This was the Grunge era, the un-washed Saviours of rock and roll, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden….in their beaten up cardigans and DM boots they were kicking in the doors of the glittering, overblown Cock-Rock bands Ivory Tower doors, and to my pre-teenage mind, Grunge’s thrashing, angsty sound, and ethos felt like the revolution, and more importantly it was what the older guys were listening too and I wanted to be part of their gang, well kind of!
I remember the first time I bought Nevermind on cassette tape and hearing the four chord intro of “Teen Spirit”, it literally blew away, at that time, the bloated and pompous Cock Rock that held the Throne before. I don’t like to mention names of bands, as I enjoy listening to some of their stuff now, but it had all become Egos and Kilts and indulgent multi-release concept albums, was this turning into prog rock!!!!!.
So yeah, four chords and the sound of disillusioned youth, that was the crux of grunge. Pretty revolutionary to my young impressionable mind.
Out went the Cowboy boots in came the DM boots and Mum’s old cardigan…
Grunge was quickly becoming the norm, the mainstream and being a bit of an outsider I embraced the Grunge movement but never ran with the crowd. This left me open to rifle through my Dad’s record collection.
His big curly hair, the lost eyes, but ALIVE, I spotted a Jimi Hendrix single, Purple Haze, it was on vinyl, as soon as the needle hit the groove I was in love, exhilarated. Though so different, that riff and driving drum beat, in its raw beauty, hit me like the intro of Teen Spirit, Jimi’s soul leapt from the record, I searched more and found a VHS video of his, featuring him burning his guitar on stage, Jimi was unique and I related to him, he was different, almost awkward but COOL. The fragile/maniac, the shy/exhibitionist. Being the white middle-class kid from a small UK Village, I was millions of miles away from Jimi but the connection was made.
Uncle Tony had an old classical acoustic in his basement, so he gave it to me, it only had three strings on it and I didn’t know anything at all about guitars or indeed notes. Dad promised to take me to the next town for strings the next day, the only music shop around, yet my desire burnt so strongly, within ten minutes of receiving the beaten up, dusty old guitar, I listened to Purple Haze over and over, imagining Jimi playing. I did know to press on the frets and by evening I had perfected the quirky “Duh Dah, Duh Dah” intro and the first two notes of the riff by ear.
The guitar was obviously out of tune, but that music, connecting, listening, feeling, energy was born, I was addicted. I’d play everyday till my fingers bled (Like Bryan Adams!! LOL).
As I entered my teen years, my thirst for music grew and grew daily. I was a sponge. Progressing from 3 strings to 6 then to a very cheap electric guitar from a junk shop. I plugged it into a 1970’s Pioneer Hi-Fi amp, man I blew the shit out of that thing, that’s where I fell in love with that saturated fuzz guitar sound, I use it quite a bit on tracks, as my taste broadened I heard that fuzz sound on The Beatles “White Album”, I highly recommend a listen to that record, on vinyl if you can!!
My parents saw how much I loved playing the guitar, I did not sing as yet, more mumbled.
A friend of my Mother’s who was in her choir (She has an awesome voice BTW) suggested lessons with a local guitar teacher called Guy Jenner. I turned up at his over-grown Ivy adorned house and was met by a long silver haired dude, he was the embodiment of folk. We entered a very Bohemian front room, velvet curtains, incense burner on the go with an old wooden TV set in the corner playing re-runs of Donovan or Cat Stevens from a live 70s show. Guy was perhaps the calmest man I had ever met, maybe stoned, I’m not sure and I wouldn’t have known anyway at that age. We sat down with a cup of tea and I clung to my electric guitar. In his slow measured voice, he asked what I wanted to play. My excitement bubbled over and I said “The solo from Purple haze note for note or Voodoo Chile…”. Guy with a kind smile confirmed “Great solo that” and in a non-dismissive tone, suggested we start with chords and structures, I felt embarrassed and disappointed but looking back I realised Teen Spirit was not my pivotal moment, nor Purple Haze in all its glory, it was Guy gently sowing the seeds of my foundation to deeply, even in a spiritual way understand the power of “THE SONG”. Guy was basically my YODA. In my childish excitement, I wanted to play widdly, finger tapping, axe-grinding solos, but deep in me, a whispering force re-assured me these folk songs and chords would be my foundation.
We started with simple 3 chord songs, mostly folk or The Beatles, but mainly Folk LOL…at first the songs felt like homework exercises, but as I progressed I began to fully appreciate the beauty within them, so many beautiful songs, but ones that stuck out were Morning has Broken-Cat Stevens, Annie’s Song-John Denver (Boy do I still cry listening to that sometimes!!!!).
The lessons continued, my schoolmates were listening in their bedrooms to Nirvana or Stone Temple Pilots on their Sony Walkmans, as I was listening to Guy’s homemade cassette recordings, excited about the next lesson from my Guru.
One lesson, quite far on he smiled and gave me a new cassette, on it was inscribed “ The future Alex”, inside was a photocopy of the album “ Goodbye and Hello” by Tim Buckley, he joked and asked, “Is he your great Uncle?…. he should be…”. As soon as I heard the first syllable of Tim’s voice I recognized the pain, I have never related to anything more ever since. I listened to that cassette till it wore out. I was obsessed, particularly with “ Phantasmagoria in Two”, singing along with it felt like our spirits fused. This was the pivotal moment I became a Singer-Songwriter, a fusion of the angst-driven rock inner explosion and the crafting, channelling servant to “The Song”.
My first gig I remember like it was yesterday, I remember the smell of stale beer and smoke (People could smoke in pubs back in those days), I was 14, though looked much older, and me and my drummer who I had met in the Village Boy’s Brigade marching band (Which I had been thrown out of, but that’s another story!), and my school friend Tim, a skinny, tall dude who probably weighed less than his bass guitar, but man he was made for bass! had been offered to play 4 songs, opening for a local Blues-rock band called The Renegades, a power trio well into their 30s. I’d seen them with my sister and I was in awe of this Cowboy wearing, axe-wielding rock star, or so I perceived, he just saw it as a run of the mill bar gig !. This felt like the moment, the moment I would either crumble or become the saviour of rock and roll… The Renegades had set up and the main singer-guitarist, who I probably called Sir!!! had shown me his guitar settings and laughing said, “Touch my tones and they’ll be trouble boy..”. He went outside to smoke and me and the bass player bumped into each other in the bathroom, I didn’t know which one of us was paler. I felt sick. I said to Tim, sort of joking, shall we escape out of the bathroom window, he looked at it and nervously laughed. My legs felt weak as I approached the stage, I plugged in the guitar and looking into the crowd, felt like the full-grown men and women were laughing at me, some probably were, the lead singer of The Renegades came over and jokingly told me not to “Fuck it up”, it wasn’t funny.
My hands shook and were sweating and I wanted to leave the stage, my eyes darted to Tim who seemed even shakier than me, so I tuned up, my heart pounding. I looked to the other two rabbits in the headlights, the small light set up burning through us and nodded, time froze as the drummer counted us in and my hands thrashed that guitar with a fury I had never felt before, I could feel the power and rage within me with every stroke. The song was my own called “What’s your problem” and the first words to exit my mouth felt like I was shouting at the world, there was so much angst with every word, and I screamed and yelped and thrashed away on my guitar, this was not the normally shy Alex this was a monster so you’d best not get to close. I felt the audience shock at my explosion of energy but at this pinnacle moment, there was no apology. Two songs in the lead singer from the band came over and said the gig was running late, but I knew that was bullshit, and I could see he didn’t like the audience hooting and cheering this “Little upstart, who does he think he is, with all his passion? “. I know this was what he was thinking, because a decade later or so, I became him! Don’t mean this to come across as arrogant here but he was jealous of the youthful enthusiasm, as he knew deep down he was jaded and going through the motions even though he was extremely talented, I didn’t care we’d been cut short, I was just rejoicing with breaking that seal, I knew that was the moment my rock and roll Demon was born……
Fast forward, two disappointing record deals later, countless managers blowing smoke up my ass, broken relationships (BTW excellent material for songwriting material!!), Stardust, coated promises of Fame and Glory that turned out to be bullshit, ill-fated tours of Europe and the US, being the wedding singer drunker than the audience, drowning in boozy Rock bar residencies in Swiss ski resorts, plenty of “…dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight..”, some most ineffective self medication episodes, with a handful of overnight stays at Her Majesty’s pleasure to contemplate these moments…. And here I am “Good to GO!” (Just working on my life story as we speak but probably an encyclopedia’s worth to fit in all of my poor choices!)
After all the “Crazy”, what still stands strong, if not stronger, is my steady Love affair with “The Song” and the connection with those who listen to it. The “Crazy” was a fling, my connection with you beautiful people is all that matters.
Yesterday was yesterday, tomorrow could be sorrow but today is always the first day of the journey, give me a shout we’ll meet for a beer on the way….
Thanks so much for being a listener and making it all worth it… YOU ROCK