Friday, 31 August 2007

Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof

Booze & music. Music & booze. Inextricably linked since the Neolithic inhabitants of China first brewed "a consistently processed beverage made from rice, honey and a fruit" ( New Scientist ) 9,000 years ago, and proceeded to serenade their fellow villagers with the earliest known rendition of "The Wild Rover".

"DRINK!", as the wise Father Jack used to put it with such eloquence and fervour, has a long and noble history as a source of creative inspiration for composers, a refuge for under-appreciated musicians, and an often deeply-unfortunate inhibition-remover for audience members worldwide - but more on that topic later.

Are we obsessed with the stuff? Quite possibly - alcohol (in its many guises) rates third in popularity in a search of the BMI title index with over 3,000 entries. The only subjects that come ahead of it are religion ("Jesus" & "God" combined score 23,800 titles) and that hoary (sometimes downright whore-y) old favourite, lurrrrve (a whopping 41,734). There might well, of course, be some overlap between these categories - someone (most likely American), somewhere (oooh, I'd hazard a guess at: in America), has almost certainly penned a dire country offering with a title like "The only thing I love more'n whiskey is Jesus", so please feel free to treat these statistics with the justifiable derision they so richly deserve.

One thing I learned about drinking and gigging early on as a "working" musician - don't piss your wages straight back into the pub/hotel bank account. That's very, very silly, and also makes it far slower & harder to load all the gear back into the van at the end of the night - often a time when all you want to do is get as far away as possible from whichever "Plastic Paddy" green-tat-festooned nightmare you've been playing in that night, as fast as your van-packing skills will get you. I'm not saying don't touch the stuff at all, just be miserly with your own money! That way you drink only in moderation (better for waistline/liver and staying one step ahead of that persistent drunk punter who is determined to engage you in a conversation about the night Eric Clapton [substitute legendary figure appropriate to your locality & musical genre] turned up at the bar, but wouldn't let the guy have a go on his guitar...), and you might dissuade one or two of the worst audience requests (for me it has to be "American Pie" - apologies for fans of that particular epic of symbolism & allusion, but it ISN'T deep & meaningful, and it drones on for waaaaaay too long) if you suggest that the price of choosing is a pint. Never ask for a whisky, by the way, because you'll be stuck with a glass of Glenfiddich engine-degreaser, rather than the Springbank you were after.

I know that there's a long tradition in jazz, celtic folk & rock - well, in all forms of music (have you ever seen how much booze an entire orchestra can put away? Ouch!) of over-indulgence on a vast scale, but that's only sustainable if you're famous enough to be able to afford both the drink/drugs, and the medical aftercare. Not so great when you're doing micro-tours of the Highlands (2 pub gigs, a wedding, and a charity fundraiser) in a clapped-out Mercedes van that the guitarist has christened "Morrison" (I know), and which has an accelerator pedal linkage that's held together with an elasticated hairband (it stayed like that for over a year, I seem to recall).

The greatest problem with booze, however, definitely comes from the gig-factor over which you have least control - your audience. Quite apart from the occasional acts of senseless violence (and they were rare), whether it's been watching someone fall asleep on the dance floor at a ceilidh (while we were playing), throwing stocious eejits off the stage at "Johnny Foxes" in Inverness (a particularly dangerous place for your drunk-who-likes-a-boogie - the stage was about 3 inches high, and the pub was almost always heaving - the perfect recipe for someone to fall against a mic stand, ramming the mic into the singer's face...), or having to face the wrath of a hen party scorned (we couldn't/wouldn't play their favourite chart (s)hits), seeing the effects of alcohol on otherwise (mostly) normal people can really put you off the stuff...(that, and for me an Outdoors Emergency First Aid course I went on years ago - "What to do when you're halfway up a hill miles from anywhere, and come across someone who's impaled themselves on a handy fence", that sort of thing - apparently it happens to skiers surprisingly often. The instructor told us that when you're drunk, medically you're regarded as "technically unconscious". Then she started giving spectacularly graphic examples of stupid & grotesque ways people had died/lost limbs/etc while being "technically unconscious", which made lunch distinctly less palatable.)

For sheer numbers, nowhere was worse than Aberdeen. There used to be (haven't been there in a while - it might have changed, if they're lucky) the equivalent of Edinburgh's Rose Street, Lothian Road, and Leith Walk all crammed into a tiny area less than half-a-mile across (i.e. more pubs/nightclubs/drunks than could ever be considered strictly necessary or in any way desirable). We played regularly (several times a month at one point) in the city, chiefly in O'Donoghue's in Justice Mill Lane...

The gigs themselves were usually fine - O'Don's always meant great staff, lively crowd, and decent money (!), although there was one memorable occasion where a large, and completely pickled, ex-police dog-handler developed a sudden & strangely aggressive attraction to our fiddler, and demanded we played the above mentioned "Wild Rover" unceasingly until we finally gave in (the fiddler was getting scared). She then promptly forgot that it had happened, and started demanding it again, only louder (her, not us). (She hung around after the gig, too, trying to entice the fiddle-player into a night of passion round at her place. He did the decent thing and ran away & hid, the big feartie).

The real difficulties started afterwards. Loading the van usually went reasonably smoothly (once you've mastered the technique of holding a large p.a. speaker at arms' length above your head, people tend not to stand around blocking doorways, etc, so much - ah, the joys of applied weightlifting), but by the time you were done, the entire street would be filled with the legions of the rat-arsed, all seemingly completely unaware of our large, ugly, and potentially lethal motor vehicle. Or anything else, come to that. So you were stuck, occasionally having to repel boarders who thought, for reasons known only to themselves and the manufacturers of alcopops, that our big blue heap of rust and Radweld was a taxi.

Once, when we'd finally negotiated our way out of the screaming (why does booze make people temporarily deaf?), snogging, and puking (sometimes in that order) masses, and made it out onto Union Street, we met our ultimate Aberdonian Rubber Loon (ARL) walking down the middle of the road. Now, we've all seen cartoons where a tree, or something similar, is falling, and a less-than-genius-in-the-smarts-department character (for the sake of this example, Daffy Duck), is trying to avoid it. Instead of doing the obvious, and taking a small step to left or right, Daffy runs, panicking, in a completely straight line until the very end of the tree bounces off his noggin. Well, that's what the ARL did, with our van playing the part of the tree.

He stared at us in horror, turned, nearly fell over, then stumbled into a terrified, arms-flailing run as we drove along at less than 10 mph behind him. Time and again we tried to get him to change course, but every flash of our lights, every honk of the horn, wave or shout only spurred him on to greater efforts - while we were getting dog's abuse from drivers stuck behind us, who couldn't see what the ARL was up to. He just kept glancing wildly over his shoulder while frantically trying to escape from the snorting demon truck his poor sozzled brain took us for.

To our relief, he eventually collapsed sideways onto the pavement from sheer exhaustion, and we could finally escape the old "Granite City" (it's the greyest and dullest place in Scotland - especially on a wet Sunday in November ), but if he'd been any fitter (or drinking pitchers of Red Bull & vodka, perhaps?) we might have been following him till we got past Stonehaven.

Slainte Mhathe! (Mine's a Port Ellon, by the way - make it a double, I'm not driving)


Oh dear, oh dear. Some very slack research by me, I'm afraid. A nagging thought struck me earlier today, and I confirmed it with a quick search of the BMI just now for songs about "happy". Alas, I was right in my suspicions - 6292 titles popped out, which rises to just over 7,000 if you add "happiness" as a variation. And then a further search involving "sad" & "sadness" gave 3,455 results, which knocks alcohol down another notch.

All just goes to show I shouldn't write this stuff quite during late-night insomnia sessions.


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