The thick snow swoons around the plane as I look out one of my pair of little windows onto a blizzard strewn Denver runway and I think if this was Ireland and the weather was kicking up so this plane would never be cleared to leave the ground. In fact, we would never have boarded in the first place. But Denver is made of sterner stuff. This plane will take off. I know this because I'm writing these words in the air.
Last Christmas at home in Ireland, the snow came in early December and its arms hugged tight the UK and Ireland well into the New Year. We were powerless against its beautiful disruption unaccustomed as we were to heavy snow more akin to Belgrade than Belfast. Trains and flights were all interrupted and often stilled completely as those two wee islands were held captive by the elements. With spectacular forward planning, local governments ran out of grit to salt the roads after about three days, so it was near impossible to even drive a little to do holiday shopping or go to that all important Christmas party so one could finally throw some shapes at the copy boy or receptionist we'd been clumsily flirting with for most of the year (I've learned much of what I know of office life from TV sitcoms). We were at a stand-still. And by all accounts the same halting snow is in store back home this year too, so that's something to look forward to. Denver though, as I say, is made of sterner stuff.
First though we move gingerly to the de-icing machine to wait our turn to have snow and, as the pilot puts it rather alarmingly, 'contaminates' blasted off the plane's outer shell. It's no mystery why the language of flight is laced with danger words - emergency, crash landing, brace position, two and a half men, Bloody Marys - as these words pique our interest enough to perhaps prevent flippancy. However, it seems a little excessive to have to lumber us with the idea that we are covered in 'contaminates' before we are propelled against all laws of good sense, physics and propriety into (literal) thin air at 600 miles an hour. What ARE these potential contaminates you speak of dear pilot? What, aside from ice, which you referred to separately could be on this goddamn thing? Acid spills? Monkeys? Giant sea anemones? Ryan Reynolds? (I like the man. It's hard not to as in interviews he comes across as smart, funny and self-effacing but my point here is that he is everywhere, so why not the side of this plane?) Is it my dad's secret stash of Poitin they're hosing off the side of the aircraft? Poitin is a potato-based alcohol made illegally in Ireland for centuries that, if imbibed, can conjure blindness, madness or even death and sometimes all three if taken regularly. In fact, as it is 90 proof, a single swig can lead to any one of these symptoms as one can, I've been told, just simply be poisoned. By all accounts a lovely wee drop then. What else could be lurking out there in the wild, white oblivion lingering unwelcome on the freezing metal casing of our New York bound projectile? Is it some nasty aircraft-sucking alien that harvests the planes aluminium, slowly eking it from the 747's skeleton as the flight progresses until at some point we are tantamount to an airborne, blustery peanut gallery careening though the air like a flying cinema audience searching, rather audaciously, for a silver screen? Just seats in the sky. It may now be abundantly clear dear reader that I am not a great flyer. No, not at all.
I used to be a happy flyer. Ever since my first flight from Belfast as a boy on a school trip to London, I was enthralled with flight. I sat wrapt as the stewardess read the safety instructions, too excited to care of their meaning, simply marvelling at her ungainly gestures and indoor life jacket. Then I figured out pressing a little metal button on the right hand of my armrest made my seat lurch back and forth and I explored the boundaries and implications of this discovery for some considerable time. The chap in the seat behind me was not so enamoured with my new favourite thing and told me this numerous times. It had little impact as I was 10, and on holiday without my mum for the first time in my life and my teachers were much further up the plane. I was pretty much just an unsupervised monkey-boy intent on rampant, if essentially harmless, mischief. Seat goes back, seat goes forward (this is perhaps why I love The Simpsons so much too - "bed goes up, bed goes down"). And then, joy of joys, when we started to thunder along the runway and finally, unbelievably, weightlessly, gloriously lifted our little wheels from earth into nascent sky I actually screamed out "WHOO-HOO". I really did. I still count it among my favourite things that ever happened to me. In fact I think it may have been the first thing I told my mum on the phone that night from the lobby of our London hotel. "How is London?" she asked, excited and proud her little man was out exploring one the most glamorous and historically compelling capitals of the world. "Oh, London's fine I suppose," I mumbled, perhaps idly twirling the springy phone cord on the old style phone boxes around my neck and hands and then, remembering, bouncing to life and saying, "But when the plane took off I loved it so much I shouted 'WHOO-HOO' really loud and was told to shush by Mr Yates". Oh how proud she must have been then. Her little man, an idiot monkey-boy that shouldn't be allowed outside the house never mind out of the country.
But all that childlike wonder changed on a flight about six years ago from Auckland, New Zealand to LAX. The 14-hour flight over uninterrupted ocean hummed along nicely enough initially with movies and peanuts and whatnot for the first seven hours and then BOOM! A thud like we'd been hit by a missile that shook through the plane like a lion's roar. This followed by a straight drop for about 500 feet (who knows but it felt like forever) until BOOM again on the underside of the plane where I'm guessing we were caught in the hand of heavier air. It felt, however, more like a spectacular punch in the ass.
For the next three hours, yes THREE HOURS, the plane drunkenly stumbled through Pacific time zones like a sleepy gorilla that had been rudely awakened by a hunter's gunshot and was now doing his best through half-closed eyes to cover as much ground as possible in the flailing hope of neutralizing the threat by some wild accident. At one point, I could have sworn we were lodged in Godzilla's mouth while he shook his head like a wet dog. If hell on earth (or at least within the earth's atmosphere) is a place I've been to it was then, in those three hours.
The stewardesses were alerted by the pilot to take their seats and those seats happened to be right in front of mine. The look on their faces said it all. They had been all smiles and calm reassurance for the first 30 minutes or so of this madness, but the veneer of placidity was cracking and in their eyes I began to glimpse the kind of fear I was myself feeling. This was some news I really didn't need. Our guitar player Nathan was in the seat beside me (he is again today) and up to that point we had both been looking dead ahead, locked in frozen, silent panic that perhaps if broken by a glance either side would lead to the real rot setting in. This, though, was just too much. Our eyes met and I swear to God I'm not ashamed to say it but at the exact same time we both reached for the other's hand our fingers locked and white in an ever tightening vice. Nathan too cites this flight as the formation of his fear of flying and no wonder, as it was the single most terrifying thing I have ever been through, and I sat through the entirety of Hudson Hawk. When we touched down in LA, we vowed never to get on another flight ever again. The next day we flew to Portland.
This is the thing, you just can't do a job like this and not get on a plane. If you want to do well all around the world you have to fly there. Sure, in theory you could go by boat and rail but instead of being able to do 150-250 gigs a year you limit yourself to about 20. That or you could just never leave your home and where the hell is the fun in that?
This week alone we have played three radio acoustic sessions per day in L.A., San Diego, San Francisco, Portland and Denver and now we're on our giddy (Bloody Marys) way to New York, which is my favourite place on earth. To say we have a blessed life is a ridiculous understatement. We have the life I dreamed I would have when I was a kid playing my tennis racket guitar along to AC/DC records and a little flight fever isn't going to stand in the way of us living that dream for as long as it's offered to us. So a raised vodka and tomato juice to you all from 39,000ft above America. There is peace up here, I know there is.