George Best, Leeds

Out of the window of my chilly room the northern winter is in full swing. It is frosty and grey, white skies I come to know later above black water, silence, crows. Condensation at the window. The leafless trees complete the emptiness. Aged 19, I am here and I am nowhere.

There’s a path to a bus stop that I walk along, underdressed and neither wholly happy or sad, relishing the rootlessness of this kind-of winter break from study. Sometimes in London, sometimes Leeds, a few days in Manchester ‘visiting’, or searching, or missing. Listening and listening. The sound of those days is George Best by The Wedding Present, a band from Leeds who’ve moved on from this moment. I haven’t and listen to it on repeat. The witty, bitter lyrics, asking and provoking, stories of lost love and confusion, girls and gossip, life in these late decades as lives by young men and women. The stories behind these songs – of love that got away, of lessons learnt harshly, advice not always taken – fitted the faces I knew in Leeds, brushed past at a bar, swapped a line of acerbic banter. Yet somehow in the cold of those days and in the determined guitar, unlike anything I’d heard before, there was and still is a stubborn celebration of the wonder of it all. I’m still not quite sure how a record can sound so cold and so warm at the same time. That’s the north for you.

A barman I worked with served up anecdotes of living with Keith, the band’s original bassist. Not exciting anecdotes at all, if I recall, but a brush with musical royalty nonetheless. George Best was chiselled into the streets of Headingley, where I lived and where the band’s contact address was. Even if I never felt at home at university and stuffed up huge parts of it I loved Leeds, and still love the north. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. The faces and the jokes. But that’s far enough into the locked bag of then. Tonight’s only a little about me, walking for miles in midwinter, so drunk I could hardly stand behind the bar as New Year was sung in all around me. Then I fell over. Triple time that night, earned and drank.

Time passed along from that winter. A year, another year, away from Leeds and on and on away from that moment in time, now too many years ago to remember more. Unlike the soap operas found in the grooves of my copy of George Best, I got married, and then had a son, and another, and a daughter, and it’s wonderful and I’m happy and lucky. I still reach for the record all the time because there isn’t anything like it and never has been and never will be. I still feel a little shiver at its opening line, still marvel at the bass lines which bounce along like a train crossing the Pennines, and most of all love David Gedge’s poetic, funny lyrics delivered urgently and as if grudgingly doing you a favour through the frosty night, because despite himself he has to. Gedge is an English voice as unique and distinctive as more celebrated artists.

That’s why I’m here tonight at the Roundhouse. I’ve seen the weddoes live before but never heard a song from George Best played on stage. I know it won’t and can’t quite be the same but this one is special. It’s not a nostalgia show, it’s different and I don’t care. The faces around me are older, like mine, lined with smiles though, hair greyer with good reason, little smiles of defiance borne from years of Shatner and Anyone Can Make a Mistake stubbornly cradled to the heart rather than whatever rubbish anyone else listened to.

I’ve come here on my own because that’s the best way. I’ve shared albums and bands with other people – best and usually with my brother and a handful of unfortunates who feel the same way – but no-one else was there and heard George Best. This one is different, beautiful and harsh and hardbitten, and it’s songs are true and there’s no way of fully explaining it. That’s why music exists.

Postscript

I spent the evening, as planned, down the front fighting the good fight, amongst a rolling, laughing singing celebration. The Wedding Present don’t do encores, but they finished with Kennedy, like something from a dream. I’d waited over 20 years to hear it live and by the time it came round my body couldn’t quite make it over the line to the end of the wig at the end, and my ankle turned over after maybe the thousandth pogo of the night. I hobbled out of the moshpit still grinning widely and then off into the night.

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