Monday 14 May 2012

The Dogshit Pub, a rambling discourse

In my last post I alluded to that dreadful place where Harold Shipman came from. Now I feel I should explain. The dreadful place is a town called Hyde. We were booked to play there at a club in the upstairs room of a pub. I started writing this piece soon after the event but never got round to finishing or posting it.

We've done them all - played in clubs, pubs, concert halls, village halls, town halls, record shops, pool halls, sandwich bars, bowling alleys, cinemas, shopping centres, open fields, and even the occasional living room. I'm fine with all of them but I've realised there's category of venue that may well be dying out, one which I'd been aware of but never consciously defined. I now call these venues dogshit pubs.
I called the promoter on the morning of the show. He told me there was a doubt whether or not it would go ahead because the pub had been broken into during the night. Amy's face lit up when I told her - she quite liked the idea of a cancellation because we'd been announced on their website as A Punk Legend. We've pretty well decided to not even entertain the idea of playing in a place that announces punk legends. Another barometer is Eddie & The Hot Rods. We've got nothing against Eddie & The Hot Rods but experience has shown us time and time again that venues that book Eddie & The Hot Rods don't work for us.
And when Eddie & The Hot Rods is combined on a yellow poster with a photo from my first album and A Punk Legend with two exclamation marks it generally means the venue is going to be a dogshit pub.

We'd driven down from Glasgow in the rain. It was still raining when we arrived. Rain suited the place. Hyde has two claims to fame: Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley who killed children in the sixties, and Dr Harold Shipman who euthanised somewhere in the region of two hundred elderly female patients in Hyde in the nineteen eighties. A hairdresser friend, a Mancunian who lives in South West France, opened his first salon there. He cut Harold Shipman's wife's hair and indeed lost a couple of clients to the good/bad doctor. He tried to warn us, he told us - Hyde is a dump.
We didn't get to see much of Hyde so I can't really comment, but the pub was sour and the audience beery, mouthy and seriously depleted. When we arrived a seedy looking man in an anorak came out of a side entrance. He told us, grim-faced, that we'd have to load in through the beer garden.
Beer garden: a couple of those integrated wooden bench and picnic table outings scattered around on dusty astro turf. The astro turf had seen a few years wear, the green worn to gritty greyness and dotted with large piles of rain-soaked dog shit.
The serious crime squad were in occupation, dusting the interior for fingerprints while teams of feral men dragged smashed and broken fruit machines out on to a concrete expanse at the back of the pub.
Carefully avoiding the dog shit - which was difficult because I didn't want to look at it - we loaded the equipment in to the venue via a wet, narrow, metal fire escape into the inevitable upstairs Concert Room. The stage was covered in tatty off-cuts of astro turf. I saw the arse end of a doberman disappear through a door marked Private. Please I thought, please, the doberman isn't allowed on the stage... please!!
There might not be any dog shit on the stage in a dogshit pub, though I have unfortunately come across it in the past, but you can always sense it - it's been there and now it's gone, leaving behind microscopic traces of disease and disgust, lurking in the hairy depths of a mushy carpet or in this case, raggy astro turf.
I wanted to go home, but we were here now and the organisers were nicer than at other classic dog shit pubs, notably the Spider's Web in Grimsby where the support act got paid more than I did and the dressing room was the emergency exit to the car park.

It's hard to exactly define the dogshit pub - the jazz club in Louth, Lincolnshire where we played last November looked for all the world like it was going to be a dogshit pub, but in spite of a framed photo of the Queen on the wall at the back of the stage, and the stench of disinfectant, stale beer and fifty years of cigarette smoke and meat pie dinners it just didn't make it. The fact that it was across the road from Robert Wyatt's house might have helped, and the clientele was all wrong - an audience of Lincolnshire post-hippy hippies and people who've merely ended up in a remote corner of a remote county - they just weren't dogshit pub people. A dogshit pub needs an undertow, a subtle suggestion at the least of a potential for the kind of violence that leads to hospitalisation.
And it helps if the landlord lives on the premises - there's so much more scope for squalor. And the landlord should look like a sea monster, and underneath the barnacled exterior there should beat a heart of either solid gold or solid shit, no half measures. Short measure in the optics quite possibly, but no half measures.
If you're lucky enough to be shown upstairs in a dogshit pub - possibly because as a punk legend (though he's probably never actually heard of you) the landlord feels you deserve a private place to change into your stage garb - in the bathroom, on a shelf above a grubby sink you'll find a bottle of Listerine, a tube of Anusol and a large can of highly scented deodorant which the staff are encouraged to use on their persons to mask the smell of fried food. The floor around the toilet will be littered with old VAT returns and well-thumbed books of what I believe is known as toilet humour.
This is a sweeping generalisation and I'm sure it's causing deep offence to members of the licensed victuallers trade but I don't really care because, believe me, I've suffered for my art and all that tosh.

I have a treasured memory of a pub in Brighton in the mid-nineties. In some ways it was the ultimate dogshit pub (but for a total lack of Punk Legend, Eddie & The Hot Rods, undercurrents of violence, or a sea monster landlord). A tiny building, originally part of Tamplins Brewery - one bar with a legal capacity of forty people, a ladies lavatory, a room with a trough in it where men could piss on their work boots, and upstairs a one bedroomed flat with a view over an adjacent council estate. The brewery had been demolished and all that was left was this solitary pub where old men came to mutter into half pints of mild ale and council estate residents congregated on Saturday afternoons to smoke cigarettes, swill lager and yell at the racing on the ancient TV set held aloft on a bracketed plywood shelf.
A friend of mine ended up running the place for a red-faced Irish builder who was redeveloping the site. The pub had to ostensibly stay open so that it wouldn't lose its license, so my friend endured many a grim evening with the aforementioned mild ale mutterers, and beery Saturday afternoons with the racing crowd.
At this time I believe his life was truly squalid. He lived in the flat over the pub with a chain-smoking girlfriend who was quite plainly mad and not a little vicious. The lack of custom drove him to opening the place in the evening to any band that needed a place to rehearse, and eventually the pub was voted Small Venue Of The Year by the NME or the Melody Maker in nineteen ninety something - I forget exactly when.
My friend's other job - his day job - was manning a cafe for the builders. The cafe was a semi-derelict room, the old brewery wages office, furnished with a deep fat fryer and a large tea urn. He deep-fried everything, apart from the tea. If someone ordered fried bread or fried tomatoes he just dropped them whole into the oil and dealt with the consequences after he'd fished them out, oil-sodden but cooked to perfection. The same with fried eggs - he'd crack them on the side of the fryer and drop them straight into the boiling oil.
The place was very popular with mud encrusted builders taking a break from demolishing things and digging foundations for the thirty-something low rent houses that were going to be erected, or clustered around, a bijou dogshit pub on the site of the old brewery.
One Saturday night I found myself sitting on a dubious three-seater sofa in the upstairs living room of my friend's pub, my mother on one side of me, my daughter Luci on the other, while downstairs the bar filled up with an expectant audience of round about twice the legal limit, all come to see me play. (This was in the days before I moved back to Brighton and became one of the mundane fixtures and fittings.) We were surrounded by discarded takeaway packaging, the coffee table on front of us was cluttered with empty beer and cider bottles, punctuated at intervals by three large pub ashtrays, each one overflowing with an avalanche of ash and cigarette butts. Dating Game contestants silently mouthed on a large greasy-screened TV beyond the coffee table and a blue Pearl Export drum kit skulked in the corner on a litter of broken drum sticks. My mother looked around the room, an incredulous look on her face, and quietly asked no one in particular how can people live like this?

I don't know how, I just know they do. One night fifteen or so years later Amy's daughter Hazel took us to her boyfriend's apartment in Chicago . He shared it with several other hip young guys and whatever slacker didn't happen to have an apartment of their own that month. Four thousand miles away, the other side of an ocean, and there was the same coffee table, beer bottles with blackening half-smoked cigarettes slowly rotting in their rancid dregs, the overflowing ashtrays, the same dubious sofa.
A drunken fratboy friend dropped by. He addressed me as dude and managed to pour half a bottle of some disgustingly sticky alcopops beverage over me whilst attempting to engage me in a ritualistic rock 'n' roll handshake. I was cool about it - actually I quite enjoyed his embarrassment, his grovelling apologies. But I had to tell him that nobody, and I mean nobody, calls me dude. Hazel said, 'What can you expect - he had a neck tattoo.'

This thing seems to be taking an anthropological turn. Haven't had one of those since I played in Oldham back in 2005. I think I'll go with it:

Imagine how Thor Heyerdahl would have felt if all he'd found at the end of the Kon-Tiki Expedition, having crossed an ocean on a ramshackle raft, was a coffee table covered in beer bottles and cigarette ash. And a guy with a neck tattoo had spilled a drink over him. Not that I'm saying I'm disappointed, just pointing out that things don't change much. Civilisations move slowly, though I think ours accelerated into a nose dive in the early eighties.
The nineteen eighties: the heyday of dogshit pubs - the days of drunken driving and smoking indoors. People liked to improve things and to that end they would fit pine-effect melamine around varnished Victorian woodwork and make it look neat with a tube of Kitchen & Bathroom Silicone and their thumb. Public bars and saloon bars were knocked into one and filled with sub-tropical pot plants and sofas. Deludedly envisaged as places where people with jobs could come and relax after a day at the office.
The sofas suffered the stains and cigarette burns of clumsy and incontinent beer drinkers. The sub-tropical pot plants wilted and died, suffocated by secondary smoke. Big men indulged in fist fights in the beer garden. Freelance pea-treaders were employed to come in on Saturdays and painstakingly grind processed peas into the carpets. Everything had to be perfect for mal-guided pre-internet travellers who might stumble across and into the place under the mistaken impression that the Carvery Fayre was going to be home-cooked and nutritious, if not delicious.
Things went rapidly downhill - they always did. From Grand Opening to Disturbance At The Showboat Public House - it only took a couple of months. We weren't as good at sophistication as we thought we were. Soon shitting alsations patrolled the staircase and the front door was manned by burly men armed with walkie-talkies.
Karaoke Nite
Happy Hour
Giant Screen TV
All Major Sporting Events duly celebrated...
A slow, inevitable decline: meat raffles, quiz nights, drinks promotions, a half-hearted attempt at a tribute band venue - if you closed your eyes you would've sworn it was John and Paul sitting in the corner strumming through a few numbers on their acoustic guitars...
Plywood nailed over the doors and windows.
Weeds growing through the tarmac in the car park.
The End.

I really don't know where that leaves us but I hope I've amused rather than depressed.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Greetings From The Empire State

I've been wondering how to go about doing this sort of thing again. I've got so much and so little to say all at the same time, and I sometimes think I prefer reading Amy's blog than writing anything myself. It sort of lets me off the hook. But it nags at me - I still want to do it - even though I preferred the days before everyone had a blog, when there was something wonderfully ridiculous about a minor pop star writing about a trip to the supermarket or a dust up with a council official.

But I enjoyed the writing and I miss it so here's a snippet of my new (or perhaps not so new by now) life in wonderful upstate New York...

It's probably going to take another year or so to get this house sorted out but at least we're not living in a caravan. Which is just as well considering a mild winters day barely gets above freezing round here. Or that's what they say. We've been lucky, we've had the mildest winter anyone can remember. It still cost us an oil field's worth of fuel to heat the place - I think most of the heat went up through the uninsulated roof while the furnace kept the hot water tank at boiling point twenty four hours a day. Seriously - you could have made a British cup of tea with water from the hot tap.

But the winter was quite jolly - there were sunny days with deep blue skies - even when the temperature was somewhere terrifyingly below zero (at least for a soft English southerner like myself). The Catskill Mountains loomed over the shopping centre and threatened to get cover in snow, but they never really did..

One Sunday morning sometime back in October we walked out of the house to buy a newspaper and by the time we got back, about twenty minutes later, we'd seen a snake, a freight train and a mountain. And all before breakfast. We hear freight trains in the night - very romantic. We met a woman whose husband drives the train. He's called Doug. I didn't catch her name. She says he leaves home trying to look as though it's just a job and he'd rather be fishing, but there's a certain swagger that tells her he's thrilled to be driving the train. So when we hear the banshee wail of a distant train whistle in the middle of the night I think there goes Doug...

Of course it could as well be his mate Gary or Frank, which brings me to another point: the men round here are all called Gary, unless they're called Frank. Occasionally you come across a Jim and once a Chuck, but mostly it's Frank or Gary. I've yet to meet a Hank. In a bygone era I imagine this place was cluttered with Hanks but no more.
I feel as though I'm in a film half the time and the supermarket checkout ladies are all besotted because of my accent - they try to keep me talking. Buying paint in the Home Depot I felt like James Bond. The woman that mixes the custom colours nearly came adrift. If Amy hadn't been there I don't know what might have become of me. The woman actually told Amy something to that effect herself.
Other times they think I'm bonkers and scurry away dragging quizzical-eyed children. They think I'm putting it on, an ex-mental patient from Idaho trying out a new identity. Sometimes I turn into Terrence Stamp in The Limey, and that really confuses them.

The neighbours are very friendly thank God. Friendly but not overbearing - they keep a respectful distance. Soon after we moved in the lady over the back popped round with an apple cinnamon cake all wrapped in foil. She took a quick glance around - that is, I assume she did, because that's what I would have done in her place - and told us to put our feet up, have a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. There wasn't much for her to look at because the container hadn't arrived yet, and we couldn't invite her to stay because we only had two chairs.
A couple of days later we were strolling round the local supermarket - the Price Chopper on Price Chopper Plaza (only in America...) - we saw a display of apple cinnamon cakes that looked exactly like the one the neighbour gave us, except these ones were packed in transparent plastic containers. Of course we bought one, took it home and did a bit of comparing and contrasting. Quite possibly exactly the same.
But it's the thought that counts. I should mention the cake was delicious, and we were touched by such a kind gesture, and I'm sort of hoping it was a repackaged supermarket cake because it makes for a better story, me being English and cynical and so on.

Then we heard about Neighbour Dan... Neighbour Dan and Cake Neighbour live next door to each other. They don't get on. Our next door neighbour's son told us there was a boundary dispute, which I suppose accounts for the odd line the fence takes dividing the two properties. No one, it seemed, likes Neighbour Dan, but we resolved to keep an open mind and say hello one day when he's out and about and the other neighbours aren't. Even though the next door neighbour's son let it drop that Neighbour Dan had our patio bricks away just before we moved in. I was wondering why there was a square of mud in the middle of the back garden or yard as they call it over here. I thought it might be something to do with Druids or some sort of crop circle related phenomenon, but dismissed the idea - America's too young a country for that sort of malarkey.
Time crept along we never had met Neighbour Dan, we didn't even know his name, until one well-scrubbed November morning a dubious character crossed our front lawn and there was a knocking at the door... Denim shrt, white t-shirt, Walmart work jeans, a pair of Timberlands, cigarette shielded against the elements in a cupped palm, ever shifting eyes, a sparse black widows peak.
He'd come round to introduce himself.
To extend the hand of friendship.
To offer to lend me tools.
He'd come to explain himself...
It seems that the previous owners appointed Neighbour Dan caretaker of the property in their absence. From what we've picked up from the other neighbours, including the local chief of police who lives just over the road, the previous occupants loaded a van in the middle of the night and fucked off to South Carolina leaving a house full of junk (two dumpsters worth apparently) and a lot of outstanding bills, including the mortgage, which is why we were able to buy it from a bank at a knockdown price.
As payment for his services, mowing the lawn, shovelling snow, that sort of thing, the previous owners paid Neighbour Dan in patio bricks and an above-ground swimming pool which we were welcome to have back though it would break lil' Danny's heart - you should have seen him the day we brought it over, his lil' eyes were shining...
I declined the offer of the return of the swimming pool - it crossed my mind that the only reason he'd be giving it back would be because it had a hole in it. And I'm glad I did because the other day our nice next door neighbours told me day that when that pool was in our yard the water in it was green and swimming with frog spawn but it didn't stop the former occupants kids from jumping into it.
Of course they might have just been trying to get clean after spending too long in the house.
Anyway, I told him I was surprised to hear that the banks were employing caretakers to look after their foreclosures but he didn't react, just backed down the path a couple of respectful paces and took a puff on the ill-concealed cigarette. He blew out smoked, looked around, and said in a confidential tone, 'I don't know what the neighbours might have been telling you about me, but none of it's true.'
'Oh,' I said, 'they've had nothing but good to say about you.'
We haven't spoken since.

We've been recording. The first thing we did was install the studio. I built walls, real ones with double thicknesses of plasterboard - or sheet rock as they call it over here. could be a genre that:
'How would you describe your music?' (A stupid but popular question - you don't describe it, you play it and people listen)
'Well, it's what we call sheet rock...'
In the old French house Amy's work room was directly above the studio. She was almost vibrated off her chair on a daily basis by errant bass frequencies. If a band came to record she quite often had to leave the house and spend a day in the library. Actually that's not true - you couldn't spend a day in the library where we lived, just three hours in the morning and a couple more hours in the afternoon, depending on the day of the week, after a two hour lunch break in a cafe being ogled by dining farmers.
We haven't had any bands in yet but we have had Chris Butler playing drums on several tracks on our new album. Chris is a fierce drummer - I found myself wearing headphones more as ear protectors than for monitoring purposes. Chris had a band called The Waitresses who had a hit with I Know What Boys Like. He was on Stiff Records courtesy of the Akron compilation. He played the bass on one of my favourite Stiff Records - Yankee Wheels by Jayne Aire & The Belvederes. He's my hero! He's also the greatest drummer I've ever recorded.
(OK Chris, if you could make the cheque out to cash...)
The new Eric & Amy album is going to be eleven or so original tunes - I think we've cleverly circumnavigated the tricky third album syndrome by doing a covers album second. Usually by the third album all the good ideas are used up and there's been no time to conjour up some new ones. But we've had all the time in the world between fixing up houses, packing containers, applying for Green Cards, putting up ceilings, braving floods, hurricanes, gigs in places like Louth and that dreadful place where Harold Shipman came from... so we've written a concept album about sheet rock. It's called Sheet Rock...

Actually some of that's a lie.

I must be off now, I've got some bass frequencies to round up. It's good to be back.