Irrational Encounters With The Modern World

Theatre

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.

 

 

 

 

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When Friendly Fire Is Too Friendly.

I think my favourite voicemail was received, from a friend, in December 2006. The friend and I studied together, both of us graduating to careers in theatre, with work and life meaning our paths stopped crossing as often as they once did.

It had been a while since I had heard from her, and I emerged from my place of employment after the matinee performance of a pantomime to see that I had a message to listen to.

“Hi there,” she began in her cheerful and chatty way. “I hope you’re well, I’ve not seen you in ages. Anyway, I’m working at The Kings just now, and – you probably know this already – but Cafe India is on fire, and I know your flat is right next to it, so I just thought I would tell you. But yeah, speak to you soon.”

Cafe India was not just on fire, it burned so thoroughly that it was later demolished. Writing in 2014, the space now houses a supermarket on the ground floor and an entire block of flats above. It was originally a single-storey restaurant, next to a two-storey backpackers hostel, and then next to that was my tenement flat. I had the top floor, my living room being the gable end, and there were huge cracks in the interior walls. Cracks you could have painted Michaelangelo’s “Creation Of Adam” on, had he not chosen the Sistine Chapel as its location.

I was, therefore, a little concerned to hear that the dwelling that housed all of my possessions might be in danger of combusting. With the adjoining structures drastically weakened, I was not convinced that the tenement’s end wall would stay up. I raced home, circling the police cordon as the last of the smoke billowed from the ruin, and walking past the fire engines in attendance to the rear of the property. My flat was above a pub, and as I walked along the back of the building I saw the landlord. I had briefly worked for him, and went over to speak to him. I found out that the entire row had been evacuated, in case the flames spread, but that tenants were finally being granted access again.

I went upstairs, checked everything was in order, and then had to leave immediately in order to be back in time for the evening’s performance. It was not the most relaxing period I have spent between shows.

Full credit to my friend, however. They always say that “in the event of fire, remain calm.” I do not think she could have been any calmer, absolutely exemplifying that as she relayed the news to me via answer-machine. The panic and the relief both faded, but the message was memorable for its unhurried delivery.

I lived in that flat for three years. It was my first residence in Glasgow, and I moved out four months after the fire – having no desire to live next door to the building site it was destined to become. On the plus side, the structure of the walls proved sound, and the building still stands.

Cafe India fire zoomedAbove: Still taken from STV video footage. My annotations.


Driven To Distraction

I applied for my provisional driving license as I turned seventeen, receiving it once I reached the legal age to take lessons.

I was not champing at the bit to learn, counting down the days as some of my peers did. It was just something that was done – celebrate the milestone birthday, obtain license, find an instructor, book test, be allowed on the roads. My older cousins and my friends and schoolmates had been or were all in the throes of going through the same process. I did not really know what I was doing when I was seventeen, generally speaking, and being rather laid-back I simply followed the path that was prescribed for me. That is, stay in school until sixth year, sit my exams, spend three or four years at university, and then emerge with a degree and a sense of the career that would fill my twenties and beyond.

It did not happen like that. I went to Strathclyde University, started and dropped out of two very different degrees, and left to work in a shop for a while, before finally graduating from an unaffiliated institution seven years later. I remember that at the Open Days, when all the departments set out stalls to sell their courses, I completely flummoxed several of my prospective tutors – with no idea which path I wanted to follow, they asked what subjects I was studying. I was in the process of gaining my Higher Drama and my Certificate Of Sixth Year Studies in Maths – two unrelated subjects that failed to suggest any obvious route into further education.

Above: Bob Newhart’s classic take on Driving Instruction.

In the end, I did my degree in the technical side of theatre, specialising in scenic carpentry. It maintained my interest in drama, and utilised my maths skills too. Ultimately, it neglected to offer the steadiest of employment opportunities, as I discovered, but it did at least sustain my interest.

Anyway, with regard to my provisional driving license, I booked lessons and trained to the required standard to pass my test. My instructor found out that I played the guitar (in truth, I owned a guitar. To say that I played it is stretching the extent of my abilities), and we connected over that. His advice was always that I should treat my guitar like I would treat a woman, or maybe it was the other way round – I forget now. That was the upshot, though, and I shall rise above the cheap and crude hack jokes that arise from guitars having G-strings, and from what you do with your digits to elicit a pleasant sound.

I never sat my theory test, which prevented me from taking the practical, even though I was repeatedly told that I would sail through it, so to speak. I cannot now fathom why I did not put in the final bit of effort to secure my right to sit behind the wheel, and regret this shortcoming. I tried to get back into it several times in the intervening years, always being met by some obstacle or other – funding being the main one. it is not a cheap thing to acquire.

Above: Rikki Fulton and Tony Roper, Scottish comedy legends.

Part of me relates it to the time that, turning into a packed residential street with poor visibility, my instructor leapt on the brake to prevent me from driving into the back of an ambulance. The sight of an old woman lying on the road outside her church, in a compact area crammed with parked cars and now hosting a couple of police cars and the aforementioned ambulance, would stay with the most seasoned of drivers, far less an intermediate. He took care of all the footwork while directing me to do some exceptionally tight steering. I managed to negotiate around the parked cars; the emergency vehicles; the attendant paramedics and officers; the bystanders and fellow emerging churchgoers; and the oncoming traffic – but the image and the experience stayed with me.

Another part of me is reluctant to learn now, even if the funds were available, believing that it is just tempting fate. I have visions of crashing and burning within days of getting my license, leading to painful scenes at my funeral as people remark on the irony – “he waited fifteen years to get his license, got into a car and died the next day.” It would be a good story, one that people would enjoy telling thanks to the morbidity and the twist, but there are other stories that I would prefer to be part of instead. Given the choice.

This year I will be thirty-two, and I have held my provisional license for fifteen years. It has recently occurred to me that, In two years time, my provisional driving license will be old enough to apply for its own provisional driving license.


“Uberstardom” – Life Imitating Art

In 2008, I was working on a pantomime in Glasgow. One of the actors, a well-known face from our national soap, had previously done a panto there in 2006, the year I started. There was a great cameraderie between cast and crew, and the pair of us got on well together. I would tell him as many deliberately shite jokes as I could remember, and he would groan and take the piss out me for it. It was good fun.

Meeting again, after this gap of two years, he asked what I had been up to. As it happened, I had just written a pantomime of my own, which was being performed locally. I told him as much, and we slipped easily into the mutual joshing that characterised our friendship.

“You sold a pantomime?” he asked, immediately discrediting the notion with “Who to? You’re not funny!”

“I’ll write you a script, and get you off that shitey soap,” I told him.

That was how it started. My off-the-cuff riposte had potential, and it interested me to explore it. I spent that run working on ideas for a screenplay that was titled “Uberstardom” – a film about a soap star who decides to pursue his lifelong ambition of stand-up comedy, which then backfires catastrophically and with grisly, blackly-satirical results. I pitched it partly as a combination of Shaun Of The Dead, The King Of Comedy, and The Running Man.

To make a long story very short, after several years of writing in inspired bursts I eventually produced seven drafts and redrafts of the screenplay. This actor read one of them, and enjoyed it (phoning me up to tell me it was “mental”, which I took as a compliment), but although he promised to pass it to a producer, nothing ever happened with it.  I then sent a later draft to a Hollywood actor with whom I have a passing family connection, and never received acknowledgement or reply.

Later, I lengthened it and turned it into a 70,000-word novel. The first draft got some pretty decent praise, including from one publisher who said they would have been interested except for the fact they only publish three books a year and so have to be fully committed to each. I have yet to revise it and produce a second draft, which it definitely needs, but every so often I read over the manuscript and find ideas, jokes, images, and turns of phrase that I enjoy and am proud of. There is room for improvement, of course, though I wrote the book that I wanted to read, based on the script for a film I would dearly love to see. All of this is, however, merely background information.

Today, I saw a headline about somebody pelting raw eggs at the judges of a TV talent show. Three years ago, I imagined and wrote in detail about exactly that event. It was a scene whose setting closely resembled a number of high-profile “talent” shows, and their judges. One of the reasons that I need to write a second draft is to eliminate anything potentially defamatory. In any future reworking, I will also need to seriously reconsider this scene in light of it being something that has now happened.

Whatever the facts of the case, here is an excerpt from the unpublished novel, in which I tried to blend satire with slapstick and farce. The judges are returning their verdict to a lone, unnamed singer-songwriter. His three friends are in the audience, armed with eggs. The protagonist, Stevie, is in the wings, nervously waiting for his own chance to shine.

“What can I tell you,” Jetty Mappendage began, treading the fine line between smug and cunt and broadly straddling both, “I personally don’t enjoy your style of music, it doesn’t speak to me. You’ve clearly got ability, I just think it could be better spent – I don’t know, washing cars maybe.” The audience booed him, but the singer tried to take it on the chin, knowing you couldn’t please all the people all the time. He turned slightly, and focused on Felicity Penn, sitting in the centre.

            “I liked it, I really did,” she gushed, genuinely touched by his heartfelt lyrics and style of playing. “I just thought it was a bit – you know – lacking in originality” she said, feeling bad about having to criticise him, and feeling worse when the room booed at her too. “No, no – I did like it!” she reaffirmed, trying to redress the balance by offering words of encouragement. “I think you’ll go far, but just – just not on this show, sorry.” This got a smattering of applause; at least she had offered hope rather than just dismissing him out of hand. All that was left was Jonathon Kecks’ opinion – a man renowned for his snide asides and punishing put-downs, as much as for the height of his waistband. He waited for silence, and it came fast as the hall eagerly sat on tenterhooks.

            “That was shite,” he summed up succinctly, not an aficionado of Oscar Wilde’s wit. “Fuck off,” he hinted maliciously. The singer picked up his guitar and trudged offstage, trying to retain what little dignity he could. He was met halfway by the host, who was coming on to console him before introducing the next act, more fresh meat to be thrown to the lions. They met and shook hands, which was when the voice of dissension rang out, loud, proud, and distinctly Glaswegian.

            “See youse, ya fannies, youse wouldnae recognise real talent if it battered aff yer napper like a raw egg!” screamed the hippie chick, on her feet in the balcony and directing her tirade at the judges table. The hippie guy and the young man in the stalls rose to their feet too, each armed with several boxes of eggs. They began pelting the judges, who cowered in their seats as their table exploded with the gloop of albumen and the shrapnel of shattered eggshells. Felicity screamed as raw egg trickled down her carefully-coiffed hair and onto her face. Kecks attempted to raise his waistband over his head, trying to cower inside his trousers, and Mappendage leapt from his chair, sprawling to the floor then crawling behind the bingo brigade in the front stalls, using the old women as a wall of defence. The rain of avian missiles continued, erratically now all three wayward punters were being wrestled by security guards and stewards, who tried to pin their throwing arms to their sides as well as manhandle them out of the rows they sat in. The audience were torn, some shielding themselves from accidental fallout, others smiling or laughing at the spectacle of it all, and a few were booing – though the object of their disapproval remained unclear. Some shouted encouragement to the protagonists.

            “Gaun yersel’,” they cheered, “Gie it laldy! Get tore intae him, big yin! Tan his jaw! Ram the nut oan him! Gie ‘im the Glesga nod!

            For their part, the three protestors had run out of ammunition and were now engaged in verbal warfare with the human gorillas dragging them towards the auditorium exits. “Sniff ma gusset!” the hippie guy invited, belligerently, as he was forcibly removed from his seat.

            “Your tea’s oot, ya muppet” the leather-jacketed man in the stalls shouted, trying to take an indiscriminate swing at the three man-mountains heaving him down the aisle. “I’ll set aboot ye!” he screamed, unable to even set foot on the floor at that point as he was carried outside. The girl was unleashing a torrent of abuse at her would-be captors.

            “Get yer paws aff me, ya durty perv, or ah’ll gie ye a sore face! Rape!” she yelled, despite the fact it was three female stewards who had tackled her. “’at’s it, the rattle’s oot the pram!” she cried, writhing in their grip and trying to get a punch in. “Ah’ll toe yer hole,” she promised, trying to swing a kick up too. They had her too firmly, though, and she was ushered out the door. The two guys were still hurling abuse as they were huckled out, engaged solely in their own private worlds and oblivious to the fate of their friends.

            The host had moved quickly when things kicked off, forcing the singer into a half-nelson and marching him into the wings where security took him away while their colleagues dealt with the troublemakers. He returned to help the judges, who struggled to their feet, a bedraggled dripping mess. Mappendage clutched himself, bent double in agony, after one of the pensioners he had used as a human shield took umbrage and whacked her walking stick squarely into his balls. Kecks had taken refuge under the table, and despite the persistent barrage of abuse and missiles, had managed to avoid getting egg on his face, although his trousers would need a good cleaning. He stood up, slipped on eggshell, and fell back down on his arse, knocking into Penn as she rose and sending her careering into Mappendage, who plunged forehead-first into the third step and fell back, stunned. The audience convulsed with laughter.

            From his vantage point in the wings, Stevie saw the whole travesty unfold and watched transfixed. Mappendage rose, trying to cradle both balls and forehead simultaneously, and stumbled up the steps onto the stage and off into the opposite wing. Penn followed, breaking one of her heels off in the commotion and pitching sideways off the steps to land in the lap of a grateful old man. He helped her back onto the stage, using his hands more than was strictly necessary. She limped off, in tears. Kecks crawled on hands and knees to the foot of the steps, where the host lifted him up and hoisted him over his shoulder, carrying him off like a hero fireman – right up to the point he slid on some yolk and sent both hurtling to the floor like an enormous sack of spuds. A security guard who had returned from handing over the singer walked on and took hold of their legs, dragging them offstage as the host – professional to the last – raised the cordless microphone to his lips and apologised.

            “Sorry about this, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, flat on his back as he was pulled across the stage. “We will be back just as soon as the judges are cleaned up.” He sounded exhausted, but geared himself up to deliver his payload – “Remember, we have yet to find our Uberstar!” The audience weren’t even listening though, caught up in the excited hullabaloo as the curtain fell.


Theatre – Having Fun With Your Five-A-Day

I have been involved with the theatre for most of my life, at some level or other, and have worked backstage professionally or semi-professionally since I was legally old enough to do so. The difference between being amateur and being professional can be defined by attitude. To remove doubt, I have been fortunate to be able to sustain myself doing a job that I love.

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”
– Confucius

theatre ionesco

Years ago, when I had not long started out, I found myself working in the major local venue with most of the amateur dramatic companies in the area. In fact, I was there so often that they eventually put me on their books as casual staff. When the building closed for refurbishment, I sought employment from most of the theatres in Glasgow. I had no joy, but took the time to submit an application to the (then) Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – and was accepted. Thus, I even did my degree in the subject that I loved.

Prior to starting my course, I purchased dozens of published plays to enhance my knowledge beyond the musicals with which I was more familiar. I had not had the chance to see or work on many dramatic works, although my Higher Drama had given me a longstanding love of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The drama department at my school was initiated, by coincidence, the same year that I began my secondary schooling. Due to the curriculum and qualifications I chose, I was one of the first few people to study the subject for all six of my years there – the obligatory first two years, then two years for my Standard Grade, an SVQ module (I think – it was a long time ago now), and my Higher.

What I quickly discovered, once I began my degree, was that no real knowledge of or passion for theatre was required. It was a course that was virtually impossible to fail, provided you turned up every day and did the bare minimum of work required. Whatever the dubious merits of the course, and they were often dubious, I spent the summer prior to my studies by immersing myself in the written works of Miller, Pinter, Orton, Ionesco, Stoppard, and others. It didn’t relate to my eventual coursework in any way, but it gave me pleasure and saw me build up a small library that I still refer to on occasion.

theatre stoppard

The theatre that I know, and grew to love, is not just populated with intelligent people, it also introduced me to some of the funniest people I have ever known, and some of the sickest and dirtiest conversations and jokes I have yet been party to. Just in case you thought this particular blog entry was going to be high-brow…

After the run of one show, when I was aged seventeen or eighteen, I was in the venue early on a Sunday morning to continue the “get-out” of the scenery and props. I was then the youngest person on the crew, working with several guys who had been doing this for at least as many years as I had lived. The cameraderie was second to none, and that crew in particular took me under their wing and showed me a lot. They taught me the ropes (the origin of that very expression) and taught me to drink.

We began the day with the customary raid of the deserted dressing rooms, seeking out the remnants of the final-performance tins of sweets that the cast always brought in. One of our number emerged onto the stage a short time later, unpeeling a banana.

“Where did you get that??” Someone asked.

“Dancers’ dressing room,” was the matter-of-fact reply.

“You don’t know where that’s been!”

“Yes I do,” he said, responding to the implied innuendo. He deliberately sniffed along the entire length of the banana, then looked up.
“And I know which one it was too.”

 

Filthy. Fucking funny. Fond memories.

 

theatre orton


Karaoke – What A Carry-On.

My aversion to karaoke as a form of entertainment is such that, if I am in a pub and it becomes apparent that there will be karaoke, I leave. I am willing to accept most types of music as background noise to whatever conversation I may be having, but I refuse to accept the dominance that is afforded a procession of tuneless drunks.

There are a handful of exceptions – I’ve tolerated it at a few places-of-works’ nights out, a stag night, and – well, that’s it to the best of my memory. As a general rule, if there is no occasion and I am just out for a drink, I’ll go elsewhere.

I have been coerced into participating only twice in my life. This is, in part, due to my complete and very noticeable inability to sing. The other factors involved were alcohol (lots of it) and peer pressure.

The first occasion was in “My Father’s Moustache”, a pub in East Kilbride, where I then worked. I worked for the catalogue shop Index, and our entire staff (numbering about twenty or thirty) were in the pub for some reason or other, besides the obvious. The drinks were flowing freely, and it was the night that Darius was kicked off Pop Idol. I remember this clearly, because at the time I was being told on a regular basis that I looked like him.

As a succession of regulars crooned their ways through all the usual hits – Mustang Sally, Brown-Eyed Girl, Wonderwall, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), New York New York – our party got progressively drunker. We were loud, rowdy, good-humoured, and having great fun. Somehow, I got roped into going up.

My song of choice was “My Way” as sung by Sid Vicious. This was probably towards the end of the period I spent listening to Punk, and I recall that I was wearing my Slayer tour shirt that evening. My name was called, along with the observation “As a special treat, here comes Darius, straight off Pop Idol,” and I ventured forth amidst gentle laughter, to take the mic.

The punters would look to the screen as each singer stepped up, to see what song they would be assailed with, and so up came “My Way.” People went back to their conversations, absolutely not expecting the off-key and piss-taking intro to that version of Sinatra’s classic. You know that scene in the western film, when the guy walks into the bar and the music stops and the place falls silent? I achieved that. My “singing” of that verse, in that vocal manner, briefly shut up an entire pub.

As the song kicked in, and I sneered my way through the second verse as Vicious had done, I was joined on the stage area by a stranger who – judging from his age and enthusiasm – was part of the original musical and social movement that produced it. He grabbed a second mic from its stand, and tried to join in as the host took it from him and reprimanded him with the rules – one singer, one song. No backing vocalists. So, instead, he began vigorously pogoing around the floor, clapping his hands, headbanging, and trying to cajole everyone sitting near the front of the stage area into sharing his energy and appreciation.

That was the first time I ever attempted karaoke, and I still remember it vividly eleven years later.

———————————–

The second time, it was an aftershow party in very early 2008. I had been working on a pantomime, and all of the cast, crew, and ushers were enjoying private use of a hired nightclub. There was karaoke, and by about half-two in the morning I was drunk enough to agree to a pal’s suggestion to participate.

As one of the cast belted through his own unique, and trademark, rendition of The Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” (“Balls and Tits!” he cried gleefully), we decided upon the song for us. The obvious selection was Falco’s “Amadeus” – renowned, fondly remembered, and suitably ridiculous. Up it came on the screen.

Revealing himself to be surprisingly astute, given his aptitude at work, my friend immediately spotted the flaw in our plan and helpfully announced “Fucksakeman, it’s aw in German.”

It was, indeed, in German. We hadn’t thought beyond the famous chorus.

I rapidly descended into drunkenly listing all of the German words I could think of, rather than attempting to read aloud those on-screen. For a start, I’ve never studied the language, and I wasn’t helped by how fast Falco was rattling through lyrics I was struggling to comprehend let alone pronounce.

In hindsight, it’s unfortunate that most of my German comes from war films, Spike Milligan sketches (“Schweinhund!”), and five years of schooling in the achievements and failures of Bismarck, the unification of Germany, the first world war, and Hitler’s rise to power. It is probably just as well that it was a private party, I think in a pub I would have achieved silence a second time…

There are no plans for a third attempt.

 

 


Dubious Claims To Fame – 18

Eighteen, eighteen, eighteen, I’m eighteen and I like it. That was Alice Cooper’s first hit, before School’s Out, and it was the song that Johnny Rotten sang along to on the jukebox when he auditioned for The Sex Pistols. Alice is my hero. My 18th claim to fame is about him again.

I met him once, on Halloween in 2010, and have seen him on the two Halloweens since. He has yet to bring back the ‘magic screen’ as he promised when I asked him about it, but I have since learnt from far more dedicated fans than I that Alice can rarely be relied on when it comes to such things – he has so many ideas for his shows and album concepts that not all come to fruition. No matter how much he might talk them up.

Having recently released a sequel to his seminal solo album “Welcome To My Nightmare”, there was a lot of excitement and speculation that he might do a themed stage show for the first time since 2000’s ‘Brutal Planet’ tour, and even more excitement at the prospect of him doing a new ‘nightmare’ show for the “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” follow-up. It didn’t really happen, and although he said in interviews that there would be three sections to the new stage show and a nightmarish middle section, it subverted expectation. Of course, subversion is what Alice has always done best.

As soon as the first show of the tour happened, a week before I saw him, someone posted a set list and spoilers on the Sick Things fan site. I think we all read it, and there was much disappointment that he had removed so many stage effects that he didn’t even get executed in this show. Add in half a dozen cover versions and only a handful of the newest songs, plus recent staples that have been in the set for years now, and for the first time ever I didn’t feel particularly enthused about seeing him. I was wrong.

Alice’s management pay close attention to the discussions on that fan forum, and the setlist evolved from show to show. By the time I saw him, in Edinburgh on Halloween, he was down to four covers (honouring his dead friends – Morrison, Lennon, Hendrix, Moon) and had added in a couple of long-unplayed classics. With less theatrics, more pyrotechnics than usual, a fantastic array of songs, and the incredible talents of the musicians he has hand-picked to form his band – what a show! Easily one of the best shows I have ever seen him do, and I’ve seen him seven or eight times now. It was also the first time, in twelve years of going to his gigs, that he finally played a track from one of the two albums I bought together as a teenager and which first got me into him – and that was a pretty special moment for me.

The claim to fame is this: Alice always throws items into the crowd – he taunts us with dollar bills threaded all the way up the rapier that he waves above our heads during “Billion Dollar Babies“, sending them fluttering into the air above us, and he dangles beaded necklaces just out of our grasp during “Dirty Diamonds.” His band throw out dozens of guitar picks and a couple of drumsticks at every show too, and my first piece of memorabilia was a Pete Friesen signature plectrum that I found on the floor of the Barrowland after my first gig. As of last Wednesday, I now have five Cooper Band plectra – one from new addition Orianthi (jesus, that girl’s solo on his live cover of Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” – amazing!), the Pete Friesen one, a Steve Hunter one and two Tommy Henriksen ones from last Halloween, plus a dollar bill and a branded balloon that I caught and carefully deflated. The best bit, though, considering how many shows I have been to and how many times I have been down the front and still failed to catch more than one dollar bill (and no necklaces) is that I now have Alice’s cane.

He carried it onstage for his opening number, then threw it into the crowd. There was a mad dive for it, but I got one hand high and one hand low, and although I had to fend someone else off, it became mine. I threaded it up inside my belt, under the doctors coat I was wearing in lieu of  a proper costume, and it stayed there for the rest of the gig. I brought it home to Glasgow, and am very happy to have it. Here is a video of Alice waving it around during “Hello Hooray”, prior to throwing it casually away. I’d like to pretend that he deliberately chucked it to me, but at 3m 05s you can see how disdainfully he tosses it into the audience. Ha, if you look VERY closely, you can see my hand in the audience, giving the devil-horns, and then see as I lunge up with both hands to grab hold of it. 😀

The other claim to fame I have is that, owing to how far in advance I ordered my copy of the latest album, my name was printed along with several hundred others in the background of the poster that came with the limited Fan Pack edition of the album. You can see it highlighted and then enlarged below.

If you ever get the chance to see Alice live, you will not be disappointed – the greatest showman on the planet, and one of the warmest, wittiest people you could ever meet. I love him. Here’s “School’s Out” from that same gig – giant balloons, confetti, bubbles, swords, canes, top hats, a segue into Another Brick In The Wall Part 2 and back again, plenty of audience interaction, and masterful showmanship from Alice and every one of his band members – the biggest rock ‘n roll party going.


Dubious Claims To Fame – 14

When I was a kid, I was involved in a handful of local youth theatre groups. I remember vividly the time I auditioned to join one based in a nearby church, gathered with other young hopefuls in a side room by the main hall. The group’s founder and director was conducting various singing and acting exercises, partly done as groups and partly on a one-to-one basis, as I recall. I was accepted to join, and began rehearsals for a production of “Bugsy Malone” (in which I was cast as gym owner Cagey Joe – despite having rather have had the role of Leroy Smith), but shortly into the process the director had to abandon his beloved theatre group because of the pressure of continuing work commitments with the BBC, and he left.

I remember that first evening of auditions, that as I was leaving a couple of girls went up to the director and asked for his autograph. I had no idea who he was, or why they would do that, but when I went home I read for the first time the plea for cast members that had appeared in the local paper. It turned out he was in a programme that I was then too young to have ever seen, called Rab C. Nesbitt.

Years later, and I mean decades, when I mentioned to my then-flatmate that I’d been in a youth theatre group run by Eric Cullen – Wee Burney in the first few series of that famous Scottish sitcom – she made a disgusted face, as if (to keep it topical) I had just told her that I’d once appeared on an episode of Jim’ll Fix It. I protested to her at the time, that he was never convicted of child abuse or paedophilia, wasn’t charged with rape, and didn’t spend a long time in prison or die there. I remembered the case – it was so widely publicised in Scotland at the time that I think most people still do – but since I did have the vaguest of personal involvements with the man concerned, I had kept reasonably abreast of developments. I googled it then for my flatmate, and found this very clear and concise site, written by a close friend of Eric’s, which sets the record straight. As does the wikipedia page.

On that first site, from an interview conducted and printed by The Big Issue, I quote:  “In his summing up at Hamilton Sheriff Court, sheriff Alexander MacPherson stated that extensive investigations into all aspects of Cullen’s case established beyond doubt that he was not involved in child abuse of any form.”

It was a massive circus that engulfed him, and everybody had an opinion or a rumour or a joke about it. He was cleared and released from jail on probation, but his reputation took a while to begin recovery. If you have the time, I recommend you read some of the facts and interviews from that case. It is tragic reading, that someone who finally stood up to his abusers (and ultimately got them convicted) was instead initially tarred with the same brush.

I saw Eric a couple of times after he had left the theatre group – he had come back to see our show, and I got him to sign inside the back page of my script. I still have that page in storage somewhere, and drew a border around it with a yellow highlighter I was testing out (and which I later regretted), but I think I lost or binned the rest of the book – when we read it in English class in second or third year, I looked for my own copy of the edition we were reading from, and couldn’t find it. It was just by chance that, a few years later and while at a park/zoo in East Kilbride, I saw and walked past Eric in the car park. He was with friends, and looked happy, but I doubted he would remember me – I had only met him half a dozen times, and I’d barely started acting in his theatre company before he moved away. Rather than go through the rigmarole of interrupting him and reintroducing myself in order to merely say hello, I just kept walking. It was a week, if that, before he died of a heart attack.

If you have the time or inclination, read some of the first-person witness statements, evidence, and interviews about what happened. It’s also mentioned in a more recent article about the return of Rab C. I didn’t know him well, but I remember him fondly – perhaps even moreso now that the facts of his case and troubled life are established.

 


Dubious Claims To Fame – 13

I dislike the number thirteen, so much so that I documented it on this blog previously. I still have a handful of claims to fame to write, some of them very tenuous indeed, and am trying to decide which one to bless/curse with this figure. Don’t get me wrong, I know that is a thoroughly irrational thing to attribute to a simple number.

On balance, I think I will use this one to break from the norm and relate something that I witnessed (rather than partook in) while I was working. I generally try and avoid stories that happened in the course of my line of work, but since this one doesn’t involve me except as a witness I think I will tell it.

It was the early 2000s, and I was casually employed by a theatre in East Kilbride. I have no love for that town, despite or perhaps because I went there weekly for twenty years or more. The theatre has a rising metal shutter at the side of the stage, and a stage door around the back. We were in to set up for a music gig, and when the shutter was banged we opened it and let some of the tour crew in. Moments later, it was banged on again and raised to let more people in. Then on the third bang, we loaded all of the gear in. On the fourth bang, my friend (who had had enough of people making him go through the painfully slow process of raising the shutter, rather than using the stage door around the corner) shouted “FUCK OFF!” very loudly at the door, before raising it. I was standing next to him.

Outside, there stood a very bemused Midge Ure – the man whose gig it was, and whose headline set was effectively paying our wages – and he just looked at us. My friend looked very sheepish and apologised. It must be nearly a decade later now, and we still remind him and each other of the time he told Midge Ure to fuck off.

That was an accident, and not entirely professional, but another friend deliberately spent the entire day walking around the theatre singing “Shaddap You Face.” That was the song that infamously kept Midge Ure’s renowned track with Ultravox – “Vienna” – from ever making it to number one in the UK charts. Haha, menace!

I didn’t see much of the set, sitting backstage and waiting to load all the gear out afterwards, but I do know it was the first time I ever heard Visage’s “Fade To Grey” – a great song, as I now appreciate.

 

 


Dubious Claims To Fame – 11

I am glad that I had the foresight to prefix all of these claims to fame with the word “dubious”, because some of them are really very tenuous indeed.  I could have alternatively titled them Brief Encounters With Celebrity, because there is generally a little bit of substance to them rather than merely being in the same room as someone (in which case every single music or comedy gig could be included). I’m still striving too to include only tales that have occurred as a lay person, and not in the course of my one-time day job working in film and theatre. This is the time I met comedian Ross Noble.

I had been to one of his gigs at Glasgow’s Kings Theatre, sometime between 2004 and 2007. I know these dates to be correct, as I was living nearby in Charing Cross at the time, but can’t be more specific as I’ve seen him four or five times now. I left the theatre and went home, took my ticket stub out my wallet and put it in the box with my other stubs, and then decided to nip back out to get some food. My journey took me past the Kings, and I saw Noble standing at the stage door surrounded by a handful of fans and autograph hunters. I’m generally averse to being part of that gaggle, and continued on my way. I bought a sandwich from an international chain that makes them to order, and returned by the same route. When I glanced over again, I recognised one of the girls from the first year of my degree course. In fact, since I must have been in third year then, that would probably put this as sometime in 2006.

I went over to say hello to her, and since she was in conversation with some friends and with Noble, I spoke to him too. I regretted not having my ticket stub on me, to have it signed (I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it signed, but since he was there and had the time and a pen in his hand, why not?) During his show, someone had mentioned Iron Maiden, my once-favourite band (obsessively so) and a band that Noble also professed an affinity with. I asked Ross if he was going to see them on their recently-announced tour, but his deadpan reply was “Nah mate, I’m busy, I’ve got a tour of me own to do.”

It dawned on me that I did have something in my wallet that would look good with his signature across it – the joker from a deck of Sailor Jerry playing cards. When that brand of rum was launched, they put out loads of promotional items – lots of temporary tattoos, decks of cards – and I had taken the joker from a pack of cards my friend had. She was working in a pub at the time, and they had dozens of items left over. The joker showed a very cheeky monkey, bent over and spreading its arse cheeks. The buttocks read “AL” and “HA” and the positioning and the action made it read “Aloha”. I thought it was quite amusing in a puerile way, and had liberated a few rub-on tattoos showing it (some of which I think I still have, unused), and stuck that card in my wallet to show/disgust people. Noble has long documented his obsession with monkeys, on almost every tour and DVD he has done, and so it seemed fitting to offer this card for him to autograph.

He looked at it, shrugged, and signed it for me. It makes a different souvenir, and a better story, than just having a signed ticket stub – anybody can get one of those.