Archive for September, 2011

How to be a good audience

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As far as I am aware, no formal instructions have ever been offered to audiences on how to behave in public so I thought I would use this opportunity to point out a few things which really get up musicians’ noses.  Most of the following points may seem blatantly obvious but any gigging musician will tell you they are all regular occurrences.

Singers are not ventriloquists
It always amazed me how musicians develop the ability to play an instrument and hold a conversation at the same time. People often came up to me while I was playing to either request a song or just for a general chat and while that could be irritating it was so common in the end I accepted it as part of my job. What was extraordinary though was the number of people who wanted me to talk to them at the same time as I was singing. When this happened I would try to ignore them until I had finished the song but some were so persistent I had to stop and announce to the audience “sorry to interrupt this song but I have someone here who is desperate to ask me something.” The place would go deathly quite and everyone would look up to see who it was that was bothering me. They never did it a second time.

Requesting Songs
Most musicians welcome requests but please bear the following in mind:

  1. Singers and musicians don’t know every tune that was ever written so don’t start complaining when you are told they can’t play your request.
  2. If the singer doesn’t know your request it is highly unlikely that they will know it if you ask them again in 10 minutes. Asking for the same unknown song 10 times in one night is also unlikely to improve your chances of getting it played.
  3. If your song is being played don’t stop the singer in the middle of it to request something else.
  4. If your song is being played, do the singer the courtesy of listening to it. I have lost count of the times I played a request for someone only to have them talk to their friends non stop through it and later complain that I hadn’t played their request.
  5. If everyone is in a party mood with people dancing on the tables don’t request something slow, especially if it is a country song involving a dead dog. Likewise, don’t request A Bat Out of Hell while dinner is being served.

Getting up to sing
Some singers don’t mind if you get up and sing a song but it can be a minefield so don’t complain if the singer doesn’t allow it. It is hard to compete against someone who has all his mates in the bar cheering him on and harder to get people off the stage. Sometime mates of the guest singer join in and the evening degenerates into a rowdy free for all. If you want to get up and sing, go to a karaoke bar otherwise let the band or entertainer do their job.

If you go to a restaurant or pub which has a live band take it for granted that they will play too loudly. If you want to sit and chat quietly to your friends then go somewhere else. It is difficult for a band to control it’s volume considering each musician has their own volume control and each feels they should be heard above the others.

Buying a Drink
It seems to be the custom that rather than musicians being given tips they are bought drinks. Musicians appreciate the offer of a drink but if you see one with 10 pints of beer lined up behind him then don’t be offended when they turn your offer down. Several times I almost got into fights after declining a drink and I don’t know how many gallons of beer I have poured down the sink at the end of the night when refusals was ignored.

Don’t ask if you can play a musician’s instrument even if you are sober. It’s like someone asking you if they can take your brand new Jaguar around the block a few times.

If you are really drunk and want to talk to one of the band members, take it for granted that you will be irritating. You will keep repeating yourself and generally talk a load of rubbish. Remember they will probably be sober so will not be as eager to listen to you as the others at your table who have also been drinking. Just enjoy the night and accept that the singer probably doesn’t care that your mate Fred is a brilliant guitarist and plays Apache better than Hank Marvin.

If you are enjoying what the band is playing don’t wait for someone else to applaud, be brave and lead the way. Many time I spent hours playing without any audience reaction until someone claps at the end of a song and then everyone joins in and starts having a good time.

If any other musician has any pet hates please click the “submit comment” button below and send them in.


The Man Behind the Name

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A lot of people ask where I got my name Nemo James from so here is the spooky story behind the name.

In 1991, at a time when I was starting to promote myself as a singer songwriter rather than a session musician I knew I had to change my name to something more catchy. Although my songwriting had become prolific I couldn’t for the life of me think of a stage name. Then one day I was chatting to my father who is not the most creative of men but he surprised me as parents so often do:

“Why not use Nemo. That was your grandfather’s nickname.”

I loved the name and the idea of finally inheriting something from my grandfather but I was still stuck for a surname when a few seconds later the name James came into my head. I didn’t know anyone called James and hadn’t been watching a TV program about one, it just came out of nowhere but I knew instantly it was the name I wanted. The spooky bit came when a couple of weeks later my father said:

“Do you know your grandfather was one of eight children and the eldest was called James … and he was poet.”

If that wasn’t spooky enough a few months later someone pointed out what Nemo spelt backwards. After that I wanted to know more about my grandfather as he died many years before I was born and was rarely talked about in my family, so I started interrogating my father and aunt.

Grandfather Nemo (real name Herbert Edwin Newark) was born into a wealthy family and his father owned a thriving bookbinding shop. He had a very strict upbringing and every night when he was young he was made to stand outside the dining room with his seven brothers and sisters and sing hymns while his parents ate their dinner. This was strange enough in itself but more so because his parents weren’t in the least bit religious. It was because of this authoritarian upbringing that my grandfather  developed an intense dislike for authority and rejected convention of any kind although being a man who hated conflict the closest he got to rattling the establishment was to make a loud cock a doodle do sound every time he left the house.

All he ever asked for from life was to remain anonymous and play cards and that is exactly what he did. Every afternoon he went to a whist drive and then straight onto a solo drive at night. Whist is like bridge without the bidding and solo is like bridge with the bidding except you don’t play in pairs. No I don’t understand either. An entrance fee was paid and the winners took whatever was in the pot. With his desire to remain anonymous he always gave his name as Nemo and in the working class environment of those places no one would have known that Nemo was Latin for nobody. At the end of every night he returned home to eat a raw onion and a piece of cheese and then go to bed.

Nemo inherited the bookbinding shop from his father and was himself a highly skilled bookbinder but he only ever did just enough to pay for his card playing. Even that became too much for him after a while so slowly he started selling the stock until he got to the point where even if someone gave him a book to repair he was unable to do it because of a lack of materials. He gave very little to his wife to bring up their five children and so my father was brought up in a slum. He didn’t drink but he did chain smoke and developed the ability to open a new packet of cigarettes while they were still in his pocket, take out a cigarette and light it while no one was looking so he didn’t have to offer them around. With all the stock gone and his shop closed down he spent the rest of his life waiting for small legacies from wealthy relatives and the occasional win at a whist drive. My grandmother got by with some help from her parents and a small income from restoring old prams. You might wonder how Nemo was able to pay the general household bills and the answer to that is that he didn’t. His favourite saying when anyone from authority approached him was “lock me up” and that is what they did. Every couple of years he would get a demand for unpaid property tax which he refused to pay so they put him in prison for a few weeks. He referred to those periods as his visits to the health farm as while there he was unable to smoke, ate much better food than he did at home and still got to play cards all day. When he was released, his debt was written off. His only concession to responsibility was when things were desperate he went to the local charity to collect a box of food. His only real worry in life was if he didn’t have enough money to pay his entrance fee to a whist drive and on those occasions his daughter Doris was happy to give it to him despite having none herself.

He was a very attractive man and there was always women chasing him although he was never interested as it would have been far too much effort to respond. When he first met my grandmother she was already engaged but she dumped her fiancé to marry him and spent the rest of their married life telling him what a big mistake she had made. He was infamous for his bad habits although my father could only tell me two of them. One was spitting into the fire (which he frequently missed) and the other was that he seemed to be incapable of closing his trouser fly. It is not surprised that eventually my grandmother kicked him out so his son Cyril built him a shed in the garden where he lived for years in the hope of my grandmother taking him back but she never did.

Towards the end of his life he was fortunate in being offered a job by a rich Jewish man called Mr Dent who owned an extensive book collection and had an apartment above a dairy in the Strand, London. If anyone has information about this Mr Dent I would love to hear it. It was Nemo’s job to restore precious old books and make others appear older than they really were in return for living at the unoccupied apartment rent free.

In 1937 Nemo died at age of 70 with the cause on the death certificate being bronchitis and pneumonia, no doubt caused by his chain smoking. Ironically the only family heirloom that has been handed down from him is a battered old cigarette case which still smells of tobacco.

One thing that surprises me is that none of his children seemed to hold any resentment towards him for depriving them of what should have been a healthy inheritance. In fact my father always talks about him with great affection and admiration of his free spirit. I also suspect that considering Nemo was an extremely popular character in the area, my father might actually have been proud of that popularity. They all went to the funeral and it was his elderly son that made up the rhyme “he died as he lived the poor old sod, even his funeral was on the nod”  (on the nod meaning on credit.) The funeral was arranged by his daughter Doris who in honour of her father’s memory never paid the bill. I am happy to say my father inherited none of Nemo’s character flaws but developed a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility ensuring that his family was always safe and secure. The only good character trait my father inherited was Nemo’s razor sharp wit.

So at the age of 91 my father has always considered his father as being a likable but selfish and  irresponsible waster who avoided life and conflict of any kind but last year I heard something about Nemo which just shows we never really know anyone. A distant cousin of mine living in Canada is an expert in genealogy and purely by chance came across a court case in which Grandfather Nemo appeared as a witness in 1898 in a murder case at the Old Bailey. In his evidence he said he heard gunshots and saw a man running away from the scene with a gun in his hand. He chased the gunman down the street until he caught him, threw him to the floor and held him while bystanders seized the gun and during the struggle two more shots were fired. When I told this to my father he refused to believe it even though I showed him the Official Old Bailey Court Transcripts where several other witness collaborated Nemo’s evidence. You would think like most fathers, Nemo would have spent the rest of his life telling his children how he wrestled a desperate gunman to the floor but it seems he kept the whole thing to himself as no one in the family ever knew about it.

Now the final irony is having spent his life in anonymity, 81 years after Granddad Nemo’s death I am putting his short biography on the internet for the whole world to see. I have a feeling if he is up there somewhere reading this his only reaction would be to shrug his shoulder and say “lock me up.”

Herbert Edwin Newark aka

Herbert Edwin Newark aka  “Nemo”

Are things really that bad?

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Although war is undeniably hell it has to be said that for my father World War 2 was the best thing that ever happened to him. He was bought up in a slum in South London and until he joined the army his life was a disaster and in his own words he was “the most horrible child that ever lived.” This was due to a doting mother that disliked her daughters but treated her sons like Gods and my father being the youngest was Head God. When his call up papers came he was excited at the prospect of adventure and found that for the first time his life had a purpose.

Although he refers to the house he grew up in as a slum where the closest thing to a bathroom was a kitchen with one water pipe sticking out of the ground they did at least have their own tap. He still has nightmares about a nearby estate where they had to share an outside tap and toilet amongst eight households. Those houses had one room upstairs and one downstairs and the only way to get from one room to the other was up and down a stepladder. People on that estate regarded my father as being well off. It is no wonder that due to the poverty he grew up in he became a committed socialist and the greatest dream during his time in the army was that when the war was over social injustice would be a thing of the past. The army brought people from all walks of life together and getting on so well with his comrades there was no reason to think it would not always be like that. When the war ended he returned to London and was devastated to find the class system re-establishing itself but at least he found himself a secure job in the post office and was able to support his family without the fear of us ever having to live in the conditions he grew up in.

With my father’s love of talking combined with his strong political views I spent a lot of my life discussing the problems of society with him and in common with most children I always took the opposite view. Despite his disillusionment with the Labour Party he still holds the same views like a broken record and in particular the extraordinary conviction that things are so much worse now than they were in his day. He knows it is illogical but justifies his opinion by saying  that “at least we had hope in those days.”

My mother was born in what was a small village called Piove Di Sacco near Padova in Italy. When she was seven years old owing to extreme poverty in the area her family moved to Milan where my grandfather found a job as a welder in an aircraft factory. After marrying my father she followed him to England where although life was extremely difficult it was still far easier than it had been in Italy. I am interested in genealogy and was frustrated that my mother knew virtually nothing about her history and didn’t even know the names of either of her grandfathers. Thanks to the internet I was able to find someone with her maiden name in Piove Di Sacco and last year on a tour of Italy with my wife we stopped off and met relatives from both sides of her family. I went from knowing virtually nothing about my Italian connection to being given family trees going back to the 1700’s complete with more than our fair share of scandal. I was driven around what is now a large town by a distant cousin with a flashy car and met many other relatives all of whom had good jobs and seem to be comfortably off.

So where is all this going? On our last day in Piove Di Sacco we went to a large supermarket and that’s when the reality of life today really sank home. I would have liked to have set the clock back 65 years and sat my father down in what was a small poverty stricken village and asked him to clarify exactly what was it that he hoped for. To use his own favourite expression in his wildest dreams he would have hoped for a huge shop which had an abundance of affordable food and where no one starved; a free health service, education and decent living conditions for all and an income when people got old or were unable to work. Despite the fact that nearly everything he would have hoped for has come true he still can’t let go of the idea that life was better back then because they had hope.

The world will always be far from perfect but all I can say is I am glad to be alive now rather than in the pre war years living in slums with no hope and the only salvation being a call to war. As for the horrors of the first world war I don’t even want to think about it.

13 Things I survived

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I was browsing through a bookshop the other day and came across a book about guardian angels which I found intriguing. I didn’t buy the book because although I have no trouble believing in guardian angels, ghosts or even two headed pixies I do have trouble in believing that someone would write this kind of a book without making up at least some the stories. If there are guardian angels there is no doubt that they are not all created equal and judging by my survival rate below it looks like mine has been doing a pretty good job.

1. Italian Food
Anyone who has ever visited Italian relatives is aware of the danger of death by eating. You are given the biggest lunch you have ever seen which includes two starters, one of which is a big plate of pasta. Around 5 p.m. someone presents you with a neatly wrapped package of pastries they bought especially in honour of your visit. A couple of hours later,  just as you feel you might survive they present you with the biggest pizza you have ever seen and are offended when you turn down the tiramisu.

2. My Tricycle
This was my pride and joy when I was six but I had great difficulty accepting it was not a Formula One racing car. Had I not lived next to two steeps hill it might not have been such a big problem. It took me several serious crashes before I discovered you can’t take a sharp bend at high speeds and lampposts don’t move out of the way no matter how much you shout at them.

3.The Pink Panther
The series of films starring Peter Sellers. During the scene where he is using the parallel bars and jumps off into the stairwell I actually thought I was going to die laughing.

4. The Champ
A great with Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway. I love a good tear jerker but refuse to cry in front of others so for a while I was genuinely scared I would explode.

5. Chicken Vindaloo
I have never eaten hot curries so I have no idea why I accepted a bet to finish off a plate of Vindaloo, especially when I spent more on toilet paper than I won on the bet.

6. Skiing
I was working in Gstaad in Switzerland when my friend Paolo and I thought we’d have a go at skiing. We edged our way 50 metres up the mountain, turned to face downhill and let go sliding nervously downhill until we reached the flat bit at the bottom where we came to a stop. Wondering why anyone should waste money on lessons when it was so easy we jumped on a T Bar and after falling off half way up I received a scar on my leg that I still have to this day. We pointed downhill the same as before only this time when I reached 200 miles an hour I realised even if I did manage to stay on my feet, by the time I reached the flat ground I would be travelling so fast I would end up skiing through the middle of a restaurant and two chalets before firmly entrenching myself head first up a cow’s arse. I crashed badly and continued to crash at least 100 times before limping back to my room.

7. My Cooking
It is legendary in some circles although it has got better since someone advised me to replace my smoke alarm with a kitchen timer.

8. The Birdy Song
Also known in the USA as The Chicken Song. Ok you might think it is fun but for serious musicians, playing it is like having an exploding stake driven through your heart before being thrown in front of a moving train.

9. School
I was eleven when I first heard the phrase “dying of boredom” and thought for a while it was an actual cause of death. I was scared to go to school until I discovered it was just an expression and there was no real danger in attending a geography lesson.

10. Y2K
Something we all survived. The real danger of this was not the widespread chaos predicted to occur when the new millennium started but the cost. What other industry could get away with charging us a fortune to fix a problem that didn’t exist and even if it did,  it was one they created in the first place. Computers are God’s gift to the unscrupulous.

11. Parsnips
In my childhood I was convinced that parsnips were the work of the devil and if I accidentally swallowed one I would die and go straight to hell. The problem was my mother used to hide them amongst the roast potatoes so Sunday roast dinners were an obstacle course of dangerous vegetables.

12. Rugby
I have done a lot of contact sports including boxing, karate and squash and if you think squash is not a contact sport try having a racquet smashed in your face or stopping a ball travelling at 100 mph with your bum. Despite all this the only sport that really scared me was rugby. Unlike a scrum, at least in karate and boxing you know where the punches are coming from.

13. Rejection
I claim to have the biggest and most varied collection of rejection letters in history or I would have if I had kept them all. Most of them I just shrugged off but there were some that seemed to transform themselves into a boxing glove and punch me in the nuts. These days I don’t give a shit. It took me years to learn that rejections are like school bullies. Look them in the eye, tell them you’re not scared of them and they never bothers you again. These days I am more concerned about the effect on my heart if I ever received an acceptance letter.