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Category Archives: USA 2011

Bits from the Big Trip

Jet Lag City: Second Leg

DAYS ELEVEN AND TWELVE – 31st March/1st April 2011

My flight back to London isn’t until 9.10pm, so I have almost a full day to explore more of New york. But the weather’s turned, and a cold wind and rain make it uncomfortable to walk about. Still, there’s plenty of window shopping to be done, even if I can’t actually afford to buy anything.

High end shopping at the Time Warner Centre

The Time Warner Centre at Columbus Circle reeks of money, and lots of it. Big brand names seamlessly blend through a mall of four floors and spectacular design. If the stores are out of your price range, though, there’s always the huge basement food market – New York’s own version of an Marks and Spencer Simply Food – and then some.

Mile High Moaning

“It’s not going to be interesting at all, I’m fucking furious”.

Joining a conversation that’s already in progress is always good fun, especially on a crowded plane. The flight from Newark back to Heathrow was only delayed for around an hour, but it’s already got plenty of passengers hot under the collar, including The Man in Row 32.

I never learn his name, but I do quickly learn that he’s a rarity among men : he actually moans more than me. Firstly it’s the fact that Continental has decided to fly us to London in what he calls “a commuter plane”. It’s a Boeing 757 and, says the stewardess is “more than capable of getting us across the Atlantic.”

Row 32 still isn’t happy. “This is what happens when United and Continental merge. The fucking company doesn’t give a shit about its passengers.” Things don’t get much better. The on board entertainment system breaks down and never recovers. “I didn’t even want to watch a film,” says Row 32. Then there’s the food : “I can’t eat this”. I have to admit that the chicken and rice isn’t great, but it’s a 7 hour overnight flight and I’m grateful for the sustenance,

Touching down an hour late and putting the clock forward by five hours sets in the jet lag. Fortunately, I’ve got the comfort of the Heathrow Arora to relax in for the rest of the day. Even more fortunately, I decided to ditch the in house restaurant and head off to Terminal 5 – tomorrow’s departure point for Istanbul. Fish and Chips in the airport pub, Yum!

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2011 in Travel Stuff, USA 2011

 

An island and an oasis

 

DAY TEN – 30th March 2011
 

It’s another day for heady tourism. Although New York is a great city to walk around, you soon realise just how big it is. So it’s a subway trip downtown to the Staten Island Ferry, which prompts a flashback of last night’s trip home

It’s a tough crowd on the late night 1 Train going uptown, but he manages to collect a few dollars.

Spare dollars don’t last too long in NYC, where almost everything requires a tip. A good tip, though, is to see the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry – which is free. Here native New Yorkers mix with hundreds of tourists for the 20 minute crossing from South Ferry. And what a view

The Statue of Liberty

The ferry trip also gives you a real inside into everyday lives. Listening in I can hear conversations of all kinds with thick New York accents – or the occasional bit of Spanish. Then it’s a hop back over the water to the heart of New York’s financial district. The bottom end of Broadway, close to Wall Street, demonstrates the highly charged atmosphere around here – with a smiling, charging bull

Wall Street - a load of bull

But look closely and you’ll see the tourists seem to be more interested in having their pictures taken it the rear. Yep, this bull likes to show off his bits. And that’s for another blog.

Not far away is the site of the World Trade Centre. There are a few references to 9/11, but right now the authorities are in the process of constructing a huge new venue which will combine a memorial, new businesses and a transport interchange.

The Village in the City

It may only be a couple of blocks from Broadway, but the West Village and Greenwich could be a million miles from New York. Elegant buildings weave with bohemian neighbourhoods, where people care just as much about their pets as themselves.

Dog Eat Dog (or maybe Parrot) in the West Village

Close by is Washington Square Park, next to New York University. In the centre of the park a group of performers round up some volunteers before demonstrating some amazing acrobatics.

Line up...

... for some flipping good acrobatics

In New York City, everyone’s a performer.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2011 in Travel Stuff, USA 2011

 

Apples, Oysters and Strawberries

NIGHT EIGHT – Monday 28th March

What the hotel lacks in character is more than made up by its location. I’m right on the corner of Central Park and Fifth Avenue, close to some of New York’s best known shops and buildings. Huge, expensive brand names shout from beautiful buildings full of beautiful people. But one sign in particular reminds me that I’m getting old – and pretty fast too.

Showbiz age, natch...

You see technically, it’s my birthday tomorrow. But time differences permitting, I’m about to cross over into my forties. Life doesn’t quite begin at that moment, but Bill’s Burgers near St Patrick’s cathedral fill the who left in my stomach (and wallet) by the price of the hotel minibar service. And within a couple of minutes, I’m in Times Square – right at sunset – the best time of the day to see New York being lit up

Signs of the Times in Manhatten

I’m on Broadway, considering whether to grab a late ticket for a show, when I see and hear one happening in a juice bar in front of me. Seventies rockers Blue Oyster Cult are doing a live radio show. So what do you do in that kind of situation? Well, if you’re me you join in,

Don’t Fear The Reaper – hanging out with Blue Oyster Cult

The guy in the middle at the back is a DJ with WRCN Radio, and sounds as wacky as he looks. Full of showbiz, I head a couple of blocks west for a game of bingo. I kid you not. But hey – some of what happens in New York stays in New York.

 
DAY NINE – 29th March 2011
 
Horrified by my earlier air conditioning crisis, Duty Manager Gabriel has offered me a free breakfast. Given that I’m just spent $45 on laundry, I feel it’s the least he could have done. And the arrival of fresh fruit, warm bagels and organic tea also persuades me to get out of bed before midday.
 
It’s a beautifully sunny morning, though still chilly. A walk though Central Park blows off the remainder of my hangover (OK, there wasn’t just bingo last night…) 
 

Central Perk - the Helmsley hotel has some advantages

The sheer size of the park makes its feel peaceful – even though there are probably thousands of people in it. Most seem to have gathered around the anti-climax that it Strawberry Fields, which is mostly fenced off for replanting. About two dozen people wait to pose for photos around the Imagine memorial to John Lennon.
 
After that, it’s time to go to the Top of The Rock – the Rockerfeller Centre that is – one of the best places to see the city from.

Manhatten and Central Park - what a view

Lovely day for it - but bloody cold!

The Rockerfeller also houses the legendary studios of NBC. So naturally  I decide to spend the afternoon in a TV studio. The history of the network is amazing, though it helps to be American if you’re taking the tour, as there are multiple references to shows I know nothing about. Like something called “The News”.

Radio on the TV - it'll never work

It’s a small picture because NBC likes to look after its visitors by banning any photography in the building. So they take one for you and try to sell it online.

On the walk back to the hotel I discover a lovely place called Angela’s Deli : the kind of New York cafe I’ve been looking for. And if Gabriel doesn’t do the double for breakfast tomorrow morning, I know where I’ll be eating…

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2011 in Travel Stuff, USA 2011

 

Union City Blues (and Country)

NIGHT SEVEN – 26th MARCH 2011

 

MUSIC CITY

It’s Saturday night and already things are hotting up in Nashville, apart from the temperatures that is. Today’s rain and cloud has been blown along by a chilly breeze, and as I walk down Broadway the crowds are gathering at the local ice arena for a big game

 

Ice Hockey – southern stylee

Immediately next to the Bridgestone Arena are countless Honky Tonk bars – all offering live music for free, cheap beer and cocktails and food ranging from a hotdog and fries huge slabs of steak.

Almost all are saloon type venues, and the whole place has a feel of the Wild West, with customers slamming empty glass bottles into bins as they finish another drink. The music is of exceptionally high quality, given that most of the bands are playing for tips.

On stage - at The Stage in Nashville

You get the impression that almost anything could happen here – and all of a sudden it does. Elvis walks out of the toilet. I kid you not. It’s barely 7pm, but he’s immediately surrounded by the increasingly drunken crowd.

WSM – THE LEGEND

Just a couple of doors up from The Stage is Robert’s Western World -a bar and grill with arguably the best performances on Broadway. The venue plays homage to WSM AM 650 – the radio station that even today still broadcasts every show from the Grand Ole Opry live.

WSM - The Legend

The Opry itself moved out of town in the 1970s, but the band at the Roberts bring the house down. The guitarist plays 5 minutes solos, taking country music through the blues and into rock – and Joe on the double bass looks and sounds like a young Elvis. It’s incredible stuff.

Robert's Western World - the best honky tonk on Broadway?

Go go Joe - Elvis has not left the building.

Naturally as more beer flows, people get the singing vibe themselves and head to some of the karaoke bars in and around Broadway. At Troubadors, we’re joined by “Intern Adam” from local radio station The River (what is it about radio people and karaoke?). The karaoke host suggests that the bar is part of a “live performance on air”. I’m not convinced! 

American Idle - singers try their turn at Troubadors

DAY EIGHT – Sunday 27th March

So it’s Sunday, and that means church – right?

Jesus loves you - even in the bar

Well, not quite. But the music never stops in Nashville, and Robert’s combines its history with a bit of Gospel style worship in the bar. Strangely they’re not officially serving or charging – but there’s free coffee and orange juice for all. There are fewer tourists around this morning and I realise that some of the congregation are Nashville’s homeless. It’s a very different and real side to the party town of last night.

There’s another slice of real life at Khan’s cafe on Commerce Street. It’s a great basic American diner, serving cheap and filling breakfasts – and makes a nice change from the comfort of the hotel.

Oh, did I mention the hotel…

Still can't get over how nice this place is!

Although the back of the building tells the real story of how the passenger railway is now a thing of the past.

A freightening sight. See what I did there?

Now normally I wouldn’t like a hotel room with an inside view. Ahem.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2011 in Radio Stuff, Travel Stuff, USA 2011

 

Blues and Choo Choos

NIGHT SIX – 25th March 2011

It’s time to bid farewell to Memphis, but before I leave, a visit to BB King’s Blue club on Beale Street, owned by the great man himself. he’s not playing tonight, but his house band are pretty good :

Got the Blues? These guys do...

The view from the stage

DAY SEVEN – 26th MARCH 2011

I’m not quite sure what kind of weather I’d been expecting on this leg of the trip, but this morning I was woken by an enormous electrical thunderstorm, crashing across Memphis during the early hours and still in action at breakfast time.

It all makes me a little apprehensive about driving to Nashville today but it’s a much shorter journey than the one to here from New Orleans. 200 miles doesn’t sound that far but in sweeping rain – and with 18 wheel trucks to negotiate – it’s a daunting prospect at first.

But once on the road it’s not too bad at all. Truck drivers here are sensible on the whole, sticking to the slow lane for most of the time on the two lane Interstate highways. And I’ve got more God and country music to keep me company – not least from the “real country station – 101,5 The Farm”. Yee hah. It only starts to get hairy around town and city centres. But traffic’s relatively light on Saturday morning, and I make Nashville in about three hours.

And what an arrival. Full pictures to follow later, but I’m suitably impressed by the Union Station Hotel on Broadway. My room overlooks the original booking hall, and whilst I wouldn’t classify myself as a train spotter, this could get me interested.

A room with a view in Nashville

Looking upwards from my bed - no, really!

This hotel will get a post of its own. at this rate, I may never see Nashville at all…

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2011 in Travel Stuff, USA 2011

 

Elvis and the other King

DAY 6 – 25th MARCH 2011

Today I shared something with Cher. I am neither a gypsy, tramp or thief – though the furry taste on my tongue this morning might have meant any of those. No, today was all about Walking in Memphis. And with my height, I was hardly ten feet of the Beale.

Midtown Memphis doesn’t lend itself to a sense of history, and compared to New Orleans, it doesn’t put on quite the same show.

Midtown Memphis. No frills.

However, this is the road that leads to a little bit of history. Well actually, a whole load of music history. The place where Elvis and Johnny Cash were first discovered.

Sun Studio : the home of legends

It’s an unassuming building – and for $12 you get a pretty unassuming tour. Upstairs contains a load of memorabilia, including pictures, instruments and recording equipment from downthe years – and downstairs is the main studio itself. The tour guide tells the well trodden story of Elvis, Johnny Cash and the other unknowns who passed through the doors, including a young Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. The visitors are suitably impressed, and raid the gift shop that has every imaginable thing with the logo on it.

 
Downtown on a Friday afternoon is dead. I have no idea where everyone is. Many of the businesses on Main Street are closed and there’s a chilly wind in the air. I head to the Lorraine Motel, made famous for all the wrong reasons. This was the place where Martin Luther King was assassinated – and the building is now the National Civil Rights Museum – a moving story of history from slavery to the present day.

The Lorraine Motel

But not everyone seems to appreciate the story…

 
 

Black culture, of course, is not defined by Martin Luther King, and on the way back to the hotel I spot another piece of history, in the form of an old radio station’s building.

Then they turned my radio station into a bank.

A nearby plaque explains the history. WDIA was the country’s first station to have an all black format. This pre-dated the civil rights movement of the sixties, and must have been an incredibly important part of Memphis at the time.

The station still broadcasts today – though it’s no longer in a downtown location or I might have been forced to pay a visit in person. And it continues to serve an important purpose in modern black culture, with an R&B music format.

Now, I didn’t expect to find that when I was Walking in Memphis.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2011 in Travel Stuff, USA 2011

 

God’s Own Country (and Western)

DAY 5 – 24th MARCH

A relatively early start today for the 400 mile drive to Memphis. After my earlier experiences with driving from the airport, I wasn’t especially looking forward to it. But Axel’s looked after the hire car well – and I drive it from the car park to the front of the hotel.

Once out of the city, driving is relatively easy – just remember which side to stay on and how to use the mirrors correctly. It sounds simple enough, but getting used to the US roads system takes a little time.

Today I’ve got the radio for company – and what a wonderful mix. Scanning along the dial we have : country, more country, God and… you guessed it – country. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating that a little. There’s also a bit of rock and R&B in the main cities.

But country music is the staple diet of radio around here – and the adverts reflect the type of listeners these stations attract. Lots of home improvement, new cars and farming equipment. In fact, it was a bit strange to here a load of agricultural prices mixed in with songs that deal variously with domestic abuse, bigamy, good deeds and sex.

So after all that debauchery, thank goodness for the American Family Network – a strange mix of news with a Christian bias (a church leader saying it’s Not Cool to ban homosexuals), the Good Word of the Lord and, yup, more country than you can shake a stick at. the local station of AFN is based in the wonderfully named Duck Hill, Mississippi.

Towards Grenada, God is thrown out of the window with yet another country station containing an advert for a local pool bar (It’s 8 miles west on Highway Five – look for the signs saying “Pool Bar”. Thursdays is a $5 cover which gets you unlimited beer and cocktail refills). These guys know how to party.

Into Tennessee and the traffic suddenly builds up on the outskirts of Memphis. But for 4pm, downtown is amazingly quiet. Yeah, there’s traffic – but relatively light compared to New Orleans. I even drive straight past the Sun Studio – where Elvis got his break. And the Sat Nav does an amazing job, guiding me right into the hotel car park. No dents, no scratches and a lovely room on the 11th floor.

Elvis has left the building - and NewsMutt has arrived. uh-huh...

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in Radio Stuff, Travel Stuff, USA 2011