Trip to Merseyside to Mend My Motor

1996-porsche-911-3Around 20 years ago, I bought a Porsche. I had turned 50 that year, or perhaps the year before and you could probably put the purchasing decision down to a ‘mid-life crisis’. You see, after spending the best part of a decade performing and working throughout the United States the time had come for me to return to the UK. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston; all these great cities I had called home for a couple of months at a time. Settling down just long enough to make friends but not long enough to miss them when I left. My forties were spent drinking most nights in dive bars and restaurants, playing sax and having a great time of it.

sax29Academic work that I had completed in the latter part of the 80s had given me the financial freedom to do as I wished, and I’d taken full advantage of this. Travelling the length and breadth of the States, playing music until the early hours, they were the most exciting years of my life. So, when the time came to return to the UK, for the benefits of a National Health Service and lower-risk of getting shot for crack, I was gripped with a melancholia that could only be moved by one thing: a beautiful car.

Owning a brand new sports car is the stuff of teenage fantasy. It is assumed that the need for such a status symbol diminishes over time, that a man grown wise over time will not hanker for such things at such a graceful age. That assumption is exactly that. At the age of 50,  with my travelling days behind me, it occurred to me that the longer you hold these childish dreams intact, the more you yearn for them.

gerry-rafferty-03When I turned the ignition on my brand new Porsche 911 for the first time in 1996, all thoughts and memories of old age wilted away. I wasn’t 50 anymore. I was 26, tops, blasting down a country road with the top down, my sax in the back and Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street blasting through the cassette dock. That was 20 years ago.

For a good couple of years the Porsche had been making a few strange sounds, odd bits and pieces are falling off and the speakers have significantly lost power. All too soon, the old girl was starting to remind me of another relic that was falling apart. Something needed to change – so I took a recommendation from a friend and booked her into a Porsche Specialist. I never got my head around car mechanics, but these fellows apparently stocked the best Porsche spare parts in the country and were willing to fit them. The only catch? They were hundreds of miles away in Liverpool of all places.

It had been a while since the old girl had done so many miles, but I felt like we had it in us both to go the distance – so I booked her in and we set off early in the morning.


Hard_Days_Night_Hotel,_Beatles_statues,_Liverpool_2009Liverpool was an old haunt of mine. I’d spent a few years playing up there during the 70s, when the town was just about recovering from Beatlemania. It had a fantastic selection of blues and jazz dives, with a welcoming open mic scene. As I cruised up North, with the sun dawning on the horizon, I wondered if that same friendly spirit still resided there.

Arriving in the city, I dropped my bags off at my first stop: The Hard Day’s Night Hotel. An expensive, tourist focused establishment, I had chosen the place because of its location more than anything. However, I must admit I was bowled over by the sheer volume of Beatle’s Memorabilia that they had crammed into that building. Guitars, outfits, posters, photos – if it was related to the Beatles in even the most tangential of ways, it was there.

After dragging myself away from all the gorgeous things, I drove the 911 over to Tech-9 for her makeover. Leaving her there with the friendly mechanic – I slung my sax over my shoulder and made my way over to Bold Street for a spot of busking. The pavements were surprisingly busy with shoppers, luckily I found some steps to sit on and jam out some tunes. I played through a few classics for an hour so – stopping when I’d scratched enough money together to buy a pint. There’s something so satisfying about paying for beer with busking money, all those little coins brought together thanks to your own enterprise and skill. Never has a pint tasted better.

After a little dinner, I mosied on down to the Cavern Quarter, listening out for any Jazz or Blues. However, I was disappointed. The dive bars and clubs I had played in, all those decades ago, were either modern night clubs or restaurants. I almost considered turning back and getting an early night before I spotted The White Star. A warm glow bled out from the shut door, and I could hear a rhythmic thump emanating from within. As I pushed the door open, a wave of joy and vitality hit me. Free-form jazz in all it’s glory and it sounded like there was space for one more sax player.

Although it had me going for an hour or so, Liverpool still proved itself to be the friendly and vibrant city that I had known in my younger years. Save the demise of some of my old haunts, the spirit of Jazz was still alive and well – at least for that night. I played with a range of semi-pros, all of us old and enjoying our little return to the lime-light. I was so enriched by the evening that I had almost forgotten why I had travelled there to start with. Luckily the boys at Tech-9 called me up to remind me that my car would be ready in the morning.

The restoration was complete. The car gleamed, inside and out. When I turned the ignition, I felt like I was 26 all over again and, what’s more, they’d even fixed the speaker system. All I can say is, I’m glad I never replaced that tape deck: Baker Street has never sounded so sweet.

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Back in my day…I liked buskers.

When a blog post starts with ‘Back in my day..’ either the writer is a forty-something Mother of two, about to launch a tirade against the younger generations, or they’re an old man who’s on the verge of offending a large swathe of people from various ethnic backgrounds.

I’m starting this post with the intention of writing the former, but its a slippery slope from forty-something Mother of two to bigoted old man.

I love music.

You’d safely assume that a music lover and writer would be the last person to start complaining about the number of buskers on our streets. After all, in an age of torrenting, YouTube and iTunes; there’s barely enough focus left for performing musicians as it is. In fact, with the proliferation of Electronic Dance Music, less and less attention is paid to those physically performing music. With DJs like Calvin Harris bringing in over £300,000 per night – it’s no surprise that a lot of young musicians are choosing to make their music using laptops and midi-keyboards rather than acoustic instruments.

So the acoustic busker is a dying breed – it follows that a music lover such as myself, who cares deeply for 70s acts such as Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkel, should be fully behind the new generation of street performers. I honestly would be…if they were playing acoustically.

I see the act of busking as being one of the ultimate tests of performance skills. Not only are you presenting yourself to an unwilling audience, but you are also stripping down your music to the bare bones. No microphone, no amplifier – the street is the stage. You have no aid in being seen or heard; all you can do is sing and play as loud as you physically can, and hope someone stops to watch and flip you a coin or two.

Back in my day, this is exactly what busking was all about. It evolved from the formation of Skiffle bands in the 50s who would tour Village and County Shows, leaving their hats out for the odd coin. Their performances were brave, outgoing and entertaining.

Now, however, buskers don’t play by those rules. With improvements made in the field of amplification and digital media, it is possible for one man with a guitar to make more noise than 50 screaming men with guitars. So, the High Street stopped becoming an open forum for musicians who could play to their heart’s content; heard by just the people passing by and became a whole different beast. You can hear 2016’s buskers from half a kilometre away, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that someone was simply blasting commercial radio.

calvin harrosSlick teens feign angst, strumming generically on their semi-acoustic guitars cranked to 11. These modern-day crooners turn each Top 40 Chart Hit into a shambling acoustic cover and indulge in a level of oversinging that would make Mariah Carey herself cringe. Inspired by acts such as Ed Sheeran and Lukas Graham, their banter between songs belies the fallacy of their performance. Nervously stumbling over their words in their local dialect, their presence leaves a lot to be desired and makes their clumsily arranged covers appear even more childish.

skiffle_lg

Then you have the Britain’s Got Talent/X Factor wannabe. Usually flanked by her Father or burly brother, these performers (if we can use those words) have the audacity to bring a PA system and complete setlist of backing tracks with them. Once more, all songs will be pillaged from a standard selection of hits and ‘classics’, with the dizzying heights of Beyonce and Celine Dion being reached for on a regular basis. With an epic, pre-recorded orchestral backing – these young people delude themselves into performing sets that even the hardiest of pros wouldn’t touch.

The last stereotype that most people will come across, is perhaps the saddest of all. A man, in his 30s, struggling to keep his coordination in check to perform basic David Gray covers. He doesn’t listen to music that he can’t strum out in the same monotonous pattern, and he only knows how to play basic chord shapes, despite having played guitar for the best part of two decades. When he sings his limited selection of Brit-Pop covers, he attempts to sound disaffected like Liam Gallagher or shake his hips like Iggie Pop, forgetting that those people are rockstars and he is not.

These ‘performers’ are a blight on our modern High Street. In an age where it’s hard enough to convince people of the merits of live music, these charlatans create noise in the most innocuous fashion. They lower the standards of our rich history of performance to that of a reality television show – prizing emulation and reiteration over honesty and ingenuity.

It is a general rule in cities not to feed the birds. They flock in large numbers to pick crumbs off the floor, make noise and shit everywhere. Don’t give these pigeons anything, otherwise soon their inoffensive shit will be threatening more than just your High Streets.…

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One Night In Nottingham

I’m over a hundred miles away from home, I can still taste the Tuna-Mayo sandwich on my breath (Thanks Mum!) and I’m in Nottingham. I know what you’re thinking:

SHUT THE FRONT DOOR.

OK, I’m not here solely to write for Black Wire. You got me.

There’s an open day on at the University and, although I’d much rather go to London, I thought it would be wise to take the city for a test drive whilst I was here. The University was fine – Journalism doesn’t exactly require crazy mad facilities. Really it was an excuse to get out of my hometown and check out a brand new city.

Sillitoe_6838cNottingham is well known for its History and famous Literary connections. Famous writers such as Alan Sillitoe and D. H. Lawrence have their roots in the city and now they have one more: Callum Effernest.

When I told my family that I was considering Nottingham as a University, they told me about its slightly shady reception. Far from being a metropolitan centre of civilisation, they painted it as a town of thieves and drunks, suggesting that I’d be lucky to leave without a stab wound.

They still paid for my train ticket. So either they were having me on or feel like every man should get a good stabbing at some point in his teenage years.
nottingham theatreWell – I’m not writing this from a hospital bed and I can say with confidence that I left Nottingham with all my finances intact. In fact, I found that the city subverted every expectation that I was nervously harbouring on my train ride up.

Music-wise, the city’s got the usual array of theatres, small clubs and big venues to see gigs – but you readers will know that popular music isn’t usually my bag. I’m an alternative man, if it’s in the mainstream – then I don’t care about it and nothing says alternative like an Open Mic night.

The pub was a quiet one, I’d had a few pints before stumbling in so I couldn’t tell you the name of it. A mixed bag of performers kept me happily entertained for the evening. What I was most surprised by was the variety of talent on show. Think Open Mic night and you’ll no doubt have the same tired cliches in your head as I do:

acoustic douche
Jason Mraz was 10 years ago – get over it.
poetry
Shirley Bassey is one of the greatest performers of our time – why try competing?
singing girl
A backing track – at an open mic night? Just…go.

In Nottingham, things were a little different. Everything from Jazz Musicians to Def Poetry. There was even an adorably talented 12-year old keyboardist who could very well live to be the next Steve Winwood. The bar staff were friendly and there was a decent audience watching, rather than the usual crowd of performers anxiously listening and waiting to play.

Although the University might not have been up my street, I left convinced that Nottingham’s bad rep is just that. Behind the slander that it has been dealt lies a wonderful city, filled with talent.

 …

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