Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Crew: The Drivers

“This is it, we've made it” I thought to myself as we pulled away from the scrap yard cum garage Frank's dad owned, the place were Frank worked and we practised a few times a week.  For the past couple of years we'd been travelling around the UK, playing every shithole that would take us, driving around in an assortment of fucked up old vans and sleeping anywhere we could.  It had been a fucking blast, some of the best and worst times of my life, but this here was about to go to another level.  I'll never forget the scene as we pulled away, my girlfriend at the time stood arm in arm with Frank's girl, the two of them crying their eyes out as the tour bus pulled slowly away, me and Frank sat up in the top lounge, looking out the back window and waving to them.  As soon as the bus turned the corner and we lost sight of them, Frank turned around, clapped his hands together and chortled, “Right, let's fucking party!”.  It was barely seven am and we were setting off on a two day journey towards Helsinki, Finland.  This would be our home for the next six weeks.  I could barely fucking believe it.

Those six weeks would become three months and without doubt, they would be the most fun three months of my life, as well as the hardest drinking period my body has ever had to endure.  When I finally came home, a few days before Christmas, my mum burst into tears, so withered and pale was I.  I'd been swept up in the euphoria of touring around the continent on a night-liner, drinking copious amounts of booze every single day and night, feeling indestructible.  I have to say though, I understood my mum's anguish, if I looked like shite, it was nothing to how I felt inside.  But that moment, when you're twenty years old and you climb aboard the bus, claim you're bunk and crack open a beer and settle down for the journey towards the mainland, well, it was like nothing else.

It's almost hard for me to fathom now, looking back, that Speedhorn got to a level where we could afford a tour bus to travel about in.  Not that I had much of an idea what it was costing us, I didn't really care then, we had someone else taking care of all that, something else I now find hard to fathom, but that's what they call hindsight and experience and I guess you only get that one way.  And of course, I would do it all over again if the circumstances were the same, which let's face it, they never will be.  If we'd travelled in the back of a Transit van and slept on floors the whole time then of course, we would have made a lot more money out of touring, but that's a way of doing things I'm much happier with now in older age, weirdly enough, than I was then.  And we'd done a couple of years intensive touring already by that point, literally taking food from bins on occasion when we had fuck all else.  No, I was ready for some time living like a fucking rock star, kind of.  It didn't last long, but it was fun whilst it did.

During our era of tour bussing it about, there were three people who manned the wheel over a longer period of time.  The first was an old Yorkshireman called Bob.  We only travelled on Bob's bus for a couple of tours, but it was my favourite of the few we travelled on.  It was old and falling to pieces in places, I imagine it was the cheapest bus Bianchi could find but that suited us fine.  As Bianchi put it, “It doesn't matter if you trash it since it's already trashed”. It was a license to party, and even if Bob didn't always see it that way, he left us to it for the most part.  Bob always reminded me of my uncle George for some reason, he did that miserable man routine to a tee, barely ever smiled, completely hamming it up.  He had wispy white hair around the back and sides with none on top and he always wore knee length shorts, no matter the weather.  Didn't really matter since he was only ever on the bus or in the canteen in the venue.  A couple of days into that first tour Doug had overheard him talking to his boss on the phone, “I dunno, Speeding Racehorse or something.  Bloody rubbish anyway!”  Doug loved him from that moment on, we all did.  The main thing for us is that he left us to party the night away, up there on the top floor where the lounge and the bunks were as he drove us towards the next city.  He never complained, not really, not even on those occasions when we had to make a sharp exit from the police, the night I threw a pint of piss over some German meathead's back and then Roddy pepper sprayed the club and had the whole place evacuated, or the time we had a battalion of police cars chasing us down the autobahn after a knife had been pulled in a service station, or even when we were thrown in jail for a couple of days in Spain, there was never anything more from Bob than, “What the fuck are they up to now?”.

I'll never forget the relief upon seeing Bob waiting for us in that car park when we got out of Spanish jail, he'd waited for us without any knowledge of how long we'd be, I guess he was getting paid all the same but anyway... I do remember him talking to me one day though, when it just happened to be the two of us alone on the bus, it almost felt like fatherly advice at the time.  He told me he could see I was the calm one of the bunch and that I had an influence on the rest of the guys.  “You lot have got to calm down, otherwise it's going to end up fucking bad for you.  You're a nice bunch of lads but you act like idiots a lot of the time, you should reel it in a bit.  I can tell you're the responsible one, have a word with them for fuck sake”.  I felt really touched by this at the time, I could tell he cared about us.

One of my favourite memories of Bob is when for some reason he let Gordon and John dye his hair.  He may even have suggested it himself.  He wanted it red but entrusting that pair of berks with the job wasn't the wisest decision he ever made.  It turned out a purplish pink colour.  I remember looking at him sat back stage, holding a towel around his shoulders as the dye was setting thinking to myself, “That doesn't look very red to me”.  Bob still had the stern Yorkshire look on his face as he sat there holding this towel.  Fucking brilliant.

We did the two tours with Bob and his bus, the two back to back European stints that lasted those three months, and then we never saw him again.  I guess he quit the music scene after that.  He had been complaining about how driving bands wasn't really worth the hassle and that he missed driving the pensioners around the Alps on their ski trips and how he missed having the “Trolley Tarts” alongside him (the women who used to serve refreshments on such trips (Bob's terminology)).

Our next driver was the guy who was with us the longest and by far the most eccentric of what is a pretty eccentric breed.  Chop, a chirpy Welshman with an absolutely absurd mullet, Chuckle Brothers spiky on top and crawling straight as an arrow half way down his back.  He almost always had a smile on his face and loved having the crack with us, although he was extremely professional when it came to his job.  After coming home from the second of those European tours we had one last little stint before the three months came to an end, a run of headlining shows in Ireland.  We jumped off Bob's bus and on to Chop's, which was a far newer, cleaner, shinier beast and Chop was very proud of it.  It was his home and he demanded it be treated with respect.  It was ok to party but if you fucked the place up there would be trouble.

Since the Ireland shows were all short drives we stayed put every night so we could enjoy the power cable from the club until morning.  It was only the second show I think, somewhere down south, when Chop came in to take part in the evening's festivities.  He stayed on the bus the first night, but being a sociable chap and with a very short drive the next day he came in to watch the show and party with us.  I remember looking into the mosh pit about half way through the gig and there's Chop, one arm around some young Irish metaller, beer in the other hand, huge smile on his face and calling us cunts between songs.

As I say, Chop was an eccentric.  He had this huge ring through his bell end and tattooed around his piece, a devilish face that gave the effect that his knob was the demon's long nose.  We all got to see his cock on many an occasion, he would gladly show it to anyone, no matter how long he'd known the person.  He also kept a couple of different fold up bikes underneath the bus in the holding, and on most days he would get them out as soon as we reached the next venue and he'd be off.  You'd often see him riding about the city, wherever you were, that trusty smile on his face.  He was the kind of guy who had friends in most cities since he would approach people wherever he went and start a conversation.  A crazy, but very friendly chap.  And he loved us like sons.  It was Chop who coined the phrase, something that I think described Speedhorn perfectly, “You're a bunch of cunts, but you're loveable cunts”.

We were with Chop and his bus for the best part of a year.  One of my absolute favourite memories of that time is from the Speedhorn/Charger tour, the two bands on the bus together.  One night we'd been travelling after a show and we were on some back road, pitch black outside.  We were all fast asleep when Chop pulled the bus over to attend to some quick maintenance.  It only took a minute or so and then he was off again.  A little while down the road he notices the red lamp on his dash board warning that the back door is ajar.  He pulls over to check it our and right enough, the door is slightly open.  He thinks it pretty strange since he was sure he'd closed it, so goes upstairs to the bunk area to check everyone is on board.  Everyone in their rightful places he satisfies himself with the conclusion that he couldn't have closed the door properly and carries on down the road.  It continues to bug him though, he was sure he'd closed that door... About a half hour later he's still struggling to shrug the doubt and decides to pull over again for another check of the bunk area.  Yep, the full mob of snoring, booze stinking lads are in their place...but wait a minute.  He checks Jez, the Charger bass player's bunk, a little closer.  Fuck.  It's not Jez lying there but a pile of clothes and pillows underneath the quilt.  No Jez!  He turns the bus around and speeds back the way he came.  About twenty minutes later the headlights shine on a very cold and frightened looking Jez, standing shivering in the dark January night wearing nothing but a t-shirt, kecks and trainers, holding his mobile phone desperately.  Chop can barely fucking believe his eyes!  The stupid sod had felt the bus stop and got up for a piss, not thinking to tell anyone or most importantly Chop, that he was doing so.  The stupid fucker could have frozen to death if it wasn't for Chop's gut instinct winning him over.  Amazingly Jez had taken his phone with him for some reason and in the morning we all pissed ourselves laughing as we listened to the array of desperate voice messages he'd left on Jay and Jim's phones.  “Please guys, it's not funny any more, come back!  I'm going to fucking die here, it's freezing!  I'm scared, really scared”  Poor bastard.  He took it pretty well to be fair and could see the funny side of it.  Chop lambasted him for the rest of the tour, completely took the piss out of him.  I'm sure Chop has relayed the story many times to other bands and drivers over the years.

One of the old stories Chop relayed for us, one of my favourites, was from his days of driving the black metal band Immortal around.  Chop pretty much always wore his Immortal hoodie on tour, he seemed very proud of it.  It seems Chop and the Norwegians were good friends and enjoyed each others company on tour on a regular basis, although the relationship started off on a somewhat shaky footing.  On the first tour they did together Chop and the band's singer and leader, Abbath, were at loggerheads over driving times during one particular stretch of road between shows.  I don't remember the exact story but I'm sure it was along the lines of Abbath wanting to be somewhere on a day off and demanding Chop drove there and Chop refusing because it was too far for them to reach within Chop's legal driving hours.  The situation came to the boil with the two of them arguing where they would be driving to and Abbath gets in Chop's face with one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard, “I am Abbath of Immortal and I demand you drive to such and such (wherever it was)!”  Chop then grabs Abbath by his pierced nipple and twists it, causing the tit great pain as he shouts in reply, “I am Chop of Wales and this is my fucking bus and I will fucking decide where I will drive it!”  Chop and Abbath have been great friends ever since.

I was sad to lose Chop's services as he was a great driver and we loved him and his bus.  Unfortunately we got into a disagreement over payment with his boss Tony and it made continuing to tour with Chop rather impossible.  Things would never be the same again.  In his place was a guy called Barry.

Barry was a timid, middle aged man, small and skinny who shook like a fucking leaf most of the time.  We couldn't work out what the deal with him was at first but it soon dawned on us that the man was a raging alcoholic.  He looked a little like the character from Fawlty Towers, Mr. Leeman, the guy who dies in his sleep and Basil thinks he's killed him with some dodgy kipper.  He didn't look too healthy I guess you might say.  He was also very quiet and kept himself to himself most of the time.  We realised things weren't that great when we noticed the bus swaying slightly one night as we rode the motorways of Europe.  At first I was sure it was in our heads and everyone was making it into this thing that it really wasn't but it soon became clear that Barry had the fucking shakes at the wheel.  Instead of us confronting the issue directly, we just decided we didn't like the fucker and set about annoying him instead.

The strange thing about Barry's bus was that his bunk was at the front of the top lounge instead of in the drivers compartment like on most other buses.  One night Darren had taken some girl he's picked up to the spacious area that was the drivers cabin, which was the only place on the bus that offered any privacy since it was away from the rest of us and Barry was fast asleep in his bunk.  After he was done he left a soggy Johnny in an ash tray on the dash board, winking to the girl, “He'll love that.”  Daz, like the rest of us, had not a fucking ounce of respect for poor Barry.  We all pissed ourselves laughing the next day when Barry came charging down the aisle to the back lounge where we were all sat, holding the by now crusty Johnny with a biro pen like a piece of forensic evidence, “Whooooooo the fuck left that in my cabin?” The fucker was raging but we simply laughed at him and he retreated back down the aisle.

I felt a pang of guilt later on and tried to make amends with him, get a conversation going with him as he drove, keep him company.  He had piles of old road maps all over the place, fucking loads of them, and that was about the only subject I seemed to able to get him going with.  Poor sod.  Of course, the doubts and suspicions over Barry's drinking continued to feed themselves into a frenzy and of course soon enough Gordon was claiming he'd seen empty bottles of booze in his bunk as Barry rolled out for work.  I don't know how much weight there was to this story but it seemed all the more credible a few months afterwards when Bianchi had been on another tour with Barry, who'd been called in as a substitute driver half way through the trip with another band he was working with.  Funnily enough, Stumpy Munroe, the drummer from the Scottish band The Almighty was drum teching this tour and sat across from Bianchi on the bus when Barry rolls up to save the day, “Ah fuck me, it's Bacardi Barry!”

My favourite memory from Barry's time with us though was one night when we'd pulled over to refuel, some place in Germany I think.  We were all sat about drinking a beer or two as Barry fed the bus with petrol and then when he went inside the garage to pay Frank thought it would be a laugh to give driving the bus a go.  We were all egging him on of course.  I'll never forget pissing myself laughing as Barry came tearing across the forecourt screaming at us as the bus stuttered and choked forward a few meters, Frank laughing his ass off at the wheel!  Barry did his very best to tear Frank a new one, but it had no effect.  Frank just shouted back at him, “Fuck off, I could probably drive this thing better than you, you drunk old cunt!”  What could he say? Turns out not much, he just took the keys away from Frank, asked him to get up and then slumped into his seat and drove.  It was then that the guilt really came and I felt pretty bad for him.  Frank didn't give a fuck of course, and even if he did feel bad he wouldn't show it.  He probably didn't though.

That was pretty much the end of Barry and Speedhorn.  We came home from tour and never heard from him or saw him again.  I don't know if he's sorted himself out or if he's even still alive.  Our days of travelling on tour buses were also numbered and Barry's was the last bus we were out on, except for a couple of short stints and festivals trips here and there.  I've seen Chop a couple of times when he's been in Stockholm with other bands since, but that was a long time ago now.  Things were changing for Speedhorn and the days of travelling on a tour bus would soon become a distant memory as we faced up to life back in a van.  We'd had a good run of it but it was never going to last forever.  The band was about to go through some major changes too, with Frank, Tony and Daz eventually leaving before we took up touring on a full time basis again, a couple of years later.  After a period of time battling record labels, writing a new record and playing sporadic shows we'd finally be back on the road, this time in our own tour van, Betty, an old school bus for the handicapped we bought and done up with the help of Gordon's little brother Sandy, who knew a thing or two about engines.  Sandy gutted the thing and built six bunks inside, as well as installing seats and a table, a tv, Playstation, electric sockets, everything.  Travelling in Betty would turn out to be as much fun, if not more, than we'd ever had.  And now we were doing it all ourselves again, which is all I'd ever wanted.  And now we had a new driver, not just that, a seventh member.  He did as much for our band as any of us did, and he would be with us wherever we went for the next few years until we called it a day.  Wee Lee.  One of the best friends I've ever had.

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