My last gig was over two decades ago – third on the bill at a small outer London venue. Just me and a cheap Spanish guitar. The band was gone. The record deal was gone. And all the great musicians I’d played with down the years – all gone.
But someone else was gone too.
The previous night, in a hospital 200 miles north, my father finally succumbed to cancer after a brave struggle. He never much cared for my music – or any music by bands with ‘weird hair’ – yet one icy Saturday morning in Christmas ’72 he took me into town to buy the guitar that started it all.
And ten years later, on a balmly July dawn, it was him I said goodbye to before getting into a van and heading south to London with my band to pursue our dream of being professional musicians.
He would have hated what we got up to.
Home was a tiny basement flat in one of the UK’s poorest inner-city boroughs. Life was a constant struggle of too much week and too little cash, but none of that matters when you’re young and fearless.
Those were the days of playing loud records, eating tinned grocery store food and drinking home-brewed beer (after ‘acquiring’ all the kit from a nearby supermarket). Having jammed the energy meter we often needed to detain the landlord at the door on one of his ‘surprise’ visits.
Our drunken escapades led to arrests, nightclub ejections, confrontations with the locals – and even an obscene phone caller (who we’d all gather round to listen to).
And then there were the bad times…
London can be a tough, unforgiving city and things got a bit sketchy during the gaps between dole cheques.
Our gigs were mostly in small London pubs. Places like The Clarendon and The Greyhound where we’d hustle music business connections and blag any free food that was going. One of those connections worked for a music management company… and led to my first break.
She managed a band called Danse Society – a trendy young neo-gothic outfit (from Barnsley, of all places) with a terrific live show. They needed an acoustic guitar player for some of the songs on their UK tour… and my name came up.
It all happened so fast. Next morning, I was on the tour bus to Cardiff and learning the songs for the opening night. Everything after that was a dreamlike blur of long motorway drives, hotel check-ins, sound checks and fans asking for autographs.
But most of all, it was about the shows.
It was amazing to step through a multicolour mist of dry ice and confront a sea of excited faces… the huge ovation after every song… the party after every show. Having always loved the rock’n roll dream: I was now besotted with the reality (and, thanks to an admin mix up, being paid twice for the privilege).
After the tour, it was back to my own band and our humble pub gigs but this time with a vision of what was possible. Eventually, my band, Dubh Chapter (with just two remaining members from that original van down to London) earned a record deal, released an album and worked with some of our heroes – even achieving some modest success
But then everything turned sour. Betrayed by our record company, our manager and each other, we went our separate ways. And when my next project also crashed and burned, I wound up where this blog started – doing that gig with the Spanish guitar.
It didn’t go too badly. I got a decent reception. Then I quit.
Was it my father’s passing? Perhaps. Having spent a lot of time thinking about him, the realisation dawned that, despite our differences, he’d always worked hard to provide for me and always been on my side. With a serious relationship on the go and little to show for a decade in the music business, it was time to move on. Eventually, you have to be pragmatic.
People tried to talk me out of quitting: “You can sing, you can write, you’ve got some great material…” But eventually, my guitar was just one more item in the corner that needed dusting. Visitors would point it out and ask about my playing, which was really embarrassing. The dreamy artist bit was done and it was time to buckle down and earn a living… just like dad said.
But here’s the thing.
There was no longer any good professional reason to keep up with the music scene, no need to seek out new artists or read about new trends, but I did. It remains my biggest passion.
It had never been about headlining Wembley or getting featured in the press or any of that glitzy stuff. It was always about the music: creating songs in rehearsals, laying down vocal tracks in the studio, arriving at the next tour stop, some beaten up old venue reeking of stale beer and warm electronics.
So, how did it change? Well, one birthday, my wife bought me accordion lessons at a folk centre in Camden. The instructor’s passion for music and his extensive knowledge was really infectious and that funny feeling arose in my gut again. Before long, there was music software installed on my Mac and decade-old song ideas in my head
Eventually, the best of them and the best new ideas went into an album that pays tribute to all the music I’ve loved down the years. So, if you like Todd Rundgren, Prefab Sprout, Comsat Angels, unorthodox chord changes and the odd warped show tune, click here to listen to my first album in 20 years ‘Last Of The Light.’
Today’s music scene is very different.
No doubt there are plenty of adventures in store – and plenty more surprises. It was a privilege to be among that tiny percentage of people who supported themselves with their passion – so I’ll always be grateful to YOU and all the other listeners out there who care about music and make it matter.
Here’s to many more sometimes hard, sometimes ugly, always worthwhile experiences along this musical journey. Maybe you’d like to be part of it? I sure would appreciate that.
Hope to see you here again soon.