Monday 11 April 2016

Jetlag, solvent abuse, three weeks in Belgium

Sometimes it takes longer than you think to get over the jet lag. Heading straight to my mother’s house from the airport was a mistake - she’s ninety years old and she lives alone so you never know what you’re going to find when you get there. This time it was a decorator, a congenital idiot with a dripping paint brush and a can of oil-based brilliant white gloss. He’d already had trouble telling where the skirting board ended and the carpet started. He probably gets a lot of work from older people because most of them can’t see the results very clearly so in the end it doesn’t matter.

But oil-based paint - for fuck’s sake, not in an old person’s house. It takes hours to dry. By the time I arrived he’d been blodging at every surface for most of the morning. The house was overtaken by paint fumes and after half an hour so was I. My mother may or may not have been in the same condition but she fell over early the next morning and I was awoken from a heady and nightmarish sleep to the sound of paramedics entering the house.

‘Don’t touch the handrails or bannisters’ I warned, ‘you’ll get stuck to them.’

My mother was sitting on the floor in her bedroom. She was quite calm, almost amused. The paramedics checked her out - nothing broken, not even any bruising. The first carer of the day came and soon she was up and dressed and downstairs, sitting in her chair having breakfast as though nothing had happened. I glanced at her medical notes - one of the paramedics had suggested that she may have been high on paint fumes and that’s what might have caused the fall.

I felt as though I’d spent the night sniffing glue.

Even though I escaped for a couple of days and managed to get at least one good nights sleep I was still feeling befuddled when it came time to leave for Ostend. My friend Andy took me over in his car with all my junk on a day return ticket.

Neither of us was in a good state - Andy had bronchitis and I was suffering from sleep deprivation and solvent abuse. I remember how in the nineties I would set off for somewhere halfway across Europe with ten pounds in my pocket and a full tank, no cheque book, credit card or phone, just an address scrawled on the back of an envelope, all on the promise of earning some cash when I got there. And that was a normal state of affairs.

It was like the good old days - I didn’t have the address of where we were going to (I was going to get that on the way), I hadn’t implemented any international plan with my US cellphone provider, and my pay-as-you-go UK mobile was out of credit. Somewhere between Calais and Ostend Andy and I both started to freak out. I got my laptop out in a motorway services, tried to get the address. Andy stayed in the car, coughing and sleeping off the effects of powerful medication, though at one point we both got involved in trying to use a payphone. The payphone didn’t work.

We eventually arrived at the apartment where I was to be staying in for the next two and a half weeks. It was on the eighteenth floor with a balcony all around two sides. The outside walls were all glass, floor to ceiling sliding panels of the stuff. The view of Ostend was terrific. There were no curtains.

Andy left to catch the ferry and I was left alone in my temporary new home. The first thing I thought I should do was get my stuff together and maybe change my clothes. I’d been wearing the same clothes for days and I was feeling quite grubby. I looked around for my suitcase but I couldn’t find it. I searched the apartment room by room - the place was quite sparsely furnished so it wasn’t difficult. No suitcase. I remembered that I’d last seen it in the back of Andy’s car. That was where it was. We’d forgotten to take it out. By now it was probably halfway across the English Channel.

Here I was in a minimalist apartment with the lights of Ostend twinkling below and all around as far as the eye could see with just a couple of guitars, a case of leads and effect pedals, a Fender Deluxe amplifier and the clothes I stood up in. I tried to kid myself that it was liberating, romantic even, but it wasn’t liberating at all and I felt quite tearful.

I pulled myself together and went down in the elevator to the supermarket below. If you’re feeling weird, insecure and a little unhinged a foreign supermarket is just the thing to send you over the edge. Half an hour later I was back on the eighteenth floor with a Bag For Life containing a can of highly perfumed shaving foam, a packet of disposable razors (the Delhaize supermarket’s own brand), a pack of two pairs of men’s underpants sporting a label that said DIM, some disgusting toothpaste, a toothbrush, a carton of seedless green grapes, some smoked salmon responsibly farmed in the North Atlantic, a bottle of apple juice and a packet of Ryvita’s.

I decided that I couldn’t possibly walk around in underwear labelled DIM - it’s bad enough for the self esteem in ones that say Next all around the waistband. 

I’m still using the toothpaste even though every time I do I resolve to hit a health shop and buy some decent stuff. 

It took me two and a half weeks to get through the Ryvita packet, each increasingly less crunchy tile eased down with semi-rancid butter I found in the fridge. 

I feasted on smoked salmon and apple juice and absent-mindedly ate half the seedless grapes while I stared out of the window at Ostend on the first night, the rest I threw away a few days later when I saw them looking sorry for themselves on the kitchen countertop. 

I lathered and scraped my face with one of the disposable razors and wished I’d remained unshaved and unperfumed.

I was doing two weeks in Belgium as the musical guest of stand up comedian Piv Huvluv - two twenty minute sets incorporated into his theatre show, one before the intermission and one before the end. He’s done this once before, three years ago with Steve Wyn from the Dream Syndicate and the Miracle Three. Amy and I once did a show for Piv in a club near Ostend. He’s  a successful comedian in Belgium with a part in a TV sitcom. A music fan, one of the good guys.

He started setting the tour up a couple of years ago. I had no idea then that I’d have made an album like “amERICa” to such a great reception. I had no idea what I’d be doing in two years time but I committed to the idea and it slowly turned into a reality. Nothing seems real to me until a couple of weeks before it happens. I’ve given up trying to visualise how things are going to be, it leads to panic and pre-empting situations, a lot of anguish and unnecessary anxiety. My arrangements consisted of booking a plane ticket to London ahead of time. For the rest I was making it up as I went along.

I spent a couple of days wandering around Ostend, rehearsed with Piv in the basement of his father’s magnificent 1970s house and rejoiced when my suitcase was delivered by UPS, shrunk-wrapped in white plastic.

We didn’t know quite how we were going to do the show but it involved a portable record player which didn’t quite revolve at a constant speed, a stack of crackling vinyl and an almost gratuitous Powerpoint presentation. And Piv’s homemade drumkit. He really wanted to play drums with me on a couple of songs. I tried hard to put aside reservations, go along with it, be a good sport and so on.

The kit was mostly homemade - it reminded me of one of my first bands, Addis & The Flip Tops - named after a plastic kitchen bin which was the drumkit at our first ever practice session. Piv’s kit consisted of a big black plastic bin for a bass drum, an upturned plastic bucket for a tom (professionally mounted on a snare stand), and a five gallon plastic jerry can gaffered to a plastic crate with a sandbag in it to prevent it from falling over.. It was augmented by a hi-hat, a broken snare drum and and one crash ride cymbal. The whole lot was set up on a carpet from a children's playroom with a piece of wood nailed across the front to stop the the plastic bin bass drum from moving forwards. He sat on a cheap plastic designer stool from the eighties that bounced up and down as he played, and attacked the kit with such authority that any apprehension I had immediately evaporated. 

We ran through a few things and it was quite ridiculous with the bass drum going bock bock bock and the clacking of the plastic tom tom substitutes but it somehow worked. I think it worked because we believed it would. I’ve always been a fan of the homemade drum kit and Piv was inspired by having seen me with the Beat Group back in 1989 when we toured with a drumkit that was little more than a cardboard box with a tambourine and microphone inside it. We played festivals like that with a fifteen watt guitar amp and a modified Vox AC30 for the bass.

It was pretty tricky playing in a theatre for an audience that had essentially come to see a comedy show. The first night they laughed nervously as I got underway, I think they were unsure if I was perhaps meant to be funny but after a while they were in no doubt that I wasn’t. That is, I think I am, in between songs, but when I’m playing it isn’t for laughs. I hit them a bit too hard and when I came back for the second set a good third of the audience had left. There were complaints - it was too loud, too distorted, and this isn’t for us… The second set, where I figured I’d get a bit more edgy had another third of the audience scattering to the exits.

Before the next theatre show I had a rethink and made the first set a lot more seductive and sort of acoustic and the second set electric but shimmering. A few people still walked out but it got better.

In between I did my own shows - a succession of Belgian versions of the British dogshit pub. At a grimy yacht club on a greasy canal in a place called Grimbergen just outside Brussels I had to repair the PA which looked as though it had once fallen prey to a mishap involving the canal. I had the best sound of all my solo shows in Belgium because for once I was unencumbered by a Belgian sound engineer. The ones in the theatres were fine, if a bit timid but the ones in the smaller venues were sometimes better at puffing on cigarettes and blowing smoke all over the place.

At one place the engineer already had the microphones set up. He indicated the vocal mic, a Shure Beta 57, and proudly boasted how he’d set the filters and equalisation and it should be perfect for me. I thanked him very much and told him I had my own microphone, a regular Shure SM58. He said that wasn’t possible, I used a Beta 57. I said no, I never did, but he insisted - he could prove it - he’d seen a photo of me singing into one onstage with The Proclaimers.
He got quite sulky and told me I should use the Beta 57 anyway because it was a far superior microphone. The PA system was basically a load of old shit, a mismatched collection of old Mackie and Yamaha powered speakers, cobbled together and vaguely pointing at where the audience might be if they didn’t fancy going outside to smoke their cigarettes.

Belgium is a good place to go if you’re a smoker - just stick to the outlying towns and villages and you’ll be able to hang out at the bar, sucking down bottles of viscous brown beer (brewed by monks) in the company of large men with facial hair while you puff smoke smoke over each other. That’s a terrible generalisation and if any Belgians read this I’ll probably get complaints. But it has to be said that the smoking ban in bars is largely ignored in out of the way places.

I met some very nice Belgians while I was there - Piv obviously, Filip his technician,a woman called Ann who runs a wonderful place called Gallerie Beausite on the Ostend seafront. Piv’s friend Bart took us to see The Godfathers on a night off. The Godfathers were great - the last time I saw them was in 1987 in some vast place in London, it may have been the Town & Country. I observed from a detached distance and felt very out of the loop. I was having a nervous breakdown at the time though I didn’t yet know it. I’d stopped playing music because all I’d ever done was bought unhappiness and problems to a lot of people. I’ remember looking at The Godfathers and wishing I could have been in a band like that but it was too late now.

This time it was different. There they were on a low stage in the back room of a grubby bar. The amplifiers weren’t even miked up. It was a thrill from start to finish. I met the whole band afterwards. they said they’d heard a rumour that I was there but if they’d known for certain beforehand there was no question but that they would have had me get up and sing something. I’ve come a long way in the last twenty nine years. And so have they. I’m glad we’re all still around.

I’m getting a bit tired of writing this, it starts to turn into a reportage, but I don’t think every minute of my time in Europe needs to be documented and I’ve got other concerns - I’m heading south, about to start the coast to coast US tour. I arrived home from Europe five days ago with a bad case of laryngitis. I played in Glasgow and got caught in the rain loading out afterwards. It wasn’t the singing, it was the Glasgow rain on top of a Belgian cold.

The show in Utrecht was great but I left without staying in the hotel. I checked in, went to the room and after about ten minutes I started to get a vaguely creepy feeling. I didn’t like it, it felt clammy and somehow well…wrong. And then I realised there was no window. I went back to reception and asked if they had a room with a window but they didn’t, it seemed all the rooms were like that. Suddenly my eighteenth floor glasshouse started to feel rather appealing so I drove back to Ostend through the night and went to bed in broad daylight.

 At the Blue Shell in Cologne the support act was a two piece called The Zhivago Manuel Of Style. They had interesting keyboards propped up on a steamer trunk, a Memory Man pedal, bossa nova beatbox, an acoustic guitar, harmony vocals and great songs.  I woke up in Cologne the following morning to about twenty emails all asking me if I was ok. I started answering - I’m fine, thanks for asking, things are going well and so on, and then it occurred to me that something may have happened. I turned on the TV and saw the first reports of the Brussels bombing.

What can you do? Belgium was plunged into mourning. I wondered if we should cancel the shows as a mark of respect but in the end that’d be giving in to the terrorists. Sometimes I suppose you really do have to keep calm and carry on. As long as it doesn’t involve eating cupcakes or some other such nonsense.


  1. Beautiful. It's wonderful that you write and see near as good as you compose and play. Sounds like a great tour. And I hope your mother is doing quite well.

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