Elvis Costello comes over to our table, “Pete. We’re on.” Pete Thomas and I were at school together, along with Andrew Ranken from The Pogues. We all grew up to be drummers. “Zildjians,” he says as he steps on to the stage at The Three Famous Kings and counts the band into ‘Watching The Detectives’. I’m amazed that he can play in those black winkle-picker shoes. I’ve been studying drum stool posture, stick control and foot pedal etiquette. I always play in tightly laced up Stan Smiths. He attacks his kit like he’s cranking up a piece of old farm equipment with rusty hammers and boy does he make those drums sing. In five minutes I’ve learned more than I learned in two years but it takes me four decades to understand what he’s really doing, courtesy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. With no warm-up at all he goes straight to the intersection of discipline and surrender. Flow is found there. Some of us call it the groove.
I can’t afford Zildjians so I use old film canisters as cymbals. It fits Scritti Politti’s DIY ethic. And aesthetic. ‘Messthetic’ in fact, we write a song about it.
About a hundred years later, having got to know Steve Nieve while working on the soundtrack for the movie Absolute Beginners in London, there are six of us gathered around a piano in Manhattan. It’s 2am and the concierge has unlocked the grand in the hotel bar. Elvis, Pete and Bruce have gone their separate ways after the Radio City gig earlier but Steve, as always, is keen to keep playing. All of us in his mini-entourage know that we are in the presence of genius. Steve is like a human juke box but way beyond just knowing the chords, he immediately summons the emotion and the essence of any song we suggest, from Abba to Zappa. He’s in the groove.
I’m asked on a date by someone I’m leaning on the piano with. “How about Pier 15?” I say as her cab whisks her away. “8 o’clock”.
So here I am. Pier 15 black tie. I’m chilling a bottle of champagne in the East River, having lowered it into the water on a red ribbon ten minutes ago. Two glasses in my hand and Elvis’s ‘Alison’ playing in my heart. That’s her name, coincidentally. Is my aim true? True enough for NYC on a crisp night.
Across the river there’s a big red digital clock alongside a digital thermometer on top of an industrial tower. As time passes, digit by digit, the temperature drops, digit by digit. There are no mobile phones. At 8.45 I walk back to shore and call her from a payphone. “I’ve just got in” she says, “Pier 16, the bar. I waited for ages but I was getting hassled so I left. Where are you?”
“Pier 15” I say, “Like we said.”
“But there’s nothing there” she replies.
This was 35 years ago but I’m confident some romantic couple will have been alone at the end of Pier 15 listening to the music from pier 16 and thinking, “D’you know what would make this moment just perfect?”. And they might just have pulled on that red ribbon.
Did they open the champagne and drink a toast to Cupid? Is that what’s there, a first-date memory? Don’t ask me, I’m not a detective, I’m just a drummer.