If I remember right it was the Autumn of 1988 or 89. I was living in student accommodation in Manchester. I was at college learning how to be a hotel manager (no really). I had recently met my long time musical collaborator and best friend Adam and I was well on the way to being the singer of a local band that would shortly give itself the stupidest name imaginable (unless you count what we would go on to call it after that). Like any young musician I dreamed of being a rock star but the reality of actually one day landing a record deal seemed a million miles away.
Our first actual gig (i.e. the one where we did our own material in public and not the countless renditions of ‘wild thing’ at house parties in and around Manchester) was at the Gardeners Arms in Rusholme in the Summer of 1989. We sat there in the tap room of the Gardeners having just agreed with the landlord that we would play there the following week for the princely sum of £0 and discussed the fact that the band had no name. I was drinking a pint of stout and Adam was drinking a pint of lager. We called the band “black and gold”. Awful.
We did the gig. Our performance matched the quality of our name (we were truly terrible) and we went down an absolute storm because everyone was drunk (ourselves included). I was smitten.
Musicians were not hard to find in South Manchester at the time. The band that had captured mine and Adam’s hearts though were the La’s from Liverpool (sshh). Adam heard them before me (he always had his finger on the pulse) and told me I had to go see them with him. I did; and I instantly wanted to be Lee Mavers. I must have seen them 10 times in their really short career. Every time they came to Manchester and every time we could afford to go to Liverpool. As Noel Gallagher admitted once “we just finished what the La’s started”.
Some of you may be to young to remember them, others not so much. There’s something about falling in love with a band. Basically it’s almost like you’re in the band yourself. When it comes to bands to fall in love with, the La’s were perfect for an irrational hormonal late developing teenager like me. They were irrational themselves, they had more members come and go than your average football squad, only ever did one album that took years to finish and was ace and split and reformed more often than yeast (I think that gag works but I’m not looking it up in case I’m wrong – you get the picture anyway).
One night they played the Boardwalk (described by NME as one of the greatest lost band venues – we managed to play there twice before it’s sad demise). I think they were the headlining act that night and had just finished their set. They had already lost John Power (thier longest serving bassist who had left to form Cast). I had somehow managed to blag my way into the backstage area and I was just stood there drinking in the atmosphere until someone looked at me and said “who are you?”. I bravely stepped forward, said nothing and darted out of the door back into the main bar. Later as the band left and I was sat on a wall outside I drunkenly shouted something at their van (can’t remember what) and Lee saw me sitting there and waved before disappearing into a cloud of exhaust fumes and break lights. He waved at me.
So that was it. Combine my love of music with a teenage longing for attention of any kind and I was smitten. I can remember standing there in the backstage “musicians only” area as if it was yesterday. I was wearing sunglasses, it was midnight – what a dick!!!. I had seen behind the curtain of rock and roll. I was no longer just a guy who sang and played a guitar. I was now a guy who now knew what it was to hang out backstage, and breath in the exhaust fumes of the La’s transit van. Now I realise that this might sound so absolutely small-time in the grand scheme of things, but I was floored. I absolutely loved it.
The Smiths, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, James. The Hacienda on a Thursday was the place to be. Not the other “class A” induced nights. My nights were about Hacienda, working in pubs, bucket bongs and beer.
Fast forward two decades, loads of gigs, and a million other musical experiences along the way and it’s still that feeling that I crave when I think about all our great experiences as musicians.
I don’t mean to sell the creative process short. Needless to say, it’s essential. For the listener it’s everything. But to some extent almost anyone can make music.
But when it comes to BEING a musician, it’s that muscle memory. It’s knowing the name of each venue host or who does the bookings because you’ve played the venues so many times. It’s the familiar smell of stale beer, cleaning products and piss that hits you when you enter a bar in the afternoon. It’s the feeling of that hangover as you drive blurry eyed and dry mouthed to the next gig on your list. It’s sitting for hours in the café across the street from the gig while you drink shite coffee and wait for the headliner to finish their sound check or even worse their set so you can get paid. It’s the familiar weight of your guitar case in your hand. It’s the camaraderie you feel with those bands that you play with and the melancholy of knowing that despite promises to the contrary, you’re never going to keep in touch. And it’s a million other little subtle experiences that define what it means to be a musician. At least that’s the way it’s been for me. It’s not the guitar chords, or the number of albums sold, but rather it’s knowing those things first hand that makes me a musician.
But perhaps even more importantly than all of that, it’s YOU, the listener, the ultimate critic and that makes all of it matter.
I look forward to many more sometimes-hard, sometimes-ugly, always-worthwhile experiences along this musical journey. If you read this far I hope that you are part of that journey.
If you’d like to hear the most recent milestone of that journey, click here to listen to my most recent album, ‘Another Lifestyle Will catch Your Eye’.