"I could tell you some stories about that motherfucker McCarthy," said the small man with no neck.
( Autumn 1997 )
The time: November 1983.
The place: a field somewhere in North Carolina.
Well, it felt like a field and it looked like a field but I suppose that, technically, it was somebody's garden. I was a slightly bemused and semi-detached guest at a Southern ritual event called a "pig-pickin", where a dead pig was roasted on a spit over an open fire and people stood around talking and drinking wine waiting for it to cook.
I was on my first coast-to-coast drive across the USA. I had started out in San Fransisco, driven north, playing in places like Eugene, Oregon and Portland, Oregon then up to Seattle, Washington. Then it was east and south with gigs in Moscow, Idaho and Boise, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah.
American towns are rarely referred to by name alone. The name of the state is normally appended. That's because the damn place is so big that names of towns tend to be repeated several times across the continent so, to avoid confusion, when you mention a town, you throw in the name of the state for good measure. That's why New York city is New York, New York.
I just thought you'd like to know that.
So I headed east from Salt Lake City (Utah) across Utah then up the west side and down the east side of the Rockies, stopping off at Denver, Colorado, the mile high city
Well, it was slightly more eventful than that. An old friend of mine, Rory Macnamara, was living in San Fransisco and he'd agreed to come with me on part of the trip. I picked him up at the airport in Boise, Idaho, and he was coming to, I can't remember, Illinois or Michigan. Anyway, he was doing a spot of driving when he got busted by a cop for doing 87 when the entire continent had a 55 speed limit. As we were driving an out-of-state car (California license plates), the cop made us follow him 50 miles back to the nearest town which had a courthouse and pay a fine.
That added 100 miles to the journey so by the time we hit the Rockies it was dark and we missed them. No I don't mean we actually missed them or that they dematerialise at night. We just didn't see them. It's probably only a Scot who would drive through the Rockies in the dark.
So, onward across Colorado into the great gently undulating plains of Kansas to the fair town of Lawrence, Kansas.
Lawrence, Kansas was where a young women repeatedly asked me didn't I find it terrible living in a Socialist State. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister at that point but no way would this woman budge from her conviction that Britain couldn't possibly be a bastion of free-market capitalism and that it must be a really wonderful thing for me to visit a Free Country. I think the fact that we still had remnants of the NHS meant in her mind that we could be nothing other than a satellite of the Soviets.
What was really frightening was that she was a journalist. If that was an example of her research abilities then the good citizens of Lawrence, Kansas must have been regularly entertained by some wildly imaginative reporting.
Then across into Kansas City (which isn't in Kansas at all but is actually Kansas City, Missouri) and across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and up to Ann Arbor, Michigan, dropping Mac at an airport somewhere along the way to fly back to his day job as a taxi driver in San Fransisco. (San Fransisco seems to be one of the few towns to which it is not deemed necessary to add the name of the state. I just thought you'd like to know that, too.)
From Michigan southeast across Ohio through West Virgina, Virginia and on into North Carolina. I still had Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts ahead of me.
But that was tomorrow.
Today I was attending a pig-pickin.
How I came to be a guest at this was fairly straightforward. I had a couple of days break in the middle of this trans-continental odyssey and the people who had organised the gig I had done in North Carolina had kindly offered me a cabin in the woods to rest up. It turned out to be literally a cabin in the woods and the door naturally had no lock.
I'm a city kid. The kind of hazards I take for granted are muggers, dope pushers with large Rottweilers, unmarked holes in the road, brickwork falling from inadequately maintained buildings, blocked sewers, cars being driven up onto the pavement (sidewalk) by drunks and suchlike. I don't know if "Deliverance" had been made at this point but I'd seen plenty other films about the dangers of being in cabins in woods with no lock on the door. So my guitar case was wedged between the door and the old wood-burning stove and I slept with one eye open and my Swiss Army knife close at hand.
I don't know what use I thought the Swiss Army knife would have been if some crazed killer had come charging in - could have offered to take a stone out of his horse's hoof, I suppose - but I took some comfort from having it.
Around midday, my hosts arrived and asked had I ever been to a pig-pickin.
So there I was, slightly bemused by the proceedings, observing in the way only a foreigner can, when out of the corner of my eye I saw him coming straight at me across the field. Cropped white hair and wrinkled face with that boyish quality many old men have, small in height but as wide as he was tall, his head coming straight out of his massive shoulders with no nonsense such as neck getting in the way. It was clear that he was either going to hug me or hit me and, as we'd never met before, my money was on the latter.
He stopped abruptly a yard away from me, gave me a not unfriendly steady gaze and without any attempt at formal icebreaking or preamble, said, with the merest hint of a smile, "I could tell you some stories about that motherfucker McCarthy."
I suppose it's impossible for troublemakers not to recognise each other.
I roared and put my arm round his shoulder and we walked and talked for hours.
His name was Wilhelm Kruek, I'm guessing at the spelling, but he was known as Red, and that had nothing to do with his colouring. A steelworker, he'd spent a lot of his life as a fulltime organiser for the steelworkers' union and was a long-time member of the Communist Party.
We talked for hours about, as Lewis Carroll so eloquently put it, cabbages and kings until we sat together in comradely silence watching the sun set.
"This is one helluva country you have here, Red," I said.
"Yeah," he growled, the strong flavour of pride behind the humour. "Just wait till we get Socialism, then we'll really show the resta you sonsabitches somethin!"
I never met him again, I don't know what he was doing at the pig-pickin that day, but there is a warm spot for him in my memory.