Saturday, 16 January 2016

Oh no, don't say it's true.

Somewhere, in a parallel universe, there is another version of me. This alternate Rob did much better at his A-Levels. He revised properly for Sociology, and during the Communications exam, he probably didn't freak out and try to answer a question about praxis and lexis, when he'd never heard either word, ever before.

This superior version of me went to Cardiff University. He continued to prosper, the bloody show off, and is now working as a producer on Doctor Who. He's developed a slight Welsh accent and goes out with a raven haired Swansea girl called Vanessa. Or something. Either way, he's doing great.

In 1989, in the actual real universe,  I left Sixth Form with frankly terrible A-levels and, as a consequence of their terribleness, totally failed to get into any university. I sulked about for a bit, then decided to go work in a pub, called the Ring O' Bells. Regular readers may remember this as being the location of an exciting adventure with a bottle opener, which I recounted in an earlier blog.

Anyway. No matter how prosperous and successful Cardiff-Rob becomes, in his stupid alternative timeline, he's actually a massive loser, because he never went to work at the Ring O' Bells and, thus, never became part of a terrible covers band called 'The Dead Ringers.' The jerk!

The Dead Ringers comprised three people, all of whom worked in the pub. There was me, desperately trying to learn guitar as I went along. There was Jim, a forty-something Elvis impersonator and alcoholic. And there was Richard, who was 30 and in many ways looked like a rodent. We also had a drum machine, called Keith, but I don't think he really counted as part of the band, because he was a) made of metal and b) very unreliable.  Richard had attached a doorbell to Keith so we could operate him by foot during gigs. This doorbell/pedal exploded the first time we stepped on it, and Keith went into an unstoppable frenzy. I had to sing 'No Regrets' to a bossa nova beat, which does not really work in the song's favour.

Here we are. The Dead Ringers.
Richard, Jim (with Elvis sneer) and me.
I think we look quite cool, actually.

We played an odd combination of rock and roll standards, 70s pop hits and songs I liked because I'd heard them on TV. We played in a number of pubs around Bradford and no-one really liked any of it. During one gig, an exciting fight broke out between two of the spectators. They tumbled into the middle of us, taking our place on the so-called 'stage' in the Dog and Gun, as we retreated. People were visibly more excited by this, and seemed quite sad when the pugilists were kicked out and we carried on playing 'Gold Cadillac'.

It is at this point that you may be wondering why I am feeling so superior to alternate universe, Cardiff dwelling Rob. You probably think that playing terrible songs, badly, in violent Bradford pubs, sound worse than producing Doctor Who and snogging Vanessa in Roald Dahl Plass. Well, when you put it like that it does sound quite depressing. Shut up! I must admit, I've started to yearn after Vanessa a bit, even though she only exists in my mind. And possibly in another dimension. But anyway, here's what you don't know yet, and why The Dead Ringers were important.

Jim, who wore shades indoors and spoke like Elvis even though he was from West Yorkshire, was nominally the leader of the band, because he was oldest and he could sing best. One day Jim revealed that he had been married for a bit, in the past, and, from this marriage, had a son. This son was called Shane and he was visiting us in Bradford. And, it turned out, he was joining our band.

There's Shane, being all thin and wearing a foolish hat.
And there's me, probably thinking "How do you play a D?"

At this moment in the life of the band, we used to rehearse in my front room. Well, I say 'my' front room. My parents' front room. When they were out of work we would set up and stumble through our nonsensical set, kicking Keith occasionally and marvelling at my inability to play 'F'. My brother tells a story of a time when he got home from school to find a PA set up in the living room, with three men he'd never met before practicing "If I'm a Fool For Loving You". Fearing he had walked into an episode of The Young Ones, he asked what was going on. By his account, the old man in the sunglasses, said "Well hi there, little fella. Your brother's gone to have his hair snipped!"

When I returned from the hairdressers my brother was hiding in the kitchen and Shane had a request. Could we possibly try to play some David Bowie?

Like every child of the 80s, I knew who David Bowie was, of course. He was the spooky clown guy who walked across a beach, singing 'Ashes to Ashes'. I'd probably heard Let's Dance, Modern Love and Loving the Alien. But I didn't really know much about him. This was to change.

Shane, it turned out, could do a pretty awesome approximation of Bowie's wavering tenor, and his range was good. Soon I was learning a bunch of songs I'd never heard before. Space Oddity and Ziggy Stardust were among the tunes he wanted to perform, so there I was, my useless fingers fumbling around Bowie's chord structures, wishing Shane shared his dad's obsession with Buddy Holly instead. I liked playing Ziggy, though. I got a distort pedal, and very much enjoying making the 'THRANNG' noise with a G chord that kicks the song off.  THRANNG! I was good at that bit, though it fell apart somewhat shortly thereafter.

Thrill to our rock and roll power.

It was exciting to discover these new songs - this massive history of weird, unusual music. I remember Richard grumbling one day, as we cleaned up behind the bar and discussed the next day's rehearsal. "Shane will be there," sighed Richard, "So it'll be bloody Life on Mars all afternoon." I thought he was being hilarious, riffing on Bowie's 'Spiders from Mars' thing. I didn't know it was the title of an actual song. And I didn't know that when I heard that song, it would be such a beautiful, transcendent experience.

Shane gave a me a tape of early Bowie to see if I could learn any of it. For the most part, the answer was 'no'. But what songs. The Bewlay Brothers. Five Years. The Man Who Sold The World. I was haunted by these muffled, slightly warbly songs on this scrappy C90. This was incredible, and I was very excited to see what Bowie would do next.

What he did next was retire.

Well. Never mind. This coincided with the release of a beautiful double-album Best Of which I scampered down to HMV to buy as soon as I could. I played it and played it and played it some more. I think it's fair to say I became fairly obsessed.

One manifestation of my love for Bowie. Here he turns up
in a comic strip I used
 to write for my own amusement.
Those little guys pointing guns at him are Shriblies.

Our little band lasted a couple of years and then we drifted apart. I finally found a university that would have me and moved away. I saw Jim, Richard and Shane from time to time on Summers home, but by my second year that was pretty much it.

Bowie, of course, stuck around. Turns out that the awesome collection of music that I discovered that year was just about half of the music he would make in his ridiculously creative life. Every now and then he would come into the world and do something weird and unexpected, and another moment of my life would become caught up in his work.

Outside. Playing on a tape in my car. Teaching practice and the beginnings of my own song writing. It is cold and sunny.

Thursday's Child. I am in the house I have recently bought, laying on my bed in the evening sun. I have just quit teaching to start a business. I am afraid. I am excited.

Heathen. An open fire, Peter Lehman wine and a friend I can't trust. I play guitar a lot now, in front of many people, and I'm not bad. I'm not in love, though I keep pretending.

Where Are We Now? Driving through a cold January morning. My birthday. Out of nowhere, a new Bowie song. After nearly ten years. Slow. Fragile. Moving.

Black Star. Watching on my iPad in bed. Amazed that this man who has done so much stuff is still so vibrant, so creative. So alive.

Lazarus. 7am, Monday morning. News that makes no sense as I'm still shaking sleep from my head.

Alternate universe Rob would have found Bowie too, of course. I imagine he hooked up with loads of cool media people quite quickly, and developed a proper appreciation of him, and knew all the right things to say. Not like my odd, stumbling, haphazard approach to him. But I like my way. I would, of course.

I don't quite know what the death of David Bowie means to me yet. But I know I loved him. And I know I'm better for him. Thanks, Shane, wherever you are. I hope you still love him. Though it means that this week will have been unbearably sad for you too.