A couple of posts ago I referenced David Kinney’s “The Dylanologists”, and a marvelous and thought provoking read it is too. There’s a sense in which although nominally a book about fans, Dylan’s presence broods throughout it, distant, mostly disapproving, like some stern Victorian paterfamilias judging adversely his flock of what appear to be utterly deranged admirers. And throughout that, the odd touching act of interaction: tickets left at the door, a word or two of encouragement or a nod from the stage.
Such acts are noted and shared by the fans, and their significance debated. For the subject, they’re just a fractional part of a normal day that started with a yawn and then probably breakfast and a shit (albeit the regularity of our heroes’ bowel movements is seldom dissected even by the most obsessive fans for some reason) yet for us they’re far more than that. An act of almost indifferent kindness – something easy and thoughtless to do, a name entered onto a guest list or a wave and a wink – can become an affirmation of our point of connection with an artist. And we can extrapolate whole worlds of intent from the briefest of real life encounters.
And it’s in the nature of fans to do exactly that; indeed the vacuum of the empty spaces between albums or concert performance seems to suck these imagined worlds out of us. Even if we feel the disapproving chill of the gaze of those on whose work we speculate. And so it goes with Paddy McAloon.
So let’s go back to 2011, and return the theme more overtly to Prefab Sprout. The word had leaked out that an album was being prepared, and it even had a name: “Trapdoor Melancholy”, which remains a seriously great album title, whoever it was who thought of it. There had even been contact with Kitchenware and those close to Paddy – particularly Keith Armstrong – confirming something was happening. It was an exciting and febrile time.
Even so, there were doubts. Neil Conti explained to someone that he’d heard the same thing but that Paddy had abandoned the recording process. A few trolls appeared on the Sproutnet board explaining gleefully that we would wait forever for anything new. We nodded indulgently to ourselves and met troll fire with carefully aimed sarcasm. Not altogether confident sarcasm, it has to be said, but it did the job. Fingers were definitely crossed under the keyboards.
And day followed day followed day followed day, and of course nothing happened.
So, in late 2011, we were waiting for a sign. Right on cue, a chance meeting with Paddy did indeed take place. And here is a first hand account of it, which I was sent at the time but asked not to talk about. It’s not a precise transcript but a recollection, so read it in that sense.
In retrospect, it seems far more understandable than it did at the time. Paddy, having been told he had to produce an album or be sued, was in a terminally vile mood, and was really hating the idea of anything to do with recording or the record business.
For some reason, my imagination has always placed the conversation in a desolate and bleak Durham countryside landscape rather than the more mundane reality of HMV Newcastle. I’ve never quite understood why, except that in some respects that was the tone of the conversation. Interesting now to perceive the echoes of an almost Dylanesque desire to misdirect and maintain privacy. At the time it threw those who knew of it into a bit of a tailspin of frustration and speculation as to Paddy’s mental state.
Thankfully the encounters since “Crimson/Red” was released – not least the interviews for the promotion – do seem to place Paddy in a far happier place. Day is of course still following day with nothing much happening, but we’re used to it. We can cope. We know Paddy is not a cracked shell of his former self as we’d feared in the dark moments. He can sing and write and record. And it sounds great when he does. He’ll probably do it again.
One note though: since this encounter (not with me, “me” is someone called Peter), Paddy’s attitude to the Birch book has softened, and a particular door opened in the research. I can’t say more, but I will explain more about the progress (rather painful as regards publication) of the book when I can.
Almost exactly a year to the day since I bumped into Paddy McAloon in the DVD department upstairs at HMV in Newcastle, he was there again on Wednesday afternoon around 2pm. This time he was more conservatively dressed, no more luminous yellow trousers and vivid red tartan coat. Yesterday he was wearing standard dark blue jeans, dark grey sweater and a black cord jacket, and looked fantastic. He didn’t seem as heavy as last year, and the ponytail has gone, his silver hair now a little shorter at the back, and cascading down his shoulders. The beard has also been trimmed back, and didn’t seem anywhere near as bushy as the last time.
He remembered me, so thankfully there were no awkward introductions to be gone through. There was a very short interlude of small talk before he asked me what I was doing. I’ll try as best I can to recall what was said:
Me: Well Paddy, John Ludford (Kitchenware co-founder) was asking after you a few weeks ago – he said he hasn’t seen you in years.
Paddy: Paul. Hmmm. How’s he doing?
Me: He’s doing great…anyway, you should know that along with a few others I’m helping out John Birch with the research for his book on The Sprouts, and Paul has loaned us his collection of photos of the band from the early to mid 80’s, for possible inclusion in the book. There are some great images, especially from the early 80’s tours, the Peel Sessions and the Appetite video shoot. Should bring back some good memories?
Paddy: Look, you must know that I want absolutely nothing to do with the book. I’m sure that John Birch is a lovely person and he’ll do a good job, but it won’t be the true story. I don’t like talking about myself, never have done. And I don’t like reading about myself either. Can I let you into a little secret? I hate being interviewed so much, that I just talk about anything for as long a time as possible so that I can get the whole thing over with. I really will talk nonsense to those people until their time’s up and I can get out of there. I’ve done it from the very early days, with NME, Melody Maker, all those old articles, everything I said was total crap.
Me: Err, that’s not going to help much, given that we’re having to trawl through all of that kind of stuff for info on you and the band, to use in the book. We have to rely on stuff that’s in print if there’s nothing else to go on.
Paddy: Well I can’t think of anything that I’ve said in the past that you can point to and say ‘that’s the truth, that’s how things are’. And that’s because they print the shit that they want to print, and I’m including the internet in this, and they leave out all the rest. The way those articles have been edited make it look like there’s some meaning, but really there wasn’t.
Me: OK, so is this (the book) not an ideal, unique opportunity to put the record straight?
Paddy: – a shrug of the shoulders and a few slight shakes of the head. Then a long pause: You know, it’s nice when people find you fascinating, and it’s nice when they seem to like the stuff that you’ve done, but really, I don’t think I’ve done great things, there’s not much that I’m pleased about.
Me: Err, I don’t believe that you really mean that, Paddy.
Paddy: No, I’m serious. All those years of thinking that I could go into a studio and make records that were great. And as for producing records – why did I think that I could possibly do that? I mean, ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’…jeez, what the hell was I thinking? What the hell was that all about? When I think of all the money that was spent on our albums, we wasted just about all of it. Shocking. (He’s visibly agitated)
Me: The last album, ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, I loved it to bits. And surely that didn’t cost a fortune? I mean they were home demos, but let’s face it, your home demos are superior to 95% of other bands’ fully realised recordings.
Paddy: Thanks. I loved that album too, and I consider that those songs were probably amongst the best that I’ve ever written.
Me: I have to ask, because if I don’t there’ll be a fair few fans wanting to know why. How is the new album coming along that Keith’s been talking about?
Paddy: Well, to be truthful, there isn’t a new album as such. I started writing and recording a project some months ago, but I dropped it when I came up with another idea. Then that got dropped after a while, then I started something new. In fact, there are four incomplete projects on the go, with enough songs written across all four to make one album. But they are different subjects, so, you know, that wouldn’t work. What I think I’ll probably do, is wait until the last minute (which suggests that maybe he’s been given a deadline?) and record a whole album’s worth of new songs very quickly, it’ll be fast, spontaneous and raw. I might do it along the same lines as the last one.
Me: Paddy, do you not think that maybe it’s time to get your finger out and actually finish something that you started? (and immediately I regretted using those words, fearing a backlash)…but…
Paddy: (smiling for the first time and reaching out to touch me on the shoulder).. Peter, you’re absolutely right. That’s what I need to do, and that’s what I’ve been unable to do all of my life. It’s just how I am, just who I am.
With that, he turned round to see the lengthening queue for the checkout, checked his watch and said that if he didn’t pay for his DVD soon, he would miss his bus back home. We wished each other’s families all the best for Christmas and New Year etc, and he joined the long line.
If it’s of any interest, I was standing by the rack when he chose his DVD, and although I didn’t see the title, it was one of these four; The Third Man, The Thin Man, The Thirty Nine Steps, or (and wouldn’t it be great if he had actually picked this one) There’s Something About Mary. I rather hope that it was the last one, because it seemed to me that the poor sod hadn’t had a good laugh in a long time.