This is a story of my semi-disasterous encounter with the Scottish pop band, Belle & Sebastian, a meeting that happened during a trip to Glasgow Scotland, in the summer of 1998.
My girlfriend Jennifer and I went to Scotland as guests of the Glasgow's most popular drummer, Francis Macdonald, who I knew through his work with the amazing hard-country honkytonk band, The Radio Sweethearts, and who also happened to be friends with Stuart Murdoch of B&S fame. Poor Francis! He was a wonderfully generous host, but I'm sure that when he invited us to visit, he had absolutely no idea that anybody from America could possibly be as incredibly boring as I am... And after a few days showing us the town, I'm afraid tha lad was at his wit's end. He knew that I was a fan of Belle & Sebastian, and that, as the Music Director at Berkeley, California's public radio station, KALX 90.7FM, I had helped get their record to the top of our station's charts, several months before the rest of the world knew much about the band. Sadly, though, there is not necessarily a strong correlation between taste in music and other valuable social skills, so when it came down to it, the visit was something of a fiasco.
It was sunny day in Glasgow (and there aren't many of those) and we were in the hip University neighborhood killing time until our coffee date with singer Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian. A couple of days before Francis had hooked me up with the soft-voiced, elusive singer. He called Stuart on a payphone and explained in tumbling, thick Glaswegian, that his friend from America would like to meet him. Then he put me on the phone, and I was confronted with the softest, smallest voice I have ever heard....
"......" said the voice. "....., .....; ........!!"
Straining at the reciever, I realized this was the first time I had ever heard near-silence with an accent.
"Ah, hello," I boomed softly, trying not to overpower the sound of his whisper of a voice in my own, oafish American ears. In the course of the quick call, I suggested we might meet, and... I didn't know... | could I interview him sort of informally? Ah, no, Stuart replied pensively... He didn't want to be interviewed, since there were nine people in the band, and he didn't feel comfortable speaking for them all. No problem -- maybe we could meet for coffee, and just chat a bit? Why, yes, he replied, let's meet at King's Circle on Thursday. He had some errands to run earlier in the day, but would leave a message on his outgoing message to let us know where and when to meet him... So Jen and I went about our way,
Later, on Wednesday, Jennifer and I called to confirm the date, and we got Stuart's answering machine... 20 pence in and... "hellooo," a teeny Glaswegian voice said. "...stuart... if this is... then.... kings.... at....". And then the machine stopped and I got cut off.
"What'd he say?" asked Jennifer, sensibly.
"Uh, I'm not sure," I answered, bewildered, from under furrowed brow. "I got his machine."
Three calls and sixty shillings later, with much intense and active listening, we were relatively sure that the message said something about meeting him on Byres Road around 4:00 near the King's Circle subway station, though we still weren't sure if it said to meet him at the (now defunct) John Smith Bookstore, near the station, or at the station, near the bookstore. And so it was that we found ourselves strolling about the neighborhood, killing time until our (apparent) date with Scotland's quietest pop star.
As I mentioned, it was a lovely day in Glasgow. The sun was bright, but not warm, and the streets were packed. The day before, when were in Edinburgh, it had been miserable and relentlessly drizzly, and we had, quite frankly, felt a bit gypped. But now it was lovely, and we had time to spare. We wandered up the road away from the station, and a series of tables and booths caught our eye, and as we crossed over to them, we came on what looked like a crafts fair outside the park wall. None of the tchotkes were that inspiring, but the park (which was quite large!) looked enticing. So, we strolled about, and killed some time... A brass band was playing techno tunes and rock covers in the park (Nutley Brass, anyone?) and hundreds of Scots were working on desperate tans... The park was quite lovely and exhuberant cheerfulness filled the city...
Eventually we made our way back to Byres Road, and we waited out on the sidewalk in front of the bookshop, looking for Stuart and wondering if we would recognize him when he arrived. Glasgow had no shortage of hipsters or musicians and other creative types, so would we be able to pick Murdoch out from the crowd? Well, I figured he would be able to spot us pretty easily, if nothing else. After a while, though, we realized he was late, and a little while after that, we decided to call his phone machine and see if maybe he had left another message for us... I went into the underground station to find a phone, and Jennifer stayed behind to keep an eye out for Stuart. I found a phone, but the outgoing message hadn't changed since the day before, and I figured, "Oh, well. He wouldn't be a real rock star if he weren't running a little bit late..."
I went back up into the bookstore, decided to go ahead and check out the record section upstairs (which was fabulous! Stocked not only with a great selection of 7"s and a well-priced Buzzcocks box set (which I bought), but also with an actual rock star. Francis had told me that Stephen Pastel worked there, and sure enough, there he was, sweet and quiet and cool, in a sweet, quiet kind of way. I can't remember if I schmoozed him or not -- probably not -- but when we went back down to the street, I was surprised that he came running out of the shop, down two flights of stairs and breathless, to give me my credit card, which I'd left by the register. That kind of a rock star. (Thanks, Stephen! Again.)
Anyway, there we were, hanging about and suddenly, up sidled this wiry little blonde guy with a quiet voice and a white t-shirt spraypainted blue, who asked if I was me, and when I said I was, introduced himself as Stuart, from Belle & Sebastian. He explained apologetically that the band had been busy in the park, shooting a movie of some sort (all very vague, but years later I found the video online...) but they were done now, and come over to meet me (!) and were assembled over at a cafe across the street.
And so it was, that Jennifer and I had our dream date with Belle & Sebastian, a not-so-tall tale that we've told a couple of times over the years, and one of the great utter fiascos in the history of indie-rock schmoozing. The band was all there -- the two Stuarts, Stevie the guitarist, hunched over uncomfortably, staring at his hands, Isobel, the cellist or whatever she was, Stuart David's wife, who had just shot their video and had some cute antique camera in her hands, and a couple of other elven people, perhaps, whose names escaped me. When we walked in, they all turned towards as if to say, Okay -- now what? And I thought, oh, shit, I thought this was just a casual cup of coffee with Stuart Murdoch -- when did it change into a Rolling Stone interview? I, uh, um, oh, fuck. So.... we sat down, between the Stuarts, ordered some tea, and proceeded to try and break the ice. I chatted with Stuart M. a little, asked him to tell the legend of Tigermilk again, and asked a few perfunctory questions about influences and the like. He claimed he'd actually never heard any Nick Drake records before they made the album, but thought it was funny so many people kept drawing a parallel between them. He also claimed he really didn't hear the similarity, and cited some other influences, most of which were too hip for me to glom onto.
The rest of the band fidgited. Jen did much better than I did, first talking to Stuart D.'s wife, who was very nice, about filmmaking, which Jen was still involved in at the time, and then to Stuart himself about computers, a conversation that got very animated and uber-geeky. I was vaguely aware that Stevie looked like he was going to fall over and die from boredom. Isobel got up and left. I got some more tea, and sipped it nervously. The conversation decisively fizzled out and the Stuarts asked if we'd like to take some photos, then steered us outside the cafe, where a large blackboard was mounted on the wall outside, and they sketched some doodles on it, and their names, with little arrows pointing to themselves, and looked incredibly adorable. (Jen took that picture: if you've swiped it for your own B&S website, can you at least give her a photo credit?)
And there it is, the great story. In retrospect, it wasn't as bad as I make it sound. I mean, yeah, it was awkward, but they were nice, normal people and it was interesting to meet them. They are all approximately twenty-two time cooler than I'll ever be, but whatever. It was a cool cafe, too. Years later, Stevie came to San Francisco as the lead guitar for BMX Bandits (great show) and at 2am, after their set, we took him to go see the Golden Gate Bridge, on a foggy, rainy night. The clouds parted, amiably, and revealed the bridge's span in a remarkably panoramic way. On a different visit, we saw him at a karoke club on Market Street, and let me tell you, that lad can sing a wicked "Solitary Man." I have since become even less cool than I was in '98, but I still have my copy of Tigermilk, and this silly website. And my credit card. So, all's well that ends well... And even if I never actually listened to that Buzzcocks box, it was cool, too.
Scottish Music Lovefest
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