Thursday, 18 July 2013

Thankful Sturdy

Me and Des had been mates since the Infants. But it was always a bit lopsided, like I was more his mate than he was mine. Better now though. Since Malcolm. Not sure why.
We started playing together when we were fifteen. In his dad’s garage. Me on guitar, Des battering boxes and biscuit tins with bits of dowelling. Just a row really. Called ourselves Gusset. Didn’t last. His dad got behind with the rent and the Council took the garage back off him. We was hooked though. Fifteen years on we still had the occasional stab at it. Mostly depending what Des was up to.
We’d had a long lay off after the Nigel fiasco. Effects pedal mad he was. He had pedals that made his guitar sound like someone stamping on a packet of Maltesers, like the Clangers, like that suction pipe thing they stick in your mouth at the dentists. Sometimes you hardly noticed he’d stopped playing. But Des packed it in. Pissed off with us being treated like the hired help.
I rung Des just after Val give him the boot, suggested another go. He was only up for it because he fancied that Rhiannon who worked up the rehearsal studios. I couldn’t see it meself. She looked like she hadn’t been outdoors since the Sisters of Mercy called it a day. Just as well the way she was built. First decent tuck of wind she’d’ve fucking snapped in half.
He spun it out on the phone, long pause and all that. Then he said, ‘Alright. But no more guitarists.’
We had the ad in Loot for a month; ‘Bassist and drummer seek keyboardist. No planks please.’
Not a sausage. Then one call. She sounded sixty odd and shaky. ITV was on in the background. She goes, ‘It’s my lad Malcolm. He can play properly. But he can play pop too.’
I said, ‘Can he? Oh good.’
She said how he’d been doing music up Goldsmiths' but he’d had to turn it in. I stood there quiet for a bit. She must’ve sussed that I was wondering why he didn’t call himself.
She said, ‘He’s had a bit of a breakdown. He’s alright; he’s just a bit quiet.’
I thought, fuck that. Sounds harsh, but that’s what it’s like sometimes. Someone’s got bad news hanging off them, you just want to get away. Shereen at work, her dad died. The day she come back afterwards, I see her at the bus stop. All the shoulders had gone out of her shoulders. I couldn’t get on the same bus.
But we were hardly beating people off with a shitty stick so I said yeah, he could give us a ring. His mum said not to say to him about the breakdown. I thought I’d leave it a bit before I mentioned to Des about it too.
The first practice, Malcolm turned up at Music City with his keyboard in a tartan granny’s shopping trolley. He had on trainers and Farah slacks. Other than that he was pretty normal looking.
He hardly said three words the whole two hours we was there. But it wasn’t like he was shy or nervous exactly. Odd that.
Music-wise it was a farce. Me and Des had three tunes worked out. We made ourselves write a new song every five years even if we never had any ideas. First off I showed him the chords to ‘Men Like Sheds, Women Like Gardens.’
He goes, ‘What key’s it in?’
I said, ‘How do you mean?’ and got a bit defensive.
While he was playing he was frowning a lot. You couldn’t tell if he was concentrating or pissed off. Luckily we only had a short session booked. The last twenty minutes we’d stopped playing and it was turning into a staring competition.
He wouldn't come for a pint after. We see him onto a 53 and went in the Five Bells. I said to Des, ‘What do you reckon?’
He goes, ‘Fantastic. A fucking mute. New one for the list I suppose.’
The list was this thing we had of all the types of prat we’d played with. We’d had control freaks who put songs together like they were making an MFI wardrobe. We’d had people who wanted to discuss how to split the royalties during the first phone call. You’d be stood there thinking, where the fuck are you phoning from, Fantasy Island? There was that doughnut who fancied himself as Nick Drake and sang like Charlie Drake. Singer-songwriters generally, as it goes. Des always says, ‘When I hear the words singer-songwriter I reach for me revolver.’ Plus the usual guitar bores. Take their girlfriends round guitar shops, leave smudges of nose-grease on the window of Macari’s on Charing Cross Road. People say being in a band’s like a marriage. More like one nightmare blind-date after another.
It was about attitude mostly. There’s enough people in the world who’ve been in bands that could’ve made it, if only. Me and Des, we could’ve made it if only we had a bit of talent. We were never players. We were just keeping ourselves entertained.

The second practice was even worse. Malcolm showed us some of his stuff. Sort of noodly, jazzy cack, it was. Like punk never happened and then some. We weren’t hacking it at all. There was too many different bits to remember.
After that I thought, he’s going to pack it in now. I thought, I’ll get us all down the pub for a chat, get him onside. He was cagey on the phone, said he couldn’t make a Wednesday, the night we’d suggested.
So we fixed it for the Thursday. Des said what were we bothering with him for? But he had the arsehole anyway. He’d just had a knockback off Rhiannon. I said it was probably for the best. Fair enough she had a bit of an excuse with doing so many late shifts, but she was constantly off her chops on whizz. He wouldn’t have got much quiet. He broke the head on the snare once. She went to fetch another, come back twenty minutes later, said ‘Sorry it took a while. I got talking to someone.’
With Des though, his moods, he could turn on a sixpence. One second he’d be being a right snide bastard, then he’d turn round and start being a complete star, and you’d remember why you liked him in the first place.
The three of us were in the New Cross Inn and I thought it was all going to come on top. Des was having a prod, asking Malcolm why he couldn’t make the Wednesday. He said, ‘Weren’t out on the pull were you?’
Malcolm shook his head. ‘That’s the night I go for therapy.’
Des asked what sort.
Malcolm said, ‘Psychotherapy.’
Des never missed a beat. He just started into one about how one of the blokes out of Slade had packed it all in to train as a psychotherapist. He said he wasn’t sure which one it was but it wasn’t the drummer, because he would’ve been fucking hopeless what with losing his memory and that. After half an hour he’d’ve just been sat looking at you, wondering what the fuck you were doing on his couch. We were creasing up. Then he said how it just went to show, how you could be thinking your life was going to go on in one direction and then think, fuck it, I fancy something else. He was totally different with Malcolm after that. Kinder. Think it was because of his mum and that. Her with her nerves and that.

The third rehearsal, Malcolm was first one there. He had his coat off. Every time before he’d kept it on, like he wasn’t planning on stopping.
We set up. He said, ‘Been thinking,’ then he stopped. You could tell from the look of him, he could hardly say what he wanted. He goes, ‘Seems like you two have trouble remembering things. And sometimes…’ He stopped again. I give him a look to say, go on. He goes, ‘I feel like all I ever do is remember stuff.’
Des laughed. ‘What are we going to do then? Make it up as we go along?’
Malcolm nodded. ‘Pretty much, I was thinking, yeah. I mean if we come up with any good bits, try and remember them so we can do them again. But mostly, yeah, make it up.’
We give it a go. Sounded weird as fuck. We had the room nearest the booking office. When we come out, the bloke who did the bookings took one look at us and pissed himself. But something had changed. We’d started listening to each other or something.
We got better every week from then. The bloke in the booking office stopped wetting himself every time he see us. Mal was getting better too. In himself. He started coming for a shandy after, plus he started talking more. He knew about a lot of stuff. You had to give him a bit of a nudge though, sometimes, to get him to change the subject.
I never asked him what he’d got ill with. Not because I wasn’t bothered, it was just I knew I probably wouldn’t understand it. Thing with me is, maybe I’ve got it all to come, but nothing much bothers me. I get it off me dad. He said to me once, ‘It’s all just one thing after another. All you can do is get in there, keep yourself entertained, and try to treat people right.’ That’s about the size of it, to me.
With Malcolm, a lot of it was that he was lonely. When I’d phone for him, his mum always knew it was me. I just thought she recognised me voice, but once his brother answered and he knew who I was straight off. Nobody else was phoning for Malcolm.
We was good for him but he was good for us too. The thing was, he gave a toss. There was something determined about him. He got us out of the old rut.

We were in the Five Bells again. This was after about three months. I thought something was coming because Malcolm had a proper pint. Des was off on one about how was it that cowshit’s always so runny, and was it something about evolution? Like they used to have less stomachs but stopped just in time. Or they used to have more stomachs. And how if they used to have more stomachs it must’ve been coming out like steam before.
Malcolm sat looking like he was trying to stop a sneeze, then he just cut right in and blurted out, ‘Shall we do some concerts?’
Des was too surprised to take the piss about him saying concert instead of gig. Eventually he said, ‘Could do, yeah. Can you hack it though, with your nerves?’
Malcolm shrugged. ‘I’ve done recitals. When I was still studying.’
It went a bit quiet. He said, ‘Do you know places we can play?’
Des mumbled something about looking in Time Out.
Malcolm goes, ‘Where have you played before?’
That was it then. We had to fess up that we’d never gigged. Did I mention we’d never gigged?
For once in me life I was bang up for it. Other times when me and Des had bottled stuff, it was pretty much six of one and half a dozen of the other. I could almost hear Des’s arsehole tweeting. The excuses were queuing up behind his teeth. After we walked Malcolm up to New Cross Road Des started giving it the usual bollocks about getting bored with the band and having other stuff he wanted to be getting on with.
He was always off doing stuff in the breaks between musical disasters. Once he run a comedy night for new acts over in Camberwell. Called Nervous Laughter. He give up after two months of pulling in ten people a week; eight acts and two punters. Another time he reckoned he was going to write a novel. He got as far as working out it was going to be about three sisters called Cara, Nadine and Desire, whose dad was really into potatoes.
I asked him once why he bothered with it all. He said, ‘You’ve got to try these things. How else are you supposed to develop a thorough sense of failure?’
Everyone reckons drummers are thick but I think with him, he’s clever but he won’t do anything with it. Once he admitted he’d spend hours indoors, making up stuff. Useless stuff. Like names for tribute bands that wouldn’t ever exist; Mockney Rebel, the Bicycle Works, the Butthole Sofas. Or words for things that nobody had thought of words for; the sugary milk left over from a bowl of cereal, that ticking sound a stereo makes when a CD won’t start. All that.
I stopped walking. He stopped walking and turned round. Then I had this weird moment. I looked him in the face and it was like something had gone or there was something new there. Like when someone’s got a beard or a tache and they shave it off, and the first time you see them after, you think, hold up, something’s different, but you can’t work out what.
I said, ‘If you’re not into it I’ll just do it with Malcolm.’
He said, ‘How?’
I said, ‘Drum machine, you wanker.’
It was the first time I’d had a proper dig at him. I thought he’d flounce off, but he never. We stood there a while then we walked on. We didn't speak, even when he turned off to go home.
I felt bad for having a pop but it done the trick. Couple of nights later, he give me a ring and said yes. He reckoned we could get a gig off Lovely Robin; him with the trousers.
We spent most of the next practice gibbering at each other. About fixing the gig up, getting the gear there, what we’d call ourselves. Just nerves it was really.
Des wanted us to be called The Cheesehounds. I reckoned on The Hats just because it sounded daft and nothingy. But Malcolm topped us. He’d had a book out the library about this bloke from Deptford who did photography right back when it was starting. His name was so excellent, we called ourselves after him. Thankful Sturdy.
Lovely Robin owed Des one so he booked us without asking for a tape. It was a party at McMillans round the back of Creek Road. You had to pay to get in though, so it was like a proper gig.
Des borrowed the ice cream van off Hiralal who he used to work with. We picked Malcolm up from Charlton. He was stood at the end of his road with his keyboard. He’d borrowed his mum’s ironing board to rest it on. When Des see it he nearly went up on the kerb from laughing.
All I can remember about the drive there, is Des saying how he fancied putting the van’s chimes on, but Hiralal reckoned there was some law against doing it after dark.
Des had hold of some sulphate off Rhiannon. I thought, I’m just about to make a tit of meself in front of a load of mates and strangers, last thing I need’s something that makes me jittery as fuck and paranoid. So I just had a couple of dabs for good luck.
Once we’d set up we went round saying hello to mates. Met Malcolm’s brother. He seemed alright. A laugh. Their mum never come. Not her thing probably.
The actual playing bit was fucking unreal. You had to be there. The second we got on stage everything just went by like that. I can only remember a couple of moments. After the first thing we done I went up to the mic and said, ‘We’re Thankful Sturdy and we’re actually supposed to sound like this, in case you’re wondering.’
The other bit was where I turned round and caught a look at the other two getting right into it. Des was sweating like a glass-blower’s arse, eyes tight shut, giving it loads. Malcolm was behind the ironing board playing the Casio with his elbows, big grin on his face. I swear the fucker was shimmying.
We only done fifteen minutes. It was about right really. There’s a limit to how long you can keep your arsehole clenched shut.
Got a bit of a ripple of applause at the end. Could’ve been the sound of people tapping their watches to see if they were still working for all I cared. I felt like a fucking king. I felt like staying up all night for the rest of my life.
Later on I lost track of Malcolm. I went outside for some air. I spotted him at the top of the fire escape. He was looking up at the sky. I looked up too. The sky was as black as your hat.
I looked down at the road, then he looked down at the road. The tarmac could’ve been laid that morning. There was tiny bits of broken glass all over it. Light was bouncing back up off the glass like it was stars.
I looked at Malcolm. I said, ‘Alright then?’
He goes, ‘Never better, thanks.’

I left it a few weeks before thinking about another practice. Coming down, sort of. I phoned for Malcolm. His mum said he’d moved back out and she didn’t have a number for him. I was on the backfoot completely. I asked how come he’d moved.
She said he felt ready. She sounded alright about it.
I wanted it to be true, about the moving out. Not because I didn’t want him to be scraping us off, but for his sake. I wanted him to be alright. He is, I reckon.


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