Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Prediction

My Aberdeenshire grandmother was fey, my Mum used to say. Read people’s tea leaves, in the village she came from; until one day she saw a neighbour’s death in them.

By the time I was old enough to remember anything she said, she restricted herself to a stock of weird catch phrases that seemed to be all her own. One that stuck in my mind was when she used to walk on the beach with us sometimes, screw her face into the wind, and say, ‘We’re a’ naebody’s children, hen.’ Then she’d look down at me and smile, and say, ‘You’ve to find your own song, ye ken? The one only you can sing.’

 When she died, a whole lot of her old tea-reading clients came out of the woodwork to tell me all about what she’d forseen for them. She had healing hands, too, apparently.

 I ran into a lot of New Age types in L.A., of course. Sat cross legged on on floors till my knees ached, and breathed in more incense than the pope. All that chanting! Well, I maybe didn’t inherit Granny’s second sight, but there were a few things I could see coming. Like all those male gurus, who were after something a bit more basic than spiritual enlightenment. Which, depending on the guru, might be just fine by me.

That time in Toronto, though, coming back from backing the boys in ‘75. The airport was open, but only just. There had been a heavy snowfall overnight, and you could smell more was coming. The flight took off, then turned south in a long curve, and half an hour in we were flying through ice clouds. Put down in Newark, which was like the seventh circle of hell, with people sneezing, babies projectile vomiting, and that anxious, sweaty scent you get off too many nervous fliers pressed up too close together.

Cut a long story short, I got another flight late afternoon. It flew direct into another snowstorm, and had to put down in Cleveland, of all places. Took the most expensive taxi ever trying to get a decent hotel for the night, and ended up in a Rodeway Inn that stank of cigarettes and floor polish. I decided I needed a drink, and lit out to see what was on offer.

Down the street there was a disco bar nearest me, and a rough and ready place on the other side of the freeway advertising live music. I crossed the road and went in. Everyone had dragged the slush in on their shoes: there was a steamy, wet clothesy fug of an atmosphere, foaming pitchers of beer, and a band of some sort tuning up in the corner. I got myself a drink, and a vantage point.

The band were kids, really: probably why they’d called themselves Nobody’s Children. The lead singer looked about sixteen. He had a ripped t-shirt, oily jeans, and a Fender Telecaster with a big gouge out of the top. He muttered something to the others, the drummer counted off a breakneck beat, and they were off.

It took me a minute to recognise the tune: they’d thrown a lot of the major chords into minor, it was all at different time signature from the original, and the kid snarled the words rather than sang them. There was no missing the chorus though.

That was the first time I’d really heard punk – I mean, I’d read the reviews of bands like the Ramones, but I’d never listened to them. And here was this band of young punks, ripping So Said the Clown to shreds. The song that gave me my big break, and then hung like a millstone round my neck as I tried to make my own way. I swear the lead singer looked me right in the eye when he hit the final chord.

You had to admit they had energy. The West Coast sound had got flabby, self indulgent by then. You could see the new wave coming, out of the East Coast mainly, but even in places like Cleveland, Ohio. You could smell it, like the snow. You could predict it.

 What could I do though? I didn’t have a band, just borrowed session guys, or friends, for my albums. Just me and my songs and an acoustic Gibson.

So I hit the road, and headed for Europe.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Wheels Come Off

Cocaine. Lots and lots of it.

Mixed in with the smell of what the sports jocks use on their muscles – what’s it called, Wintergreen? That’s what I remember most about supporting the boys on their stadium tour in 1975.

Backstage in the football changing rooms, there were roadies with razor blades, chopping out lines for the guys, before, during and after. Sumner kept his in a little dark wood Peruvian box, like it was snuff or something. In Chicago, someone dropped a mirror, and they all laughed.

We worked our way up the States from L.A. The format was, I went on first, just me and my Gibson, as the warm up. Then the guys would come on and be my backing band – a couple of numbers, then I was done, and they were into their set. If I was really lucky and they remembered, I came back for an encore with them at the end.

San Francisco was great. Of course, it was the guys they mostly came to see, but I always had a real hard core following in San Fran. Someone released balloons with flowers tied to them – still no idea who: it wasn’t planned, but it was great. We sang San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair) as an encore.

Some of the Bible Belt was a little cooler. By the time we reached New Orleans, it was hurricane season. Let me tell you, playing guitar in a rainstorm, with your guitar plugged into the biggest Marshall stack in the history of the world, isn’t my idea of a relaxing evening.

The tour bus was a bone of contention. I mean, the band’s last album had sold in shed loads, but that didn’t mean they knew enough to change their socks. Around about Nashville I got together with Shayla and Cherry, their backing singers, and organised a clean up. Sweaty towels, dirty clothes, food containers – we got the driver to stop, and threw the whole lot into a field somewhere in Davidson County. Might still be there, for all I know. It’d be worth a lot on eBay if it was.

By the time we reached the northern States, what with all the coke, who actually stumbled on to back my last two songs was a matter of conjecture. I remember one gig – was it Portland? – where it was just Mitchell, banging a tambourine he’d borrowed from Shayla. Out of time.

Mitchell was the most paranoid of the lot of them. Maybe it comes with being a lead singer, but he was always worrying about the band’s position in the rock n’ roll universe. “Forget Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young,” he’d say, to any groupie who’d listen. And the groupie would just nod, and smile, and play with Mitchell’s moustache. They were kids, all of them.

Not that Sumner got to get involved in all of that, because he and Shayla were an item at that point in the tour. So there’d be the two of them off in a corner, and me in another, reading a magazine or trying to write a song, and all sorts of madness going on in the middle. Don’t know where Cherry, the other singer, went after gigs. To bed with a good book, very possibly.

Canada was so cold, in more ways than one. Playing ice hockey rinks instead of football stadiums. It seemed a long way from L.A. and the Troubador, and nobody was talking to me. Things came to a head when they tried to set me up with Bill, one of their roadies. I mean, nice guy, but not my type. As Sumner well knew.

So, one freezing morning in Toronto, I got Shayla to help me pack, and drive me to the airport. The flights were all over the place in those days: took me two days to reach California, criss-crossing America, and getting stuck inside of Cleveland with the Memphis blues again. But that’s another story.

Shayla wasn’t too sad to see me go, although she made a big show of hugging me at the airport. Poor girl. I don’t think she lasted as long as the end of the tour, apparently. Thinking back, I should have poached her and Cherry to be my backing singers. We would’ve made a good team.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Mairi's Wedding

Mairi’s not her real name, of course. The same way Sumner Field isn’t really Sumner Field.

She was one of the first generation of supermodels, and Sumner’s second wife. Face of LancĂ´me to wed Minor Rock Royalty, was how the L. A. Tiimes put it. I loved that ‘minor.’ By then, even Sumner’s star was on the wane.

So there they were, Mairi done up in some sheer silk number that showed off her bony frame, and Sumner, for some reason, in tartan trews. And all of L.A.’s beautiful people. It was the big hair era, and shoulder pads, and all that jazz. I felt like someone’s frumpy aunt. Chilled champagne in the function suite, and bowls of cocaine in the rest rooms. Bad combination.

Why I was even invited, for goodness’ sake, is a mystery.

“You look great, Linda,” Sumner said when I congratulated him. Then, as he kissed my cheek, he whispered, “It could have been you, y’know.”

Still, I got a song out of it. I still have the napkin monogrammed with their initials that I wrote the first couple of verses on.