Two shows, two continents… one day.
SUNDAY 14 SEPTEMBER, 4.40am (Tony’s house, Twyford, England):
Most parts of me hurt. The sofa I slept on last night was just slightly shorter than me, and the number of hours for which I slept on it were just slightly shorter than I consider acceptable. Two, to be precise.
Roughly four hours ago I was still onstage at a gig in Southampton, UK.
This afternoon I will be onstage at a gig in New York, USA.
Two shows, two continents, one day.
This cannot be possible.
Welcome to our world.
Forty minutes later we pile into a Peugeot of limited dimensions and head for the airport. We are three and a half thousand miles away from our destination and, to be perfectly honest, the suggestion that we might make it to Heathrow, through customs, across the Atlantic Ocean, through US immigration, into a cab, across Manhattan and onstage by 3.15 this afternoon currently seems nothing less than preposterous.
Having said that, the first instalment of the journey proceeds entirely without incident. In fact, once we’ve reached the airport and are standing in line for check-in, Tony pipes up with some incredibly encouraging information regarding the remainder of our journey. “Listen boys,” he begins, in low tones, gesturing for us to move in closer as if he’s a character out of a Guy Ritchie film. “I’ve pulled some strings. I know someone on the inside. If we’re smart about it, we may just be able to blag our way into Business Class”.
My eyes light up. We’ve flown all over the world with The Lightyears but this truly would be a first. Tony reads my excitement and immediately quashes it. “Don’t get over-excited though mate. I’m not guaranteeing anything”.
I play it cool but inside I’m buzzing. Travelling in style. Chilling with the big-wigs. Pay-dirt. Retribution for that time I had to sleep on a child’s single bed under a towel on the Alps Tour listening to Tony being sick for five straight hours. Karma.
We reach the front desk. Nonchalantly, Tony whips out his passport and whispers something in the attendant’s ear.
“Well, that depends, sir,” she replies, tapping away at her computer, not looking up, “Business Class might be busy. Wait at the gate until everyone else is on the plane and then….. we’ll see.”
Oh, it’s like that is it? Hard to get? No biggie. It’s like a game of poker, this. She could be bluffing. I bet she’s bluffing.
After checking in we head to the nearest bar and order a massive fry-up and a round of lagers. Normally I don’t drink Stella Artois at 6.30am but I’m so disorientated from lack of sleep that my brain has almost no idea what time it is. Plus the combination of beer and breakfast is really sorting me out. We bide our time in the bar until our flight is about ready to board and head over to Gate #3. It’s crunch-time.
Having waited until everybody else is on the plane, we saunter over to the counter and Tony takes the lead.
“Hi, yes, we’re just waiting for our upgrade to business class,” he says, in a manner that suggests we do this all the time.
“Oooooh….kay….” muses the steward, scrutinising some presumably highly important information on her computer screen. I’m hoping this information doesn’t read: “These men still laugh at fart jokes – do not let them into business class”.
“There you go,” she says, finally, with a smile. She hands us our tickets. We stare down at them. Bingo! We’re in.
We thank her in the most aloof manner we can muster and stroll round the corner into the tunnel. Once we’re out of sight and earshot we begin our celebrations. These mostly involve running around, jumping up and down on the spot, high-fiving each other and whooping. Very childish, I know, but very necessary. This is the beginning of the rest of our lives.
Incidentally, when you follow the kind of career path we’ve chosen, people often ask you the question “What does success mean to you? How will you know when you’ve made it?”. Tony’s reply is always the same: “When I board a plane and the stewardess tells me to turn left, then I will know that I’ve made it”. I mention this here because it’s about to become acutely relevant.
As I step onto the plane (and I’m the first Lightyear on) I can’t help but remain slightly sceptical that this is actually going to happen. Then I hand my boarding pass to the stewardess. “Good morning Mr Russell,” she says, looking at my ticket and gesturing into the cabin. “Straight ahead please and then – ” (my heart stops beating as I wait for the inevitable and yet, even at this stage, still strangely unattainable words that must surely be about to fall from her immaculately glossed lips) ” – turn left”. I affect a casual demeanour. “Thank you,” I intone graciously.
Turn. Left. TURN. BLOODY. LEFT! Oh, Sweet Moses on high. This is IT. The good life. This is what it must be like to be Sir David Frost or Richard Madeley. We’re in! We’ve penetrated the inner ring. Nothing can stop us now.
So. For those of you who haven’t experienced it, let me tell you a little bit about flying business class.
I’ve been sitting in my seat for all of three minutes before an exceptionally polite lady brings me my first taste of Charles Heidsieck champagne. And the glass is actually made out of glass. I have a little rifle through the freebies in my personal drawer to discover that, unlike in the Economy cabin, you don’t just get toothpaste and a poxy fold-away toothbrush in here. Oh no. Your personal in-flight refresher kit comes complete with eye-lid rejuvenation cream, luxury pore cleanser and triple defense anti-oxidant moisturiser.
The food, of course, is exceptional – and bountiful. In fact, uncharacteristically for me, by the time we reach the main course I’m completely stuffed. Having already consumed a full English breakfast, a pint of beer, three glasses of champagne, two quails’ eggs, most of a smoked halibut served with salmon roe, three liquid salted chocolate caramel truffles, a bowl of fruit and a fresh croissant in the last couple of hours, I’m not really that hungry. Truth is, though, when someone serves you fillet steak at 30,000 feet, you pretty much have to take it.
On top of all this, the cutlery is chilled. Chilled! It’s also hewn from the finest stainless steel. None of your anti-terrorism knock-off plastic rubbish in here. It’s the real deal. Apparently overpaid investment bankers don’t pose a potential violent threat to their fellow passengers. Evidently whoever makes the decisions round here hasn’t seen American Psycho.
As I’m settling down in my tilted seat to my fourth glass of champagne in front of The Big Lebowski, I find myself reflecting on the unexpected nature of this situation. Ten years ago, if you’d told me that one day I’d be flying business class to New York on tour with my band, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. I feel quite tremendous.
I glance over at George and he beams back at me. “It’s like Christmas!” he says.
“I know,” I reply. “But with comfier seats.”
When we touch down at Newark Airport, USA, we’re ahead of schedule. It’s extraordinary. Plus, owing to the fact that our seats folded entirely flat into fully-functioning, super-soft beds, we’re all feeling refreshed from a few hours of blissful, champagne-induced sleep. US Customs and Immigration, which is generally a real pain in the bum, is also a breeze and we find ourselves standing in the concourse waiting for Ashley (our tour manager) twenty minutes early. Even our instruments all made it here without incident. We stand staring at each other in amazement, trying to figure out how things could possibly have gone so smoothly. Could disaster be waiting just around the corner…?
When Ashley arrives, we hail a cab, fill it with our unfeasibly huge amount of luggage (much to the chagrin of the taxi driver) and reflect on our position. It’s midday. We’re in New York. The sun is shining. We are on time. We are heading for Union Square where we are due to play to an audience of thousands. All the pieces of the puzzle are slowly coming together.
The cabbie drops us off at Union Square and I hand him a large amount of cash. Most of what I have, actually. He looks pleased and promises to look out for us on MTV. The heat is stifling. I feel like I’m inside a burrito. As we cross the road to Union Square, my jaw drops. There’s a big crowd milling around and the stage faces out onto a busy Manhattan intersection – this is gonna be like playing in the middle of Piccadilly Circus!
As Alabama five-piece The Bridges finish their set (excellent band, by the way), we clamber up onto the stage and begin unleashing our instruments from their various bags and flight cases. It’s round about now that we’ll discover whether or not we’ve forgotten anything, although by this point it’ll be too late if we have. Within around five minutes we’re ready to go, but George is looking concerned. As it transpires, the battery pack that powers all his effects pedals isn’t working. It simply won’t turn on. This is probably something to do with the difference between UK and USA voltage, which is all very interesting and everything but it ain’t helping us now.
“There’s only one way round this,” explains George, a detectable note of panic in his voice, “I’ll need to run them off batteries. Nine volt batteries. Anyone got any?”
The answer to that question is, of course, no. Which means that, in order for us to play the gig, George must run pell-mell through the streets of Manhattan in the hope that he can find a store that sells the batteries in question, make a purchase and sprint back to the stage within a period of around ninety seconds.
I knew it. We travel all this way, execute a meticulously planned schedule, arrive on time and still end up panicking one minute before we’re due to start the gig. It’s a Lightyears thing. That’s just what we do.
Hats off to George, he made it in record time – and in light of the intense heat this can be considered an extremely valiant effort. As Tony and I stand on stage in front of the gathering crowds, I breath a sigh of relief as I see George, tiny in the distance, ducking and diving through crowds of New Yorkers on his way back to Union Square’s South Plaza. I smile. This really is about to happen.
If you want to read about the gig, though, you’ll need to wait for Part Two.
For now, however, I will say this – two gigs, nearly four thousand miles apart, in under twenty hours. We’re like a modern day Phileas Fogg. If Phileas Fogg could rinse out a massive bass hook, that is.
Which he can’t.