Monday, 29 October 2012

Sparking Off

I will return you to tales of 30-year old angst very shortly, but first a quick diversion into a different past/present interface. When I was nine years old and sitting wide-eyed in front of Top of the Pops one evening, being gently blown away by a weird man who sat behind a keyboard looking like Hitler while his pretty, falsetto-voiced younger brother strutted around him like a baby cockerel, I never had the presence of mind to think "I'll be going to see them live in forty years' time." How could I have ignored the signs?

There has never been anyone quite like Sparks, though their influences are legion (take a bow, Pet Shop Boys, Associates (R.I.P Billy) and others I'm too pushed for time to remember right now.). Why should they ever think of retirement when they still have Ron's weirdly arch lyrics and ever-evolving melodies, and Russell still has that amazing voice? There has been no significant loss of energy or curiosity in either brother, and while Ron's look is now more age-appropruiate and slightly 'Howard Hughes before the onset of psychosis' as opposed to 'early 20th Century Austrian fascist dictator with ennui', Russell still skips neatly round the stage like a bantamweight boxer, as light as air while never once straining over those amazing high notes.

Seeing them last week in  Brighton was an evening of pure joy, especially as a) I'd bought the tickets back in April so managed to get second row seats and b) it was just the two of them, the keyboard and the voice, taking an energetic, perfectly nuanced stroll through the rich pastures of their immense back-catalogue. For two individuals who don't engage hugely with their audience (they are incredibly private - you won't find out much about the personal life of either one, which takes some doing), they managed to be hugely engaging, and the audience was on its feet applauding wildly by the end - I've never felt more love in the slightly anonymous Brighton Dome, and what's  more it felt like something bigger and warmer than just nostalgia for when we were all nine years old. I honestly don't think we all expected them to be quite that good.

My favourite moment of the night was when they did 'Sherlock Holmes', my most-loved song from the Angst in my Pants album. The strangest, most affecting love song I've ever heard, delivered beautifully by a 63-year old man with bizarre hair and wearing what looked like one of Bryan Ferry's old hunting outfits that had shrunk in the wash. Unforgettable, beautiful, brilliant Sparks.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

New Gold Nightmare (81,82,83,84)

I think I may have been avoiding writing this blog entry because, frankly, I won't come out of it very well. But I feel a strange obligation to complete the Story of M, possibly in the vain hope that it may just help some confused first-year student somewhere, struggling to straddle the great divide between adolescent and adult brands of romantic idiocy (not such a great divide, as it turns out.). So, on the strict understanding that I won't be judged as a shallow self-obsessed airhead (despite the fact that I so clearly was one, thinking I was Cosmo when I was really still My Guy), let me take a deep breath and proceed.

It is October 1982 and I am a full week in to student life. The following extracts are from my diary, unedited  (apologies for poor punctuation and lack of paragraphs. I was young and in a hurry.).

October 12. "I've got a routine that suits me - I make sure I'm up first in the house so there's enough hot water for me to have a bath and wash my hair every morning. I'm not going over to breakfast bleary-eyed and smelling of bed the way a couple of the other girls do (poor Debs Baraclough has been cursed with a room mate who has the worst B.O in the world.).... They feed us enormous amounts of food and some of the boys get really over-excited about the cooked breakfasts, like they'd never seen a sausage before. The maths boys all play cards while they're eating and there are a bunch of wankers from S***** House who all went to minor public schools, so think they're Anthony Andrews, sitting there eating  Weetabix with a bloody cravat on. One of them's quite nice looking but they're awful. There are a lot of Northerners (you can tell the boys by their gigantic collars and flares) and they seem to be led by this bearded one who won't talk to anyone with a London accent "on principle".  He's called Julian which isn't exactly a solid working-class name so I suspect he's really a wanker anyway. A few people have made a great show of getting off with one another in the first week and start the day by snogging on the bus, which is just pathetic....

I've actually begun working now and it's a great feeling to get my brain into gear again. The course is brilliant and the lecturers are really relaxed and friendly, and seem very committed. I bought my four volumes of Marx from the Union bookshop, and the Politics and Ideas tutor came up behind me at the till and said "the best thing you can say about those is that they're cheap". I said we should discuss that in the next seminar and he laughed.  My academic tutor is really nice and from Glasgow, he's about 25 but he knows Simple Minds which was a bit of a surprise. His name's B***. I didn't ask him if he was going to see Bauhus in a couple of weeks (I can't WAIT). Maybe he is. Ha ha.

My mood changes about once ever half-hour; on the one hand I'm Ms Enthusiastic Student, yeah, like I'm really into this Uni thing, and then within minutes I'm reflecting that I'm stuck here with a bunch of overgrown school kids who think water fights are funny and exciting. That's unfair of me of course because they're not ALL like that (they can't be, can they). I've just been used to such a different life. Though I do think back to London as though it were years ago and remember dreadful nights at the Padded Cell getting insulted by Pineapple Head* and listening to Barry Banal** shrieking about his new Scottish dancing shoes, and I'm quite glad to be away from it all for a while. Though I miss M every day. He wrote me a lovely letter*** last week (I was amazed and so pleased) and I'm going home to see him at the weekend. I probably shouldn't be doing it this early in the term but I don't care....

                   *                                                    *                                                *

Oh my word this is worse than I thought. One single diary entry and I am cringing with embarrassment, and yet I have to complete this. I'm clearly going to have to do it in small segments. I can't take very much of it and I'm fairly sure nobody else could either. Do bear in mind that I'm not the same person now,  I'm really not.... not quite.

* Obnoxious early-80s New Romantic clubber. Probably fat and bald by now. I hope so.
** Poor Barry, he was quite sweet but...
*** I've still got all his letters, tied up with blue ribbon, in a shoebox. You can't do that with emails.  

©Kolly Kibber 2012. Don't nick my stuff. Write your own.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

University Challenged

In town earlier this week I was stopped by an anxious-looking young woman of about eighteen, who was desperately trying to work out which bus of the hundreds of bus stops near the seafront would enable her to catch the service back to the University. "I only got here on Saturday, you see," she said a little tremulously, "and I just can't work out where anything is." As I was going that way anyhow and she looked so genuinely lost, I escorted her to her stop and chatted with her for a few minutes before her bus arrived to scoop her back to the safety of her little single room at the student halls ("it's a really nice room but the walls are SO thin.."). "I'm going home next weekend," she told me, "I'm really missing my boyfriend and I can't wait to see him." I told her light-heartedly that she'd be referring to the campus as 'home' by Christmas, and she looked at me as though she didn't believe me.

 Of course this chance encounter set me on track for an afternoon of pointless reminiscing, as it was exactly thirty years ago that I embarked on three years of student life, crammed into the back of my brother-in-law's car with my record collection, beanbag, portable black-and-white TV and three binbags full of Kensington Market's finest clothing (including three brand new oversized mohair jumpers in hot pink, electric blue and of course black, of which I was extremely proud.). My mother cried most of the way up the M11 and all the way back (we'd only lost my father a few months earlier, so the double-loss of her last child, me, was an especially heavy blow for her) and I scowled and sulked because I'd had to say a Celia Johnson-like goodbye to my adored boyfriend at 3AM that morning (though I didn't go as far as intending to throw myself under a train. I just got ungracious and grumpy with my family instead.).

I had managed to fall wildly in love for the first time in my life with Shakespearian timing, a mere two months before I was due to leave. M and I had prowled shyly around one another for a good two months prior to that, if one can 'prowl shyly', me thinking he was far too beautiful to notice me and he apparently thinking much the same. When he finally revealed to a mutual friend how much he liked me, adding "you can tell her if you want.." (the message was delivered within minutes), I literally dropped my drink, and something rather like the ballroom scene from West Side Story followed (except that we were in a dark Rockabilly Club and I think Pigbag was playing in the background.). From that night on it was sunshine and bliss all the way, a heady blur of alcoves in dark London clubs, night buses and snogging in Green Park, all intensified with the exquisite inbuilt tragedy of my imminent departure at the end of the summer, of which we didn't speak.

Oh, and crowned by the fact that neither of our mothers approved. To enhance the Montague/Capulet parallels of the story, little Irish Catholic me chose a lovely Jewish boy to fall in love with, albeit one with a superb quiff who sported a full set of Johnson's threads. After meeting him - and oh, he was so immaculately polite - my mother began to make dark noises about "dat actor with the big nose... Dustin Something his name is..", which had me screaming accusations of antisemitism in her face and flouncing out in the door-slamming, time-honoured teenage tradition. His own mother, when I rang for him, would pass the phone over with the same three-word announcement of "it's the shikse", and of course having just discovered blonde hair I was indeed the predatory shikse of her nightmares. Quite recently, a very longstanding male friend who knew us both at the time, described us as 'The Bridget Loves Bernie Couple 1982' (which won't mean anything to you if you're under 40.).  Anyway, it made for perfect poetry, M and me against the narrow prejudices of world and against the heartless tick of the clock.  On that Sunday in October, driving away from London, I felt as tragic as I believed was humanly possible.

Hence my judgement of University life in that first week was heavily skewed to the negative, and I have my diaries to confirm it. Let me read to you. "They (my family) left (awful, crying) and I put on Scritti Politti and listened to 'The Sweetest Girl' like I'd promised,* unpacked and then didn't know what to do. I've got a single room in an old house with lovely gardens thank god - some poor girls are sharing! There was a fat girl in the corridor trying to heave a huge boarding school trunk into her room, and the name on it says 'Debs Barraclough', have I landed in an Enid Blyton book? Either way I bet we won't be listening to Scritti Politti together. She looks like Rosemary Leach but is only 18 and so posh! At dinner I couldn't get anything down and fumbled with my slice of melon, my hands were shaking too much to eat it...there was a lot of fuss down the end of the table when it got sent back uneaten. "Who hasn't eaten their melon". I wanted to tell them all to stick the melon up their arses, then some stupid bloke in a cravat started asking if there was a local hunt nearby he could join - what a cretin! Everyone looks very straight, lots of terrible haircuts and ugly blokes, only a couple of people look interesting. They stare at my hair! They should have seen me a year ago, they'd never have coped. I think I'm going to hate everyone."

And witness me trying to make sense of my first few days. "To show goodwill and not look like a stuck-up Londoner (!!) I agreed to go along to the Fresher's Disco with the girls from the house... dear god, it was like going back in time to something I've never wanted to go back in time to, namely the Campion** Discos of my youth". (I was nineteen when I wrote this, so youth was obviously far behind me.) "A hideous cattlemarket full of over-excited sixth formers thrilled to be out of school uniform and finally allowed to buy real beer (though it is amazingly cheap compared to the London clubs - 50p a pint!!!!). I was duly seized upon by a hearty lad from Halifax who was pleasant enough but uninspiring company, and befriended by a nauseating little tit from Wales on the walk home, who started a spurious political argument about 'feminism', presumably because we're students now and that's what students do, and whose final desperate gambit was to demand to come back to my room with me so he could "see my posters"(never heard it called that before.). I may have been a little bit cruel to him. But he was a cretin. I cannot get M off my mind and the fact that I cannot be with him is driving me to distraction. "

I imagine that the young woman I spoke to earlier in the week may just have gone through something similar, recording her anguish carefully in a hard-backed notebook so she can look back on it thirty years later and laugh at herself. I'd love to know what she might be writing in it by Christmas. I certainly wouldn't have predicted what I ended up writing. But that's the wonderful thing about the voyage of chaos, excitement and self-discovery that University should be. You really can't predict how it will all end up. Or you can, but you'll probably be proved wrong, as I was....

More follows....possibly.

* Feel free to barf.

**Campion Disco. A horrible 1970s mid-teen ritual in which female pupils from certain Convent schools are permitted to fraternise with male pupils from the neighbouring Jesuit schools, culminating in a bit of badly co-ordinated groin-grinding to 'Three Times A Lady' (if you're one of the popular girls. I wasn't. I  only ever danced with my best friend.). The grounds outside are patrolled by nuns and priests with torches, probably getting off on it though we didn't know that then. 

©Kolley Kibber 2012

Friday, 5 October 2012

Big Cringe

Here's a parable about why you should never behave impulsively just because you're having a good time. Read and learn. My cheeks have only just stopped glowing red.

On Tuesday evening I attended a very agreeable gig, which I've documented in tiresome detail on another post. Among the audience was a bloke about my age, who I've been seeing at gigs ever since I moved here over twenty  years ago. He caught my eye in the first place all those years ago because I recognised him from my old University; a fairly quiet, shy, bookish lad who hung round the fringes of the trendy sub-set I was part of, always visible in his oversized, off-the-shoulder black mohair jumper and pipecleaner legs, topped off with a mop of Neil Arthur hair that was quite the acceptable look at the time. He was known to be 'a nice bloke but really shy', and I never spoke to him beyond the occasional nod at parties or gigs. When I saw him down here it was a real surprise, and in due continuation of the established form between us, we restricted our exchanges to looks of mutual recognition and cautious silent friendliness. Having marked him down as a bit of a shy loner, I always felt reluctance to invade his space with a 'hello', especially as a shy person myself - I mean, what would I say after that?

He was always at gigs on his own, and only certain gigs - the more obscure, cosmic kind, say Moebius and Roedelius, Neu! or Damo Suzuki. I wasn't surprised to see him at Wooden Shjips, and even less so to see him at Moon Duo over the summer, his thatch of hair now clipped as befits a middle-aged man, frowning slightly as he always seems to do while watching a band. But when he turned up at the Flaming Stars the other night, I was surprised, very very surprised. Not his sort of thing at all, you see.  And as the night was going so well and everyone was having such a lovely time, it all seemed to portend well for me to march over and finally speak to him. Which, with no preparation at all, I did.

"Sorry to bother you," I said, landing suddenly in his line of vision and making him jump, "but I've been seeing you at gigs for over twenty years..." He nodded and peered a bit oddly.
 "And before that we both went to Middling University, didn't we?" I said confidently.
He peered a bit more oddly. "Not only did I not go to University in Middling," he said, "I've never set foot in the place. Which is I suppose a bit odd as I come from Near- Middling." (a town twenty miles away from my alma mater). "So wherever you know me from, it isn't there. I must have a doppelganger."
My face was turning crimson as twenty years of mistaken identity and all those hesitant half-smiles I'd been delivering and receiving flashed horribly through my memory. "I am so sorry," I said, wanting to run the length of the country to get away from my twenty-year mistake. "I just thought...I mean you go to a lot of the ones I go to, were at Wooden Shjips..." gabbling now, all filters gone...
"I've never seen Wooden Shjips either, I'm afraid. I must have a tripleganger..." he said, by way of a final blow.
"I'm so sorry, " I said again, dying.
 "Yes, I hear they're quite good live," he replied, totally missing the point. "Anyway, see you..."he turned and headed for the exit, no doubt relieved to be getting away from The Nutter.

See me? Oh no. Not if I see him first, he won't. Twenty years of avoidance now follows.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

My Pet Band

By the time you've notched up thirty years of dogged gig-going (like what I have), you will almost certainly have ended up with your own Pet Band; the one you keep going back to despite or because of the fact that commercial success continues to elude them, the one who produced at least one perfect, era-defining album and provided you with opportunities to attend obscure gigs in small sweaty venues you'd never otherwise have known of let alone visited (Club 4AD in Diksmuide, anyone?), and the one you watch getting ever so slightly more grizzled and frayed as youthful edginess gives way to wry middle-aged cynicism, knowing that it's actually your own reflection you're seeing in their ageing faces (well maybe I don't look quite as grizzled as this lot, not yet.)

 My Pet Band are called The Flaming Stars, and will almost certainly be unknown to you. They're a North London garage combo, a sort of louche dirty suave flat-pack Rat Pack, doggedly championed by John Peel from the mid-90s onward after forming from the detritus of several other bands to produce their first, peerless single "Bring Me The Rest of Alfredo Garcia." I remember the first time I heard this song on Peelie's show, standing in the kitchen of our old flat scrabbling for a pen so I could write the name of this amazing band down and buy everything of theirs I could lay my hands on (which involved a complex detective mission in those innocent pre-internet days.). When I found out they were coming to Brighton shortly afterwards to play a gig at the late lamented Free Butt it was the start of a long, sweaty noisy love affair which goes on to this day, even though they only seem to get together and play every few years or so now. An occasional assignation with your own past can, of course, be quite pleasant.

 So when last night they came back to Brighton after a gap of fourteen years, to headline appropriately for John Peel Night, I rounded up as many chums as I could coax out to the Green Door Store on a wet windy Tuesday night (eleven, which isn't bad going given that five had never seen them before.). We didn't quite double the door numbers but we certainly helped them along a bit, and after a slightly hesitant start the band kicked in like it was the Old Days and a fine old sexy gig was born. Joe Whitney remains the best drummer I've ever seen, there was some furious thrashing from guitarist Mark Hosking, singer Max Décharné's nicotine drawl remains as languid as ever, and there were even a couple of smiles from the legendarily unsmiley bassist Mr Dempsey. Some of the wedding-reception dancing down the front was a bit distracting, but the band actually looked like they were enjoying themselves and safely behind the dancers I had a whale of a time. Good also to see so many decent quiffs in the audience; my view is that for a chap, if you've got to forty and managed to keep most of your hair it's really the only look worth adopting - trust me, every woman loves a Dirty Rocker. This one certainly does. Anyway, it may be years before I see this lot again but they'll always be my Pet Band and I'll always have a marshmallow spot in my heart for them. Here's a taste for you, and if you have a Pet Band of your own, remember to get along and support them whenever you can.
These things are important.