Many Hills To Hide Behind
Nero didn’t get much sleep that night; he’d been reluctant to use up another precious Diazepam. The booze only knocked him out for a couple of hours, so he was restless and awake until dawn – worrying and watching the dark.
They were up and out by 9a.m. It was sunny, but autumn had announced its arrival with a light covering of frost on the windscreen. At least being a Saturday they hadn’t got to struggle through the rush-hour traffic. Before he waved them goodbye, Gordon handed over a thermos of tea and some bacon and egg sandwiches for them to eat on the journey.
“You’ll enjoy those. I put some black pudding in too. Mind how you go, lads.”
“Ta. Look after yourself, dad. Seeya.”
They decided to take a more scenic route instead of going on the motorway, heading off onto the Northern By-Pass and then along the A40 towards Witney, where Nero filled the van up with diesel.
A couple of miles further up the dual-carriageway, heading in the direction of Cheltenham, Kevin pointed at an approaching road sign.
“Hey, look: Minster Lovell. It was there, wasn’t it; you know, where you were shacked-up with that woman? The one with a funny name ...”
“Oh yeah. Only about a month, though, just until I got back on my feet.”
“Fancied herself, didn’t she: the hair and the suits and all that.”
“Yeah, but you had to look smart in a job like that.”
The job in question being an estate agent. There was no one more surprised than Nero when he pulled her – or rather she pulled him. After two years of working there, he’d just got promoted to “negotiator”, the same day that Valeria insisted he take her out for a meal right then, just as they were leaving the office that evening.
She was half-Italian, twenty-four, slim, sleek and embodied glossy magazine sophistication. He’d never gone out before with a woman that other men obviously lusted after – even when the band were doing OK – and was more than a little out of his depth. She’d expected regular compliments and conversation that centred around her interests: chiefly making commission on property deals and haute couture. Nero had been less than convincing in his enthusiasm for either.
After the market crashed and he was unsurprisingly “let go” from the firm, Valeria insisted he move into her quaint little thatched cottage in Minster Lovell. With the pressure on, though, she became neurotically job-obsessed and high-maintenance, often getting back late and taking the day’s frustrations out on him and quizzing him over why he hadn’t found another job yet.
“Must have been the early nineties, wasn’t it?” ventured Kevin.
“Suppose so, yeah. I remember trying to get her to listen to The Breeders and P.J. Harvey – I’d just got her first album and was playing it to death – but she just thought it was noise. Mind you, I had to listen to her shite of course: Wet Wet Wet, Simply Red and -”
“She must have been a good shag then!”
“Huh, like we ever got time; she was always obsessed with the job –“
“What, rather than on the job, yeah?”
“Very funny, Kev; my aching sides. Anyway, you’ve got to be a certain type to work in those places – yeah, a wanker, I know; before you say it. But I wasn’t cut out for it. OK, the money was good while it lasted, until the house prices dropped through the floor. Typical. Always my luck. The one time I was ever likely to buy my own place and that happens!”
Kevin was steering with his knees while opening the Tupperware box containing the sandwiches. “Even less of a chance now if you’d been doing it. I saw someone on the telly saying there’ll be riots here any time now. Just as well we’ve got no money in the bank to worry about, yeah?”
Nero ignored Kevin’s pessimistic musings and opened the glove compartment to look for suitable CDs to play on the journey. But Kevin came back at him with his “thinking” voice.
“What about your Gibson, why don’t you sell that?”
“I’d thought about it, but I can’t. It was my nan’s. It’s special.“
“I’ll just say one word: Dixey.”
“Yeah, I know, but...”
“It’s got to be worth a few thousand. Stick it on Ebay.”
“What, at Sime’s?”
“Yeah. He’d do the photos and everything, no problem. At least see what they go for; nothing to lose doing that.”
“Suppose I could...yeah, I’ll think about it.”
As he sorted through the CDs, Nero was struck with the realisation that the conclusion of that job, and his brief relationship with Valeria, also marked the end of the good times, such as they were. Everything since had been a steady and imperceptible decline: a trickle of indifferent associations with women; ever more soulless and low paid jobs; his looks going – and still no royalty cheques long overdue from the music publishing company.
Middle-age ennui had festered of late into a loathing for his whole predicament, in particular that bastard of a job he dreaded going to every day: the relentless, meaningless labour simply to exist. His life had contracted to that of work, eat, watch TV, sleep – and then moaning about it all to Kevin, like an old married couple. He shuddered. For months he’d longed for an escape, anything to leave this shitty life behind and start again somehow. He attempted to brighten his mood with James Brown.
The Cotswold quaintness was well under way by Burford. Then a few miles over undulating arable acres to well-manicured Broadway where snarling trucks and impatient white vans rubbed shoulders as they struggled to free themselves from the honey-stoned streets. A sprinkling of aimless, late-season coach party stragglers stared into ancient windows at over-priced cakes, converted barns, and polite paintings. The Transit stop-started in traffic as an old couple in front searched for a free parking space.
A combination of the monotonous note of the van’s diesel engine and lack of sleep from the night before sent Nero nodding-off: mouth half open, and head tilting down to his left shoulder; periodically knocking against the side window.
An hour onwards and he jolted awake as they bounced over a pothole, driving through polytunnel country, around Evesham orchards – looking left to the Malverns – then skirting Worcester and hopping across the motorway. Road-hatching, speed restrictions and indecisive roundabouts pinned them down until Ombersley. Then west and away: the road made diving dips from rising grassy slopes and twisted towards ruckled ribbon hills; narrow winding roads with double white lines passing elevated clumps, red brick farmhouses and unassertive cottages hunched to the kerb.
The Tom Tom screen led them to shadow the Teme: by the broccoli hump of Abberley, past the ploughed fields of Pensax; leaving Ludlow to the north. They drove through The Goggin, by Killhorse Lane, then swung towards Leintwardine; sun in their eyes. West to Welsh signs, border battlements, and many hills to hide behind.
Within a few miles they were entering Temeton, a community bisected by the border. They both stretched in their seats in anticipation of arrival. Wooded hills rose up above the roofs of council houses, maisonettes and industrial units that skirted the town. There was very little traffic on the roads leading in, and hardly a soul on what looked to be the main drag.
Kevin couldn’t believe how quiet it was: “Look at it. You wouldn’t think it was Saturday lunchtime, would you – where is everybody?”
“It was like this the last time I was up here. It looks exactly the same; I don’t think anything’s changed since about 1952.”
Unlike self-regarding Broadway, this was a small, straightforward, working market town with a no-nonsense but friendly atmosphere to it; slightly shabby but inviting. They ignored the sat-nav’s instructions to turn left and decided to have a quick drive around the place. The road took them up an incline towards a distinctive Victorian Gothic clock tower. Kevin noticed a couple of interesting looking pubs: “Hey, shall we stop for a quick half at one of these?”
“Better not, Kev. I told Sime we’d be getting here about now.” Kevin made a mental note though.
They drove out through the other side of town, on the Welsh side, and followed the polite but insistent sat-nav woman’s guidance to take a right up a narrow lane leading uphill. At this point, Nero moved over to Simon’s instructions that he’d written down to find the house. He half-remembered where it was, but it had been a long time. A minute or so later and they were there.
Kevin noticed someone in the long and inclined front garden. It was Simon’s wife, Lori: “Hey look, she’s doing her Kung Fu.”
Nero noticed Kevin’s hand move towards the horn button: “No, don’t disturb her, Kev – and it’s Tai Chi, by the way; must still be giving the lessons.”
The engine strained as the Transit climbed further up the steep track, leading past some inquisitive goats, to the sturdy white double-fronted nineteenth century farmhouse. It was a lovely spot. The town was spread out beneath them and the eye naturally followed the river and railway track along the wooded valley which grew parallel to the Border.
They parked up. Kevin stretched theatrically as he made his first few steps from the van. A few paces ahead of him, Nero was already at the house. He knocked the front door and called out Simon’s name. There was no answer, so he walked round to the green-painted wooden porch on the right hand end of the building – which he recalled led to the kitchen – and gingerly opened the side door. Then he heard a familiar American accent calling out from behind him. Lori was greeting them as she strode up from the garden, wearing tight dark blue jeans, a sweatshirt and green wellies; exuding her usual confident, laid-back intelligence. She was in her mid-forties now but had kept her slim figure and her hedge of curly black hair.
“Hi Guys! Have a good trip?”
“Yeah, great thanks, Lori. How are you?” replied Nero, keen to appear friendly.
“I’m fine. I bet you could both do with a coffee, yeah?”
“I’d love one, ta,” confirmed Kevin, followed by a smiling nod from Nero.
She kissed and hugged them both. Nero recoiled slightly at the perceived over-familiarity but went along with it.
“Simon shouldn’t be too long. He’s working in the studio at the moment. Come and sit yourselves down.”
Kevin was eyeing up some freshly-baked blueberry muffins on the oak table in the cosy and informal country kitchen, trying to catch Lori’s eye for permission to tuck-in. It worked. “These are great! Thanks,” he complimented her through a full mouth.
Lori poured the percolated coffee and slid a mug to each of them in turn across the table. “That sounds like Simon,” she called in his direction for Nero and Kevin’s benefit, almost as if she were about to see him again after a break of several days, “How’d it go, hun?”
“Just about through; got it all sent off,” replied Simon.
“I’m just settling the guys in; they just got here.”
Nero stood up and stretched his hand out towards his old friend. Simon hadn’t changed a great deal since the last time Nero saw him. Faced with hair loss in his late twenties, he’d opted for the shaved and polished option, which, combined with his rimless glasses, leant him a studious and business-like appearance.
Kevin remained seated and greeted Simon with a raised muffin and a, “Hi, mate.”
“Good to see you again, Kevin. You certainly look like you’ve made yourself at home.”
Simon lightly shook Nero’s hand with an apparent lack of warmth and a cursory, “It’s been a while, hasn’t it.”
Nero attempted to compensate by smiling at him a little more widely than he would naturally. “Yeah, good to see you again, Sime. Got to be, what, eight years I reckon.”
Simon and Nero’s paths had diverged somewhat since Simon left their industrial post-punk band, Blast Manifesto, back in 1980. Following time-honoured “musical differences”, Nero had pursued a more mainstream Synth Pop / New Romantic direction, recruiting a flamboyant Welsh vocalist named Gavin Skidmore, while Simon was intent on a more exploratory and ideological stance; more in keeping with his keen Socialist values. So the rift was formed, even though they remained friends to a greater or lesser degree over the subsequent years; usually speaking over the phone than actually meeting up.
Directly after the split, Simon had joined a Communist artistic community in Yorkshire, close to Sheffield, the city and scene he perhaps should have sought out years before, being more in tune with his avant-garde Electronic approach. But instead of joining it, he took a break from anything to do with the music business for a couple of years while he set to work cannibalising old keyboards, bending their circuits to produce his warped neoteric sounds. By the mid-eighties, around the same time as Nero’s fade from the music scene – following poorly-judged replacement guitarist roles in the fag-end of several indie band careers – Simon had re-emerged as a respected influence on the Techno music generation, having immersed himself in the Chicago “House” scene and African music for several years. His sampler manipulations, synth knob-twiddling and beatbox programming talents became hip and he was in demand. More recently, he’d been involved in development work for electronic keyboard companies and also produced a few TV and movie soundtracks. So Nero and Simon now led quite contrasting lives of comfortable success on one hand, and abject aimlessness on the other.
Simon opened the door of their red Smeg fridge and reached in for a carton of pineapple juice. “So, Kev, where are the two of you heading for?”
Nero quickly interceded with a hastily thought up plan that had them on a trip to the coast: “We thought we’d go and have a look at Portmeirion – you know, where they made The Prisoner – up that way.”
Kevin appeared confused, believing them to be already at their destination, and gave Nero a look that invited an explanation. Nero changed the subject: “So you’re working on a Saturday, then. How come?”
“Oh, it’s just some circuit diagrams I was finishing off. Mailed them to the manufacturer in Japan; the deadline was getting close. I’ve finished now”.
Lori pulled her Hunters off and placed some sticks into the glowing multi-fuel stove. “He’s often stuck in that studio all night; can lose him for days in there when he’s into a project.” Simon smiled at her and scratched the back of his neck.
Nero raised his eyebrows and reached into his jacket and produced his mobile phone. “I’ve just thought, Sime. You haven’t got a spare charger for this have you? I lost mine; the battery’s gone.”
Simon took it from him and examined the power socket through his delicate spectacles:
“You don’t see many like this; you’ll probably have trouble finding a charger that’s compatible – it’s getting on a bit. How long have you had it?”
“I don’t know, about four or five years I should think. Works OK, so I never thought of changing it.”
“I could probably rig something up, but you could have one of our old phones instead if you want. Lori, love, where do we keep our old phones?”
“Well yes, if you won’t miss one. Thanks.”
Lori raised a finger in the air to signify remembering where they were and walked to the far end of the kitchen, towards a large antique oak Welsh dresser. She knelt down and gave a sharp pull to open a stiff drawer. “Here they are,” she said lifting various handsets out one by one to show Simon, “Which one do you think?”
“That one: the Samsung.” Lori lifted out the charger too; the cable was wrapped around the phone. “Swap the SIMs. Should be fine.”
“He’s not going to give any of them a second thought now he’s in love with his cherished new iPhone. They’re inseparable!” teased Lori.
“What, you’ve got one of those?” piped up Kevin with excitement, “Let’s have a look, Sime.” Several minutes passed as Kevin enthused over the gadget, sliding photos around on the touch-screen with his finger and repeatedly stating how cool it was.
Nero eventually worked out how to click his SIM into place on the Samsung and switched it on. Leaving Kevin to play with the iPhone, Simon taught Nero the basic functions of his old phone. Thankfully there were no new messages from Dixey. “Thanks again, Sime.”
Simon was gradually de-frosting and attempted to make Nero feel more welcome: “It’s OK. Would you like to come and have a look around the studio?”
“Yeah, that would be great. Are you coming, Kev?”
“No, I’m fine. You go ahead.”
Nero followed Simon the few metres outside across to the white-washed brick outhouse that served as his studio and office. He looked around enviously at all the expensive-looking recording gear, flat screen monitors; LEDs blinking away on the console and outboard units.
“You can see I’ve still got the Allen & Heath desk that was here last time you came, but as you can imagine, I mostly work in digital now. “
“Sime, I was wondering if I could ask you another favour. I wasn’t quite telling you the truth when I said we were just passing.”
“I did sort of sense something when you were on the phone. Go on.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. But...I’m in a bit of a fix. It’s a long story, but I owe someone a lot of money I can’t afford to pay back – not just yet anyway. I need to be out of town for a while, and I haven’t been well either: a nerves thing; a bit of a breakdown I suppose – things have been getting to me for a while now.”
Simon breathed out and looked at Nero with a look of concerned surprise:
“When did this happen?”
“Oh, a couple of days ago.”
“Only that long? Shouldn’t you be –“
“I was at the hospital, but I couldn’t stay there any longer...”
“I didn’t know things had got that bad. What would you like me to do?”
“I just need somewhere to hole-up for a short while, until I can sort something out, that’s all; get my head together a bit.”
Simon did his best not to betray any sense of pity towards Nero, trying to appear casual about it, but he couldn’t help feeling sad at his friend’s plight.
“No, of course, Nige. You can have one of the kids’ rooms.”
“Thanks, Sime, but I don’t want to be a nuisance to them.”
“Oh, it’s fine, they’ve flown the nest since you were last here; both grown up. Tom’s out in the States at the moment, he’s been involved in anti-capitalist activism for the last couple of years; preparing for the G20 next month –“
“A bit of a chip off the old block then, eh?”
“Well, he seems to have found his own path without any prompting from his mother or me; I’m proud of what he’s doing. And Olivia’s up at St. Andrews; her final year. Doubt if we’ll see either of them till Christmas.”
“It’s all right, I wasn’t thinking of anything like that long – just a couple of days, that’s all. I’m not really sure what to do for the best, though. There’s nothing keeping me in Oxford any more.”
“What about Kevin?”
“Well, yeah, I guess I’ve got use to him being about; he’s been a good mate. I’d miss him. But, you know, it’s time for a change. The town sucks you in; you don’t have to be with the uni for that to happen.”
“I never thought I’d hear you knock the place. What’s changed?”
“I’m not really sure...me more than anything. It all got on top of me. I just want to start again: something else somewhere else. Listen, this money thing isn’t what you probably think, you know.“
“It’s OK, it’s none of my business. Have you got much with you: clothes and things?”
“Yeah, I brought enough gear with me in the van.”
“Well why don’t you go and bring it in; I’ll take Lori to one side and explain things – I take it Kevin doesn’t know all this?”
“He knows some of it – but you know what he’s like – I didn’t tell him the more personal stuff.”
“Look, you stay in here for a bit while I go. Have a mess around on one of the synths. Here, I’ll switch the Korg on I’ve been playing around with – see what you think.”
By 1975, Nero and the rest of Atrium had been bashing away for two years in the school music room, and later on in a hired village hall they used as rehearsal space, gradually getting more and more proficient at noodling around awkward time signatures. They had aped the Progressive rock bands of the moment, both well-known and obscure, such as Genesis, Henry Cow, Gentle Giant, Yes, Be-Bop Deluxe, and the like. Simon’s Grade 4 piano aided his proficiency in creating florid Bach-style arpeggios and chromatic runs.
Latterly though, Simon had been knocked-out on hearing the newly emerging, stark and alien-sounding electronic music from Germany, such as Tangerine Dream and especially Kraftwerk. It was fresh and different, and neither of these bands relied on tired old blues scales or cod-classical stylings. Simon lapped it up, but Nero had been less convinced; he felt he’d learned his craft over the last few years, building up his guitar technique; all flash muso jazz chords and speedy scales up and down the fret board. Simon thought it was just guitar wank. But not just guitar, all of it: endless drum solos, bass solos, swaggering finger workout keyboard solos – the lot of it (even though he’d been just as guilty of it himself). Nero reckoned anyone could do this new electronic stuff, it was just toytown music. So Simon started on a campaign of winning Nero around. Before the others arrived at the church hall for rehearsals, Simon connected his cassette player to one of the amps and played Nero a session by the German Experimental band, Can, he’d taped off John Peel’s Radio 1 programme the night before.
(Nero and Simon devotedly sat up late at night, hunched over their radios, listening to nearly every Peel show with an almost religious fervour. There was very little in the way of weird and out-there music played elsewhere on the radio at the time, and especially not on TV; only The Old Grey Whistle Test really, but it rarely featured anyone outside the usual singer-songwriter/hippie/rock/jazz-rock scene.)
Simon had tried to convince Nero and the others to ditch the labyrinthine intricacy of Prog and embrace the basic beat and late-blooming psychedelic approach of bands such as Can; the “Motorik” beat of Neu, and many of the other Krautrock - or Kosmiche Musik - groups such as Popol Vuh and Ashra Tempel; the exploratory and hypnotic sound that originally got them all turned-on to early Floyd, and particularly the distorted clang and incendiary, impromptu free-jazz guitar which seared through I Heard Her Call My Name by The Velvet Underground – before Nero and the others got drawn into all the complexity and the show-off exuberance took over. For Simon, the avant-garde experimenters like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the political, collective awareness of the German scene fascinated him, but inevitably created a musical rift within the band. Nero was straddling the fence.
Weeks later, inspired by an item he’d seen on the BBC TV science and technology programme Tomorrow’s World, featuring the smartly-suited Kraftwerk dispassionately standing at their synths, Simon had been busy in the shed again and had come up with some crude electronic drums. They sounded thin and artificial (like the electronic percussion Kraftwerk were using on TV), but it gave them a new sound and new ideas. Well, really only Simon, and Nero to some extent, but he still needed some persuading. Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Rob the drummer. Since they’d started, his kit had gradually grown to match his ability to hit as many pieces of percussion as he could squeeze into the van for his drawn-out mid-number solo excursions. Rob and Steve were dead against this new direction so they packed it in and were off.
In Simon’s recording studio, Nero plonked away on the developmental Korg synth. He spent a few minutes twisting knobs and pushing sliders to get satisfying rasps, curious sequenced judders and wails from the device. Afterwards, as he walked back over to the house, he could hear conversation and laughter coming from nearby, so he wandered out into the hall and found the others had decamped to the sitting room. Kevin was first to spot him in the doorway.
“Been having a bit of a twiddle over there? Sime’s been telling me you’ve decided to stay here a bit then, yeah; what brought that on?”
Nero shifted awkwardly on his feet before he replied: “Oh, you know, you’ve only got to look at this place, it’s so peaceful. I realised I need a break for a bit – you know what I was telling you last night...”
“Don’t blame you, mate. But I think it’d get to me if I was out here for too long. Hey Sime, when does the pub in town open? I’m dying for a pint.”
Simon looked blank, so Lori helped him out: “I think they’re open from one through eleven on a Saturday. Hey, how about we all go down there, yeah? You into going, hun?”
Simon shrugged his acceptance for sociability’s sake.
“You too, Nero?”
“Yeah, why not.”
Kevin raised both arms and whooped as if he’d just scored a goal, and was already impatiently rising to his feet like an excited kid.
Simon and Lori’s red Toyota Hilux Double Cab squeezed into a parking space in a narrow Temeton side street. But for the intermittent cawing crows, all about them was quiet and unruffled by the passing centuries. A decorative half-timbered house sat behind respectable clipped hedges and beside sturdy Victorian villas. The squat town church lay at the end of the street before a backdrop of conifer-covered hillside, and a dove cooed as a light breeze rustled the russet trees of the cemetery. Outside the adjacent church hall someone had abandoned what looked to be a jumble of bric-a-brac on a small patch of grass: several gaudy wide ties, fragments of a kitchen clock, a pink plastic washing-up bowl and a school bible were some of the more identifiable objects amongst the clutter.
Lifting her bag onto her shoulder from the seat of the pick-up, Lori smiled and made a droll observation in the direction of Simon: “Maybe none of it’s for sale; it could be Luda’s art!”
Simon gave a conspiratorial smirk in response while the other two reacted with polite but mystified sniggers as they sauntered down the street towards the centre of town.
Within a few paces they came across a shopping trolley that contained a child’s plastic beach bucket, which in turn revealed a live crab. They mused at this slightly surreal sight, which might have been another example of a local post-modern creative mind at work.
Kevin pointed towards the pub he’d seen on their way in earlier and hurried his pace: “That’s the one; says real ales on the sign. Shall we go in?”
Simon nodded his consent and gestured them to cross the road before a tractor pulling a trailer heaped with root vegetables reached them.
In time-honoured tradition, Kevin’s pace suddenly slowed as he feigned an undone shoelace before entering the pub door. Nero wearily shook his head with amiable contempt: “Every bloody time without fail he does this, the mean bastard. Go on, get inside, you can get them in for a change.”
Kevin opened the door and scanned the interior: an uncoordinated but snug mix of stone walls, wood panelling, patterned dark blue carpet and red Dralon seat covers. A terrier looked up at him from his middle-aged master’s feet. There were five other customers in the bar: a couple of lads drinking lagers and sharing a joke; a gaunt, white-whiskered chap in a threadbare overcoat seated near the window reading a newspaper folded to fit the table top, and two women in their thirties making a food order.
“I’ll have a Pinot Grigio and some bread and butter, please. What are you going to have, Jen?”
Simon, Lori and Nero filed in behind Kevin and smiled at the barman in turn. As soon as the women had finished, Kevin was the first to open his mouth: “What’s the Three Tuns like, mate?”
Before he could answer, Nero couldn’t help suggesting he try the Old Scrooge bitter that was on offer.
With a mild Welsh accent, the barman replied, “Well, if you want a rich strong one, that’s good, or there’s the Cleric’s Cure, that’s a popular one; more of an IPA.”
“All right, I’ll try a pint of the second one. What are you lot having?”
Simon looked at Lori and suggested white wines.
Kevin affected outrage: “What’s the matter with you, Sime? You were always into the proper stuff.”
“Got out of the habit, I suppose; and Lori doesn’t like the taste of bitter –“
Lori grimaced her dissatisfaction at the suggestion: “God, no. I don’t know how you can drink it; all warm – yuk!”
Next it was Nero’s turn:”I’ll have a Cleric’s too, but just a half, thanks.”
“Come on, mate, surely you can manage a pint can’t you?”
Nero was feeling a little nervy and detached again; trying to avoid disturbing thoughts: “No thanks, my stomach isn’t so good; better not push it.”
Kevin made a reluctant reach for his wallet together with a dramatic shake of his head in bewilderment. They sat drinking and chatting for a while on mismatched chairs around a small wooden table, the conversation turning eventually to shopping and what to get in for a meal that night. Simon and Lori were clearly getting a bit bored, the chat slowing to stops and starts. Their body language was shouting to get up and leave, but Kevin was only just getting into his stride, eyeing up the pumps at the bar and deciding which ale to try next; and anyway it was someone else’s turn to buy a round. So he swiftly drank up his dregs and raised his eyebrows and smiled expectantly in turn at the other faces around the table: “I think I’ll try that Bathams next.”
Simon made a point of glancing at his watch and making subtle eye contact with Lori: “Do you fancy another, love, or shall we go and get a few things; leave these two to it?”
“Why don’t you guys stay here and drink some more of that awful brown liquid while we get some groceries, yeah?”
Nero was struggling to finish the drink he’d got: “No, I’m fine, I’ll go and have a wonder around the town. Here, Kev, let me get you another before I go.“
“Cheers. Fair enough; all the more for me. Could you get a random packet of crisps too while you’re up there?”
When Nero popped his head in again a bit later to see if Kevin was ready to go, he could see he’d started yet another pint and was sitting at the bar, getting friendly with the locals: “Will you be ready for the off soon then, mate? I think Simon and Lori are wanting to go back now.”
“No, you’re all right. Tell ’em I’m staying here for a bit; I’ll make my own way back.”
“Fine then, if you’re sure. Seeya later –”
It was late evening back at the house, and still no sign of Kevin. Lori was getting concerned; she turned towards Nero for reassurance: “When do you reckon he’ll come back; does he often do this kind of thing?”
“Once he’s settled down in a pub with good beer you’ll not shift him until either his money runs out, or until he can’t persuade anyone else to buy him any more.”
“Well, I’m off to bed now. When he gets back tell him there’s some chilli left on the hob.”
“OK, Lori, I will. And thanks. Night.”
Nero went to join Simon in the sitting room, where he was watching Match of the Day. Manchester United were hammering West Brom 4-0. “Didn’t think you were into it.”
“I’m not, really. There wasn’t anything else on. “Do you want a drink?”
“No, I’m fine. Feeling a bit...”
“You haven’t eaten much since you’ve been here; still bad after the other day?”
“Yeah... too much stuff going around in my head. I’m supposed to be taking some pills for it. I couldn’t get on with the one lot though, and I’m running out of these others – the Diazepam.”
“Well if you can hang on until Monday you could go into town and ask for some at the Health Centre; you know, as an emergency patient.”
“Yeah, thanks Sime. Good idea.”
Simon turned the TV off and the room fell silent, but for the intermittent clicks of the cooling screen. Nero sat down near him on the blue corner unit sofa. He wanted to blurt out all that had happened to him over the last few days, but the words refused to form in his mouth. He wouldn’t have hesitated at one time, when they were best mates. But too much time had passed and they were near enough strangers again; he wasn’t sure if the old bond could be re-established – or if Simon would want to pick up again where they left off years before. There was something in his manner that suggested he wanted to remain distant, but still acknowledge their friendship existed. “You said you didn’t tell Kevin about the more personal stuff; do you want to tell me anything, while he’s not here?”
“I don’t know. It’s difficult, Sime. I just know I’ve got to make some big changes to things... my life – everything. If I don’t now I never will. I’ve let things slip for too long. It’s my own fault; my own problem, I know.”
“But we go back, don’t we. I’d like to help in some way if I can; I don’t like to see you like this. Remember how it was back then, back at school with the band? It meant something. Even now, with Lori, the kids, the house and everything, I still miss that... you know, intensity from those days. You know, when we were holed-up in the music room, thinking up new sounds and songs together. There isn’t that excitement of discovery... I don’t know how to explain it...”
“I know, Sime. I miss it all too. We didn’t realise what we’d got then. You were right to leave the band in the end though, I can see it now. I know I was pissed off with you at the time... but you got off your arse and found new people to work with.”
“Sure, but in the end, your way wasn’t my way, that’s all.”
The dress rehearsal for this parting of the ways had occurred with the Atrium split. Two years’ worth of practising and honing their sound went down the pan. All the planning and dreams had come to nothing. But at the same time Nero had realised there wasn’t any originality to Atrium; they merely mimicked their idols. There was a brief pleasure in nailing another band’s riff or chord progression and playing it together over and over, but it was a creative dead end. Even though Atrium was Rob’s name, Simon and Nero got to keep it (for want of coming up with anything better) as the remaining members were intent on calling themselves Gnome Station.
For the next few months, Simon and Nero experimented with the home-made drum machine and synthesizer, constructing sparse and robotic beats mixed with squalls of sound emitting from a radio tuned to Short Wave frequencies – distorted rumbles from power stations at the far end of the dial. To everyone else it was a cacophonous mistake of sound, but to them it was a visceral and beautiful noise; a thrilling and primordial antidote to the dissipated saturnalia and insipid pop that clogged up the charts.
Nero wore a resigned expression. “If you ask me, you’d have been better moving up to Sheffield a way a lot earlier. It was your thing all that Experimental, Industrial scene; you were born to it. What we ended up doing with Blast was too diluted; we were pulling in opposite directions. Looking at it now it wasn’t one thing or another. I know it sounds shallow, but I wanted some reward for all the hard work we did early on: TV, bigger gigs and all that. I mean, I can see now we were doomed on that path, especially with that pisshead Gavin we ended up with doing the singing. I don’t know what we were thinking of...”“
Simon had put his feet up on the coffee table and was looking more relaxed and more himself now. “We? It was your idea to try him! I knew it the first time we laid eyes on him; when we went to meet him in that pub, in – “
“Islington. Yeah, it was opposite that cinema: The Screen on the Green, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right. There was that grotty old pub. Remember, we’d got lost trying to find it and arrived late? Gavin had started drinking without us.“
“And remember, Sime, he’d got all those pints waiting for us lined up on the table; he’d already downed about five by himself. He told us to drink-up as the movie was starting soon; he wanted us to see that particular one before we –“
“Do you know, I’ve absolutely no recollection what film it was. I think we only managed to down about three – and that was pushing it; I was close to throwing-up. Gavin said he had to get into the right frame of mind before we tried him out – we should have realized then.”
(Gavin Skidmore had been kicked out of two punk bands by the time Nero and Simon got to meet him – though that isn’t how Gavin explained his then unaffiliated situation to Nero and Simon in the pub; more along the lines of him outgrowing them and needing to try a new direction. Gavin’s girl-friendly, brooding good looks and distinctive powerful voice meant he’d stood out from scores of other indifferent contenders.)
“Yeah, Sime, I know, he was a complete tosser – but he did have that voice.”
“Maybe, but it just wasn’t my thing. You could tell he was just another crooner in disguise. I mean, was it really worth all that grief?”
Once installed into Blast Manifesto, Gavin proceeded to take his place as front man, songwriter, and the face of the band when it came to interviews and photo shoots; the other members either not included at all or consigned to the blurred background. He seized the opportunity to grab the limelight and live the life for which he’d imagined he was always destined, even on the band’s very modest record company advance. So he indulged enthusiastically in his regular pastimes of girls, drink, parties – and more girls... until: “I know I was only a kid back then and hadn’t been about much, but it was a real shocker to see him –“
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking, when he –“
“Yeah, with that roadie in the bus. I mean, girl-shagging Gavin banging away up a blokes bottom next to the flight cases! I didn’t know where to look...well, I did know where to look but I looked away again pretty damn quick! Yeah, and didn’t he say he’d worked on a sheep farm when he left school?”
Simon coughed up his whisky and sneezed a stifled laugh with a hand to his face. “Girls weren’t enough, he wanted to share his loins with the whole planet. Come on, have a drink... it’s what Gavin would have wanted.”
“Oh, all right, go on then. Any decent bitter?”
“No, I don’t think so – there might be some Guinness.”
In 1982, Gavin joined “The 27 Club”. Membership had peaked some ten years earlier when intoxicated, self-destructive Rock luminaries such as Morrison, Joplin, Jones and Hendrix all died prematurely, aged twenty-seven; seminal bluesman Robert Johnson apparently initiating the trend back in the thirties. Just like them, Gavin would never grow old, never reveal his debauched Portrait, never be tempted to make an ill-advised comeback in his forties – and never sell butter on TV ads. With his enormous appetite for life and excess, Gavin was never destined to fizzle out and draw his old age pension. He didn’t die in a bathtub clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels or choke on regurgitated barbiturates: it was a stroke that got him.
But Nero thought it was all bullshit. He wouldn’t have said it at the time, but he thought Gavin was enough of a narcissist to have pushed harder and trashed his body on purpose; some pointless grasp at Rock immortality.
Afterwards, Nero pulled the plug on Blast Manifesto; he hadn’t the stomach to go on, even though he hadn’t yet made it onto Top of the Pops, or even played live on The Old Grey Whistle Test. A single John Peel radio session had kicked it all off for them, offering an illusion of significance and kudos for a year or two, and ended with a BBC Rock Goes to College broadcast in the early hours, following a protracted snooker final, to a diminished nocturnal audience of die-hard music fans and a sleeping cat. Without Simon’s originality they’d become increasingly irrelevant – or, “profoundly superficial” as one caustic reviewer had remarked.
By the early Eighties, the music press liked “Indie” bands – as they were now being termed – to be part of an identifiable scene. Many of the best came from the North: Liverpool had its incestuous cocky cluster of personnel emanating from The Crucial Three: Wha Heat, Echo & the Bunnymen, and The Teardrop Explodes; Manchester had its Pistols-inspired audience visionaries who became the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, and The Fall; Sheffield had its Industrial Avant-Garde Noise aesthetic radiating from Cabaret Voltaire, with The Human League and Heaven 17 emerging into polished, accessible Electronic pop acts. Without Simon – and now Gavin – Blast were neither experimental nor pop; and unlike New Order, weren’t able to flourish with a front man vocalist who couldn’t sing. The decent gigs and tours dried up for the band, annexed as they became to smaller venues in smaller towns. Reviews of subsequent singles, EPs and an album were sniffily dismissive.
Adam Ant had cynically spelt it out a couple of years before:
So unplug the jukebox
And do us all a favour
That music’s lost its taste
So try another flavour...