On Thanksgiving Eve, 2006, I flew alone to London, England for the second time in my life to play The 12 Bar Club. I never made it through Heathrow.
I’d been to London twice before, once to play a show there at the 12 Bar. It was a tiny music club in the Soho district. The stage was small but elevated above the three or four rows of theater seats that were filled by only a handful in the audience. Standing on that stage, my head almost reached the small balcony and I’m only 5’4″. Onstage one towered above the 20 or so folks on the floor and the balcony felt like it was in your lap. It was awkward and charming. A kind, rock and roll bloke named Andy booked it and welcomed me as if I was somebody. I loved its graffiti-full walls, cider-soaked bar. I never made any money there, but I was just starting out and was grateful to be able to say I played in London.
In September 2006, I flew to London for a meeting with international distributors at the behest of the president of my record label. I didn’t know what this meant, but was happy to be flown there on someone else’s dime. I was told to bring my guitar and that I’d be playing a few songs off my debut record for the UK team. The day before I flew out of JFK Airport, my manager told me that the label had set up a private showcase outside of London, but that I would not be making any money and I should not tell the Immigration Agents at Heathrow that I was there to play a show. I should tell them I’m a tourist and that I have one meeting with my record label, which is why I have the guitar. At that time, visas for musicians were expensive and hard to come by and I did not have a UK booking agent to vouch for me. I was naïve and young(er) and was following directions, trusting in those with whom I worked.
That morning in September, I landed at 6am, stood in the interminable line through customs, and when it was my turn, I told the agent, “I here to visit friends and to play a few songs at my international distributor’s office.” He perked up, seemed friendly and engaging. “Ah. You’re a musician?” “Yes sir,” I replied. “What kind of music do you play?” I said, “Folk music. I’m from New York City.” He smiled and said, “Bob Dylan or British Isles?” We chatted a bit more, I gave him my website and my myspace url’s as he seemed honest in his interest. Then I passed through. The rest of that September trip was fairly unmemorable. A small show in Putney. I probably sold a few CDs but made no money as it was a ‘showcase’. I’m not even sure what that meant, but my guess is that the label president called the venue and asked them to do her a favor so that I could play a short set and she could invite a few industry folks to hear me in a club setting.
Two months later, on the night before Thanksgiving, I was flying yet again back to London on the red eye. This time, for only the one show at The 12 Bar Club, and then, a day later, flying onto Vienna to meet my band, The Tearjerks, to begin a tour of Germany and Austria. The band would be traveling together a few days after Thanksgiving with our tour manager. The entire tour had been put together by my label and my manager. We would be playing clubs from Vienna to Berlin, stopping by radio stations to play on air and do interviews, playing afternoon shows at local record stores. It all seemed so exciting and thrilling. My first European Tour! I’d never been to Germany or Austria.
Per usual, I took the red eye, landing at Heathrow at about 6am. Guitar on my back, I waited in the line that said, “Non EU Citizens”. When it was my turn, I smiled at the agent and handed him my passport. He looked at it sternly, then typed a few things into his computer. Looked at it again. Looked at the computer screen. Then at me.
“Have you been to the UK before?” he asked.
“Yes, I was here in September.”
“Did you play a show here in London?” he stated flatly.
I stammered a bit. “Um. No. I mean, I played but it was not a real show. I was not paid. I didn’t even know I was playing a show until I landed.” And that was a kind of lie, I’ll admit now. I had been told I would be playing a show but to say that I wasn’t playing a show. I wasn’t really being paid. Not that anyone starting out is ever really paid, but that’s what I was told so that’s the story I stuck with.
“I came to London to visit friends and to meet with my distributor. When I got here, my label had set up a showcase. I did not know about this until I was there.”
The agent didn’t believe me.
I said, “I wasn’t paid anything.”
He said, “That doesn’t concern me.” Then, “The agent you must have spoken to in September noted that you had a show advertised on your myspace.”
MYSPACE? I did not put any show on my website calendar or my myspace. I wouldn’t have as I was told to conceal it. But, somehow it had gotten there and I knew I’d been caught. I stayed true to the semi-white-now-beige lie.
“My manager or label person must have put that up there. I did not. I swear I didn’t even know about it until I was in London.”
He led me to a group of chairs cordoned off. Took my passport and said, “Wait here.” I had my cell phone. I texted Julia who worked with my management company. “Did you put the show in September on my Myspace?” I had no idea what time it was in NYC at that point, but I suspected she was asleep. I wasn’t allowed to call her. I was sweating. Of course she did. I was going to kill her.
A few minutes later, the agent returned and said, ‘Please follow me’ and walked me down long hallways to some area of Heathrow that I can only call Immigration Jail. I was put in a locked room. They took my cell phone and personal belongings. And I waited for what seemed like hours. Every once in a while a new agent or two would enter, sit down across from me with a file they wouldn’t show me, look at my Passport, then at me and ask the same questions. Were you here in September to play a show and did not secure a Visa? Why are you here now? Where is your Visa? I kept to my story.
After what seemed like the entire day, another agent came in and barked at me that I was here illegally and would be returned to NYC on the next flight that afternoon. I started to cry. This was real. “Please don’t send me back. I have to be in Vienna in two days and I’m a broke folk musician and literally I did not know. Please, I won’t be able to afford another ticket back to Vienna at this point and I won’t make it in time. This is my first European Tour. Please…” I laid my head on the table and cried. Hard. It was real, but I’m also a trained actress so I’m pretty sure I put some oomph in the breakdown. Mascara definitely streamed.
They led me out to a room with other people waiting their fate. I sat in a row of chairs across from a polka band of men in turbans from Syria. They looked at me as if to ask, ‘What the hell are YOU doing here?’ One agent asked me if I was hungry, as it was nearing late afternoon at this point and I’d had nothing to eat or drink. He brought me an egg sandwich and a cappuccino from a machine. I remember thinking that the British were way more civilized than we are. Cappuccino.
Finally, it was decided that I would be flown to Vienna. I would miss the show at the 12 Bar. They wouldn’t give me my phone or my passport until I landed in Austria, literally, put my feet down on Austrian soil. I begged to no avail as I wanted to call and let Andy know that Iw wasn’t just a no-show. At least I wasn’t being sent home. Two agents escorted me through Heathrow to the gate for the flight to Vienna. They spoke sternly to the stewardess, to whom they gave my passport, and I was allowed to board before anyone else. It must have been clear to everyone that I was some kind of fugitive because everyone stared at me as they entered the plane. It was a full flight, and a woman and her husband sat next me, trying to move as far away from me as possible in the small space. I still did not have my purse or my cell phone so I couldn’t call anyone. I would be literally landing in Vienna without money, without a hotel room, having bailed on my 2nd London gig at a club I loved. And it was my Thanksgiving Day. Believe me, when the bar cart came around, I ordered two beers. The woman next to me sneered.
Exiting the plane, the stewardess handed me my things literally as my foot touched the tarmac. They weren’t kidding around. I immediately made a few phone calls to the US to let people know what had happened. I called my manager, “This was not my fault, call the club and tell them what happened, but before you do, please call a nice hotel and get me a room, a nice room, I am owed that, I’d think. Also, it’s Thanksgiving and I’m going out to dinner to a nice restaurant and you can send the bill to our label.” She texted me an address within the half hour and I was in a cab headed to the center of Vienna.
After a shower, I was famished and started walking the streets of Old Vienna, dressed up like a Christmas Tree, markets everywhere. It was a fairy tale. It was snowing and freezing and I felt like a child full of wonder. I was alone and lost in Vienna, hungry and tired. I wandered, looking at signs on buildings. I love walking alone, especially in foreign cities. I’m never afraid, always curious and I like traveling alone more than with people. That way I can sway with the wind, change my mind, change trains, change directions. I can meet people, strangers, or I can stay alone in a cafe all day long writing about strangers I observe. I can drink alone. Eat alone. Go to the theater alone. Wandering. It’s what I do well.
In the crowd, I heard a voice speaking English. I turned. It was a couple nearby. I walked to them.
“Excuse me, I’m so sorry to interrupt, but you speak English?”
They said, “Yes, we are from Canada.”
“Thank God!” I said, and explained that I was in Vienna by myself and it was Thanksgiving and I wanted to eat something traditional and had never been here. And I didn’t speak German.
“What is your price point?” the man asked.
“There is none. I’m a musician. It’s a long story but this will be an owed dinner by my label and management for stranding me. They don’t know it yet.”
He and his companion laughed. They pointed me down the street to what they called the finest Viennese restaurant they knew. They worked for NATO and had to meet a colleague, but both said they’d join me later for a drink if I’d like, and left me there.
When the waiter came to my table, I said, “It is my country’s Thanksgiving Holiday and I’m not supposed to be here and I’m not supposed to be alone so somebody owes me this dinner. If I’ve never been here, what would you suggest is your finest meal and please bring me a bottle of whatever red you’d suggest would go with it.” He smiled, took the menu out of my hands and said, ‘we’ll take care of you.” It felt like the restaurant staff adopted me that night, bringing me one course after another. I ate reindeer, I think. It could have been elk. I have no idea, but there was an elderberry sauce and it was spectacular and I drank the whole bottle of wine by myself. My NATO friends came to join me for dessert and port. We wandered the streets near midnight, sang Christmas Carols and walked through the markets. I’m pretty sure I even drank some Gluhwein, god awful stuff. After hours in Heathrow Jail, I was owed this magic. It was a snowy, cold, crisp night. The stars were out. The lights were as lit as I was.
I never even looked at the bill. Handed the waiter my American Express Card, then when the bill came for that, just sent it to my manager. I can only imagine what that dinner cost and I don’t remember the name of the restaurant or the name of my companions or even what I ate, but I’ll never forget that Thanksgiving, alone in foreign countries, where things could have gone very badly but ended on a beautiful snowy night in Vienna.
I double check everything these days, I don’t take anyone’s word for anything. I do my own planning unless I hire a tour manager. And after that trip, I’ve never gone to the UK without a proper visa.