Thursday, March 17, 2011

Come Back (CD Update #2)

They say you can never go back. You can go back, of course. The thing is, when you do, people look at you funny, and you can feel a bit like a tourist, or worse still, an intruder.

The last time I went back to my hometown of Scunthorpe, was some 15 years ago. It was my first visit in four or five years and I wanted to indulge my nostalgic side by driving down my old street for a look at the old house where I used to live. If was expecting to feel all warm and fuzzy about the experience, I could have saved myself the trip. At the very least, I could have packed a pair of glasses with some seriously tinted lenses.

I remember pulling into the close, at the rear of the house and glancing over at the old garden gate that I'd opened and closed so many times over the years. Ideally it should have been a tender, poignant moment, but it didn't quite turn out that way. A group of young kids were kicking around a football, just like I'd done with my mates all those years ago, and seeing a car they didn't recognise, they ambled over for a closer look. 

It's worth mentioning that this was a council housing estate. Of course, the word estate is a bit of a misnomer, since it suggests, on this side of the Atlantic at least, a rambling country homestead with an elegant manor house to match. In reality, it's social housing for the working classes - more urban blight than country life - so things can get a little rough around the edges, you might say. (The photo above is of Westcliffe Shopping Precinct, just across the road from my old house. I must have walked that little strip thousands of times while growing up. Can't say I remember leaving beer bottles on the ground, though. Not Stella Artois ones, anyway.)

Anyway, these kids were very young, probably no more than 5 or 6 years old, but with their football hooligan-in-training buzz-cuts and best menacing scowls on display, they already had the rough around the edges thing down. As the boldest one sided up to the car window for a better look at whoever was invading his territory, I looked up, and our eyes met just long enough for him to dismiss me with a swiftly delivered reverse V-sign hand gesture.

What? Had I really just been advised to fuck off , by a snot-nosed 6-year old kid right outside my old house? I mean, I wasn't expecting a parade or anything, but this was depressing. 

Apparently, things had changed. I had changed too, of course. Specifically, I'd changed my mind about wanting to hang around my old house, and instead I quickly retired to my old local public house in order to console myself with a couple of pints of John Smith's bitter. As melodramatic as it sounds, I remember feeling a little like a door had truly closed on my past, and I felt like such an outsider. It was really an odd experience, and I've yet to return. I think I'm a little frightened of what I might find next time.

So, Come Back is one of the songs (there are others; you have been warned!) that sprang from some of the conflicting emotions that can rise to the surface when looking back at a fateful decision to leave the place where you were born. It seems like there's always a part of you that feels like you might still belong there, yet you've gone and made a home and a new life in another place entirely. With this, comes that vague, yet persistent feeling of rootlessness that you carry with you. And let's not forget the slow, guilt-ridden realisation that you once saw fit to ditch your family and turn your back on your heritage and all that, which is something that weighs more heavily on your mind as you watch your own child grow into adulthood (one of my biggest karmic fears is that my daughter will end up marrying an Englishman and move to the land of my birth!)

So, the world spins madly on; family members come and go; your old hometown changes, and you change too. Then, one day you wake up and realise that you've been gone for 28 years. It hardly seems possible, but I've now lived  considerably longer in the US than I did in the UK. It's a strange feeling, I can tell you. Yeah, so much has changed, and still you have all these questions: Could I ever go back? Would they want me to come back? Did anyone actually notice that I left? Could I have another pint of bitter please?

I'd come back if only you'd let me in

I'd be there bearing roses

I'd endeavour to crawl upon hand and knee

While you all stare down your noses

I have changed like you

Rearranged and new

I'll show you proof

When I come back to you

I'd come back if only you'd change some things

I'd be there without warning

Bring back pennies, steam trains and Slade Alive!

I'd be there there by the morning

You have changed like me

Rearranged, I see

I'll tell the truth

When I come back to you

Places to go, love to take or to leave

Big consequences we never conceived

Time on the clock ticking over

So far away is much closer

Than we might believe

I'd come back if only you'd talk to me

I would answer your questions

Where did I go and why did I let you down?

Funny that you should mention...

We have changed, it's true

Edges frayed and unglued

We'll know the truth 

When I come back to you

Come Back ©2011 Across The Water Music (BMI)

(Photograph by Dominic Romney)

Monday, March 07, 2011

Giddy up! (CD Update #1)

Don't fall over, but the recording for the upcoming solo EP (The Ride Of Our Lives) is over. It's not really finished of course, but it is over. Thanks for asking.

Of course, there are always things you wish you'd done differently, just as there are always a few overdub ideas that you never got around to trying. There comes a time, though, when you realise that you could easily spend the rest of your life labouring over these songs without ever finishing any of them, and so you come to accept that it's time to let them go. That way, you can start labouring over the next batch.

So, guitars and microphones have been put away, and under the expert guidance of Brian and Ed Ditchflower, mixing has begun. And what fun it is, too. I mean, I love just being in the company of these extremely fine and talented gentlemen at the best of times, but joining them in the cozy confines of Mr Merrill's Studio Bee in order to fine tune and polish these little songs over a couple of fine fermented beverages? It's damn uplifting, I tell you.

First order of mixing business was the title track, which is actually the last song on the record (I said it was fun; I never said it was orderly). This song means a lot to me, since it's built around a true story (unlike the majority of my material which is gleaned from unsubstantiated rumours and bald-faced lies). The Ride Of Our Lives tells the story of my mother, Jean, and her best friend, Mary, growing up together in post-war England, and how their friendship endured into adulthood. Although my mother remained in England, and Mary ended up marrying an American and settled in the US, their lives (and the lives of their children) remained entwined. Mary's American husband would become my Godfather, and in case anyone wants to point fingers, it was his invitation for me to come over to America, back in 1978, that resulted in me actually moving here.

Acoustic guitar-based, with a dash of mandolin, this might be the folkiest-sounding concoction I've come up with yet. No apologies there though; the lyrics almost insisted upon it, really. I'll admit that early on in the recording process, I was a little concerned that it might sound a little too fake-Celtic or something, but I've stopped worrying about it. Instead, I'd rather focus on how thrilled I am with the viola part that Nashville-based string maestro, Tim Lorsch, added to the song. I'd originally asked him for a fiddle track, and he suggested using a viola instead. It ended up adding a nice plaintive touch of melancholy that seems to suit the song perfectly. Having said that, if any reviewer does end up levelling the fake-Celtic barb at this effort, Tim will, of course, get the blame.

The next one up was "Come Back", which is to be the opening song on the record. Lyrically, this one has me looking back at Old Blighty (again) and sprang from me thinking about my decision to leave, all those years ago. They say you can never go back, and Lord knows I'm not going to argue with that, but it is a bit of a deep and murky issue for me, and one that I have trouble dealing with, and articulating. So, I did what any self-respecting, repressed Englishman would do: I trivialised and made light of it by dressing it up as a 4-minute disposable poppy-folk song.

I have to say that Brian did an admirable job of blending in Ed's snazzy, foraging electric guitar embellishments and assorted atmospherics in order to tart up what otherwise is another rather stark, acoustic guitar song (anyone noticing a trend here?) Truth be told, I'm really pleased with how this one came out, and am particularly proud of the fact that I managed to work references to both steam trains and Slade, into one song. It makes little sense of course, but it makes me happy. Giddy, even.

Meanwhile, my old Headlights comrade-in-arms, Steve Connelly, has worked his usual magic over at Zen Recording, mixing track #3 for the record. This one's called Bed Of Nails, which is one I've had kicking around for a while. In fact, it was originally intended for "Undercurrent" but it never got finished. The drum track (courtesy of the charming and talented Chuck Darling) actually dates from the Undercurrent sessions, and like everything Chuck does, it makes me giddy. 

This week we'll be mixing the final two songs: Middle of Life, and Riddles. Middle of Life is another folky one, and is an homage to my ballroom dancing expertise. Ok, it's really not, but it is in 3/4 time, waltz you very much.  Once again featuring the mighty Tim Lorsch with his acrobatic fiddle, along with the sublime Miss Emma Robinson on some sweet backing vocals, it also has the term "glottal stop" inserted into the first verse. Giddy? Yep.

As for Riddles? Well, it's one I've yet to figure out.

Good times, clean rhymes and riddles

Be kind, don't lie or

Fiddle about (don't shout!)

We'll tell you what you need to know

Not what you want to hear

Listen to me

I sound just like you

Old ways, long days to dally

New toys, old boys

Carrying on, with bells on

Tell us what we need to know

Not what we want to hear

Listen to you

You sound just like me

Feel your heart break

Back in the neighbourhood

The faces we make

Sometimes stay that way for good

Good times, clean rhymes and riddles

©2011 Across The Water Music (BMI)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part 6)

For this pasty-faced adolescent in the UK, David Bowie's appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1972 was a bit of a life-changer. And what an appearance it was; I'd certainly never seen or heard anything like it. I had no idea what hazy cosmic jive was, but the minute he sang of it, whatever it was, I wanted a piece of it. Amid the New Seekers and Donny Osmond-strewn pop landscape, it felt a bit like an alien had landed in the living room to save us all. Nothing would be the same again. 

The next day, I went into town, marched into WH Smith's record department and plonked down two pounds and nineteen pence for a copy of The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars, the album from whence Starman came. It was the first album I ever bought, and listening to it today still thrills me to no end. 

It's funny, this is the only record I remember everyone in our house being in agreement on. My sister fell for it hard, and quickly took to pasting pictures of the Starman himself over every square inch of her bedroom walls. Amusingly enough, a glance or two at our old family photo albums from the 70s suggests that she may have even been looking to him for makeup and hair-colouring tips, but we'll not go into that, just in case she decides to offer up retaliatory photographic evidence of my one-time predilection for gaily colored platform-soled footwear. 

My dad loved Ziggy, too, and I'd often catch him listening to it on his headphones. He'd usually have his eyes closed, but every now and then he'd look over, raise his eyebrows and point at the gooseflesh on his forearms during one of the many spine-tingling moments on the album, as if to let me know that he really was getting it. It tickles me now, to think of this man whose listening habits had previously revolved around Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass and easy listening icons like Bert Kaempfert and James Last, sitting in his recliner, all blissed-out in his own private moonage daydream. Brilliant.

Even my mum was in on the act. She had little time for most of the music I'd listen to, but for some reason, something about the Ziggy Stardust record tickled her ear. She always used to say - "I like something I can 'la-la-la' to", which was her way of saying that she was only interested in easily digestible, and easily hummable, melodies. As a result, her musical diet was generally very white-bread, leaning towards cabaret-style acts like Englebert Humperdink, Tony Orlando & Dawn, and maybe even a little Neil Diamond (if she was in an edgier mood). I think the closest she got to anything remotely exotic was a little daffy Euro-pap from a continental crooner like Sasha Distel (don't ask), so the fact that Ziggy grabbed her, says something. I don't know what it says, exactly, but in retrospect, I love the fact that she looked past the glam space alien schtick and simply enjoyed the noise that Bowie was making. I suppose that Starman, with its catchy "La-la-la-la..." refrain, literally fit her musical requirements, while for me, an impressionable young teen recently armed with his first guitar, it marked the arrival of a whole slew of new ones.