THE PEELING OLD BUILDING STANDS AROUND THE CORNER FROM A NEON-LIT HOLIDAY INN, AN OFFICE BLOCK AND ITS OBLIGATORY GASTRO-PUB NEXT DOOR.
Nearby, on the main road, is The Deep – a still, grey, hard and angular glass, steel and concrete exhibition centre tanking-in the fluid curve and hue of marine life. It rises way above sea-level and towers over all forms below. I’m entering its shadow as I turn a particular corner, this particular corner, into these sombre docklands, and I hear myself asking out loud: “really?”
I must have this wrong. This can’t be the place? The venue in which singer-songwriter Andy White is to play tonight appears to be a beat-up lock-up in the middle of a couple of streets of ancient warehouse buildings in what was once this port city’s thriving fruit market district. I pull up outside, a little earlier than the time we’ve agreed to meet. Other than my car and a four-wheel drive, probably abandoned for the prosciutto-chicken-wrap-in-a-basket around the corner, the area is deserted. I’m alone.
It’s only afternoon on a Sunday, but it’s already dark – it’s 3AM in 1945. I step out onto the street, knot my scarf, wrap inside my Crombie and pull down my flat cap. Slamming the car door shut behind me, it’s an echoing gunshot rippling through tangerine-lit puddles. I think of Coppola’s signature: using orange to prefigure death during scenes of The Godfather. I’m in every New York gangster picture, even the good ones.
“Let’s face it… it was you, Charley…” echoes off rows of rusted metal beams, through little squares of greyed out stippled glass and around the splinters and slats of high doors. Paint-flake signs for long-closed businesses hang high like vultures, or faded font “bring out your dead” marks, warnings to all new developments below: a recording studio, a graffiti art gallery, and a dinosaur museum. A dinosaur museum? Surely this can’t be the place?
Killing time, I look through the window of the museum – really, an old corner shop. I see only plastic toys, key rings and children’s books in a rack. No visitors and no bones. Homo Erectus is slumped at a counter, reading a tabloid newspaper. I imagine this man, who I presume is the owner, to be long resigned to whichever quirk of evolutionary fate led to three-and-a-half-thousand live fish, sharks, eels and rays at The Deep but not a single Diplodocus here.
Out of cigarettes, I walk into town. Past a church, past an early-50s couple tumbled out of an under-30s bar with a one-word, one-syllable, two exclamation mark name, and arguing through fumes about something I can’t make out – though I do hear “fuck off, you’re not my mother,” and then, a beat or two later, “I said I’m sorry”. Past an arcade, I find cigarettes.
Back at the venue, a car pulls up. It’s the promoter. We’ve not met before but he’s friendly and takes me in, makes us fresh coffee. It was Saturday night last night, for both of us, so it’s a strong brew that we sip through unshaven faces. He runs a cult cinema night here and FIGHT CLUB has played recently. I stand and look at eight intense art posters for it, designed by eight local talents, each image in its own identical frame, and all of them displayed tightly together on the whitewashed wall. They’re rather striking and for sale, and there’s one I want to buy. But I hear a voice in my head: “… you are not your rather striking and intense art poster, designed by local talent, in its own frame, displayed on your wall…” though I don’t talk about it.
Next to the posters, gig listings: Rachel Sermanni, Kate Nash, John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett, Martin Stephenson. I remember a Stephenson lyric from years back which namechecked Andy White “… coming through, for every player on the stage…”
The promoter tells me he loves Fossil Collective, who are also going to be playing here, in a couple of months time. “Put a trip to the dinosaur museum on their rider,” I say and, as he laughs, he makes me another coffee, orange juice chaser, and shows me around the rest of the venue. The second room is smaller than the main performance space next door, almost half as big, but it’s still larger than I expect. Instead of a stage, at one end a pastel-shaded 1960s caravan with windows removed and wheels locked down is parked up. This is the DJ booth for dance nights, but it’s Andy White’s dressing room tonight.
I sit on one of the beautifully battered leather sofas near the bar as members of staff arrive, and the venue begins to take on the exciting air of being ‘a scene’. This is the place. It’s not too long before Andy White and his sister Cathy, singing on this tour, turn up for their soundcheck. They’re actually quite late, but the vibe is real easy and no-one minds.
After loading-in his guitars, White greets me with a smile and a “hey!”, shakes my hand, and introduces me to Cathy. Friendly, cool and in a woollen hat, she’s light-on-her-feet attractive and soft with laughs as she tells how last night’s gig in Belper, town of Thornton’s and Pretty Polly, was big bellies and ale-fuelled drawn-out stories. I suck it in and say little.
It’s six-and-a-half years since White and I last met, and he doesn’t seem to have aged. One trouser leg-back of his jeans is slightly caught at the top of a black Chelsea boot as he goes about setting up his gear, unpacking spaghetti contents from what must be ‘the bag’. We chat about the tour, and he tells me a friend had “the best reason” for not being able to make the gig in Bath: she was “going to dinner with Robert Plant”. He shakes his head and chuckles. I wonder if Peter Gabriel, who lives on the outskirts and with whom White has worked, turned up: “No, he’s actually in South America right now, but he might. He’s been before”. I tell him Gabriel and my Uncle, who lives a village or two along, shared the same cleaner years back. “Peter’s house is very…” says White, but his adjective is electrocuted out of existence as something technical – loud – happens when guitar pedals and stomp-board are plugged in.
It’s interesting to hear the songs fragmented or stripped down, as is often the way during soundcheck: a verse of RELIGIOUS PERSUASION here, a chorus of VISION OF YOU there, LOOKING FOR JAMES JOYCE’S GRAVE quietened right out to a hushed pastoral reverie. TURN UP THE TEMPERATURE ON THE MACHINE OF LOVE is most revealing. White and his sister play sections of it through and work out new arrangements as they go: “Cathy, maybe come in lower on that second line… or… later? Wherever. Higher, maybe? Whatever. If you feel you can do that, tonight, that’s cool. If you can’t, that’s also cool,” he says, no precious show about his considerable business. As he has said before, his work is “the music of what happens”.
I step outside for a cigarette and think it a great metaphor that White, the authentic twenty-first century Troubador, has parked his car a bit away from the kerb and at a slight angle tonight. I get the feeling that tomorrow it could be one wheel up on the kerb. The night after a street away.
After the soundcheck, we walk down the road to my car – “… probably the quietest place,” White says – to record this edition of The Mouthcast. We discuss that the area feels a bit like a New York film set (“… or maybe Belfast, actually?” he asks) before he says “… but if it’s NY, it needs sidewalk steam from the subway”. We try, cigarette smoking out of car side windows.
A half-hour later we’re done, and he leaves his mobile phone in the footwell. As I pass it to him, glasses too, White says he’s yet to master social media and, anyway, isn’t particularly prone to concentrate the wonder of language into very short epigrams, however witty. Unable to resist, I offer “Why use five words when five hundred will do?” and, with his Brando leather jacket squeaking, the Wilde one punches on the waterfront air: “Ha! Sssteve! Yesss ..!”
An hour later White’s audience gathers around tables arranged in an approximation of a European town square pavement café, and the heart is gently transported. I feel as if I’ve both lost something and found something – though I don’t know what, or where and when – as he sings “Italian girls on mopeds… blurred and beautiful, rushing past… they’re a metaphor for thoughts that can never last…” and I’m sure I glimpse them running the amber lights of a wine bottle candle’s staccato flicker reflecting off the wall.