Sunday, April 23, 2017

D Is For Depression

Well, it's been quite a week hasn't it?  The woman who is currently doing Prime Minister impressions has called for a General Election (I have to confess to only finding this out when someone made a booking with me for June 8th and, during the conversation, made mention of it) and an even less convincing impressionist, currently residing in The White House (when he's not playing golf or swanning about in Palm Beach - he has a residency there that boasts 126 rooms; I find it hard to believe he has that many friends) wants to go to war with North Korea.  Fun times for all.

More importantly, though, is the announcement from Prince Harry about how the death of his mother had such a profound effect on his mental health.  While the annoucement in itself should not be such a revelation - who hasn't lost a loved one and felt despair and depression? - for someone in his position to break their long-held silence over such an issue (and was there ever a greater example of the stiff-upper-lip approach to life than our own monarchy?) is a most laudable act.  And, it seems, that his speaking out on this matter has prompted an open and unprejudiced discussion on this, the most taboo of all disabilities.  Finally, it looks as though mental illness will now be taken seriously.

And not before time.

I speak as someone who was diagnosed with reactive depression almost ten years ago.  Who knows how long I had been suffering with the illness but a chain of events at work (this was when I worked for the civil service) saw me sat in front of our family doctor, my wife's hand in mine, as the deadly word "depression" was pronounced.  Now, I say "deadly" because I had my own preconceptions of the condition and what it meant for me.  Many of my own heroes were depressives - Spike Milligan, Ernest Hemingway, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Hicks and Frank Sinatra were all plagued by what Winston Churchill called "the black dog" - so I knew that the illness was no barrier to the success I craved beyond the confines of my day job; my worry was how I was going to deal with the condition now that it had been diagnosed.  And, of course, what effect would medication have on me?  

Reactive depression.  Over the next few days, I rolled the words around my head.  I thought of how long I might have had this bloody thing.  Was I born with it?  Certainly my childhood years were blighted by fits of anger and impatience.  And how many times as a young adult did I lose my temper at situations and circumstances that were out of my control?  Time without number.

"You're an angry young man."  My mum once said those very words to me, back when I was too young to really understand the depth of her prognosis.

I understand now, though.

Life is uncertain and the world can be unfair.  Not all of us are so well equipped to deal with this.  We need support just as the man in the wheelchair needs a ramp to enter a building or the blind woman needs a guide dog to get around.  Support and understanding.  Not too much to ask for is it?

Well, so far it seems that it has been too much to ask, certainly when it comes to the vast of majority of employers in both the public and private sector.  We don't even live in world that sufficiently accommodates the physically disabled, let along the mentally ill, so it remains to be seen what will happen as a result of Prince Harry's openess about his own struggles.

Personally, I'm hopeful.  Already I find that I am much more comfortable in talking about my own condition without fear of discrimination and judgement.  And that alone has got to be a good thing. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

An Ex-Girlfriend Died. How About That?

At the end of this month, I will be forty-five years old.  Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday Dear Stefan and so on and so forth*. 

Forty-five.  No age really (although, if the mortality rate in my family is anything to go by, I'm over halfway there now).  Last week I got a text telling me that someone had died.  The name of the deceased was unfamiliar to me so I had to ask further.  Turned out it was an ex-girlfriend of some twenty-five years ago. 

Now, I'm not some stud-muffin who's had so many girlfriends he can't remember them all - the family dog got more action than I did growing up (but then, if you're familiar with my hometown of Birkenhead you'll know that a boy has to be choosey about who he sleeps with) - but just a name alone is often not enough to spark a memory...unless it's a fairly uncommon one like Tallulah or Moon Unit.  And the name of this person was neither.

The news gave me pause for thought about the lives we lead, the people we meet, the places where we spend time, and how those people and places influence the paths we subsequently take. 

I met this particular person in 1994.  I was living at home then, working for the Wirral News.  While the relationship would last three years and the job even less, both were to have seismic effects on my life in ways I could not have predicted.

We moved in together and jumped from place to place before settling in a flat in Oxton.  By this point, I was editing the events guide in the newspaper - a pretty tedious role at the time because it entailed listing such thrill-a-minute occasions as country walks in Thurstaston and poetry readings in Hoylake.  I went against the grain by highlighting gigs by local bands and, while this seemed to ruffle the feathers of one particular sub-editor (a dull little woman whose name escapes me - see, it's not just the girlfriends whose names I forget), it resulted in a fateful meeting with a band by the name of Mixie's Men.

I'd seen Mixie's Men a few times and wasn't especially impressed.  I was deep into prog rock and jazz at the time and their blend of rockabilly, punk and lyrics about Cilla Black, werewolves in Birkenhead Park and holidays in Bangor were not my thing at all.  In addition, the singer would regularly strip down to a thong and simulate sex with a rubber chicken.  This was too far removed from what I was digging at the time and it was a distance I was not prepared to cross.

Somewhere along the way, I got the joke and I started checking them out of a weekend, usually en route to Stairways or The Krazy House.  So, by the time I came to interview them I suppose you could say I was something of a fan (I still have a signed single of Rock Ferry - one of their most popular songs - somewhere around the house).  Just as well, really, because that very interview resulted in me performing as their support act that weekend.

I wasn't singing back then.  I'd been told by the music teacher at school that I couldn't sing and, having made the mistake of believing she knew what she was talking about (ah, Mrs Randles, where are you now?  Happily living under a stone, I imagine.), I sought entry into the giddy world of entertainment by other means: comedy.

Back then, I had long, flowing hair and a pointy beard and was able to pull off the finest Billy Connolly impersonation you will ever hear, then or now.  In fact, short of the Big Yin himself, you will not hear a more convincing take on his infectious Glaswegian brogue.  

And so it was, that Saturday night at Prenton's Halfway House, that I took to the stage during the band's interval and launched into a ten minute routine based around some of Connolly's finest gags and anecdotes.  And promptly died on my arse.

Undeterred, I carried on, going from gig to gig with the band.  Over the next twelve months, I honed the act, had some successes and many failures until one night the drummer kindly suggested I "Go West, young man" and find my own audience.

And for the next three years, that's what I did.

However much I enjoyed it, though, it always felt like an act.  Even when I eventually dropped the Connolly impression and started doing my own material, I wasn't really me when I was up there.  But I knew I liked the stage; I felt comfortable up there.  I just needed to find out what I should be doing while I was up there.

High fiddly dee, an actor's life for me!  In 1997, my relationship with the girl of whose name I had to be reminded now over, I enlisted in an acting course.  My comedy had brought me into contact with some actors over the past three years and I thought I should check it out.  

Over the next two years, I had a lot of good times, a few short-but-memorable relationships, a lot of drinks and many a fall down.  I performed in plays, short films, feature films and open air festivals.  Happy times.  But, again, I knew it wasn't for me.

During this period, I had discovered that I possessed a pretty decent singing voice.  I'd started listening to Frank Sinatra and, by singing along to his stuff, a natural timbre for that kind of music had revealed itself.  Who knew?  

It was one singular moment in 1998 that determined what I was to do for the rest of my life.  I'd accepted a booking for a charity event and chose that opportunity to sing a few tunes: I've Got You Under My Skin, One For My Baby and The Lady Is A Tramp.  It was probably not the greatest performance, I'm sure; I'd not yet had any formal vocal training beyond the standard teaching that they give you in acting classes and if I heard it now, I'm sure there'd be bum notes aplenty.  It didn't matter.  I knew in that moment what I should be doing with my life.  And, to be fair, the applause (which was much louder and longer than any I had received as an actor or comedian) didn't hurt either.  

I was still living in the flat I had once shared with the girlfriend who is now an ex in more ways than one.  Flatmates continued to come and go and one night, during a party, the friend of a friend of a friend mentioned that the place in which they worked was taking on new staff.  I'd been looking for a new job, something more permanent than what I'd been used to, in the hope that I could put together some money to buy a PA system and make in-roads into getting some singing gigs.

In my mind I had it all mapped out: get a full-time job, buy a PA, get gigs, reduce my hours at work, get more gigs, give up the job and become a full-time singer.  Easy.

Well, I got the job.  In February 1999 I became a civil servant, finally making good on the advice that my mum gave me when I left school.  First, I started looking for a new pad.  A new home to go with the new job seemed to make a great deal of sense.  I found a flat in town, five minutes' walk from where I now worked. 

The sound of massive jigsaw pieces slotting securely into place provided a soothing soundtrack to my new life.  

My weekends were spent buying Frank Sinatra albums and learning the songs that would be the backbone of the shows I would one day perform.  

During the week, I worked solidly and conscientuously.  I enjoyed the job and I liked the people with whom I worked.  I found new friends and left my old life - and the people with whom I shared it - behind, tidying them away like relics stored in the attic.

New purpose, new job, new friends.  And it was through one such friend that I met a girl.  And I fell in love.

It is now 2017.  I am nearly forty-five.  The girl with whom I fell in love - who I would never have met were it not for the friendship made at my old place of work - is now my wife.  We have two beautiful children who amaze us everyday and who will grow up to be so much more than a sum of their parts.

There is no such thing as fate.  This is my belief.  If it were not so then there would be no need to get out of bed in the morning; we could just lie there and let fate take its course.  We make our own fate.  

There is no such thing as being blessed; no person is luckier than the next.  There are blessings all around us, just waiting to be found.        


*If you want to give me a card or a present then you may do so on April 28th when I'll be performing at The James Monro, Tithebarn Street, Liverpool.  The staff will give you a hand carrying it if it's too big.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Aw Shit. Rickles Died.

This morning I awoke from unquiet slumber to read the news that Don Rickles, master of the acerbic putdown and the voice of Toy Story's Mr Potato Head, has died.

Don Rickles.  Rest In Peace.

I first saw Don Rickles on the Johnny Carson Show when he made a surprise appearance during an interview with Frank Sinatra.  I could tell you about it but I'd never do it enough justice.  Why don't you watch it instead: Don Rickles And Frank Sinatra on Johnny Carson 

As some of you will know, I got my first break in entertainment as a comedian by in 1994 (I had hair back then) and I know a good gag when I hear one.  And I can know a good comedian when I see one.  Believe me, a genuinely good comedian is a rare breed.  Some men think that if they tell a good joke at a wedding or in a bar on a Friday night, that makes them a comic.  I've seen such people die on their arse when they've tried their luck on a stage in front of a hundred people.  Likewise, there are women who think they're totally "whacky" and "crazy" and that this, too, makes them ideal for the comedy circuit.  They start their routines with lines like "I just turned did that happen?"  Well, it's called the passing of time, love.  Now unless you've got something funny to say, kindly get off the stage.

No-one tells a story as well as Billy Connolly.  No-one.  And I've been to enough of his concerts to attest to the man's brilliance.
This is also funny: Bill Hicks on Arming The World

Completely different to Connolly and Rickles.  Hicks had a razor-sharp insight and his routines bordered on the prophetic.  He went beyond comedy to discover undeniable and incontrovertible truths about the human condition.  Dead at 33.

I love and admire comedians.  They go out there with only a microphone and their job is to seize the audience by the throat and say: "Look at me and listen to me because I'm going to make you laugh."  Sounds easy doesn't it?  Which is probably why so many people think that they can do it - we're back to the bloke in the pub and the whacky woman again - and why only the very greatest of men and woman can actually do it well enough to make a living from it and to be remembered so fondly when they finally shed their mortal coil.

Goodbye, Don, you truly were one of the greats.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sickness and Ambient Music

Greetings, music-lovers.

I come to you direct from my sick bed.  I'm very ill right now.  Might not even make it through this blog update.  If I die tell my wife and kids I love them very much.

I'm not someone who often gets ill.  As a kid, though, I was never out of the doctor's.  I used to suffer with croup cough and had to sleep with a coal tar vaporiser at the foot of the bed.  It worked a treat but now everytime I pass a roadworks sign I get a Proustian rush and fall to my hands and knees to get a lungful of the intoxicating smell of hot tar.  

When I was five years old, I ate all the toadstools in the back garden, thinking they were just harmless mushrooms.  Spent a week in the children's hospital after that little episode.  

Never broke a bone, though.  Not a single one.

So here I am, in my fevered state, headphones on, listening to Alan Lamb's Night PassageAlan is an Australian composer who records wire music: the unearthly, unnerving and often beautiful sounds made by telephone cables.  Trippy.

Alan Lamb Night Passage.  Check it out, do.
I discovered the music of Alan Lamb through the soundtrack for Wolf Creek by Francois Tetaz (my deathless praise for that film can be found on this here blog) which in turn was unearthed during a search for ambient music inspired by listening to Throbbing GristleToe bone connected to the foot bone, foot bone connected to the heel bone, heel bone connected to the ankle bone and so on and so forth.

Ambient music is so unlike anything I would normally listen to and yet it seems obvious to me that it's a genre I would've ended up checking out at some point or another, given the "Phil Collins connection".  While Phil isn't known for ambient music, his work with Briano Eno in the seventies (a direct result of Eno's contributions to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis) saw him making vital forays into that area.
I love Eno.  I love his approach to making music and I love the end result.  I'd recommend him in a heartbeat.  Improve your life and listen to Before And After Science or, better yet, Another Green World.  Mesmerising stuff.  

Brian Eno.  Something of a genius.
Brian Reitzell is another remarkable talent in ambient music.  His score for Hannibal (the TV series, not the film) is variously terrifying, exotic, provocative, enchanting and disturbing, often within the same piece of music.  There's a piece from Hannibal's third season called Digestivo Pt 2 which I find especially moving.  
There's a lot than can be said without words.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016. How Was It For You?

It's a misnomer that the older you get, the quicker the years seems to pass.  Some years seem to go on forever simply as a consequence of what happens during them while others leap past like a gazelle with its arse on fire.

2016, for me, was a very full year.  Each month seemed fully loaded with events, both good and tragic, and I confess to a sense of exhaustion as it comes to a close.  

On a professional level, I look back and feel that I have nothing to complain about.  I've performed at so many new venues in so many new towns and cities and I look forward to continuing these working relationships into 2017 and beyond.  Big thanks to my wife and my oldest cousin (the matriarch of the family) for finding so many of these new places for me.  

It was my wife who found me a new agent early in the year so, again, much appreciation for that, Mrs Livesey.  I'd all-but given up on agents but the new team who represent me have proven to be a stellar group of people who've wasted no time time in finding me some great bookings.  Thank you, Jeremy and Chloe.

Thank you to everyone who has had the good taste and goodwill to book me for work this past year.  You have helped keep a roof over my family's head and put food on our table and for that I am grateful.  

Professional thanks to Yamaha, Peavey, Tascam, Shure, Maplin, Dawsons, Karaoke Version and London Arrangements, without whom I would just be a man, standing on a stage, with no way of making myself heard.

Indirect thanks must go to every driver who has overtaken me or cut me up on the motorway in a rush to get home from their tedious jobs.  It must be awful to be stuck in a job you hate so much that you're prepared to risk your own life and that of other motorists because you're in such a desperate rush to get home.  So thank you for unwittingly reminding me of how wonderful it is to make a living from doing something you love.  

Personally, it's been an up and down year and there is the sense that, going into 2017, some of us are not entirely out of the woods yet.  So, eternal thanks to my family, both immediate and extended, for your love and support.  You have all helped keep sanity at bay these past twelve months.

Outside of work and family, I have scant time for anything else.  Longstanding friendships have perhaps been the biggest casualty of this but, having realised that when all you have in common with someone is a barely remembered past, it's hardly the basis upon which to build a future.  So, I go into 2017 leaving some people behind and I'm quite sanguine about that - I wish them all well in their respective lives.  

That said, I have vowed to be a better friend to my "best man" in 2017 and I intend to stick to that intent.

In the slivers of time between work and family, I continue to find pleasure in the music of my heroes (some of whom have been icons for a long time) and so I give praise to Phil Collins, Genesis, Yes, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, King Crimson, The Rolling Stones, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Alice Cooper, all of whose tunes have kept me going whether on the road between gigs or in the twilight hours when I'm at home and everyone else is asleep.  

In closing, I hope that 2016 has been kind to you and that 2017 proves to be a blessed year for you and yours.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

My Poppy Is Bigger Than Yours

Evenin' all.

The solemnity with which we mark the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month has never failed to move me.  That moment at which we pause from our daily lives to silently thank those who have served and who continue to serve Queen and country - both on November 11th and on Remembrance Sunday - is a duty which we must all observe.  And, thankfully, most of us still do.

You know there's a "but" coming, don't you?  

The wearing of a poppy to publicly signify that we remember those who have died on behalf of their country is something that goes back to World War One.  I was brought up to wear one on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.  As a kid I was never aware of there being a need to wear one in the days leading up to these events, nor was I ever encouraged to wear one in the weeks after. 

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost perspective on this simple but poignant tradition.

You see, this is what a poppy looks like:

It doesn't have to look like this:

Or this:

Or this (beautiful as it might be):

Now, at this point you may well be saying to yourself: "But, Stefan, I can wear what I want to pay tribute to our dead heroes."  And that would be a fair comment.  There is nothing wrong at all with the poppy brooches that have sprung up over the past few years (although a giant poppy plastered to the front of your car was never a good idea).  What I object to is how ostentation has now been confused with the simple act of paying respect.

I first became aware of the ugly-mindedness of some people some years ago whilst sitting in the canteen at work and my colleague was making it known to anyone within ear-shot that "I always buy the five pound poppies that they sell."  Well, bully for you pal but isn't a charitable donation something which is, by its very nature, a private affair?  Didn't somebody make a comment around 2000 years ago about the meek inheriting the earth?  Yeah, I thought so.

I suppose buying an expensive poppy brooch saves you buying one every year but I don't believe that's the point of the exercise.  Better, surely, to quietly drop your money into the British Legion collection box and wear your simple and unadorned poppy with pride and no small amount of humility.  That's what I was brought up to do. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Horror, The Horror Part Two

Now, where were we?

Ah, yes, somewhere around the late eighties when my hair was long and I was a skinny young pup (so skinny, I had to run round in the shower to get wet) and my days were spent reading the works of Messrs King and Barker and watching illicit videos at the home of a friend whose name I shall keep to myself for fear that he might suffer reprisals from Customs and Excise.

It's funny when I think back.  Horror videos weren't the only films we used to watch at his house.  His dad also had a healthy collection of porn which we used to view during school lunchtimes (the school was a five-minute walk away so we could always get in a decent viewing over a Pot Noodle and a bag of Space Raiders before going back for History with Miss Chambers).  Naturally, this lunchtime film club gradually got bigger as word spread through the school.  One day we looked out of the living room window to see dozens of heads popping up out of the bushes as seemingly every deviant in the school had come along for a quick fifty-off-the-wrist over my friend's dad's porn collection.  When my friend went to the front door, presumably to shoo them away, they barged in and made all haste for the video player.  It was like The Charge of the frigging Light Bridge.  

Within the blinking of an eye, these lads had their trousers around their ankles, anxious to knock one off over Debbie Does Dallas.  I didn't know where to look.  It certainly put me off my noodles.

Words can not do justice to the commotion that ensued when, quite unexpectedly, my friend's dad's van pulled up on the drive.  Before his key was even in the lock, the wankers surged as one towards the back door, desperately trying to pull up their pants as they ran.  

I can't remember what happened next.  I was too blinded by tears of laughter by this point.

Anyway, I digress.

As my teenage years retreated behind me and I entered into my twenties, my affection for horror remained.  It was the nineties, and while mainstream horror was pretty pitiful, with Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddie Krueger performing in sequel after sequel to ever-diminishing returns, I had discovered the joys of the banned and uncertificated movies that had been kept from these shores by those bastions of morality at the BBFC.

Zombie flesh eaters are here!  

There's nothing quite so exciting as doing something that you've been told not to.  And if it's someone in authority doing the telling, then all the better.  The conceit of these pent-up prigs that they know better than the general populace has never ceased to get under my skin.  Remember Clive Froggatt?  He was a top Tory in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, a doctor in charge of her government's health reforms.  He was also a smackhead.

Of course, he kept his addiction secret.  It simply wouldn't do for it to be public knowledge that someone in his lofty position spent most of his time strung out on heroin.  After all, it was part of his job to make sure that such drugs were kept out of the hands of you and I.  Because what are we anyway but just a bunch of soft, ill-educated proles who voted these fuckers into power in the first place.

And it should go without saying that Dr Froggatt's boss - who was, lest we forget, the most powerful woman in the country at the time - knew nothing of what he got up to with the needle and the spoon.  Just as she knew nothing about the dodgy predilections of anyone whose company she kept.

Margaret Thatcher and Jimmy Saville.  How could she have not known?

So, you see, I have little time for authority.

Having said that, a lot of those films that were on the banned list were shite.  The Driller Killer, Anthropophagous The Beast, Bloody Moon and Death Trap will never trouble anyone's top ten film list.  But movies such as The Evil Dead, The Last House On The Left, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Tenebrae are all excellent fare.

When the chairman of the BBFC, James Ferman, retired in 1999, many films on the banned list were re-submitted for classification and passed uncut.  And rightly so.  After all, it's only special effects and bad acting, right?

Since then, the horror industry seems to have boomed beyond all expectations.  Despite a worrying trend towards parody and self-reverence as displayed by the Scream franchise and its imitators (which are little more than Scooby Doo with claret - and I never liked Scooby Doo to begin with), the industry quickly recovered with the remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its prequel, Hostel, The Devil's Backbone, 28 Days Later and some startling movies from the Far East including Audition, Ring and Grudge.

Ring.  Terrifying in any language.

Somewhat surprsingly, given its ultra-conservative stance on video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, Australia has really been the one to watch when it comes to audacious and original horror moviemaking.  It was ever thus, really, as this is the country that brought us Razorback, Night Of Fear and Picnic At Hanging Rock.  In the last few years, they have built on this already impressive roster with Wolf Creek, Lake Mungo, The Snowtown Murders, The Reef, The Babadook, The Loved Ones and Black Water.  Superior films, all.

Wolf Creek's Mick Taylor may well be the scariest horror icon since Hannibal Lecter.

Even tv has picked up on the commercial potential of terror as entertainment with highly successful serials such as Hannibal, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and The Exorcist.

Horror fans have never had it so good.