GENEVA, Switzerland — Through the summer and into the fall this year, North Dakota native Tim Anderson did what he has been doing for more than 20 years: spending nearly three months on a bicycle, with a compact tent and even more compact travel kit, crossing several international borders, experiencing changes of landscape, culture and language.
This year’s trek started in Bergen, Norway, and extended all the way up the coast past Trondheim into the Lofoten mountains, then across the Arctic in Sweden, on through Finland, then Russia near St. Petersburg and terminating in Riga, Latvia.
He spent a week recuperating (and relaxing) at an old Soviet sanitarium on the beach of the Baltic Sea.
He generally does this more than once a year, as he will this year when the next trip begins in November in North Vietnam ending three months later in Myanmar. For the last 20 years, he has spent nearly six months of each year on treks like this.
Tim is a dedicated traveler. He grew up in Valley City, and after several early forays to Europe while in high school and college he ended up living and raising a family in Geneva, Switzerland, where he has lived for over 30 years. He’s led a life of travel, entrepreneurship, amusement and flat-out curiosity. All of it with a great sense of community (more about that in the second part of this story in a couple weeks).
He’s a very personable guy. Smiles a lot, and easily. You look at him and you just trust him, as did many musicians, like Miles Davis, George Benson, Quincy Jones and Nina Simone, to name but a few he met and became friends with during the years he worked at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. More about that, too, in a moment. The fact that he did his job so well helped immensely.
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“I caught the travel bug while working to get my Scout badge," he says about his time in Valley City. "It was a way to get away from home. My first big bike ride was to the National Fish Hatchery, north of town about 5 miles. We were impressed with the big Indian totem pole there. We were sure it had been there for centuries.
"Then there was a 10-miler to Lake Ashtabula, farther north, which was a warm-up for the 25-miler. With a huge sleeping bag strapped to the top tube of my Stingray, my tent on the wheelie bar, I pedaled like a frenzied duck against a monstrous headwind, sure that the headwind was sent to keep me from getting my merit badge. Coasting downhill into Clausen Springs felt like sliding into home plate safely. Got the badge.”
The travel bug grew by increments. On the first family camping trip to Minnesota, Tim stared out the window at all the trees and lakes. When he was 12, the family of five and another family flew off to Europe and camped across the continent throughout the summer in a VW Beetle crammed full with kids.
The travel bug grew larger and more insistent. To move things along in the quest for travel, he needed a little luck.
“I’d lived in my first apartment above the Pizza Corner in Valley City just long enough to paint and do a college kid’s version of decorate. The place was drafty and cold, so I bought a cheap secondhand heater. I was playing chess with a friend, and we decided to hit last call at Spike's (a bar across the road). When the bar closed, we moved down the alley to some friends. The phone rang at 3 a.m. We assumed it was a complaint, which happened with some regularity, but it wasn’t. There really was a fire and we were told to evacuate. As I was going out, somebody said, ‘Tim, isn’t that your window with the flames coming out?’
I ran up the stairs in time to stop the firemen from bashing down my door and crawled on my stomach to show them the crappy heater that had fallen on its face and started the fire. While I was there, I used the smoke as cover while I stashed my bag of dope in the freezer. Of course I didn’t have my own insurance, but my parents' agent found a loophole saying that their insurance covered my place for the first couple of months that I was out of the house. The adjuster valued my pile of crap at $3,500. Bingo! Off I went to Europe.”
And this is where the rest of the story began. There couldn’t be a better description for Tim than the timeworn phrase “footloose and fancy-free.” Bumming around Europe, hitching and traveling by train, life was good. On a night train ride from Innsbruck, Austria, to Switzerland, they somehow were heading in the wrong direction and were awakened by dogs and guards with machine guns. It was still the Cold War and they had ended up on the Hungarian border, in no-man’s-land, and were shoved off the train. Could have been worse, I suppose.
Twenty-four hours later, they got back on another train, this one going in the right direction. There was a guy on the train sitting across from Tim reading a newspaper. He noticed a schedule for the Montreux Jazz Festival on the side he could see. The guy reading the paper was Claude Nobs, founder and director of the festival. Talk about luck.
Tim knew quite a lot about jazz already, having been intricately involved in production of the EBC Hit Parade at Valley City State University. This seemed to impress the impresario, and Tim was invited to stay at his chalet above Montreux for a week.
After a week of immersion in one of the most famous jazz scenes on the planet, Tim had gone to a dozen concerts, had a whale of a time and spent all of his money. Now he was broke and there were three more weeks before his return flight from Hamburg. He lived on spoiled produce from the street markets and snitching fruit from trees as he hitched north to Hamburg.
Back at VCSU, he vowed his job for the next summer would be working for Claude at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He sent many letters over many months with no reply. Undaunted and ever hopeful, he booked a ticket on People’s Express from New York to London (it was $99 back then on Freddy Laker’s groundbreaking discount airline experiment). He bummed $100 from his grandma to hitchhike to New York. Two days before setting off for New York, he got a letter from Claude. It was short but sweet, “Come before the festival and I’ll see what I can do.”
Arriving in London, he was challenged at immigration to show that he had enough money to live on while in Europe. They told him $60 wasn’t enough. They detained him and threatened to send him back home. Ever the resourceful soul (as would be proved time and again in the ensuing years), Tim remembered that his English professor in Valley City used to spend his summers in Cambridge.
He got on the phone and started randomly calling pubs in Cambridge, hoping somehow to find one of his prof’s colleagues. One would think this is a real shot in the dark, and in a normal world it would be. More luck. After the 11th call, he found a pub worker who remembered one of his professor’s pals. “He comes in here every day for lunch,” the bartender said.
Vouched for by his prof, the colleague pulled some strings so Tim could enter the country. A week later, having hitched to Montreux again, he put on his interview clothes and called Claude to set up the hire meeting. “He hired me over the phone, while I stood there in clothes I really didn’t need to bring with me at all,” he recalls. Remember, Tim really has a fetish about packing light. “Two days later, I was rubbing shoulders with George Benson who was so impressed with my broke hitchhiker story that he took me around and had me tell the story to all his friends,” Tim remembers.
That was the beginning of 12 years of privilege working at the festival, contributing in his own way to some concerts that have attained cult status in the world of jazz. Ray Charles, Sting, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Queen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Dizzy Gillespie, Rickie Lee Jones and thousands of others came through the festival over those 12 years. Tim rubbed shoulders with many of them, tasked with making their time there comfortable, and making sure they got on stage in time and, most importantly, in shape to perform.
Here are a few anecdotes:
“The first day, I was a guard at the back door. By the second day, I was working with the very professional stage crew because of what I had learned as a sound engineer and co-producer of the EBC Hit Parade back home. These guys toured with some big names: Prince, Whitney Houston, AC/DC and more. I learned from the very best.”
“There were lots of videos made during performances over those years. I can be seen plugging in Brian May’s guitar radio-pack, dancing in the aisles to Tania Maria, adjusting Phil Collins' hi-hat cymbal or handing a guitar to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s technician.”
Staying at Claude’s chalet the second year, he had the only room with a phone, so he fielded lots of calls. He picks up the receiver one day and hears, “This is Miles.” He thought, "Yeah, right, I'm being pranked." But being a patient listener, he let the guy talk and realized it was Miles Davis. And he needed some help. This was during one of Miles’ addiction phases, so Tim organized a cure at a treatment center near Montreux. The next time Miles was at the festival, he wanted a Lamborghini to drive around. Tim found a guy who would let him use his car, free, if Miles would pose for a photograph in front of the car, with the owner. Deal. When he showed up, Miles saw that the car was yellow, not red, and he hated yellow. Deal off. Talent can be flighty. Further examples abound.
“Alanis Morissette had us erect a curtain between the stage and her dressing room so no one could see her backstage. It was a wonder she could deal with the crowd.”
“Keith Jarrett had us search for an Imperial Bösendorfer piano (2 feet longer than normal, with 97 keys, rather than 88, and over 1,200 pounds), which took us hours to find, and hours more to tune. He played one note, and decided to keep the Yamaha we had prepared for him on stage. I was opening my mouth to speak my mind, but my boss cut me short. Later, he told me that Keith wanted the fabric on the stage ironed. I moaned and groaned about his prima-donna behavior, but got on with the job in the usual ND manner, with zeal and seriousness, determined to do a good job, but as the crew came out to see what I was doing, and then went off laughing, I realized that they were hazing me! We still have a good laugh about it.”
“Nina Simone, who had been ripped off by her manager for years, insisted on being paid in cash just before going on stage one year. I arranged it for her and from then on I was her impresario, no matter how unpredictable she could be. I am still deeply moved when I hear her voice in a recording. She was part of the best that happened in Montreux, thanks to Claude.”
For many years, Montreux was the gold standard of music festivals. And it brought out the best in the musicians. The best sound and recording engineers, lighting and cameramen, video producers and so on. Just search for "Live at Montreux" concerts and recordings to see why. There are thousands of them.
Quincy Jones (famously Michael Jackson’s producer), who worked with everyone from Sinatra to rap stars, was the co-producer of the festival for three years. Tim became the person in charge of rehearsals for many of the one-off concerts that became TV specials or films.
“My job was to create the conditions that would smooth the egos, make everyone feel at home and comfortable and make rehearsals run smoothly. Miles came, despite being seriously ill with pneumonia. Pro that he was, he found the strength to perform, and died a few months later. This would be his final recording,” he says.
Twelve years provided lots of memories, some of which have faded over time, but being put on the spot to recall the details, many of them return. One thing he remembers well is meeting his future wife at one of the festivals. She is Swiss and when Tim graduated from VCSU, he moved to Geneva and enrolled for a degree in development studies at the university there.
“It was an unusual institution with a cosmopolitan mix of future diplomats, Latin American rebels and sons of African leaders. I was the only North American and the instruction was in French, which I did not speak. So I would take notes phonetically and my wife would help find them in the dictionary after class at night. In a few months, I had learned university French, but could hardly ask for a loaf of bread,” he recalls.
The rest of the story begins here: more bike tales involving building and selling custom ones; more world treks; teaching English to Swiss bankers; coaching and teaching entrepreneurs; initiating community-centered banking alternatives and shared ownership; and more. That's all coming in the next part of Tim's story.
Editor's note: This is the first installment of Murray Lemley's two-part story about North Dakota native Tim Anderson. The conclusion will be published Sunday, Oct. 27.