I was a whole heap grown up by the first time I visited the U.S. I was forty, in fact. It wasn’t that I hadn’t travelled a fair bit by then, for I had, and had lived in other countries too, but that the U.S. had seemed always up to then somehow elusive – or daunting – or, more likely, just too culturally ‘known’ to even know how start to get to know it ‘for real’.
I mentioned this ‘known-ness’ whilst talking to someone about a recent trip I’d made there; about that strange sense of familiarity with places not before stood in, and they made the point that so many vistas, so many landscapes, streets and perspectives encountered in the States come with a lifetime – your own moving lifetime – of having absorbed them through TV, films, in paintings and photos and album sleeves. The talk was specifically of New York, a hot house of familiar angles, and a hot house, importantly, of now-ness, as opposed, for example, to the once-upon-a-time thumbnails for London, Paris, Rome – but could equally be of Chicago, or Boston, or The Wire’s Baltimore; Proulx’s wonderful Wyoming.
I began my absorbing at an early age, and now know that as a child of seven/eleven I was constructing my own map of a nation that held all the gravitational pull of a trendier, sexier, bolder older brother, or a new-to-the-neighbourhood child aglow with self-belief – and flares.
Messengers from America came through the music we listened to – later the tastes I shared with a sister, but at the outset it was Elvis on my own. At eight years old and freckled and shy I was not your typical Rock n Roll ambassador, and if asked at the time what I loved about the sound and the vibe, I would have faltered and reddened, a mute. The draw, I can say, was somewhere between, and including, the musical production (I adored the exquisite upfrontness of guitar strings), the stories in the songs and the unutterable romance of Presley’s own back narrative, which was helpfully poured across the gatefold inner on Elvis’ 40 Greatest – whose browns and golds and creams and airbrush treatments had me in a unrealisable funk of applied art appreciation – one I tried too often and too badly to copy onto the painted canvas flap of my school rucksack, never once having the patience to let his hair’s black emulsion dry; his eyes gone distinctly… bleurgh in the still-wet outlines, and Monday coming up fast.
Elvis gave me singularly Chicago. Of all the placenames dropped, it was the one on the cold and grey morn, the ghetto’s setting, that struck and stuck – and with it the first realisation that America, like Britain, had gloom and winter – was not all a Florida park.
And then there was to be a general laying down of the big lands, and big skies – Big States in our easy listenings to John Denver, Glen Campbell and George Hamilton IV – these fellas painting homestead landscapes that were happily free from the toilsome specifics of Country Music proper – and more nicely fitted carpets than a blanket on the ground: but still impacted with a wistfulness that was wide and ancient, and together they defined what the empty spaces ‘down South’, or ‘out West’ were basically about.
Jim Croce it was, though, who brought the devil and the detail. The first to play the Dixie or Rodeo cards with anything like cool for me and my sister – the first to populate dusty streets with ordinary legends and mythical everymen and everywomen, who would then become the archetypes of vast – vast – swathes of land between the Pacific and the Rockies (and I know, I know, that a little geography’s a horrid thing – remember here’s an atlas of an imagined world, charted and navigated by landmarks that come at 33rpm). Jim prepped us for TV’s Taxi, and attractive lives without glamour. Deconstructed American dreams, specifically, again, of New York.
The reconstruction was to be the work of Blondie – a sumptuous shock of the New Wave – not to mention an improbable but genuine ‘no, really?’ that New Yorkers went to discos just like people did in Leeds – that would forever claim the real estate of New York in my associative map of the world (whilst Joni ghosted unhindered through Greenwich and then way upstate and vanishing, skating away on a river into the astonishingly unthinkable Canada of… Canada).*
About The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Nico et al? Hell, you had to have had the particular siblings, or be a few years older. And I mistrust any retrospective mapping through the things I never absorbed for real. A child’s cartography is just that – is forever real.
*Blondie’s Parallel Lines was commonly attempted by many young teens in the school rucksack flap painting business – always leaving out the band characters, obviously. My friend Rob tells of a kid in his class who proudly turned up one Monday morning with a quite brilliantly executed rucksack tribute to ‘Blonie’.
© Steve Mitchell, Fisher Lane, 2012
(please excuse all fudging clumsiness in interchanging ‘America’ with ‘the U.S.’ and ‘the States’. Very probably as stoopid as Britain with England, or Europe with the UK.)