Well, farewell 2021. It was nice while it lasted but you were too much of a tease, really, for it to go on much longer. We started going out only towards the end and then, when it seemed that we were getting on an even keel, you done went and got all frosty again, gigs gone, Christmas and New Year all but cancelled. One thing you did provide was a bumper crop of albums and for that we do thank you.
Here’s a list of Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite albums of 2021 (although there are probably a couple we’ve forgotten). There’s a top ten, but not in any particular order, along with a list of runners up and special mentions at the end. Where possible we’ve linked the album title to a review (or interview in one case) of ours.
Only four gigs this year! Hopefully 2022 will bring us more great albums but more importantly and despite the dismal start, allow live music to live and breathe again.
A huge thanks to all the artists, promoters, PR folk, venues and fellow fans who all help Blabber’n’Smoke limp along. Happy New Year.
While it doesn’t get the acclaim afforded to Nashville, Arizona’s Tucson is home to a vibrant musical community and has been the launch point for a host of Blabber’n’Smoke favourites including Giant Sand, Rainer Ptacek, Calexico and, more recently, XIXA. We were intrigued therefore when we heard of a new collection of songs recorded by a host of Tucson musicians in order to raise funds for Al Foul, a local legend, who was recently diagnosed with cancer and faced a hefty bill for medical treatment.
Al Foul – A Tribute To The One And Only is a digital album available from Bandcamp and features 29 songs, most written by Foul, performed by familiar names such as Howe Gelb, Jesse Dayton, Calexico, Kid Congo Powers and Gabriel Sullivan, along with a variety of acts previously unknown to us. While all were recorded in the past few weeks, there is also the poignant presence of a performance by Rainer Ptacek who succumbed to a brain cancer back in 1997.
Al Foul himself has been a fixture of Tucson’s music scene since moving there from Boston in the late 1990’s, playing in a rockabilly/ hard country style, often as a one man band. Like many US musicians, he also has a loyal following in some European countries, in particular France. When he disclosed his diagnosis recently, Tom Walbank, a friend and, like Foul, an immigrant to Tucson where he has established himself as a blues artist, reached out to fellow artists and began collecting the songs which make up the album. Local studios (including Gabriel Sullivan’s Dust + Stone and Jim Waters’ Waterworks) opened their doors and donated free time to record while Walbank comments, “I realized that because it’s a pandemic, not everyone wants to go to the studio and not everyone had a home studio, so it was a little tricky. So there are some songs which are done very intimate on iPhones and stuff like that.”
One of the many musicians contributing is Naim Amor who appears on two songs. French born, Amor relocated to Tucson in 1997 and he has since released several solo albums and soundtracks and has also played live with and appeared on record with too many acts to mention here. He has had a long association with Foul and he was happy to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke to support the tribute album’s release. First off, we asked him about Al as he’s not that well known over here in the UK.
Al’s originally from Boston, he moved to Tucson as a young adult. Although I’m not sure of the year, it was around the time I moved out here so he has been part of the Tucson music scene since the early 90’s. He is known a bit in France because of particular connections and friends. He can go to France and actually make money, he never had any offers in the UK that would make it worthwhile. Al plays as a one-man band, it largely depends on budget… he could have a bass player or a guitar player or both. Sometimes it’s a four piece band with drums. I have been Al’s friend since the late 90’s and started playing with him in the mid 2000’s. I also recorded several of his albums.
You appear on two songs on the album. Where did you record them given Tom Walbank’s comments on the general rush, in the midst of a pandemic, to get the recordings done?
I have a recording studio on my own that is located at Jim Waters studio (Waterworks). We have lots of space here, lots of studios.
Your first appearance is with Lola Torch on Shitty Little World. From what I’ve read about Al it seems somewhat autobiographical and his original is very like Johnny Cash singing a Shel Silverstein song but I love the way you and Lola perform it. How did that come about?
Lola is a friend. She is a singer, a burlesque performer and a seamstress (Hi Tiger Lingerie). She wanted to do that song, but she had no plans on how to do it as she doesn’t play any musical instruments. I immediately thought about a song which we quite often cover together “ Is That All There Is “ by Peggy Lee. I thought we could give Al’s song the same treatment and that worked out nicely. We thought about changing the person singing to a “He” instead of “I,” given it’s the story of a boy. But Lola decided to keep it in its original gender which in turn bends the gender in a surprisingly very natural way.
You also perform Flying Saucer with Thoger Lund and John Convertino. Why did you choose this song?
Well, there’s a limited number of songs and they had to be recorded pretty quick. But I always loved that song, I can give it a bit of a swing feel, jazz it up. It’s also a sweet song that is so typical of Al’s humor.
I was quite impressed by the wealth of collaboration on show on the album. Is Tucson the kind of place where all the music acts know each other and there’s a lot of cross-fertilization in terms of playing together?
Definitely! It’s not a really big city, but it’s an American city, 1 million people. However, the music community feels like a village. Lot’s of people play in different bands. It ends up creating a culture of how things happen, how people work.
On that note, how is the music community in Tucson coping with Covid and how have you been spending your time?
There’s no live music so people record, practice, start new projects. That’s my case, I have been practicing guitar like crazy and working with my jazz Trio, I learned and memorized nearly 90 jazz standards. We play in backyard. I also recorded an album with John Convertino last summer (Correspondents) that was released in Japan in the fall. Shaun Hendry is talking about putting it out in the UK on vinyl. I’m currently recording a project with Kid Congo Powers, a “rockabilly/drum machines” kind of thing.
Both of Naim’s contributions to the album are pretty swell but the same can be said of all 29 songs, all of which point to Foul being quite a pointed and direct songwriter. There’s delta blues, rockabilly, country and swamp rock and a good dose of Tucson idiosyncrasy. The album is available for the measly sum of Ten Dollars on Bandcamp and all proceeds go towards Al Foul’s medical expenses. We’ll leave the final words to Foul himself.
“The thought of everyone getting together to produce this tribute for me is beyond touching. Often people share negative memes on social media or express the attitude that choosing to be a working musician is some form of folly or a loser’s game…driving to the ends of the earth for nothing. But the outpouring of love I have received proves to me, that is absolutely wrong. Now I see that thirty years of playing music has left me with something so absolutely pure, beautiful, and beyond priceless that I will never see the craft the same way. I am so humbled by the love that I feel now. Those words ring true more every day.”
Al Foul – A Tribute To The One And Only is available here.
Here’s Al Foul singing Shitty Little World
And here’s the version by Lola Torch and Naim Amor
List’s aren’t really our thing but as everyone else is doing them, here’s Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite albums of 2020 or as many as we can recall right now. Most of these we’ve reviewed either here or for other sites or various magazines, dig around and you can find what we said about them. Anyhow, despite Corona, 2020 was a bumper year for recorded music but nor so much for musicians and all who depend upon and support their efforts. So, if anything below captures you fancy, please buy a copy.
Part 3 of our seasonal tale, A Christmas Playlist, written by Ken Irvine.
THE FRIDAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS
When I left the Old Swan much later that evening it was snowing.
Big heavy flakes that took hold fast on the dry pavement. I decided to walk home to the studio. There was monumental news tonight and I needed to digest it all, to process it while walking and to tell Venetia in the morning. Tyrone had given me a bottle of tequila from behind the bar as a Christmas present – they had been told to close down again, it had happened so many times, the open/closed cycle, that by now he didn’t care much about what happened to the stock, he had bigger problems.
I turned left and headed up past the rows of restaurants, late night chicken shops and kebab joints all closed by the curfew. At the end of the road I cut straight across the roundabout, or rather the ancient churchyard that sat incongruously in the middle of the normally busy intersection. It was mainly silent now. The snow fell softly, already framing the gravestones in white. I counted only one bus heading for the depot, its engine whining as the back wheels slipped on the powdery snow.
It wasn’t too far to the studio and, the more tequila I slugged, the shorter it seemed to become. But actually I was slowing down. Perhaps if I’d been travelling at a normal pace I might have been able to prevent what was about to happen, but probably not. Every side-street was devoid of movement, the only tracks entering or leaving were those of the occasional fox, no humans or cars. When I got to my road I could hear a vehicle idling and the sound of a car radio playing faint Christmas songs as if the driver’s window was open. A door slammed in a house, and someone got into the vehicle. A few seconds and it was approaching me. A locksmith’s van. The driver and passenger were both peering down at a mobile phone and they passed me without acknowledging my existence, the phone’s glow illuminating their weary faces. I was nearly home, half of the tequila was gone, I listened as Fairytale of NewYork faded into the distance
I was approaching the studio and looking forward to getting into my bed.
I had really landed on my feet where that was concerned. I thought about the mysterious owners. What sort of wealth allows you to make an impromptu stay in Barbados for a year, and not even bother to try and make money from your vacant property? I wasn’t complaining, they had been good to me, and long might it last. I looked up at the building- a quaint mews outhouse in a cobbled lane – the first time I had seen it in snow. There was a garland of white lights hanging across the courtyard. I should switch them on, it will look pretty. I raised my bottle and toasted the owners. I don’t know why I didn’t notice deep imprints in the snow leading straight to the door.
“Secured by occupation” the sign said “This property is secured 24 hours by Live-In Guardians.”
That was us – that’s what the owner told us our status was – we weren’t guests, we weren’t tenants, we were Guardians – we were doing them a favour- in return they let us guard the property for nothing. Except I hadn’t remembered it being so formal an arrangement. I fumbled in my pocket for my key. It would all end sometime, but for the moment all was good. The tequila had taken its toll on my hand to eye coordination – I couldn’t get the key in the lock.
In fact the lock had gone altogether – there was a fob device. The label said “Newly secured by LIGonly authorised LIG Ltd entry”
Who were L.I. effing G. Ltd?
It had happened.
“What the F-?” I yelled
I hammered on the door in desperation for 5 minutes solid– did I imagine it ?– did I see a silhouette at the window dart to the side?
There was no point in hanging around here. The studio was now someone else’s home.
The only person I could think of was Venetia- I didn’t even know the time, my phone had gone dead. So I walked out onto the road and started heading west. She had moved into the studio to work with us for lockdown, but as soon as she got the freedom she had gone back to her own flat further west.
The busy main road that even at this hour would normally be throbbing with traffic. But now, the combination of curfew and big freeze had given me the opportunity to stroll straight down the centre of the road without encountering anything.
I walked for what felt like an eternity still heading west until eventually I found myself outside my old office, the landmark that let me know I had to turn left. The flyover towered above me, I had not been out this way for a year, too many bad memories, the whole area conjured up failure for me. I walked over to the car park.
“SkyLark Developments” it said “Westmorland Houseis being repurposed as living accommodation for students, a hotel and luxury flats. The basement will be remodelled as the studios and headquarters for the Central Ballet School,” There was no indication of what had happened to the company that once inhabited the building, no forwarding address; had they gone for good?
“We had to let him go” the guy had said at the magazine rack yesterday evening. All front – in the end he had been let go himself. His camel coat, expensive aftershave and shiny leather shoes hadn’t helped him. I had got out in time.
I was five minutes from Venetia’s place – I walked down into the subway – not sure why I used it, I could have easily crossed the empty road.
There was someone there. Where Andre had been sleeping this time last year, someone had taken his patch. When I approached I realised it was Andre’s sleeping bag, his pile of books. Surely not? Especially after what I’d heard tonight.
I slowed down, conscious of my short breaths, and walked quietly up towards him.
No, the sleeping bag was twisted and empty as if he had leapt out of it last year and never looked back. I sat down on the cardboard. His radio was still there, I switched it on. It still worked. I didn’t know what time it was, but no doubt too early to turn up at her door.
I smiled, he had it tuned to a country station, If we make it through December Merle Haggard was playing.
I took a last slug of the tequila and drained the bottle. I guess I must have fallen asleep.
I woke up shivering, the news said it was 7.30am. I had to get somewhere warm – otherwise I was going to die out here. I knew where I was going, but before I got up I picked up the book on the top of his pile.
A couple of things had been tucked into the back cover and they slipped out straight away.
My letter from last year.
The trigger for all of this. “Andre!” I wailed – listening to the “dre dre dre” echo down the tunnel.
The other thing was a jolly looking Christmas card.
I opened it up. The writing was mainly in spidery capitals, scrawled and menacing.
“You’ve had your chances my frend – theirs new owners hear so why want you make yourself scarce. The contrackters are coming into this tunnel in boxing day with cleening fluids and its not gunna be pleasant”
Now I knew fully what he had meant, “ you’ve just saved my life, you really have and I’m gonna play my heart out for you I’m going to give you everything I have”. Call it coincidence, call it serendipity, whatever, his time had been up down here. He had put everything into the album, his blood sweat and tears into making that video that had opened more doors for us than we could imagine.
I tore the venomous Christmas card into small pieces and threw it up in the air. The through-draught lifted it up into the stairwell, and I followed the pieces up the stairs until they disappeared, mingling in with the falling snow against the black sky. As I trudged on I wondered about the paid thug and the dodgy development. In the end the developers never moved in, the downturn put paid to that, the deal had fallen through – no one needed student accommodation, hotels or to invest in luxury flats – no one had walked through this tunnel for nearly a year. And a ballet school? …. I thought about that advert.
Why should the ballet dancer retrain? – anybody can be a cyber security consultant but very few can be a dancer. Something Venetia had said to me one day, she wasn’t bragging, she said she could do most things to a reasonable level, she had put her all into everything but hated most of it. She had found solace in making music.
Someone was coming out of the apartment block, so I didn’t use the buzzer. I walked up the stairs and knocked on her door. She opened it quickly in her dressing gown and was about to say something, but did a double take when she saw me – “Oh it’s you –man, you look like shit!.”
Nina Simone “Little Girl Blue” was blasting out – she hit a dial on the wall and it muted.
“He’s in Cambridge “
“Andre? – yea I know”
“How do you know? “
“Never mind, tell you later, – your story first – what’s happened”
I sat at her kitchen counter and shaded my face as the first light of dawn was glinting up the river.
“The thing I went to in the Old Swan last night, it was an open mic. I know them all down there – we do it every year on last Thursday before Christmas. It’s traditional, candlelit, and most folk do a Christmas song – those of us that are left here that is. This year they had cancelled it, but in the end they managed to set it up, very last minute and distanced, in the beer garden “
“Yea, but they had a big fire pit and mulled wine – it was nice – festive – ticketed – I managed to get the last. It was a bit disappointing really – I hadn’t been there since this time last year and expected it to be a bit of a homecoming , but none of the old crowd was there- all new people – not friendly like before, kinda disinterested – younger…. I was talking to this group – telling them about the band – trying to show how big a deal we had been, we are – I told them about us being on the TV– and one of them goes – oh yea I had a ticket for that a few years ago , my Uncle knew one of the cameramen – I was like no , we were actually ON it – she still didn’t seem to get the concept, she was saying , yea I was going to be on it too, but I blew it off, gave my ticket to someone else!”
Venetia looked suitably embarrassed for me – “You shoulda just let it go, anyway get to the point …”
She was right, I had wavered and had two far more important things to tell her.
“When I get in there , this guy goes on stage , and says that he doesn’t like Christmas songs much , but he’s gonna play one that he’s written as a kind of antidote to Christmas, he starts strumming , and I’ve had a few drinks , but I think what he’s playing sounds familiar – guess what?”
“He’s playing White Christmas and claiming that he’s like, Irving Berlin or something? How old is this guy?”
“Young – way younger than us – he’s about 22 – no he’s singing Christmas in July”
“Whaaaaa? We wrote that! Did you say anything?”
“I grab him when he’s having a smoke at the fire pit and say – is that really your song? , and he says yea it’s one of his, and I say No it’s not. I know the guys who wrote it.”
I continued “He’s a real arrogant little git and he says “How do you know that the guys who said they wrote it didn’t take it from me?” And I say “Cos you’re looking at one of them.”Then he turned away sheepishly and came back with a big friendly grin. I say, “ So WHERE is he then? and he replied “I’m sorry man , I now realise who you are …..I only met him half a dozen times, but he had an effect on me – it’s hard to explain. I feel bad for claiming his work there – I just thought you were some drunk guy, I gave a lazy answer, I love that song it’s so beautiful – you should be very proud. He was in Cambridge when I met him, still is, he used to come along to an open mic that I ran he was shy and kinda uneasy – but I got to know him a bit…You know you saved his life don’t you – another winter in the cold would have been bad enough but when all that…. hit in March… he’s not the most healthy anyway … he wouldn’t have had a chance. But yeah he’s good, got somewhere to stay and he works …”
“Don’t tell me, in Fortrose Bros? ” She laughed.
“Not quite, but something similar” I said.
“Did you ask him if he knew why Andre left us?”
“This kid seemed to know a lot about us, he said Andre’s got great affection for us, maybe doing the album was the pinnacle of what he thought he could do – creatively – he reckons that Andre kinda saw the writing on the wall and that times were gonna be hard for musicians.”
“He took all that re-training crap seriously” she said at the end of it all
“Anyway,” I said “You told me that you knew where he was.“
She handed me a letter.
“It’s not opened – how do you know what it says?”
“It’s his writing, a Christmas stamp, a postmark from Cambridge on Tuesday – that’s how I knew. It just came fifteen minutes ago.”
I opened it. A card, written in Sharpie, covering one half; we both read it together.
Dear A and V,
I expect you were wondering what happened to me – sorry, it all got too much. When we got accepted for that TV show I was like, here we go it’s all about to happen – hell I was a bum this time last year and you rescued me Alex, set me on the straight and narrow – but that’s exactly it. When we started getting all that praise it became addictive: I wanted more, and we got more -it started spiralling, over the summer, all that social media stuff, I thought we were going to be the biggest thing, I guess at one point I thought I was going to answer my phone and Bob Dylan was going to be on the other end.
It then continued on the other half written sideways …, I turned it round, I felt her hand grip mine tighter.
You may think I didn’t try hard enough to stay with you but believe me I’ve been trying all my lifetime to hold something down, truth is I really struggle with stage fright- you might think that strange for an ex-busker – I’m working through it – I’ve managed to get up to performing in front of ten or so people and that’s just about ok – but more is still a problem for me. You probably remember this time last year you said we may end up touring around in a band, a great big clunky, sweaty rock’n’roll band – well for obvious reasons that didn’t happen, and from what I’ve just said you will understand that it might not happen; but the body of work that we produced has made me more proud than anything. And never say never. So we sit on the edge of another year, there’s a new president, and a new administration. /PTO
I turned over to the back
You will notice that I wrote to both of you at V’s place, truth is A, I was starting to get nervous about these owners at the studio, and I think you should get out of there soon – you and V are a great act – just work on your personalities a bit – think of me – and remember to smile when you’re on stage and it’s all gonna happen for you next year.
I don’t know why he wrote his name twice. He just did. That was Andre.
Last year’s tale, “The Rough Sleeper” and “A Christmas Playlist” are extracted from “We Need an Able Hand” by K. Irvine and are published here with authorisation, they should not be reproduced without permission from the author
Part 2 of our seasonal tale, A Christmas Playlist. Written by Ken Irvine
THE BIG MAN
I bought the Christmas edition and nothing else. I had realised that I had enough to eat and drink in the studio, I guess I had just gone in there for some recognition. Now, out in the cold, with the magazine tucked under my arm and my hands deep in my coat pockets, I mused about how strange it was that we had ended up in there, Fortrose Bros, of all places.
When we first turned up on that late spring morning, half volunteering, half hungry, they had treated us like nineteen year old gap year kids. The shelves had to be filled on the go – during opening hours – no sooner had the delivery wagon backed up the alley into the loading bay, than we were in there, offloading the cages and wheeling them straight into the supermarket. No storing this stuff in the back – it was needed straight out there.
We had been nighthawks in the studio but in the store it was the opposite – they had wanted us in there at 4.30am to meet the first deliveries, the bread and the dairy – that had been the end of our working day in the studio – our bodies were used to our first beer at 4.45am, then we would drink till about 9am – listening to the recordings, bed at 10am then rise around 5pm to start all over again.
Andre found the supermarket tough the first few days, I would smell alcohol and weed on his breath, I think he had stashed some away to help him get through the day. He was miserable and uncommunicative at work – especially with the customers. The management told us that we were all ambassadors for the company and we should know the products and drop anything to help a customer. “Drop everything” – but at the same time, not fall behind in our assigned tasks.
He just didn’t buy into it at all. He wouldn’t last the week.
And then one day something changed.
We were out back, sorting out the surplus produce – for pick-up by the Food Project. I was hungry and wanted some lunch – I had opened up a packet of ham and was rooting around in the crate for some nice bread to go with it.
“Good idea, shoot a piece of that over here.”
I pushed the open packet towards him –
“No,” he said covering his eyes with one hand – “don’t let me see it.” He dipped his hand into the packet and dropped a piece into his mouth still with his eyes covered.
“Nice choice my man, Wiltshire free range roasted ham with rosemary and thyme, … one day still left on the shelf life too”
I read the label: “OMG – dead right-how do you know that?”
“I lived on these things for years – in the streets. People round here are tight with money, they won’t give you a pound coin – which is what I really wanted – but they were generous with food and drink – always the good stuff too.”
He went quiet for a bit then got up and headed into the store. I feared the worst.
When I came back in from helping the driver load the crates into her van, I saw him in a heated debate with a customer. She was shaking her head animatedly and yelling, “No – how can you say that?”
I went over to defuse things, we needed to keep these jobs, but when I got close I saw that she was smiling at him.
“Believe me M’am I’ve read a lot about this, it’s a family farm, on a modest scale, their approach to animal welfare is second to none, you will appreciate this – I just had an IMMENSE sandwich with this in the – ummm… staff canteen – it cost me a bit more but it was .. incredilicious.” He kissed his fingers.
I watched her replace her packet of cheap cuts with the premium one and walk away still smiling.
“You totally upsold her” I whispered.
He told me later that she was one of the people who would drop food off for him on the streets.
“I was humbled, man,” he said. “You know, she would always leave the best of stuff” He picked up a bottle of chocolate milk. 89p it said in big letters. “Not this, but that one” – he pointed to another that was priced about three times more. “Then I see her in here and she’s buying the budget meat for herself – so I was like, you have to treat yourself in these times. You’re wrong, I wasn’t upselling her. I also told her that our £4.99 Pinot is better than the £8.59 one she had in her basket, so she’s up on the deal”
And she didn’t recognise you?
He laughed. “Look at me, I’m a square,” pointing to the brown and green striped shirt, grey tie and brown grocer’s apron, glasses and facemask. “I’ve never worn a neck-tie in my life – till now.”
So, no one ever linked the smooth-headed, metal-framed-glasses-wearing grocer with the wild-eyed, dreadlocked, homeless busker.
Now I had followed suit, but only recently, my locks had gone. It felt weird, the cold air against my bare head, but strangely liberating – like I had been playing a character for years and now I was free. The cold air was condensing around the edges of my mask – I pulled it tighter and wished I had worn a hat.
I was listening to Wilco’s Tiny Desk concert from 2016 – trying to figure out how they got that vocal sound without a PA.
We never got round to sending the video to NPR back in springtime. That had really annoyed Venetia.
“You lazy fekkers, I left you one thing to do!” She was berating us like schoolkids – I started wondering what it must have been like working for her in the bank or wherever she had been employed.
“Sorry Momala,” said Andre
“Stop calling me that!” But she went off, biting her lip and suppressing a smile.
Maybe it was all for the best, otherwise we wouldn’t have met the man.
“Hi kids, how are you all doing in here?” He was a middle-aged guy, tanned, grey haired with a stubbly beard, no mask. He was dressed for an informal business meeting, smart jacket, open neck shirt, jeans, and he had walked in like he owned the place, one day in early summer. None of us asked him who he was- when we spoke about it later we realised that we all thought at least one of us was acquainted with him.
He asked what we were up to and we sat fidgeting in our seats for a moment, then let him hear some tracks that we were mixing,
“take the bv’s out there, they’re cheesy and they’re at odds with the guitars-”
“-cut that intro you don’t need it –straight in with that horn stab”
Andre was at the desk at the time and he found himself obliging the overbearing stranger, half thinking that we would restore the parts after he had gone – but it turned out that we got used to his ideas and went further with the edits in the same vein. Venetia called him the big man, and from then on that’s how we referred to him, or a variation, big man, BM or the man.
The last thing we played him was our home-made video of “We Need an Able Hand” – he went a bit crazy when he saw that, the blurred close up of Andre’s face at the mic, the build-up of the track, the two guitar parts that I somehow had managed to play simultaneously, the interweaving melodies on Venetia’s bass and the other-worldly drum part that was almost impossible to call – as the camera pulled out to reveal that Andre was not only delivering the heartfelt vocal but was playing that drum track.
“The blues, the blues, it’s the very essence of the blues,” he kept murmuring “This is it guys, this is genuine. Tell me, please tell me you haven’t sent this to anyone.”
He picked up on us all avoiding his gaze. “Tell me, come on – have you actually physically sent this out?”
“Well, we were going to send it to NPR for their competition…. but we missed the deadline.”
“Hallelujah! Forget NPR, they’re minnows in a sea of sharks. I tell you, let me have this … I can get a major corporation interested. Promise 100%.”
He held my gaze and in the periphery I was aware of Alex hypnotically pulling a pen-drive from the desk and handing it to him.
“We trust you, man,” Alex said, but with slight menace in his voice. The man snapped his hand closed and was gone.
He hadn’t even asked for the band’s name – but somehow he must have found it, because about a week later a letter arrived, addressed to Alexandre Appolonia, c/o The Studio, St Julian’s Mews….on BBC stationery.
“We loved your back story,” the BBC guy said, “we are doing a special on,” he scrolled his phone “….. Black Pumas, but … starting the show with new acts, and you guys fitted in perfect.”
“BBC not bigger than NPR!” Venetia had mumbled under her breath as she grudgingly helped us unload the battered equipment from the back of a Citroen estate. I had sensed she was apprehensive, so was I.
A lot had happened since the letter had arrived.
I just wanted them out of there before they twigged. I could do a passable imitation of his voice – about 90% there – I had persuaded myself that it would be ok, a song is a song, it doesn’t matter who sings it
“How many are there of you again, will 3 mics do?”
Luckily the people from the BBC looked as nervous as us, they weren’t comfortable in the cramped surroundings – some hasty instructions and then they were off. There was a laminated instruction manual.
I wasn’t sure if they had noticed, they certainly didn’t question us any more – where was the flamboyant front man with the dreadlocks, the one who bashed out the songs on a drumkit set up stage front and sang beautiful poetic heartfelt lyrics with an air of detachment from the body that was working the drum kit?
They didn’t ask that.
I slumped into the leather sofa when they had gone. We could do this. Luckily, we had Venetia on bass. It was fate. She had answered an advert. She had the look, torn clothes, a croak in her voice that sounded like it came from late night cigarettes. She had confided in us later she had got the look from an internet search and had seen a picture of the Clash – the croak had come from a fight she had had with her partner when she had thrown him out for good.
Venetia was a classical musician. She had studied double bass at the conservatoire and had wound up in a top orchestra in her province, Yunnan. I hadn’t heard of it and she said it was mountainous and not many people had, except the 45 million people who lived there. It wasn’t enough for her parents, who persuaded her to enter an arts recruitment programme in a major accountancy firm. From there she had gone on to work in San Francisco, then had come here. She had worked with a Top Four something or other. About a year ago she had a meltdown at work and started playing music again as a kind of therapy. She left her high-pressure job and got recruited by some symphony orchestra here, I couldn’t remember which one, but they were the real deal. They were due to do a major tour starting in Hong Kong in February. That got cancelled and she had finally been furloughed in March without performing a single note. She needed music, for her mental health – our advert had come up and she had gone online, done her research, ordered a wig and made up a stage name. She had cruised through our audition. We didn’t pick up on the wig or the phony name.
I opened my eyes and she was sitting beside me – studying the manual.
“Kinda weird this, isn’t it, they’re expecting a couple of complete amateurs to set up a TV studio and broadcast live a big chunk of a peak time Friday night show using a few photocopied instructions.”
“It’s not peak time, it’s 11pm, everyone’s in bed.”
I had started to explain to her that the timing was set for people coming home from the pub but stopped when I thought it through. She was clearly still miffed about NPR. That was more her thing.
My phone went.
“Hey, have you seen the news? – there’s going to be a big freeze.”
“I know mate, I’m out in it just now, freezing my bollocks off!”
“You should’ve worn a hat.”
“How’d you guess? – anyway, doesn’t matter. Venetia, you know I worry – that he may be dead …or worse.”
I didn’t know what I meant when I said it “…or worse” – nor did she, but somehow I knew that she understood.
She changed the subject – “Yea, what is it – once every ten years or something it goes this cold – get home and make sure you put the heating on – don’t worry about the bills – money will come to us – it has to – I heard our track in the supermarket today”.
“Hah, so did I. Yea, I will do, but later – I’m gonna check out a music thing at the Old Swan this evening.”
“Rather you than me, ok, enjoy, and don’t worry about him- he’ll be ok, he’s a survivor.”
In the grand tradition of Christmas themed short stories, last year Blabber’n’Smoke published The Rough Sleeper, written by Ken Irvine (which you can read here). One year on (and what a year!), Ken returns to his story which we are publishing in three parts.
A Christmas Playlist. Part One. By Ken Irvine.
Christmas 2019 and Alex has sub-let his flat and asked a homeless musician, Andre, to record an album with him in a studio. Encouraged by the early material the pair go on to enlist classical double bass player Venetia Casal to join them and they form the band Alexandre Appolonia. As lockdown takes hold Alex’ flat is repossessed, and they take on summer jobs in upmarket grocers, Fortrose Bros, to make ends meet whilst living as property guardians.
Months later, it’s the week before Christmas and Alex finds himself drawn to his old employer’s high street store.
1. December 17th 2020
“Produce Manager to the Turkey Counter, code nine”
There was slight panic in the voice.
They were missing Andre.
I had been lost in a moment, with Joni Mitchell, The River, playing softly over the PA. Everything had been peaceful, and then that interruption. I knew what code nine was – it usually signified a problem with someone’s order. Most likely the customer would be standing resolute at the counter demanding the premium free-range turkey that they ordered in September. Code nine would be used because the staff couldn’t find the order and they and were calling in the store’s diplomatic service, the SWAT team to smooth-talk the irate customer, remove them from the front of the queue and allow the staff to serve others.
I smiled when I thought back a few months to the summer and it had been all Andre, he had defused so many situations.
Joni sang “I’m gonna make a lot of money and quit this crazy scene”
We believed we were going to be stars and money would follow. He did become a star in a way – he was the face of the supermarket for a moment.
Staff and customers alike, everyone knew him, in a short time he had made a huge impression. “Andre Harrison to Aisle 6”, “Andre to fishmonger counter”, “Andre to check outs”.
It was weird – “Andre the homeless man” – perhaps, “Andre the frontman in the band” – more likely, but “Andre to checkouts?”.
I had been standing at the magazine counter, staring blankly at the festive issues. I picked up the glossy store magazine Christmas edition, flicked past the recipes: celebrity chefs telling us how to carve a turkey; a soap star reminiscing about past Christmases; a politician declaring that a goose was a far more sustainable bird than a turkey, There was a double pager on the making of that Christmas ad, and then I got to the page that I’d been looking for.
“Jane Egan talks to Nigel Charleson, Fortrose Bros Media Manager about curating the stores’ Christmas playlist that this year includes everything from Joni Mitchell to Sufjan Stevens, Mary J Blige, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Gauthier, Benjamin Britten, Jonas Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone …” they went on to say how you wouldn’t hear The Darkness, Slade or Jona Lewie at Fortrose Bros, and that some songs weren’t Christmas but evoked a feel for family and warmth and get togethers.
– like that was going to happen!
Christmas Eve last year – when we had first opened doors and stepped into the dusty mothballed studio. How the neighbour had eyed us up suspiciously when we called to pick up the key. I had heard them furtively make a call, presumably to the owner in Barbados, to confirm that these wild-eyed vagrants really were the young professionals that the caretaking had been entrusted to.
That night , once we had established ourselves in the studio, heated the place up and cracked a few beers he had opened up a little to me – one of the first things he had told me was a tale about why he had left Canada.
It all started with an incident when he was driving on the highway somewhere north of Edmonton heading to his work. It was around Christmas the landscape was flat and it was a long drive– at one point, he had glanced across the wind-blown snow fields and caught a glimpse in the distance of what looked like someone dressed as Santa Claus, carrying a sack on his back “Dude comes up to this building, like a log cabin type thing, opened the door and last thing I saw was he went inside- he definitely went inside”
“OK – I had said “So was it one of these sad Christmas attractions that farmers build to try and generate some income over the Christmas-”
He had interrupted me “ Yes my thoughts precisely, man, it never troubled me again, until I was heading up on the same highway at the end of summer the next year- I was tired and I had pulled over into a gap at the entrance to a field. I sat on the gate and had a cigarette- looking across the field I saw that same building. I guess curiosity got the better of me and I jumped the gate and strolled across the field -to the cabin. It was much bigger close-up, but yes, definitely the same cabin. Back across the field I could see the highway. Open, flat farmland I would have had a good view of it for a few minutes driving north. I tried to prise a little crack in the door to see what was inside. Then there’s this dude behind me saying “Can I help you sir”. Like a farm worker or somethin’ out of nowhere. I guess he assumed I was up to no good. “Sorry man, was just stretching my legs – I’m heading up to …. -was there a Christmas thing here a few months back”. He locked eyes on me “Nothin’ in here worth poking around – filled it up with bales of hay a year ago and forgot about them – he opened the door and there was just this solid wall of hay. A solid wall – no way in for Santa”
I was waiting for more….
“Dude, I had just turned nineteen, I had no college, but I had landed my first job, most people would think I had fallen on my feet but I had started even then worrying about my sanity – I had to get out of there”
To what though? To come to here and end up living in a subway I had thought, who really was this guy? and should I be worried about getting him involved in my project? But he seemed to have guessed what I was thinking and he had smiled at me reassuringly, his brown eyes darting as he held me in an embrace. “You’re the best kind of person man, you’ve just saved my life, you really have and I’m gonna play my heart out for you I’m going to give you everything I have”
And on that note we had ended a non-descript 2019 and headed into a 2020 that would see some of the worst times, but also some of the best. Andre had delivered his promise to me and more.
The playlist was set to random and out of the blue our track came on. I blushed slightly as I stood at the magazine rack shiftily glancing around to check for reaction. A woman with two young children in tow started nodding her head to it, and elderly man’s finger tapped the side of his basket handle and Adesuwa, on the check-out, straightened her back and seemed to be energised on hearing it.
I heard them before I saw them. A couple in conversation strode around the corner, both dressed in expensive looking camel coats, I noticed her first, then I saw him point to the ceiling and say “Hey. this is the guy I used to work with”
I recognised him – Darren –, tall and broad shouldered. a project manager who had sat a few desks away from me, but moved in higher circles – I nodded across to him, and he looked straight through me – then I realised , why would he recognise me? – shaved head and facemask and it had been a year. I was about to pull my mask down , when he came over and stood beside me – picking up the same publication and quickly found the page, as though he had checked it out before – he rapped the page aggressively with his middle finger and spoke to the woman, “– there he is, strange guy , we had to get rid of him, just didn’t fit in, you can see why”
“We had to get rid of him” it felt like a dagger in my side. This guy was my age, we had come through the same graduate development programme, in fact I had helped him with a load of his assignments.
“Still it’s a nice song” she said.
“anyone can write a nice song babe, I’ll write you one if you want – he threw the magazine towards the bottom shelf where it slipped down onto the tiled floor. As they strode away I bent down and picked it up. I muttered “anyone can be a project manager, jerk!”
“Oh, if I could give you a hug I would right now, it is you isn’t it?”
I stood up. Adesuwa was standing behind me arms outstretched – I pulled my mask down for a millisecond “yes it’s me-it’s good to see you”
“I LOVE your song Alex”, and then she turned and hurried to her position at the checkout, apologising to those she had kept waiting.
I smiled and went back to reading the article about the Christmas playlist. There were a hundred songs. No one would get bored, the music was eclectic, but, it said “this year we have a particular emphasis on country, blues and roots music including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmy Witherspoon, Merle Haggard, Brandi Carlile ”, and so on. I got to the last paragraph, “ ..and on this theme, finally we would like to introduce a band of young musicians who we found working here right under our noses in one of our flagship branches, the trio, Alexandre Appolonia and their song Christmas in July.”
And there it was – the little black and white picture of us. Andre at the front at the drumkit– his locks caught mid-air with Venetia and me pulling our best moody faces behind him.
The face of the company.
Except by the time the article had been sent the printers in August, Andre was already gone.
“Produce Manager to the Turkey Counter, code nine”
Having appeared from nowhere to become one of the most in demand performers on the Glasgow music scene in the space of a year, Elaine Lennon’s debut album, released last January, was universally acclaimed. A winner of a Danny Kyle award at Celtic Connections and noted as an artist to watch by Nashville’s Songwriters’ Association, Lennon inhabits the world of confessional and moving singer songwriters who populated the charts in the seventies with folk comparing her to the likes of Dory Previn and Carly Simon.
As with all of us, Lennon’s plans for this year were cruelly shut down in March, derailing the promotion of her album. However, this Friday, she releases a new song, Uncharted Waters, inspired by the Covid lockdown. All profits will all go to the Paediatrics Unit at University Hospital Wishaw, Lennon’s way of saying thanks to the dedicated staff there who last year successfully treated her son for a tumour on his spine.
It’s a glorious song very much in the vein of the album. Lennon’s voice and piano are supported by a chorus of notable voices including Karine Polwart, Boo Hewerdine, Findlay Napier, Siobhan Miller, Yvonne Lyon and Chris While. There’s also a very moving video to accompany the song which was self shot by Lennon. All in all it’s very moving and should you purchase the song, you’ll know that it’s going to a good cause.
Is this the “new normal”? Hunched over a screen watching a musician (and generally it’s one unless your favoured act is a commune or a happily domiciled live in couple), at all hours of the day and – depending on bandwidth – buffering, freezing, disappearing altogether? Since the lockdown has robbed all musicians of the ability to play live (and earn their living) there has been a tsunami of live streaming shows, many of them excellent it has to be said, although there have been a few clunkers. Generally these shows have been free to watch and hosted on social media with a virtual tip jar available in the hope that some folk will bung in a couple of quid.
With many of these shows lasting a short time and available for anyone to watch long after the live action has ended, there hasn’t been much point in reviewing them. However, Blue Rose Code’s live show on Saturday night was a horse of a different colour. A private ticketed event, privy only to those who stumped up and not to be streamed or shown elsewhere. This encouraged a sense of occasion. None of that, “I’ll just watch it later” attitude which is tempting, especially if it’s an American act live streaming at 3 am on Facebook which you can watch whenever you fancy the next day.
Ross Wilson chose to launch his first live stream via Zoom, the video conferencing app which has been one of the few beneficiaries of Covid 19. Many reading this will probably have used Zoom by now and will wonder how in hell you could watch a show without everyone and their uncle chatting away, it would be worse than the bar area at Oran Mor. However, Wilson, assisted by Gavin Hastie on tech and host duty, had done their homework and by and large it worked. It was an experiment, no doubt. Wilson is unhappy with the concept of playing for tips and wanted to see if a paying model would work and after the show Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to him about that.
Anyhow, on with the show. A Zoom invite got you a front row seat for this solo performance by Blue Rose Code. The doors opened at 7:30 with an 8pm start time. As folk logged in you could see them on video getting settled in before their video and audio options were muted. Hastie spun some discs and welcomed folk as they joined in, some participating from as far afield as Canada, Italy and the States. At eight, Ross Wilson came on, the sole screen to be seen as all others had been taken down. Screening from his Merseyside home, Wilson played guitar and piano over two 45-minute sets with a short break.
As live streamed gigs go this was pretty much par for the course in the sense that we were being treated to an intimate set of songs with no fancy effects. Fans had the chance earlier to send in song requests and to comment as the show progressed allowing Wilson the opportunity to answer some questions (example – what is your favourite John Martyn song) and to play some songs which are rarely played these days. He kicked off with the newly released single, Starlit, from the forthcoming album, a glorious song etched with aching and love. Red Kites followed before Wilson switched to piano for the first request of the night, My Heart, The Sun and then took some time to say hello to several of the folk signed in. Digging into his past there was an excellent rendition of Skin & Bones and, following a request, he sang Love Is…, a song he says he rarely performs these days which was followed by a powerful and joyful rendition of Ebb & Flow.
As the first set ended, our host Gavin Hastie unmuted all to allow a round of applause and shouts. This was an opportunity to be part of the crowd but it was interesting to see who was making the most noise as the Zoom app hoisted up the names of those closest to their gadget’s microphone. In such a close-knit community, we recognised several of the names.
As odd as it might be for the audience, it must be odder still for the musician to get into a groove, sitting as they are at home, trying to play, watch the messages coming in and respond to them without interrupting their flow. Wilson was certainly getting into the flow in the second half of the night particularly when he played and sang In The Morning and then Sandaig, ten minutes of bliss really as he became evermore animated with his guitar playing here just excellent. Then there was one of the most moving moments of the night with his rendition of Over The Fields, dedicated to his late friend, mentor and sponsor, John Wetton while Pokesdown Waltz (the most requested song of the night), was, as always, a tearjerker.
Prior to this there was an unexpected appearance from Wilson’s Liverpudlian chum, Robert Vincent who sang The Ending from his latest album, In This Town Your Owned, before having a chat with Wilson about how to earn a crust in these virtual gigging days.
By now well fired up, Wilson offered us another peek into the new album on the upbeat London City Lights and then travelled north for the wonderful Edina. The closing song, Grateful (what else) was dedicated to NHS staff and many others, the nameless and pitifully underpaid shop workers, drivers and all who, overnight, suddenly discovered they were “key workers.”
Loud applause from all the virtual attendees at the end and then, video enabled, we could see the faces of all present at this event, a moment captured by Hastie on a screenshot.
And that’s how it happened folks. It was a Saturday night in. Laptop wired to giant TV, Bluetooth speaker for the sound, some wine and nuts, two hours of Blue Rose Code, live, in our living room. An occasion. We really enjoyed it as did all of the other 120 ticket holders (most likely around 250 viewers given that couples were watching). It’s not the same as going to a sweaty live gig but as that’s not likely to happen for a while, this was perhaps the closest one can get these days.
Ross Wilson is a professional musician. That’s how he makes his living and right now, he has no paid work. Like all of us he’s seen Facebook explode with streamed shows, the tip jar dangled in front of us and he’s not happy with that. After the show, Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to him about his misgivings and about the model he’s proposing.
I’m an independent artist, this is my only means of making a living and I’m fiercely protective of that and I feel that there’s an awful lot of moaning going on but not much action. People rightly talk about the lack of proper remunerations from streaming but at the same time are happy to offer up lots of live shows on Facebook and asking for tips. That whole notion of tipping seems like a begging bowl and for me; if I’m not going to value what I’m doing then why should anyone else. I think there’s a responsibility on us to preserve the notion of paying for performances for the young musicians of today and tomorrow.
I’m lucky to have a fan base who support a lot of artists, buy albums and go to shows because they love live music, and they can’t do that right now. They’re sitting at home and from my experience, they are happy to pay for an event. So if you can create an experience for them which otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get during this time of lockdown, why shouldn’t you quantify its value? I’ve said it on Facebook, “It’s not just about the money but it’s also about the money”. I can’t understand how people can take issue with Spotify and then give it all away on Facebook. I can tweet all day complaining that I only get 000.1 of a penny for a stream but I think it’s better to do something about it.
Where I can maybe make a difference is by showing that it is possible to make money by putting on a “virtual concert.” There’s a whole bunch of people out there fed up watching Netflix and I showed that I can get 120 people to pay £12 a head to watch me. All of my work, my income, has been cancelled up to September and even then it might not start again. So the money I made through this show will let me pay my rent. The audience got to see me play and the show won’t be available online so it was a unique event. It won’t replace the real thing, the magic of being in a room with other people watching live music but I think we did a good job last night of interacting, I took requests, I answered questions, we had a song from Robbie Vincent and a chat with him. It worked well and I’ve got a few ideas as to how to make it better next time. It took me a while to work out how to do this model but I think I’ve shown that it can work. As a maiden voyage, it was no Titanic.
Is this a viable way ahead, allowing fans to experience a live show while guaranteeing a fee to the musician? It certainly seemed to work in this instance and, according to Wilson, the technical side of using Zoom was relatively easy to mange. It will be interesting to see if others begin to use this model to create a sense of an event rather than just the random selection of another Facebook video. If anyone reading this wants to know more about playing a concert via Zoom, Ross Wilson is happy to answer any questions you may have. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As everyone else is doing it, we thought we’d post our favourites from the past year. It’s not a definitive list (already been changed several times) but here we go…
Our Native Daughters, Songs Of Our Native Daughters
The Delines, The Imperial
Peter Bruntnell, King Of Madrid
Hayes Carll, What It Is
Colin Linden & Luther Dickinson, Amour
Anna Tivel, The Question
Ian Noe, Between The Country
Buddy & Julie Miller, Breakdown On 20th South Avenue
Norrie McCulloch, Compass
Felix Hatfield, Boundaries
There’s a wealth of bubbling under albums which have been greatly appreciated and listened to regularly but we’re not going to mention here. So have a search through the archives to see what else tickled our fancy in 2019. It was quite a good year and hopefully 2020 will be as fruitful.
Ever since Dickens, it’s been a Christmas tradition for short stories to abound. Some ghostly, some sad, some filled with good cheer. In keeping with this tradition Blabber’n’Smoke are proud to publish this seasonal offering from a good friend of our blog. Read on…
The Rough Sleeper
By Ken Irvine.
It felt like May. Why did I keep hearing that?
Worse still why did I keep passing the knowledge on. Everyone could feel the wet balmy remnants of Storm Francis. They could hear the spring-like chirpings of the blackbirds and starlings in the bare trees. Why did I insist on sharing that – in the back of taxis, in bars, in the barbershop?
Warm beads of sweat trickled down my back as I trudged towards the building, weighed down by my heavy load. The river and the houseboats on my left. The sound of the geese on the little islet in a vocal battle against the traffic. I thought of the relative tranquillity of the island and the successive fringes that surrounded it.
The river, a thin channel between the north bank and the island, too shallow for the pleasure boats that used the south channel, but the occasional rower would stray in there when the tide was right.
The houseboats, really the best real estate in the area, the few eccentrics who staked their claim here decades ago, in what was a downbeat , industrial part of town were now sitting pretty, but it was a tenuous existence –tethered to the bank against the ebb and flow and constantly warding off city hall bureaucrats who wanted to wipe them from the map permanently.
The pretty little park, fringed with willow that mothers and toddlers would frequent this in day time, and when night fell it was the haunt of the local teenagers, smoking dope and drinking cheap alcohol, skateboards and chrome plated BMX’s discarded around them.
The busy main road, angry cyclists in the narrow bike lane and smug, frustrated commuters in cars ploughing their way home for Christmas in the rain.
Then, the rows of apartments, containing and contrasting all aspects of humanity, from billionaires in penthouses to eight-to-a room migrants in basements.
I sniggered to myself as I thought of my appearance. My heavy parka with the hood up against the rain. The large blue Ikea bag slung over my shoulder and my stooping gait balancing myself against the weight of its contents. Like a grim alcoholic King Wenceslas minus the snow.
Bruce Springsteen – Atlantic City was playing in my headphones. I needed supplies if I was going to do this and the bag was full of food, some festive treats at knock down prices, but mainly staples -cartons of orange Tropicana, cereal bars, assorted tins of fish- mackerel, sardines, salmon, cans of strong beer- 7,7%. I had reckoned that would be enough. There would be no waste and I wouldn’t starve.
My building had few lights on when I arrived just after nine. It wasn’t the kind of place where people went to bed early, far from it. The students who rented in there had parties any night of the week, well into the small hours of the morning. But they were all away. Most of the other residents were away too, to families in other parts of the country.
They hadn’t told us about that in the sales pitch. That by choosing a first -time buyer shared ownership block, that I was buying in to a world where parents faked their first-year kid’s applications, these kids graduated and moved on, leasing the apartments to other students. These became neglected and the prices stagnated as all the other genuine residents moved out. I was the longest running tenant – or so it seemed. Twenty-six years old and I’d been here two years.
I switched on the light and hit the remote. The Allman Brothers – Stormy Monday – Live at Filmore West ’71. I smiled, it seemed apt, and I sat down – there was no need to turn the heating on.
I looked out of the window – It wasn’t the same for the surrounding blocks – those with proper concierges and strict rules about how the apartments were decorated and what could be placed on the balconies. Those with large brightly light Christmas trees in their windows, and tasteful fairy lights clipped professionally to the balustrades.
It was time.
Everyone was going away, no pubs, no meals, no socializing – no temptation to smoke until things started up again in January. I poured myself a large glass of Fino that had been on the “Reduced” shelf and went out to the balcony and lit up – my last one of the year. Yes, by January I would have quit, and the album would be in the bag. I felt the warm glow almost immediately.
Although he was on the other side of the building I could see him, a reflection on the mirror glass in the building opposite. Sat by the river wall – wringing his hands, running his thin fingers through his long black curls. I had seen this ritual many times – but still, it surprised me when he started. I guess after spending all day sitting in the underpass that linked the shiny office buildings, his hat on the ground receiving a few coins, it was a relief , once the daytime office crowd had gone – it was a freedom to sit by the river and play his heart out, his djembe drum secured between his knees, his head rolling, trancelike.
I took a long drag of the cigarette as leaned on the balcony. It tasted good, but I was resigned to what I was about to do.
I looked across at the smart block opposite. The facing apartment was fully illuminated, floor to ceiling windows. A young couple probably no more than 5 years older than me. From what I could see she spent all her time at home chilling, with an expensive pair of Beats headphones on. She was my dream audience, someone who clearly liked her music laid back. I poured another glass of wine and lit up another last cigarette.
Chastity Brown – Colorado, played and I thought about what it might be like there – better than here.
Beats woman really had nothing to worry about. Not like me. She had no addictions, I knew that much about her. I could tell that she was shrewd. She / they had bought well. Not up against the fumes of the High Street like me – no, they were in the young wealthy professional set who had mainly invested in the blocks that were set in the middle of the development. Despite being set back, they still had river views through the gaps between the street front properties. She had it all – seclusion, glimpses of the river, wealth. It didn’t cross my mind that she might want more than that.
To the east the incoming flights appearing to hover motionless over the city. Stacking up. Within a few minutes they would be passing by the front of the building.
Was I ready for this? I had been checking the prices over the last few days and they had been going up. It was getting close to the tipping point where I had promised myself I would do it. It was puzzling that they should go up – totally counterintuitive. Why would someone want to come to a rain soaked city over Christmas, and even if they did , why weren’t prices cheap when the inhabitants of the city were all elsewhere, in Auckland, in Mumbai, in Salzburg, in Capetown, in Geneva. But the little meter on the website showed demand was high and availability was low.
High demand for this dump ? I thought. Who would want to pay that – but the fact was they did – there were no hotel rooms available. Soon I would get the offer I wanted. The money would be in my bank account, and I could proceed with the next stage of my life. The key would be in the keysafe. I wouldn’t have to meet them. But the place would be beautifully clean and tidy for them and they would be blown away by my personalized welcome notes and quirky, friendly handwritten guide to the best parts of town.
They would leave, noting how friendly, generous and welcoming I was even though they didn’t meet me. There were enough photographs around the place for them to attribute a personality to me. One of prosperity, fitness, talent and humour. Me: surfing (or at least carrying a board); on a yacht; with a girl; strumming a guitar. That was the one that they would remember.
I had already written their review. Glowing. About how respectful they had been, about their excellent communication and about how clean the flat was on my return. I would submit that within minutes of them returning the keys. So that before they had a chance to write anything negative – they would read my erudite critique of their manners and fastidiousness and be stunned into reciprocating with their own positive review, and so it would continue.
Then I lit another last cigarette. The rainwater was swilling in the gullies below me and the massive drips from the broken gutter above, I dreamed of the lake. The frozen lake in Minnesota. I would be wrapped up properly, warm and snug, auguring the hole in the ideal position, near the cabin, but far enough out in the lake to be alone, remote, to see nothing but white.
The wine was working well. I was feeling fuzzy and relaxed. I started playing with lyrics in my head
against the snow in the winter light. Her warm brown eyes and her breath frosted and white.
Bu that’s where the daydream ended. Who was I kidding? How could I pull off a song about a frozen lake when I’d never even seen one? What was the draw of America? in particular the frozen wilderness that made me want to write about her – rather than go there – what was stopping me from going there. There was so much wrong.
I moved onto the next track “Yola – Faraway Look”
I had tried to spark up a conversation with Beats woman in the Spar before. It was in the first year of moving in – almost exactly two years ago. The developer had been trying to get as many sold before Christmas as they could. I had been one of the first. Hopeful , 24 years old, owner ( or so I thought) of my first property . I had watched the neighbouring flats fill up too. On the first day I had seen her and her partner instruct their removal men to carefully place their expensive looking furniture. The pre-lit tree placed in their window and they had got the removal men to neatly entwine the white lights around the balcony, so that by the end of the day their apartment, tastefully lit and sparsely furnished with choice items had resembled a John Lewis advert.
We had talked about the suggestion that the ground floor units were going to fill up quickly , the Spar was already there – good for cigarettes and alcohol – but we were going to get a hipster bar, a Korean barbecue place , a posh brasserie, a dry cleaners, barbershop, a bike shop with a paddle board hire franchise and a branch of Wholefoods
I had been excited about it, she had been slightly cynical. Turned out she had been right. It was too late to rectify things.
So, in the end I had made no lasting friendships in the place. Those that I had met in my block had moved on, and those who lived in the other blocks looked at the residents of our block as a hindrance, something bringing down the tone of the whole estate. I owed too much to move, my salary had not gone up for years, but the rent portion of the shared ownership was steadily rising.
I don’t know what it was that distracted me – something was afoot with Beats woman, she was dressed up for a night out. Her balcony door was open, she still had her headphones on, but was singing along to the track. Her voice – strong and soulful drifted across the gap- I strained to work out what it was.
“My baby’s gone, I have no friends” , The traffic drowned her out for the next minute or so , then she drifted back strong , “there’ll be no more sorrow , no grief and pain” I got it! The Eagles Please come home for Christmas . Picking up my guitar I quickly worked out the key A ? no, b flat ? yes , and started strumming along . The instrumental break came and I continued strumming along and sang the guitar solo – a high falsetto echoing across the chasm between the blocks. The drumming from the riverside started to sync, – she came out on to balcony and lifting one side off her ear, listened for a second, and then sang at the top of her voice “there’ll be no more sorrow no grief and pain and I’ll be happy, Christmas once again”. For a moment she seemed to be three feet away rather than fifty. She took off her headphones and stood motionless gazing out at the river .
I heard the little ding from my laptop, I went in and I looked at the screen. The offer had come in. A couple from Brazil, seventeen fifty for twelve nights days starting on Christmas day. Perfect.
I moved back to the outside. She was still on her balcony, staring down at the car park. I gazed over at her – I didn’t notice the weather report behind me on the flickering TV in the corner. Storm Francis was being pushed out. As of tonight, a cold front was moving east from the Arctic, over Russia, down the length of Finland, across Sweden and Norway. It was already sweeping across the sea towards us.
She raised her head and looked around her at the other buildings as if assessing her situation then noticed me standing on the balcony, smoking my third cigarette. She stood motionless for a few seconds, staring. Then she shivered and moved inside and hit the button that closed the blinds.
As I walked down into the underpass, Sam Cook – A Change is Gonna Come was playing from his little speaker. He was lying wrapped in a couple of blankets, his head on the drum, dead still. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the letter that I had prepared for him should I find him sound asleep like this.
This is Alex, you know, the office worker guy, the one with the beard and locks, who comes through here five past eight every morning , and leaves at five past 6 , I say hi to you every evening , and on Wednesdays when I go through with my guitar on my back you always yell to me – “ I wanna be in your band Man !” I’ve never said this to you, but I always dream that one day I’ll just sit down beside you and I’ll play my guitar and you on your drums and we’ll sing the world to right!
Anyway, I had some bad news last week. I got told that I wasn’t shaping up to the company’s expectations on the shitty job that I’ve been doing for 4 years – and I got told that somehow they were going to let me go – I didn’t think they could do that , but now it seems man that they can do anything these days.
I always wish I had said something to you face to face, I see your grin and that glint in your eye and the way that you don’t care how the f*ck your hair looks – I don’t know what your story is why you choose to live in this underpass, maybe you’re like me – estranged from anything resembling a family – but man I just think that you deserve better.
– ok so here’s my point. As I said I’ve got no future in that building above us, and I’ve got no money- but I sure know how to do a deal – and what a deal I’ve just done, Man !!
I’ve just let out my flat over Christmas on keys.com – for a sh’t load of money –it’s probably illegal cos I don’t own it , just rent it from the builders – at same time I went on Gumtree and started looking up recording Studio hire . It’s so cheap this time of year – in the end I managed to book a studio full of analogue equipment with a great desk too – the owners are away in Barbados for Christmas and they have basically handed over the whole place to me – it’s got a kitchen , a shower and a couple of sofa beds too – I’m basically gonna spend the next twelve nights there and record a track a day – I’ve got most of my stuff written but looking forward to writing some on the hops – I’m interested in all kinds of old time stuff like Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, John Fogerty and the Byrds – maybe you don’t know any of them , but the main thing is I’m not making a tribute album- I want to come out of there with something that’s urban , gritty , psychedelic and relevant’ It’s gonna be recorded in the city but it’s as much about nature and a longing for remote wild places as anything – all at the same time.
I’ve thought about you a lot man , about the rythyms that you put down – come down when you read this and help me do this! The studio address is below – it’s gonna be quiet here over the holidays and at one point it will probably get real cold. I know some other musicians I’m gonna ask too – who knows maybe we will end up with that band – a great big , clunky, band in the back of a van – touring round doing what we love .
Peace on earth
I placed the letter beside his speaker and walked up the steps back to the street. The air had turned chilly, the clouds were disappearing, and the sliver dust of moonlight settled coldly on the night.