Thursday, May 19, 2011

London: Wiping My Hands of This

I've been traveling and eating weird shit since before Andrew Zimmern got elevated from Minnesota morning TV to the the US iteration of the Travel Channel. Hell, I've been writing about it (if not particularly well) since before the first typewriter ribbon was installed for Tony Bourdain's first travel and food tome. In that time I've visited most of the continents, overlapped the stamps on my bulging passport pages in every way imaginable, and eaten one of everything in the animal kingdom. And a few insects to boot. Once cooked. Once raw. Probably once fermented for good measure. I've achieved this not through intestinal fortitude, but by maintaining a steady travel regimen of alcohol to kill the bad stuff and local yogurt to keep the good stuff alive. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the key to eating anything you like (or dare) in almost any locale in the world, and why in about a decade, I've never been victim to Montezuma's Revenge. Until now. And I'm going to make sure it never happens again.

But sometimes we intrepid traveler-eaters let our guard down. Sometimes we don't do enough shots to kill the intestinal buggers. Sometimes we forget to have a cup of cultured yogurt with our breakfast. Sometimes we forget that the first-world industrial food system is just as dangerous – if not more perilous than – eating freshly killed whoosiwhatsit in the jungle. And sometimes, forgetting that, we have a bacon burger with runny egg. In a pub. In London.

And that's how my weekend of ass-clenching and desperately-trying-not-to-vomit began.

Mind you, living a two and a half-hour train ride away from London barely makes a trip there warrant an entry in a so-called travel blog anymore. While this site has existed since late 2005, I wrote up my first travel journal nigh on a decade ago... From London. And I've written about the place ad nauseum since.

So there has to be a good story to warrant a blog entry, right?

This trip was supposed to be epic for other reasons. Chiefly, because the weekend was marked in indelible red ink on my calendar for Short Circuit presents Mute, a two-day festival at the Roundhouse in Camden celebrating 30+ years of the record label that helped form my own identity as a youth and to this day. The wife and I – as well as friends from around the world – got tickets the moment it was announced, knowing what a big deal this festival was, reuniting and cross-pollenating – in one place – many of our lifelong favorite artists.

Things started out well enough. We arrived well before the festival on Wednesday and were met at the English end of the Eurostar track by our friend David. He happens to be my old roommate from San Francisco and now lives in London, and we joke that we've seen more of each other now that we're a train ride apart than when we were actually in the same town.

We lugged our suitcases over to his flat in Paddington and got to the business of enjoying London, with a couple of free days to quaff some decent beer, do some shopping, and scout out fun locations for my sister's wedding the following month.

Pints here. Ethnic food there. More pints. Scouting out locales. We'd brought two suitcases and a duffel bag with us – which is now our modus operandi when taking the train (no baggage limits, hooray!) to places that have a) things you can't get in France or b) things that are much cheaper than in France. We capped off our night by gorging ourselves at the damn-near-impossible-to-get-into new Heston Blumenthal joint. (Yes, yes, as always, you can expect to find a culinary recap of this trip over at Hungry Amateurs.)

Thursday saw us go to yet another fancy restaurant for one of those languid Michelin-starred lunches that seems over-the-top even at absurdly low prices, and that make you wonder when the business people who go to them actually get any business done. We then strolled through Bloomsbury to meet up with our American friend Micah for pints, pints and even more pints. Then wine. Then a classic chip shop that fries their fish in beef fat. (I told you I have an iron stomach.) And then we hit another pub for good measure.

The Old Fountain. Home of the best cask ale selection in London.

The best part of the day wasn't the amazing meal or the fantastic local cask ales we were having, but to be in the company of a first-timer in London. Although we're not there day in and day out, we kind of take the city for granted: Just another nearby destination from the hub of trains that radiate out from Paris dozens of times a day. Newcomers notice things that old hands often forget to look at. And we enjoy this aspect as much in Britain as we do in France, even if we're just visitors there ourselves. So thank you, Micah, for the new set of eyes.

Friday morning came and we were feeling good. The sun was shining brilliantly. The air had an uncanny perfection to it. I got up early and shot some video for a project at work. Then we went shopping. I found trousers that fit my non-existent ass. Books that Alannah and I have been wanting for a long time. Great English pastries. Can't-get-'em-in-Paris groceries up the wazoo. We returned to David's with our booty to fill up one of the suitcases, then it was off to Camden to start pre-partying before the evening's shows at the Roundhouse.

We made some calls to other internationals who'd be at the gig. Our friend Christian from Paris. Micah, again. JR from Norway. We Tweeted. We Facebooked. We set up our potential rendez-vous points. And in the meantime we went to grab a pint. And maybe a bite. "Hmm, bacon burger with egg, eh? Does that come with chips? Good, I'll have that, please."

An hour or so later we were at a nearby, much classier pub with Christian and Micah, killing whatever bugs may have been in the grubby pub grub with craft cocktails made with the finest (mostly) English booze. Gin. Another kind of gin. Yet another kind of gin. Everything that was England, we were drinking it in.

Soon enough we were all inside the Roundhouse, gathered in one of the side rooms to see Komputer (formerly Fortran 5, formerly I Start Counting). It was packed and rather hot, and after a couple of their iconic tracks from yesteryear we made our way out of the room to jockey for a good spot in the main auditorium to see Recoil (aka Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode plus Paul Kendall). The performance was fantastic, and it included not only their cover of The Normal's (aka Daniel Miller aka the founder of Mute Records) "Warm Leatherette," but also the original vocals from Nitzer Ebb's Douglas McCarthy on "Faith Healer" then on Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." For good measure, McCarthy was joined on stage by the rest of Nitzer Ebb plus Architect (aka Daniel Myer of Haujobb) to perform a scorching rendition of Nitzer Ebb's "Family Man" which was, of course, originally produced by Wilder himself. This was all followed up by a full Nitzer Ebb performance.

If the rather tightly-knit relationship between artists on the Mute roster over the years seems a bit incestuous, you can imagine this festival as a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion full of potential for awkward or explosive moments. Oddly enough it was Alannah who provided the first bit of awkwardness, as she announced her need to go to the bathroom and disappeared for a good while. Concert. Long queues. Seems logical, right?

It was while we were trying to enjoy a none-too-abstract and surprisingly melodic set by Thomas Fehlmann that I started to feel odd. Perhaps it was the blips and chimes over the throbbing bass making me flash back to chemically altered nights back in Club Six or Sno-Drift in San Francisco. Or maybe it was all the draught Old Speckled Hen catching up with me. But something was amiss. My shoulders were tight. I was uncharacteristically sweaty. I felt like I really needed to take it easy. I chalked it up to all the decadent eating, that it was my body's way of saying "enough with the black pudding and the chicken livers and the deep fat fried foods." Fair enough, body. But you're not making me give up the beer. (Alannah wisely urged me to have water. Smart girl.)

Despite having a premium pass that would afford me entry to the after-parties and exclusives going on 'til three in the morning (thank you for the upgrade, Christian!) we had to bail and get back home to the west side of town. Then came the explosive part.

I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say I spent more time on the throne (and not the one at Buckingham Palace or wherever the Queen rests her royal derrière) than in bed. Alannah wasn't faring any better. We traced our gastronomical (or perhaps gastrointestinal) footsteps back over the preceding few days to find the culprit, eliminating places we'd eaten with others (all our friends share all our food), places we hadn't eaten anything remotely food-poisony, and places that simply shouldn't provide the opportunity. By our magical, Sherlock Holmesian deductive reasoning, all the fingers pointed at the pub burger.

By morning I had the wherewithal to find the nearest off-licence and pick up some ginger ale and probiotic yogurt. Too little, too late, sure, but at least it would be of some relief and prevent the puking of bile. It also gave me the opportunity to unload seven-odd quid worth of shrapnel on the shopkeeper, having amassed in three days enough copper coins to weigh down a body in the Thames. (All the non-copper bits were used for beer.)

Having another suitcase to fill, we did manage to get some shopping done at midday, and while Alannah declined to even bother taking such risk, I was somehow able to eat half a grilled cheese sandwich without vomiting. Unfortunately, I had to run into a piss-soaked toilet stall at Borough Market to have my "Trainspotting moment" not long thereafter. This relieved me long enough to put together a serious English craft beer haul to bring back to Paris, and we somehow managed to survive the rest of the day without having to buy me yet another pair of trousers.

Shopping done, we could focus on our new deadline: To leave for the Roundhouse again by 7:00 p.m. Saturday's action had started at noon, but neither of us were in any shape to go any earlier. As evening rolled around we made it to the venue, and Micah and Christian had kindly saved us some lovely, easy-on-the-ailing-ass balcony seats right next to the Recoil Boss himself, Alan Wilder.

I sat and politely applauded through a solid art-rock set by the Residents – a band I'd never had the opportunity to see in our shared hometown of San Francisco – and then sat and impolitely heckled and Tweeted and Facebooked through a sad DJ set by Depeche Mode's Andy Fletcher. (On that note, cheers to the Roundhouse for free and functional wi-fi throughout the venue.) A rumble came over my stomach but I was immovable. Vince Clarke stepped behind a keyboard on stage, followed shortly thereafter by a beautifully voiced, surprisingly svelte Alison Moyet who performed several Yazoo (Yaz if you're North American) songs.

Andy Bell came on to join Clarke for the scheduled Erasure set, making many in the audience speculate who the two other mics were for. Could it be the full Depeche Mode mega-reunion people had breathlessly (if unrealistically) speculated about?

No, they were for two backup singers, but it didn't make the Erasure set any less fantastic and sing-alongy and the starkest possible contrast to the Residents act that preceded it. Bell did announce a surprise, not-at-all-Depeche-Mode-related appearance to follow him, as Feargal Sharkey came out to perform the one (chart-topping) track he did with Vince Clarke as The Assembly, "Never Never." To be honest, I never knew Feargal was a dude... Listen to the chorus and you'll understand my childhood error.

If all that's a little too effeminate, the stage took another 180º turn as Laibach came on with their martial, industrial Neue Slowenische Kunst. As much as I hoped they'd do their cover of Europe's "The Final Countdown," the covers they delivered were their classic "Life is Life" and once again The Normal's "Warm Leatherette." No complaints here, though I'm sure Alannah would've been amused with "Countdown."

Laibach's set included a projection of a woman giving a deep throat blowjob, making me wonder why all of a sudden on-screen sex was making me squirmy and uncomfortable. Then I realized that, no, it's not the balls-deep action giving me sweaty palms, but the fact that I'd been clenching my ass for the last three and a half hours.

I did something I never thought I would ever do in all my years of clubbing, concert-going, festivaleering, and traveling. I dropped a deuce in a venue toilet.

Luckily, this is the Roundhouse. They have good beer at reasonable prices. They have good food at even better prices. I already mentioned the wi-fi. And the toilet? As pristine a public toilet I've seen outside of a five-star hotel lobby. Had I known this, I wouldn't have missed so much of the festival. Up here, on the third floor, was possibly the cleanest bathroom in the house, well stocked with toilet paper.

Oh. My. God.

Sure, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode was in the main room now putting together an epic set of good, danceable techno (like, real techno, not that clubby shit that people often call techno), but I was more in awe of the fact that I was going number two in public.

This revelation complete, it was soon time to check out the after-party. Alannah made her way back to the flat and I joined Christian and Micah for an evening of DJ antics, starting with Mr. Mute himself, Daniel Miller. He put together a respectable set of Mute tracks that – while not groundbreakingly mixed – had a sense of rhythm and flow and cohesiveness that was barely detectable in Fletch's earlier set.

Then came Rex the Dog. I don't know much about Rex. Or at least, I didn't until I suddenly developed a little bit of a man-crush and read every page of his site after the ass-kicking DJ set he threw out on Saturday night. Rex was on fire, leading me to declare to Micah (and then the whole geek world via Twitter) that he MUST produce the next Depeche Mode album. Previously, to me, he had been "that house DJ who did one of the few respectable Depeche Mode mixes in recent years." Now I'm mounting a campaign to put him behind the recording desk for my favorite band ever.

I'm not saying this just because he masterfully twiddled the knobs on some remixed versions of Depeche Mode songs in Ableton Live, but because for the first time in years, I fully, genuinely enjoyed a DJ set, where heart and soul and talent were shining through.

And it's not because I'm older or married that I don't go clubbing anymore. It's that almost every time I go to a club in Paris, besides the irritating crowds and shamefully overpriced drinks, the DJs can't spin worth a damn. They can't work a crowd. They can't even match a beat. I'm a mediocre DJ myself with only a couple of moderate club gigs under my belt and it takes every fiber of my being to not jump into the booth, strangle the hipster motherfucker not mixing in there, and take over the decks myself. So to see, in this day and age of iTunes-on-shuffle-is-considered-DJing, a guy who actually has technical skills and a love for the music... I was impressed. And his body of work kicks a good deal of ass.

I came to London figuring I'd see a lot of old-time favorites and heros and maybe hear a few youngbloods I might actually like (label head Miller has quite good taste, I trust the man) and walked away being most impressed by... the closing party DJ. Go figure.

On our way out, I hit the bathroom once more. One for the road. I washed up, only to find that the air dryer was no longer working. No worries, my hands are clean, and it's not like I need to scrub in for surgery.

Christian spots Daniel Miller Himself in the Roundhouse lobby. We go up to say hi. Introductions are made. My turn comes. I extend my hand simply to tell him "All I can say is thank you. Your work has made my life better." He returns the gratitude. We get a group photo on Christian's phone.

Despite a rather wicked case of food poisoning, I hung in there not only for a great show but to end up meeting one of my heroes and properly thank him. I'm sure in my one short utterance he got that I implied "Thank you for giving rise to and influencing and – decades down the road – assembling the musicians who were there for my first dance, my first breakup, my first guitar, my first car, my first car accident, my first mosh pit, my first bungee jump, three of my four broken ribs, my first turntables, my first keyboard, and every significant moment of my life with which I can associate a song." If not, he should know that.

However, I couldn't help but feel like an ass the whole time. Not because of what I'd said. Or what I was thinking when I said it. But because after I shook his hand, I saw Miller discreetly wiping it on his pants. My hand was still wet. Here I stood, meeting the guy responsible for – quite literally – the soundtrack of my life, and he was probably thinking, "Good god, this bloke pisses on himself."