Butcher and Alabama have been awake all night. They see me and I return fire with a jetlag stare – signals are exchanged. We’ve seen photos of each other online, even if we do look radically different in the fluorescent overkill of an arrival hall. That’s how it started – an exchange via internet floated the idea to bring me to South America. Now here we are in Sao Paulo International La Gru shaking hands.
Green succulents swarm the surrounding hills. I’m already sweating as we haul luggage across the car park under a sky laden with heavy grey clouds. Alabama, tall, dark and quiet, gets behind the wheel of a black sedan. A distorted Maltese cross logo on the steering wheel catches my eye. Alabama isn’t sure what make of car this is. ‘General Motors?’ he says quizzically and pulls out onto a highway billboarded with signs for Pepsi, Monsanto, Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson. In the backseat with a Panama hat pulled low against the morning glare, Butcher raps about rock bands like the MC5 and The Gories in a fluent American drawl.
Traffic intensifies as we enter Sao Paulo through peripheral districts of low-cost tower blocks, the smog absorbing us into a grey, hazy fugue of iron and cement. Huge subtropical bushes and trees decorate the flow of rough concrete. The elevated highway called the Minhacao, meaning giant worm, slices through the city centre in a pall of carbon monoxide. We ramp off and cruise downtown along Paulista Avenue, a long, straight, skyscraper-lined boulevard. Shopping malls, the Sao Paulo Museum of Modern Art, and the legion of destitute homeless sleeping on cardboard groundsheets are all equally squeezed between the corporate giants.
Vendetta is my tour agent and manager in South America. A construction site overshadows her house. The projected thirty-floor tower block ascends skywards two metres away from my bedroom window. Work begins at seven every morning behind a walled perimeter fringed with the glittering razor wire of a maximum security prison. ‘Those bastards,’ she says pointing at the worksite. ‘Me and the neighbours, we’re gonna sue their ass. I’m not moving anywhere. I like it here!’
In the backyard, one of her two dogs is barking maniacally at a low-flying helicopter and even after it flies off, the manic spoodle barks on, mixing into the drone and thump of the pile-drivers and earth-movers next door.
We drink thick, drip-filtered coffee and then head out for rehearsal, traversing a series of backstreets, boulevards and a piece of clotted highway arterial to reach the Caffeine studio. Caffeine is rough and ready, but the guys have sorted a perfect backline for my sound – a Japanese 335 copy semi-acoustic guitar and a Peavey four-by-twelve vintage reverb guitar amp with a triggered overdrive channel. That overdrive channel – and the noise wall it delivers with a light touch and a lot of electricity – is my key weapon in this three-piece set-up of bass, drums and electric guitar. Butcher and Alabama come from the garage trash rock scene where irony roams free and as I get to know them and the city better, their fast, electric spin on my songs makes more and more sense and I relish the raw energy they bring to my music.
Our first show is the next night at the Lions Club – varnished Brazil pine parquet floors and uniformed staff and wall-length mirrors in a high-class atmosphere with a second-rate sound system better suited to the disco than to rock’n’roll. I need to recalibrate my body clock because tonight, like nearly all the shows on this tour, the concert starts around two in the morning. The audience is riding high on cocktails, blow and beer as we begin the long, fast, syncopated ride into intensity, dissonance, oblivion – rock music essentialised as rhythm, blues and chaos, aimed at the hips and at the mind. Waves of movement pass through the room and the walls start to sweat. Ninety minutes later we close the last encore and retire for an after-show debriefing as dawn breaks over the skyscrapers.
They say Sao Paulo is so big you could live your entire life there and know perhaps only a quarter of the entire city. A mystic undercurrent animates the street life – a broken bird arranged on a pile of crushed glass in the gutter; an icon spray-painted in white on the blindside of a black bathroom door in a roadside garage; colourful posters for evangelical meetings, faith healers, black madonnas, African avatars, Indios saints. One morning I encounter an old guy eating breakfast off a sheet of newspaper, his dark face roughly daubed vivid white, small feathers and twigs in his hair, recovering from some Dionysian night-ritual out in the jungle.
The Carnificia’s walls are hung with machetes and old advertising signs and the sound system is clapped-out and maxed into distortion. I’m playing solo tonight so I keep it to the point. The punters buy me drinks and it’s intimate – there’s no stage, the crowd are literally in my face. Later on we’re shooting pool in the green fluorescence of a snooker hall, devil’s dandruff dusted across the toilets, cachaca circulating in plastic cups. Upstairs on the street, hooded crackheads fire up in a doorway while pockmarked girls hustle around expensive European cars crawling the kerb and the spruikers bark like chained dobermans guarding the whorehouse doors of hell.
Slum cities, favelas, evolve in unexpected places – on a hill behind a local neighbourhood, on the flanks of an arterial road, behind an airport or in an industrial zone, on the edge of a lush, private golf-course, or climbing a steep rise through the electrosmog to a summit crowned by one of Sao Paulo’s myriad radio towers. On the black and white screen of a kiosk television, live eye reporters duck automatic weapons fire, interview street kids, stand aside when the tanks roll by. The army assault on Rio de Janeiro’s favelas is only just beginning as the government, anxious to prove that they will act tough on crime, attack the tribal drug cartels with everything they’ve got. The elaborate crime syndicates constitute a state within a state, complete with autonomous laws, policing and governance. There is no solution while subsistence farmers and their families continue to migrate from the land into the mega-cities, swelling the millions-strong ranks of the dispossessed.
The Vegas Club has a Scarface feel, red velvet curtains and muted brown floors and trimmings, carpeted stairways and split level connecting corridors guarded by huge uniformed dudes with jailhouse eyes. The bandstand, a treacherous half-moon shape, pulses under the strobes and I shy away from the edge, wary of the plunge to the dancefloor two metres below. A redhead dances on the wall across the room, waving her arms and mouthing some unintelligible message but the sweat’s in my eyes and I can’t read her. Butcher is pushing the tempo hard and fast. I surf his nervous energy by changing delivery, dropping words and phrases, making it up as I go along. The music is mutating under the sway of heat and pressure, hybridising desert blues and garage trash, forcing me to play in a whole new way – fast, heavy, laced with feedback.
As the after-show DJ kicks in, Alabama pulls the gear off the stage and we breathe in the cocktail of exhaust, disinfectant and cheap perfume out on Augusta Street. Vendetta organises a fast getaway to the gas station for the simple pleasure of cheese bread with doce de leite, a caffeine-enrichened cream made from sweet condensed milk. I’m in bed as the sun rises and the construction site springs back to life, jackhammering my dreams.
Sometimes we unconsciously invite people into our lives that end up wreaking havoc. No matter how far you might go to get away from them, somehow they still walk beside us, through our thoughts and reactions.
There’s a stalker on my case, ranting at me through the internet and although I try to block her out, her presence still pursues me. Meanwhile, my girlfriend in Melbourne has sent a note saying she can’t see me anymore and it seems to me that while I’m out here on the road, back home my life is falling apart.
It’s just the crush, superstition. Don’t want your love, indecision. It’s just a crush, strip it down, planted seeds of paranoia. Don’t want your heart …
We’re recording a new song in the Caffeine studio – me, Alabama, Butcher and Renate. I’m singing the lyrics from the train wreck of my life as the band pulverises a blues riff into a pyramid of shiny white powder.
And so it blows, blow by blow. Strip it down …
The road is addictive. Loved ones tire of your absence and drift away and you know that fact and yet you’re still drawn to the risk and the fascination of the unknown.
It’s a shot in the dark …
The music is my cure, blues that cut to the heart of things, looking for answers when there’s none to be found.
Peak hour traffic, humidity and rain, inching through the Sao Paulo traffic towards the highway for Braganza. In a long tunnel, kids play in a service shaft; around them, torn cardboard boxes serve as doss pads. It’s hard to escape this city. By the time we do, night is falling and fat clouds are squatting on the lush green hills and valleys. Out here on the interstate, Brazil looks like a postcard from Vietnam.
Alabama takes a call, hangs up, says something to Butcher and they laugh that slow, heavy laugh I’m learning to recognise as code for impending disaster when Alabama suddenly U-turns through a break in the guard rail across a highway slick with brake fluid and gasoline. Mari’s car, carrying friends and equipment, has broken down a little way back and pulled up behind the barriers of a roadwork site. In the drizzling twilight we remove our amps and band gear from their car into our own and watch them dwindle into the fumes and headlights as we take the next bend, already running late for tonight’s show.
In the Braganza club, television screens pump heavy metal videos from the eighties into an empty room. There are no stage monitors for the band, and the promoter provides me with a twelve-watt guitar amp for a vocal wedge. Alabama, Butcher and I convene outside in the falling rain to discuss whether or not we should return immediately to Sao Paulo; we decide to stay and play and soon discover the sound tonight is paradoxically excellent. Butcher chills the tempos and the audience of bikers and desperadoes groove on the extended psychedelic instrumental passages. Afterwards we drink cachaca distilled in honey, and listen to the petrol-heads’ monologue. ‘My bike is my mother, my lover, and my child too … I’m nothing without my bike, because my bike is me, you know what I mean …’
Southbound for Curitiba, tall rainforest palms and mountain pines rise out of the fog and the drizzle never stops. From a high curve we see the massive traffic jam below and Alabama starts his chuckle of doom, a reefer clenched in his jaws while he gently handbrakes our descent. One lane is closed, and the other is punctuated by huge holes and slick with mud and oil. Traffic stops altogether. Vendors stroll barefoot between the lanes selling hot peanuts in paper cones, bananas and hard candies. Directly in front of us, a panel van spray-painted black. Even the numberplates, taillights and windows are spray-painted black – a kind of do-it-yourself hearse. The door opens and a tall, balding man emerges and stares at us through the windscreen, then approaches and signals to Alabama to get out of the car. The man is wearing a leather pouch around his waist. ‘That’s where he keeps the scalps and fingers,’ Butcher remarks, ‘all kinds of people out here in the hills’. Alabama stays in the car, rolls the window down. In dialect the bounty hunter tells us, ‘three to four hours minimum, I got it on my radio’. Sure enough, we inch along the highway all afternoon until the skies suddenly open up on an exquisite indigo twilight, and Curitiba appears as a sprawl of light on the horizon.
The Wonka basement is packing out fast. Patrons chop stardust in the stalls while full bladders hammer on the doors. Halfway through the set, the promoter cuts through the sardined crowd with a tray of beers and wipes the sweat off my face with paper napkins before returning to the lighting desk and blacking the room out for the uneasy ambience of ‘In the Pines’. After-show, there is no backstage and I’m stuck in the crowd, signing records. We’ve already sold out the merchandise and I’m in a hurry to leave. A brunette with chemical eyes bars my way and digs her nails into my palms hard enough to break the skin. Alabama drops me at the hotel where the key card self-destructs in the slot and I reconstruct the room’s power unit in total darkness listening to my own shallow breathing and the amped-up beating of my heart. After the noise and the rush and the press of things I feel the silence and the stillness envelope me.
Waking up, it takes a while to figure out where I am. Mornings are becoming progressively more disorientated. I devour a deep-fried banana and drink a freshly juiced mango vitamina, purchase a toothbrush, buy a chip for the mobile phone, sort through email in a gloomy internet shack, and then head into the gathering rain clouds.
On the bandstand at the John Bull in downtown Florianopolis, the crowd groove and jostle, clustered around close enough to touch. The music is very fast, even though these ninety minutes appear to unfold in slow motion. Time is elastic, clocks are meaningless and when the show’s over it all slows down to a crawl. I look around the venue and the crowd and realise I am trapped here.
I smoke a million cigarettes to fumigate the emptiness, but nothing really helps.
Four hours sleep later, I wake up cold and confused, unsure of where I am. I pull on my jeans. Checking my pockets, I realise the money from last night is gone. Walking to a wild beach near the heads of a blood red river, a huge tarantula crosses the path in front of me – big as a rat and covered in black hair. The tarantula parts the grass with its forelimbs and disappears into the underbrush.
I climb the cliffs and contemplate the long drop to the rocks below and feel how very close the edge is.
Down at the beach, the sand is hot and the water’s cool and thick balls of cloud drift in a cobalt sky. At the bamboo palisaded beach bar, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ oozes from the stereo loudspeakers and big bowls of acai jelly are served with granola and yoghurt. Fresh cane juice drips from dedicated sugarcane grinders; prawns doused in Tabasco, lime and pepper sizzle on the grill. The perfume of mujer drifts through the air.
This should be paradise, but I’ve brought all the baggage of regret and desire and futility down to the beach.
In the roadhouse outside Joinville, a hardluck-faced woman chastises her kids as they fool around in the rain in a muddy carpark. A newsbreak flashes images from the street fighting in Rio de Janeiro – burning cars, helicopters, the army in the slums with bulldozers razing illegal dwellings. Overhead, banana bunches hang from the porch.
We drive on south through the flatlands, garage rock on the car stereo.
A suicided uncle haunts the house we stay in at Porto Alegre. Walls of Catholic iconography, statues of the Virgin Mary, family photos, everything faded from the entropy of a passing generation. I know I will not sleep in this sombre bedroom, vacated by a couple in such haste that they left all their personal effects: Portuguese bibles, Cabbalistic symbols, portraits of the saints, Christian aphorisms sewn into the hems of yellowed doilies.
We take a walk down the quiet backstreet and turn the corner face first into a wave of muddy water sprayed by a passing bus. Dismayed, we wipe ourselves down in a greasy spoon on the main drag where the patrons are as supersized as the servings of chips, fried cheese and creamy sauces on the neon menu. I watch the traffic fade into a stillness, broken only by the sudden carloads of soccer hoons celebrating the victory of some local crew.
The people are poorer here, the streets full of mud and stones.
The night bus for Uruguay leaves at sunset. A baby cries and Butcher falls asleep next to me and I swallow some Terazepam and drift off to the rhythm of the wheels. Next morning at the terminus, I order a coffee at the bar and the power suddenly fails, plunging the whole place into darkness. Outside, a car alarm is howling. People move in slow motion or stay stock-still where they are. I feel like a black hole myself – no light gets in or out of me. I walk out into the blazing heat to be immediately vaporised by the silver light reflecting off the Plate River, big as an ocean, Argentina on the other side. I’m dematerialising into nothing, the molecules busting apart in a domino effect of tiny fissions and I think this just could be the perfect place to disappear without even really trying.
Montevideo high street – pick-up trucks, rusty utes and rococo cathedrals. Twenty-five dollars for a cup of coffee. A teenage girl, eight months pregnant in a tight halter top exposing the long caesarean scar across her belly, lingers outside a hamburger joint with her mother and little brother. She cadges a smoke from her mum’s packet and lights up, exhales with relish. The dispossessed drift in from the hinterlands like water dripping slowly from a leak in the scheme of things, on foot or riding mule-drawn carriages laden with bundles wrapped in garbage bags and tied with string, and they move amongst the skyscrapers and business travellers like phantasms.
There’s a party going on near the water under a dark moon – local movers and shakers, musicians and filmmakers. The blow is all around and the people talk on automatic – animated, charming, repetitive, a little too friendly until it tires you out, smiling. Vodka sours, caipirinhas, cocktails. ‘Are you alright, man?’, asks the retired rock singer with tombstone teeth and eyes like burning dark coals. ‘Yeah, I’m good, bud’ I reply. He squints knowingly and smiles again, ‘You’re sure?’ Whatever ails me, his shit can’t fix it.
On the broad city streets in the long shadows of morning, the workers and the homeless drink gourds of mate tea through metal straws. Indios street cleaners sweep the cracked pavements in slow motion. Classical music plays quietly from the loudspeakers in a city park. Blood sausage and dark chocolate sweat in a cafe window. I crash at the hotel and a few hours sleep later meet Alabama and Butcher in reception and we eat steaks to take the edge off the hangover from last night’s show. Freedom is hard work. Freedom can be lethal. We’re light, loose, barely tethered, and still one more week of the road to go.
The performance in Buenos Aires transpires in a blur of rhythm and electricity, a hell-raising set in front of a riotous audience. Departure is at 5 am, and we burn the night down to embers before bulletting across the city, airport-bound. The bubble bursts as we haul our gear across a rain-soaked sidewalk into departures and confront the bureaucracy of uniformed, middle-aged civil servants in bulletproof glass booths. At the gate the ground crew examine our documents again while large brown cockroaches scatter around our feet in the direction of the air-bridge.
In the arrival hall at Porto Alegre a burly middle-aged driver holds up a sign with my name handwritten on it. In the shower of a high-rise hotel, thoughts slip through my fingers and disappear down the drain. The venue is a huge glass greenhouse box in the Museum of Culture with a high, raised stage and a powerful, professional sound system. The room’s abundance of light and air bounces through my emptiness unhindered while people dance in the seated crowd. The nervous promoter asks us to turn it down – but that’s one thing we can’t do; this beast operates on volume. The sweat is draining poisons through my skin, scouring toxins from my soul. I love the music. It’s the only thing keeping me together.
The tour’s finished and we’re chilling out on beautiful Sao Joaquim beach. Butcher and Alabama mix caipirinhas in the blazing sun as the breakers roll in. I strip off and the ocean’s power grasps me in its fist. Further out, the Surfers for Jesus are riding the waves, recruiting souls, holding revivals on the beach, teaching the local kids about surfing and Zen and the gospels. They come here from the drug scene and the jails and gangs and they’ve found God and repudiated Satan out on the big Atlantic swell.
Maybe there’s redemption in these waters; I’m shedding old skin, salt disinfecting the wounds. Big ocean birds hang suspended on high thermals. I’m superimposed on this scene, a last-stop beach poised on the lip of the world’s edge. I can feel my ego shrinking as my ambitions and pleasures seem increasingly ludicrous. Everything seems slightly out of focus and far away. I’m fading into nothing, and I relax and let it take over, mind blank, heart empty.