Memories from CLOVER's lead singer

ALEX CALL

Philip Lynott and CLOVER --- Thin Lizzy and Scottish Roadies

April 29th 2006

With PHIL .. taken backstage at the
Hammersmith Odeon at the end their
1976 tour opening for Thin Lizzy
 CLOVER

Don't miss my interview with Alex.

Memories from CLOVER's
lead singer

ALEX CALL

Thin Lizzy and Scottish Roadies

Dave and Jake have exciting news for us. We're going to be opening for Thin Lizzy for thirty dates! We know Thin Lizzy from their hit, The Boys Are Back in Town. Wild! I remember hearing that song the summer before and thinking how cool it was. We'll be starting in Oxford.

We've just done a mini-tour with a soul singer named Linda Lewis. We opened in Aberystwyth, Wales and played a handful of college and small venue dates. Nick Lowe rode in the van with us, helping to both navigate the maze of confusing roads and the world of English bed and breakfast accommodations. We sleep two to a room; maybe the band is lodged in three different B&B's that night. There might be a small TV in the living room. You can watch sheep-dog trials with the family. Breakfast is a piece of undercooked, thick bacon with a bit of bone in it and a triangle of fried bread to go with two bubbly fried eggs, eaten with the mister and missus of the house. It can be a bit hard to face the folks in the morning when one is hungover! We're rolling on the cheap.

We aren't earning any money yet. Opening acts, called "support" aren't paid anything. It's a shoestring operation, and will be for a while. Hey, we're game. So far, we're just happy to be here, getting a shot.

Following the short Linda Lewis swing, we get a night at the Roundhouse, in London. The Roundhouse is an old railroad roundhouse that's been converted to a rock venue. It is a happening place right now, not as prestigious as the Hammersmith Odeon or the Rainbow, but it's a gig that will draw a good crowd, a lot of punters.

Fans here are called punters, which I gather is an old horse-racetrack term. English slang is a whole new language. One isn't drunk; one is pissed or legless. You don't pick up chicks, you pull them, and they're not called chicks, they're boilers. You don't pee, you have a slash. Male homosexuals are poufters. Jerks or assholes are cunts. This is takes a women's libber like me a bit of getting used to, but I manage somehow. You fucking cunt!! Some of my favorites are terms for masturbation; wanking (which leads to the very useful and ubiquitous term, wankers), doing a blue vein solo (on your beef bayonet), or my personal fave, galloping your maggot. Then there's the whole world of rhyming cockney slang. Bristol City = titty (nice set of Bristol's on that one); skyrocket = pocket; dicks = wicks, etc. I can't possibly follow it all, though Huey is quite good at picking it up. Huey's a whiz at learning complicated slang systems and also at remembering people's names. It's part of his orderly mind, I guess. He can also meet someone at two in the morning after having six scotches and remember him three years later. Amazing. I'm often left nodding and saying uh-huh, uh-huh, when talking to a real cockney, who might as well be speaking Swahili as far as I'm concerned.

The Roundhouse is packed. It's our introduction to London, including the music press. The rock press is vital. It's a small island. Everyone reads the rags: the New Musical Express, Sounds, and the Melody Maker. A good review in NME or MM can make your band; a bad one can sink it. Jake and Dave are masters of this game, as time will show. They've been hyping us a bit; but not over the top, setting us up as a possible headliner without portraying us as the second coming.

Jake comes into the dressing room, rubbing his hands and grinning. He is a very intense, brilliant guy, a former boxer, who is a genius of promotion and a lover of competition. He and Dave both get a twinkle in the old eye at the prospect of winning. It's what it's all about.

I've gotten a black leather, tasseled, gunslinger-style vest from trendy Kensington Market, where you can get real rock leather stuff.

Jake says to me, you look like a gambler in that. I want you to go out there and gamble tonight.

I answer; we're going to be dynamite.

He says, well, you're very fucking expensive dynamite, you'd fucking better go off! He's laughing, but he's wide-eyed manic and dead serious. They've put their own money on the table and gone out on a limb with Phonogram and the press for us.

The gig goes OK, not too bad. After a high energy entrance, we fail to really take the punters to a higher level, to really capture them and make them go nuts. But still, it's a fairly good set. There's encouraging talk backstage afterwards, nice one, lads, but no one's going to say we hit the jackpot. We do get good notices in the press, which is a plus, but it could be the honeymoon effect.

The problem we have is twofold. Our material is still too scattered. Some of it is rock, but it's on the light side compared to what the Brits are used to. We also have the R&B element, which shows, frankly, a writing side of me that is influenced by current stateside stuff like Earth Wind, and Fire and the Jackson 5. It's hard to believe I write this crap, but it's true. The pedal steel and harmonica horn lines are a little airy for this London crowd.

The other problem is deeper. I'm the lead singer, but I struggle as a front-man. I've got a good voice. It's actually pretty pure compared to a lot of rock singers. Part of that is the country influence; part of it is that my voice is just like that. That's not the problem. It's really that I find it hard to relax into the role of ringleader. I find myself over-thinking, internalizing events as they happen. I'll be singing, while also wondering if I'm good-looking enough, if I'm hip enough. My deep-seated insecurities trip me up, big time. Remember the old cartoons where Elmer Fudd has a little angel Elmer on one shoulder saying, you can do it! and a little devil Elmer on the other saying, forget it, you'll never win! ? It's kind of like that for me on stage. Instead of reaching out and connecting to the audience, I'm running these internal dialogs. I have a hard time just sustaining eye contact with the punters. That old self-conscious chickenshit side of me is saying, they don't want to look at you, you're a fucking loser.

But there's no admitting that to anyone. I have to act as if everything's OK. I have to hope and believe that next time it's going to be different. I keep thinking, if I only had that perfect song, it would all be right. Every song I write seems like it's the one, but then someone will criticize it and I'll be back to my doubter's corner. But I'm the lead singer, and we've got a deal, and the show must go on. It's not terminal at this stage; people like us. Huey is singing more now, but as great a singer and frontman as he will become, he's still kind of learning at this stage. It's up to me.

There are unspoken contracts in a band. We have operated with the status quo for years, and to speak of changing it or to admit that might not work would be to break the contract by which we function. It's like a family. Dad may be an alcoholic and mom bi-polar, but it's our family, by God, and that's the way it is. Eventually, the kids will grow up and move on. That's what happens to a lot of bands, especially if they don't quite make it. No one will come out and say I'm an inadequate singer. We're not anywhere near that yet. The band guys will try their best to keep me from going under. I must succeed. The stakes get higher the closer you get to the big time. Like I said, it's do or die out there.

In any case, the Thin Lizzy tour is starting. They've come and checked us out and determined that we don't pose a threat to their twin-guitar hard-rock sound. Rock and Roll is all about competition. We're all best buddies at the bar after the gig, but when it comes to being on stage, winning that audience at the expense of the other band on the bill is the game. Thin Lizzy has won an audience and they're not going to jeopardize their position by having an opening band that will really challenge them. Our light country-rock sound won't present a problem. We'll only make them sound that much more powerful.

The gig posters and marquees say THIN LIZZY in huge letters, plus support in tiny letters. I didn't know we had changed our name! It goes further than that. Even after we have become tight buds with Phil Lynott and rest of the lads, including their crew and management, we still find that while the monitors were perfect in sound check, they've been moved and the volume balances are changed. The microphones are taped to the stage out of the fixed spotlight zones. It's not a mistake. Shit happens, right? Hey, no one is going to try to set themselves up to be blown off the stage. That's a part of what makes rock'n'roll so fun. Today's support is tomorrow's headliner. If you want to win, you have to find a way. The good ones do it, the lesser ones don't.

We open in Oxford, just down the street from the storied University. The punters are mostly fifteen year-old males. They don't like us. That's something we are going to have to get used to. "Support" is to be booed and derided, especially when the audience is teenage males. They have their heroes, and we ain't it. We play, we survive. That's OK; it's just the first night. We go out on the side of the stage to watch the Lizzys in action.

Thin Lizzy is great! Phil Lynott is a tall, thin blade of a bass player whose mother is Irish and whose father was a black American merchant mariner. His skin is somewhat dark, but he has unmistakable Irish looks as well. He's got an afro, but it's not the standard issue American job, it's a little wild and unkempt, not some puffy blow-dried pomp. He wears an earring and has a gambler's pencil mustache. He's a fighter and a lover. As in Nick Lowe's song, All Men Are Liars he's grown a mustache, the sneaky little brute.

Phillip is completely confident on the stage. He owns it. His swaggering smile tells the punters that they're his lads, they're his boys. And the boys are back in town. The band is Brian Robertson from Glasgow and Scott Gorham from California on twin lead guitars, plus Brian Downey on drums. Brian Robertson, Robbo, is a wild kid who occasionally gets a little too deep into the whiskey, but he plays great. Scott is a handsome guy with long hair who has a move where he sort of does a skip-step and then flips his dark mane forward and then back. Strangely, John McFee, who also has very long hair, develops a similar move right after the tour. Phillip plays a black Fender Precision bass with a mirror pick guard that he uses to redirect the spotlight onto individual faces in the crowd.

There's nothing too innovative about their sound; it's basic U.K. hard-rock. They throw shapes, which is something we learn from them. In a big venue, you have to use body language to get your point across. So movements are exaggerated. You strike a pose and hold it. Air Guitar 101: Throwing Shapes. They have some good songs; The Boys are Back in Town, Suicide, Johnny the Fox. They employ minor pyrotechnics, some smoke bombs and fog. It's good fun is what it is, and it's all about being one of the lads.

As Phillip puts it in his low Manchester- Irish drawl, Ya' got to do something 'fer the kids, man!

The Lizzys are personally great to us. Phil and the boys and Frank Murray, their road manager, go out of their way to make us feel a part of the tour, though it's clear we're going to get our asses kicked. And we do. We play the cities of the Midlands, the industrial heart of England: Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Leicester, and Phillip's home town of Manchester. We go up to Scotland and play Glasgow and Edinburgh, Newcastle in Geordieland, and so on. Most of these towns are depressed and depressing. The economy of England is in a long slump. Truly, many places still haven't fully recovered from WWII. In Glasgow we see areas that are still bombed-out, in ruins, thirty years after the war. The Lizzy crowds are mostly these young, tough kids, who like a drink and a fight. The reaction we get varies from non-responsive, to semi-hostile, to actively hostile.

I'm standing on stage between songs in Leicester Town Hall. My hand is on the guitar neck holding an E chord. From out of the darkness of the hall I see a wadded-up beer cup flying towards me in a long arc. Before I have time to react, it brushes across my strings, striking them perfectly. Nice shot! Thank goodness, glass beer bottles have been banned the year before across Europe as a response to stage-destroying showers of angrily hurled empties.

We play Liverpool Town Hall, a place where the Beatles played. We go to the site of the old Cavern Club, where they got their start. It's been turned into a clothing shop. I buy a Kelley green satin baseball warm-up jacket. We have to take our wallets and watches and all our valuables on stage with us, as the security of the backstage can't be guaranteed. It's a tough town. When we drive a few days later into Glasgow to play the famous Apollo theatre, I'm wearing the jacket, my arm out the window of the van. We drive past the soccer stadium, where Rangers and Celtic United, the two rival football clubs, have played. There are sullen looks from the partisans, evidently Rangers supporters, as the green is Celtic United colors. I slip the jacket off and lay it out of sight on the seat.

If Liverpool is tough, Glasgow is legendary. Gangs fight there with claymores and war clubs. The stage at the five-thousand person capacity Apollo Theatre is fifteen feet off the floor, to prevent rowdies from getting at bands they don't care for.

I commit an enormous faux pas while on stage. Introducing a song I have just written called Streets of London, I say, here's a song that we wrote since coming to England.

Oh shit, wrong thing to say in Scotland, really wrong thing to say at the Apollo. Boo! Hiss! Thank God for the altitude of the stage!

So we're taking some lumps. But we're also learning that we have to get up to speed if we want to compete. We're always working on stuff as we drive in our van, trying it at sound check. McFee comes up some twin-guitar stuff. Huey has new stage moves. We don't always get booed heavily. Some part of the audience always likes us as well. We are a pretty good looking crew of guys, so the girls like us. But we're up against a largely male hard-rock crowd and it's tough.

We have a new friend and companion and partner in crime in John Burnham. "J.B." is a singular character who will stay around us for years to come, following us to the States to work for Huey for a few years. He is working at Phonogram as "Artist Liaison". His official job is to shepard us through radio interviews and other appearances, and to generally act as our guide and interpreter as we tour. His unofficial job seems to be to teach us how to party and get laid in a foreign country.

J.B.'s from Glasgow, but he's studied and worked his way out that hard town and seems more like a sophisticated Londoner than a scruffy Scot. He's extremely witty and charming. He's tall and wears corporate outfits; slacks and sweaters, penny loafers. His dark hair is fairly short. He wears Roy Orbison glasses. He can make upper-class tea chatter with a Duchess or get wildly randy with a waitress from Hull. He has a way of disarming the most potentially tight situations with his outrageous sense of humor. He might meet a stuffed-suit corporate chap and while proffering his hand, say in an upper-crust Surrey accent with just a wee Scottish twinge, "How lovely to meet you, sir. Tell me, are you firm?" and follow that with a loud guffaw that brings everyone in on the joke, including the stuffed suit. His social approaches almost always work. He's a thorough crack-up. In Glasgow he leads us to a fancy hotel far above the status of the cheap dives we stay in. We go into the bar area and lounge around and have a bevy, posing as guests. Every few moments, J.B., or one of us at his bidding, will go and request someone be paged, like Hugh Jorgan, or Phil Jerpanties. It's juvenile, but really entertaining. We get 86'ed and go somewhere else to party until late. J.B. knows girls of all types in every town as well, like the one in Manchester he calls "suspenders" for her garter-belts, and meets the ones he doesn't yet know and then introduces them to us. He's always up for the moment, whatever form that moment may take. He's a valuable resource and a good pal.

After our gig in Manchester, we all go to Phil Lynott's mom's after-hours club. She has this place that opens after the pubs close at eleven. Most of England just shuts down after nine at night, really. Nothing is open except the odd Italian or Indian restaurant. Phil's mother has been around in Manchester. I'm not sure of the details of her personal history, but it's clear she has a working relationship with many of the principal figures of Manchester's political and organized crime scenes. There are people of influence there, drinking and hanging out with desirable young ladies who may not be their wives until dawn. It's an interesting hang, though the snooty girls are above our economic station.

It can be difficult to met women, actually. You can't pull girls from the gig; they're out front, and we're backstage. Barmaids are sometimes available, but somewhat risky. There are the girls who work for the label, but we've been warned off them by Jake and Dave. They're going to love you, but keep your hands off them! That doesn't stop things from happening in the hinterlands away from Phonogram's office in London, though. Sometimes one just wants someone to talk to who isn't asleep on your shoulder in your van every day smelling like last night's scotch.

Indian restaurants are post-gig favorites. Clover is broke; we almost never have even fifty pence apiece. So if J.B. wants to pull out the corporate card, we are definitely ready. Our label mates the Lizzys are ready as well. We often have a large crew, maybe twelve or fifteen rowdy dudes around a bunch of tables pushed together. Since there's been some booze after the gigs, and there's wine at the restaurant, it isn't long before the onion bhajis begin to fly. Ciambotti is a great instigator. He'll surreptitiously hit an unsuspecting member of the party with a food item and it's on. Food Fight! J.B. is quick with a spoon loaded with curry. The poor Indian families who run the establishments will have a big cleanup. But J.B. won't skimp on the tip either.

It's a way of letting off steam. The pressure of performing, the boredom of waiting through sound check, of driving all day and getting only cat-naps takes its toll. Nobody is over thirty in the whole lot, so who's going to be the adult? It's a way to bond with the Lizzys. It's not all food-fights anyway, it's mostly conversation. Sure it is!

Hotels are another setting for our youthful hi-jinx. That's where we hook up with the roadies, who have worked far beyond the Indian meal hour. They're ready to party.

There's a sub-species of humanity known as the Scottish roadie. Of course, they're not all Scots. We have one Englishman. Michael Sinclair, known as Sinque from the SLA leader, and two Americans, Mark Melanson, and Steve Liebert, Danny Morrison's younger brother. Mike and Mark are big guys who will later acquire the monikers Super-Slab and Massive Roggie after we've been exposed to CB lingo on our American tour. They are all three honorary Scottish roadies.

The day in the life of a roadie is long and only vaguely rewarding. They start early, frequently just leaving for the next town right after taking down the gear from the gig. They drive hundreds of miles a day, which in the U.K. is more complicated than in the States. Roads there are often indirect, being a hodge-podge of ancient wagon ruts and modern motorways. Maps can be bewildering. Plus, for Americans, you have to drive on the wrong side of the road, which is tiring in itself. Once the crew arrives at the venue, they have to unload the heavy gear, often in cramped alleys with no loading docks, with maybe a flight of stairs or two to go up. Not many of the old venues in England were designed as rock venues, they were theatres. It's always cold and rainy. The gear is filthy. The joke is a musician washes his hands after he pees, the roadie before. They set the gear up and work though sound check, where they invariably have to solve some equipment dilemma or other. Drums are set up, amps, and keyboards. Endless miles of cables have to be hooked up for every single piece of gear. Sinque does the sound mixing during sound check and at the gig. Monitors feedback; a mic doesn't work; the lights are wrong. Hopefully, there's a chance to eat at the venue between sound-check and the performance. Then they set up the band room and tune the guitars. We get a string endorsement deal with Rotosound, so they end up changing our stings endlessly, which is really unnecessary, but, hey, we have an endorsement! We certainly can't be bothered to change our own strings!

Gig time approaches. There's eternal checking of things, more crisis solving. We have an electric current converter that reduces the voltage from 220 to 110, so we can run our American amps. The black, sizzling thing sits in a milk crate, looking like something salvaged off a U-boat. It heats up to about 200 degrees as we play. You can smell it across the stage. Sparks fly. The band is led on to the stage. We obviously couldn't find it ourselves. Every set is like live fire. Something always breaks; an amp goes out; a mic doesn't work, the monitors have changed, Mickey Shine is complaining about the fact he can't hear.

We're done. We go back to the dressing room and have a beer and change our clothes and get ready to try to pull boilers. The roadies scramble to hustle our gear off the stage so the Lizzys can get on. The bands go off for Indian food. The roadies stay and pack up for two hours, then hit the road again. We should pay them more, but then we're not getting paid ourselves.

Nowadays, when I meet some twenty-eight year-old publisher or A&R person who took some classes in college to learn about the music business, I often think to myself, shouldn't here be a requirement for them to go on the road and haul amps for a couple of years ? It might give them a better perspective on the whole deal.

The Scottish roadies have a secret helper in their war with the impossible: sulfate. Methamphetamine Sulfate, the drug that beat the Nazis. It's straight speed, Meth. The Germans actually came up with it to power their Wermacht, but soon it was adopted by the RAF and the U.S. Air Force as a way to stay awake and alive on fourteen-hour bombing runs over Europe in WWII. Jacko, on the way to New York to talk contracts on a long weekend, is busted at Heathrow with a packet of coke. He makes an impassioned case to the customs officers that it's sulfate, just like their daddies took to defeat the Jerrys. He's going over the pond to bring back business and money to England. They confiscate it, but let him go. They understand. The roadie doesn't have much choice. No one can do that all work for all those hours, day after night, on the 'natch. It becomes a problem when it's time to wind down. Whiskey and beer are the tools of de-engagement. The combination of sulfate and alcohol is predictably crazy sometimes. We won't touch the stuff. Mostly.

Hotels are the playground of road people. Everyone there is away from home. Anything goes. Rockers are famous for ripping things off the walls, throwing TV sets out the window, and running naked through the hall at three in the morning. Roadies take this to new heights. There's a perverse desire to make life as miserable as possible for the hotel staff and management. This seems to increase in inverse ratio to the class of the hotel: the better the establishment, the worse the mayhem. A favorite trick is to take a twin bed into the elevator and lean it up against the closing doors and then send it to the lobby, where it will fall out when the doors slide open. Or, one can send all the hanging artwork to the lobby. Walls can be painted a new color with wine, or urine. Those cheap shower stalls come right down with just a gentle tug or, if necessary, a good, hard pull.

The Lizzy tour ends with a big bash at a fancy London hotel. Elton John is there, pinching guys on the butt. A couple of roadies take a fully clothed dip in the indoor pool, and push in a few unsuspecting guests as well. It's been fun!

We want to rock out now, like the Lizzys. We've gotten creamed by tough crowds. I am fired up to write some faster, harder material, stuff that will work in the larger venues. Simpler, more direct is the key. We're not going to be heavy metal or even hard-rock, but we need to get up to speed. We're dressing like real rockers now, on and off stage. McFee and I are wearing these cool kimonos. Huey's got his motorcycle jacket. Phillip Lynott calls him "Bluesy Huey Louie" and has him playing harp during their encores. Ciambotti has his own style. He wears Panama hats and suspenders. Whatever he does, he does with a lot personal style. We all have long hair, as long as it will grow.

What we need now are some smash rock hits. That's my job.



"Thin Lizzy and Scottish Roadies" © Copyright 2006 Alex Call. All rights reserved

Special thanks to Alex for sharing his time
and thoughts with me and for allowing me to share them with you.

Watch for Alex's new book 867-5309 for more about the life and times of Alex Call.

You can email Alex at alcallhits@aol.com or visit his Offical Website.

You can also visit CLOVER's Infopage for more background on this band.

james


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