So, this is real music.
We’re in a balmy club, crammed elbow to elbow with bodies, bouncing in time to a beat played by this beautiful female savage. She’s a woman who plays drums in a rock band. What more do you need to know about her? Her name? Her name is Rita for all it matters. She’s a woman with a shaved head. A woman whose arms thrust from her vest and shine with sweat under the lights, looking like coffee coloured power cables, chiselled and toned in the furnace of performance. Her grin is equal parts fury and bliss. She is at home here. Her kick drum thumps, her high-hat shimmers and her snare snaps. Straight four.
The bodies that form the crowd have a collective heartbeat which pulses in harmony with the rumbling bass line brought forth by the aged hands of a silver haired, wizard on bass. On earth he’s known as Jack, on stage he is simply 'The Gent’. He’s a man in his fifties. Dapper to look at. Grey beard and mane of silver hair. His shirt, tie, waistcoat, jeans and Doc Martens. All Black. He plays with grace and wisdom, the stillness of a sentinel, with the monstrous tones of the musical abyss growling from his worn blonde Fender Precision. He drives along the straight four with finger finding string on each thump of kick drum.
The bodies exalt then draw a breath of recognition as the guitar riff is presented to their knowing souls. Then there’s J, a sinewy lead guitarist, camp, beautiful and confident. With a sway of hips and a flick of a fringe, he joins the fray. His peroxide blonde hair and white jeans take on the colour of the stage lighting. Green, pink, blue and yellow like a chameleon. He deftly picks at an unknown chord. A chord played by a tattooed hand performing contortionist shapes high up the neck of his classic, off-white Stratocaster. The clean delay tone adding the perfect crust to the thunder of bass and drums.
Us, the perspiring bodies are united in voice, guided by the irrepressible howl of the frontman, part man part angel. Black jeans, black T-shirt, converse shoes, long hair drenched from the exertion of performance, sweat dripping onto his face, rolling down off his chin and landing on the contours of his scarred, sunburst, Fender Jaguar. Humans call him Spike. He howls his poetry in a voice so pure and so pain filled that every man in the room wishes they were him and every woman wishes they were fucking him.
Live music is an animal. With the chorus, all sound possible is possible. The crowd and the band and the animal are one. Hours before us sweaty few hundred came to be piled at the foot of a stage, we were servile army ants presiding over meaningless tasks in meaningless jobs but now, with arms outstretched, suddenly everything and nothing has meaning. In this gathering of spirits and souls enjoying this thing we love called music, everyone empowers everyone. Only live music can be this profound. Only live music can intoxicate the senses in such a beautifully untamed way. Hear the sound, see the majesty, feel the vibrations, smell the sweat, taste the air, become the animal.
This impulse which has no name, this inner joyous energy - let’s call it ‘Enerjoy’. In fact let’s not. Lets call it nothing, it needs no name. From the moment the first drum is hit, or the first chord is struck, there is a celebration inside our very being which is shared by everyone in the room. It is joy, it is freedom, it is love and it is real. That is why we call it ‘Real Music.’
You know what I mean. It’s a rock gig. In any gig like this there is enough energy to split atoms and it is contained within an arena, club or small pub, for a few hours. In our atomised partitioned lives, we have work, we have families, friends and loved ones. We have roles to play and acts to keep up that over the course of the history of humanity and life on earth become as significant as the atoms that build us. YOU no longer exist, WE exist. Every song sung collectively releases new waves of electric emotion into the air. That energy rich zephyr is then drawn in through the outstretched arms of the free crowd and as we sing the lyrics in unity, we breathe. We exhale song and inhale song, exhale energy and inhale energy and all of this in a unison made possible by the perfect timing held by the band. Each beat of bass drum is in accord with the beating hearts of the audience, each charging roar of cohesive electric guitar and bass sends waves of sound across the surface of the skin and the lead guitar draws its fingers down the spine, hooking our collective delirium and pulling it to the atmosphere through our primal screams. The lights, the smoke, the heat all engage, entangle then explode, scattering magic across the sweaty brows of us ecstatically orgasmic organisms.
If we get this feeling as the eternal spectator, always in the crowd, imagine what it feels like from the stage. Imagine what it feels like when a room full of people you don't know are singing songs you wrote. Imagine being this guy, Michael ‘Spike’ Martin, the frontman of Badd Aples.
Just Imagine that high. What drug on earth could possibly exceed that high? Spike himself has tried a few over the years but all of them were imposters to the hit of the live stage. It’s only through deep, lived experience of the triage of sex, drugs and rock and roll that one of the many wise words of his old musical Sensei rang true. The Gent, his old friend, bassist and source of constant wisdom as well as low frequency sound, once said to Spike,
‘If you ever have to choose between Sex, Drugs and rock n Roll, choose Rock n Roll every time, because Rock n Roll is everything that is pure and beautiful in this world and will never, ever let you down.’
Spike’s sobriety gave testament to that way of thinking and he thrived in the high that music gave him in all of its forms. Whether it was listening to tunes on his old turn table, a jukebox or his car stereo, practicing old songs and writing new ones at home, rehearsing with the band or showing children the magic of music in a run-down community centre, every musical note he heard was a reminder of how colourful life can be.
So, we are at this gig and it’s in Glasgow and it’s Spikes first time in the city since he left to return home to Aberdeen a decade prior. It’s fair to say he had a lot of mixed emotions about returning. The excitement of playing in the historic King Tuts Wah Wah Hut at the behest of a major record label was palpable among the travelling army of fans and the rest of the band. The tickets had sold out, and while Spike revelled in the atmosphere of the night his mind was never far from the life he once had in Glasgow.
Badd Aples played as perfectly as Spike had expected them to play and in doing so had earned a handshake and an exchange of telephone numbers from a young A&R woman from ‘The Industry’ who claimed she was; ‘going to speak with her boss about them’. Spike had heard this before though and knew that labels and deals were all mostly pipe dreams that got in the way of his day jobs of filleting fish and teaching lippy teenagers how to play Arctic Monkeys songs.
As Spike left the club with his guitar, he stole a moment alone and took one last look at the famous steps up to the venue hall and allowed himself a smoke on that pipe dream. The steps in King Tuts are adorned with the names of some of the most famous acts who have graced their stage on route to global stardom. ‘1992 Blur, 1993 Oasis, 1994 Beck’ and the many names after. Spike slept well that night and dreamt of the day where 2012’s step in King Tuts would have Badd Aples proudly emblazoned upon it but when he woke, he had the urge to find a very different set of steps. The steps he sought that morning were covered with piss and fag ends instead of the names of some of the finest acts to ever fill our ears.
The morning after the gig before, there he sat, anxiously sipping on a tepid coffee in his puffed-out Honda Accord, waiting for enough courage to exit the car and climb those steps and face the ghost of the addict he used to be. The concrete steps between the crass graffitied walls of a block of flats in a council estate blanketed in misery and goodness, in a city so happy yet so hostile, in a country so beautiful yet so ugly. The scheme surrounds and smothers it inhabitants to a point where the beauty that lies beyond the concrete is a heaven they’d celebrate death for. Until then they are locked in concrete misery, dreaming of further concrete misery because concrete misery is all that can be found with each piss-soaked step they will ever take.
Spike knew from first-hand experience that those feeding from the very bottom do not allow themselves to feel, they dare not feel, because feeling means pain, and no one has time for their pain. They want someone, anyone, to care enough to listen but no one ever does. So, they take their place in society, they cultivate a habit and politely become the addict, because someone has to. Spike knows the addict well. He knows the addict sees a warped paradise in the smoke which takes away the pain and hazes reality. This murky picture of truth is viewed only from the warm embrace of a little brown lovers in bags or a liquid lover in bottles. Good people in pain are still good people but to the addict it seems no one and no thing remembers except the drug itself. Their drug of choice holds them in her arms like a mother, as they ask for nothing in return but silence and a semblance of company.
In contrast to the last time Spike was here, he pulled up at the rear car park outside the drained seventies-built, tenement block in the car he’d bought with his own hard-earned cash from a car auction. A work colleague who claimed to be a mechanic in a previous life had recommended it with a few kicks of a tyre and convinced Spike to part with four hundred queens’ quid’s insisting, ’a Honda would never let him down.’ But let him down was all this raft had done since he got it. A further six hundred quid of repairs later and it did the minimum requirement and got him from A to B. The average day, Spike’s 'A’ was the working-class suburb of Torry in Aberdeen but today the ‘A’ was the hotel in Glasgow where the rest of his band lay dreaming of their future stardom and his fans and friends lay sleeping off the all-day session that went before. His ‘B’ today was the Possilpark area of Glasgow.
He had not been back here since he left in 99, ironically when his Honda would have been brand new. A whole decade had passed since he was carried from here in an ambulance covered in his own vomit and shit. His arms baring the holes where heroin slowly entered, and life quickly left. The needle bit deep but failed to puncture his soul or spirit or whatever it is inside a person that does not want to leave this paradise, even though this paradise happened to be Possilpark and despite his very worst efforts.
The sun was already beating down on the estate and Possilpark resonated with the sounds of early rising children at play, their tiny voices pinged around the concrete maze of flats and houses. He took a breath and stepped out of the car, the Honda door creaking as he did. He stopped and looked around the estate observing a heavy spirit of misery seep from the cover of sunshine. Each building displayed its own expression of regret. The filthy windows and rundown gardens echoed a life long since surrendered to the realities of their jaded circumstances and the clean yet garish festooned windows with fake bright flowers on the sills suggested a life survived in spite of those same circumstances.
The smell of fried breakfasts denigrates the summer air and brings him hurtling back to his childhood. Not quite the memories he had hoped to engage just yet but flickers of his own early years in the arse crack of society are potent as he edges towards the tenement.
The tenement itself was accessed from the stairwell to the left of the building. The ground floor flats are accessed from the front, underneath the open aired balcony above which gave access to the upper four maisonettes. He stops at the foot of those steps and sees they had changed little from the days he’d ascend them in an addicted frenzy and descend them in a junked-up mess. With each step the air thickens with the stench of piss and heroin smoke and suddenly he is back in the moment of the day he died.
Spike stops at the foot of the stairs and has to beg his legs to take the first step. He can feel his stomach tighten as the scents envelope him. He can feel the urge to run overwhelm, yet something inside screams to keep moving forward. Outside one of the ground floor flats two young migrant children, siblings, are drawing with chalk on the ground, they eye him with suspicion then carry on with their art. The stench of piss is gone completely, and all Spike can now smell is burnt smack. It caresses his nostrils and places a comforting arm around his shoulders, seducing him into climbing the steps. He takes a composing deep breath and ascends the damp, filthy steps. Broken glass and cigarette ends are strewn across the mezzanine landing.
He reaches the first floor and looks left. Third door along is the gaff of his old dealer and friend, ’Crabs’. That old inviting smell urges him to come closer like the lure of a lover’s perfume. Perhaps the smell is not there at all, perhaps it is just the memory of the smell that is so potent. He looks right and the cellar door is wide open.
He ignores the lure of the left and turns right. Must go right. He peers into the cellar. Inside the cellar is cold, at least four or five degrees colder than the outside, or so it seems. A shiver runs from toe to teeth. Dust and filth cover the floor of the room and the smell, nauseating. Litter, cigarette butts, joint ends, empty bottles of ‘Bucky’, cheap cider and lager, used needles and condoms carpet the filthy hole. He tries to picture it as he hid that day, he tries to tell himself that he never lay in such a crevice, but his memory forbids him.
He hears a commotion from the flat along the corridor and quickly steps from the cellar to retreat down the stair well. Back against the wall, he listens as a Possilpark romance crashes across the scheme. Crabs’ nasal Glaswegian sneer is distinctive. It punches through the air overpowering the equally nasal, equally Glaswegian and equally sneering female tones which are vying for dominance with his. A dog barks in their tuppence worth, making more sense than its owners.
He listens to the romance unfold as he leans against the wall. Something about money, something about payment, something about how “blow jobs don't pay the fucking ‘leccy bill Kelly. Nae matter how gud’ they are!” Proof that true romance is not reserved for the balconies of fair Verona, Possilpark verandas have just as much.
The pair exchange loving ‘fuck offs’ and ‘fuck yous’ to the amusement of the children playing below. The happy couple vent to the world their undying love with pet names such as ‘Ya fuckin hoor.’ and ‘Ya fucking dafty.’ Crabs then sets his dog on his lover with a,
“Georgios, KILL! Eat that wee hoor!”.
Georgios? Spike shakes his head in amusement at Crabs dog’s name.
Georgios barks lethargically and Spike can hear the click of heels march toward him as Kelly mutters to herself and launches a few last insults at Crabs and the unsuspecting Georgios. Spike quickly runs down the steps before being seen and makes his way hastily to the safety of his car.
He gets in the car and vents a relieved laugh. He looks up to the veranda and sees Crab’s bursting out of his door, luminous Celtic away shirt on his back, fag in hand still shouting for Georgios to kill and eat Kelly. Georgios has quit barking and trots behind Kelly, sniffing then stopping to piss against a lamppost. Kelly hurls some final insults at Crabs as he retreats back to his home with middle finger raised, laughter and venom spurting from his toothless head in equal measure. He slams the door and the entire tenement appears to shake.
Kelly passes Spikes motor, mumbling, then double takes at the car. ‘Shit. Recognised.’ Spike thinks. She wanders up to the window and motions him to roll it down. Kelly is five foot at best, thin and gaunt with derelict eyes, maybe two more teeth than Crabs and black roots which deny the memory of a bad peroxide job. Spike rolls down the window and the smell of heroin smoke emanating from her grabs at his throat with a menacing hand.
‘Awright?’ he says tentatively.
‘Awright mister.’ Says Kelly in her sultry sneer. ‘Whit’s a guy we a fancy motor like this daein here?’
Spike smiles, proud that she thinks his 13-year-old Honda is a fancy motor, maybe it is 1999 again? He replies shyly, ‘Aw nothing love just dropping off a pal.’
‘Dropping aff yir pal aye?’ She repeats and questions, a common conversational technique used among Glasgow drug addicts. ‘You wantin some action pal?’ she queries.
‘Whit’s funny? Ma no good enough for yi?’
‘It’s no that love, you seem lovely, It’s just…’ A dozen truths why he would decline Kelly’s kind offer rush through his thoughts, he ignores them all and instead opts for a lie. He shuffles his car key in hand so that the key ring hoop covers his wedding finger, ‘It’s just that, i'm married.’ he says with a polite smile, holding up his newly ringed fist.
‘Yi meh-rried aye?’
Kelly squints at him curiously. Busted he thinks.
‘Hawd on, a know you? Where dae a know you fae?’
Spike thinks quickly.
‘I think I know you as well, are you Kelly? Kelly, Kelly?’ He faints a search for the second name.
‘McCabe?’ she answers for him.
‘Aye McCabe, you’re Kelly McCabe. I think I was pals with your cousin…erm… John?’ he invents.
‘John-Paul?’ She concurs.
‘Aye John-Paul. How is JP? I’ve not seen him in years!’ He keeps smiling, pleased with his incredibly accurate cover story.
‘He’s good aye, good. No seen him in few month cos he’s in Bar L for cutting some daft boy fae Springburn. Say’s he didnae, but he probably did, you know whit he's like, no whit a mean?’ a nasal laugh seeps from her, causing a crumbling smokers cough to follow.
Spike continues his act flawlessly, ‘Oh aye, I know what JP can be like, especially with a drink in, eh?’ shaking his head in only half faked pity.
‘Aye that’s it pal drunk and daft wee boy anywiy you spare us a tenner for some milk for ma wean?’
Spike was taken aback but impressed all the same as to how she seamlessly managed to throw in such a question without pause.
‘Eh, aye. hang on.’ He reaches for his wallet takes out a crisp ten. She hungrily snatches it and stuffs it in her bag whilst mumbling unbaked excuses about her Giro and wages. She bids him farewell and returns to the path from which she came. Spike watches in amusement as she walks across the veranda, straight back to Crabs door with Georgios trotting at her heals. Spike would never know if there was a ‘wean’ nor will he ever know the fate of Kelly’s cousin and his ‘old pal’ JP, but one thing he does know for certain, is that ten-pound note was not buying baby milk.
As he took the last sip from his now freezing coffee, he tried to piece together the memories of the day he was last here and what it meant to him now. In doing so, a strange feeling of certainty came over him. He had tried to go back in time and see the day he died with clarity and Crabs and Kelly had just given him the most vivid image of what life was like for him at a time which felt so long ago. He felt free and at peace with himself, and although he felt proud of how far he’d came, he also felt sorrow that the man who once gave him shelter, Crabs, who was still trapped in this open prison. Maybe that tenner would be the last tenner Kelly would ever inject into her withered veins, maybe Crabs would watch her die and in the fog of remorse for his lost love, he too would take enough heroin to end it all and free himself from this hell? Perhaps Spike could go to the door and talk them both out of such a fate? Most likely he could not, fate would have its way. He promised himself long ago he'd return to see Crabs again one day, but he knew then that seeing him from a distance was seeing enough.
Spike stuck the keys in the ignition and felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. It was a number he never knew, and a sharp buzz of excitement filled his stomach.
‘Hello’ he answered.
‘Hello, is that Michael?’ came a lovely Welsh accent.
‘Hi Michael, it’s Suzanna, we met at your gig last night?’
‘Yes, Suzanna, how are you?’
‘I’m good, really good. how are you?’
‘Great, feeling really good thanks.’
‘No hangover today then?’
‘No not today I…’ he thought about explaining his sobriety but decided now was not the time. ‘…I’m driving us all home today so had a quiet one last night.’
‘Oh unlucky, I bet the others aint so fresh?’
‘Don’t know they’re all still asleep. Except Rita, she’ll be up, probably running or something.’
‘I bet, I bet.’ She replied as if she knew them all personally which she did not. With that Spike could sense the small talk was over and we were about to get to the business of the call.
‘So anyways, Michael that was an unbelievable set last night, you guys were on fire.’
‘Wow, thank you very much.’ he replied through a smile.
‘I have some good news. As you know I work for Columbia Records who i’m sure you’ve heard of. When I said I had to speak to the boss I was lying, because the truth is I am the boss and I would like to meet with you guys to discuss a deal with us? Would this be possible today? Before you leave Glasgow?’
The meeting was arranged for that afternoon before the band set off home. Spike hung up, wept and smiled uncontrollably. This news had to be heard in this place. He stepped out of the car and with excitement and purpose, he strode across the car park to where the children were playing. He gave them a quid for piece of white chalk. He went back to the pishy steps that have haunted him for the last thirteen years and on the middle step of the first flight he wrote: 2012, Badd Aples.