Huge, gorgeous Union Station is busier than any shopping mall. The grand 1908 depot, modeled after Diocletian's famous baths and ringed with martial statuary, is as much a marble sanctuary to American progress as a place to catch a train. From its classical portals you can see the serene Capitol dome. The station competes in grandeur.
Union Station draws thousands every day. People come here to catch trains, but also to shop in a mall's worth of boutiques, to eat lunch at restaurants high and low, and, today, to get the hell out of the cold. It's below freezing in Washington, with a bitter, cutting wind. Last week's snow never wholly melted, and the ice that clings to the sidewalks and monuments makes sightseeing treacherous.
A pigeon is loose in the warm station, flying far above, as if he's free. Less fortunate is a middle-aged man who protests as two policemen carry him out of the terminal, ostensibly for sleeping. He insists he just dozed off as he was reading the Wall Street Journal. Others dressed worse than he are allowed to stay. The only price for visiting Union Station is consciousness.
Announcements come over the intercom of arrivals, of boarding delays, of luggage lost and found. Between the Men's Room and the Traveler's Aid desk, near Gate D, young men are unpacking unusually shaped luggage. As hundreds of people pass, coming down the escalator, the men disclose a guitar, a bass, a keyboard, a snare drum. Before a motley crowd of lobbyists in suits and ties, tired tourists, and one eccentric with a stained beard and multiple hospital bracelets on his arm, the skinny young man in front speaks into the microphone.
"God bless you for using mass transportation," he says. And like that, they begin playing an up-tempo mandolin-fueled country song about a modest place far away, "Ciderville Saturday Night." About 50 applaud; others just gawk. The lady at the Traveler's Aid desk affirms that live bands playing in Union Station is not a regular thing.
"Don't let us keep you from your busy day," the singer says, as he starts into Roger Miller's "Sittin’ On the Sidetrack." He defers to the announcements as if he's listening intently, and the crowd applauds.
The band is Scott Miller and the Commonwealth. And though the band's tour was partly sponsored by Amtrak, the national passenger-rail department that pitched in transportation and some other perks, the whole thing was Scott's idea. It was, after all, his song that brought them here. He closes the Union Station appearance with it: "Well, the Amtrak Crescent is a northbound train...." And, of course, he's interrupted by another departure announcement.
"When you can't afford to stay no more in New Orleans...." There's a second, another mundane reminder about keeping an eye on your luggage. When there's a third, a man in a suit mutters, "Tell him to just sing through." A fourth time in the same song, the announcer comes over the intercom, "May I have your attention, please...."
This time Scott Miller answers into the microphone, "unh-unh," and finishes his train song, to the applause of the audience. "When life goes wrong / This train rolls on and on...."
It's a good song that somehow embraces hope and despair. Critics have called it the best modern train song. It's the only song ever written which references both "The Wreck of the Old 97" and T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
The crowd is a healthy one, but there were supposed to be more people. A few blocks toward the Capitol, police are still warning people away from the Everett Dirksen Building, where they found ricin in the mailroom. Somewhere in there are invitations to the Union Station show that were never delivered.
Miller's half-hour in Union Station is his shortest show on a trip that started at the farthest end of the Crescent's tracks, in a very different city.
Scott Miller, 35, a William and Mary graduate in Russian lit, is from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia but has lived in Knoxville for the last 15-odd years. First a solo acoustic songwriter performing in places like Hawkeye's Corner, he went on in the mid-'90s to front the popular roots-rock band the V-Roys, whose shows and CDs earned positive national attention, partly thanks to one of their biggest fans, country-rock legend Steve Earle, who once played with them on national television. The band broke up at the end of the century. Since then Miller has released two solo albums, but to call them solo albums is to slight the talents of his Nashville-based band, the Commonwealth. Their 2001 CD Thus Always To Tyrants earned national praise from the likes of Billboard, the New York Times, and NPR. The second CD, Upside/Downside, came out last summer.
This tour draws most heavily from that album, rockers like "It Didn't Take Too Long" and "Second Chance," melancholy ballads like "Angels Dwell" and "I've Got a Plan," and bitter history, like the "Red Ball Express," which sounds like an Irish folk elegy, but is about American soldiers delivering gasoline to tanks on the European front. And there's "Amtrak Crescent."
Miller admits that when he proposed this trip, many, even members of his own band, were skeptical of the idea. Even in the boom times of passenger rail, the jazz age, bands often traveled by automobile. A band with misdirected luggage isn't a band at all. Scott solved the problem with a little compromise; his trusted driver, Joie Todd Kerns, followed the band with a van load of instruments, speakers, and amps.
The Commonwealth is three men who are all older than they seem when they're together. The keyboardist is Ohio-raised Eric Fritsch, a talented multi-instrumentalist who fills in as needed on mandolin, guitar and concertina. He has an amiably aloof collegiate air, and in fact had studied music formally before he came to Nashville. At 35, he runs his own studio in East Nashville, where he records the Commonwealth (it was there they recorded Upside/Downside) and other rising acts.
Bassist Park Chisolm is, at 28, the youngest, longest-haired member of the group; a country boy from South Georgia, he resembles a very young John Fogerty. He avoids words unless they're very funny ones.
Short, compact, tattooed Shawn McWilliams is the group's hyperkinetic madman; the Missourian seems like a drummer, and is. He's known to break into a Scottish brogue for no reason except that it tends to amuse his colleagues.
The band was gracious to let us hitch a ride with them for the latter part of their tour.
The tour started in New Orleans back in January, with a show at the Parish, in the French Quarter. Riding the Crescent from town to town, they played Hattiesburg, Jackson, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Atlanta. Crowds were respectable everywhere, but picked up as they came within a three-hour radius of Knoxville: the show in Greenville, S.C., drew 225 paying customers, plus comps. Miller's band is also well known in Charlotte where fans hear his music regularly on WNCW. That show, at the Evening Muse, drew a crowd. Then their rail-bound trajectory took them due north, out of familiar territory. How this distinctly Southern band's tour of the North would go was anybody's guess.
We caught up with the Mule Train in Charlottesville, Va. It was their last Southern stop, and the closest thing Miller did to a home-town show. Miller is from Swoope, near Staunton. He loves the Shenandoah Valley, and has written more songs about it than any other place. On cold days throughout the tour, he wears a navy-blue pea jacket and a purple-and-gold knit cap with the word BISONS across the brow. The Buffalo Valley Bisons were Miller's high-school football team.
Miller lived in Charlottesville for a year after college, but he says he doesn't like the place. Though it's less than an hour from his home, Charlottesville is, in his estimation, on the wrong side of the Blue Ridge Mountains: in "Northern Virginia," which Shenandoans revile as a region of aristocratic pretension, consumption and general snootiness.
Charlottesville can nonetheless make a positive impression on the first-time visitor. Home of the University of Virginia, it's a small college town, but on a chilly Wednesday night it has an urban liveliness. You might easily guess that most of its 40,000 residents are out on Main Street, eating, talking, reading, walking, or at the Downtown Mall, a four-block-long pedestrians-only Victorian street where there are banks, cineplexes, and a large ice-skating rink. One of us can't make it to the club before visiting Edgar Allan Poe's UVA dormitory room, at number 13 West Range.
The walkup nightclub called Starr Hill is in an old building in the quieter end of Main Street. The opener, the Avett Brothers, is a modest trio of grassy folksters from South Carolina who've followed the Mule Train for a few shows back. The UVA- Maryland basketball game down the street is said to have thinned this crowd, but it's pushing 100.
Scott's known for what his bandmates sometimes call his "stinkeye." Sometimes he directs it toward the audience. Tonight he looks as if he's scanning for assassins. "I lived here for a year," says Miller, early in the show. "I got over it." Admitting he's nervous around so many faces from his past, he adds, "That's why I don't play Virginia very much." His comment is met with a chorus of boos, some of them, perhaps, well meant.
"I'm trying to get you back on my side," he pleads. "Come fill this space." He points to the semicircle that shy crowds tend to leave in front of a band. When the crowd complies, Miller responds, “Uh-oh. Look at all the people I know! Back up!"
He refers to his father, an elderly bald man who looks like Citizen Kane, brandishes his cane at the manifold annoyances of a rock 'n' roll club. He professes to be proud of his son who can write so many great songs about hating his dad.
Also on hand are several other figures from Scott Miller's deep past: John Avoli, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who was principal of Miller's high school, and is now mayor of Staunton. "We called him Jughead," says Avoli. "He was a little kid with big ears."
Also in the audience was his high-school football coach. Scott introduces his non-hero's lament, "12th Man," with a reference: "We watched a lot of games together, didn't we?"
By himself he plays his quiet Civil War ballad, "The Rain," which refers to the battle at nearby Spotsylvania. Dozens of tapping feet on the hardwood floor sounds like men marching.
When he sings his uneasy hymn, "Is There Room On the Cross For Me," most of the room is solemnly singing along. The audience demands a midnight encore; he closes with "For Jack Tymon," and a surprise, the Rolling Stone's "Street Fightin’ Man." And finally Roger Miller's "Train of Life." He remarks that he first heard it when he was driving down Chapman Highway, and it changed his life.
A couple of years ago, Scott, no relation to Roger, wanted to write a train song of his own. He hadn't ridden a train since early childhood, and had never ridden the Amtrak Crescent; but the route had a history, and the phrase had a meter to it, and he wrote a song.
One irony is hard to escape: that this song, which may be the best-known song with the word Amtrak in its title, came out of one of the relatively few regions in the east that has no Amtrak service at all.
Sleep isn't on the itinerary. About five hours after the encore, the band is packed, dressed, and as the sun rises bright pink over the mountains, waiting in the Charlottesville Amtrak station, just down the hill from the nightclub. Though the main part of the handsome old depot is now a restaurant, the original baggage terminal is refitted as a modern Amtrak station.
The Commonwealth often makes do with one roadie; this time they have three. Elisa Sanders, a former Steve Earle aide, is the no-nonsense marketing and accounting person, the effective manager and all-purpose mom of this trip. She might make you think of the young Loretta Lynn. She takes care of all the practical details of how to get from here to there. In each big city the band follows her around like scraggly rock 'n' roll ducks.
Joie Todd Kerns, the lanky kid from Kingsport who tends to wear his Jesus Christ cap backwards, drives the band's equipment in a gray rental Ford van. Fellow driver Jeremy, new to this crew, is the quiet young technician that Scott calls his "guitar fetch."
Also along is the Amtrak rep, Mississippian Jerome Trahan, a portly sophisticate with a van dyke. He's along as a liaison and supplier of tickets. Though this tour was an assignment, he has become a fan of the band and honorary roadie.
The Crescent arrives a few minutes late. From the ground, we climb aboard. Amtrak coach cars aren't like old-fashioned trains, the sort where you could look around and see everybody in the car: now they have high-backed seats equipped with folding trays and pouches for safety literature. The windows aren't made for casual opening.
They seem so much like jetliner cabins that you're surprised at the differences. Among the first you notice is that the big thing starts moving right away, even before you've found a seat. There's more legroom than on a plane, and seatbelts aren't required. From the beginning to the end, you're encouraged to get up and roam around from car to car.
There's also no security to speak of. No one's giving you the once-over, and you can bring food, drinks, grenades, they don't seem to mind. There's not much a passenger could do to hijack a train or disrupt its railed path.
The train rolls north from Charlottesville on this frosty morning, through a snowy forest. "That's the Wilderness," Scott says, the bewildering battlefield of 1864. We pull through towns once marked on Robert E. Lee's maps: Culpepper, Manassas, beautiful old villages of antebellum brick houses.
A black steward walks from car to car announcing breakfast: "eggs, grits, bacon, sausage, biscuits, pancakes, turkey sausage," he chants, "You need to eat breakfast, your mama told you, your doctor told you, and I'm telling you." His name's John Turk, and he's something of a legend on the Crescent.
He leaves us little choice, and we file to the dining car, which is usually forward of the coaches, passing through the lounge car, with its plain diner seating, and the snack-bar car, which also has an enclosed smoking compartment, on the way.
The train lurches and sways, and those who haven't developed train legs might find themselves in the lap of a surprised passenger. There's an art to walking on a train, similar to the art of walking along the narrow edge of a two-by-four. Don't think about it much, just keep going, and correct your balance on the next step. Doors slide open at the press of a black panel, and for a moment you're in the noisier, chillier, airlock between cars.
In the dining car the airliner illusion ends. The tables on either side of the aisle are covered with white linen, with flowers in vases, and the waiter wears a bow tie. Coffee is served in spill-resistant "hottles." It's not pre-prepared plane food. Everything's cooked fresh in the kitchen.
I talk about the Crescent with Jerome, who takes this train often. The Crescent route dates back to 1851, and runs from Boston to New Orleans and back. At any given time there are three Amtrak Crescents running that route, which involves 33 stops. The Crescent is a different beast from commuter trains; it's slower, its cars are older, its staff less formal.
The Crescent doesn't touch the state of Tennessee. Knoxville has not had any sort of passenger rail service since 1970. Neither the songwriter nor his Nashville-based band members lives within 150 miles of any Amtrak station. On Amtrak maps, Middle and East Tennessee are untouched by passenger rail, as if the region's off limits. Trahan expresses puzzlement about the phenomenon. "It's like a black hole," he says.
Amtrak would not exist without federal funding, but then, of course, neither would our interstate highway system or, especially recently, several airlines. Jerome is fond of citing one statistic. Amtrak's entire annual budget, recently approved for one more year, is $1.2 billion. Never mind that the United States is known to spend more in one week of waging war in a third-world nation; Jerome cites a more relevant comparison: "the federal government spends $1.5 billion every year to remove road kill from the highways."
I ask him how the price and time compare to airplane travel, and he's reluctant to discuss it. "We don't compete with airplanes," he says firmly. "We compete with car travel."
Across the aisle, three ladies from Phoenix City, Ala., are talking over breakfast. Two of them are elderly and are discussing, of all things, "fibah optics." When they overhear Jerome talking about Amtrak, the first thing they say is how much nicer it is than taking an airplane. Jerome is careful to repeat what he just told a reporter, that Amtrak really just competes with automobiles.
"Well," one of the ladies says, "if it weren't for Amtrak, we would have taken a plane."
Leaving, we overhear the waitresses in the kitchen: "They wrote a song called the Amtrak Crescent? Who did?"
"Young boy named Scott Miller."
Mr. Turk is curious about the band, too, if not necessarily awed. He knows Wynton Marsalis, who rides the train regularly, sometimes with his horn. (He observes of Shawn McWilliams, "He looks like a drummer.")
We cross through another snowy forest. Then a frozen river, then a cluster of modern buildings: Alexandria. We arrive in Washington, at Union Station at 10:05.
We're met by an attractive young red-haired woman with Voice of America. She's doing a radio story about Miller, and spends the next several hours trailing him with her microphone, interviewing people at the Union Station show. She seems every inch the sophisticated urbanite until, at length, she admits she's from Jefferson City. Along is a Transportation Department bureaucrat named Jeff Davis. It turns out he's from Morristown. It's a small world. Another who greets the band at the station is Don Walker, a staffer with Congressman John Duncan's office. He's not certain whether Duncan's a fan.
After the Union Station show, the band wedges itself into a van, with equipment and a reporter and photographer to go to the nightclub. The van holds 10 people, plus several cases of equipment. It's not comfortable for anybody. Nobody's apologetic. "That's rock 'n' roll," says Elisa.
It doesn't take long to learn that a rock 'n' roll tour is only about eight percent rock 'n' roll. The rest of it has a lot to do with cramped spaces, excessive luggage, reservations, stolen naps, credit card numbers, taxis, miscommunications, technical problems, cigarettes, and diarrhea.
The destination's not in Washington, exactly, but in Arlington. Joie Todd's behind the wheel, in Washington's notorious rush-hour traffic. The gas tank's nearly empty. In the rear-view mirror, the driver's eyes have a reptilian vigilance; he wedges himself into every opportunity. At one point we seem to be stuck in a traffic jam in a tunnel. There's a good deal of honking, but he's unfazed.
"We're makin' a mess of this town," says Shawn. "That's what we're doin’."
Before we get to the club, both Park and Shawn, though crumpled into square units better suited for boxes of equipment, are asleep. After 45 minutes of worrying about running out of gas, we unfold ourselves at a spot on Wilson Boulevard, a yuppie section of town. The Iota is an unpretentious, beat-up-looking joint adjacent to a nicer restaurant. The same business, sharing a bar in between, but you get the feeling the rock side has to look beat up to seem authentic. It has a concrete floor that bears evidence of once having been painted blue. It's a smallish place, but got its name by virtue of the fact that it used to be even smaller.
The staff is proud of the fact that the Iota was recently mentioned in an episode of "The West Wing," as a place frequented by White House staffers. They're not obvious here tonight.
By the time Scott and the band have set up, it's sleeting outside, rendering the sidewalks slick. Still, the bar's uncomfortably crowded. It's a dressier crowd, in designer clothes, beautiful women, stylish men with shaven heads ordering Stoli and Soda, all packed into the room like bowling pins.
The band launches into a furious version of the medley that would open most of their shows: "Anything that's Rock 'n' Roll" and "It didn't take too Long." After another rocker, Miller pauses long enough to offer a brief greeting. "Good to see so many of you out on a bad night," he says. "I mean, with the meteor coming and all. "
The band tears through about two dozen more songs, without a break, before they quit. The crowd calls them back for an encore, the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."
It startled the woozy crowd. "What a way to end that show, man."
Some thought Scott looked haggard. "You didn't look good," was Jerome's sage assessment. "But you sounded good."
"Preesh," says Scott.
The next day the band boards not the Crescent, but the Acela, another train better suited to the schedule. It takes off like an airplane attempting to attain lift. The electric train can reach speeds of 150 mph. The Acela has its charms, like motion-sensor doors between cars that open before you get to them, a la Star Trek. Scott seems uncomfortable with it. "This lighting is just all wrong," he says of the Acela's fluorescence. He puts on his secret-agent shades. "I want back on the Crescent. This has a whole different vibe. It's the difference between a good radiator and electric heat." He asks Jerome, "Is Acela Greek for haul ass?"
They look out the window at a proliferation of ancient brick tenements. "Is this Baltimore?" asks Shawn.
"It looks like Homicide," confirms Scott. The train crosses lots of water, rivers, swamps, the Chesapeake Bay, opening to the ocean, off to the east.
Quickly another city looms and the train slows and stops in a dark tunnel. At the top of an escalator is Philadelphia, and its extravagant 30th Street Station, a cathedral-like depot with some impressive statuary. Most seem too hurried, or too exhausted, to notice. The stunned are an easy mark for prying beggars. If you have time to look around, they figure, you have time and money for them, too.
Outside, a miserable rain does little to melt the gray slush in the streets. A short ride in the dirty subway, under the Schuylkill River, into town. Independence Hall, surrounded by unexplained yellow tape. The Liberty Bell, visible through a window. Larry Fine's birthplace, now a trendy restaurant on uninhibited South Street, the Yankee Bourbon Street.
In a kosher deli not far from the penny-strewn grave of Ben Franklin, an educational conversation. A woman, who hails from New York's Upper East Side, is making complaints familiar to Southerners. This place is too slow, too indecisive. "It's un-businesslike," she says. "Besides, the city closes early." Her male companion agrees that it's hard to find a meal after 10. Never mind that, the lady says. "After six, you can't get a band-aid." They're talking about Philadelphia.
Treading through slush among colonial brick houses to the modern Constitution Center, you might find the Pennsylvania Convention Center, built behind, and incorporating the interior of, a big beaux-arts hotel and a big train shed. Much more than a convention center, it's busy all the time, comprising a two-level shopping mall, an art gallery, and a subterranean transit center. And, most attractively, the Reading Terminal Market, a farmer's market with an attached diner. Strangers sit at the counter. This Philadelphia institution serves some Southern specialties that most Southern restaurants are too proud to carry: biscuits with red-eye gravy, catfish po-boys, black-eyed peas with hog jowl. The waitress seems a little overworked. A six-year-old boy spins on the stool and demands, "What does it take to get a drink around here?"
The show is in Germantown, a 20-minute ride on a suburban train from downtown. It's the place Washington failed to occupy, just before his winter retreat to Valley Forge. Now it's a neighborhood of heavy stone houses with a colorful strip of restaurants and shops down the middle. A plump barmaid in a corner pub insists that this isn't even Germantown proper, but Mt. Airy. I ask what the difference is, and she says property values are much higher in Mt. Airy than in Germantown, which is just down the street. They serve what's apparently an emblematic community specialty, the Mt. Airy Martini, a concoction of blue curacao, pineapple and 7 Up. I order a Rolling Rock.
The band is playing in an upscale restaurant called North By Northwest, its approximate attitude from downtown Philadelphia. It's a promising, good-sized place with friendly staff and an impressive roster of bands; this time next week, NRBQ will be here. Scott's advertised on their poster outside: "A singer/songwriter with emotional honesty and intelligence combined with the swagger and enthusiasm of a rock 'n' roller."
However, even before the show, things are auguring badly. Elisa discovers that, sometime after sound check, several souvenir shirts have been stolen out of the box. As showtime approaches, the band's in the basement drinking beer and taking drugs. Several have come down with cold symptoms that they blame on the Avett Brothers, and they're passing Aleve around the table. They seem subdued, but occasionally there's a loud crash, there in the room with them. It takes a moment to realize what it is. A pipe hangs down from the ceiling, and occasionally it emits a Rolling Rock empty, which plummets into a trash can on the floor. It's their secret recycling system.
Shawn is giving his tattooed arms a workout, playing air drums. "Should we start? It's 10. Sounds like more people are up there."
"I don't think so," says Scott, who seems glum. His instincts are true. When they do finally emerge, sometime after 10, there are only about 30 people upstairs. It's unclear whether they're there for the show, or just left over from dinner.
Rather than start out with electric rock, Scott opens as a solo folkie. It would strike the innocent as a coffee-house performance. "I don't know whether you came out or stumbled in," he says. He plays "Bastard's Only Child," etc. At the end of the fourth song, "My Daddy Raised a Boy," the band joins, an effective infusion of rock 'n' roll, and from there they launch into their set.
By now there are maybe 40 people in the club, sitting politely. A table of girls talks, ignoring the band.
"You're not gonna be sittin’ there all night, are you?" Scott challenges. The crowd responds in silence. "You are," Scott says. At the old V-Roys barnburner, "Wind Down," one hippie girl dances alone, Woodstock-style.
Scott keeps goading the audience. "Did you all come in one car?" he asks. "You're definitely quiet."
"We're paying attention," a patron responds. "What would you like us to do?" asks another.
The audience seem to be trying to provide some witty repartee. "What happened to the Panthers?" asks one man.
Scott's answer is icy. "I live in the Tennessee part of North Carolina," he says, and adds, "I like college football."
"What," says a Philadelphian. "The Volunteers?"
"We're not so proud after the Peach Bowl," admits Scott, and launches into four more songs. This time there's no encore.
Noon Saturday, after its first eight-hour sleep in several days, the band's riding a regional line north, through thousands of rowhouses and decadent industry. Shawn is not given to solemnity, but for a moment, he seems stricken. "And they complain about conditions in the South," he says. From a train window, at least, Philadelphia's slums seem overwhelming. Taken by themselves, 20 or 30 ramshackle buildings would seem a significant municipal problem, raising questions about whether these Victorian buildings should be renovated or razed and replaced with housing projects. But Philadelphia has thousands of them.
For the first time, Scott expresses some regret about a song, the song that launched the trip. He had the impression that the Philadelphia audience didn't care for being ignored in "Amtrak Crescent."
Well, it used to be pretty on the Eastern shore
Now it's more New York down to Baltimore.
It takes so much effort just to move this train,
Why does everything around me have to look the same?
"The Northeast doesn't sound too good in the song," he admits. "Maybe tonight I'll save it for last."
The view from the train isn't always beautiful, but everything doesn't look the same. Around us now are beige forests of leafless trees, the remains of snow. Into New Jersey are small, grim towns and the rusty ruins of factories. Most of the small towns have operating train stations that look like they've been there since the days when they were crowded with businessmen in fedoras. We blow by some of them so fast we can't read the names.
Northern architecture seems somehow stouter and prouder and meaner than Southern architecture; most buildings are old, and built of brick and stone, with arches; they frown grandly. It's a no-nonsense region, with extravagant exceptions.
We cross the Delaware, into Trenton, the town where Washington surprised the drunk Hessians at Christmastime in 1776. Arranged as if for our approval are whimsical sculptures : a bizarre modernist statue of a giant winged knight; another statue of a giant molar.
On a bridge is a slogan both cocky and resentful, Trenton Makes / The World Takes.
People have talked about BosWash, speculating that one day it will be one long mega-city down the East Coast. It's not happening yet. Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, is a town less than half the size of Knoxville, but still one of the biggest towns between Philadelphia and New York; it's declining in population.
New Brunswick is as scruffy a little city as Knoxville ever was, and the "Metropark" station serves a new, suburban-looking community, with big, modern office buildings. Near Elizabeth, there's a gray cemetery with lots of angels, and a large Budweiser plant. Then, Newark International Airport.
There's a commotion in the lounge car. Scott and Eric have been shooting video on the train—walking down the aisles, from car to car, taking one long continuous shot, and an officious Amtrak official angrily objects. Jerome attempts to intervene, explaining that it's the famous Scott Miller.
That's wonderful, the uniformed guard says in sarcastic tones. She says they should have gotten signed release forms from Amtrak and from all the dozens of passengers who appeared in the video. "That may be the way you do things down South, but here in the North, we respect people's rights," she says.
At length Scott agrees to surrender the video. He seems rattled. "We'll be back on the Crescent, the way God intended us to travel," Scott says. "Get me below the Mason-Dixon line as quick as possible, please."
The plan had been to get off in Newark to make their way to nearby Hoboken. Thanks to the fracas, they miss their stop.
The ground is progressively swampier, and you wonder if this place ever looked like much, even before the rusty abandoned warehouses and factories. In Harrison, big sheds with broken windows. On the side of an abused factory, graffiti: DETOX THE GHETTO. Ears pop as the train dives underground, under the Hudson River.
The train comes to a stop underneath Manhattan's Penn Station. Up to teeming 32nd Street, around the corner to a subway station. We get tickets, and catch a train back under the river for the second time in an hour, to Hoboken.
Considering what we've seen of New Jersey so far, Hoboken is a surprise. The small city of just under 40,000 is just across the Hudson from Manhattan, and used to offer an intimate view of the World Trade Center. Allegedly the birthplace of baseball and of Frank Sinatra, it may be better known as the butt of a hundred comedians' jokes. Some claim it's still controlled by the mob. What's surprising is that it's a pretty town. Its downtown is a charming array of variegated Victorian buildings, many with decades-old business signs intact.
"I like this place," says Park.
"It's Sesame Street," says Eric.
Hoboken's becoming a stylish place, but Park makes fun of a young woman's unconventional hat. "It's so cold I just dumped my purse out and put it on my head."
Their chief complaint is the price of cigarettes. Seven dollars for a pack of Marlboros; $48 a carton.
Unfortunately, the hotel, booked at the nightclub's behest, is beyond Hoboken in a lonely outpost called North Bergen, between a highway, some abandoned businesses like the barred Lucky's Cafe, and what smells like an open sewer. There's a bleak sidewalk covered with ice, which is already covered by grayish black dirt of unknown origin. The hotel clerk says there's no way to get anywhere except by taxi. This is the New Jersey of legend.
We spend most of our time in cheerful Hoboken. A plywood cutout of Frank Sinatra, bigger than the Chairman of the Board himself, directs you to today's specials at Bagels On the Hudson. They sell Thai, sushi, Indian, Cuban, German, and kosher food on Washington Avenue, but pizza appears to be the hometown specialty. At a warm, friendly, crowded little place called Benny Tudino's you get a slice of Italian sausage and pepper so enormous it requires two paper plates to hold it, for $3.50. The paradox of metro New York is that property is extremely expensive, while food's sometimes cheaper than you can get it at home.
Several places, like Schnackelberg's Luncheonette, are already closed for the day. The biggest event in Hoboken tonight may be the Snow Ball at the Elk's Lodge; a bluegrass band is playing there. According to the entertainment calendar, there are only a couple of bands in town tonight, and Scott Miller's is one of them.
To honor America's first baseball game in 1846, they've planted brass bases at the intersection of Washington and 11th. At the third-base corner is a place called Maxwell's, a popular big-plate restaurant with intuitive specialties. It's named for Maxwell House, the local industry (which we hope Hobokians know is named for a vanished hotel in Nashville). In the back of the restaurant is a plain room about the size of a boxcar. There, the band sets up.
No one ever called Hoboken a city that never sleeps, and the show they have set up is unexpectedly early: 7:30. A crowd of urbanites, yuppies and people a little too old to be yuppies show up. Some seem familiar with Scott Miller, some don't.
"What's the name of the band? The Commonwealth."
"Obviously they're from Massachusetts," says a 40-ish man. Then, remembering some geography, he corrects himself: "Or, that's right, Pennsylvania."
The most obvious difference is hats of styles rarely seen at Scott Miller shows. Pork-pie hats, black knit caps, a backwards beret, a Notre Dame cap. The room fills up. Only 50 or 60, but in this room it's a good crowd. They open with the rock 'n' roll medley, lead into "Raised By the Graves," then the "Amtrak Crescent."
One bearded middle-aged professional smiles and shouts to his friend, "This is the song I tried to send you!"
After the song, someone asks, "Where are you from?"
Scott replies, "I grew up in Virginia."
"Northern Virginia?" asks the inquisitor, perhaps hoping to expose Scott as a metro-DC urbanite. It was the wrong thing to say to Scott. "Northern Virginia's not Virginia," he says. "Northern Virginia's the enemy." The crowd laughs, but Scott grows angrier at the insinuation. He looks as if he wants to wring Northern Virginia's neck.
"Maybe they paid taxes that bought bleachers at Buffalo Valley High School, but I don't give a shit, they can take 'em back if they want to." He pauses and composes himself. "But a lot of nice folks up there!"
There's a technical problem, an annoying hum, but the band keeps the crowd interested. There's an encore, at which they play an especially furious version of "Absolution." The management is beginning to look nervous, because it's past 9, and they have to clear the room for a 10 o'clock show.
After the show, there's some anxiety that the amp's "fried," but the following day they conclude that the hum was a problem with Maxwell's power supply.
Some in the crowd aren't your typical New Yorkers. One couple rode up from Rocky Mount, N.C., on the train. Another member is a young man who seems not quite old enough to drink. A friend of a couple of members of the band who had met him in Nashville, he is Jay Wes Yoder, the young reporting intern who was famous for a week last year when he found himself, through no fault of his own, at the center of the New York Times debacle that resulted in the resignation of star reporter Rick Bragg. Yoder was the Alabama-raised stringer whose descriptions of Florida fishermen Bragg had used in a story as if they were his own. Yoder has since given up on journalism; asked what he does now, the modest young man says he sells pants.
Scott feels good about the show; he's surrounded by young fans who want to buy him drinks in the restaurant. After some beers at Helmer's, a German place across the street, we load into the van for the grim ride back to North Bergen. The van is jammed so tight with equipment that those wedged in the back have to speak to the driver via walkie-talkie. Hoboken is laced with speed bumps, and they're felt more acutely in the rear.
Scott's voice comes over the speaker: "Captain, please advise about the speed bumps, over."
"Roger that," responds Joie Todd. He hits another one. "That was a speed bump. Over."
There's a muffled response. "Cargo shifting. Possible casualties."
Combining the schedule of the Amtrak Crescent and available nightclubs along the way doesn't work out just right. The Commonwealth is scheduled to play a show in Tribeca, just across the river, in three days. But Sunday night they're scheduled to play a show in Baltimore. So Sunday morning, they're on a train south, this one a Metroliner. It's said to cruise at 120 mph. North of Philadelphia, the train runs parallel with I-95. From the window of a fast train, the automobiles look like they're out of gear, coasting to a stop.
It stops in Wilmington, a pretty, small city of brick on a hillside. Then we emerge into Baltimore's gorgeous, sunny depot, Penn Station. Though not nearly as busy as some others, its lofty marble arches, its mezzanine and stained-glass skylight, its classical friezes of boys and big fish, make you stop just to take it in. It's an ennobling place, more inspiring than modern churches.
Baltimore is a study in paradox: the squalid urban chaos of Detroit and the maritime grace of Charleston, in one. People who live in Baltimore feel put upon, as if they're the poor little sister to Washington, but in fact Baltimore is not only the older, but still the larger of the two cities, with about 600,000 people. It's also much more fun to walk around in, with restaurants and bars and sites like Poe's grave. The Amtrak Crescent trip could as well have had a Poe theme: the American bard lived in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Charlottesville, and all those cities maintain former Poe residences as shrines. (And "The Mystery of Marie Roget" is about a Hoboken corpse.)
Baltimore has higher highs and lower lows in a half-dozen block stretch than most cities know: stylish, quaint, ancient Fell's Point, a handy place to dock one's yacht, is a short stroll from the bleak, windswept projects. Near Fell's Point, Broadway Market, in a long, low building between cobblestone streets, seems to be a model for how to run a farmer's market, clean, with a lively variety, and, in the center, a well-stocked lunch counter with a large and liberal menu for those who don't have the patience to carry their groceries home before eating them.
In Baltimore's handsome marble Free Library, a seemingly random collection of new and old books are on display. One of them is John Gunther's Inside U.S.A. The 1947 travel book which famously designated Knoxville the ugliest city in America called Baltimore "one of the pleasantest cities in America...." Today it's a hard point to argue.
Baltimore has a World Trade Center; a Washington Monument; and as we've mentioned, a Penn Station. It also has a Gay Street.
Baltimore's Gay Street, named for an early city planner, is allegedly the inspiration of the name of Knoxville's Gay Street. Like ours, it's right in the middle of things, and it runs south, perpendicular to the waterfront. And like ours, it has a combination of historical attractions, businesses, and a homeless mission. On the corner of disreputable Baltimore Street, there's something our Gay Street lacks, the Big Top Adult Videos and Lingerie.
Unfortunately, several members of the entourage miss Gay Street, stuck in the hotel with kennel cough and other maladies of the road.
Baltimore is one of relatively few stops that has offered Scott significant press, a full-page interview profile in City Paper. Arriving by train is "not the reason this quartet stands out in the crowded roots-rock field," writes Geoffrey Himes, "but it's a symptom."
The Royal is a corner-bar club at Light Street and East Randall in Baltimore's gentrifying Federal Hill section. It's in an old Victorian brick building with a "No Loitering Within 50 Feet" sign on the side.
A respectable crowd hears the opener, Southern folksinger Dulcie Taylor. The radio sponsor, WTMD, a champion of Scott's music, switched the order, holding another folkie off until a late-night slot. The crowd grows; a few folks who'd been to the Arlington show, including Marissa, plus a couple of Scott's old William & Mary chums who claim he was doing the same sort of thing in the late '80s—and that they knew all along that he'd make it big.
Scott, who says he has rarely played on Sundays, is apologetic. "I appreciate you coming out," he says. "I know it's a Sunday."
"We're unemployed," comes a response. Just before he starts into the "Amtrak Crescent," he talks it up as "Southern hospitality on parallel rails." The crowd cheer his line about Manassas, laugh at his line about Virginia, but when he sings, "now it's more New York down to Baltimore," they respond with a low, troubled oooh.
Technical problems follow them here, and there's a delay as they try to fix it. Scott ad-libs. "Look, in a minute we're going to go live at the Grammys. We're going for Best Male Rock Act for a Club Under 250 Capacity."
There's further delay. "We're going to go to the Grammys in just a minute. And I'm gonna bare my breast. Beneath it beats a heart of rock 'n' roll!"
The problems partially resolved, the band cuts into some rockers, like "Second Chance." The easy-going crowd of nearly 100 whoops and applauds, and the band does two extended encores.
Introducing "Ciderville Saturday Night," Scott says, "I live in a place called Knoxville..." and there's unexpected applause, from maybe 20 audience members. "There are that many people here from Knoxville?" He goes on to describe Ciderville notables Cas Walker, whom he calls "the Richard Nixon of East Tennessee" and mandolin virtuoso Red Rector.
Melissa Holt, a young folksinger who was bumped to the back of the order, has tattoos of arcane symbols and long Hebraic sidelocks. She murmurs to friends, "I don't much like this crowd," and takes the stage for a set of Lilith Fair-esque songs. The crowd she doesn't like has obligingly left.
Having played a show a day for about a week, Scott now has time to have beers and lick wounds. He still has that damn cough, and now he fears he has cracked a rib in a playful round of wrestling with his considerably larger driver, Joie Todd. There's something wrong with Eric's organ. And on top of all that, there's a crash backstage. At the bottom of the heap is one of Scott's favorite guitars, its headpiece broken in two.
He'd gotten the guitar four years ago, at Pick'n'Grin. "It was a cheap-ass guitar, but I liked the looks of it," he says. After an Oak Ridge guitar wizard patched up the pickup with some velcro—on September 11, 2001, as it happened—Scott grew fond of it. Maybe akin to Poe in his last conscious hours, Scott's out on a Baltimore sidewalk in the middle of the night, talking to his guitar. "I believed in you when no one else did...."
He blames the club's management for stacking the equipment carelessly. After some words, they offer him a case of Bud Light. It goes a long way in smoothing things over. At length Elisa herds the band, in various stages of inebriation, and their equipment, in various stages of abuse, into the van for the two-mile ride back to the hotel. Torn open, the case of beer disperses to the various dark crevices of the van.
Elisa, sober, drives, relieved to have avoided further trouble. Looking for landmarks as she guides the Ford van through the dark unfamiliar streets, she rolls slowly underneath a flashing red light. There is no one to see her in the deserted streets except for one Baltimore cop. Beer bottles are recapped or hidden. Eight passengers sit in grim silence as Elisa talks to the officer. He cites her for running a flashing red, 75 bucks. He also observes that she's not officially designated to be one of the drivers of the rental van.
Joie Todd is displeased. "I think somebody needs his ass whupped," he says, as subtly as he can shout from his hole in the back of the van. If the policeman hears him, he politely pretends not to notice. Everyone agrees he's an especially nice police officer. He lets Elisa off on the undesignated driver charge, perhaps sensing she's a designated driver of a different sort.
It's the closest thing to trouble the band gets into. They enjoy a beer and a prank, but these four musicians are, as near as I can tell, happily married men.
Tuesday morning dawns sunny and breezy. After a full day of rest, and another to come, the band members are in a jolly mood, on their last day in Mobtown before the last trip back north.
"This is a beautiful city," says Shawn, gazing toward the Washington Monument. "It reminds me of—Baltimore."
Scott says he's thinking about rewriting the song to be kinder to the eastern seaboard. "I'm making my peace with all these places," says Scott. "But Mississippi and Alabama can still go to hell."
"Baltimore was our pothole," says Joie Todd, the driver.
Scott, in his navy pea jacket and Bisons cap, switches metaphors to assess the Baltimore experience. "We had about eight turnovers, lost a key player."
"A significant injury," adds Elisa.
"We'll take a full time-out, get refocused," says Joie Todd. "Still one more game, and it's the most important one."
"Just don't make mistakes. The team that makes the least mistakes wins," says Scott. "That's General Neyland."
New York is a crazy, overwhelming, frantic, thrilling place. But it's not exactly what it used to be. Prostitutes and pushers are no longer as obvious. Beggars there are, but seemingly fewer than in Philadelphia. Most of the street people seem a good deal richer than we are. If I hadn't come across a disemboweled ATM on Third Avenue, I'd have suspected Manhattan had turned into the world's largest gated community.
The most shocking thing I see in 48 hours of walking around New York was near Times Square: the National Debt Clock.
Wednesday, it has warmed up just enough for most of the sidewalk ice and slush to melt. The last show of the Mule Train tour is at the Tribeca Rock Club, at 16 Warren Street, an old brick building barely off West Broadway. It's on the edge of the artsy, trendy district known in recent years as TriBeCa. The club is a short walk from the federal courthouse where Martha Stewart sat earlier today, listening politely to her accusers as dozens of camera crews waited outside.
Number 16 Warren Street is also four short blocks north of the largest hole in New York, the place that used to be the World Trade Center. The square canyon is fenced off, and looks probably much like it did when construction commenced in the late '60s. Some buildings nearby sustained major damage still visible. The marble facade of an early 20th-century skyscraper bears long vertical gashes.
Inside, the Tribeca is a lot like other rock 'n' roll bars on the tour. The main difference is that it has a "coat check" in the basement, attended by a girl who gives you a number, just like in the old days. More than anywhere else we've been, the place is lousy with Knoxvillians and former Knoxvillians, among them former Metro Pulse editor Jesse Mayshark, now a New York Times copy editor, and his wife Julie. They're outnumbered by New Yorkers in New York hats, a few of them recognizable from the Hoboken show, which seems more than four days ago.
There's a lot to see and hear in Manhattan tonight: the original Zombies, piano crooner Michael Feinstein, a band billed as the greatest gay heavy metal band in New York. But a good 75 people come to hear Scott Miller.
The opening band, a sharp pop band called Brilliant Mistake, was touted in the Village Voice; the Commonwealth, which would draw a bigger crowd, was unmentioned. The New York Post did mention the show, in a silly blurb that referred to the "gimmick" of the train trip. In between bands, the management plays Velvet Underground. This is New York.
Scott is on edge and uninhibited, more profane than at any other show. But he still tries to mend "Amtrak Crescent" with new lyrics. "Well, we rocked pretty steady up the Eastern Shore...." I can't quite make out what he says next, about New York and Baltimore, but he apologizes for it for the rest of the night.
A group of young women near the bar screams, "We love you, Park!" One adds, "We named a street after you!" Park grins. I suspect that Park had developed a heartthrob following, but it turns out that most of them are actor friends of Park's wife, former Vanderbilt kids.
As usual, Scott is a mixture of courtly apology and in-your-face defiance, only more apologetic and more defiant. When somebody requests the Bruce Springsteen song, "Hungry Heart," Scott reacts with his trademark ambivalence. "I don't get that cheesy this early. Not that the song's cheesy. The song's great...." He finishes his apology with a surprise solo-acoustic rendition of the Springsteen song.
"Knoxville in the house!" someone shouts. Scott takes that as an invitation to discuss football, and the Vols regrettable loss to the ACC in the Peach Bowl. He gives the crowd room to hoot a little bit. But even the crickets are quiet.
"Y'all don't give a shit about college football, do you," he says. There's a brief confused silence, interrupted by a nasal chant from the back:
The urban crowd seems to respond best to the cool retro irony of "Chill, Relax, Now." And then Scott starts talking about Amtrak Crescent, calling it "a rolling love machine."
"I'm not talking about your commuter trains," he says. "It's the difference between steam heat and electric heat. One is full of love and moisture. The other will break you down and steal the tape out of your video camera." There are exactly six people in the audience who get the joke, but the whole crowd laughs.
They bring him back for a post-midnight encore, "Ciderville," "Homegrown," "Where She's Going." Then, a second encore. Eric comes out of the backstage door and goes into the staccato organ intro to "Won't Get Fooled Again." When he gets to the place where the band's supposed to answer with the booming electric guitar, drums, and bass, the other three haven't even emerged from the back room. He keeps it up, improvising a little, enjoying the anticipation in the room, but glancing backwards just a little nervously to see if he has company yet. He's gone through what seems like three or four versions of it when the other three finally emerge, and take up their instruments. It winds up with a few impromptu solos; Shawn claims it was the first drum solo of his career.
Scott feels good about the last show of the tour, but admits it was a tough crowd. "They've seen it all," he says. "You're not gonna shock 'em, not gonna wow 'em. Two giant buildings fell on their heads."
The bar empties out quickly after the show; there isn't much to keep patrons. The cheapest beer is Budweiser, and it’s $5 a bottle. I follow a few Knoxvillians to a West Village bar, then, at about 3:30, walk back to the hotel on east 39th. On the 40-block walk, I encounter two open bars, a beggar, and one old Chinese man who runs a grocery. New York does sometimes sleep.
A cold Thursday morning, and after more than a week of slipping up and down the coast with businessmen on fast commuter trains, the band is deep underneath Madison Square Garden, in one of Penn Station's tunnels, back on the Amtrak Crescent itself, the train that got them into this trouble to begin with. Eleven cars and 300 southbound riders.
It's my duty to note here that, in interpreting the song on this tour, Scott has cheated. The song says, "I got the cheapest ticket and I carried my clothes...." Scott and the band are riding first class, with private sleepers. He has been boasting about it up and down the East Coast. "Those sleepers are posh," he says. As far as I know, they are. They're tiny private bedrooms, with tiny private toilets. I hear they even have tiny video screens above the beds that allow the erstwhile sleepers to watch movies.
Faithful to the song, this reporter and photographer Rich McCoig are riding with the cheapest-ticket folks. I learn strategies to avoid a comically obnoxious New Jersey family who surround my seat in Trenton. ("Do they have any TV's on this train?" "I don't see no TVs." "No TV! That's boring!") I miss rednecks. It's dark by the time we're back in the Virginia Wilderness. A hazy half-moon. Between the conductor's announcement of stops, we catch naps.
At first light, past Greenville, S.C., there's an eerie fog. We're crossing a bridge. Out the window it looks like we're flying very slowly. Just before dawn, I move to the lounge car for a cup of coffee. There are four people in there, all black men. The eldest of them is explaining the advantages of New Orleans over New York. "In New York, you feel closed in," he says. "In the South, everything's wide open."
He has spent most of his adult life in New York, as has the younger man he's talking to, but the younger man agrees. "We're all Southerners," he says.
At that moment, a small, skinny white man with a goatee and dreadlocks lurches into the car. I recognize him as a guy who'd been hanging around with members of the band in the smoking car the night before. He says to no one in particular, "Whoa, I've never been hung over on a train before."
Toccoa, Norcross, Atlanta in bright silhouette. Tallapoosa, "the Dogwood City" and after a dark tunnel where, according to the conductor, "icicles hang year 'round and bats still fly," we're in Birmingham. The conductor points out the distant statue of Vulcan, "the world's largest and greatest safety reminder." The band emerges from their posh accommodations, and we step down onto the concrete. We enter the plainest, dankest train station on the Crescent line in an unrenovated part of Birmingham, adorned with broken windows and razor wire.
But you don't leave the Amtrak Crescent just like that. After 24 hours on the train, Birmingham feels as if it’s suffering rolling earthquakes. For our full hour there to wait for a rental-car ride to Nashville, we're still swaying with the train.
It's been a long tour, among this band's longest. In the end, the number of Americans they entertained, at all their stops combined, is about the same number who'd show for a typical Scott Miller show on Market Square. Scott's not sure how the money's going to square, but he feels as if he proved something.
"If it just breaks even," he says, "that's advertising."