Sam Herlihy Of The Northwestern: Memories Of A Closet Fat Kid
, April 30th, 2010 09:33
In this month's column, Sam Herlihy explains why it's the rumblings of his gut that bring back the memories. Photograph by Barney Britton www.photoinsensitive.com
My memory is pretty sketchy. I remember bits and pieces of things. Often these memories are back to front, exaggerated, untrue or imagined. I was half considering writing a book about my time in a band until I realized that I remember totally random bits of it. I couldn't tell you with any veracity about headlining shows or the process of recording albums but I could recite to you word for word the conversation I had with Bryan Ferry in a toilet in New York, exactly how bad I felt lugging a flight case up a sweltering hill in Madrid to play some radio session or what microphone we used on the celeste on the second record. I have no idea how we were introduced on Top Of The Pops (Though: "Here's a bunch of incredibly drunk and incredibly scared kids about to play the most shambolic TOTP performance of all time" would have been fitting) or what I wore for our first NME photo shoot. I do remember what I ate in Madrid though: bad ass tapas. Before bumping into Bryan Ferry, overpriced, dry burger and crap chips and prior to our TOTP performance, JD and cokes. Obviously I am a closet fat kid, desperately trying to hold on to my memories via my stomach. True to the magpie nature of my memory and its links to meals past, this column is a hungry ghost. If it flits and alights only fleetingly on fact, so be it, there is truth in my omissions, forgetfulness and tall tales.
I wanted to make happy at the start of this third installment. But then I just read that some corporate scum baws are trying to phase out Ronald McDonald! They have already sacked Mayor McCheese, for embezzlement and vote rigging. Come on! You didn't think the good citizens of McDonald Land voted him in nonstop for thirty years? The Hamburgler got the boot for being a thief, predictably. Then they fired Grimace when someone finally asked just what was it a giant purple blob was supposed to represent on the menu?
Now that camp and scary, as all clowns must be, beacon to fat dumb kids everywhere is being shuffled off along with The FryKids and the seriously offensive St Patrick's day burger icon who's name, Paddy MacSpudublin probably, I have misplaced. These idiots want rid of Ronald because they are convinced that he tempts kids into McDonalds and therefore into an early fatty's grave.
If your kid is genuinely likely to be duped and led astray by a horrific giggling clown, you have a whole lot of far worse things to worry about than your little angel's impending obesity and fuzzy heart valves.
A few months ago The Kid was invited to one of her friend's houses for a Saturday playdate. The kid's mum asked if it was cool to take The Kid to McDonalds. We said "Fine, no problem". Then we panicked. Despite this making us sound like surely the most upper-middle class snobfest twits since Sting Styler, the truth is The Kid had never been to McDonalds in her entire life.
I can assure you all that while we may not be coalminers, bingo players, football hooligan organisers, tracksuit donners, weekly Doner eaters, or Asbo'ed probation tag owners we are also not management consultants, rugby players, Neighbourhood watch organisers, Boden catalogue clothing donners, blood doners or Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty/Blue Heritage Plaque homeowners. We had just never taken The Kid to the Golden Arches. She doesn't like chips and has never been a huge fan of burgers. Also ever since I once got (falsely, dammit!) "spotted" in the pages of the NME coming out of McD's I have tended to shamefully refrain in attempt to maintain some mystique and my svelte physique. However, we didn't want The Kid to end up like a pathetic Charlie Bucket/Rainman cross, babbling incoherantly and uncomprehendingly at Happy Meals and McFlurries. We didn't want her to freak out when bombarded with images of giant four story tall burgers, the smell of chip fat and "Special Big Mac Sauce". We owed it to The Kid to give her some proper McD's knowledge before sending her off into the maw.
We knew the clown would freak her out so we gave her a heads up on that Sunshine 'N Blood terrorhawk. We clued her in on the menu items and what a Happy Meal was. She decided to go with the Nuggets. She wasn't up for giving the sweet mustard dip a go which I informed her was an error as it's truly God's Sauce, but she was set.
I have fast food memories from an early age. One of the strongest is that of the weirdo allergy kids at a friend's McDonalds birthday party. Nineteen eighty something, a fibreglass and asbestos cartoon pirate ship, Bognor Regis town center. Ten kids inhaling Happy Meals, two ill looking outcasts eating sad jam sandwiches made by their hippy mother. The pleading in their malnourished eyes is burned on my memory. Poor buggers probably had to eat Laura Ashley floral print "throws" and organic wicker for dinner every night while listening to their hairy, woven mother spout on about South African bananas and Bob Geldof's magnestism.
I have no urge to fill my children's blood and organs with lard and BBQ sauce. I do, however, owe them the chance to make their own food memories from both "good" and "bad" food. A kid without fast food memories grows up to be a politician, a hippy, a student activist or some vile hellboil mix of all of the above. So back to Bob Geldof.
The Kid survived her trip into the Golden Arches intact. She dug the nuggets but doesn't spend every Saturday whining for a drive thru run. Hopefully she'll grow up to be a happy, healthy and well adjusted member of society, hating yobs, snobs, hippies and Bob Geldof equally.
So the McD's outcasts were sad but for real sad, Mark Linkous died. The news took me straight back to lemonade floats and salted popcorn. The first time I heard Sparklehorse was in the car after my Ma had picked me up from my best friend's house. "GoodMorningSpider" will forever be linked in my head to the queasy but happy feeling after a pint of lemonade float (supermarket brand lemonade with supermarket brand Cornish ice cream) and a bowl of super salty microwave popcorn. To this day when I walk into a cinema, the smell of popcorn brings Sparklehorse songs drifting by. Mark Linkous wrote some of my favorite songs ever and although I can't stand salted popcorn these days, prefer a coke to a lemonade float and don't get picked up anymore by my Ma from friends houses; having this physical, gut connection to those songs always keeps them special to me. I'm sure I'll be an old git sucking food down a tube at the OAP's matinee cinema club and the smell of popcorn will spark a few tired neurons into a verse or two of "Painbirds". Probably as I gum an oxygen mask while a faded print of Avatar ("They just don't make 'em like they used to!") unspools in front of my half seeing rheumy eyes.
Anyway enough with the sadness and roll up for the reality of most of my musical food memories!: Being in a band.
Before we got signed we were wined and dined by a number of labels. Bizarrely they all seemed quite happy to throw a load of coin at a bunch of postrawkin' idiots from Chichester. We took full advantage of these meal tickets. Some worked out better than others.
One of the first took place in one of London's (allegedly) best Thai restaurants. The place looked like the original Pirates Of The Caribean Ride at Disneyland. There was a palm fringed stream trickling through the middle of the restaurant. Also, and there's every possibility I've imagined this entirely, there were animatronic Thai peasants in the jungle undergrowth. If not peasants then maybe some Vietcong who got lost somewhere west of Hanoi. Whatever, there were definitely some sort of animatronic dudes in the woods.
This was weird. The fact that my manager, who was a big fan of the place, had convinced me that Pad Thai was the best dish invented by mankind, was even weirder. There's some damn fine Thai tucker to eat for sure but I'm yet to eat a Pad Thai that doesn't taste of wet noodles with peanut butter. Things continued on this weird trip upriver when the head of the MajorRecordCompany we were dining with informed me, entirely without doubt, that he could fly. The reason we should sign away our musical endevours for a hundred years and a fair few barrels of cash, was that this man believed he was so all powerful that when he woke up in the morning and looked out the window, he could fly. If he wanted to. As I mulched through the shitty over priced noodles, I pondered this and begged to differ, but only silently in my own head. I figured if this bloke could fly, he could probably easily unleash the animatronic hordes lurking in the undergrowth. I didn't fancy ten years hard labour in an animatronic POW camp in the depths of a Thai restaurant in Fulham. I kept quiet and made the right noises: "mmmmm" for the awful food and "mmmmm" for all his lovely money.
Having not signed to the aforementioned fellow's label, we signed to a different one. This one spent a fortune on cocktails, awesome Italian food and the most expensive and awful hotel breakfast I've ever had. I'm sure it must be better now but for 50 odd quid the breakfast at The Metropolitan Hotel was a truly disgusting disaster. It tasted of aluminium and cocaine. We didn't care though, we'd just signed a record deal! Now though, I'm livid it was so bad. I should have read the small print, those bloody breakfasts would take about two thousand record sales to pay back.
We were then shipped off to Japan to play some shows.
We didn't get off on the right foot with our label hosts in Tokyo. The previous British act from our label had been a bunch of Marmite and baked bean home goods shippers. They had refused all offers of meals in local restaurants or invites to sample local delicacies. This was I imagine entirely expected but still pretty offensive to the label folks. We were different, we wanted it all. I wanted Fugu and Ramen, yakitori and shabu-shabu. We wanted to eat squeakingly fresh sushi and fifty types of radish. We wanted to rock Japan hard too of course, but if we could eat well while doing it, all the better. The girl from the label who was looking after us thought we were taking the piss. She thought every time we asked to go: "Where you would go" or "For Korean Barbeque" or "To eat that blowfish that might kill us slowly and painfully" we were mocking her and her culinary culture. We weren't mocking her. Those dumbass ignorant Scousers who came before us had just turned her against all scruffy British bands. She assumed we had arrived laden with stashes of Heinz and Findus treats. She also did a pretty good job of appearing to hate my guts. To be fair to her, my attempt at a discussion about why an incredibly advanced, logical and ordered race of people would have decided thousands of years ago to eat tiny grains of rice with two sticks, could possibly have offended. I genuinely meant no offence and I still stand by the basic physics point of view that two sticks ain't the best tool for the job, no matter how good your skills. After a week or so she did eventually realise that we weren't (entirely) a bunch of ignorant scumbags. She took us to a couple of amazing shabu-shabu places where you cooked meat, fish and vegetables in a bubbling cauldron of stock at your table before eating the broth at the end. We had one of my favorite meals of all time at a Korean BBQ place ten stories up a skyscraper. The BBQ tripe didn't go down well with Ant from the band after we conned him into eating it by telling him it was squid. (Sorry Ant) Watching him desperately trying to gnaw through the chewy guts, high on sake on the set of Bladerunner was a magical moment.
Paul and I sat in an insanely busy Ramen place packed in with businessmen on their lunch breaks. It took us an hour to work up the courage to go and take a seat but when we did we had the best Ramen ever. He tipped a hundred quid or so accidentally and the chef came screaming up the street after us to hand the note back.
We hit Mossburger regularly. The Japanese equivelent of McDonalds as fair as we could tell, whose chicken burgers were awesome and whose bolognese burgers were not. We ate Bento boxes on the Bullet train and drank ice cold beers out of vending machines on the streets at four AM while getting tattoos.
While in Osaka I was invited out for sushi by the egomanical lead singer of a popular indie rock band and his road crew. I had never actually been a huge sushi fan but figured that Japan was the place to do it right. I was in, in a big way. We went to a pretty high end but homely little sushi bar. There was a wooden bar topped with a giant tank of fish, molluscs, seaweeds and anything else that rolls underwater. What followed was basically a sushi war, a sushi face off, a no-holds barred rawfishfest. The aforementioned egomaniac singer was the most competitive dude I have ever met in my life. After informing me that he was a raw seafood connoisseur of the highest standing and throwing a fair whack of withering disdain at me for my lack of sushi chops, he proceeded to order bite after bite from the tank. We started with some pretty standard fish sashimi, some scallops, clams and the like. After glaring at me as he saw that I was loving all of it, Lonnie Donegan (we'll call him from now on) decided to up the stakes with some sea snail action. I dig their land brethren so saw no problem with munching these aquatic versions. Lonnie was a bit put out by this so again he attempted to raise the bar. Trying to muscle me out of this rawbar clash of the titans he had invented entirely in his own head, he asked the guy behind the bar for the furry Sea Cucumber mooching along the sediment at the base of the tank. The chef raised his eyebrows, the Sea Cucumber kept mooching, Lonnie slyly grinned at me sensing victory in this ridiculous farce of a battle, Donegan's road crew feigned choking throats and vomit actions at me, Chef's assistant looked disdainfully at these Sake ruined and raw fish stuffed idiots in skinny jeans, Lonnie's bass player made wanker signs behind his singer's head. Chef hacked the thing expertly into pieces and delivered a few slivers to a dish in front of us. Eye to eye we ate the thing. It was pretty bland and a bit gloopy. It was exactly how you imagine a Sea Cucumber would taste. It was fine. Lonnie Donegan retched a bit but kept it down. He was gutted he hadn't defeated me. Later he beat me at a dog walking arcade game on which I pretty much passed out. Lonnie Donegan had finally tasted victory.
Onwards to the United States Of America! Our American tours rarely reached any culinary heights. We were too busy arguing and drinking to focus on gastronomic epiphanies. In Los Angeles we ate In 'n Out burgers which were as amazing as we had been led to believe. We ate vile chicken wings in a frat boy bar with a hydraulic bucking bronco in the middle of the room. Our manager drank too many crappy cocktails and saddled up only to be flung off in seconds. His giant Prada be-jeaned legs swung round and clocked a drunken sorority girl square in the face. We left and ate more vile chicken wings in a baseball bar next to the home ground/pitch/stadium (whatever you call the place where fat men chewing gum play rounders for six hours in front of other fat men chewing hot dogs) of the San Francisco Giants. We got called faggots there and we got called faggots in Mesquite, Nevada too.
In Mesquite we stayed at a casino complex in the middle of the desert. Our bus driver was an ex cop from Mississippi who always managed to wangle a day or two for gambling in the midst of any of the tours he took on. This is how we ended up having to waste two days in the middle of nowhere. Simon and I woke first after we arrived and we decided to go for breakfast. We correctly assumed there would be a gargantuan buffet at which you could help yourself to heart attacks, coronary embolisms, botulism, arterial furring and crappy, overly sweet, overcooked American bacon. As we staggered from the bus through the insane heat to the air conditioned casino I caught sight of Simon's attire. My heart sank.
Now, I thought the dude looked cool but I knew that the denizens of this sort of hard gamblin' shithole in the desert might think differently. A spray on skintight wardrobe of pink tshirt and stonewash jeans combined with winklepickers and a white stetson was not Mesquite Nevada's "key" look of the season. The blokes in the casino were either dressed as cowboys, convicts or date rapists. The women were rocking plenty of stonewash but this was top to toe stonewash and (praise the Lord) none of it was skintight. There were sails of the stuff draped over breasts and guts and thighs and bellies and probably hoods, pointy hoods... with little eye holes over little sunburned piggy heads too. I don't recall what I was wearing but I know it involved ripped, quite possibly semi-crotchless jeans held together with gaffa tape and scrawled over with sharpie markers and also some Bono style bug eye sunglasses. We were rocking a strong look for sure which definitely yelled out "Stand aside foul uneducated racist scum! Englishmen are here! Bow before their finery!" but as we neared the door and watched a jelly wave of denim encased lard part to let us peacocks through, I was pretty nervous. Within seconds of the doors swooshing shut behind us I realised our sartorial choices were without doubt, a major error in judgement. "Fuckin' faggots!" "Fags!!" "Lookey here at these here faggots!" "Fuckin' faggots!"
The most flat out cliched, stereotypical Deliverance style hick slight of all time had been aimed in our direction.
The fact that these dust blooded, inbred, desert scuttling, Coors Lite soaked defective scum had lived down so completely to my expectations was actually vaguely funny. Also I was starving and I wasn't going to let a few ripe words from the cousin lovers scare me off from the buffet action.
"Jesus! Are you kidding me?" I spat in the direction of most of the insult hurlers. Most of the trappy, backwoods, gasoline sniffing, meth head, bail-jumping wife-beaters turned back to their video poker. One craggy old racist, Ole Dixie loving, Old Man River, Oldsmobile....(I'm out of "old" American themed insults) grandpaw type pondered my question. Through whiskey wrecked eyes he looked Simon and I up and down. (This may not have happened, but It's building narrative tension, no?) He spat an arcing stream of tobacco on the casino carpet between us (This definitely didn't happen but it makes this sound fair more tense and filmic, yes?) He rifled through what remained of the two brain cells his momma had slugged him into the world with. Probably on the backseat of a burnt out car, in a forest or more likely perhaps on the dirt floor of a tin shack in a forest, full of dead trees and wild dogs... and Ku Klux Clan meetings and survivalist canned goods stashes. A place called Hateful Hollow or Balls River or Ass-End.
He staggered through his memories trying to find a witty retort or some more cutting insults. All he found in the rusted, busted flush of his skull were images of violence, moonshine, dead frogs and skinned rabbits, stupidity, cruelty, cousins, his nose crumpling under his father's alky raging, jaundiced fist...(The last bit gives more of a balanced view of the chap and his, entirely imagined and based on nothing but stereotypes and Cormac McCarthy novels, troubled life, no?)
From somewhere in these murky depths came pure genius. An insult from a better place. A hosanna of slagging perfection. I wanted to buy the old soak a drink. I wanted him to win big that day in the casino. To go on and buy a bigger shack for his eleven relation-birthed kids. To finally be able to afford an M16 fully automatic ground assault rifle, "fur purteckshun 'gainst the guvurnment". The man deserved all of this and more in my eyes for the sheer poetry of his retort. On hearing my reply to his first taunt, he made a miracle addition. He said: "Fuckin' LIMEY faggots!" And turned away.
We hit the buffet hard. It was lush but the bacon sucked as it does everywhere in America.
Food is sometimes a little kick in the direction of something I forgot. Sometimes it's a nudge in the brain to something I would rather forget. It's the physical reaction of tasting something that paints a memory in far more vivid, visceral colours. It keeps events and people from years ago, around. Old friends, failures, triumphs and family departed can rattle around my skull forever.
My most personal memories I have managed to hold on to, I have kept to myself in this little screed, but these are some of the foods which keep them tethered to me, hopefully forever:
Marmite on toast
Cold chicken korma
Liquorice flavored canned medicine
Spaghetti and spicy sausage
Jolly Rancher sweets