The Modern American Gypsy:
This is the account of 220-day squat tour David McWane took with his men across England and Europe, playing music and searching for the unknown. It is less of a band’s autobiography and more of – men vs. their odds story. It could be compared to the comradeship found in Endurance by Ernest Shackleton or Steinbeck’s illumination of the strength of men at their most challenged. The Modern American Gypsy is an expedition for self-exploration.
France – Botafar
To get from Krefeld, Germany, to Paris, France, we drove on A7 to E40 in a small white Sprinter through Belgium, passing small villages packed with small white houses with red clay curved tiled roof tops and continued up and down it’s damp hilly landscape, passing crumbled castles set high atop unreachable cliffs, then on through to A2, where the land looked like an endless bed sheet in the wind, then connected to A1, where you could look down from the road onto ancient churches centering small villages and adding grandeur to the farmlets and their fields of bound wheat, to finally connect with A3 and reach Paris by mid day. The windows were wet.
Most of us men still had the unfortunate remembrances of our lousy drunk from the night before. We tried to sleep it off in the hopes of properly starting the process over again by morning, but the Sprinter we drove was packed uncomfortably tight. There was no way any of us could fall asleep, our heads bouncing against the glass and our legs twisted in our bags and instruments.
I gave up sleep and stared out onto the yellow fields of rape seed. It was warm, raining, but warm. And the windows left down let in the warm air and light rain, allowing everything inside the Sprinter to float and dance. It was slow motion; it was what I imagined magic would look like. The sun reflected on everything it could reach, softly and kindly blinding us. We talked quietly about Paris. We talked quietly about women. Germany had made us slow and lethargic, but with each mile we gained on France we became more alive. My friend talked excitedly about how he was going to meet a Danish girl he had met four years prior and had been writing every week since. I was happy for him. He needs a woman even more than me.
Five out of the eight of us men decided we wanted to court a good woman sooner than later during that conversation. Too many scorpion kisses that taste like bitter warnings had touched our lips. Now is the time to stop looking for a flower in the dry forest with a torch. In that moment, in the van of dancing napkins and loose paper, with warm rain on my face, I had turned a chapter in my life – ‘Bring me miles, bring me Paris and awaken me so that I can find what it is all men search for, so I can find – her.’
We take a moment in Belgium to stretch and air out our clothes at a petrol station. Rain clouds hover over muddy grass fields where cows sleep together bowling the earth down. Mist whirls and wets our coats black and makes them slick, as we enter the station and stand around a high table discussing karma over hot tea and biscuits.
There were times that us men held our breaths too long for happiness to find us. But now we have all become the creators of it, giving it to each other and allowing us all to relax in laughter whenever there is a free moment.
We drive on.
Entering Paris we pass a small café where young people laugh and flirt, then continue on to where the business people and shop workers are just starting their walks home. We all sit up straight, try to comb our hair with our dirty fingers and begin showing off what little French we know as we take a right onto the Quai Mauriac, a road named after Francis Mouriac, a French writer from the 1800s. Just before reaching the Bibliotecha National France we take a dipping right onto a small road parallel to the river called La Seine, to the Quai where the boat Botafar is docked.
Tonight we are to do seven interviews and a concert in the bowels of the boat. It is nice to be back in Paris. It is nice to hope for a woman. I worry about my health this day and my life, and I wonder if I still know how to flirt.
Us men all work together well after twelve years of travel. We unpack the bags, the beer and wine, the instruments, our album recordings, the spare tire and all the trinkets — stickers, patches and pins — we have to sell. I call us – the Modern American Gypsies to the men. And the men like that.
It was a big day for France that day. Not only was it the national holiday, ‘The Eighth of May’, the day La Revolution freed France from German occupation back in WWII, but it is a very important election day. Francois Mitterrand, after fourteen years of rule, is to step down as president of France. A Nicolas Sarkozy was the suspected new president, but it is not to be official until the votes are counted and that was to be in a couple of hours. France felt like it was waiting to sneeze. Our French friends from Metz and Nancy who are also playing with us at the Botafar came up to us and we greeted them with strong overcoat clenching hugs. Yet our friends from France had to excuse themselves to talk with loved ones on phones about the election. I am told by my friends Seb and Yul that they are all fearful that Sarkozy would win the election, for they disagreed with all he says. These were global times of questionable leaders.
As I take a minute to drink a warm German beer by the edge of the water, away from the happenings, I think it all to be lovely…a few boats bumping against the docks, their ropes pulling tight and then easing again, the smell and sound of the water, young Lovers of the Sound hovering, smiling and waving, beer and smoke, bread and cheese, wine and winks, a day you could sit and someone curious would chat you up into a new lasting friendship. A good day. A safe day.
Nadia, a ripe girl with long brown hair, sleepy eyes and a closed mouth smile, works the door, taking your money and handing you a ripped ticket. Her nose is in piles of books and folders. She is studying for her exams scheduled early the next day, she tells me, sighing often, longing to join in the day.
Down in the belly of the boat the concert is mad. People sway the boat back and forth, left and right until water splashes the portholes and it is impossible not to stagger about. Instruments crash, amplifiers topple over, I, with others jump into the crowd and swim on them while we all float and bounce under the water line. The ceiling drips. Lovers of our Sound hang on pipes and stand against the walls that are slick with sweat. Lovers of the Sound reach and pull at the microphone making me drown in a sea of believers. Lovers of the Sound cheer and I cheer. Lovers of the Sound scream and I scream.
When it is over, the outside dock is filled with us all. I sit with friends on a thick rope fence; the water behind us. Red wine is poured in small cups and handed about. I breath in the laughter and stretch my shoulders and neck back. It’s smell is sweet. With my eyes closed, I still see the pretty smiles and wonderful eyes of kind men and beautiful women all around. I exhale. Open my eyes. And join back in moment. A young man makes his way to me, moving with intent, he speaks to me kindly in French, knowing I do not understand. My friend Yul translates after the young man hugs me and takes a photograph, Yul relays that “he says you helped him.” We drink and smoke like men do when they are truly happy, I admit, that I bit into this night with the need of flavor and now the juices of it run down my chin and I would have kissed any girl who kept me a stare, a wink or a smile.
Our English friends who had played a show the night before arrive on foot and tell us we are all going to a new place for more cheer. I greet and catch up with a good friend named Neil, a trumpet player with a colorful mind. We begin to walk together, the Englishmen, our French friends, the Lovers of the Sound that want more and us Modern American Gypsies. I spend most of the walk with my arm around Seb. His election was lost. And while the people of my country are coming together with the hope and hearsay of a new leader that will pull us out from darkness, his hope has only now eclipsed.
As it grew late, young ladies, with luscious lips, roll and lick cigarettes tight, as they laugh and lightly bat their long lashes, looking over as they light them. I was proud to take Bebette on my other arm; she is undoubtedly the kindest of them all.
All forty of us walk down La Seine where the moon dripped milk on the canal’s wavering waves, back up to Quai Mauriac, where I have now lost my direction, to finally end up on Rue de Chateaudun passing the Syphax Café where I had drunk once before, moving still atop the stone streets, along narrow walkways, the Ligne twelve passing us with a roar, all forty of us singing, swaggering, some kissing, wrestling, some happy in their silent smile and all the while I had Bebette’s hand in mine and my arm over Seb telling him the election would be alright and to hell with Sarkozy.