It’s been a strange month. You know how sometimes random things seem to be connected, like there’s some meaning to it all. It’s like someone is writing this story and you are the central character – placed in this narrative as if to reveal a truth of some kind. Well…
I started the month attending my appointment for an ultrasound scan. I have been having these abdominal pains for some months and so the scan was to try and locate the route of the problem. It’s no big deal - I am on these anti-acid tablets that ward off whatever it is, and I guess whatever it turns out to be, it’s kind of an age thing – just one of those third age annoyances that I’ll have to get used to.
Later that week we were performing at the wonderful Here Comes the Sun mini-festival at The Rising Sun Arts Centre in Reading. It was so good to be back after the enforced hiatus of the plague years. The Rising Sun is one of those venues that we have performed at pretty much every year for the last quarter century – a proper old school community arts space with a great buzz, organic and alive. I had a weird but very sweet moment overhearing a conversation in the yard where this fella was describing acts on the programme to his friend; ‘so this guy is great, the first time I saw him he was doing this show called Sex, Lies & Super 8, which was amazing’. Thing is, that guy was me, and that show was something we did way back in the early nineties with our dear friend Paula providing poetry with these lo-fi (proper) super 8 movies as a backdrop as we played. I was amazed that someone would remember that so fondly after so many years. It’s a privilege that we are often unaware of, that we manage to connect with folks along the way and leave these little memories that become part of their story – lovely really.
Three days later we were attending the funeral of our dear friend and musical cohort Mark Astronaut. Mark booked my first ever band, Fae Jane & The Burning Docs, for our second proper gig, at Downes Farm Youth Club in Hatfield. We both had tracks on a local cassette release at the time called Essence Rare. Over the successive years he booked my various bands at gigs in Welwyn Garden City and at The George Robey in Finsbury Park. I reciprocated when I could in booking The Astronauts at gigs I was running. Indeed, the first time I met Rico (long-time friend and member of Los Chicos Muertos and The Trailer Trash Orchestra) was when he came over with Mark to play an Astronauts duo gig at one of our Sketch Pad events in St Albans (alt-cabaret gigs I ran with Clive Pig) – sometime in the late eighties. Skip forward a decade and I got a call from Mark one day asking if I’d be up for accompanying him on acoustic guitar at a Mad Pride event he had coming up. Of course, I obliged, and somehow from there I became absorbed as one of the many members of The Astronauts there have been over the years and was part of the line-up that recorded the Donkey Riding EP. Though the main line up of the band changed and evolved, I continued playing occasional acoustic Astronauts (sometimes dubbed Los Astonautas Muertos) gigs right up until this year, when we performed at the celebration gig for our dear friend and fiddle player Andy. Mark had been ill for some time, and the pandemic sadly postponed the possibility of him getting into a hospital for treatment. Following that show, we planned to do a July gig in Hertford which Mark reluctantly had to cancel – it was due to happen the very evening I received news of his passing. Mark and his songs touched and inspired thousands of folks along his vehemently independent path – I’ll miss the gigs and the songs and his wonderful sense of humour. The funeral and wake were perfect in character and content, and it was a (sad) joy to catch up with so many faces from the past to reminisce on wonderful days and nights passed with the unique and inspiring Mr Astronaut.
A few days later I was back at Hospital for more tests and another scan, quietly grateful that there was no pandemic to delay such things.
The following day we were booked to play at the wedding of Rosie and George. Rosie’s dad is the brother of my niece Mathilda’s dad and as such has grown up listening to our music and occasionally attending gigs as a kid. Even so, when she asked if we would perform, I did feel obliged to remind her that we played quite a lot of songs about murder, death and debauchery (not usual wedding band fare), but she was insistent – ‘That’s what we want!’. It was a lovely event at a beautiful Manor House venue outside Ware. Despite our folk-noir flavour, we seemed to go down fine with the multi generations from both sides of the family – indeed there were a few little ones on the dance floor and even the groom’s grandma was gayly swaying to our inappropriate offerings! Most importantly, Rosie and George seemed to have a fine time and we threw in the bride’s request for ‘It’s Just the Way’ (an old one we used to perform with The Young Trash Lovers and Anglo German Low Stars) – and it was a real joy to see that younger generation of connected offspring singing along and to feel we have somehow been a small part of their soundtrack. We stayed up late into the night chatting with Rosie’s dad Paul and old friend Pete (even getting told off by the night manager for being too noisy), polishing off the red wine in the enchanting country garden surrounds. I love occasions where the generations come together for a right good knees up!
Two days later and we are on the Isle of Wight for the Christening of my grand-nephew Rowen. So, Rowen’s mum is Poppy, my brother’s daughter (you don’t have to memorise all these connections – there won’t be a test later). Lovely to catch up with the folks and it was a sweet service in a picturesque old church – followed by a wonderful (Peter Rabbit themed) spread at the adjoining community hall) complete with bouncy castle and a kids crossbow range! My brother and his family have been on the island for many years now, and we have a connection there that goes back even further in that our Aunty Babe (my mum’s sister) managed (along with then husband Colin) The Royal Hotel in Ventnor for a while, enabling us to holiday there a few times as kids. We decided to stay in Sandown. It was a bit sad to see so many closed-down, desolate and decaying hotels and guest houses. It would seem that the town has for some reason not benefitted quite so much from the staycation boom as others. Margate for example (which we visited earlier in the year) was something of a revelation in its cool, quirky reinvention, whereas Sandown really feels like it needs a mojo injection. We did find a nice little bistro though and a cool craft ale bar, but the funkier places all seemed to close quite early, so our nightcaps were in fun (but slightly less salubrious) joints. In one of these we did our best to cheer on a local singer who was battling the interests of the pool table, big screen TV and the loud discussion around the impending big fight (boxing match rather than in-house punch up). We also managed to take in The Garlic Festival (my first experience of receiving an over 60’s ticket reduction and a sweet and buzzy event)) and the wonderful Isle of Wight Steam Railway (well worth checking out when on the Isle) along with a brief visit (for hangover curing lemonade) to Carisbrooke Castle.
A week later and we are back at Hertford’s amazing Musical Mystery Tour. This is a wonderful one-day festival where all the bars and venues programme live music from lunchtime through to the late hours. Started, and still managed (along with a great team) by our old friend Kevin Saunders (Los Ladrones De Amor/The Trash), there’s a great anarchic buzz that descends on Hertford for the day, and as well as performing, it’s a great chance to connect with other acts (both old friends and new). We were booked to perform in the garden of Hertford Museum – a beautiful and picturesque little space in the heart of town. Back in 2017 we did an acoustic Astronauts gig in the garden with Mark, Andy on fiddle, Paul on bass and me on guitar – so a little poignant for sure. Los Chicos Muertos played the museum in 2019 but rain placed us inside, which was still sweet, but lovely to be back out amongst the shrubs and bushes for 2022. There was a great receptive audience all perched amongst the greenery, and we played a version of the Astronauts classic Typically English Day. I’d joked with Mark a few times that there was a country version waiting to happen and it did indeed work great with Rico’s melancholy pedal steel part – I could kinda see Mark grinning as we played it! Afterwards we mooched around, chatted to friends and managed to catch a few of our compadre’s gigs as well as stumbling upon a number of great new acts.
I’m not sure there’s any grand moral or lesson to be learned from this August agenda – I guess it just drew focus to the transience of life, that ever-revolving-evolving circle on which we sit. It’s a sweet ride really and we all have the chance to connect and sew little seeds of inspiration and joy in our own ways. Whatever distractions and annoyances may emerge it’s worth remembering that we not only write our own tale, but we also appear as little characters in other folks’ movies, and that really, is both a blessing and an honour.