Tag Archives: identity crises

On nearly meeting Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, Cuckoo Club, 26/3/07. Photo (c) Ron Blur 2007.I realised the best part of a 20-year dream the other day: I saw Leonard Cohen up close and personal. And I arrived at one distinct conclusion: he’s very small. Almost as small as me, in fact.

This is how it happened. A few weeks ago I got an email from Marie Mazur, who runs several Cohen-related websites, including one of the original and best, Speaking Cohen. Thanks to the internet, Marie is one of those people who I can say is a true friend despite never having met her: she keeps me (and thousands of other die-hard fans) up to date with LC’s movements and projects and in turn I’ve contributed a piece or two to her site. She also did a fantastic thing for me last year in obtaining a signed copy of LC’s recent Book of Longing fresh from the man himself at a Toronto promotional event. One day I hope to return the favour.

The email Marie sent was a heads-up to a small gig LC’s partner-in-music-and-life Anjani was performing in London on 26th March to promote her excellent Blue Alert album, which was co-written and produced by LC. The showcase, at a place called the Cuckoo Club in the West End, wasn’t open to the general public, but a couple of pairs of tickets were kindly being put up for grabs by Anjani’s people. Needless to say, I put my name in the hat, wondering only secondarily how I would manage to juggle attending the gig with both a new job I was due to start that very day and the care of two small children. Thankfully, at least, the job was located only a few minutes’ walk from the venue, and my wife said that if I won she was happy to stay home with the kids while I went along by myself – as long as I didn’t make a habit of it! In any case, a fortnight or so later it was clear I needn’t have worried, as the draw took place, and I didn’t win. Disappointment gave way to relief when I weighed up everything else that was happening on the job and home fronts, and I forgot all about it.

Songs of Love and Hat

Then, on the evening of Sunday 25th, I came home from an afternoon out to find another email from Marie saying that one of the original winners of the tickets had pulled out due to unforseen circumstances, so they were up for grabs again. Completely forgetting my “relief” at not being able to go, I put my name in this second hat… and lost again. I have to say at this point that it was to Marie’s eternal credit that she didn’t pull any strings on my behalf, and kept the draw fair and square. However, determined not to be too disappointed, I decided I would go along to the venue anyway after work on the offchance of spotting the Cohens on their way in. It was a long shot, but as the venue was just a short walk away, I had nothing to lose.

My first day in my new job went very well and it was a pleasure afterwards to stroll through the West End in the unseasonably warm afternoon. I’d never heard of the Cuckoo Club, nor recalled ever walking down Swallow Street (some bird confusion here surely?), but now here it was, a quiet little alleyway off the bustle of Regent Street just past the wonderfully-named Man in the Moon Passage. Apart from two dapper doormen hovering outside an anonymous building beneath some impressive stone architecture, there was nobody around and no indication that anything Cohenesque was going on. Their nifty royal purple-colour rope barriers looked optimistic: maybe I’m naive but I had expected at least a small crowd of faithful fans – or maybe the true faithful had already been and gone?

Undeterred, I hung about and after a few minutes people started to show up. Some identified themselves to the doormen and following a check on the guest list were directed straight in, while others formed a loose queue. Among the non-queuers were a couple of rock journo characters in black leather jackets and a tall blonde ex-groupie-type in a near-psychedelic pink outfit who embarked on a flurry of air-kissing, disappeared inside and re-emerged a few moments later armed with a glass of white wine, a cigarette and her mobile phone. There was no sign, however, of either Anjani or LC, and as it was now getting on for 6pm and the show was due to start at 6.30 it seemed unlikely they weren’t already inside.

Bird on the wine

By now the queue was snaking along Swallow Street’s narrow pavement and the doormen started to let us in. I was about halfway down the queue and feeling distinctly uneasy, as not only have I never blagged my way in to a club of any sort, still less an event like this, I had no intention of doing so. Nonetheless, I was here, and so were Leonard and Anjani, and although it wasn’t part of my plan it seemed fairly pathetic just to go home without at least giving it a go. In addition to the doormen there were now a couple of PR-type women checking names, so I did my best to convince myself it was worth trying on a bit of the old Thoughtcat charm. I wasn’t particularly confident however, so it was with some relief that I turned round and spotted someone in the queue I recognised from… a Russell Hoban event. As you do. I mean, how likely is that? There have only ever been about three Russell Hoban ‘events’ in the past 20 years, and I organised the one we were both at myself, so it was a lovely coincidence, but a coincidence all the same.

It was great to chat again with Deena, who is possibly the only other person I know in the world who’s quite as nuts about both Len and Russ as I am. Even more oddly, she told me she was the person who’d originally won the tickets in Marie’s draw, but then had to bow out, causing the second draw – and although she was now re-available to attend, the tickets had of course been won by someone else, so she was practically no more confident than I was of getting in. That the situation seemed only to be getting more and more unlikely was confirmed when we got to the door and, albeit after a few moments of uncertainty, she was actually allowed in, yet despite her efforts to persuade the staff to let me in with her, I was asked to ‘try coming back at 6.30’. Fairly sure this was a brush-off (albeit a polite one), I bade Deena and her partner a great evening and they went inside.

Waiting for the miracle

One by one the guests went in, then, and I was left lurking ever more uneasily in Swallow Street. I decided not to risk going for a stroll in case (a) it was a ruse (they closed the doors as soon as I’d gone, (b) it was a test (how long would I actually wait?) or (c) I got sidetracked or held up, and rushed back to find everything had started and I’d blown my already slim chance of entry. While I stood there I thought about my wife at home feeding, bathing and putting to bed both our 2-year-old and 2-month-old by herself, which was difficult enough for the two of us. Shouldn’t I perhaps be realistic and do the honorable thing, and go home where I belonged? Then again, given that home was still the best part of an hour away a
nd I would thus already be nearly too late to be of much help with the kids, would it not actually be more honest, now I’d got this far, to stick it out to the bitter end? I mean, surely if a guy’s going to bunk off his domestic duties to any extent, it should be for a good cause…

Such thoughts circling in my head I almost missed the re-emergence of the lady with the frizzy hair who had earlier let Deena in. ‘Can you come in now, please?’ she said. I looked around: was she talking to me? It seemed she was. There was almost a sense of urgency about it, as if I were, actually, quite an important guest. Of course, any urgency was really due to the fact that it was now 6.30 and they had to get the show on the road. ‘Sorry you had to wait around,’ she said as we went inside, ‘but it’s such a small venue that we had to make sure there was enough room to spare.’ I couldn’t believe it: firstly I was being ushered in, secondly they were apologising for keeping me waiting, and thirdly I was in anyway…

Finally I broke into the prison

The club was small, darkish, a bit smoky and packed. There was a small stage set up for three or four musicians, but no drum kit. In the ceiling hung a mesh of lilac-coloured lightbulbs. A bar which my memory is telling me was hung with silver and gold drapes took up one wall. The lady with the frizzy hair disappeared and I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing; now I was on my own and everyone around me seemed achingly trendy, or at very least Of Some Import in the World of Rock. Among those I recognised was Mark Ellen, ex- of The Old Grey Whistle Test and founding editor of Q, Mojo and now The Word rock magazines. (Oddly enough, I’d also ‘bumped into’ him at the 2002 Concert for George, which I now realised with some embarrassment was the last gig I’d been to before this one.) Even Deena, who I couldn’t spot anyway, looked infinitely more the part than I did. By contrast, who was I? I was nobody, in most guests’ terms; wouldn’t they all give me funny looks? Who’s this guy, I imagined them thinking. He doesn’t look famous, or trendy, or Of Import in the World of Rock, or even particularly tall.

Almost disappointingly, my paranoia turned out to be unfounded as I squeezed past some of the approximately 100 guests. I tried calling my wife to confirm I’d got in and would be late after all, but couldn’t get a signal; I just hoped she’d get the message by my non-appearance. I made for the bar. Glasses of still water, lager and wine were lined up three deep; such was my innocence of these matters that I had to ask one of several barmen whether the drinks were free; of course they were, as were the assorted delicious bites circulating around the room on trays held aloft by small but perfectly-formed and permanently smiling young women. This was the life, I thought as I reached for some cheesy chicken-on-a-stick and surveyed the stage just a few feet away, where it still seemed impossible that Anjani and, possibly, Leonard too were about to perform.

Crumpled in love

But perform they did. The lights went down, three smartly-dressed musicians came on and took up their keyboard, double bass and guitar respectively, a door opened beside the stage and from it emerged the small but distinguished frame of the Grocer of Despair. The reception was warm, as only it should be: apart from being a living legend, this was the first time LC had taken any sort of UK stage since 1993. ‘Welcome, friends,’ he said. Now 72, comfortable in a grey suit and blue shirt, top button fastened, cropped grey hair on its way to white, he looked thinner than I remembered and smaller than I ever thought he was, and his voice, while still deep and resonant, was unexpectedly soft. He looked slightly crumpled, in fact. But, he had presence in spades in his own low-key way and anyway, it was Leonard Cohen, for fuck’s sake! My hands were trembling; I was sure someone was about to come over and ask me to leave, having sussed out that I shouldn’t be there after all; I barely wanted to blink in case I missed anything; I remembered my phone had a camera feature, I reached for it, I didn’t know whether to grab a photo of the moment or enjoy the moment, I took it out and got a blurry lo-res shot which in no way resembled what I was actually seeing…

‘I’m new to this “showcase” business,’ LC began. ‘I asked backstage, “What’s the audience like?” And they told me: “Industry people”.’ [cue audience laughter.] ‘This brought to mind a crowd of extras from Night of the Living Dead…’ [cue more laughter.] It went on in this vein for a few moments; I was so busy trying to concentrate on not missing a word he was saying that half of it went in one ear and out the other. In any case, ever the gentleman, he cut himself short and introduced ‘Anjani.’ (Well, that cleared one thing up, at least – up til then I’d been calling her ‘Anjani’.)

She’s in her early forties and wearing something tight

Now this was a pleasure. It’s not as if I hadn’t been really looking forward to seeing this lady perform – what I’d heard of Blue Alert, criminally still unreleased properly in the UK, testified to a fantastic singer and fine musician – but it has to be said that LC’s presence was hardly an insignificant attraction. Nonetheless, both her voice and the woman herself were even more beautiful in real life than on the CD in question, and a quick look and listen by anybody with an ounce of taste would know that’s saying something. When someone sings (and, moreover, plays – her jazz-influenced keyboard licks were a sheer delight) songs as good as these as well as this, and yet is still having to drum up interest and curry favour by doing free shows, you have to wonder what on earth people have to do to get on in music these days. Still, after the first number alone – Blue Alert‘s delicious, smoky title track – I doubt there could have been anyone in the room who didn’t think she should at very least be selling out Ronnie Scott’s for a few nights in the coming months.

In between sips of tea, and with LC sitting coolly at a stageside table sipping bottled beer, Anjani and her excellent trio went on to perform faultless versions of half the Blue Alert record, namely Half the Perfect World, Never Got to Love You, No-One After You, and Thanks for the Dance, two of which were duets with LC, and a further duet, an unreleased song which may have been called Whither Thou Goest. It was the definition of smooth and tasteful. Throughout the performance my eye was caught by a strange lighting effect in the adjacent stairwell, like smoke or dry ice swirling around a gently swinging lightshade; I still don’t know exactly what it was, but it complemented the music perfectly. Although Leonard’s voice didn’t sound as robust as in previous years, this surely wasn’t surprising, and it was anyway more than made up for by (a) his register coming nearer the level it was when he started out than the deep baritone he’s latterly become famous for, and (b) the simple fact that he was singing anything at all when he could easily be forgiven for taking it easy – assisting Anjani’s career notwithstanding. That’s not the point, I know, and in the unlikely event that he reads this I hope he doesn’t think even for a second that that’s a reason for him not to embark on the world tour he has been much rumoured to be planning for later this year and early next. But the truth is that at 72 years old, half that time spent playing concerts and making classic albums, I don’t feel he owes anybody anything, least of all returning to the road. I’d like to think he was doing t
his purely for pleasure, and, if the look in his face was anything to go by as he duetted with Anjani, lurve.

Came so far for Leonard

Before I knew it, it was all over. To much applause, Leonard and Anjani disappeared, the house lights went up and everyone went back to doing what they were doing before L&A; turned their heads. Mark Ellen said to someone ‘Wasn’t that fantastic?’ and I re-found Deena and caught up with her for a few moments. We were both quite staggered by the event and were so busy talking about it that we didn’t notice that a queue was slowly forming at the stage for Leonard’s autograph. Deena seemed quite happy to return to her table for another beer and bask in the aftermath of a lovely evening, but for me it was too good a chance to miss. It wasn’t terribly clear where the queue began and ended and after some confusion I staked a claim to a place somewhere in it. The speed at which it moved was the definition of agony, LC just feet and finally only inches away, yet unless you were right in front of him you almost may as well have been a thousand miles away. At last the three people who had monopolised him for a quarter of an hour let him go, and now there was only one person between me and the man himself… but at that precise moment, another of Cohen’s annoyingly pleasant entourage appeared and spirited him away.

If I was momentarily crushed I realised with a laugh that it really would have been too good to be true if I had actually managed to speak to him – and anyway what would I have said? I’d had at least 20 minutes – if not 20 years, if you count the time I’ve loved his work – to think of something to say, but I’m sure I would have only ended up babbling. Equally, as I hadn’t expected to get in, I didn’t have anything on me for him to sign – I had wondered for a moment about proferring him the novel I was currently reading, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, whose title might have summed up my evening if the music hadn’t in fact been at a perfectly reasonable volume. And although my phone had the aforementioned camera feature, it would’ve felt a bit daft asking a stranger to take a photo of the two of us, plus the result would’ve probably been another blur, and what would I have done with it anyway? Apart from, that is, splash it all over the website and print off several dozen copies of it and hang them up all round the house and have a CafePress t-shirt, mug and possibly a thong printed with it and bore the pants off myriad innocent friends, family, children and grandchildren for the rest of my life with it… my point entirely.

Don’t go home with your hard-on

Thus, with Anjani now circulating amongst sundry muso bigwigs, Len putting his feet up backstage and time getting on, I said my goodbyes to Deena and the lovely lady with the frizzy hair who let me in, and headed home, wondering whether my wife had managed OK. Once in Piccadilly the phone signal returned so I called her up. ‘I got in!’ I said, fairly redundantly, and explained that, er, ‘I nearly met Leonard Cohen.’ I had to admit it didn’t sound particularly impressive. ‘Oh, really?’ she said, sounding tired, ‘what happened?’ ‘I’ll tell you about it when I get home,’ I said.

Such is my lack of spare time these days that it’s taken me this long to put this post together and attempt to do the experience some justice (thank heaven for Easter, eh). So what do I think of it all, having now had some time to reflect? It might sound like sour grapes but in a way there is a benefit to not having met Leonard Cohen. I would surely have embarrassed myself, had nothing much to say or had too much to say in the few seconds I had to say it. I would likely have been disappointed, not by the man himself but because the brevity and impersonality of the situation would have made it so. I would have gone away thinking either I’d achieved one of my great dreams or that I’d blown my only chance to say something useful to him or ask him a Big Question, and I’m not sure which of those would be worse. It’s best to go away from an experience like that wanting more, and although I’d had a great evening of fine music and wonderful company, that was certainly true, both on the relatively mundane level (I wanted to see more of Anjani live) and the deeper one I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s as well I didn’t speak to him because then the dream or the search would’ve been over, the dream would’ve become reality, and what do you do when that happens?

If I’m honest it was fantastic to stand a few inches away from Leonard Cohen but I hardly feel as if my life has changed as a result, and I doubt I’d feel much different if I’d actually spoken to him. That’s impossible to say for sure, of course, as he might have said something utterly profound, but at the end of the day I would still have had to go home, have a late dinner, get up the next morning, change a nappy and go to work… but still. I could go on and on reflecting and wondering but I won’t. It was a fantastic evening, one I’ll always remember, and I’m truly grateful to Marie and the lady with the frizzy hair for letting me in.

I still can’t get over how small he was, though.

Take your own advice…

Gah, I’ve said it! Having lambasted those in a previous post who talk of literary ‘guilty pleasures’, I was in my local bookshop the other day buying a copy of Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris, and used those dread words myself. Mind you, the till assistant did start it by looking at the book and saying witheringly ‘A literary masterpiece, I’m sure,’ and there was another person in the queue behind me, and I suddenly felt a bit self-conscious… ‘Yes, a guilty pleasure,’ I found myself saying. Argh! What am I turning into?

Anyway I’m now half way through the book and can report that it’s good, although not, perhaps, in the league of its masterly predecessor Hannibal. Nonetheless I’m enjoying it a great deal and not feeling in the least bit guilty about it. As usual I’ve provided a link to the book on Amazon from the main Thoughtcat page, together with an interesting article about Harris and the new book which I found in the Guardian. I can relate especially well to two things from that piece – firstly the difficulty of writing: “[Harris] writes slowly, partly because his books are so fastidiously researched and so dense in arcane reference, but also because, as his fellow bestselling novelist Stephen King has remarked, the very act of writing for him is a kind of torment – King speaks of Harris writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration.” Personally I never get as far as the floor – my own writhing all takes place in other areas of life, I’m afraid – but it’s reassuring to know that someone as good (and, it must be said, as successful) as Harris is as prone to such torments as the rest of us.

Secondly, I liked this quote from some past interview with the creator of Hannibal Lecter: “‘You must understand that when you are writing a novel, you are not making anything up. It’s all there and you just have to find it.”

Jim Smith – An Apology

In the previous post, Thoughtcat erroneously identified one Stephen Appleby as the gentleman responsible for the spindly excellence that is Puccino’s’s’s packaging artwork. However, as the man himself (the actual artist, not Stephen Appleby) commented on said post (below), the actual artist (have I already said that?) is in fact one Jim “James” Smith. Jim’s extensive collection of receipts, sugar packets (unlike me, he’s got the lot!) and cupular sloganage can be viewed on his very terrific website www.waldopancake.com. Also linked from said site is the simply brilliant “Rock Blondsky’s Bad Ideas – Slow moving consumer goods” such as Sitcom Flakes, Tramp Hoops and You Are a Loser chocolate bars. Thoughtcat wishes to take this opportunity to jump up and down with delight in the knowledge that the artist in question has not just read Thoughtcat but got in touch, whilst apologising sombrely to Mr Smith for any contusion caused.

Sugar, coffee and other things that are bad for your health but good for the soul

I’ve long been a fan of Puccino’s, the little coffee franchises you sometimes find in train stations. Not only is their coffee good (if pricey – but no worse than anywhere else, I don’t think) but they have this unique humour thing going on thanks to (I believe) surreal cartoonist Stephen Appleby; certainly the jokes and images look a lot like his. Thus far I’ve only seen the spindly drawings and coffee-related quips on the Puccino’s signage and cups (e.g. a notice above the kiosk saying “INSTRUCTIONS: 1. Queue here. 2. Buy coffee. 3. Walk away with nervous smile” or a cup saying “Dispose of in bin, but sadly”) but the other day whilst indulging myself with the all-too infrequent treat of a cappuccino I found the trademark Puccino silliness all over the sugar packets to boot. The first one I picked up said on it, “Serving suggestion: Put in coffee and shut up.” There were plenty more to be had along these lines so I grabbed one of each – see pic of my nascent “collection”. Sadly the “shut up” one (which made me laugh the most) has since disappeared – I think someone at work might have blasphemously used it for actual sugaring purposes – but if I see another one I’ll be sure to get another “copy”.
Incidentally I say the cappuccino is an infrequent pleasure, not because I’m saintly and abstemious but because (a) coffee-shop coffee does, as I say, cost a small fortune, (b) although I love coffee I’m not a coffee nazi and make do 5 days out of 7 with instant (Douwe Egberts is the best, I find, although more often Nescafe is the best I can do), and (c) the caffeine content of real coffee-shop coffee has the tendency to put my eyes on stalks for about the next 9 hours. As Garfield once doggerel’d, “Coffee I love you, you make me glow / My nerves don’t like you, but what do they know?”

“A new kind of ghostwriter”

This article in yesterday’s Guardian brought a smile to my face. Novelist Jim Crace, famed for writing books involving (and quoting) authors who don’t actually exist, has slipped into a surreal life/art overlap after finding that Amazon has attributed a non-existent book to him. Even better, the title, Useless America, is one that even Crace couldn’t have made up. Even even better, Crace also sheds some light on the value of Amazon’s sales rankings when placing his own order (for one copy) sends the ranking up 60,000 points.

While looking for the errant novel on Amazon incidentally I found another oddity in Crace’s catalogue, a book called “Free Sampler”, costing $75. I look forward to more of these sorts of things happening in the future as books and technology vie for control of the world.

The day I met… whatshisname

Last Saturday (22nd April) was a great day: it was my birthday and the sun was shining. My wife, baby son and I went out to meet some friends in nearby Chiswick, and ended up having lunch at Sam’s Brasserie, which we’d never been to before. It was a very cool place and our brunch-type dishes were both delicious and inexpensive. We’d been there for a quarter of an hour or so when another young family came in and sat in the far corner of the section where we were sitting. I had my back to them, but they were in full view of my wife and, when he turned round – which of course he was doing all the time anyway – our little boy. After a moment we realised he’d seen something, or someone, he liked the look of, and soon he and this other baby were “communicating” at some volume across the restaurant, much to the entertainment of us, the other family and the tables in between. I carried on chatting to our friends and was suddenly aware that this other small person had come over to our table. In fact, she’d been brought over by a parent, and was now smiling beside me while our son chatted to her. What a lovely thing for the parent to do, I thought, turning to say hello, and got something of a shock when I realised said parent was Bob Dylan. Actually, no, it wasn’t Bob, but it got your attention. It was in fact Krishnan Guru-Murthy, one of the presenters of Channel 4 News, who is just as famous as Bob, at least in our house. This was a funny thing because Channel 4 News is Thoughtcat’s favourite TV news programme, and in the months when the Thoughtkitten was very new our regular evening routine was to sit down in front of the TV at precisely 7pm when the show started and have a bottle (of milk in TC Jnr’s case and wine in TC Snr’s). “Well, you know who this man is, don’t you?” I said to TC Jnr, who gurgled his approval while I told KG-M the story. He laughed and introduced us to his baby, Jasmine.

I must have been star-struck because at this point I realised I’d completely forgotten KG-M’s name. I racked my brains and was about to say to TC Jnr, “Say hello to Sanjeev Bhaskar,” but something stopped me. I’m very glad it did; the embarrassment may have killed all of us.

Anyway, as if all this weren’t sufficient excitement for one birthday lunch, as we left the restaurant – I still unable to remember Sanjeev’s actual name, and all of us waving heartily to each other as if we’d been friends for years – we passed another table in a different section, at the head of which was the fat(ish) unshaven bloke from Man Stroke Woman. This time not even the wrong name came into my head because I realised I’d never known what his name was. (If it’s any consolation, I couldn’t name any of the other MSW performers either.) Anyway, we made a rapid exit before we could bump into any more celebrities whose names I’d forgotten, or didn’t know, or whom I could mix up with other celebrities who bore no relation to them whatsoever.

I was going to write up this story last weekend, but didn’t get round to it, so it was with a mixture of delight and frustration that I opened this Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine to read that Krishnan G-M was the author of this week’s Last Weekend column, in which a famous person writes a few hundred words about what they did last weekend (hence the name). KG-M did mention the lunch trip to Sam’s, and also said he saw the fat(ish) bloke from Man Stroke Woman, whom he usefully named as Nick Frost – of course! – but sadly didn’t say anything about Jasmine and TC Jnr’s entertaining conversation. The irony is that if I had called him Sanjeev Bhaskar, that would probably have been the highlight of the column, if not exactly his weekend.

So, farewell then, guitar-case lettering (13/07/93 – 01/05/03)…

Thoughtcat with guitar caseYears ago – ten, to be exact – I went to Paris for the first time. I was 22, single, ripe for adventure, and planned to travel for a long time in France, a country for which I’ve always had a deep love. My idea was to live off my savings and, if at all possible, busking. I’d never busked before, but I’d played guitar since I was 14 and had been in a couple of bands, and had this brilliantly romantic notion that I could avoid the world of work by strumming So Long, Marianne and Layla in the Paris metro.

However, when I arrived in the city, all I wanted to do was walk around and explore, and lugging a guitar case everywhere proved to be something of an impediment, so for the first week or so the instrument stayed stashed under my hotel bed. When I finally took it out I found I was much more nervous about losing my busking virginity than I’d anticipated; I wandered around Paris for several hours not busking, not even opening the case, and returned to my hotel room feeling something of a failure.

I then hit on an idea to do something which might help me feel more confident: I should paint on the case my name and my style of music, so that even if I didn’t have the guts to open it and play the instrument, people would at least know I was a guitarist and available for bars, weddings, bar mitzvahs and all the rest of it. It was a kind of advert, but I think it also had deeper psychological roots in terms of my self-image and identity; then again it could also have stemmed from the same kind of rationale that inspires you to build a website before you’re actually famous enough to justify having one.

Anyway, I went into an art shop, explained in broken French what I wanted to do, was sold some white oil paint and a brush, and retired to my hotel room where I whiled away a few very relaxing hours painting the lettering you see in the picture. I thought I’d then go out for a spot of lunch while the paint dried, come back, take the case outside, wander around and maybe even do some busking. However, when I got back to my room – which was on the top floor of an old hotel in the Latin Quarter, accessed by about 100 stairs – the paint was still wet. Three more hours later it was no better. By now I was quite keen to take it out and advertise myself, so I hit on the idea of borrowing a hair-dryer from a neighbouring Australian girl and drying the paint with that. I must have sat there for an hour training that hair-dryer on my case, and not only did it make absolutely no difference to the paint but the appliance overheated and cut out, and I couldn’t get it going again. The next thing I knew I could hear an Australian accent on the landing; the girl was knocking on another door nearby and asking if anybody in there had borrowed her hair-dryer. “No,” came another Australian accent, “but we’ve heard it, though.” I sat tight, buttocks clenched with embarrassment as she knocked on my door. I didn’t make a sound; eventually she went away, and to my relief the hair-dryer cooled down sufficiently to work again. By now it was dinnertime. I gave the girl back her hair-dryer – although what she thought I might have been doing with it for so long I don’t know, as my hair was only about an inch longer than it is now – and went out for something to eat.

Later, before I went to bed, I thought maybe a night spent in the open air would dry the paint, so I got some string, tied one end around the handle of the guitar case and the other around the leg of the desk in my room, and suspended the case out of my window to give it a proper airing. I barely slept that night worrying that the string would snap, sending the case clattering seven floors to the ground, waking up the entire hotel and getting me booted out in the middle of the night. But, as with so many things in life, it didn’t happen, and I was almost disappointed to wake up and find the case still dangling out the window. I hauled it in like a kite, touched the paint… and found it was still as wet as it had been the day before.

I was at my wits’ end; by now all I wanted to do was busk. (I suppose if nothing else, being forced to wait had at least made me more keen.) I couldn’t risk wandering about the city with the paint still wet; I pictured myself on a packed metro, the case pressed up against some innocent Parisian whose suit would end up printed with a backwards version of my name and repertoire. I reasoned that maybe what I needed was some kind of fixative; I was about to go back to the art shop when I remembered I had some spray-on Brut aftershave in my suitcase, and wondered if that might do the job. To my relief, it worked, and although the case now stank to high heaven I was then able to brave the world of buskology complete with a free advert of my services. I was still nervous, but once I’d started to play a bit it became easier. One hour and about 16 centimes later, I was an old hand. The next day I made ten francs in half an hour, and went off to buy my lunch with it, flush with the feeling that I’d hit the big time.

However, that represented the height of my earnings, and within a couple of weeks I’d sent the instrument and the case back home so I could continue my journey around France unimpeded. When I eventually came back to the UK, I faced the problem of having to walk around with this “decorated” guitar case, and realised it wasn’t really me at all: it seemed OK in Paris when you were 22 but back home when you were a bit older it was just naff. Plus, people would inevitably ask why the lettering was in French or why I’d painted the case at all, and after you’ve told a story like this once or twice it becomes a bit tiresome (“Hear hear!” – the web-surfing public). It was ironic that the very thing that had helped me get through the nervousness of busking was now an impediment in itself. But I also thought that getting rid of the lettering would be bad luck somehow: painting the case was something I’d done to feel better about myself, to boost my confidence, to make myself seem more – real, somehow. So for the next ten years I’d hardly ever take the guitar outside again, too superstitious to paint over my naff lettering, too embarrassed to flaunt the case and too much of a tightwad to reach a compromise and just buy a new one.

Anyway, when the other day a musician friend suggested I come over at the weekend for a jam, the whole story came back to me with all its related dilemmas and worries and superstitions. In the end though, I decided enough was enough; I’m 32 now, I’m an artist, I’m a married man and I will not walk around with my name on my guitar case. I went to my local art shop, explained the situation in broken English, was recommended to try enamel or gouache, bought both, came back and spent a very relaxing half hour painting out all those old indecisions, insecurities and psychological cul-de-sacs once and for all. And I felt much better about it; finally I’d closed a door that had been jammed open, or opened one that had been jammed shut, or whatever, for a whole decade. And to boot, I also found out not only that gouache dries a hell of a lot quicker than oil paint, but, according to the little tin of enamel paint (which I didn’t use), the French for “enamel” is email