Sunday, 8 November 2009

Middle-aged men in pubs

A couple of weeks ago, after watching Watford beat Sheffield Wednesday 4-1, I passed the One Bell pub on the High Street on my way back to Watford Junction station. From inside came the unmistakeable sound of a 12-bar boogie, and looking through the window I saw a bunch of middle-aged men – guitar, bass, drums – playing to a small crowd of drinkers. If I hadn’t had a train to catch, I’d have gone inside to listen myself. Because, in an alternative universe, that group could well have been The Hornets – the fictional band in First Time I Met The Blues.

The phenomenon of middle-aged men playing blues in pubs was one of my key inspirations for the novel. In my twenties, I often found myself in pubs where a band was performing classics from the Chicago blues repertoire – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and the rest – and I couldn’t help noticing that the musicians were never in the first flush of youth. It was the hair that gave it away, mostly: either disappearing fast, or inappropriately long, and occasionally both at once.

So I started to wonder where these middle-aged blokes had come from. Had they always played the blues? Had they, perhaps, tasted success when they were younger? Was this what they expected to be doing in their forties and fifties?

From there, it was a relatively short step to inventing a fictional blues band and creating a back story for them; working all the way back to when they were teenagers falling in love with the music, then giving them a glimpse of success and seeing how they coped when things didn’t turn out the way they’d anticipated. After all, for every Eric Clapton or Mick Fleetwood, who used the British Blues Boom of the 1960s as a stepping stone to a life of limos and leggy blondes, there must have been dozens of blues musicians who didn’t become rich and famous. First Time I Met The Blues tells the story of three of them.

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