Monday, October 01, 2007

Slightly Drunk, The Chris Difford Retreat Diaries, Part Eleven

September 6th, 2007

We pull up to the restaurant in Umbertide in a bewildering variety of vehicles, looking like the cast of the most unlikely heist movie in history. God knows what we have been gathered together by Don Diffordio to steal. Cigarettes, perhaps, or cheese.

Riley Briggs stumbles from the boot of Alessio's 4X4, looking green about the gills, his previous meal threatening a new Scottish uprising.

Alessio, one of our hosts at Monestevole, is a bear of a man, all eyes, hair, beard and teeth. In addition to his position of Lord of the Manor (a purely honorary title, as his wife Valeria, like most women, is clearly and rightly in charge) he is an actor and has recently returned from shooting an epic on a budget in Argentina. He is one of those people who oozes virility and would the first person to whom you would point were aliens to land on the planet and demand an immediate demonstration of the human concept of "being alive."

He is also, clearly, mad as a box of bees. Riley describes the journey with a mixture of admiration and horror that would seem more at home in a Joseph Conrad novella than an Italian car park. Alessio appears to have taken the "off-road" capacity of his vehicle as less of an option and more of a command from on high, and has been driving, at speed, along a route that would be stretching the strictest definitions of the qualifier, "scenic".

Just to raise the stakes, he has also has been playing baroque Italian pop music at full volume, which would be no bad thing in itself, if it weren't for Alessio's need to mime the instrumental parts whilst driving. One hand, apparently, leaves the wheel at regular intervals to tap out the keyboard parts on the dashboard. There is, according to Riley, a particularly hairy moment during a trumpet solo, when he is left steering with what modesty dearly hopes were his knees, but knowing Alessio, may have been any number of appendages.

I like him immensely, and feel that I have missed out somehow.

Over the course of the week, with our two and three course meals twice a day, we have apparently been shortchanged, for tonight we are to be blessed with no fewer than 17,000. For my body, it's a nice change of pace from my usual dietary regime:

Breakfast: Coffee, cigarettes.

Lunch: Coffee, cigarettes.

Dinner: Coffee, cigarettes.

Around 11:30 p.m: Spaghetti and a block of mature cheddar.

This is, of course, only during rehearsal weeks. On tour, I supplement this with service station sandwiches and wine gums. With my insomnia factored into the bargain, suffice it to say, I'm not necessarily a poster child for healthy living.

After thanking Valeria for both the lift and her family's hospitality over the week, I leap in the smoke-shrouded direction of William and Dorie, both sucking back cigarettes in the rapidly chilling Italian night.

I have grown very fond of Mr. Topley and Miss Jackson. What they think of me, I don't know, although they have both been very kind. William reminds me very strongly of our Mr. McCourt, a quick wit and a sharp tongue, backed by an incredibly poetic soul. Dorie is just insanely talented, and a very appealing mixture of silliness and elegance. She is one of those people that appears to no have sense of their own good looks or ability, without seeming overly self-deprecatory at all. She just seems comfortable being Dorie Jackson. Even if it's not 100% true, for this is a rare state of affairs indeed, she projects it and, in her line of work, that's a tremendous advantage.

And so, we stand, and we smoke. And we bitch and we joke.

The smoking ban, I feel, makes for close relationships amongst those who still partake of the demon weed. I know smoking is bad for me, I don't smoke around my children or in their house, and one day I'm sure I will, for reasons of age and health, pack it in. The thing that keeps me smoking, other than, of course, my raging nicotine addiction, is that I find anti-smokers so appallingly self-righteous. I believe that, in life, many of the things that are bad for us are essential to our growth as human beings, and I as I don't drink anything like I used to, and have never been overly involved with drugs, I need my vices. They keep me sane. Self-justification, I know, but those are my reasons. And very few of my other vices can be explored in public without fear of arrest.

The meal is sublime, if FAR more food than my delicate constitution can withstand. But then... then... we discover the smoking area.

Apparently, in Italy, it is - for the time being - still legal for a restaurant to have a smoking area. An area, separate from other diners, where one can smoke indoors! The novelty! The sheer bliss!

I have long held - and it's only being borne out more rapidly thanks to the Nannies and Nazis in various governments - that at least 80% of the respiratory diseases contracted by smokers are caused by being forced to smoke outdoors, whatever the weather. It's a spurious argument, without any medical basis in fact, but I maintain that this does not make it any the less true. Christianity has no basis in fact, it hasn't stopped millions of people from fucking the world up with it. So there. This is my faith.

Riley (another kindred spirit, although someone I would like a lot more if he didn't insist on being good at songwriting AND playing the guitar, the bastard), Dorie, William and I retire to this Xanadu of tobacco-laced grace and luxuriate in the stale atmosphere we had thought dead forever.

Here in Italy, where they actually embraced Fascism officially, if briefly, we finally get a break from the stranglehold most Western, Democratic countries seem to want to place on their citizens.

A little bit of politics there, Kenton. Ah well, if it weren't for authority figures, I'd only have Oasis and Russell Brand to hate.

After the meal, we return to the studio, where Mr. Difford has promised us a set of his own. I take the Alessio express, whose departure is announced by a cry from the man himself of "Who comes with me? Vomit for free!"

It is everything Riley said and more. I don't think I've ever been so happy. We take seven spins on the same roundabout at one point, and then career through increasingly narrow side streets like we're auditioning for a remake of The French Connection. It is fucking brilliant. I take the boot, for the full experience, and sway and sing to my little Canadian heart's content.

Back at the ranch, Mr. Difford has brought his guitar. With Dorie on backing vocals, and John Bentley guesting on lead guitar, we get Squeeze and solo material played as we sip Sangria, prepared earlier alongside our usual tipples of vodka, sambuca, vats of cheap wine and non-alcoholic beer.

Or at least I do...

But from Chris, we get Cool for Cats, Tempted, Up the Junction ("I'm working on a chorus," Chris quips in response to Riley's "Needs work."), Cowboys are My Weakness (more on this song at a later date), Fat as a Fiddle (a new song I've heard twice now, which I believe was written with Boo Hewerdine, and which I adore), Pulling Mussels from a Shell, Black Coffee in Bed, Goodbye Girl... It's amazing. On the recording, you can, one, just about hear me singing along at the top of my lungs to every bloody track, and two, hear me and Riley requesting increasingly obscure songs that Chris hasn't rehearsed. There is a terribly embarrassing moment where I bleat "No Show Jones", a cracking song from Chris' first solo album, and am quite rightly ignored for being such a swot.

The night begins become a blur around this point. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that earlier in the day I had commented on the fact that, despite consuming heroic quantities of alcohol, none of us appear to have been properly pissed at any point. No falling over, no vomiting on tiny cat, no orgies of any description.

I'm a man on a mission. Despite my bottle of vodka, I really don't get drunk anymore. The first two or nine ist tours saw to that. But every so often, I feel the need to loosen up and tie one on, just to see what happens. Tonight is that night.

At one point, I even wandered off to bed with everyone else, before deciding that was BORING and heading back.

Riley, up to this point, has been the record holder for keeping the party alive, so once everyone has finally buggered off, I decide to join him.

I actually don't feel drunk at this point, not in a swaying, sick-making way. I am, it seems, my other, more usual type of intoxicated - the talk absolute nonsense and spill all my most innermost secrets kind of drunk.

Every love, lust and crush is identified and dissected. My history is laid out, in chronological order and with slides. My thoughts on, well, everything are trotted out and paraded around the room in hopes of a blue ribbon. Riley responds in kind, only at slightly less hectic a verbal pace. We nod at each other's stories in a wise and understanding way, secure in the knowledge that if only, for the love of all that is HOLY, they would just put us in charge of the world, everything would be OKAY. I run out of cigarettes, I start cadging Riley's. For now, he seems okay with that, but I must remember to get him some more or else be tarred - as I usually am - as a sponger of rare ability.

I tell this man everything. He probably knows more about me now than anyone alive. He is a dangerous man and must be stopped. It's cathartic for me, but I should imagine Mr. Briggs would, sober, be thinking something along the lines of, "Oh, for fuck's sake...". He's probably thinking it drunk.

The worst thing is, we're both writers. We're both storing up all of this information and filing it in a mental notebook at the back of a mental cupboard in the bottom of a mental box, labelled "STUFF".

I must never, ever, ever piss off Riley Briggs. Aberfeldy are the greatest band in the universe, Riley the most attractive man, and his children are destined to rule the world someday. The money is in a brown envelope, behind the oak tree.

We see in the sunrise through drink-narrowed eyes, hug in a brisk manly fashion, and stumble off to bed.

It is 6:30 a.m. on September 7th, 2007.

I have a song to write tomorrow. Oh fuck.

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