Thursday, 6 March 2014

An Album, 2 E.P's And Other Things I Never Got Round To

I went to bed early that night.
The words which I'd read in the morning had stayed with me all day.

'You don’t know anyone at the party, so you don’t want to go. You don’t like cottage cheese, so you haven’t eaten it in years. This is your choice, of course, but don’t kid yourself: it’s also the flinch.
Your personality is not set in stone. You may think a morning coffee is the most enjoyable thing in the world, but it’s really just a habit. Thirty days without it, and you would be fine. You think you have a soul mate, but in fact you could have had any number of spouses. You would have evolved differently, but been just as happy.

You can change what you want about yourself at any time. You see yourself as someone who can’t write or play an instrument, who gives in to temptation or makes bad decisions, but that’s really not you. It’s not ingrained. It’s not your personality. Your personality is something else, something deeper than just preferences, and these details on the surface, you can change anytime you like.

If it is useful to do so, you must abandon your identity and start again. Sometimes, it’s the only way.
Set fire to your old self. It’s not needed here. It’s too busy shopping, gossiping about others, and watching days go by and asking why you haven’t gotten as far as you’d like. This old self will die and be forgotten by all but family, and replaced by someone who makes a difference.

Your new self is not like that. Your new self is the Great Chicago Fire—overwhelming, overpowering, and destroying everything that isn’t necessary.'

-Julien Smith-

I'd come across it on some Tumblr blog, had no idea who Julien Smith was, and although it teetered on the verge of being overly-dramatic, it had, nevertheless, struck a chord.

And it had made me think of him. The person that a younger me had imagined he would always be.

The notebook I took from the bedside table's only drawer had an opaque blue plastic cover. Pocket-sized and ring-bound, it had been perfect for tucking in an empty space in a cycle pannier. A tatty sticker still stuck to the bottom right corner: 'A6 notebook. Narrow ruled. 80 leaves. Made in the UK by Thomas Wyatt, Manchester, M11 3HB.'

I'd bought it from Woolworth's in 1999, and for most of the last fifteen years it had lay discarded, unread in the bottom of a bag, somewhere in a cardboard box or stuffed behind some socks, Lightning's first football kit and the floppy hat I wore on my BG Round at the back of a bedside table drawer.

The intention - the reason for buying the book - had been simple. I'd use it to record a journey, to tell the story of a trip. It would be something I could look back on in the future when I fancied reminiscing.

This little book was supposed to record an adventure - a three-month solo ride on a cheap silver bike from Sydney to Perth over the turn of the millenium. What it actually recorded was something totally different.

I'd not read it for a long time, and although I vaguely remembered odd fragments of stories and sketches I'd written back then, I was genuinely surprised at what I found within its pages. For although it started off conventionally enough with a notated description of 'Day One, Kingsford - Bundeena', it rapidly degenerated into a verbal collage of everything else that had been important to me:

Endless words about Tammy, who I'd met just months previously ('Perhaps I'll ask her to marry me?');

First paragraphs of the children's books I imagined I might write in the future ('No-one likes to be laughed at, but Billy Maybe got laughed at so much, he'd almost, just almost, learnt to ignore it.
Billy Maybe was exactly the same as you or me - inside, that is - but his appearance marked him out and made him the butt of everyone's jokes. For the whole of the left side of his face was covered in a strawberry red birthmark.
'It's a special mark,' his Mum used to tell him. 'It means you're different - not better - but individual, Billy. There's only one of you, Billy Maybe, and I'm so proud that you're my son.'
Billy would smile when his Mum said that, stop crying. 'There's only one of you, Billy Maybe,' he'd say to himself time and time again, 'There's only one of you.'
But when the other children started pointing and laughing, he forgot these words, and wished, harder than he'd ever wished for anything else, that he was just the same as them.');

Plot outlines for an imaginary 70's detective show, 'Basil Israel, Esperance Lawyer';

Isolated phrases from who-knows-where ('A rock feels no pain and an island never cries', 'Sherbet to Skyhooks, Lost in the 70's.');

Hastily scrawled band names and song titles that I'd heard on my personal radio and had blew me away (Tim Rogers - Happy Anniversary, Ice Cream Hands - Nipple, Augie March - The Mothball E.P., REM - The Great Beyond, Elvis Costello - New Amsterdam...);

And woven in between all of this, the story of a musician - a banjo-playing rock-star - and his comically-named band.

No-one's ever heard of Chris Rainbow and The Folk Country Hi-fi Soul Combo. That's hardly surprising since they never existed. I've never written a song. Never learned to play an instrument. In real life, that is. But not in my head.

Back then, that was where I was. For three months of sometimes inspiring, sometimes painful solitude, I became someone else - someone I could be (if only in my imagination), simply because there was no-one around to tell me different. I lived out a whole fictional life over 3000 miles of pedaling. By the time I reached the west coast, it had sparked, burned so brightly, then turned to ashes. After an album and 2 E.P's, The Folk Country Hi-fi Soul Combo had realised their time was up and gone their different ways. I'd changed musical direction too, as well as my name - 'Filter Disco by Bernard Wondercloud' - but that's a whole different story not ready for telling right now.

There's that phrase people use: 'You can't have you cake and eat it.' It's said to put you in your place - to condition you to a mindset that dictates you should be happy with your lot.

As I get older, I often reflect on my good fortune. I've spent a lifetime having and eating more cake than I thought possible. I've a Home, a girl I love and two beautiful children. But there's something else that's always there - the burning feeling that I've described before - the burning feeling that's led me to disaster and guided me gently towards salvation. The voice of The Capuccino Kid:

'We have this one brief life - this last chance - and then we are gone, and an opportunity lost is an eternity of regret.'

 The motto around which I live my life. The wisest words ever written.

It was late when I finished my Australia Diary. Tired, but excited, I settled down to sleep knowing that tomorrow would be slightly different to any one of my 17,000 other days.

Tomorrow would be the day I started doing the Things I Never Got Round To.

I wake just after 8, but exhaustion weighs me down, making it impossible to drag myself out of bed. I'd missed a full night's sleep on Friday at the High Peak Marathon, and despite a good 10 hours last night, this Sunday morning still feels fuzzy. I listen to the radio for a bit, read some of my book and drink the tea that Tam brings me. Well past 9, I eventually muster the energy to go downstairs.

Scrolling through Facebook whilst eating my breakfast, it's not long till I'm drawn to the padded black carrying case behind the settee. There's nothing else I'd rather do for the next half-hour. I go over, unzip it and take out my brand new Ozark 5-string banjo. Pulling out my thumb and finger picks from a side pocket, I settle myself down on the sofa and start to play.

It's over a week since it arrived, and up till now I've kept my promise of practising a little every day. As a total beginner, YouTube tutorials have been a godsend, and I start to run through the basic drills they've taught me. Forward and backward rolls on an open fret, followed by alternating thumb rolls. Strumming from an open fret to a D7 chord and back again. Rolls over the D7 and C chords. It's difficult, but as rewarding as anything I've ever done, and I'm getting a bit quicker all the while. For the first time in my life, I'm learning to play a musical instrument.

After 10 minutes, Tam comes in. 'Bloody hell!' she goes, 'When you going to learn to play a different tune?'

'It's not a tune,' I tell her, all defensive. 'It's just practice.' Just wait - I'll show her!

Lightning pipes up. 'I'm learning a new tune at school, Dad.' He's been learning to play the guitar since September. 'I'll go and get it.' As he scoots upstairs, I try and guess what the song will be. Something basic and straight-forward, I'd imagine - 'Three Blind Mice' or 'She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain'. A minute later, he's stood before me and handing over three sheets of A4. 'Here you go Dad.'

I take them off him and have a look. It's proper music - notes on lines, treble clefs, the lot. 'Whoa! I didn't know you could read music now!' I say.

He just looks at me, puzzled. 'Well, I am learning to play the guitar.'

I look at the song title. 'Back in Black'. No, don't know that one. The only 'Back in Black' I know is the AC/DC song.

I hand it back over. 'Don't know that one, mate,' I tell him.

'Oh, I thought you would, Dad - it's an AC/DC song!'

Suddenly, the pride over my musical achievements are put firmly into place. I've spent a whole week practising the same drills with only minimal improvement. My 12-year old boy has been playing guitar for less than 6 months and is already rocking AC/DC tunes. I sigh as he turns to head back upstairs. 'Hey, fancy a little run later?' I ask him before he disappears.

'Ok,' he replies.

Almost immediately, Whirlwind whizzes in. (She doesn't like to miss out.) 'Can I have a go, Dad?'

'Course you can,' I say and pass the banjo over. She rests it on her lap and I teach her the basic forward backward roll. Within minutes, she's cracked it and is playing at the speed it's taken me a week to reach.

'You're getting better, Babe!' Tam shouts to me from the kitchen. I look back down at Whirlwind, absorbed in what she's doing, and shrug my shoulders.

'Thanks, Tam!' I shout back. 'It must be all this practice I'm doing.'



'Our Modern Traditions'   Chris Rainbow and The Folk Country Hi-fi Soul Combo

Soon everyone will have heard his story. Whether his record crosses over to huge mainstream success, or remains a precious, undiscovered gift, in the vein of Dexy's third album - highly rated, but never heard - remains to be seen.

Chris Rainbow set out from Sydney, Australia in December 1999 on a bicycle. In order to finance his travels, he secured from ABC Radio National a grant of $10,000 on the pretext of creating an audio documentary of Native Australian music. For the next two years, he was invisible. When Rainbow eventually re-emerged in October 2001 at the Perth Triple J offices, it was together with 37 assembled musicians - his Combo - and the demo of this extra-ordinary album.

In the words of its creator, 'Our Modern Traditions' is a 'rustic symphony'. Eschewing the rules of the modern 'rock' or 'pop' record, it's almost certainly unlike anything you've ever heard. Split between the four sides of a double LP, the 'songs' (I use that word loosely) are mostly instrumental, run in and out of each other, and are underpinned by the repeated melodic tour-de-force of the 'Banjo Vibes' refrain.

Listening to this record is truly an epiphany - calming, intoxicating and ultimately heart-breaking. The dark moments we all know are explored and scored in almost sentimental beauty. 'You took the world from me,' Rainbow sings in 'Floors', 'Closed every door, Left me with ceilings that will always be floors.' Everyone has experienced these feelings, but no-one has sound-tracked them so perfectly.

'Our Modern Traditions' is an important record. It's not perfect - at 86 minutes, it's a little too long, and odd moments are too steeped in McCartney/Bacharach territory - but if you need one record this year to fall in love to, split up to, make love to, cry to, this is it.


On the first day of doing The Things I Never Got Round To, it was obvious what my first priority would be. I'd never realistically wished to be a rock-star, but I'd always fancied the idea of playing an instrument. It was Sean O'Hagan who started my banjo fixation. In 1996, his band, The High Llamas, released possibly the most perfect LP of all time  - 'Hawaii'. For months after it's release, I listened to nothing else. When they played Nottingham and Leicester on consecutive nights, me and Our Kid were at both gigs. It's true to say we were obsessed. The banjo-led vibes of 'Nomads' and 'Sparkle Up' led us to their earlier recordings, and then onto the Smile-era Beach Boys out-takes on which they'd based their sound. And, I suppose, it was this that led me to my album and 2 E.P's of Folk Country Hi-fi Soul.

Some people make 'bucket lists'. I don't. I hate the phrase. The things you tend to see on these lists are stuff like, 'See the pyramids. Swim with a dolphin. Go on a cruise.' Stuff, really, that any old Tom, Dick or Dora could do if they wanted, given some spare time and a bulging bank account.

Rather than a 'bucket list', I've always had 'Things I'd Like To Do'. I suppose what makes them different is that none of them can really be bought. All need hard work to achieve. It's probably this factor that has tended to make what's left on my 'Things I'd Like To Do' list pretty much the same as The Things I Never Got Round To.

There's a laziness - or a certain apprehension - in me that encourages me to stick to the things that I know I'm good at and find easy. That's the reason why my current list of The Things I Never Got Round To is so large. A fair few are outside of my comfort zone. The majority of them involve sacrifice, patience, practice and determination. When faced with this, I've been surprisingly good at coming up with excuses for most of my adult life.

As time goes on, however, the sound of the ticking clock gets louder. It was only after reading my Australia diary that I truly realised that all of my excuses were worth nothing. If I was to put the icing on that cake I've enjoyed having and eating over a lifetime, it would be now that I'd start to do the things I'd always wanted to, but could never, honestly, be bothered to do.

Learning to play the banjo would be just the first.

A run's the last thing I want, to be honest - but I've a promise to keep.

It's freezing outside and blowing a gale. I zip my coat to the top, pull down my hat and pull up my gloves. Look over to Lightning. 'Ready then?'

It takes me till the end of the road before my running action becomes vaguely normal. Stiff-legged, awkward and just so tired, I vainly hope that things will improve somewhere into our 4 mile loop.

By the time we hit the drain-side, my legs feel slightly better, but the headwind makes forward progress painfully slow. Funnily enough, I'd felt ok back at Edale village hall yesterday morning. The last 24 hours though have obviously colluded against me. I'll be glad when we're back.

Only a year ago on our runs together, I'd be the one conscious about keeping the pace easy. 'Ok, mate?' I'd keep asking, checking things weren't too much for a growing 11-year old body. Now, it seems, the tables are turned. In front of me, Lightning's striding easily - no gloves, no socks, shorts and unzipped jacket flapping around as always, despite the chilly weather. He looks round now and again. 'Ok, Dad?' he keeps asking, checking things aren't too much for an ailing 46-year old body.

After 20 minutes of the sort of talk that only seems to get talked on a run (Dad - you know people's eyes can be all sorts of colours - blue, green, brown - yeah? Well, why don't people have red eyes?), we arrive at the footbridge. From here, the footpath goes straight up the hill and down the other side. As I struggle to get my legs over the stile, however, I'm certain that any uphill running is off my agenda today. 'I'm sticking to the field edge,' I tell Lightning, 'It's flat.'

'Ok,' he replies, unfazed. 'I'll run up the hill and meet you at the road.' Off he goes. It's like he's been let free. As my body groans into slow-mo action, I watch him sprint up the hill - effortless, joyful, yellow jacket billowing behind him like a superhero's cape.

There are the odd days when I feel like that too, I try to convince myself.



Last night...

And a morning all about last night. A morning when you lie, wallow, repeating last night, making it worse, unable to stop yourself - like switching to rum and cokes when you're already pissed.

Drowning in the recollection of unnecessary cocktails and the wrong words. Words that, once spoken, can never be taken back. Sinking in the memories of fights with best friends. And of the girl you love, loved, leaving.

Through the blur of self- pity and half-light, I realise I've work to do, deadlines to meet. I look through the mail for anything that might take away the scenes that keep playing, things I'd rather not see, things I'd rather forget. Amongst the junk and brown envelopes, there's a parcel of this week's releases for review. Opening it, I find the standard indie fare, the odd possible pop gem, and an E.P., the title of which intrigues me. Chris Rainbow and his ridiculously-named band (when is he going to change it?) - 'The Stones With Holes E.P.' I lazily scan the plain orange cover. Dedicated to the memory of Donny Hathaway, it contains just one piece of music - 'A Requiem For A lost Day' - 46 minutes long and split into three 'moods' - 'Morning', 'Afternoon', 'Evening'. Same clever, clever bollocks, I think. Pretentious twats.

I'd never rated them. Their last mess of a record just moved over me, not through me. But I take the disc, put it in the stereo, press play and lie on the floor. And, in no time at all, I now understand.

'Morning'...blissful and forlorn, a mute trumpet filtered down to a single, faultless ray of sound... a sun clouded by an oboe as deep as October...strains of Chet Baker's 'My Funny Valentine' tune in and out on a forgotten short-wave radio...a morning after a night you'd rather forget, but need to remember, dive into, immerse yourself in before things  can get better.

'Morning' moves into 'Afternoon'...languid jazz...the pureness of a piano's minor keys drifting through a breeze of percussion which shimmers the surface of smooth waters, crystalising loneliness with a French horn's plaintive, desperate call.

'Evening' comes...a whole day lived in a matter of minutes...a Spanish guitar winding spirals of bats around skyscrapers...the comforting medicine of a baritone saxophone, reassuring you that when you awaken from this dream, things will be fine...mellow, warm, subtly uplifting.

And then the kiss-off. A young girl's voice implores:

'It may be heavy in here
 But nothing's so bad
 You can't turn it around.
 Stay a while
 Lift these stones
 For these are stones with holes.'

The disc finishes.

I awaken from a dream. And I know - I don't know how, but I do. I know that things will be fine. 

Reviewed by Ian Orr.

'The Stones With Holes E.P' (Book Early Recordings) is out now.

My promise of practising the banjo every day immediately stirred another latent desire. Something else I've never got round to, but this time, not through want of trying.

On 20th December 1964, when The Beatles 'I Feel Fine' topped the charts and 'Z-Cars' was the most popular show on the nation's two TV channels, Ron Hill - an international marathon runner, aged 24 - went for a run. On each day since, he's done the same thing. By the end of this year, he'll have run every day for 50 years, clocking up over 160,000 miles - or more than half-way to the moon.

Americans call Ron Hill's behaviour 'streaking'. They even have a club for streakers. The United State's Running Streak Association lists 435 currently active run streakers. Top of the list is Jon Sutherland, who's run an average of 11 miles per day since 26th May 1969.

From November 2009, I strung together a run everyday until Christmas. Once I reached Christmas, I read an article documenting how detrimental running every day was for training and performance. It was then that I'd decided to carry on to complete a calendar year.

By October 2010, a good running year had come almost to a halt. Nursing a serious chest infection that lasted for weeks, I'd continued to get out every day, fully aware now - physically, as well as in theory - that this streak was almost killing me. Eleven months in, I gave up. It's a decision I've done nothing but regret since. Instead of running every day for a year being one of the dumb things I'd always wanted to do and eventually succeeded in doing, it just became another of The Things I Never Got Round To.

I think it's time for that to change.

February 22nd 2014 was my new Day One. Until February 21st 2015, I'll run at least 2 miles each day.

This time the result will be different.

I'd rung Our Kid from the airport after Christmas, and one of the first things he mentioned was a post by Brendan Leonard on Leonard had decided to follow two resolutions during 2014:

1. Do Things
2. Make Things.

Our Kid, he informed me, was going to follow his lead by doing something productive or creative everyday. It didn't have to be something big - it didn't need to take a great deal of time - the important thing was to do it each day.

In the car, on the way home, I'd decided that I would write each day. That would be my New Year's resolution.

And I tried. For a while. Then gave up.

But now, I'm here again. This time, I've a purpose.

Runners keep training diaries, right? And a run every day means I should record it each day. Jot down details in this hard-backed book I've bought for the purpose. That's how I start each time. Sometimes the words just stop - all I'm left with is a factual paragraph of an ordinary or extra-ordinary run.

Sometimes, though, something else happens. The run stuff is just a warm up. And once I'm writing - once I'm there - I find I can't stop. Ideas. Stories. All sorts of rubbish. Like that Australia diary (I've a lot to thank it for.)

And so I write. I write about this afternoon's run with Lightning. I write about this morning's banjo practice. And a title appears - 'An Album, 2 E.P's and Other Things I Never Got Round To.' And a story...

I need to get it down, words on paper, while it's here.

Black biro on A4 loose leaf.

'I went to bed early that night...



'The Magpie E.P.'

Chris Rainbow and The Folk Country Hi-fi Soul Combo return later this month with an E.P. which pays tribute to their favourite song-writers. Originally set aside for the aborted 'Fans' album, these songs borrow the themes, the feelings and the emotional scenery of the artists most important to the Combo, and represent them in their own style.

'Coalmine Beach'
The E.P.'s true, all-out-summer-pop-gem. Think 'Here Comes The Sun' crossed with 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer.' In a fantasy-land where everything's possible, Rainbow spins out the scene over gorgeous Beach Boy harmonies:
'Turn left at Eastwood,
 Straight on till the sun's in reach,
 Second exit at the round-about,
 That's where you'll find it - Coalmine Beach.'
Wildly optimistic, gloriously dumb, and - finally - a proper song. Their very own 'Wake Up Boo!', this could break them chart-wise, or (as in the case of The Boo Radleys) predict their ultimate demise.

A funereal, brooding electronic portrait borrowing heavily from Bowie and Eno's 'Low' compositions. Drawing you in slowly, but leaving you vaguely unsatisfied.

'Caravan Of Power'
An oddity, utterly ridiculous, strangely subversive. A modern jewel. Over the backdrop of The Brighouse and Rastrick Colliery Band's pastoral brass accompaniment, the narrator delivers a laconic and deadpan account of a two day caravanning holiday to Fleetwood, Lancashire.
'We towed the caravan of power
 A few miles past the Tower
 Set up camp on a seaside site
 Walked around the slots at night.'
Not since The Velvet Underground's 'The Gift' has there been a 'story song' so senseless and compelling.

'Like Smilla'
Apparently named after the icy heroine of Peter Hoeg's acclaimed novel, 'Like Smilla' steals melodically from Aztec Camera's 'We Could Send Letters'. A full-on love song, it's just too cute to impress. Pretty, but pointless.

'Back For Good'
After provoking widespread disbelief when naming Gary Barlow as 'perhaps the most important composer of the 90's' in a recent London Evening Standard interview, Rainbow stays true to his words with a cover of what many regard as Take That's finest moment.
Stripping back instrumentation, and accompanied only by banjo and piano, Rainbow lends this an emotional rawness that is almost too much to take. When you've lost everything and it seems like there's no way back, some of us turn to songs. Rainbow sings the words with the desperation that they, in themselves, will make things change.
We all know they won't.

By the time I hit my middle teens, I was already running 50 miles a week. Although I was immersed in music, I never really expected to become a musician (although, surely, I'd learn to play an instrument some day?) With writing, however, it was different. I wrote a lot - to escape, to make sense, to become invisible, to be someone - religiously keeping a journal (which I'd continue to do until my 30's.) And somewhere in my future, I was sure, I would be a writer. I would write a book. Not a best-seller, but a book that would change the lives of  kids out there just like me.

I spent much of my spare time in 1995 trying to write a novel ('The Apple Chorus' - a terrible Brit-Pop influenced rehash of Poalo Hewitt's 'Heaven's Promise'), but eventually became disenchanted. My best writing only came when I was in dark places. The act of writing itself grew to paralyse me.

By the time I set off to cycle across Australia, I'd already been to the point of no-return, but had come back. Writing no longer scared me. I'd started playing with words again, and my desire to write had been reignited. A children's book was now my aim. A sinister, moving and stupid allegorical tale that would work just as well for adults as the offspring they'd read it to.

The Australia diary scrapes the surface of a few ideas. What it doesn't document, however, is what happened in Mount Gambier. For at a small, independent book store in that town, I bought John Irving's novel, 'A Widow For One Year'. Although far from my favourite Irving book, it contained within it's pages a children's story written by the character, Ted Cole. 'A Sound Like Someone Trying Not To Make A Sound' was the story I'd been dreaming of writing. Irving had already written it - and not even as a stand-alone story (it's since been released as so), but a throw-away story hidden in the pages of his latest adult novel. He'd done it brilliantly, too - much better than I knew I ever could. The bastard.

I gave up again.

The last few years have frittered by. I've written the odd Christmas story for the Superheroes, and creating a blog has been good for both my creativity and my sanity. However, writing something 'proper' has always got away from me.

This year, I will try and start putting this right. As yet, I've no idea of the shape that it will take, but the discipline of writing (something, anything) each day, I'm hoping, might serve as a springboard to something worthwhile.

My life is, generally , great. And I wonder why my list of The Things I Never Got Round To is so big.

Never satisfied? Maybe.

Restless and suspicious of the inertia of 'contentment'? Probably.

Or is it something else? Just the plain old desire to squeeze every drop out of this thing called life? To set fire to my old self and be replaced by someone who makes a difference?

There's plenty of Things I Never Got Round To. But they've now become a pile of Things I Will Get Round To. A Paddy Buckley, a Ramsey, the National Trails, the Wainwright tops, a beard, a song, a handstand. There's loads more, and although I've got time, I've probably not got as much as I'd like to think.

Right now, though, I've got three to be getting on with.

Humans, like water, seek the path of least resistance. Accept it, and this path becomes your life. Sleep-walk through your days. Convince yourself you're happy. Embrace what you're given, but demand nothing else. Wave goodbye to the things you never got round to, and now never will.

Or wake up.

It doesn't have to be this way,

Does it?