Thursday, November 29, 2018

War. What Is It Good For? Answers On A Postcard.

It's 1985 and, after a visit to the school from a member of the local territorial army barracks (from which I was absent, presumably due to illness), some of my classmates decide to join the cadets.  With nothing else to do on a Thursday night, I enlist at Chetwynd Barracks.  A mistake but a short-lived one.

As a boy, I never had an affection for guns or warfare.  I don't even recall ever having a toy gun to play with (although I'm sure I must have; every boy plays with guns).  Joining the army cadets as a teenager was never, therefore, going to lead to anything.  One night, whilst standing at ease in the yard (having already been harangued for not being able to march properly), the sound of Paul Hardcastle's groundbreaking 19 blares loudly from the open window of one of the houses that backs onto Chetwynd Barracks.  Whilst the sergeant major fails to see the funny side, the confluence of events is not lost on me.  Hardcastle's anthem and the abject fear of having to wear an itchy-as-fuck uniform made from barbed wire, shards of broken glass and camel's pubic hair cement my resolve.  After a staggering total of four weeks, I leave Chetwynd, never to return. 

It is now 2018 and I am forty-six years old.  1985 was a long time ago, long time since I was a teenager, but here hasn't been a time since when the army hasn't been eager to take callow young men into its fold, specifically from the inner cities, where hope is at its lowest supply.  These strapping young lads, with nary a qualification between them, go into the army, all full of piss and vinegar and come out the other side (if they come out at all) as so much minced meat.

You don't believe me?  That's okay.  Go on and wave your little Union Jack in the rain same as you do every November 11th.  Stand in solemn silence at eleven o'clock and think your little thoughts.  Wear a poppy; why not?  Stick one on the front of your car where it will sit all year round, just to show the world how much you really care about "our boys" while meanwhile, "our boys" suffer the agonies of post-traumatic stress disorder (because, wake-up call, killing people and having people trying to kill you is not a natural way of life; it's not what we're here for).

Last year, early November, I was in conversation with a woman who is a sometime actress, sometime model, sometime radio presenter and full-time dickhead.  She was enthusing about Remembrance Day and about how much she "loves" this time of year. 

"You love it?"

"Oh yes, I love it."

"Really?  I always look on it as a sad time, a moment to mourn."

"No; it brings people together.  Everyone's beautiful."

"And what do they sing?"

"Oh, you know: all the old favourites.  We'll Meet Again, White Cliffs of Dover, It's a Long Way To Tipperary..."

"Ah, those old favourites.  Maybe if people started singing Give Peace a Chance, The Universal Soldier and Where Have All The Flowers Gone they might actually learn something."

Fucking Vera Lynn. 

Next year, when the politicians gather at the Centotaph, instead of cannon-fire (the sound of which alone must put years on the few surviving veterans who attend the event - either that or bring on flashbacks of being in the trenches; neither of which must be good for the mortality rate of those old soldiers) someone should play Pink Floyd's The Final Cut at full volume. 

What did become of that post-war dream?

Monday, August 6, 2018

Father, Son

On the song We're Sons Of Our Fathers Phil Collins opines on how his perspective on a changing world echoes the sentiments voiced by his father during the cultural revolution of the sixties.  "Seems all things come around in time" he sings.  How right he is.

My dad died before I reached the age of forty, four years after my mum died.  So, before reaching my fourth decade on God's green earth, I was effectively an orphan.  To lose one parent so soon in life is bad enough but to lose both before even reaching middle-age...well, you wouldn't know unless you'd been there.

On the face of it, we were not close.  But we had moments of closeness and they're the times I treasure the most.  

The Boy and the Old Man, January 2005

When I was a boy, my dad would take me fishing.  We never had a car so we'd get up before sunrise and make the long walk to Birkenhead Park, arriving at the lakeside just as dawn was breaking.  The split bamboo cane rod that I used had been my dad's when he was a young man.  Now it was mine, the burden of responsibility was not lost on me.

We spent time without number going fishing on Sunday mornings, our gear loaded on a two-wheel trolly (affectionately known as a "Charlie" in Liverpool parlance) and our rod bags slung over our shoulders.  Luncheon meat butties and a flask of coffee was all we needed to keep us going through the long hours of casting and watching our floats as they sat in the water, waiting for that tell-tale movement that told us a fish had taken the bait.  Sometimes we got lucky; sometimes the fish got lucky.  As I look back now, I realise that it was me who was the lucky one, just to have spent those quiet hours with the old man, learning from him and sharing his company.

There's fish in there...somewhere.  The view from our favourite fishing spot in Birkenhead Park.

Now the fishing equipment sits in the garage, never to be used again.  The old wicker basket that once held our reels and tackle box is now custodian of a thousand memories.

Likewise, the tools that he left me all have a trace of the man who once used them.  I take out a screwdriver and I can smell the smoke from his filterless Senior Service, the tobacco ingrained in the tips of his fingers.  The ball-peen hammer bears his initials on its handle, the drill bits are worn from  countless hours spent working around the house, in the shed and in the loft.

A time-served electrical engineer, he trained many men who now continue to work in the trade.  As for his own work-mates, they have long since retired, either from work or from life itself.  Sparking was not the trade for me, though, and I'm sure he regretted this.  A man likes to pass on the mantle to the son, after all.

So, what did he make of me?  This somewhat bookish young man who ended up pursuing a life in the arts.

Well, he was always pragmatic where my ambitions where concerned.  "Did you get paid?" would be his most frequent question when it came to gigs.

If you didn't get paid, what was the point?

While he watched the gigs get bigger and the cheques get fatter, he kept whatever pride he might have felt about my achievements to himself.  The closest he came to opening up was when he came with me to a gig on New Year's Eve 2007.  Having driven him home after the show, I saw him to the door where he told me, wet-eyed, that my mum would have been proud of me (she'd died earlier that month).

He was of a generation the likes of which we'll not see again, of men who kept their emotions bottled up and who were more likely to turn to the drink than to a friend.

He had a quick temper but he was not a violent man.  A political firebrand, he was a shop steward for most of his working life.  His strong convictions made for some pretty lean times during the eighties, when Thatcher's government bore down heavily on the unions and many workers made a stand by taking industrial action.  As an adult, I took my lead from him and when I started work in the public sector I was quick to sign up to the union.  You'd never find me crossing a picket line; I'm no scab.

As I've already mentioned, we were not naturally close but as we got older we made more of an effort.  In my twenties, I frequently accompanied him to his local pub on a Saturday night.  It was a privilege to be asked and I felt no small amount of pride when he introduced me to his drinking pals with the typically Liverpudlian: "This is me lad."

The Old Man's corner spot in The Wirral Hundred

After my mum died, we spent yet more time together but the next four years saw a steady and inexorable decline in his health.  The years of smoking and boozing combined with a general disinterest in life now that he was living on his own.  In the end, he just gave up.

Before I lost him to the limbo-like state brought on by the drugs that eased him into death, I was privy to one final glimpse of the man I had loved, feared and admired so much.

Sat by his hospital bed, I picked up the Echo and turned to the back page (football fans always read newspapers from the back page but I, never having been a fan of "the beautiful game", have never had reason to.  Why I should do so at this time remains a mystery to me.).  As I read the latest news from the premier league, a nurse entered the ward and made some flirtatious and wholly innocent comments to me.  I responded in kind, earning a mocking response from the Old Man.

And that's how I remember him, with a wry smile on his lips and a knowing look in his eyes.  He always knew how to take the wind out of someone's sails, how to deflate self-inflated egos.  His ability to do that without causing any real offence, to prick the balloon of pomposity - whether it was in conversation with some jumped-up authority figure or even his own son - with a good dose of dry humour, was something that was innately Liverpudlian.  And that's a heritage of which anyone should be proud.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Season's greetings and all that mother jazz.  It's your Uncle Stef here with another musical recommendation.

I like to think that my tastes are pretty diverse.  Look back on this blog and you'll see that I'm equally happy listening to Phil Collins, Miles Davis and Alice Cooper as I am PIL and Motorhead.  I just love music.

At the moment, I am working on a short horror story (keen readers of this blog will know that, while my chosen profession is that of singer, I am actually a frustrated author) and, for inspiration, I went looking for some dark ambient music.  The last time I did this my search was very fruitful, turning up such musical pioneers as Suicide, Coil and Throbbing Gristle.  My latest discovery has been no less revelatory.  

Godspeed You!  Black Emperor are a collective of experimental musicians from Canada.  Their compositions are often quite lengthy affairs, averaging around the twenty minute mark, split into movements of varying dynamics.  There's no singing; any vocals are courtesy of spoken word monologues, samples and field recordings - such as the street preacher whose lachrymose sermon features at the start of East Hastings on the band's debut album.

Of course, music of this length runs the risk of whimsical indulgence.  But Godspeed are not Yes and they use their time to construct pieces of rare terror and beauty, often within the same track.  This is not depressing stuff, though; there is hope amongst the horror and the effect of sitting through one of their albums - as I often do on long car journeys to and from work - is frequently transcendental.

Finding their music has been a rare treat for me.  I love coming across stuff that happily sits outside the mainstream.  That said, Godspeed You!  Black Emperor deserve to be embraced by the masses.  So, I urge you to go and check them out.  

Go on.  Improve your life.  You'll thank me for it.    


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

I'd Just Like To Thank The Academy

Well, folk, it's that time of year again when I take time out to make public my thanks and appreciation for the support, love and loyalty I've had from family, friends and clients throughout 2017.

Firstly, of course, I have to thank my wife and our two beautiful children.  Without you, life is a hollow imitation.  I love you.

My parents did not live to see me reach forty and were denied any pride that they might have had in seeing me make something of myself.  Because of this, I value my family more than I ever did in my youth.  So, to my cousins up North and down South I say thank you and bless you for the time that we spend together.  I love and cherish you dearly.

I value loyalty above all other traits and I am lucky to be able to name three men as the most loyal and trustworthy friends that any man could have.  Over the years, we have drifted apart and drifted back together again as circumstances have conspired against us but our bond has never been in doubt.  You three are as precious to me as my own kin and I love you truly.

Professional thanks, now, to the people of the North West and North Wales who have given me so much work this year.  To the clients, both corporate and private, of Warrington, Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Wrexham, Stockport, Preston, Bury, Derbyshire, Winsford and Middlewich thank you for having the good taste to book me to sing for you.  I am in forever in your debt.

And that's it for another year.  Thank you everybody for supporting me in this "dangerous but irresistible pastime".  

It's a life. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

Greetings and salutations.

It's been a while, I know, but I've been a busy boy.

In truth, I hadn't planned on writing a new post but watching the documentary Jim And Andy: The Great Beyond (the recently released film about Jim Carey's performance as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's biopic Man On The Moon) was sufficiently inspiring.  

Let me first say that I'm not a fan of either Andy Kaufman (I put him in the same bag as Tiny Tim, another curiously successful entertainer with no discernible talent) or Jim Carey, of whom I first became aware when someone brought around a copy of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to my flat, clearly under the impression that Carey represented the second coming.  I don't recall even cracking a smile during the viewing and Carey's performances since then have done nothing to add to that impression.

The documentary seemed interesting enough, though, as it detailed Carey's absolute immersion into the character of the person he was playing, with frequently devastating results.  It provides a fascinating insight into the actor and his subject and is refreshingly unfurnished in its approach.

What resonated with me, though, was a comment Carey makes about his dad and how he sacrificed the artistic life for a mundane existence as an accountant in order to provide a more stable lifestyle for his family.  

Shit, that's what I did.

Carey's dad subsequently lost his job.

Happened to me, too.

The point that Carey makes is that we can only achieve satisfaction and success by doing the things that make us happy.  His father gave up a life in entertainment because he feared that he might fail.  He ended up doing a job that provided financial stability but fulfilled none of his ambitions.  And then he lost that job and the stability that came with it.

"You can fail at doing something you don't want to do, so you might as well take a chance on doing something you love."

When I was in my last year at secondary school, the art teacher, Mr Bell, asked me what I wanted to do for a living.  I told him I wanted to be a writer.  He told me I'd starve.

I was shattered.  Not only was I being told that the artistic, creative life was off-limits to me but I was being told this by an art teacher.  

When I left school, I struggled.  I went to sixth form college, simply to pass the time.  When I left there, everyone I knew was either in full-employment or university.  So what did I do?  I signed on.

Well, that was a long time ago and since then my life has twisted and turned beyond all expectations.  I've taken roads that have led to greater places and I've taken paths that have turned out to be no more than dead ends.  Not everyone has stayed the course of my journey; I have left many people behind and some people have left me behind.  

As I write this now, I am exactly where I should be, precisely where I want to be.  I have good people around me.  There is trust, love, support and respect in abundance.  

Am I happy?  No, not fully.  But I'm getting there.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

We're Going Where The Sun Shines Brightly


When I was a boy, we holidayed in Newquay, Cornwall.  Same holiday site, same two weeks of the year.  Every year.

I'm not complaining.  It's a beautiful part of the country and when the sun is shining there's no need to be anywhere else.  And who can resist the lure of a pasty?  Not I, that's for sure.

The ubiquitous Cornish pasty.  A banquet in a single course.

It's been some time since I was a boy and it's been some time since I've been to Cornwall but this year we took a holiday down south and it was like visiting an old friend.  It made me regret staying away for so long.

As a rule, I don't take holidays.  I enjoy my work too much and when I'm away I'm all too aware of how many gigs I could be playing.  When I'm forced to take a break, though, it makes me realise how vital it is to rest and recuperate.  

That said, I did break my big toe whilst rushing to the hot tub one night so I suppose there's always a price to pay for taking a sabbatical.  

Once the holiday was over, it was back up North for more shows.  If you've been paying attention, you'll know that this is my tenth year as a professional singer.  I like to think that I've come quite a way since then (which is not to say that I still don't have a long way to go.  The road is long, as the saying goes.).  I have more songs to sing than when I started out and more places in which to sing them.

Until then, here are some of my favourite photos from the past ten years of my career.

Here I am at The Village Hotel, Bromborough.
Pictured with some of the audience after a show at the British Legion, Wallasey.
Singing in the bar at The Holiday Inn, Preston.
After a show at The James Monro, Liverpool.
I look forward to adding to this gallery as the years continue.  There are many more ahead for this singer.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

You Never Forget Your First Love

The year was 1986.  I was fourteen years old, approaching the end of my time at Ridgeway Secondary School (back then the building was totally grey and very austere-looking.  I drove past it recently and somebody has decided to paint it pink.  That's progress for you.).

That year two albums were released which seemed to capture the attention of a lot of my friends: Queen's A Kind Of Magic and Invisible Touch by Genesis.  I knew a couple of Queen songs, probably from Top of The Pops, but while I was pretty familiar with Phil Collins's records (it was the eighties; you couldn't have avoided him even if you wanted to) I knew nothing about Genesis.

Phil Collins.  Inescapable in the eighties.

We weren't really big on music in our house.  My mum listened to the radio quite a bit - Radio Merseyside provided the soundtrack to my childhood, from Roger Phillips at lunchtime (my school was close enough for me to go home for dinner so I'd often listen to him with my dad over a steaming Pot Noodle or a bowl of ravioli) to Hold Your Plums and Jakestown on a Sunday afternoon - but that was as far as it went.  In the early eighties, we got our first record player.  It was a battered old thing that had belonged to my nan.  You had to balance 2p pieces on top of the needle to stop it jumping.  When that didn't work, we'd put a 10p piece on it.  At one point nearly half of my pocket money was on top of that bloody thing.

The first record we bought was a single.  It was The Birdie Song.  I have no idea whose idea it was to get it but I will swear to my grave that it wasn't me.  The first album we got was Raiders Of The Pop Charts, a compilation album that pre-dated Now That's What I Call Music by about a year.  I remember it jumped all over the place and my dad was forever taking it back to HMV in Liverpool until they refused to replace it.  The fault wasn't with the record; it was that dodgy needle on our old record player that was the problem.

Raiders Of The Pop Charts.  Every song a classic.

So when I first started buying records for my own enjoyment, I vowed that I wasn't going to listen to them on that knackered old player downstairs.  I got myself a stereo system.  And I never looked back.

I bought both A Kind Of Magic and Invisible Touch.  I liked them both but there was something about that Genesis album that made it stand out for me.  Pop songs like the title track and Anything She Does sat aside instrumentally-sprawling numbers such as Do The Neurotic and The Brazilian.  There was lyrical diversity, too.  Domino dealt with the the threat of nuclear war (a big deal in 1986) while Tonight, Tonight, Tonight addressed the issue of substance addiction.  Then there were the songs of unrequited love - In Too Deep and Throwing It All Away - and an anthem about the terrible state of the world with Land Of Confusion.

Genesis.  Unassuming legends of rock and roll.

The music was tight, the vocals were bright and I was hooked.

Over the next couple of years, I bought every one of their albums, working my way back through their more accessible work of the eighties and towards the more progressive noodlings of the seventies.  I was in headphone heaven.

Of course, I was to discover that listening to Genesis was deeply unfashionable at the time.  You couldn't get laid to Genesis and you certainly couldn't dance to them.  Even amongst progressive rock bands, they were pretty unhip.  They didn't have the druggy allure of Pink Floyd or the aggression of King Crimson and they weren't virtuosos like Yes. 

They were Genesis.  There was nobody like them then and there's nobody like them now.

It is said by music fans that the first band you get into will remain your favourite, that the passing of time and the changing of trends will not diminish that first giddy love.  It's definitely true in my case.

I'm in my forties now.  It's been thirty-one years since I put my first Genesis record on a turntable (without the need for extra weight on the arm of the needle) and I'm still digging their music with the same enthusiasm.  I think that says a lot for them and their rich musical legacy.