I was fifteen when, perhaps sensing total alienation from my peers if I didn’t know anything about pop music, decided to tape the Top 40 one Sunday. I don’t recall any great flashes of revelation, it may not have been the most inspiring list ever, but the end result must have been like Lou Reed’s Jenny who “couldn’t believe what she heard at all.” So I was there again the next week and for many weeks after, until I eventually found myself disillusioned with the charts and somehow found John Peel. (For several weeks I thought I was listening to Brian Matthew because I couldn’t get my head around Radio One & Two sharing late night frequencies, but Peel it was. If it had been Matthew things would have been very different, his was a mellow, easy-listening and chat programme, Peel happily mixes Punk and Reggae and Dance and Folk and whatever. Which, largely, is what I listen to today.)
I was Eighteen when I first hitched. I’ve done it most of the time since. Stopped when one girlfriend objected, and spent a fortune on train fares to see her until she saved me the money by leaving me. Then I bought a car, and drove around looking for hitchers to pick up — on motorway trips I made a point of passing through the service areas in case anybody needed a lift. Eventually I crashed the car, and didn’t get another. I like hitching, I like the way it enables me to travel places I couldn’t otherwise. I did around 6,000 miles in 96, and it would probably have been much. more but for illness. It’s got to the point where I feel that using public transport is cheating, at least beyond the city centres.
I know it wasn’t Rhinestone Cowboy or Wale [Nileor Chanson D’Amour but maybe it was ‘Geno’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners or ‘Going Underground’ by The Jam chat kickstarted something, that set me off on this endless, nameless quest. Just as likely is that it was ‘Feels Like I’m In Love’ by Teena Marie or maybe it was The Detroit Spinners’ ‘Working My way Back to You’ or something equally uncool in the 90s by UB40 or The Korgis or The Lambrettas’ version of ‘Poison Ivy’ (none of which I’m ashamed of, but which have not stood up to the subsequent competition of broader listening.)
Blame Paul Kincaid for me writing this, if you must blame anyone. It was at some gathering or other down in Folkestone that I accidentally made some disparaging remark about R.E.M. within Paul’s earshot. Now for those of you who don’t know Paul, this is akin to whistling ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ inBaghdad. Or possibly more heretical. The room went silent. Those around probably expected me to be expelled via the broken conservatory window, but Paul just said: ‘Kev doesn’t like anything if anybody else has heard of it.’
Elitist? Me? Such a charge could not go unanswered. I would have challenged Paul to a duel but for two reasons: I don’t like getting up early in the mornings; and, I didn’t think Maureen had any appropriate earrings for such circumstances.
So I think Green On Red and Lone Justice and Dream Syndicate and Long Ryders and The Walkabouts should have had a share of R.E.M.’s success, but eventually I did get into R.E.M. too. Paul Kincaid knows this, that it isn’t obscurantist, and that it wasn’t his favourite band I was attacking just one mediocre album and a couple of godawful songs. I actually played R.E.M. for Paul and Maureen at their wedding. So it was ‘It’s the End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine.)’ So what? I also played the vitriolic, noisy squall that isFatimaMansionsversion of ‘Shiny Happy People’ the aforementioned godawful song. R.E.M. are good enough to condemn for the trite and the weak songs that became anthems for the irony-deficient. (I also know I shouldn’t reject a band on the failings of their audience, but do I want to be part of that herd? No way sis.) Hell, you’ve probably heard of more of my record collection than Paul’s. I bet he hasn’t got Thriller though he does have a whole load of things I’d love to ‘borrow’. You probably all have.
So I’ve told Chris I wish they could play ‘Train To Mercy’ but its too long, he says. Other favourites of mine they haven’t rehearsed for this tour. Over a curry inManchesterI tell him I think my favourite of all his songs might be ‘Inauguration Day’ which is actually a rare single B-side, and he tells me that the boss of their former record label has said the same thing. When I leave the band inGlasgowI say I’m looking for the road out of town to hitch, “somewhere out of these woods” I quote from an early song.
“Hey-y-y, ‘Whiskey’” says Michael, “You do go way back.”
Favourite songs change all the time though. I reinvestigate ‘Comfort Of A Stranger’ after hearing it as a set opener three nights in a row, and realise I’ve missed a nice song. Live, in Manchester Terri’s drumming takes Jack Candy up in my estimation, where I was slightly jaded with the album version. In Birmingham, Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’ and their own ‘Grand Theft Auto’ provide a driving, hard rocking climax, two years ago it was Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Snake Mountain Blues’ at a tempo Townes never took, and in Glasgow, Patti Smith’s ‘Free Money’ is taken on, its swirling guitars pushing the mantra-like chorus higher. I’m a fan, but I can be converted still.
I cheated withGlasgow. It’s a mess of motorways and ringroads, so I found my way to Buchanan St Bus Station after my night in the bushes. (It was warm, and I figured nobody could see me if I pushed into the middle so I slept out rough in my sleeping bag. It was nice, and I was tired enough to sleep anywhere by then.) I intended to find the bus which could take me as close as possible to Hamilton Services, but on an impulse I asked about the fare toManchester. The coach left in ten minutes, and I was on, officially this time.
So Luc is behind his sound desk, making adjustments. I’ve got a film, and taken a light reading. Everyone but Carla has gone to the bar. Food is being organised.
“Sing, or sing and play?”
“Yes, play and sing.”
I look up and realise that this is the beautiful acoustic guitar Carla told me about. ASeattlemusic store loaned this expensive guitar to a rock band for an MTV Unplugged session, and it came back chipped and scratched, so Carla got it for $900 or something like that. I like music, but know very little about the mechanics, the technical aspects, but some instruments just look the part. As Carla begins to strum, this glossy black bodied guitar is perfect.
And the song, I realise, is not one I remembered to ask for, but one of my favourites all the same:
“If you want good times I know where to look, And if you want good times I will.”
Isn’t that close to perfect? The halting phrasing of her voice and the gentle strumming of the guitar meet and I watch, stunned.
“And heaven’s a backroom where the gambling don’t finish and you keep making the… same mistakes.”
My mistake is being too awestruck to take pictures, and even though Carla loses the tune at the end, and it falters and collapses, this song is why I am here. A quiet, personal epiphany. That quest has reached an ending, one of many, more satisfying than many, but the nature of the quest is that such moments drive me on further. Like an addict needing a fresh hit.
I did fall in love on the Saturday, by the way, to a beautiful, intelligent and determined woman, who ultimately decided she had more pressing commitments than me. I sat beside her on the coach, the only free seat, and before she alighted inPrestonwe’d swapped addresses and numbers. We were together for the next four months. She left me some great music though. Call that a major plus.
How important is that? Oh more important than I could say. I met somebody recently, I told a friend. That friend asked what attracted me, I couldn’t lie and deny it was her looks, and her wit and intelligence, but I couldn’t rule out the way she could naturally mention The Tragically Hip or Maceo Parker in conversation. Of such things is love made, perhaps? (I refer the reader once more, this time to Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity which could have been my life but isn’t.)
There was time for one more brief adventure. It’s a long walk out through Salford to find the road out ofManchester, but when I got there, and after I’d waited two long, frustrating, cold and weary hours, I got some luck again. A DJ on his way home from a club, going right by my junction. Dropped me four miles from home as dawn broke. A little different from my previous lift out of Manchester, after a Rocket From The Crypt show at the Hop & Grape in January. On the same road throughSalforda car stopped, a woman said she was going out to the MG, which suited me fine. It’s not that common to be picked up by women, especially at night so as she drove I tried casual conversation:
“Have you been working tonight?” She was in her forties, as far as I could guess in the dark.
“Yes, but it was quiet.”
“Is that in a pub or something?” I asked, and she laughed.
“Oh no, love, I’m on the streets.” I must have looked blank because she clarified this.
“I’m a prostitute, love.”
So I told her I had no money and she laughed again and told me she picked me up because I needed a lift. There was only one question I could ask next though.
“It’s ten pounds for a fumble, fifteen for oral, and twenty for sex.”
I was too surprised by her matter of factness about all this to ask what constituted a fumble, and perhaps I could have talked my way into a bed for the night, but I didn’t. Maybe next time I’m inManchester?
I walked that four miles past streams with trout rising, and fields with rabbits gambolling, and the sun rose hot and red behind my left shoulder, and though I was very very tired I felt good. When, finally I let myself in the front door, I slipped a Walkabouts CD onto the deck and lay down on my bed with a smile. All for this, I have travelled, all for this. Carla sang.
Birmingham, The Jug Of Ale — Thursday June 6th 1996
Comfort Of A Stranger
The Light Will Stay On
All For This
When Fortune Smiles
BuffaloBallet (John Cale)
The River People (Robert Forster)
Blue Head Flame
Grand Theft Auto
Like A Hurricane (Neil Young)
Glasgow, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut — Friday June 7th 1996
AsBirminghamuntil the end when an apparently impromptu Finlay’s Motel replaced Like A Hurricane, and Patti Smith’s Free Money was the encore.
Manchester, Hop & Grape — Saturday June 8th 1996
Again the same opening numbers but after Blue Head Flame a request from the crowd for Jack Candy was acceded to, followed by a closing Grand Theft Auto, and again, Free Money was the encore.
At theGlasgowsoundcheck, aside from Carla’s gorgeous solo rendition of Long Time Here, the band rehearsed Old Crow with Carla singing (Chris takes the lead on the album) but decided it wasn’t tight enough to go with.
`How does it feel…?’
If you don’t know who all these bands are, ask me, ask me ask me, if you don’t know what they sound like don’t worry — I’ll tell you how they feel: Like falling in love the most recent time of coo many, like waking up on the kerbside of a motorway service area in the cold bright sunshine, like the unfulfilled ambition of every hitcher I know — to get a ride in a Norbert Dentressangle truck, and no, I wouldn’t settle for Eddie Stobart — like riding too fast on a horse you think you can probably control, like a Raymond Carver story, a Dexter Gordon ballad, a Roberto Di Matteo goal, the second bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz after midnight, like the knowledge that Picasso wouldn’t allow his Guernica to be used in an advertising campaign, like the cheer that rippled up the country as Michael Portillo lost his seat, like Johnny Cash’s voice, Jodie Foster’s eyes, like haven’t stopped grinning for a week, like Jimmy Smits in the title sequence for NYPD Blue, like the desire to leap from the Cliffs of Moher not for suicide but a desperate curiosity to see what it feels like. Like anything that ever moved you enough to smile and cry simultaneously. Alan Vega of Suicide once sang: ‘Rock’n'Roll Is Killing My Life’ well, there are worse ways to go, and certainly that rather than vice versa.
(this piece originally written in 1997, as some references show. Since then The Walkabouts have released a further handful of great albums, done multiple interesting side projects, and not played a UK show for a decade.)