Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Trouser Conflagration

Mandy once had a flatmate called Andrea, and Andrea was dating Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian. Anyone already bewildered should probably note that I'm referring to Japan the 1980s new wave band rather than Japan the country. The notion of an entire country designating a single individual as its drummer is clearly absurd, even without bringing up the fact of Japan the 1980s new wave band being from Catford. Of course, Mandy and her friends were eager to meet Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian, but each time he dropped Andrea off at the pub or a friend's house, it seemed like he always had somewhere else to be and would rush off without saying hello - probably had to go and do some drumming or something. Inevitably, as time went on and Andrea's boyfriend - Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian - continued to shun his fiancé's friends, questions were asked, questions which Andrea countered with photographic evidence of the relationship as something real and not just a load of stuff that had happened inside her head. Unfortunately the evidence was not unanimously accepted as convincing due to the picture of Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian, having quite clearly been cut out of a magazine. 

Telling lies can be a lot of fun, and as hobbies go there are probably worse. Anyone who's ever been in a band will tell you that an accomplished liar is worth at least two and a half averagely competent guitarists, unless you plan on spending the rest of your life performing Splodgenessabounds covers to an audience of three visiting French students who got lost on the way to the bureau de change. In this crazy music business, the very practice of telling lies can sometimes be equivalent to a fifth band member - conditional to the band in question being a quartet.

At the age of fourteen I formed a group with three of my friends. We called ourselves The Pre-War Busconductors and we weren't particularly musical, but then tunes weren't really the point. It was more about making a racket and coming out with stuff that made us laugh until our sides ached. It was about the performance, which was awkward given that we never played any gigs, nor let anyone who wasn't actually in the band listen to our cassettes. We got around this by becoming our own audience. Everything was taped on a mono portable cassette recorder, and we differentiated live from studio recordings by clapping and cheering at the end of each song, whistling, shouting out requests, telling ourselves to piss off and so on - just like it would have been at a real gig. I'm pretty sure Peter Frampton did the same thing. I know his live album was supposed to be some big deal, but I've never met anyone who was there.

At the age of nineteen or thereabouts I played guitar for a group called The Dovers, formed with my friend Carl who sang and jumped around. Although we played live gigs before audiences comprising people who weren't other members of the band, we nevertheless took great pleasure in making things up - tour posters listing dates all across the globe, the Budokan, Madison Square Gardens, Shea Stadium - all regrettably cancelled but for the one solitary gig at the Blue Lagoon in Chatham. Carl had a gift for telling fibs, of which my favourite  was the suggestion that we change the name of the group to Live Dinosaur on Stage in hope of fooling people into turning up expecting to see a real live dinosaur.

I know at least one musician who has claimed with a straight face to be secretly working for the KGB, and there's Sun Ra who insists he's from Saturn, and Malcolm McClaren desperately scrabbling to get just one person to believe the Sex Pistols were his idea. Then there was this other band in which I played, one which remained obscure in England whilst having sold many thousands of CDs in Germany and the far east, at least according to our cover story. The theory ran that the potential punter would be encouraged to believe every other person in the universe was into us, had bought our CD, and had been playing it constantly. Everyone thinks we're amazing, we were saying, but apparently you didn't get the memo, so you must be different; you probably smell a bit funny or something - the you in this instance being the entire population of the British Isles. It was a sound enough concept - sort of like when Adolf Hitler visited Rome and Mussolini had forty miles worth of fake buildings painted on wooden panels either side of the railway track in order to make the city seem all the more impressive, except we were selling shirty punk rock rather than an illusory testament to Fascist ideology expressed in architectural terms.

In case I appear to be taking any sort of moral high ground here, I still burn with embarrassment to recall when fifteen years ago I told John Eden how some of my mother's side of the family were from Mexico, which obviously they weren't. I suppose it was at least original. I'm uncertain of general trends, but in terms of lying about one's nationality in pursuit of kudos, I get the impression that pretending to be Mexican is fairly rare.

Race is of course another matter, particularly with the potential anonymity now afforded by the internet, which leads us to the self-proclaimed cult film and TV forum for black people. This was a message board run by a white man posting in the style of what I suppose he imagined to be an amusing black persona, for example dismissing those opinions not to his liking as lickle white bwoy shit or some such, because as you know that's how black people speak. I posted there for about a year but managed to get myself banned before I realised it was an elaborate and weirdly pointless put on. As I do actually have black friends - by which I mean friends outside the context of some guy who serves me a burger or drives me to the airport - it struck me as sad and possibly a bit insulting when I discovered the truth, vaguely akin to a clutch of drunken white media studies students quoting Samuel L. Jackson zingers and addressing each other as my nigga.

As lies go, I'd mostly characterise the above as tics - or at worst, errors of judgement - small fictional flourishes that don't really hurt anyone and make life a little more colourful for those involved. However, from what I was told, Andrea's delusion always seemed like a different kettle of prevaricating fish - the kind of lie that inspires only pity and suggests something fundamental has escaped from the author's psychological menagerie. When a child claims to have seen a dragon, not for a moment considering the possibility that stating something as truth will not in itself make the story seem plausible to others, it can be cute. When an adult does the same thing, it's just weird and disturbing.

My own personal Andrea introduced himself as John Schölle. He had placed a postcard in the window of Gruts cafe in Chatham back in the late 1980s. The postcard made some promise I didn't quite follow about organising a sound system and wishing to enlist the help of interested parties. I knew a sound system to be something to do with reggae, of which I've never really been a huge fan, but I got the impression that there was nevertheless some sort of musical common ground - at least in the more unorthodox recordings of Scientist and the like - so I called the number and went around for a cup of tea.

The guy lived three streets away from me, so it turned out. He was a few years older, living with his girlfriend Janine and a hyperactive dog called Jack. He played and recorded music that wasn't a million miles from the sort of material I'd been doing, and we both enjoyed a lot of the same things, and it seemed to me that we hit it off straight away - which was nice because he was one of the funniest people I had ever met. His sense of humour struck a fine balance between raucous and deadpan and found its most vivid expression in a series of plays he set down in an exercise book for his own amusement.

These plays were, very roughly speaking, a conflation of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Derek & Clive. One of my favourites involved two men fighting over a packet of biscuits whilst shouting at each other through a letterbox for the duration of the notional performance - I think the pivotal biscuits were custard creams. Another play was entitled Three Empty Chairs and featured Ted, an ageing bully regaling his indifferent companions with unlikely accounts of former glories, each conversational turn inspiring a fresh revelation of better days and what people used to call him. At one point the electricity meter runs out, plunging the room they share into darkness. Someone asks for a tanner for the meter and our man explains, 'I used t'ave tons of loose change when I was a youngster... Rattler Ted they used to call me.'

Reasoning that John probably wasn't going to do anything with Three Empty Chairs - which I regarded and still regard as a masterpiece - I had a go at turning it into a Pinteresque cartoon strip, but gave up after thirteen pages. The play was long and I lacked patience, and although John said he liked what I'd done, he later confided to Carl that it had pissed him off greatly. I still don't know why he couldn't have just told me, but never mind...

Similarly entertaining were The Joneses, John's imaginary band parodying The Smiths - amongst others - without quite sounding like a parody due to the incongruous use of sped-up tapes, armpit generated farting noises, and a drum machine. It was really more of a grotesque than a parody in the strictest sense, a sort of precursor to Chris Morris with jangly guitars:

A man at work keeps touching my knee.
Is he dangerous?
I'll wait and see.
Ooooooh horror at the office.
He's after my orifice.

Then there were John's videos, crash edited on a domestic VHS from footage off the TV, old films and what have you. They were funny in a way, but mainly just odd, although you could tell John loved putting them together, amusing himself regardless of how ludicrous the results might seem to others; which was what I liked about him.

So that was John Schölle, except after about six months I realised Schölle wasn't even his real name. We recorded some tracks together, but I still didn't quite get the sound system angle. He gave me a tape made by someone who had written to him, beefy electronic rhythms from an individual calling himself C.S. Teknono - the initials standing for Christopher Smith - who would be helping in setting up this mythical sound system. I loved the tape, then about a month later I bought Major Malfunction by Keith LeBlanc and recognised it as the same material. I told John and we sat down to listen to the album. He rubbed his chin and seemed uncomfortable, and I genuinely believed he'd been hoaxed by this Christopher Smith, what with my tending to look for the best in people and having failed to put two and two together regarding John already being quite the fan where Keith LeBlanc was concerned.

Months passed, John and Janine got married, and I failed to spot his increasingly erratic behaviour. He seemed often unreliable, failing to show at agreed meeting times, and I only began to regard this as peculiar when my friend Carl and I visited him one day. We had been invited but nevertheless John didn't appear to be in. It wasn't the first time he'd let us down, but listening at the door we heard sounds of movement which stopped dead as we resumed knocking. So he was in but hiding from us. It was hard not to take that personally, and I gave up on the guy and eventually moved away from Chatham, increasingly flaky friends being one of a number of factors that had contributed to the diminishing appeal of the Medway towns in my eyes.

John and Janine resurfaced in Beckenham about five years later, by which time I was living in East Dulwich. With John being difficult to dislike and easy to forgive, we resumed the sporadic habit of an occasional drink to lubricate rambling conversations about music, art, films, literature, and Derek & Clive. Inevitably after another few months, he once again dropped off the radar - no reason given, just the sound of a telephone left ringing. If I was really that much of a pain in the arse, I concluded, hopefully he would know better than to bother next time around.

Another five years and he reappeared for one single raucous drink at The Uplands during which he told me that he and Janine had separated - which seemed a shame - and that he was living with his mum in Peckham on disability benefits, prevented from working by  some psychological condition - which actually made a lot of sense. Then he vanished again, up until his most recent manifestation about a year ago, now reduced to an internet presence, just a YouTube account living in Leicester and apparently spending his days editing segments of old films into faintly amusing clips. I responded to his slightly cranky email with little enthusiasm, and then forgot about it.

John was a comet, his eccentric solar path bringing him around roughly twice a decade leaving observers bewildered as he once again buggered off back to giggling obscurity. It always seemed a shame, because aside from his being a genuinely talented musician, and his plays so impressing my friend Rob that there was even talk of getting one performed before an audience, John did a convincing impersonation of being great company. It wasn't like he really needed to make stuff up in order to appear interesting; he was already more interesting than most people; but for some reason he just liked to live a life of reckless invention. As with Steve Jansen, drummer of Japan and brother of David Sylvian, specifically his short-lived relationship with Andrea, I guess you just have to enjoy it for what it is while it lasts, because even if it's just a story, at least it was a good one.

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