Telling Stories - Tim Burgess (2012)

6. 2–0 to Music


Throughout my time with The Charlatans I have always had a girlfriend, and for twelve years a wife. I never saw the music as a fleeting thing, so I never saw the need to go round grabbing what I could – some people see their time in the business as a kind of sex ’n’ drugs trolley dash, doing as much as they can before it comes to an end. I was in it for the long haul.

And anyway, I’m a terrible liar! My face goes red when I’m not telling the truth. But that’s not to say I would do any of that sort of thing even if I was an accomplished fibber – I just wasn’t built for it. I won’t deny that I have had some sexual encounters with friends who made it available to me with no strings attached when I was girlfriendless and at a loose end. After all, what are friends for? With friends who offer you casual sex, at least you know where you stand.

But I have always been sensitive to heartbreak and the feelings associated with a broken heart, and I wouldn’t want to do to someone what I couldn’t handle being done to me. I can’t imagine a lonelier feeling than watching a person whose name you can’t recall awkwardly leaving your hotel room. And the thought of someone using musical achievement (or actually no achievement at all!) as a means to some kind of conquest really turns me off.

I always wanted to be in love, and enjoyed nothing more than the experience of falling in love; the idea of losing that for the immediate gratification provided by a post-gig encounter was just unthinkable. (My first tutoring in the world of rock ’n’ roll came from the school of Crass and, in particular, their album Penis Envy, which carried the message that women were to be respected, not sex objects to be exploited. The album was sung, written and performed by women and a boy named Penny.)

Some people do join a band to improve their sex life – girls can’t resist a narcissistic frontman, all ego, sweat and leather trousers, with whom to pursue their rock ’n’ roll fantasies. I was too in love with the idea of love and being in love. Like when Groucho Marx proclaimed that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him, I wouldn’t want to be the crush or sexual fantasy of anyone who would throw themselves at the singer in a band.

Not that I didn’t run into trouble sometimes. Customs in Japan for example can be a little confusing. On one occasion I was led to my room by a girl who I presumed worked for the promoter or our label. She escorted me to the door, and I naively thought she was coming in for some kind of tea ritual or maybe a late-night shoulder massage. Nope. She whipped off her clothes and jumped under the covers. I was beside myself worrying that she’d thought that I’d been expecting to spend the night with her. She gathered up her stuff and scuttled out when I explained I had a girlfriend and it wasn’t something I did. By chance she ran into someone else who was more accommodating. He was late for the pick-up the following morning, getting treatment for his newly acquired genital companions. Music was now at least 2–0 up. Even acting as my guardian when needed.

Still, most autobiographies these days deal with titillation and scandal – the museum of rock ’n’ roll revolves around the classic threesome of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and I will try not to disappoint you. Except that I’ve always been into the idea of being a one-woman man. Sounds like a song? Not sure how much of a hit it would be, maybe a B-side? Anyway, I suppose it would go like this:

Verse 1: Girl from Northwich

My first serious girlfriend before I joined The Charlatans was a local girl from Northwich. I was in a band with her, we went to see bands together, and we shared intimate personal parallel lines. And I don’t mean drugs. This was way before I was serious about drugs, when I was just an inquisitive, cheerful, sweet boy.

Actually she may have been my third or fourth love but, like Prince Charles said, it depends on what your definition of love is. I seem to fall in love quite easily. Jenny Agutter may have been the first, in The Railway Children; maybe my babysitter from next door too; and Farrah Fawcett!

I now believe she realized my calling to be in a band way before I did, as she was the first girl who hit me with the ultimatum – it’s me or the band, Tim. It was 1-0 to music, of course, even though my nameless band were never going to save the world like Bono or Geldof were (this was Live Aid time).

1-0 to music perhaps, but by no means would this call for a lap of honour. I was devastated. But these are the sacrifices you have to make if you are serious about what you’re doing, even though I had no idea just how serious I was. My dad always thought I was very serious, as I spent all my pocket money and money earned from various jobs on music-related things – records, guitars, keyboards, vocal PA and microphones. And I seemed to be in bands all the time, organizing rehearsals and picking up other band members. I was quite often the only one who could drive, and I would end up loading all the gear back into my mum and dad’s at the end of the night.

I put in the miles. I had been bitten by a bug – not the bug of fronting a band but the love of seeing what music did to people. I never for one minute thought I would end up fronting a band.

Verse 2: Girl from London

I met her in our manager’s office. She had a cool aura. She was from Harrogate but lived in London. She had her feet on the table in the meeting when I first walked in. I liked that.

She signed the band to Warner/Chappell Publishing. I really liked that.

And she came with me to Charlatans gigs as often as she could. That was good, too.

Together we moved into a basement flat in Chiswick. We went to gigs together and she taught me a lot. She taught me about the films of David Lynch and took me to see Blue Velvet in Notting Hill. From this romance a love of cool independent films stays with me: Wings of Desire, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Betty Blue, Monsieur Hire and The Hairdresser’s Husband. And many more.

She took me to the launch party in Prestwich for the Fall album Extricate. I was superexcited, as The Fall were a long-standing favourite band of mine. This was definitely a highlight in my life so far, as I got to meet Mark E. Smith and we got on well.

She also took me to the Underworld in Camden to celebrate the launch of a new label called Heavenly. The bands that played that night were St Etienne, The Manic Street Preachers and East Village.

I remember the day she brought home Disintegration by The Cure and Nevermind by Nirvana. These were important records. This was an important relationship.

Our split was heartbreaking for us both. The band was starting to do really well, and I was distracted – it’s what I’d always wanted and it took all of my attention. I decided not to come home immediately from a tour we were on, and took a train from Berlin to Paris, where I stayed for a week.

She was waiting for me when I finally got home, and we both felt we knew what was for the best. Neither of us could have predicted how difficult things had become. At the beginning we didn’t know how long the band would last or how long we could last. But I do know that she helped and encouraged me to follow my dreams. And anyway, this book wouldn’t be this book without a few tears.

I left Chiswick and bought a flat in Salford, close to where I was born and within walking distance of the Haçienda. Mark and I became inseparable. I lived on toast, painted the whole flat red and watched Twin Peaks on rotation.

Manchester’s music scene was having another boom. It was during this time that I met Sarah Cracknell, and we would later go on and record a song together. And then I met the next important love in my life.

Now for the Chorus:

I am in love with the idea of being in love,

I am in love with the idea of love.

Verse 3: The Girl from New York City

I was standing at Crewe station and I was really down about something. Being down is not good, being down at Crewe station is terrible. Funny thing is, I thought to myself, I bet no one else at this station is going out with a hot girl from NYC.

It really cheered me up. I started to smile.

I had moved back in with Mum and Dad, records in boxes, belongings in bin-bags, head in tatters. But at the end of the road was a red telephone box, and every chance I had I would call The Girl from New York City. Northwich to New York seemed like a long way. It is.

The band were in between the second and third albums. We’d had one No. 1 album, but the follow-up had been less successful. Actually, it went into the charts at 21, and had it been our first album we would have been happy. But it was doing well in the States, and so was the single from it, ‘Weirdo’.

Sam Bayer was drafted in by our US record company, RCA. Fresh from directing the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit’, he would fulfil the same role for ‘Weirdo’. He was funny, long-haired, loud and American. I remember after one of the run-throughs Sam jumped up, whipped off his shirt, and yelled out, ‘YEEEEEHAAAAAH! The Charlatans! You guys rule! Who the fuck are Nirvana?’

For all I know he said that at every video shoot, but at that moment I was going to accept it. The band collapsed laughing – we were tight, with lots of in-jokes, and shared the enjoyment of what we were doing.

I had known the hot Girl from NYC since the band first walked into her office in Manhattan in 1990. Three years later, after seeing her intermittently and most memorably at the My Bloody Valentine show at the Ritz on 11th street between 3rd and 4th, I flew into the city specially to see her.

As I fell head over heels in love with New York, I fell head over heels in love with her.

I am in love with the idea of being in love,

I am in love with the idea of love.

Verse 4: The Girl from Creation

I met her backstage at The Word in 1993 after performing ‘I Was Born on Christmas Day’ with St Etienne.

She was from Glasgow but was working in the Hackney office of Creation Records. It’s odd, but I feel as if as soon as I met her I never left her flat in Camden, the one she shared with Adrian, Kle and Stephen, though I must have been commuting between Camden and Berkshire – we were mixing Up to Our Hips at Chris Rea’s studio in Cookham.

We instantly became inseparable.

I was 27 and she was 21. People would ask us all the time when we were going to get married. One day in the autumn of 1994 she announced that she had found us our perfect Woody Allen apartment – we were both big fans of Woody. The building at the bottom of Eton College Road in Chalk Farm reminded her of the apartment in Manhattan Murder Mystery, which had come out the year before. It was beautiful.

I am in love with the idea of being in love,

I am in love with the idea of love.

Verse 5: LA Woman

I met Michelle in Los Angeles. She had the most beautiful brown eyes, the most beautiful skin I have ever seen, hair that smelled of sunshine, hands and feet made out of poetry. In every way she was pretty much damn near perfect.

The Charlatans were in LA to play at the Troubadour in June 1997, staying in the Le Parc Suites Hotel. On our arrival I received a fax from Ed Simons from The Chemical Brothers: ‘Hi, Tim, would you please put Michelle Wilkins + 1 on the Guest List. She would love to come to the show.’

So I did.

Back in the hotel after the gig I spoke to her for the first time. We were listening to the new Wu-Tang Clan album, Forever, a sprawling double-CD masterpiece, and I was bouncing from wall to wall, being a full-colour animated version of myself.

My DJ mates Jon and Dan from FC Kahuna were on tour with us, and I figured she was their friend as I couldn’t see any other connection, and we hadn’t been formally introduced. By the end of the night, after exhausting myself from all the bouncing, I thought that I would show a little more interest. It turned out that she really was Ed’s friend.

‘Hi, Tim, so what do you think of the new Wu?’

‘Pretty good. Though I think I prefer Cuban Linx.’

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is a solo album by Wu-Tang member Raekwon the Chef. I’m not sure whether I really did prefer it, but I wanted to let her know that I knew my hip-hop. She was from Atlanta and she was sporting a gold tooth, and I can be a bit like that about my music.

She didn’t seem very impressed with my hip-hop know-how, though, and launched at me with …

‘Pretty good?! Fuck you, Tim Burgess. This is kick ass!’

A year later we were married.

The second time I saw Michelle, she was with Mark. Mark was the late-nighter in the band, and like all classic rock guitarists he would set up the party in his room. Michelle’s + 1 on this occasion apparently got a little too close to Mark, and Michelle, being the protective, idealistic, Southern-girl type and all, told her friend to hightail it and leave. She was watching out for her new friend, and she knew Mark had a girlfriend and kids back home in Manchester.

Mark was in that helpless, drunken, ‘This is my room, I don’t have to go anywhere except the toilet’ state. Occasionally he would close his eyes and then next minute he would jump off the bed to change the CD. Then he would sit back down on the bed, light up a cigarette, talk a while, then nod off. Definitely not on high enough alert to work out whether he was being hit on or not.

In December 1997 we were getting ready to play the Docklands Arena. Mark told me that Michelle was on her way to see us; was trying to get to the show before we started the first song.

That evening we slept together. Not in a sexual way but in a drunken pile, three in a bed, all with our clothes on. But I must admit we were getting closer, and I did secretly wish that we could have been alone to chat. I got the feeling, though, that she didn’t want to be left alone with me.

I suppose I came across as a right suave charmer or maybe a bit of a cock. I did think I was the king of the castle that night in my hotel suite, as people who are a bit of a cock tend to do. She’d insisted that Jon Campy, one half of the Kahuna DJs, slept in my room, too; she would not be left alone with me. I guess I was a mess. And I had a girlfriend too.

Our show at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater was possibly my favourite Los Angeles gig ever. The venue is set up off the Cahuenga Pass, a natural amphitheatre surrounded by cypress trees, with roaming deer peeking over the edge when we were soundchecking. It was beautiful.

After the gig our tour manager ushered me into a little backstage room. Michelle was in there with her friend Randy Billings, part of the fabric of underground LA. I asked her whether she’d enjoyed the show. She said that the new song ‘The Blonde Waltz’ was incredible and it reminded her of Woody Guthrie.

I was in love! I was gobsmacked that she had immediately picked up that, since the last time I’d seen her, I had made the natural progression from owning over 100 Bob Dylan bootlegs to discovering and welcoming with open arms the entire back catalogue of the dustbowl blues pioneer Woody Guthrie.

I had always fantasized that one day I would entice and seduce a beautiful girl with my record collection. As a teenager I kept my records next to my bed, the most impressive ones to the front, i.e. the most obscure ones or the ones with the best sleeves. In my dreams I imagined a girl coming to my room, seeing my records, flicking through them, falling in love with my record collection and then of course falling in love with me.

Now maybe this was the girl. I was in my thirties and my musical knowledge was in my head rather than next to my bed, but still …

Once we were alone I just didn’t want to let her out of my sight. She drove us to Le Parc in West Hollywood, the gay area of Los Angeles. (The Charlatans stayed there so often that some people thought we were a gay band.)

I invited everyone to my room, the band, the crew, Jim our security guy. We all danced to The Beach Boys, drank champagne, smoked a little pot. It really was as good as it sounds. My memory whisks me right back there: the golden smog, the ocean breeze and the smell of the jasmine in the evenings underneath the red skies.

After a few hours, Michelle and I found ourselves alone again. By this point we must have been sending out clear signals, because all at once everyone seemed to look at us, smile and say goodnight.

I asked her if I could kiss her, which was pretty cheeky since I was going out with somebody back in England, but I was hypnotized, I saw a sparkle in her eye. She said yes!

At this point I am reaching for the Do Not Disturb sign to hang on the door. We won’t be down for breakfast and will catch up with you in the afternoon.

So it started with a kiss and we ended up in bed, immediately and half jokingly planning out our future. It was wonderful, though far from certain. I’d realized though that if I didn’t act this time we would probably never see each other again.

And it felt like a good thing.

Next on my agenda was a Charlatans tour of Japan, and then it was back to Manchester to break the news to my then girlfriend of two years.

It was Bob Dylan who was to soundtrack the beginning of our love. ‘Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind’ and ‘I Want You’ were the two songs in particular I remember from my first visit to see Michelle in her apartment on Lanewood Avenue. I’d been in Manchester for a week following our most successful tour of Japan yet. I called her every day while I was away and faxed her funny sketches of us holding hands and diagrams of where we were going to live.

We were always going to live in either London or Los Angeles, but in the end I figured why move Michelle to London when I was going to be constantly going on tour anyway? And she had many friends in LA.

Above her sofa in the living room of her flat she had draped a black sheet and made a black wall like a homemade indoor tent. Inside were Bob Dylan lyrics top to bottom, hundreds of them. She’d printed them all off at work and made us a lyric tepee.

She worked at the Rutter Group in the Valley, a company that supplied law books to attorneys all over the US. She would drive to the offices every day, always late, in her beat-up Mazda sports car. She drove without fear and without concern for the consequences, the fastest and scariest driver I have ever sat with. But she was alert, and strangely I always felt safe with her.

The first bar we went to after I’d arrived in LA was a place called the Lava Lounge. I walked in and was served by a guy in a Manchester United shirt. Not that unusual, I suppose, but it made me feel at home. He recognized me and told me he had once won a competition to travel with The Charlatans on our tour bus to Vegas. I remembered him then, he was paralytic and puked up in the back lounge. I had to tidy it up! Oh yes, I remembered him!

I flew back to Manchester and began working with the band on Us and Us Only, while Michelle stayed on at Lanewood. We were making the record in Middlewich, a beautiful village in Cheshire, beside a canal and not far from the Jodrell Bank radio telescope. It was to be our new base.

Us and Us Only was the first album made in our brand-new recording studio, the Big Mushroom – named on the day we found out our accountant had stolen £300,000 of the band’s money. We went to the pub across the road, where a guy went into his bag and pulled out a seriously big mushroom. Not a magic mushroom – on that day everything seemed to be particularly unmagic.