Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Tea with Vincent

The Drains were a rather brutally-bad punk band from Newport in the late 1990s. They had the misfortune of having me as their singer and guitarist. Mike Morgan from The Five Darrens was the bass player and floating drummers included Slim, Carl Bevan from 60ft Dolls and Steve Evans from Novocaine.

We only ever played a small handful of rather terrible gigs. A couple in the Legendary TJs, a couple in Le Pub, one in the Riverside. I would post an mp3 but I've never had one. Somewhere is a live tape, but it's terrible. And probably lost. But I thought I would resurrect this song for Vincent Van Gogh's birthday, nonetheless.

It was written with him in mind at a time when I had the cool breeze of Prozac fanning around my face. I was in a bad shape mentally but was on my way back up the cliff. I felt some kind of connection with the painter. I decided that I might be able to help him out. Ha.

The song was inspired by my long-term desire to liberate his paintings from the galleries that imprison them, and to burn these jails down. I've always considered his paintings to be rather unhappy where they are. Particularly in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam which is a deeply unsettling place. This feeling of Vincent being wronged by his legacy was compounded by the chance sighting of a thin, ginger-haired figure in the window of a train to Cardiff. The traveller was the spitting image of Vincent's self portraits. In the song, I put the sighting down to Wendy: an old work colleague. Why? Because Wendy nearly rhymes with 'friend'. The Drains were not too subtle. I did say!

Anyway. Written-down lyrics are the height of pretension, unless you're Bob Dylan or something, which I'm not. But for Vincent, on his birthday, here are the lyrics to 'Tea With Vincent'. The offer of a cuppa still stands of course. I would get the absinthes in - but I don't think that would be a good idea...


Are you watching from the stars?
Have you heard of aeroplanes? Or motor cars?
Are you watching from the sky?
Have you seen your film? It's brutal, how you die.

I've just made a pot. Would you like me to pour you a cup?
I saw your picture in a shop. I took it home, I hung it up.
Won't you come back down? I'd be so proud to show you around.
We could take your pictures out - and burn the galleries down.

Let me introduce my friend. her name is Wendy
And she'll never talk again.
She thought she saw you on a train. Had to pinch herself
And blink and look again.

I've just made a pot. Would you like me to pour you a cup?
I saw your picture in a shop. I took it home, I hung it up.
Won't you come back down? I'd be so proud to show you around.
We could take your pictures out - and burn the galleries down.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Remembering John Sicolo

John Sicolo was a local legend and much, much more. He was an international treasure.

The tributes pouring in on social network sites (more than 3,000 people signed up to his Facebook memorial page in less than 24 hours - and his passing was recorded as the most ‘tweeted’ about subject yesterday) pay testament to a man who was loved, respected and admired by thousands.

Newport TJs might not have been a particularly unusual place compared to the rest of the UK live music circuit, but the huge character that was John Sicolo made it unique in many ways. His legendary hospitality (he would frequently put visiting bands up for the night in his own house and he would always cook them a hearty dinner) is still talked about across the globe. Therapy?, Green Day, The Lemonheads and thousands more have all benefitted from his genial hospitality. And they don’t forget. Laurie Lindeen, singer with Minneapolis band Zuzu’s Petals, wrote on his tribute page on Facebook today: “Such a lovely, generous authentic human being. In his home was my first conscious lesson of seeing what a family could be. Now he’s joined back with his beloved, may he rest in peace.”

When more and more local bands started to form around the influence of so many American, Canadian, Japanese and European punk and alternative groups, John was right there supporting in every way possible. I promoted several band nights in TJs and John never charged me a penny for hire of the club or its facilities. And when I set up a fanzine (Frug!) and record label, John was right there with encouragement, practical help and a financial buffer. The compilation LP I released in 1994, ‘I Was A Teenage Gwent Boy’, was dedicated to him and his late partner Trilby Tucker (the T in TJs). Right now, I’m thankful that John turned up at the photo session for that record. His face is on the sleeve, in record collections the world over, for ever.

John was a great friend, a fantastic raconteur, a really excellent cook and just the kind of inspiration that a young ambitious buck could wish for. He was much loved by all the bands he saw along the way and helped propel to success: 60ft Dolls, Catatonia, Skindred, Rocket From The Crypt and many, many more. He was much more than a club owner: he was a kindred spirit, a guiding light in many respects and a willing participant in the still largely unheralded artform that was our rock’n’roll. He was very quick to recognise the value of our uncompromised ambitions and dreams, and he dived in with as much help as he could offer.

Personally, I will never forget his welcoming call whenever I would walk into TJs (“Andy Bastard!”), or the frequent dead arms (John liked to greet regular visitors with a playful punch). There are so many good times associated with John locked away in my memory that I am guaranteed many happy future years of recollection and remembrance.

When the work that we young folk of Newport did in the early to mid 1990s is finally given the recognition it deserves, John’s part in that process will truly be recognised. For now, the world will have to catch up with the 3,000+ (and growing) participants to his tribute page. We know. We know.

Whatever happens to TJs in the future, it’s what went on inside the walls that counts the most. I sincerely hope that John’s legendary frame will one day be commemorated with a big, big bronze statue and placed somewhere prominent in the city. Great writer though WH Davies might have been, I think it’s time Newport celebrated a more modern cultural icon.

I really did think he would outlive us all. This is a devastating time and my heart goes out to John’s family.

Tara John. You rock!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Remembering Mark Linkous

Sparklehorse never bothered my radar much, beyond me listening to their records a few times and attending one or two of their gigs. I have a strong memory, though, of Mark Linkous sprawled flat on his back on the stage of Bristol's Fleece and Firkin, delivering his songs with eyes fixed to the ceiling. He was either too lethargic or too depressed to stand up with his bandmates. He just lay there, his limp hand occasionally bringing the mic just close enough to his mouth for his cracked voice to be heard.

The tortured soul. Seen a few of these over the years. Most are entertaining or enthralling. 'E' from Eels manages to tick many boxes by turning his stupidly unhappy family background into great music, gushing with humanity and soul. It's a pleasure to empathise, to learn.

Depressed performers make great art but how sad it is - how very, very sad - to lose one. Musicians and music fans have always seemed like family to me, in a way, and when somebody like Mark Linkous is moved to take his own life one cannot help but wonder if there was anything one could have done.

Mental healthcare and attitudes to depression have come on leaps and heaps over the last half a century. Prescription drugs, meditation, counselling and self-help techniques can all help to keep people alive until they can figure their own way out of their abyss.

You would think that music would have a cathartic effect, and maybe it does. But while artistic expression might sometimes help to purge the heart and soul of self-destructive thoughts, it can also leave an unhappy person that much more open and vulnerable. When you set yourself up as a tortured troubadour ('the dog that ate your birthday cake' as Mark would have it), how easy is it going to be to find a happy course through life?

I'm very sad that Mark Linkous decided to take his life. Staying alive is very tough for some people. While many find it easy to find joy in living, some people need to summon up enormous amounts of courage and determination to get through each day. If you know somebody like that, please do what you can to help them.

It's a wonderful life, for some. Damn that black dog. Damn it to hell.