Thursday, October 04, 2007

Points of View - The Chris Difford Retreat Diaries, Part Fifteen

September 8th, 2007

11:30 p.m.

There was a moment today that stood out for me particularly. At the end of the field in which the horses frolicked amongst the flies, Dorie, Rachel and Amber are sitting at a long today, composing and rehearsing. Women with guitars. *sighs*

Half-way down the field, a selection of the "boys" are standing around. As with these fleeting moments, the memory quickly grows hazy, but I know it was at least me, Geoff, Riley and Christopher Henry. It's the first time this sort of divide has really happened while we've been out there. Deep down, we're all such touchy-feely artistic types, there has been no real battle of the sexes.

As though sensing this, we smoke our cigarettes, sip our stale beer and try to conjure up the most laddish conversation we can.

I will stress at the outset the amount of irony intended, and I shan't name names.

"So," someone says, "do you prefer tits or fanny?" (For my American readers, we are NOT referring to the derriere here. In fact, as a warning to anyone who may be considering a visit to any part of the Untied Kingdom (deliberate misspelling), please do not go into any retail outlet and ask for a "fanny pack". You may not get the response you expected.)

"If you were stuck on a desert island, like," adds another.

"Well," a third chips in, "I'd take the tits, cause they can always double up as a fanny."

The cream of several nations' songwriting talent here, people... Not a grown-up in the pack. It's brilliant.

We then, seemingly quite seriously, compare the relative attractiveness of the two sets of pigs on the farm, the normal pigs, and the wild boar, who just aren't doing it for us. They are the ugly pigs.

"That's no way to talk about the girls," someone says, and we're off again, like we never left the bike-sheds.

I'm not a particularly manly man, in fact, I'm extremely girly, but every so often it's nice to talk absolute rot while women look at you as their next purchase on returning home is most definitely a turkey baster and a membership to the Sperm of the Month club.

The week has been full of moments like these, and I wonder if, through my seemingly inability to stop analysing myself, I've really captured the flavour of what it's like to lock 14 songwriters in a farmhouse for a week.

As I sit at the table at the end of the day, listening back to the MP3s that we have FINALLY managed to coax out of the studio upstairs and into Emma-Simon's laptop and then, again, into the stereo system downstairs, I feel a montage coming on.

I see Chris, Dorie, William and myself sitting at a picnic table.

Dorie: Do you dye your hair, Chris?

I sense a running joke.

Chris D: Fuck off, bitch. (Said, of course, with the utmost affection.)

I see myself sitting in the middle of the night on a striped and slightly damp porch swing, staring at the stars and nursing a glass of vodka and lemon soda. I always think of myself as quite a solitary, pensive sort, but as I have two 5-year-olds at home, time for serious thought is restricted to quick baths and other matters of the human frame.

Mind you, as you can not lock a bathroom door against small children, their bladders having not quite yet learned to communicate effective with their own heads, this time is usually interrupted as well, by blurs of jeans and t-shirt, rendering it necessary to keep a washcloth to hand to keep their natural curiosity about the human body from translating into a visit from Social Services.

I am forever dreading a letter from school:

"Dear Mr. Hall,

It was necessary to remove Scarlet from the playground today as she was running around in circles yelling, "My daddy has a willy" at the top of her not inconsiderable voice.

You may be receiving a call from the proper authorities within the next few days."

So I tend to err on the side of prudishness.

So, yes, a little personal time was, at first, quite an acceptable novelty. Unfortunately, left to my own devices, I have a tendency to slip into depressive thoughts. A wide expanse of stars, however, helps to keep these thoughts on the right side of inspired.

So I bounce back and forth from my late night musings to the silliness and bitchiness inherent in any group of musicians. We bemoan the beer, we worry at the fact that mine and Rich's room smells - to those sensible enough to notice such things, i.e. - alarmingly of gas. We watch and wait, almost desperately, for romances - or at least lust-fests - to spring up between someone, anyone, so that we can amuse ourselves vicariously.

I swing in an indoor hammock sipping gin, trying not to wake those who have decided that perhaps an iota of sleep might be quite refreshing.

We talk a lot of shit, we swap stories of our lives within music and without.

And now we sit around the table in the middle of the night, listening to the fruits of our labours.

Chris is driving through the night to get the train back to England tomorrow, so he retires early. Upstairs in the studio, he gives each of us a big hug, which leaves me feeling sad. Even though he has not been with us to the early hours, I've really enjoyed his company, and I'm glad that we've made plans for future embroilment. (More on this later.)

It's quite moving to hear all of the songs we've all given birth to over the week, complete with our applause and laughter. Surprisingly loud is the crackle of the fireplace, which we'd taken to lighting around the second night. It sounds like gunshots, and we giggle as we mime Chris culling the group, like a shotgun-packing Simon Cowell.

We've been prone to strange mimes the whole week. From the unzipped face revelation that one of us is, in fact, Glenn Tilbrook in disguise, to Dorie and Geoff's marvellous flute faces, we have laughed a lot. I almost wish we could just purchase an enormous tour bus and head out, Stiff Records-style, as the Chris Difford Travelling Circus.

I don't know if the week is what I was expecting. It's been such an enclosed experience that's it's hard now to judge it against anything except itself. But I've loved every second thought.

I can't help but wonder what will happen to the songs that appeared here for the first time. I know I've written in a completely different way, and the songs in which had a hand are occupying a completely different headspace from the ist album in progress. But then, every group of songs I've ever written has, so far, always been different to the last, so who knows?

It has been interesting, however, how many of us have gone for the witty line, even the out and out funny line. Not all, there have been some pieces of pure beauty as well, but it's clear that the immediate reaction of recognition, a smile or a laugh is terribly addictive. That, in itself, says a lot about why we all do this... God knows, I'd trade all the late night fumbling in the world for a room full of people singing along. Although, if that could be followed by a little late night fumbling, I won't complain.

I take a last proper look at everyone's faces and realise, probably quite late in the day, that I have at least one pin-stripe sharp memory of each of them that were this a film would be re-played over the strains of an uplifiting ballad about moments and magic.

Amber: sleeping in the studio, the World's Biggest Dog at, on and round her feet. Playing the guitar with such easy grace.

Danielle: master of the outraged double-take, and prone to carrying a dictaphone recording of a drum roll to punctuate jokes at the lunch table.

Rich: Quietly and slowly coming out of his shell until we finally plied him with gin. He was the dark horse of the week, by a country mile. A true star, with too much humility for his own good. (His sudden exclamation as someone went off to bed of "Wait, we're going to skull-fuck you!" a prime example of how much he surprised everyone, in a good way.)

Riley: Oh, Riley. Where to begin? You bought me gin and cadged me fags. You drank with me to the early hours and then encapsulated my skewed, romantic nature in a welter of 80's synth. You're the reason I now can't hear The Brakes without becoming violently angry. (Before I used to just vomit. My god, they're shit.) You are, in your own words, a guid cunt.

Geoff: How the same person can co-pen the beautiful "Birdsong" and a brilliant line concerning the mounting (not like that!) of kittens, bewilders and excites me.

John B: Master of the hat, jamming off his face, phone pictures of outrageous Cheap Trick guitars and not beating me to death as I deconstructed the entire history of the Catholic Church, loudly, in an otherwise sedate National Gallery. More than that, the way you talked of your daughter and wife was wonderful. Oh, and the first person to be impressed by my Ardal O'Hanlon impression in sometime.

Rachel: Natural Reverb. Unfair. Giggling as I once again said yoghurt in my slurred Canadian accent. You make me remember why I've always been so fond of kiwi.

Helen: Those are, indeed, some kinky shoes.

Emma-Jane (I shall grant you your real name, just this once): Our ad hoc performance of "Walking in Memphis" was a highlight. Your delight in showing Difford videos of me dancing and singing show tunes, was not. Meh.

Darren: You made me play lead guitar! And I almost got it right. You're a miracle worker. : ) In our matching hats, we played some blues.

William: You rant like no one I've ever known, and sing like you were born on a bayou. I was in stitches in every conversation, and in tears at nearly every song. You kept me sane throughout the week, with your partner-in-crime, Ms. Jackson.

Dorie: For some reason, at this second, all I can see is your face as I let out that ridiculous cackle at the table. The shock and horror will be burned on my soul forever. I don't think I've ever enjoyed someone's digust at the insect population more. You thought my name was Tomkin, and I didn't mind. Says it all really.

Christopher: I bought East Side Story in 1996, and, in the interim, I've purchased every single piece of music you've ever been involved with. Which means, calculating your royalty share, that in my life I have probably given you a grand total of £11.75. You gave me so much more, by inviting me to come, by simulataneously encouraging me and taking the piss out of me, and for a host of other things I can't even begin to put into words.

There's so much more to say. So many things I haven't written down.

Happily, there are the songs... So much more is coming back to me as we listen to the songs.

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