Give them the merde: Lille

It was Stackers who got us out of trouble. I’d tried to gather everyone together and was talking about getting a cab back to the Crown to get our passports quickly enough to make the return journey to Pacific Parc so we could get paid before the place shut. Hey, we’d lose out on cab fares, but 350 Euro were at stake. And Bone seemed pretty adamant that there was no other way.

Stackers was having none of it. “There’s always a way,” she said quietly. She and Gregor are the only ones to have brought their passports to the gig. There’s also a friend of the band, an ex-Brisbane girl called Jules now living in Denmark, who’s joined the band for the gig, and she has her passport too. Stackers marches back to the mixing desk with them and charms Bone into filling out the paperwork as if the three of them had been the band that night.

It was nearly 3am by the time we’re finally free to go, and by then the elation of the first gig of the tour is wearing off. It’s damp and cold and we’re lugging not only all our gear but a large cardboard box of 100 T-shirts. We set out in the opposite direction to that by which we came, after Tamara spies a small bridge 100 metres away that will get us back over the canal to the main road in what we hope will be half the time.

But the bridge isn’t a pedestrian bridge – it’s actually got a drawbridge at the end blocking us. A few nimble punters are trying to pick their way across and around the drawbridge – there are enough places along the edge of the structure to put your feet, at least if you have the grip of a mountain goat – and Tammy is briefly keen to join them until we point out that while she might make it across, her Mosrite would most likely end up in the canal.

Putting her guitar’s safety before her own, Tammy reluctantly follows us another several hundred metres to the next proper bridge. I’m about to collapse under the box of T-shirts – I briefly have a vision of John Cleese buried under the boulder in the stoning scene of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, arms and legs protruding – and for the rest of the way Tammy and I share the load, walking like crabs with the box between us.

Once we’re finally over the bridge it’s time to find a cab for seven people (including Jules) plus gear. That proves a predictably hard ask in the small hours of a Saturday morning in Amsterdam, so we end up flagging down two vehicles. Unfortunately the cabs aren’t allowed into the red-light district between 8pm and 7am, when it essentially turns into a giant shopping mall for sex-mad tourists, so we’re forced to walk some more.

Inevitably we end up taking a wrong turn and find ourselves further from our destination than from where we started. Andy pulls out his Android and lets his GPS do the work. We set out back on the correct path, except for Gregor and Richie. Gregor is particularly adamant we’re going the wrong way, so we let them struggle on with the cardboard box.

Once we’re safely back at the Crown, Tammy immediately starts to worry about Richie and Gregor and plunges back out into the night. I start worrying about Tammy wandering around the district and chase after her, past the writhing girls in windows and gangs of sex tourists who point and stare and haggle over prices. We quickly find Richie and Gregor, Richie staggering under the weight of the box. We take it off him and once again, like a pair of drunken crabs, we lurch our way back to the hotel.

It’s four in the morning before anyone gets to bed.

WE’RE up at seven. All six of us need to have showers and be ready in time to make it to Central Station for the train trip to Lille, which leaves at 9.45am. To my surprise, the operation all runs with uncharacteristically military precision and everyone’s showered and ready by half-eight, even if they still feel half dead. “Well done, band,” I say. “Speed and efficiency.”

It’s pouring rain, though, which is a problem, considering the gear – it’s too far to walk with it to Central, and too short for any self-respecting Amsterdam cabbie to bother with. I remember Stackers’ resolve in the face of adversity the night before – “there’s always a way” – and make for the station myself. For getting soaked to the skin, I’m rewarded when I spot a seven-seater cab on the rank which charges 25 Euro to drive me back to the hotel, pick up the band and get us to the station. Cab whisperer is added to my job description.

Today we play our first gig in France – we’ve got a five-hour journey to Lille ahead of us, with a change at Antwerp in Belgium. We’ve got a 45-minute wait at the platform, which is devoid of any seating, cold, wet and hungry. Richie, Gregor and I find a shop and return with some fruit and croissants and coffee. Then I realise I’ve still got some hash that I bought from the Trinity, and not wanting to waste it before we cross the border, we roll up – or should I say, Richie does, since I still don’t trust myself to roll my own.

Gregor asks for the address of my blog. He says he wants to send it to his wife Renée, so she can keep track of our adventures. I give it to him but advise him not to read it until we get back, since I don’t want the band to get self-conscious.

“Me, Staffo? Self-conscious?” It’s true – Gregor is the least self-conscious person I’ve ever met.

There is one exception, though. Gregor has trouble when it comes to number twos – specifically he won’t, or can’t defecate in public toilets, particularly on planes, where queues of passengers are likely to form. He likes to take his time. “Well, shitting is sort of a personal thing, isn’t it?” he reasons. “I like to be in a familiar environment, where I know I won’t be disturbed.”

It’s the same for the train to Lille. “I’ll wait,” he says cheerfully. “I want to be the first of us to shit on France.”

“Give them the merde,” Stackers says.

He has no problem peeing, though, having been done for public urination back home. HITS had done a gig at the Beetle Bar on Upper Roma Street, and Gregor, who was nicely soused, had wandered out of the venue and down the road towards the train station. Spying a large potted plant, he relieved himself – right outside Brisbane’s Gestapo-like police headquarters. A cop appeared right as Gregor was doing up his fly. Busting, busting, busted.

“WOULDN’T it be good to own your own train,” Andy says, as we pass into Belgium. “You could deck it out with a big double bed and just curl up and go to sleep.” Most of us have crashed out at this point.”

“That’s very rock & roll,” I say. “Why own a Lear Jet when you can go by train?”

“Yeah. You could ride into town in full dictatorial style. Whole timetables would be delayed when Andy B comes to town…”

I ask Andy whom he would choose if he could be anyone in human history. I figure he might have been a Roman Emperor in a past life. “Nah,” he says. “I prefer Mao.”

The change at Antwerp is a trial – we find ourselves holding up a different kind of queue as we try to exit the train, as we try to safely escort out all our gear. For the next change, at a place called Kortrijk, we’re more organised, sitting together near a cabin exit, and we start getting our stuff ready to go before the train stops. We’re all off in good time, with a 10-minute wait until the next train.

But the train we’ve just exited stays where it is, until we realise that it’s the same one we need to be on to continue to Lille. We lug our gear back on board all over again. For the first time, the thought occurs to me that I might not actually wish to do this again.

I ONLY speak a few words of French, but knowing even just the basic pleasantries will get you a long way, at least as long as you’re polite. It’s harder, though, in the provinces than in Paris, where most French speak about as much English as I speak French. That can leave you with nothing but pleasantries to exchange. “Bonjour! Excusez-moi, parlez-vous Anglais?” “Non, m’sieur.”“Ah, oui. Pardon! Au-revoir.” “Au-revoir.”

There are no maxi taxis on the rank at Lille station, so we’re again forced to use two, the driver of one of which seems to have just the one word of English in his arsenal: “Bonjour! Pardon, parlez-vous Anglais?” “Pitiful.” Thankfully, Andy speaks respectable French – it was another of his university majors – and the other cabbie speaks better English, so we’re able to commandeer our way to tonight’s venue, L’Imposture, in a rather run-down part of the city.

There’s no one there, which is not surprising, since it’s not much past three in the afternoon. We peer in the window and I swear, it makes Brisbane’s Ric’s, which can comfortably squeeze about 80 bodies into the front room, look like Madison Square Garden. We stand outside with our gear while Tamara makes a phone call. It’s not long before a van appears and a willowy, smiling lady dressed in black appears, closely followed by fellow who, if a biopic of the Clash were ever made, would make a great Joe Strummer.

Jenny and Malik run the best rock & roll club in Lille and are our hosts for this evening.

Jenny tells us the club’s owner, Katrina, is out of town for the weekend, and we’re welcome to the run of her apartment, a narrow three-storey terrace. They’re so incredibly kind that Tamara is momentarily close to tears. “Our personal comforts are a great displeasure for some people,” she says. “To them we’re full of inconvenient needs and unfulfillable wants. We’re valuable for 40 minutes, on stage. We’re not people, we’re a band, that’s what’s happened.”

Jenny and Malik treat us like old friends. We dump our gear at the apartment, rest for a few hours then return the few blocks to L’Imposture, where Malik has made a mean chicken and vegetable stew and lets us drink to our heart’s content. The band hasn’t had a drink all day to this point.

Slowly, the venue begins to fill with Lille’s tiny contingent of rock & roll degenerates. We’d though it would be an early show, but there’s a support band playing called Jimi Was Gain, and they’re wonderful – a two-piece guitar/drums setup whose leader owns a Rickenbacker that looks more like a hotrod. He plays it like one, too; it’s all white-hot ’60s-style garage, with a tasty slew of originals alongside classic nuggets like Dirty Water, Psychotic Reaction and the best version of Surfin’ Bird I’ve ever heard this side of the Ramones.

Suddenly, it’s looking like a really bad day’s about to turn into a really good night. “There’s no bad days on tour, Staffo,” Stackers reminds me. “You could be at home driving cabs, you know.” I grin.

I’m reminded that it doesn’t matter how small a venue is; if it’s full, you might as well be playing Madison Square Garden after all. Only a handful of people here will have heard HITS’ album – the same as last night’s show at the much bigger Pacific Parc – but everyone in the room who hasn’t wants to be here anyway, on the strength of word of mouth, much of it spread by Malik and Jenny themselves. It’s a Saturday night, and everyone wants to rock out.

Richie’s fired up. He wants to hit the unsuspecting crowd with more of the new songs tonight. The band tears out of the blocks with Loose Cannons, then Smash Hits, then G-Banger, none of them yet available, and although Tammy’s Mosrite’s not loud enough and Stacey’s guitar keeps going out of tune, the vibe is there and the crowd is into it.

By Take Your Pills, the band’s on fire – Stacey’s bent at the knees, pumping out the rhythm furiously. She’s the most reserved member of the band, and her body language is a good indication of when a gig’s going well. Then the band plays its trump card. Bitter And Twisted is a new song – this is only the third time it’s been played live – and it’s a masterpiece, reminiscent of the slow, druggy menace of the Stooges’ I’m Sick Of You.

The band rips into a cover of I Need A Million, an obscure track by New York’s great, unheralded Laughing Dogs, and although probably no one recognises it, the crowd responds instantly to its irresistible surge of energy. There’s no question they know Joy Division’s Shadowplay, though: 40 French go mad. It’s a great show.

Later it’s just a long party. Drinks flow freely. Tamara scores some extremely smelly cheese, soon to be known as the Cheese of Death as it permeates our van.

“Let’s get busted for trying to smuggle cheese into Australia,” Richie says.

“We could put it up our arse in a condom,” Andy says. “At the beginning of the tour you’ll be scoring cheese. By the middle, you’ll have a dangerous habit. By the end you’ll be mainlining griere into your neck.”

Gregor caps the night by doing a haka. It’s a tour highlight. Richie thinks maybe he should start opening shows with it.

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