On the Bus
Unabridged version of a contribution for liner notes of the Here and Now, Gospel of Free retrospective CDs - only a tiny part of which made it into the booklet.
…recalls one very long, very crazy day on the Here & Now tour bus - aka the mobile Gestalt therapy unit - circa 1978
Wooooaaaarrrrashkathump! Another 40-ton artic blasts it's dinosaur passage past the bus, which is left rocking gently in the slipstream. A grey morning pokes cold fingers through my curtain and lays an icy hand on all the bits sticking out from under the duvet. I recoil and assume a foetal position in the forlorn hope of an extra hour, but too late. My curiosity is aroused by a rhythmic chomping sound issuing from the general direction of what we laughingly call 'the kitchen'. I execute a perfect Immelman under the duvet to emerge at the bottom of the bunk, where my sleep-starved eyes are confronted by the awesome spectacle of Grant "I'm sorry, it's all gone, whatever it is" Showbiz. He is stuffing something black and horrible (which might once have been toast, but is now rendered mercifully anonymous by a three inch coating of what I hope is butter) between a pair of incredibly wide jaws.
Gavin da Blitz, fake keyboard maestro, has also spotted this from his pit, and he performs an immaculate double somersault with pike, which puts him right next to Showbiz, and this possible source of food… But Showbiz is well used to this, and with a grace unexpected in so disease-ridden a body, twists and ducks away from da Blitz's clutching paw. He sprints to the front of the bus, cackling triumphantly. Da Blitz rummages through the wreckage of whatever happened last night, and emerges gleefully brandishing a dry Weetabix of unknown origin, which he smears with butter, and demolishes whole. My stomach, honed to a razor edge by the alcoholic excesses of the previous night, does a neat double-flip, and crawls whimpering into an unoccupied corner, probably where my liver used to be…
But there's nothing for it, absolutely no chance of any more sleep, despite the muffled whifflings and mutterings all around me. My stomach has bravely re-emerged, and is smashing itself up against my rib-cage with a fierce persistence which will not be denied. Blearily, wearily, I make my way to the front of the bus - head, liver and stomach beating the shit out of each other as I go. Da Blitz looks disgustingly cheerful, but has the good nature to shove a cup of quadruple strength coffee and a Gauloise under my nose. "Kick-start", he grins, and raises his mug to start the race.
This is how it's done: you take as deep a drag on the Gauloise as you dare, and follow it up with a hit of the coffee, repeat three or four times, and schlooosch! Your insides turn to liquefied elephant shit, and it's a desperate sprint for the nearest bog, with Da Blitz either just behind, or a nose in front…
Unfortunately, this morning, we are parked in a lay-by somewhere near Liverpool, and there don't appear to be any, uh, facilities here, and I don't know if I can keep this together. Legs and arms strategically crossed, we crawl/roll back to the bus and climb painfully aboard, only to be confronted by a maniacally leering Showbiz, dressed in a gabardine raincoat. And that's ALL…
"Just going flashing, chaps," he cheerily chortles, and jumps off the bus to take up a strategic position, from where he starts leaping out in front of innocent commuters, revealing his quite probably diseased dangly bits with screams of insane laughter. The poor unsuspecting drivers probably not quite believing what they're seeing…
I think about a little lie down… It already had all the makings of a crazy day.
When I awake, we're in a traffic jam on the M6. Nothing unusual about that, I think, so decide to risk a quick sortie to the front. Steffi, our guitarist and chanteur, is 'navigating', not that we seem to need much of that, what with three miles of traffic stretching south ahead of us…
'Where are we tonight?" I venture, not being really sure that I want an answer to this one.
"Preston," comes a slightly mumbled reply. Hold it, hold it, keep calm!
"But we're heading south."
I manage to keep the rapidly burgeoning snarl out of my voice, but Steffi, in a state of hyper-sensitivity over his abject failure to keep this show on the right road, is aware of every psychic ripple within a 15 mile radius, and reacts - as if under attack from the spiritual mafia - with a deadly cold stare. "I KNOW", he says, very clearly and slowly, as if speaking to a retarded rhesus monkey. "We're just waiting to get to the next exit so's we can turn round." One of those very long pauses gets up and stretches itself, makes a cup of tea, has a cigarette and curls up to sleep in the corner…
"Oh, right," I manage eventually, deciding to forego the subtle pleasures of asking how we got to be heading south in the first place. "Look you guys, I really wish you wouldn't skin up till I've done my breathing exercises, I mean I'm choking to death back here!" Kif-Kif, our drummer/vocalist/wind-up-specialist looks a lot worse than I feel, his matted, stringy hair is full of bits of cigarette papers, roaches, and what could be some of last night's dinner. The face beneath is a web of lines of pain and stress. Steffi compassionately takes a huge toke on the spliff and blows the smoke straight into KK's face. "Oops, sorry man," he sniggers.
KK, feeling that his fragile dignity is about to be shattered, comes back with what he hopes is a withering counter-blast: "You poor, sick little specimen," he sneers, "I suppose I should feel sorry for you, except you'd probably like it." He wheels round and returns to the back of the bus, honour satisfied, Steffi mystified.
"What's the matter with him?" His aggrieved tones grate on our ears.
"Maybe we should get off the motorway and let him do his stuff", says Gavin helpfully.
"Fat chance!" says Steff, "we're going to be stuck in this for at least an hour," he adds in a tone suggesting that whoever got us into this should be shot, quite forgetting that it was he who…
I take a surreptitious glance at the driver, who looks a bit like one of those opium addicts you see in the kung-fu movies - you know, sort of wrinkled, sweaty and pale. "You ok?" I venture. He immediately launches into a mumbled resume of last night's abuse, finishing up with a heartfelt plea: "for god's sake get me a cuppa-tea!"
This is done with remarkable speed, it being the unspoken attitude of the band that anybody crazy enough to be able to handle this mobile lunatic asylum and drive deserves a great deal of respect, not to say reverence; the kind you gave to human sacrifices in the old days, for the year before they were bumped off… not too far removed from the reality of this situation, really.
At last, the traffic gets moving, and our driver starts to look vaguely human again. We hit the next exit and turn off, at which point KK resumes his demands for a stop so he can do his breathing exercises. We find a spot by a trunk road and off he goes, running across the fields to escape the traffic fumes. We know hell be gone for an hour, so Gavin and I settle down to the serious task of getting some money out of Showbiz, so we can go and get some breakfast.
"Sorry, no, no money, there's none left after all that booze last night." He tries unsuccessfully to keep the sadistic glee out of his grin; this is his favourite game, making us all suffer for our overenthusiasm of the night before. "Weve got twenty quid, and thats for diesel up to Preston."
He is almost beside himself with joy as he sees the look of desperation on our faces, but Da Blitz comes back with a real showbiz-stopper: "Well give us that, and well siphon some juice from a truck on the way." He says it with a calm assurance, which has to be total bullshit.
Showbizs eyes narrow cunningly: "and what makes you so sure well get a chance to do that?" he replies, with the air of one who has an irresistible argument.
"Just you let me 'n' Keith sort that out," is Da Blitz's stout reply.
Showbiz now has the look of a man who can see he's lost a battle, but tries one more shot: "Oh sure, you two are the worlds best diesel thieves bar none, I suppose," he sneers weakly.
But Gav's ready for that one: "Listen, buddy," he snarls menacingly, "I've siphoned more diesel than youse had hot dinners," which is something I find a little strange, but on he goes: "Come on, out with it, hand it over!"
Showbizs hand strays involuntarily towards the pocket where hes stashed the loot - that's enough for Blitz and I, who leap on him and forcibly wrench the dosh out of his pocket, totally immune to his cries of pain and frustration, and sprint off the bus and over to the nearest grocery, before Showbiz has time to recover.
We return, arms full of bread, eggs, cheese, cereal and all manner of goodies. The starving hordes mob us with less than usual restraint, which means we are pummelled and scratched into dropping our precious loads and fleeing while the rest of this scurvy crew stuff their faces… Showbiz leading the attack with the venom which is born of a thwarted dictator robbed of his rulership. Blitz and I, being old hands at this game, set about our secret stash of pasties in peace. Ah, the rewards of a cynical foresight!
Kif-Kif returns from his exercises, and were back on the road, hoo-bloody-ray, heading in the right direction this time, Steff having been unceremoniously bundled out of the navigators seat. And wonder of wonders, it's only one o'clock, plenty of time to get to the gig.
Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you?
We're heading up the M6, when a very worried looking Kif-Kif heads up to the front. His girlfriend and chanteuse, Suze da Blooz, who is heavily pregnant, has at last gone into labour. It looks pretty serious, and can we pull into the nearest town? It's a place called Nantwich, and we hurtle off the motorway, scattering loose dishes and cups all over the floor as our, by now totally wide-awake, driver stretches ourkrves and the bus engine, driving like the total maniac he really is, leaving us squirming in unfeigned terror. We stop by the first phone-box we see, but before anyone has time to get off the bus and call an ambulance, were surrounded by the Old Bill - a meat-wagon in front, a car alongside, and one behind.
We've been doing a 'free' tour, where there's been no admission fee, but a voluntary donation collected halfway through the show each night. It's had a lot of publicity, and we've been making some pretty radical statements to the press. The result of this is that we've been stopped by the 'busies' on the way in to every single town we've played, and - as often as not - on' the way out, too. They seem to know all our movements almost before we do, and indeed, the Special Branch have told us that they 'have a file three inches thick on you lot.' So it's no big deal to be stopped like this, it could even be a quick way of getting an ambulance.
A plod with more pips than a grapefruit on his shoulders gets on, and says, in a voice like a strangled donkey, "good afternoon, boys and girls, Here and Now, isn't it? Well, I think we'll just have you and the bus down the nick, and give it a bit of a turnover, like."
"That's fine, but Suze da Blooz is in labour, she needs to get to a hospital quickly, any chance of calling an ambulance?"
"Mmm, well, I don't know about that, now, let's just have you all in the van now, and we'll see about it at the station…"
Jesus H Christ! Where the fuck does this guy get off? Best to go alongwith him and sort it out at the station…
On arrival, we're all bundled off separately, Suze included, so no-one knows quite what's happening. I ask what they're doing with her, and am told in no uncertain terms to mind my own business. They start a strip-search, waiting 'till I'm starkers, then weighing in with searching questions like "so you're the tough guy in the band, are you?" With a knee hovering over the ol' delicate bits, what do you say to that?
After about an hour, we're all herded in to a room, with the exception of Suze… "She's gone to hospital, then?" "Not 'till after she was strip-searched," leers a spotty young constable. I manage to catch Kif-Kif before he gets to the jerk, not wanting to lose the drummer on a GBH charge.
Eventually, they finish their fun, and we return to the bus, to find it in a state of absolute mayhem - ie in an even worse state than usual, with blankets and mattresses strewn all over the ﬂoor, empty bags scattered everywhere and their contents festooned around the bunks. It looks like a horde of delinquent chimpanzees has been let loose, which is, of course, just about right…
We decide to try and get hold of Suze at the hospital, and wonder of wonders, we are connected straight away. She insists that we go on and do the gig, trouper that she is, and so we go for it. By now it's 4:30pm, and we're going to have to do some very serious motoring. I think about a little lie down…
"Come on, wake up, we're here!"
It's 6:30 pm, and doors open at eight. We have to get the PA in, set it up and soundcheck in an hour and a half… no problem… Just ignore the Social Sec bleating in our ears, and get on with it. And, lo and behold, it is indeed done. Just time for Da Blitz and I to get into our favourite game, namely seeing who can drink the most ale in the shortest possible time and still be able to stand up, not be sick on the stage, and play an immaculate set… Of course, mistakes have been made.
Showbiz arrives backstage to tell us we've got five minutes, and is totally ignored as usual. But after twenty minutes of full-on Showbiz pressure, we cave in and it's five more minutes to the off. Adrenaline kicks in, it's packed out front, and we're pretty knackered. A monster spliff makes the rounds, and within seconds the band is reduced to a semi-hysterical giggling mess. (Hey, that's par for the course!) Showbiz heads up to the mixing desk, time for a quick check on the ﬂies, and we're on…
Two hours later, we come off. They were going apeshit out there, but it's all over now, and the post-gig buzz is really kicking. Gav reaches over me and into my bag, pulling out a can of beer… how well this bastard knows my ways. I grab the can in one hand and his testicles with the other, a tried and trusted manoeuvre under such circumstances, and Da Blitz looks into my eyes long enough to know that I'm deadly serious. Reluctantly he relinquishes his grip. A potentially violent situation is resolved when a smiling student arrives with a tray full of beers, swiftly followed by another, and another, and yet more… until there's no more room for any more in the dressing room.
Da Blitz gets a foxy look on his face, and takes up position behind KK with a full glass, which he tips over his head and chortles "congratulations dad!" KK looks positively evil, but does nothing until Gav's attention is distracted by the arrival of yet more trays of beer. KK picks a glass up and carefully lobs it, so that it shatters just over Gav's head, showering him with beer and broken glass. Showbiz cackles maniacally and hurls another glass at me, and well, what can I say? The evening ends harmoniously with three inches of beer and broken glass all over the dressing room ﬂoor. Da Blitz drunkenly climbs the scaffolding to the D]'s capsule, set on taking over the job, scratches an album as he tries to find a track, and is set upon by the rugby team bouncers, and evicted from the premises with none of the deference and respect due to so ﬁne and sensitive an artist.
Outside, we've got a bit of a problem… the batteries have gone dead on the bus, and it won't start. I think about a little lie down, but fortunately, we're perched on top of a hill so a bump start'll be a doddle. We notice a police car parked at the bottom of the hill, and it's such a narrow road that he'll be blocking us in once we get going, but no matter, we'll deal with that once we've got this fucker started. Off we go then.
"Push harder you wimps!" screams Showbiz happily, being excused such duties, owing to his 'bad back'. "FUCK OFF!" yells Steffi enthusiastically in reply, as with a lurch and a rumble, the engine roars to life…
"YEEHAAA!" we all shout, our voices dwindling as we realise we've made a small error of judgement, forgetting that once the bus has started, it takes about a minute's running before the air brakes are ready to work. The bus is rolling majestically downhill with NO WAY of stopping before it gets to that police car, which in turn has no chance of getting out of the way.
It really does all happen in slow motion, you know, and it seems that we have all the time in the world to watch these two old bill put Starsky and Hutch to shame, and athletically leap out of their car, before, quite slowly, and very inevitably, our six-ton bus goes KABOTCHKA! straight into the front of their lovely shiny new police car. Total write-off, of course.
It really would have been quite nasty if they'd still been inside, wouldn't it?
Up strolls one of the boys in blue, trying to stop his legs shaking, (the other guy's being sick in the gutter) and utters the immortal words: "I think you'd better come along with us, pal." He looks really puzzled at the sight of ten people rolling around having hysterics.
Soooo, we get out around 4 am, and head straight for the hospital, to be told that Suze has had a little boy… Well, you've got to celebrate, haven't you?
I think about a little lie down…