I have a press cutting and a letter. On the floor is a guitar. Finding them involved a search to the back and bottom of a rented storage unit where, for the last few years, they've rested in the darkness of the same scrappy guitar case I placed them in twenty-five years earlier. It's miraculous that they survived at all. I moved around a lot in those days and what I owned I had to carry.
Tonight the house is still. I open the case, take up the guitar and tuck the body under my right arm. It still fits, familiar; it feels like a reunion. I breathe in the smell of wood glue and varnish, intensified after years of confinement, tinged now with something metallic: those tired, bronze-wound strings, still giving off the same vinegary scent of old pennies. I rest a thumb on the top string and let it slide, an even, gentle motion that produces a soft hum which lingers for a moment, then leaks through the wood into the bones of my leg.
Thirty years ago it was a thing of beauty, the Takamine, a prized possession that lit the corner of many a grim bedsit. But gigging is a hard business, sometimes perilous. Amid the scratched, pockmarked patina are two, four-millimetre holes. On the underside it's the same – a perfect trajectory. I remember that gig well, at the legendary Mean Fiddler, Harlesden, one of the few we filmed. I've watched it a hundred times, not through vanity, but to spot the moment when someone fired two .177 calibre shots into the guitar's body while I lurched about on stage, oblivious. I noticed the holes the next morning. One shot passed clean through. The other, a small crumpled ball of lead, remained wedged in the wood. It's still there.
I put the guitar back into its case and unfold the press-cutting: Making Music, London, May 1991, centre pages. I read the first line: 'Bliss, a band with grandiose ambition – and they almost pull it off too'. It goes on to review a set of four songs I'd written. I find myself cringing now but when it was published, decades ago, the band was ecstatic.
The letter arrived a week after the review. I slip it out of its envelope. It's expensive, bonded white paper, but yellowed from age. The company logo is embossed in silver- CBS Records. It still has power but it feels ominous, like a summons or an unpaid bill. Below is a single paragraph: 'An appointment has been booked, 24th May, 1991, 2 pm'. It's signed Lincoln Elias, Director of A&R.
These few artefacts are all that survive: the press-cutting, the letter, the Takamine. Everything else from that era has vanished, even the people.
It's spring, 1989. Lee and I find ourselves parking for the night in a blind alley off Tottenham Court Road, London, about to spend the first of sixty nights sleeping in a van. We have no idea it will be so long but we know we'll be fine: 'What about the cops?' 'What about them?' 'Or wardens? – they clamp up here.' 'Lee, mate – just chill out. This is London, not shitsville Exmouth. No one gives a toss about a couple of blokes crashed out in a van.'
Hours earlier, we'd loaded our clapped-out, lime-green, Fiat Fiorino with sleeping bags, drums and guitars. Then we'd driven two-hundred miles east to the Capital. The plan is simple. Get a band together. If anyone can do it, we can. We're old school mates. We've shared the same classes, listened to the same music, competed for the same girls. 'Peas in a pod', they said, 'inseparable' and 'bloody dreamers – you don't stand a chance, lads'.
But we've been ready since the moment we left our crummy secondary modern – no qualifications, unemployable. We've played everyday since, two years, and those who've heard us think we're good. 'Form a band', they say, 'Get a gig at the Beachcomber'. But we can do better than that, much better – and London's the place to prove it.
As an abode, the Fiorino proves dire. The cargo area is too short, narrow, the internal wheel hubs, intrusive. 'We'll have to spoon, mate – S-shaped, synchronise our turns'. The tom-toms, snare, symbols and guitars, we stow across the front seats and cover with blankets for security. But the bass drum's a problem. Too cumbersome, there's no room to lie down. 'Let's remove the skins,' I say, 'Crawl through the middle, head facing north, feet south.' So Lee sleeps wearing a cylinder of lacquered plywood and chrome, like some giant chastity belt.
The first night we wake often from strange street noises, the perpetual sirens of the city, ominous, aggressive. We keep the windows wound tight against the clamour but it penetrates anyway. By morning, the air is dank with perspiration, bad breath and lingering fart. Condensation has formed, a primordial drizzle that drips from the uninsulated metal roof. It feels as if the van is alive, sweating along with us. But mostly we're just bored. There's no spare cash. We need jobs fast because getting a room is priority. The moment night falls, we crawl into the back, eat pies, share Special Brew, think and talk.
Lee: Mum's having an affair. (Big gulp of Special Brew.)
Me: No way. Penny? Never. (Incredulous laughter.)
Lee: My sister told me. (Deadly serious.)
Me: Who is it? (Reining it in, but still grinning)
Lee: Some insurance bloke.
Lee's mother's crazy. Everyone who has met her knows it instantly. We call her the Ginger Stoat, an uncannily accurate description, both in appearance and mannerism. She works behind the make-up counter at Boots the Chemist and wears the company products with enthusiasm. Lee's dad is a stay-in-watch-the-box sort of guy. But Penny, she loves to party. Then it dawns on me:
'D'you know his name?'
'Brian, I think.'
'Does he drive a yellow TR7?'
This is how we learn that the Ginger Stoat is amorously involved with Brian Penright, insurance salesman, serial adulterer who also happens to be the 'part-time' boyfriend to my mother...
'It has been going on for a decade,' I tell Lee, by way of consolation. 'My old man's got no clue either.'
By 5 am we're up, standing outside the van, crumpled, groggy. Our damp sleeping bags hang for a while over the back doors, airing, but we're keen to beat the morning rush to Waterloo Station where a quid buys us hot showers. I park the van opposite the station, under cover of the bridge. Dozens of homeless people have set up camp here. They sleep cocooned in cardboard boxes, Zanussi and Hotpoint logos on the sides. Small fires burn but the smoke can't escape. It rises up to touch the underside of the bridge, where it cools against the bare concrete and falls as thick bluish smog. In the darkness, shapes mooch about. Not old or mad-looking, but young like us – too much like us, I worry. Yards away, Rollers and Bentleys speed by. Red buses carry passengers to work, well-fed, warm, with prospects.
Our lack of marketable skills narrows employment opportunities to retail. As we've both heard of the Kings Road, Chelsea – Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm Mclaren, the Sex Pistols – we begin our search there, hopeful the area's pedigree as a hub of cultural creativity might lead us to other musicians in the pubs and clubs. But it's not like that. We're a decade too late. Now there are rows of hellishly expensive boutiques (of which Westwood's Worlds End is one), wine bars and restaurants. The pubs are full of suited yuppies, with sports cars and Range Rovers parked outside. The only hint that this was once a cultural Mecca are the punks who loll about outside the military base, posing for tourists. I've seen ones just like them on postcards but this lot are kitted out in designer gear and their peacock-esque Mohawks are too preened. There's no derision here, no rage against the machine. They are the machine, possibly even the spoilt offspring of City financiers, no longer the hard-core punks up en masse from the burbs.
Across from the punks, I notice a shop, Jean Genie. There's a sign: 'Opening Soon!' A guy in paint-splattered overalls soaps the outside windows. White paper blocks out the interior but the door's ajar. Five minutes later we have jobs. We start Monday.
Camden High Street is thronged. It's 6 pm. We crawl through the Friday rush, up past the entrance to the tube, where electricity and escalator smells mingle with joss sticks and incense cones, where hundreds more push out into the road. Tomorrow night we plan to spend a few hours at World's End, a pub with a well-known live music venue downstairs, Underworld. I've read about it in Making Music and NME. Each night there's a different genre: rock and pop, dance, acid, techno – tickets five quid.
Camden feels right after the blandness of Chelsea. Grungy boutiques line the street, their brick facades wallpapered with dozens of t-shirts that flap in the breeze, like flocks of tethered butterflies. Garment racks are chained to drainpipes, overstuffed and bowing. And trestles, precariously piled with the knick-knacks of youth fill whatever space is left, their makeshift signs offering 'two-for-one', 'three-for-five', 'today only'. Tomorrow there will be a market here, a shanty of stalls will spring up, selling everything from fetish gear to street-food. A hundred-thousand people will descend from all over London, all squashed into these few streets, all keen to see and be seen.
We have the windows rolled down now. The decibels of chatter seep in, a continuous wave, unintelligible but friendly. Lee picks a random tape and slips it into the stereo – it's Queen. Now I'm here from Sheer Heart Attack, mid song – Down in the dungeon just peaches and me. We drive over the lock, where longboats moor, and on under the railway bridge, with its Victorian brick hidden under layers of posters, paper-on-paper, an inch thick in places. They're arranged in tiers: on top, out of reach, professional, A1-sized, printed in full colour, slick and shiny. These belong to the bands who've made it, they have record deals, marketing budgets. Below is a hotchpotch of smaller, home-made offerings – the struggling bands, kids like us, dreamers. Their gigs are dated today, tomorrow – every day for months to come. There are so many. In a year, ours will be here, too. Lee will hold the bucket, I'll coat the soft-bristled brush with wallpaper paste, covering up yesterday's hopefuls, before ours are hidden by tomorrow's wannabes – it's a vicious circle, endless.
We will call the band Bliss. A year from today, we'll have a following, a small cluster of die-hard 'fans', willing to trek across London to see the band everyone's talking about. A year later we'll have a manager, Trish, a fifty-year-old peroxide Mancunian, who'll fight our corner, gloves off, brutal. But the music press will inexplicably adore her, They'll keep coming back for more. Our gigs will get bigger, better: The Bull and Gate, The Dublin Castle, The Amersham Arms, Water Rats, Underworld, The Mean Fiddler (Acoustic Room and then the Main Hall). A frenetic uphill dash.
Then the letter from CBS Records will arrive. Our big chance. Our 'gravy train to the big time,' Trish will say. We'll play a set for the boys in suits on 24th May, 1991, at 2 pm. We'll give it all we've got, and then we'll wait, by the phone, the mailbox. We'll ring Trish daily until she stops answering our calls, ('Too busy, lads, other bands to look after...'). We'll begin to fight, point fingers and, within six months, we'll break up.
If the internet had been in full force in 1991, I guess I could Google Bliss and something would come up: a few scratchy photos, some long-forgotten column inches, a YouTube clip, maybe. But there is nothing. It never happened. I was in London a few weeks ago and made a trip up Camden High Street for old times' sake. The boutiques are still there but the vibe has changed. Of course, I'm older now. Perhaps I'm missing the point. I decided to walk up as far as the bridge, hoping to see a mass of posters, maybe even the yellowing corner of a Bliss flyer, a deeply buried artefact. But the brickwork is clean, re-pointed. A single red sign is all that remains: 'The posting of bills is strictly prohibited'.
Lee and I park the van on Primrose Hill and sit on the grass, smoking. The city below is doused in soft, late evening sun. He has his drumsticks and taps out a rhythm on the side of his Doc Martin. I hold the Takamine. It's brand new, flawless. My arm's draped across the arrow-straight neck, with its delicate inlays of creamy mother-of-pearl. I study how the fretboard is divided, diminishing parallel lines, like tracks for a toy train. Idly I count them: twenty-four in all. Just six strings but a million possible combinations. Every song ever written, and countless ones yet to come – they're all on there somewhere.
We've been in London for thirty-six hours. On Monday we'll be back in Chelsea, sleeping in the van, showering at Waterloo Station, and working at a jeans shop on the Kings Road – 'a couple of lads with no chance...'. But for now, for tonight at least, we can dream.
Charles Hara spent twelve years managing Guide Magazines in New Zealand. Then a holiday in the South of France opened up an opportunity to roast speciality coffee in Provence, which proved too tempting to pass. Now he lives in Oxford, England, receives his magazines by subscription, and buys his coffee, one cup at a time.