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!

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…

Radio 2 and cricket

Heard a new song from Duke Special on Radio 2 this morning, as I was wending my way westwards towards the coast and another visit to Northern Ireland. The Admin Supremo expects me to derail the peace process while I’m there, having been thwarted by hitherto unknown goodwill and peaceful intentions on my previous visit, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I started receiving emails advertising Duke Special’s forthcoming gigs some years ago. Didn’t come across as spam, but had no idea who Duke Special was/were, and so I binned the emails and requested my name be taken off the mailing list. Which it was, so it can’t have been spam. Now, having heard the song on the radio, it sounds uncommonly like Peter Wilson, who I emailed via Friends Reunited some time ago after spotting his name in the inlay notes of a CD I was listening to. Which maybe explains how I ended up on his mailing list. Peter Wilson used to go to my school, Down High, which is why I was interested in the first place. So Mr Wilson joins Ash in the select group of people who have left my school and had a song played on the radio. Although, strictly speaking, I think Ash achieved that feat before leaving school, the upstarts. Perhaps Broon, another DHS ex-pupil, may yet make it a hat-trick. It would be a shame if her skills on the slide trombone were not exposed to a wider audience than just Bellevue Chapel.

Potentially even more exciting (I know, I know) is that I heard Jo Mango on Radio 2 last night. Apparently Stuart Maconie had highlighted a song of hers earlier in the week, and we heard another snippet of it last night. I heard her perform the same song live, in a barn somewhere between Perth and Dundee, a year or two ago. In fact, you could say I actually played on the same bill as Jo Mango, although it would be stretching the truth a little.

But enough of my brushes with A-list celebrities for the time being. Back to cricket. Two weeks ago, I noted with some relief that the Australian government had decided to bite the bullet and ban their cricketers from touring Zimbabwe, which they were due to do this year.

A note of explanation. The ICC, who mismanage cricket on a global scale, have a Future Tours programme, which all Test and ODI-playing countries are obliged to subscribe to. This commits them to playing against all the other major cricketing countries home and away within 6 years. Failure to fulfil this obligation would incur a heavy fine for the guilty cricket board, possibly along with a ban, which would bring even heavier financial losses. Accordingly, countries that have been contemplating a refusal to play in Zimbabwe on account of Robert Mugabe’s regime, e.g. England, have decided to tour anyway because they can’t afford to be banned from world cricket. The ICC have copped some flak for their stance, it being widely believed in some parts of the cricket world that they (the ICC) should suspend Zimbabwe from playing international cricket until the situation in the country improves. The ICC refuse to do this, claiming that they don’t get involved in politics, only cricket. The only way a country’s cricket board can legitimately not tour without incurring a fine is if the government actually BANS the cricket team from going.

Cue the Aussie government’s announcement. Compare this with the British government’s approach: when England were faced with the same quandary a few years ago, the government refused to have anything to do with it, saying it was a matter for the cricketers. The ECB, conscious of the financial implications, hummed and hawed for a bit, then prevaricated, chewed things over and weighed them up, before finally giving in and going ahead with the tour. Money is money, after all.

“I don’t think it’s fair to leave a foreign policy decision of this magnitude on the shoulders of young sportsmen,” the Australian PM John Howard was quoted as saying. “It’s much better, in the end, for the government to take the rap.” Must be good to live in a country where the politicians talk in straight lines. Unlike the UK, which moreover sanctimoniously outlaws Australia’s tourism advertising slogan “So where the bloody hell are you?” but has no issue with French Connection’s grubby marketing. One wonders idly if Australia taking money out of the UK economy, and French Connection putting it in, might have anything to do with it.

A prime minister that says it like it is, and loves cricket too. Now there’s a thing. Midway through his re-election campaign in 2004, Howard was asked how things were progressing. “It’s like having built a very solid Hayden-Langer partnership,” he replied. “We’ve made a good start.”

Brilliant. Perhaps Gordon Brown will someday describe a stinging reply in the House as a “Pietersen slap through midwicket.” Or a wide-of-the-mark question as a “Harmison”…

Well, it’s about time for me to return to the P&O Express car deck and drive off into the homeland. The smell of a ferry’s car deck evokes so many memories of childhood holidays to Scotland and beyond (England, occasionally). Not so much a whiff of nostalgia, as an intense petrol vapour-fuelled sensory experience. The whiff of nostalgia has come instead from an unexpected source. A girl has just started playing a recorder in the passenger lounge. A RECORDER. Three notes in, I am reminded of what an irritating noise they make. Don’t think she’s in line for a record deal.

Unless, of course, she goes to my old school…