The state line between Illinois and Missouri just happens to be the Mississippi River. And it is magnificent. Just the mention of it makes me think of a dozen or more songs. I wanted to add to this canon so after I had crossed the bridge, I pulled off the freeway, grabbed my guitar and my digital recorder and made my way down to the river bank. I wrote what I thought would make a good chorus for a song. It went: “I'm gonna ride the Mississippi down to New Orleans / the river of my dreams.” I couldn't think of any verses to I packed up and headed into St. Louis.
Bridge over the Mississippi River
St Louis is very green. And because the authorities want you to be able to see, from all over the city, the magnificent arch which the city is famous for, there are very few high-rise buildings, which sets it apart from many US cities. It’s really more a collection of neighbourhoods.
The people were very welcoming and friendly. My Couchsurfing host was a young lad named Leo who was putting himself through college by working as a bartender in one of the many bars in the downtown area known as the Delmar Loop. He was a thoughtful, engaging young man, and very laid back. He was happy to show me round the city, where to go, and also where not to go after dark. We went to where the rich people live – an area called Frontenac. And, knowing my Irish ancestry, he took me to an area that was much associated with Irish immigrants in the 19th century – a place called Dogtown.
Leo’s house was in a predominately black neighbourhood. While Leo was out at work, I went for something to eat at a fast food restaurant. I was the only white face in there but at no time did I feel threatened. Interestingly, a black policeman came in. I noticed that the counter staff were slightly less cordial to him than they had been to myself or other customers. As he turned and left, he scanned the room. His eyes settled on me and he gave me a nod. It felt as if I was the only one he felt comfortable interacting with. I nodded back.
The truth of it is that St Louis is a much-divided city, racially. Where I was staying was about 10 minutes from the town of Ferguson, where in 2014 rioting took place after the shooting of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown by a white police officer – who was later acquitted. Leo told me that tensions were still high.
One of St Louis’s most famous sons is Chuck Berry who lived there until his death in 2017. No one person can claim to have invented rock and roll but, if you made a list of contenders, Berry would be near the top. As Keith Richards has said, “We all owe Chuck”. Or as John Lennon said: “If you wanted to give rock and roll another name, it would be Chuck Berry.”
I discovered Berry as a teenager, and it was his lyric-writing that first fascinated me. The poetry, and the meter of his lyrics, and the way his words run together has always been an inspiration to me.
Leo told me that the veteran rock and roller was still occasionally performing at a restaurant called Blueberry Hill. But he warned that he was not a well man and didn’t seem to know what was going on around him. I decided that I was happy to remember him as the feisty rocker of old rather than a frail old man going through the motions.
St. Louis has a great blues tradition. I was lucky enough to catch local artist Leroy Jodie Pierson playing at BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups on South Broadway. He looks like a bank manager (or how I imagine a bank manager should look – I’ve never met one!) but the way he plays his National Resonator Guitar (that’s the steel one) and with his wonderful soulful voice, you know that he is blues down to his core.
The following morning I was invited by Leo to watch him and his friends play softball. Arriving at the park, we were told that the opposing team could not field a full team and so were forfeiting the game. It was decided that a game that was just for fun would be played and I was invited to join in. It was a very relaxed affair, with just one rule that had to be adhered to: at no time could you play without a beer in your hand. It was a fun afternoon.
The A Team
After the game, I declined another beer, saying that I was driving. A black friend of Leo called Oscar looked at me quizzically. “Ain’t no chance of you getting stopped for DWB,” he said. I hadn’t heard of DWB. I knew DUI was driving under the influence but DWB? “What’s that?” I asked. He grinned. “Driving whilst black!” I could tell it was a joke grounded in reality. I smiled – but apologetically. I didn’t know what to say.
My own gig was in a trendy neighbourhood full of bars and restaurants in an area of the city called North Euclid at a place called Evangeline’s. I had put the address into my satnav/GPS but when I pulled up outside a burned out building in a very rundown area I was pretty sure that I was in the wrong part of town. I called the venue and explained my situation. “Oh, man, you’re way too far north.” He then proceeded to give me directions that involved multiples of compass directions. Americans do that a lot. “You go east on 47th for ten blocks and then south for ten more.” I think it must be a relic left over from the pioneer days when there were no actual roads. If you ask someone in the UK for directions they will say things like, “turn left at the High Street. Take the 3rd street on the left, Cherry Blossom Avenue…” Or in the case of my Irish father, the directions include multiples of pubs. “You go past the King’s Head, turn right at The Coach and Horses. If you get to The Red Lion, you’ve gone too far…”
I looked up at the sun fading in the sky. I knew that it sunk in the west. So if I kept the sun to my right, I figured I was heading south.
The area gradually became a little smarter but I still had no clue where I was. I saw some policemen eating donuts and drinking coffee so I pulled up alongside them and asked for directions to the venue. One cop stepped forward. He took a swallow of coffee to help the donut in his mouth go down. He looked back the way I had come and said: “You want to go north for about 20 blocks…”
Eventually, I arrived at Evangeline’s restaurant, which boasts music six nights a week – and original music, at that, as owner Don Bailey wants to give his clientele something new and different.
It can be slightly disconcerting performing to an audience of people eating but I find that if you talk to them so that they realise that you’re not background music, they respond in a positive way. In Evangeline’s they were very attentive, laughed at my jokes, and were enthusiastic in their applause. Whenever I play my song Crazy, I explain that on the album there is a trombone solo, and I ask if there are any trombone players in the house. At Evangeline’s a hand went up; I ask the gentleman if he has his instrument with him. He says that he doesn’t. After the show he came up to congratulate me on my performance. He introduced himself as Jim Tyler – a retired Los Angeles session musician from the 1960s. He had some wonderful stories. It just goes to show that you never know who is in the audience.
I had enjoyed my time in St. Louis. It’s a city with lots to offer both socially and musically. During my time there I had scribbled down some notes about being there. They were things Leo had said to me such as “There's always something going on in Delmar” and “the likes of you an' me ain't never gonna get a house in Frontenac.” I was hoping they might make their way into a song. I had yet to write a whole song since being in the US.
All that was about to change. Kansas City was calling.
Performing at Evangeline's