Thursday, 16 November 2017

Thinking of a Place

This week I entered my fifties. I would like to say that I did so with grace, dignity and in the grip of a boundless sense of optimism, born of the belief that age is but a number. Except in reality I began the day attempting to run seven-and-a-half miles into a gale whilst wearing Lycra, next listened to some Therapy? (very apt that), drank half a bottle of wine, and afterwards sunk into a kind of maudlin trance during which the only words I seemed able to speak were 'all', 'go', 'where', 'did' and 'it', often as not in that precise order. The members of my family may well have been temporarily concerned for my mental well-being - but if so they each of them hid it well by either taking care of the rest of that bottle (one party), or else scoffing great slabs of my birthday cake (the other two), and then running about the house shrieking "Old Smurf" and laughing hysterically (all three).

Determining that Adam Ant was spouting a load of old bollocks when he maintained "ridicule is nothing to be scared of," I shuffled outside to escape this torment and skulked into the night. The intense blackness that is usual up here at this time of year suited me very well. However, it was my blessing that it was as well a frigidly cold evening and so the sky was entirely clear of cloud.

This being a 'dark sky' area, when I looked upwards I was able to regard a dazzling spectacle of stars and other celestial bodies (Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and Mars were all distinguishable even to my untrained eye). The entrancing opaqueness of the Milky Way was clearly apparent. Out of the murk and under the starlight, I could also make out the sheerness of the hills and mountains round about, a slightly inkier shade of black. Altogether it was magical and enough by far to stop this self-pitying grump in his tracks, metaphorically shake him by the collar and sonorously intone something along the lines of: 'Good Lord man, behold your world!' Though that might have been as a result of the wine.

At all events, I'm over turning fifty and ostensibly because I'll soon enough be over full stop, so better by far to revel in the act of simply being. And more particularly being here, up on 'our' hill, overlooking 'our' loch, on 'our' island and in our home. To appreciate the grand wonders: the first dusting of snow on the Cuillins' peaks; the snake-shapes the sea water is made into by a strong wind; dawn's light dancing down to us from over the hillside; our daily visits by deer, fox, eagle, owl, and a female Hen Harrier that swoops by the front of the house as if on display. All such moments make the heart and soul skip and sing.

Equally so the smaller wonders: the trickle of people who until that precise moment were complete strangers and that have knocked on our door and welcomed us to the area; the fact that we never bother to lock up the house, or car anymore, because there is no need for us to do so; the boundless cheer with which our postman bursts through that same door each afternoon; and, since that's quite enough door action, the so-far inexhaustible sense of disbelief that comes with driving down the track that leads to the house and, at the bend, gasping at the fact that the building is even there at all.

All that being the case and after more than a year of sending out these scattershot missives from the island, now is as good a time as any for me to stop waffling on about our place and simply be in it. This then is the last of these reveries and as such I don't feel obliged to find an excuse for segueing into an otherwise shameless bout of name-dropping...

Truly, though, I did find myself the other day attempting to match up experiences from my old life to that of walking down to our local beach, carefully prising razor clams from out of the sand, and cooking and eating them that very afternoon, as we did just the other Sunday. Two especially sprung to mind and since both entailed me meeting... 'heroes' is the wrong word; 'artists I hold in the very highest esteem' perhaps more accurate, but a crap way of expressing as much... Anyway...

The first encounter was with the essential two-fifths of the Rolling Stones. The occasion was a photo shoot for an anniversary issue of Q and the venue an opulent suite at London's swish Mandarin Oriental Hotel off Hyde Park. The subject was Keith Richards. I went along purely to be able to be in the same room as Mr Rock-and-Roll incarnate. Brilliantly and completely unexpectedly, Keef brought along with him for company one Charlie Watts.

What an afternoon that was. Keef, as one would have hoped, arrived looking like he had stepped from off the deck of a pirate ship; his hair made to rattle by all the metal trinkets he had bound up in it, eyes a-twinkle, a laugh like a wheezing gas pipe. He proceeded to drink most of a bottle of vodka from a pint glass. He did apply a measure of pineapple juice, but barely enough to merit a mention. When he was done with the magazine's business, I had my picture taken with him. He threw an arm around my shoulder, cackled something in my ear that sounded like it might have been hilarious, and for sure doubled Keef up, but alas was completely unintelligible to me. And then he was gone from the room, like an apparition, off to wreak his very Keef-ness on some other fortunate.

Charlie was even better. Immaculately groomed and the perfect gentleman, he took himself off to an armchair in a corner of the room, and there sat cross-legged, quietly regarding his band-mate of many, many years with a kind of affectionate amusement. I went and sat with him for an hour or so and he couldn't have been more attentive. He spoke of his love of jazz and the horses he kept, but also asked me about my life - where I lived, did I have children? - and actually appeared to be interested in my answers, to which I was utterly unaccustomed after by then twenty-plus years of interacting with rock stars.

Even still, right up to the moment Richards' manager Jane Rose arrived on the scene and as the afternoon was drawing to a close, I assumed he was merely being professionally courteous. "You've introduced yourself to the magazine's editor I see," Rose chided Charlie as she came over to join us, and at which his eyes widened and he spasmodically uncrossed his legs. "I'm dreadfully sorry," Charlie gasped, thrusting out a hand for me to shake. "I just assumed they had sent you up from downstairs to empty the ashtrays and clean the room."

For my part, I wasn't at all taken aback. I had long ago accepted as fact that I wasn't built or able to sweep through the Corridors of Rock as if I belonged. A decade earlier and on my first encounter with U2, I had been bid by their PR to troop unaccompanied into their Dublin studio and introduce myself to Bono and the Edge, the pair of them still overdubbing onto tracks meant for their How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album. Gingerly, I poked my head round the door and to find the two of them sprawled on an old leather couch, Edge strumming a guitar, Bono singing into a hand-held mic. Bono looked up and motioned for me to come sit beside him.

There I tried - and surely failed - to casually recline for the next twenty minutes and all the while the pair of them sang and played. When Bono at last spoke to me, he said this: "Did you leave them upstairs?" "The others?" I replied, somewhat flustered. "Yes. Yes, I did." "No," he pressed on patiently. "I meant the pizzas." Oh yes indeed, he had mistaken me for the lad from the Domino's round the corner and there ensued much merriment at my expense.

The second meeting I have so recently recalled was with Bruce Springsteen and occurred in 2009, just a few weeks before he headlined the Glastonbury Festival. I had spent a significant portion of my seven-year editorship of Q to that point attempting to coax the Boss into speaking to the magazine, a task that required dogged persistence since he didn't do sit-down print interviews all that often and only with a select few publications. Over that period and on this quest, I had trailed him, and his gate-keepers from London to Frankfurt to Milan. Not that this was a remotely selfless act. Fact was, I just wanted to interview Springsteen for myself and more than I did anyone else.

Eventually, all that buttering up paid off and I was flown to Houston, Texas to witness Springsteen and the E Street Band tear up the local arena. The plan was for me to then take a commercial flight up to Denver, where I would see the next barnstorming show on the tour and before which I was promised a half-hour interview with Springsteen in his dressing room. Like all such best-laid's, things didn't quite work out that way and much for the better.

What actually happened was that Springsteen invited Q's photographer and me to join him and his band on the private jet piloting them up to Colorado. In and of itself, that journey was for me pinch-yourself-remarkable. As we flew over the great expanse of the American heartland, various members of the E Street Band dropped by our table (made of chestnut since you ask, and surrounded by plunge-pool-deep leather seats) to bid us welcome. First, the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, suitably larger than life, and next  'Little' Steven Van Zandt, as funny and foul-mouthed as Silvio Dante, the strip club-owning mobster character he played so expertly in The Sorpranos. Finally, Springsteen himself sauntered up the aisle and to regale us with tales from the earliest days of the E Street Band and when they would travel America by rickety old bus.

I did grab thirty minutes with him in his dressing room that evening and he couldn't have been more gracious. When we were done, Barbara Carr from his management company pulled me to one side. "Bruce doesn't feel that he's been able to give you enough time," she told me solemnly. "Right after the show, he and Patti are flying home to New Jersey for the Easter holiday while the band are going on to LA. Bruce is taking the jet. If it's OK with you, he would like for you to join him and he can talk some more with you on the flight." I didn't even attempt to suggest that I might have give this offer some consideration. I may even have let out an audible squeak.

So there we went again, Bruce and I (and apart from his wife, his personal assistant and two or three others, it really was just  Bruce and I), flying private class into the boundless dark of an American night, as Springsteen himself might have put it. We talked some more, sat side by side in the middle of the plane, and about which I can't much remember. Later, when he had returned to sit with Patti and I assumed gone off to sleep, since it was two in the morning, and as I was looking down on the lights of Chicago thousands of feet below, I felt a bump in the seat next to me. I turned to find him beaming at me, a pair of reading glasses perched on the end of his nose.

"Thought you might like to see what I have on my iPod," he said. He spent the next hour or so flicking me through the machine's contents, which he had arranged by musical genre. As one would anticipate, he had a library of American singer-songwriters that ran from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and up to Ryan Adams, but also a vast selection of 'punk rock' (as he filed it). He told me that his youngest son took him out to club shows in New Jersey and how he would stand at the back of the room watching Gaslight Anthem, Bad Religion and sundry others do their thing. Admirably, he had remained a fan heart and just as it was with Keef and Charlie, I couldn't imagine I would ever again feel more like I had been whisked off and deposited in a kind of dreamland.

Until now. Now, I feel that way every morning that I am lucky enough to wake; every time that I look out of the window; and every night that I'm lying in the dark and listening to the deafening silence.

And so, with heartfelt thanks and much appreciation to all of you who have read and troubled to respond to these half-cocked waxings of mine over the last year or so, I will here take your leave and head on back to living in this moment and the ones to come...

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

Joshua James - Broken Tongue

The song currently sound-tracking our mornings, and he lives up a remote hillside too.


  1. And, I’m sure, the best is yet to come, Paul. Steve

  2. I have enjoyed reading these - especially this one. I don't have the Loch views but I do find solace from what feels like the remote hilltop where our stables are (OK so the next village is round the corner but with just me and the yard owners and a handful of horses with 40 acres to ourselves if feels quiet!) Good luck with life on the Isle Cx