The James tour, which Thom has so been dreading, reaches the UK on December 1st. The first gig is at Glasgow Barrowlands. I make my way there at 3pm taking the underground into town and then walking the rest of the way, my stomach in knots. I’m not sure why I’m going so early, but I just feel like I have to be where the action is.
There are tour buses outside the venue, the way the Barras is laid out means that they have to park at the front of the venue, all the entrances and exits face onto the street. Anyone going in or out has to pass the main door.
I have a look around and plant myself in the spot by the door. A curtain is drawn on the bus; I spot Thom and make to wave. He gives me a “Who? Me?” look and then waves back and goes back to reading a book. I wander off and come back to crouch on the pavement by the door. I stay there, getting cold, letting my nerves build up, until about 5.30pm.
When Thom emerges from the bus, I step forward and force myself to speak, “Did you get my letter?” The brief conversation goes something like this:
Thom: “Would it have been recent?”
Me: “Didn’t you get home?”
Thom: “Yeah but not long enough to get mail forwarded”
Me: “I got the airmail one from Illinois. It was the fourth. Thank you.” I want to say more but I’ve just realised who I’m talking to and can’t. I drop my glove and fumble with a Creep badge that I can’t decide whether or not to wear.
Thom: a smile of recognition as he heads for the door. “Well, enjoy it.”
A little later Phil gets out of the bus and Ed arrives by taxi. I attempt to shout hello, but they aren’t looking. My friend Rebecca ( former penpal, now a student here too) arrives and joins me at the head of the queue.
When the doors open we rush up the stairs and straight for the front, we get to the barrier, slightly to the left of the centre. There were about a dozen other people similarly keen to get a good spot. Roadies test lots of guitars. LOTS of James fans, recognisable in their T-Shirts with the band’s name in large letters front and back, start to fill the room. There are lots of lads coming and going from the bar but we stay put, resolutely holding our positions.
Radiohead come on and open with “Benz”. Somehow all is not right with Thom, his playing seems slack, the sound balance isn’t very good and the crowd aren’t getting into it like they have at their previous gigs. It doesn’t feel right and Thom can tell. So can I.
They play Prove Yourself, I can feel the weight of the crowd pushing behind me but they are not getting behind the band on the stage. Surely the wonderful first notes of You, that I’ve been waiting to hear again for months, has to move them, but a chant of “James, James” goes up and it seems like they’re not prepared to give the support band a fair crack of the whip. Thom looks at his band mates and mouths, “I knew this would be a nightmare.” He tells one particularly noisy heckler to “fuck off” and gives another an exasperated one finger salute, “Well, you won’t be buying our album.”
They start Creep and some of the crowd appear to be joining in. During the long note at the end, a lighted cigarette sails over our heads and hits Thom’s leg. He moves away, leaving it to smoulder in the middle of the stage. He keeps singing, “At least I’m fucking trying…” He takes a bit more yelling but leaves the stage before the end of the song, letting the band finish without him. He returns to the stage with a guitar for Ripcord.
He starts Banana Co acoustically and is interrupted by another heckler; he stops and tries to locate the person doing the shouting. He’s still angry about being interrupted. Pop Is Dead sees some of Thom’s usual energy returning. I’m moving about on the front row as much as I can, whoever is behind me seems to think that elbowing and kneeing me in the back is fun. I’m pinned to the rail, it feels like the world is closing in and can’t do anything about it.
A new song called Nice Dream, which I heard last time they played here, sounds beautiful and now I can make out the words. “Nice dream if you think you are strong enough”, I feel a bit choked up.
Someone calls out for Anyone Can Play Guitar and it is indeed the next song on the list. Thom’s guitar strings are breaking all over the place. By the end he has it down on the floor and is kicking sound out of it. He’s still not happy. They end on an altered version of Stop Whispering. It peters out and Thom spits out a big “Fuck you” and gestures to the back of the hall. They batter hell out of the end of the song, feeding back for all they’re worth.
I reach up and someone puts a torn setlist into my hand. The crush has eased as the James fans start going to the bar. Rebecca and I fight our way out, through the packed room to the stall at the back selling drinks. I’m shaking like I’ve been in a fight. We go downstairs to the lower level where the merchandise stall is selling Radiohead T-Shirts detailing a list of dates from their seemingly endless tour.
We come back from the toilets and survey the foyer. Colin is at one side talking to a student journalist. I’m thirsty so I go back upstairs and get a warm can of lager from the stall at the back of the room. The place has filled up now the headliners are due on. I’m angry and frustrated and quickly down the beer. Back downstairs I realise that the skinny chap over there in a small group is Jonny. Someone says, “Let’s go and see James” and they go up. About five minutes later Jonny comes back alone.
Rebecca and I sit down on the bench that runs along the wall between the door to the gents and the door to the support’s dressing room. Colin is still milling around looking lost, he finishes his can of Coke and goes into the loo. Rebecca decides we should talk to him, so when he comes back out she jumps into his path and launches in with “Great gig!” I stand next to her and try to make my brain work. She talks when she’s nervous so I just listen. Colin says, “Thom’s a bit tense.”
Colin is polite and we chat to him about all the places they have been in Europe. I manage to ask a question about what it’s been like to tour with James, he says they are all nice but they weren’t keen to play with them in the UK. He leans forward so James’ people on the T Shirt stand don’t hear, “We only wanted to do Europe with them for the big venues, but it was all the tour or nothing!”
We tell Colin about the other gigs we’ve been to and he asks us what we are studying, when Rebecca mentions that she’s doing Spanish he asks her if she’s been to Spain, as they’ve just been to Barcelona and it was lovely! I say, “See you in Manchester”, and tell him I’m going down there to meet Val. He remembers her and the fanzine from last time he met her. Then he’s off to be interviewed. Gosh! A proper conversation – wasn’t that difficult.
We go back to sitting down. I see Thom leave. Ed comes back in with what looks like chips wrapped in brown paper. Thom will have to come back this way, so I brace myself for ten minutes. When he appears again, I look over, smile and when I have his attention, I lean forward and call out “How did it go?” Suddenly he’s standing next to me explaining.
He wasn’t with it; they’ve been doing too much touring. Playing with “that lot”. I interrupt and say that it didn’t feel the same as when I’d seen them before, it was a weird crowd. But Thom says that it was more him than them and leaves it at that. I tell him I’m going to the Manchester show to meet Val. He nods and I wish him good luck and as I make sympathetic noises, he says, “I just want to be a normal human being again.” With that he departs into the dressing room.
He looked tired and sorry and real and about as good at eye contact as I am, i.e. not very. I’m a bit stunned. We go back upstairs to see if we can stand to watch James for a couple of songs. Phil is wandering around at the back, unrecognised in his red jacket. There are some obvious James fans dancing around in front of us. The whole building sweats, condensation runs down the walls. I feel like the only person in the room who isn’t enjoying the band on the stage. We go back downstairs again avoiding the rush when everyone leaves.
I’m on a high. We have chips on the way home and I’m back in my flat by 11.30pm but I can’t sleep.