During a social media sabbatical lasting several weeks my only regular visit to WordPress has been for Geoff Stephen’s relentlessly entertaining Sunday brunch pop quiz https://1001albumsin10years.wordpress.com/
Fellow addicts will be aware that Geoff celebrates each weeks artist with a top 5 list, so to channel my inner Geoff I feel duty bound to present the five most arse-clenchingly embarrassing incidents from my five plus decades attempt to live a life in rock’n’roll. Peel slowly… and weep.
5: Mojo Not Working. Failing to burn, burn, burn like a fabulous roman candle. With The Incredible Jimmy Smith. I’ve been guilty over the years of missing out on seeing dozens of outstanding artists by choosing to wash my hair/do the laundry/watch Prisoner Cell Block H instead. Happily, one occasion where I failed to be as lethargic as usual resulted in getting to see Jimmy Smith, master of the Hammond organ and mod-jazz icon before he died. Bizarrely, in the cellar of a former North London carpet warehouse.
But as luck would (or wouldn’t) have it the cavernous surroundings merely pandered to my beatnik jazz fantasies, honed during teens and early twenties spent manfully trying to enjoy Kerouac. Jimmy steamed, wailed and preached. I drank, smoked and convinced myself that I was surrounded by heavenly beat bodies scorching the night with their fiery comet trail of spontaneity and inspiration. And that I was one of them.
Such was the strength of my alcohol fuelled self-belief that upon seeing the drummer enjoying a quiet moment at the bar between sets it seemed perfectly natural that he would want to hear everything, and I mean everything, on my mind. Grabbing him urgently by the sleeve I proceeded to babble, emote, wave my arms about and generally froth at the mouth on subjects as diverse as Brother Jack McDuff and space travel before being brought up short with the words “sorry man, I can’t understand a fucking word you’re saying”. Not to be deterred, I attempted to prove my beat worthiness by leaping up on a table with a hearty “orooni!” momentarily forgetting the low ceiling and further adding to the headache which was surely awaiting me the morning after.
What a tosser.
4: That’s me in the corner, getting free beer from some english guy. Failing to buy a round for one of REM. After four years living in London I had, by both luck and judgement, collected to my heaving bosom a number of american friends most of whom had unwisely suggested “hey, if you’re ever in the States look me up”. Calling their collected bluff I decided in 1990 to embark upon a grand tour, taking in those cities worthy of rock’n’roll blue plaques and which had free floor space for me to sleep on.
This explains why I found myself in New Orleans with two friends one night, on our way to see Peter Buck of REM playing a one off gig with Kevin Kinney of the long forgotten, and indeed barely heard of at the time, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. Pete strummed, Kev crooned, I drank and smoked as was my wont. A good time was had by all.
Retiring to the French Quarter bar we had laughably come to call our local (after three days in town) we were somewhat surprised to see Pete’n’Kev stroll in for a spot of post-gig recreation. So, standing at a bar a couple of yards away from one of my heroes do I amiably introduce myself and explain the joy that his recorded works had brought me? I do not. Instead I recall a Tom Waits interview I had read some weeks previous in which the writer explained that mid-interview (in a bar) someone anonymously sent over a round of drinks to their table, by way of thanks. That’ll do I thought, so after ordering for myself I instruct the barman to “give the guy standing at the bar whatever he’s drinking”. “Which guy” asks the barman. This puzzled me slightly as there was only one guy standing at the bar and he was six foot four tall with shoulder length hair, looking, as you might expect, like someone used to filling football stadia with adoring fans. “The tall one” I replied between clenched teeth, resisting the sarcastic english urge to add “the one who looks like the guitarist out of REM”. Glancing uncertainly several times, the barman finally selects a beer from the fridge and with the self-assurance of someone who knows where the party is, strolls majestically past P. Buck and plants a bottle of Coors (“long, cool, golden and bubbly! C’mon.”) in front of the obligatory sad bloke drinking alone on the corner barstool. Compounding his error he then indicates to the OSB the origin of this largesse by jabbing his finger several times in my direction whereupon we stare at each other with mutual embarrassment as Buck wanders off to monopolize the pool table.
As luck would have it, my friends were less interested in recreating Tom Waits interviews and simply started talking to the mandolin wielding colossus of alt-rock. So eventually I did get to chat with him and offer the beer. He turned me down. And the bloke in the corner never bought me one back either.
3: I’m Oh So Quiet. Failing to chat-up Björk. For much of the 1990’s I was house-sharing with a girl desperate for a career in documentary film making and/or music. Her chief strategy in pursuit of this was to attach herself to the great and good in the hope that some stardust would rub off. This resulted not only in some bizarre phone conversations – I vividly recall 10 minutes trying to understand a man who appeared to be labouring with a severe adenoid infection, later to learn it was in fact Ice T – but also guest list access to some cracking gigs.
One such arose from her friendship with Talvin Singh, at the time musical arranger and de facto bandleader for Björk, then touring to promote her debut solo album, err, “Debut”. Not only did he put me on the guest list, bless him, but also invited me to the backstage party afterwards. Wooaaah! My ship had, indeed, come in.
I arrive at the Brixton Academy. Collect my laminated pass (nice). Do a bit of drinking, smoking and moshing whilst La Björk does a bit of warbling and kooky dancing. A good time was had by all. I flash the laminate and go backstage. Now, I don’t know if all backstage parties are like this or maybe I just caught a bad night. Naturally I’m expecting carelessly dressed supermodels airkissing each other and endearingly dodgy blokes with names like Art or Buddy offering me the Colombian gross domestic product. What I get of course is a room full of roadies all laughing smugly because after a lifetime of being abused, humiliated and emasculated they’ve finally found a job where they’re the alpha males. And free beer. Quite a moral trade-off I think you’ll agree.
Like any bad party, I end up standing to the side of the room away from the revellers and thinking, “I’ll just give it to the end of this beer, then I’ll go home.” I’m about an inch and a half from the bottom of the bottle when I become vaguely aware that someone has joined me in the sad-fuck corner of the room. Looking to my side, and then down a bit, I discover that the star of the show has chosen to stand next to me. Me, Kid – unconventionally attractive – Slender. Not only had my ship come in but it was also manoeuvering to dock in the Slender harbour!
So faced with the prospect of some one-on-one with the woman who the press were at this time referring to as a “scary puffin-eating ultrahoney” what do I say to draw her in to my web of seduction? How do I convince her that she has finally found the perfect companion with whom to nibble seabirds? Well my friends, these were the questions swimming round my mind at the time. What DO you say to Björk? Naturally I did what any self-respecting armchair lothario with low self-esteem would do – remained completely silent whilst still trying to recall the timetable for the Victoria line underground. After about two minutes of this she swished off with the static crackle of a dress made out of some space age material. Or maybe the sound was that of her eyeballs rolling in icelandic exasperation. It was, nevertheless, echoed by the gleeful guffaws of roadies as they high-fived each other’s arse-cleavage with schadenfreude.
Both I and, I hope, Ms Gudmundsdottir went on to find happiness elsewhere and her career doesn’t seem to have suffered for the absence of Slender input. But still, you’d think I could have at least tried.
2: Hey white boy. You’re chasing our linen around. Failing to score heroin with The Velvet Underground. We’re back to my american oddessey. Some weeks prior to not drinking with Peter Buck I found myself in New York. Naturally, after belting swiftly round the Museum Of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Chrysler building, the obligatory stop for any aspiring self destructive rock’n’roll wannabe was “up to Lexington – 125, feel sick and dirty more dead than alive”. The legendary site of Lou Reed’s heroin supply immortalized in The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man”.
I “hop” a subway train, discretely check my street map and make my way to the hallowed ground. To be honest I was a bit underwhelmed. Granted, I was there some 25 years after Lou and times change. But still, I had to admit to myself it wasn’t the most obvious site of chemical debauchery. Undeterred, I snapped away to immortalize the occasion. After all, who was I to question where Lou Reed should buy heroin.
Several months later I was proudly showing off the evidence of my travels back in blighty when my howling error was pointed out to me. I had, not unreasonably in my opinion, read Lou’s directions in a misleadingly english way. “Lexington – 125” I now realised, referred to the junction of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem and not, as I thought, number 125 Lexington Avenue several miles further south in midtown Manhattan, the site, as my photos prove, of the Usha Saree centre (wholesale AND retail).
Alan and Rene Slender brought up their youngest boy to be nothing if not polite and to always think the best of folk. Consequently it had never occured to me that anyone should want to do something as sordid as buy drugs on a street corner. I just assumed you found the address of the nearest opium den and presented yourself to the proprietor. “Hello, I’m Lewis Allen Reed of rock’n’roll art happening combo The Velvet Underground. And I’d like to buy some drugs please.” “Certainly old chap” would come the reply from the Usha’s owner, “take the weight off your Chelsea boots. What’s yr poison?”
Which seems to me a much more civilized way to go about things. But maybe only if the author of your life is PG Wodehouse rather than William Burroughs. Which brings me neatly on to…
1: Not gay. Not fancy free and not even captain of the team. Falling at the feet of The Modfather. Dateline 1979. I’m 15, awkward, self-conscious, cocky, horny and feeling guilty about all of the above. Clearly it’s time for my first gig and who better to soundtrack my inarticulate teenage frustration than surburbia’s windmill-tilters par excellence, The Jam.
First gigs as we all know take a lot of planning. Not only the logistics of finding my way into and out of Leicester on a school night but also the tricky question of what to wear. Mods are an unforgiving bunch at the best of times and 1979 was particularly Stalinist with Quadrophenia in the cinemas and 2-Tone in the charts. Fortunately I had spotted the mod fondness for striped school blazers and the presence of same in a wardrobe at home. Unfortunately this had belonged to my grandfather, a man who left school in 1914 in order to join up. Which may well have been appropiate to the subject matter of the “Setting Sons” album the band were promoting, but was still 50 years before Carnaby Street’s regulation two inch lapels. In fact grandpa’s lapels could’ve comfortably accommodated a couple of election campaign rosettes should Mr Asquith have been considering running for office again.
Forging ahead regardless, I matched the blazer with a pair of drainpipe corduroy trousers (a fabric which to this day I regard with a near-erotic fondness) and a pair of hush puppies and launched myself into the sweaty edwardian splendour of the DeMontfort Hall looking, as the author of the excellent “1537” (https://jatstorey.com/) recently put it, like Bertie Wooster. Passing up on the drinking (clearly some years away from the need for shaving) and smoking (it would’ve played havoc with my table-tennis) I whirled dervishly with the kind of gay unselfconcious abandon that you can only muster at the age of 15. A good time was had by all.
However… as my nom-de-blog suggests, I’m not the world’s sturdiest chap. And the evening had been financed by a paper round to which I was forced to return at 6am the following morning. And the moshpit is no place for beginners. And those rock’n’roll folk do go on a bit don’t they? It all seemed a lot punchier and concise on Tiswas. I started to nod out a bit. Nothing serious, just the wish for a soft comfortable bed, a cup of Horlicks and the arms of Morpheus. Lurching back to full conciousness I found myself being forcibly propelled by concerned gig-goers to the relative safety of the stage. Over-estimating my weight based on the size of my lapels, far more force than necessary was used and I popped up out of the audience with the velocity of a salmon gamely trying to make it up a waterfall, landing uncomfortably on Paul Weller’s vocal monitor.
At this point there are, of course, only two options available to me. Either I stand up, straighten my lapels and stride heroically into the wings. Or I turn to face the audience, open my arms messianically and execute a perfect swan-dive into the throbbing melee. Sadly there was a third way which involved trying to stand up, slipping in beer, getting the hush puppies caught round the microphone lead and generally thrashing about at Weller’s immaculately shod feet. In front of a capacity 2,200 strong audience. Finally the roadies lost all patience and rushing on stage, dragged me away and flung me into the arms of a quite frankly rather over-zealous St. John’s ambulance volunteer.
To my credit, hearing the opening bars of “David Watts” I leaped up and resumed my pubescent whirling a cautious distance from the stage. Which in a way set the tone for the following 40 years – never getting too close to the action whilst dressed in an original yet wildly inappropiate fashion. I was by no means the only one to think so as at least two complete strangers approached my on the walk back to the train station muttering “it’s the bloke in the blazer. You all right mate?”.
Yes thanks, I’m just not as cool as I think I am.