There’s always tomorrow

It has been a strange day today. I should have been sad and upset as I went to the funeral of a mate from school. But the humanist service was full of memories, some spoken and others remembered silently. All of them made me smile and when they played ‘Highway Star’ by his favourite band and one of the first songs we rehearsed together there was a tear or two. But most of my memories of Simon are happy ones. Here are some of the ones that can be repeated.

I met Simon in secondary school in 1976. He was introduced to me as ‘Skinny’ which I assumed was because of his physical appearance. Like me, there wasn’t much of him then. I later found out it was far more complex and involved his surname rhyming with ‘bones’. We were both asthmatic and therefore unable to take part in PE and Games lessons. We got talking and quickly discovered mutual interests in science fiction and, later, music. We both had a similar irreverent sense of humour which developed over the years, as did our friendship.

In later years in school, we started making short cine films with a group of like minded friends and a couple of open minded teachers. It was mainly science fiction and horror. Simon was always up for doing the stunts and we managed to kill him off several times. He was stabbed, strangled, drowned and thrown off a quarry face. No padding for Simon. We once started filming a comedy parody of school life, referencing amongst other things, 2001 A Space Odyssey. For this epic, we borrowed Simon’s sister’s dolls pram and floated it out to sea from Bracelet Bay, after first letting the Coastguards know what we were up to. We retrieved it, dried it off and I don’t know whether his sister ever knew.

Simon followed his artistic interests and after a year in art college he went to Worthing to study Theatre Design. I was in London at the same time and we often visited each other. I used to have a great time in Worthing thanks to Simon and his friends; one of the first times I visited we left the pub and four or five of us carried on in a friend’s flat. When we left, it was morning and we went back to Simon’s flat (where I was staying) and had a breakfast of burger, gravy and chips. It was the first time I experienced Simon’s sandwiches which consisted of a bit of whatever he was cooking at the time between two thickly buttered pieces of bread.

When Simon came back to Swansea, he joined the Swansea Little Theatre as a set designer and we formed a band. Simon was a clever and skilful drummer (in the studio, he would record his drum parts with no guide tracks and it was a rare occasion when he had to do a second take. That is gifted playing). He also played a bit of guitar and keyboards. He had been drumming with the Venture Scouts marching band before I picked up a guitar and by the time I was playing well enough to be in a band, he’d also started on the guitar. We swapped licks and he taught me barre chords and during this time Simon had written about half an album’s worth of songs. I had a little 4 track recorder and we spent several evenings recoding demo versions of our songs. He sang on his songs and I sang on mine. Probably the only musical skill Simon didn’t possess was the ability to sing. I still giggle at the version of a folky song I’d written where, while I try to sing the serious lyrics in the style of Bob Dylan, he is in the background trying to and succeeding in making me laugh.

We started rehearsing in Simon’s bedroom, on the top floor of his parent’s house. At our first gig, using all the settings and volumes that we’d used in rehearsals, the landlord of the pub stopped us and asked us to turn down as we were too loud. I pity Simon’s neighbours. We had to stop practising in the bedroom after Simon’s enthusiastic drumming caused cracks to appear in the ceiling of the room below.

We played in several bands together. Our first was Nightshade, which morphed into Fragile Earth and then Strange Attractor. We made some great friendships with the other guys in the band and it was great to see some of them today, some 25 years later, at the funeral. Niel sang and played bass, Jeff was the guitarist in later incarnations. Paul played bass with many of the versions of the band but it was Simon that was the most prolific writer, coming up with or contributing to many of the bands original songs.

We once played a local social club and we were going through a progressive rock period at the time, Simon had written a long piece, which we had recently recorded in a local studio and which lasted around 15 minutes. Imagine the looks of the elderly club members as we launched into ‘River of Fire’, which Simon had written because he was concerned about the way the planet was being ruined by deforestation. It went on for more than 18 minutes thanks to some extended soloing (this was prog). To be fair, they clapped and had a whip round for us and asked us back the following week. We left the long song off the set list for the second gig.

We became the emergency band for the Coach House in Wind Street – we could play at short notice, and often filled in for bands that cancelled at the last minute. I remember them as being great gigs. Alas, the recordings I have tell a slightly different story. But always solid in the background, keeping things on track was Simon’s drumming. I learned to write and play in odd time signatures thanks to Simon (‘No two bars in the same time signature’ was our war cry. Probably chanted in 13/8 time).

Ramtops came next – a five piece band with the addition of Lloyd on guitar and Steve on vocals and guitar, playing more modern covers and more catchy and upbeat rock originals. We played a gig in front of a thousand or so in Singleton Park, where once again we were asked to turn down as we were drowning out the near by ‘It’s a Knockout’ competition. Mr McHenry, Shine and for a brief moment, Alibi were the last bands we shared.

For the first few years of our band career, Simon was driving a bright blue Bedford CF van. In true musician’s style, it would occasionally deposit vital components on the road. One afternoon we were driving back from getting it fixed somewhere and the exhaust fell off – from the manifold back. The cab filled with fumes and we drove on for a bit with Simon and I hanging our heads out of the windows. Eventually, Simon got a Mini and he would rock up to rehearsals and gigs with it crammed full of drum kit. Only he could load and unload it as attempts by me and others inevitably led to some obscure bit of drummist kit being left on the road. And we could never identify the item either.

It later years we drifted apart a bit as our lives changed direction. But I kept in touch and as our birthday’s were exactly three months apart (with Simon being the older) I would always mark the New Year with a text message which usually went along the lines of ‘happy birthday you old git’, to which he would reply with something equally derogatory, and three months later I would get the same ‘happy birthday you old git’ back. The last time I saw Simon was last year at his mother’s funeral. He’d lost weight but seemed fine and, to my shame, the promised ‘I’ll call around sometime’ never happened.

Because ‘there’s always tomorrow’, isn’t there?

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A difficult gig

We played in a holiday village pub on the coast as a four piece last night.  Great venue, lost of people there. But it was a difficut one for all of us because a great friend and long time member of the band, Neil, wasn’t with us.

Neil passed away on Wednesday.

When I played regularly in The Insiders, Neil and I would almost always travel to gigs together. His car swallowed all our gear with room to spare but if he wanted more than the odd pint at the gig, I’d take my car and the squeeze to get all the kit in was more of a challenge. We’d have lively conversations about new songs to play or the latest guitar he’d bought or his experiences while he was in the RAF.

At the gig, we’d alternate between playing bass and guitar for a half. Neil was an excellent guitarist and he had a really clean sound on his Telecaster which would cut through the combined noise of Stuey and me. He’d played in bands for a large part of his life and this experience showed in his attitude and playing skill.  He showed me a much quicker and more accurate way of tuning the guitar and he set up a couple of my guitars for me – a job that not only needs skill but patience too.

Neil and I would usually stand to the right of the drums and he would stand to my right. In small venues, we’d share a microphone. If I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be playing, I’d look over and get a good idea from Neil. We’d both moan at Stuey to turn down, with little prospect of any results. Instead, we’d share a joke and have a laugh, sing the (somewhat risque) wrong lyrics to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and try and out do each other on guitar riffs to ‘Summertime Blues’.

I have many happy memories of Neil, which is how we should remember our friends and loved ones. Some are hard to share because they depend on the moment, others raise a smile when I tell them. I can picture the moment we started playing in a social club and I turned to my right to see Neil facing away from the audience. He’d spotted an old age pensioner dressed in an outrageously tight pink plastic dress dancing with an short old bloke in a terrible wig. Neil was laughing so much he couldn’t really play properly and had to look away. In the end, we all had to avert our gaze and we chuckled for most of the night. Another time, he turned up for a gig in front of the Mayor of Swansea slightly worse for drink after having spent the day watching Wales beat England at rugby. He grinned all night, but he was still the best musician on stage. When I think of Neil now, I think of that grin and that he was always smiling on stage.

Before the first half of last night’s gig, we didn’t really say much. I certainly felt subdued and I think Stuey and the others did too. We played the songs and when it came to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, I deliberately looked over to my right where Neil should have been. There was a big gap that we couldn’t fill but I sang his words and they made me smile again.

During the break, Stuey and I talked about playing a song for Neil. In the second half, Stuey introduced ‘Hey Jude’ as a song for a friend who couldn’t be with us. It’s a great song but this added something to it and the lump in my throat came very soon after we started playing. The tears came during the chorus part at the end (as they are again now, as I type this). It was a good version, worthy of his memory and, as Neil would have pointed out, we played it loud enough for him to hear wherever he is now.

We went down well at the pub. We had a guest singer who did a great version of ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’. Surpassing the usual situation where Stuey tells me that we’re playing a song I’ve never played before, last night we played a song and I still don’t know what it was. I couldn’t hear Stuey from my place on the other side of the drums and before I knew it, I was busking along to the song, trying to make out what chords Stuey was playing whilst being blinded by the flashing stage lights. It wouldn’t be the same without the adventures and challenges Stuey sets.

When I started loading the car up at the end of the night, I found that some joker (not the original word I used) had prised the mirror out of the housing on the driver’s side of my car. It went back but I haven’t been able to check it properly yet.

It was a lonely drive home

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