Kissing Just For Practise was, and is a B&S/twee pop disco at the Star and Garter, a slightly crumbling ancient two floor boozer in Manchester that smells of stale beer and elegant decay. I got a tip about the night off a lad called Ian who I had met at a Camera Obscura gig at Manchester Uni. Ian was a shy kid in cords and a half-face fringe. The way he described it made it sound like the best night ever, but travelling alone to it sounded a bit iffy to say the least .I'd just met him and didn’t know anyone else going. But, as with the start many of the best adventures, I found myself saying 'Go on then, why not?
Manchester took me to her bosom in the shape of the welcoming arms of the Britannia hotel (a building I adore. It was first used as a store house for cotton during the areas boom. One of my favourite stories is that of the place getting bombed by the Luftwaffe, and the reels of cotton being so big the fell and sort of fanned the flames to death thus saving the building) and after a quick shower and change and a brief piss about on the internet I went off to find the venue. After a few solo pints and a slightly drunken scrawl into my journal, I walked past Piccadilly Gardens with a that awful gut sinking feeling of have I done? Here I was alone in the city, going to a venue I'd never been to before in the vain hope of finding a bloke I had a pint with a month ago. Not, in short, the healthiest of situations. I suddenly felt very, very alone.
It was with no faint alarm (at that point I could of happily done a runner back to the hotel and spent the night in the hotel bar and stared at the hotel chandalier) that I handed my three quid to the doorman. I was almost through the door when I felt the heavy grip of a Mancunian man mountain bouncer.
"Hang on a minute" he said "what’s that badge?"
I looked down at my Tigermilk badge, just a grey picture of a girl with stuffed tiger pressed to her breast. This is it I thought. I’ve been rumbled by the ponce police as an outsider softie. Its curtains.
"Er...it’s a Belle and Sebastian badge" I said, trying to explain to some student bashing madhead the link between the badge and the name of the night.
"Oh its 50p off with one of those" he said applying my pink wristband "would you like a free lollipop?
When I got in there was no sign of Ian, which wasn’t in fact the end of the world as I was in a very nice old fashioned pub, with good music in the back ground. I kicked back and savoured my pint. A really nice couple from Leeds took pity on me and started a conversation at the bar about my t-shirt. I must have come across as at least half charming and before I knew it I was being ushered to a table to meet lots of people. Most of them, it transpired, where strangers not two hours ago. So no Ian, but a good pub, new friends and good music in the background. I was enjoying myself but it was still not quite the nirvana that was promised.
After about an hour the whole table, as if prearranged, started to down drinks and put jackets on. I looked at my watch. It was ten past eleven.
"A bit early for the off isn’t it?" I asked
"Oh no" said Mr.Leeds "We're just going up stairs. Are you coming?"
The upstairs was, and is, just a room above a pub. Not the nicest of rooms at that. A bit dingy and the floor seemed to dip fairly violently in the middle. But, I wish you could have seen the magic in it that night.
After buying a round I felt guiltless to linger by a table, almost in the group again. The chatter ended as the DJ played the first record (Hello Kitten by Hefner if memory serves).
A boy in a cord suit started chugging away, followed by a girl in a 50's skirt twirling her way on the dance floor. It suddenly felt like the greatest kids birthday party. Within minutes it was a grinning, jiving, horde. People, strangers sang lyrics to me and would raise a glass and smile when they saw I knew them too. One fella in a suit (he may have just finished work, he may have been chic) kept shaking my hand and introducing me to his mates.
After about half an hour, the floor cleared a small gap as people moved out of the way. At first I thought maybe a fight had broke out, but was puzzled to see a large empty space.
Then a girl, maybe 19-20 small chubby and blind was led through to be stood in front of a huge speaker. With her white stick pressed to her breast in one hand and half a lager in the other, she swayed all night dancing her little dance while singing all the words, eyes shut and mouth smiling.
That sounds fucking patronising in print, but I was properly moved by it. By the power of music and what it can do to people. Here was this blind girl and here was I with my frozen, broken heart and here was music healing us all. It was B&S and Orange Juice, not Jesus, healing the lame that night. I had been crippled by the death of my dad. Heartbroken and left in bits, my emotions numb and unfamiliar. I had coped with it by spending six months on the piss. I’m not talking one too many. I’m talking drinking until passing out. If there was no-one to drink with I would take a book and happily and greedily drink ten pints by myself. Alone, wobbling way in a half empty night club with a book I was too pissed to focus on. I must have cut a pretty fucking pathetic dash. I’ve never been so lonely in my life. It was a bad period, but found to my utter shock that women were attracted to pathetic drunks. Maybe it had awoken some sort of romance in them. I don’t know. But I found myself with some iffy women. Or good women but dodgy situations. On one occasion I lead a really, really lovely girl on and then to my utter, utter shame ignored her until she went away. I know that I broke her heart, and the fall out had pretty dismal effect on a future relationship. What goes around etc.
Another incident at the time found me legless at a strangers party demanding drugs even though I didn’t even do them. Then I demanded that a girl came home with me. And came home with me she did. To her dismay though, I was so hammered that I couldn’t get it up. Bless her; she tried everything to coax my cock out of its coma. But it wouldn’t happen. At that point I just wanted to sleep, but she would not let up. After suggesting to her that I may perform better 'after a bit of a nap' she finally let me pass out. At about eight in the morning, she shook me awake but still no joy. At this point I just wanted her to go home. I was exhausted, hungover and embarrased. We went through the drill again 'Is this working? What about this?' but still nothing. It was like trying to raise the dead. Then she suggested that I spank her, as her ex-boyfriend loved it. In for a penny I thought and started to slap the buttocks of this stranger lying arse in the air with her knees tucked into her belly and her face in my pillow and the slow dawning of what I was doing and what I had become chilled me to the bone. As the palm of my hand hit the flawless skin of her young bottom, the sound of the slap was met with a small voice coming from the stair case saying "Uncle James, what that noise?" It was my housemates’ young nephew. I didn’t know who was more horrified by the situation. My housemate, the kid, the girl or me. But I knew things had to change. Sometimes you have to hit the bottom before you can start to float back up. And this was the lowest bed of the ocean.
Something had to change alright. I had become a monster, a sleazy drunk bastard. Everything I had seen and hated in other people. And slowly things did change. Instead of going to the pub, I started to buy records and stay in and properly listen to them. I started to fall in love with bands and songs and awoke anew. Making sense of the lyrics, the love and the hates and the lives of people just like me I began to slowly feel again. Feel like me again. 'Boys of Melody' by The Hidden Cameras I remember really falling for. I craved the innocence and gentle calm that came out of the grooves of the record. I started losing the weight the lone drinking had put on. I started to care about how I dressed. I got my hair cut and started to go to gigs again.
And suddenly here I was in this room with great music and wonderful people.
When I was 24, I was very much in love and woke one day to see the bare back of the muse of my delight as the sunrise crept milkily over her china white skin and the unrolled ribbon of her hair and as I drank the vision I said to myself I would never see anything so beautiful, but I think the sight of this blind dancing girl tops it. I felt myself feeling emotions again. A renewed innocence. I felt like I belonged and I was wanted. Again music offered me salvation. I watched everyone dancing and knew they felt the same.
It took me ages to work out why everyone was 'going for it' so much. But it’s obvious really. They are all like me. Into music no-one else in their town really listens to, or really understands. It’s the only place in the whole of the north of England where you can dance to records we deeply, deeply love, and by jingo did we take advantage of it. The mundanity of work, public transport, the rent, the chilling shrill of the alarm clock. All this could wait. There was another record on after this. A record we had all clutched to our wounded hearts.
The next record, I had decided, I would really go for. Luckily, it was Lazy Line Painter Jane by Belle and Sebastian. A great record to dance to. A poppy groover that builds and builds and climaxes in a fug of hammond based sauciness that’s impossible not to surrender yourself too. And surrender I did too. Dancing like I had never danced before and like I would never dance again, I let fly. Arms flailing as the song bloomed around my feet and ears.
"You will a have a boy tonight..." We were one. A mass feeling exactly the same emotion. Pure fucking elation. This is why we are here on this poorly little planet. Not for work or fashion, not for the property ladder or paying off loans. But this moment right now, when the music builds and builds and explodes and we are all the same deep down. We all smile as we dance and sing. We all know what each other is thinking. In a corner I catch sight of Ian chugging away and everything makes sense, like a twist at the end of a film.
I left to walk in the cold Manchester morning. Its freezing but the heat from dancing keeps me warm and I know have to have this again. It’s like being fifteen again, the realisation that there are others like you. People who feel and want the same things as you. That music isn’t just something to whack on in the car, or hum along to while washing up. It’s a tangible, living breathing thing. It brings people together and makes gives them something to believe in. Sometimes, when im in a pub and someone has put something shit on the jukebox, or I’ve been dragged by a friend to see a local band that reeks of trying to hard to sound commercial and mediocrity, and think back to that night and gently smile to myself. I think of what a 7" single can do and how wonderful, how calm, and how reborn I felt putting the key into that hotel door carrying a faith in music and people and a notebook full of new band names. And a pink wristband and a lollipop of course.
The blind girl so wankily portrayed in this post is Rachael Neiman, star of university challenge, mastermind and the head honcho of cherryade records. She also an indiepop hero.
Andy, landlord of the Star and Garter has pointed out that he is not a 'man mountain' but wears lots of layers that belies his bulk. He is a good man and does a good job. The Star and Garter is one of those places that Mancs will crow on and on about how good it if (heaven forbid)it goes under. You'll miss it when its gone,so for god sake take advantage of the place. Magic has, and does, happened here.