Monday, October 01, 2007

In Today's Room, The Chris Difford Retreat Diaries, Part Seven

September 4th, 2007

I have now been out of contact with life back in England for two days, and I have to admit I am growing a little anxious, primarily because I realise that I have a problem. I am addicted to checking my emails. A cold sweat pours down my neck at the thought of all of the vitally important offers of penis enlargement on which I am missing out.

I mean, my God, a Nigerian widow might desperately need my help to shift the remainder of her late husband's multi-million pound estate lest it be claimed by rebel soldiers. And where am I? Swanning about a 15th century farmhouse, writing songs and moping around because I have clearly already become a big brother/father/uncle/gay friend to all of the women within the group.

Despicable behaviour on my part, without a doubt.

I arrange with Chris at breakfast to get a lift to the internet cafe at some point in the afternoon.

It occurs to me that in trying to jot down all the big moments of the week so far, I haven't really given a suitable amount of time to the day-to-day minutiae that makes up our life here.

Today, the primary cause for concern is that, after two days of blazing sunshine, it has decided to piss it down with rain. The breakfast coffee is punctuated, in large part, by Dorie Jackson decrying her mother's sartorial advice, and praying to whatever God might be listening for a jumper of some description.

This is the effect I have on women. Two days in my company, and they start putting on extra layers.

Also, there has been a scorpion sighting. Despite a decent amount of geographical knowledge, the romantic side of one's brain still associates scorpions with much wilder, and far more eastern climes. Scorpions should be accompanied by fedoras, whips and a rousing John Williams score, not lurking about the bathroom to mentally derange Western Songwriters abroad. It's such a waste.

When I was in the fifth or sixth grade (about 10 or 11 years old, for those Europeans amongst you who can't be arsed to look it up), we had a teacher of Indian extraction, named Mr. MacArthur, who would often tell us tales of how he and his brother would catch scorpions, remove the stings from their tails, and keep them as pets. It all seemed impossibly exotic to a Canadian boy, who - despite being surrounded by majestic geography of all shapes and sizes himself - still longed for far more adventure than could be offered by breakfast at Denny's.

Here in Italy, someone despatches the scorpion with extreme prejudice.

I have started to fall into a pattern here, already, as - it would seem - have others. I wake up feeling like shit and wanting to crawl inside myself and die, fearful of what I might have said the previous night, and to whom. Happily, I'm only drinking enough to occasionally dance, rather than passing out in the lap of someone to whom I have recently declared my undying love. Unfortunately, Emma-Jim-Fred-Vera-Hyancith Thommen is filming pretty much everything, a fact we all seem to be semi-consciously aware of, but at this point, without a real sense that it may mean our off-the-cuff rendition of "Consider Yourself" from Oliver! has now been captured for posterity.

I then proceed to what, for me, passes for Breakfast - as much coffee as I can eat and the best part of whatever's left in the crumpled packet of Camels in my back pocket. I scan the list to see who I will be working with - today, William Topley! - and then spend another hour or so mumbling inanities at all and sundry while I try to jump-start my brain.

I think the oddest thing for me, especially outside my immediate group of confidantes, is that I am insanely curious as to what is going on in the minds of the quieter members of the group. Me, Riley, William, Dorie, Emma-Greg, Geoff, Danielle form a core of people who are fairly open about what we're thinking at any given moment, or at least, what we want people to think that we're thinking. Amber, Helen, Rich, Rachel, Darren, John B, and Chris seem a little more obviously circumspect. Of course, there is a lot of cross-over between the two as people cycle through their emotional make-ups and encounter situations in which they seem more or less comfortable. (That is to say, how drunk they are.)

The one thing we all have in common is that, for one reason or another, we have all gravitated towards music as more than a passing fancy. Some of us either do it for a living or are working on it, for others it's just a big part of their life, amongst other things.

I feel a small amount of envy for those for whom it is not an all-consuming career choice. Occasionally, I catch myself bitching about record companies, managers, booking agents, etc or being bitched AT about the same, and I struggle to remember the moment when I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life. Then, someone picks up a guitar, or shifts to a piano, and you find yourself singing. A harmony kicks in, an egg-shaper drops to the beat.

I don't know how to describe what it's like, when it works.

Wait. I do.

There's a moment during sex, which I hope everyone has had the good fortune to experience, where you abruptly stop worrying about the chafing knee, the elbow on the hair, the fact that your partner really shouldn't be able to bend in quite that direction, and you're just there... smack fuck in the middle of a perfect moment. The edges blur, and you're lost. Being part of a song, when it's really working, feels exactly like that. Okay, sometimes, it's more like a rough knee-trembler up against a dorm room wall, but... it's the sometimes that keeps you coming back for more, that keeps you trying when it all seems to go wrong.

I've already started paying voyeuristic attention to the lyrics of various people's songs, in the hope of reading between the lines and garnering fresh insights into the human condition. Or at least fill a couple of pages of diary entry.

But now to work. As it is raining, Mr. Topley and I, after a couple of perspectively-challenged coffees, and a half-dozen cigarettes, repair to the comfort of his front room with my guitar and a keyboard.

I begin to do what I do best, which is big rhythmic chords. (I learned to play the acoustic guitar from the opening chord of "Things We Said Today" by The Beatles, and I'm still chasing that moment.) This seems to go down well with my co-writer.

But what shall we write about?

"I have an idea about a serial killer," I suggest, smiling perhaps too broadly, for William moves away from me and smokes out of the window.

Happily, this idea is glossed over and returned to Kenton's Big Book of Weirdass Pop Songs, to be tackled another day.

Then the strangest thing happens, William begins to sing over the chords in a note-perfect Jamaican/Caribbean accent.

"I quite fancy an old-fashioned calypso boasting song," he says.

I consult my inner monologue. Okay, I've never done that before, I think to myself.

Let's do it, I reply.

I agree, but add a cautionary note: Do you think it will matter that when I sing it, it will come out as a Welsh/Mexican/Pakistani boasting song?

What ensues is perhaps the most fun I have ever had writing a song. There is serious musical thought: "It's a bit strange going to that C there, but the structure really works... Do you think we should change the key?" "Let's just run at it, jump on it, and it'll work." "Excellent plan."

But the best bit, other than we fashion a tune we can't stop singing, is that the shape of the song and the subject matter allows for some fine innuendo, followed by some even finer dirty cackling by yours truly.

The verse of which I am proudest was the final one:

She take your rum and then she rub it better

Yeah, she's a scorpion girl

She suck the venom and apply the pressure

Yeah, she's a scorpion girl

We also work for a while on a more melancholy number called "No Fairytales" about being far from home, and the fleeting, anonymous, but by no means emotionless relationships in which one can easily fall. Both are songs I'd love to hear done properly - that is to say, with William and his big soulful voice singing them.

After lunch, we sing "Scorpion Girl", as our new creation has been christened through a few times, before I - traitorous bastard to the cause that I am - fuck off to the small, nearby town to check my emails (and end up both pinching myself rather hard and being startled to laughter by an Italian beggar).

Which seems as good a moment as any to take a short break...

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