Corey Zander, born Alexander Cruz, was the only son of Pino Cruz and his wife Aileen, delivered in their small house in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in January 1958. Corey’s great grandfather was a Choctaw Indian who had arrived in Oklahoma on the Trail Of Tears, the popular term for the forced relocation of Native American nations from the south east of the US in accordance with the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The expression “Trail Of Tears” refers to the removal of the Choctaw Nation in 1831 from their native homelands in Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina. Many of the relocated Native Americans, including Cherokee, Choctaw and Muskogee, died of starvation, exposure or disease on the cold and chaotic trail to Oklahoma. The Choctaw were the first to be removed and seventeen thousand families made the move to Oklahoma, originally called Indian Territory. Having effectively been ethnically cleansed, they eventually became known as the Choctaw Nation Of Oklahoma.
By the time Pino Cruz was born in 1938, the dustbowl existence of his family had become bearable, if hard. Pino himself was able, as an adult, to earn a tolerable living as a general handyman in and around Tahlequah, while Aileen looked after young Alexander. It was when Alexander was seven that Pino was accused of stealing from one of his clients. As it happened, it was a bottle of bourbon that went missing from a house where he was repairing the roof while the owner was out. He couldn’t deny it, as the bottle, now a couple of fingers lighter, was found at the bottom of his tool bag the next day, when the angry homeowner called in the police. Dissatisfied with the quality of Pino’s work, and probably looking for an excuse not to pay, the owner pressed charges on what was, on the face of it, a trivial case, and Pino was fined, but what was worse, disgraced within the local community, where the word spread that anyone who employed him was likely to get burgled.
There was another unfortunate result of his foolishness, as those few slugs of deadly liquid re-awoke an interest in liquor which had long lain dormant. Financial necessity and the strong disapproval of his wife, who was frightened of the effect of whisky on Pino’s temperament, had ensured many years of sobriety up to that point. It wasn’t quite on the level of Shakespearian tragedy, perhaps, but that light-fingered moment represented a significant turning point in Pino’s life. If he’d rationalized it, which he surely didn’t, he’d have said something like “What the hell, if I work hard and a small transgression can pretty much ruin my life, what exactly is the point?” Unable to find work, and finding the stress of responsibility for a young son tough to cope with, Pino took to thieving on a regular basis, using the proceeds to fund visits of varying success to a nearby Indian Casino. When he won, he would celebrate with whiskey. To his credit, he purposely didn’t drink in front of Alexander, keeping his binges until after the lad was in bed. It did mean that he was normally ill-tempered in the morning, but he wasn’t the kind of drunk who’d lay his hands on his wife or son. He just felt unhappy most of the time, and the atmosphere would surely have been bad enough to encourage Aileen to leave, if she’d had the choice. But she had nowhere to go.
It would have been advantageous from the point of view of creating a myth about the upbringing of the future rock star Alexander if his father Pino had died a violent death in a car crash or a bar fight, but the reality was more mundane. In 1968, when Alexander was just 10, Pino’s liver gave out and Aileen was left alone to look after the boy. By that time, the family had long since been forced to leave their small house in Tahlequah and now resided in a quite scruffy trailer in the woods near the Illinois River, just off Highway 62. But, as so often seems to be the case, the cliché applied that they were poor, but they were happy.
Aileen, who worked as many hours as she could get in a hair salon in Wagoner, not far from Tahlequah, had long harboured a wish to be a teacher. This was a wish that could never officially be fulfilled because of the lack of requisite qualifications, but it did come in useful when, almost inevitably, the teenage Alexander began to be an unreliable attender at school. It was a pain to get there, especially in winter, when a lengthy walk to the nearest road to pick up the school bus could be an unwelcome prospect in the early mornings. Aileen certainly didn’t sanction these absences, which were followed up half-heartedly by the school authorities, but she did believe Alexander’s pleas that he often felt unwell, with stomach pains and headaches. Please could he stay at home, just for today? Okay, just this once, dear, she would accept, realizing she would have to beg for extra shifts if she was to purchase more heating oil for the mobile home, which was isolated and could be bone-crackingly cold.
It was many years before the concept of home schooling became commonplace and monitored by education authorities, but in a way, Aileen and Alexander were pioneers in the field. Mathematics and particularly, literature were on the agenda, as Aileen made sure that the many absences from school were not to hinder Alexander’s education. He never told her, but in later life he realized that the stomach cramps were most probably caused by the sneering comments of his classmates about his poor home and his ostracized father. Yes, his therapist in the eighties would confirm, you were suffering from stress.
This was the pattern for much of Alexander’s teens. Most afternoons, Aileen would be collected by a work colleague for shifts at the salon, which would be the opportunity for her son to pick away at the various decrepit musical instruments his dad had left behind. Pino had claimed there was a rich musical tradition in his Native American background, but had shown little skill himself. Occasionally, as the alcholism took hold, he had deluded himself with the hope that he might be able to make some cash by performing in the bars of north east Oklahoma, but the bitter reality was that he could hardly play and he certainly couldn’t sing. Listening to Alexander, Aileen was surprised and gratified that maybe there was indeed a talent there, and that it had simply skipped a generation. It certainly wasn’t from her side of the family – white middle class with no musical instruments anywhere near their home – and Aileen was pleased to give Alexander every encouragement.
The teenaged Alexander tried out the banjo but found it displeasingly harsh and unyielding, at least in his hands. But armed with his dad’s ancient acoustic guitar and a harmonica in a holster he crafted himself from an old metal coat hanger, he could really fancy himself as a Bob Dylan figure, as he droned out folksy classics like “Down By The Riverside”, “When The Saints Go Marching In” and “Oh Susanna”. He struggled with finger picking, so his style ended up pretty much as the kind of strumming beyond which most people’s guitar skills don’t develop. He even tried his hand at writing a few songs of his own, using his limited arsenal of chords, but really, he didn’t have much in the way of subject matter to work with. Aileen was impressed by these works of art and proud of her boy when he would play them to her on her return from work.
It was inevitable that Aileen would eventually meet a new man, and it brought a welcome change in circumstances to the small family. Lance Wilson was a friend of Aileen’s boss and ran a small diner in the centre of Tahlequah, aimed at the motorists and tourists plying the historic road Route 66, which ran right through the town. Lance, not long divorced, was an astute businessman and all-round good guy, and before long, life in the apartment above the restaurant was a good deal more comfortable and convenient than it had been in the trailer in the woods. The trailer was sold to a dodgy-looking couple who would doubtless use it as a drug den, but then that wasn’t the Cruz’s problem any more.
Aileen was now in a position to do more shifts and Alexander, recently turned sixteen, was able to earn some cash as well, by means of the traditional rite-of-passage of burger-flipping. He was no longer required to attend high school but he had survived that long on account of being unobtrusive and co-operative on the occasions he’d been there. He certainly never caused any trouble and in the main, teachers had been impressed by how he had dealt with his unconventional upbringing. Half-hearted attempts to persuade him to stay on for further education after high school failed, because, having moved into town, Alex (as he was now, more coolly, known) was in the process of developing a social life.
Alex hadn’t exactly been a loner, but living in the woods had made it hard to get out and about. Two other friends who had quit school at the same time as Alex were Jesse Allen and Mark Houghton. With a mutual interest in music, it was inevitable that they would form their first band together. Mark played fiddle, while both the others fancied themselves as guitarists. In the end, Alex conceded the more prominent rôle and agreed to teach himself double bass, on an ancient instrument that Lance Wilson bought for him from a second hand music shop in Tulsa.
Using the hours when the restaurant was closed, the trio christened themselves the Woodsmen in honour of Alex’s old home and rehearsed enough folk songs to be able to get some (unpaid) gigs in a couple of the local bars. Using their dubious carpentry skills, they even constructed a makeshift stage in Lance’s restaurant (which he predictably called Sir Lance-A Lot). They built up quite a following as passing truckers and local drinkers chomped their Lanceburgers and swigged their Route 66 beer.
And then … punk. Well, it happened to many bands around 1978. Not only were the Woodsmen planning to “go electric” and add drums, they were about to turn into a kind of band for which their particular corner of Oklahoma was unprepared. The way it came about was pretty fateful. A regular customer at Sir Lance-A-Lot, and indeed an occasional solo player there, was David Blue, drummer of a respected local soft-rock band called Bliss. It was David who told Alex about a show that Bliss had been booked for at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, opening for an English touring band. Would he like to come along for the ride? It promised to be something really special.
Alex was doubtful. Cain’s Ballrom, while a legendary venue, was known for Western Swing, a type of music that the Woodsmen were trying to get away from. But the idea of being an honorary roadie for the night, carrying in David’s drums and helping to set them up, was tempting. The date was January 11th 1978, the admission fee (from which Alex was excused on account of being “crew”) was three dollars fifty, and the headlining band, “all the way from London, England” was the Sex Pistols. The following night, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, was to be the Pistols’ last-ever gig, but no one knew that at the time.
Presumably, some of the people in attendance had known roughly what awaited them. Certainly, Alex and the band were well aware of punk. He’d read interviews with the Ramones in Rolling Stone and had already booked tickets to see them, due to play at Cain’s a month later. The cool, high-energy rush of bands like the Ramones and the New York Dolls was appealing to the teenage Woodsmen, feeling pretty isolated in their geographical and cultural backwater. Without the offer of a lift and a free ticket, Alex probably wouldn’t have bothered with the Sex Pistols, as their reputation for chaotic live shows didn’t appeal to the musician in him, even though this was their first (and, as it turned out, only) American tour.
The band’s reputation had preceded them, and outside the quaint ballroom, quite a large crowd of banner-waving, bible-punching protesters had gathered in the road. Rural Oklahoma was a conservative and deeply Christian environment. One of the banners read, “Life is ‘Rotten’ Without God’s Only Begotten Jesus.”
The audience was an uneasy mix of punk followers, the normal Cain’s audience and the merely curious, some seeking trouble. There were also a number of journalists from national music magazines, and a smattering of undercover police, on the alert for any potentially lewd behaviour onstage. Alex was unaware of any of this, armed with a backstage pass and dutifully carrying in the drums in the freezing conditions; Bliss had barely made it to Tulsa though the snow.
The Pistols had arrived early. They’d driven overnight from Dallas, partly to combat the bad weather and partly because Johnny Rotten had allegedly smashed a Texan reporter’s camera and they were concerned about his wrath and the police’s. Bliss weren’t granted access to the Pistols’ dressing room, but they could hear them living up to their reputation, swearing and being contemptuous of any questions they were asked. Bliss performed a short and largely ignored set, and Alex was out front when the Pistols came onstage and blasted into their show. It was loud, it was rough and ready, but it certainly wasn’t chaotic in any unintended way. Like millions of other youths the world over, Alex had his life changed that evening, as Johnny Rotten leered into the microphone, Sid Vicious snarled and sneered, and Steve Jones studiously ignored an entire pitcher of beer that was thrown over him. This wasn’t just hype, it was pure excitement.
Afterwards, Alex witnessed Vicious and Rotten stubbing out cigarettes on their arms as their fee was counted out to them by venue manager Scott Munz, who was later quoted in the local press as considering them “blasphemous, provocative and irreverent”. These were all attributes which appealed to young Alex, and when he described his evening out to the other Woodsmen, the band’s change of direction became a matter of course. Within weeks, Alex had switched to electric bass, amps had been bought (Mark built his own cabinet), a drummer had been recruited, Jesse had switched from fiddle to electric guitar and the band name had been changed.
Was it arrogance, provocation or youthful idiocy which led them to christen themselves The Chocs? Jesse, too had a Choctaw family background and the name sounded to them both snappy and memorable. From a publicity point of view in the era of punk, they couldn’t have done better, but as soon as the first gig posters appeared (their slogan was “Chocs Away!”), there was outrage in the community. The Oklahoma Choctaw Historical Society declared it a slur on their traditions, while the Tahlequah Daily Press called for the group to be banned. In music business terms, it was a PR triumph: scandal and notoriety before the first gig had been played.
Checking out a rehearsal, in which he discovered that the cheery folk tunes had been replaced by aggressive, three-minute shoutalongs, Lance politely made clear that his restaurant would not be a suitable place for them to make their début. Business was tough at the best of times, and he certainly couldn’t afford a potential boycott. Although keen to support her son’s efforts, Aileen agreed, so the Chocs’ first gig took place at a local college (where the principal insisted they were billed merely as “special guests”, to avoid the posters causing further offence). Apart from a few scuffles and some derogatory comments from some of the male students, who didn’t like their girlfriends checking out the guys’ newly-purchased skinny jeans, it went well enough to generate the beginnings of a following. There was certainly no competition in the way of other punk bands in town.
Modelling themselves vaguely on the Ramones, the Chocs died their hair black and, doing their own bookings, played anywhere they could in the area. Playing various local roadhouses, they were generally received with hostility, but this merely helped to enhance their anti-establishment reputation). There were a few higher-profile gigs in places like Eureka Springs, over the border in Arkansas, and the Crystal Pistol, the newly-established punk venue in Tulsa. They even pitched for the Patti Smith Band support slot back at Cain’s Ballroom, but it was already taken. It was at one of their Crystal Pistol shows that they met Larry Goldberg, who was to become their manager and sign them to his Stud record label.
Larry fancied himself as in the same mould as Seymour Stein, the founder of Sire Records. Respected for his maverick personality and ability to find quirky and original new wave acts, Stein had built up a successful empire and Larry Goldberg planned to emulate him. He was actually a New Yorker but was visiting friends in Tulsa that night, and had read a news item in the local paper about the Chocs being pulled over on the highway on suspicion of dope possession. Nothing had been found, but the cops had allegedly pushed them around a bit and spoken to them demeaningly. Alex’s mum Aileen, by now becoming quite enthused about the following the Chocs were building, had written to a journalist under a pseudonym, complaining of victimization. This led to a nice piece of publicity for the band.
The police were probably a bit out of date in what they were searching for. Most of the hippie groups they were used to would undoubtedly have had a stash of weed somewhere in their van, but the Chocs were a high-energy band and needed to do a lot of late-night driving, so speed was their chosen stimulant. There were almost certainly some little pills flicked out of the window onto the grass verge as they were being pulled over. No matter, they got their piece in the paper and Larry Goldberg came to their gig.
It wasn’t particularly Larry’s style of music, but he was an astute impresario and could see which way the wind was blowing musically. The Chocs fitted the mould nicely and the next morning, over coffee in Lance’s bar, he offered the band a deal.
“Listen, boys, I can take you out of here and make you into stars.”
It was such a cliché that it was almost laughable, but the Chocs were willing, and – let’s face it – naïve victims.
“You mean we’ll be able to travel all over the world?”
“Sure thing. You guys are the future of the music business.”
A few days later, the contract arrived in the post. Cautiously, Aileen asked a lawyer friend to look it over. The friend was actually a real estate expert and found it hard to work his way through the dense music business legal terminology such as “points” and “redeemable but not recoupable”, but nevertheless declared that it seemed “all right”. All the song publishing was assigned to Larry. With local friends as witnesses, all four members signed the contract. Cue joy. It hardly seemed possible.
Larry had a record producer friend who had a studio in Oklahoma City, and, after a few weeks working on arrangements and rehearsing, the Chocs came up with ten songs which they considered representative, almost all of them three-minute rants with few chords, and therefore relatively easy to record. The line-up was now the classic rock group configuration: Two guitars, bass and drums. For the album title, “Rock With The Chocs” was rejected by consensus as naff and replaced by the hardly less naff “Don’t Knock The Chocs” – seen as having echoes of “Never Mind The Bollocks”. The song chosen for a single was the one which least represented their style – a stadium-style rock anthem called “Mad And Bad”, written by Alex, with a singalong chorus inaccurately plagiarized from John Lydon. The day after Alex had seen the Sex Pistols, they had played their last ever show, in San Francisco. Johnny Rotten famously signed off with the question, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” In Alex’s song, it came out like this:
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been had? Baby baby, I’m mad and I’m bad.”
No one had jobs they were committed to, so when Larry recommended relocating en masse to New York, the Chocs were up for it in a big way. The loft apartment they were installed in seemed to be mysteriously rent-free. It was a long time before they realized that this was just one of the many items being put down by Larry as recoupable expenses, but for the time being, life was sweet. Larry’s contacts book was strong enough to secure them a residency at the legendary CBGBs and regular shows at other significant New York venues. When he sent them on a coast-to-coast tour, all meals and motels were paid for even though the fees at the murky fleapit venues they played were tiny. The euphoria when “Mad And Bad”, on the Stud label, peaked at number 42 in the Billboard charts on the back of an interview in Rolling Stone and a healthy amount of radio airplay, was enough to make the Chocs feel they had truly arrived. Back in Tahlequah, the Daily Press suddenly had a new attitude to them: “Chocs Away! Local band storms US charts.”
Alex expressed quiet satisfaction to his mother.
“I thought I could write songs, Mom, and now I’ve proved it.”
Although he normally co-wrote the band’s songs with Jesse, “Mad And Bad” had been a solo effort, a throw-away idea, really. Alex was confident that the songwriting royalties would soon start to flow.
“I’ll share it with the other guys, Larry, they deserve a cut too.”
“Yep, it won’t be long before the cheques will start to arrive.”
In the meantime, however, all four Chocs were busy being very stupid and above all, in the tradition of young, naive rock groups, boringly predictable. Cocaine was de rigeur for almost all rock bands at the time, but not everyone went further. Alex was foolish, but, in his defence, many young musicians of that era really had no idea what they were getting themselves into. He first tried freebasing crack in the Château Marmont Hotel in LA after a gig at the Whiskey A-Go-Go. The singer of the headline band told him he just had to give it a go, and wouldn’t believe the high that could be achieved. Everybody was doing it, even venerable elder statesmen of rock like David Crosby, so it didn’t seem much more significant than slamming down a Tequila. The band members’ consequent mood swings and volatile behaviour (all the Chocs indulged to varying degrees apart from Mark, and even he developed an alcohol problem) meant that further fame or fortune were doomed never to materialize. Their live performances became unreliable, their second single made no ripples and “Don’t Knock the Chocs” was a sitting duck for the barbed-pen music critics, who gave it a royal trouncing as naïve and derivative.
An inability to deal with drugs wasn’t the only rock ‘n’ roll feature of Alex’s personality. He indulged enthusiastically in the delights of the flesh too. The groupie scene offered itself to him and he certainly wasn’t going to decline. But sometimes, he would take liberties which went beyond casual sex. On one occasion, in Detroit, he had to get out of town fast when a furious father with a gun was after him for allegedly going too far with an under-age girl who had resisted his advances. He’d misunderstood her flirtatious behaviour as being an invitation for sex, and didn’t like it when she was reluctant. “I thought she was asking for it,” he told the other Chocs.
The cool intelligentsia of the New York music scene had no place for these literal hicks from the sticks, so it wasn’t really a surprise when, in March 1981, they were called to Larry Goldberg’s Manhattan office.
That was the day when the Chocs realized that they really should have looked into their contract in more detail. The second album which they had been looking forward to recording turned out merely to be an “option”, that Larry could have taken up if he’d wanted to. The publishing rights for their songs rested with Larry too, with only a tiny percentage due to the writers, and in any case, any royalties due from record sales or publishing had long since been eaten up by their day-to-day expenses.
“Boys, you have no idea how much I’ve invested in this project.”
“But we’re the ones who’ve done all the work.”
“Without me, you’d never have had the work in the first place. You’ve had a great time, you’ve travelled all over the States, you’ve been on the radio, you’ve even had a hit record. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be doing dead-end jobs in Tahlequah. But the time has come where I’ve got to cut my losses. I’m sorry, boys.”
The way Larry presented it, he’d been doing the band a massive favour by enabling them to pursue their brief career.
For the three other Chocs, it was the end of an adventure they’d never really planned in the first place. Mark, Jesse and drummer Brian returned to their families in Oklahoma, got jobs and continued to play local venues in amateur bands. Alex however, decided to stay in New York.
It had been while attending an acoustic show in the Bottom Line Club in Greenwich Village that Alex had got chatting with the girl doing the door. Molly was a pretty art student and also a part-time musician who was aware that Alex had been a member of a “signed” band. Before long, they were partners in life (Alex moved into Molly’s tiny apartment in the Bowery), in music (they started writing and performing together) and yes, in crime (they bonded over a shared interest in hard drugs, specifically heroin, onto which Alex had moved in the wake of the band’s split-up.). The couple eked out an existence doing poorly paid support slots as an acoustic duo, but that wasn’t enough to live on. Their reputation around town became that of a surrogate Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, as they eventually ended up emulating the likes of Peter Perrett and Johnny Thunders in a sordid lifestyle funded by their own dealing. That old cliché about how you have to hit rock bottom before starting to climb back held true for the pair, who were struggling to cope when their baby daughter, Lucy, was born in October 1983.
Keen to meet her granddaughter, and unaware of the lifestyle change that had affected her son, Aileen drove all the way to New York to bring the young family home to Tahlequah for Christmas. That something was wrong soon became obvious. Unmistakable clues were a lethargic baby, a mother who kept dozing off, and a father who had to make regular trips to visit unidentified “friends”, usually late at night. All those fears about what might befall her son in the Big City seemed to have been justified.
Things had been looking up for Aileen and Lance. They’d gone into business together and their Sir Lance-A-Lot brand had expanded into a small chain of outlets; the concept of burgers and live music had caught on. Shocked and ashamed at what had befallen Alex, Lance was at least in a financial position to offer his adopted son and his new family a spell in a local rehab facility. Feeling less anxious back in his childhood environment, Alex was in a good position to summon up the willpower required, but Molly’s attempts at withdrawal soon petered out. The lure of heroin was so strong that, after a few weeks, she opted to return to New York and the oblivion it offered.
Against all advice, and contrary to Alex’s wishes, Molly took the infant Lucy with her, but it wasn’t long before Lance again had to head up to the Big Apple to retrieve the child. After a couple of months, poor Molly was dead, found slumped in the rest-room of the Max’s Kansas City after taking an overdose. Nobody knew whether it was intentional or not.
With Alex away in rehab, Aileen unexpectedly found herself being a mother again – this time to her granddaughter. Little Lucy, often parked in a buggy in the office from where Aileen administered the Lance-A-Lot empire, gradually regained health. Alex took months to get over the death of Molly, but in a way the pointlessness of it galvanized him, until he was eventually able to resume fatherly duties and effectively start his “solo career”, touring the Lance-A-Lot chain with an acoustic guitar, doing a set of originals and a few covers by the likes of Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello. The climax of each show was, inevitably, a singalong version of “Mad And Bad”, the nearest thing Oklahoma had to a state anthem until, many years later, the Flaming Lips released “Do You Realize?” Predictably, the lyrical preoccupations of Alex’s songs tended to centre around the torment of withdrawal, the cruel vagaries of the music business, the agony of lost love and the joys of fatherhood.
A second try at stardom wasn’t on the agenda at all until Green On Red hit Oklahoma City in mid-1985. Country rock and its indie branch-offs had attracted Alex’s interest and his set already contained Byrds and REM covers, so he drove over to see the pioneering Los Angeles band, unattractively classified by the press as “cowpunk”, or more coolly as the “Paisley Underground”, having been joined in 1985 by Chuck Prophet for the “Gas Food Lodging” album. In a corridor after the gig, Alex bumped into Green On Red’s front man Dan Stuart and their brief conversation about music was enough to convince Alex that his next step would be to form a psychedelic country rock band back in Tahlequah.
From the original Chocs, both Jesse and Mark were interested. Alex purchased a 12-string Rickenbacker and switched from bass to lead guitar. A drummer called Will Sharp was recruited via a notice in the local music store, and once again, the search was on for a name. This time, it was easier and less controversial. Gram Parsons was the acknowledged king of country rock and “gram” was a drug measurement, so The Grams was a cool name with all the requisite rock and roll connotations.
Things moved fast. The country rock that the Grams were playing chimed exactly with what the music industry required at that moment, and by mid-1986, they had completed tours supporting REM and the Dream Syndicate and also been signed by a proper label, a subsidiary of A & M. Their first album, “Desert Grave”, largely written by Alex, while not charting, hit all the right notes with publications such as Melody Maker and NME in the UK. They even made the front cover of “Sounds”, although not with a photo, just a flash heralding an interview on page 6. Ironically, despite being recognized far more in Europe than in the US, they never got to tour over there, partly for financial reasons and partly due to managerial incompetence.
The Grams were dropped in 1990, having only got as far as demoing their second album but not recording it. They hadn’t hit major headlining status, but they had certainly achieved respectability. Sales, however, were more important to the record company than the much-coveted kudos of a “cult following”. But without that cult following, Corey Zander would never have reached Wikipedia. Alex’s friends had called him Zander for years, and Corey Zander was his idea of a cool country rock name. He adopted it when the Grams were signed, partly to avoid unwelcome comparisons with the Chocs, and partly to draw a line under his previous espousal of the darker side of rock and roll. The Grams were a band that was entirely free of hard drugs, although none of them were averse to the odd slug of bourbon to help out with onstage confidence, and calming joints were a familiar feature of the dressing room.
The Grams had spent time in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but their base had always been in North East Oklahoma. Thus, Corey (as he was forever henceforth to be known) remained close to his daughter Lucy, with Aileen helping out when the band was on tour. But many of the musicians Corey was meeting on the road hailed either from Nashville or Austin, Texas. Corey felt that Nashville was probably a bit “straight country” for him, but Austin, the self-appointed “live music capital of the world”, was an alluring prospect. Still not comfortable with the prevalent right-leaning, church-orientated ethos of Tahlequah, Corey was intrigued by tales of this liberal-minded University city where music was king. Austin, so he was told, was home to hundreds of music venues and like-minded blues and roots musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan (the most famous), along with the likes of Joe Ely, Doug Sahm, of course, Willie Nelson. It sounded very much like the kind of place he’d like Lucy to grow up in. Corey relocated to Austin in 1991, never to return and has resided there as a minor luminary of the Austin scene ever since. He lives there quietly with Lucy, who grew up in a laid-back atmosphere near the bohemian South Congress area, filled with music bars, where Corey plays to this day.
In the traditional attempt to find a new approach to reviewing sxsw, here’s an artist-by artist list of everyone we saw, in chronological order.
QUIET LIFE (Patagonia)
This was within 45 minutes of landing at Austin Bergstrom airport. Quiet Life, from Portland, Oregon, entertained a range of families in a clothes shop. Only in Austin …
SONS OF BILL (Red 7)
A typical Red River dive. Over the road, a huge queue was trying to get in to see local hero Gary Clark Jnr – and this was before the festival had even officially started. SOB’s good songs were slightly blighted by a disinterested audience.
LAURA MARLING (Convention Center)
Major artists do little twenty minute shows for the media during the day in the plush Convention Center. It’s always hard to generate any atmosphere here but even taking that into account, this was a weak performance, characterised by mistakes and fluffs and a piss-poor band. What do people see in her?
AMERICAN AQUARIUM (Dogwood)
A slightly sub Springsteen performance by a hot new band from North Carolina. I spent most of the time trying to find some shade from the blazing sun.
FRANK TURNER (Cedar Street Courtyard)
I have a problem in that I am supposed to worship Frank Turner just like everyone else does. Of course I want to be proud that he allegedly comes from Winchester, but I just loathe his shouty-strummy style and I am ambivalent about his background, especially now I’ve read his autobiography. But in fairness, I thought I should give him another go. A mistake. One of the best venues in Austin, though.
MILKY CHANCE (Cedar Door)
Not the sort of band I normally would go and see – German hip-hop. But they were great and we benefited from loads of promotional freebies – I walked away with eleven pairs of sunglasses.
THE CRIBS (Clive Bar)
This involved a long walk, but I had a hankering for some nice melodic post-Ash power pop. Why bands like The Cribs bother to come to events like this I’m not sure, but I’m glad they do.
THE LOST BROTHERS (Capital Cruises)
No sxsw would be complete without a river cruise, and this one featured this friendly Irish duo and also Will Sexton (brother of Charlie). Great way to spend breakfast.
SUZY BOGGUSS (Broken Spoke)
Would never miss the annual Twangfest, held in Austin’s most iconic venue. Straight country to two-step to.
AMY SPEACE (Broken Spoke)
She and her band had literally just arrived in Austin and were just getting going.
CHUCK PROPHET AND THE MISSION EXPRESS (Broken Spoke)
They just tore the place apart. This was the beginning of the slippery slope that led to us following Chuck around rather than actually reporting on other acts. They were so ridiculously good, it was impossible to resist.
JOSH SAVAGE (Driskill Hotel)
Now here’s a guy from Winchester I don’t mind bigging up. Young singer Josh acquitted himself admirably in the poshest of venues.
SKINNY LISTER (Lamberts)
I literally stuck a pin in the schedule and spotted a band name I recognised. Hugely impressed by their wildly uninhibited energy. And they’re British!
CHUCK PROPHET AND THE MISSION EXPRESS(Continental Club)
This was actually the least impressive Chuck show, because it was the official showcase and far too loud. However, the unexpected appearance of iconic rapper Bushwick Bill livened up proceedings.
BRONCHO (Hotel San José)
The heavy rain drove us to spend the whole afternoon here. It was a good decision. This was some New Orderish post-punk from Oklahoma.
HOUNDMOUTH (Hotel San José)
Had been hoping to see this stylish band and up they popped. They were on Letterman a week later.
THE ZOMBIES (Hotel San José)
Yes, you read that right. Sixties legends (especially in the States) sparked mass adulation in the drizzle. Who’d have thought that the best voice of sxsw 2015 would be Colin Blunstone? Totally fabulous singalong session.
SONS OF BILL (Lucky Lounge)
Thisis a super cool band but again, they suffered from a rowdy audience. One girl fell unconscious from her stool and crashed into me.
ANDREW COMBS (Lucky Lounge)
How sad that Ian McLagan wasn’t here to do his traditional Lucky Lounge shows. Andrew was fine but it’s a strangely laid-out venue and I was glad to see him properly the next day.
CHUCK PROPHET AND THEMISSION EXPRESS (Brooklyn Cantina)
Absolutely storming. Despite the cold and the rain and even a dud PA, they produced one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever seen. And you know, I’ve seen a lot.
DANIEL ROMANO (Brooklyn Cantina)
Laconic country stylings on the front porch of the same venue. They did cactus tacos and luscious beer there.
THE MASTERSONS (Brooklyn Cantina)
Officially the hardest-working duo of sxsw 2015, they are always cheerful and never flag.
DADDY LONGLEGS (Brooklyn Cantina)
If you have been missing the Legendary Shack*Shakers (I have), these are the guys for you.
ANDREW COMBS (Brooklyn Cantina)
This guy has a big future. I’m going to try and book him.
CHUCK PROPHET AND THEMISSION EXPRESS (Brooklyn Cantina)
I know it’s ridiculous, but we simply hailed an Uber cab and followed them!
ELLIOTT BROOD (Swan Dive)
Always lovely to met up with our friends from the great Canadian label Six Shooter. Although the Brood are strictly speaking now on another label, they were guesting here. Shall we say, a certain amount of alcohol was consumed.
WHITEHORSE (Swan Dive)
Finished this year’s sxsw with the ever-excellent Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland in their new electronic format, which is deservedly making them stars.
Of course, we also saw probably twenty more bands whose names we didn’t catch (for example, several more on the boat trip). The next day was spent on a swing on someone’s front porch in the sunshine. And then I flew home. I always say it, but this REALLY was the best one ever – mainly thanks to Chuck.
Your blood may run cold but it’s a heart-warming story. 63 year old Bob Frank’s first and last album was released by the Vanguard label in 1972. Although he never stopped writing songs, he has spent the entire interim working in Oakland as an irrigation specialist. This is not the sort of person who, in an industry obsessed with youth and fashion, could reasonably be expected to sign a record deal in 2007, let alone be taken up as the darling of Rolling Stone and Uncut magazines. Yet this is what has happened.
Catalyst in all this is 27 year old John Murry, on the face of it a fearsome man-mountain, who was introduced to Bob Frank as a potential cure for depression following his move to San Francisco (where both can now be found). Immediately tumbling into a love-hate-love-hate relationship (the old can’t live with or without you syndrome), they first of all grew some poppies and then started to write together. The project was to create a canon of murder ballads which nodded in the direction of tradition, but which were based on their own historical research. Thus, the album contains songs about an unrepentant killer (Boss Weatherford, 1933), about two contrasting lynchings (Tupelo, Mississippi, 1936 and Jesse Washington, 1916) and a legendary Mexican Robin Hood (Joaquim Murietta, 1853).
Bloodthirsty, of course, but with a strangely alluring beauty all of their own, the ballads on World Without End are encased in sumptuously inventive arrangements by Murry and producer Tim Mooney (American Music Club), but live, they operate as a duo, with Murry’s scratchy electric guitar inter-acting with Franks more traditionally picked acoustic. ”This guy came up to me after a show and accused me of ruining the songs by turning up my volume and drowning out Bob because I was supposedly in a bad mood”, complains John, in a manner that suggests that the audience member should really have kept his mouth shut. ”He didnt understand that this violent juxtaposition of sound is exactly what we are trying to create.”
And it undoubtedly works. The combination of the grizzled gentleman with the acoustic and the terrifying grunge-rocker (actually a sensitive intellectual with a strange way of showing it) makes for a stage show like you’ve never seen. Plus, they both have contrasting but equally mellifluous voices. As they brought their songs to a completely unprepared but soon converted European audience (the pair had never previously stepped outside the US), there were numerous cultural divides to be bridged but, as it should be, the music did the talking and the unique, unstudied nature of the characters triumphed. Theres always the danger with these things that there’s an element of artifice involved, but talk to these two for a couple of minutes and you realize that they are the real deal, innocents abroad almost, and all the better for it. They certainly don’t belong in the superficial world of the music industry.
Bob is resolutely laid-back about the project. “It was John’s idea to write the songs but we wrote them together. John is the creative impetus, hell, he came up with all the instrumentation, he even did all the design work. If I hadn’t met this guy, it would never have happened.”
John: ”The original idea was to record old murder ballads, but Bob writes story songs anyway, so it just sort of came together. They are as factually accurate as we could make them, but some have different historical versions and others are legends. Bubba Rose actually happened, we know that for sure.”
These guys are on an adventure which is the stuff of dreams but they remain blissfully unaware, taking each day as it comes and trying hard not to make reality out of art by actually murdering each other. How it all pans out is set to be one of the most intriguing episodes in recent musical history.
I can’t wait for self-driven cars to become a reality. Sadly, I fear I won’t live long enough to see the day when they will be safe enough to be unleashed on the roads, but even if I do, we can assume they will be priced to be accessible only to the super rich.
I have a reason for this dream. One day, I’d like to drive on a motorway again. The last time I did that was in 1976.
If you don’t drive at all, no one thinks you are weird. But if you do drive but can’t drive on motorways, you are considered to be very odd indeed. That’s me.
It crops up in conversation a lot, because everyone knows I have this affliction. I know, people say, I hate motorways too. But that isn’t the point. I don’t just hate them, I live in such terror of them that I’m finding it painful just writing these sentences. My phobia is total. If a terrible emergency were to crop up tomorrow which made it vital for me to get onto the M3, for example to reach an airport because a relative was dying, I wouldn’t be able to do it.
Describe how you feel, people say. Well, I can tell you how it started. I used to drive on the Autobahn in Germany. I remember those huge trucks with trailers that would swing around in the inside lane. My wheezy old Beetle would struggle to overtake them. Sometimes it would take a minute or two of inching alongside them before the blessed relief of pulling in, and during that time, there would be angry BMW drivers in the mirror flashing their lights at me. But there was nowhere to go. Cars to the left of you, lorries to the right, stuck in the middle lane. It was claustrophobia in its most extreme form, but back then, I was able to cope with it. Most people wouldnt even think of it as an issue.
Those suffering from conventional claustrophobia are compelled to get out of their situations and normally, with a little embarrassment, they can. An elevator will normally stop eventually, a theatre will have an exit, even a cable car will reach the top of the mountain, but if you are driving on a motorway, there’s no escape.
“What does it feel like?” people ask. In a kind way, they try to empathize. But they can’t imagine what this phobia is like. I was first struck by it in 1976, on the way home from seeing the Rolling Stones at Knebworth. Surrounded by headlights at speed, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by confusion. Were the lights in front of me, behind me or in the mirror? How far away were they? I literally froze, having no control over my body or mind. I lost all understanding of how to drive the car. I had to stop, get away, but it was impossible. My head span, I felt sick, I couldn’t see properly and my limbs were out of control.
It was a miracle I didn’t crash and die there and then, but the next day, assuming it must have been some weird one-off, I tried again. And it happened again, this time in daylight. And then again. There is a strong element of OCD in this. I don’t believe that I won’t plough into the nearest lorry, or that its driver won’t have a heart attack and veer across the motorway. It could happen, and that is enough to convince my troubled mind that it will.
Already my mind had taken over control of my intentions, learning the wrong responses, but I was determined not to be beaten by such nonsense. When I realised that something had to be done, I took medical advice, but before that, my dear wife offered to take me out on practice drives on dual carriageways. It was hopeless and we would always end up stranded at the first layby and she would have to drive me home as I shivered and sobbed.
Had my GP heard of this strange driving affliction? No, but he was sure it was merely stress and anxiety. He prescribed two sorts of pill, one of which I stopped almost immediately after I discovered it was an enormously strong and highly addictive anti-depressant. The others were standard tranquillisers, to be taken before attempting to drive. Bafflingly, the label said that one should avoid driving after taking the pills. That was helpful. And significantly, the doctor asked me if I felt I could drive better after having consumed alcohol? I did. But it obviously wasnt a solution that it made sense to pursue.
I consulted a series of psychiatrists and psychotherapists. The first person I went to just made things worse. Despite his opulent house, his leather chaise-longue and the long series of letters after his name, he showed no sign of being able to relate to the condition. He also lived in a place only accessible via a busy road, so that didnt exactly help. Another one tried really hard to help me by coming out in the car with me, the idea being to overcome the phobia by confronting it. In theory, it was a sound approach, but after a couple of sessions, he was so shit-scared that he told me he didn’t dare continue. I didn’t blame him.
Yet another psychotherapist thought that group therapy might help. Unfortunately, the other participants had quite different phobias, of bats, mice and snakes. They didn’t empathise with my problem and I didn’t empathise with theirs. Homeopathy wasn’t any better. The white-coated expert was obviously a charlatan and sold me some pills which I knew were made of sugar.
The most helpful person was a local acupuncturist, although it was a bit awkward. Her daughter kept walking in to find me spreadeagled on the couch, looking like a pincushion. The acupuncturist also treated several of my friends and would regale me with information about their personal problems. I could only assume that she was also telling them all about mine. What she did do, however, was teach me good relaxation techniques, which I have found useful in a variety of situations ever since.
Finally, annoyed at my GPs insistence that there was nothing for it but to keep taking the tablets, I changed to another doctor. He immediately said I should stop taking the tablets and also stop driving. Stop driving? Why not? Millions of people don’t drive. Whats the big deal? He was right. I was reassured to look up several of my heroes (such as Liam Gallagher and Ricky Gervais) and find that they had never driven and didn’t care. Although I guess they can afford chauffeurs.
I had long since accepted that I was a non motorway driver for ever when I was approached by the BBC, wanting to film a documentary item about my affliction. They already had an agenda in place. They would film me being treated by a hypnotist, an extraordinary lady I christened Mystic Meg. She would carry out a miracle cure, they would film me bowling along the M3 and they would have their programme. Of course it was a failure (although I really tried, as keen as anyone for a miracle cure) and they doctored some footage of me on a short piece of dual carriageway to make it seem like a success.
I now know that the only way to have conquered it was to have been forced, again and again, to confront it, but the unique nature of this problem made that impossible. I would never have been able to do it on my own, and no one else would ever have had the courage to accompany me. In my mind, I would certainly lose control and kill myself, my companion and numerous other drivers. That was too much of a risk to take.
So why am dragging all this up now? Well, partly because I want to know if I am the only person in the world who has this problem. When the programme went out, no one contacted the BBC saying they recognised the symptoms. I have met plenty of people who don’t like driving on motorways but none who simply can’t. Plus, last week, by an awful set of circumstances, I suddenly briefly found myself on a stretch of dual carriageway in Southampton. Was this the confrontation I needed? Was I cured? Nope, it was just as bad as the first time. I completely freaked and it is only the fact that there was practically no traffic that allows me to still be here and able to write this. No happy ending there, then.
I can drive short distances on small roads and luckily, my wife is an excellent driver who enjoys nothing better than blasting along motorways. The tranquillisers went down the toilet long ago and in my retirement, I plan to research and write a volume entitled How To Drive From Lands End To John O’Groats Without Encountering A Dual Carriageway. Its bound to be a best-seller.
The tributes to Ian McLagan that are flooding into the press and the internet mainly take two forms. There are the factual obituaries that set out his musical achievements, the stars he worked with and the hits he played on. And there are the others, which try, in a personal way, to explain why he was so loved. If you’ll forgive me, this one fits firmly into the second category.
My most memorable Mac moment took place in late 1967. Of all things, an attempt on the Guinness World see-sawing record was talking place at the University of East Anglia. As the world record was approached, the DJ put on a song I’d never heard before, a new single from the Small Faces. Those opening Wurlitzer chords hit me so hard that I can remember every detail of the moment to this day. Mac’s riff, then Steve Marriott’s coruscating vocals, PP Arnold’s soulful backing singing and finally, the striking afterthought of Kenney Jones’ drum roll at the end, which emphasizes the attitude that, while the song may be a recording, this was a LIVE band. Whenever that old chestnut crops up and I’m asked to name my favourite single, it is Tin Soldier. Always was, always will be. Ian Mclagan’s playing on that record established him as an intuitive genius.
Apart from modelling my hairstyle on his (even today), my relationship with Mac merely took the form of loving his contributions to the Small Faces, the Faces and The Stones. The Hammond + Leslie swish, as exemplified by Jimmy Smith, is my favourite sound, so I enjoyed, in tandem with my admiration for Mac, a love for the sounds of Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group. But that was a musical thing; they would never have the style of the Small Faces. When I saw Mac playing with the Stones, it never crossed my mind that I’d ever have anything to do with him personally. He seemed, then, to be operating in a rarified rock stratosphere to which mere mortals could never be admitted. How wrong can you be?
It was at the Womad Festival in 1999 that Mac reappeared on my personal radar. As a gig promoter, you never rest, and on that particular occasion we had a show coming up with Robyn Hitchcock. Ticket weren’t going too well, so we went to the festival especially to hand out flyers. I’m embarrassed now, because most of them went straight on the floor, causing awful litter. But Billy Bragg and his new band The Blokes were also playing, and as I watched, I could hear an unexpected but unmistakeable sound: It was that Hammond/Leslie swell, and … surely that little white dot behind the dark brown cabinet couldn’t be … ? When Billy introduced the band and revealed that it was Ian McLagan, the drunk bloke next to me almost had a heart attack. What? That’s Ian McLagan? Ian Fucking McLagan? Oh my God? He lost it so much that security had to ask him to calm down. Hardly any of the assembled world music fans were interested at all, but I was transfixed by the fact that this huge star was so comfortable to be just another member of someone’s backing band, and was obviously having such fun doing it.
I’d read in a biography of Keith Moon the story of how Mac had rescued Kim Moon from her husband’s excesses by effectively doing a midnight flit with her and ending up in LA, but more than that I didn’t know, so, if I’d given it any thought, I’d have assumed that Mac was living the Hollywood high life. But around this time, a mate of mine who ran a pub in Burton Bradstock, Dorset, told me that Mac was often to be found propping up his bar, sipping Guinness and nattering with the locals. The reason? Billy Bragg lived round the corner and Mac would often visit. It seemed highly unlikely but, confession time, I twice travelled to the Three Horseshoes in the specific hope that I would meet, or maybe just catch a glimpse of, the hero of my youth. It didn’t happen, of course, but the locals all assured me that Adrian the landlord had been telling the truth.
Round about then, also, I started going to Austin, Texas on a regular basis. You can’t help but make friends there, and all of them said the same. Mac and Kim had moved there and Mac had rapidly become a local mascot, unpretentiously playing all the local bars on a regular basis with his Bump Band. Nobody had a bad word to say about him. By now, I’d started to put Americana shows on in Winchester and one of our earliest bands was The Resentments, featuring Austin guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who I knew was also in the Bump Band. Would it ever be possible to get them to play for us, I asked? Scrappy looked around the classic UK boozer he’d just played in and replied, I think he’d love it here.
I didn’t give it a further thought, as the whole idea was ridiculous, but lo and behold, in mid-2008 I received an email from one of my most trusted agents: Would you like to book the Bump Band? Well, they were a lot more expensive than any band I’d booked before and I’d been spooked by a Mac solo show I’d attended at the Brook in Southampton some years before, where there were very few people. What if I was wrong, and no one else shared my excitement? But it was impossible to refuse, and so the Bump Band was booked for the tiny Railway.
I got off to a terrible start with Mac. I knew that the Bump Band had a residency at the Saxon Pub in Austin and I had an idea to make him feel welcome and at home. I ordered a banner saying Saxon Pub and went in early to hang it up as a stage backdrop. When he arrived, his first words were, “I ain’t going on till that banner comes down. I fuckin’ hate that place”. Mortified, and cringing with embarrassment, I took down the banner. Shit, I thought. I must have been wrong about Mac. He’s obviously a diva. But I set about helping him, the band and the crew to address a more pressing problem: the Hammond B3 wouldn’t fit though the stage door. In the end, the door had to come off its hinges and the instrument slid in with a millimetre to spare, the entire operation being supervised, hands-on, with great good humour, by Mac himself. It was okay, this was no diva.
I’d always thought of the Railway as being like a Texas roadhouse, so as the Bump Band rocked out to a sold-out crowd, I was in seventh heaven, still in disbelief that this was actually happening. A fan letter and autograph request arrived from the deputy director general of the BBC, for goodness sake! And after the show, far from slipping off to their hotel, the band made a bee-line for the front bar, where Mac hitched up a stool and spent a good hour quaffing Guinness and chewing the fat with the landlord, Fred Eynon, sadly also no longer with us. It was a pattern to be repeated every time he came. ”I love this place”, he would beam. “It’s a proper boozer, not a bleedin’ arts centre”. Meantime, most of the audience would stay behind, either to join in the conversation or watch in awe. There was no sense of a star holding court. Mac was simply a born communicator, someone who loved life and other humans. Needless to say, he was also incredibly funny, natural, humble and exploding with tales of an extraordinary life.
I’m no amateur psychologist, but I have always assumed that Mac’s dedication to gigging in the last few years must have been his way of dealing with the grief caused by the sudden and awful death of Kim in a car accident in Austin. Throwing yourself into work is a way of holding dark thoughts at bay, and no one from that generation of rock stars has toured so hard into their late sixties. That’s why we were privileged to have Mac playing twice more for us, the last time being just a few months ago, in July. In each case, it was touring in a really hard way, driving around the UK as a duo with the wonderful Mr Jon Notarthomas, who not many people may realise was Mac’s rock, quietly acting as his tour manager, minder, protector and bassist. The pair of them caused hearts to flutter as they shared breakfast in Twyford’s village café in August 2011, trying to procrastinate before their trip to the next gig in Bristol. It was the summer of the riots and they were spooked with anxiety. Burning cities were the antithesis of the laid-back, friendly atmosphere of Austin, Texas.
Everyone knows how badly the Small Faces were ripped off as a band, and that the Faces will have spent much of their income on having fun, but it’s still shocking that a man who has contributed to the music of Springsteen, Dylan and the Stones (the riff on Miss You for goodness’ sake) was clearly strapped for cash. These tours were done on a shoestring, with Jon and Mac driving themselves and staying in Travelodges. On July 7, the morning after the last Railway show, they came over to our place for breakfast and, as I cooked their fry-up, Mac’s preoccupation was that they hadn’t sold as much merch as they’d hoped (merch, as any band will tell you, subsidises such tours). Had the table been set up in the wrong place? How could they do better next time? But one thing, above all, was troubling Mac more, and it just sums up the man.
As support, I had booked an artist from Sunderland called Antonio Lulic. I had done this because Antonio has a very moving song about Austin, and I thought it would be appropriate. Now Mac was worried because Antonio had had to slip off to catch a train and Mac hadn’t managed to include a shout-out for him because, quite understandably, he’d forgotten his name. But now Mac was wracked with guilt, fearing that Antonio would think he hadn’t been appreciated. It is so typical that Mac’s only concern was to encourage and acknowledge a young musician.
At that same show, a friend of mine was trying to pluck up courage to ask Mac for an autograph and a chat. In her youth in the sixties, she’d been a massive Small Faces fan. Come on, I’ll introduce you, I offered, but she was too shy. I’ll do it next time he comes, she said. Now there won’t be a next time. I close my eyes and try to remember his mannerisms, his tone of voice, the lightness and frailty you felt when doing a Texan bear hug with him. I don’t envy obituary writers; no matter how you try, you cant put a feeling into words.
At the tender age of 66, this summer has seen me going to more music festivals than ever before. It just worked out like that. The first trip was to deepest Suffolk, where the Maverick Festival was taking place on a rather sweet petting farm. I wasn’t actually there for the festival but rather for the annual conference of the UK Americana Music Association, which was tagged on to the festival. It was a beautiful sunny day and the expedition involved a delightful train journey via Ipswich and getting off at a station that doubled as a boatyard – just sweet. A meticulously polite taxi driver took me to Easton Park Farm, where I found the conference rather intimidating. I expected a load of scruffy oiks like me boozing and nattering about music (which was actually true) but the formality of the occasion, complete with a programme of keynote speeches, seminars and workshops was giving me panic attacks as it reminded me so much of the horrors of Inset days. Anyway, I had a couple of beers and before I knew it was joining in and heckling with alacrity, although I was rather offended not to be approached by more people in the speed dating section. I stood in a corner feeling embarrassed and the only people who spoke to me were aspiring artists keen to press their latest CD on anyone who would take one. Truth to tell, it was a fun day and I was able to stay long enough to catch the first few acts of the festival, which looked to be gearing up to be an excellent event. I’d always shied away from Maverick on the basis that it was too straight country for me, but it seems to be in a state of transition and I may well give it a go next year.
But time waits for no one (truth to tell, I was too stingey to book a B and B, so had to go home), and anyway, the very next day was Blissfields. It was like stepping into a different world. At Maverick, I felt completely at home, whereas at Blissfields, I was a good three times the age of almost everyone else. Set deep in the Hampshire countryside, this is a very successful enterprise which has been going for a number of years now, building up a strong following. It’s true to say that I am deeply jealous of them, because my little festival in September has stubbornly refused to attract more than a hundred punters, while theirs has risen steadily to several thousand, despite having, in my opinion, of course, a weaker line-up. The answer is to position yourself as an ideal place for students to celebrate the beginning of their summer holidays, and to provide loads of non-musical things to do, such as sit in a jacuzzi. I was surprised to see some tribute bands playing here, and also disappointed to find that Chloë Howl, who I expected to be edgy, was bland and backed by session musos. There were more drunk people in evidence here than at any of the other festivals I went to this year. But it was worth it for the gorgeous drive through the charming picture postcard villages of Hampshire.
The following weekend was the best of the summer. It wasn’t really a festival; but I had an incredible feast of music in Hyde Park, where I went not so much particularly for Neil Young but more for the underbill of Phosphorescent, Caitlin Rose and Midlake, all favourites of mine, and all playing on the second stage, which was a sort of Spiegeltent affair. We set up camp there and stayed for the afternoon, this niftily avoiding the likes of Tom Odell and Lucy Rose. And missing the rain. We emerged blinking into the sunlight in time for a classic Neil Young set which was so good I was able to overlook the extraordinary segregated auditorium and the £25 T-shirts. The plebs’ section was far from sold out, so we enjoyed the show in conditions of spacious comfort.
Next up was Truck. I was at the famous one a couple of years back where it went all Americana and also went bust. I know a few musicians who didn’t get paid that time but somehow Truck has resurrected itself and I thought I’d give it another try. A convoluted bus journey took me there to find that its fortunes have really been revived; it had a sold-out feel to it. The bill was full of people I really like such as Steven Adams, Chris T-T and Co-Pilgrim. There was a fantastic atmosphere throughout the site, particularly at a den of iniquity called The Saloon. Luckily, I was able to get the last bus back to Oxford and thus avoid any late-night carousing that would undoubtedly have taken place. And the next day, I got picked up and taken home by my daughter, very rock and roll.
In stark contrast to Blissfields, at Wickham Festival I felt almost like one of the younger audience members. The number of punters struggling through the mud on zimmer frames was shocking. I kid you not, but fair play to them for getting out and about. I’ve always said I’d do the same. Birgit and I went one night and came home after one band because the line-up was so shocking, but the next day we had the privilege of seeing Steve Earle at his best, and were also unexpectedly impressed by Hazel O’Connor. Wickham has a very confused musical identity (it’s basically a folk festival but one headliner was James Blunt). On the other hand, it is well organised and extremely popular.
End Of The Road was a total blast. I took the shuttle bus there (like everything else at EOTR, it is super efficient and excellent value). My friend Phil The Thatcher was doing a craft demonstration near the Tipi Tent, which allowed me to use it as a HQ and also to camp in the relatively luxurious crew field. It was also dangerously near the cider bus but I managed to resist its attractions on the grounds that you feel like shit the next day. The music was out of this world, so many highlights such as Deer Tick, the Felice Brothers, Sean Lennon, Jenny Lewis and, oh god, the Flaming Lips being simply exquisite. It was a musical paradise.
Unlike last year, my own sc4m Festival was relatively uneventful. I say relatively. One band was ill and had to be replaced, oh, and we didn’t actually know whether the venue was still going to be open or, if it was, whether there would be any beer. But supplies were brought in and lasted for most of the day. The whole thing went like clockwork and was appreciated, I think, by all present. But, even though I was convinced I had put together a great bill, we only sold the hundredth ticket at midnight on the eve of the festival. That was a tense experience, since I had budgeted on selling a hundred tickets to break even. The reason for the lack of popularity? I guess we’re just not cool, because virtually none of the media that I spent many hours informing about it chose to give us a mention, and a good number of people who I expected to support the event, based on the type of music they like, simply didn’t. Was it a thankless task? Not at all, because I was surrounded and helped by my beautiful family, the artists were all uniformly wonderful (it would be wrong to single out individual acts). They played their hearts out and the warm-hearted music lovers present loved every minute. Will I do another one? Not sure actually.
No one else will let me drone on for pages about the ups and downs of sxsw, but this is my blog and no one can stop me.
It started well, because the new direct flight to Austin means you can arrive not exhausted and head straight out on the Tuesday (each year it seems to start earlier). We caught Kelley Stoltz at Bar 96 (it had been less than a week since we saw him in the UK). By the time we’d sorted out the badges, it was time for bed, in an attempt to be fresh in the morning. This was foiled by the hotel turning out to be next to a liquor store.
By the way, references to ”we” in this mean me and my friend Paul, who lives in Oklahoma and comes over to Austin once a year to meet up and enjoy music.
Daylight revealed that on the other side of the hotel was a Mexican breakfast joint, so you can take it for granted that every morning consisted of a long lie-in followed by a blow-out of omelettes and such. I won’t mention food again.
A bus into town (you can ride the buses all day for two dollars, now there’s a public transport system) took us to one of Austin’s more quaint venues, Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop, where I promptly bought a branded hat (it actually is Lance Armstrong’s bike shop). Hurray For The Riff Raff were playing here. I was interested to see the effect of their signing to the Alabama Shakes label ATO. Well, there are no musical changes but an almost complete line-up change, with only Alynda Lee Segarra and Yosi Pearlstein remaining. Then it was on to the lovely suntrap that is the Ginger Man Pub for The Autumn Defense, sounding less like Wilco and more like Crowded House, which was just fine. It then took a while to find Capital Cruises, the take-off point for a riverboat ride starring, again, the Kelley Stoltz Band. Its been said before, these guys really know how to have fun. They duly warmed the cockles (it was bloody freezing) and we managed to drink the boat dry. By the end, all they had left was vodka and water. Staggering into nearby Threadgills, we briefly encountered Austin stalwart James McMurtry and friends.
Paul then inexplicably wanted to see Spandau Ballet (apparently they were great) so I nipped into the ever-intimate Cedar Street Courtyard for the Felice Brothers. They can occasionally be a bit flaky, but not today. They tore the place up. It’s easy to nip round the side and bag the front row, too. But now the infuriating side of sxsw kicked in. I wanted to see young UK singer Chloë Howl at Latitude. This rather unpleasant venue becomes the headquarters of British Music for the week, i.e. it is packed with UK music biz types (anyone ever read Kill Your Friends?). The bands think the Texans love them, but actually no Texans are there. Anyway, I’d heard a rumour that Chloë had failed to get a work permit but thought I’d risk it anyway. What a disaster. She was replaced by one of the most ghastly pretentious loads of tosh it has ever been my misfortune to experience. High As A Kite, they were called. Droning and warbling and groaning under the weight of their mountains of expensive equipment, their stodgy music made me almost lose the will to live. I was in a bad mood, I can tell you, and it soon got worse as I fought my way through the crowds of Sixth Street and headed for Stubbs, where St Vincent was similarly pompous and embarrassingly over the top. She used to be quite good, now she’s a poor person’s Lady Gaga. Oh well, better hang on for Damon Albarn. No chance. After forty minutes of watching roadies set up and check gear, I had to head off to the Flamingo Cantina where Angelo Moore was due to play (members of Chuck Prophet’s band were in there, so it could have been interesting). But they, too, were running very late. There were loads of people (too many) in the band, plus a bloody theramin (hate those things). As the clock ticked towards an hour after they were due to start, I gave up. That made over ninety minutes of listening to sound checks. It was a shit end to the first day.
You’d think I’d learn, but I never seem to. For months, I have been desperate to see London Grammar, since a friend of mine told me about them last Autumn. I was slightly put off them on learning that they are managed by Jazz Summers, whose terrible (obviously dictated) autobiography I had just finished, but still, Filter magazine organizes superb showcases at the Cedar Street Courtyard, a perfect place to see them, as they were one of this year’s buzz bands and playing much bigger venues. I’d gone through an advance rigmarole of RSVPing for this showcase and guess what? When I arrived, all the posters had been changed and London Grammar were nowhere to be seen. Sub-strokes Skaters, from New York, and nondescript waif-like songstress Nina Nesbitt were not adequate substitutes. If the Strypes don’t turn up, I’m catching the next plane home, I thought. Oh me of little faith. Those nippers blew the place apart, their music like a mash-up of the Who and Dr Feelgood. My heart melted and I was transported back to my teens. Music ain’t dead after all. They later proceeded to triumph at a series of bigger showcases and entrance the likes of David Fricke. Don’t mess up, guys.
Because I cover the festival for the Hampshire Chronicle, I need to find Hampshire bands. No problem there, as Southampton’s Band Of Skulls were kicking off a high-profile US tour and had promotional posters on every Austin lamppost. So off I trekked (a really major one this, probably a couple of miles) to Bar 96, where I’d again got onto the guest list for yet another Filter showcase. And bloody hell, yet again the posters had been changed and they weren’t there. It is so infuriating when you make such detailed plans, merely to be thwarted for what I can only assume must be business reasons. Still, I did get to see Deap Vally, two Courtney Love-style scantily-clad rock chicks with spelling issues.
Thank goodness Public Service Broadcasting actually did appear in their scheduled slot at Latitude. They are a lorra fun - my only worry is that there’s potential for them to be a one trick pony. If you see them a few times, the amusement wears off.
I really fancied the idea of seeing Gary Numan, so it was important to get to Brazos Hall (a new venue) early. Once again, this was a mistake, as the opening act (I don’t know their name and I don’t want to) was sub-operatic nonsense played at such ludicrous volume that people were literally running for the exits clutching their ears. I nearly had a fight with the sound engineer when I pointed out what was happening. He said I was too old to understand.
Luckily, Gary Numan was on top form, debuting strong new material (of course in the old style) and generally being a super-cool rock star. And after that, Blondie blasted out their greatest hits and some nice new songs too. Clem Burke is an absolutely incredible drummer. On the way home, we caught John Doe of X at the Continental, pretty much a Blondie contemporary, I guess. So that was what you might call a day of mixed fortunes.
One thing that’s always nice to do is head to the day stage at Waterloo Records. Its a fabulous shop and great bands play there. I found myself absolutely loving Turin Brakes, of whom I knew nothing. They managed to produce the guitar solo of the week, and there’s some pretty hot competition for that, I can tell you. Afterwards, Cate Le Bon charmed too, in quite a different way. But it was soon time to hit the annual Bloodshot Records party at the Yard Dog Gallery on South Congress. Ha Ha Tonka were just giving way to Lydia Loveless, who was excellent, like a punked-up Kathleen Edwards. It was a ridiculously crowded, wild and beer-soaked event, culminating in a soul/rock tour de force by Barrence Whitfield and the Savages, featuring a massive mosh pit and some failed crowd surfing (the bloke just fell flat on his back onto the concrete floor – ouch). Remember there was hardly a person there under fifty.
I planned to spend the entire evening at the Lou Reed tribute concert at the Paramount Theatre, but something wasn’t quite right about it. It was extremely well-meant but somehow it didn’t seem to be working. A really poor version of Perfect Day made the decision for us. Yes, one more attempt at seeing London Grammar, this time at Stubbs. And it worked. They are rather sweet, very English and natural, in a slightly Portisheady kind of way. Their longevity will depend on how much more material they can come up with.
Saturday was going to be real Austin, a country rock day and nothing was going to stop me. No more chasing buzz acts. No entering of lotteries to see Coldplay, Jay-Z or Lady Gaga. It was off to the outskirts for the real thing. And what a treat at the Broken Spoke. Singer-songwriter John Fullbright, performing to an attentive and packed front room, was my pick for the best solo performer of the week, with his beautiful songs and friendly wit. It’s so nice when someone can spring a surprise like that.
The back room at the Broken Spoke belongs to its regular clintèle of western swing dancers, and they aren’t about to let sxsw or Twangfest get in their way, determinedly dancing along to whatever gets thrown at them. Thus we witnessed local superstar Hayes Carll performing a gorgeously touching acoustic homage to his young son, called The Magic Boy - and yes, they danced along to it. Probably more to the dancers’ taste was new Loose signing Sturgill Simpson, a bit straight country for my personal taste, but with a hot band and really good.
I’m never going to miss Alejandro Escovedo’s annual Saturday party at Maria’s Taco Express, where the beer is cool, the salsa is hot and the margaritas are lethal. But even by his own standards, he excelled himself with this bill. The Mastersons (effectively Steve Earle’s backing band) have really tightened into a storming outfit with fine songs, while Garland Jefferies indulged his pleasure of marching into the crowd and barking into people’s faces. It’s more fun than it sounds. I absolutely adored the amazingly resilient BP Fallon, intoning poems rather than singing and backed by an amazing Austin electric duo called The Ghost Wolves. Things like this you do not experience every day, and it feels such a privilege.
Okay, I love Jesse Malin. He seems to have been a bit quiet lately but I think that’s about to change. Certainly, his electrifying set at Maria’s, complete with a hot band and a bunch of very affecting new songs, indicated that a major comeback is on the cards. You could almost touch the excitement (so much so that I actually went back for more of him and BP Fallon the next evening at the Continental, after sxsw was theoretically over).
And so to the journey home. A lovely, smooth and punctual flight. A seamless transfer to the National Express coach. Onto the 69 bus to Twyford and it broke down. Back to reality with a bump. Bed time.
Thinking of writing a novel? Read this first.
You know that old cliché about everyone believing they have a novel in them? Well, I’m a writer of educational resources but I’d always wanted to have a go at a novel. Faced with a very daunting birthday, I suddenly realised I’d better get on with it before it was too late. But how do you write a novel? I had no ideas for plot, genre or style.
Luckily, I have a friend who is a successful author. Write about something you know about, he advised. This was problematic. Would a novel set in the world of French teaching be likely to take off? But I do have a hobby, which is live music promotion. Maybe I could set it in the environment of small-time gigs. But how do you start? Should you have a plot in mind or just start writing? Just start and see what happens, advised my friend.
The first idea was to do a completely fictional rock biography (a bit like a serious Spinal Tap), but after a while, I realised that readers buy biographies of people they are interested in. Why would they buy a biography of someone who’d never existed? It would, therefore, have to be incorporated in some kind of page-turning plot.
So off I went to Eastleigh library (to rid myself of any home distractions) and, as advised, just started writing. Each day I would scribble twenty or so pages of longhand and then, in the evenings, read it aloud into one of those clever computer programmes that convert voice into print. It was a lazy approach, but necessary in order to fit the project into the small available window.
What emerged was a strange book, commercially unattractive because it was neither a thriller, a love story or a travelogue, but a bit of each. Actually, I was quite pleased with it. My author friend, who has no reason to patronise me, said he liked it and would recommend it to his (big) publisher. I showed a dummy to a few friends, and they seemed to like it too. I had initially only contemplated self-publishing, or not publishing at all (merely having done it being sufficient), but now I was wondering about sending it to publishers.
Well, my friend’s publisher never replied to any of my communications, and another expert I approached told me it was essential to go through an agent. Someone who works for an educational publisher I write for was very enthusiastic, saying she’d pass it on to some bigwigs in the fiction department, but nothing happened there, or indeed, with any of the agents I approached. Maybe it was because of their tradition of only accepting the first three chapters. My murder inconveniently takes place at the beginning of chapter 4. Self-publishing it would have to be, then.
It couldn’t have been simpler, really. The son of a friend designed a lovely cover and another friend converted it into a print-friendly format, and within a couple of weeks, a few hundred books arrived at my house. I had a distributor who put it on Amazon and made it theoretically available in bookshops. Yet another friend published it in a Kindle version, and several five-star reviews promptly appeared. As to whether they were all written by friends and family, I couldn’t possibly comment.
A launch party at Waterstones (local author) went very well, and the local paper did a big article (local author again), but then a void. People kept saying, ”It’s great, it’s bound to sell loads”. But how do you make people aware of its existence? It needs reviews, but I couldn’t find anyone, not even the music press, willing to review it. All emails remained unanswered and already, it seems, the tiny buzz has disappeared.
I was aware that it would be a vanity project anyway. After the huge cut taken by everyone en route to a sale, and the high cost of producing a small print run, I’m definitely operating at a loss, even if I do sell some. But just to have done it is enough, and a certain sense of achievement has been attained. To those many people who have asked, ”When’s the next one?”, the answer is, no way. I have to get back to earning a living.