Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The power of social networks

Up until not-so-long ago, Facebook and its rivals were simply tools for showing off. Smugness facilitators, if you will. One 'friend', in particular, was so wedded to telling her 'friends' every detail of the safari holiday she was on - 'That hyena is looking at me weirdly and eyeing up my guava and kumquat smoothie as I ride in the back of this luxury 4x4 with Pippa and McKenzie...' - that blocking her status updates was the only way to stop the hives breaking out all over. We all of us have those kinds of friends, right?

One incident has fundamentally changed the way Facebook's power has affected my life. In 2010, my wife of some time decided not to be married any more. This, I must admit, put something of a crimp in my afternoon. I'd always believed marriage was forever. Funny how some see it as a disposable, reversible feast. Like a little papier-maché car.

There's a festival called Field Day at Victoria Park in London's east end that, in 2010, took place around mid-July. My friend Darren and I had been planning on going for a couple of weeks, ever since we'd heard Steve Mason (ex-Beta Band) was playing. We'd seen him at Glastonbury - the really hot one that took place during the vuvuzela football World Cup - and bought his album. He was appearing early, about 1pm, on the Eat Your Own Ears stage.

On the morning of the festival, Darren called to say his toddler son wasn't feeling great and couldn't be left with a babysitter, so he wouldn't be able to make it. At that late stage, there wasn't time to find an alternative friend to come with me, so I bit the bullet and went on my own.

God knows what I was thinking. Steve Mason's LP Boys Outside documents the breaking-up of his long-term relationship, and mine had come to an abrupt end between Glastonbury and Field Day. Laying alone on a sparsely-populated grassy knoll listening to him sing 'Could it be that you don't love me anymore?' (The Letter) wasn't the best idea I'd ever had.

The festival itself was OK, but the tragical hipsters of east London were there in full-force sporting their ill-fitting garments, poorly advised facial hair and undercuts galore. With all the horror that had descended upon me in the preceding few weeks, I decided I could really do without it, so stayed only until maybe 630pm, electing to get home to Whistle (my dog) and a good wallow in front of the telly.

Victoria Park was kind of eerie on the outside of the tall, green, steel festival fence, the cacophony of what was going on inside seeping out, with just a few prides of locals sitting around with their two-litre bottles of Diamond White and their naked-from-the-waist-down toddlers running around destroying park fixtures and fittings.

As I rounded the fence, heading back to Homerton train station, a huge gate leading to the backstage area opened, and there appeared Chilly Gonzales.

"Gonzo!" I said.

"Oh, hey man." He replied.

"No way! I've seen you play so many times. One of my favourIte memories is of driving to Glastonbury 2000, listening to Gonzales Uber Alles over and over" I gushed.

"Really?" he said. "You've been there right from the start! That is such a cool thing to say. Hey, where's your accent from?"

We chatted on for a good bit, spending some time talking about the Bee Gees (Feist's cover of the Bee Gees' Love You Inside Out from her Chilly-produced second album Let It Die is just sublime) and I had a passer-by take a snap for posterity...

The happiest I'd looked in weeks. 

Aaaaanyway... fast forward about five months to early-December. It'd been just me and Whistle at home together since Summer, rattling around the house. Facebook had become something of a sanctuary, connecting me with friends more than it had in the past, and even facilitating one or two dates. Hey, I'd more free time on my hands, and during this time I discovered that there's an awful lot of TV that simply can't be viewed alone, so Facebook was my telly around then.

One night, I received a friend request from a stranger whose name - well the first name, at any rate - looked like it was written in Klingon. Strangers' requests always make me feel a bit suspicious, but I figured there couldn't be two people in the world with that name, so, before doing anything I stuck it in Google.

Well, well, well... A MySpace page with photos and music. I'd no idea why this person would be adding me, but given that she was beautiful and making her own music, why would I say no? (Everyone has a Shallow Hal inside them for at least a few moments every day).

Almost immediately, I got an instant message from Meadhbh Boyd: 'Hi, thanks for accepting my friend request. I saw your picture on the Chilly Gonzales Facebook page and I'm trying to spread my music around, so thought you might like to hear the demo recording he just produced for me. Let me know what you think."

My first question: "Forgive me, but how do you pronounce that collection of consonants you use for a first name?" Turns out it starts with 'M', rhymes with 'Dave'. Those Irish (she lived in Cork) know how to fuck with us.

Meadhbh was very charming and given my then-mindstate, it felt pretty sweet to be receiving any kind of female attention, let alone from this mysterious, gorgeous, talented foreigner.

And the chatting continued. Soon, we were in almost-daily contact. Meadhbh went to Argos and bought a webcam so we could use Skype. It didn't work. She went back to Argos and swapped it for a different model. That one was a bit shit, too, but we struggled on.

We talked the biggest load of bollocks for ages at a time - life, art, music, movies, pisstaking, you know the kind of thing, but never romance nor either of its cousins casual sex or meaningless fling. It was hugely appealing to have this new friend, neither of us with any connections to anyone we knew. A blank sheet. When was the last time that happened to you?

As well as making her own music and, at that time, being busy with her own band, rehearsing, gigging and winning contests around Cork, Meadhbh has a background in ethnomusicology. In March 2011, she told me about a conference at which she was invited to speak in Cornwall in April. The only practicable way to get to Cornwall from Cork is to go via London Stansted, then take a train from Paddington.

Meadhbh broached the subject in an email, tentatively enquiring about routes and fares and all that kind of stuff. Oh, and if the trip were to happen, would it maybe be OK if she perhaps kind of came via my place? (I live within striking distance of Stansted) The train from Paddington sort of departs at 7am and she'd kind of need to fly in to that there London the day before...

Ooft... what a development. It's all very well chatting online and Skype-ing and all that, but an actual, real, proper, face-to-face meeting, with hands and eyes and everything? I was excited and apprehensive and nervous all at the same time.

Meadhbh's travel date was set for 6 April. In the two or three weeks preceding, I managed to secure her a solo gig at the Windmill in Brixton, found an electric piano to borrow on her behalf (with much rigmarole - but that's an other story), changed the bedding in the spare room, washed behind my ears etc.

Then, on 31 March, a beautiful, warm day, I was cycling across London. Spring had really blossomed on the day or two before and it felt magic to be out on the bike. I'd left home and headed across the canal, took the long way around to make my way through Victoria Park and onto Hackney Road. I distinctly remember really powering along Great Eastern Street and thinking to myself 'This is class! If I get a whole Summer of this in, every other day, I'll be in great shape by Autumn.'

There's a pelican crossing at the end of Great Eastern Street, just as it becomes Old Street. Lights in my favour (I'm guilty of stopping at every red light - a hangover from 10 years' motorcycling in London, I guess), I powered on. There was a black taxi on my right, moving not-much faster than I was.

Lifting my head and taking a glance to set up the turn onto Old Street, suddenly there were three schoolboys dead in front of me, about 20 feet away, in the middle of the road. My hands were gripping the top of the bars and I simply had no time to get them over the brake levers before smacking in to the burly, seemingly teak-formed hulking masses of fucking arseholes. There's a fucking pelican crossing just back there and another one a handful of yards just along there, you total fucking pultroons!

My whole body bolted forward, as the bike stayed put. The 'hang on' instinct is counter-productive in cases like this, as it just brought the bike with me, eventually, when I tumbled forward and heard the sickening crack of my collarbone mashing in to the asphalt. Fucking, fckkking, fuuuuuck!!

That my clavicle had been toasted was obvious. The four lanes of traffic careening around me gave the scene added piquancy and I struggled to my feet, grabbed the bike and made for the pavement. The three 'boys' (they were all bigger than me) didn't even look at me, speak to me or come towards me, as I lay on the deck rummaging around for my phone so I could call an ambulance.

The local bobby appeared and gave me a bit of help and, thankfully, agreed to store the bike for me. I wasn't going to be riding for a bit. Something of a crowd gathered: if you ever need to find out how helpful Londoners can be, get yourself involved in a serious accident in broad daylight on a very busy street. Can't fault 'em.

20 minutes later, St John's finest arrived. The ambulance was manned by a very lovely middle-aged pair, one of each. Quick assessment and they got out the gas and air so I could be moved in to the vehicle. I'd never had the pleasure of Entonox before, and a pleasure it certainly was, enveloping me in an instant wooziness that I won't ever be complaining about.

Just then, my mate Nick happened to stroll past. No, I mean he really did stroll right past, but executed a superb double-take, worthy of James Finlayson himself.

"Chris? Are you alright, man?' Opening questions are always difficult to come up with.
"Oh... Alright, Ni... Jesus, my voice..." I sounded like Vaughn Monroe, slowed down even more. A Pleasing side-effect, and I began to hum an old worksong.

The NHS angels got me in the fancy van and comfortable. 'Right,' said the driver. 'Where are we taking you to, my friend? We ain't from 'rahnd 'ere.'

(more to go in here)
On the morning of her arrival at Stansted, I was up in plenty of time, got my ablutions out of the way, and even had the car washed by the local Albanians (why is every hand-carwash in my part of London run by Albanians?) before making my way up the M11. And all because of Facebook.

More later.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Nick Lowe - Glastonbury 2007

Nick Lowe played the jazz tent (I think) on Saturday evening. Since arriving at the festival, I carried the At My Age CD and a Sharpie with me just incase I happened upon the great man. (I know...)

My then-wife and I got to the tent in plenty of time and bagged a great spot front dead-centre. Halfway through his set, she said 'Where's your CD?' and rummaged through my bag. She found it and, to my horror, launched it not just on to the stage, but right at him. It smacked the mic and ricocheted off his forehead. To the man's credit he managed the merest flinch and carried on singing I Trained Her to Love Me, barely missing a beat. Then she chucked the Sharpie which landed at his feet.

Pretty-much everyone around us (and I) turned at once, shouting 'What the FUCK are you DOING?!' You could've, at that moment, heated a small saucepan of water on the heat of her blushing face.

So, quite apart from the daggers incoming from our fellow gig-goers, now the CD was stranded four feet behind Basher and there wasn't much chance of getting it back. At set's end, though, a burly, over-inked roadie grabbed it and hurled it back at us, hissing 'Don't throw stuff.' Sage advice.

Anyway, I've seen Nick Lowe play live so many times, and the thing that strikes me about him is that I can't think of many artists who continue to produce material of such consistently high quality so late in their life, often better than much of their previous. Pinker, prouder or whatever.

He's still got my Sharpie, though, the rogue.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

First blog

God knows there's been enough action in my life over the last year or so to fill a skipful of blogs, but does anyone really want to read about it? Unlikely.

I'll get around to managing this blog properly one day.