In an epic transdimensional/transtemporal tale that takes us from behind The Iron Curtain into the heart of the Decadent West - Comrade Boshkin gives us this report of the last week of The Stranglers Black and White Tour. So put on your slippers, pull up your chair, spark up an Havana and enjoy...
Black and White and Grippe!
by Anatoly Boshkin
Our esteemed brother-in-black Matt Brown asked me if I wanted to contribute a guest review to his web site. I feel honored to join the ranks of guest reviewers on his excellent site which I have been following, with fascination, for several years. At first I was not sure if my writing ability is up to the task, after all English is not my native tongue, but then I recalled the words of my high school teacher giving advice on writing essays: “There’s nothing to it, write in short sentences, avoid big words, and you’ll be fine”… She and I hated each other’s guts, so I intend to completely ignore her advice and still attempt to come up with something readable.
As I was booking my flights and hotels for this trip, I realized that it was my 7th year in a row that I would cross the Atlantic to see The Stranglers live. Not bad. On this trip I would reach 25 on my Stranglers gig count (a bit tricky with the 2011 convention, which I count as 2 gigs). Not very impressive, I know, with many fans out there having their numbers in the hundreds, and some reaching double digits in a single year. My excuse, of course, is the geography (I have been living in the USA since 1994) and, shall we say, geopolitics: born and raised behind the Iron Curtain. I could only dream of seeing the band live in the first half of its existence, having thus missed the original lineup completely.
By 2010, I had only seen the band live once, at Glasgow Barrowlands, December 1993 – the one with Jet singing Old Codger and JJ having beer spilled all over him, with subsequent invitation for the culprit to come onstage for a lesson (not accepted). Those were the high points, the rest of the gig not so much; Mr. Roberts had a knack of turning the hits I had fallen in love with as a teenager into some other band’s songs, and Mr. Ellis insisted on playing guitar parts his way, cleanly and technically but without the quirkiness of his predecessor, which, again, made it sound like there was some other band on stage playing their own renditions of the songs by The Stranglers (needless to say, I did not care about most Mk II songs at all). The substitute drummer (Tim Bruce, if i remember correctly) did an adequate job but, quite understandably, nothing more, and the two original members did not look engaged, apart from the aforementioned beer-throwing episode. It was certainly an important milestone, my first Stranglers gig (and Jet’s Old Codger is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life), but overall a bit of a disappointment. So much in fact, that when The Stranglers played a very short North American tour in 1997, I decided not to take the 4 hour drive to the nearest point of call, New York City, from Washington DC area where I lived by then, figuring that they’d do a proper US tour soon enough and I would be able to see them locally. A bit of a miscalculation: the next US tour would happen 16 bloody years later!
Fast forward a few years, there is a new guitar player in town, and fans on the Internet say they quite like him. My first taste of Baz’s playing came soon thereafter with the 5 Live album, and I was duly impressed. I heard a guitar player that managed to replicate Cornwell’s sound and style pretty damn close to the original, including the reported use of a Telecaster; I deduced a desire to please the fans and zero arrogance. Then came Norfolk Coast where I heard, to my delight, that Dave started playing, after many years of just providing the background. There was an overall feeling of a band enjoying their craft again. By now, I was very much interested again, and hoping for an imminent US tour which for some reason did not happen this year; OK, next year for sure.
In a few more years there were 4 again, JJ started singing more, and Baz, although not imitating Hugh vocals-wise, somehow still sang in a manner that did not grate this old-time fan at all. I felt The Stranglers were back! Sweet XVI sort of confirmed that the band was returning to its roots, but the real treats were the live recordings that clearly showed me that the band I fell in love with as a teenager somehow resurfaced after a prolonged near-hiatus. That, and the rumors that Jet’s health was failing, led me to a decision to stop waiting for the mountain to come to the US and catch them whenever and wherever I can, for however long they have left to run. As a side note, by then I had seen Hugh on all of of his US solo tours (even came over to watch him play the Guildfest in 1999), met him and spoke with him several times, and it was abundantly clear that the reunion was out of the question. Oh well. Bring on the next best thing!
In 2010, I recruited my best friend Sergei to accompany me for a 3-day, 2-gig trip to England. We had a fucking blast! First, Cambridge Corn Exchange, and then Hammersmith Apollo, an absolutely unforgettable experience. I waited near the head of the line for more than an hour and was able to get a place at the railing on JJ’s side, and then survived 2 hours plus of being tossed about in the human surf, ended up with multiple bruises on my rib cage but never let go of the rail, and was rewarded with a blissful audiovisual experience, from the first note of Waltzinblack to the last sound of the encore. That was pretty darn close to what I had been dreaming of ever since hearing No More Heroes on the BBC Russian Service in December 1977 and deciding right there and then that this was my band! It became clear to me that I wanted to continue going to these gigs again and again, for as long as the band keeps on running.
So here I am, 6 years later, very happy with the decision I made, and enough of my life story, let’s get to the latest trip, a week on the Black and White tour of 2016, which turned out to be the one to remember, for reasons great and not so much…
The overnight flight from Washington Dulles to Heathrow was uneventful and almost enjoyable. The usual questioning by the immigration officer on my plans in the UK raised the customary chuckle (“What, the same gig 5 times in a row? Jolly good, Sir” – bam! a stamp in the passport). A long walk to the bus station, a longish wait before a comfy bus ride to Woking, a look at Salisbury bound departures… “Cancelled”. “Cancelled” . Oh my. Don’t know what was happening there, but having crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 6.5 hours it took me 3 more hours to clear Woking. British Rail can be tricky, as many readers probably know.
Anyway, there goes my chance of a couple hours’ kip before the festivities begin. Finally at Salisbury, a taxi to the hotel (White Hart – remember the name), and then to the pub across the road where comrade Jo Black is eagerly waiting, a pint in hand. Hugs and back pats, fish and chips, pints and pints, then cognac and cigars, all with a talk between two mates about what went on in their lives in the past year. A very happy start to what would undoubtedly be a fab week!
At some point Matt Brown texts me, he’s at a local curry house (where else) with a bunch of fellow fans, so Jo and I swing back to the hotel to freshen up and pick up the gig tickets; I don my white Black & White top, then follows a short taxi ride to the aforementioned Indian establishment (to the hotel receptionist: “Er, can you please call us a taxi, we are going to an Indian restaurant, we forgot the name but remember that it ends with a double A”… she managed!). A group of fans in black is present, beside Matt there are Karen Parfitt, Adam “Pigeon” Salem, Lou and Rebus Smith, Pete from West London and his mate whose name is swept away from my memory by the subsequent streams of Kingfisher (Two Pint Pete and Keith, EiTC). Soon, we are joined by Jan Stoelinga and his wife (another name I lost, sorry!), direct from Netherlands (The lovely Jacqueline Mr Boshkins Sir, EiTC). The food is fiery, the beer cold, Pete keeps calling me Boris (from the movie Snatch, apparently I am a lookalike), I feel mildly irritated until I realize that he refers to everybody else simply as “c**t” (EiTC note: Profanity and alcoholic excess aside, he’s a top bloke Comrade!). A great time is being had by everyone. Soon, it’s time to go into the venue.
We catch most of the set by The Alarm. It’s a good one, Mike Peters is a charismatic front man, the tunes are good, the band sound fine, I’d say they are one of the best bands that I have seen support The Stranglers.
Finally, the lights go out and the magic sounds of Waltzinblack fill the hall. The first gig on each trip is always special for me. It’s a combination of a sleepless night, jetlag, many pints, the euphoria/adrenaline of starting a new chapter in my personal Stranglers adventure…. The first gig usually flashes by as a blur of happy sounds and lights, and this was no exception.
The gig over, Jo and I hurry to a pub to come down using a few rounds of Jamie and Guinness.
Back at the White Hart and who do we see in the lobby… Dave Greenfield himself! With a Stella in hand and the famous black bag (though it’s brown these days) at his feet, chatting with several companions. Somehow we find ourselves join the company, Jo asks a question and Dave is chattering away. I sit slack jawed and try to follow the conversation. Jo: “How does it feel to be the best keyboard player in the world, Dave?” Dave: “Nah, there are better ones”. Even though I had met Dave and spoke with him several times before, I am starstruck and mostly speechless, however the fact that I am on a cross-Atlantic trip to see the band for the 7th year running surfaces at some point, and everybody seems impressed. One of the gentlemen present, Gary, says he is the tour manager and offers me to be at the Folkestone venue by 3PM next day, to see the soundcheck. I can hardly believe my luck. Being an experienced drinker and not trusting my memory, I take a photograph of Gary and type a note to my next day’s self into my iphone: “This man’s name is Gary, he’s the tour manager and he wants you to be at the venue in Folkestone at 3PM, he will get you in to see the soundcheck. This was not a dream, dude, do not fuck it up!”
Next morning, I find Jo in the lobby chatting with the hotel manager Audrey. Her husband is a huge fan of Dave Greenfield and he had no idea the band would stay at the White Hart, so she said she would tease him “guess who I spend half the last night chatting with!” A hearty breakfast of one pint of Guinness each, then another quick pint of real ale at the railway station where we learn of the terror attack in Brussels (a priceless tirade from a local guy to the effect that “do you feel you have admitted enough ‘refugees’ now, euroliberals, or do you still want some more?” – about twice as long if I were to leave the cuss words in). Jo and I say our goodbyes – see you next year buddy – and onwards I go, the goal is 3PM at the Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone, as the iphone message from the past prescribes.
British Rail does a proper job this time, and at a quarter to three I am at the ticket counter of the Leas Cliff Hall demanding my ticket and somebody to page Gary the boss man or his deputy Merv to come and let me in. The people at the counter are amused but oblige, and soon I am told to stick around and wait near the entrance to be picked up, which indeed happens at around 3:20. Gary tells me to wait at the merch stall for the band to arrive which I do, and when they show up 15 or so minutes later he introduces me, and to my surprise JJ says “We have met you before, haven’t we” – indeed, at the US tour 2 years prior we spoke at the VIP meet-and-and-greets in NYC and Philly. While we shake hands somebody says “What a great name, Anatoly” – not sure what makes it great, but I’ll take it, thanks Mom&Dad! I ask Baz for a selfie, and he responds “Sure, after we’re done here. Come inside!”
It is my first time witnessing a Stranglers soundcheck (in fact, any soundcheck), and it is quite the experience. The Alarm are present, some of the crew are scurrying around the stage, others pushing faders on the soundboard, I watch in awe and feeling special (I appear to be the only just a fan in the hall). After a few whacks at the instruments and some discussion, the band decide to play Burning Up Time, and they do, only the voices are not audible. They seem to be singing for real, so I guess the mikes were on and they heard themselves on the monitors, and I find myself being treated to an instrumental version of B.U.T. – very special indeed!
At the end of it, Gary invites me onstage for a photo with the band. As we walk towards the stage I offer profuse thanks for the wonderful experience. Gary answers along the lines of “we certainly noticed your dedication and want to do something nice in return as a sign of appreciation”. I get up on stage, Jim is nowhere to be seen (I guess he still shies away from full band photos; he should not), I hand my iPhone to Gary and the four of us line up. While Gary prepares to shoot, JJ asks me where in Russia I was born, how long have been living in America, and then delivers this one: “Do you agree that Black and White has not aged at all? I listen to it today, and it sounds as modern now as it did in the 70s”. I am not ready to handle such a profound topic and in response start telling JJ how it was the full first album I heard as a teenager in 79. The shots are snapped, Gary hands me the phone back, I wish the band a good gig, thank Gary again, and leave the building, escorted by a crew member.
The whole experience lasted for about 30 minutes and left me in a somewhat dizzy state.
I had thought that the unbeatable high point of my “career” as a Stranglers fan was when Baz addressed me from stage in Philadelphia as part of his pre-No More Heroes “Can you feel it?” banter (“And you, my Russian friend, can you feel it?”) This might very well be even more special, I am not sure. To ruminate on the subject, I walked to a bar across the street from the venue, ordered JD on the rocks and a pint of Bombardier, positioned myself in their garden overlooking the venue and lit up a cigar. As it often happens these days, ruminations were quickly abandoned in favor of Facebook, Skype and other means of sharing the joy with the outside world that do not require deep insight or even use of proper language, lol.
Having finished the refreshments and enlightened the world, I took a long walk through the streets of the fine town of Folkestone in search of proper food and historical attractions (found none, settled for a pint and a sandwich), followed by a lovely stroll along a seaside promenade back to the venue.
The faithful had already started a queue, full 2 hours prior to opening of the doors.
I go to the hotel to freshen up, along the way noticing that the Leas Cliffs Hall does not deal exclusively in rock concerts, other quality entertainment is also on offer:
Soon, Matt pages me from a curry restaurant (where else), he is there with his brother Phil who sports an impressive facial hair, in the style of the last Russian emperor Nicholas the Second. Soon we will be joined by two more fans, Lucy and Rihannon. More fiery food and Kingfisher, we relocate to a wine bar (why do they call it a “wine bar” if everybody still drinks beer and shorts?), after some drinks back to the venue where I meet up with a recent Internet contact of mine, Tony Raven. The gig is about to begin.
I make my way to the front, positioning myself near the front on the Baz’s side. My second gig of the tour begins well enough but towards the end of the Black and White section I realize that something is not right. Baz looks pale, barely speaks between songs and disappears backstage every now and again. JJ looks concerned. I do not remember noticing any deterioration in Baz’s playing or singing, but he looks unwell and quite unhappy. Approximately 3/4 through the set JJ turns to the other band members and I see him mouth “Let’s just finish”. They play 5 Minutes (if the memory serves) and go. People start shouting for encore. JJ quickly returns and explains that two of the band members have food poisoning and could not finish the set, for the first time in 40 years of operation – I suspect most of you saw the YouTube clip with his speech, so I will not transcribe it here. What impressed me was the fact that audience responded with respect and understanding, I did not hear a single boo, instead there was a long and loud applause for a band who fought hard to give the fans their music and persevered for almost 1.5 hours instead of taking the easy option of cancelling the gig, one I suspect many of the more pampered stars would choose without a second thought. Much respect!
Post-gig everybody is concerned with the health of the band, next day’s concert in Cambridge, and even the rest of the tour. As the evening marches on, though (we relocate back to the “wine bar”), the spirits rise and the mood improves. I even donate a raven badge off my jacket to a co-drinker (Rihannon in this case), which indicates a time well spent.
In the morning, I venture outside for a wake-up drink, find a coffee shop, sit down with a big cup, and notice a woman lying flat on the sidewalk across the street, apparently passed out. A couple of people seem to be tending to her; others walk by with nary a glance. The ambulance takes quite a bit of time to arrive, and when it finally does there is no big hurry on the scene. I guess the English do not lose their heads and really keep calm no matter what is going on. Finally the lady on the pavement starts moving, my coffee is finished, I head back to the hotel to pack and move on to Cambridge.
Upon arrival to Cambridge some 3 hours later, I check into my hotel, eat lunch at my favorite place in the town, The Prince Regent pub (a separate story), and head to the Corn Exchange in order to find out the state of the Stranglers camp, and if luck permits maybe hear the sounds of the soundcheck. I pick up my ticket, the person at the box office does not know anything about any cancellation, good sign but I decide to hang around the venue for a bit and see what I can find. An occasional person in a Stranglers T-shirt can be seen walking past the building, quite a number of people see the poster advertising tonight’s gig and show recognition, some even pull out their phones and snap pictures of it. I have always heard of Cambridge as a very cultural town, and here’s the proof!
After about 20 minutes I notice a crew member who I remember from the day before. As he smiles at me on the way to the stage door, I ask him “How are they feeling?” His reply is “Ugh” and a wave of the hand that I interpret as “far from perfect but good enough”. A look at the latest Facebook postings confirms my guess, we seem to have a show tonight.
It’s about 4 o’clock, a bit early to expect many fans at The Eagle, but I go in to check anyway. I do not see anybody I recognize; the Stranglers apparel is not yet represented, except for two unfamiliar gentlemen who I exchange nods with. I sit down with my pint of Abbot, and in a minute one of them walks to me and asks if I am on my own, after my “yes” he invites me to join him and his mate. Very nice and, uh, family-in-black-like! As we exchange introductions, he asks for my last name and exclaims “I know you! We are friends on the Facebook! I am Tony Armitage”. What a lovely surprise. Tony and his friend Gary drove to Cambridge from Luton (“There is nothing in Luton, do not go there”, they say) and turn out to be nice and intelligent people, we spend about two hours in a lively discussion of all matters Stranglers-related and otherwise. After a few pints, I feel the need for nourishment before the gig but am not quite in the mood for pub fare, so Tony and Gary give me directions to a kebab place that they thought was excellent (it was) and I leave. If Tony or Gary read this, thank you gentlemen for a great time, hope to see you again next year!
Passing by The Corn Exchange I see that a healthy queue has already formed, one of the familiar faces is Elaine Smith who informs me that she is attending 16 ot ouf 18 gigs on this tour. What a trooper! You must be tough as nails Elaine, I bow my head to you.
I also speak with Lou Smith who informs me that she is hoping to get to the front row, while her husband Rebus preferred to go to The Eagle for a pint. I return to The Eagle after my kebab, but cannot find him. Time to go in.
This time I position myself at the back, near the soundboard. The place is quite packed and to my pleasant surprise the band sounds as tight as ever. Everything goes great until near the middle of the Black and White section I start feeling woozy. My first thought is, “Shit, it’s the kebab” but no, the symptoms are different. After a while I realize that the nasty flu which I seem to be bringing back home from every English trip, struck early this time. The condition worsens so quickly that I have to leave the gig about three quarters in.
On the way to the hotel I pop into a supermarket and load up on flu and cough remedies, the most important of which is the sticky sweet concoction poetically branded Night Nurse. In America, the same kind of stuff goes by a bland pharmaceutic name of Nyquill. I’ll take Night Nurse over Nyquill any day, or rather night.
Into the bed I go, with a towel on my forehead and a bunch of medicine bottles on the side table, a la Mr. Bean. Good night and let’s try to survive the rest of the trip.
Cambridge, day 2
After 12 hours filled with all sorts of unpleasant dreams (and not a single night nurse in them), I decided that I improved enough to risk a walk, get some fresh air, a coffee and maybe some food. Coffee did its temporary magic, so I walked on. In all my previous visits to Cambridge I had never seen the local river, Cam, which in the tourist guides is made up to be some sort of a Seine, only a bit more scenic. I reached it this time. What a disappointment.
In addition, it started raining. I took refuge in a nearby pub named The Mitre and tested my condition with a half pint of Hobgoblin. The beer, to quote a fictional Russian scientist, “refreshed my dusty brow”. Encouraged, I ordered a sandwich and a full pint. “The food did me good” but the pint made me feel wobbly again and it became clear that the balance of the day would be best spent in bed. A day of rest in the middle of the week turned out to be a godsend and I needed to take full advantage of it.
As I walked towards the hotel, I saw a homeless-looking man playing a harp. Not a little handheld thing, but an impressive 4-footer which towered above his head as he held in his lap. The locals paid no attention. Worried that my next encounter would be a trio of hobos playing the 80’s style brass part of Down In The Sewer on heavenly trumpets, I hobbled on. Wish I took a photo, at least I’d have known know whether that was a hallucination. Not much to report about the subsequent 20 hours or so. Fever, cough, Night Nurse and bad dreams.
Mid-day Friday, a 4 hour+ train ride from Cambridge to Leeds, with 2 changes. The less said about that horrible time the better.
This is my second time in Leeds, I stay at the Radisson Blu which I prefer for its insanely comfy beds, and try to rest before the gig. Always dependable Matt comes through with a texted invitation to another curry place. With regret, I turn him down since I cannot think of food in general, and anything spicy in particular. Instead, I order room service of an over-peppered pumpkin soup and an awfully bad Caesar salad, force myself to eat some of that crap and go right back to bed. In a few short hours, it is time to pull myself out and start staggering towards the Academy..
Thank myself for good planning! When I was booking the gig tickets, I chose to sit on the balcony in Leeds, correctly figuring that after 4 days of trains and gigs I would be on my last legs. I did not figure on being sick, which turned the sitting ticket to the balcony into a real life-saver. Thus, despite my malady, I am able to enjoy a good view and sound, and another excellent gig.
Post-concert mingling, alas, was out of the question. At the end of the gig I went straight back to the hotel for another dose of Night Nurse and a night of feverish dreams.
Next morning, the last day of the tour, another lucky break for me, the relatively short distance from Leeds to Manchester. I was able to sleep late, take the journey which took less than 2 hours door to door, and check into a bed at the McDonald hotel, very close to the railway station and not far away from the Apollo, this year’s venue. Another set of city-exploring plans had to be ditched in favor of some miserable time with the drapes closed.
For the last gig of my trip and the tour, I had to make the effort to survive. The healing powers of good cognac should not be called upon casually, but this occasion felt right. When the time to get out was close, I went down to the hotel bar and ordered a dose of Remy Martin, with a cup of tea and a sandwich. Soon came a text from Matt with the location of today’s curry place, Punjab. A friendly Indian taxi driver never heard of the place, somewhat surprisingly, and it took him some effort and extra time as the originally given address was incorrect.
When I arrived, Matt and his companion Di were finishing their meal. No problem, “A cup of tea and a brandy” was my dinner order, after which it became evident that the waiter had little idea what “brandy” or “cognac” means, so I had to walk over to the bar and locate a bottle of Martel for him. Di seemed to be suffering from a flu-like condition like myself, so we share the “magic sweeties” as she called the anti-cough candies which I had been carrying a pocketful of for the prior 3 days. No magic there, sadly, just a chemical taste and a short-lived superficial relief. Unlike tea and cognac, which returned some colour to my face, as Matt noted, and allowed me to be minimally sociable for the rest of our dinner and the trip to the Apollo.
The gig was exceptional, the band at their peak and the fans at their most enthusiastic. Once again, the Manchester tour closer turned out to be my favorite gig of the trip. For the fifth time in a row, I was blown away by the first bar of Grip, a monster keyboard sound that heralded the switch from the somewhat depressing Black side of the album, with its stark white lighting, to a full color celebration of timeless hits and classics old and new. Grip is one song that I think sounds better live these days than its original recording. Another highlight of the last gig for me was 5 Minutes, the most energetic version I have ever witnessed. There was even Golden Brown in one of the encores, played for the only time on the tour (or at least its last week), which is just fine by me. At 2 full hours, this gig was over way too soon.
If I had to choose the biggest loss caused by my illness, it would not be the fact that it made me miss some sightseeing, good food and drink, record shopping, or even the last 30 minutes of the Cambridge gig. It would not be the recovery that lasted for many days after I returned home (I am still feeling the after-effects as I write this, more than 3 weeks later). It has got to be missing the post-Manchester gig action at the Big Hands bar, with so many friends-in-black I had made in the prior visits. At the end of the concert I could only muster just enough strength to greet all the friends I could locate on the floor, and then had to go to the hotel, be miserable for another night and head to the airport early in the morning.
So…. Julie, Gill, Jason, Andy & Pam, Dave Higginson, Steve and Paul, Elaine, Liz, comrade Pidgeon, Colin Davies, Kathinboots… great to see you all! I am sure I forgot somebody, but it was great to see you as well. Sorry I could only say hi and disappear. I promise to do better next year. And for now, long live The Stranglers and their fans! Amen.
Words and Photos: Anatoly Boshkin.
Bonus Photos: Matthew Elvis Brown.