Tag Archives: friends

Careering: Sunday

There was usually a window of about half an hour when the light was still just good enough for Sarah to paint and the first hint of the muted constellations above began to glow, enough to tempt Alex out to join her on the roof terrace. He would call out the stars as they appeared while Sarah and Rob, if he was back from work, would gently wind him up by picking out planes in the stack over Heathrow and asking whether it was Ursa Major. Or they’d pretend to have forgotten that the brightest point they could see, one of the few celestial bodies that could cut through the London light pollution, was Venus and not a star at all. Alex would patiently explain it to them again. The terrace was the reason they’d taken the house originally. It had been further from the tube than they’d wanted and the only pub in spitting distance was the Three Feathers, stubbornly untouched by the estate agent’s claims for gentrification, but the little roof space had woven a spell on all of them. It was just the flat roof atop a 1990s loft conversion, maybe three feet square and adorned with a battered old deck chair, a couple of stools and a plant pot, now sans plant, but it opened up a view down and across Islington and, more importantly, an unrestricted view up and out, over the the London skies.

Sarah was cleaning her brushes, watching paint leech from a tip into the water in her jam jar, a blue, swirling blur. It reminded her of a Takahiko Hayashi print she’d had in her room as a student, back when all futures seemed possible. She glanced over at Alex. He was slouched back in the deck chair, a pair of binoculars resting on his stomach.

“You know what happened last time you looked through those…” said Sarah.

“They are strictly for star gazing,” replied Alex. “That incident with the couple on Woodfall Road was not entirely my fault.”

Rob’s head appeared in the hatch at the top of the steep stairs that served as the route up to the terrace.

“The One With The Naked Neighbours And The Surprising Things You Can Do With Fruit,” he announced. “Still can’t believe they called the police.”

“It wasn’t an episode of Friends, Rob.”

“No, it was funnier,” said Rob. “Although if it was I’d be Joey, right ? The good looking one.”

“It’s not much of a choice. The funny one, the good looking one and the…the other one. What was the point of Ross anyway ?” said Alex.

“He was the nice one, wasn’t he ?” said Sarah, still idly stirring her brush in the jar, the water now a murky grey. “You’d be Ross, Alex.”

“Thanks a lot,” he replied. “So I’m the dull, wet guy who’s so lacking in discernible character that he gets given a pet monkey just to make him more interesting.”

“Well I didn’t mean it quite like that,” smiled Sarah. “Anyway, you don’t need the monkey, you’ve got that whole neighbourhood peeping tom thing going on as character quirk…”

“I was star gazing.”

The natural light was fading fast now, steadily replaced by the soft glow of the city. Sarah finished cleaning her brushes and sat down on one of the stools, accepting a quick swig of the beer that Rob had brought up with him and was offering round. He stood looking at the picture Sarah had left drying on her makeshift easel. It was an abstract series of blue and grey circles, bold and well defined in the centre and then progressively distorted and smudged towards the periphery of the page. He liked it although, if he was honest, he preferred her photography, preferred things rooted more directly in reality. Sarah caught him looking at the picture and raised a quizzical eyebrow. He smiled and nodded approvingly but knew better than to offer more; too many well intentioned observations about her painting had ended with the critiqued picture in pieces. He pulled up the other stool, took his beer back from Sarah and offered it up to Alex who was now peering up towards the sky through his binoculars.

“What are you looking for up there ?” asked Rob. “Trying to see our destinies ?”

“God, no. Nothing like that. There’s no glimpse of the future up there, just lights from the past,” replied Alex.

“That’s deep.”

“It’s just physics.” Alex adjusted the focusing ring on the binoculars, tried to get a better view of the Moon. It was only a quarter full but still one of the few things bright enough to cut through the  light sodden sky. It’s just physics. He remembered saying something similar three years ago. His justification for jacking in the PhD, walking away from all that conceptual stuff about gravity and relativity to take up a graduate place with Deloitte. Swapping Lorentz transformations for double entry bookkeeping. It paid better but it was a mental downshift and he still felt the pull of his old studies.

“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” interrupted Sarah suddenly.

“Like what ?”

“This… This… I don’t know. This scratching out our days.” Sarah pushed her hand through her hair and frowned. “What happened to what we wanted to do ?”

“You mean you didn’t want to design towers for Ubisoft ?” It was Alex’s usual tease.

“Hey, those games need a lot of towers… and my correct title is Concept Artist as you well know.” Sarah straightened on her stool and extended her arm with a flourish. “Concept Artist responsible for initial design of player climbable structures. Should I continue to impress with my sketched portfolio of traversable in-game terrain then I have a very decent shot at being Lead Concept Artist in two to three years time”.

“It’s something to dream about.”

“Every day on the 153, believe me.”

“Maybe this is just a phase,” said Rob. He drained the last of his beer. “Maybe we need to go through this while we figure it out.”

“But we had it figured out,” protested Sarah. “When I met you… at that talk, what was it ?”

“NGO roles in provision of public services,” said Rob.

“Sounds like quite the party,” said Alex from behind the binoculars. Sarah ignored him.

“Yeah, at that. When we met you knew exactly what you wanted to do. It was the thing that struck me about you. The passion. You were absolutely going to work in the public sector, or the third sector or whatever it’s called, and you were going to help people.”

“And hopefully I still will,” said Rob. “The social media thing’s just temporary, just to get some money behind me early on. It’s not forever.” They all fell silent, slightly awkward. Sarah sighed and, after tentatively touching at the paint to see if it was dry, rolled up her picture. Alex put down his binoculars and tried to lighten the mood.

“What were you doing at that talk anyway Sarah ? Doesn’t strike me as your sort of thing.”

“What makes you think I’m not interested in social enterprise ?”

“She was in the wrong room,” said Rob.

“You promised you wouldn’t tell anyone that,” smirked Sarah. All of them laughed and Alex wagged a finger in mock admonishment. “Alright, alright. It was at the Barbican and I’d gone to see a Murakami exhibition but I was running late, got a bit lost, and ended up in a room full of earnest liberals listening to someone talk about co-operatives and sustainable funding. They all seemed so nice that I thought it’d be impolite to just walk out.”

“Just imagine the vicious tutting you could have been subjected to…” said Alex.

“We could be quite scathing in our shows of mild disapproval,” agreed Rob. “Some poor guy turned up to another talk one time with a coffee from Starbucks, it was just after the whole tax avoidance thing, and I think we briefly created a vacuum in the auditorium as everyone took a sharp intake of breath simultaneously.”

“Well it wouldn’t have technically been a vacuum…” started Alex before being drowned out under a mock chorus of tuts from his flatmates.

The early evening dusk was giving itself up to the beginnings of night now and the last of the sun’s warmth that had baked itself into the terraces was fading. Sarah rubbed her bare arms with her hands, ironed out the goose bumps, before gathering up her painting equipment.

“I think I’m going to head in,” she said. “Early start tomorrow.”

The other two didn’t move. She knew they liked to sit out for longer, eek out the weekend and delay the onset of Monday morning. Alex would usually be last to come back downstairs, pulling the hatch behind him. Sometimes he’d sit and try to wait until all of the lights across the surrounding streets winked out, hoping that the progressive darkening of the neighbourhood would allow more illumination from above. Once there’d been a power cut and he’d been able to pick out Mars, seemingly tucked away behind Venus, just a trick of their relative positions and rotational orbits. The others teased him about how scientific, how clinical, he was about it all but he saw the beauty in it too. When he told Rob he wasn’t looking for destiny up there it was true but he was maybe looking for some perspective.

“Good night,” said Rob. “Don’t forget our guest arrives tomorrow.”

“Guest ?” said Sarah pausing at the head of the stairs.

“God, Sarah, do you read anything the landlord sends us ? We talked about this last week. He’s offered up the spare room on Air BnB. We’re splitting the money, remember ? He’ll take half and then take the other half off the rent. Said we can stop it anytime we want if it doesn’t work out.”

“Vaguely,” said Sarah. “Might be nice to have someone else around anyway. And I could definitely use the cash.”

“Tell me about it,” said Rob.

 

The weirdness flows between us

32. Freak Scene – Dinosaur Jr.

We showed off to each other back then. Goofing around, throwing ridiculous shapes on the dance floor, conjuring ludicrous puns that, over time, became impenetrable in-jokes, and just enjoying each other. Not, you know, in that way. Okay, sometimes in that way, but mostly it was entirely rated PG stuff; occasional moments of mild peril and sexual references. As Supergrass would later put it: we were young, we were free, we kept our teeth nice and clean. It’s unsurprising that my self penned follow up – I am middle aged, I have responsibilities, I have ground my teeth down to such an extent that I displaced my jaw – has never troubled the charts.

We were 16, going on 17, and weren’t skipping around a summer house in Austria on the brink of war trying to impress a young Nazi boy. But we were interested in the sound of music (boom, and indeed, tish). Specifically we were all starting to share a love of what you might generally term indie music; some gravitating from an earlier goth phase, others from heavy metal (an odd mix of US hair metal and New Wave Of British Heavy Metal), and some feeling the benefit of older siblings passing down people like The Smiths. Irrespective of how we got there we all arrived at a place where a shared love of Nirvana, Pixies, Muses, Dinosaur Jr, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, and a host of others became something that both defined us and soundtracked our late teens and early 20s.

We, of course, was me and my friends. A small but perfectly formed gang; smart, funny, at ease with each other, if not always with ourselves. I’m probably romanticising it across the years. I’m sure there were times we had terribly dull conversations and just sat around fretting about our A levels but that’s not how I remember it. In my head now it was all either hilarious, wise cracking bon mots or very earnest, deep discussion about matters of great import. We knew we weren’t the cool kids but convinced ourselves that, because we knew that, it actually made us the cool kids anyway. We were cool because we weren’t cool but we knew it. Make sense ? Not really but it did at the time. Looking back I think we were pretty cool. If I was 16 again I would want to be friends with us.

And I would want to spend my nights at the Kandi Klub. I imagine that every major city in the UK, around the late 80s and early 90s, had its own version of the Kandi Klub: what might loosely be described as an indie rock nightclub. Somewhere for the people who felt a bit out of place everywhere else to go and feel slightly less out of place together. Later in my life I frequented Rock City in Nottingham and Sector 5 in Leicester but the Kandi Klub in Bristol was the place I called home. It was our weekly stage (literally so if it was being held in the Thekla) and where we played out our friendship.

History hasn’t recorded what anyone else thought of those kids that turned up every week and spent their time alternating between dancing very seriously – shuffling feet, head down nodding, fringes falling over eyes – and then appearing to take the piss out of it all – the star jumps, the hands on hips head shaking, the watusi. If it had I’d like to think it would mention how much fun they were having. Was it fun in that slightly self absorbed way that only teenagers can really pull off ? Yeah it was but we were slightly self absorbed teenagers so…

There’s a long, long list of songs that I associate with those regular trips to the Kandi, whether it was ensconced at The Studio or The Bierkeller or The Thekla, but the one that was guaranteed to get me on to the slightly sticky dancefloor was “Freak Scene”. It was probably one of those songs that used to get slipped in fairly early in the night, before DJ George got into the bigger “hits” from people like Nirvana and The Wonderstuff. There were a bunch of songs that occupied that part of the night that I latched on to and still love: stuff like the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up”, Buffalo Tom’s “Velvet Roof”, Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing”, Pulp’s “Babies”, and probably a couple of Mudhoney tracks. As it was still early the dancefloor might be empty, or virtually empty, but we’d bounce out there regardless and throw ourselves into that aforementioned head down shuffle of a dance.

For the three and a half minutes of “Freak Scene” everything would fall away. There was the song, the sensation of moving, and that was it. Or almost it. I was self conscious enough, I expect, to be aware of the fact that I was dancing and always enjoyed the odd mixture of doing something that felt quite private in a public place* – it was effectively an outward expression of my internal relationship with the song. If you’d seen it you might, mistakenly, have seen it as a tall, spotty kid wearing a black tee shirt dotted with pieces of washing powder visibly picked out, shining, under the blue neon lights rather ponderously swishing his hair around. It wasn’t that. It was an outward expression of my internal relationship with the song. I admit some of that outward expression required that I slowly step from side to side and possibly clasp my hands behind my back. Don’t judge me.

You need places that feel like they’re yours when you’re that age, hovering uncertainly between being a child and an adult. Places and people. Territory that’s yours, where you’re free to work out who you might be. The Kandi Klub was part of my territory and if I had the chance to do it all again I’d be back there in a heartbeat with exactly the same people: my friends.

 

*this will be the only thing I did that “felt quite private in a public place” that I ‘fess up to here…

Here we are now, entertain us

23. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (The Spam Ducks / Brian Clough)

I know, I know. Too obvious, right ? Well, I kind of agree but it’s not on the list, not entirely at least, for the obvious reasons. It’s here as much for the, ahem, spirited cover version of it that I was once involved in as it is for kicking in the door to the mainstream for a slew of US alternative bands in the early 90s.

There’s a whole host of musical “scenes” that I could lay claim to have been part of. Part of in the sense of associating with, using as a badge of identity, rather than literally being part of obviously – there isn’t about to be a big reveal wherein I announce that I was actually the bassist in Buffalo Tom. Any of the following would have just about fallen into my later formative years:  Madchester, acid house, the tail end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (sort of), glam / hair metal, and stretching it a bit, C86 if I’d started early and Britpop if I’d started late. Whilst there were bits in all of those that I loved at various stages, including a long infatuation with Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” which baffles me now, I never really felt like I belonged to any of them. For me it was all about the explosion of primarily American bands that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s playing, for want of a better term, alternative rock. Key reference points would include Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Buffalo Tom, and Pavement, as well as people like Teenage Fanclub, Ride, and The Wedding Present from the UK.

At around the same time – 1990 to be precise – I began to learn to play the guitar. Play probably isn’t the right verb. Work would be closer, for both me and anyone unfortunate enough to be listening. I learned – in those heady days before any of us had the internet – via correspondence with a friend who used to send me little chord diagrams in the post, gradually progressing to a sort of rudimentary tablature. He’d gone on to University, along with most of my school friends, whilst I waited another year to do fun things like retake a couple of exams and have knee surgery. That year did give me the time and inclination to pick up the guitar though so perhaps these things happen for a reason.

I think the first song I could vaguely bash my way through was “My Favourite Dress” by The Wedding Present but playing guitar also meant that I could begin to relieve myself of vocal duties in the finest band ever to emerge from the villages of the South Gloucestershire area. I’ve relived the glory days of The Muppets elsewhere in this blog but they were not the first band I was a part of. No, that honour belongs to The Spam Ducks who later morphed into Brian Clough. Not literally.

The Ducks / Clough had various line ups over a period of a couple of years but was principally the result of the friendship between three of us – Ian, Russ and myself. Those are their real names. I feel they should shoulder as much responsibility for this as me. The band was an excuse for us to mess around and entertain our friends – we would periodically put on a show at a local village hall. On very, very rare occasions we convinced ourselves that we sounded okay. We had a certain ramshackle charm perhaps, often depending on who we’d persuaded to play drums (never underestimate the power of a good drummer to make a bad band sound okay). I think we mainly did it to make each other laugh and, on that score, we were the greatest band in rock history.

As none of us could really play that well we ended up having more of our own songs than covers; we usually couldn’t play the covers. Song writing involved someone coming up with three chords – some variation on D C G proving especially popular – and someone else turning up with a set of lyrics. I say lyrics… Quite often I think a good idea for a song title arising from something we found funny was then stretched out beyond the point of absurdity. So our set typically included: “Washing Machine On My Mind” (it’s tough on dirt, it’s not kind), “Soap On A Rope” (sitting in my bathtub, it’s not a tin one), “Fishfinger” (genuinely with no adolescent sex-gag connotations – it was about fishfingers that you, you know, eat), and “Alan” (Alan, I’d rather drink a gallon… of beer… than have you near…). “Soap On A Rope” was actually a pretty good little punk song.

When we did venture into cover versions it was typically something by The Wedding Present which was helpful in that a) most of the songs were three chords, b) the vocals don’t require much by way of singing ability, and c) no one in the audience really knew the songs anyway. That all changed when we decided to take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, one of the biggest songs of 1991 and so called anthem for Generation X. So how did we approach Kurt Cobain’s sarcastic, contradictory call for teenage revolution ?

We did it sat in large, high backed armchairs with Ian reciting the lyrics in a bluff Northern accent (part Mark E Smith, part Python Four Yorkshireman sketch). There may have been an odd call and response element to the “hello” “hello” bit leading into the chorus involving waving. It is fair to say that we made the song our own. I think Kurt would have approved. If Bill Drummond had done it people would have called it art.

That was one of our last performances and who knows what we might have gone on to accomplish ? We were definitely branching out into experimental territory – we had supported ourselves at that gig as The Living Carpets (stolen entirely from Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer) and performed the theme song to children’s TV show “Heathcliff” with large pieces of carpet taped around our heads. I guess to an outsider it would have looked like kids making a godawful racket, full of in jokes and nonsense but for us it was just hugely fun. Part of the point, as well, was to provide some entertainment for our friends – even if sometimes they got to laugh at us rather than with us – and hopefully we managed a little of that too.

I don’t listen to “Teen Spirit” very often anymore. Don’t listen to “Nevermind” much to be honest – time hasn’t been kind to the production and I think “In Utero” is a far superior record. For a long time though Nirvana were really important to me. It sounds kind of sad but I can strongly recall hearing the news about Cobain’s death and I was affected by it. That was still no excuse for spending a couple of years trying unsuccessfully to ape his hairstyle though. To everyone that witnessed it: I am truly sorry.

When I do listen to “Teen Spirit” now I tend to remember Russ struggling to switch his distortion pedal off, hear Ian bellowing “hello hello” like he’s Graham Chapman at the start of the Spanish Inquisition skit, and see a group of old school friends staring at us in a mixture of amusement and bemusement. It makes me smile.