'Andy Martin needs to grow up a bit.' Nicholas regarded me from his bar stool, apparently waiting to see how I would react to this statement. He identified our singer by his full name, as do many; Andy Martin as though referring to a minor celebrity or perhaps a politician upon whom one might habitually offer scathing commentary. This had happened before with an individual whom I knew as Squid who stood in the canteen of Maidstone College of Art scowling over my copy of Smash the Spectacle by The Apostles.
'That Andy Martin has really pissed me off,' he told me in reference to something written on the cover of the record, referring to the author as a remote and reviled dispenser of reprehensible information. Citizen Robespierre has really gone too far this time...
It was Friday evening, the 10th of February, 1995. Nicholas and I were sat in the public bar of Churchill's, a pub in Chatham, Kent which hosted regular gigs by local bands. The other four members of Academy 23, with which I was then guitarist, were presently somewhere beneath our feet in the cellar of the establishment, the part which had been converted into a venue. We were a band, but we weren't local, and maybe that was part of the problem.
Andy Martin was the singer and guitarist of Academy 23, the guiding force by virtue of the fact that for every single musical idea developed by any other member, Andy came up with fifteen. I had first encountered Andy - along with Dave, our bass player - ten or more years earlier when both were members of The Apostles, the previously mentioned semi-legendary post-punk group. The Apostles often found themselves lumped in with anarchopunk outfits such as Crass and The Mob, although they had little in common with many of these bands either musically or ideologically; and although it would be an exaggeration to say they were like no other group around at the time, they were nevertheless one of a kind. I bought their demo tapes from a bedroom based mail order operation called Cause for Concern; and then their records when they graduated to vinyl releases; and for anyone who cares, the Smash the Spectacle EP is still one of the greatest things ever to be pressed onto plastic so far as I'm concerned.
Eventually I met The Apostles just as Andy and Dave were having a rethink, evolving into Academy 23 in the latest of a long line of moves guaranteed to alienate their fans, or at least those fans who needed alienating. Academy 23 were, as I saw it, The Apostles but more so. I still believe Andy Martin to be one of the most original songwriters of recent times, so we had the benefit of his distinctive and evocative use of melody and powerfully erudite lyrics added to what was roughly speaking Mark Perry's Alternative TV if they'd been formed in tribute to King Crimson with a bit of that ninety mile an hour hardcore thrown in just to keep Pete, our drummer, from exploding through dangerous accumulation of red-faced punky anger.
'Andy Martin needs to grow up a bit?' I repeated the question because it sounded so peculiar. It had come completely out of the blue, and I had no idea what it meant. Nicholas might just as well have said Andy Martin needs to splice the mainbrace.
I met Nicholas back in September 1985 when I showed up for instruction at Maidstone College of Art. We were both taking degrees in fine art, specialising in film, video and sound, and he immediately impressed me as one of the most interesting people I had ever met, although it should probably be noted that I was eighteen, had never before lived away from home, and really hadn't met many people at that point. He resembled Nick Cave with pink hair, but original and quite stylish in his own presciently crusty way. Everything he said was funny and insightful and I idolised him without reservation. For the next couple of years he was my best friend even though I'm not sure I was ever really his best friend. I let him stay in our house when he briefly became homeless. I took care of his pets during the same period. I lent a sympathetic and slightly envious ear as girlfriends came and went, each letting him down in one way or another and so leaving him no choice but to play the field. I helped in whatever way I could when he became addicted to smack, having had the brown stuff cut in with the speed he took so as to work a night shift and continue his art degree whilst in a state of extreme poverty - deep breath - due to some clerical error whereby he received only a minimal grant from the local council despite not having a rich mummy and daddy like everyone else at Maidstone, as he put it. I briefly played in his band, and moved to the Medway towns when the degree came to an end because that was where he lived. This relationship was, at least from my side of the fence, absolutely a bromance or a man-crush or whatever you want to call it. I loved the guy and it was almost annoying that I wasn't actually homosexual. I'm not sure it would have made things any easier, but I would have found it less confusing.
After I moved to Chatham, I saw significantly less of Nicholas than I had anticipated, but I reasoned that we were both older, and we had both done a lot of growing up. Six or seven years passed with only sporadic contact. I ended up in London living with a girl called Mandy, and in Spring 1994 we took a day trip down to Medway and stayed at Nicholas' place for the evening. He appeared subdued and was having girlfriend problems, but seemed glad to see me. He was no longer playing in any particular band, but was now performing his own material solo in local venues with just the accompaniment of a backing tape. I recalled some of the songs from our college days - Iron People, Hang Myself, something or other with Killing in the title. They were darkly brilliant, although it should probably be remembered that I regarded everything Nicholas did as a work of genius, somehow managing to ignore that it was mostly pound shop Andrew Eldritch essays on the theme of woe is me with far too much echo on everything. Anyway, this seemed like a good thing at the time. My old friend still had it, whatever it was.
A year later, Academy 23 had rehearsed enough for me to be able to play most of the custom jazz chords in the required 9/13 time signature without giving myself either double hernias or a headache which, I should probably add, wasn't easy given that my default setting fell somewhere between the Ramones and the New York Dolls. I spoke to Nicholas on the phone, and he told me he was now running a band night every Friday at Churchill's. We could play for forty minutes if we could get there.
In a hitherto unprecedented burst of organisation, we hired a minibus and transported equipment, band members, and paying fans down to provide moral support. We arrived at a venue for the first time ever feeling like a proper rock band; and Nathan, one of our other guitarists, quite probably repeated his joke about being in it mainly for buckets of cocaine and a guitar-shaped swimming pool. I was playing in a group I actually would have paid to see were I not already a member, so my confidence had soared to a possibly quite sickening level, and we were all in exceptionally high spirits. We quickly set up, ran through half a song as our sound check, and then tried to relax as we were to be on first, followed by some group called the Happy Shoppers, with Nicholas' solo set as the main act. Andy never really liked noisy, crowded places full of booze, so he and Pete retired to a booth with their algebra textbooks to bone up on sums and stuff. At the time Pete was studying astronomy amongst other subjects, and he now works for NASA, and that's just the kind of group we were.
I staggered upstairs, pausing only to say hello to a few others who had now turned up to see us, Simon Baker and fellow editors of the Gillingham fanzine Brian Moore's Head, and then at last I caught up with my old friend at the bar. I bought him a drink thinking, it doesn't get any better than this.
He told me he had a lot on his plate, and that his girlfriend was expecting a child and he didn't know what to do; and then 'Andy Martin needs to grow up a bit.'
I asked what he meant, but the answer was cryptic.
'I'm just saying because we're mates.' He sipped his pint. 'That bloke has pissed off a lot of people.'
We'd been there for less than thirty minutes, and whilst I know Andy to be a man of strong and sometimes hilarious opinions, it seemed that even he would have been hard pressed to enrage a plurality of locals in the given time, not least because he'd spent most of it either playing guitar or discussing the declension of Aldebaran with Pete. Then I recalled a few looks that had come our way as we were setting up. Andy was wearing a shell suit and an Adidas baseball cap, and was later seen reading a book without pictures in it, and not a biography of some guy in a rock band. He also sported a large moustache of the kind associated with both Lemmy from Motorhead and members of the Village People. He was someone who effectively had does not fit in inscribed above his head in invisible letters and we were in Chatham about to play to an audience of lager enthusiasts with an overdeveloped sense of territory.
'So who has he pissed off?'
I wasn't even remotely bothered who Andy had pissed off or why, but I wanted to see what Nicholas would say. I had the feeling he had a need to be seen as the big fish in a small pond, the mover, the shaker, the anointed one who knows people who know people and who stands frowning upon the frozen wastes of eternity like that stupid great cock from Fields of Nephlegm. I had the impression that he resented my presence and the fact that I was a slightly different and hopefully less stupid person than I had been when we last met. This evening had not been presented as an opportunity for us to play live, or for Churchill's punters to see some band from out of town. It had been a chance for me to admire the mighty regional empire of suffering artistry that Nicholas had built for himself, the greatness that outsiders like ourselves would never comprehend.
He then told me that we could play for twenty minutes so as to allow the Happy Shoppers to perform a full set of what I remember as being covers of punk hits from the early eighties. Academy 23, who had hired a van and driven all the way down from London, who had released a CD and brought fifteen or so paying guests to a club which was still conspicuously much less than full - we were to be allowed twenty minutes contrary to what had been promised. I knew this was bullshit, just some weird little power game, because it was given as an instruction without apology.
I thought of my former friend, still wheeling out the same miserable songs from years gone by to a diminishing audience, no longer able to keep a band together without alienating every other member, still with the new girlfriend every six months, the endless cycle of supposed castrating harpies who could never truly know the tortured man-poet inside. I thought of all those years of whining and wearing self-pity as a virtue, as some sort of badge of courage; still in Chatham, the Medway delta Jim Morrison show now in its second decade. Everything that ever made the list of slings and arrows had always been something done to him: he'd been made homeless; he'd been made a junkie by some external force; he'd been made to drink himself senseless and cheat on whichever women currently just didn't understand because that was how it all worked. He'd probably wanted to slip on a condom but I'm sure she told him no, it'll be fine, trying to trap and control him just like they all did.
It was weak and a little disgusting, and I remembered that I had once been a hayseed, wide-eyed exclaiming goll-ee! at the lights of the big city. We all make mistakes.
He still spelled his name Nikki in the spirit of an eight-year old girl doodling felt tip hearts and flowers on her school book, and yet here he was dishing out wearyingly mysterious advice on who should grow up, a man in his early thirties going on fifteen.
I nodded to show that I had heard and understood the command, finished my drink and went downstairs.
We played the set we'd intended to play, the full forty ending with twelve-minutes of the progressive instrumental At The Academy, all the while ignoring glares from our host. The people we'd brought along seemed to enjoy it. Others didn't presumably on account of the fact that we weren't from Chatham, so they stood about giggling into their pints because we were a bit weird, not a single leather jacket or facial tattoo between us. The Happy Shoppers ran through Teenage Kicks and a number of other standards, finishing off with Nicholas mumbling his grim, windy songs about no-one understanding and how his heart has turned to stone as a result.
I don't think he ever realised, but the problem was that most people understood him only too well. It had just taken me a little longer to catch up.