Irrational Encounters With The Modern World

London

Like A Virgin, Train Cancelled For The Second Time.

Virgin Trains cancelled my travel to Preston, UK, and that complaint can be read here. The following refers to that letter, their response, and the cancellation of a second train four days later.

Dear Virgin Trains, you are the Rolling Stones of cross-country commutes. I can’t get no satisfaction.

While I appreciate that, for a company of your stature, it is easier to throw money at problems rather than adequately address them, I had hoped for a better response. In addition to the cheque which you sent, reimbursing the first of my problem trips with you this past week, I had – perhaps naively – hoped you might address at least one of the many issues highlighted.

Your response, full of irrelevant standard paragraphs, assures me that you will be working hard on “improving the environment on board” two types of train “during 2014.” With two weeks of 2014 left, these proposed changes should have been enacted by now, unless you are planning a rush job – and it does not matter how comfortable your trains are if you cancel them and replace them with buses, as per the nature of my complaint.

As previously documented, in the six-page essay which formed the basis of complaint number VT-111214-xxxx, I had a train cancelled on Wednesday 10th December. A replacement bus eventually delivered me from Glasgow Central to Preston, and it was borderline unbearable. On Sunday 14th December, you then also cancelled my train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston. So much for your stated hope that “the work [you] are doing this year is reflected in [my] experience next time [I] travel.”

I have followed the band Combichrist religiously, pun fully intended, since 2005. Beginning as venue crew working for the local promoter and helping them load in their gear, I was instantly a fan of their music and of their live show, and have befriended them in the years since. I find myself in the rare and privileged position where my favourite band are as happy to see me as I am to see them.

They tour the UK annually and, since they changed promoter, I now make the effort to catch them a few times around the country during the one week in fifty-two that they are here. This is the sole purpose of my journeys to Preston and London recently, hence my annoyance when you punished my loyalty by hindering my travel arrangements.

With the poor experience of Wednesday behind me, my faith in your company was partially restored when – on the return leg the following day – your ticket office staff in Preston allowed me to travel on an earlier train home than booked, at no extra cost. In fairness, I was just happy to be able to take a train and not another excruciating replacement coach.

I then saw the band in Glasgow on Friday, with plans to see them in London on Sunday. This latter trip involved travelling with Scotrail, Trans Pennine Express, and Virgin Trains. Ahead of departure, I once again checked for any possible disruptions. It was absolutely imperative that I made it to London in a timely fashion.

On the Saturday evening, I had received a message from one of the band’s road crew (and drummer for their support act) saying he had mislaid his jacket in Glasgow and – with it – his passport. For an internationally-touring band on a strict schedule, this mattered. Could I, he wondered, help try and locate it?

Faced with the daunting prospect of tracking down a single black jacket from a gig that hosted four-hundred people wearing them, I offered suggestions and made enquiries. If the passport could be located and placed in my possession before mid-morning on Sunday, I would be able to carry it with me and return it in person.

It was a possibility, if the jacket had been lost or left in Glasgow. However, if it had been mistakenly taken home to Edinburgh or Aberdeen, then the band were looking at the prospect of either abandoning a core member of their touring party, or paying a hefty sum of cash to alter long-standing plans and amend bookings while waiting on an expedited courier to deliver it.

Against the odds, an appeal on their Facebook page resulted in its retrieval from behind the drum riser, where it had been safely hidden so well that it failed to turn up during two previous venue searches. Arrangements were hastily made, and I collected the jacket and its contents prior to leaving my hometown on Sunday. Together, we travelled to Manchester and alighted in readiness for catching the connecting train.

As I walked into the main concourse of Piccadilly, with forty-eight minutes to kill, I glanced at the departures board and saw that it did not yet list my onward journey. Looking around, I quickly spotted half a dozen of your red-coated staff dotted about and considered approaching them, to enquire if there had been any service disruption since I was last able to check. I quickly dismissed the idea as folly – sure, you had cancelled on me on Wednesday, but today there was not even a weather warning. It would be ludicrous to presume you could not do your job – so I thought.

I stepped out of the station momentarily, time being at my disposal, then made my way towards two Virgin trains sitting idle. I knew neither was mine, and yet I felt compelled to double-check. Imagine my dismay when, reading the information board, I learned that you had cancelled the 1515. Unlike last time, cancelling my travel was not just an inconvenience resulting in me possibly missing the gig. This time, the immediate continuation of the tour rested on this passport getting back to its owner.

By some stroke of luck, one of these two trains was bound for Euston. I decided I was going to board it, sick of the hassle you had so far caused me. Storming towards the station inspectors, with no intention of them stopping me, I was ready to tell them I was taking this earlier train. Your staff pre-empted me, and said I could get on.

Fighting through packed carriages, and crossing through the shop, I eventually found an empty and available seat. Three minutes later, we started moving. While joyful at the comparative ease with which I had managed to continue on my way, I remained furious that this had happened a second time.

With no idea when my new mode of travel was due to arrive, and aware that my tickets were booked for a specific train and thus not valid on this one, I opted to seek out the manager for clarification. The easiest way, I figured, would be via the shop. Sure enough, the chap serving there was able to provide our estimated arrival time. Then he confused me.

My ticket was valid, but my reservation was not. This, he assured me, would not pose a problem. If something is not valid, then surely that becomes a problem? All I knew was, I had two ticket-shaped pieces of paper, and one of them was invalid. Having failed to obtain the manager as requested, in the incorrect belief he had helped me, the presence of a sandwich-buying customer at the till-point cut short our conversation. I gave up, found the seat I had left, and tweeted to ask if you were taking the piss or just enjoyed my previous complaint letter so much that you want another one. In retrospect, you cannot have enjoyed it very much, or you would have replied to it directly and not in vague genericisms.

Reasoning that I should not be on this train, it occurred that I should definitely not be in First Class – so I went to sit there instead, seeking what little comfort I could from your appalling service. There, at least, I had a table and a socket where I could charge my phone. In truth, I fail to see the attraction – I had passed through emptier, quieter, and child-free, carriages to get there. The Wi-Fi might be free, but it is not up to much.

DSC_3208Above: The passport and jacket at the centre of this tale.

I had not been in First Class very long, before a trolley was wheeled through and free stuff handed out. I politely declined, reckoning that way you cannot accuse me of anything. In hindsight, I could have accepted a box of free shit – crisps or chocolate or whatever you put in it – and then, in this letter, pretended not to. The reality is I did not take anything, and it is probably this characteristic integrity and honesty which contributes to me being trusted to return American passports to their rightful owners, rather than clandestinely sell them to willing Russians.

Without warning, the ticket inspector appeared in the carriage ahead of me. I took a drink of water (which I bought prior to my journey, though I suspect I could have had some free while masquerading as a genuine First Class customer), and formulated the case I would present when handing my tickets over.

“You should not be in this carriage,” he would say, in the scenario I mentally concocted.
“If you look closer, I should not even be on this train,” I would contend. “Since the rules don’t apply, I will sit here, with a socket and a table and some legroom.”

If met with resistance, I would say, “Listen,” and gesture for him to sit opposite me while I relayed the tale which forms this email and the one which preceded it. Showing him the notes I had jotted down, I would give him the option of being a hero or a bad guy in this letter. He would obviously elect to be a good guy, and let me stay here, right?

How disappointed I was to be, when he simply took my tickets, circled the date in biro without question, and handed them back to me.

The mother at the adjacent table then engaged him in an involved discussion about the benefits (or not) of having a particular type of discount railcard. Having taken the time to relay the various merits, he turned back to me.

“Here we go!”, I thought.

His face showed a flicker of recognition. “I’ve done you, haven’t I?”
“Aye.”

And he disappeared down the carriage, behind me.

What a hollow victory that was, Virgin. I had prepared my strategy and planned for battle, only to have my rebellion not so much quashed as unnoticed.

– – – – –

Once in London, my nostrils immediately assailed by the stench of piss which seems to define that city, I made my way to the venue. I found the stage door with relative ease, having once performed there myself in my occasional capacity as a stand-up comedian.

I could tell you how I came to perform stand-up comedy as a means of introducing Aesthetic Perfection, Mortiis, and Combichrist, to a thousand Londoners – in front of the band’s L.A.-based manager – but, frankly, given you all but ignore the content of my letters, you do not deserve to know.

[You, the curious reader, can find out a bit more on this post, over on my comedy blog.]

Suffice to say that it remains a life highlight, and a continuing source of personal disbelief, that – as the screen rose and a crowd of die-hard fans screamed for their heroes – all they saw was me standing there, microphone in hand, saying, “Yes, I know you want to see Combichrist. But first, a joke…”

This time, knocking on the stage door, I breathed the magic words: “I have Ben’s passport.”

I was ushered straight up the stairs and into the green room, and do not think I have ever been hugged so much in my life as I was that day. The band would now be able to leave for their ferry and continue the tour as scheduled, your cancellation of my train a mere blip on the route to this happy ending. Having travelled from Scotland to London every year since they played a one-off December show there in 2005, I was glad that it finally served a practical purpose: my appreciation of a good live music show prevented a lot of unnecessary expense and red-tape.

The gig itself, I enjoyed. There are minor differences in the set-list every night, and variations in the band’s onstage antics (every one of them is a showman and performer as well as a consummate musician), and I might not travel as much if they spent their evenings trundling out a tired wade-through of familiar crowd-pleasers. No, this is a highly energetic band who never seem to have less fun onstage than the audience do watching and listening to them.

I partied with friends – also fans – and then with the band after the show, leaving them to make their way to the coast and mainland Europe as I wandered into the early-morning darkness in pursuit of my 5:30am train back to Glasgow. Would you have cancelled it too? As it stood, I had booked four trains and you had cancelled two of them. This was your chance to pull back from being seventy-five percent shit and retain the reputation of only being half shit.

Hurrah! My train was listed as running to schedule. As soon as I was able, I boarded and took my seat, and you began slow-cooking me.

Firstly, I do not understand how you can call it The Quiet Zone when you broadcast loud announcements non-stop. You were making more noise than any of the passengers, repeating every destination twice per station – once on arrival and once (a minute later) on departure. And, my God, there were a lot of stations to stop at. The one positive was the sweet, blessed relief as the doors opened and a gust of fresh air blew in with each new set of customers. Sitting in a festering sweat-pit is not my idea of the “comfortable trip” you “aim to ensure” in the copied-and-pasted opening of the letter you sent regarding my Preston journey. I was that hot and uncomfortable I began to consider whether it could be the onset of the menopause, which I had never before thought my gender could even experience.

Having baked torturously for several hours, we finally arrived in Glasgow – late. Of four services in six days, you cancelled two and delayed one. That is a pretty poor record.

Furthermore, having made this journey annually for some years, I now know to allow myself a few days recovery time to get over whatever cold I invariably catch while travelling with you. It would, to my mind, be far more honest if “Air-Conditioning” was relabelled as “Recycled Breath.”

This year, presumably on the back of you effectively running an incubator of germs from one end of the country to the other, I have been infected with the most Hellish chest cold, which has impacted on my asthma and made every breath a chore and every cough a Herculean effort. Picture Patrick McGoohan on his deathbed in “Braveheart”, multiplied by Nicole Kidman in “Moulin Rouge”, and you have an idea of this discomfort.

In conclusion, then, I expect you to reply in a relevant manner this time and without resorting to your stock responses. I still request reimbursement for seventy-five percent of the price of the ticket for the Preston show, since you caused me to miss most of the gig. In addition, I expect you to reimburse my travel costs from Manchester to London, and from London to Glasgow, plus make a goodwill payment on top to cover the stress of having two time-sensitive journeys cancelled at zero notice.

For ease, here is a breakdown, in figures:

Preston ticket: £13.13 (75% of the £17.50 face value)
Manc – London: £35.50
London – Glas: £30.50

Which is a total of £79.13

Accounting for the discomfort and distress caused throughout this week by your failure to run trains – the sole expected duty of Virgin Trains – and taking into consideration the inadequacy of your previous response, I will be happy to receive a cheque for £120 to write off the whole sorry matter.

I look forward to your (this time personalised) reply.

Here is their lacklustre response. My reply to it is here.

Virgin letter - second replyAbove: Their brief and misspelled reply. Read my response to it and them here.

 

 

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Dubious Claims To Fame – 24

I doubt I will ever be entirely certain, but it is possible that I may once have attracted the amorous attentions of the writer of a Golden Globe-winning, Gold-selling, chart-topping single. There is the distinct possibility that it was all completely innocent, of course, and that is the version of the story I hold to be true. The following is told without prejudice.

I studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, a degree which allowed me to arrange work placements in my final year. Many of my peers elected to gain experience with companies in Scotland, most notably Scottish Opera and the Theatre Royal. In my very finite wisdom – in hindsight, making contacts in this country would have been sensible in the long run – I decided that I would set my sights further afield than the venue which was literally across the street, and began applying for internships in America. Somewhere between a dozen and twenty emails later, one organisation replied offering me a place. Lasting nine weeks over the summer, it would count as two of my five allocations, contributing to my learning while also providing me with my first trip outside Europe.

As I would be studying throughout the summer of 2005, the payoff was time off during the preceding term – time spent hoovering up every available shift in the pub where I was ordinarily employed at weekends only. I saved hard, since the gig provided accomodation and nothing else, and booked my flights. A couple of months later, I was in the USA. I quickly befriended the Assistant Technical Director, bonding on the first day while talking about music.

“I like metal, but I like it messed-up,” he said. “Like Mindless Self Indulgence.”

“You should check out Combichrist,” I said, referring to an act I had discovered and seen a month previously. I saw them for a second time in New York City, about a month after this conversation, and Graham was at the gig with me.  He was the only one wearing trainers (sneakers) and I was the only one wearing a kilt. MSI and Combi later toured together, and eventually remixed singles for each other too. On the way out of the venue I stole an event poster off the wall, which I still have. In December 2013 I saw Combichrist play live for the twenty-eighth time.

Combi NYC posterAbove: Wall treasure. The gig was over, so I did them a favour by removing it.

I found Americans to be friendly, happy to engage with the “crazy Scotsman” in their midst. The girls loved my accent, and there was at one time a photograph showing me at an opening night party, surrounded by four or five women. They were seen to be hanging on my every word, and what was never clear from the picture is that the word they were hanging on was “squirrel.”

“Say it again!” they cried, delighted as I truncated the “u” and rolled the Rs. Being a wind-up merchant of some years standing, it did not take long before I aped their pronunciation. “Say ‘squirrel’!”

“Skwerl.”

***

I worked on a number of shows as a stage carpenter, learning a lot about life and professionalism (as well as my trade) in the daytime, and out-drinking most of the crew and other interns in the evening. I have a lot of fond memories of that time, and maintain a handful of friendships with those I met. It was a place outside NYC where new plays could air to audiences without the pressure of critical scrutiny, a safe workshop environment where – while I was there – a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright could test his latest script, starring someone who would later become a Muppets villain.

At some point, in all of this, I was introduced to the lovely Amanda McBroom. She was working on lyrics for a new musical adaptation of a film, having once penned a song – famously sung by Bette Midler – called The Rose.

We spoke a few times, on various occasions at company parties or in the production office, and she told me that she had visited Glasgow and eaten in Ashton Lane’s famous restaurant The Ubiquitous Chip. She was usually accompanied by her friend and stage manager, a pleasant Englishwoman who had served her time in the West End. Back then, I had vague notions of pursuing a career in that hallowed district – soon abandoned when I realised that I do not even like visiting London, and would find living there to be unbearable.

When the 7/7 bombings happened, I called home to check my wee cousin was okay – thankfully she was. The stage manager, having far more contacts in the vicinity than I, made frantic phonecall after frantic phonecall, visibly upset as she did so. I remember the callous – almost ridiculous – uttering of our production manager, a man with the unenviable knack of making you feel uncomfortable by merely speaking to you. He would look at you slightly longer than necessary, as if waiting or searching for a response, for some continuation of the conversation or expected answer which was not apparent. As this poor woman desperately tried to reach her friends and relations, his attempt at sympathy extended to a misguided “Now you know how we felt on 9/11.”

911 meme

***

After a series of fun adventures I returned home, receiving an email shortly afterwards from the stage manager. Amanda was working on a new project based on Shakespeare’s female characters, and I was asked if I would record myself reading the Lady Macbeth lyrics. This would serve as a basis for her to practise and recite it in a broadly-authentic accent, taking into consideration that Macbeth was not Glaswegian and that US ears would need to comprehend the language.

Theatre being an industry that often thrives on favours, especially when you are a student of the craft, I thought nothing of it. I altered the perfect English of the writing to reflect the Scottish vernacular, changing the “didn’ts” to “didnaes” and so forth. As I recall, I read it aloud into a microphone and converted the digital recording into a file small enough to email across, including with it my version of the lyrics. I was careful to only reflect the local dialect, turning things like the “ofs” to “aes”, because however much of an ego you may think I have, it does not extend to redrafting the work of someone who only missed out on an Oscar nomination because her song predated the film that made it famous.

It was during this endeavour that the question was asked of me: “Why are you doing this?”

“I was asked to.”

“Aye, but – have you not got a lassie friend that could read it. Would that not make more sense, for her to learn from another female instead of a deep-voiced guy?”

I had given it no thought. Perhaps naively, I believed I was simply fulfilling a request that had been made of me, from someone who had been warm and friendly when I met her in a foreign land. The implication that she “maybe had a wee thing” for me had passed me by until that point. I genuinely do not know. Granted, I am tall, dark-haired, was then aged twenty-three, and had spent the summer wearing a kilt instead of shorts. However, I am not big-headed enough to presume that I did anything other than make an acquaintance.

Furthermore, dealing solely in facts, it remains the only time that a multi-award-winning songwriter – responsible for a world-famous hit – has asked me for any kind of collaborative input. I was happy to oblige.

 

 

 

 


It’s All Fun And Games Until You Realise You’re Being A Dick About Music.

When I was eighteen, I knew everything. I knew that I was smart, I knew that I was funny, and I knew that the music I listened to was the only music worth listening to. I especially subscribed to the mantra “if it’s not metal, it’s not music.”

This elitist belief denied me some of the finest music ever made, and although my taste widened enough to incorporate a vast amount of classic rock and even some indie, as well as the punk I had discovered at the age of 16, I deliberately denied myself the pleasure of anything vaguely termed “dance music.”

It was not always this way, but my earliest album purchases – Iron Maiden’s The Number Of The Beast and The Shamen’s Boss Drum – had seen me pursue the former as my way of (teen) life. I spent entire student loans on Maiden memorabilia, which is still in my possession (and soon up for sale.) I still love the latter album, but for years I stubbornly refused to acknowledge the artistry or musicianship involved in any of the music that got repeat radio airplay. There were songs that came out that I liked – Born Slippy by Underworld; Hey Boy, Hey Girl by The Chemical Brothers; Around The World by Daft Punk – but in an age when music had to be bought to obtain it (or taped off the radio) I didn’t engage with these iconic songs enough to purchase them.

 

It all changed when I was nineteen, and it all changed because of a girl. I think the age had less to do with it.

It was a chance meeting: I had gone to a gig with a friend to see some band he was into, their name being the only thing I now recall about them. Afterwards, he was refused entry to the club night due to a lack of ID. He went home, and I went in to see a casual friend I’d seen at the gig and recognised from school. She introduced me to the group she was with, and one girl in particular caught my immediate attention. This was in April 2001.

On the back of this turn of events, I found myself with a new social life, going to The Cathouse every Friday night to hear the same music played upstairs that now, in April 2013, they still play downstairs every Saturday night. The girl I liked, she despised Iron Maiden, and her own all-time favourite band was Depeche Mode.

Depeche Mode. “Haha, Depressed Mode!” I said, full of the ineptitude and cockiness that had helped render me entirely single for the duration of my life up to that point. This wordplay combined two of my favourite things – being a play on words and also a pop culture reference (it’s the name of a remix on Type O Negative’s Least Worst Of album) – or three of my favourite things if you include my longstanding habit of making quick-witted remarks at every available opportunity. Well, almost every opportunity – I’ve spent years learning that sometimes it is better to remain silent, for various reasons. Learning to enjoy the silence.

This conversation may have been the moment that changed my life.

I didn’t particularly want to belittle someone for their taste in music, finally maturing a bit as I then was, and I certainly didn’t want to do so ignorantly. Not to a girl I liked, anyway. I decided, perhaps for the first time, to check the band out before dismissing them out of hand. That way, I would have an informed opinion, grounds on which to judge them. If that sounds like a mixture of arrogance and common sense, then that is probably what it was.

It was the time of Napster and AudioGalaxy, of 56k dial-up modems that screeched intolerably as they downloaded one MP3 file every fifteen or twenty minutes. Depeche Mode had just released an album – Exciter – and I picked a track from it at random, probably based on the size of the file or the anticipated download time. I forget which track, although I think it was “Shine”, but down it came and I played it. To my surprise, I liked it. I liked it a lot. I downloaded the entire album, and burned it to CD using then-emerging technology. Given how commonplace downloading has become, the speeds now involved, and the gradual eradication of physical media formats, it is crazy to realise that a mere 12 years ago we still believed our VHS tapes were collectors items, while DVDs were some exotic and expensive novelty.

 

I enjoyed the “Exciter” album, and I went out and bought, on CD, in shops, the compilation albums “Singles 81>85” and “Singles 86>98”. The latter opened with Stripped, and I knew there was no chance that it could possibly be as good as one of my then-favourite tracks: Charlie Clouser’s remix of the Rammstein cover version. Again, I found myself proved wrong. Stripped, in its original form, is such a beautiful and subversive song. It far surpasses the excellent cover.

My eyes were opened, as was my mind, and I fell in love with DM and their melodic, entrancing music. I loved their experimentation with musical styles and with samples. I loved their music, I loved their lyrics, and I loved how dark and subversive they were. This is how it began. I started buying up their back catalogue on CD, including the occasional maxi-single when it appeared in the local second-hand record stores, and I picked up most of their early video releases in the same way. Again, those VHS tapes were collectors items at the time, yet they are now obsolete and (I suspect) largely worthless. I had been wrong.

I downloaded one of their tracks, so as to have a basis from which to decry them. And then I downloaded the rest of that album. Then I bought their two “best of” albums. Over the years that followed I bought the entirety of their back catalogue, various tribute albums, half a dozen second-hand videos, three or four DVDs, a paperback band biography, five t-shirts, a hooded top, some posters, most of singer Dave Gahan’s solo output, and tickets to see them on four occasions on three tours in two countries.

I think there was a valuable lesson in there, about prejudice, about arrogance, and about not being a dick. It has certainly led me to be a lot more open-minded, and was the first step in the considerable broadening of my musical taste. Not least because I barely listen to Iron Maiden (or even metal) these days, and now own a huge number of albums by The Chemical Brothers, Underworld, and Daft Punk. Underworld are one of my top five favourite live acts too.

As for this girl, who was the unwitting catalyst for this voyage of discovery? We dated for a few months, we stopped, we remained the closest of friends. She was there at the very start of my twenties, and she was still there at the start of my thirties. I trust and respect nobody on this planet more, and have mentioned before how her influence, inspiration, and significance in my life is second to none. This morning, I phoned the ticketline the minute it opened and bought our tickets to see Depeche Mode play live at the end of the year. It will be only their second Glasgow show in about twenty years. We were at the last one too, and I bought the officially-released live CD recorded on the night.

 

“You don’t have to come with me,” she said when I asked if she wanted me to get tickets, the nature of our friendship having changed although the fierce loyalty remains. “I’m happy to just go alone.”

I cannot imagine seeing them without her beside me. We made a pact shortly after we met in 2001, having just missed the Exciter Tour, that we would definitely travel to see them on the next tour. True to that, we went to Manchester and London in 2006 (when again there was no Scottish show), and saw them in Glasgow in 2009. I have every intention that we will see them together in 2013.

Now I am 31 and I am fully aware that I definitely do not know everything. What I do know, though, is that I was exceptionally fortunate to meet her.

 

 


Refusing Delivery, Outright.

This is my favourite complaint that I have read recently, just because it is so stupid.

My favourite band have just produced (and sold out of) a limited range of seasonal T-shirts, which retailed at $20. Postage to the UK, at $12,  brought the cost to roughly £20, which is still pretty reasonable when you consider that’s at least the price you would pay at a gig these days.

Someone on the band page complained that he refused to pay that much for shipping. I just love the idea of someone going “I will buy this shirt, however I absolutely refuse to have it delivered to me!”

Here’s the relevant screenshot, edited to show the pertinent comments.

combi comment

Incidently, contrary to what was written, none of Combichrist live in the UK. The studio band is just Andy LaPlegua, who relocated to Atlanta from Norway. The live band, and management, live variously in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles and elsewhere across the USA. They do, however, play in venues in and around Camden on their annual UK tours.

Regardless of which, you need to pay to have the shirt shipped from where it is, not from where the singer might live…

Cool shirt though.

Combi Christmas

 


Dubious Claims To Fame – 19 (c)

Of the three singers who have fronted Iron Maiden – Di’Anno, Dickinson, and Bayley – Blaze Bayley is the one who has most impressed me. He had just joined them when I first got into them, and so my burgeoning love of the band was tied to the period during which he recorded with them. Those two much-maligned studio albums hold a lot of memories for me, and “The X Factor” is still one of my favourite of their fifteen LPs – its darker style and lyrical content appealing to my then teenage angst, creating a bond that has been hard to break. Blaze was fronting the band when I first saw them, which was also my first ever music gig, at the Barrowlands in 1998.

I remember vividly (and still have the magazine clippings) when Bruce came back, denying the rumours one week and confirming them the next. I felt a bit sorry for Blaze, whose job of filling those shoes was never going to be easy for any singer, and he admits now that he should have maintained a more visible public presence afterwards rather than going to ground and burying his head. It meant that he had a harder job when it came to promoting his first solo album, the excellent melodic-thrash masterpiece “Silicon Messiah.” I saw him on that tour, and then waited years for him to come back to Glasgow. When he did, I was up north and missed the gig, but I finally saw him again nine years later, in 2010.

Back in January 2001, my admiration for and obsession with Maiden was still growing. I saw Blaze in the middle of the month, and then made my first ever trip to London at the end of it, alone, to see Maiden play two Rock In Rio warm-up shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Blaze’s gig was intense – the energy in the Cathouse was intense, and I remember him getting right in amongst the crowd, standing on the barrier with one hand on the ceiling to steady himself as his band ripped through the fast, melodic, and beautiful songs. At the end of the gig, the whole band came out to the merch stall to meet the fans. When the security guys kicked everybody out, to set up for the club night, the band joined us outside the front door of the venue. They were surrounded by fans, of Maiden, Blaze, and Wolfsbane, and dutifully signed everything they were asked to. It was a freezing winter night, but the band stood there and signed everything for everyone until there was nothing left to sign.

I got my CD sleeve signed, as well as setlist I’d got from the stage. I discovered their drummer, Jeff Singer, had previously played for Kill II This – another favourite band of mine, with whom I would later have far greater involvement when I arranged to help them with load-ins and load-outs on their Scottish dates. I regretted not having any K2T stuff with me to get him to sign, and haven’t seen him since. He later joined Paradise Lost, but has now left them.

I lost interest in metal for a few years, and by chance found out that Blaze had put a new album out – I downloaded it, not expecting much, but I have come to love “The Man Who Would Not Die” and have since purchased the CD. In the interim, I later discovered, Blaze had suffered a number of setbacks – the band line-up had changed a lot, and often, they left their record label, had issues with management and finances. and his wife died just over a year after they married. Through it all, though, Blaze continued making music, playing live, and drawing strength from the loyalty of his fans. That’s what impressed me about him, as much as the great music he has made and which has soundtracked a lot of my life – that he managed to find the will to struggle on, and continues to persevere despite the personal tragedies. I have a lot of respect for him.

I saw him a couple of years ago, and dug out a few more CD covers for him to sign. He sat at the merch booth from the time the doors opened until five minutes before he went on stage, happily chatting to anyone who approached him, with a supply of pens to hand for autographing everything he was asked to. I spoke to him briefly, as he appended his signature to various rare and promo items, and then stood at the barrier for the duration of his set. I was a little disappointed that there was so little material from the debut album in the set, but aware that there had been ten years and four more albums since that time.

As much as this has been a companion piece to the other Maiden stories – and even then the only real ‘story’ as such is the Di’Anno one – Blaze is one of the people I most admire, for embodying the true spirit of the trooper. Every time he has been knocked down he has dusted himself off and come back stronger and more determined. I respect that.

Above: Inside of the “Silicon Messiah” booklet, signed by the band.

 

 


Unfortunate Turns Of Phrase.

I confused a friend in London once, when I mentioned in conversation that I had “just jumped the tube.” I used it casuallyand offhand as an expression meaning that I jumped ON the tube as a means of getting where I was going, and not – as she interpreted – to mean that I had literally vaulted a turnstile to avoid paying my fare.

Whether the use of the word in this context is unique to Glasgow, or Scotland, I don’t know. I do know that it was in a Glasgow supermarket where I heard it used entirely inappropriately.

It was one of these sizeable (but not out-of-town) supermarkets with its own car park, and the checkouts had low metal barriers that swung across the lanes and were locked when the checkout was not in use. Most of these checkouts had a single lane, but every so often there was a double gate, where two checkouts had their lanes next to each other. It was at one of these double gates that I witnessed the following.

Someone in a wheelchair was waiting for one of the staff to unlock these gates so the aisle would be wide enough for them to leave. The guy unlocked the gates, held them open for the person, and said “Just jump through there.”

It was said without thought or malice, and I don’t think anyone else picked up on it – it’s such a common phrase here – but I noticed it, and it stuck with me.

So aye.

 

 


The Work Programme: Still Not Working.

I haven’t written about the complete waste of time that is The Work Programme in a while, and this is largely because they appear to be doing less work than the unemployed people it is their sole duty to help.

I can say this with reference to personal experience, as – after they changed my advisor at Easter – I have had approximately three meetings in four months. It is supposed to be fortnightly, and they are supposed to be helping me conduct intensive searches for jobs and/or training, but due to a combination of Bank Holidays and the absence of my new advisor (who booked me in for a meeting on a day he had off as annual leave, and cancelled the latest one), I’ve barely been there.

In truth, I’m happier this way – I find the entire enterprise to be a mammoth waste of resources, and it is becoming increasingly clear to me that, if you are educated and literate, have no dependents or dependencies, and are aged 24 or over, then you are FUCKED no matter how strong your work ethic or desire to escape. They have no idea how to deal with you, or what to do with you, and so far have found me three months’ work that ended after seventeen days, and proposed numerous other jobs that have consistently failed to materialise. Fucking timewasters.

Recently, as evidenced by a blog I wrote here previously, they held a mandatory Jobs Fair event, at which there were no suitable vacancies available. Specifically, they had employers offering too few contracted hours to sustain anybody with rent to pay (based on THEIR OWN calculations), and others offering zero-hour contracts. The latter is a massive gamble, because monthly outgoings remain steady even if earnings fluctuate greatly – from lots, to literally nothing. You run the very real risk of not making anything, let alone enough to pay bills or eat.

One of the companies offering zero-hours contracts there was G4S, the security/stewarding company.

You may recognise their name as part of the first Olympics fiasco (I say first: others seem inevitable) – they were awarded something like £280m to provide staff, and failed. So now they are drafting in the army instead, and will lose approximately £60m of what seems like an unjustifiably large sum to begin with.

It has been reported that in Glasgow, G4S have lost the confidence of the police, who will now assume responsibility for security at Hampden. From the linked article:

Strathclyde Police’s decision comes after the force said on Monday that extra officers were being drafted in because G4S confirmed it was not able to meet its commitments at Hampden Park and training venues in Scotland.

This company has been paid a massive amount of public money to employ people, and Christ knows there’s no shortage of willing unemployed people and certainly not in Glasgow. So fuck knows how they managed to squander it so spectacularly – when there are folk crying out for jobs. It’s all zero-hour contracts though, so I guess people are reluctant to risk everything on nothing.

Give me Independence as soon as possible – Labour did fuck all for us, the Tories were contemptuous of us before and now it’s not just Scotland they are destroying. They’ve all proved they can’t govern us effectively, so it is time for us to have a go ourselves. The one thing that Independence offers, which they can’t, and don’t, is hope.

Without hope, we truly have nothing.

 

 

 


It Could Always Be Worse.

I was in Brighton recently, for the weekend. I had hoped to meet up with a friend who lives there, being five years since we last saw each other and given that we live five-hundred miles apart, but unfortunately she had to work out of town that weekend. That’s the nature of freelancing.

I was going to see a band on the Sunday night – the principal reason for making the trip, since I was close by in London – and had lined up an evening of comedy for the Saturday, since that is my hobby but also an easy way to stay entertained while by yourself. It was only the first day, the Friday, that left me with time to kill.

Being the first time in twenty years that I have been in that city, I took the time to go for a wander in the evening to see what I could see. For a start, I made my way along to the concert venue in order to establish my way there (and back), and the straightest route was along the seafront.

In the preceding days, I had seen the same band three times in as many nights – with about a dozen friends in Glasgow, half as many in Manchester, and the same again in London. Two of my friends (previously facebook acquaintances) made the same gigs I did, and so I had company at all of those shows and often during the day or while travelling too. Brighton was the one place where I would know nobody, and that was part of the draw – when I first saw the band, over several years, I would know nobody at the gigs, and I liked it that way: nobody to lose in the crowd or wanting to leave for the bar or toilet; nobody making you compromise on where to stand (or sit); nobody complaining about this or that. In short, no reliance on anybody, and the knowledge that having a good time at the gig was entirely my own responsibility.

Therefore, I was looking forward to the Brighton gig for its emulation of those days. The downside, as I quickly discovered, was that I found myself in a strange city, with no discernible rock/metal culture (I was taken aback at the absence of band shirts adorned by people in the streets), where I felt like I didn’t fit at all. It felt odd having no companions after such an intense few days, and as I walked along the promenade on this warm, summery Friday evening I began to feel a growing sense of melancholy.

It felt desperately tragic to be so completely alone, and to feel no connection with the tourists sitting outside pubs having a drink or with the couples and families strolling back along the beach. In my head, I began to resemble something from a Camus novel, the fact being that I have only read (though several times) one of his novels: L’étranger.

Variously translated as “The Stranger” or “The Outsider”, either seemed to fit. It was at this point, as I was on the verge of feeling a little sorry for myself, that I got the wake-up call I needed. Along the cycle lane next to the pavement came, at speed, a lone young man on rollerblades. He was making good speed on them, not least of all because he was going backwards.

Yes, he was just rollerblading backwards, as fast as he could, with occasional glances over his shoulder to see where he was going.

I immediately felt better because I know, fully and without a shadow of doubt, that whatever I do in my life, I will never be that much of a complete dick.

🙂

 

 

 


Dubious Claims To Fame – 6

This claim to fame isn’t perhaps entirely dubious, but it is still relatively low on the spectrum of “celebrity.” Although, these days, most celebrities are pretty low down on that spectrum too. This claim to fame may actually put me in line for an appearance in that jungle reality show yet.

It is no secret that my favourite band of the past seven years is Combichrist. I first encountered them at Edinburgh’s Dark City festival in 2005, where I was working as stage crew – helping bands in with their gear, then doing the changeovers between sets. I took a chance on a couple of the bands I didn’t know, bought their latest CDS, and thus discovered Combichrist and Rotersand – great acts, and even better live.

That summer, we were both coincidentally in New York, and so I headed to the city to see them a second time. At the end of the year, they played a one-off show in London, and I travelled down for it. I have since seen every Scottish or London date they have played.

I stayed in touch with the Edinburgh promoter, and this led to me crewing all but two of Combichrist’s subsequent returns to the city, as well as gigs by singer/writer Andy LaPlegua’s side-projects. When circumstances changed and they began playing Glasgow instead, where the new promoter already had his own crew in place and no space for me to join it, I opted to make the experience memorable in a different way, and began travelling the country to see the band play three or four dates on the one tour. To date, I have seen them play twenty-four times, and witnessed their gradual expansion from a duo into a four- and five-piece live band. I don’t recall seeing them play as a trio, but I found footage online just last week of a gig in 2008, where I crewed, and it looks like they played as a three-piece that night.

The upshot being, I met Andy way back before this band’s career took off, and have kept in vague touch over the years. I’ve met all of the band, in most of its incarnations, and have moved from helping them (or latterly their road crew) bring their gear into the venue and set it up, to just going to the show as a fan and then hanging afterwards to catch up with them.

I’ve come to know the local promoters in Scotland and London, and it was through this intricate web of friendships, acquaintances, and chance that I ended up introducing the band onstage with comedy at their show in London in 2011. That is, perhaps, a clearer and better claim to fame than most of the ones documented here, and if you’d like to read how that came about, and how it went, the relevant blog is here.

This year, I went to the Glasgow, Manchester, London, and Brighton shows. The band, in a relatively rare move, came to most of the club after-parties that week, and so I got the chance to hang out with various members of the band (and them with me, haha!) four nights out of six. It was great fun.

This tour, “Evolution”, was billed as a mix of old and new, and reflected their line-up changes over the year, starting with two band members on stage and with the others joining one by one over the course of eight or so songs. Glasgow was good, but Manchester the next night was incredible – so much power, such a tiny room, dense with smoke and strobing lights throughout. Amazing, one of their best shows I’ve seen, and then afterwards we ended up in a really cheap pub followed by a nearby house party.

When I got back to my hotel, I logged in to my emails and found one that I initially took to be spam. Opening it, I discovered that I was being asked to write a short (hundred words) review for Metal Hammer, the renowned UK music magazine. No problem for someone well versed in the history of the band, and a keen writer too. Most flattering of all, though, was the discovery that I had been recommended for the task by the band’s manager. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Here, then, is my latest claim to fame, from Metal Hammer issue 234/Summer 2012. Click on the image to see it full-size.

Click for full size


Dubious Claims To Fame – 5

I’ve told Alice Cooper that I love him. And I meant it.

Not in any kind of gay way, you understand, more in the manner that you love a parent or a close friend. Or your absolute hero. Here is the man who shocked the world with antics that are part horror, part theatre, and with a strong undercurrent of satire and wit; a man who counted his drinking buddies as Keith Moon, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison; was best friends with Groucho Marx, had a sculpture of his brain made by Salvador Dali, and was armed and then promptly disarmed by karate expert Elvis Presley. A disarmingly charming man, with a sharp sense of humour and enough anecdotes to keep you rapt for weeks.

Then consider his longevity, his constant musical reinvention, the stories and characters he has created, his embracing and spearheading of contemporary musical styles and trends. Piano ballads, orchestrated numbers, disco and new wave, garage rock, good old-fashioned rock n’ roll, industrial/nu-metal – Alice has done it all and more. While collaborating with musicians as diverse as Slash, Donovan, Kei$ha, Steve Vai, Rob Zombie, Bernie Taupin, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Bob Dylan considers him under-rated as a songwriter, and Sinatra covered him live – saying “you keep writing them, and I’ll keep singing them.”

It was 2010, and I got an email through his mailing list, inviting me to enter a competition to win VIP tickets to see his Halloween show in London. That was a Sunday, and I found out on the Wednesday that I’d won. It didn’t take much thought before I booked an extremely expensive train journey, for an 800-mile round trip, knowing this was my one chance to meet my hero, and get to speak to him at some length.

Finding someone to go with me was a problem though, being short notice and not cheap – I can’t even find anyone in Glasgow who’ll come to his local concerts with me. One friend agreed, then realised he’d double-booked, and so he offered to hook me up with one of his pals in London instead – someone already in the vicinity. As it happened, the friend he put me in touch with is a man called Erkan Mustafa. Or, to the 80s kids among you, Roland from Grange Hill.

So Roland from Grange Hill and I went to see Alice Cooper, on Halloween, in Camden’s Roundhouse. And then we went backstage to meet the living legend, where I spotted Noel Fielding from The Mighty Boosh while waiting. As it happened, I had crewed their show in Glasgow, and deliberately elected to wear an Alice shirt while working as I knew Noel was a fan. I approached him and reminded him of this fact, and spoke to him briefly about this and that. In lieu of a proper costume, I had taken with me a white doctor’s coat that I’d painted “Trust Me” on the back of in ‘blood’, and covered in spatters. It was folded up and tucked under my arm at that point, and Noel asked “What’s that?”

“It’s quite cool,” I said reflexly, unfolding it to show to him. “I doubt it,” he said in the manner you’d expect. Then he looked at it and conceded “That is quite cool actually.”

 

Alice was sitting at table like Rock’s own Santa Claus, patiently meeting and greeting each eager fan and competition winner in turn. I got to the front, knowing I only had one question for him. It’s the only question I’ve ever wanted to ask him, and here was my chance – would he ever bring back the “magic screen” that he used on the Welcome To My Nightmare tour? He told me to catch him on his next tour, and at the time of writing it looks like it might yet happen. I told him, matter-of-factly, that I love him, and that he is without doubt the coolest man on the planet – a compliment he accepted graciously. Asking on behalf of my friend who couldn’t be there, I enquired if he was ever a fan of Laurel and Hardy, as my friend runs a dedicated fan site and has secured interviews with numerous famous fans. Alice told me that he and Harry Nilsson used to mimic them when they were drunk, and then treated me to a passable impression of Stan Laurel. In keeping with the Santa’s Grotto feel (“I got a job in Atlanta/In a mall playing Santa/Not because of any talent/But because I was the only one the suit would fit”), I had my photo taken with Alice, and left.

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but if your hero is Alice Cooper then you definitely should.

For those who only know Poison and School’s Out, here are some of my favourite songs. Starting with the visual stage effect that I hope to see performed live some day, where he runs out of a projected film and onto the stage.