HEARTFEEDER plus nine – $uicide in Berlin
The last musical project that I was involved with before the studio closed and the waters of debt rose over my head was a rock musical called Vinyl, written in the mid 80’s with my long-time friend Chester Studzinski. This was 1986, and we had been asked the previous year by an amdram company to write a ‘libretto’ round a Kinks album called ‘Schoolboys In Disgrace’ and the resultant musical had been successful enough to persuade us that we should do the same using my own songs. The plot told the rather unlikely tale of a faded rock star called Matt Vinyl, now in a psychiatric institution after having supposedly tried to commit suicide on stage in Berlin, who finds that his old records have become a cult phenomenon. In time honoured theatrical fashion it featured a villain in the form of his ex-manager, who, sniffing the scent of riches, succeeds in ‘rescuing’ him from the institution, only to have him fall apart halfway through his big comeback gig.
All good clean fun then and it sold out for a week at a small suburban venue before coming into Glasgow’s Mitchell Theatre for a short run. The press release describes the story.
NOTE – As well as a lot of new songs written around the story, there were performances of classic SDT numbers Circus & It’s A Game. Some of the other songs feature on late albums – Idol, Suicide & Afraid of the Dark. On the last night of the successful opening run, Chris took to the stage with guitar in hand for the first time in several years. This was the spark that had been needed to try and re-ignite Chris’s fire, although it did smoulder for a bit before finally reigniting.
And then the taxman cameth and my life changed drastically. Closing the studio proved to be almost as hard as building it and with the mortgage now caught in the spiral of interest rate hikes, it was touch and go for a while whether I would be able to hold on to the house. Taxi wise, I was no longer Jack the Lad, for now I was doing long ten hour shifts which left me bereft of grace and mental energy. Oft of a night as I drove through parts of Glasgow that you would not want to take your Auntie to, I found myself asking how the hell I had got here. After all, people always used to tell me that if I fell in the Clyde, I’d come out with a salmon in my mouth, but here I was, miles from shore with what remained of said salmon clenched between my teeth, trying vainly to swim against the tide back to the safety of dry land. And in these darkest of hours I would reflect that sensible people went to the local supermarket for their fish.
At the depths of this cycle, I got a total of three half days off in two years. When a rash broke out on my wrists, I went to the doctor, who asked me if I was burning the candle at both ends. I told him I couldn’t afford to light it. He said I should try to work less and I shrugged, saying that compared to the rickshaw owners in Delhi, I was lucky. He smiled.
‘Ah, but they’re all dead by the time they’re forty…’
I remember looking in the windows of city restaurants and wondering at the people eating and laughing behind the glass. Like something from a Dickens novel, I was now one of the poor, the dispossessed. Debt is poverty; poverty of spirit, poverty of free time. You have neither of each. All you have is work, drudgery, your hair greying prematurely, old before your time. One way or another, I was paying for the good years, the feckless years, the years of living for the moment, which is basically just pawning the future to pay for the all-embracing present.
But slowly, things began to improve, and by the time of the first Gulf War, I was back on a more secure footing, able to go for an early evening pint after a reasonable eight-hour shift. I mention the Gulf War because it was in this context that I became acquainted with a lanky blonde Englishman called Graham Bell who frequented my local because it sold real ale. It transpired that Graham was a military historian and had actually written articles for a journal called The Gulf Centre of Strategic Studies, bankrolled by the very Kuwaitis whose small piece of desert had now been invaded by Saddam. In fact, not only had he written for them, he had been summarily struck off their list of contributors for daring to suggest in one article that after the Iran Iraq war, Saddam might be tempted to turn his eyes to the old Forty Ninth Province of the Ottoman Empire which had begun just south of Basra and ended on the shores of the Persian Gulf. In other words, Kuwait!
Having our own Middle East military expert on tap as the clock ticked down to the deadline and the human shield standoff unfolded was a welcome boon but in contrast to most media speculation, Graham was scathing about the Great Dictator’s chances when and if the actual conflict ever began.
‘It’s all about air power,’ he said. ‘They’ll just bomb him to Kingdom Come!’
And so it proved, on the Highway of Death. But after the war was all over, conversation began to move to more mundane matters, like what I did for a living. I told him that I was a partner in a private hire taxi firm, but in a previous life I had once been a musician.
‘Really?’ he said. ‘Were you with anyone I’d know?’
‘I doubt it,’ I replied. ‘Have you ever heard of String Driven Thing?’
He gave an audible gasp and set his pint down slowly on the bar.
‘You’re not the Chris Adams?’ he asked, eyes now wide behind his specs.
At this point I decided that I’d been set up by some of the other regulars who knew a little of my background, but it turned out not to be so, for Graham was simply being his usual straightforward honest self, and like a very small not to say select group of people on the planet, he was a big fan of the band.
As it transpired, so was an acquaintance of his in West Germany. Klaus was a dentist who had managed to cross over from East Berlin, and once in the free world had indulged his greatest fantasy by starting up his own record label, re-releasing albums from the golden age of Prog Rock. He was also a devotee of violin bands and as such, Graham informed me, we were his number one target. Would I therefore sanction the release of our two 1970’s albums through his label? There was nothing to sanction, I explained. The rights belonged to whoever now owned Charisma, which at that time was Virgin Records. Not a problem, said Graham, for new masters could be made from the original vinyl copies. All I had to do was give my blessing by letting Graham do the sleeve notes, and oh, if I happened to have any more music not under contract, Klaus would be very interested in hearing it. As a matter of fact I did, for I had taken out my white Telecaster one final time before the studio began to leak money and had recorded a bunch of songs intended to become a solo album called ‘The Damage’.
Over the next two years Klaus released a total of five CD’s, including the solo one, and though some of the tracks on it were little more than sketches, they had the rough live performance feel that somehow lends an unfinished authenticity to the music. Certainly, it was the best thing I’d done since I last worked with Shel Talmy. And following on from this unexpected twist in my life’s tale came the invitation to put a band together to do a gig at a club in Berlin. I explained to Graham that I hadn’t played in anger for almost twenty years, but even as I was saying this, I was visualising the end of the escape tunnel, that moment of coming out into the light from a long nightmare. So I said yes, and having done so, the band seemed to coalesce round me as if by magic. John Bradley had drummed on ‘The Damage’; the guitarist, George Tucker had played with me at parties, and so it went on, with the cherry on the cake being our original violinist Graham Smith, who agreed to come up from Bristol to Glasgow for rehearsals before meeting us for a warm up gig in Manchester then accompanying us to Berlin.
The rehearsals went smoothly, and during them I played the band a song I’d written in 1980 inspired by the suicide of the Joy Division singer, Ian Curtis. Just before his death they had released ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, and the next day I had heard a radio interview with their manager, Tony Wilson, who was asked how this tragedy would affect their career. His reply, to the effect that the record had just jumped twenty odd places in the chart, had nailed me to my car seat. Here in one sentence was the mendacity at the heart of the art form that I loved. It was Red Riding Hood being welcomed through the door by the Wolf. It was innocence devoured by greed. So, for me, writing the song had been a cathartic act. It had actually helped me get out what was lodged down there in the deep dark well of my suffocated psyche. And happily, the band liked it so it was added to the set and eventually became the title track of the live album recorded at the gig.
The club in Berlin was packed. I later decided that the band could hold a fan convention in almost any country in the world, only in a phone box. And all these small disparate groups were now in the same room, together with a few Van Der Graaf Generator fans, for after he had finally quit String Driven, Graham had joined that most cultish of cult bands and anywhere that one of their past members plays there are sure to be a few VDGG freaks. And of course, the people who had come from near and far were not disappointed for if I do say so myself, the band was great. Video footage shows the bass player, Nick Clarke, standing beside Graham entranced, as in how does this guy do it?
But for me the gig was memorable not just for the adrenalin that began to pump round my forty eight year old organism again, or for the fact that like Lazarus, I was being let out of the tomb, but because as I stood there belting out ‘$uicide’, I suddenly realised that this was where Matt Vinyl had tried to commit suicide, and the song I had used in his musical had by some weird freaky set of coincidences finished up back where it had all fictitiously started, and here I was in reality singing it onstage in Berlin…
NOTE: The sleeve notes on the “Suicide – Live in Berlin” album provide an interesting observation from Chris.
“To come out of retirement is one thing, to do it with a band you haven’t played with for almost twenty years is quite another, but to have only two days rehearsal then turn up and play like Graham did that night in Berlin is eery. Of course, being Graham, he would insist it was only professionalism… that orchestral players have to manage the most horrendous scores after the briefest of run throughs… but rock has no scores… it demands a spontaneity that transcends technique… out there on the edge, you either have it or you don’t… so this album is for you, Graham, and having committed group suicide all those years ago, I’m glad we got a chance to play Lazarus again.”
Of course, Chris did get the chance to play with Graham a few more times over the next few years and we are grateful for those memories.
Also, their chemistry is still available to hear on the “Live on the Foxtrot Tour” CD album which is still available from our on-site shop together with the last few signed copies of Chris’s book “The Grail Guitar” and the CD album “Moments of Truth”