Continuing my musical autobiography …
You’d have thought going to University, suitcase and guitar in hand, would have been the perfect springboard for a teenage performing career. For some reason, when I went to Glasgow University at 18, it wasn’t.
I never meant to be here
Partly this was because it was unexpected. I hadn’t intended this at all. In sixth year I’d applied for four art schools, my heart set on becoming an artist for Marvel Comics (at a time when Marvel was on nobody else’s radar, certainly not the general public’s). Unfortunately assessment boards at all four had this strange notion that to study art I should be able to display at least some rudimentary skill in drawing something other than muscular men in capes beating seven shades of shit out of each other in the sky. Reader, I couldn’t.
Thus it was that I started History of Fine Art at Glasgow University, and jumped in my first week from that to Principles of Religion (studying Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism). While my roommate Alan immediately started playing bass in a pub band and getting paid for it, I was disoriented and dittered around various folk clubs and the odd jam session but didn’t find anyone inspiring to work with until the end of my second year.
Browsing the University student societies, I joined a group of ex (and not-so-ex) hippies called something like Society for Spiritual and Psychological Research or SPIRIT. The idea was to invite all sorts of spiritual groups to the basement meeting room and either partake of their wisdom or give them a rationalist grilling, whatever felt right on the night. I can recall a few of those nights. The Baha’i Faith brought excellent food. The Hare Krishnas were quite mind-altering but there was no doubt that the cause was the ear-splitting insistence of their finger-cymbals in a small, echoey basement. We had a session with basins and hot water where we simply washed each other’s feet (after the Biblical tradition) which, after the initial giggling subsided, became a tender and heartwarming experience. The group soon lost direction and motivation until I invited a Sufi teacher whom I’d met in Edinburgh and we happily became his Glasgow offshoot until the end of the year. He went on to set up the Salisbury Centre in Edinburgh while SPIRIT became no more than a strange memory.
Alan drew to my attention a handwritten ad in some music shop saying ‘musicians wanted for a band’. We went along to a basement flat just off Byres Road and met Dave Christopher, a former music student who now wanted to create a folk-rock band. Discovering a mutual love of the Incredible String Band, we hit it off. When he played me his songs, though, I was stunned. They weren’t in the ISB space, nor in any strum-along-three-chords space I’d occupied before. Melody poured out of Dave effortlessly, the way I imagine it would if you were in a room with Paul McCartney, probably the closest style to Dave. His fingers spidered across the fretboard in ways I couldn’t follow, coaxing melodic basslines, ringing open strings and melodic twists and turns. Of course I had to be in his band.
This ate up a year. Rehearsal to me up to that point had been ‘What are the chords? Let’s play it a few times. That’s good. Next?’. With Dave and our six-piece band it was the constant layering and schooling of four-part harmonies over odd time signatures. Two or three times a week for four hours. The lineup gradually settled to two rhythm guitars, lead guitar, mandolin, bass and drums, and we got to know the songs. Dave invited some of us to add our own songs, which we did, although none of them were of his standard. I played rhythm guitar, mandolin, hand percussion and even – strange to tell, howling electric violin. We called the band Window Bill, because every time the local banks changed their hours for a bank holiday they all displayed a poster saying only ‘See Window Bill’.
Once and once only
While that would have been great marketing, it was only great marketing if it were possible for the public to actually see Window Bill. Having rehearsed for almost a year, with that intensity that only a semi-employed semi-student, semi-benefits-claimant band can, we performed our accomplished harmonies and Beatles/Steely Dan-esque songs only once, to a handful of people at an afternoon gig in secondary school in Gourock, then split up. Dave followed his dreams to London, and without his guidance the rest of us fell apart. No recordings of the band exist .
While I continued writing songs and playing in various loose affiliations over the next few years (including with Dave when he returned from London to Edinburgh) it never had that seriousness of purpose again for many years.
(Dave still lives in Edinburgh and still writes excellent music. Every few years we do a set together at a mutual friend’s party.)