowd of people. But that should be expected from travelling solo, and to be honest, I had grown quite accustomed to self-reliance whilst sightseeing. The weather was really unpredictable on that day, and thankfully, my lengthy walk up 7th Avenue to the Guggenheim Museum was perfectly timed between downpours. The walk might’ve been a bit extreme (it was over 40 blocks), but I’d still rather choose a stroll through the glorious Central Park than take just another underground subway ride. I was to be disappointed when I arrived at The Guggenheim though. After queuing for 15 minutes, I was told that free admission was only from 5pm that evening, and not for the entire day like I had originally thought. Whether I had been misinformed or was uninformed, $22 was far too steep for my limited budget, and I dejectedly left their awe-inspiring atrium. No modern art today, it seems. Faced with some spare time before a lunch meeting, a much more relaxed walk through the park was a decent compromise, and I tried different running paths, visited a few lakes along the way, and passed by an annual outdoor aerobics festival.

My father had put me in contact with a potential South African-American business partner of his who is based in NYC, and the gentleman graciously took me out for lunch at Dallas BBQ in Times Square. He suggested that I get the honey-glazed fried chicken and BBQ baby back ribs, and it was equal parts appetising and overwhelming. After a bit of small talk and business, he suggested that we pay a visit to Harlem, a predominately African-American neighbourhood in northern Manhattan, where he had lived for his first few years in the city. Although the area had experienced social and economic gentrification, he assured me that it was still safe to visit, so we boarded the famous A train, referenced in many jazz and hip hop songs over the years. Our visit, however, was timed with a relentless downpour, which shortened the stay, but we briskly walked through the driving rain to the legendary Apollo Theater. The esteemed music hall used to see the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Michael Jackson up onstage, and concerted efforts have been made recently to restore the theatre and keep that legacy alive.

 

 

I got back to my friend’s apartment in the little neighbourhood of Astoria that night, feeling the cumulative exhaustion of spending 26 days on the road. The cycle of packing and unpacking my suitcase was soon to be broken; the cycle of moving every couple of days to another lounge or bed. Catching trains, planes, busses and cars, walking along an avenue of stars. The Eagle’s Flight To Coachella was coming to an end, and when I packed my bags that night for the final time, I thought of all the people I’d seen and met, the places I’d been, and the memories that had been made. I reflected on my final few days in New York; a city that never sleeps, and never stops offering up tasty new experiences to sample. I hope to return there again, because there are so many bites still to be taken out of the Big Apple.

During the first half of my trip to the USA, I had seen the northern and southern ends of the sunny West Coast, and received some typical Southern hospitality. The next stop on my journey would see me travel to the north of the country, and to the state of Ohio, only a two-hour drive from the Canadian border. But the way things could’ve gone, I might have ended up further south in Texas.

I had another South African friend based with his family in Ohio, and in the weeks prior to my arrival in his state, we had debated meeting up with his older sister in Houston, Texas and road-tripping to Austin & other nearby cities. Closer to the time, we settled on the more-economical Ohio, which suited me fine as I had yet to visit either state. Columbus is Ohio’s state capital, and my friend’s family lived in the small town of Lima, about an hour’s drive from the city. The area is known for farming and agriculture, and the hustle-and-bustle of city life gave way to tranquil, open fields very quickly.

The last time I’d seen my friend was almost two years prior, when he and his girlfriend had visited me in Cape Town, and we could still barely believe that I’d returned the favour. For the five or six days I was there, I slowed things down a notch and enjoyed the everyday activities of a South African-American family. I arrived just before the weekend of Cinco De Mayo, which is Mexico’s independence day. It’s become an unofficial American holiday though, and an excuse to drink tequila & margaritas, eat tacos, and salsa-dance; all of which I thoroughly approved. Thus, he had planned for us to spend the weekend at a university friend of his’ apartment in Columbus itself, where we could do some sightseeing and partying.

 

Before the weekend of Cinco, the South Africans gave me quite an American experience. For example, on the Friday, I:

a) fired a .22 rifle and shotgun on a farm

b) drove a left-hand-drive car for the first time

c) filled up a car’s tank by myself at a gas station

d) shopped at Walmart

e) enjoyed an all-American barbeque

 

The first two events were rather interesting and unexpected. Whilst doing some errands around town, we had to pass by my friend’s sister’s house, which is on a small farm. We had barely left the main roads before this pastoral scene appeared before us: a lone farm-house, surrounded by acres of grassy land. After dropping off the requested potted plants, my friend turned to me and asked “Do you wanna shoot a gun?”. We went into his brother-in-law’s garage, and peered into the arsenal of rifles, shotguns and ammunition, meticulously collected over the years. My friend had grown up learning how to use them responsibly, which I kept in mind as we stepped out back with the rifle and shotgun in tow.

 

Firing a .22 rifle on a farm in Lima, Ohio

Firing a .22 rifle on a farm in Lima, Ohio

 

The last time I’d fired a real gun was on a camping trip back in Grade 7, so I was aware of the inevitable kick, etc, which wasn’t a concern for the .22 rifle. My aim was a little shaky, and I took a few shots to hit the line of empty beer bottles propped up in the distance. The 12-gauge, however, gave me a huge fright when I fired my lone shot. Since we weren’t wearing earplugs, the gun blast discombobulated me in a hilarious fashion (apparently), as I dropped the gun and nervously staggered away like a person who’d seen a ghost. Back in the car, and back to my normal self, I took the opportunity to put myself behind the wheel of the SUV for a very quiet 3-mile stretch of road around the farmlands. Thankfully, almost all cars in the States are automatic transmission, so driving was a breeze and there were no ‘spooky’ moments.

We headed into Columbus on the Saturday to meet up with our host. She stays in an off-campus university-owned apartment complex near to Ohio State University, and for the first time whilst in the USA, I was able to see what a ‘college town’ looks like. Before meeting up with her, my friend and his girlfriend took me the Short North district, which is lined with restaurants, bars, clubs, art galleries, and any store that caters to a predominately student population. Since my alma mater in South Africa (University of Cape Town) is located in a suburban area, I was not used to seeing such a vibrant, student-focused commerical area, and even ‘college towns’ in SA such as Stellenbosch or Grahamstown could learn a thing or two from the Short North. After dinner at a Greek restaurant, we walked the main street on the day of a ‘Gallery Hop’, which occurs on the first Saturday of each month. Over 40 galleries and non-traditional art venues (such as restaurants, boutiques, and salons) showcase art collections and new exhibits, opening their doors till late at night. Out on the streets, you can see saxophonists, singers, improvisational dance troupes and an assortment of performers entertaining the crowds, so I was fortunate to be in town not only for Cinco De Mayo, but also to see the Short North at its most lively and creative.

 

The Short North district in Columbus, Ohio on the evening of a Gallery Hop

The Short North district in Columbus, Ohio on the evening of a Gallery Hop

 

Our sassy host had just run a charity half-marathon, and was nursing a knee injury from the race earlier in the day. Needing some rest and relaxation, we visited an authentic Egyptian hookah lounge called Sahara Cafe to share a hookah and drink some chai tea. The place was dimly lit with fairy lights, and the walls were beautifully adorned with a dazzling array of Middle Eastern patterns. I’m definitely no expert on hookah (or ‘hubbly-bubbly’ as we call it in South Africa, much to the amusement of the Americans in attendance), but I was guaranteed that the blends available were particularly good. Soon it was back to her apartment in University Village, where a few glasses of wine were shared in the kitchen – a perfectly relatable introduction to an overseas student experience.

The next day, our group paid a visit to The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and without really planning to, I managed to tick off quite a number of animals from my personal ‘must-see’ bucket list. The zoo is massive, and has an esteemed national and international reputation thanks to the efforts of director ‘Jungle Jack’ Hanna. Our host wasn’t up for long walks just yet, so she received the royal treatment as I pushed her in a hired wheelchair (!) around most of the eight world regions which the zoo is divided into. First, we went on the Asia Quest, which included stunning close-up views of an Asian elephant, tigers, lions, and a reticulated python. Photographing animals in captivity is far easier than trying to track a rock star onstage, and I relished the opportunity to patiently capture these creatures on camera. Next was a quick detour through Shores, an indoor aquarium region (FYI: manatees are adorable but ugly) before we came to Voyage to Australia and The Islands, which ended up being one of the more interactive regions. The kangaroo and wombat section was mostly uncaged, with a only a few zookeepers keeping watch, and that implicit trust resulted in a very natural setting for a zoo exhibition. This was taken even further for the lorikeet aviary, where the resplendent birds flew about their habitat, climbing onto your hands and arms, completely comfortable with human interaction. For 50 cents, you could feed the cocky little things nectar, and they weren’t shy to squawk & demand more!

 

 

The rest of the Islands and African Forest regions saw some close encounters with a variety of apes, including chimpanzees, gibbons and black & white colobusses. Even though I come from Africa, the only apes I have personally witnessed are vervet monkeys in my childhood gardens growing up, and the occasional baboon. To see how human-like these animals are was a little unnerving at first, but soon gave way to a unconscious connection that is shared by the high-percentage similarity to each other’s DNA. Expectation was building for the gorilla enclosure, but unfortunately, it was too late in the day, and we had to settle for a pose or two with a life-size statue. On our way out of the African Forest, we caught a lazy leopard relaxing on a log, right on the other side of the grass screen. Chances like that barely come around on an African safari, and it was another reason why our afternoon spent traversing the world’s wildlife was a special one.

 

 

Even though Cinco De Mayo fell on a Sunday (‘5th of May’), there were still a number of places hosting Mexican-themed parties and specials. Our Columbus Crew rolled out to the Short North, in search of cheap margaritas and salsa music. We found sanctuary at Cazuelas Grill on North High Street, whose outside balcony was a hive of activity. Margaritas were served by the jugful, Corona beers were on ice, and the DJ allowed the music to wander to a more commercial region when revellers needed some variety. The night was young, and we moved onto a few more establishments, trading dancing for hookah bars, and generally tried to make the most of a holiday that awkwardly fell on a night not known for big partying. The Short North district delivered, and closed off a fun weekend in the city.

Out of the USA’s 50 states, Ohio had been one that I wasn’t expecting to visit anytime soon, and only during my Coachella trip did it become a real possibility. The USA is such a large country, and you can find eye-opening sightseeing opportunities and warm hospitality wherever you go. But sometimes you get that personal nudge in the right direction, and I’m glad that my route diverted north towards the Buckeye State. Within those borders, I made &  left behind some great new friends, and caught up with two old ones. So when you’re next passing through the north, try stop on your way to say hi to Ohio.

Almost a decade ago, I was a nervous 15-year-old boy, faced with a life-changing overseas trip. I was to trade my home in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa (and my high school) with Nashville, Tennessee, and embark on a three-month academic exchange at an all-boys private school there.

It wasn’t the first time that I had travelled overseas, but it was definitely the first time that I had undergone that sort of trip alone. From September to December 2004, I lived with two host families, and had the honour of attending Montgomery Bell Academy, whom my school had partnered with the previous year. During your mid-teens, you’re already going through so many physical, emotional and hormonal changes, so why not undergo a massive locational one?

Needless to say, my time at MBA was a watershed moment in my life, and aided in an emotional, and also musical, maturity that I am deeply grateful for. Nashville bears the nickname of ‘Music City’, as it is a major recording and performance centre. Although the country music industry is strongly associated with the city and makes its home there, Nashville’s music scene appreciates a variety of genres (such as classic rock, blues, jazz, and hip hop), and that can be seen in the people living there. When I first visited the city as a relatively undereducated teenager, I was taken aback by my hosts’ eclectic tastes in music, spanning decades and genres that my adolescent mind was barely even aware of. And it wasn’t just the people I was living with; other friends and classmates showed a marked maturity in their musical palette that surely could not just be chalked up to having musically-minded parents or siblings with a large collection of old records.

With that in mind, returning to Nashville in the position I’m in now as a music journalist was particularly poignant. It was a place that had shaped my appreciation of music, steering me towards artists I had not necessarily grown up with, and encouraging me to think outside of what was being presented to me as an angsty teen via MTV. I had had limited interaction with my two hosts in the intervening years, but thanks to the wonders of social media, I found out that the first family that I had stayed with would be in town during my recent trip, and as well as my host. Back in our teens, we had struggled to relate to each other, our cultures clashing at a very turbulent time in our lives. Now, with us both having finished high school and university, we had matured and developed into assured young men, discovering that we actually have a lot in common. That reconciliation gave a heartwarming tone to the few days I was there, akin to visiting your childhood home or neighbourhood as an adult.

Three months back in 2004 allowed for a significant amount of sightseeing in and around the city, and I was fortunate back then to tick off many of the major attractions in Nashville. These included attending three American football games at the Tennessee Titans homeground (The Coliseum), two visits to my one host’s lake house just out of town, the Country Music Hall of Fame, Vanderbilt University, and the Parthenon. My host was aware of this, and specially tailored an itinerary that would help show me the parts of Nashville that I might not have seen before, or appreciated a decade ago.

After a joyful reunion with his parents (“My South African son!”, “My American mother!”), my host and I headed off to Downtown Nashville to spend the afternoon walking the streets. Visiting the USA as an adult means that we could now legally share a beer together, and he took me to one of the city’s finest microbreweries, Yazoo, for a liquid lunch. We took the chance to catch up on all the news in our lives, and of those that I knew in Nashville.  Although he is a local, he had yet to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, and I was open to visiting the museum again with a fresh perspective.

The Country Music Hall of Fame is a unparalleled monument to the institution that is country music, and even if you’re not a fan of the genre, the experience is very enlightening and informative. Upon my first visit to the museum, I barely had a working knowledge of rock ‘n roll history, so it was all rather perplexing, and the significance was lost on me. Armed with a better understanding of popular music history, I was more receptive to the place, and the museum revealed the carefully interwoven relationship between country, blues, folk and rock. However, despite its popularity and illustrious history, country music is still seen as a quintessentially American phenomenon, and I think that that is a sticking point to the appreciation of the genre world-wide. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, crossover success has mostly been the way country has achieved a level of prominence outside of the USA, right from Elvis Presley in the 50’s, to Johnny Cash’s swan-song ‘American’ albums in the 90’s, to the current crop of country-pop perpetuated by Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum. This is frequently acknowledged in the museum, as an increasingly globalised world grows smaller and smaller, meshing influences together and facilitating the spread of information.

 

 

But all in all, I enjoyed the passion showed in preserving the history of an art form, and honouring those who have represented it best. Within the exhibits, there were famous personal items, such as Carl Perkins’ original ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, Elvis Presley’s beautifully-maintained ‘Solid Gold’ Cadillac’, and a dapper black suit worn by the ‘Man In Black’, Johnny Cash. The most interesting thing I learnt from my second visit to the CMHF was that there was a branch of country that found roots in Bakersfield, California in 1950’s, known as the ‘Bakersfield Sound’. This style came into being as a reaction against the slickly produced, string orchestra-laden ‘Nashville Sound’, proving that not all country music came from ‘The South’! 

My host did a great job of being a tour guide, pointing us towards other music sanctuaries, such as a newly-opened Johnny Cash museum (where video screens projected a variety of performances and documentaries of the man and his work), the Music City Walk of Fame Park (opened in 2006, drawing inspiration from the one in Hollywood), and the massive new Nashvile Convention Center (whose architecture evokes the look of a guitar). Lower Broadway in Downtown is the city’s entertainment district, packed with numerous music clubs and honky-tonk bars, which, despite it being mid-afternoon, had people up onstage performing.

 

 

I’m quite a big Jack White fan, and one of our scheduled stops whilst in Downtown was Third Man Records, the Grammy-Award-winning independent record label, studio and store owned by the man himself. Unfortunately Mr White was not there to greet us in person, but his output of music in vinyl form was an appropriate compromise. The store only sells music produced by artists on the record label, such as his solo work, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather (to name a few). It has a basic, yet chic feel to it (probably because the store itself was built in 2009), and with me having never grown up with vinyl records, I was intrigued by the steadfast commitment by the label to keep the format alive, issuing limited-edition live LP’s and tiny 7-inch singles. Although I didn’t get a chance to use it, the in-store personal recording booth, a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine, is a novel concept, allowing you to record up to two minutes of audio and receive a one-of-a-kind vinyl pressing right there and then. Apparently the concept has fallen out of fashion, and this booth is now the only machine of its kind in the world that is both operational and open to the public.

 

 

You can’t visit the Music City without going to a gig, and on my second night in Nashville, my host took me to The Stone Fox, a small restaurant/bar that also has a bandstand for live music. The headliners that night were a New York-based punk band called The Men, but the main reason that we were there was to see a local punk band by the name of Diarrhea Planet. Yes, Diarrhea Planet. He had played me a few songs of theirs in the car, and the wall of noise was rather overpowering. But it didn’t prepare me for what was to appear onstage. There was not one, not two, not three, but FOUR GUITARISTS, along with a bassist and drummer. The band, barely able to all fit on the stage, roared into life, rationing out sub-2-minute riff-fests to a crowd the size of a small house party. It was one of the most fascinating and thrilling gigs I’ve ever been to, and I was so close to the action that the one guitarist almost whacked me on the head with his aural axe of awesomeness. Their sound, as described by the band themselves, is “The Ramones holding Van Halen hostage with an arsenal of fireworks and explosives”, and they brought a huge amount of energy to the proceedings. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to have a chat with the lead singer Hodan and the enigmatic drummer Casey after the show, the latter of whom received the compliment “John Bonham from Led Zeppelin called. He asked you to stop hitting the drums so hard”.

On my final day in Nashville, we paid a visit to my alma mater (even if it was only for a few months), and got to see how little and how much had changed in the interim years. As always, there would be new buildings, such as a grand dining hall that replaced the old cafeteria, an English block, and a soccer field on top of a parking garage. But stepping into the admin block, and seeing the face of Ms Warner, Director of Counseling Services, took me right back to my awkward teenage years. She was the lady responsible for making sure that I got over to the States in 2004, and helping me settle into the MBA way of life. She has continued to do that for many others since then, and the school receives dozens of exchange students from all over the world every year, and sends many young MBA men overseas in return. We posed for a photo outside her office, and only afterwards did I realise how similar it was to a photo I’d taken the last time I was there.

 

Posing with Ms Warner, Director of Counseling Services at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, 9 years apart on the same spot

Posing with Ms Warner, Director of Counseling Services at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, 9 years apart on the same spot

 

In a city that breathes music, there are just so many places to see, but my host had one last stop for me before I left: Nashville’s premier independent record store, Grimey’s New & Preloved Music. Nowadays we consume music through different mediums compared to how our parents and grandparents did in the past, be it via CD’s or more likely, digital downloads onto MP3 players. Holding an actual vinyl record in your hands, admiring the original large album artwork, reading the liner notes; those tangible moments interacting with the music and the artist’s vision have now gradually become an online experience, as we stream an album through Spotify, or purchase a song through the iTunes Store. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a young man in the 60’s or 70’s, standing in an old face-brick building like this one, with wooden racks of records set out before him, holding the latest LP from The Who in his hands. It’s from a bygone era, but thankfully we have the choice to keep the spirit alive, and a move towards purity and authenticity has made the purchase of vinyl records a niche market amongst audiophiles and DJ’s.

 

 

Grimey’s doesn’t just sell new records, but also preserves the love of vinyl by selling and trading ‘preloved’ (second-hand) items. One of the rooms is a listening booth, consisting of two turntables and sets of headphones, and stocked with obscure, lesser-known records that are available to listen to at your leisure. I picked an old blues record from one of the racks, pulled out a foreign-looking black disc, and placed it gently on the turntable. To be honest, I can count the number of times I’ve used one of those things on my left hand, but the ritual was oddly satisfying. A few crackles and pops preceded the opening chords from an acoustic guitar, and then I was immediately transported into a timeless place where all music listeners have been before. A place where it’s just you and the music, and the rest of the world ceases to exist. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Nashville or Naples, or whether it’s from a record player or your iPod: music is a universal experience that can be enjoyed whichever way you choose.

Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Once Coachella was done and dusted, I still had three weeks left before hopping on a plane in New York City to return to my homeland. I have my family’s longtime travel agent to thank for that; she said that if I stayed in the States for just under a month, I’d get a ridiculously cheap deal for my inbound and outbound flights from the country. In between: it was up to me how and where I went.

As stated in my San Francisco post, I had the good fortune of having a place to stay for every leg of my trip, whether it was with friends or with ‘connections’. Before my departure from South Africa, my intended route for my month-long meander had been mapped out, with a friend waiting for me in each city. Los Angeles was still the missing piece in the puzzle, and continued to be right up until I packed my bags to leave San Fran. I had exhausted my list of whatever contacts I had built up in these 24 years of existence, and on a very limited budget, I didn’t have many options. Then I turned to a man who’s been around the block a little longer than me: my father back in SA.

Exasperated, I asked my dad over Skype if he knew of anyone in LA that I could stay with just for a weekend. Finally, we had a breakthrough, and his considerably-longer list of contacts proved far more useful in this accommodation crisis. A friend of his had emigrated from South Africa over a decade ago to start a church in the Los Angeles area, and word was put out through the congregation that I was in need of help. It arrived in the form of Chris, an incredibly kind and hospitable 20-something guy that offered me his couch in his small one-bedroom apartment in Brea. Even though it was at least an hour away from the Greyhound Bus Station in Downtown LA, he also offered to fetch me on the Friday morning, after my overnight bus trip. The puzzle had been solved.

Although accommodation was sorted, the battle of Los Angeles had only just begun. To put it quite simply: the city is GIGANTIC, or more specifically, the county. It’s an interesting bit of nomenclature: Los Angeles the city is actually quite modest in geographical size, but when you look at the greater LA metropolitan region, it sprawls out like roots from an giant redwood tree. People often use the term ‘LA’ interchangeably, and it’s deceptive. Chris’ apartment in Brea wasn’t just down the road from Hollywood; it was pretty much on the other side of this jungle, requiring at least three different forms of public transport to get there. And once I was in Tinseltown, my goal for the weekend could be put into action: see the major sights of Los Angeles from an open-top, hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus over just two days.

Thankfully, I had a chance to rest up in suburbia on Friday afternoon and evening. Chris took me to an authentic Italian market and deli named Claro’s for lunch, and as a big fan of Italian food, I was in awe at the range of products on offer. From fresh Italian sausage, to cheeses, to pasta, and all sorts of other groceries, the place was an ode to Italia, filled with varieties that I had never seen or heard of. Eveningtime saw me pay a visit to a Five Guys Burgers And Fries, home to one of the best burgers I’d ever had the privilege of eating. I had heard of the award-winning eatery through a documentary I’d seen of a typical day in the White House of Barack Obama’s administration, where the president specially ordered from a Washington D.C. branch and went to pick up the burgers himself. If it was good enough for the US president, it was good enough for me, and the In-And-Out Burger I’d tried on the Coachella road trip needed a challenger. It was plain to see how the chain had received so many awards, as there is a strong emphasis on simplicity and freshness. The unlimited free peanuts to snack on whilst waiting for your meal was also an interesting touch.

 

Five Guys Burgers And Fries in Brea, California

Five Guys Burgers And Fries in Brea, California

 

Saturday

The sightseeing bus that I was to take on my tour of LA was the same company that operates in Cape Town, and around the world. In November last year, a group of friends and I spent a day on one of Cape Town routes, and I was excited to see how the hop-on hop-off approach would work in a foreign city. Chris prepped me well and sent me on my way early on Saturday morning. For the first time on my trip, I was actually really nervous about the amount of responsibility resting on my shoulders transport-wise, knowing that if I screwed up just one part, I could be stranded very far from home. But that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling fueled my desire to explore, and after hopping from bus, to Amtrak train, to subway, I emerged from the Hollywood Highland station onto what felt like a movie set – the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

 

The Hollywood Walk Of Fame

The Hollywood Walk Of Fame

 

Starline Tours has 3 major routes that encompass the touristy parts of LA, and at the time, they were planning to roll out two more in May 2013. The first one I went on, the Red route, comprised of the glitzy and glamourous Hollywood and Beverly Hills. A transfer to the Yellow route was available in Beverly Hills, which takes you down through the beachfront city of Santa Monica to the Pacific Ocean and the famous Santa Monica Pier, before turning back inland and passing through the lavish Brentwood and Westwood. Finally, the Purple route was within Downtown LA to the east of Hollywood, connected by a short transfer through Koreatown.

Wherever you are in the world: if you’re in town for a very short amount of time and you need a superficial yet informative way of seeing a new place, I’d highly recommend a tour of this nature. It ticked off so many places on my sightseeing to-do list, and because you can freely hop on and off busses, you can spend more time investigating a landmark on foot if you wish. This is what I did almost straight away, as I began the Red route’s run through Sunset Boulevard. One of the first stops was at Guitar Center, the world’s largest musical instrument retailer, and the branch on Sunset Boulevard was known for its size and its many famous clients. It was staggering to see the variety of instruments on offer, and how many sections were devoted to each type. As a drummer, I had never seen an entire floor devoted to drums, and upstairs had all sorts of drum equipment, with a wall of signed snares as you wind your way up the staircase. Elsewhere, guitars adorned the walls of room upon room, and acoustic as well as vintage instruments got their own shrines (the latter decorated like a barn, with a man playing an old amp and guitar in the middle of it). Glancing at some of the price tags wasn’t for the faint-hearted (spotted one guitar going for $24 000, yikes). As with any store of this stature, they’ve collected a sizeable amount of rock star memorabilia, including signed portraits, equipment, clothes and concert tickets, and this location also hosts its own hall of fame, known as RockWalk, where I spotted some of my heroes on the plaques.

 

 

Whilst LA, and particularly Hollywood, is known for its world-renowned film industry, the tour I was on was quick to point out music landmarks and highlight the strong influence of music on the area. Other sights along the Sunset Strip included The Viper Room (infamous nightclub previously owned by actor Johnny Depp, and the site where actor Joaquin Phoenix’s brother River died of a drug overdose in 1993), House Of Blues (a chain of live music venues/restaurants) and Whiskey A Go-Go (which started out as a nightclub that popularised the term “go-go dancers”, and soon became the launchpad for the rock ‘n roll scene in LA). After grabbing a quick bite to eat at Saddle Ranch Chop House, I was back on the bus and passing through the retreat of many a silver-screen icon, Beverly Hills. The fashion mecca of Rodeo Drive had many tourists on the bus gawking at the glamour on show, and I took the opportunity to transfer to the Yellow route so I could feel the sea breeze.

 

 

The Beach Boys began blaring through our tour-issued earphones as we cruised down Pico Boulevard through Santa Monica, before I stopped off to browse the end of America’s Route 66 – Santa Monica Pier. On such a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the pier and its surrounding beaches were a hive of activity. Venice Beach was about 5 miles further south, and unfortunately the Green Route there was only rolling out in the next few weeks. But I made a mental note of making a visit there the following day, and caught another bus from the Ocean Avenue (my reference being the Yellowcard song of the same name). When I asked a passerby to take a photo of me below the street sign, it turned out that he was also a tourist (from Australia), and wore a shirt from the entertainment website theCHIVE. Unfortunately our pic together did not make the Daily Afternoon Randomness page!

The rest of the first afternoon was spent finishing off the Yellow route, and catching the second half of the Red route back to where I started – the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The iconic stretch of road has almost 2500 stars over its 2 kilometres (with another 700 metres perpindicular to it), celebrating not only stars of the film industry, but musicians and other entertainers too. Being in the mood for grand ideas, I made it my mission to see every single star on the Walk of Fame, traipsing up and down Hollywood Boulevard obsessively, but it paid off. As I ventured up the quieter Vine Street section, I noticed not one but all four Beatles’ stars in a row. Looking up, I saw that they were outside the landmark Capital Records building (their American record label), with its distinctive circular shape and tall spike on top that makes it resemble a pile of records. With me wearing my Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” shirt, it was an unintended musical pilgrimage for this Stage 5 Beatlemaniac.

 

 

It had been a very long day, exacerbated by me missing my Amtrak train home by just two minutes, leaving me waiting two-and-a-half hours for the last train east for the night. Sometimes you just can’t sync it all up, but thankfully Downtown LA’s Union Station was surprisingly plush and welcoming for this weary traveller. By the time I eventually walked through Chris’s front door at 11:30pm, I realised that I was badly sunburnt from the day’s sightseeing, with my face and arms looking dangerously red. Knowing that it would be much the same setup for the next day, I asked him if he had any sun cream for me. “Hey man, I’m black. I don’t need sun cream!” was his response, and we couldn’t help but laugh at my misfortune.

 

Sunday

With me having booked a flight out of LAX Airport that evening, Sunday was to run on quite a tight schedule, but still allow for me to fill in the gaps of what I didn’t see the day before, and enjoy the places that I had liked. Venice Beach was my main port-of-call, with its interesting and quirky boardwalk, but it required planning an extra bus ride or two. It was well worth the trek though, as it was full of food stalls, art vendors and people just chilling out. Compared to the somewhat ‘plastic’ feel of Hollywood, Venice Beach felt more homely and relaxed, and I enjoyed eating a Greek gyros (a form of wrap) under a palm tree next to the beach, watching the many walks of life parade past me. As a huge fan of the TV series ‘Californication’, I definitely recognized this place as a filming site for the show, and it felt good to see things from the anti-hero Hank Moody’s perspective.

 

 

On the Starline busses, prerecorded audio takes place of an actual tour guide, and I become quite fond of the British man’s voice and his overtly posh-sounding accent. He was a constant companion over the two days; his little anecdotes and facts perfectly timed with each passing landmark. Although I was repeating certain routes, I conveniently managed to be on the bus over sections where I had chosen to walk the previous day, and thus received the best of both worlds, and an encyclopedia-worth of facts about the City of Angels. Music-related sights were less forecoming on Sunday, as I received a thorough education on the film industry, passing Paramount Studios, 20th Century Fox Studios, and a plethora of places devoted to the arts.

 

One of the Starline hop-on hop-off sightseeing busses

One of the Starline hop-on hop-off sightseeing busses

 

Choosing to head to Venice Beach meant that some sacrifices were made, and that was half of the Purple route through Downtown LA. Since I needed to end up at Union Station to catch a bus to the airport, the half that I missed seemed to be the most interesting (at least from a music point-of-view). These included L.A. Live, the Staples Center, and the Grammy Museum, so if I’m in LA again, I know where to go first! It was still an absolute privilege to wind my way through the skyscrapers of LA’s Financial District around sunset, and to see the pecularities of Chinatown to the north.

The whirlwind weekend wound down to a close as I stepped off my last Starline bus at El Pueblo De Los Angeles, home of LA’s historic district. It had been such a humbling experience to witness the grandeur of one of the biggest cities in the world, and I felt like a 21st century explorer hacking his way through the dense urban jungle. But standing on the old plaza (which is the city’s birthplace) and walking the colourful marketplace of Olvera Street, where families gathered together and children played, I realised that there is a lot more to Los Angeles’ history than what is produced in its more famous neighbourhoods of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. You just have to trek through the jungle to find the river’s source.

Despite three previous visits to the USA as a tween and teenager, I had yet to experience the West Coast of the country. California had a sort-of magical quality for me growing up, as the home of Hollywood and a perfect climate, and I knew that at some point in my life I would visit there, but I just needed a reason to.

 

 San Francisco 2013 - USA & California Flags

 

Although Coachella provided that reason, I know that I owe a great deal of the success of my trip to being able to stay with friends and connections whilst I was in the States. Almost immediately after purchasing my festival ticket, I got in touch with a good South African friend based in San Francisco who’d also got a Coachella ticket, and fortunately, for the same weekend. Not long after, it was confirmed that I could crash on his couch for however long it was necessary, as well as join him and his friends on an epic road-trip to the festival, where the five of us would camp together. It was a fairytale beginning to the trip, and set the tone for my first overseas odyssey as an adult.

I arrived in San Francisco a couple of days before the festival weekend, and oddly enough, a day after the terrible Boston Marathon bombings. Emerging from the 18-hour cocoon of international flight to customs in Washington, D.C., it was quite a shock to see the first piece of news on an airport TV being a CNN headline of “BOSTON TERROR ATTACK”. Knowing that I was to be in some major cities over the following month gave me a twinge of anxiety, but whilst the tragedy dominated the news cycles, my fears were fortunately unfounded.

The Coachella weekend divided my time in San Fran in two, and the first few days allowed for some sightseeing of the city and catching up with my friend, who’d recently emigrated from South Africa for an amazing job opportunity at Facebook. His apartment was in Lower Haight Street, just east of the famous Haight-Ashbury district, known as the birthplace of the hippie subculture and the bohemian musical and social revolution known as the ‘Summer of Love’. San Fran feels small for a major city, and even with taking into account its hills, I still found it relatively easy to traverse on foot, in combination with its excellent, but at times conflicting, public transport system (the main service is affectionately called “The Muni”). Haight Street is also walking distance from a lot of cosy bars, so evening sojourns to places like The Page (on my first night there, jetlagged to oblivion) and Smuggler’s Cove (a shrine to rum) are safely navigable after a few drinks.

 

 

I was left to my own devices most days, and although at first I got caught up with some tech admin for my new phone and SIM card, there were still opportunities to leave the apartment and wander, with a vague notion of where to go, and what to do. Taking the self-reliant, touristy approach, I tried to see as much of the surrounding streets and neighbourhoods on foot as possible, which saved me money and facilitated interaction with medicinal marjiuana shop owners, bike rental employees, music store patrons, homeless street preachers, and local jam bands in the park, to name a few. The city is incredibly friendly, laid-back and inviting, offering an eclectic mix of cultures and expression, and as a Cape Townian, I felt very much at home in the environment.

 

 

My second afternoon highlighted this spirit in action, as I headed west along Haight Street to the aforementioned Haight-Ashbury for some lunch. The array of colourful shops could’ve kept me there the whole day, but I had made up my mind that I needed to see the landmark Golden Gate Bridge up close. A helpful bike rental employee gleefully handed me a map of the city, pointing out tourist landmarks along the way, suggesting transport options back home, as well as giving me a brief rundown on life as a San Franciscan – not once suggesting that I should hire a bike. Dumbfounded and grateful, I followed her route through San Francisco National Park, soaking in the gorgeous expanse of green. At one point, I made a pit stop by a local jam band, semi-acoustically strumming away some tunes for a gathered crowd on the grass.

 

 

“Sorry friends, I need to be off. Gotta go stare at a big red bridge” were my parting words to a few of the local listeners I’d sat with, and vaguely heading north out of the park, I eventually made it to the entrance of Golden Gate National Park (San Francisco is just full of them). With rolling hills, countless trees, and many strategic lookout points (one of which gave a view of what I suddenly realised was Alcatraz Island, site of the former maximum security prison), it was a nature-lover’s paradise. Weirdly enough, the park is also part of the Presidio, a former military base. I was still not entirely sure in which direction to go, but thankfully a local hiker pointed me towards nearby Baker Beach (on the western, Pacific Ocean side of the park), and instructed me to follow the coastal trail till I found that big red bridge. Passing through old concrete beachfront batteries, feeling sand itching in my socks, watching the sun drop into the Pacific Ocean; this was not how I had envisioned my afternoon to be, and I loved every serendipitious twist of it.

 

 

The Coachella road-trip began on Thursday afternoon and our crew returned late on Monday afternoon, thoroughly exhausted from the long weekend. Proof of this came after Red Hot Chili Peppers closed off the festival on Sunday night, and the hours and hours I spent on my feet in the baking sun finally took its toll on me. I made my way back to our campsite, collapsed inside my tent, and began faintly weeping. The friend that I was sharing the tent with was concerned, and asked me if I was okay. Half-laughing, I requested a double-foot amputation, as it seemed to be the only solution in my sunstroked mind!  The trip was 15 hours there and back, and the return leg was mostly during the day, allowing me to appreciate the transition from the hazy desert views of Palm Springs and its otherworldly collection of wind turbines, to the leafy suburbs of Palo Alto and Mountain View along the way. Our crew was really international: two South Africans, one Australian, one German, and a lone American!

The Bay Area in Northern California is home to a sizeable eagle population, and when planning my trip, I knew that I had to take the opportunity to see a Golden Eagle up close, as they are not found in the Southern Hemisphere. A few phone calls and emails led me to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, across the bay from San Francisco (one of the oldest wildlife rehab centers in the USA). The volunteers there reassured me that I’d be able to see a bird in rehabilitation at one of their twice-weekly shows. Fortunately, I had some time after the festival to pay a visit to the centre, and tied it up with a lunch meeting with the US Branch chairman of my high school’s alumni society, who conveniently lives in Walnut Creek.

In its own way, getting to see Topaz (a 19-year-old female Golden Eagle) was a rather emotional experience, and one that fulfilled a burning desire of mine to witness the majesty of these birds first-hand. Although it wasn’t a full-on meltdown (a la Kristen Bell and a sloth), I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a tear or two in my eye when the presentation began, and Topaz rested on her trainer’s arm about five to six metres away from me. It was surreal to watch her movements and interactions with him right up close, and I was desperate to at least be able to pet her, but unfortunately she was very skittish and nervous that day, and it would’ve been unsafe for strangers to get any closer than we did. A compromise was made for a photo opportunity though: she was to be fed and bathed in a see-through enclosure in the middle of the museum hall, and her trainer would be able to bring her right up to the glass. I gladly accepted, and The Eagle finally got to meet an actual Golden Eagle