Catania at the beginning of the 21st century, on the first day of the summer, I walk with Daniel and Barbara. Motorbikes loose themselves from the swarm. It is early evening, people are outside to feel the cooler breeze for the very first time that day; the Sicilian city is suffocating in the summer months.
Catania is darkened by lava ashes and traffic gasses. The buildings, be they churches or aristocrat houses or the apartment blocks for the common people are all heavy with baroque. There is the via Etna, a long narrow street that seems to end right at the foot of the volcano. The view on the harbour is blocked, but the smell of the sea is evident. Daniel leads us to a slightly sloped square, its colour is mocha. It is the end of the market day; street sweepers and fruit vendors carefully get out of each others way.
Daniel tells me that this here what I see, happened in the last two years: The Indians took over the market place. Immigrants from Sri Lanka have landed in this town, and right here on this square for some unknown reason. We sit on the stairs and look and talk and listen, then we go for eating.
* * *
I meet Zan again after a few years in the bus station in Madrid. He wears a Peruvian hat and his usual suit, one out of his collection of suits that make him look like a salesman in the Mid-West some time in the nineteen fifties. He is large and slim. Enrique our host is more muscular, bald headed. Together they could audition as Don Quixote and Sancho Pancha. In the underground station of Madrid nobody recognizes them as such; the lights are low and the air is bad with gasses.
Zan has arrived from Kentucky, Louisville. This evening we will play in a basement bar in a popular neighbourhood. The show is sold out. Though we have a lot of technical problems thanks to a wacky connection, our performance is wild and surreal. Beats, noises, scary movie sounds, speeches and chants through a megaphone, Zan’s gravedigger voice and enchanting stage presence make for a memorable concert. Ben Roberts, indefatigable collector of magnetic tapes, be they cast away or bought in a flee market, is in the audience and records the whole show with a hand-held walkman.
* * *
In Louisville, one evening in the August month of 2001, where I had arrived after a night-long car ride from Washington D.C. I stayed at B.C.’s place, a white house just around the corner from where Zan lived, his more run down, badly in need of new paint. Jeff Surak, who had come with us, hadn’t returned to his home town yet. We sat on the front porch, in my idea a monument to the lazy summer evenings spent after a day’s working on the land. I saw these front porches everywhere. Every front porch had a couch or a rocking chair.
Louisville is full of roads and trees and houses at the side of the road and parks, and everywhere you can witness the idea of America as it once was. So here we are, the three of us, with a view on a graveyard covered in the semi-dark, cars passing every now and then, the continuous buzz of the grasshoppers; each one of us with a toy instrument. Tunes are full of Beefheart’s Magic Band. We played endlessly without ever saying a word.
Of course there was a full moon rising behind fine shaped clouds. And bats were flying on and off. Maybe some Gothic kid on the graveyard might have wondered about our strange tics and hums and plongs. Zan can sing like a red Indian. Many years later, when I was back in Europe, someone mentioned “Kentucky”, and I remembered how the air smelled back there. It smelled like “freedom.”
* * *
I have baptised the room that was built and used by a father-in-law I never knew, das Musikzimmer. He used to cultivate and interbreed orchids in here. His furniture, a couch of distinct grey, two chairs, a lower table, was never moved out. Almost all of the orchids have gone. There are two left; they live together with other plants in a space behind the window. That is the window towards the left side neighbours, their garden bordered by giant pine trees. The other side is a life-size window that gives out onto the terrace and onto the sky above the gardens.
This time I sit here to listen to the collection of reel to reel tapes. Most of them are filled with recordings from the early sixties: jazz concerts. One of them is a gem: a lecture held in Cologne at the end of the nineteen fifties. The lecturer speaks an eloquent German long gone: precise articulation, precise grammar, precise description, sometimes full of moral doom. I have my equipment on the table. The lecturer speaks on. My four track is connected to an echo machine. A distant hum is heard from a recording I made on the roof of a Barcelona apartment during the cold winter hours before sunset. Barbara listens somewhere else in the house, equally delighted by my noises as by the voice of the man her father recorded with his reel to reel recorder: “Aber Freud schrieb mal in einem Brief..”
* * *
I am on a small tour with Jeff Surak, his wife and kid. Pècs in Hungary is the first town where we will perform, my début! The Hungarian town shines bright with buildings from the Austrian-Hungarian empire, the right décor for silent café’s where you have a coffee and a piece of cake that looks like a crown jewel. Car drivers are extremely precautious, most of the models are made in Eastern Europe; the traffic makes me think of Minnie Mouse.
While walking the town we end up in a park. I sit in the sun and wait, listen to the younger people who stand grouped around in front of something that looks like an academy. It is big and made of bricks, rises up above the trees. Behind the windows I sense endless hours spend in that strange in between days mood, when desires melt your brain and the big unknown lingers around the corner. Today the school seems mild, the kind of mildness that marks the end of the academic year.
I get up and walk away from the park, to find out if it is possible to explore back yards, a place where stories are hidden. But the back yard is full of parked cars. A church bell rings. Pigeons wake up and fly away. I am someone with an invisible headphone, who sticks a little microphone in a drain pipe. At the other end a pigeon ru-ru’s. A car drives by slowly. In the evening I perform with a bucket and a broom. The next day we are on a slow train to Austria.