After recording, releasing and touring the live album, we - the band four members - sat down in a diner and decided what okay needed was change, radical change.
Enough of hotel rooms, enough of road-food, enough of contempt-fucking - what all of us required was a zone of long hibernation.
And so, we did what we hadnt done since the very beginning: loaded our own equipment into the Big Van, and drove -
(Alright, we took two roadies, Shed and Monkey Boy, but they were almost band members anyhow. Dont tell them that, though.)
- drove North.
One reason we could do this was, for once, we were all single. Syph never kept a girlfriend for more than a week, and that was only if we were doing a six night residency - in NYC, say. Crabs split up with Kerrie three weeks into the live album tour, after theyd been seeing each other for a year. (The band record I think, a year of solid faithfulness.) Mono had been divorced two years, and was still living out his depraved version of la vida. And me - Clap - you probably know a little too much about me already: homeless: hopeless: helpless.
It was okays intention to reconnect with the country (meaning Canada). Not an original idea, but -
- basically, no band can do anything that hasnt already been done by the four great archetypal bands: The Beatles, The Stones, The Band, The Velvets. These bands did every variation upon everything a band can do.
We drove our van on up to Lake Ontario, looking for our own Canadian version of Dylan and the Bands Big Pink.
I think when we first got there - and one of us is still there
- we thought wed found it. (I wont say where there is - dont
want to spoil it for the old feller.) On the very edge of a flat stretch of
the most beautiful water you have ever seen, a three storey house with an alpine-sloped
roof and a huge basement.
The owners had two of our CDs, and were Dylan aficionados - they didnt take much persuading to move out. Money, also, was involved.
Town was about two miles back along the track. It had a population of about 550 - shaped like a T, with a long main drag and a couple of churches off to left and right built on less expensive land. The stores were old-fashioned, and not chains. Junk food was available, however. We wouldnt have stopped there, otherwise.
The town was the colour of asphalt and blackish wood - what
give it colour were the sky and the trees. Its yearly cycle was a round of dulling
to gray and brightening to green. We caught it at the start of the end of Spring,
if that makes sense.
For the first few days, life in the house was frat down to
the ground. Monkey Boy had found a supplier of decent weed. We relaxed and I
-Im not sure about the others - started to hanker after some good ol
unplugged music making.
Syph posed around - getting inspired, he said it was. This
meant having female photographers come and take his picture up against trees
in forest groves. He spoke to some music journalists, too.
Mono went fishing. He is terrible at it, and whenever any of the rest of us went along with him, we always caught more, but he loved it.
Crabs installed himself at the far end of the roughest local bar, put on his eat shit face and prepared himself for greaser homage.
The roadies were down in the basement, setting up the equipment
- a modest sixteen track mixing desk, etc. etc.
In the afternoons, we could hear them banging around: they
werent a bad rhythm section, and Monkey Boy could sing in his own sweet
way. He had often soundchecked when our lead singer was otherwise engaged.
After he ran out of photographers, Syph set up on the barstool
next to Crabs - who hadnt received any homage, greasy or not. Syph was
different, though. Within about a half hour, the crush (female) was such he
had to move the party back into a booth. Crabs followed him, and together they
began to make artistic arrangements out of their empty bottles - much to the
amusement of the five or six local girls who fit round the table, too. One whiff
of Syph, thats all they needed. I dont know what it is he sends
out - weasel, skunk, buck or coon; it works.
I joined Mono by the lakeside.
You can see where the split was starting to develop.
Two weeks in, and we hadnt spent a single hour in the basement. The roadies had it all ready to roll - drumpads tightened, strings shiny-new. We still heard them, trying the equipment out in a variety of styles: gospel, country, bluegrass, funk. Whenever we were ready, they were ready. Syph had been generous: both Monkey Boy and Shed would get to engineer whatever we laid down - credited, with royalties.
This was roundabout when Syph fell in love. A strange phenomenon, never before been known to have occured. Mainly we knew this was serious because to the woman in question (definitely a woman, not a girl) Syph made no protestations. I love you with a wink and a grin, was one of his best lines. He could conduct an entire seduction, saying nothing else. Apart, maybe, from Hey, whats your name?
The woman was called Major. Half Native American, born in Alaska,
working the perfume counter in the towns only department store - Syph
saw her come in to the bar the third Saturday night.
I was there too, and I would like to say I saw in her what
Syph saw. The rest of the band, plus roadies, were also there.
Up until this point, this epoch, our table had been doing its
pale cowardly impression of Led Zeps dominion over the Whiskey-a-Go-Go,
circa 1972. There were empty bottles of JD on the table, of which we were all
secretly keeping a count.
Mono had been monologuing about fishing techniques, and I was
distressed to find myself fascinated - hooked.
Look at her, said Syph. He had his arms round two
locals girls, but they could tell straightaway theyd lost him. He was
a lunar module, they were just booster rockets.
The band mustve heard something in Syphs voice,
because we all looked over.
Major had entered the bar on her own, so she wasnt hard
Mmm, said Crabs, beefcake.
Syph slapped him. Dont ever speak like that about the woman I love.
We thought he was joking. We mocked him, pretending he meant it, and in this way found out he did.
Ill never know how it happened. The moment she walked through the door, Syph turned from a hound dog to a lap dog. (He was never not going to be canine, but he had in a second gone from a leg-rutter into a heel-worshipper.) Ive never known a thing like it: she transfigured him.
Well, go and speak to her, then, said Crabs, assuming this was the rôle Syph wanted him to play.
I cant, said Syph - he seemed paralysed by the idea, and delighted by his paralysis. It was years - put it another way, I dont think hed ever felt at a disadvantage, sexually, when faced with another human being. Major scared him, as well she should. She was taller than him, broader than him, and probably stronger than him. She looked like an Olympic swimmer, a specialist at the butterfly. Syph had never gone for the Amazonian type before, not that Id seen. The rapid destruction of the most delicate beauty, that had always been his speciality. But with Major, he must surely have felt himself to be the potentially delicate one.
Talk to her, I said to him, about an hour later. He had become boring with out-loud longing.
I cant, he whined.
Mono got frustrated with not knowing, and went and asked the
barman who she was - the barman gave him the basics: the department store, the
Next time Major went up to get drinks, the barman told her
about Mono asking who she was. I saw him nod in our tables direction.
Major followed his eyebeam, picked out Mono, thought she caught his eye, smiled.
But he was staring right through her, describing to me the joys of nightfishing.
After she came in, Major sat down as part of a large group
of women, many of them from the department store. Most of them were ten years
older than us, sturdy of leg, and none of them gave any sign of knowing who
we were - although we knew word had gotten round within about a day of our rocknroll
Major took another trip to the john, passing right by our table.
Syphs eyes followed her, like puppies chasing a butterfly.
Talk to her, Mono said.
I cant, Syph said.
This time he seemed genuinely tortured by his paralysis.
Early the next morning, we left the bar - Syph not even taking
one of the local girls back with him to his room.
Mono, Crabs and I traded glances - they were humorous but also
anxious. What if it were true? Would we have lost the old Syph? - the one on
whom we could blame all our own lapses? the one who made the worst of our behaviour
Another consideration was whether Syph would start maybe writing
As we went to bed, I got the answer - an acoustic guitar starting
to strum down in the kitchen.
Next day, we found Syph in the studio with Monkey Boy. They had been up all night, and had laid down rough mixes of four tracks.
After breakfast, Syph played them back to us. It was clear almost from note one that this was a solo project. Drums, bass, guitar - it was all there already. We werent needed.
That afternoon Syph took a beatbox down to the perfume counter
of the department store.
From what we later heard, Syph walked up to Majors counter,
put the beatbox down and pressed play. His first heartbreaker kicked in. You
make me feel like a baby, baby.
A female customer almost immediately came up and shouted a question about combination skin. Major tried to answer, couldnt be heard, so pressed the eject button on the beatbox. She then spent 10 minutes in close discussion of the virtues of various foundations.
Syph, defeated, took up his beatbox declaration of love and walked. Hed had refusals before, of course - girls who seriously did love their boyfriends, girls who loved God. But it was at least a decade since hed been ignored.
He walked the long way back to the house, went down to the
basement and immediately set to work on another three tracks.
You didnt talk to her? asked Crabs.
Couldnt, said Syph, just couldnt.
Mono and I went fishing, though I was getting bored. It seemed
necessary, at least once, to catch something - just so I could be sure there
was life beneath the surface of the water.
I tried to talk to him about the Major-situation, but he ignored me.
Mono said the sight of that flat expanse in front of him, rippling under the wind, made him feel true calm. It had the opposite effect on me: I wanted to throw stones into it.
The fact there would never be proper waves on such a stretch
began to make me agoraphobic. I wanted the sea; I wanted to surf. (Ive
never surfed before, but now I got a mad craving.)
I handed back the rod Mono had leant me. Im going
for a walk, I said.
Have a nice one, he replied, Buddha-like.
Frustrated, I went for a long hike along the forest trails
on my own - and found it far more satisfying than fishing: the birds, the insects,
the whole natural vibe, man.
From then on, Mono went fishing on his own. This he did at increasingly unrocknroll hours of the day - early morning, after sleep.
Syph didnt dare risk another failure. He spent the week hard at work in the studio, writing and recording an albums worth of devotional material. Monkey Boy and Shed split shifts to keep up with him - the other band members were still surplus to requirements. I bought some decent boots and went for more long hikes. Mono got to bed early, so that he could be down by the lakeside well before dawn.
About this time, Friday of the fourth week, it came clear that another album had already been recorded in the basement. During the first fortnight, the roadies had put together their own set of fourteen tracks. Now, it seemed, Syph had made late night promises to start up a record label in order to release it. Mono wasnt concerned but Crabs and I thought this could be the end of the band. We confronted Syph. He told us, no, it was just something he needed to do. The label would be called Major Record Label.
Saturday morning, Syph had a plan. He drove over to the bar
wed been frequenting, spoke to the manager. The roadies spent the rest
of the day shuttling equipment and soundchecking. Without even asking, Syph
had set up a gig for us. Crabs and I refused to play, so Monkey Boy, Shed and
Mono took the stage. They were pretty good, not as good as okay but okay.
Syph spent the whole evening looking out for Major. The gig
was entirely for her benefit. He was going to do a solo acoustic set of all
the songs hed written her. But she never showed.
Mono turned in early, wanting like most days to get up before the dawn and fish.
Syph, distraught, by the end of the set was getting drunk.
I enjoy plinky-plinky on-the-edge burnout music - Neil Youngs Needle,
Big Stars third. Syph was going for something like the same effect. I
felt sorry for him.
The bar cleared, as a result.
Syph had a long maudlin talk with the barman, then went off
to make a fool of himself for the third time.
We later heard hed persuaded the barman to give him Majors
address, and had gone round to serenade her.
Turns out, she wasnt at home - was somewhere else entirely.
In fact, I may as well tell you now, she was camping out by the lake, wanting
to get up before dawn and fish. (I know.)
Come morning, she and Mono picked roughly the same spot, and
when it became clear nothing was biting, they said hello and had breakfast together.
Then she went in to work.
Mono kept quiet about it that afternoon, whilst playing bass
on some new Syph tracks. He had ditched the gentle acoustic style, and was off
into the angry clatter. As drummer, I was now his main man - and I was glad
We laid down three pretty good tracks, keeping going til
2am. Mono again went off early, the better to fish in the morning.
Whilst we slept, Monos luck changed - he and Major had
a dream morning of bites, hookings, tugs, nettings.
Thinking little of it, they came in their joy to show us their
catch. The house was very quiet. None of us were up, except Syph who still hadnt
gone to bed.
Mono and Major walked in, a line of fish hung between them,
and Syph knew.
Before Mono knew, before Major knew, Syph knew that they were
one anothers final destination.
He also knew, I think, that it meant the band was over - in
the original form. No one was ever going to persuade Mono away from this place
again. The high angry mountains, the wide stillness of the lake, the careful
speech, the values, the fish - he was at home.
Mono introduced Syph to Major, and Syph started crying.
Major excused herself and, when she had gone, Syph tried to
punch Mono - he missed, and Mono laid him out like so many times before. With
a single jab to the gut, he laid him down gently, like a baby into a cot, leaving
his beautiful face undamaged.
Now why did you want to do that? Mono asked.
Go away, said Syph.
Mono went after Major - and they realised what was going on
about halfway to town. They didnt come back to the house, carried on going
When we got up later, Syph was bent over at the kitchen table.
He explained the situation.
Bless Syph, bless what he was before he was in the band,
and bless what hes now returning to.
He took the whole thing as educational. The anger
was gone. Hed already written two gorgeous songs of good-bye.
We rehearsed them, recorded them, one take each, no Mono, and he left before Major came off shift at the perfume department. He took with him the tapes of his own album and the roadies. Both were released.
Youve probably heard theirs, Mountain Men, big hit, Grammies and all; Syphs - Hook, Line and Sinker - is a little harder to find, but worth finding
(Belfast 30.10.01 - London 14.2.02)