You may notice that this piece is a little different to my usual smorgasbord of reflection, recollection and howling at the moon. Longer too. I have so much spinning in my head today that it might run on a bit. If you are reading this at work during a loo break, you may well have to split it into two sittings, or prepare for a severe bout of ‘pins and needles’.
It started yesterday, when I was listening to an old LP by Horslips called ‘Book of Invasions’ and my mind flew back to when I went to see them, over forty years ago, in a local college hall, and it occurred to me how clearly music brings back memories that have somehow become attached to it over the years. The memories operate at some kind of mental tangent to the songs themselves: they are joined, sometimes laterally, but are seldom recollections of the music itself, nor often, anything even vaguely associated with it. Music is the conduit that allows them to ‘pop’ into your head. Sometimes they are happy, sometimes they are sad, but either way they make you smile – now, how does that work?
Anyway, that is why I was thinking about Tim and Richard. I was thinking about the many, many music gigs that have punctuated my life, many of them I shared with these two particular friends, both of whom died very, very much too young – and I was thinking about how much I missed them both. Nothing unusual there, but I also started to remember some of the incidents that littered our time together.
But first, as an illustration of what is going through my mind, let us drift back to that college hall gig in 1977, a time before I had met either Tim or Richard. It was the first time I had taken my then girlfriend (now wife) out with my friends. One of my friends came back from the bar with a pint of lager for each of us, in the huge, heavy, dimple glasses that beer was then served in, and watched on in huge amusement as my girlfriend, who was then sixteen (and, lest your imagination should run away with you, I was eighteen) and unused to such a level of sophistication, was unable to properly support the weight of the glass and subsequently spent the next half an hour slowly dribbling a pint of lager down her jeans. The point being that over forty years later I only have to hear Horslips to recall that moment – and I don’t have to actually recall seeing the band to do it.
The memories I am about to relate are not in order, I present them to you as they popped into my head: they are random and certainly not exhaustive, but fairly representative of a lifetime ‘following’ music. I will begin one Saturday, straight from work, when we lurched into the car and set off to Leeds to see Richard’s life-long musical love, Yes. When we arrived, as usual, we tried to find a pub near the venue for a pre-gig drink. What we found was a huge red-bricked prison-block building, its windows boarded over, packed wall to wall with football-shirted men watching a match on the huge screens that occupied every wall. We walked in to a sudden and complete silence and knew at once that we could not just turn and walk out. So we stood in amongst the melee and drank something that tasted like fizzy vinegar until the game became suitably engrossing for us to safely retreat without being noticed. I could not listen to Yes for quite a time after Richard’s death. Now, when I do, I always think about that pub and the look on his face when he realised that we’d made it out alive.
It was Tim who led us to that pub and it was at another pub in Leeds (this time to see Wishbone Ash) that we were challenged by a man with one arm, one eye and a gang of evil-looking acolytes, to a game of pool. Nobody ever beat him, he said, but we knew he meant nobody ever beat him and lived. Sad to say, on that occasion we did leg it, leaving behind two pints of tepid, flat beer and a driver’s coke in glasses that were muckier than the doormat, laughing helplessly once it became clear that we weren’t being pursued. Today it only takes the opening chords of ‘Blowin’ Free’ to bring it all back.
It was on another occasion at a WA gig that I took to the gents in the post gig crush. I eventually found my way to a urinal and prepared to do what I had gone there to do, when I became aware of a man at my shoulder. He did not move and I did wonder, just for a minute, if he was intending to wee down my leg, but no, he was just standing, looking at my back. At least fifty percent of you will be aware that nobody speaks in the gents, so I turned back to the wall and concentrated on what I was there for. When I finished, I zipped and began to walk to the door, at which point the man looked me straight in the eye and said ‘Fucking awesome, man. Fucking awesome,’ before turning and disappearing into the crowd. I think he meant the band, but he could just have been impressed because I hadn’t widdled down my boots I suppose. I’ll never know.
My memories of Pink Floyd at Earls Court in 1994 should be of Gilmour playing that solo as the lasers danced around, reflected from the giant mirrorball, but are, in fact of the look on the face of the stationmaster at Earls Court Underground station as ten thousand punters suddenly flooded towards him at the end of the show. Wild-eyed panic engulfed him. Obviously, nobody had taken him to one side when he volunteered to work the extra shift and said, ‘Oh, and by the way…’ Anyway, in an instant he decided that the only thing he could do was to throw open the ticket gates and stand, out of the flow, atop a bin. When I hear ‘Comfortably Numb’ I think of him.
I saw U2 in 1987. It was a difficult time in the UK. Bombs were being planted, people were still being shot, Bono had just found himself at the head of an IRA hit-list due to his condemnation of their actions and I dropped my brand new leather jacket down behind my seat and into the void below. It seemed obvious to me that, when the music ended, I would squeeze under my seat as everybody left and climb down the scaffold to get it. Perfectly reasonable I thought. Not, I’m afraid, a view shared by the six man-mountains who extricated and ejected me. When I hear ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ I think of their faces.
Some recollections do, at least, involve the show. I remember seeing Bowie as a teenager and seriously wondering whether it was possible to die of excitement. I remember seeing Peter Gabriel, waiting the whole show for him to sing ‘Sledgehammer’ because I wanted him to do that walk. I remember leaving Elbow gigs with no voice left after singing right the way through. It only takes the start of ‘One Day Like This’ to give me a sore throat. I remember laughing uncontrollably at the man-dressed-as-a-chicken that kept strolling across the stage at my first Rush gig. I remember being hopelessly lost, as we always seemed to be, in an unfamiliar one-way system, laughing as we went around the city in ever-decreasing circles, searching for the way out. And I remember being stone deaf for three days after seeing Slade at a small indoor venue in the 70’s.
I remember the enormous excitement of seeing Jimmy Page walk onto the stage – even though he was a million miles away, before the days of the big screens, something akin to a red-satin clad ant with a Les Paul and the kind of swagger that money cannot buy. I think of that every time I find myself rather further from the stage than my ageing eyes would like. It only takes the first blast of ‘Kashmir’ to remind me that it was simply the being there that really mattered.
Perhaps the weirdest gig I can remember was in March/April 2004 when we went to see Jethro Tull, in, I think, Doncaster. They played the whole of their 2003 ‘Christmas Album’. Yes, I did say April. And I did say ‘Christmas Album’ – actual wall-to-wall Christmas songs in April. That was just odd. I can no longer look ‘Another Christmas Song’ in the face without smiling at the absurdity of it all.
Another great occasion for all the odd reasons, was seeing Roy Harper play an acoustic set in a very small theatre (I think in Sheffield). A member of the audience had partaken rather too liberally of certain substances and kept shouting for Mr Harper to, ‘Show me the way, Roy’, all through the first few songs. RH (himself no stranger to the lure of chemical enhancement) was patience personified until, eventually, as the pleas became increasingly urgent, he was forced to pull up sharply during the introduction to ‘Hallucinating Light’. He peered into the audience as the man began to shout once more, and said, very quietly, ‘Don’t stop the train, man’. Silence. Harper began to play and the man sat down. He was not heard again. Roy had shown him the way.
I have been to so many gigs throughout my life. It is still something I love to do, although it took me some time to go to my first gig without my friends. Every gig brings back memories, and those memories are spurred on by the music, but the music itself is not what the memories consist of. The memories are of the people I was with and the situations in which we found ourselves and they always make me smile. And anyway, even the bad gigs are memorable for something.
So, I hope that you understand what I mean when I say that music brings back memories of great nights and great gigs, but those memories although attached to the music, are actually linked to the occasion. And I hope, too, that you will forgive this over-long ramble, because memories embrace people and music makes me remember the people I shared those memories with. So, this one is for Richard and Tim. I miss you both…
And I would just like to wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. May all of your wishes come true.