Brest is a naval port on the north-west coast of France which was largely rebuilt after being blown to bits by the British in World War II. It’s cold and wet. Apparently it rains about 200 days a year here. I’m tempted to use that for an explanation for the depressed-looking nature of the place, but that would have a lot more to do with prevailing economic conditions.
It’s two days before the general election, and times are tough. The population is waiting for Sarkozy like Australians once famously waited for Paul Keating: with baseball bats. “Under Sarkozy, one million out of work,” one sad-looking fellow tells me, baulking at the prices on our merchandise. “When your tour over, we will have new president.”
The band’s just played another crazed show in a beautiful room under a hotel called La Vauban. Pity there weren’t many more than 30 or 40 there to see it, in a room that you could comfortably fit 300 into, thanks to a band competition across town that sucked away most of the town’s eligible punters for the night.
Most of the audience were fellow musicians: the guys from Head On, fronted by Beast Records’ inimitable Seb, and Ultra Bullitt, whose singer/bass player extraordinaire Erwen La Roux has put on tonight’s show. He’s printed 5000 flyers, 500 posters, and lost money, but he doesn’t care. “Je ne regrette rien,” he says.
Ben Salter – who’s been in our van since Paris – opened, mostly thanks to the generosity of everyone else who slotted him in to play at the last minute, after Andy B’s promise that “his voice will bring them in off the street”.
“Yeah, to complain,” quips Ben.
Of course, Ben has the sort of voice that will stop a room, and that once routinely stopped passing traffic during his busking days on the Queen Street Mall at home in Brisbane. There’s barely a paying punter in the room but everyone else watches, transfixed. He does a set of his own songs – mostly from his last solo release The Cat – before finishing with covers of the Stooges’ Gimme Danger and the Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free, adding a diehard rock & roller’s edge to his own songs.
It feels like a very good audition for his overseas sojourn, which he’s doing out of a small suitcase. Have guitar; will travel. Ben’s dad is a Vietnam veteran, and once, marching in an Anzac Day parade with him, he found himself explaining to some his dad’s fellow diggers that he was a musician. He saw them screwing up their faces, trying to understand his choice of vocation; to comprehend the different ways you can measure success.
“Why don’t you go on Australian Idol?” one eventually offered, genuinely trying to be helpful.
Ben tried in vain to explain, politely, how such a move would fly in the face of everything he was about as an artist. Andy nods. “It’s like wanting to be a Formula One driver and someone telling you that you should settle for driving taxis.”
Some things can’t be rationally explained. Most of the creative people I know – writers, musicians, visual artists – do what they do because they love it and because, more crucially, they have to; something inside them is fighting to be released. And sometimes you need to feel the love of a new audience to know what you’re doing connects with people other than your friends in your own little corner of the world.
Ben’s made some fine albums, but I have a feeling this trip will be the real making of him.
THE cold, the rain and the constant balm of alcohol are catching up with me. I haven’t been able to wash any clothes – it feels like it’d be easier to find crack than a Laundromat – and all I want in the world are dry shoes and socks.
Ben had already noted my decline the previous day. “You look like you’ve got The Fear, Staffo,” he’d said. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but I was starting to sail close to the edge, even if I didn’t understand quite what he meant at the time. “It’s just generalised anxiety, existential dread,” he explained cheerfully when I asked him later. “Everyone on tour gets it at some point. It’s the drinking that does it.”
Gregor appeared at that point, having slipped off on his own to find a kip, eventually settling for a park bench, or it might have been someone’s front yard. Ben quickly makes an exception.
“See, The Fear just bounces off the Maori,” Ben says. “It just ricochets, like ping-pong balls off a Centurion tank.”
I try to deal with The Fear by having an alcohol-free day, something that usually wouldn’t be a problem for someone who can happily not drink for a couple of weeks, but isn’t so easy when you spend all day surrounded by pissheads and the grog, including beautiful French wine, is free.
“Are we making it harder for you by drinking?” Stacey asks, as she catches me gazing longingly at her glass of red before grabbing another bottle of water. Richie, at this point, is clutching a cigarette in one set of fingers, a joint in the other and clasping a beer in between.
“No,” I say desperately. “I’m making it harder for myself by continuing to drink and I need a night off. It’s just the hanging around in bars that kills me.”
My old friend Simon McKenzie – who gave me my start in music writing nearly 20 years ago when he was editing Brisbane’s free street weekly Time Off – has also joined us from Oslo, where he now edits an oil and gas industry bible. He remembers a journalist who, around the mid-1990s, had asked Charlie Watts how it felt to have been in the Rolling Stones for 30 years.
Watts’ reply was as laconic as his approach to playing drums. “It doesn’t feel like 30 years,” he replied. “More like five years of actually being in a band. The other 25 years was spent waiting. Just fucking around.”
AFTER all that fucking around, the show is a blinder. HITS are leaping from peak to peak, scaling heights I didn’t know they were capable of. The band throw every shape in the book – Richie hurling himself bodily at the mike stand, Iggy Pop style, before tossing it away – and that’s before the gig even begins.
Later he’s climbing up the lighting scaffolding at the side of the stage while Stackers kneels before her amplifier as if it were an altar during Bitter And Twisted, drawing wails of anguish from its electronic entrails. She repeats the trick during Lost In The Somme, which finally came out the night before in Rennes. It worked, big time, and now it’s here to stay.
The band can’t refuse encores by now and the show stopper, again, is Shadowplay, the Joy Division classic that draws cries of recognition from the audience from its opening rumble of bass.
But it’s just a warm-up for the next night, in Lorient. Afterwards, Richie is unusually subdued. “Tomorrow night is probably the most important night of the tour,” he says, adding meaningfully, “So if you could just bear that in mind as you could go through your day…”
“No,” Stacey replies nervously. “I don’t want to bear that in mind at all.”