Have you made any pop-culture pilgrimages?
Does crossing the country to meet someone count? In 2005, I flew from Chicago to New York expressly to see Liev Schreiber in Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway and interview him for The A.V. Club. At some point before that, I drove the five hours to St. Louis to meet author Terry Pratchett, who’d crossed the pond for an area convention. And back in 1996, I went from Iowa to L.A. specifically to meet Harlan Ellison, and to serve as his typist for an online chat he was doing for the SCI FI Channel, which I wrote for at the time. (He had told my boss that he was a Luddite and hated IRC and the like and wouldn’t do it without a typist, but when it actually happened, he decided he didn’t need one, and I hovered awkwardly in the background.) But I don’t think I’ve ever crossed state lines to see a place that was in a film, or where something famous was written, or what-have-you.
I haven’t made a pilgrimage per se, but I did spend about two hours on Google Street View last year when I found out Cameron’s house in Highland Park from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was for sale. I was trying to figure out where it was, since I grew up one town over. That mailbox was hard to find.
I’ve never specifically made a trip just as a pop-culture pilgrimage. I’ve planned a few (an aborted attempt back in 2008 to follow the racers’ route from Two Lane Blacktop) and I’ll plan a few more (I might do a tour of Raymond Chandler’s ever-vanishing L.A. this year), but I usually try to combine them with a trip I was going to take anyway. That said, while my first trip to Paris wasn’t specifically meant to be any kind of pilgrimage, I did make the obligatory tour of the Cimetière du Père Lachaise to say howdy to the desiccated skeletons of some of my cultural icons: Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Richard Wright, Max Ernst, Félix Guattari, and Jean-François Lyotard, to name-drop a few. As is often the case when I pay someone a visit, they seemed less happy to see me than I was to see them.
Am I alone here? Didn’t any of you ever go to your favorite author’s house (or house-museum)? Anyway, this question was inspired by a holiday re-watching of The Royal Tenenbaums. In my initial throes of appreciation for the movie, I ventured up to Harlem—I was already in NYC for something else—to see the exterior of the Tenenbaum residence, which in reality is at the corner of 144th and Convent in Hamilton Heights. You can’t go in or anything, but it’s pretty cool to get a look at the actual corner on which a lot of the movie’s action took place. It’s also a charming, unusual little neighborhood. Try it out, Tenenbaums fans! Should I also tell y’all about the time my then-girlfriend, now-wife went to the UK and visited lots of Morrissey and Smiths-related destinations? Oh man, we went to “the old grey school,” where we were greeted by the principal this way: “You must be Morrissey fans!” We saw Moz’s boyhood home. We went to the Hacienda, which was closed. (Though that was as much for Factory Records love as Smiths.) Of course we were photographed in front of the Salford Lads Club, too. Don’t judge.
I traveled to New York in 1999 to see The Daily Show and its newly minted host, Jon Stewart. We took my friend for her birthday; she was committed enough that she had an entire desktop Daily Show theme, which closed down the computer with Stewart saying, “and now, your moment of Zen.” During the pump-up-the-crowd portion before the show, I asked if he would wish Susan a happy birthday. He replied that he was not a performing monkey. Fair enough.
I’ve already written in AVQ&A about my journey in 2002 to get all three members of Hüsker Dü to sign my Land Speed Record poster, which probably fits this question best. That same year, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I went to San Francisco, which is a sort of pilgrimage for a Jawbreaker and J Church super-fan like myself. Both bands strongly identified with their hometowns and wrote about them extensively in their songs—J Church even took its name from a street-car line—so I could scarcely walk around the Mission without having my brain cycle through songs like a geo-targeted iPod Shuffle. One day while walking around the Mission, I looked for an intersection that’s mentioned in passing in what may be my favorite Jawbreaker song, “Housesitter”: “Walking down 16th Street / hit the cross street, Catatonia.” Duh, Catatonia is a type of stupor, not a street. Hey, San Francisco has a street named after Castro, why not one about a condition often associated with schizophrenics? Considering some of the, um, colorful characters on the Mission’s streets, that’d make perfect sense.
I’m a die-hard Bob Dylan fan, and since I’ve lived my whole life in Wisconsin, I finally decided five years ago that it was a crime that I hadn’t paid a visit to the former Robert Zimmerman’s boyhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota, a short eight-hour drive away. Because I apparently have a lot of time to waste, I also visited nearby Duluth to see the house where li’l Dylan spent the first seven years of his life. This proved to be a wise decision, because the Hibbing house was sort of boring—it was in the middle of a regular ol’ neighborhood, kind of like Graceland—while the Duluth house was situated on possibly the only shitty street in the small north-shore town. As soon as I stepped out of the car with my friends, a certifiable car chase broke out on the cross street. To be specific, the car stopped in front of us so a totally respectable and not at all suspicious-looking gentleman could jump out of his friend’s Aerostar mini-van. Then said mini-van tore off with several police units in hot pursuit, hurtling forward with alarming velocity before slamming into another vehicle several blocks away. I left feeling even more respect for my hero, whose greatest accomplishment was not marrying rock with folk or infusing pop songwriting with poetry, but surviving the hardscrabble streets of Du-motherfucking-luth.
I’ve never made a pilgrimage per se, but I’ve often toured places before I fully understood their significance. Growing up in Tennessee, I took field trips to The Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum and Graceland long before either place meant anything to me, and I hung out around The Parthenon for years before I saw the climactic scene of Robert Altman’s Nashville. In recent years I’ve had the experience of watching Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and seeing Austin restaurants and bars where I’ve actually hung out. (In the case of Waking Life, I watched the movie for the first time at SXSW, in a theater featured in the movie. That was trippy.) The closest I’ve come to true pop-culture pilgrimages happened when I first moved to Athens, Georgia for college in 1988, and I tried to visit every spot and see every band featured in the documentary Athens GA Inside/Out. (Most of them were disappointing, aside from Walter’s BBQ.) Oh, and on the few occasions when I’ve driven over the bridge to Cincinnati, I’ve sung the theme song to WKRP. But who hasn’t?
Three years ago, I dragged my wife to French Lick, Indiana—a small casino town in the south of the state—in the frigid middle of winter to go see one of Jerry Lee Lewis’ increasingly rare live performances in North America. It was cold—really cold—and all the hotels were booked, so we ended up renting an A-frame at a campsite. (At this point I should mention that I’m pretty sure my wife really loves me.) The show was strange. Lewis was late because his plane had trouble landing in the bad weather. When he got there, he looked and moved like an elderly man who had ingested large quantities of pills and booze on a regular basis until recently because, well, he was. His voice showed strain, but his piano playing remained a force of nature. The atmosphere was weirdly charged, too. Some drunken yahoos, unhappy with a pair of Chuck Berry covers, called out, “Play some music by white people!” Later, the rockabigots started a fight, and for a few moments, a sterile casino auditorium recalled a Memphis roadhouse. At the end, Lewis stood up slooowly, carefully adjusted his balance, and knocked over the piano bench before ambling off. Rock ’n’ roll! Other pilgrimages: I sought out the house on the cover of Let It Be in Minneapolis and wrote about it here. And I guess this counts, too.
I didn’t plan it that way, but an overnight stop in Memphis turned out to be the catalyst of a decade-long (and counting) obsession with Southern soul—a pilgrimage in reverse. An old girlfriend and I were looking for a way-station to break up the trip between New Orleans and Philadelphia; we’d decided to hit Nashville on the way down, so we opted for Memphis in the home stretch. My dog-eared copy of Spin’s Underground U.S.A. guided us to a succession of unbelievable eateries—the sweet tea and fried chicken at Miss Ellen’s is still etched into my mind—and we made the mandatory trip to Graceland, with the appropriate track on the Dead Milkmen’s Bucky Fellini cued up in the cassette deck. But it was a trip to the Memphis Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum that properly blew my mind. The museum has since been moved and vastly upgraded, but then, it was a series of dingy glass cases housing treasures from the city’s rich musical heritage, which hung from pegboard backing like tools in a basement workshop. As I moved from the collection of Otis Redding memorabilia (thankfully devoid of the airplane wreckage morbidly displayed at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame) to cases devoted to Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the MGs, and the rest of the Stax Records stable, it suddenly hit me: Every one of these great records had been committed to tape in the same converted movie theater on McLemore Avenue, with the same musicians laying down the sweat-drenched grooves underneath. I had a similar experience in the storefront studio of Sun Records, where as the tour guide rattled off the list of great artists who had crammed into that tiny space—Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and dozens more—I was struck by the thought that at some point, one of them must have stood with his feet exactly where mine were at that precise moment.
Before I left town, I stopped by Shangri-La Records to purchase a brick from the original Stax studios (now recreated in their own museum), and within a week of returning home, I’d picked up a copy of the nine-CD box set of Stax-Volt singles, and the floodgates were open. I’ve been back since, and the tea is still just as sweet.
In 2001, my friend Jon and I took a road trip down to Albuquerque to see Jonathan Richman. It wasn’t the first time either of us had seen him play, nor would it be the last. And Richman, of course, isn’t even from New Mexico, so it’s not like there was any kind of particular importance to seeing him perform there. I think Jon and I were both at volatile, pivotal points in our respective lives, and investing a weekend and some mileage to bask in the presence one of our favorite songwriters took on an almost spiritual tone. The show, of course, was great; Richman and drummer Tommy Larkin turned the sparsely attended Launchpad into a playground and a graveyard for broken hearts. But the drive back to Denver was just as memorable. I remember blasting Fleetwood Mac, Steve Earle, and Jawbreaker (on cassettes [!] that we bought at a little used-record store in the first floor of a house in Santa Fe) while blabbing about loves and hopes and all that junk—nothing crazier than your typical emotional bullshit session with a buddy, but made all the more resonant by the fact that Richman had just baptized us in some cleansing twang and openhearted rock ’n’ roll. Jon and I drove down to Texas the following year for the inaugural Austin City Limits Music Festival—and while it was awesome seeing Luna, a typically uneven Ryan Adams, and a typically goddess-like Emmylou Harris, it just didn’t have that same pilgrimage feel as our Richman trip. (Granted, I also got us pulled over at 5 a.m. doing 90 on I-70, which got Jon in a heap of shit for the pot he’d just been smoking. Water under the bridge, right, ol’ pal?)
The summer before senior year of college, I had an internship at Dateline: NBC in Washington D.C., which included such highlights as Geraldo Rivera asking me if I had oral herpes. (I did not; he was just gallantly checking before he drank from my water bottle.) The internship was unpaid, but interns were allowed to take a free trip to 30 Rockefeller Center to check out the New York offices. Since I didn’t have much else going on in D.C., I opted for the trip. Not, however, for the possibility of meeting Katie Couric (whom I did track down, and who was very nice, and who will thus always be okay in my book), but on the off chance I’d run into my secret boyfriend, Conan O’Brien. I think I was supposed to be doing thankless intern work while I was at 30 Rock, but instead, I spent as much time as possible lurking around the Late Night studio. I sat in Conan’s chair, I stole a pencil from his cup, I loitered near Andy Richter’s dressing-room door. (It featured a photo of a kitten smoking a cigarette on it.) Alas, I never ran into Conan. Still, the thrill of the possibility of doing so almost made up for the crappy letter of quasi-recommendation I eventually got from my boss.
I just got back from a three-night stint in Miami to see Phish, which I suppose qualifies as a pop-culture pilgrimage. Not only had I never seen Phish before, but I had never really listened to their music of my own accord. But it is remarkable, the things we do for love. I like to think my big pop-culture pilgrimages lie in my future. I was recently invited to attend a Simpsons table-read by a longtime writer-producer. That is so worth making a trip to Los Angeles for. Oh, and I’m super-duper-extra-excited about the massive road trip through country’s most revered sites that will come with the end of Nashville Or Bust. Oh, the places I’ll go! It’ll be just like that one Dr. Seuss book, The Cat In The Hat.
I’ve made so many pop-culture pilgrimages that I’d probably have to write a book to properly detail them all, but some stand out from the rest. In Seattle: Several years after Kurt Cobain died, I went to the Lake Washington house where he killed himself and just stared for a while and thought about how I still really like Nirvana in a way that surprises me. Early in college, a couple of fleeting friends took me to the Singles apartment, and then right before I graduated, some good friends and I made the trek out to Renton to visit Jimi Hendrix’s grave, where my ex-girlfriend’s brother did the Matt Dillon pose from Singles.
In the Midwest: Back when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was my favorite movie of all time—I’m guessing I was probably 12—I dragged my parents around Chicago to visit as many film locations as I could think of. I once made my dad drive in the opposite direction we were headed so I could take a picture at Lake Minnetonka just so I could brag to my friend Lael, who shared my love of that one scene from Purple Rain. I drove to Massillon, Ohio, in the snow to visit the hometown of my favorite songwriter, Mark Kozelek, and even looked up his relatives in a phone book at the Cleveland library. (If memory serves, Kozelek later told me during an interview that the guy I almost called was his uncle.)
In Baltimore: Several years before I went to John Waters’ house just to take some pictures outside—which included an impromptu tour of sorts from a neighbor who was probably a bit more informative than he should have been—some friends humored me by donning wigs and helping find Divine’s grave in nearby Towson.
In the South: I made Lael take a picture of me standing in front of Michael Stipe’s house in Athens. Then, we headed down to Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods, whose slogan gave R.E.M. the title to Automatic For The People; a few years earlier, Lael and I made sure our trip across the country went far enough East so I could share in Elvis’ love of fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches at Sun Studio and go on rides at Dollywood. On a 2001 trip to Florida, I was convinced I could find the Miami house where Elián González had been stashed away, but settled for an even more morbid visit to Gianni Versace’s mansion.
In Texas: I made my dad drive around Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth in 100-degree weather looking for Lee Harvey Oswald’s final resting place, to no avail.
And finally, in California: I’ve taken pictures at the gates of Neverland Ranch twice (before and after he died), I visited the spot east of Paso Robles where James Dean died, I drove past the O.J. house, I got my picture taken with Heidi Fleiss when she had her Heidi Wear store on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and I’ve visited basically every landmark in the Bay Area that Mark Kozelek has referenced in his songs. (I actually used to live a couple of blocks from where Mission Street bends.) But alas, my favorite pop-culture pilgrimage began when I noticed that Pavement listed an actual Stockton street address inside its records. In Sept. 1994, right before I began my sophomore year of college, I decided to visit a friend who went to the University Of Pacific in Stockton. After our small group spent several uncomfortable minutes in her sorority, I suggested we head over to this Cole Drive address. Long story short, we ended up meeting Spiral Stairs’ mother, grandmother, and sister. (I thought I remember it being his sister’s house, but I just found an old story I wrote in college that suggests it was his parents’ place.) Instead of being weirded out by these nosy college kids hanging out and taking random pictures in the backyard, the family was super-accommodating. They apologized that Scott was out of town, and pulled out a box of Pavement shirts and let us dig in. A few years later, during an interview, Kannberg said that it was “kind of sick” that Pavement fans kept turning up at the Stockton house, so even when we became acquaintances several years later, I never mentioned what I’d done.
Next up: This summer, I’m hopefully headed to Gary, Indiana, to check out MJ’s childhood home, I’m going to satisfy a 20-year-old dream by stopping by the Field Of Dreams diamond in Dyersville, Iowa, and this is definitely the year I’ll finally make it to the 2 A.M. Club in Mill Valley, where Huey Lewis And The News shot the cover of Sports.