Apr/May 2011 Travel

Elvis Standing By

by Alice Lowe

Photo by Kristen Merola

Photo by Kristen Merola

He headed the Mustang, a gleaming red, late model convertible, back to his hotel at four a.m. after closing the karaoke bar with his Facebook friend Karen, finally meeting in person after a year of online chats. Twelve hours of flying and an eight-hour time difference, a full day, absorbing everything, he was still buzzed, high on excitement. He would spring up at eight, ready for new people and places, action and adventure. It was his first trip to the states, and he had no agenda, no expectations except to play a little music with my husband and to see as much as he could see.


Virginia Woolf was responsible for our first meeting John six years ago in Rodmell, a small village in Southern England that had been the second home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf from 1919 until her death in 1941 and his in 1969. I am a devotee of the work and life of the renowned novelist, essayist, critic, diarist, belle-lettrist, and in 1993 fulfilled my fantasy of a Virginia Woolf pilgrimage. The pinnacle of this perfectly planned journey was Monks House, the Woolf home in Rodmell and now a National Trust property, its rooms and gardens open to visitors from May to October.

Don and I were avowed Anglophiles, both of us having spent time there in past years before we knew each other, but this was our first trip together. As I paid homage to my hero, we fell in love with the East Sussex villages and towns, countryside and downs, and it became our English Eden, our destination on ten trips over the next 12 years.

We booked B&Bs in the county seat of Lewes on our first few visits, bedding down twice with a Mrs. Jones and Humphrey, her Alsatian (the English prefer not to call them German shepherds), who would snuffle around our breakfast table each morning. We would take in Monks House and other nearby haunts of the Bloomsbury circle by bus, train, or on foot, hiking over the bucolic hills and dales of the South Downs and the Ouse River Valley.

Eventually we sought a more authentic and thrifty living experience—we wanted to buy and prepare produce from the greengrocer and cod from the fishmonger—so we searched for "self-catering" lodging in one the many Sussex villages. Among the prospects listed through the Lewes information center was the annex of the 16-century Deep Thatch Cottage in Rodmell. We looked no further.

A charming and fully furnished flat, it became our launching pad for rambles around the countryside and the coast—the Newhaven port, tacky touristy Brighton, artsy Eastbourne, sleepy Seaford. A three-mile walk along a choice of scenic routes—along the river, through the sweet-smelling fields, or up on the windy ridge—took us back to Lewes with its shops and services and trains to whisk us all over southern England or up to London.

We nestled into our flat and grew to feel at home with its coziness, its simple furnishings and well-equipped kitchen. We enjoyed evenings at the pub, the Abergavenny Arms, and got to know a few of the villagers. By our third stay at Deep Thatch—it was 2004—we were regulars, and our arrival was like a homecoming. Don brought his guitar and had lined up playing opportunities at a folk club in Lewes that we knew from past trips and at the pub. It got around that the American would be playing that evening, and the locals started drifting in as the day-trippers headed out after their meals and pints.

Standing out in the crowd—not the typical villager—was a fierce-looking biker type: long, grey, wizard-like beard that tapered to points in the middle of his chest, tattoos on beefy arms poking out of his black t-shirt and leather vest, the weathered countenance of one who had been around. But the stereotypes quickly dissolved. This guy had a smile as big as the downland surrounding the village and radiated warmth. The sweet-looking little old lady by his side was his 80-plus widowed mother. His parents had settled here after the war; John and his siblings were born and raised in the village, and they're all still here, John back in the nest with his mum after numerous forays out, two marriages, life on the road in a band. Of course I asked them and other long-time residents what they knew about the Woolfs. I didn't meet anyone who had been there during Virginia's lifetime, but John's mother remembered Leonard as being very serious and active in village affairs, and John recalled as a child, in the late '50s, early '60s, going to Monks House and pestering Leonard, following him around the garden. Leonard was a stern man, off-putting to many, but John remembers him as being very kind and patient with the village kids.

A rabid fan of American country music and a musician himself, John was an enthusiastic spectator but an even more enthusiastic performer. After meeting and talking music with Don during his first break, John picked up the house guitar and they played together for the rest of the evening—folk, country, pop, American and English; when each would do something of his own, the other would play back-up. This went on well beyond closing time as the bartender washed glasses and tidied tables. A friendship was founded, grounded on musical alliance and mutual admiration. They played together at the pub on subsequent trips and in between exchanged ongoing work-in-progress, experiments and ideas, new CDs.


And now he's here. He singled out San Diego for his first visit because he and Don had been collaborating via e-mail and had made a rough recording of some of John's songs, his vocals and Don's acoustic guitar tracks. He wanted to follow it up with some face-to-face and was eager to make more music, make connections, talk shop, take side trips. With boundless energy and the better part of 24 hours in every day (I'll sleep when I get home, he says), he jumps into the Mustang each morning, puts the top down, and rides out. He's happy if he has company but totally contented on his own; garrulous by nature, he knows that traveling alone gives him more opportunities to meet and talk to people.

One day he drove to Hollywood, just to look around and get a photo of himself in front of the famed Hollywood sign. He programmed his GPS for Buddy Holly Drive—homage to one of his heroes, who had first turned him on to American music. Another day he pointed the red pony north and found himself in Temecula, the restored old western town just north of the San Diego County line. He had lunch at a burger joint—he'd already had his fill of Mexican food—and met a friendly couple from Alabama, the guy scruffy-looking and bearded like himself and wearing a Harley t-shirt. No, he responded to their question, I'm not a biker, I just look like one. They hit it off, traded stories and addresses, and now he has friends in Alabama. He wanted to see the desert, so he moseyed east from Temecula, over the mountain passes, and found his way to Palm Springs. He was put off by its sterility, its otherness, so unlike the seedy authenticity of Hollywood; he expected to see a bronzed and pompadoured George Hamilton driving a Rolls down Bob Hope Drive. He captured his impressions on his ever-ready digital camera, not even getting out of the car before turning around and heading back.

One day he ventured into a strip mall near his hotel. He saw an attractive woman, a thirty-something blonde, in one of the stores, so he went in to see if he could chat her up. He flashed that big smile and asked where he should go to buy some t-shirts—he wanted emblems of the trip for himself and his twelve-year-old son at home. Oh gee, you're English! she said, as of course he'd hoped she would, and that was his opening. After a few minutes, she had to get back to work, and he sauntered out of the store, sure that he'd impressed her with his accent, his beard, his hip British charm. And the Mustang. Hoping that she was looking, he opened the door and eased in. Looked in front of him—no steering wheel. So much for his cool—he'd blundered into the wrong side of the car and made a proper fool of himself. He got out, skulked around to the other side and crept off.

He had negotiated the driving differences and rules of the road with little trouble; he adapted readily to driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road (though the wide left turns were a little dicey). But on his last day he was pulled over for not coming to a full halt at a stop sign. As soon as the police officer, a woman, drew near his window, he started apologizing. He was so sorry, he knew what he'd done, it was his first time driving here, he wasn't used to it, he was ever so sorry. Oh gee, she said, you're English, and let him off with a teasing smile and a playful wag of her finger—now don't do it again!

No anchors or snakes, no bared-tooth beasts or bared breasts, no hearts that say "mum," John sports colorful, elaborate and imaginative designs on both triceps, de rigueur accoutrements to his leather vest and black t-shirts for the biker-hipster look but easily hidden under long sleeves when deemed advisable. He takes pride in them and puts sunscreen on his arms to keep the colors from fading. Friends back home joked that he would come home with a new wife or a new tattoo, and he was eager to have an enduring souvenir. He saw a guy in Ocean Beach with impressive tattoos, admired them and asked where he'd gotten them. The next morning he went there and added a scattering of stars to surround the multi-hued swirls on his right arm. Different sizes and artfully placed, the larger ones were blends of bold blues from indigo to purple. He could hardly wait to show them off that night.

The highlight of his stay was a gig Don set up at a showroom/gallery near our home. He invited Bill, a fiddler friend from up the coast, to join him and John in a casual concert for friends. Another friend brought sound equipment, and on Saturday night they rocked. The small but enthusiastic audience included more of John's Facebook friends, Ruth and Richard, who had flown down from Seattle to meet him and hear him perform. Dressed in black with a flaming fuchsia tie, he was in top form, a natural showman; Don and Bill were happy to play back-up and be background, each taking the mike for just a couple of solos. He introduced each of his songs with a personal narrative, snapshots from his colorful life unfolding throughout the evening. "Party Time" reflects the aftermath of his two divorces. He belts this one with gleeful vengeance: if you think I'm sitting around weeping and wailing without you, guess again—I'm living it up, baby. There were good times and bad; he tells about a prolonged depression and wonders in "Yellow Ball," "How the hell did I get down here so far / Any further down I would have used the car." He insists that he liked being married and looks forward to lucky number three; he just hasn't yet met his true mate. And when he does, it's going to be special—a drive-through wedding in Las Vegas. If she's the one, she'll share his enthusiasm and accept his proposal: "Would you meet me down in Vegas 'coz I've got Elvis standing by / As he sings Love Me Tender I'll say I'll love you till I die."


Over his ten-day visit, he regales us and our friends with sagas of months at a time on the road with his band and his more recent forays into movies and television. His beard is his calling card (literally—"John the Beard" is the moniker on his cards) and his look is what gets him cast when the call is for a biker, a thug, a seedy character or a lesser wizard. A three-day whirlwind filming trip in Athens, travels around the U.K. and western Europe; a Burger King commercial, a bit part in the second Harry Potter movie. His agent called last year to confirm that he still had the beard, and he was cast in the second Sherlock Holmes movie. He shows us a couple of photos of himself in costume, looking like a swindler or grave robber, some mid-nineteenth-century Dickensian lowlife in top hat and shaggy shapeless overcoat. These aren't speaking parts, but they pay well, support his music career, and of course he's always up for the adventure.

We took him to meet friends on one of his last nights, and over glasses of Prosecco, a platter of cheese and crackers, Eva asked what his first impressions were when he arrived. I felt I'd come home, he said. It didn't feel strange and new as you would expect, it was immediately familiar and comfortable. Like home. We knew the feeling—it was what we experienced on his side of the pond. Ten days have barely whetted his appetite—he isn't ready to go back to England, but shared custody of his son keeps him tethered for now.

The sun shone every day of his idyllic Southern California holiday, his delight heightened by the knowledge that it was cold and rainy at home. He's back there now, braving a particularly beastly winter, but his sights are set on a return visit, the sooner the better, once he raises seed money to produce a CD here with Don. New York has never interested him, just another big city like London, but he wants to drive cross-country, to visit Nashville and Austin for their country music scene, and of course Las Vegas. Life is a smorgasbord, days spread out for his enjoyment, an unending source of sustenance and surprise.


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