A Phone Call From Jesus
I’m in London to play a solo acoustic set at a pub not far from Notting Hill Gate. It’s a damp, chilly night and the streets around the venue are almost empty.
It’s barely a month since I made the resolution to quit my job as a booking agent and focus instead on my own music career which has been largely dormant for the last year or two. My decision is no great loss to the music business as I’ve mostly been a dismal failure as an agent, the low point of which has seen me fired by former Stiff Records legend Wreckless Eric after just one booking. Now, twenty-six days into the new year, I’m already beginning to question my wisdom.
But I arrive at the pub and descend the stairs to the basement where the gig will take place. I’ve come this far and there’s no point in backing out now, though I’ve never liked the symbolism of going down into a dank, dark basement to play a show. The room is empty except for the sound engineer and an enthusiastic young guy with an electric piano who is soundchecking to a backing track. I introduce myself and once my fellow performer has finished his soundcheck I plug in and do my own. It sounds good in the room and the engineer nods appreciatively as I’m running through a song. Perhaps it will be a good night I think to myself.
After soundcheck I leave the pub to get a bite to eat and in the hour that follows I allow myself to visualize the venue filling up with enthusiastic music lovers and I start building a setlist in my mind, wondering which song would be best for the encore, should I be so well-received. By the time I get back to the gig I’m excited to play and ready to face the crowd that awaits me.
It comes as a disappointment when I descend the stairs once more to find the room as empty as it had been an hour ago. In fact it is one person emptier as the young guy with the piano is notably absent. Nevertheless I resolve to start my performance as if the room is full and hope that by the time I finish it is.
Halfway into my thirty minute set a young couple appears at the foot of the stairs. They come into the room cautiously and their slightly baffled expressions indicate the realization that they’re at the wrong gig. But now that I have an audience, albeit it a very small one, I’m not going to let them get away easily. I dig deep and find a hidden seam of emotion which I attempt to mine to fuel my already impassioned performance. The two watch me, both wearing the same disinterested smile. They know right away that I know they’ve come to the wrong venue and I know that they know that I know. But now they are trapped. It’s a weird few minutes. I strum and sing passionately and they pretend to care but all three of us know that as soon as I finish they will make a run for it. Which is exactly what happens.
As I’m packing up my gear, making polite conversation with the sound engineer, I’m beginning an internal dialogue with myself that I’ve had a thousand times in the last fifteen years. It begins with the question “Why, oh why, do I keep putting myself through this kind of embarrassment?” Sure, there have been occasional triumphs--I’ve performed live on local TV a few times; I’ve played to enthusiastic audiences a few times; I’ve even been paid a few times--but for the most part the gigs I’ve played have been exactly like this. Depressing, humiliating, pointless. And so I make another spur-of -the-moment decision. I’m quitting music for good. I just don’t want to do this any longer. At thirty-six years old I’m positively ancient in pop music years I tell myself. I can’t possibly expect that at my age I have even a small chance of making it in the music business.
I leave the venue and my gloomy mood is only made worse when I see my bus pulling away from the stop as I approach. It will be a half hour before the next one and the weather seems suddenly even colder and damper now. I collapse against the hard plastic slat that has been fixed inside the bus stop in place of a real seat, gasping for breath, a fresh sweat spreading over my already clammy brow.
As I sit glumly staring off into the middle distance, wondering whether I could return to my previous ‘real job’ working in a call centre, I feel my phone vibrating in my pocket. I pull it out and am surprised to see that the caller is Jim Reid. In a previous life Jim was the singer and, along with his older brother William, the creative force behind seminal Scottish rock band The Jesus and Mary Chain. During my couple of years working as booking agent I happened to meet Jim through a connection at a tiny indie record label based in Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire. The label had been working with a Canadian band whose UK tour I was booking. The same label also happened to be doing a solo single release with Jim and so I had offered to book him some shows to help promote it. The shows, which had been very low-key semi-acoustic performances, had gone largely unnoticed. But after one such night in Brighton I’d suggested to Jim that he should get a band together and that I would love to play bass. To my surprise he’d told me he’d been thinking the same thing and just a few weeks later I found myself in a tiny rehearsal room in Oxford with Jim Reid from The Jesus and Mary Chain, Loz Colbert from the band Ride and Phil King from the band Lush. It was a rather surreal moment because, while my fellow bandmates all had impressive rock ‘n’ roll pedigrees, having between them appeared on Top of the Pops half a dozen times and toured all around the world, I had no pedigree whatsoever. I had sneaked in under the radar somehow. But Jim’s band had sounded good and over the next year we’d played a dozen or so shows, mostly around the UK, before Jim had seemingly lost interest. Several months had gone by without any word from Jim until this particular night.
My first thought when I see Jim’s name on my phone screen is that he wants his Gibson ES120T guitar back. I’ve somehow become the guitar’s custodian and have been enjoying playing it. I don’t really want to give it back.
I answer on the third ring with a cautious “Hello?”
“Hi Mark, it's Jim. How’re ye doin’?”
“Erm. Ok thanks,” I reply casually. “How are you? It's been a while.”
“Yeah I know, I know,” he says, sounding as downbeat as ever.
There is the briefest of pauses before he picks up again.
“Listen, I'll get straight to the point.”
Damn. He really does want the guitar back.
“How would you feel about coming out to Coachella with the Mary Chain?”
I’m totally taken aback and don’t know how to respond. I had heard a rumor that the band was reuniting but had assumed there was no truth in it. I certainly never thought I would have anything to do with a Mary Chain reunion even if it did prove to be true.
“Oh my god. Really?” I say eventually.
“Yeah I know,” Jim continues lethargically. “I'm as surprised about it as you are.”
“So, do you want me to play bass?” I ask.
“No,” Jim replies. “Phil's playing bass.
Of course. Phil was the bass player when the band split in ‘98 ago so it makes sense that he would be returning to that role.
“We’d like you to play rhythm guitar.“
I almost fall over when he says this. My gut feeling having been that he was going to ask if I could guitar tech for him, which I would have done very happily.
“Wow! Thanks! Wow!”
“Good good,” Jim purrs then adds “Our manager’s gonna email you with more details. You'll need to make sure your passport’s up to date and that kind of thing.”
“Right. Yes. Of course.”
I’m having a very hard time taking any of this in, especially considering the deadpan manner with which Jim delivers the news.
“Ok. Well that's that then. See ye later.”
Jim hangs up and I'm left standing alone on the quiet, damp street. The world around me suddenly seems unbearably normal. I feel like there should be trumpets playing a fanfare, ticker tape falling from the sky. I want to call my friend Bert with whom I share a flat but I have no credit on my phone and am too broke to top it up.
Eventually my bus arrives and I hop on board full of renewed enthusiasm for my music career. All I want to do at that moment is tell everyone and anyone that I’m going to be the rhythm guitar player with The Jesus and Mary Chain. Instead I find an empty window seat and flop into it beaming broadly to myself. I spend the ninety minute drive back to Oxford gazing out into the darkness, imagining the excitement I’m going to feel when I walk out on stage at Coachella in front of tens of thousands of people. I’ve made it, I tell myself. Finally.