A Pere Ubu CD arrived in the mail today. It was comprised of three songs from a forthcoming box set featuring the band’s first three albums as well as compilation of rarities. The songs are great, but this article isn’t about that. It isn’t even about Pere Ubu, although both are key factors in this post. When I opened the envelope containing the Pere Ubu CD, I remembered going to see them play at the Birmingham Irish Centre sometime in the late 80s.
I was in my late teens and everything I knew about Pere Ubu was gleaned from the reverential way they were referenced in the music press. Their reputation as art-pop expeditionaries had been enough, in the late 80s, to secure them a deal with the briefly revived Fontana imprint. But the main reason for my attending the gig was the opening band, Connecticut’s Miracle Legion. I used to go out a lot in my late teens. My appetite for new music was voracious and my brain was like a vast pop nappy, soaking it all up with a curiosity that didn’t discriminate. I still try to be like that. The spirit is willing, but the brain is less absorbent. Most of my polymers have, sadly, been used up.
But anyway, back to the gig. Back to the Irish Centre. We jumped up and down until we were almost sick when Pere Ubu played Waiting For Mary; Miracle Legion were even better. They had slimmed down to a two piece and released their fourth album Mr & Mr Ray, which served as a beautifully stripped-down vehicle for Mark Mulcahy’s lovelorn confidences. You’re The One Lee and Gigantic Transatlantic Trunk Call were the two standout tracks on the record and he played them both, so I was happy.
Now, were it not for the fact that another thing happened that night, I would have assumed that I’d had a few drinks to loosen my inhibitions and enhance my enjoyment of the music. But I know for a fact that I was stone cold sober. I barely had enough money to buy my ticket to the show that night. And the reason I know this is down to the remaining memory I have of that evening. With no money left to buy a drink, I picked up an empty discarded pint glass, took it to the gents toilets, washed it out and filled it with water.
At that moment, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was one of the doormen at the venue, who was presumably en route from one of the urinals. I recognised his face — a lot of the same security people did the doors for different venues — and actually, I thought he was about to throw me out or stop me from using the toilets for drinking water. But he shook his head pityingly and said, “That’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen.” This stern-faced man-mountain reached into the pocket of his tiny black bomber jacket and gave me all the change inside it. I think it was in the region of £3, maybe as much as £4. I looked up at him as he turned to leave, so startled that I could barely get any words out of my mouth.
I looked at the coins in my hand. I couldn’t accept the money. I rushed out to the front of the venue and presented him with the cash. “Thank you. Thank you. THANK YOU. It’s really really nice of you, but I’m absolutely fine with water. I can’t take this.” He limply protested. His manner was tetchy — or at least mock-tetchy — rather than outwardly kind. Twenty-seven years later, with kids of my own, I can see the entire thing through his eyes. He probably imagined one of his own children having to wash out someone else’s stinky dregs in order to quench their thirst.
But I was happy to be there. I hadn’t been drinking long enough to feel that there were inhibitions that alcohol served to release. That had never been the reason I started drinking — and, actually, I don’t think that’s the reason most people start drinking. The recent upsurge in the popularity of underage gigs bears this out. If you speak to any band who had played these concerts, the one thing they will all tell you is that the audiences at those shows are among the most manic they encounter. When you’re in your teens and going to shows for the first time, that’s exciting enough as it is. You’ve been waiting years for this moment. Music is almost certainly a huge part of your life. You’re a greyhound waiting for the gate to release you to a place that isn’t home.
In the summer of 1986, maybe a couple of years previously, I went to see The Woodentops at another Birmingham venue — an arts centre on the grounds of Aston University called The Triangle. They were scorchingly good that night: an ectoplasmic haze of pummelling pop, fronted with priapic abandon by singer Rolo McGinty. And despite being surrounded by my older brother, his mates and their cigarette cloud of undergrad cool, I lost it — dancing like the ground beneath me was on fire.
But, of course, somewhere along the line, the enjoyment of alcohol becomes latticed into the experience of going out to see bands. Yes, going to see bands was good, but this drink could make it better! And that’s what we’re like as human beings. A great evening out is a Ker-Plunk donkey on which all sorts of things — music, company, food, BOOZE! — can be added. Yes, you could just refrain from adding any more to it, but then why stop adding this stuff and risk not being tonight’s winner?! Before you know it, the years pass, and you totally forget what the original order of priority was when drinking became a part of your life.
In that interim, you have become an adult and your responsibilities have increased exponentially. You don’t always feel like going out, but alcohol becomes a short cut to loosening your inhibitions; towards making you feel like you did when you were, say, making a total exhibition of yourself at a Woodentops gig. It’s only natural that history will rewrite itself and you unconsciously confer your present-day reasons for drinking onto your teenage reasons.
But as the years go by, we become creatures of increasingly entrenched habits. Adapting to new situations and evolving needs is something that — if YouTube footage is anything to go by — crows and squirrels can do a lot better we can. It took me years of drinking in social situations and having the same thing happen — feeling less chatty and more sleepy with every glass — before I realised that I needed to find a new way of making social encounters more enjoyable. I eliminated the obvious alternatives pretty quickly. Getting stoned would merely compound the problem. Cocaine and speed aren’t really the look I’m going for when out of an evening with the other school dads. So I took a (tea) leaf out of Dirk McQuickly’s book and tactically switched to tea.
Hosting an evening get-together and your guests turn up with bottles of wine, you feel like a fraud when the drinks are decanted and you say, “Actually I’m just drinking tea tonight.” You feel like you lured everyone here under a false pretext. How are they going to enjoy themselves if you’re not prepared to embark on this journey with them? But actually, it’s mostly a problem in your head. I noticed that the longer people drank the less they noticed I wasn’t drinking. And I felt great because suddenly I found I wasn’t getting sleepy. I was enjoying the conversation more. And because alcohol was loosening everyone else’s inhibitions, I found that I vicariously seemed to be enjoying the same effect.
Mostly though, it was a relief to not have to battle the soporific effects of a substance that I once used to take in order to achieve the opposite result. I hadn’t stopped to consider that just because something had worked as a livener in my twenties, it might not have the same effect now. For all of that though, I never imagined that, as a teetotal 46 year-old, I might find myself enjoying a social occasion to such a degree that I might hear a record come on over the P.A. and start dancing — and yet, in my late teens and early 20s, I didn’t need alcohol to feel that free.
But, in time, that comes back too. Just after Christmas, I attended a wedding reception at which the DJ played a relentless succession of dancefloor perennials: Groove Is In The Heart; You’re My First, My Last, My Everything; Let The Music Play. It felt like the easiest thing in the world to get up off my chair as my wife and friends did the same and move in time to the music. I couldn’t remember why I once thought I needed alcohol to get to this point. And had it not been for that Pere Ubu CD landing in the post, I don’t think I would have remembered that my idea of a perfect night out never used to be predicated on alcohol consumption.
But then, in our culture, that’s what alcohol seems to do. It has a way of taking the credit for our most unforgettable nights. Take a moment though, to remember what you were like before you started drinking. I look at my kids when they’re together with their friends. Eighty per cent of their time together is spent laughing. And they seem to be powered by nothing greater than whatever the baristas in the local Starbucks are making for them. Inevitably, alcohol will probably start to figure in the picture, but when that stops working for them, I hope they’ll remember that the previous bit wasn’t lacking in joy either.