04 August 2019

#thesefourwalls10 and no, they still don’t have jetpacks

In my last post here on The Practising Troublemaker, I wrote about Duran Duran’s John Taylor and his autobiography and how it had been 20 years since I had become a full-fledged Duranie. Today’s post is all about another big anniversary: 10 years on since the release of We Were Promised Jetpacks’ debut album for FatCat Records, ‘These Four Walls’. The Scottish band were in our country for the last month to play a celebratory series of shows in celebration of the milestone.

Last Tuesday night, We Were Promised Jetpacks (who will be known as WWPJ going forward in this post) played U Street Music Hall with friends of mine Catholic Action, also from Scotland. Summer shows in DC are always tricky propositions: unless the headliner is a long-established artist with many years under the belt, most of the fans attending shows in DC are college-age kids, which means you might have trouble selling tickets. Being in a basement on a DC summer night isn’t great, either. Years ago, I covered the Gaslight Anthem for DIY in the same venue in July, and the heat was pretty overwhelming. I was glad, though, to see that many people packed out the venue for a band who had come such a long way to play for us.

Weeks prior to the gig, WWPJ announced that lead guitarist Michael Palmer would be leaving the band after their North American tour wrapped. I had first seen them a decade previous, playing as part of Brighton, England indie label FatCat Records’ tour in the autumn of 2009. I hadn’t known much about WWPJ before seeing them play that show at the Black Cat, the first of many times I would see them play live at individual shows and music festivals. (Sadly, following the demise of PopWreckoning, that review and its photos are now lost to the ether.) It was comedian Patton Oswalt (you know, the guy who voiced the cooking mouse in Ratatouille) who, during an interview on Fuse TV, tipped them and their video for ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves’. I hadn’t been with There Goes the Fear as their U.S. editor for long, but I knew in hearing the passion in tracks from ‘These Four Walls’ that these kids from Edinburgh were going somewhere. I just had to write about them! And we/I at TGTF wrote quite a bit about them over the years.

Ten years in our business is a long time these days. Many bands don’t make it past a few years, let alone a decade. I mean, consider Duran Duran for a moment. They’ve been doing this for 40 years. Any band with any sort of longevity in 2019 can credit the same few things for their success: hard work, great music, great songwriting, fantastic live shows, and devoted fans. In WWPJ’s case, I would argue that the rising of their own star in America contributed to a greater awareness of what was going on in the Scottish music scene for years to come.

It wasn’t that there weren’t Scottish bands worthy to be written about and covered by places like TGTF back then. In the early Noughties, Franz Ferdinand proved to Scottish bands that global success was possible. No, it was about having touchstones, reference points for those of us like myself who previously had next to none.

Three years after ‘These Four Walls’, WWPJ would close the rammed Scottish music showcase at Easy Tiger at SXSW 2012, the first of eight years I would attend the carnival of crazy. On the same bill were art-pop noiseniks Django Django, who were enjoying a wave of popularity thanks to BBC Radio backing. I met Django Django’s Dave McLean at that showcase, as well as BBC Radio Scotland’s Vic Galloway, who has since become a dear friend and resource. I have been to Scotland many times since, and I feel very at home there. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Scotland has, arguably, the most exciting music scene of all of Britain at the moment, and I don’t think I would have invested as much time in Scottish indie if I hadn’t watched the video for ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves’, did my research, and found myself rocking out to ‘These Four Walls’.

I was well past any teenage or even twenty-something angst when I popped this CD on for the first time. Yet what struck me most was the aggression of the music, matching the tormented shouts of frontman Adam Thompson. I have never been the kind of music fan that enjoys the Bob Dylan-y, guitar-toting troubadour on a stool telling me stories about his life. The reason WWPJ’s debut album works so well is the immediacy of its singles: the aforementioned ‘Roll Up Your Sleeves’, ‘Quiet Little Voices’, ‘It’s Thunder and Lightning’. These are songs to yell along to at the top of your lungs in a cathartic rage. I wouldn’t call the album punk, for there are songs like ‘Conductor’ that have that garage-y, folk-y thing going, while ‘Keeping Warm’ is an 8-minute opus with an extended instrumental. The album was a statement of intent: here we are, we are Scottish and proud to be Scottish, and we're going to make the music we want to make. They were young and hungry and more importantly, it worked.

I think it’s important to note, too, that despite receiving a 6.7 from Pitchfork, ‘These Four Walls’ surpassed the average music critic’s expectation, or perhaps I should say the band did with respect to music listeners. It was word of mouth and fan devotion that kept WWPJ viable as a band for so many years. I told so many friends about them and talked them up on TGTF, which I am positive ‘sold’ them to American fans interested in British music. How to break music in 2019 is very different than how it was done successfully in 2009. I’m definitely sad that Michael and his monster riffs will no longer be a part of WWPJ, but I am pleased they will be continuing as a band. They are truly lovely people, and they should be rightly proud of the legacy they have built for themselves and all the fans they’ve picked up along the way. Rereading my 2009 Bands to Watch on them, I feel honored that I played a small part in their journey, that I gave a helping hand to a band I heard so much promise in.

baby We Were Promised Jetpacks
(I'm gonna guess I nicked this from their Facebook at the time)

01 June 2019

why I want to give John Taylor a big hug

I am not sure where to put this. I’ve got Music in Notes but that’s a lyrics analysis site, TGTF is dormant, and this doesn’t feel like the right place, either. But it’s what I have for tonight and this was good enough for my last missive in December. If it was good enough then, why not now?

Yesterday afternoon, I received Duran Duran bassist John Taylor’s 2012 autobiography in the post. After I clocked off from work, I sat down to devour it. More like sprinted through my first read of it and stayed up late to get through it. I am sure I missed stuff and will be rereading this more than a few times. John was my favorite member of Duran Duran when I became a Duranie at age 19. My turning into one occurred, quite oddly, many, many years after their New Romantic days and as a result of hearing a snatch of song from a VH1 documentary.

Before their reunion of the Fab Five in the early Noughties, it wasn’t easy nor fashionable for a teen to be a Duranie. We were tolerated by those who had “been there” in the ‘80s when the band were blowing up the charts, but just barely. I guess some of the old-timers just didn’t like us underfoot. I was lucky to have found some friends, some of whom are still friends of mine (no pun intended) today. I won’t go into that further here. I’ve got the bones for most of that chapter for my memoirs, and you’ll just have to wait for it.

I had avoided getting the audiobook to JT’s autobiography because I was scared I wouldn’t be able to get through it, that I would find it too weird to have him talking “to me.” He was someone who I had at first idolized superficially. If you’re a straight woman and you don’t have some kind of reaction to photos of him (that smile!), I think something is wrong with you, ha. By the time I became a Duranie, he’d already left the band to toil away in other projects, family life, and sobriety. While time went seemed to move all too quickly during my obsession with Duran Duran, as I finished up my first degree and was heading for my second, I felt lucky enough to have been along for the ride while John experimented with his solo career and expressed himself in a way that he couldn’t as part of Duran Duran.

Over the years I used to think, or perhaps I had trained my brain to think, that the reason I was completely intrigued by what John Taylor was doing outside of Duran was simply because of his prior connection to the band and how I felt about him in it. But what has become increasingly in focus in the last few years is a part-subliminal message that seemed either specifically meant for me or meant for many others, with the purpose of healing. There are lots of heated discussions among Duranies, but there is one thing that we can all agree on. We are forever grateful that our “bass god” got help for his internal demons and is alive today. And if there is ever one takeaway you get from me, it’s that it’s my firm belief that we’re here, in this life, for as long as we’re meant to be.

Trust the Process. That was the name of John’s web site after leaving Duran and the title of a song off his debut solo record ‘Feelings Are Good and Other Lies.’ I can’t find it now because the site has been wiped since Duran Duran reunited, but I recall an interview or some kind of press release where he explained why he named the site Trust the Process. (I hope I’m remembering this correctly; if I am not, it sure feels like this is how it was meant to be conveyed.) It was a personal mantra meant to keep him on the road of sobriety, a reminder that even when he felt he couldn’t cope without drugs or alcohol, if he could will himself to stay on course, he could get through it. All would be okay.

Trust the process” has been the code phrase that I use with my close Duranie friends when life is giving one of us a right bollocking and all seems lost. We’ve all been there. Three simple words that have floated through texts, emails, and phone calls of support. Sometimes I’ve had to repeat it to myself, silently, out loud, or even sometimes scream it.

one of his solo pop songs only known within the JT fandom, sadly

As I started reading the first few chapters of In the Pleasure Groove, I was blown away by how many times I laughed loudly, muttered “bugger” under my breath, or felt I was going to cry to a story John related from his childhood. I know you’re asking, what on earth would a boy who grew up in a suburb of Birmingham in the ‘60s have in common with a girl reared in a suburb of Washington, DC, 20 years later? We got glasses at the same age and were shamed at school for them. (JT is famously known to have truly bad eyesight – over 10 diopters – as do I. Lucky for him, he was able to get LASIK.) We both suffered from terrible social anxiety as children and never felt like we fit in. Both our fathers were notoriously, painfully reticent, mostly standing still emotionally, like statues from a bygone era. Like John, I essentially grew up like an only child, as a friend reminded me recently on a trip to Scotland. Our parents put up with musical obsessions and coped with our ridiculous schemes.

We both knew on an intellectual level that we were loved by our parents but...something was amiss in both of our childhoods. In the book, John doesn’t come to the conclusion that I did with my own upbringing: when either or both parents don’t come to terms with the emotional trauma from their own lives, they unknowingly pass it on to their children. It wasn’t until 4 years ago that I found the psychological term for what had happened to me. Through therapy, I’m still trying to assess and work on undoing the damage.

I had surmised long ago that all the alcohol and drugs he consumed and constantly so were to make up for a major void in his life, but I hadn’t guessed correctly what exactly that was. It sounds counterintuitive but as he explains in his book, drinking and binging himself into oblivion temporarily erased any lack of confidence or doubts he had about not being good enough to occupy this this larger than life idolized persona whose handsome face was splashed across all the teenybopper magazines and hung on teenage girls’ walls. It pained me then, at the start of my love of Duran Duran, to know he’d been through addiction and suffered so much, but I had trouble understanding why he did it. I never occurred to me that the vicious cycle of shame and lack of self-esteem went hand in hand with the substance abuse.

After experiencing this book, I have never felt closer to John as I do tonight. Perhaps he was meant to be this influence on me all along, his handsomeness and his bass playing the “hooks” to get me interested in him long enough to stick around and pay attention. It just didn’t crystallize into what was meant to be until I had read his autobiography and considered the connection.

I wish I could reach out and give him a big hug. I want to tell him that I was sorry for what happened to him and that I understood because I had gone through my own harrowing emotional experience, even though in my life, it played out entirely differently. I want to thank him for being so honest about how he finally found salvation and how he deals with things day by day. He has transcended what it means to be a rock star. We Duranies all knew he was more than the media ever gave Duran Duran credit for when they wrote the band off in the ‘80s. By telling his story, John has offered the hope that recovery is possible. We all cope in our own ways when we’re damaged. As that quote goes, we’re all works in progress. Just that some of us do a better job at “fake it ‘til you make it.

NB: I know that some Duranies are upset that John didn’t thank Duran Duran’s original guitarist Andy Taylor (no relation) at the end of his book. They interpret this as a major intentional slight. The way I see it, it’s quite possible that as part of John’s continuing sobriety, he couldn’t bring himself to thank the bandmate with whom he had gotten so wasted so many times in Duran Duran’s early days. He doesn’t say it – John is ever diplomatic in the book – but seriously, once you understood your problems, figured out a reasonable solution, and were on the road to a better life, would you thank your former enablers? I know I wouldn’t. Perhaps one day the two of them will sit down over coffee, talk it over, and mend fences before it’s too late. But I’m not holding my breath.

18 December 2018

everything happens for a reason

To say that the last month or so, plus the last 2 years plus, have been difficult for me would be an understatement. Around the 7th of November, I got a tickle in my throat, which led to a full-blown cold. I'm still coughing and sneezing and no-one really knows why. My hard drive decided to die and my Macbook went unresponsive before a scheduled birthday trip to Britain, which led me to turn down an industry appointment I had coveted for years. The odd silver lining to all of this was that I was able to turn off and tune out during my 10 days in Glasgow and Sheffield. I saw this beautiful view stood on a pier in Luss on a sunny day on Loch Lomond; I understand sunny days like this are hard to find in Scotland in winter. I had a wonderful dinner in this wonderful place with three wonderful friends.

Upon returning to Washington, I reflected on everything that happened since the moment I took ill and came back to the phrase that I've stood by for as long as I can remember.

Everything happens for a reason.

In the bigger picture, I've changed jobs, and where I ended up wasn't much anything as I expected it to be. My elderly mother has progressively declined in health and QOL and with my brother conveniently out of the picture, I have, involuntarily, taken the brunt of the caretaking. The fatigue, aches, and pains that I've suffered with since my childhood have also gotten worse. About 3 years ago I described it to a doctor I've been seeing since the mid-Noughties that it was like someone flipped a light switch: suddenly I needed much more sleep than I previously did, and doing the simplest things started taking monumental effort. As I'm sure many of you know when you're in an immunocompromised or even an emotionally compromised state, sometimes you say to yourself, "why should I even bother?" and can't even get out of bed.

But I have gotten out of bed and tried to make this world a better place each day I am here. I have stood on my own two feet. Which probably sounds like an odd statement to most people but in the summer of 2005, I was wheelchair-bound for many weeks during a period of convalescence. Standing up on my own wasn't something I could do for myself.

I have always stood by the way that I write and express myself through words. If I'm physically incapable to sit up at my computer to do the writing and research on my own or my heart is not into it, I can't bring myself to do it. In my entire life, I've never seen the point of doing things halfway. Either you do it to the best of your ability and or don't bother at all. You were born to live and breathe and contribute something in this life. Don't dishonor that gift.

The take home message: Things at TGTF will change in 2019. I haven't come up with a game plan on what that will look like, but I hope to around the holidays and during some time to myself at home around New Year's.

To those of you who have supported me the last few years and indeed, even from the beginning when I took at TGTF, thank you. Your support means the world to me.