Stand at the very edge of the cliff.Feel the fear of the unknown,a sense of dread even.Steel yourself-Step off...
You can't see them beneath the clouds, but I can assure you there are people you've never ever met,perfect strangers,holding their hands out,far below in foreign lands.They will catch you,shelter you,feed you..I earned a few mad stacks whilst touring Europe, but this knowledge is far more precious than gold.
So yeah,I was scared tell you the truth-it was like a personal challenge to do my first tour alone-what if the Bellybus broke down-I have no breakdown insurance,cant speak the language,no one to help..what if I get mugged?what if my health fails? what if I lose my satnav? and on and on..dunno about you when facing the unknown, but my mind delights in furnishing me with ever increasingly lurid technicolour fantasies of all that could go wrong.I should have recognised how things might actually turn out when,out of the blue, Steve 'Leadfoot' Thompson comps me free ferry tickets across the English Channel, to 'help a brother out'.This is the first example of how people will respond to my situation, for reasons that, for me, still remain unclear.What I do know is that I felt the same way with Bob Log when I met him on his tour-if he'd have said to me "John I need to travel 50 miles to buy a plectrum" I'd have driven him happily.
So the tour kicks off at The Chambers,Kent.Despite it being midweek the turnout is pleasing-with several cigarboxnation members in attendence.The gig goes well,the first of the tees n' cd's start getting sold and obviously I comp Leadfoot a tee, cd n' stickers as a thank you.
I go back to my mate DJ Hillfunks' gaff-my regular hang out when in these parts.The next day mid morning I board the Ferry and leave England.Watching the White cliffs of Dover as you depart for foreign lands always elicits an emotive effect for any Englishman.I feel like ringing Mrs.Belly but at that thought an unexpected lump forms in my throat so I leave the phone in my pocket.
Pretty soon I disembark and cruise (on the right!) via France to Ziggys bar in Kortrijk,Belgium.I am offered a bed for the night by the bar owner but as I set up the Blaublues Festival Crew turn up.They inform me that after the gig they will escort me back to their house where I can reside during the 6 dates I will be playing in their country.Wow! and heres me thinking I'd be living like a tramp in the Bellybus for 16 days.I've been on the road 2 days and been offered at least one bed each night without fail.
The gig goes well enough,I collect my dosh and follow the Blaublues Festival crew to a rather pleasant home in a rather pleasant suburb, where I am sheltered, fed,have my clothes washed and folded,and am generally looked after beautifully.Each night the guys pull on their Hollowbelly tour tees and hump my gear,even magically delivering a PA system to gigs that dont have one.The sound dude donates his equipment free of charge, and even turns up at one of the gigs to operate it.When one of my harps fail I am driven to a blues harp players house,where he lends me one as a spare-nothing is too much trouble.Patrick takes photos at gigs and mails them to my email address each night.The guys even make a round trip of 160 miles to support me at my last Belgium gig in Brussels.
Each gig is very different-sometimes a young crowd,sometimes an older crowd-sometimes a bar,pub,club.Luckily the reception is always the same and the cd's and tees sell steadily each night.Its interesting to witness people in different cities laughing at the same between-song jokes, now I witness them laugh at the same jokes in different countries.People are the same wherever you go I guess.When I slag off the international bankers during the introduction to 'She dont love me no more' they laugh knowingly-they know the score- in any country, I guess the truth doesn't recognise borders.
One day I'm checking the oil in The Bellybus outside Patricks house when I see a cop car turn into the street-it takes a wrong turn but I instinctively know they're looking for me.I decide to seek refuge in the house but I can see them coming after doing a u turn..they just wanna know who I am and what I'm doing so its no trouble,although I feel a little embarrassed that my scruffy foreign presence has bought the law to my hosts door.
The gigging is hardcore-the europeans want you to play say two 45 minute sets at least-I cant quite believe anyone would want to listen to me for 10 minutes,let alone that amount of time.On Sunday its an afternoon gig,so it feels like I have a night off-Patrick asks me not for the first time if I'd like to accompany him to his local bar-I am introduced to the locals and much to my embarrassment they play Long Road over the sound system.I start drinking whiskey and of course its Europe-no small measures here like in the UK-its like half pints,pretty soon I'm pissed as all hell and of course the drinks just appear from nowhere into the early hours-I never recall actually buying anything-I mention my favourite song of all time is Shes Lost Control by Joy Division,I go to the loo and when I come out they've put it on the sound system-I start doing an Ian Curtis dance and I couldnt give a **** who's watching-I'm really too drunk to care.
Well it's a week into the tour when I leave for Amsterdam-the Belgian boys tell me I'll get stopped by the Man again cos I'll be driving on the main drugs route out of Holland.I pull into a truck stop at 2am after playing Brussels and sure enough a young cop comes across,shines a torch and asks the usual questions- fortunately,he seems quite impressed when I tell him I'm on tour and I ask him if its legal for me to kip there-he says its no problem, so the encounter turns out quite good cos at least I know I'm not doing owt illegal by sleeping there.
Wake up, make meself porridge and coffee in the Bellybus. Get to Amsterdam and sit down in the promoters loft apartment-I have a day and night off-my first.I call home-its my 14 year old and she's crying-her best mates dad threw himself under a train-he was 36.So my tears and snot fall onto the wooden floor and the promoter will think I'm insane when she gets back from the shops.I clean myself up.I can't get my daughters friend out of my mind-I really like the kid,shes always sleeping over at our gaff and I can't make it better.I can't fix it.I'm gutted tell you the truth.I dedicate one of the new songs 'Save your tears for the living' to his memory in the next few shows.I dunno whether its tiredness but I remain haunted and sort of fragile for days.It hangs on me like an invisible, gossamer thin shroud.I sit in a park midmorning in Amsterdam just staring.The dog walkers seem like cardboard cut outs,or figures from a painting by L.S.Lowry.The grey blanket-like sky is fitting.A hollow man on a bench.Disengaged.
The Dutch gigs go well,I meet several people in Holland who have travelled three hours to see the show.I drive east and again I am housed by the owner of The Crowbar,who's boyfriend is an excellent cook and delights in making me vegetarian food.I actually have 2 days off and so, midmorning, off I roam to enjoy walking around Groningen.I inadvertently turn a corner and I'm in the red light district,near naked women are selling themselves in shop windows in broad daylight.I thought they only did this in Amsterdam.You learn something new every day I guess.I am relieved to get back onto mainstreet.Up to now all I've seen of Europe is a stage with red lights,followed by another stage with red lights,night after night, so its nice to get out and about and act like a tourist-see daylight,breathe smokeless air,sit by a canal,have a coffee,that kinda thing.
The next country is Germany.Again my promoter turns perfect host,I stay in his apartment,leave The Bellybus parked up outside as he drives me to each venue.You can tell he's been around bands as he says all the right things-leaving me alone 30 minutes before showtime,sending me backstage to cool off/calm down after the performances, he sells the merch for me and shoves the loot in my hands.The shows go down great and the last performance of the tour is at the Heartbreak Hotel-
an uber tiny venue,no pa,I can only fit on the shelf like stage by jamming the kick drum against the strippers pole and sitting on an upturned beer crate-yep this is rock n roll and I like it,like it,yes I do.Some folk have travelled all the way from Berlin to catch the gig,others have followed me from last nights show.My cd case is empty.Having no show the next day, I go mental..its supposed to be therapeutic but afterwards I feel drained backstage and feel like I'm gonna have some sorta breakdown.The comedown is slow.All I can do is stare at the floor.My tee is soaking and when I move, it sticks cold and clammy to my skin.
And so it ends, and despite being tired I know for sure I'll be back.The next day I drive 600 miles across 4 countries to get back to my girls.Back in England it feels great giving my mrs some mad stacks and I feel useful for once,instead of a middle aged, useless, burnt out ****.I feel a new found confidence and most importantly of all,I have rediscovered something I'd forgotten beneath all the ugly 'news' that we get force fed in the media-I am reminded that humans are wonderful.That they would exhibit such kindness toward a stranger,catch me,feed me,shelter me,even clothe me.Like I said at the beginning dear reader-that discovery is more precious than gold.
A heartfelt thank you to Esther,Atilla,Dawn and Joe (Holland),Jurgen,Patrick and the rest of the Blaublues crew (Belgium) and TVT (Germany).