Dear FishHeads, Freaks, fans and the Company,
Poland. Where a 'Z' counts as 1 on the scrabble board! We were on our way via Sweden and a ferry crossing. It was Vantsis' birthday. That was his excuse.
We arrived at the ferry terminal in Ystad mid afternoon and had to wait for 4 hours to board. This was lethal. On a bus in a car park with nothing around and large quantities of alcohol on board with a Scottish bass player on his birthday thousands of miles from home and family!
Most of us hid in the upstairs lounge while our man demolished a half bottle of Cognac followed by a large amount of vodka. We were scared! =-O
I have photos of Steve in a top hat he'd found somewhere on the bus sitting on a wall in an empty car park wearing sunglasses and on his mobile, phoning home. That summed it up!
I felt for him. We hadn't even managed to get him a card, not that he was able to read at that point.
Upstairs in "Dusters" the more gentile folks were tired of playing endless games of UEFA 2006 on the PlayStation and had decided to "construct" a player. We created a monster, over 2 metres tall, thick neck, big ears, large nose, built like a brick shithouse with ginger corns, goggles, wristbands and any other accessory you can put on a player. We then made him excessively aggressive with a lot of attitude and gave him a bunch of other talents. We called him "Heid The Baw" and signed him to Arsenal as a striker. All we wanted was to hear the commentators mention his name and were severely disappointed when he was ignored. We thought it was because the name was too complicated as they ignored him even when he chopped down David Beckham in his first game against Real Madrid. We changed his name to "Heid". It still didn't work. He was an animal and although he had all the excess skills he was ranked as a minor talent in the team ratings.
We signed him to Real Madrid and he's still there.
It kept us occupied before the long walk up the gantry to the ferry which would carry us overnight to Szczecin (pronounced Shtetin - not a big score on a Polish scrabble board). We were sharing cabins and, as we gathered in the inevitable bar, we discovered our partners for the night. And guess who I got? Yep! The Birthday boy who by now was slouched over the bar announcing to all and sundry in a loud voice "It's ma birthday, I can do what I want!" What added to the danger was that the bar served caparinhas - the deadly Brazilian cocktail made from Kishasa, strong white rum, and crushed fresh limes mixed with sugar. We knew it well and were becoming reacquainted by the bucket.
This wasn't Scandinavia any more so rounds were being generously bought! :-)
Despite an outcry from Birthday boy that "eating's cheating!" I managed to entice him away from the bar where the staff were getting worried and security were hovering. Into the restaurant for a band meal at a table as far away from the other customers as possible.
I'm not saying we were sober saints but Mr V was way ahead of us in the curve and crashing. He managed half the soup course before going face down in the bowl, chuckling away. Taxi for Steve! He needed to go to the gents so I accompanied and steadied him past the toilets and downstairs to the cabin. I left him on the bed laughing "It's ma birthday, I can do what I want!" I returned upstairs to the table and to some relieved faces. A great meal and banter before we traipsed back to the schminky pinky disco where a disinterested house band had to stop mid number on a regular basis for the multi-lingual ship's announcements. Nobody really cared. Apart from the singer's contribution as eye candy, they were pretty bad.
I checked up on Steve a wee bit later and put him in the recovery position. He was comatose. It could have been me. It still could.
The rest of the team carried on in the bar till they ran out of Kishasa. Some moved to vodka and apple juice. I moved to my cabin and the prospect of choking on someone else's vomit. I needn't have worried. Steve was dead to the world, still fully clothed on top of his bed.
Tomorrow was going to be a day of regrets.
When I came to in the claustrophobic cabin around 5am Steve was still asleep. I needed air and went topside to discover Chris J, Gavin and McKinty still up and sipping beer in the lounge area where an array of passed out truckers sprawled cabinless on plastic chairs and tables. They couldn't sleep. We were due off the boat at 7.30 so I attempted another set of Zs before we docked.
This was going to be a tough introduction to Poland.
We crawled off the ship and breezed through passport control. Everyone was in their bunks as soon as we cleared, curtains drawn.
Within minutes we were in the Poland I remembered. The roads go from smooth carriageway to cratered, uneven, broken up, potholed tests of endurance every few miles. It was like being in a submarine under concentrated depth charge attack. Moving up the aisles of the bus or climbing the stairs was a challenge, making a cup of coffee foolhardy. Inside the bunks it was like sleeping in a tumble drier. You sometimes woke up in mid air. I slept in the upper front right, Yatta in the bunk below. Tara was opposite me with Chris J in the floor level burrow (he was "fluffy rabbit" as far as Yatta was concerned.) The front of the bus took fewer hits and was a slightly smoother ride. In the back it was a fun fair; as I tried to sleep I really felt for the guys towards the rear. I could hear Secret moaning.
After a couple of hours I couldn't take any more and went downstairs. McKinty was up first, as always, still in his pyjama bottoms.
We pulled into the city, the tram lines adding to the pummelling, the traffic horrendous. Hawkeye parked up at a traffic light and tried to find a way into the road to get us next to the venue. He got off the bus and recced a route. Minutes after he'd gone a police car pulls up and the officers start walking round the bus. A series of heavy bangs on the door brought me downstairs where I'd been having a smoke in Dusters.
I went out to explain and met with a barrage of shouting and demands that I move the bus. I explained that no one else could drive the bus and that Chris was back soon. I said I'd go and find him. "NOW!" I asked to put my shoes on as I was bare foot. "NOW!!" This was your cliched young arrogant power freak in his new crispy uniform trying to impress his older partner and belittle a foreigner. He definitely hadn't had sex for a while. I kept calm. I got my shoes and went off in search, finding Chris just round the corner heading back with the local promoter. Great! Nearly arrested after literally my first step on Polish soil!
I left them to it and went upstairs as the promoter pleaded for clemency from the first policeman I'd met since my first visit with Marillion in 1987. I'd been arrested then and put against a police car for "walking on the grass". A spot fine of 20p and a handing over of 4 inches of bank notes later I was a free man. What pissed me off at the time was that I was the only one walking on the pavement while the other were all walking on the lawn in the park despite me telling them that the small sign in Polish probably meant "Please don't walk on the grass". I didn't realise it would lead me into my first International crime!
Situation calmed, the bus fired up and slid off. 20 minutes traversing through narrow car-filled streets and much manoeuvring later we were outside the gig, 800 yards away from where we'd first parked.
Monday 15th October, Dom Kultury, Szczecin
If "Dom" means what I think it does then it translated as the Culture Cathedral. I must be wrong as this place was the Culture Dump. Next to a dusty doored, dimly lit supermarket, which seemed to sell mostly cheap vodka to local alkies and which I didn't have any desire to investigate, the outside of this concrete two storied building was painted up with an assortment of near unrecognizable rock stars and garish symbols from the school of bad acid. Up two flights of long steep marbled stairs and we were presented with what can only be described as a low ceilinged canteen, 150 metres long and 30 wide, with orange tables and chairs halfway up the hall.
The stage - only slightly higher than the floor - was in a box at the end, the dressing rooms a classroom adorned with tapestries and artwork made by the kids attending art lessons there. The showers were as expected; cold.
The dressing room at least had a great view through the huge windows the width of the room. As the building was on a steep hillside, the next level land was about 150 feet below. I looked out onto the city and the river; it was a beautiful crisp sunny Autumn day.
I saw a market down below and decided to have a browse.
The perimeter and the steps leading down to the market from the street the venue was on were patrolled by private security teams. I had already noticed the range of gang tags on the walls of the tenements nearby. This was not a sought after neighbourhood.
The market was a permanent site made up of streets of aluminium sheds and open sided stalls which sold mostly clothes. On examination it was pirate central. There was some good stuff around though. I bought a tie for Steve which was yellow and was covered with double basses and one for Yatta which had cartoon porky pigs shagging in various positions. Both wonderfully cheesy!
I got Steve a Rammstein shirt as well. A bootleg of course.
It was my first contact with Polish women. Some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen have been in this country. The problem is the language barrier. Chat up is nigh impossible. I just wandered around for a while leaving a trail of drool.
Back to the bus and a chance to catch some real sleep in a still, land lined, warm bus. I crashed till 3.
Into the gig for a freezing cold shower (perhaps a Polish means of keeping hot blooded Scotsmen away from their womenfolk :-D) and then off to a signing session at a store. MPIK is a chain of stores in most cities in Poland that are similar to Borders. I had a dilemma as I don't like these stores as they are among a very few others responsible for the demise of the independent record shops that were the life blood of music fans. It was they who demanded huge discounts for bulk buying that made it impossible for smaller stores to compete and ultimately drove them out of business. You know the story, same in every country worldwide, and why record companies and distributors moan about being unable to move product as obviously if there are only one or two stores where there used to be 20, the racking space is limited. Instead of, for example, 8000 titles across a number of stores the couple of major stores only carry 3000. This means a scramble for racking amongst distributors and - yes, you guessed it - more discounts. Shooting yourself in the foot doesn't come into it where record companies are concerned. It's one of the main reasons why the music business is in such a mess now.
The promoter had done a deal with the chain to advertise the concerts on the understanding that I would conduct a signing session in every city where there was a gig. I discovered this only a week or so before the shows and was dismayed to find out the sessions were all at 4pm, right in the middle of rush hour and as every store was in a principal city centre site I would be spending a lot of time in taxis! With sound checks scheduled for 5 and doors at 6 it was added stress and a pain in the butt but I couldn't get out of it. We arrived at the glittering, brightly lit edifice shortly after 20 minutes in a bouncing cab.
Passing the perfume and make up counters on the first floor, past the computer software, video games and electronics on the second, the books on the third and eventually into the music section where around 30 or so fans waited around the table clutching CDs and books etc. And cameras. Always cameras. When the digital camera age came in Kodak must have lost a fortune in Poland. Everyone wanted photos and years previously the throw aways were the thing. Now it was all phone cameras and digi point and clicks. I can remember some people getting a photo in the early afternoon as I got off the bus, coming back later in the day with the photo to get it signed, getting a photo of the photo being signed and coming back after show with the photo of the photo being signed in order to get it signed!!! And the endless flashes left me with retinal scarring! Poland requires a certain amount of adjustment in the same way as Italy or Spain.
The fans are some of the best in the world. Passionate, emotional, totally dedicated and extremely enthusiastic and demanding in a polite and caring way. It can be overwhelming. At first you feel that you are fighting for space but if you ask for it they give it to you. This was my first encounter for a while and I struggled at first. As always, the organisation is nearly there but there's always something missing. In this case as I sat down in front of the tables there was everything. Coffee, water, cookies, understanding but prepared security, microphones to talk to the fans through a small PA - but no pens! The thing is not to get upset and learn to deal with it. It is very hard at first and I admit to getting uptight on first exposure. Humble apologies and someone went off to find a pen. I just borrowed one from the fans and started signing. Problem was after every article was signed the person wanted a photo which meant the session went on and on as I signed, set up for a photo, waited on that person to find someone to take the shot, him to work out how the camera worked, swapped places, did that photo, signed etc etc. There were also people coming off the street who had no real idea of who I was who came in with endless scraps of paper and wanted anyone to take a photo of them just for the record. And just to add to the farce, right at the end of the session when I thought it was all over the manager of the store handed out a bundle of free gig posters and started the whole circle again. It was too much and I had to extract myself. I had a soundcheck to make and it was already 5. We had to get through traffic back to the venue. I escaped with apologies, avoiding the "interview with the fans" that the store had set up. I had to have a word with the promoter's assistant when I got back. It was too much and the bottom line was that I was there to perform a gig and sound check was a lot more important than signing bits of paper for people who would not even be at the show. I would have preferred a signing session for genuine fans at the venue but I had to fulfil the deal and keep everyone happy. I had to get the sessions better organised.
On arrival at the venue all was relatively in order. The crew had managed to hump the gear upstairs; Tara (Oppo) and Stu (Evil) were setting up the stall, soundcheck was late but moving forward. Problem was, no monitor engineer in our team yet so we relied on the local crew who had a guy who couldn't speak English. Translating via an interpreter was a pain and agonisingly slow. We all had to bite our lips.
The main problem was that the band were in a box with a higher ceiling than the venue and a narrower "fourth wall" than the hall. It meant the on stage sound boomed around inside and made the out front engineering difficult. Everything was bleeding down the mikes and made mixing a nightmare. We got it as best as we could and headed to the dressing room for dinner. We held our breath.
The catering is notorious in Poland. Everything seems to arrive in polystyrene containers and is usually a mystery meat covered in breadcrumbs accompanied by three different colours of cabbage and cold greasy chips. We weren't let down. It was edible - just!
The old hands ate what they could but some of the others balked at the thought and went for the fruit and endless boxes of twiglet-like sticks and the piles of vacuum packed peanuts. The wine was a lottery. The red wine aficionados, Frank and Steve, usually rejected 50% of the 6 we normally had out there on the rider. We usually got 4 in the UK and elsewhere but over here we got extra as there were always duff bottles.
The white wine was no better and you had to be careful and choosy as a slightly corked bottle meant you risked a couple of days of toilet cubicle imprisonment. Problem is that some of the cheaper wine is bought in bulk and brought into Poland to be bottled. Rumours of additives and strange mixes prevail and just because a bottle has a fancy label that says Burgundy it doesn't mean it is! We aren't wine snobs but we also weren't park bench crows with burnt out palates. And we had to avoid the vodka as an alternative accompaniment with dinner. There lies danger.
All the gigs in Poland were early, going on at between 7.30 and 8. It's normal out there. Coming off at just after 10 left us the perils of the night and the enticement of Zubrowka, the demon vodka which contained that sliver of bison grass which gave its unique taste. Stronger than normal vodka and mixed with apple juice it can catch you by surprise as it's so easy to drink and it can poleaxe you unexpectedly.
I had first drunk it as a teenager when I discovered the local deli in Dalkeith had it for sale in small bottles at £1.99. It was a must for parties and did a fair bit of damage. When I left to go into forestry it disappeared from my life and I never saw it again. Little did I know then that I would visit the country of manufacture years later and discover its true lethal potential. I remember my first visit in '87 and recognising the poison of my youth. The slightly green-hued shimmering liquid containing the magical blade of herb. It came back to bite me again. The Polish fans knew it was a favourite and every night I would get at least two small bottles (equivalent of a UK half) handed to me at record signings or after gigs. And there was always a bottle on the rider in the dressing room! Danger, Will Robinson!
There was no support tonight so we were on stage at 7.30. No projections as there wasn't room.
Soon as "Slainthe" started the crowd were totally behind us. They were terrific and all the problems of the day disappeared in memory. Polish audiences make being a musician a dream come true. As I said earlier they are one of the best in the world and tonight was no exception as an example of pure fervour on the part of the Szczecin crowd.
I was wary of the "Vigil" walk through as the fans can get too enthusiastic and I didn't want to disappear under a sea of adoring bodies.
McKinty and I had set up the "run" upstairs to a corridor in the roof space and down to the rear of the hall. Yatta was now operating the million candle torch, picking me up from stage, leaving the more agile McK to lead me on the run and through the crowd with the maglite which doubled as a "preventative measure" in case of trouble. I needn't have worried. It was a wonderful experience and went down even better as a spectacle than in previous gigs.
It was a straight 9.5/10, the 350 or so fans ecstatic and loudly appreciative as we walked off stage after a killer "Last Straw".
Even the old hands were taken aback at the response on our first gig. Chris J had a huge smile. Despite the hangovers everyone was beaming. A great start to what I had been told was the biggest tour of Poland ever undertaken by a major International band.
Tomorrow was a day off in Gdansk where I had played my first ever gig in this country 20 years ago on the original "Clutching at Straws" tour.
Some fool opened a bottle of vodka!
Tuesday 16th October, day off - Gdansk.
Dusters and the Rammstein Lounge were rocking till the early hours. Believe it or not I was one of the first to bed as I had been most of the tour, surprising some of the team. I knew what was coming. This was to be our first hotel for 9 days and I was going to take advantage of a bed that wasn't moving. I had enough alcohol to knock me out for most of the journey but still had to catch myself from falling out of the bunk a couple of times. Tara was feeling it as were Gavin and Foss. I went into the back lounge as dawn broke to find them bleary eyed and desperate for sleep. Frank, McK and Chris J were downstairs. Steve V and Yatta were the only two people who could sleep soundly.
We pulled into the city around midday and checked into our rooms. Sheer luxury. Hot shower, a double bed, clean sheets. I crashed.
Later that afternoon I went out into the streets with Taz and walked through the old town to the river and docks. It had changed a lot since the last time. Tourism was bustling, even now in October. We entered a street in which every shop had a mine full of amber of all shapes and sizes and set on all kinds of necklace, pendant and brooch combinations. I had never seen so much amber in my life. It was overkill. The competition between the shops was obviously cutthroat and I couldn't imagine how they managed to sell anything as there was so much on offer that decisions were impossible.
Lunch in the square and then a traipse back to the hotel, getting Taz some boots on the way. I had a press conference later that afternoon.
I'd been told that an interview I'd given last time I was in Warsaw with Piotr Kaczkowski, the "John Peel/Tommy Vance" of Poland's biggest national station, Radio 3, had been transmitted the night before. It had been one of "those" interviews. Just off stage, adrenaline and with a hint of wine and smoke, just enough to unleash the stream of thought process that embraced all sorts of issues before diving into world politics, corporations, social issues and my vision of Poland. He had kept it on hold until my first night in country. It was a terrific interview and after having done interviews with Piotr since my first in 1983 backstage at the Hammy Odeon and throughout my career including at the Radio 3 studio in Warsaw as my first ever live interview in '87, this was considered by him to be one of the best ever. He is one of my oldest friends and when we do meet we most definitely have a very special understanding. It's never just about the music. They aren't interviews, more deep discussions between two men with similar values and beliefs, both garrulous and worldly wise and prone to be outspoken. I hold him in total admiration and high respect and as the first person ever to deliver Marillion on the Polish airwaves in the early 80s when the country was controlled by the Russians, my career is indebted to him.
The interview drew a massive response as this was the week leading up to the Polish elections. The content struck a deep chord as although the interview was over a year old the subject matter took on a great relevance. Even more so now. Piotr said that I must be a visionary and jokingly suggested that perhaps I should stand for the presidency. Totally ludicrous, but a lot of people reacted to it. How could a Scottish singer have more of an understanding of the situation than some of their politicians? Not my intention at all but it was picked up and I was now in front of 30 or so national media at the press conference at Radio Gdansk, many interested in my views on the political situation in Poland of which I had an outsider's perspective but not a definitive grasp. I didn't indulge in specifics. Politics and music are uneasy bedfellows and on the week of the elections I didn't want to entertain controversy or come across as an arrogant prick.
Tara and Tommy Tzinbinski, my old friend, promoter and ex distributor with his company Metal Minds, were there in the front row. There were a number of fans that made up the 60 or so people in front of the podium which held me, the translator and representatives from Radio Gdansk.
I was introduced and then a speech was made which took me completely by surprise.
I was told that I was remembered for wearing a Solidarnosc (Solidarity) party pin at the '87 press conferences. A statement frowned upon by the then government officials present. The party had originated amongst the unions in the Gdansk shipyards and had led the uprising which eventually threw the Russians out of Poland. Gdansk had been the crucible of the revolution and the birthplace of the new Poland.
I sat there as the simultaneous translation in my left ear fed the story. "We would like to present you with a gift of appreciation from someone who is disappointed not to meet you today but due to travel commitments he is unable to and wishes you all the best with your show tomorrow and the tour in our country. He would like you to accept this gift as a gesture of personal thanks for all the support you gave our country in it's struggle for independence while you were here and from outwith it's borders with your music and words."
I was handed a package which I opened and then came close to tears. I had to swallow hard.
It was a signed framed photograph from Lech Walesa, the former president and founder leader of the Solidarity party. It was one of the proudest moments of my life! I couldn't speak for a few moments as the applause rang out. I couldn't quite believe it all. I felt as tall as one of the cranes in the dockyard! :-)
The conference went well. The fires were burning, the signal sent that we were coming. Radio 3 had a "Fish Day" with my music being played across every programme. If I had that in other countries, and especially the UK, things would be very different! I can but hope! "Arc of the Curve" was already most chosen song from "13th Star" in Poland. When it comes out as a single on 12th February it might, it just might change things!
After the press conference we headed back to the hotel to pick up the band and walk into the old town for dinner at a restaurant. Some of the boys had already set sail on the curve after finding the Polish equivalent of "Hooters". "Roosters" not only offered scantily clad, large breasted waitresses but also, more importantly, food that was recognisable, edible and close to "normal" fare.
We set off in search of the venue for the band meal and found a traditional restaurant with an outside covered area. We took it over.
We made the brave but foolish decision to kick off with vodkas. Iced bottles were duly brought out and we began our mutual downfall. The food was great. That's the problem! It was only the gig catering that was awful. The food outside the venues was wonderful but our impression of Polish cuisine was tainted by the "road kill in breadcrumbs" that we normally got served backstage. It made everyone nervous.
I had Zurek, a traditional soup with sausage, veg etc. This one was different as it was served in a bowl made out of a small rounded loaf of bread! You ate the soup while breaking down and eating the bowl! Bizarre!
It tasted great! I had wild boar to follow but the vodkas were taking precedent. We did around 7 bottles between 15 of us plus beers. Tommy nearly killed us off with a bottle of spirits which contained gold flakes. We were panelled but still had enough head space for a last one at a nearby rock club before bed.
We shouldn't have gone, but you know how it is!
Around 40 minutes and a couple of trays of Zubrowka later we were trying to get Steve V off the floor and up the steps from the cellar bar. It was as if someone had hit him with a baseball bat. One minute talking away, next minute mashed potato man. We managed to get him upstairs and to the hotel, a block away, but the elevator was a different issue. One of those small 4 person affairs, he collapsed again and there was no way we could get him of the floor. We gave up and left him there. It was warm and he seemed comfortable.
I went back to my room and then to check on Tara who had been the only sensible soul all night. My door shut behind me. I'd left my key. 20 mins later I was at the elevator and pressed the call button. The doors opened and lo and behold there was Steve still lying on the floor. I got in and dropped to reception, picked up my replacement key and recalled, stood over Steve and headed back up to my room. I'd got the wrong key and had to repeat the process again with my bass player and best mate accompanying me, involuntarily.
I tried to move him but gave up, he was a dead weight. As I left the elevator and the body, Foss was running along the corridor from his room - "There's water pouring through my ceiling!" All too much. I went to bed leaving them to sort it out.
I found out in the morning that Yatta, who had a bad back and shoulder aggravated by the road journeys, had run a bath to sooth his joints and then fallen asleep. The water had overflowed and into Foss's room below! Thankfully no damage had been done.
Steve had been found by Tara, woken up by the bathroom incident and who coaxed him back to his room. "You can't just leave him there!" We could! :-)
We were only two days and just one gig in and already burning on blue flame. This would be a trial by fire.
I was OK when we met up at midday for check out. Some of the others were hurting and swearing that they would never drink vodka again! Oh yeah! Tell it to the judge! :-)
This was just the beginning!
(to be continued)