Saturday at the Hideout

And so I wake in the morning // And I step outside // And I take a deep breath and I get real high // And I scream from the top of my lungs // What’s going on?

It’s Carol Service week at our church. Carol Service fortnight, really. In my world, this means longer hours – prepping, planning, emailing, video editing, and picking up kit. Crossing task after task off the to-do list, without the Tasks-Still-To-Do figure seeming to reduce at all.

It’s late morning on Saturday. Nicola is probably at the Cameo watching a foreign subtitled documentary about a year in the life of a rural French primary school teacher.

Money’s too tight to mention // I can’t get an unemployment extension // Money’s too tight to mention.

I am ensconced in my new favourite coffee shop, in Leith, having picked up some hired sound equipment from the nearby Warehouse. Another thing off the list.

My new favourite coffee shop has those hipster lightbulbs hanging in the window, slightly oversized, with filaments glowing brightly enough to emanate a sense of warmth, without, probably, any actual warmth, and very little actual light. But they look great.

I just wanna dance the night away // With señoritas who can sway // Right now tomorrow’s lookin’ bright // Just like the sunny mornin’ light

The coffee is decent, and the almond croissants are epic.

Nailed to the wall are a cluster of box-shelves, housing a variety of historic museum pieces. There are a couple of old alarm clocks, an old telephone with one of those rotary dialling mechanisms, a gas lamp or two, and a hand-operated coffee grinder sitting alongside a stovetop espresso maker. It brings me a perverse sense of pleasure that I am using a museum-worthy method to make my coffee every morning.

It’s just a little crush (crush) // Not like I faint every time we touch // It’s just some little thing (crush) // Not like everything I do depends on you // Sha-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la

The place has an unmistakable whiff of nostalgia. It’s winter, and in the middle of the room, contravening all manner of health and safety regulations I imagine, is something I haven’t seen for a serious number of years. It’s what I want to call a Calor Gas heater, although I daresay that’s like calling all vacuum cleaners Hoovers.

But by far its most prominent nostalgia-inducer for a child of the 80s such as myself is a wall-full of stereo cassette decks. Some single, mostly twin, there’s even a TRIPLE for maximum-efficiency mixtape-making. And on another wall, sitting atop an emptied-out TV cabinet (now jammed full of cassettes), is the cafe’s working model, a white plastic Sharp with stickers proudly advertising its main features.

Continuous Play™. 2-way 4-speaker. 14W PMPO, for goodness’ sake. Made in Malaysia.

That’s what is providing the tunes. Right now it’s a Simple Minds number which I can’t quite remember the title of, and can’t quite hear the words to Google them, because they’re just a touch too muddy.

None of your digital multi-room wireless bluetooth remote app-controlled streaming devices here. Proper music, without too much bass OR treble to speak of, and, Continuous Play™ notwithstanding, the periodic need for a staff member to come and turn the tape over. 

Wake up it’s a beautiful morning // The sun shining for your eyes // Wake up it’s so beautiful // For what could be the very last time

I had a Sharp twin cassette deck myself, back in the day. Featured hi-speed dubbing as I recall. But what sold it to me way back then in 1989 was a fully separate subwoofer speaker, positioned on top, slightly off-centre, pointing upwards. “X-BASS” proudly emblazoned on the speaker grille. This speaker could be activated by pressing the almost magical X-BASS button, which brought a definite and noticeable additional boominess to the music, without any extra bass as such.

It was such an amazing machine that someone’s made a Youtube video about it.

Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere // That I can find you // Oh, now, // Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere that I can find you, oh no

It cost £100, and I saved up for it with my own pocket money. I remember using it to play Def Leppard’s Hysteria on repeat, and used it to record U2’s 1989 New Year’s concert – broadcast live on Radio 1 – as they brought in a whole new decade at the Point Depot, Dublin. Heady days.

So take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // Oh Lord, // ‘Cause I’ve been a prisoner all my life

It now seems to be Phil Collins on repeat. Nostalgia can put a gloss on only so much. Take me home, indeed.

Life in Music City

 

My good friend Kat emailed me from Edinburgh back in mid-February.

Subject: Good beards
Message: Avett Brothers @ Bridgestone Arena on 18 May

On seeing the subject I thought she had caught sight of my facial hair (an ill-advised experiment earlier this year) on Facebook and was writing to compliment me. It seems not. Kat has her finger on the musical pulse and goes to more shows than anyone else I know. She even knows the upcoming shows in Nashville, and emails me when she sees something coming up which will enhance my musical education.

I had never heard of the Avett Brothers, which is pretty much par for the course where her musical suggestions are concerned.

There is an abundance of live music in Nashville, as you might expect. But more than that, music pervades the culture, in such a way that they have guitars slung on the walls (and decent music playing overhead) in the grocery store. Overheard conversations at coffee shops will frequently reference technical aspects of record production. At any given restaurant your waiter or waitress is probably an exceptionally talented musician or singer waiting for a big break.

This can make life interesting for touring bands. My roommate informs me that artists hate playing Nashville, sometimes avoiding it altogether, because at any given show in the town, a significant proportion of the crowd will be professional, semi-professional or good amateur musicians, who stand with their arms crossed, and an attitude which screams “Go on then, impress me!”

And that makes sense.

But the enormously refreshing thing is that at church (at least at Grace Center) that attitude doesn’t seem to exist. At least not within the worship team, in my experience. I have never before come across a place where there was such a proliferation of phenomenally-talented musicians who were still excited by playing music and yet apparently indifferent to their own skill and achievements.

Last night was a case in point. Before our midweek worship service, the bass player, a former member of Sonicflood, recently back in Nashville after playing for several years with Jason Upton, and about to depart on a tour of Asia with Don Moen, asked our guitarist if he listened to bluegrass at all.

Our guitarist drawled “Yeah man, that’s mainly what I play.”

Bass player: “Ricky Skaggs? Man I grew up on that stuff.. Kentucky Thunder..”
Guitarist: “Yeah man, I played in that band for a year”
Bass player: “Whaaaaaaatt?!?”

And he starts looking around for a piece of paper and a pen to get his autograph. Half-jokingly. Conversation turns to Ricky Skaggs’ recent collaboration with Bruce Hornsby and the live album that ensued.

Guitarist again: “Aw man, I’m on that record somewhere.”
Bass player: “Are you SERIOUS?!?”
Guitarist: “I had no idea they were recording the shows until I got a cheque in the post and thought ‘What’s this?'”

Meanwhile the drummer, a successful recording artist in his own right, is sitting quietly on the sofa minding his own business. Looking on is the worship leader, a songwriter with several worship albums under his belt. And I am standing off to the side, (last musical achievement: Grade 7 piano twenty years ago), wondering “WHAT AM I EVEN DOING HERE?”

But here’s the thing. This is worship, and not just music performance. And so although these guys operate in a different musical stratosphere from me, I can still contribute. It’s taken me a while, but after a year and a bit of teaching on it and exposure to it, I’ve learned the reality of the supernatural/spirit realm and how my actions and words can have an impact there as well as in the earthly, visible realm. And for that matter, how the spirit realm can have an effect on my thoughts. And so I understand that when I play, it’s heard in heaven and not just in the room on earth where I happen to be. And people in the room are not just hearing the notes and chords but are being ministered to by the Holy Spirit.

I realise that this is an ‘out there’ concept, but am fully convinced that the supernatural realm is just as real as the wind, while being just as invisible to most of us, most of the time.

Overheard conversation between the sound engineer and a guy I only know to be a car park attendant as I left the church..

“You have a demo tape?”

“Yeah”

“Ok, well, we’ll probably do the drums in the morning..”

Four weddings & the Maple Leaf Bar

 

Having been at a ministry school for the best part of a year, I feel I am now entitled to include a Verse Of The Day in my blog posts. Verse for today comes from Ecclesiastes:

“Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies—
so the living should take this to heart.”

Especially, one suspects, if the funerals are in New Orleans. Sadly(?) we didn’t see or hear any funerals while we were there, but did see four weddings. No, seriously. Parading through the streets with jazz band and second line. Was awesome. New Orleans was a lot of fun all round. Great food and great music.

One evening we lined up for a show at Preservation Hall – a venue which has been showcasing New Orleans jazz since 1961. It was a smallish room – held about 100 people – mostly standing. Ryan, Katie and I found a little bit of space at the back and, not to be put off by the humidity and an absence of air conditioning, “danced” for most of the 45 minute performance.

During the 8 hour drive down from Nashville, we were forming plans about what to do and where to go. Being a man of great awareness, I, all of a sudden, remembered that the Maple Leaf Bar was in New Orleans, and was the primary reason I had wanted to visit the place for years. So Katie, who was in the back researching activities and venues online, checked it out.

The Maple Leaf came across my consciousness because of one man – James Booker. A friend in the hearing aid industry introduced me to a recording of Booker playing some live show in Switzerland, and I was blown away. Blues piano like I’d never heard. Sounded like he had four hands. Further investigation online revealed that he did in fact only have two hands, he was from N Orleans, was the house pianist at the Maple Leaf from 1977 to 1982, and had done some recordings there. Mostly, to be honest, his recordings are patchy, as I understand a lot of his performances were, due to various addictions. Booker died young, probably as a result of said addictions, and became another tragic-tortured-genius statistic. But any hearing of him play at anywhere near the top of his game is breathtaking.

And so it was that Ryan, Katie and I traipsed into the Maple Leaf Bar at around 10pm one evening. There was a live band advertised as starting at 10. As is the way of these things, the live band were mostly not there, and certainly not ready to play. So we wandered through what was the sketchiest looking bar/venue I’d been in for a while, and headed towards the back – because that’s always a good thing to do in a sketchy bar in a town that you don’t know very well and has a reputation for random shootings.

There was another bar at the back, with a couple of customers chatting to the bartender. We kept going, out the back door, into the walled beer garden, which was so dimly lit that we could only tell a couple of the tables were occupied by the sounds of people talking and the interesting aromas wafting across from where they were. (Note to any HX readers: this was the safest beer garden I’ve ever encountered)

Sat there for a bit, then wandered back inside. The two customers at the back had gone, so I approached the bar and asked the barman if this was where James Booker had played in the 70s/80s.

“Aw yeah, this is where Booker played, man.”

I turned and pointed to an old, frankly knackered upright piano in the corner. It seemed implausible, but the piano was certainly old enough.

“Um, that wasn’t the piano he played, was it?”

“Yeah man! That was Booker’s piano, and Jamie Foxx also played it in the Ray Charles movie! It’s kinda wrecked, but the manager is looking to get it tuned and fixed up so people can use it in live shows and stuff.”

Mildly stunned, I made my way over and played a few keys.

“EASY THERE SOLDIER!” came the warning from the bar. I froze.

“Aw I’m just kidding man, fire away.”

Breathed out. And played it a bit more. Truth was, it was so wrecked so as to make it unplayable. But man, it still felt good. The keys that *did* work had a really easy action, like they’d been hammered into submission by someone who really knew how to hammer a piano into submission.. which they had.

In due course the live band came on. They were terrible. At least, they probably weren’t terrible, but I have a limited tolerance for 6 saxophones playing modern jazz. What a racket. But nothing could spoil that night.

A documentary on Booker’s life has, I understand, recently had its premiere at the SXSW film festival earlier this year. If that movie comes anywhere near Edinburgh or Nashville while I’m in town, I’ll be all over it.

Three more days here in Tennessee, and then am heading back to the UK, and work again. This will be the biggest shock to my system since I first sucked orange juice through a straw as a small child.

But on Saturday I have a date with Wiseman at PizzaExpress. So it’s all worth it.

Curry, cricket and Charleston

 

Found myself at an Indian restaurant the other night. Nothing unusual in that, except that Indian restaurants aren’t that common in Nashville. And this was a vegetarian curry house, which I’m reasonably confident I haven’t had the dubious pleasure of experiencing before.

It turns out Mushroom Masala is very similar to Chicken Tikka Masala, but without the chicken, and with more mushrooms. Who knew? It was extremely tasty. And since poppadums, mango chutney and peshwari naans have no meat content, not too much of my regular Indian restaurant experience was disturbed.

A bunch of us from the school were meeting to mark 3 weeks since we graduated. Three weeks is not especially significant, I think we were all just missing each other.

As the meal was winding down, I asked the waiter if he liked cricket. I always do this in Indian restaurants over here. The last time the guy was Nepali and liked football. Very disappointing. This guy was more rewarding. We dived straight into a conversation on corruption in the IPL and spot-fixing in general. I felt like I was getting reacquainted with proper sports chat, after many months of double plays, RBIs, and rosters. It’s going to be wonderful to again watch a game that’s allowed to finish with the scores level.

And then, just as my internal sporting equilibrium was returning, news filtered through that the Holy Cross 2nd XI had won a game. What gives?

Since school got out I have done a bit of travelling around.. toured the Jack Daniels distillery, which I discovered is located in a dry county. Alanis, that’s ironic. Spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina and then a weekend in Memphis. Charleston was beautiful, unusually walkable-around for a US city, and very relaxing. Memphis was sketchy, run-down, full of deserted buildings, and jammed with music history and history in general. Loved them both. Tomorrow morning Ryan, Katie and I hit the road south again, for New Orleans this time. Katie is nervous about spending yet more extended periods of time in the car with Ryan and I, on account of us both being extremely talkative. We have both promised to tone it down and try hard to maintain periods of silence now and then.

New Orleans is one of the few places in the world I have specifically wanted to visit for a long time. For the cajun, and the music. Not going to lie, am kind of hoping to see a funeral while I’m there. Not an easy thing to arrange, but you never know…

Worship

 

So, I am now the proud owner of a car. I managed to get hold of a car with a manual gearbox, and have been re-acquainting myself with the art of the clutch. Has proved extraordinarily difficult to translate many *cough* years of left-handed gear changes to the other side. Couple of times I have tried to change gear with the door handle. Several times, usually at intersections, I have stalled, which is not a failing I can blame on the location of the stick. The gearbox seems a little clunky at times, especially when going from first to second, even after a few hours behind the wheel. But it’s been fun.

Point of note: it’s intriguing that with nothing more than a driving licence acquired through making a couple of turns and stops in an automatic transmission-equipped car, I can, perfectly legally, drive off into heavy traffic in a car with a six-speed manual gearbox.

Worship times at church have been fun too. Not least because our worship leaders insist on singing songs several keys higher than I’m used to. And that’s just the male worship leaders. The song “In Christ Alone” which has made a few appearances recently, I have always played and sung in Eb. Here we have twice sung it in A. One of our worship leaders in particular seems to be possessed of a voice pitched high enough to minister to dogs and bats. Accordingly mass harmonies break out in the room during worship. At some points I am unsure if there is anyone left in the room either capable of, or willing to sing the melody. It should be said that this is Nashville, there is a significant number of talented musicians and singers in the room at any one time, and mass harmony would probably be breaking out anyway.

Apart from the appearance of songs like “In Christ Alone”, which has been around a while, most of the songs we sing are fairly new, if not brand new. Most days we will sing at least one song that has been written in-house. I have learned a few new songs here, although I’m not sure I’ve learned the melody.

There is a tendency in the most recent worship songs to include a chorus or bridge which consists entirely of “oh oh oh oh” or “whoaaa whoaaa”. I’m not going to lie. I love this. There was a time when I would have wondered about the theological profundity of such a sentence, if oh x 4 can be considered a sentence. I would have given it a short amount of thought, and decided that it scored quite low on the theological profundity scale. Probably zero, on a scale of one to ten. And dismissed it as yet another inane modern worship song.

But here’s the thing. In worship we sing songs to our heavenly Father. And God isn’t, as far as I know, impressed with our lyrical eloquence. Were I a father, and my child came to me and told me, in a childlike and grammatically incorrect way, that they loved me, would I correct their grammar, or would the sentiment of their expression move my heart?

I think the latter. And I think God’s heart is moved when we come to him worshipping with our heart rather than our head. Further, I now think “whoaaa” is a deeply profound expression of worship. And much more versatile than most words. It can express wonder, awe, love, adoration, mystery and more. When the Spirit moves you (sometimes physically) in worship, or when God takes you by surprise with a revelation during worship, “whoaaa” is probably the only apt response.

Jesus said that unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. God has been reinforcing the importance of this to me, and I have discovered new levels of childlikeness recently. I am learning new things about the Kingdom every day. I’m still only moving from first gear to second, and it’s still a bit clunky, but I’m getting there.

Spotify and Steve Earle

Summer is definitely here.  I know this because I drove to Aberdeen and perpetrated mass bug genocide with my windscreen.  Several weeks later, my windscreen still remains a memorial to the fallen bugs of Fife, Angus and Aberdeenshire.

It appears that the Eyjafjallajökull (yes, I copied and pasted that) volcano has stopped erupting.  Hurrah.  Perhaps they have blocked it up with shredded tyres and golf balls.  Just in time for my flight down south to London.  With BA.  Although their strikes haven’t been affecting London City.  Double hurrah.

I am listening to Spotify right now, as I write.  And, marvellous though it is, I have discovered a second reason to dislike it.  As they are wont to do to us free subscribers, they interrupted my listening pleasure with an annoying advert.  “Ha!” I thought.  “I’ll fox them.”  I muted my speakers and switched them back on after a minute or so.  The advert was still running.  I muted my speakers again.  After another minute or so I switched back on.  The same advert was still playing.  In fact, it seemed to take up exactly from where I muted it.  They can tell when I mute my computer speakers and pause the advert until I put them back on.  The cads.  Whatever next?

The first reason to dislike it, of course, is that guests in your house can put on whatever music they like when your back is turned.  This is an embarrassingly obvious example of music snobbery on my part, but honestly, when someone hijacks your computer, in your own home no less, and forces everyone present to listen to irritating teen-pop, I am liable to splutter something I shouldn’t.

Having left my entire music collection in the seat pocket of an aircraft, I do hope the nice steward or stewardess who trousered it is enjoying my carefully crafted playlists and smart albums.  I’m not, obviously, and have had to resort to old-school listening techniques in the car, such as putting on a CD.  Due to a rediscovery of the joy of listening to a good album over and over, along with general inertia, I have become very closely acquainted with Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues.  What an album this is.  Edgy country, bluegrass and an awesome ballad to finish.  I met Steve Earle once, just before Christmas in 2004.  He was playing a show with the Dukes at the Usher Hall, and they needed ear impressions taken to have new in-ear-monitors made.  I shuffled up the road to the Usher Hall on the day of the gig, and took impressions for Earle and his band in a very dimly lit Green Room.  I have no idea how the impressions turned out, my hands were shaking a fair bit.  I hoped the inadequate lighting would mask my obvious nervousness.  I chatted with him a little, asked him if he was looking forward to getting home for Christmas.  He wasn’t, really.  Loved it on the road, he said.  He went on to explain that his band (The Dukes) lived all over the place.  The bass player, Kelly Looney (real name, I believe.  Well, you probably wouldn’t choose it) lives in Paris, for example.

I have subsequently become very familiar with, and very fond of, a Steve Earle song called Ft. Worth Blues.  Wiseman will testify, wearily, to this.  It names a number of cities and places in the world – Amsterdam, London, Paris, with a recurring phrase: “It never really was your kinda town.”  And so at this point, if, as the man himself said on another occasion, I knew what I know now then, since Paris had obligingly popped up in the conversation, I might have casually suggested that it never really was his kinda town.  Many, many times since, in my imagination, I have relived this moment, and delivered this show-stoppingly dramatic line.  In my imagination, Steve Earle is impressed with my knowledge of his lyrics.  In reality, he might have thought I was taking the mick, and this could have been a dangerous thing given that he’s spent time in jail on a firearms charge.  Perhaps it’s better that I didn’t know the song, really.

John Mayer and Costa Coffee

As previously confessed, I’m a big fan of John Mayer. So when a friend said he’d been on Jonathan Ross’ Radio 2 show a few Saturday mornings ago, I fired up the iPlayer with a certain amount of anticipation/apprehension. Meeting your heroes, it’s said, can be a disappointing experience. I find that even listening to your heroes on the radio, or seeing them in concert, has a certain amount of risk attached to it – how can you fail to be disappointed? Your expectations are so high. When I saw JM in Hyde Park a few years back, I was disappointed, because he didn’t set anything alight (I mean metaphorically. Although it’s true to say that he didn’t physically set anything alight either, this didn’t disappoint me). I consoled myself in the knowledge that he only had a 45 minute set, which didn’t allow him to express himself fully. And this was vindicated by his Hammersmith Apollo gig a few weeks ago, when he torched the place. Metaphorically, of course.
Anyway, back to the radio show. I’ve never found Jonathan Ross compelling listening, not because he’s not funny, because he usually is (IMHO), and not because he gets paid ridiculous amounts of money, because I don’t hold that against him. I find his show irritating in the extreme because there’s this bloke who sits in with him every time (possibly his producer) and laughs at everything he says. Everything. In a nauseating, sycophantic kind of way. Drives me crazy. Or at least it would, if I listened more.
I steeled myself for the sycophant, and tuned in. However, it was Ross himself who wound me up early on by first of all introducing the guitarist JM brought along to play live (Robbie McIntosh) as “his (Mayer’s) dad”, and then proceeding to either forget, or pretend to forget his name, and make up new ones for him every time he referred to him. Serious lack of respect for a fine musician. He then confessed that he knew of Mayer only through his appearances in gossip mags and the like, and expressed surprise when it transpired that he really could play guitar. Which is, quite frankly, lazy. Any small amount of research would have revealed that Mayer has played guitar with Buddy Guy, BB King, and Herbie Hancock. Oh, and Eric Clapton. And that he’s done stand-up, and writes well too. And he features heavily on my iPod. But I still don’t like his new album. Only two songs of any worth, I reckon. Neither of which he played at the Apollo, naturally.
I created an ‘evening’ playlist a few years back, containing songs of a more, um, reflective nature. Melancholy, some might say, and I wouldn’t contradict them. It’s my favourite playlist, by some distance. Wiseman’s response to my musical taste is usually a despairing kind of snort when yet another miserable track comes on the car stereo. On one occasion, I was driving Nasty Jen somewhere, and as Bill Withers wailed “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” I realised I was listening to the melancholy stuff. Jen is a teeny-bopper really, and should know better at her age, but I thought I would humour her and switch to my ‘pop’ playlist, which contains songs of a generally more upbeat nature. After a few seconds delay while the iPod found the new playlist, the opening track kicked in.
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…” lamented Bill, again. I resolved to get some happier music on my iPod.
On a more recent occasion, Wiseman and I found ourselves listening to some tunes from the 70s on the car radio. Wiseman took great delight in identifying, usually incorrectly, the year of each track from these, his formative years. Sometimes he has even been heard to sing along to seventies tunes. It’s quite a sonic experience.
The car radio has been employed more often of late, since I neglected to remove my iPod from the seat pocket in front on arrival in Geneva last month. The airline was Jet2, and to anyone flying with Jet2 in the future, I would strongly encourage you to follow their advice and take all your personal belongings with you, as contact with said airline afterwards can prove a touch elusive. All “post-flight communication must be in writing” (that’s letters, rather than emails) and so far they have failed to acknowledge either of mine. Which rather stymies my as yet unborn insurance claim, unfortunately.
After lunch today I made the trip to Arbroath to see a client. Having plugged the postcodes into Google maps, China’s least favourite internet company advised me it would take 1hr 50 mins. For some reason I read this as 1hr 30 mins. Tapping the details into my sat nav as I prepared to leave, 90 minutes before the appointment, I was somewhat startled to note that it was predicting a journey time of 2 hrs 13 mins. I made haste for the M90. Once over the bridge, I encountered another problem. My body sometimes thinks it’s somewhere in the south of France, or Spain, and takes an involuntary siesta shortly after lunch. I was falling asleep at the wheel. This is never a good thing, I find, and so I have a couple of strategies to combat it. One is to pull over and close my eyes for forty winks (I find five minutes almost invariably does the trick); the second is to stop for a coffee, or any sort of break. I had time for neither, but having pondered the pros and cons extensively in the past, I have arrived at what I believe is a rather sensible conclusion. No matter how late you end up being for your appointment, and possibly all your appointments for the rest of the day, and whatever you were planning to do in the evening, annoying and stressful though this can be, it’s still better than killing people, possibly including yourself.
So I stopped at the Kinross services, and ordered a double espresso at the Costa outlet. Now, Costa. They’re not quite Starbucks, and their coffee certainly tastes better to me. But I don’t really like them either. They’re “Italian about coffee”, or so they claim. Now, I’ve been to Italy, once. I stayed in Milan for a week with my good friend Slid. It was June, it was hot, and humid. I remember sitting in a park with Slid watching some locals play football. Had it not been so hot, we might well have taken them on and shown them a thing or two. But it was very hot. They were playing in a classically slow, Italian style. It struck me that in these temperatures and humidity, there was no other way to play. And I immediately made a connection between the climate and the style of play: Italy and Spain – slow and languid so as not to get hot and tired too quickly, Scotland – fast and frenetic so as not to get cold by standing around in Baltic temperatures. It all made, possibly perfect sense. In that sense, Costa are very Italian. They are chuffin’ slow. Far too slow when you’re running late for an appointment in Arbroath. I lost eight minutes in the service station, although admittedly I had to take a pee as well.
Apart from the speed of service, I find nothing about Costa remotely Italian. Every time I had a coffee in Italy it was outstanding, and it wasn’t supplied by a chain, in an enormous bowl of a cup whose diameter is so great that the coffee sometimes dribbles down the sides of your chin. But perhaps that’s just me.
I was late for my appointment. And the next one. And my evening ‘appointment’ back in Edinburgh. But nobody seemed to mind too much. And what’s more, I’m still alive!

Cambridge, Day 1

Just before 6.30pm, we spilled out into the Quad. The sky, pale blue beforehand, had turned a deeper dusky shade while we’d been inside, and the moon was rising. The brightly lit windows in the ancient buildings around us promised warmth. The building we’d just left, despite being ostensibly a place of worship, had offered only cold austerity.

We had attended Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge. There is, undeniably, a beauty in the choral music at services like this. The choir of King’s College are world-renowned, and the interior of the Chapel is instantly recognisable from the annual BBC broadcast of their Christmas Eve Carol Service. But my experience of this evening’s service saddened me, because it removed God to such a lofty distance as to make him inaccessible. Raised in an Anglican tradition, much of the liturgy was familiar to me, and as with the music, there is an exquisite beauty in the words of the prayers and canticles.

But as the choir sang an introit, presumably in Latin, the candle-wielding clergy moved solemnly towards the altar, clad in vaguely sinister white hooded robes. Not all the robes were long enough to conceal the blue jeans underneath. Jeans, it may be deduced, are unsuitable attire for worshipping God and must be covered up. If the fundamental message of Christianity is that God reached out to us in grace, bridging the yawning chasm of separation because we were unable to attain anything like the level of holiness required, then why do we dress up to worship him? Will that impress him?

The service developed into a two-way exchange between the priests, at the top of the nave, and the choir – situated further down. We, the plebs, were in between. The clergy would intone a phrase, and the choir would respond. It was impenetrable for those of us without orders of service. It was, as I understand it, this kind of superfluous man-made ceremony and ritual that led to the Plymouth Brethren ditching the established church’s traditions and reducing church practice back its simple essence. And yet, I have met staunch Brethren who find it unacceptable that I should wear casual clothes to church on a Sunday.

Why do we keep missing the point?

We trod the gravel path around the edges of the manicured grassy centre of the quad. The lawn was immaculate, and quite beautiful, due no doubt, at least in part, to the KEEP OFF THE GRASS signs.

And there it was, right there. As the grass, so the church service. Aesthetically magnificent, but please remain at a distance.

This is not the God I know.

Salzburg

Just returned from four days in Salzburg, Austria. Myself and the Admin Supremo were at a retail seminar, working hard, as you might expect.

On the train back to Munich and our Edinburgh flight, the Supremo found himself haggling with the conductor on the train, who explained (in German) that we needed to pay extra to be on this particular train. The Supremo deemed this totally unacceptable, and protested loudly, in English. The conductor, faced with the prospect of an argument with possibly the world’s most argumentative man, suddenly appeared to lose any grasp of English he might have had, and one credit card transaction later, moved on.

The trip was pleasingly punctuated with stops for coffee, at every opportunity, convenient or otherwise. And the odd slice of Sachertorte and apple strudel, obviously. When we weren’t working hard of course, which wasn’t very often.

Salzburg is an outstanding city, with a wonderful old town full of twisting medieval streets and a rich history. It is the birthplace of Mozart, who himself wasn’t that fond of Salzburg and its denizens, and moved to Vienna at the earliest opportunity. But what did he know about anything, apart from music. That he did know about. We enjoyed a simply stunning rendition of his Requiem in the Kollegienkirche on Saturday evening. And headed to a concert featuring Mozart on the Sunday morning. Unfortunately, we got that one wrong, and it was Haydn, Ravel and Fauré. We also weren’t expecting all of Salzburg to turn up for the concert in their Sunday best. I daresay they weren’t expecting two Scots/Irish loafers to appear in their jeans and hoodies either. Mercifully, they served coffee and Lion bars at the interval, so despite the lack of Mozart, all was not lost. Still, we sneaked out after Fauré’s Pavane, before having to endure another Haydn symphony (Haydn, I can’t help but feel, is the poor man’s Mozart). The Pavane was the BBC’s World Cup theme in 1998. I think this important fact was lost on the majority of the good folk of Salzburg, and was somewhat disappointed that the conductor, who looked remarkably like David Baddiel, didn’t point that out. One feels that if it had been David Baddiel, he would have surely mentioned it.

Moving on, we spent some time with a portable audio guide machine thing glued to our ear as we walked around Mozart’s residence. The audio commentary contained a fair few bursts of Mozart’s music, which led to the amusing sight of other tourists dancing and jigging along with what looked like a portable credit card machine pressed against their ear. By the time we had made our way round Mozart’s birthplace, and then the inside of the quite impressive Castle, we were both getting serious museum fatigue. So we popped into Mozartplatz to say goodbye to the man himself, and then quick-marched back to the hotel for a nap.

We followed that up with easily the most expensive meal I have ever had, at the Ikarus restaurant at Hangar-7. Outrageously good food, and service, at an eye-popping price. An Amaretto in the glass-and-steel bubble suspended from the glass-and-steel hangar ceiling, 50 feet above an exhibition of Red Bull-sponsored planes, helicopters and Formula One racing cars, rounded the evening (and the trip) off in some style. As befits men of style, such as the Supremo and myself…

Some photos of the trip here

Radio 2 and the vinyl-buying experience

Another morning of domiciliary visits at work provided another morning’s listening to Radio 2, and Ken Bruce in particular. Since the demise of Popmaster, effectively removed from the show following the BBC Phone-in Competition Shenanigans, Ken Bruce is barely worth listening to. As a decade, the 80s hold a certain number of fond musical memories for me, but there was undeniably a large volume of musical tat produced during that period, and Ken Bruce manages to dredge up most of it up. He finds some from other decades as well of course, but seems to prefer his tat to be 80s vintage.

I mused on this as he played a Johnny Hates Jazz song without any apparent shame. I once owned a Johnny Hates Jazz album, and am thoroughly ashamed of it. In fact, lots of my early musical purchases are now an embarrassment. Is it just me? The first record in particular. Every time I hear someone on the radio naming the first record they bought, it’s always something by the Beatles, the Stones, Joni Mitchell. Some GREAT song or album that’s endured, or if not then something obscure and therefore by definition ‘cool’. I have my suspicions that they might be making it up. I’ve never heard anyone confessing to buying a tacky one-hit wonder as their first record.

I spent one penny short of 2 Irish punts on my first record – “My toot toot” by Denise LaSalle – in a Golden Discs outlet in a Dun Laoghaire shopping centre. The Golden Discs has probably gone, and the shopping centre is now likely a mall, where people spend their Euro-subsidised euros instead. But they’re not spending it on Denise LaSalle records, or even CDs for that matter. A classic one-hit wonder, except that it wasn’t a classic, and might not even have been a hit, I can’t quite remember.

But I still have the record. It still has the branded price sticker on it, so I daresay you think I read that information off it. But that’s the thing about records for me. I didn’t need to. Buying a record was an event, and a full-size LP, or even a 12” single, provided you with something distinctly tangible for your cash.

Buying a CD has never been the same experience, although even that beats downloading music digitally. Nothing could be more soulless. Browsing through my collection of records sparks memories of where and when they were bought – an Extreme box set from Ripping Records on South Bridge during my student days, a classic Ten Sharp 12” single from a now-forgotten record shop on Great Junction Street, another single from somewhere in North Berwick while on holiday. Lots from Makin’ Tracks in Belfast. A Black Crowes picture disc from Caroline Music in Newry. Most of my vinyl collection bought ‘currently’ – rather than long afterwards from a second-hand record shop – consists of 12” singles rather than LPs. Sadly, even way back in my youth vinyl was dying out. Cassettes were by then the medium of choice for albums. The first album I bought (in another Golden Discs as it happens) was on cassette. It was Curiosity Killed The Cat. No idea what the album title was. It was terrible, but I managed to flog it to a future girlfriend.

I’m resigning myself to the sad fact that the days of significant musical purchases are slipping away in the face of a relentless digital onslaught. Perhaps even the days of the CD are ultimately numbered. The experience will be missed, but maybe I shouldn’t grieve too much. Downloading music can be a very useful option, and burning tracks on to a vinyl-effect CD-R does minimise the pain somewhat… Time moves on remorselessly, and as if to underline the fact, I went to work yesterday without my belt on and my trousers stayed up all by themselves.

Ah, the onset of old age and rotundity. Pass me my slippers and rose-tinted spectacles…