Fish 2008 - Stars of Bethlehem
Dear FishHeads, Freaks, fans and the Company,
I woke up in someone else's head. A brutal sun glared through the window and the phone rang to tell me our driver was downstairs.
A revitalising shower brought me round and I threw back an ibuprofen with my watery coffee from the hotel room filter machine. Grabbing my bag I zombied to reception and met up with my compadre who was, to say the least, pale.
Our volunteer driver was David Gargano from New Jersey. He's contacted me after a plea on the internet for a lift down to Bethlehem and the NEARFest gig. He'd talked to Yatta and we'd organised the pick up for 10am. He was slightly nervous but smiling and willing.
As soon as we got in the car Yatta announced from the back that he felt rough and might have to throw up. I caught David wincing.
I was fuzzy and not very communicative. I felt sorry for our driver who had probably been looking forward to this trip and the chance to delve into the artist's mind, but it was still reeling from too many martinis and was having trouble deciphering reality. All I wanted to do was stare out the window at the pretty colours and let the movie roll.
It was like a reverse "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas". I was Hunter Thompson, Yatta was the lawyer and we were the wasted passengers in a car driven by the innocent. As Dave bravely tried to instigate conversation I looked out the window at the passing streets of Hoboken, filtering images of cute, clean two storey terraced houses turning into a model village with model citizens. Explosions of flowers as we sailed past roadside stalls interspersed with gloomy empty factories perched on the cliff tops outside town. The spars of a huge bridge rattled by with the noise a child makes with a stick on railings. And the tyres hummed along the freeway and into the settling green of the countryside that consoled my eyes with a verdant blanket. I couldn't sleep and juddered in and out of consciousness. Dave gave the commentary on the journey and I politely interjected with a question to give the impression of interest. It was tough. Yatta occasionally moaned so I knew he was still alive.
I knew it was coming. I could sense from the ominous silence that the question was growing in his mind. He got his nerve up and out it came. "So what happened between you and the band then?" Yatta moaned. I paused. "Please don't go there!" The tyres hummed. The only sound in the vehicle. I smiled and offered some consolation; he was a nice guy and deserved more.
We passed under bridges overgrown with vines, shrubs and small trees. They were flyovers for wildlife but looked as if the wilderness had recaptured them in some apocalyptic end game. Stars and Stripes flags draped down from them over the road. It was quite surreal. Dave said people hung them to remind us of the soldiers in the Middle East. Some were torn and frayed by the wind and passing traffic, worn pale by the weather and had obviously been there for a long time. They will be up for longer than anyone thought.
As we passed slip roads to towns hidden somewhere in the perpetual forest with names of Scottish and English places interspersed with native American Indian names I was reminded of old conflicts. It wasn't that long ago that this place was colonised and an even shorter time since a civil war tore the country apart. I was waking up and my mind was sampling visuals and now capable of conversation beyond grunts of acknowledgement. My inquisitive nature took hold and the history buff started asking questions. Dave and I prattled on for the rest of the journey until the turn off to Bethlehem.
It was too David Lynch weird. The signposts had stars painted on them with the message "Follow the star" to the town centre and its attractions.
I was aware of Bethlehem as a former steel town but as we entered the town limits the immensity of the mills took me by surprise. I was overcome by a sadness as I remembered the steelworks at Ravenscraig in Lanarkshire and how their communities were devastated when they shut down. It reminded me of Scorsese's "Deer Hunter" and the opening scenes with the steelworkers heading off shift. To see these monoliths of industry quiet and deserted was shocking and a dark tribute to the free trade advocates surrounding the Bush family.
The US, like the UK, has lost the ability to deal with its own production abilities and is now forced to use expensive imported steel.
Meanwhile communities suffer and building costs grow ever higher. So much for long term planning and short term profit.
Bethlehem was nearly deserted and the economic downturn obvious with boarded up shops and 'for sale' signs on properties. Depression incarnate. It had been a prosperous place once but now bordered on a ghost town. The concrete mill buildings were now gravestones.
We turned up the back streets toward the university and the venue of NEARFest.
Robert La Duca and Chad Hutchinson, who'd set up Nearfest in '98, had been trying to get me to come over for years but it hadn't made sense. This time their offer made sense and, with my agent Larry Webman adding dates the 2008 North American tour, it came to be.
It wasn't just the gig that fitted in with our plans. Without Chad and Robert we would never have made it past US immigration. They agreed to act as sponsors for our visas after everyone else had walked away worried that by signing off they could potentially incur law suits should anything have gone wrong on the tour. To put it into perspective, in the Great White tragedy at a Rhode Island nightclub $122 million went over in settlements.
The US has a cynical "ambulance chasing" element amongst it's legal profession who would joyously rip apart a UK band involved in some civil misdemeanour or - heaven forbid - a tragedy such as the Station nightclub. Between that and the IRS (American Inland Revenue) who pursue every cent like their counterparts in every other country (the Swiss took 20% of the gross of our recent fee for which I get a bit of paper saying I have paid to give to the UK tax authorities - I won't see the benefit of that tax relief until year end returns in 2009) someone has to accept overall responsibility and act as sponsors. The NEARFest guys stood up to the plate and, for that, we are all indebted.
As a registered non profit organisation it was a lot easier for them to sign off than our agency or the then record company (I changed distributors soon after they declined). I was looking forward to thanking them personally.
David parked the car outside the venue just as the tour bus pulled up. The others had spent the day off in Washington and, as expected, were as bleary-eyed as ourselves. Yatta rolled out of the back of the car like a punctured Michelin man and about the same colour.
It was hot.
A small sedan wheeled into the load-in bay and a massive guy wearing a hat extricated himself from the vehicle. I immediately recognised Tony Levin whom I'd met years ago with Peter Gabriel. I discovered he was playing with members of 'Dream Theater' in the 'Liquid Tension Experiment'. A very private man with guarded smiles he is an impressive presence and a master class bass player. Very likeable but at the same time quite scary because of his size and piercing eyes. I've wondered if he is incredibly shy or just intense in approach. He is a man you shake hands with, not hug. He delivered me a smile on recognition but conversation was short.
Steve V was star struck and would spend the next few hours trying to get a photo of them together. It was quite comical as just when Tony would enter the dressing room area Steve would go rushing out to find someone to take a shot and, by the time he'd found a cameraman, Tony had gone. He got it in the end! :-D
The load-in bay was the smoking area, crew and musos gathering in the fresh air and shade to pass away those interminable hours between load-in and sound check and the eventual gig we live for each day. Everyone was incredibly friendly and professional with introductions leading to conversations that killed the minutes and filled the time.
I finally met up with Chad and Rob and put faces to email addresses. Big smiles and I expressed our thanks for all their help in getting me across the water. It was obvious everyone was excited about our performance on the night and it was lifting us out of our mild hangovers that were being dispersed by vast quantities of water and our new friend the coffee doctor! Greg Jones had set up his lab downstairs in one of the dressing rooms and I was drawn by the aromas drifting along the corridor. The two brews I tried were an Ethiopian and a Nicaraguan. Within a few minutes I felt I'd taken a line of class A. I was abuzz and literally ran up the steps to the load-in bay to get Frank. This was REAL coffee! :-)
Frank agreed with my prognosis and we sampled Greg's wares and discussed beans. The man knows his stuff. The huge bags of beans he had with him had our names on two of them. I was set up for the day and only had to make sure I drank enough water to balance me off!
I went back up to the load-in bay to talk a lot! :-) (If you're interested, here is Greg's on-line store)
Some very heavy and complicated rehearsals were going on in a small hall at the back of the expansive Uni building. I was glad I wasn't in that band as my brain would have melted singing in the middle of all that. It was impressive and knowing the musicians involved it couldn't have been anything else. This was the 'Liquid Tension Experiment' a side project set up by Mike Portnoy from 'Dream Theater' and consisting of John Petrucci on guitars, Jordan Rudess on keyboards from that band and Tony Levin on bass.
It was frantic stuff and I was listening to them run through an arrangement of Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue'. It was highly unusual, ambitious and sounding great! I didn't want to intrude and had my own work cut out as sound check was approaching. It was taking a lot longer than usual and as I walked on stage in the huge seated auditorium that was sold out for tonight to 1000 people, I recognised there was a problem. The monitor engineer had arrived late and was then confronted with a new computerised desk which he wasn't familiar with.
Normally the monitors would have been "rung out" i.e. all the frequencies in the room that would feed back would be eliminated and the overall speaker sounds set up for building the band's mixes and individual preferences before the band set foot on stage or even loaded in their equipment. That hadn't been done and we were starting from scratch.
It was going to be a long check. Everyone was on edge and frustrations were creeping in. The gig was to be recorded on multi track and filmed on 7 cameras for the future DVD release from the tour. What we didn't need was a monitor engineer who didn't know the desk he was using to give us our mixes on the biggest stage we were playing on the tour. I had to walk away and let them get on with it. Vocals are always last after the band are happy with their mixes. It was going to be a while!
I headed back to the load-in bay after picking up another coffee and bumped into Mike Portnoy who I hadn't seen since the last full US tour when he came along to see us in New York. I knew he was a fan of Marillion and that they had been playing a part of 'Sugar Mice' on their recent tour. Now here was a man that gave a hug. He's a great guy and highly likeable and unassuming. A very clever man and an even cleverer musician and highly talented drummer. It was if we hadn't seen each other for weeks rather than years. We bounced into conversation about everything. Families, touring, the business, histories, experiences.... the coffee was working! :-)
We were joined by John Petrucci who I'd never met before. Another naturally nice guy and someone who obviously worked out - a lot! An unusual physique for a guitarist, he had arms like a weightlifter and a body to match. If he hadn't opened with a smile I would have been concerned :-D We chewed the fat and Tony Levin came into the company. They were fried by rehearsals as they hadn't played together for years. The whistle blew on our conversation too soon and I went back to my trial by monitors and they went back to their 'Rhapsody in Blue' experiment.
The boys were still struggling with mixes so I went for a wander round the building. Outside the main theatre there was the entrance and a number of side rooms. The general public weren't in the venue yet so I took the opportunity to poke my nose round a couple of doors.
I found Aladdin's cave! :-)
There before me was rack after rack of CDs and, after a quick thumb through, I was discovering some real gems. I started to pull out albums that were taking my fancy and soon discovered I could be in real trouble!
I found Gentle Giant's 'Missing Piece', 'Giant', 'Power and the Glory', 'Playing the Fool' and 'Octopus'. Caravan's 'Cunning Stunts', 'Waterloo Lily' and 'Things That Go Bump in the Night', Man's 'Rhinos, Winos and Lunatics', 'Be Good to Yourself at Least Once a Day' and 'Do you Like It Here Are You Settling In?', Steve Hillage albums, Robin Trower (including a great album with Jack Bruce that I was recommended called 'Seven Moons'), Can, Camel and... The first batch was $300!!! I was in Prog heaven!
I had to go back to the production office to get money from Yatta.
That was my first room. The second one I did another $150. I had to get out of there otherwise Yatta would kill me or I'd bust the tour.
I justified the purchases by telling myself that I had at least the first four Planet Rock programmes in the bag! I was worse than Imelda Marcos in a shoe shop!
I escaped into the next room and came face to face with Mark Wilkinson who I hadn't realised would be there so early. It was great to see him and we burst into animated conversation after huge hugs, me exclaiming excitedly about the CD caves. I looked about the room and nearly had a heart attack. As well as Mark's artwork there were all the posters I had on my walls in Dalkeith as a teenager. All the 'Yes' artwork on glorious posters. It was so tempting - so, so tempting. I felt I'd be "cheating" on Mark. It was like leching over another girl when your wife is in the same room! :-D Mark told me that Roger Dean was coming the next day and I admit to being disappointed at missing him. He was my favourite album cover artist when I was a teenager. I was so tempted to buy the 'Yessongs Islands' print and only the fact that I hardly had any room left on the studio walls to hang anything kept me in check. I resisted but one article caught my eye and it was a "must have"! A 'Gentle Giant' T shirt with the cover of 'Giant' on the front! It was bought, I was stripped and it was on my back in seconds! Mark was laughing his head off!
He'd been asked to sort some visuals out for the back screen projections on stage and had duly done so. It was all being kept relatively secret from me and I wouldn't find out till later just what a marvellous job he'd done. The fact that he is now taking over next year's NEARFest logo from Roger Dean is a great and deserved accolade. He just gets better and better :-)
The place was filling up and stalls were busy even though it was just the exhibitors and friends. Word must have gone out that the Scotsman was spending dollars. Suggestions on albums to buy were coming thick and fast as I continued to browse the rooms as I headed back to stage. It was incredible just how many obscure bands were represented in the racks. Some of the titles just put me right off and I could smell "false prog" from the covers and titles. I still picked up a few on the way out. A brace of 'Porcupine Tree' albums I didn't have, 'Banco' the Italian singer's first album, Stomu Yamashta's 'Go' featuring Stevie Winwood and Chris Shrieve and a couple of 'Can' albums.
Steve V laughed when he saw the 'Gentle Giant' shirt. The band was about ready to go for rehearsals as we had promised Robert and Chad that we would play a couple of extra songs in the NEARFest set. 'Openwater', 'Zoe' and 'Sugar Mice' were added and we needed to run through them as it had been a long time. The monitor engineer had come to grips with the desk and had managed to get my wedges in order after I'd walked off stage earlier in obvious aggravated mood. No shouting or anything was necessary. When the 'bear' stalks the stage people become aware. There was a lot at stake tonight and I wanted it to be right. He'd got it right!
The check went well and the memory served well. I caught a few glimpses of Mark's projections. They looked fantastic and gave us more "oomph" in production values. The stage crew were getting excited and the sound check impressed.
There was more to this gig than just the recording and filming pressure, we were playing to the fundamentalists tonight. It was a very big calling card on the US and NEARFest had a reputation of being a tough audience. I knew that the first couple of hundred seats in the front would be filled by purist prog fans and not necessarily rock enthusiasts. They come to every annual event no matter who was on. Some of them think I committed sacrilege when I left Marillion and like their rhythmic timings worked out on NASA calculators, their song lengths over 20 mins and lyrics in Latin! Getting them to respond was going to be tough. As someone pointed out there would be a lot of "40 year old virgins" out there with original T-shirts from the '80s that their Mum washed and ironed! :-) Bring it on!
We drifted toward the dressing rooms downstairs and I was taken aback when I bumped into the beaming Peter Hammill. I hadn't seen Peter for years, probably since I worked on his 'House of Usher' project in early 1990. (the contribution was never used, the album released in '91. Peter thought our voices were too similar, not a good idea for an opera project where characters need to be identified by their own individual vocal style. I still have tapes with my contributions and - before anyone asks - they won't be released! :-))
I lost track of him and, when Christmas cards weren't answered for a couple of years, figured he'd moved. When I heard he had a heart attack in 2003 I thought he had stopped working and was pleasantly surprised to hear about the Van Der Graaf Generator reunion in 2005.
And there we were in the US performing at the same gig although on different nights. I had missed him a couple of nights before when he'd played NYC and was disappointed I'd miss him at NEARFest as we were striking off in the morning. So to see him on our day was fantastic.
He's still stick thin and a little greyer but, as he told me, the heart attack refocused him and he's a lot less frantic than he used to be.
He had moved house and lost addresses and as always in our line of work we put off getting in touch until another day or a funeral as albums and tours take precedent and something else flutters into our minds and commands attention.
We'd become good friends when he supported Marillion on the '83 tour with John Ellis from the 'Vibrators' (and who also played with Peter Gabriel). He always gives people nicknames. John was "Fury" and I was called "Amok". I don't know why! :-D
Our histories since last meeting were dealt with like a speed dating introduction and we caught up with families, ex band members, reincarnations, mutual friends, health issues and all the other events that had conquered our lives in the last 20 years. We couldn't cram it all in and as Peter had to get himself together for a gig elsewhere that night we swapped contacts and parted with hugs. We agreed to try and hook up later after our respective gigs as we were staying in the same hotel. I was to bring the red wine.
I was so pleased to see him again after so long. A man I have admired as a highly influential artist, an old school maverick and garrulous intellectual in whose company I could sit for hours. I hoped to see him later but it was a long curve of a night ahead of us and wheels come off wagons.
And now it was the long wait.
I filled in some time with an interview for WLVR, a local radio station, with a gentleman named Fritz! It was quite funny and relaxed but as always I was aware of talking too much and wearing out the voice especially in those damned air conditioned atmospheres. I always ask for the AC to be switched off in gigs as my throat dries up so quickly on stage. It doesn't matter how much aqua you throw down your neck it never humidifies due to the constant toing and froing of air as you sing and breathe. Radio interviews were always in AC rooms and impossible to control. I nursed a litre of water, my fourth of the day!
Dinner with the band upstairs in the venue which was now up and running, the CD stalls 3 floors below in the open atrium hidden by crowds of prog fiends. A smoke on the balcony and a moment alone.
Backstage it was "wine o'clock" and with corkscrews drawn we searched for the rider, normally 3 bottles of a dry white and 3 full bodied reds. Nearly everyone in the band and crew drank the stuff in various quantities. Steve and Frank were of the red persuasion while Yatta and I preferred the white. Foss, Paul and Vince drank what was closest while Chris and Gavin dabbled but were more beer monsters.
The wine was nowhere to be found. In fact there was no alcohol to be found anywhere in the dressing room. Obviously an oversight!
I asked the production team and was told that the venue banned alcohol from the backstage area!!!!
I couldn't believe it! It was a first for me!
Not to be thwarted, Steve and I headed for the bus bays and raided Doug Hackett's cases returning with supplies to a much relieved band and crew who were in obvious shock.
Smiles abounded amongst the NEARFest crew. They weren't going to argue and the rider that was supposed to be delivered to the bus magically appeared. We were back to full quota again!
Steve was still nursing his fingers but had now started to use plastic skin which seemed to be doing the trick. His right shoulder and arm were badly bruised from the bus incident. We were all feeling for him. He was complaining of headaches and wasn't a particularly happy camper as you'd expect. The wine eased the pain a bit as we waited on stage calls.
I popped up to get an idea of the hall from out front. Larry Fast was on stage as I sneaked into the auditorium. The place was pretty full as Larry did his stuff. Another ex Peter Gabriel session player, I'd admired his contributions to the first couple of PG solo albums and had seen him on PG tours in the mid '70s. This was different. I've never really enjoyed watching keyboard players solo on stage surrounded by racks of toys, especially when they don't sing. I always wonder if the whole show is on tape and they are just twiddling up there. Yes, there were banks of swirling majestic soundscapes and widdly widdly moments, cleverly programmed back projections and Larry was enjoying himself up there. But it left me dead. I lasted about 10 minutes. The crowd seemed to love it and I didn't know whether to be glad about that fact or worried as Larry was appealing to the Church of High Prog and had all the credentials. I was a prodigal son who had turned my back on the fundamentalists and had embraced the dark side of Rock!
A long vocal warm up and muscle stretching. It was a big stage and a big night and I needed to hit the curve hard and fast.
The intro tape ran and we assembled in the wings. The band moved onstage and the crowd went up. I strode onto centre mike position and took it all in. The balcony was going nuts and the back of the hall was on its feet but the front was sitting and applauding. Attack, attack!
I gave all the moves and did the banter, pushing the voice hard and up the levels. We were doing well; the band was on form and with me all the way. As expected the "Clutching" material took a mighty reception and we launched into an inspired rendition with the audience roaring back the "circles" section. We were making waves but the front ranks were doing the King Canute impressions.
It was really quite strange as it felt like playing to a record company or back in '87 when we played Poland and the Russian and local dignitaries hogged the front rows. It wasn't everyone but large segments had that "OK, impress me" vibe and were not into getting involved with plebeian clapping and singing along to rock songs!
Everyone else in the main was going nuts, in particular the balcony which was draped with a couple of Mexican flags.
We got to "Faith Healer" and I decided to up the ante. I'd been goading and staring the front ranks down in a friendly manner but when we made the middle section I went through the "fourth wall" and walked out into the audience using the arms of the seats to keep me above the crowd. I moved through the first rows and into the centre of the auditorium just in front of the balcony. It had the desired effect and the atmosphere was incredible. The place was jumping.
The return to stage was met by slightly shocked looks from the acolytes who hadn't expected this sort of behaviour. I was having a ball.
"White Russian" was aggressive and powerful and carried us off to rapturous applause.
Yatta told me later that he had never seen me so fired up for a long time and that I had pushed the other band members out the way to get on stage for the encores. To be honest I don't remember much. I was on such a high.
Frank was outstanding on "Cliche" and the band was playing a blinder. Steve and Gavin were unbelievably tight and there was an air of arrogance on stage. I took my break in the solo at the side of the stage and saw nothing but huge smiles and thumbs up from all the crew and triple A holders gathered in the wings.
Mike Portnoy had been sitting cross-legged just behind the side drapes, ghost drumming to Gavin's moves on the Marillo material. He was loving it and said later it was the best that he had ever heard us and was blown away. It was a great gig.
'Incommunicado' ended the first sequence of encores with a huge bang and the place was on its feet.
'Sugar Mice' and 'Last Straw' were stunning and we took our applause in front of a mass of smiling, happy people.
I didn't want to go.
The band had played out their skins and had most definitely impressed one and all. I had sung my heart out. There were a lot of high emotions around and I was so proud of what we had achieved. We had delivered a show that the NEARFest organisers had fully deserved for all their efforts and had made a lot of new friends. Backstage the wine flowed and I was in a state of delirium as the adrenalin was still pumping.
It was a great result and the huge bonus was that it had all been filmed and recorded.
We started to drift into that miasma of exhaustion and wine-fuelled calm as the comedown seeped into our minds. Taxis were called and we somehow found the hotel and checked in. I had to sign a document agreeing to pay for any damage to the room and was presented with an itemised list of everything that could possibly have been taken including light fittings, towels, seats, bed sheets, etc. It was pathetic and I voiced an opinion. Frank didn't have a room. The last sparks of adrenalin flew in a cold controlled volley at the receptionist. Frank got a room.
I had no idea what time it was apart from 'go to bed'. I was flagging now.
Just as I rolled into the corridor which passed the bar a hook was thrown. "There's someone you have to meet!"
Next thing I had a finger pointing at my 'Gentle Giant' T-shirt which had an air brush of the giant with outstretched hand containing the band in question in miniature. "That's me!" says the gentleman in front of me. It was none other than Gary Green, the band's guitarist.
Hearty hand shakes and beaming smiles. I had heard he might be there but had thought he had diddly bopped out.
So there I was at the end of the bar with the Gentle Giant guitarist who had played on every album they had made, me in a band T-shirt and about to be bought a round. I ordered a beer and, under pressure, a tequila. I tried to ignore it as we rattled on about GG and I found out what had happened to them all. I told Gary I'd been playing the band on Planet Rock and that I'd had some interesting response.
We joked about a reunion and then I took a sip of the tequila which had arrived in a rather large glass full to the brim.
Then it started to go woolly round the edges.
The bar shut and we were shepherded through to a back room and round wooden tables. I know I should have gone to bed but Peter Pan was Amok. The political football was brought out and I couldn't resist kicking it around. As always I got passionate and Scottish and I think frightened some people especially when I smashed my fist down onto the table to make a point and silenced not only our crowd but the entire room.
I could hear my mother's voice telling me to go to my bed. I thought I was relatively OK but, in that deceptive way that tequila affects your brain making you believe you aren't really that drunk as your mind is allegedly cohesive but your body is that of a handless glove puppet, I rose and buckled. This I must stress is an extreme rarity, the last time I remembered being in that state was in Kosovo.
I weebled and wobbled but didn't fall down. I bid farewell to the table and exited.
I definitely was not going to see Peter Hammill tonight!
I bounced along corridors and had a wee laugh with myself before finally finding the key and collapsing on the bed. I was rat arsed.
It had been a tough day and just before the big dark blankets were drawn over me I knew it would be a tougher morning.
I was OK when I got up but realised very soon after check out and saying goodbye to Rob Ayling and the guys who were in the lobby that hell was creeping up on me. I slugged my Beroccas, nailed some ibuprofen and headed to the bus and the sanctuary of my bunk with a couple of litres of water slopping inside me. I heard other moans from behind the curtains of other occupied bunks. I wasn't the only victim of the night!
It had been a great time in Bethlehem and a gig to remember for every reason.
I want to thank Chad and Robert again for all their support and Kevin and all the rest of the NEARFest crew and production for looking after us all so well.
To anyone who was at the tequila table I apologise for anything I may have done or said or implied and, to anyone who may have been frightened by a large Scotsman, I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. It must have been a bad pie! :-D
As Federico would have it, the NEARFest tapes arrived at the Studio today. I'm looking forward to finding out what it was like :-D
Until next time and the continuing saga of the North American tour.
Take care and stay alive,
Onkel Fish x
Email 22nd August 2008