On The Road Not Taken
I am sitting in the dark with 500 other people. Way below me on the stage of the Bristol Old Vic is a choir, filling this theatre with the most beautiful sound. I start to count them but when I get to 48 there is a tap on my shoulder. It is Jo who is responsible for artist liaison. I am an artist.
Paul. It’s time. Follow me. I'll take you round the back.
I stand up and do as I am told. We pass through narrow corridors and down winding staircases - and emerge in the wings. It is dark. I breathe in the backstage smell of woodyard, mingled with a distant bouquet of fresh paint.
All around are people dressed in black talking quietly into headsets. I can see sideways out on to the stage where there are a group of actors performing a sketch. They say something funny and there is a wave of laughter so loud it makes me step back into the darkness. Jo approaches again.
Ok Paul stand by.
I strap on my guitar and wipe sweaty palms on my trousers. You know those dreams where you are about to do something you feel completely unprepared for? Then you wake up and you’re in bed at home? Well it is like that, except I am really here.
Ladies and gentlemen. An announcer steps into the spotlight. Our next act is here to sing you some songs. He’s wanted to do this for a long time and from today he is out ‘ON THE ROAD NOT TAKEN’. Please give a substantial round of applause for Paul Dodgson.
I stand rooted to the spot and Jo gives me a little shove.
Paul. That’s your cue. Have a great one. Smash it!
I take the long slow walk out to centre stage thinking smash it? Oh yes, that is what young people say, meaning hope it goes well. The lights are so bright I can only see the front row. And in the front row is a man I have seen around Bristol for years but have never spoken to. In fact I have been seeing him around for so long I have actually watched his hair turn grey. I'm standing there thinking, it’s you, with the grey hair, what are you doing here? And I see him looking at me and thinking, it’s you, with the grey hair, what are you doing here? Then I realise, he is waiting for something to happen as are the other 499 people. So I start to play a little instrumental piece designed to settle the nerves.
And at this point I have a sort of out of body experience. I see my hands on the fretboard and think, it’s me doing this, making this sound. And I know that quite soon I will have to open my mouth and start to sing and it is thirty-five years since I last sang a song on stage. To put it bluntly I am terrified. What am I doing here? Why am I putting myself though this?
That is the story I’m going to tell you now.
It is a freezing cold Thursday night in January 1974 and I have been at secondary school for just over a term.
The currents of popular culture that have been dancing and swirling about the nation for the last decade and somehow passed by the little town of Hythe. Tonight, a lone dog walker strides along the seafront. He has a wooly hat on head, hands in mittens and a shivering dog on the end of a quivering lead. In the High Street a couple of old men take their stools in the Kings Head pub and order two pints of pale ale. In the church on the hill the ladies have arrived for their flower arranging class. Go on up the hill and back a bit and there is our house. It was built in 1958 and is in an avenue of other modern looking houses.
Come into our living room. It is looking a bit empty because the Christmas decorations have just been taken down. There’s a big mound of coal burning in the fireplace and I am sitting cross-legged on the floor wearing polyester school trousers and a green V-neck jumper. I am one of 15 million other people who are watching Top of The Pops on this cold night. Up to this very moment I haven’t, been all that keen on pop music because I don’t like the beat and the nonsense they sing about.
If you can even call it singing , says my mum. And up until now I have agreed with her.
My dad walks into the living room holding a dishcloth and a wet plate. He does this from time to time when Top of the Pops is on so he can stand and watch and shake his head. At this very moment the group Mud come onto the screen. They are wearing bright suits and one of them is wearing a dress and large dangly earrings.
Goodness gracious …. he says …look a them…just look at them…
And that is when I decide to try out the new word I have heard being used at school. I say. Dad, I think they’re quite cool.’
Dad has a look on his face like I have suddenly started speaking in tongues.
Cool? He says, did you just say the word cool? Wherever have you got that from?
It’s what they are Dad, I say.
He splutters and points the dishcloth at the screen.
But they’re not even playing…look they’re just pretending.
I watch my dad pad back into the kitchen in his slippers and brown cardigan still shaking his head. And I look at Mud on the television dancing around in their bright suits and singing about tiger feet that are neat. And not only do I believe in that moment that they are actually quite cool, but it might also be quite cool to be one of Mud and to get dance around on the television in a bright suit pretending to sing.
My friend Andy and I have formed a band. I am the singer and guitarist and he is the drummer. There are just the two of us for now.
Andy’s mum and dad run Whitegates old people home in the middle of Hythe. And that’s where we are now, behind the net curtains in the living room of the flat where they live, on-site. I’m holding a nylon strung acoustic guitar. Andy has a pair of drumsticks and is sitting in front of a bucket turned upside down because we don’t own an actual drum yet. We are trying to play a song I’ve written about a teacher at school. It is called The Diddyman Blues but I can’t always change chords quickly enough so we drift out of time with each other.
We do have a name. We are called The Entangled Network. To me it sounds like the name of a band, a proper band. Andy discovers it’s possible for the N to be joined to the bottom of the E and for our name to be abbreviated to a logo. EN. I find some wet concrete in a side road off the high street and trace EN with my fingers so it sets and stays there for years. I draw EN on my school exercise books and we seem to be a band even before we know any songs. We’ve only been at it for a few weeks in the living room when we persuade Andy’s mum to let us play at the Christmas party for the old people.
Now it is the week before Christmas. We carry our equipment into the recreation room that is decorated with bunting and strings of cards. There is usually an odour of disinfectant at Whitegates but today it has been overwhelmed by the smell of Christmas dinner. My friend Fred has lent us his amplifier and electric guitar and Andy has managed to supplement the bucket with a military drum and a cymbal. I have taped a microphone from a cassette recorder onto a broom handle so it looks like we have a microphone stand.
As we set up the residents shuffle in for their Christmas party. They pull crackers and put on paper hats. Some are curious and come up close to investigate while others watch us warily from tables on the other side of the room.
The meal is served while jolly Christmas music plays in the background. I sit on the amplifier and look out at our audience as they tuck into turkey and sprouts. It is not what I imagined when I imagined our first gig.
And I am nervous. It is a new feeling. When I watch Top of The Pops it never occurs to me the groups might be frightened as everyone is always smiling and looking happy as they jump about. But here it is in the base of my tummy. That feeling. Nerves. As I wait to begin I cross and uncross my legs, not knowing what to do with myself. I really want to appear cool but I am just plain nervous.
We’ve got a special treat for you tonight , says Andy’s mum. Or at least I hope we have. It’s the first time they’ve ever played in front of an audience. Please give a big warm welcome to my son and his friend…They are called… The Entangled Network.
I know we should launch straight into a song but my guitar is out of tune. I was so nervous I forgot to tune up. So I stand there doing it now and while I do Andy bashes the symbol and hits military drum. We sound like a strange experimental jazz combo. The old people look at each other and wonder if we’ve begun yet.
Then we do, with the Chuck Berry number Johnny B Goode.
There is a difference between imagining a performance and actually doing it. That is what I realise in this moment. In my mind I’m slick, not having to try too hard as music flows from my fingertips. It is as though all my shortcomings will magically resolve once there are people in front of me. I thought performing music would be a more intense version of listening to it. Now I am not so sure.
We are loud. I see a lady on the nearest table screwing up her face and putting her fingers in her ears. Then others do the same. Many of them were born when Queen Victoria was on the throne and have lived though two world wars. And now, tonight, at a Christmas party, they are being assaulted by this terrible noise. I start to run up and down a bit, because that’s what I think you are supposed to do. Actually, I can’t go very far because my guitar lead is too short. And I make faces at Andy and then to the audience, the grimace that I’ve seen on the TV when pop stars are really into their music. One man shakes his head, pulls himself up on his walking frame and heads for the door. Others follow and I watch their slow motion exit. One lady stands up and tries to dance and clap along, but finds it hard to locate the rhythm in the mush of sound.
Then, as the last beat of the military drum ends Wild Thing, our final number, there is polite applause from the few remaining elderly people who were too polite to leave.