It’s foolish to try and pinpoint a single trigger for a human being’s desire to be or do something, there’s usually a smorgasbord of ever-swelling factors vying for attention. But if there was one deciding influence that drew me away from my chosen field of academia and towards a life on the road in a touring rock band it was Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz.
It’s only now I realise how strange this is. After all, it’s a film about endings rather than beginnings, the record of a band’s final show (indeed THE Band‘s final show), concert footage peppered with statements about needing to quit while you’re ahead, not wanting to end up as one of those Rock & Roll fatalities. “I just want to break even” grins Richard Manuel during one of the group interviews – a heartbreaking sentiment if considered with hindsight, this being a man who, less than a decade later (three years after The Band reformed), came offstage at the Cheek To Cheek Lounge just outside Orlando in Florida, downed a bottle of Grand Marnier and hanged himself in a motel bathroom; an act that retrospectively transformed The Last Waltz from an historical artifact into a tragic one, the words “may you stay forever young” echoing out prophetically from the final moments of that concert.
So I suppose among The Bedlam Six‘s very foundations was a ticking notion that such projects are never eternal, that our blueprints contained a clearly marked self-destruct button. I think this awareness is quite healthy, after all it doesn’t take an expert to realise most bands end with either the annihilation of the central friendships or the annihilation of the friends themselves.
We are not done yet though. We had a meeting earlier this year to discuss the future and we decided there is one. But we are going to have a break. Not because we are tired or think we deserve a rest. We simply need to work out what we want from this. Too many bands limp along for years, more out of inertia than dynamism, ricocheting from gig to gig, pinning whatever lingering ambitions they have to the next show… the turning point always just around the next corner. Then, before they know it all their old friends are cooing over grandchildren, while they themselves are still lugging amps up the backstairs of some crumbling mill to breathe in generations of neglected mould spores and subject their ear drums to another senseless battering. (And they never did get round to writing that opera.)
If that’s the way I’m going to go, fine. But I won’t do it blindly. I want to know what we’re all supposed to be aiming for, because I’m not sure I know at the moment. I’m not sure anyone knows.
Right now it’s pure enjoyment, glorious exploration, six guys who still get on playing songs that make people dance. But right now we’re also caught between two worlds and if we don’t pick one then it’ll all start to unravel pretty messily – no amount of disintegrating festival wristbands and old backstage passes will sustain the good memories when tested over decades spent in the artistic wilderness, as the cultural currency of what we do depreciates more with every passing epoch.
Just because singers and songwriters once flew the flag for forward thinking and free expression that doesn’t mean those flags are still flying now. When I meet someone new and they ask me what I do for a living I hesitate. I used to chirpily say “I’m in a band” and the conversation would roll along in little bursts of interest about style and influences. But these days that answer tends to elicit a state of terror in a lot of people, no doubt they worry I’m about to launch into some sales pitch about a Kickstarter campaign or urge them to “like” me on Facebook or join my mailing list. It’s a bit like knocking on a stranger’s door and saying “Have you heard the good news?” – very few are welcomed over the threshold. No, I’m afraid we rock bands are no longer glamorous. Not by default anyway. We are old fashioned, our methods unsubtle, our ambitions second hand. We are not the embodiment of freedom or rebellion or progress, but vanity and wishful thinking. Rock musicians are all too often simply a nuisance. Always spamming, begging, moaning, trying to make investors out of enthusiasts. We were once the escape and now we set the traps. When did it all get so damn tacky?
It’s probably not our fault. These are changing times and we’re caught in a peculiar hinterland between two philosophies. Some cultural commentators say the internet is a good way of broadcasting to EVERYONE; others say it’s a tool to focus in on those who are really interested, a specialisation aid. More and more I’m veering towards the latter notion, yet we must still pay a certain amount of lip-service to the former or else risk eschewing legions of promoters who gauge success with numbers alone. Those dreaded ugly numbers.
As usual I’m over-thinking things, at odds with that Devil-may-care attitude people in bands are supposed to have.
The problem is that we started The Bedlam Six at the tail end of another era, all our role models operated in a completely different set of circumstances and expectations. True we wised up to this relatively early on but that doesn’t alter the fact that most of the time we (and most other independent acts I know) are running to stand still. I’m glad we went down the DIY route, I’m glad it got us thinking, I’m glad we aren’t mindless drug addicts being shepherded about by a greedy manager. I like the way the internet has encouraged a more considered version of DIY with an emphasis on sustainability rather than hedonism (though I must admit the new buzz term “musicpreneur” does cause a certain amount of bile to rise in my throat). We developed on the road, met a lot of fascinating people, found ourselves in some amazing moments and did it all on our own terms. I wouldn’t change a second of it. But I’m curious to know how we’d do things if we were only just starting out now, in 2014 – if we’d gone into all this with even half an idea that our musical peers would one day refer to themselves as “brands not bands” in a completely non-ironic way. Yuck.
So we’re stepping back for a bit. Just to have a think. We’ve got one more full band tour (see gig section for details) then we’ll go on hiatus. We might be gone for such a short time that no one even notices. We might not. There will still be a trickle of music videos emerging over the coming months and I’ll still be playing solo shows (have to pay the bills somehow!) plus my band-mates likewise have plenty of other projects that require their attention (see their various personal websites linked on www.bedlamsix.com for details); but the extravaganza that is The Bedlam Six will disappear behind the curtain for a while. Who knows, maybe it’ll prove to be something of a chrysalis (as biological metaphor rather than 90s indie label reference). We still ain’t done being young… but we do occasionally find ourselves wondering what we’d like to be when we grow up. No doubt we’ll grow down again pretty quickly. We’ll just have to see.