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22 March 2017

Kate Mossman on extreme pop tourism: who would fly 5,000 miles for a gig?

Glen Campbell’s daughter says, “Dad, she’s come 5,000 miles to see you!” I add, “How sad is that?”

By Kate Mossman

I only became a journalist because I once travelled five thousand miles to see Glen Campbell do a concert, and a friend said that if I liked him that much, maybe I should write about it.

I was working for a children’s charity at the time. Consulting a seating plan of the venue on my work computer, I established that A15 was in the middle of the front row. If I sat there, I would be about 12 feet away from Campbell. The seat lay in suburban Los Angeles – so I saved pound coins in a Quality Street jar from August 2006, and in March the following year I set off.

I knew that LA was the size of Wales. I can’t drive, but planned to take buses from Santa Monica as far as they went and walk the rest of the 42.4 miles to the Haugh Performing Arts Centre at 1,000 W Foothill Boulevard, Glendora. On the appointed day, I marched along a motorway, Discman in hand, listening to “Wichita Lineman”. I was helped along by a wall of warm air from the side of passing trucks. My eyes streamed with wind and grit.

In the foyer of the venue, a man was talking on his mobile phone: “Dude – I’m here. The demographic is, like, deceased.” He was right to say the crowd was on the older side. Glen was 70 then, and yet to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

I watched him singing in that effortless way of his: the keyboard player once said, “It’s like a bird flying. It’s like someone breathing. It is easy for him.” His hands looked smooth and papery like the ones on the armrests next to me. His daughter, whom I’d chatted to on the Glen Campbell Fan Forum, took me into the wings and said, “Dad, Kate has come all the way from London to see you!”

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“How sad is that!” I snapped at Glen. Embarrassment is one of the principal emotions associated with extreme music tourism, should you actually meet the artist.

On finding I had no means of getting back to my hostel that night, a middle-aged couple took me to their car for energy bars and bottled water. They went an hour and a half out of their way for me, making a detour by the campus of Pepperdine University at midnight and up to the floodlit memorial to Thomas E Burnett, Jr, one of the men who bust their way into the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11.

After that night, gigs became my access to Middle America, an excuse to get to towns and suburbs I’d never otherwise see. Stranded in the mountains of Colorado after the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I hitchhiked back to Denver with five frat boys who passed around a Coke-bottle bong. I learned how to while away a night in picket-fence towns with unspoken curfews and venues that chucked out by ten. CVS Pharmacy and Dunkin’ Donuts are the places to go, if you’ve enough battery left on your phone to locate them.

I flew to America to see Bruce Hornsby in freezing Albany, upstate New York, two winters back. Hours on the train track after the gig, no other passengers. A police car watched at a distance till the Amtrak ground in at 1.30am.

I get a kick from the effort and uncertainty of it: the tight connections, interminable waits and the addictive, stoned state you slip into from travelling for far too long. The alienation is counterbalanced by the strange comfort of spending the night in a room with the musician who soundtracks your daily commute back home. On a deserted platform in a closed-up town, with everyone you know fast asleep across the Atlantic, you’re just a leaf edging across a vast continent. Anything could happen to you.

Hornsby played in Pennsylvania this month. I was the only non-Amish person on the bus to Intercourse. I fed on samples from the Amish relish factory, and at dusk I walked miles to find a motel down a strip of road with no sidewalk, past a jumble of old gravestones pushed together in the middle of a modern traffic island.

I dumped my bag and jogged down the dual carriageway to the venue, arriving as the band took to the stage. For them, it was just another gig.

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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