In which I reflect upon the true story of meeting a hero….
The signs tell me to descend deep into a mammoth stone bridge that supports the weight of a town, into a venue that shouldn’t exist. I do as I am told, make my way down the black steps of the black stairwell, and pass through a black door into a wide, black-walled space with a black floor and a low, black ceiling. So the grime won’t show, I guess.
The only contrast is provided by a handful of handbills dotted around, advertising a forthcoming show. A single, black mitt on a white background, tattooed with an inverted image of the radio waves from pulsar CP 1919 — the cover of Unknown Pleasures. I smile, partly because it’s funny; it’s the first time I’ve seen a representation of a Joy Division Oven Glove. And partly because I’m patting myself on the back for knowing that this means the authors of that song are coming to town.
Then, I laugh out loud, because the little poster isn’t just heralding the arrival of Half Man Half Biscuit in a couple of months. They’re coming ‘with support, PANKHURST’. Pankhurst are the rivals of the HMHB alt-universe band, Evil Gazebo. And as far as anyone is aware, Pankhurst only exist in the realms of the liner notes to the Biscuit’s album Trouble Over Bridgewater.
I’m here in The Liquid Rooms to see The Wedding Present, but have arrived early. This means I’ve got a chance to check out the merchandise table. I’m skint, but that’s no reason to stay away – the merch table has provided some of my favourite gig-going moments. I get talking to Nick, who’s manning the table for tonight’s support band. Real conversation is quickly supplanted by indie tennis. Nick starts by lobbing up an easy one.
‘Who are you listening to at the moment?’
‘A lot of Gravenhurst.’
‘Oh, yeah. I’ve just been taking Neneh Cherry around the country…’
Then Nick whips a heavy backhand passing shot down the line.
‘…supported by Susanne Whyte.’
My jaw hits the floor. ‘You mean, from Birds Fate?’ No one remembers Birds Fate. Except Nick and me. He tells me, yeah, and Susanne’s here tonight, over at the bar. I look across, and there’s only one person there. Peroxide shock erupting out of a German MoleSkin military jacket.
I can’t see the face. Just like I couldn’t see Susanne’s face when I first saw Green, the lead track from The Kaleidoscope EP, on the telly one weekend a million years ago. Just her teased mop and that jacket or its precursor and bandmate Peter Wythe, both of them hammering away at their instruments to produce incongruously ethereal sounds. Even today, in The Internet Age, it’s impossible to find a picture of the face of Birds Fate’s notoriously private singer online. But it’s her, a revisitation of teenage adrenaline insists.
More than half of me wants to stay away. That jacket is a large part of why I drunkenly snogged a brunette on this street that summer. Katie was the olive drab-clad first smoker I ever kissed. She tasted of the echoes of burning plant matter, and it felt impossibly grown-up and exciting. We kissed again later that night, with Green playing in the background. Nobody wants to hear about that – particularly not the inspiration – but the thought of Green brings it flooding back.
However, the other 49.99% of me is too old to be starstruck, and thirsty. And it’s a long bar. I take a stool at the furthest remove from Susanne, far on the left, and order a can of Red Stripe. Then someone says, in my voice, ‘Oh. And please get Army Surplus over there whatever she wants. To say thank you for The Kaleidoscope EP on The Chart Show in 1991.’ I’m not that skint, I guess.
I really don’t want to bother her. As the barman goes about his business, I fish my book out of my bag, and don’t look across to see what transpires. So I’m surprised when he returns with a metal cup, one-quarter full of coffee tequila, and pours it into a glass.
‘She says thanks. I shook a bit too much of her drink over ice. You can finish it. You did pay for it, after all.’
He looks up. ‘And I don’t want to spend my night walking back and forth, so can you two meet in the middle?’
Amazed, I look across to see Susanne unhooking her bag from the back of her stool. It feels like she’s smiling, but I can’t see through the hair, of course. We meet in the middle of the bar and shake hands. She tells me she’s glad I remember Kaleidoscope, and asks what I’m reading. I wave Invisible Cities. All of a sudden, I’m finding out that she loves Calvino, and I’m telling her about the Creative Writing M.Sc. at Edinburgh University.
‘You know, I only started Birds Fate because I couldn’t write.’
Susanne fiddles with her e-cigarette, seemingly uncomfortable outside the three-and-a-half minute milieu. But as her tale unfolds, she slips into interview mode like it’s a familiar sweater unearthed in a clear-out. If I omit my nods and murmured cues, and the occasional signal to the barman to set up a series of absinthes for Susanne, the story goes something like this….
‘I was obsessed with this Central European novelist, and I was going to write my thesis about his work. I’d even managed to make contact with him in France, so I could go and talk to him about it.
‘But this was in 1990, so it wasn’t like I could just, like, tweet at him, or whoever was paid to pretend to be him. And instead of firing up FaceTime, I had to hitchhike to Paris.
‘What a mistake that was. Or, maybe, the best thing ever. I’m still not sure.
‘At first, he was really charming. We were in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution, so he suggested we go to Prague, where I could get some context about where his work came from.
‘If you’ve read his stuff, you’ll know the offer should have raised a red flag – if you will – but he said he couldn’t put me up in his hotel, because his publishers were paying for it and wouldn’t allow it. Some of his friends – ‘young people like you,’ he called them – would be able to put me up on the outskirts of town. That sounded better. And honestly, I was starstruck.
‘Of course, I should have listened to my original suspicions. It turned out my author could be a drunken lech after a few pints of Staropramen.
‘I’m glad to say his young Czech acolytes would find excuses not to leave us alone. I soon found out they had reservations about the novelist, too – they thought he’d denounced a defector to the authorities. They wanted me to write it up in an academic paper. They thought I’d tour it around the great educational institutions of the world, or something. You know, ‘Hi, Edinburgh! We’ve got a new literary exposé for you. Are you ready to RAWK?!?!’
‘We could never prove anything, but one evening, after a hard day of talking about political activism, everyone thought we needed a night out. We took the Metro to see this group everyone said was the best band in Prague. I kind of nodded along to this suggestion, and tried to look cool. But if you can believe it, I’d never even been to a gig before. You know, some classical music recitals, but that was it.
‘The venue was a joint that looked a bit like this place, but, you know, brighter and more like a community hall. Before the band came on, the fluorescent strip lights were on, and it was grimy as hell. We didn’t mind, though. The Czechs drank like fish. I think their optic nerves were shot.
‘Eventually, they killed the lights, and these bells started tinkling. Even now, I’m getting goosebumps just telling you about it. Then these chiming guitars. And then, a sea of noise just erupted over us. These guys were The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, they were playing a song called Fluidum, and it changed everything. When we got back to the Charles University area, I literally burned the books I’d brought with me, and told everyone I was going home to start a band. God, I was so drunk!
‘Like I say, I’d never even been to a gig before, so I had no idea how to start a band. But my mate, Chrissie, told me she’d read that the thing to do was place an ad in Melody Maker. I thought and thought about what my ad should say, even though I didn’t think I could sing and couldn’t even tell you how many strings a guitar had. I missed the deadline for three Saturdays. But I finally came up with it. I can still remember it, word for word: “Musical neophyte seeks similar into The Ecstasy of St. Theresa to record medieval English doo-wop and 21st century Lieder.”
‘I know. What a dope, eh? But I suppose that’s why Pete got in touch.’
If you read the early-nineties British music press with the same avidity as me, you know what happened next.
Susanne had returned to Oxford to find her old classmates decamped to London, so Pete Wythe moved in to share the rent and noodle around on song ideas. Pete was teaching himself to play any instrument he could find in a thrift shop, taking little bits of obscure musical styles as signposts along the road to musical enlightenment. He’d ask Susanne for bits of her undergraduate poetry, and something in their rhythm or mood would direct him to the place in his mind where a fully formed song was waiting. At least, that’s what he said in the N.M.E.
Then one night, they got talking with the members of Ride in their local about the relative merits of My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen 3, and of course, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa. An offer of a small support gig was made, and the next morning the hungover duo had two weeks to figure out a thirty-minute set. ‘A whole lotta drone,’ as Susanne described it to me. And from there, everything snowballed,
It turned out that, despite her protestations, Susanne could sing, and something about Birds Fate just worked. The goth kids loved it. Then Pete’s effects pedal broke one day, and whatever it did, Birds Fate knew they had their first indie hit. Susanne was on the front of Lime Lizard the week before Green came out, with Pete lolling in the background. I was smitten, and had the old Avalanche Records on West Nicholson Street hold a copy of Green for me. It sounded like an angel riding a Vespa off a cliff. In a good way.
Birds Fate soon amassed enough material for three EPs, and with another couple of tracks, an album was cobbled together. It did OK, so Birds Fate were packed off on an American tour with orders to ‘Forget about the music press and come back with an album that’ll blow everyone’s minds.’
And that was the beginning of the end. A year-and-a-half later, Birds Fate emerged from a recording studio in the Brecon Beacons with an album they were happy with. The label boss was so incensed by them running £250,000 over budget, he refused to release the record.
Nevertheless, Birds Fate did enough in that glorious summer of 1991 so that they’re still legendary among me, Nick on the merch table, and maybe thirteen other once-young men across Britain who always wondered what that album, Broken Mirror, sounded like.
After Susanne has shared a few of the details of the blow-up with the label, and told me Pete now has a Ph.D. in black hole physics, I excuse myself to use the facilities. The Weddoes will be on soon.
‘That’s good timing,’ Susanne agrees. ‘I’ll pop out for a proper smoke.’
When I emerge from the gents, there’s no sign of Susanne. I assume she’s out in the courtyard looking up on the back of Victoria Street and lighting up another fag. But the barman disabuses me of this idea.
‘Your pal bought you this,’ he tells me, placing another whisky on the bar. ‘She had to leave.’
That sounds about right. ‘Just like Birds Fate,’ I think, as I pick up my drink.
Someone’s been doodling on the napkin. A wee winged sprite.