Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Belfast, The Hardboard Hotel, A Spider From Mars

I was on an airplane. I was in a rental car driving very fast. I was on a ferry crossing from Stranraer in Scotland to Belfast in Northern Ireland. I was in a hotel in Belfast - the Europa Hotel - the same hotel I stayed in the first time I came to Ireland back in 1978. 
The Europa Hotel is a four star dump, less salubrious than I remember from the first time I stayed in it though it's no longer surrounded by barbed wire. It was known during the troubles as the Hardboard Hotel because the windows were frequently blown out by bombings. It's on record as being the most bombed hotel in Europe having survived thirty six bombing attacks. I've been told there's an old commercial hotel somewhere in Belfast that suffered more bombings but the Europa Hotel is much more high profile so it carries away the glittering but dubious prize.
My room was on the sixth floor. It was small and over furnished - a desk, a round table, an office chair, a small armchair, a wardrobe and a double bed. A frosted glass door lead to a tiny bathroom with a toilet, shower and washbasin, and a collection of clammy white towels. The window looked out onto a grey wall and if I sat on the desk and looked across at an acute angle and downwards I could see the loading door of the Belfast Opera House.
I don't think this was the room the Clintons stayed in back in November 1995.
I played in a place called the Black box. I had no idea what it was going to be like but it was a pleasant surprise. Amy and I played there a few years ago. I had flu at the time and some of the audience were old timers who thought I was there to recreate 1978 for them. Some of them turned up again this time but I was on top of it, and anyway they were outnumbered.
My show was in the afternoon and afterwards Woody Woodmansey was doing an In Conversation thing. I felt a strange panic rising up. I wanted to get out before he arrived. He played the drums on some of my all time favourite records. 
I'm not much for meeting celebrities and musical heroes unless they know who I am and what I do and we can meet on an equal footing. Otherwise I'm just some nerdy bloke trying not to ask a load of dumb questions. 
I don't know why I worry about that, I've meet plenty of nerdy blokes who ask what they probably think are dumb questions and I love them for it. They're fans, they're into what I do, they're interested, they support me and help keep me going.
What I'm trying to say is I didn't want Woody Woodmansey to be an arsehole, and if he was I didn't want to find out about it. I thought it might be better if he remained intact, a concept, the last surviving Spider From Mars.
I didn't make it out in time. the promoter was suddenly at my side:
'Eric, I'd like to introduce you to Woody - Woody this is Eric...'
He was a perfectly approachable looking Yorkshire sort of bloke. We shook hands.
'Did you really live in Woodmansey?' I heard myself say, while some other version of me standing off to the side shouted YOU FUCKING TWAT! at me through cupped hands.
'Er, well, yeah, for a bit'
'I used to live in Hull' I offered, by way of an explanation.
'I know you did' he said.
We had a talk about Hull, who's left , what a special place it is. I stayed for his talk and it was absolutely riveting. I didn't join the queue to buy his book, I'll buy it and enjoy it when I get home rather than lug it around with me, fall asleep over it and forget where I'm up to. I know it's going to be good. 
I met him and his wife again outside, smoking cigarettes. I thanked him for the talk and we discussed the vagaries of touring. He wished me the very best of luck. They were nice people. 
I went back to the hotel and watched an episode of Last Tango In Halifax.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Another Cheery Story about Another Squalid Hotel

Last week when I had to drive to Stranraer to catch a ferry to play in Belfast a friend booked me a fantastic country hotel in the wilds of Lancashire through Hotels.Com. It was a luxury suite - more like an apartment - and it was only £40 for the night. I'm usually all about Premier Inns - they're very unexciting but at least they're consistant and there isn't a nosey old git in a sleeveless V neck pullover hanging out in the basement dining room, diluting pineapple juice behind a reeded hardboard partition.
As I had a night off tonight followed by a show in Barnoldswick which is itself in the wilds of Lancashire I thought I'd give hotels.com a go myself. The hotels were all a lot more than £40 a night, apart from a few that were basically rooms above pubs but I decided to splash out on somewhere nice to hole up for a couple of days. I found one in Skipton that I thought would be perfect.
The entrance was very smart with its canopy that had HOTEL picked out in lights you could see a mile off down the road. Any effect of grandeur was lost because the building looked like an ex-hospital/mental institution/rope factory/gunpowder factory/barracks or workhouse.
I could smell the deoderisers as soon as I walked in. The man at the desk was having an overlong phone conversation with a future guest:
Yes, yes...yes that room will be available....yes...the duration of your stay... with full leisure centre access....yes, yes it has been...for the time of year...mmm, yes, they should do, yes indeed...yes...yes, looking forward to seeing you on the 15th....mmm, yes...yes, and you too....yes...
He didn't acknowledge my presence until he eventually got off the phone and we got down to business. No apology for keeping me waiting. I didn't mind waiting but front desk etiquette demands an apology to which guest etiquette demands a not-at-all brush-off. There's a system in place, an accepted order of things.
Have you stayed with us before sir?
No, I usually stay at the Premier Inn. (I don't know why I said that)
Why would you do that when you could stay here?


The room was long and narrow with one double bed, two bedside cabinets and a two-seater settee that was probably a sofa bed though I was too squeamish to investigate. There was a line of cabinets with drawers, a flat screen TV and a tea making station, all bunched up at one end of the room, and beyond was a large expanse of mauve carpet running out to the badlands somewhere beyond, over towards the window. A  trouserpress come ironing board configuration was screwed to the wall under a bad painting of a hyacinth with a decorative brass striplight over it to perhaps facilitate closer study of the brushwork.
The person who furnished this room had obviously run out of either ideas or furniture or both. There was a strong smell, some sort of deoderiser - the stuff that brings the carpet back after the incontinent dog dies on it. A strange smell, chemical lavender with sour undertones masking something infinitely more unpleasant but possibly by comparison much more wholesome.
I sat on the sofa, much like I imagine a normal person might, and tried to get on with answering an email or two. The wi-fi kept cutting out. I realised I was cold so I went to investigate the heating. The thermostat was old, seventies, possibly early eighties. A grubby set of instructions was glued to the wall underneath. I read the instructions, switched on and cold air billowed into the room along with a faint aroma of old cooking oil. I turned the heating control up full. 
Ten minutes later the room was icy.


I went down to reception to complain. I could have phoned but I wanted to get out of the room because apart from being freezing cold it was starting to give me the creeps.
Down in reception a notice by the phone on the unattended desk told me to dial zero. I explained myself to a man who was very sympathetic and suddenly appeared, bounding down the palatial staircase and talking to me on a cordless phone.
He was a faintly ratty individual, a young man dressed in black with facial hair and a ponytail. He said that as the hotel wasn't fully booked he could find me a room on a different floor where the heating worked. We settled on floor number three and he took me up to see the room. It was horrible but it was warm. He agreed with me that the hotel was a dump and volunteered that considering the state of the place it was way over-priced.
I asked him what it was like working there at night. He paused for a moment, looked around furtively:
'The night brings out all the crazies' he said.
'Some of them answer the door naked - room service...'
'Have you ever had anyone die?' I asked.
'Just the one since I've been here but yeah, it does happen.'
'One night a couple in the honeymoon suite rang down for champagne and strawberries. I went up with the order and the woman answered the door completely naked. He was sitting in the jacuzzi. "My husband likes to watch" she said'
He did a quick glance around, lowered his voice:
'Four hours, I were in there for four hours.'


My new room was warm but in every other respect it was worse than the old room - a kingsize mattress balanced on two single bed bases next to a single bed, and next to that where the bedside table would normally be an ancient trouserpress. The room smelled faintly of airlessness and squalor. This was the family, or threesome room - plenty of room for action on the kingsize bed and afterwards the third wheel can sleep over on the single bed next to the trouserpress.


Or the son or daughter could sleep grimly on the single while the parents sit at the table and play cards before retiring to the kingsize where there's plenty of room to sleep in their pyjamas, out of touching distance from each other.
Myself I slept fully clothed on one side of the big bed.
I checked out in the morning. The duty manager was quite snippy about it: 'I'm sorry you don't like our facilities Mr Goulden.'
'What facilities? Are you talking about the trouserpress?'

I checked into a brand new Premier Inn and slept all day in glorious comfort.


Sunday, 2 April 2017

'73 Deluxe

I found it on Craigslist. A 1973 Fender Deluxe Reverb, all original and in good condition. I emailed, said I was interested, asked a couple of questions that showed I was a serious buyer. We talked on the phone and I arranged to drive over to Connecticut to take a look at it.

Amplifiers are a gamble - at least they are for me. Some guitar players plug into anything and as long as it’s distorted they’re perfectly happy. I’ve never been like that. If I have to I’ll work with whatever amplifier I’m given but I prefer to use my own. The sound has to be fairly clean, I need to be able to turn the amp up without it breaking up into a fuzzy mush. I need volume, displacement and definition.

Amy says I’ve been chasing the sound ever since she’s known me. She’s right. Imagine a cello without a body, just a neck that went all the way down to the tail piece - you wouldn’t be able to hear it. The body is the amplification. Without it you might say that the instrument was incomplete. Now take an electric guitar - without the amplifier it’s barely audible, so the way I see it the amplifier is an important part of the instrument.

I drove through torrential rain, mostly in the dark. The house was a bungalow. A large middle-aged man answered the door and showed me into a living room. Blue grey carpet, four seater settee, grubby white vinyl armchair, pick-up winding machine and bobins of thin copper wire on the floor, Fender Deluxe Reverb where the coffee table might usually be. This man lived alone.

I plugged my guitar into it and it sounded ok - it would obviously need some work but the price was very reasonable and I figured that even if it wasn’t right for me I’d definitely get my money back so we struck up a deal and I drove back to Catskill through more rain, the proud owner of a ’73 Deluxe.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Trip to Florida and Down a Rabbit Hole

Everything comes in fits and starts. I'd love to be one of those people who writes regularly. I used to be but I'm not anymore. So when I do start writing there's always a backlog, a need to explain myself and all the things that have and haven't been happening and how they got in the way, impeded my progress and led to the backlog that so badly needs explaining.
I don't write on a regular basis because I haven't got the time, and that's why I don't do most things, there just isn't time to do them.

The recording process (photo by Jenny Tubbs-Barbato)
Today I was recording which is nothing new - I've been recording everyday since Christmas apart from the days when I was playing in Boston with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones (three nights at the House Of Blues between Christmas and New Year), playing the bass for Amy or doing my own tour down to Florida and back. 

Playing the bass with Amy (photo by John Stribley)
And here's the backlog/log jam I was talking about. I was talking about having too much to do but I think I wanted to talk about recording but I got derailed by all the other things I was doing.
Let's start with the touring. That's if anyone's still interested.
I met a promoter from Miami last year after a fairly horrific forty-five minute set at the Tropical Heatwave festival in Tampa, Florida. He asked me if I'd like to do a tour in Florida. I almost said no. I'd just played a set in front of a braying pack of frat boys pouring beer over each other and comparing penis sizes so I wasn't that keen, but it occurred to me that Florida is warm during the winter so I said yes, as long as I could do it it in February.
By some miracle it came about though it was moved to the first week in March to coincide with an offer to play at the Savannah Stopover Festival.
Sometime in late December or early February I realised I was committed to a tour that started in Miami on March 2nd. Miami is one thousand three hundred and ninety miles from my house and I had to drive because I hate flying with guitars and merchandise and playing with borrowed amplifiers, and I know from bitter experience that by the time you've finished with car hire and extra baggage the tour's going to cost more than it pays.
So I panicked and found a couple of shows to play on the way down - Ashland Tea & Coffee in Ashland, Virginia, and The Pilot Light in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Somewhere dull near Winston Salem, North Carolina
I had two days to drive from Knoxville to Miami but there were storms and the bulbs went out in both my headlights so instead of driving half the night and stopping halfway in a cheap hotel in Gainesville or somewhere I stayed with friends in Atlanta and set off very early in the morning.
It took fourteen hours to get to Miami. I stopped along the way, desperate for coffee and some of that famous Florida orange juice, but the coffee on the long road that passes through Florida was just hot black liquid and the orange juice was Sunny D, so I did without either.
I arrived in time for the soundcheck just as the good coffee place on the corner was turning out its lights.


I'm not going to give an account of each of the shows, that would be tedious and anyway I can't remember the details now. They went very well. There were a lot of people (apart from in Miami which was somewhat under attended) and the audiences appeared to be fifty percent female.

Somewhere near Durham in North Carolina I started to type notes into my laptop whenever I got the chance. And that's what the rest of this post is going to be:

Starbucks off I-80 near Durham, North Carolina. Plastic surgery clinic next door, PF Chang concrete horse opposite. I’m sitting at a table by the window. On the other side of the glass, outside, a man and woman are having a meeting. She’s silently talking too much, selling herself. Big white teeth, aviator shades, earnest facial expressions. Building air sculptures with expansive hand gestures. I can’t see the man, he’s hidden behind a sign depicting a delicious Starbuck’s Coconut Milk Mocha Machiato: Starbuck’s Machiato, delicious new ways to love it
The music stopped and now it’s started again. It could be the same song that was playing before. White, soulful and easy on the ear. Words fail the singer, or the songwriter, and the lyric lapses into mmm mmmmm aha… denoting a very high level of soul. Now it’s a lady singer, very soulful: whoa yeah, ahmmm stro-o-ong, whoa oh whoaaa whoah yeah….
Two men in polo shirts. Polo shirts tucked into plastic belted Chinos. They meet outside, shake hands. One of them comes inside to order the coffees. The other sits at a table outside. He looks as though he’s suffering from trapped wind. A mid-morning procession, ponytails, beards, phones on belt clips, big wallets in back pockets, spectacles that say I’m interesting, please notice me. 

The hotel room. This is the loneliest part. I usually check in around two o’clock in the morning. I drag myself and my minimal luggage to the elevator and along deserted, close-carpeted hallways. There’s never anyone around and that’s probably a good thing but I find it creepy and I try not to think about The Shining. 
They’re mostly the same - you walk in and the bathroom is on the right, except when it’s on the left. I usually ask for a room with one or two queen size beds but usually it’s one king size - a seven foot square slab of mattress. A raised dais, and altar to orgiastic sex, or more likely a place where two very overweight people, and possibly a dog, can snore and sweat the night away. It’s better not to think about it. 
In the more upmarket hotels the bed will often be covered with a decorative display of cushions and bolsters. There’s never enough space to put them so they end up piled on the armchair which is good because the armchair looks as though it might be inviting someone to sit in it and I worry that some recalcitrant and malignant spirit will do just that and watch me while I sleep. 
Once denuded of decorative pillows the bed looks even more expansive. The pillows are often ridiculously small, four of them lined up, looking like loaves of processed white bread and not taking up enough space, so that the bed has an unmade appearance. 
Sometimes there are only three pillows and I think it’s in case a threesome has been planned and the third wheel is going to stay the night. Or the extra pillow is to place under the lady’s bottom to effect deeper penetration. Sexual frustration and a lurid imagination play havoc in the middle of the night.
I don’t want to sleep, I don’t want to get into the bed. Sleeping alone on the edge of a king size bed is a heart-wrenchingly lonely experience. I delay the moment when I have to balance my head on one of the loaves of bread, switch off the light, and try to imagine I’m somewhere else while the light on the overhead smoke detector blinks on and off in a random pattern designed, no doubt, to not induce a fit in an epileptic insomniac.


View from hotel room window with gas station and Waffle House

I wake up too early. I’m vibrating slightly. 
Unable to go back to sleep, unwilling to stay where I am but unable to move. Think positive thoughts. Draw back the curtain and greet the view - the roof of the Carousel Ballroom, the Caribou Conference Center, the Cumberland Convention Center... some such nonsense. Ventilators and extraction ducts from the Sysco supplied kitchen. 
Double glazing and a high elevation make it hard to tell what the weather is like. You can see the world from here but you’re not connected to it. 
I get myself together and leave as quickly as possible. 

Onstage. Don’t think about it, don’t pre-plan too much. I’m capable of playing the exact same set for twenty nights in a row but it’s never the same. It goes how it wants to go, as long as I let it, as long as I don’t get in the way. 

Sometimes I think I’m trying to hard, pushing the pace, working at the top of the dynamic, compensating for a lack of something in me, or the audience, or in the sound. The amplifier gets pushed into overload too soon and I have to tell myself to back off, relax, turn down. 

Ideas come into my head and get in the way of reading the audience - these people don’t like me, they’re disappointed, they’re wishing I’d play different songs, they think I’m too old, too loud, too quiet, too harsh… I go down a rabbit hole into a world of self-loathing and paranoia. 

If these people dislike me so much why don’t they leave? 
But they don’t leave, they stare at me with expressionless faces, they’re taking it all in , it’s an internal thing. Their faces are blank. I can’t tell how they’re feeling until the applause comes.
I don’t want to be an applause whore.
A couple of people leave. I see them go. They probably have a bus to catch or a babysitter, but for an instant I’m immeasurerably hurt by their desertion. I take it personally. 
Sometimes I get deep into the music and forget the audience are there. I don’t look at the audience most of the time because it’s scary to see a crowd of people staring back at me. I  often can’t see them anyway because it’s too dark, and as I’m playing I become increasingly convinced that everyone has left and I’m playing to an empty room. Then I stop and the applause happens and it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world.
Most of the time I’m concentrating - riding the rhythms of words on the rhythms of the guitar, constantly slipping, adjusting, slipping back in and wondering if I’ve slipped a beat, wondering how it works, pushing the wonder out of my mind. 
Out of my mind and riding the crest of some rising feedback, taming the guitar at dangerous decibel levels through two fuzz boxes and a delay pedal, the tubes in the amplifier compressing the sound as notes and harmonics jostle for space in a sonic bottleneck, the speaker under duress, moving so much air that I can feel the draught from the cone.


Thursday, 22 December 2016

Sideman


Apart from the odd gig here and there I've never been a sideman but that's all changed now - I've just finished a ten date UK tour playing bass and guitar for my wife, Amy Rigby. Originally I offered to come over and drive her around as she's not confident about driving on the other side of the road and on the other side of the car and has limited experience of cars with manual gearboxes. I rather fancied myself in the role of Parker, Lady Penelope's chauffeur in Thunderbirds, I got myself all togged up in a grey suit, silk scarf, peaked cap and kid gloves. It was lost on Amy - she'd never heard of Thunderbirds until Lindsay Hutton spotted the resemblance up in Scotland and we subjected her to a classic episode involving The Shadows.



She said of course I'd have to play on a few songs. It made sense - we've always had fun touring together, and we'd just done a run of shows in the US as a three piece with Doug Wygal on drums and me on bass, so I knew the tunes.
It's been interesting - there's a whole world of paranoia and malcontentment hitherto unknown to me. I've gained a new perspective, an understanding of what makes the hired gun tick and why they can be such a drag to work with.
There's very little responsibility - I soon learned that if anyone asks you a question the answer is I don't know, which mutates into don't ask me, I'm only the bass player. A certain sulkiness sets in - you're not the star of the show and ideally no one's going to notice you or even remember you were there, lurking in the shadows, plucking out random bass notes. The star of the show turns and asks - can you play on this song now? and you say 'Mmm hmm, I can do that' with a tacit I can play anything you like as long as you're paying me.
You hang around before the show. The star is edgy, concentrating, preparing herself. All you have to do is walk out, pick up the bass and play it. You don't even have to get change - not much sweat involved out there in the shadows. So you leave in the same clothes you were wearing when you walked in.
There's not much to do so you stay out of the way of the star and chat with whoever happens to be around. The affable sideman. This must be the root of the oft-told story - the band were really nice, a great bunch of blokes, but she/he was a stuck-up cow/bastard.
It's obvious to me now that dressing rooms are furnished with cans of beers in an attempt to keep the band from cluttering up the bar before the show. I don't drink but I still found myself doing a fair amount of pre-show bar cluttering. It's not good for the mystique. The alternative is to sit and wait in the cramped backstage with the crampy star of the show. I understand now just how this tedium can lead to the drawing of a penis on the dressing room wall. Not that I ever succumbed to this activity. I understand though - this is the kind of existence that could turn a man into a moron.
To counteract the moron effect, sidemen have lame discussions about Proust, the Middle East, the latest Scorsese film... this often degenerates into an inquiry into the state of the drummers bowels or the lead guitar player's latest sexual conquest. And then it's back to drawing penises.
The set list arrives - she's taken out the one with the good bass line, my moment in the spotlight. A gentle enquiry: Er, you're not doing this one tonight...?
'No' comes the terse reply, 'not feeling it'
Self doubt creeps in:
Is it my fault?
Am I not playing well enough?
What am doing here?
Am I adding anything to this?
And paranoia:
They're loving her and wondering why the hell I'm here. Last night, just last night a guy was telling her how great it is that she's doing a solo show. A SOLO show. Everybody loves her. No one ever mentions my bass playing. 
There's a reason for that...
It's worse when there's a band and you don't know them very well:
The rest of the band think I'm crap. They think I'm only here because I'm married to the star...
The audience are obviously thinking exactly the same...
And the more it goes like this the worse the playing gets.

It wasn't at all bad in actual fact. Amy and I have toured and played together for years and we're well aware of each others insecurities and idiosyncrasies. We also know that whatever we're doing, whether we're playing together as Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby, or she's backing me, or I'm backing her, we're on the same team. We make mistakes, amps get turned up too loud, then turned down too quiet, we play wrong chords, forget bits, but we never give each other a hard time about these things. We help each other through - that's what bands are supposed to do.
I was still surprised after one show on this tour when she told me that she'd felt convinced in the middle of the set that most of the audience were there because they'd heard I was playing. If that had been the case, and I'm sure it wasn't, she would have completely eclipsed me with her performance anyway.
She played some of the songs alone, and as there was no backstage at a lot of the venues I had to figure out somewhere to be. I didn't want to stand around cluttering the place up and diverting attention away from Amy, and neither did I want to step off the stage into the audience and risk having someone try and engage me in conversation, so I came up with the solution of sitting on a chair to the side of the stage and calmly listening.
It was a great place to be. Listening intently, enjoying every moment, and ready to spring up and get to work on the guitar or bass (with just that hint of sideman begrudgement of course...) It worked well, but towards the end of the tour I was complimented on my listening pose, and on the second to last night someone in the audience commented loudly when I took my scarf off as I sat there between songs:
'He's just taken his scarf off!'
I was getting too good at it.

And every night when she got to the line in Cynically Yours - and plus you claim to love my ass... I tried not to nod my head too enthusiastically. A sideman must remain a gentleman at all times.