Saturday, 19 May 2012

Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player

I was in a band once. Did I tell you that? Well, two actually, but the second one only played the one gig with me as bassplayer, so perhaps it hardly counts. The first one, though, well that was different. We'd become friends with a couple who'd moved into our area in South Wales in the late 1990's. The husband was from Trinidad and his wife was an English girl and they both loved music. The husband, Howard, was an accomplished guitarist and composer and a total Reggae-head. We instantly had this in common, and so began a series of evenings round at their place where Howard had constructed his own studio. He'd set up some background music which he'd recorded himself, then play live guitar over that with the girls and me singing Bob Marley songs, plus the occasional Santana track thrown in since Latin rock was also a passion which we shared.

Bear with me here, I'll get to why I'm telling you all this in a minute, honest!

So anyway, I told Howie that I'd always wanted to be a bassplayer and he persuaded me that it's never too late. So, in my forties I taught myself to play and bought myself an axe (c'mon, keep up with the jargon dude) and, to go with it, a mean Peavey bass amp with a whopping 15 inch woofer in it ('cos you had to be barking to think you could lift it into your van), which weighed so much that it almost gave me a hernia to look at it, leave alone try and move it. Actually I did get used to it and was eventually heaving it into and out of my car at regular intervals, saving me a fortune on gym membership fees.

Pretty soon we were a six piece called the Raggamuffins and we were playing prestigious gigs at all the best Rugby Clubs in the area. Well, actually, the one gig I am proud of (even though we were a so-so band, owing to the fact that our keyboard player wouldn't learn to play his very expensive Korg and so resorted to hiding behind it and operating the midi player*) was the time we played the Swansea MAS Carnival on a Greek-style hot day on August Bank Holiday Monday 2001. The stage was built right in the middle of Castle Square and the crowd numbered into the thousands, probably mainly because the weather was so good and there were liable to be a lot of scantily clad dancers around when the carnival itself traipsed through the square and across the stage, thus splitting our set into two sessions. Still, we did manage to get the audience swaying, which I swear was due to the music and not to the sweet smelling smoke which wafted up in clouds from the groovers below.

It was the fact that I'd had this limited experience as a performing musician that I ended up comparing notes with my fellow excursion escort Mehmet last year on one of our Halki crossings. Mehmet is of Turkish descent, but has lived on Rhodes for many years. He's a real musician and plays in several bands during the evenings, whilst doing a few excursions during the day. He's the keyboard player in a rather impressive Abba tribute band called "Abba Dreams"; get it? You know, "I abba dream, a song to sing…" Good eh? I thought so. But then I'm easy to please.

No really, if you've stayed on Rhodes and gone out on one of those evenings when you wanted to be entertained by a nice traditional Greek ethnic show, then it wouldn't have been that occasion. But if you were at "Pefkos By Night" at all last season and saw the band, then Mehmet was the one with the awful wig playing keyboards. That's not the wig that was playing the keyboards, rather the bloke under it. But then, if you're a fella you wouldn't have noticed him on account of the fact that he was stationed behind two very nice girls in skimpy Abba-esque costumes anyway.

So there we were on the Halki crossing every Friday and the occasional Saturday last season talking most of the time about music and I offered the suggestion that, since he also plays in a Greek band during the winter months, perhaps he may have played at a Greek wedding where they fired guns. Bit "hairy" that eh? I suggested.

"No, not really." He replied. "You remember that old Elton John album, "Don't Shoot Me, I'm only the Piano Player?" He asked. I did. "Well, the reeeeally scariest gig I ever did was in deepest rural Turkey once, at a Kurdish wedding." I was all ears.

He continued: "I ought to have known that things weren't going to be right when we got to the location for the reception. I'm talking deepest village life here, a bit like that movie in America where the banjo players had a musical duel. The locals didn't look the full shilling [not that Mehmet would have used the particular expression, it just seems the right one for the moment]. The venue was really a glorified chicken run, with genuine authentic chicken droppings all over the floor and genuine authentic chickens still running around. Oh, and a few goats were hanging about as well. To enter it you went through a tatty gate in a chain-link fence! The ground sloped gently upwards to the area where they wanted the band to set up, and that was it really. Still, they were supposed to be going to pay us and so we swung open the van doors and carried all the gear up the slope to the "stage" area. Woodstock it wasn't.

"The band consisted of a couple of singers, a guitarist, a bassplayer, the drummer and me on keyboards. We soon got going and the wedding guests mingled and drank. Then they drank some more and continued to drink. The atmosphere was deteriorating a little and things began flying around. You know, the odd beer bottle, the occasional ladies shoe, that sort of thing. We thought it was going OK until a sizeable contingent of guests started chanting for a particular song. It was an old traditional Turkish village song which we didn't usually play, but we agreed a key and set to it, not wanting to antagonise what was becoming an edgy audience. It was now late in the evening and no none seemed to be considering leaving. I was thinking, 'How long are we gonna be here and, what was more important, would anyone be sober enough to remember to pay us!'

"Having played the extended version of the song for about ten minutes or so, much as the Greeks do with their live music and dancing, we thought we'd wind it up and play something else. In hindsight, this was not a good idea. No sooner had we struck the final chord and maybe a millisecond of silence had ensued than the male members of the crowd, who were a formidable bunch of village men who evidently worked with their hands, since these were as big as shovels and their biceps like Sly Stallone's - only bigger, started chanting for the same song again. We decided that if we weren't going to see things turn ugly, we'd better comply and so started the same song up all over again. If I'd known then what I know now I'd have said that things were still going swimmingly at that point.

"The next thing that happened was that they started getting the guns out. Not just rifles, but pistols, the lot. There were even a few running oily rags (or perhaps just their handkerchiefs!) along extremely sharp-looking knife blades by now too. I was feeling a little nervous." I'd say that in the "feeling nervous at a dodgy gig" stakes, this was one that rated quite high on the scale of nervousness, but that's just me. Mehmet was smiling now, but I knew he wouldn't have been at the time. My face betraying my rapt attention, he went on:

"Once the guns started being fired it freaked the vocalists out and so they just left, mid-song! The crowd weren't bothered, as long as the music went on and they were shindigging around, waving arms and bottles and knives about, often within inches of the band members. Yes, the two singers just retreated from the microphones, crept away and never came back. I knew things were getting bad when the guitarist unplugged his instrument and did likewise."

"No, you're kidding!" I interjected.

"I'm not. That's exactly what happened. You know, there are times when you curse the fact that you play an instrument that you can't just up and carry around. You certainly can't risk leaving a drum kit or an expensive all-singing-all-dancing keyboard behind and still expect to retain ownership by morning. But a singer, they can just run for it. A guitarist is a pretty close second. The P.A. was rented, so all he had to do was unplug it and creep away, guitar still over his shoulder. I knew it was getting really serious when the bassplayer did the same."

"So, what, you mean it was down to just you and the drummer!"

"Yep," said Mehmet, "It's absolutely true. You'd be surprised at how most people who are out of their skulls on some kind of village hooch won't notice as long as there's a beat and a melody. Plus, of course, I was playing some base notes on the keyboard anyway. The volume made up for the lack of guitars and the crowd weren't bothered about vocals by now."

"So," I asked, "How did you finally get out of there? Did you get paid?"

"We had to keep playing until they either fell asleep or left. I think we finally stopped, after having played the same song for hour after hour, with very sore fingers on my part and arms and legs hanging off of the drummer at around dawn. Fortunately, our van was still there, the other members having come with their own transport. But we very quietly packed up the gear among the scattered sleeping bodies and sloped away to the sound of the cockerels crowing and the sight of the sun's first rays peeping above the horizon. We never did get paid for that gig."

Well, if I didn't know it was Mehmet telling me this I may not have believed it. But that's about the size of it. I remember one gig which the Raggamuffins did in Merthyr Tydfyl one Saturday night. It was our last gig as it happens. The crowd in that club was seriously antagonistic-looking and Howard's wife Marilyn, who'd endured the gig whilst sitting alone in the crowd, having seen knives glinting in the strobe light and heard unmentionable things going on in the toilets, told us that she'd been scared the whole time she was there. After our set ended at just after midnight the DJ was under way and set for a night-long session. So we'd had to pack up our gear and carry it through the pulsating horde on the dance floor and yours truly was designated to go behind the bar to collect our fee, which was several hundred Pounds Sterling in cash!

I stood there amidst the smell of old beer and goodness knows what else whilst the manager counted out the dosh, conscious as I was of the fact that I was going to have to walk out from there, down a flight of stairs and into the street, then cross the road to our vehicles whilst a goodly number of Merthyr good-timers would know what was in my sweaty palm. Outside in the dark street there were two Police cars, their occupants standing by whilst men peed into shop doorways right next to them. But at least I felt that we'd probably get away in one piece and with our fee intact, which, of course, we did.

After hearing Mehmet's story, though, I realised that an after-midnight crowd in Merthyr Tydfyl is a bunch of pussycats when compared to a bucolic Turkish wedding reception.

*I ought to add that although he didn't learn the keyboard parts, he had a superb singing voice and is still a friend, at least I hope he is!!

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