As you might expect, Gerry’s introduction to life as a musician on the road was neither wholly planned, nor strategically timed. Mind you, it wasn’t entirely accidental either as it was bound to happen one way or the other. As a casual musician, he, along with his fellow similarly employed musos, and, of course, the dockers of Derry, had become well accustomed to queuing at Casual Box 6 daily at 11AM at the local dole office where their paltry earnings were deducted from the weekly allowance.
There’s a man we don’t know at the door!
But life in the fast lane as a show band musician came knocking sooner than he’d expected. It all started when he heard his mother shout “There’s a man we don’t know at the door!”
A man with a van, colourfully painted and full of sleepy musicians, was enquiring as to his skills and availability.
What follows is an extract from Surviving in Stroke City, written by Gerry in 1999 (Published by Random House 2000). The chapter is ‘Sex and Drugs and on the Dole’.
Sex and Drugs and on the Dole
‘Do you sing?’ he asked.
‘God, no!’ I replied in terror. ‘Listen, I only have an acoustic guitar, I have no equipment, no amplifier, no nothing…’
‘No problem. Use Frankie’s.’
‘Our guitar player. The guy that’s sick.’
There was no way out. I wanted this more than anything else in the world but it was too sudden. I wasn’t ready.
Or so I thought.
I was on the road…
This is how it usually starts.
In most case studies, what usually follows is a rough apprenticeship during which one develops the sturdy carapace that is required to persevere.
Playing where and when one can in a variety of pick-up bands of low quality, it is possible to acquire hands-on skills. But there are countless humiliations along the way.
Learn to keep your mouth firmly shut
I have played in some indescribably foul bands, one of which consisted of four drunken accordionists, a schizophrenic drummer and a cross-dressing vocalist who was practically blind; in another so awful that we were pelted off stage by a variety of coins and particularly delicious wrapped, chocolate-covered toffees; also in one doomed outfit where nightly fisticuffs between members was the norm; and in another band whose members were locked in the throes of sexual intrigue caused by three of the musicians conducting separate steamy affairs with the girl vocalist, who in turn was married to the bandleader, who in turn was understandably suspicious but constantly accused the only two men in the band who were entirely blameless. I learnt to keep my mouth firmly shut.
Nor was this an initially lucrative road to travel. Often, the bands were so bad that the promoters refused to pay us. Often, when we did get paid, the bandleader wouldn’t pay us; cheques bounced, heartbreaking tales of financial ruin were routinely trundled out, and once, uniquely, a bandleader paid me for my night’s work by presenting me with a hessian sack bulging with potatoes which he miraculously produced from the back of the van… King Edwards, as I recall.
None of this really mattered, of course. The main thing was that a man was learning his trade, and this can only be done on the road, in front of an audience, no matter how hostile that audience may be.
I was still living at home and consequently did not starve.
That comes later.
And it did. There is a later story where Gerry’s carried off the set of Gay Byrne’s “Late Late Show” in RTÉ with what turns out to be an acute dose of malnutrition, but that’s a story for another day…
Surviving in Stroke City
Surviving in Stroke City is still to be found lurking on bookshelves across the country. There are even copies still available on Amazon and some great reviews on Goodreads. It might even be one for the book club… If you spot it at all, buy it and enjoy it for the insightfully rib-tickling tales you’ve probably learned to expect!