Why don’t we speak to whatsizname?
We’d first bumped into Withnail in WaxWerks, the local independent record shop. We’d noticed him expertly rifling through the latest Happy Hardcore and Ibiza twelve inches, pulling out every third or fourth copy for a brief scan of the title then discarding it back into place equally as deftly. I squinted through half-open eyes, wondering if it might actually be Richard E. Grant himself flicking record sleeves with the same frantic finger speed as a court stenographer. Tall, with collar length, wavy dark hair swept back over a high forehead, he wore tatty grey overcoat, unbuttoned to reveal army green combat shorts, brown sandals, and an orange tee shirt emblazoned with Stereolab on the chest. Wound around his wrists were a variety of nightclub and festival straps and he had a battered CD Walkman protruding out of his coat pocket, earphones dangling by his side.
Millie had casually strolled up to the section next to Dance – 80’s re-mixes – and was scrutinizing a tatty copy of Duran Duran’s ‘night version’ of Planet Earth. It might have been the record or it may have been Millie’s presence but something distracted Withnail from his rummaging.
‘Fabulous mix that,’ he said, wagging a bony finger at the sleeve. ‘Oh, and good for Linn Drum samples.’
‘Pardon?’ said Millie, good for what?’
‘Linn Drum samples,’ he repeated.
‘You know, Millie,’ I butted in. ‘Synth drums. As heard on every record made in the 80’s.’
‘And a few made by Hair Metal bands in the 90’s too!’ added the tall stranger.
Millie laughed and nodded in agreement.
‘I’m sorry,’ the man said, ‘I didn’t introduce myself. My name’s Michael. Michael Wardle but people round here refer to me as Withnail. Can’t think why?’
I looked into his haunted, ghostly eyes and new he was speaking the truth. He really couldn’t fathom it out. Unlike people who desperately tried to act or dress like someone famous, this Withnail character just dressed as he did because presumably that’s how he ended up looking when he rolled out of bed and into his clothes.
‘Are you two musicians?’ he continued. ‘You come across like you are, the young lady here in particular.’
Millie was naturally flattered and to be honest I wasn’t bothered that much by his preference to her. After all, she was the face of the band as well as the voice. I just plonked away on keyboards and tried not to be resentful of the looks male members of our audience were giving my girlfriend.
‘We are, as it happens,’ she replied. ‘Well, trying to be. We’ve never been paid yet.’
‘Ah, I thought so,’ smirked Withnail, tapping his nose. ‘You’ve got a good look, you know. Got any demos?’
‘Lesson number one,’ beamed Millie, delving into her bag. ‘Always carry a demo.’
‘Yep,’ I added. ‘You never know who you might meet?’
‘Very true,’ Withnail nodded, wisely. ‘After all, I myself just might be a big record company executive in disguise!’
‘Are you?’ squealed Millie, in excitement, handing him a cd.
‘Sadly no,’ he laughed, peering at the disc, ‘but I do know one or two people who know one or two people who might be able to help you. If your demo’s any good, that is.’
‘Well of course they’re just rough sketches,’ I began, just recorded on a …’
Withnail shook his head and put his finger to his lips.
‘Shhhhh. Let the music speak for itself,’ he murmured, flipping up the lid of his Walkman, inserting our cd and wiggling his headphones into place.
He pressed play and closed his eyes, his poker face giving away nothing at all. All we could hear was the tck tck tck tiss tiss of the track and exchanged nervous glances.
‘Mmmmm, good vocal,’ Withnail mumbled, his head swaying slightly from side to side.
Millie nudged me, her face breaking slowly into a smile.
‘Yep, nice chorus, bass could do a bit more, harmonies, yes …’ he continued, before yanking out his headphones and shaking his mane of dark hair.
Neither of us spoke but both raised our eyebrows inquisitively.
‘Not bad, not bad at all. You’ve a lovely voice,’ he added, turning to Millie, who blushed with pride.
‘What d’you reckon then?’ she asked. ‘Can you help at all?’
Withnail rubbed his chin and breathed deeply.
‘Fancy a drink?’ he said, ‘let’s talk things over in the pub.’
Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps please!!!
It was here that we first became aware of Withnail’s incredible philanthropy and generosity. He insisted on buying every round of drinks and when we’d talked for hours and grown hungry he stood us for Chinese food on the way home.
That afternoon and evening we chatted incessantly, instantly finding we had a rapport in more things than just a love for music. We told him about ourselves and our trials and tribulations with musicians, producers and industry moguls. I told him of my obsession with 60’s black and white movies and Millie admitted she’d once been to a Levellers’ concert, something she deeply regretted now. I told him all about the time I ended up sharing a stage with Chas and Dave while Millie revealed her secret desire to appear in an episode of EastEnders, playing the part of a someone who goes up to Ian Beale and asks him if he ever fancied taking acting lessons.
Despite our experiences in the music business leading us to conclude that we should trust no one we opened up our hearts to this kind-faced stranger. At the time we ran into Withnail we’d just been through a rather painful episode with a management company who’d not only left us up shit creek without a paddle but stranded on a particularly sticky mud bank too. Our band, such as it was, was barely speaking to each other. We’d tried desperately to revive interest in the group by arranging rehearsals and recording new demos, but six months had passed with little progress. It was after yet another disastrous practice session that our guitarist had stormed out early, leaving Millie and I idly killing time in WaxWerks. I didn’t believe in Karma, but maybe Withnail was beginning to convert me.
He never told us what he did on that first meeting, apart from a few references to his contacts in the entertainments world, but somehow we felt we could trust him. We could see in his dark, grey eyes that he meant every word he said. He had an aura of confidence and assurance, without seeming cocky or arrogant, and he never let us down. I wished I could have said the same about Joe Matthews.
Help me if you can I’m feeling down …
Initially, Withnail passed our demos around to a few producers he knew, all the time warning, “beware the bastards!” Most said they liked what they heard, but were too busy in other projects to help right away. He introduced us to various friends and contacts, all desperately following the same route as us – carefully navigating their way in the treacherous waters of the music industry. We made friends with other musicians, up-and-coming programmers, gig promoters, DJs and wheeler-dealer types always on the look out for a half-decent band. In the end, although everybody seemed keen to help out, the general consensus was ‘look after number one’. More to the point, it always seemed to boil down to money – or rather a lack of it. No one had any to spend on recording studios or rehearsal time or photo shoots, so we resorted to scavenging around, looking for the next favour. We became masters in the art of ‘blagging’ – forever promising that when we sign the Big Deal, that person would be first in the queue for the large money handout. But the Big Deal never came our way. To his credit, Withnail persisted, and eventually one of our demos ended up on a desk of a management company that looked after various producers and record engineers. One of these producers was Joe.