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Not Meeting Bill

In a previous story (Noo Joysie n Noo Yawk), I wrote about the start of my 1986 US tour with two punk bands – fellow Yorkshiremen, The Instigators, and Californians, The Detonators. Here’s the second piece about that tour. There’ll be more, all extracts from an unwritten book about that experience which has been lurking in my head ever since.

Nine of us plus all our gear started in New York and crossed America ending up in Los Angeles, after which I flew home and the two bands went on to play a further gig in San Francisco.

For that whole tour we and our gear were crammed into the large van owned by The Detonators. It was their well-travelled tour-bus, as you can see from all the flyers and posters plastered round the inside of it in the photo which accompanies this piece.

Nick Toczek on tour in the USA with The Instigators in 1986
Nick Toczek on tour in the USA with The Instigators in 1986

What looks like a scene from a gay orgy is, in fact, me and The Instigators after having driven overnight through the sweltering Colorado Desert. Throughout the tour, that van was host to a non-stop mixture of hardcore punk and country music, all played at a brain-melting volume. One probable souvenir of that journey – not one I particularly treasure – is the tinnitus which nowadays rings constantly in my left ear.

While it had eaten its way into the alternative cultures of New York and California, punk was still viewed with a deep blend of suspicion and disdain in mid-eighties middle America. As a consequence, most of our gigs were in squats and improvised venues and we often attracted unwelcome police attention, of which I’ve more to tell in another piece.

One memorable gig was organized by a bunch of straight-edge punks and skins in Lawrence, Kansas. The dad of the guy behind our invitation to play there owned a fleet of trucks. As there was no local punk venue, we ended up playing on the back of a flat-bed trailer in the yard where those trucks were all parked up, the p.a. and amps all powered through a cable from the site office.

After I’d done my ranting poetry and the two bands had played, there was a party. Straight-edge parties are somewhat muted affairs at the best of times, and these guys took the whole thing unbelievably seriously. Not only did they follow the rules of no booze, no drugs and no sex, they expected it of their guests too. Post gig, you can only take so much earnest conversation. As the night dragged on, the most exciting incident was the arrival of a skunk on the lawn. Whenever you approached it, the creature turned its back, raised its tail, and aimed a fine spray of its foul scent at you. I was warned that the odour was awful and lingered for days. They told me that the only cure was to climb into a bath filled with cold tomato juice. While I doubted the truth of this ‘cure’, I wasn’t about to test it and kept a safe distance.

Bored shitless, I asked what was in town. Not much, apparently, but there was a radio station nearby. That was enough for me and a couple of The Instigators. We’d got the scent of something more interesting and persuaded one of our hosts to take us there. The station’s disinterested receptionist was reluctant to let us in, but was eventually blagged into phoning through to the on-air DJ to let him know that she’d some touring Brits at the desk who wanted to broadcast. He was delighted and invited us in.

The small studio was half-filled by this DJ, a huge and gregarious man with a barrel of ice on his immediate right which was filled with bottles of beer, and a pile of spliff-making equipment spread across the desk to his right. As the host of what he called ‘The Ol’ Hip-pie Radio Show’, he was excitedly playing tracks from a pirated album of songs by Little Feet. For the next hour, while we all steadily got drunk and stoned, we talked on air about the gigs we’d been doing, boasted about ourselves, and I read a few poems.

The show ended and we were about to leave when the DJ turned to me and said that there was a poet who lived two blocks away. Would I like to meet him? I said that liked the idea of meeting a fellow-writer so he dialed the guy’s number: ‘Hey, Bill, got an English poet down here at the radio station who’s on tour with some bands. You want me to send him round?’ I heard a long slow drawl of a voice explaining apologetically that he’d a cold, wasn’t feeling too good and was sorry but he wasn’t up to meeting people. However, he wished me luck on my tour. ‘Sorry ‘bout that’, said the DJ as he put the phone down.

As we were leaving, I asked him out of curiosity what Bill’s surname was. He thought for a moment and then said ‘Burroughs’. I said ‘Do you mean William Burroughs, the beat poet who wrote The Naked Lunch and Junkie? ‘Sure’, came the reply, ‘That’d be him’.

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