The Mary Chain was booked to play a show in Rome last week. I was excited to see the city for the first time. I’d visited the north of Italy a couple of times but had never been any further south than Florence. So I was greatly disappointed when I learned that our gig in the capital was actually taking place in Ciampino--a suburb of Rome that had all the charm and character of somewhere like Stoke-on-Trent.
Whatever skill the Romans once had at road building seems to have been forgotten as the roads into and out of Ciampino were more pothole than anything. By the time we arrived at the hotel--with its magnificent view of Ikea--I was feeling distinctly queasy and was relieved to step out onto stable ground again.
A plan had been hatched to dump our bags and then get back in the van for a quick sightseeing visit of the Colosseum and other Roman Marvels. I asked the driver how long it would take to drive into the city.
“It could be twenty minutes on an good day,” he said warily, “but today, with the traffic, maybe an hour.”
I contemplated whether I could tolerate another hour of being violently shaken about for the pleasure of a whistle-stop ride past the wonders of Rome and--when I saw the ominous black clouds gathering overhead--decided I couldn’t. I settled instead for an episode of Star Trek followed by a middle-aged man nap. I was glad I stayed in as the sky grew darker and darker until inevitably it began raining torrentially.
The band had another good show that night at the Orion Club. The audience was one of the best so far. By strange coincidence, a New York friend who I hadn’t seen in almost two years happened to be in Rome and he made the trek out to see the show. He seemed a little shell-shocked upon discovering how far outside the city he’d had to travel to see the band though and I’m pretty sure I heard him say something about “the most expensive cab journey I’ve ever taken.” Nevertheless we had a good time. Once things at the venue had wound down we were shuttled back to the hotel for a few more drinks where we found the lobby filled with workmen re-tiling the floor. They didn’t seem too perturbed by our presence and mopped up our red wine spills without grumbling.
I regretted staying up late though as we were scheduled to leave the hotel at 915 the following morning for a travel day to Birmingham. Yep, we were hitting all the top destinations on this tour. I had to re-watch Telly Savalas’s Ode to Birmingham to prepare myself for the heady heights of walking on the walkways, sitting on the seats and admiring the shrubs and trees.
It was a forty-five minute drive to Fiumicino Airport and we arrived with three hours to kill before our 135 pm departure. Due to delays at Frankfurt airport once again though we didn’t leave until two hours later than advertized and this time we missed our connecting flight. Lufthansa, however, had the stellar idea of rerouting us to Munich where we could catch the 1010 pm flight to Birmingham and still arrive in the city in time to catch the last brawl of the night if we were lucky.
I wasn’t too happy about going to Munich. Firstly it was in the opposite direction from Birmingham and secondly the last time we’d been there had been somewhat of a disaster.
Last October we’d been scheduled to fly from Munich to Dublin but our flight had been cancelled due to Dublin being hit by a rare hurricane. We’d been shuttled to a nearby no-star hotel to spend the night while our luggage remained at the airport. With no change of clothing or even a toothbrush we were all relying on the ‘emergency travel kit’ that the airline--Lufthansa once again--had promised us. We’d arrived at the hotel to discover that the ‘emergency travel kit’ was a narrow cardboard tube containing a very small toothbrush that would have been better suited to brushing the teeth of a hamster than a human. Most of us wound up at the hotel bar drinking expensive German beer for the next few hours until the restaurant opened for dinner.
Dinner was a bizarre and demoralizing experience. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a meal before. While the regular hotel guests dined on sumptuous plates of fish and meat and vegetables in delicious smelling sauces, we were restricted to a choice of chicken or pasta, exactly as if we were onboard the flight that never took off. Being a vegetarian I chose the pasta dish which, when it arrived, was also hamster-sized. The sight of the regular guests normal-sized meals only made mine seem smaller.
When it came to ordering drinks, things turned strange. We were allowed one drink and one drink only. Scott ordered a glass of red wine and asked if he could have a glass of water too.
“No, sorry, that’s not possible,” our waiter said without smiling.
“Oh, sorry,” he said cheerily, “I just meant tap water.”
“No,” the waiter replied.
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
“You are only allowed one drink.”
“Yeah but I just want some tap water,”
“I can bring you tap water but you will have to pay for it.”
We chuckled again, assuming that we’d found ourselves at the receiving end of the famous German sense of humour.
But he wasn’t joking.
“Only one drink per person.”
At this point Ben, our lighting tech, was growing annoyed and decided to join in the conversation.
“Can you bring us a jug of ice then?”
“Yes. I can bring you ice.”
“So what if you just bring us a jug of ice and we wait for it to melt?”
The waiter smiled sardonically. He was no fool.
“Or what if you bring me a jug and I go to my room and fill it from the tap in the bathroom?”
“You can do that if you want,” the waiter said, beginning to grow a little tetchy now.
“So I can go to my room, fill the jug with water but you won’t bring us tap water from the kitchen?”
“Ok, bring me a jug then.”
There was a note of menace in Ben’s voice that was worrying. He sounded like he might blow at any minute. We’d had a long day waiting around for nothing and now we were being denied tap water by an overzealous waiter who was following airline policy of one drink per customer to the extreme.
The waiter disappeared and returned moments later with an empty jug. Ben took one look at him, took in a deep breath and told him to take the jug away again.
It had been a weird night.
So here we were once again at Munich Airport. As I walked to the departure gate I passed the Lufthansa customer support desk where we’d spent several tedious hours back in October waiting to hear if we could leave. I thought this was a bad omen.
Our flight was scheduled to depart at 1010 pm. By 930 pm it was evident there was a problem. There was no plane.
At 10 pm there was an announcement from the airline. Our aircraft was currently circling above Munich, waiting for the weather to improve. They would get back to us with an update in thirty minutes.
I looked outside. The weather looked fine.
Meanwhile Michael, Gerry and the rest of the crew had gone to the bar and come back with a large selection of drinks which they began to consume in earnest. Bets were placed on whether we would actually get to Birmingham that night or whether we’d find ourselves back at our favourite hotel for Tap Water Happy Hour.
As the clock ticked slowly towards 11 pm, the latter scenario was beginning to look increasingly likely, particularly when the airline announced the cancellation of a flight to London.
Then all communications ceased. There were no further announcements from the airline. There were no further announcements about anything. Not even the one about your unattended baggage being removed and blown up. And the airlines love that one. The airport had become eerily quiet. Outside, the dark sky was suddenly lit up by a fork of lightning. Then another. It began to rain.
Michael took the initiative to ask the remaining Lufthansa representative what was going on.
“So what do you think? What’s your gut feeling? Is our flight going to leave tonight?”
The Lufthansa rep looked at him blankly.
“I have no feelings. Go back to your little party.”
Michael came back sniggering and relayed the message.
At 1130 pm an unexpected announcement broke the silence.
“Ladies and gentlemen we will begin boarding Lufthansa flight 2512 to Birmingham in twenty minutes.”
I was stunned and elated. We were actually going to leave! I looked outside and saw that the air was still being stabbed periodically by lightning and wondered why Lufthansa had suddenly decided it was safe to leave now rather than an hour ago. I didn’t want to quibble though.
We boarded and the plane took off at 1230 am.
We arrived in Birmingham two hours later though had gained an an hour so it was actually only 130 am. After disembarking we made our way to the baggage claim area and waited. After ten minutes the belt started up. Four or five suitcases came off and were collected by our flight crew who immediately scurried away into the night. Then the belt stopped. No more luggage appeared.
Half an hour later, when it was clear that there would be no further activity at Baggage Claim, Simon Smith--the band’s hard-working tour manager--marched off to find out what the hell was going on.
What the hell was going on was that our luggage and--most importantly--all the band’s guitars, pedals, electronics, amp head, snare drum, percussion and more were missing in action. Possibly in Munich. Possibly in Frankfurt. Possibly even still in Rome. Furthermore they were unlikely to make it to Birmingham in time for our Bearded Theory Festival headline show the following day.
By the time we got to our hotel in the heart of Birmingham it was after 3 am. We were all shattered and pissed off and, once again, had no change of clothes nor toothbrush. Luckily the nice man at the hotel reception gave us all ‘emergency travel kits’ and these contained normal-sized toothbrushes and actual proper toothpaste. At that point it felt like the best present I’d ever received. When I got to my room I brushed my teeth for twice as long as normal before collapsing onto my bed in a state of near exhaustion.
I’d like to say that, after everything we’d been through, we played a blinding show the following day and blew the crowd away. It didn’t quite work out like that. Some of our gear had been delivered in time for the show. My bass and pedals, William’s guitar and most of Brian’s gear made it. But all of William’s pedals and Scott’s gear were still in transit so they had to use last-minute hired-in stuff. Subsequently it was a rather subdued Mary Chain performance at Bearded Theory. We played to a large audience but the lack of enthusiasm was noticeable--though to their credit they didn’t leave before the end. It didn’t help that the weather was utterly miserable.
Jim had a few parting words as we left the stage.
“If you enjoyed the show tonight then thank you. If you didn’t… fuck you!”
Fitting words for what had been a very frustrating 36 hours.