An eventful week

Well, quite an eventful last few days have passed.

I was down in Cheltenham last Wednesday for a business meeting, which was actually quite productive and interesting. I decided, despite the very cold weather, to go down on the motorbike. By the time I was a few miles from turning off the M5 to head into Cheltenham, my fingertips were freezing cold. In all the miles I have done on a motorbike and in all weathers, last Wednesday was definitely the coldest my fingers have ever been. I actually felt the cold biting at the end of my finger tips – there’s no better way to describe the sensation – and I wondered to myself whether this pain was indeed where the word ‘frostbite’ originates. Convincing myself otherwise, I rode through the pain and was soon at my destination.

Following the meeting, I made my way out of Cheltenham. After a few minutes and increasingly cold fingers, I decided to consult Google to find a motorbike apparel shop. Sure enough, there was a branch of Hein Gericke (a personal fave for bike clothing) on the outskirts of Cheltenham, which I had actually passed on the way in. Unfortunately, they had sold out of under-gloves, but the sales assistant offered to knock 30% off the price of a set of over-gloves instead, insisting that I made sure I was comfortable I could ride with them before I bought them by taking them out to the bike and ensuring that they offered adequate handling of the controls. They were a little bulky, but were good enough as far as I was concerned, so I bought them and went on my way home.

The same evening, I had planned to ride up to Grimsby, with a view to staying over at my mother-in-law, Joyce’s house before attending my Aunty Eileen’s funeral on Thursday. In the event, I was tired after the ride to Cheltenham and back, had spent quite some time sorting out the mess that was our cupboards in the vain search for a missing under-glove I knew I had somewhere. In the event, I didn’t find the glove, it was already 20:00 and the temperature was dropping further outside, so I decided to head up to Grimsby by car. It transpired that this was a wise decision, since the normal route I drive was closed towards the approach to Waltham, near Grimsby, and the diversion took me through some treacherous, ice and gravel covered lanes, albeit through pretty villages.

On Thursday, I attended the funeral of my Aunty Eileen – the wife of my dad’s brother Bob. Bob died a couple of years ago and I had been unable to attend his funeral through work commitments, so I had resolved to make it to Eileen’s. They were both lovely people who had raised four daughters, each of which went on to have wonderful families of their own. Bob was a bit of a comedian, and Eileen always appeared to me to be acting like the sensible one when they were out together. Unfortunately, the last few years had seen a decline in their healths, with dementia taking a hold on Eileen in recent years, so, in actual fact, we lost the real Eileen some time ago. Nevertheless, their family of children and grandchildren does them great credit.

The funeral itself was, as they tend to be nowadays, more of a celebration of Eileen, and it was clear that the vicar had known Eileen, so it was a little less impersonal than religious funerals usually are. Her daughter, Barbara, read a lovely poem about her (Eileen had enjoyed writing poetry, so it was done by way of a tribute). The wake afterwards was another opportunity to see family I met just a few weeks ago under similarly sad circumstances, following the death of my Aunty Elizabeth, only there were more of the Eileen’s grandchildren there this time, many of whom I hadn’t seen for years, so it was a nice opportunity to catch up with some of them.

I also learned that it had been arranged for my Aunty Elizabeth’s ashes to be interred at the same time as those of Eileen, the following day, and that was a nice thought, since the two had known each other very well, and it meant that Elizabeth’s final resting place would be next to her brother, Bob and his wife, Eileen – a little plot of Chivers family in Lincolnshire.

I headed back home on Thursday afternoon, taking Joyce with me in the car, since the forecast wasn’t good for Friday and Joyce’s husband Ron (my ‘step father-in-law), preferred that she come down with me and that he come and collect her on Monday. The roads were pretty quiet and we had a good journey back.

In the evening, I headed out for a BAiT rehearsal, at which we thrashed out ideas for an acoustic arrangement of one of the last three songs we recorded as a full band, Sunshine song. It was starting to come together quite nicely by the end of the evening.

Friday was back to work, and fairly uneventful in work terms, although I had quite a productive day overall.

On Friday evening, I had a gig with Ministry Of Beaver at the Kingswood Tavern, in my own town of Nuneaton. It’s one of my preferred venues, as there’s generally a good crowd there and they’re very positive about the kind of music we play. We always go down well there. Phil kindly brought along an extra monitor wedge for me to use. I haven’t been using a vocal monitor at all for some time, since they usually take up a lot of room – something which is at a premium for most gigs, and I have gone with the old view of ‘if I can’t pitch to the music itself, I shouldn’t be singing’. The reality though is that you do need to be able to hear what you’re singing and can’t rely on the sound you’re getting through your cheekbones.

Phil also started singing backing vocals and did a great job, although we need to agree on which of us is singing which part in many places – something we haven’t really had time to do properly, as Phil has been learning the bass parts and concentrating primarily on them.

It was another good gig there, despite the attempts of a few local chavs who turned up after we had finished and started to wind up a few people. A fight almost broke out, but the pub staff handled it well and things settled down again. For some time, I’ve had the idea of having ready a sample of some fast bluegrass music, featuring the obligatory three note start – Foggy Mountain Breakdown would be ideal, especially if accompanied by a rebel yell or two. I’ve never had the sample ready though and trouble is extremely rare – I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions where violence has happened at any gig I’ve ever played at – and it’s never been at the dedicated biker kind of places – always the town pubs.

On Saturday, I penned a long email to ‘hand in my notice’ to Ministry of Beaver. I have blogged about this in a separate entry, Nothing to do with the band, but to do with me switching priorities in life.

On Sunday, we made a trip to Ikea in Coventry. We went through a phase of going there very regularly, but hadn’t been for a while. The last time we went, we bought a really good desk for the living room computer for £10 – and a mighty sturdy one at that! We went back on Sunday to find a pedestal or set of drawers on which to place the printer. After much looking around at various options, we settled on a set of bedside drawers in a style we already have in our bedroom.

On the way to Ikea, I had noticed a slight change in engine noise, but, apart from mentioning it to the others in the car, thought little of it. However, on the return journey, as we pulled up at lights by the Ricoh Arena, the noise became very bad and smoke appeared from the engine bay. I managed to get across the roundabout and up to the parking bay before pulling over and examining the damage. As I opened the engine bay, we saw sparks dropping down from the timing belt (or cambelt) area and then saw that the belt itself had broken. This is bad news for a car, since it means the pistons are almost certainly bent and is a very expensive job to repair. Following recovery home (thanks to the quick response of the RAC again – for the second time in a year), and some research, I quickly established that a new engine might be the cheapest way to repair the car and so I resigned myself to the fact that our car, Mem Saab as it is known to us, is dead.

The old girl has done us proud. We paid £8,000 for her ten years ago and she has done 80,000 miles under our ownership (I tend to travel by motorbike whenever possible), so that’s not bad value, and I have to say, she hasn’t put a foot wrong besides standard wear and tear and corrosion. I have broken down three times in all that time and it was always (with the exception of this time) minor things which were relatively inexpensively fixed. She may have been a bit thirsty, but what a car! She got us down to Switzerland and back towing a caravan last summer without a single hiccough. She’ll be missed when she’s gone, that’s for sure.

Now comes the fun of investigating a new car. I’m only going to be looking at things on the basis of practicality and economy. I’m not really interested in looks at all – it’s very subjective anyway, and the cars most people consider to be beautiful, I’m not so keen on. I did have a thing for the Lamborghini Countach and the Lotus Esprit as a kid (those nice, ’70s cars with edges), but you can keep your BMWs, bling, and executive cars. They do absolutely nothing for me.

So, I guess it’s time to start doing some research. Wish me luck!

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Exit Stage Left

After thirty-one years’ playing and around 500 gigs with various bands, I took the decision on Saturday to ‘hang up my drumsticks’ indefinitely. I will be playing as drummer for the Ministry of Beaver until the end of June (unless the band can find a replacement before then) and then my drums will be stored away indefinitely.

Ironically, the main reason for this decision has been that the covers band for whom I play, Ministry Of Beaver, is just too busy for a man in my situation. Following recent family bereavements, and the passing of other people I’ve admired in the public eye, notably the sad death of Christopher Hitchens, I have taken a more philosophical look at life and come to the decision that I need to free up as much of my free time as possible for family – notably at weekends.

I believe that we have one life and that there is no before or after-life. We have one existence on this planet and we’d damn well better make the most of it! I’m completely happy with that concept too.

The band’s success has meant that many weekends of the year have to be reserved for gigs. This means that time we could otherwise do things as a family has been lost. This is of course what a band should be doing, and don’t get me wrong – it has been great… it’s just time for me to re-assess my priorities.

We have three children, the oldest of whom is 14 this month. I am very aware how quickly the years pass. We are now in a situation where we have a caravan, and some of my happiest childhood memories are holiday times spent away around this country – nothing grand – just great times with family. I am determined to furnish my kids with those kind of memories and am all too aware that time is ticking away.

Given that we are now in the enviable position of being able to take a quick decision to spend a couple of nights away in our caravan, show the kids around this wonderful country, and to build some of those memories, it’s a shame not to exploit that possibility.

Unfortunately, in my case, the thing that is standing in the way of us being able to do this, is the band.

Just by way of an explanation to those who may not appreciate what the average band does when playing a gig, this is how it works for the Ministry Of Beaver…

A gig usually means an early evening start on the night of the gig. The equipment has to be collected from storage and then the band makes its way to the venue. Sometimes, this is just down the road, but more often than not, it is between half an hour and an hour away from where our equipment is stored. We generally arrive at a venue between 18:30-19:00 and then the laborious process of setting up the equipment and sound-checking happens. This generally takes between an hour and an hour and a half. We are always self-sufficient, bringing along our own full P.A. and lights.

Once set up and sound-checked, we are in the position of waiting until around 21:30, which is about standard for a start time. We play between two and two and a half hours’ music and then pack everything away again, drive back to where the equipment is stored, and then finally head home. More often than not, I’m back home between 01:30 and 02:00; sometimes, as was the case on Saturday, closer to 02:30. This means a late start the following morning, and all of a sudden, the following morning is gone.

The actual buzz of playing a gig is fantastic, especially when an audience is really into it. There’s a reciprocal meeting of minds between band and audience, and the more the audience is into it, the better the band performs and plays up to it.

Playing to a lifeless crowd is not much fun, but it just happens sometimes, and it’s pretty random. The important thing is that you don’t let it bring you down and you definitely don’t take it personally. We can all expect to play a number of ‘paid rehearsals’ over time.

Fortunately, Ministry Of Beaver has always had a great level of musicianship. All the members I’ve had the pleasure of playing alongside have been great musicians and brought a lot to the band. It’s rare that you get that kind of chemistry in a band… and that level of musicianship. That may sound conceited, but I write as I find. I hear enough other bands in rehearsal rooms to know when I’ve been on to a good thing!

More importantly than that even, we all get along famously. There are no big egos or work-shy members in the band. Everyone has always turned up to rehearsals having learnt their individual parts, so we’re in the great position of being able to rehearse the song as a band, rather than run through it so that one member can figure out their part in the band’s time.

But, following years of the gig routine, I have grown weary of the peripheral work around playing – the set-up and break-down and the travelling home in the early hours of the morning, and this is ever more encroaching on the enjoyment of the actual performance, which is still actually very enjoyable. I’ve often said that I’d almost be tempted to forgo my performance fee to just turn up, play, and go home, but we’re not in that kind of league and that still wouldn’t solve the issue of freeing up time for family.

A third reason for my decision is probably surprising to many, in that I’m not overly keen on the material we play. I enjoy actually playing it all, but it’s not the kind of stuff I listen to (with some exceptions). Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor issue. I knew what I was joining and did it precisely because I knew the drum parts would be more involved and demanding than those I’d played in previous bands, so I have always appreciated that challenging aspect to the material, and just because I’m not keen, doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t love it! I staggers me how well some songs which I actually almost loathe are loved by people – and vice-versa – some stuff which I really rate as strong material can occasionally fall on deaf ears. You never know what you’re going to get. I’ve played a wide range of material with the band and there have been only a couple of songs I’ve got to in a set and thought, ‘oh no – not that one’ and only one which I couldn’t even learn, because I just loathed it from the outset and my brain just rejected it outright!

But what do I know! The Beaver is the first band I’ve played for which has a relatively regular base of ‘fans’ which come along to gig after gig to offer their support, and they’re all a great bunch of people. They love the stuff we play, so I have to thank them for making the effort to spend their time supporting us. It is very much appreciated.

My final reasoning revolved around logistics, and since my car has just died, that has thrown a further spanner in the works, merely compounding the situation. The timing of the car’s demise is truly appropriate, although it would have been better if it had waited until the end of June!

Informing the other guys in the band of my departure hasn’t been easy, and I ended up writing them a longish email on Saturday to announce my departure and explain my reasons. I had supportive responses back from all of them, which says a great deal about their friendship.

I hope that band can find a replacement who will get on with them and value them as the people and musicians they are as much as I have. I hope to support the band when I can from the sidelines. They’re a great band and a fine bunch of people.

So, my last words are addressed to my fellow Beavers, past and present… Gents – it’s been a pleasure, and I hope to enjoy a few more great gigs with the Beaver before I finally exit stage left.