All the flags were at half-mast along the seven-hour drive from New York to the Canadian border. Occasionally, we would spot a message board outside a high school with words of support for the people of Newtown, Connecticut. It was the sole topic of conversation in the Arby's fast-food joint where we stopped for breakfast. An elderly couple next to us felt everybody should be allowed handguns, but that an AK-47 was more for Afghanistan than Main Street, USA. Our kids ignored the hot topic of the day, munched on roast-beef-and-fake-cheese buns and announced they wanted to live in America. After breakfast, we filled up at the nearby gas station, our huge family wagon costing just £38 to fill. It's a curious thing about American road trips: even the gas stations are rather exciting and glamorous, with their strange candies and never-before-seen drinks. The kids kept seeing place names that sounded similar to places on the shows they watch on loop on the Disney Channel.
"Is this where Good Luck Charlie is made?"
I gazed out over the rather grim, industrial landscape of inner New Jersey and rather doubted if anything had ever been filmed here except for some news story or two about the decline of the American industrial heartland. We had passed the Jersey Shore, recently decimated by Hurricane Sandy, and were not yet at Scranton, famously the birthplace of Vice-President Joe Biden and the location for the American version of The Office.
The halfway point was Binghamton, a university town in Upstate New York. I had some history with this unremarkable place. Way back in 1987, I was in a band called Hang David. I was the lead singer and a dead ringer for the Goth icon Robert Smith. We had an American bass player and he organised a little US tour for us. We played the legendary CBGB in New York, and then drove up to Binghamton where our bassist had been a student. He had got friends to advertise our concert by posting flyers around town. It was a curious sensation to drive into the place to find my jet-black overly crimped hair on every lamppost.
The band was billeted to various places in town, and the drummer and I arrived at our digs to find them completely trashed. We assumed there had been a burglary, but it turned out that our hosts' baseball team had just lost an important game and they had decided that an appropriate response to this was to destroy their own apartment. Fortunately, they were not gun-owners and most of the damage was done using baseball bats. There was a curious vibe to the whole place, so I was not surprised, when I was in New York researching a book in 2009, to hear on the news that there had been a shooting in Binghamton. A naturalised immigrant, Jiverly Wong, entered an immigration advice centre and shot 13 people dead before killing himself.
The gig itself went OK, as far as I can remember. I think we played a 17-minute cover version of "A Forest" by The Cure as an encore, but have no recollection of whether this went down well or not.