Just after Christmas 2015 I went to Australia to work with Bloc Party. The band was pretty familiar to me by now, but I would never get close to any of them. It was never going to be like Ash, where I was there from the relative beginning. On this tour I was a cog in the machine – it wasn’t a bad machine to work for, but it had its stresses. For a while already, I had been dissatisfied with touring. I contacted a friend of mine who works in recruitment. I wanted a change. He told me to list the pros and cons of my job, and it helped. Seeing it in black & white, all the things I liked and loathed, was a real eye opener.
At the time, Bloc Party’s tour manager was a hard-ass who took no nonsense, which can be good, but it also makes a person a little cold and business like. It’s hard to please someone like that. February 2016 was easily one of the most stressful periods of my professional life. It involved equipment, deadlines, logistics, fitting square pegs into round holes, but it worked, and I came through it.
March 2016, I started seeing a counsellor. You can laugh, but I was a real mess. I felt like I had so many issues I didn’t know where to start. But it seems I always went back to the same thing: work. My counsellor suggested I was a people-pleaser. She recommended a book. I started reading it, hated the peer-reviewed, stuffy academic writing style, and just sorta agreed that Yes, I ought to say No a lot more, particularly when it came to work. Stop trying to please everyone. Okay, let’s give that a go.
At the same time, I was into my New Year’s resolution: in 2016 I would read only women authors. Why? As a former all-star male asshole, I had come round to listening to women’s voices, and thought this would be good for me.
After blathering on relentlessly in counselling sessions about how work made me unhappy, I decided I’d go into business for myself. I was already self-employed, working in the live music realm, but my contracts (a fancy term for loose, spoken agreements) were always dependant on some magical outside force. There are many periods in which you have no idea where your next lot of money will come from. Striking out on my own was an idea put into my head by a friend, Rocky. Long story short, I secured a space in a great location, and started fixing guitars and amps in my very own workshop in Belfast, away from home, where I could lock the door and leave it at night.
In May or June I released my second real novel. The Shaftesbury Miracle was (and is) a book I’m so proud of, because I feel like I found my voice. I wrote like myself – harder than it sounds. I was getting set to work on promoting it. Crazy, right? Here I am starting a new business, releasing a new book, and all this was only just starting – barely beginning – when my mum phoned me in June:
“I have cancer.”
I was reading a Gillian Flynn novel at the time. I put it down and still haven’t come back to it. In fact, I’ve probably read a mere three or four books since Mum died only two months later in August. I really wanted her to read my novel, but she never did.
Grief does weird things to you. Some areas of your life carry on because they have to. I had to work – everyone has to work. So I carried on setting up the workshop, giving it a go. Meanwhile some other areas of your life shut down. Empathy was hard. Because you don’t feel like socialising, the online world is a window into what’s happening. You might remember 2016 as the year loads of celebrities died. Having lost my mum, it infuriated me to see people feigning grief, losing someone they’d never met. It got to the point where you just know it was a morbid numbers game: people secretly enjoying watching the body count rise, so they could curse the numerical year, getting in quick like there were points given out. I hated them. I left Twitter because of it. (😜 spoiler alert, I would be back, you always go back.)
A few months after Mum died, I went on tour again, with my old mates Ash. While on that tour I heard Leonard Cohen died, so that was a bummer. I really enjoyed working for him (2008-2013). That time had its stress moments as well – there were lots of egos on that tour, but the man himself was a great example to me of how to be a good guy. Anyway, we’re still in 2016, I’ve lost my mum, my book promo is almost nothing, I’ve barely read anything, and my mind is jacked up on coffee. But still, somehow, I felt like I was ready to rejoin the world – slowly. That’s why I went on tour with Ash. The familiarity is good. Everyone here, band and crew, is a friend, and they’ll know I’m coming out of (or am I still in?) some grief phases, right?
One thing you never truly prepare for when you lose a loved one – the rest of the world keeps going as if nothing happened. On one occasion during that tour I could barely contain my emotions. I held it in until the moment I got into a hotel room and closed the door, and broke down sobbing. I hated being on tour. I hated one person in particular, but I won’t name anyone. I wanted to scream until my throat exploded.
Still, you get over these things. Or at least, for whatever reason, no matter who might be at fault, you try to forgive the whole situation, take your share of blame in it, and move on.
2017 comes around, I’m off Twitter, life is fairly quiet, and the workshop is ticking along. Barely. Thank the gods for savings. They say the first year of business is always the hardest, so frustration is to be expected. I’m still not reading much. I’ll go back on Twitter like it’s some kind of never-ending super-shit novella, and that’ll work for now.
My dad is doing very poorly. Estranged would be a good word to describe us. He’s bipolar, though he’ll never admit it. I had to make a choice back in 2007 – it was either him, or my young family. Anyway, I hear through back channels that he’s sick, and we start talking for the first time in a long while. It’s brief, but at least it’s not crazy ramblings at 4am.
Ash offer me another tour. The workshop is slow, so I could use the money. This tour isn’t so bad. Maybe my head is in a decent place, maybe the people around me are in a decent place, I don’t know, but things are working okay.
Then my dad dies. One year – to the very day – after my mum.
Determined not to let life boot me in the balls, I finished the tour. I arranged my dad’s cremation over the phone, and paid with a debit card. Life is strange.
I’m still barely reading. In the van between shows I’m scribbling note after note about my dad, exorcising thoughts, to stay on an even keel. My own book promo? 😘, it’s out there, but you’d barely know it.
September, and it’s off to Canada to spread my dad’s ashes and see what I can do. Not much really. His life in those later years was a total emotional and physical mess. Meanwhile I’ve been drinking for a month solid. I know it’s a coping mechanism, which probably makes it all the more cynical.
Miraculously, the workshop starts to pick up. Word is getting out: there’s a new Guitar Sherrif in town .
I’ve lost both parents now. That’s me done. I have no siblings, only cousins, aunts and uncles, and as you probably know, age tends to widen gaps. I feel like I’m truly independent. Of course I have my own family now, and OH MY GOD that’s never easy , but I’m completely free of my parents. I always wondered what it would be like, and here I am. I miss them.
October and November, I do some really short stints with Ash, and that suits me fine. They’re like family. It’s nice to see family for a short time, and part ways on good terms. Packing into a van like sardines just isn’t for me anymore.
We can fast-forward into 2018. My daughter’s AQE exams are long over, and we wait to see what school she’ll get into. Meanwhile son is doing grand, getting good grades, being a good student. Life feels like it’s getting back to normal. The workshop is busy! I can’t believe it. Striking out on my own was such a good thing.
Daughter got into the school she wanted. Hurrah!
I go on tour again. Well, not exactly. Some one-off gigs with Richard Ashcroft. Good money, and the shows are all get-in-get-out. I barely know any of these people, so there’s no history. Just be polite and professional, and get paid.
I was in Greece when it happened.
The light went on in my head: motorcycle. Ever since I was a kid I wanted a bike. Both my parents always said ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it’, but they’re gone now. I’m a grown-ass man who can make choices for himself. I can’t be a people-pleaser anymore. Some call it a mid-life crisis, but that’s a term used by people who are already dead inside. I call it the hard realisation that you only live once. I’ve seen it. One day your parents are there, and the next – gone. Putting things off becomes a habit, and before you know it, regret creeps in. It’s not a crisis, it’s an opportunity. Live, for fuck’s sake.
I threw myself into the motorcycle thing. I’d barely ever been on one before. In May 2018 I booked lessons, and in the months following I passed my theory test, two riding assessments, and a manoeuvres test. During all this, I was commuting to work with L-plates on a 125cc bike, and… well, who has time to read and write?
Still, I managed to release a book this year: The Soul Herald. Have I promoted it? no. I can barely find the time.
Mid-October, and I’m on tour with Ash again. Crammed in with people, breathing their air, hearing each others’ thoughts… add alcohol and whatever other mix of emotions people are experiencing, and the timbers are bound to creak.
I lost my temper with someone. I had been biting my tongue for a while, but eventually there’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I’m mostly about forgive and forget, live and let live, shake it off. But there’s only so much criticism you can take from people who aren’t perfect themselves. I snapped at one of my colleagues: “Fuck you!” This happened during the setup, on stage, in front of the house crew.
Not my greatest professional moment. In fact this person had lost a loved one only a few weeks prior to the tour beginning. In hindsight, I could have borne in mind that this person could be experiencing grief, but I’m not perfect. As someone who for years has been hell-bent on improving himself, acknowledging some pretty ugly moments, spending a lifetime trying to please people and get on with them – criticism is like a punch to the gut. Stack those blows up, and the damn breaks. Am I sorry I lost the rag? Not really. This person was a key player in the lesson I learned earlier: life keeps going, and it doesn’t cushion you.
The following morning in the hotel I was in the position of wondering where a couple of my colleagues had got to. They weren’t answering their phones, there was a car waiting outside, and we all had flights to catch. I decided to take the car, and left them to their fates. Soon enough the Whatsapp group started chiming, and it was put to me that I didn’t put enough effort into getting these two up. Note – I am the guitar tech, not the manager, tour manager, assistant, or anything else. I am paid to look after equipment, not drag people out of bed. Been there a few times, and my thinking is this: if you’re a grownup who can’t get yourself up for a 10am cab after a night out in London, that’s your business.
Intensely wound-up, I left that group chat. Then for giggles, someone looped me back in. I was furious. In my opinion, what’s happened over the years is that a grey area has developed between friendship and professionalism. And for anyone who’s a people-pleaser, this is an example of life taking the piss out of you. The grown-up in me sat me down and said two words: Get out.
A few days later, still a little upset about the way the tour ended, I passed my on-road bike test to get my full license. Now I can ride a fuckin jumbo jet on two wheels if they make ‘em.
A month afterward I took delivery of my big-boy bike, a gorgeous second-hand BMW. At a mere 47 horsepower it’s hardly a jumbo, but it’s amazing. Like quitting smoking, learning to ride a motorcycle has been one of my proudest personal moments. But unlike ditching the fags, this was solely, only, just for me. Completely selfish. I love it. Every time I’m on the thing, I think back to my childhood, riding a bicycle, wishing – yearning – for it to be a motorbike. Rumbling along at 70mph, I smile through wind and rain – I’m alive mutherfuckers! I don’t care that I’m 45, and have missed out on years of bikes. Right now is the only time you’re alive, and you have to live it.
The past few years have taught me some harsh lessons, but also some incredibly useful ones. I find myself repeating this: if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen. Only you can do it.
Also, some people can’t be pleased. Trying to please them is pointless and harmful. If you repeatedly feel self-conscious, trying to get on someone’s good side, it’s because they don’t accept you for who you are. They’ll keep bending you until you break. Get out.
So my 2019 resolutions are these:
– stop revisiting toxic and dysfunctional relationships – it’s bad for me
– get back to reading – maybe finish that fuckin Gillian Flynn novel
– live for fuck’s sake