Monday, October 01, 2007

Trust Me To Open My Mouth, The Chris Difford Retreat Diaries, Part Five

September 3rd, 2007

In the course of a relatively short, and fairly eventful life, I have woken in a variety of ways, and places.

There's the sudden moment of panic, coming out of nightmare, that leaves you sitting bolt upright, cold sweat trickling between your shoulder blades, momentarily convinced that your girlfriend has run off with her best friend, or that you have accidentally married your sister. Worst still is the wakefulness of the indiscreet man, waking with someone you're not sure you know, but are most certainly sure ought to be wearing more clothing.

There are soft kisses and fumbling hands, easing you back into consciousness. There is the muddle-headed mid-tour morning, finding yourself in a room that smells of drunken musicians, suffering from a case of mild tinnitus, brought on in equal measures by the previous night's gig and the snoring of various band members.

The worst, by far, is waking alone in a strange place.

This morning, it takes me several minutes to come to terms with where I am. Thankfully, due to the non-intoxicating nature of the beer to hand, the hangover is mild and inconsequential. I fumble for my non-functioning phone, which has - for the duration of my trip - been demoted to alarm clock. It is beeping loudly and obnoxiously and clearly has been for some time.

Time to show willing, I think, crawling into a fairly random collection of clean clothing and stumbling towards the kitchen for breakfast, where, I am reliably informed, the first list of writers will be posted.

Unlike our other meals of the previous day, the breakfast table is sparsely attended in shifts as people shake off the holiday lethargy and remind themselves that we actually have work to do. Coffee and cigarettes are an essential, particularly as my body will not tolerate food until a much more civilised time of day - say, two or three in the afternoon.

We are an odd number - 13 - so it appears that each day there will be at least one group of three writers working together, and I am in the first such group. On a typed piece of paper, direct from the laptop of Mr. Difford, two columns list the names of the writers, with a third containing only my name. Until I clock this, I am momentarily afflicted by a sinking feeling.

They've forgotten I'm here, I think. I half expect to be asked to wash dishes, or sweep something. Perhaps I misunderstood. I wasn't invited to write. I'm the waiter.

Ah, there I am.

Today I will be composing in the company of Mr. Riley Briggs and Ms. Danielle Gasparro.

Interesting. It was a bit of a United Nations of Rock: Scotland, Canada and the US of A all present and correct. Now all we had to do was to write a song from scratch and perform it this evening.


In considering the idea of keeping this journal, I had one major misgiving:

How in the hell was I going to make the act of songwriting interesting on the page?

I'm sure other songwriters will sympathise with me when I describe the moment of sheer panic that can set in whenever anyone asks you: "How do you write songs?"

I'll be the first to admit, I have no idea. I have written a couple of hundred songs in my time, and each one has followed a period of running screaming around the room. And everytime I have finished a song, I am convinced that I'll have to retire, as I have clearly used up every idea that I've ever had. Twice.

And then, eventually, something creeps into your head and you have to write it down. You start whistling to yourself. You're thumping on a badly-tuned piano, or fumbling with a barely-strung guitar.

In the band, I write alone first and then complete the song with the band, so that I can get all the going violently mad out of the way before I get to the rehearsal room. I have written with others once or twice, but only once outside of the band (with the masterful Kevin Hewick) has it ever led to a complete song with which I was happy.

Also, I am a lyrical Nazi. I'll be the first to admit it. I have a tyrannical approach to lyrics. My response to a line I don't like, even in other people's songs, can range from violent rages to projectile vomiting.

However, I was determined not to reveal my hand as an utter bastard until much later in the week.

Once we are sufficiently awake, Danielle, Riley and I retire to a horse-infested table in the sun and start chucking ideas at each other. At first this involves myself and Riley noodling on guitars (actually, he is playing properly, I'm the one begging to be served with crispy duck) until something sticks in everyone's heads.

photo by Riley Briggs

I have literally no idea of how we eventually hit upon the idea of a crumbling relationship. I suppose we've all been in enough of them. Perhaps there's aura of kitchen sink drama emanating from Chris's room.

Surprisingly, we actually write quite well together.

Yes, I am, at first, quite stroppy in the lyrical department, before I realise that the lines Danielle and Riley are chucking out are pretty bloody good. Damn these professional songwriting types! And, yes, it does take a certain amount of time to get used to other's methods - the things they concentrate on: With me it's the rhythm of words, with others the structure of melody, harmony and what the hell was that chord you just played, Kenton, it's horrible.

Before too long, we settle on a "he said/she said" structure that deals with a couple on the verge of drifting apart - both hungry for attention, she in silence, and he in a welter of overachieving which brings treasures but little or none of the simple conversation she craves.

I have to say, I feel quite close to this song, and Riley can actually play it properly... I am cast in the role of the awkward, insensitive lover. Bloody typecasting.

(Note: I am transcribing the lyrical excerpt below from God knows what draft of the song, and from my handwriting, so dearest co-writers, please correct any errors.)


You left me with the morning, there beside me in the bed

With no kiss to seal the distance, between my heart and your head

I'm halfway through my novel, by a quarter after nine

I crave your conversation but your silence would be fine

What's a girl to say? To make you want to stay?


I staggered in this morning, with my holster at my knees

Battle-scarred and bloodied, with a rose between my teeth

You offer only silence, when I'm worthy of applause

I offer you such treasures, but they seem to give you pause

What's a man to do? To prove himself to you?.

Feeling quite proud of ourselves, or nervous, or too sober, or something, we fold up work for the day and wander off in search of cigarettes, alcohol and lunch.

Outside of my writing duties, I have - like the nerd that I am - locked on to a group in which I feel comfortable (in particular Mr. Topley and Ms. Jackson) and am soon babbling away in my Kentonesque stylee about nothing in particular. No doubt I am covering my usual biographical information: horrible religious upbringing, propensity for bizarre, occasionally overlapping relationships, my band, my kids, my skewed world-view... all the things I falsely believe make me sound more interesting than I am.

I quickly begin to bore myself, and soon shut up to observe the others at the table, and laugh myself sick at William and Dorie's pointed commentary on everything within a 500-mile radius.

The group does seem to be divided between those of us who respond to social situations by being loud, and those who respond by being quiet. I seem to be bouncing merrily between the two camps, although likely - nervously - erring on the side of the loud.

Chris himself seems very understated and laid back. You can sense a combination of the writer and the man (who I could not possibly claim to know) battling it out in his head. He was both observing all of us strange and unusual creatures, and dealing with a social situation however Chris Difford deals with a social situation.

Even in thinking it, let alone writing it down, I realise that I am doing EXACTLY the same thing. Or, more correctly, perhaps I am assuming that he is doing it because I am doing it. God knows, I am becoming more and more fascinated by everyone at the table - what are their stories?

Most people are more circumspect than me. I have an alarming tendency to give the cliff notes of my entire life to anyone foolish to ask me how I am on first meeting. Others are slightly more closed books. And Chris, that's a weird one, cause as a fan, I've read countless interviews and, obviously, listened to countless lyrics and am now confronted with the very real, human person who said and wrote those things. And that's so much more interesting. Not in a FAMOUS PERSON SPEAKS OUT! kind of way, but because I'm fascinated by the catalysts for art. Maybe it's a desire to understand myself a little better, by proxy.

But that's far too philosophical in the face of so much pasta and meat.

After dinner, R, D and I return to polish off our magnum opus and add a few little flourishes for the evening's performance.

And then another break. I decide to be brave and take a swim. The pool is beautiful, if bracingly cold, even in the Italian sunshine, but it does necessitate removing rather more clothing than I am fond of removing.

To say I have body dysmorphic disorder would be a lie. I have mirrors. I have a realistic body image. I know that I do not yet, in Stephen Fry's immortal words, "resemble, in sight and sound, nothing more than a bin liner full of yoghurt" but I am no Adonis either. Hearts will not be set alight at the sight of Kenton in the flesh, no loins of either sex moistened or stiffened.

I brave it, as there is no one about, and then head back to the house - having hastily redonned my T-Shirt - to be told that I have rather nice legs.

The person who said such a thing is very kind, and will undoubtedly earn a dozen Humanitarian Awards before the decade is out, but they are clearly mad.

My legs may keep me up at night, but no one else.

During the ensuing conversation with those standing hither and thither, and after collecting the vodka, coke and cigarettes fetched for me from town by the lovely and windswept Sean, I, for some reason decide to let the others know that - at school I was invariably known as "Benton" or, as vocabularies increased, "Cunton". This, for some reason, would prove to be a fateful choice of conversation.

And then, quicker than I'd have liked, it was performance time. We all gather at the table in the studio, nursing our beverage of choice and waiting to be called up. It is Geoff Martyn's Birthday, and we are extra cheered by the champagne we have all been sampling. Chris declares that, in honour of the occasion - I can't believe I missed birthday honours by two days! - Geoffrey shall be picking the order of performance.

It's oddly nerve-wracking to perform purely in front of your peers. There's no points for just being brave enough to perform, we all do it.

So it's particularly galling for me when during our performance I forget the words.

I have a lyrical trick which I've used for years. There are quite a lot of words in ist songs, and they can be difficult to hold on to wholesale. So I remember one line at a time, and it usually guides me to the next one, linked as they are in my head. With a song I've just written - and one I don't start singing on until halfway through - all my tricks are useless and I look towards my scrawled handwriting a fraction too late.


I feel a little deflated afterwards, though everyone is very kind.

After the main performance, Chris opens the floor to us to perform some of our own back catalogue, something I leap at. As I am less skilled than most of the others at the gentle, fingerpickery guitar work, I leap straight in with "The Boy's Not Right" and "Rebecca", from the album-in-progress, both of which I know ALL the words to... Everyone has some great songs, but the tension eases a little. I know what I do. I also know what I don't do, and I know what I have to work on in this environment.

I get a "well done, young man" from Chris after "Boy", which considering my performance had been prefaced with the aside, "No tossing off and forgetting the words this time" made me feel a lot better.

"Well, there's backing vocals still to be done on the record," I reply, with a wink, a nudge and a feeling of having said too much.

He nods, smiles and throws me off the balcony.

Trust me to open my mouth. (Ed. Note: Just when we thought we could trust you again.)

I'm listening to the recording of the song we wrote now, and it's far from as bad as I feared. Yes, it's me that fucks up, but I'm okay with that. Sort of. Well, not really, but I'll live.

After all the performances, we mostly hang out, drinking, swapping songs and stories, until suddenly a bout of joke-telling ensues.

And that's going to need an entry all of it's own.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home