Friday, 17 September 2010

The Toilet Circuit

I was having a shufty through some old articles and having a bit of a clean out. I came across a short story that I had written a few years back when this incarnation of the band was still performing for 60 quid in the corner of the 3 Sugar Loaves. These were thankless gigs and hard work all round.
The Story made me chuckle and brought back a few memories so I thought I would share it with you again.
So pour yourself a beer, make your self a cup of coffee, sit back and share the experince of being on the road once again.

The Toilet Circuit

Sid pushed himself back into the upholstery of Bernie's car and yawned. He didn't know why, but he always had this feeling of fatigue on the way to a gig. Sid wondered if this was nerves although he had never suffered from stage fright. When other band members had been bringing up their lunch in the porcelain shrines, Sid didn't feel a flutter of fear. Perhaps he did. Perhaps this was his way of dealing with the panic that saturated many performers before they walked on to the stage. Instead of feeling as if the world was about to end and that he was going to evacuate every last meal he had ever eaten one way or another, Sid just wanted to climb under a duvet somewhere and go sound asleep.

He wound down the passenger window and sucked in a deep breath of ice cold February air and tried to focus on what was going to happen this evening. He ran through the mental check list that he always held in his head before a gig like this. PA, had all the leads been packed? He could remember when somebody had taken some out of the case once before and then forgot to put them back. A right royal bunch of plonkers they had felt on the night. All revved up and nowhere to go. Especially when they had to rush off and find replacements, leaving Reg to put the PA up on his own, a major gamble in itself as Reg preferred the company of a pint of Guinness to graft any day of the week.

Guitars, check. Stands, check, set list. Ah the set list. Sid had left that sitting on the printer tray on several occasions and had to phone home and get his wife to read it out to him. You try and find a pen that works and a dry piece of paper behind any bar in this country. Not possible.

The first game of chance of the evening now came into play. Would they be able to find anywhere to park the car? Or would they end up doing that strange perverse ballet of emptying the car in the road, whilst being shouted at by a myriad of impatient taxi drivers, then navigating the gear through a pub crowded with after work office drinkers whilst Bernie endeavoured to stow the car somewhere that wouldn’t result in him being towed away.
Tonight, Lady luck was with them. There was a single space at the rear of the pub. Sid offered a grateful prayer of thanks to the patron saint whose sole responsibility it was to guarantee parking spaces to weary travellers and musicians.
As Sid wearily uncoiled himself from the car the all so familiar perfume of the rear of a city pub hit in full in the face. This particular establishment had it’s own particular heady aroma, that of rotting fish (next to the pub was a particularly good fish and chip shop) and urine. Sid could never fully understand why the human male, having consumed several pints of the amber nectar, felt the need to piss up the side of wheelie bins, especially when they had passed perfectly good bathroom facilities only a few feet away inside the very same establishment they had just vacated. Perhaps it was all part of the ritual. Like offering a flame to a glass of Sambuca, or nosing the bouquet of a fine wine or even swilling expensive vintage Brandy around the side of a crystal glass, the experience of eight pints of lager could only be enhanced, tackle out, swaying slightly, singing 'Danny Boy' or something suitably Irish whilst splashing your shoes.

Everybody slotted into their own particular roles of responsibility at this point. Years of touring these venues had shown them that everybody had a job to do, and Sid's was to make sure that the pub hadn't double booked. More than once they had arrived to find some spotty punk rocker or slightly suicidal folkie lamenting the death of the fairies in the band's place simply because the landlord couldn’t be bothered to buy a new diary. Of course the pub couldn’t care less who turned up as long as the punters were 'entertained'.
Tonight was going well, the crew of the Fox & Turnip were expecting them, and due to a particularly depressing set the night before from a singer whose wife had dumped him for somebody slightly less morbid, were actually pleased to see them.

Sid’s other job was to clear the space where they were going to set up of drinkers. By drinkers I mean suits and skirts that knew that they really ought to go home, but had already fallen over their own safety limited, and were by now under the false illusion that their partners were not going to flay them alive when they staggered home, 'as the newt' a full four or five hours late.
Sid engaged in the usual banter with the drinkers. 'Yes he was in the band', 'no they couldn't join in as it sounded bad enough as it was', 'No they did not play any flamin Bob Dylan'. Why did these people always want to hear Bob Dylan? Sid bet that not one of them owned a Bob Dylan record, he suspected they couldn’t even name a Bob Dylan song let alone recognise one if they heard it. Yet still the call went up every time.
He thought he'd been clever one night when some drunk had yelled 'Got any Donovan'. Sid had replied 'What! Jason Donovan?' Thankfully the drunk was a lousy pitcher and the glass was empty. However; Sid had learnt a lesson, don't take the Mick out of drunks, they don't like it!

As Sid cleared the space, the acrid air full of smoky promise bit into the back of his throat. Now Sid didn't object to people who smoked in pubs, far from it. In the day he used to smoke those foul smelling French things himself, that was until his wife gave him the ultimatum. 'Smoke those things, and sleep on the sofa!' It was just every time he performed in a smoky pub his mother's voice would ring in his ear 'Remember what happened to Roy Castle'. Sid did, and yet he kidded himself that Roy had another chance, he would have done it all over again. Of course Sid didn't have the first hand experience of feeling your lungs implode as the cancer ate its own body. But hey! Sid always thought, live fast die young!!! which by now wasn’t strictly true in his case. Even so, when in doubt, delude yourself that it will never happen to you. That was Sid's philosophy and he was sticking to it.

By now, the rest of the band had appeared including Nev who was acting as roadie for the evening. They staggered under the weight of the guitars and the small PA that would hopefully give Sid and the boys at least a fighting chance of being heard over the din of the pub.
No matter how many times they had put the gear together, the boys never seemed to tune into one another and always ended up tangled in leads and straps and tripping over cases.
As Bernie was putting together a small drum kit that required neither leads, mics nor tuning he was invariably finished before anybody else and was generally first at the bar.
Signalling towards Sid, he made the universal sign of 'Do you want a beer?' this involved a mime of an individual lifting an imaginary glass to his lips.
Choosing the right beer had become quite an issue for Sid. A life time lager drinker he had been devastated to learn that his favourite brew, far from being simply ‘reassuringly expensive’ was in fact nicknamed by almost everybody as ‘wife beater’. Sid always thought himself to be a man of peace, kind to animals and children. And yet to discover that his favourite beverage was the fuel that leathered up the more Neanderthal nutter in order to give them the courage required to go home and beat seven bells out of their old lady made Sid think seriously about what he was drinking. Sid, who could never associate himself with this kind of behaviour, switched immediately to another leading brand of the yellow stuff. However, he soon began to realise that European beer makers really do like to fill their beers with chemicals. Sid had no idea what those chemicals were, only that awakening from a night of gigging and Dutch lager usually left him feeling like he had imbibe a small child's chemistry set. And to make matters worse the small child in question would be clattering around in his head trying to get the chemistry set back.
Reg and Bernie were both fanatical 'Real ale' drinkers and so saw this as the opportunity to introduce Sid to the glories and joys that is 'Black Bishops togger' and 'Bullocks old scrotum'.

Sid soon found out that drinking real ale was akin to playing Russian roulette, you never knew when the next one was going to kill you. Sid also discovered that the brewers like to 'add' things to give their beer to give it more body. Lengths of rusty chain, rats, the foreskin of the original brewer. All these added extras went to give the beer more taste and an added 'surprise'. If you were really unlucky, that 'surprise' would be delivered with full force about three o'clock the following morning. On more than one occasion, whilst clutching frantically to the sides of the toilet bowl and at the same time biting chips out of the sink, Sid had wished that he could say 'to hell with my principles' and go back to the wife beater.
Tonight Sid thought he would play it safe, 'A Guinness please Bernie', millions of Irish drinkers couldn't be that wrong. At least Sid knew that he would get through tonight with his bowels intact.

Sid then went through the most important ritual of the evening, he loving opened his guitar case, and gently, ever so gently, as if he was raising a new born baby out of it’s crib, Sid lifted the guitar from it's case and took a few moments to drink in it's beauty. He allowed his senses to float over the curves and edges, the colours and shades. The sliminess and subtlety of the neck, the fullness of the body, the depth of the shine. It wasn't an erotic experience, but damn it was close.
Sid knew that he wasn't odd, he knew that he wasn't even alone, hundreds, if not thousands of guitarists before him had had the same reverential love and respect for their guitars. Hell, Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople went all the way to Memphis to reclaim his mislaid 'instrument of fame'. Sid looked down upon his old friend a look of proud recognition in his eyes.
They say that a bad workman blames his tools. Sid, however knew, that if he loused it up on an evening, it wasn’t the fault of the guitar, not this guitar. It had been made by a craftsman, using the best materials, not hurried or rushed, but crafted until every aspect of the neck and body were perfect, and Sid loved it.
Sid wasn't materialistic, he had quite a few other guitars, some even more expensive and beautifully made than this one. Sid however, was as loyal to his guitars as he was to his friends and family, and tonight he was with his 'best girl'.
Having slipped the strap around his neck he took a few moments to tune the guitar. It didn’t take long, it generally stayed in tune pretty much all of the time. Sid smiled. He remembered in his youth guitars that he could not even get in tune let alone stay in tune. He reminded himself how fortunate he was that he now had instruments that at least went some way to helping him sound good.
The boys were ready to check the sound. Sid left all the technical details to Reg. He had never really been interested in that side of things himself and was more than happy to leave getting the sound right to somebody younger who hadn't already totally shot their hearing. Mind you, Sid didn’t think that Reg was all that far behind him in the hearing stakes.

The sound checks never really took all that long, at least not in the pubs. There was no need really, not when eighty five percent of the punters would not have known the difference if they had been playing Kylie or Kurt.
Sid then retrieved the set lists from his case and handed them around. He placed his copy on the floor before him. He stared at it for a few moments. Could this be another moment of reverence? Was Sid soaking up the subtleties and nuances of the words as if studying scripture? Was he simply composing himself for the show that was to follow? All these were possible to the casual observer. Ask Sid yourself and you will receive a different answer. 'Hardly, I can't see a flamin thing once I have taken my glasses off, which isn't vanity incidentally, if I don't take them off, they fall off. I'm just trying to memories the first few songs. After that Reg and Bernie have to feed me the order'.

Then the band is off. Ebbing and flowing as if they were the tide rising and falling upon rock pools. Sid expertly teases the crowd as a priest calling the faithful to pray. Trying with all his heart and soul to win converts from among the disinterested. Bernie totally lost in concentration, oblivious to the drinkers, the din, even those that have been captivated. Reg, at one with his guitar, always one verse ahead, always chastising himself for imperfection, always pushing to improve, better, more. He spies a group of old college friends, he had somebody to perform to, his eyes turn to greet theirs and his face ignites into a Cheshire cat grin.

Almost as if time had stood still, it was over. Sid hears over the music, through the banter across the general milieu the cry that all good things must come to an end 'time ladies and gentleman please'. The band knew that this was their cue to wind down, slow up, call it a day and bid the crowd adieu.

If, and I really do mean IF, they are really lucky, they might get an encore, but not tonight. Tonight, it was as if they were not there. As if they did not exist. Despite having given of their best, of themselves for over two hours, it was if they were mere musical wallpaper. The occasional punter would tip them a nod of approval as they left the pub, but not many.

They dismantled the equipment virtually in silence. Not for any other reason than they were exhausted. Sid had sung his heart out, but most of his throat had gone out with it. Bernie rubbed his wrists and winced, knowing that he would pay dearly for his labours in the morning. Reg was deep in thought as he coiled away the leads, his mind on another day, another concert.

Past the connoisseur of fine wines leaking his night’s entertainment into the street. Past the couple shouting and screaming their undying love for one another through an alcohol fuelled haze of obscenities and spiteful name-calling. Past the drunken, middle aged promenade lothorio undeniably convinced of his animal magnetism as he endeavours to seduce the teenage temptress by leering at her indiscreetly and making crude suggestions that his wife would never have allowed. Back to the waiting car, and then home.

'Another night, another date, another SM58'

As Sid walked up the steps into the foyer of the hotel, Nev turned to him and spoke. 'Sid, mate, I have been your tour manager for nearly twenty years, right?' Sid nodded his head, nearly too tired to respond verbally. 'Tomorrow night', said Nev 'You and the boys are playing the Millennium stadium. There isn't a single ticket left available. In fact the whole European leg of the tour sold out within twenty four hours of going on sell'. Nev was beginning to get hot under the collar. 'With this in mind', Sid had by now stopped walking and was giving his old friend and tour buddy his undivided attention. 'Why the hell do we need to play these 'toilets' like tonight? Surely it's a complete waste of time. You worked hard enough all those years ago to get out of the toilet circuit and now you are deliberately putting yourself back into them. What the heck is that all about'.

Sid smiled and gently shook his head. 'You're right Nev' he said, responding patiently and graciously to his old friend. He could see that Nev too was tired; Nev certainly had more important things to do on the night before a mammoth three month world tour than play nurse maid to these three idiots. 'You're right, tomorrow night is sold out as are the forty two nights after that. That stadium will be packed out with punters expecting to be entertained, expecting us to give of our best. They will be expecting enthusiasm, passion and not just a little sweat, blood and rock and roll. They don't want to see a bunch of ageing rock stars that have done it so many times before that they are simply going through the motions.
Because of what we did tonight, because of the hassle and the total lack of response from the punters in the pub, when I go out on that stage tomorrow night I am going out with passion, enthusiasm and not just a little gratitude. I'm free of it, I escaped. How many poor sods are still stuck every night, playing their hearts out for nothing in those places? When I take to the stage tomorrow, I will be fully reminded just how damned lucky I really am, and that keeps me sharp'.
'Besides' said Sid with just the touch of a wry smile on his lips 'whilst we were playing tonight, slogging our guts out for nothing. This joker was stood at the bar with his mates, holding court. He was explaining proudly how had had managed to snap up two last minute tickets on the Internet for our concert tomorrow night, and they had only cost him two hundred quid for the pair. Whilst he was rambling on about this, the very band he had just paid a fortune to be going to see was playing just ten feet away from him and he was ignoring them for free!! Now that's comedy!'

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The long hazy days of summer!

It certainly has been one long wet summer in terms of the lack of live music for myself and the band and certainly in respect of interesting dilemmas to enthuse ones readership with (the promised wedding went as sweetly as you like so no stories there I’m afraid)

In days past it would have been far different as I would have been involved in performing at some of the many summer festivals that were around at that time, sadly many long gone. I’ve played in fields, on race courses, in football grounds, on the back of trailers, in parks, tents, bandstands, double decker buses and even on top of portable radio stations. I’ve done it all.

My initial enthusiasm for the great outdoors began when I managed to blag myself onto the bill of a small festival on the south coast called ‘Kingston Festival’. It was based originally in the National Trust’s ‘Kingston Lacey House and had a great atmosphere about the place.

I managed to get 3pm on the main stage, however it was the Sunday grave yard slot and it was lashing it down. All in all though it wetted (no pun intended) my appetite for more and I vowed to get myself onto the coveted 9pm slot on the Friday night just as the sun was setting.

This I managed with my band Mudheads Monkey. About three thousand happy revellers rocking their socks off to our tunes. Sadly it was to be our very last gig as a band as the ties that were holding us and ‘it’ together were fast beginning to unravel by then.

We had performed at the Brixton Academy only the month before. We were getting known, this was the break we had worked towards. But there was pain and tension and that was never what we were all about and on the day we had returned from Kingston I sadly phoned each band member and pulled the plug. A sad moment indeed.

However; on the whole my memories of festivals has always been happy ones.

As a band MHM had the cheek of the Irish and we would blag, cajole and con our way onto any stage or situation.

If this meant taking up residence out side of the promoters caravan and ‘busking’ until 2am in the morning then we did it. We were cheeky yes, but on the whole the promoters and organisers appreciated our sense of unquestionable enthusiasm and 9 times out of 10 we got our break.

At every festival we then promoted our socks off. This meant handing out flyers on mass. Busking to the queue’s waiting to see other more major acts, buzzing the on site radio stations and refusing to leave until they let us play a song, we even ran onto the stage during other people’s acts (they were always friends of ours and generally joined in the lunacy and gave us a name check and plug).

The camping that always went with these events was a major pain mind you as we rarely got much sleep and we all looked and smelt like refugees from The Somme for the entire weekend.

At one festival we decided to pack up the tent before we went on stage as we were planning to leave directly after the event. A particular enthusiastic fan generously tried to help us and ended up stabbing me the face with a tent pole cutting my cheek just below the eye.

By the time we took to the stage I looked like I had been in a bar brawl…and of course after a weekend with no discernable wash facilities smelt like I had been sleeping in a cow shed. Not a great look and feel for a budding rock god I can tell you. Camping was fast becoming my least favourite thing of all time.

Our guitarist Matt didn’t fair much better in the pain department as in the same year he had managed to bang himself up on his motorbike quite badly. Although he was on crutches throughout most of the summer he had completely overlooked this fact during a particularly exciting main stage set. He completely forgot himself and in a blind moment of guitar heroship leapt from the stage into the crowd.

His silent scream was audible only to dogs and those of us in the band who were fully aware of the damage he had already inflicted upon himself as tendons and muscles ripped and tore. God bless him, he still finished the set, but with perhaps just a little less running around.

Thankfully CJ was solely a car driver and apart from rolling his mini on several occasions at speed appeared to have avoided the summer pain of that year.

By the end of our festival days we had allotted to wave our fee in return for a comfortable bed and soft pillows (apart from CJ who for a reason known only unto himself absolutely loved camping and along with the entourage of family and friends that would travel with him to these events would set up a city all of his own…….he’s the only bloke I know that could camp at these things, have a decent wash AND still keep the beer cold….a talent Aaron & I have grown to love appreciate since those days).

The kit generally didn’t fair much better as we were often unloading onto a stage or into a marquee through rain and mud and I was invariably picking straw out of my bass for weeks afterwards.

We always made great friends at all the festivals we played at, most now have slipped into the distant past but I hope they sometimes reminisce fondly about a bunch of nutters they stumbled across all dressed in military jackets and tie die shirts (it was the 90’s) while they themselves looked like they would have failed the audition for a Wurzel Gummidge audition. Fond Memories indeed.

Those days have long gone and the nearest we get to performing at a festival is the British Mountain Bike festival and as we are the only band on the menu it isn’t quite the same.

Would I play at them again? Probably, but the same rules apply. Soft comfy beds or share a tent with CJ, his portable bathroom and beer fridge.