Real Gone

Tom Waits
Anti (2004)

realgoneThe first time I saw Tom Waits in concert was on the 2004 Real Gone European tour.

I belong to a now semi-defunct group called the Zornlist, which back then was a pretty lively discussion and information sharing forum which allowed people from all over the place – mostly Europe and the US – to post stuff about John Zorn and the various genres of music his output crossed. Which is a lot. From free-improv to cartoon scores, hard bop to hardcore, modern classical to radical Jewish music. His roster of regular collaborators is a tower of talent that would make you giddy and includes the guitarist Marc Ribot, a regular collaborator with Tom Waits since Rain Dogs.

One of the guys on the list posted about a ticket that he was selling for the upcoming Tom Waits tour. I was lucky and got in first. I could have high-fived the sky. I was going to see Tom Waits. If I could get to Antwerp for Saturday 13th November, the ticket was mine. The seller was honest with me, said he he was going to ask twice the ticket price, which meant the gig was going to cost me €200 before I had even booked a flight or thought about a hotel room.

But fuck it. This was Tom. Fucking. Waits. The only other musician I would travel to a different timezone to see was John Zorn. It was totally worth it. A bargain, even…

There was just the tiny detail of the transaction to take care of.

At the time of the gig, back in 2004, Paypal and the whole business of paying for things online was a bit unclear to me and still considered to be plenty risky. Before the ticket seller and I had worked out how to handle the transaction, I asked around – a few friends, a couple of business savvy pals, some guys I knew who worked on web stuff – about how to go about securing a concert ticket from a guy who lived in Belgium whom I’d never met. Everyone basically sucked their teeth and narrowed their eyes. They were all like, “So, how exactly did you meet him? An email list? Right. And how much is he asking?  Wow, really. And what’s his name?”

They all thought I was winding them up.

“Rob Alert”.

Guy with a comedy rip-off merchant name (tho spelled in a Flemish way with many more letters than syllables) whom I didn’t know, couldn’t vouch for, who could’ve been a bullshitter, could’ve been a scammer, lived in Belgium wanted to sell me something online that I could only redeem by travelling about 800 miles.

Basically, you can probably guess, I was on my own.

Happily, however, we came to a pretty straightforward agreement. No Paypal, no Western Union, no bank transfers. If I was willing to make my way to Antwerp, he was willing to sell me the ticket. We just agreed to trust each other.

Call me sentimental but I wish there was more of that in the world.

I remember depressingly little about the gig. I think he maybe started with Make it Rain? I couldn’t tell you much more than that. I don’t even think reading the setlist on the Eyeball Kid blog could help shake loose a few memories. No wonder people make bootlegs.

I remember quite a lot of detail either side of the gig, though. The early morning flight to Amsterdam, reading the Saturday Guardian from cover to cover on the train to Antwerp. I had to buy razors from a Turkish man in a Spar because I’d forgot to bring one and he only sold packs of cheap shit Bics. There was the market. The place was scented with vanilla from the waffle sellers. I had a pretzel. I scouted the venue. I walked around Antwerp and found it familiar/strange. The accents sounded like home, full of hard consonants. I had a really quiet room in the hotel I checked into, then fell asleep watching Monk on BBC2 in my room with the volume on low.

Then I met Rob and there was the whole rigmarole of getting the ticket. Tom Waits and his management made an admirable effort to beat the re-sale market. You could only get the ticket itself on the day of the gig. The buyer had to have ID that matched the details supplied at the time of purchase. You could only buy a maximum of four tickets for the gig and your guests had to be in attendance at the time of collection in order to have a wrist band strapped to you. It meant that everyone in the audience was a True Fan, not just a bunch of schmos on a corporate jolly.

So I met Rob at the theatre, gave him his €200, got my wristband. We went in like a couple of kids on a blind date.

toneelhuisI remember how beautiful the venue was. I was amazed it was in a theatre. Waits could have sold out any stadium, any mega venue. I couldn’t believe how tiny it was. This is what they mean in the music press when they talk about an intimate venue. We were sat in the 6th row from the front, a few seats in from the left hand aisle. I was a bit overcome by the whole experience, safe to say.

The gig passed in a blur. I knew I was having a “bucket list” kind of night. I wanted to hang on to every note, to be able to quote every ad lib quip, to mime every contortion, to recall every single signal from Waits and his band that meant I wasn’t listening to a recording but watching and listening at close range.

But I couldn’t. This stuff slips away like liquid soap. I do remember the incredible bar we went to afterwards, next to the cathedral, that was full of religious statues from old churches and that sold beer in these weird test tube looking glasses. I remember enjoying myself a lot and enjoying Rob’s company.

But I don’t really remember much about the show. Nor do I remember the busker singing Tom Waits songs outside the venue, but two friends of mine knew for a fact that there was one. These friends didn’t know each other but they both knew Raymy. I had met him, briefly, years before at a jam session, through the first of these friends, a fellow sax player and improviser. He was a bit mad, carried a box of musical toys with him, had albums worth of songs on cassette that he tried to sell to people. I met him again, years later, through the second of these friends, a girl I was seeing at the time, when I got to hear about his adventures on the Real Gone tour.

Basically, the story goes that Raymy couldn’t get a ticket for any of Waits’s European shows, so he decided he was going to follow the tour schedule and busk outside each venue before the gig in the hope of attracting the band’s attention and a) gaining admission. b) acquiring memoir material, and c) actually meeting the Man himself.

When I met Raymy I learned that he had written a book about it and was totally outraged that no-one wanted to publish it – so he published it himself. You can read about it here.

I had a day in Amsterdam the next day which I spent walking in circles for about eight hours. It was my favourite time of year. November. Cold, clear, crisp evenings. Blue skies. I walked until the sun went down and everyone’s windows were lit up like mini tableaux, scenes from a thousand lives.

I bought a book in a beautiful big busy bookshop called What Should I Do With My Life? which, as much as I enjoyed it, failed to give me the momentous epiphany I realised I’d been seeking when I bought it. It was the same when I answered the Zornlist post from Rob. I felt then, as I kind of still do from time to time, that my life had gone wrong somewhere, taken a wrong turn, and I was looking for the way back.

I had booked an early flight home which I managed to miss. It wasn’t to be for the first time, either. I literally arrived at the check-in desk as the flight was leaving. The airline sales woman couldn’t believe I had been so stupid and contemptuously took €100 off me for the next flight back to Glasgow. I had an awkward conversation with my boss too, as I was going to miss my two classes that afternoon that I was timetabled to teach at the college I worked at.

I saw Tom Waits again when he played in Edinburgh in 2008. I had a new job by that time, and a new girlfriend. I hadn’t answered Po Bronson’s question, but it felt like I was making a reasonable attempt.

The Edinburgh gig was in a theatre again, albeit a much, much bigger one. The same security measures applied, and then some. Tom was exceptional, as he always is, but don’t ask me to remember anything from the gig.

I wonder if he’ll ever tour again.

Hats

The Blue Nile
Linn Records (1989)

hatsWorking night and day I try to get ahead
But I don’t get ahead this way

Autumn 1990. Second year of university. Riding the 20 into Glasgow. Listening to this opening track as the sun comes up, golden and magical, over the hillsides of the town. My bag on the seat beside me, saving it for L, hoping the bus doesn’t fill up too much before her stop. The prospect of a cold nose pressed to mine and a sweet sticky chapsticky kiss. This album is dedicated to that memory.

I can’t go on and I can’t go back
I don’t feel so, matter of fact
I tried and tried to make good sense
What’s the good to try it all again?

This album is also dedicated to the feeling of trying to be in love with someone you know is wrong for you.

The music was always richly nostalgic, even when it was just released. It’s music with an old soul. It spoke of old truths we were only just beginning to learn for ourselves. These are songs of experience. They’re the songs of a young man, borne of world weary wisdom.

How do I know you’re feeling? How do I know it’s true?

It’s dedicated to the Glasgow we used to know, to the Glasgow we knew before we knew Glasgow. The lights we saw as children. George Square at Christmas. Sauchiehall Street. The La Scala. The Irn-Bru clock. The Corporation buses. The window displays at Frasers and Goldbergs. The cafes our grannies took us to. The places that made our early memories of the city seem tinged with sadness and distance even as we entered our 20s.

We. Our. You can get mawkish with this stuff. Indeed, there’s a whole cottage industry around Glasgow nostalgia. But this album’s not that. Its poetry celebrates the city in its ordinary aspect, doesn’t get lost in particulars. Long after it feels the song should have faded out, the final chorus of The Downtown Lights presents a perfect imagist poem of the city. There’s nothing in it that especially suggests Glasgow. It could be anywhere. But just read it:

The neons and the cigarettes
The rented rooms, the rented cars
The crowded streets, the empty bars
Chimney tops and trumpets
The golden lights, the loving prayers
The coloured shoes, the empty trains
I’m tired of crying on the stairs
The downtown lights

How could it be anywhere else?

There was a time when Glasgow was large and held many mysteries, the names of the streets still had things to declare, secrets to reveal. Whole areas remained unexplored. It was full of people I had yet to meet, had yet to fall in with, fall out with. The place had promise.

Where the cars go by
All the day and night
Why don’t you say

What’s so wrong tonight?

The parts of the city I knew from childhood were the well-worn lines between Carntyne, Cardonald and East Kilbride. Views from the back seat of my parents’ car as we did the Sunday visiting rounds. Later, the freedom of the city, pocket money bus trips into town. A few shops. The Walrus and Carpenter. The Clyde Model Dockyard. My accordeon teacher in his tiny tenement dunny above Biggar’s. From the M8, tower blocks loomed dangerously in the distance, totems of a Glasgow that was, for us, foreign and unknowable. We never went west.

I know a place where everything’s all right, all right.

It’s incredibly healing music for me. It’s an album I need to hear up close, with darkness and raindrops at the window. I need to feel it reverberate gently inside my ears, wash warmly into my heart and reassure me that everything is going to be all right. And Paul Buchanan is a singer you trust with every single breath he sings with. You believe him absolutely, even as your heart is breaking.

And if in love she cried
Something wasn’t right

Hearing this album again after a very long time, I’m curious to note that cars feature rather prominently. Neon, rain, cigarettes, trains, bars. Yes. Also cars. Which should come as no surprise, really, for a city that has long since lost its soul to the motor car.

Headlights on the Parade
Light up the way
I love you

The song is named for Alexandra Parade in Dennistoun, with its eponymous headlights shining in the shadow of the monstrous M8 motorway half a mile away. The Parade itself leads to the old Edinburgh Road – former escape route to the genteel city. My grandparents lived just off that road, on Morningside Street. I once loved a girl who lived in actual Morningside in Edinburgh. Strange connections.

My Dad’s from round here. I always assumed I’d carry on the tradition, always imagined I’d find love and live along the Parade. Walking arm in arm on a rainwashed Saturday night at teatime, going out somewhere we both like, cars swishing rainwater into our shoes. But listening closely to myself here, to these songs, I’m astonished at how much of this album has infected my dreams and desires.

The city wins while you and I
Can’t find a way

I ended up living in Dennistoun for a short time, further down towards the Duke Street end, and had a romance that outlived my stay there, but not by much. I returned several years later looking to rent or buy, and every window I looked out from, across the city I could only see memories I never had, and the lights of the Parade glinting like sweets lined up in jars.

From a late night train
Reflected in the water
When all the rainy pavements
Lead to you

This is dusk music. Crepuscular. The musical arrangements are painted in soft oils with hard edges. The band’s great skill here is to place the listener into the landscape. We’ve all been on that train.

For me, it’s the line that runs through High Street. Looking out left as you leave the city centre, high up and heading east you see the Necropolis, etched out in silhouette against a darkening sky. A girl gets on with a wet umbrella. A short story fragment, a tiny drama.

It’s over.
I know it’s over.
But I can’t let go.

I never really shared my love of this music with L. It was kind of a given. Everyone loved The Blue Nile. They were never a fashionable band, but they were never a corny 80s turn either. This album is so very of its time, but the music hasn’t dated. They weren’t Hue & Cry, for example, or Deacon Blue, who were exactly contemporary and who weren’t running shy of the whole pop thing the way this lot were.

Stop. Go
Stop. Go.
I don’t know.

I stopped listening to the album after things fell apart with L. The music and the feeling of falling in love were inseparable. To hear these songs, that voice… for years the mere mention of The Blue Nile was to remind me of rejection and failure.

Who do you love?
Who do you really love?
Who are you holding on to?
Who are you dreaming of?
Who do you love?
When it’s cold and it’s starlight
When the streets are so big and wide

And I still wonder, if it weren’t for the music, would I have fallen quite so suddenly, quite so deeply for someone quite so wrong – or fallen quite so hard on my face…

Aphrodite

Paris & Sharp
(2001)

aphroditeIt might seem a strange piece of music to associate with something as momentous as the death of my mother but here it is, in her anniversary week, a memento of a moment in time.

Mum died October 14th, 2001. She was 56.

It’s almost too big a subject to write about. The timeline of her death – a brief four weeks from hospitalisation to cremation – is beginning to sand over, events shifting and blown by the winds of time, memories waning. It’s an event that divides my life into two distinct epochs: the time with my mother alive; the time since.

There’s something ethereal, otherworldy, almost heavenly about this music, an unlikely description, perhaps, for a piece of percussive electronica. I heard it in the car a number of times as I was driving back and forward in the quickening nights between home and hospital. It soon became an earworm and I went out and bought the single. It’s a dance track, but a vocal sample from a Hans Zimmer movie score gives the music its spice aroma that draws my ear and fires my imagination. Concrete cityscapes, desert dry dunescapes. Sodium lamps, sunken tombs, dead roads. Incantation. Prayer. Ritual.

Mum was a Catholic. A really devout one. Which meant that I was raised as one. By the time I reached the end of my first year at university, I had given all that up, and for a while it created an unholy schism between my mother and I. She felt that my rejection of her faith was a rejection of her. But it wasn’t a personal thing. There was a moment where I saw the inherent doublethink and hypocrisy at the heart of religion in a wider sense and chose to reject it.

But you don’t escape lightly from a lifetime of indoctrination. I know the ins and outs of Catholicism even still, and even as I continue to reject it it stays with me. In the days after her death, I could not recognise the frantic rosaries, the rhythmic ritualistic murmuring that was constantly around us, as anything I once identified with. I had absolutely no use for it. It depersonalised her. It severed my grief. It made a stranger of me in the family home. When I was preparing the eulogy that I would read to the mourners at her funeral, a pious relative took me aside and warned me that my words had better not say anything too personal.

It took a week to arrange the cremation. In the days preceding that, my mother’s body lay in the living room, waiting to receive the blessings of those who came to pay their respects: family, nuns, priests, friends in Christ, all crowded round to recite, incant, sing mutedly.

I couldn’t connect with any of that. The body that lay in that cold, cold room, the body that had conceived me, that had carried me, that had been my conduit into the world and my first contact with it, my first source of comfort and strength, was now some kind of token of who my mother really was in the eyes of God. Religion treats the body as a device for the soul, a carrier of the spirit. Here, in her own house, my mother’s body had been reduced to an abstraction, a stand-in for the bit that God lay claim to. And that bit had gone, chased into the afterlife by prayer. The intensity of these rosary recitals was as foreign to me as listening to a room full of ululating Arab women. Why the urgency? It was all over. It was too late for words – unless you take the view that these rituals exist as a balm for the living.

Mum had died in the hospital days before. She had been transferred to the cancer ward where her condition rapidly deteriorated. We saw her one night, the last time we saw her conscious, and she was furiously reciting prayers through her oxygen mask. She knew, though we were still in complete denial about it, that she was going to die. We were no use to her. She sent us away.

The next time we saw Mum, she was in a coma. She had been moved overnight to her own room and had developed the rasping, laboured breathing associated with imminent death.  It was a shock to us, as we were expecting her to begin treatment that day. A well meaning medic took us aside – my father, brother and I – and told us she was going to die.

We came out, reeling and numb, and went to Mum’s room. The violent rasping had subsided, her breathing getting shallower and shallower. Her best friend had arrived with one of their nun friends and sat together with my great-aunt, praying by Mum’s side. I stood helpless for a while, listening, frustration growing. To me, these useless words were getting in the way of any meaningful communication taking place. It was a waste of the final moments any of us would have with her. The cancer was about to take her life away and no-one could say anything for this endless stream of nonsense. Then I asked everyone if I could be with Mum alone, and they obliged.

What does a son say to his dying mother? What does she need to hear? What do you need her to know? What are the words that truly count? Words of love, gratitude, reassurance.  In the repressed and emotionally straitened culture of the west of Scotland, we often lack the ability to make these words part of our lives, though we may crave to speak them, to have them spoken to us. It was hard to hold her hand with so many tubes sticking into it. We were never a very touchy-feely family. We make life so very difficult for ourselves.

I try to imagine her as a grandmother. I try to see her in my daughter. I’m sure my dad does too. When we visit Grandad, we play with the bangles and brooches in Mum’s old jewellery box. It saddens me that she won’t be part of my daughter’s life, but we say night night to Nana Honor every night. And as she gets older, we’ll continue to talk about her, to look at old photos and she’ll know the warmth and beauty and generosity of the woman I knew – not the God-bound spirit vessel, but the very real, very wonderful human being who drew so much love around her, who had so much love to share. An Aphrodite in her own way.