Too far From Home (playing what you hate) -or – For a Fistful of Euros.

Dear Blog ….

I still ain’t told the wife (but someone will, but please don’t) – Doctor’s analysis – (severe depression.) Best way off Tranx, is sport and writing, so, 2017, I will write myself out of depression and make music. 2017 will be a musical year – hence this first post. All those gigs that I am happy to be not doing – life on the dance band circuit. (Though I still have to get through New Year’s Eve with a smile when all I wanna do is stay home with a good book)

Here we go.

« ‘Tis cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey » – a strange English colloquialism that aptly resumes weather conditions on this day in my corner of deepest rural France. Current outside température : -6°c and a frost so thick on the ground that every step feels like walking on cornflakes. Any self respecting primates, brass or otherwise, are all at home, warming their testes in front of the fire. Of course, were there any monkeys out and about, the thick fog would probably make it impossible to see them. Yes, it’s a real « pea souper » out there. Oh dear , more obscure English colloquialisms – pea soup used originally to describe the great London smog of 1952 – a, noxious green and yellow smog so thick that poor pedestrians could barely see a few yards in front of them. The 1952 London smog was reckoned to have killed around 12000 people.

You have by now ascertained that my corner of France is fog bound – a fog so thick it feels like the world has been wrapped in cotton wool. Visibility on the road is down to around ten metres – unless you car is equipped with a full set of runway lights – as opposed to feeble fog lamps, drinig is nigh on impossible – only the most foolhardy motorist , or one with a life and death mission would venture out.

It is on this, the most unpleasant of days that my heart goes out thise musicians, who are loading up their cars and heading off to play for new year dinners and dances. Weare the 30th of December 2016 and New Year’s Eve is within temporal spitting distance and those musicians booked in for New Year’s Eve gigs ,are loading their gear into their vans and cars, ready to drive to those places where the punters are expecting a musical entertainment.

The New Year’s Eve gig – the biggest date in the year for many dance bands – yes, we still have dancebands in France – collectives of professional musicians who eke out a hand-to-mouth existance, giving music lessons or doing occasional session work and augment their meagre income by playing in several dance bands. The bands all have exotic names from another age ; Marcel and his Maestros, the Starlight Orchestra, The Swing Kings … this isn’t Radio City Music hall or the Hammersmith Palais, this is rural France – and on this, fogbound freezing day, the musicians will be hitting the road for far away gigs in down-at heel provincial discothèques, draughty village halls and community centre, or bars and restaurants. Anywhere offering decent money.

I phone my mate Michel – 68 years young, fifty years on the dance hall circuit and still playing – a great drummer, a great musician. Great musicians never die, they can’t afford to, they just got to keep on playing until they can play no more.

Michel is nursing something nasty – could be the start of flu. Aching joints, ge’s struggling to get the drum kit in the back of his car.

« I’ve got two gigs over the weekend – a new tear’s Eve down near Lyons and a New Year’s day Tea dance at Clermont Ferrand. »

Quick calculation – a 600 mile round trip over the New Year weekend. He can do it, he does it pretty much every weekend.

« The lengths you go to for a few lousy Euros » he sniffles before letting loose with a hacking cough like he mokes twenty a day. Michel’s never smoked though, he hardly drinks and his only drug problem at the moment is he can’t get any aspirin because the pharmacy is closed.

New Year’s Evev gig with the Swing Kings – mostly Glenn Miller with a spot of Rock and Roll shoved in to the musical mix. Standard dance gig, Michel will paly for six hours. Bed for the night – the band leader’s camper van or a rented caravan at a local trailer park. Next day, up to Clermont Ferrand – same band but different name – The Teatime Orchestra – popular French inter war dance classics, tin pan alley stuff.

« Why are you phoning ? » he finally asks, still wheezing and gruniting as he lift his drumkit into the car.

« Wish you happy new year you silly sod, and invite you and your better half round for dinner one night. »

« Not until February » he replies – booked chock-a-block with new year tea dances mostly round olfd folks homes.

Another mate on the musical radar is Larry – late fifties guitarist, I used to sing with him in a cover band, mostly seventies stuff – Deep Purple, Toto, Free – all the stuff I just won’t sing anymore because I’m sick of it.

When he’s not doing the danceband thing, Larry plays in a local Pink Floyd tribute band and fills in on his banjo with a local Breton folk group, mostly doing sea shanties.

Tonight, he’s off on the New Year weekend cicrcuit – a dinner dance near Bordeaux with Fabulous Fred and his Mambo Kings, then New Year’s Day tea dance up in La Rochelle with the same band.

Fabulous Fred and his Mambo Kings – a lot of sassa and tango and anything else that the punters want – it is a standard dance band set up – two guitaritsts, a bass player, a keyboard who doubles as accordion when required, drummer/percussionist (standard kit with a couple of congas thrown in for good measure) – a poncey singer (hairy chest in a in a frilly shirt) and two female backing vocalists – fabulous Fred’s wife and sister in law – both ladies famous for their pot plant like stage présence but not their vocal prowess) and never forget the horn section.

I am very scathing of local dance bands, mind you most of them are not local. The Sing Kings rope in musicians from the four corners of France. They rehearse on an internet video link once a month. As for the répertoire – a catalogue of over three hundred songs – all codified. They don’t even give each other tittles on stage ; « Play 1A or 1B or 3C »

So, I hang up on Larry as he laods his gear in to his aging Mercedes – no he’s not rich, he’s got a late 70s breakdown diesel Merc because it is cheap and comfortable and had enough boot space to take all his gear.

So, why am I telling you all this

Because 2017 will be the year that I stop the draughty village hall gig circuit. I’m not a Professional musician, but with my band we do the local « Saturday night, dead gig, benefit gig, don’t give a fuck » circuit, and I’m sick of doind Deep Purple covers in local Church halls, and I admire all those unsung, gifted musicians, forced to travel the length and breadth of provincial France for a fistful of Euros and playing music they hate. No family life, no wage slips, living hand-to-mouth, because they wanted to be professional musicians . This is the reality. A six hour gig on a New Year’s night s far from home. Waking up to no breakfast in a trailer park far from your loved ones on New Year’s day with still yet another gig to do.

For all jobbing musicians all over the world. forced to pay what you hate far from home-  I love you all.