The juggernaut rolls out, spewing filth, despoiling the world. Here we come: the despoilers. A truck and a bus take Party B (crew, guitarist gone rogue) the overnight trip to Newcastle, while Party A (players, tour manager, swag merchant) makes its way south in the morning.
For virtually the first time since early May, the Scottish sky is lidded and grey with liquid gloom, perfectly timed for our outdoor Edinburgh Castle show tomorrow. But the forecasters are positive, certainly in the short term. Saturday should be dry but 2050 might be cataract followed by inferno. 70% chance of Armageddon.
The familiar route to the Tyne spools by, the van’s tinted windows staining the landscape like a bruise. We’re sitting in seats that face one another, conducive to conversation. We spend some time bemoaning the split from the EU, the English guys particularly depressed by it’s ramifications. We talk about books and music, we talk about technology, speculate about the future of road travel, tell scary stories of flights going wonky. After stopping for coffee in a codger-clogged services we settle into a comfortable silence as we advance. The usual British scenery slides by; cattle, low trees, fencing, pasture. Lorries lurk like sharks in lay-bys. As we turn east the road narrows and straightens, Roman and relentless. The foliage crowds around, exuberant after two months of sunshine. Blue dales lie lazily in the distance, cradling dark villages. Small fields line the the road, hemmed by hedgerows. This is Hadrian’s Wall country, as far as the legions dared to venture. The Pennines to the south, the north beyond – savagery. The route rises into more bitter soil, the hardscrabble enclosures now crisscrossed with drystone walls and studded with rough tufts of marsh grass. Sheep gnaw the ground disconsolately, the rain comes down. England mills about us in its merry-go-round way. The schools are out, the air is warm, life is slowing down.
We draw into town, gliding past nondescript brown brick suburbs and do a fast bag dump in our rooms. My abode for the evening features a Victorian style roll top bath situated on a mezzanine overlooking the bed. It’s laughably unnecessary and decadent. If the bath and bed were reversed I could practice some high diving. Light rain spatters on a skylight and I plug in my shit and wait for the first soundcheck. I hold the nerves at bay by forcing myself into a kind of energy saving torpor. The venue, the lovely City Hall, is hot and stuffy and I begin to re-think my wardrobe. This might not be the night for a cheap polyester tuxedo. I sign some posters and have some food. The hour approaches sluggishly, like burgeoning food poisoning. Everyone paces, willing the stage time to arrive.
Back at the hotel after the show I find myself doing this: luxuriating in my balcony bath listening to Schubert’s Impromptu Opus 90 No.3 in G flat major. I’m not sure quite how this scenario has come about but I’m going to remember it next time I’m down in the dumps. It’s ridiculous and it’s hilarious but I’m playing along anyway. I’m a rock singer on tour and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
The sun winks through my venetian blinds finding me comatose and swaddled in Egyptian cotton sheets. I come round thinking: this is not the Premier Inn. I hop up the staircase to my attic bathroom and perform my ablutions. The man peering back at me in the mirror is crumpled and mottled with the kind of texture you might see on a boating pond on a windy day. Or a blancmange assailed by a hairdryer.
The group are mustered in the courtyard and the general mood is light, signifying that we have probably just about got away with it. Again. We board and pull out, low summer cloud layered out to the horizon, torn in places to show the blue beyond. It’s close and warm but, critically, dry. Fingers crossed.
We grind up the A1 towards Holy Island and Berwick, through parched farmland, yellowed by months of drought. The sea appears to our right from time to time, throwing icy waters east through oil rigs out to Scandinavia.
Our opening act, the Trashcan Sinatras, overtake us in their blue van. They honk and wave. Such things delight the deeply bored. We stop at a supermarket just south of the border and weave through the Saturday horde. I buy toiletries. The most boring sentence ever written.
I take a quick gander around the hotel’s environs and walk into St Mary’s cathedral. I take a seat (no pews here) and contemplate Christ hanging high over the altar, limply, some might say suggestively, from his cross. He’s not quite life-size and looks like a stringy foetus, ripped from Mary’s womb. It’s a gaudy and distasteful icon exuding all the gravitas of an emaciated Action Man doll hanging from a bedroom ceiling. But the stained glass is impressive and the tranquility is a balm. Churches remain cool on the hottest of days. It’s the froideur of the clergy in the centre of so much sin. I put my hand to my face and smell recently applied hotel soap mixing with stale incense. Tonight, while I shall be making an ungodly racket, this place will lie quiet and assured, more certain of its future than I am of mine.
I wake stupidly early and listen to some random tracks spat out by one of my devices. Twin Peaks, Bobby Bland, Pavement, Peanut Butter Wolf. I eventually crawl out of my massive sultan-sized bed and cook up a cup of treacle-strength instant coffee. I notice my jacket and jeans hanging over the chair, suggesting a man has evaporated.
The route out of Edinburgh is pretty, wooded and hilly. It’s a grey day; everything crouched under an eiderdown of pewter. The hilltops slip out of view into the fluffy murk. You can sense the thirsty crops drinking down the moisture. The Scottish Borders are a rich region. Rich soil and rich people. The toffs saunter about in tweed and pretend to be farmers but they’re lairds laughing all the way to the bank. It’s a good spot for charity shop rummaging. I have an old leather briefcase from a Peebles Oxfam some posh fuck had chucked out. It holds new songs, usually, and smells faintly of dubbin. It’d be ideal for smuggling drugs.
We soon speed across the line into England and suddenly the road fills with traffic crowding in from all sides. We are going from backwaters to boomtowns. The sun burns a hole through the canopy making huge rents in the cloud cover. The van heats up immediately and fills with the stench of fresh manure. And that’s just me. I attach headphones and enter the netherworld.
Upon re-entry I find myself ripping along the city beltway listening to Fotheringay. I see signs for Salford and Trafford Park and the towers appear, the Beetham with its cricket scoreboard top. Manchester has really gone for this high-rise thing, like London’s little brother getting obsessed with keepy-uppy. We hit the venue straight away and, like St Mary’s yesterday, the Apollo has its own climate, icy and damp as the sun beats down outside. Stuart, our lampie, has been using the smoke machine so there’s an eerie fog everywhere. It’s gloomy and deathly like the setting for a murder mystery. I take snaps of some of the original features and fittings. I see signs reading “Do not stand on the furniture” which seems an odd formulation until I realise it would have formerly read “seats” until punters figured that if they stood on the armrests they would not technically be infringing house policy. We take scran in the building’s bowels and reminisce with the caterer, Lisa. She reminds us that we once kidnapped all her decorative Santas on a Christmas tour and stuck Polaroids up on the walls of the venues showing them indulging in unspeakable activities with Cindy dolls. Apparently we staged a torture scene for one poor bastard involving a log fire. I have a vague memory of this. This is one of the pleasures of hooking up with old friends and colleagues after so long. The same faces in the same places stimulate remembrance. Stuff that has been previously indiscernible swims to the surface. I find this both comforting and perturbing. What else is lost to us?
I wake very early the next day and decide to fill my belly to facilitate further slumber. The street outside is quickly brightening and working people begin the hike from bus and tram to office and outlet. I sink a pot of tea, still bathed in the embrace of last night’s warm audience. I watch the staff float between tables with quiet stealth. Upmarket Euro tourists predominate but there are a few solo business types. A British man sits adjacent to me and his aftershave is so pungent that I am inspired to decamp. Paulo Nutini plays from speakers in the ceiling, singing Hallelujah and sounding like a Paisley Chris Robinson. A proper pop star – looks, ability and enough oddness to be charming. I meander back to my well-appointed padded cell and re-insert myself between the sheets. Manchester grinds into motion and I head for the hills of sleep.
We pull out at midday, everyone well rested. The clouds are high and white today, the day bright and very warm. We’re starting to settle into the rhythm of the road; brief flurries of conversation punctuating the suspended animation of pre-gig fight-or-flight mode. Never fully relaxed, every ready to face a crowd at what, the drop of a hat? Curtain up, get out there and do your thing. And then, evaporate.
To Birmingham and Nottingham
I sit on an iron bench in the pretty little square around St Philip’s cathedral in Birmingham, listening to two men’s conversation a few feet away. They’re discussing bicycles in the mellifluous patter of Brummie, an impossible accent to impersonate. Just ask Cillian Murphy. The sun’s beating down like a jackhammer, singeing through my jeans and radiating wildly up from the pale flagstones. People wheel around the church, staring into phones and tracing their screens with their fingertips like penitents absorbing the word of God from the pages of a bible. Birmingham manages to be crowded and buzzing without the aggressive frenzy of London. Everything’s tuned down a bit, people don’t march, they stroll. Far from the sea, unpretentious and friendly, it’s England’s beating heart. Today I have given my enormous sunglasses an outing. About the size of two flat screen TVs, everyone wants to try them on. If you’re going to wear specs, it seems to me, they might as well be comical. I run out of time and am quickly conveyed to the Symphony Hall, a quite magnificent 90s temple of performing arts. We access the stage through a huge loading bay and find a Steinway invitingly posed on a riser behind a vast black curtain. A hundred grand’s worth of piano under the fingers of even a ham-fisted thumper like me sings like a fucking choir. After the show I spend fifteen minutes trying to find my room in our hotel, a former eye infirmary. I end up on the same wrong floor three times. Aptly, I’d have done better blindfolded. The kindly night porter takes pity on me and guides me home. In the morning I find a family-run Turkish joint that does a magic breakfast with chillies, eggs, tomatoes and pickles. It’s an oasis.
The short hop up to Nottingham is pleasantly direct and I make a beeline for Rough Trade after check-in. I’d come across it last year just as it was shutting. I find four albums I’ve been looking for; one, Lamont Dozier’s Reimagination, I miraculously appear on. To celebrate landing this booty I take lunch round the corner. It’s hot, too hot to be traipsing around castles and cathedrals. I settle in to people watch. Pretty soon I see Kris wander by and I watch him stop to give a stranger money. The stranger immediately crosses the street and enters a café. A fashion conscious girl passes with a matching handbag and sausage dog and it strikes me as absurd. Hauling around this little food guzzling, shit-producing machine to no discernible benefit to anybody. You might as well pull a cushion filled with sick on a rope. There’s a yoga studio opposite and healthy types with beards keep coming out looking positively radiant. The utter, utter cunts. A bully-beef body builder appears from a side street eating an energy bar and yomping purposefully like a squaddie. He has headphones that look like camp black ear muffs. There’s a man with a pram and a fag in his hand, then a lesbian couple with a height disparity, then a tall lady in tight things who monitors her reflection in every shop window. She seems to approve of what she sees. Kris comes back up the street and spots me. He gives me some tips from his travels. A very blonde mother and daughter take the next table. The elder of the pair has a tan so deeply ingrained by beds, spraying and sipping Prosecco on a sun lounger that she resembles a nicely aged piece of furniture. There are hard skinny guys with their shirts off, shuffling beggars, women in summer dresses and two tiny cops in size five shoes standing on a corner trying to seem imposing. Then a gaggle of girls with very long hair, vividly dyed, who stop to finish their last conversations before parting ways. I see Kris’s beneficiary back on his beat. A trio of absolute lunatics speeds through, topless and pissed as newts, holding stolen pub glasses. I drink some strong black coffee in a little caff to kill some more time before heading back to the cool climes of our re-vamped 1960s office block hotel where I immediately fall into a deep sleep. I dream about witnessing a fatal shooting and panicking, while calling the police, because I have a birthday card from a drug dealer in my possession. I try to stuff it in a bin then see CCTV cameras everywhere. See, see, see?
I’m awake at stupid o’clock on the Nottingham gig day so just weave through the empty sunlit streets randomly until somewhere opens for breakfast. I watch busloads of commuters disgorge from a stop near my roadside perch, their bearing surprisingly cheerful in the balmy morning. Later that day I find myself rummaging through the racks of a second-hand record shop, overhearing the long sorry tale of the proprietor’s marriage. His friend, embarrassed, clumsily left-turns the conversation to music. I hear him say the sentence, “John Martyn? I saw him once. Utterly pissed. In a wheelchair.” At least he didn’t get vomited on. Should be fucking grateful. Lastly, I have tea in a 1920s arcade and finish up this blog. Will this be a hot summer of legend? Or do we need to get used to this? The jet stream, I imagine, will swing about like a yo-yo for years to come. And we wealthy will consume and consume, like a flesh lawnmower devouring all in our path and spitting out the waste onto somebody else’s life. We disgust ourselves but we just can’t stop.
After what seems like a fortnight we finally leave the hot snarl of Nottingham, passing the two famous football grounds and the cricket stadium on the way south. It’s boiling today, the sun high and unmerciful and the countryside is scorched. It’s like Tuscany in September, if Tuscany wasn’t now verdant and jungly in summer since global warming reversed the climate.
We soon cruise into the fetid entanglement of London reaching the venue very quickly. I head down to the river and its breezes, sea-smells and sewage. The boats and barges moored by Hammersmith Bridge sit in putrid, muddy water, some in terminal disrepair. It’s the same world Penelope Fitzgerald wrote about in Offshore; dilapidated, decaying and sad. Along the walkway I take a seat on a park bench commemorating Jonathan Frazer Sutherland who “enjoyed many a drink with friends and family” according to the inscription. A tramp then, and judging by the name, a Scottish one. Here’s to you, Jonny! Looking out over the green river I realise I’m at almost the same spot in which Iain and I posed for pre-tour photos in 2013. Which we’re still using, obviously. Who needs grey haired rock groups? The wind picks up carrying a stormy warning. A burglar alarm stops trilling, revealing the tranquility of the river.
The traffic hum groans complainingly behind me and a police car sings its siren wail. In passing I hear a young man talking to his father in a cut-glass accent about the navy. I’m in a foreign land. The promenaders are mainly white and wealthy looking, river property coming at a premium. Over on the green a man sits in the shade of a young tree watching his toddler take what are surely still some of her first steps. She’s minute, maybe a foot tall, dressed in white and chasing the pigeons which gather around to peck at the parched grass at her feet like supplicants. I look up as the sky clears and notice the line of planes coming in to Heathrow out to the southwest, a conveyor belt of fresh human beings to blend into the mix. A fat man plonks himself beside me and I am usurped. I’m not sharing this throne with any old knob. I bounce up as he settles as if thrown from a see-saw and take refuge under a tree.
Away from the waterfront it’s stifling, even the birds can’t be fucked to sing. I’m not really clad for such conditions. I’m in rock-casual; boots and denims. I’d be in beachwear if it weren’t for the slim possibility I might be selfied by a lurking attendee. I’m not having my legs plastered all over some fuck’s Facebook. Under the tree opposite me some dork has his guitar out and is learning tabs from an iPad. Correct me if I’m wrong but a London park on the hottest day of the year might not be the best place to do this. He wouldn’t be seeking attention, would he? I think it may be a pulling strategy. What happened to going to a disco, getting shitfaced and asking someone to dance? The man with the little girl wheels her off and she gurgles sweetly in her pram. Back into the madness, the clanging symphony of the city.
I slip out of the hideously noisy bar where the venue have corralled our guests and walk back to the stage to contemplate the empty auditorium. A man vacuums between the seats as the last few flight cases are rolled into the truck. Apollo has landed. All things pass. I wake early and am out in the thick, turbid London air before six. Shepherd’s Bush Green is strewn with rubbish and a few occupied sleeping bags, like the end of a grim music festival. The vehicles begin to mass around me, choking the last molecules of oxygen from the morning. That heavy music again, building to an asphyxiating clamour. Pigeons, dirty and ragged do their head-poking strut at my feet. The sun crawls above the tree line illuminating the discarded polythene bags like crashed lanterns. The correlation stares you in the face; the coughing diesel, the rock hard turf, the crazy temperature. Humankind, the great despoilers. Befoul and bugger off, that’s us.
The motorway drags us sluggishly north through the endless bleached farmland. The wind rages in our roof vent like an angry furnace. Fields give way to highland pasture and the distant hills of the Lakes. The sheep look very thirsty. I see half a dozen peering at a dried up burn in confusion. They’re thinking, this shit is weird. The road climbs into the moors around Shap, pylons queuing along the ridges. The word Scotland appears on one of the large blue signs and I figure I’m not ready to go home. I’d stay out here on the road forever if I could, floating away from real life and its disasters and frustrations, those little claws that tug you down, the drudgery, the pointless routine, the suffocating sameness of each new day in your own hovel. Much better to lie between crisp clean sheets every night and wake up in a different town with nothing much more to negotiate than the workings of the shower controls and the elevator that takes you to the van that takes you to the gig. We hit the city and I take to my room, an attic with a view right down one of Glasgow’s cross-streets in the grid. A low, glowering sky hangs above the rooftops and at nine o’clock at night it opens onto the arid town, the big drops coming straight down like curtains. Everyone runs for cover and the streets empty. At long last, the deluge. The clotted air is suddenly cleansed and I sense emotions within me, suppressed by weeks trying to keep the nerves at bay, stir gloomily like bilge swilling in a ship’s hull. I watch some awful Brit-flick and fall into a deep, seasick sleep.
And then the Barrowland Ballroom, the beacon and the bellwether, the business. We rehearse a few neglected tunes and rearrange the set a little. I watch through a gap in a black curtain as people wander in and stand around in groups on the magnificent dancefloor. The room fills slowly and is only half-full when the Trashcan Sinatras go on, pretty packed when they finish. I pace around behind the stage smelling the crowd.
As we head out just before midnight the dancefloor has already been cleared of detritus and will be gleaming again tomorrow after its daily polish. I pose for some photos with a trio of classily dressed women from Fraserburgh who speak in brilliant Doric accents. We get in the van leaving the ladies waving at passing taxis. Some driver is about to be entertained.
I shelter in my garret with some take-away stodge and watch Stewart Lee intone from a stage-set built from useless modern cultural garbage, like a prophet declaiming at the end of the world. We’re drowning not waving. Not with a salute but a simper.
Every moment on stage from the first chord of ‘Be My Downfall’ in Newcastle last Friday to the end of ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’ in Glasgow last night was a joy. And the crowd sang along so loud at Barrowland last night that we could hardly ourselves on stage – even after the hundreds of shows we have played in Britain and around the world these eight seem like some of the best ever! Thank you to everyone who came along and to everyone who worked for us so hard to make it happen.