Monday, June 29, 2015

Bubblegum With Dementia

‘And why would someone know to book you to play in Toronto?’
‘Because I’m famous - I wrote the tune they use in the McDonalds commercial’
‘Really’ (flat voice)
‘What sort of music do you play?’
I could hardly say Rock Music, just me sitting there alone, posing as an old buffer in a Buick Le Sabre, so I said the first thing that came into my head:
‘It’s Bubblegum…with dementia’
She handed back the paperwork, and threw my Green Card at me as an afterthought
‘Enjoy your stay in Canada’

I wasn’t sure that I was going to. I’ve been pretty nervous about this show, the NXNE Festival in Toronto. everyone else on the bill seems so young, vibrant, fresh, up and coming, exciting and positively now. And then there’s me - feeling in comparison like a sixty one year old has been - yes, I’m sixty one, so I must be a has been, if I ever even was.

I haven’t played for a while, not one of my own solo shows, not since last December. I’ve been busy recording a new album, and recording Amy for her new album - separate albums, two careers, two income streams… It might possibly even work. Amy and I have played together for a long time now, I’m used to it, it’s comfortable, it’s easy, I love it, but it’s time to move along - we’ve both got things we need to do. Sometimes I almost feel that the next stage is just something we’ve both got to go through and then we can get back to playing together again.

So here I am in Toronto, still desperately trying to compile a set list. I forget about songs, lose faith in the ones that bubble into my consciousness - I make lists of every song I’ve ever written on every album I’ve ever made. The list bewilders me so I look for a distraction and try to convince myself that a set list will somehow magically occur.

It doesn’t.

In my room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel I’m experiencing a crisis of confidence. I put a post on Facebook: Slowly losing my mind in a hotel room in Toronto. People posted helpful suggestion - Toronto’s a cool town, go out and explore… No chance of that, not before the execution - the show that is. No rewards, just constant low-level anxiety and a feeling of anguish.

I often wish I could start again, come at playing music fresh, fully formed but without the baggage. As much as I try to re-invent there’s still the baggage, a sense of obligation, as in people come to see me because of things I’ve done, like Whole Wide World, or Reconnez Cherie, or Take The Cash. Like it or not you get known after a while for certain things. I really don’t mind playing Whole Wide World - fuck it - I love playing Whole Wide World some nights, it’s every boy’s dream after all - it’s a hit! If I get a bit jaded (and I can honestly say I don’t) the audience’s enthusiasm for the song lifts me up and turns it into a glorious moment. But how can I do that in the context of something new without doing something lumpy and embarrassing like singing it acapella or performing it in a drone style, or worse as a rap number? I don't think I'm going to do that.

I force myself to eat and that makes me feel a bit better about everything. Then I go to the venue. The organisers, the crew, they’re all kids. The stage manager is barely twenty. She’s never done it before. They seem really pleased that I’ve actually showed up. A crew of teenage boys help me load in my equipment - two guitars, one case with leads and pedals in it, Guild Superstar amplifier that none of them can lift alone. They take it all very seriously and put everything in a corner of the tiny, grimy backstage. They want to make sure it’s going to be safe. They discuss putting some kind of tape around it as a sort of cordon but I disuade them of that idea.

There’s no soundcheck so I have a quick discussion with the sound engineer. He’s a bit older than the others. He tells me not to expect too much of the monitors, I tell him I’ve already figured that out, I’ll be using an electric guitar, no acoustic, so all I need in the monitors is my vocal and electrified harmonica. I warn him that I’ll probably be playing quite loud and he says that’s fine, he likes volume coming off the stage. This surprises me, I’ve never heard that from a sound engineer before.

Then there’s time to kill. I stroll through a residential neighbourhood and meet up with a woman called Claire who’s taking photos of me for some sort of online magazine covering the festival. I can never understand why anyone would want to take a photo of me because in the end I just look like a bloke - here I am standing in front of a tree, propping up a lamp post, loitering outside a shop… She’s very nice, good company - we talk about the nature of creativity and she takes photo with a real camera, one with film in it.

Suddenly it’s time to play. I still haven’t written a set list so I go on with a notebook open at the page where I last desperately tried to concoct a set list and play a completely unrelated set of songs. The anxiety falls away, I’m here in the moment, playing a few tunes for these people who seem so happy to see me. Someone shouts for I Wish It Would Rain and I excuse myself from playing it. ‘I’m sorry’ I say, ‘I just don’t feel like playing that one tonight, here’s another one…’ 

I think the set went something like: Same, Joe Meek, Several Shades Of Green, Just For You, Paris In June, Local, Sysco Trucks, Whole Wide World. I know I ended with Whole Wide World - I didn’t mean to be tacky but it was a forty minute slot and it just fell out that way, and I wanted it to follow Sysco Trucks as a sort of nod to the Canadian McDonalds TV ad that features Whole Wide World. 

I have a laugh about Rush playing in Toronto on the same night. The hotel lobby was full of successful looking middle-aged men - lawyers and businessmen - looking just slightly not quite comfortable in their various eras of Rush t-shirts - all together they present a fairly awe inspiring Rush Through The Ages tableau. I talked to one of them in the elevator - he told me he’d seen Rush ninety two times. Tonight would be show number ninety three. He was excited.

I’d prefer to be Bubblegum With Dementia than Mullet Rock.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

In Search Of The Whoop Woo Moment

Making albums isn't for the faint hearted. I set myself a deadline to finish - the end of February - that old pop scene immediacy is a thing of the past. It takes months to get a record out now. Planning, a degree of hype, the orchestrated campaign...
I haven't met deadline of course, but I'm pleased to have one: without it things tend to drag on, perspectives change, the sound changes - you lose focus, confidence, cohesion. If I was a guitar, bass and drums three piece it might be easier. If I could write twelve songs, demo them, bundle them all together and assemble a team of players who would learn them before we got together in a great studio under the care of a more than competent recording engineer... things would be a whole lot easier. But it might be boring, and anyway, it's not what I do. I want the adventure to happen in the studio, for the process to be the thing. I don't want to conceptualise. The way some people make records the actual playing of the tunes might as well be a formality.
Not always, but it's not my approach - it's not where I'm at. I quite often start recording before I've even finished writing the song. I like to be out of my depth, to not know what I'm doing, to be adrift, insecure, puzzled and perplexed. Though like isn't really the word for it. Sometimes I hate it in the same way that a mountaineer might get to hate the north face of the Matterhorn, but it's how it is.
My friend Brian Dewan says I approach recording the same way that other people approach gardening - I get out there and see what has to be done. Brian is a keyboard genius and co-inventor with his cousin of the Dewanatron, a strange series of custom built instruments for creating electronic music. Brian is crazy enough to get along with it and the two of us have had some great studio adventures together.
I'm getting quite a collection of finished tracks together - ten at the last count and another two or three on the way. I also have a load of tracks that didn't work for one reason or another, songs, sketches, electronic meanderings, loops, jams... I keep going back to them trying to find some purpose in them, some way I can incorporate them or build on them. I've always been like that - I've thrown away more songs than other people could ever dream of writing.
There's a mountain of lost songs too, stuff that never got finished, cassette, mini-disc and tape demos, blatherings in notebooks, backs of envelopes and A4 paper, the jottings of an idiot. Going through all this stuff is disheartening but occasionally something comes out of it.
I've learned to try not to discount an idea too quickly - stick with it, work on it, change it... The best lesson in this for me is The Stones recording Sympathy For The Devil in the Jean Luc Goddard film, One Plus One. When they run the basic idea it really isn't very good and I find myself waiting for the disembodied voice in the talkback: drop it - what else you got?
But they stick with it and end in triumph with the whoop woo thing. I've been waiting for that whoop woo moment ever since I first started recording back in the mid seventies.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Guardian Angel Comes To Call

I was exhausted. Frazzled after a breakneck drive to Berlin I had an afternoon radio interview to do and followed by a solo record store appearance. I played seven songs and signed a lot of autographs - I felt like Johnny Leyton on that TV show where he mimes to Johnny Remember Me.
Later on we were setting up the equipment in the Crystal Club when an apparition walked in, a beautiful older man with silver hair and an anorak. I was staring at him, thinking how I knew him from somewhere, then I realised it was Captain Sensible. He'd beamed down from another planet like some strange guardian angel to make sure I was all right.
Actually he was making a guest appearance with a band who were playing in the venue next door. He stuck around for our soundcheck, then lovingly carried my guitar down to the dressing room for me and made us all a cup of tea. It was like having a celebrity valet. He showed me to a grubby off-white vinyl sofa, bought me a cup of tea, sat down and asked me how I was. He admired my guitar, I gave it to him to play and he caressed its curves, complimented the patina and remarked that it was ageing beautifully. We talked about the importance, now that we're both grandfathers, of maintaining a certain amount of onstage dignity (which in his case means keeping his clothes on for the duration of the set).
Then he was gone, off next door to do his gig.
During the show I mentioned how he'd appeared and made us all a cup of tea, how Amy was disappointed because she's spilled her Special Captain Sensible Cup Of Tea, and what a lift it had given me to see him, in the middle of a tour, thousands of miles from home, in a strange land with the mid-tour blues...and so on. I didn't think we'd be seeing each other again because his show exactly coincided with our own.
We finished the set, encore and everything, and were just about to leave the stage when there was a commotion and the Captain was in amongst us, red beret and wraparound shades and all, making a speech about how great I was. I couldn't be doing with that.
'You'll have to give us a song now you're here - let's do Happy Talk!'
For a long time Happy Talk was the Captain's bete noire. A novelty hit that turned him from a borderline clown into a full time joke for a while. A shame because he's an intelligent man and a hugely talented musician. Not that I'd ever tell him that of course. He's recovered from all that now and always seems quite reconciled with the Happy Talk part of the story.
We completely butchered the song and it was magnificent. Someone said it sounded us though we were all playing different songs but it made perfect sense to me. It even had a modulation, or key change (from A to G), due in part (I like to think) to my quick insertion of a mindless progression of jazz chords. Barry had a handle on it, which I found slightly disturbing, and so did Amy - she played the organ like a cabaret hack on a cruise liner. When they start doing punk cruises we'll be first in line for a job.
It was a one-off, I don't think we'll be doing it again. It cheered me up no end though. Some of the audience looked puzzled -I suddenly realised that half of them didn't know who he was, and the other half thought he was a lookalike.
I should have taken photos but I was busy, and everyone else seems to be taking them, though the Germans aren't the shutterbugs that the American's are. Everywhere we play in America big men stand next to me while other big men take our photo, me looking slightly bemused, big man of the moment looking either pleased as punch or super cool. Sometimes they check the photo and get their big man mate to take another, but it's never because I don't look good - and I generally don't - it's all about them, they have to look just right.
Shutterbug... I like this word.
And the German version - Schutterbug.

02 STRASBOURG, La Popartiserie

05 LEON, SPAIN, Purple Weekend Festival – THE LEN BRIGHT COMBO
06 LEON, SPAIN, Purple Weekend Festival – WRECKLESS ERIC solo
10 HULL, New Adelphi TICKETS
14 BRIGHTON, Prince Albert

Monday, November 24, 2014

Getting Ready, Mixing With The Stars, Getting Ready To Go Again...

I'm sitting in the overcrowded boarding area in Terminal 5 at JFK airport. This is about the most relaxed I've felt since we got home from the Ian Hunter tour last Tuesday and I realised we'd have to get ready to leave home yet again.
I always feel hopelessly ill-prepared - I make mental lists and try to hold the information in my head until the pressure of trying to remember all this trivial shit becomes too much and I succumb to making an actual list:
glasses...set list...notify the bank...gutters...dodgy volume pot...socks...
Eventually I start crossing this stuff out, either because I've done it, like climbing up a ladder and clearing leaves out of the gutter; or because I can't remember what it was I meant, like socks; or because I'm running out of time, as in dodgy volume pot, which I'll deal with when we get to England if I can locate the UK soldering iron amongst the touring paraphernalia stashed in our friend's attic.
I have to remember where I've put my passport even though I know where I keep my passport, but it seems important to remember where I've put it, so I do, and store the information in my head, and then I convince myself that I might have forgotten, so I rush home with a palpitating heart and check that the passport is where I've put it, which of course it is...
It's a bit like an Edgar Allan Poe story but I can't think which one in particular at the moment.
I've decided which guitar I'm taking - the big green Microfret. I thought of taking the Mexican Telecaster which sounds great but doesn't have quite the character and fucked-up-ness of the Microfret, possibly because the strings are all the same distance apart.

A week goes by in a blur - rounding up equipment, rehearsing, renting a van, loading it with equipment, catching a ferry in the early morning. Cologne, Nijmegan, Utrecht...

And here we are, three shows in, having a day off in Utrecht. Amy and I decided to go off in search of the old town - canals, historic buildings, coffee houses and the ubiquitous coffee shops, which of course we avoided seeing as how we're already spaced out.
We met up with Barry Payne and the three of us spent an afternoon cluttering up cycle lanes, cafes, and at one point even a camping shop, which is a good thing because now we've got the camping bug out of our systems for another year.

It's hard to believe that just two weeks ago I had a show in Huntsville, Alabama, and then we were in Nashville with Ian Hunter. That was a great show to end the tour with. Afterwards, in a dressing room full of people, I met a very enthusiastic fan called Tom who told me how happy he was to see us play, and what a huge fan he was:
'Do you live in Nashville? I asked him, feeling a bit like Prince Charles on a royal visit.
He told me he did.
'And what do you do here?' I asked, inclining my head slightly and putting on an interested expression.
'I'm a bass player'
'That's good! So am I - I play bass sometimes with me and Amy. You got a band or anything?'
'Yes, I've been in the same band for years'
'Must be working out then - what are you called?'
'We're called Cheap Trick'
It took some effort to come back from that but I managed. I told him how I'd opened for Cheap Trick at the Hammersmith Odeon back in 1979, and how impressed we were by their roadies who all looked like Greek gods to us. He told me the band were all huge fans and were quite awed at having me open for them. I told him we'd assumed they were arrogant American rock stars because none of them talked to us, and he said that they'd all been too shy.
I remember that night very well - Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds turned up in just perfect time to miss my set, which was a shame because we'd actually been really good and gone down well. 
I had a halting and almost completely one-sided conversation with Roy Wood who seemed very tall and imperious, though that may have just been an illusion caused by my fan worship of the man.
The stars caroused with one another and I ended up in the corner of the backstage bar with my bass player. 
A seedy looking man, an American with a ratty moustache, beige slacks and an open-necked shirt, the collar of which spanned the width of an impossible tweed jacket turned to me:
'I love your band'
'Thank you' I said
'Caught you last night too, at the Chelsea College Of Art... amazing'
'Thank you,' I said again, and edged slightly down the bar.
'If there was anything I could ever do for you...'
What could this guy ever do for me, I thought. He looked as though he'd just come out of prison and been given some clothes.
I exchanged looks with the bass player and we edged a bit further.
' a little guitar myself' I hear him say '...used to have a band myself out of Detroit, name of the MC5'
We turned and looked. He held out his hand -
'My name's Wayne, Wayne Kramer'

And here I am, thirty six years later, killing time in a hotel on the outskirts of Utrecht, getting ready to drive to Hamburg in the morning.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On Tour With Ian Hunter #5 (the trouser incident)

We stayed in Decatur GA with our friends Shawn Vinson (my art agent) and his wife, the painter Ruth Franklin. Shawn took me and my ailing amplifier to a place called Acorn Amplifiers, run by a couple of young guys - they were probably in their mid-thirties, but they're all young to me. They were into Traynor amps but understood the convenience of using a Vox AC15 and confirmed what I've been thinking, that a well set up Fender Deluxe would be much better.
The Vox starts to crush up to early and sometimes it just isn't quite loud enough. Before I know it my big fat guitar sound has turned into a wasp in a bottle and I can hardly hear it. They got it sorted out but it hasn't been ideal for these shows, next time I'll probably use my forty watt Traynor head with a cabinet.

I imagine I've just lost half my readers - no one wants to hear about amplifiers! You want to hear about clothes, and swanky hotels, and hanging out with the stars.
I could document this tour with conversations I've had with Ian, sitting on dressing room sofas. After our soundcheck at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta I went down into the dressing room and there was Ian, alone, sitting on the ubiquitous sofa.
'Hello Eric, you're looking good today'
'Really? Must be a trick of the light'
'Well, whatever it is it's working for you'
'In that case I'll stand here forever'
'No, don't do that, come and sit down'
We talked for a while about soundchecks - Ian says he has to do them. I said I just want to know that the acoustic guitar's at the right level in the monitor and check my amp's working alright. Apart from that it's really just a question of checking for holes in the stage. We agreed that it's a placebo thing really. He says he's got to do it, if only to check the vibe of the place and decide what shirt to wear. Of course, by the time he gets on the stage the band have soundchecked the whole thing into submission and it's just a question of fine tuning things.
I asked him the other day for advice on taking a band round Europe - it's been a long time and I'm a bit nervous. He said all you need are a few regal gestures and don't go near the stage until the band have finished soundchecking. I can't see that working somehow but it's a nice thought. If any of them read this they'll take the piss out of me for it.
We discussed the importance of playing something with the front of house turned off - you can always here it bouncing off the empty dance floor when the room's empty, and it sounds big and exciting, but as soon as the floor gets covered up by an audience it's like playing into a mattress, and if you're not prepared you'll suddenly find you need three times as much of just about everything in the monitors as you did at the soundcheck.
Then I came up with a great invention - the soundcheck mattress. It's a huge mattress that you wheel in and put in front of you to simulate audience bulk during the soundcheck. Ian was very impressed -
'The roadies could pump it up and deflate it when you've finished!'
'Fuck off' I said, 'I'm not having an inflatable one - I want the full Dunlopillo posture sprung memory foam job, with the reclining feature, just in case anyone wants to read during the soundcheck.'
Ian produced a pair of black jeans: 'We found these lying around, are they yours?'
'I dunno, what size are they?'
'Thirty waist, thirty two leg'
'They might be, that's my size'
'Well, you better take them then, nobody else else wants them, and they're your size'
'Thanks Ian! I didn't even know I'd lost them'

I was glad that my trousers hadn't gone missing because I was planning to wear my hand painted country 'n' western outfit, and that involves the black jeans (which I haven't got round to painting yet).
Dennis, the keyboard player, was impressed that I knew how to iron a shirt. Ian was worried that my shirt might be better than his. I offered to lend it to him when we'd finish but the offer was declined.
I went to get changed.
I found I had two pairs of black jeans.
Ian liked my outfit, particularly the bollo tie which looks like something stolen from a southern European cemetary. Jim Mastro looked worried, he couldn't find his black jeans. It's a funny thing - the whole band seemed to say at once 'Eric's got a spare pair...'
'They're mine! Give them back!'
'I don't know where I've put them' I said, 'you'll just have to go on in your underpants.'
I think I might have been set up. I found out later that on a previous tour they'd been stealing each other's clothes and sending ransom notes.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

On Tour With Ian Hunter #4

Charlotte was an odd night. A big old barn of a place with a raked floor - probably an old movie theatre - and sadly covered with rows of chairs with a fifteen or twenty foot gap between the first row of chairs and the front of the stage. Not enough room for people to stand in without getting a hard time from the people sitting behind them, especially fo us, the opening act.
I like to play for people so it helps when they're close up, not sitting in rows a large room's width away. The stage sound was weird, my amplifier was playing up and we couldn't somehow settle into it. Afterwards I was privately beating myself up - I felt quite down because I didn't think I'd played well, contrary to what people in the audience were telling me. I don't know if this is because it's sometimes not as bad as I think it is, or because I've got high standards and I'm actually quite good, or because I've got no means of rational evaluation.
I had an interesting talk with Ian the other night. He was raving about the Motorco show in Durham, what a great audience they were, what a great venue it was, and how he definitely wants to go back there. He's just like me, it takes him time to get some kind of perspective. I asked him after the show if he'd enjoyed it the answer was an emphatic no, which surprised me. I reminded him of that and he said 'Oh yeah, of course, the first thought is always a negative one.'
I quite often feel vulnerable after a show, tired, drained and insecure. We always have to head out to the merch stall which can be hard but I like it because the enthusiasm of the people really lifts me back up. I like hearing their stories but I'm baffled as to why they all want to have their photo taken with me. The other night I told a friend that was hanging out that my real job is a male photographic model, I just do the music as a hobby.

After a night in a disgusting La Quinta hotel that reeked of stale cigarette smoke, even though it proudly proclaimed itself a non-smoking facility, we discovered a food hall in downtown Charlotte with a really good coffee place. Amy found it on Chow Hound - she worried about the name which was Not Just Coffee but I rationalised it as not just run of the mill coffee, and not meaning a glut of sticky buns, frozen sandwiches and chemical coffee flavourings, and I was right.
The names of coffee places can be deceptive - we found one in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, called Cofftea and I didn't want to get out of the car, but it turned out to be one of the good ones. I draw the line at Java-Me-Like - it's not possible that someone who calls their place Java-Me-Like is going to know anything about making a decent espresso. The same goes for Once Upon A Coffee Cup, though I haven't yet found anywhere called either of these names.
Right now I'm wondering what Huntsville, Alabama, is going to offer. The place is full of astronauts, rocket scientists and hip kids so it'll probably be good. More later...

Oh dear... the good place was closed because it's Sunday, and this is the south where drinking coffee on the Lord's day is considered by some to be ungodly, so we're in the place with the bottles of coffee flavourings, the sticky buns and the big sandwich menu. And strychnine espresso. Still, after last night I can forgive Huntsville anything.
I played in a micro brewery, in the brewing room, surrounded by stainless steel vats. Great sound and an audience that ranged from old guys in Stiff Records t shirts to the young and beautiful who were an absolute delight. I played two sets - The Downside Of Being A Fuck-up, Birthday Blues, It's A Sick Sick World, Joe Meek, You Sweet Big Thing, Reconnez Cherie, The Sun Is Pouring Down and Several Shades Of Green.
I started the second set with Semi-Porno Statuette, Duvet Fever, Paris In June and If It Makes You Happy, then Amy joined me and we butchered You Can't be A Man Without A Beer In Your Hand on two guitars that were having a tuning disagreement. It was cold in there - something to do with the brewing process I suppose. Having got vaguely in tune we carried on with Don't Break The Heart, Rebel Girl Rebel Girl, Are We Ever Going To Have Sex Again (Amy forgot the last verse and the whole thing broke down so she took another run at it and still couldn't it so I paraphrased it which didn't really help - she's washing up and he comes in and tries to do her from behind while she's watching CNN... It ended in chaos to great applause and we acquited ourselves with a passable Kilburn Lane. I finished the set alone with Someone Must've Nailed Us Together, 33s & 45s, Whole Wide World and True Happiness.
I can't wait to come back again, but hopefully on a day when the good coffee place is open.

I jumped ahead there and missed out Atlanta but perhaps I'll get to that after tonight's Nashville fiasco.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

On Tour With Ian Hunter #3

On the way to Charlotte we stopped for barbeque in Lexington. The waitress gave me a big smile:
'We were wondering - are y'all a rock star?'
I gave her my best no I'm just a bloke look but she persisted and I eventually copped to being a musician. I have to admit to being a bit pleased after all those times in France when Amy and I tried to get gigs and failed. 'We're a band' we'd explain to various bar owners who looked at us pityingly with expressions that said no you're not, you're just a deluded middle-aged couple, before explaining to us that ici on a des groupes professionel qui viennent jouer.
Amy went off to the rest room and the waitress sidled up again: 'Come on honey, you can tell me, you're the singer in a big rock group aintcha - is it The Who?'
I started to turn into Hugh Grant, a mixture of being flattered and forbearance for someone who's obviously a simpleton: 'Well I... that is er... yes in a manner of - boyhood dreams and all that...'
'Oh my, I just knew it!'
Next thing the owner's over and we're being offered a tour of the place and samples of everything on the house, and he's telling me how blessed he is to have such a successful barbeque joint, and how Bruce Springstein and Neil Young and John Mellencamp have all stopped by on the way through and what a huge Bowie fan he is, and he's giving us his card for next time y'all come back...
Fortunately we had to leave or we would have been late for the soundcheck. I think it was for the best.