VII. "Tennessee Sucks in the Summer"
And so it is that you find yourself hungover as shit and driving through Virginia on your way to Knoxville, TN, to see a drunken buffoon of a songwriter named Ryan Adams. Fucking hell, your head hurts. Giant Walmart Gatorades and Tylenol and gas station coffee can't do anything. Your hips ache, your face is getting sunburnt and raw, your favorite Sonic Youth album is way too loud to listen to and everything about the world right now is just spin spin spinning and every thought about this concert is full of just hope and faith that Ryan Adams will finally be playing music the way he did on records like "Heartbreaker" and hopefully there won't be any alcohol for sale at the venue because, shit, just the idea of a Guinness right now can make you want to vomit. And you LOVE Guinness. Ugh.
Coffee at another gas station. Now you're passing Charlottesville and Virginia is finally beautiful in the mountains. Your head has stopped hurting and your hips don't ache as bad and you're driving driving driving and driving fast and faster down the interstate just hoping that Knoxville will be a good place to see a concert. Hopefully you'll find a place to camp after the show. Hopefully it will all make for a good story. You put on Sonic Youth and find that it is still too loud. Everything is starting to be fun. You're in a part of the country you've never been in before.
This is how you go on road trips the last week of college. This is how you think it should be done. You do things for the sake of it being good for a story later. You wake up Saturday morning after drinking way too much in every bar in town and think, "At least this will make the story better."
Why do we do things for the sake of stories? Why is it that I love telling people about that time I read Othello underneath the Pont Neuf in Paris? Is it to impress people? Is it to affirm myself as eccentric in an academic way, or is it because I am so happy that while everyone who has ever been to Paris has a photograph or a memory of being on the Pont Neuf, I have a memory of the French graffitti on the walls under the bridge? I know the phone numbers of slutty Parisians.
It is the love of an adventure, the love of the story, the love of experience, the living and loving harder than others that makes story-telling so great. It is living a life that is different than the normal that makes a "Oh, this one time…" story so fantastically beautiful to tell.
Life is rock hard. You have to squeeze squeeze squeeze it to get the water, the juice, the actual substance of life. A wet rock will expand and explode if you set it next to a hot enough campfire flame.
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Knoxville, TN: Saturday, May 7.
The Tennessee Theatre is a banner of flickering lights in the form of a vertical "Tennessee" sign on South Gay Street in the historic district of downtown Knoxville. The marquee reads "Ryan Adams and the Cardinals." Driving past the theatre in search of a parking spot, a teenager in a backwards hat yells to the cars at a stoplight in a slur-heavy Southern drawl:
Y'all want some rock? I gitchyu sum kigass rock rayght naw!
Laughter in the cars, glancing looks from pedestrians crossing the cobblestone street. The younger generations of Tennesse have the same sounding voices as the leather-skinned cowboys sixty years older.
Cars are parking, people are asking for directions to the only ATM in town, hidden around the corner of a bank on the corner. A huge sculpture of a treble clef is positioned across the street, lines weaving in and out of eachother like pedal steel lines around a dixie guitar riff.
I once went to a Ryan Adams concert in Seattle at the Moore Theater, right after the release of his second album, Gold. The Tennessee Theatre is the South's version of the Moore; it's not just about function, it's about being the biggest and flashiest theatre ever. Lights are purple and red and orange on the high, arching ceiling. Candelabras and velvet curtains, huge chandeliers, bathrooms with marble counters, everyone has huge hair or a cowboy hat. Boots are worn for fashion or function. Plaid is nowhere except on the one Seattle kid that drove in from Virginia. People give him funny looks when he talks. He orders a pop and no one knows what it is.
A rock concert in Tennessee has assigned seating, and the ushers wear uniforms and occasionally check persons' tickets to make sure they didn't sneak down to better seats. Rachael Yamagata opens and countrifies all her songs, playing for the audience. The audience eats it up. Before Ryan Adams takes the stage, the Grateful Dead plays over the soundsystem for a full album.
Everyone stands as the main act begins, bluesy and twangy and gloriously loud. Taller people switch seats with the children behind them to let them see better. A father watches suspiciously. The father sits and asks the standing and dancing man in front of him to sit down. They argue over whether or not this is a merritable request. "It's a rock concert, man!" The dancing one continues, the father leaves with his children before set break.
After the show people look at the guy in plaid and wonder why he bought the vinyl version of the Ryan Adams and the Cardinals record. "Is dat a tradishnal vahnal?" one man asks. He shakes his head and smiles at the thought.
Looking for a campsite in Gatlinburg, TN is complicated. Gatlinburg is a hillbilly Vegas, full of billboards and lights advertising Cracker Barrels and Ripley's Believe it or Not and German Stilt Dancers. A Moscow Circus has just come to town. Gatlinburg has a Hard Rock Café. Restaurants are built to look like castles. It is a tourist trap in the middle of the most polluted national forest in the country. A national forest with smog. Everything looks like a rejected Disneyland ride. A ski lift in the middle of town runs up the side of a green mountain — no one is riding up, no one is riding down, and it's uncertain as to where the ski lift goes.
Campsites are everywhere. Blue signs point to them. Each is full of RVs hooked up to power outlets. The first campsite in town is a 24 dollar a night RV park with a Sunday morning worship service and a covered area of pews in the open air. A bright Christmas light sign says "Jesus" on top of the office. On the office door is a sign that says in bold writing "NO TENTS." People looking to just pitch a tent and leave early in the morning have to turn around.
At one in the morning, a dirty bug-splattered and gray Mini Couper drives into the eighth campsite of the evening. The two people inside are exhausted from a long concert and a day of driving in the sun after a night of drinking with friends. They find a KOA campsite that charges forty dollars for late-night check-in. But it allows tents. The Mini stops, the people pay and pitch a tent bought that morning in Walmart. They wake at eight in the morning to the sound of electronic church bells which ring in the melody of old American folk songs like "Let Freedom Ring" and something that sounds like Christmas muzak. They eat at a Flapjack House on the Gatlinburg strip, where they are served grits and biscuits with thick sausage gravy. The "Signature Coffee" isn't as good as a Charlottesville Shell Station.
On the way out of town they take a route through the Smokey Mountains, opting to drive through North Carolina, with a stop in Durham, perhaps, to see some friends at Duke. At a scenic viewpoint along the side of the road the guy in plaid looks out at the deciduous green leaves of trees and calls his mother to wish her a happy Mothers' Day. "I'm in the Smokey Mountains," he says. "It'
;s just like Last of the Mohicans. You would love it."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
As I was driving back to Virginia, through the middle of North Carolina and then diagonally up I-85 to Richmond, I was drinking Shell Station coffee and eating out of a bag of Doritos. A crumpled USA Today was wrinkled up beneath the passenger seat, research for a paper to write later that evening. Sonic Youth was blasting and my face was sunburnt but my head was clear. I was physically exhausted, but mentally I was in the thick of everything. I was in Southern Virginia, driving a road I've never driven before, and perfectly content to keep driving on only those roads I've only seen as blue or red lines in a water-damaged seven dollar road atlas. I was hoping it would make for a fun story.