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.

Swagger

The Blue Aeroplanes
(1990)

swagger1. Jacket Hangs

Pick a card. Any card.
Wrong.

If you could condense The Blue Aeroplanes’ sound, make a thumbnail of it, as it were, you could boil it all down to the opener of this album. It’s all there. Jangly guitars. Fab riff. Deadpan delivery of clever lyrics. No wonder they called the album Swagger. The whole thing just shimmers  and shivers with it, brazenly, brilliantly.

I’m listening to the deluxe CD version reissued in 2005 . . .

2. World View Blue

. . . my original cassette copy is kicking about somewhere. I picked it up on a whim, back when I had whims I could act on, from Our Price in East Kilbride soon after its release. I don’t think I’d heard of them, or had even heard a note of their music when I parted with the cash. Though they do say inspiration is just unconscious reminiscence, so maybe I’d read about them and forgotten. Maybe I just liked the cover.

But that line, that opening riff, had me hooked from the off; the rest of it, the more I listened, made me a life long fan.

There’s something about the way the vocalist/ lyricist Gerard Langley delivers his lines

I love the way you shake yourself to continent and time.
I love it all, I really do.

I love it more than you.

like an actor, more than a singer. You still believe in him, even though you have no idea what he’s on about. He’s got the emotional range, the intensity, all shot through with something I’m struggling to call anything other than cool. Beat cool.

3. Weightless

Many lines stick in the memory

Like diagrams with consequence.
How much falls to anyone else?

but evade precise understanding. Which I love. It’s an album I come back to occasionally, so listening back to it this time doesn’t bring back any great surprises.

4. …And Stones

I’m trying to document my thoughts, memories and associations in real time as I listen back right now.

This track I also have as a 12″ extended dancefloor remix.

Hey you in that dress.
Yeah, we’ve all been long-ex.

I went to a place that played dance music maybe three times through the whole of the 90s.Dance music, night clubs, those things were for other people. But I loved the idea of my beloved Aeroplanes having a remix. All those guitar lines looping around, Gerard’s crazy words. In my eyes, it made them very of the moment, made me feel cool too.

Smaller than thought, but wayward in intention.

These days – does it feel dated? The 12″ remix certainly only gets to about 3″ before I have to take it off. And jangly guitars were very 80s. The lead guitarist, Angelo Bruschini is clearly a superstar, but he owes a debt to Johnny Marr, the Edge. But honestly,

4. Love Come Round

you really wouldn’t bat an eardrum if you heard this as album of the day on Radio 6 Music tomorrow. It’s as fresh as the day it was minted.

They say you hurt the ones you love, but I don’t think it’s true.
The ones you love are just prepared to be hurt by the things you do.

There’s a very strong association I have for a girl I went out with during the height of my infatuation with this album. I was briefly infatuated with her too, but we were hopelessly mismatched – she, a computer science student who self-described as “ambitious to a fault”; me, not. I had just come back from my epic European rail adventure and had found a momentary peace with myself which gave me the confidence to ask her out.

Love come round and let me know
That a love unbound won’t let me go

But it was a confidence that was short-lived.

5. Your Ages

I was drifting, aimless. I had opinions about music, none about a career. (Still don’t). She was coming back from uni with stories about this wonderful new thing called “email” that was going to change the world, about how she was going to buy a big flat in Hyndland, set up her own company, make a fortune. I was dodging lectures to browse music shops.

Autumn into Christmas was lovely, all mix tapes and heavy petting, but by new year the shine was coming off. I was terribly rude to her at a party, got drunk, smoked a joint, whiteyed, called her boring. I had it coming to me, but even still, it didn’t stop the inevitable dumping from stinging deeply. It was years until I found another girlfriend.

6. The Applicant

First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear a brace or a hook?

I’ve buried a lot of memories from my first stint at university. Not a happy time. Not a great education, either, but you make your own education in these places I guess. Or you’re supposed to. I felt beyond naive. A mummy’s boy. A stay-at-home. I escaped into music and free association word nonsense. Beat lit. I liked stuff with a lack of narrative. No big picture, no story. The Blue Aeroplanes were the soundtrack to all that. Just the relation of line to following line, of word to beat, hooky riffs and attitude.

7. What it is

I bought two pairs of tickets for each of the two gigs that the Aeroplanes played at King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut in 1991. I dreamed of asking a girl I fancied from my high school Spanish class who I still saw working in a shop in East Kilbride town centre. I never found the courage, of course, so I asked my brother along.

Let you arms rotate like helicopter blades.

Not strictly a line from that song, but I picture him every time I hear it, whirring about eyes shut in that sweaty room.

Little jump, skip the rest.

He’s a few years younger than me and at the time he was still at school, so there was a risk we’d be knocked back from the the gig, refused entry into the licensed venue. But nobody cared about those things in those days. We got in fine and had a ball. The

The morning was evening,
the train was a bus
It was dull, dull, dull.

band were anything but dull. The tine venue was crammed. The even tinier stage seemed to have about fifteen guitarists on it. Gerard was wearing shades.

8. Anti-pretty

Wojtek their dancer was throwing mad shapes all over the place, helicoptering for all he was worth.

I loved going to gigs with my brother. We saw Gong (actually, Gong Maison) at The Garage. I was wearing my “trademark” (ahem) trenchcoat, prompting some “chilly for Julember” patter from the bouncers. We saw Hue and Cry. We saw U2. We saw The Pixies – well, all four songs that they played before the show was cancelled because the crowd was mental and people got hurt. Test Dept at the church in Hyndland that became Cottiers. Others possibly.

9. Careful Boy

At King Tuts we swayed and swaggered and let our arms rotate. Or G did, at least. I was, and remain, way too inhibited & awkwardly self-aware to let myself go like that. We cheered when it was Rodney’s turn – a young Aeroplane, not much older than us, who was small with a big 90s fringe who played a Gibson semi-acoustic that looked massive on him. He had a gentle, folky voice. We liked him a lot.

You and I just sat down there
All we did was sit down there.

And writing now, I’m struck by just how folk-flavoured this album is. There are mandolins, 12-strings, rhythms and melodies that seem to borrow from an English pastoral tradition. It could easily sit alongside Fairground Attraction/ Fairport Convention.

10. Picture Framed

imageAfter I got the bug with Swagger, I acquired other Aeroplanes releases. The Loved EP, obviously, a transition to their follow up Beatsongs. That 12″ I mentioned. Bits and pieces of back catalogue & re-releases that I “sourced” from various rummages in Tower and Fopp’s vinyl bins. One of the LP covers inspired a recent gift to a pal and his new wife on the occasion of their (surprise) wedding. There’s a blue aeroplane-shaped cookie cutter cutting about my kitchen somewhere.

11. Cat-scan Hist’ry

After Beatsongs I lost interest. Perhaps they too lost their way. They never seemed like a major label act, though they carried the fame they earned from supporting REM’s Green world tour with grace and, well, swagger.

Since I decided I was going to do this, I’ve been listening back to their old vinyl. I enjoy their B-sides, their sketchy early work. I love Loved. I love their multitudinousness, their jangling, razorwalking, swaggering legions of guitarists. They are undoubtedly a force for good.

And rather perfectly, they are still going strong and coming to Glasgow in the new year, January 2017. Not to King Tut’s this time, but to Stereo. I’ve already bought two tickets but, as yet, have no-one to go with. Although, there’s a girl I know who keeps catching my eye. Maybe I’ll work up the courage to ask her out…

Mr McFall’s Chamber

RevolucionarioIt sounds like a Scottish literary euphemism for Hell. Mr McFall, the fallen one, and his chamber of horrors; a fiery anteroom, possibly, presided over by a kilted Lucifer, playing the bagpipes for All Eternity.

Of course, nothing could be further from the reality of McFall being a slightly crumpled gentleman from Morningside who runs a band of talented maverick classical musicians, looking to escape the formal strictures of their day jobs as members of Scotland’s various tie n’ tux ensembles, by playing arrangements of Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix numbers, tango songs and wonky commissions from the lunatic fringe of the contemporary music fraternity.

I came across them in November 2002. I was planning a day out for my Dad, whose 58th birthday we were celebrating. My mum had died in October of the previous year, and my brother had moved to Cardiff, so it was just the two of us. The Sunday Herald ran a pretty comprehensive gig guide in those days, and this was listed as a free event at St Andrew’s in the Square, a gorgeous 18th century chapel in the Calton, just off Saltmarket, which had recently been renovated and turned into a stunning new venue.

The concert was in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, so perfectly timed for me to meet Dad out of his Spanish class and get some lunch beforehand. I had no idea what to expect. My Dad’s pretty open-minded when it comes to music like this, so I wasn’t worried about that; myself, less so. I’d read a review or two that praised them for the adventurousness of their programming as much as for their performing pedigree. But reviews can be subjective. I put it to my Dad and we agreed that even if the music was rubbish, there was always the venue to admire.

For some reason, the first week in November always seems to show the best of the autumn. If you’re lucky, if the rain stays away, the colours, the light, the stillness can be as beautiful as anything you will see. We turned up, in good time, and filed our way in, not quite trusting our luck that this was a free gig. Outside, it was a perfectly still day. Cold, crisp, a little overcast. But as we took our seats and became more aware of the splendour of the church’s interior, outside the sun began to shine. And through centuries old glass, ripples of light drifted in, bringing autumn colours of bronze and gold from the trees in the square, lighting up the glorious interior with its gilded motifs and stark white walls.

It became apparent as soon as everyone had taken their seats that this concert was for the benefit of a BBC recording. There were mikes and desks and people with enormous headphones everywhere. And standing out in front, introducing the proceedings was a man who possessed the voice of BBC Radio 3’s breakfast show presenter, Sandy Burnett. So that’s what he looked like! And even if thought him a bit of a dry stick, I always enjoyed his voice: richly timbred and unfailingly precise – and sadly missing from the schedules these ten years or so.

Sandy introduced the first song, a fittingly seasonal Astor Piazzola composition called Otoño Porteño, by asking us to listen out for the first few notes which are scratched on the strings behind the bridge of the violin, giving a rasping sound. Unheard of in classical repertoire, these sounds are idiomatic to Argentinian tango music where they could be said to represent the sound of the cicada – indeed, the notation of this device is often represented by its Spanish name, chicharra. And at that, McFall’s bow launched us into a gorgeous recital of Piazzola arrangements and tango songs, as warm and sumptuous as our surroundings, as clear and bright as the day outside.

It’s one of my favourite concerts, and for many reasons. Partly it’s the element of surprise: I was already a fan of Piazzola – having discovered him through a Mexican celllist friend of A-‘s in Perpignan in the mid 90s – and I was hearing him anew in Mr McFall’s ingenious bandoneonless arrangements. Surprise, too, from the tango songs, a genre new to me, and delivered with fabulous panache by the band, particularly their singer Valentina Montoya Martinez and her elemental interpretations. Partly, it was the air of theatricality brought by the RECORDING lights and various bits of radio paraphernalia. Partly it was that place, that light. Partly cos it was a freebie (and Dad loves a freebie).

It was a thing for my Dad and I, a perfect serendipitous gift of an afternoon and one I would dearly love to relive. It made me a lifetime fan of Mr McFall and his chamber of wonders.

I saw them again soon after at the Concert Hall’s Strathclyde Suite. I had raved about this concert in the church to my girlfriend C- who was keen to hear them too, so we went at the next available opportunity. The one thing I remember was a performance of John Cage’s Water Music for solo piano, a virtuoso display of timing – musical and comic – by pianist Graeme McNaught, which seemed to capture the essence and spirit of John Cage at his best. Played straight and taken seriously, but clever and funny and brilliant and like nothing else you’re ever likely to hear. Another perfect little gift.

I saw Mr McFall’s Chamber once more, at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh. That gig is mostly memorable for me because of some music I heard over the PA before the concert started and which transfixed me in exactly the same way as Ana fil houb had done five years earlier. I asked an usher, who directed me to the front of house manager, who directed me to the sound engineer, who gave me the name of a CD that he had been playing during the tour.

But that all seems like a whole other chapter.