But there I was, standing out in my sensible haircut/colour and ordinary blue jeans that were younger than I was. I was older than I was, according to everyone, including a sixty-something couple who used to laugh at me when we met in a local shop. “Oh, when will you open your miiiiind…?” they used to trill, casually waving their Cutter’s Choice and hash leaf lighters. It took me a while to realise it wasn’t all an elaborate joke, and I just smiled a knowing smile at them. I know how it sounds, but there was absolutely no irony to it at all, I promise.
Needless to say, I hated them.
Still, being there, writing for “provocative” features and reviews for my uber-cool contemporary music magazine, I felt like an anthropologist, reporting back to the cool metropolitan types I imagined read my pieces about “local” bands. (Most were actually based in Bristol, a place I frequently wondered why I didn’t live myself.)
At first glance, the (genuinely) local band Flower Friends seemed intrinsically Glastonburian, like they couldn’t possible exist, or be liked, anywhere else or at any other time. The name alone was enough to make me cringe with self-conscious pity: what the fuck were they thinking? Was this San Francisco, 1966? It was like the intervening years just hadn’t happened.
They had, though, of course. Which is worth considering before we all join the bandwagon of hating what we were like all those years ago, when we were young. All the sneering and hipper-than-thou posturing of my university-educated contemporaries: we were just insulating ourselves from all the disillusionment and bullshit our parents had to contend with. Or caused us.
So, at a time when most small bands seemed so aloof and snooty about commercial success that paid gigs were deemed a sell-out, when lyrics were ironic and esoteric, and the commercial scene was dominated by balls-out, irony-free (although apparently the thing to do was like them ironically) bog-standard rock n roll (of the very worst, most banal kind), Flower Friends were a breath of fresh air.
Naturally, my London friends were sceptical; nothing provokes a cynical, disillusioned reaction in the cynically disillusioned like questioning their cynical disillusionment. Flower Friends didn’t cure me of my scepticism or cynicism; I cringed whenever I repeated their name, and avoided the embarrassment as far as possible.
(A typical exchange with my editor:
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Going to see a local band”
“Oh right, some hippy shit?”
“Well, yeah, sort of, but….they’re actually really good. Honestly.”
“Oh yeah, what are they called?”
“They’re kind of like a psych-folk, weirder version of Crosby Stills and Nash but with a real exuberant, unapologetically trad, scratchy jumper kind of air. They’re just so painfully honest and un-self-conscious.”
“Yeah, sounds like hippy shit. What’s the name, will I know of them?”
But the fact remains: this band saved my life.
Looking back at what I wrote about them at the time, the phrase “disarmingly honest” comes up more than once. Perhaps I was disarmed because I was ready to not like them, ready to scoff and raise a cynical eyebrow like many of my contemporary critics did (the very few that had even heard of them).
In one review, I wrote “Like Belle & Sebastian, you barely notice how twee they are, because the songs are so good and they’re such likeable people.”
At my best guess, they wrote at least two songs about me. The first was called Straight Man, and was a gently mocking invitation to join their “free” lifestyle. They never recorded it, and I can’t remember much about the tune itself now. But Winnet, the bass player, smiled so indulgently at me while they were playing it, I couldn’t help but believe I was the eponymous Straight Man. At first I thought it was a reverse prejudice type of thing, the hippies eyeing me in the detached, wary way I did them.
The song mentioned Camus as “a goalkeeper and a thinker”, which is something I’d said to the singer, Holly, as a kind of self-conscious joke one time.
The second was definitely about me, according to Holly. It was sort of a love song, the way I heard it at the time, but listening to it recently I’ve realised I heard what I wanted to hear. I imagined that Holly and I would live together in a kooky flat in town and she would open me up to a world of possibility and I would never have to pretend to be cool again. I would manage the band, delivering them the commercial success they seemed genuinely indifferent about (as opposed to all the bands that tried to affect indifference about it), without ever diluting their beauty, their realness….I was dimly aware, even at the time, of what a ridiculous fantasy this was.
I didn’t fit in with these people any more than I had with the cool kids in London (funny enough, The Cool Kids were a London band I quite liked, but despite their great name, they never had anything like that impact on me.)
Needless to say, I loved them.
Far from needing me to guide them through a murky world of bullshit magazines, heavy irony, raised eyebrows and slick advertising, I needed Holly and her band to re-introduce me to decent society after a couple of years of gazing at my navel, wondering why I couldn’t connect with anyone.
I watched them at least thirty times in eighteen months, including twice at the big festival named after the town that had drawn me there in the first place. I couldn’t get enough; their music nourished me, their unabashed optimism and simplicity was cleansing. Obviously, it became an obsession, and as fantasy blurred with reality in my addled mind, I turned up at one of their rhearsals and blurted out my idea about managing the band. They declined so politely, so warmly and with such disgustingly gentle language, I pitied myself more than they could have.
After that, the band (and especially Holly) started to distance themselves from me – subtly but noticeably. I stopped hanging out with them, but still went to the gigs.
Like everything about my life of the time, it took a while to get over it. I left to go back to London, but it was never the same; I actually enjoyed it for a while, it was like seeing it with fresh eyes, and I as able to laugh at the artificial ponciness of the crowd around me. But I knew I didn’t belong there. I got out at just the right time, managing to avoid the worst excesses of the hipper-than-thou arse end of the London magazine scene.
I haven’t seen any of Flower Friends for years, I’ve no idea if they’re still going.
Still, they could probably tell the story much better than I could. As they sang in Straight Man:
“It’s OK to feel sad and jaded all the time,
But it’s not that much fun –
Unless it is, in which case:
Goodnight and Good Luck.
A story doesn’t need to mean anything,
But it’s a better story if it does.
So if this story has no meaning,
Feel free to make one up.”