I am not sure what compels artists and musicians to seek out places where their heroes/mentors lived or died. I have been reading Patti Smith’s book “Just Kids” and she often refers to famous events that occurred at the precise spot she was inhabiting at that moment: The place where Dylan Thomas lived shortly before his death or the place where so and so was murdered, etc. She visits France to trace the hangouts where Beaudelaire lived and died. Her pilgrimage like so many others to the Père Lachaise cemetery to visit Jim Morrison’s grave that lies among hundreds of luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Molière et al.
Stories of pilgrimages abound. I recently read “Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain which details a tour of Europe and the Middle East which is best described as a pilgrimage. Holy sites, the very streets where DaVinci walked, the river Jordan where John The Baptist did his thing. The Mount of Olives, etc. There is a certain comfort and insight to visiting these places. To tread on the ground where our heroes trod.
I think my first experience of this kind of visit to a dedicated site of remembrance to a famous person was seeing Louis Riel’s grave in Winnipeg and seeing the remnants of the coffin in which he was carried to his final resting place. I caught the bug. Tangible History.
My most recent pilgrimage was to England and Wales where a millenia of my ancestors had lived and breathed. My ancestors invaded Great Britain in 1066 with William The Conqueror. Although I did not visit an exact place, I had a strange sense of belonging where the accents all resembled my Grandfather’s.
I once asked my Grandfather why he had an accent only to be rebuked with: ”I don’t have an accent, YOU do!, I am British!”.
On my agenda for this trip overseas was a trip to London where I needed to see the Abbey Road crosswalk and the studio where so much great music was produced. I also wished to see “Berkeley Square” of the famous song “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” and Trafalgar Square of the song lyric “I Was Born In Trafalgar Square, If it’s Good Enough For Nelson, It’s Good Enough For Me”. We also ate and drank at a very Dickensian pub that had been frequented by Charles Dickens. I also wanted to visit 21B Baker Street which didn’t look at all like what I had imagined, but I came to the realization that it had also been imagined in the first place by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was visiting a shrine that was fictional…
Our stay in North Wales was less than two hours from Liverpool, so we made a day trip and were able to visit Strawberry Field and Penny Lane and The Cavern Club replica as well as the actual site of the Cavern Club and all the other Kitschy Beatlesesque nostalgia sites. We were ten minutes too late for the last Magical Mystery Tour, but so be it. My eyes were opened to a different reality from what I had imagined. John Lennon’s childhood home and neighbourhood resembled many in my home town. If I had done more research, and we had had more time I might have visited William Blake’s grave.
Later that same year, I visited New York which I do fairly frequently. On this occasion I visited the “Strawberry Field” and the Imagine commemoration in the shadow of “The Dakota” where John Lennon had been murdered. Other places and “shrines” I visited in NY include all the Jazz clubs and/or places where they had existed. 52nd street sure ain’t what it used to be, The Apollo Theatre. Bleecker Street and all the folkie haunts. Just walking the streets of Greenwich Village was inspiring although like everything else in the capitalist world, it is ruined by gentrification and cheesy tourist traps. Broadway and Times Square with their rich history did not impress me, but seeing the “Brill Building” where so much great pop music came from was inspirational.
I live in Montreal, which was home to Leonard Cohen. There are wonderful large posthumous murals of him in several locations around the city. His duplex on Ste. Dominique street has been the spot that people go to to reminisce and to somehow get a taste of where so much great art came from. My girls both attended the elementary school where Leonard had gone to school and played in Murray Hill Park just a Stone’s throw away from Leonard’s ancestral home (although we didn’t know it at the time). Leonard is buried on Mount Royal between Westmount and The Plateau (his two homes). Mount Royal Cemetery has many famous people in it, although maybe not world famous. Former Prime Ministers, etc. The Anna of “Anna and the King of Siam” is buried there.
What inspired me to write about shrines today was a picture I saw yesterday of a musician (Jon Wurster) in front of Bob Dylan’s childhood home in Hibbing Minnesota. The picture was accompanying a story about how the same musician had opened up for Bob Dylan and during soundcheck he pocketed a Kleenex from Dylan’s area on stage. A souvenir he kept to this day.
Bob Dylan has some famous stories of visiting shrines. The film footage of him and Alan Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave come to mind as well as the time Dylan was on tour in Winnipeg and he visited the home that Neil Young had lived in as a teenager. The present owners were awestruck… or the time Dylan was walking around in a hoodie in New Jersey to get the vibe of Bruce Springsteen’s stomping grounds. He was picked up by a young police officer for vagrancy and had no ID. He was amused that the “kid” didn’t know who he was but is now legendary in the precinct because the older cops sure as hell knew.
In the early 2000’s I drove my family out west to Winnipeg to visit friends I had made during my four years living there in the late 1980’s and also so my wife at the time could record an album at a studio complex owned and run by a former student of mine. We had our two young daughters in tow and our lovely dog, Stardust. It is a Loooooooong trip from Montreal to Winnipeg. With two kids in tow it meant park stops and pee breaks and motel stays. If I drove non-stop it would take about 25 hours. to traverse the 2300 kilometres, so you can imagine how long it took us in a mini van with all the kiddie stops…. We went south of Lake Superior as I wanted to partially retrace my hitch hiking adventure from when I was sixteen years old and decided to hitch hike to the Yukon to see my sister.
I wanted to see the town of Marquette where I had been stranded and where some hippies had picked me up from the side of the road near midnight after I had just been hit by a flying beer bottle thrown by some local redneck hoodlums and the hippies made me a palette on the floor. I wish I knew who they were, because they really comforted me at a low point.
Also on my list was Duluth, Minnesota where Dylan had been born and Hibbing, Minnesota where he “came from”. Hibbing was a detour for us. It took us about two hours out of the way on an alternate route to Winnipeg. My goal was to seek out his house and have my picture taken in front of it. I can’t stress enough how important this was to me. Don’t forget that this trip was pre-cell phone and pre-internet. I had taken the time to research the addresses from the several biographical sources that I owned and had a visual from one of them. I may have even brought one of those books with me… We found the house, and from the street I could see the bedroom window where Bob had dreamed and started playing and writing. I posed for my photograph and my wife took several. Mission accomplished. We saw the strip mining area that brought people to Hibbing in the first place and drove past the high school and the location where the Zimmermans had a dry goods store and a theatre. Hibbing is pretty “fly-over America” it is stuck in a time warp and the chances of my ever going back are pretty close to zero.
Everybody was itching to get to our destination which was another six hours away. I thanked my family for indulging me that detour, but now it was off my “bucket list”(not that I have a bucket list, per se).
We got to our friend’s house just south of the city and had dinner and I settled the girls down for the night with a bed time story. They were acting weird and conspiratorial and I asked them “What’s up?” They said “we promised mom we wouldn’t tell!” “Tell what?” I replied “We don’t keep secrets in our house”. They both blurted out “There was no film in the camera!” “Mummy told us not to tell.” …………….
The picture I saw of Jon Wurster in front of Bob’s house should have been me.