how swedish it is

By Robbie on August 14, 2012

Okay, trip number three to Sweden, which should contribute mightily to the cruel hilarity of Ryan Adams fans everywhere who consider my occasional trips to that noble land evidence of terminal artistic decline. They have a point, in that the work is decidedly less glamorous than modeling for the Gap. One is lodged in a warehouse near a paper-mill town next door to a lumberyard, in a row of cells housing a who's-who of roots-rock fossils (I include of course myself, though at 49 I seem to be the youngest of the touring veterans). At 10 bells the driver tromps up the stairs to gently coax you into your Sprinter. Sometimes you have a clear idea where you're going and how long it will take to get there (the safe assumption is long), sometimes not.

After a couple nights of hotels in western Sweden, with privacy and bathrooms and everything, I arrived at the fossil sanctuary at 2 in the small hours of a Thursday morning. I was a little weary but also jittery from having played a fun gig a few hours earlier, for a boatload of drunken Caucasians peeling around the innumerable hard-to-pronounce bodies of water that compose one-third of Stockholm. I read until 3 and then heard some tired Brits mounting the stairs and muttering anxiously. Soon one was snoring at a literally awesome volume in the bunker next to mine; and at 4 sharp the star that grants us life began to blaze through my wafer-thin blinds. A few hours later I finally dozed off, but at about 9:30, the Brits resumed their anxious conversation in the hallway.

"Rain is predicted in the north all afternoon long," said one gloomily.

"Exactly who is meeting us, and in which vehicle?" another wanted to know.

"Guess what?" said a third. "I just consulted a weather website, and do you know what they show northward? Unremitting sunshine!" They were speaking in that peculiarly British way -- endlessly and hyperarticulately agog that things in either nature or society should be influenced by chance and illogic.

My host had told me who was staying at the compound this week, and two were musical heroes of mine from olden times, viewed often from afar but never met up close. I did meet them and play with them two days later, up north; but for now, it just didn't feel right for me to pop out into the hallway in cotton briefs and introduce myself, so I hunkered down in my room until they were gone.

The work regimen on these little trips is, as I've suggested, demanding. That's more or less a predictable economic consequence of an arrangement by which I say how much money I'd like to be paid over x days, and give myself over to the boss to pay himself that plus my travel costs back, and with any luck, put a little extra in his pocket. Robbie x 9 days = My Rate Plus Expenses Plus A Little Extra is the equation, and because "Robbie," a hardworking but little-heralded and even lower-selling country singer, constitutes such a trifling quantity, that "9 days" really needs to be worked until it bleeds before the two sides balance. It seems that if a few thousand SEK can be made in some grim hamlet 6 hours distant at 1 in the afternoon, a mild-mannered paleskin will appear promptly at 6AM to get you there. Actually it doesn't seem, it is. One early morning after a show, my driver dropped me at my hotel in a little town two-thirds of the way up the west coast. At 5:30AM I rose, and shortly after we were driving 6 hours south down the E4 to play a short set at a daytime festival in Sandviken. We stopped to eat lunch, and then drove 7 hours, much of it back up the E4 and then a ways east, to a remote ski lodge near Norway. There I soundchecked, ate a pizza, killed a couple hours in the bar, and played a short evening set for a few drunk gapers. That was the hardest of a couple hard days. Of course I wasn't doing the work of driving and planning, as I do at home, but at home I would never have set up such a schedule.

This is just to give a picture of something that happened, and to show that, against the good fortune and privilege of playing music for a living and having people you've never met pop up and invite you to faraway places where they drive you around all day and look after your needs for hardly any return, there's also a little hardship and plenty of tedium. When I do music touring in the lower 48, the object and focus of each day is my performance near the end of it. The getting there, the social business, the hunt for food, the communications with home, and whatever else is necessary to address before and after the onstage time, takes on a secondary status. I maintain this view so that I'll be sure to have a good reserve of energy for the crucial 9:00-11:00 hour, and also to keep from going mad, because I find that if I slip into the idea that I'm out for sightseeing and good times, the shortage of those in my work days starts making me demented. However, going abroad, I've come to look at it in a nearly opposite way. I'm not really in Europe to play guitar on a boat and drive up and down the E4. So I try to keep some distance on all that, and spare my most alert mind for whatever sightseeing I can fit into the schedule cracks, and for the serendipitous little things that happen off-hours.

Two of the best days were the first two, in Goteborg and Karlstadt. I'd been hearing how cool Goteborg was for a while and so I was grateful that I was getting to work there at last. It exceeded even my raised expectations -- it was like the San Francisco of Sweden, a port city with cafes, bikes, cultural buildings, parks, and attractive women everywhere; there was plenty of space, amid well-maintained old buildings, and a relaxed tempo, if you know what I mean. Also the weather in mid-July was good, which seemed to be buffeting everyone's spirits. The barista at Starbucks (I admit to searching them out in foreign lands, in the same way John Duffey used to scout out McDonalds in France) welcomed me to the city and asked if I was enjoying the wonderful weather. By non-Swedish standards, wonderful was maybe pushing it -- it was close to 70F but a touch too chilly for short sleeves -- but I agreed, and went out to prowl around the town.

Two hours later, I found myself thoroughly lost. I was in the stupid position of having no information except the name of my hotel, Scandic, which a policeman told me was the name of every third hotel in the neighborhood. "The Uppsala Scandic?" he said. "The Royal Scandic? The Scandic by the opera house? The Scandic Birsh-dee-birsh?" I told him that my Scandic sat within a mile of where we stood, near a Starbucks with a friendly barista, a Clarion, a train station, and a circular paved area where bands played and so on. From that he directed me to a Scandic pretty far away. This turned out to be not my Scandic. By now it was getting time to check out and get on to Karlstadt, and I ruefully reflected that not only did I not know the address, proper name, or general location of my hotel, I didn't have a cell phone to contact my minder (one of my destinations that morning was an electronics store, to get a Euro-adapter to charge my phone, which was dead the Scandic). No one in the world except Micke knew where I was supposed to be that day, and no one in the world, period, knew where I in fact was! It felt precarious, odd, and not altogether bad. Anyway, after 20 more minutes of wandering, I turned a corner and there was the Clarion, and here toward me walked Micke, smiling and mild-mannered and waving. We piled in the truck, rolled down the windows, and drove through Goteborg, with the sun bright and everyone basking in it and Albert Lee music on the disc player -- "wonderful" was the apt word after all.

At the end of the second day, in Karlstadt, I was in an excellent mood. The fair weather persisted and the gigs were really enjoyable. It was 11:30 at night. I asked the hotel clerk to pour me a beer from the tap, and then another, and I sat alone at a sidewalk table behind a little black fence, looking at the empty streets and the depot. From time to time a drunk youngster would carom around the corner, yelling behind the wheel. One car came weaving slowly past me toward the red light, stopped a hundred yards shy of it, reversed a ways, expelled a passenger who yelled and vomited, and then motored on around the corner and out of sight. It was one of those magical nights, and the few young people who were out and about were, I felt, as bored and medicated as in any American small town, but a little more vivified by the briefness of the pleasant temperatures and the obstacle-free landscape -- no cops roaming around, and hardly any other traffic to bump into. I took some pictures on my phone, now steaming energetically away, and texted them to my wife.

One of the things that impresses me every time I vist a foreign metropolis is how absurd the ads for pop-culture look when the observer registers appearance over meaning. There's a sign I saw in every big town, for a new movie, with two images side-by-side of the same male actor, one looking hip and handsome in a casual suit and the other squeezed into a stewardess's attire with wig, garish make-up, and an "Oh no!" expression. "Cockpit," of course, is the title. Everybody over 10 and under 80 knows English, but apparently it's almost impossible to get over that tiny idiomatic hump that makes you indistinguishable from a native speaker. A casino billboard shows four face cards and the glittering caption, "Meet The Royalties!" A store in a trendy-ish shopping district in Karlstadt is called Cool Rags. You see a lot of handbills with band names that you've never heard of, and they all look completely contrived, like mocking goofball phrases just cranked out of Michael O'Donoghue's typewriter. 

Another strong impression is of how many routine things in your at-home domestic life that have taken on the character of eternals are really just cosmetic and provincial. Jose Ortega y Gassett says somewhere that "mass man" is the guy who takes an interruption in the bus schedule as an inexplicable breach in the natural order. That's me. Stairs are supposed to be this height, the light switch is decreed to be located here, outlets always look like this, and so on. Travel may not be, as Sinclair Lewis sourly noted, very broadening at all, but at least it can be a good corrective against this basic error. The first day or two in Sweden I have to relearn quite a lot of ingrained little things: opening a window, making a pot of coffee, flushing a toilet, turning on a light. Also the Swedes seem to place more emphasis on the proper commission of routine tasks, or their idea of that, than we do. There's an official sign on the inside lid of the toilet at the warehouse showing you how to pee, if you're a male. The standing peeing figure has an X slashed through him; what you're to do is sit down like a lady and press the organ firmly downward between the legs. This may be some kind of "Swedish joke," I can't tell -- but either way, no thanks. 

The old town sector of Stockholm is really beautiful, and I got two chances on two days to spend an hour walking in it. I snapped some pictures of the parliament, smiled saucily at a young lady in royal plumage guarding it, found a corner that had the exact texture and color of Old San Juan and sent a picture of it to my son (by now my AT&T bill was probably multiples above what I was making on the trip), and visited a great science fiction bookstore that I like to stop at. On the brick street a block away I saw a large crowd had formed. A street magician was working there, and he had the best magic act I've seen outside television or Penn and Teller's act in Vegas. Working with a small uncovered table in front of him and in rolled-up sleeves, he spat full decks of cards out of his mouth, made large vegetables and fruits materialize, pulled a soda can out of his shoe that he opened and drank, and cracked great jokes in almost-idiomatic English all the while, such as, "This is a live show and a live audience is needed," and, at the end, "Please pay me whatever you can, and ladies, you need not pay in money." Later that night, on stage at the Akkurat down the street, I recycled some of his material.

At the warehouse my next-door cellmate, as it turned out, was Linda Gail Lewis, who I love to be near and talk to -- she has a very positive attitude and a lot of charm and manners, and you can sense a lot of the familial color and exceptionalism just listening to her warn you to be careful moving around in the shower, as she did when I saw her one morning. I guess Jerry Lee had taken a nasty fall not long before. It was a serious conversation, but as it went on I kept thinking, "Jerry Lee Lewis's sister is telling me to be mindful of the combined effects of soap and water." What I am mindful of is talking too much about him to her, because of course she has a life and career independent of him and I'm sure she gets tired of being regarded as a junior associate rather than a senior partner. She said a lot of other interesting stuff too, but I'll cap it there. I've learned that people often take umbrage at appearing as characters saying this and that in these posts of mine! Though characters they are.

The travelling was so smooth on this trip that I wondered if Eurotravel-for-work had gotten easier over the last year or two, or if I just hit a fluke. My outbound carrier was United and inbound it was SAS. Departing from Kansas City, the agent handed me boarding passes for all three flights and took my baggage, telling me I wouldn't see it again until arriving in Goteborg. I was surprised that I didn't have to pick it up to recheck it in Frankfurt; also I thought about my luggage making the connections and immediately reconciled myself to the probability that I'd never see it again. But 19 hours later, there it was, the 5th piece off the belt. I held tight to my new Collings and my Kindle meanwhile, and no one gave me the slightest look as I stowed my flight-cased dreadnought overhead on flight after flight. The flight attendant on the long leg from Newark to Germany brought me a vegetarian meal that was surely tastier than what everyone else was served -- and I was served it a half-hour before them -- a miracle! At the passport check in Frankfurt, the agent didn't say anything, and I don't think he even looked at me -- just stamped the thing without fuss and sent me on -- no nosy questions about work or permits or length of stay, no nothing. One non-hassle after another! I got to the gate an hour before departure time, got a giant latte, and settled down in a chair, opening my Kindle and disappearing into the mind of Rudy Rucker. Ten minutes later, I heard my name called on the loudspeaker. When I went to the counter, the gate agent didn't tell me why I'd been summoned, just took my pass and whisked me through, down the ramp and some stairs to a waiting bus, which took me to the plane, where 200 Swedes and Germans eyed me with forbearance as I found my seat. The last person to board, 50 minutes early. 

My last bit of in-flight good fortune, on the trip home, was best of all. I had arrived at Arlanda near Stockholm 2 hours before departure, and the lines were so Euro-crazy long that I needed almost every minute. Currency exchange: 25 minutes. Boarding pass: 15 minutes. Baggage drop -- I counted 250 people in front of me in this line! -- 40 minutes. Security: 15 minutes. After passports, when I got at last to the gate, I was dismayed to join the back of a ver-r-ry slow-moving line of perhaps 70. Through all this, by the way, the Europeans comport themselves with icy calm and something like noblesse oblige -- to fidget or object to banal inconveniences, their demeanor implies, would be...small. I'm honestly of two minds about this. It's impressive and inspiring to see an entire people united on an aspirational standard of conduct, a set of behaviors that works to smooth over the constant frictions that intrude into human affairs, which are trouble enough even with the frictions smoothed. On the other hand, every time I get back to the states and to the resident passport line at O'Hare, with its steel-eyed rock-ribbed G-men at their stations, crude signage whipping up fears about turbaned bomb-carriers and foodborne illnesses, yowling babies riding the hips of moms in unsightly sweatpants, and fat grunting sales managers, everyone on the thin verge of violent impatience, I really feel like a relieved pig who's been too long out of the mud. A couple times the passport guy has said, after clearing me, "Welcome home," and, good God, it feels like a hug. But back to the gate line at Arlanda: when I at last reached the official doing the final check-in, she handed me a slip of paper with a new seat assignment typed neatly on it. Once on the plane, I settled into the middle of a middle trio of seats with a magazine rack in front of me at a distance of about three miles. Presumably someone at SAS, in one of the many lines, had observed my gargantuan height and changed the number, removing one more friction from my day and making me think about renouncing my status as a pig and joining the heroic horses bearing the Fennoscandian shield.

The best feature of transatlantic travel is the truly staggering amount of pages you can get read. I'm a slow reader, on whose nightstand novelettes have been known to sit for weeks on end, bookmark advancing like a Swede through a baggage line. Well, on the way over I read: Andrew Ferguson's Crazy U front to back, most of a New Yorker, one-third of a big book of Rudy Rucker essays, one-half of a decently thick book of Freeman Dyson essays, a short story by Guy deMaupassant, four by P.G. Wodehouse, and the back of a packet of butter. I made myself stop reading, so that I'd have something left for the trip back. During my stay in Sweden, the Dyson writing was pulling my brain in weird directions. Observing how little sunlight is photosynthesized by green plants and how much thrown off unused, he wondered why plants in northern climes with scarcer sunlight hadn't evolved some darker colors, and mused about bio-engineering some more efficient plant life. It's one of the things you feel compelled to tell others about, and so one day on a boring drive through the rolling Swedish countryside, I started to chat with my minder, Micke, about the notion. In typical Scandic fashion, he digested the information soberly and thoughtfully for a while, and then pointed toward the verdant fields and hills beyond with a troubled frown. "Can you imagine," he said, "if all this was black?"

On Thursday evening, in the middle of my stay, something happened that I'll remember the clearest and the longest. I was to play in a meadow across from a small fishing village, a dozen cabins curving around the edge of a sleepy inlet of the Baltic. My driver, the mild-mannered Rolf, dropped me and my guitar off at the edge of a copse and went off to do something or other. I had uncased my guitar and started to string up when a local man, whose name turned out also to be Rolf, walked over to where I was sitting. His English was weak, but he told me he was looking forward to the show and that it would be a pleasure for his family if I was to join them in celebrating the birthday of one of them -- they had a table under some netting in front of a cabin and were eating cake and drinking liquor. I demurred as politely as I could. While recognizing my duty as an ambassador of American culture and goodwill, I find few things more squirm-inducing than sitting at a birthday party among strangers who can only communicate with me in odd, willowy gestures. But after the performance (a lovely gathering of country folk, in the sloping meadow, at whose base I and a little PA stood and blackened the landscape with some C&W and bluegrass tones) I found myself strolling into the party and lustily pressing flesh. It seems a successful performance gets you cocky. After giving me some cake and teaching me some simple phrases which I've forgotten, they suggested it might be enjoyable to climb into a little fishing boat built many years ago by Rolf's grandfather and drift happily into the sea. "Would it ever be!" I cried.

And so there we were, in the plank boat, Rolf and his brother, four children aged 5 to 10, me, the other Rolf, the sound man Putte, and, the last one to clamber riotously onboard, the clan's ancient grandfather, in white blotchy bare feet and semi-zipped pants, swinging a bottle of brown hooch. Dad gunned the motor and we headed down the inlet. There were pines on either side, although at the water's edge there were no pine trees but small oaks and a lone birch here and there. The rock formations looked to me suspiciously clean and geometrical, but when I asked if we were looking at landscaping, everyone just laughed. The kids laughed too, just an ongoing giggling, as we went; they pushed each other lightly and now and again swung a leg over the side to splash in the water. The dad paid them no mind but worked the motor serenely and looked straight ahead toward where the water widened. When we reach the open sea, he turned it off, and we sat for 20 or 30 minutes, passing around the whiskey and saying not very much. It was after 11PM by now and the sun was halfway down. The Baltic was grey-blue and almost still and merged with the postcard-brilliant sky colors off in the direction of Finland. Before we headed in, I asked Rolf, the driver Rolf, to take some pictures of me and the family. He put them on a disc and brought it to me the next morning at the warehouse. They're pretty good pictures, but like these words, are unequal to what we were looking at.


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  1. avatar Rick, VA Posted about 1 hour later

    Great entry. Sounds like a terrific trip. Seems to have gotten me through the last half hour of work, too.

  2. avatar ASchn Posted about 4 hours later

    That was fantastic, Robbie. Thanks.

  3. avatar Randy Goble Posted about 10 hours later

    Write a fucking book, Robbie. Seriously. I keep your blog bookmarked for this kind of work. I could have read this entry all night long.

  4. avatar Allen Posted 1 day later

    Seriously dude, a collection of essays, a regular feature in a magazine, something. Since you rarely tour near NC anymore at least we could read some of your freakin' brilliant writing.

  5. avatar Nick Barber Posted 1 day later

    Good stuff - the dislocation of being in a foreign land where you can have visual-semiotic but not verbal recognition is covered well in Charlotte Bronte's "Villette", upon the heroine's arrival in Belgium. It's something I once experienced in a Dunkin' Donuts in Chicago...

  6. avatar Tomas Posted 8 days later

    Sorry we wern´t there to see you this time Robbie.
    Next time, be sure to make a stop at Edsbyn.

  7. avatar Tom O'Leary Posted 13 days later

    Thank you for the great travelogue!. Love your music and your prose. Any chance of posting one of those pictures? They'd make a great accompaniment to your essay!

  8. avatar Freddy Van Halen Posted 24 days later

    Just in case you go back

  9. avatar Quentin Rawlings Posted about 1 month later

    our brain has permission to breathe.

  10. avatar Quentin Rawlings Posted about 1 month later

    What I meant to say....

    Your writing is great. It's as if your brain has permission to breathe...