handbags at dawn



"I'm tired of being a punk - a human suckfish." I chuckled. "You know about suckfish?"
She shook her head.
"They have little suction cups on their bellies," I said. "And they attach themselves to sharks - when the shark gets a big meal, the suckfish eat the leftovers.
"Hell," I added. "I'm no better. If somebody came up to me and said, 'Tell me, Mister Kemp, just what is your profession?' I'd say, 'Well, you see, I swim around in murky waters until I find something big and bad to clamp onto - a good provider, as it were, something with big teeth and a small belly.'" I laughed at her. "That's the combination a good suckfish looks for - avoid the big belly at all costs."

- The Rum Diary, Hunter S. Thompson

In mid-June, we'd played our debut gig at The Verge in Kentish Town - a genuinely fun and happy affair by all accounts. In the five weeks since, we had managed only a single rehearsal, which by all accounts had been a bit of trying affair. Our live debut at the Verge had been the indisputable peak of our time as Handbags At Dawn, and the comedown was all too apparent when we met up again to rehearse. We were proud of what we'd done, just not exactly sure how to follow it up, that was all, and our conflicting answers to this question became a source of tension.

In the meantime I threw myself into the task of promoting our next gig - the Twisted show. I spend countless hours burning new copies of our EP on my home CD-burner - each copy of the EP was individually burned, the sleeve hand-folded, and both component parts carefully eased into an awaiting plastic sleeve. We had prepared approximately 150 copies for promotion of this gig alone - each with a flyer slipped into them - and Matt and I handed them out free at gig and club events in the weeks leading up to the show.

Monday, 26th July 2004

The Monday of the week of the gig, I found myself at Matt's house, constructing a tower out of recently emptied beer cans, and working on a list of people we thought might be able, and in some cases even willing, to come to this - our second gig - at Twisted, on Friday. After much brainstorming, browsing through address books, and ensuring that each and every last potential attendee was accounted for in one of our three columns on the list, we found ourselves with around twenty "definites", fifteen "probables", and over thirty "possibles".

Some rough calculations with percentages and suchlike left us with a final estimate of thirty-two attendees. A respectable figure for any club-sized event, but still less than the thirty-five we had pulled in for our first show. Over the next four days, numbers would become our obsession as we pulled out all the stops to make one final promotional blitz to friends, friends of friends, and even people who we didn't know, who we thought might actually like our music.

Wednesday, 28th July 2004

Our second rehearsal in the six-week period between gigs was scheduled and postponed and rescheduled and finally sorted out for the evening of Wednesday the 28th, a mere two days before we would play the gig. I met up with Matt for lunch at The Bricklayers Arms where we went through our list again, modifying it where necessary, and figuring out our final strategy for our full-on promotional onslaught in the next 57 hours. The numbers had increased as a result of our campaigning since Monday, and we were now looking at a comfortable pessimistic result of 35, and, optimistically, a figure as high as 40. These numbers did still rely on hard campaigning over the next couple of days - phone calls, e-mails, internet postings - but even so, we were pretty damn confident that we would make it up to the 40 mark.

The obsession with numbers had become increasingly unhealthy. Did we really care who came, or were we just concerned with how many? What were we really trying to do here? The most cynical extreme: self-flattery.... if we're getting up on stage, we might as well make this look good... Did our friends really want to see this band? - this rock 'n roll accident? - or would they be coming along out of some warped sense of duty? Fuel for the fire of our rock 'n roll wet dream...

It's difficult to think about all this when you have to phone thirty people in succession and tell them that you would really like to see them, yes them personally at your gig. After lunch we set to work, moving things up a gear, and chasing down everyone we hadn't yet spoken directly to - more e-mails, text messages and phone calls. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we were confident we were on track for a resoundingly successful and memorable evening for everyone. All we needed now was to have a good solid practice tonight, to sort out that minor detail of getting our worryingly unrehearsed band up to scratch to live up to our own hype.


I was running a few minutes late for the 6pm rehearsal, and was coiled to dash in there and set up quickly, so as not to delay the proceedings. When I arrived, however, I was greeted with a very different scene to the one I'd expected.

Shane was sitting in a chair in the far side of the rehearsal studio, slumped forward, looking notably paler than usual. Matty was lying flat and motionless on the floor - a stark contrast to his usual 10,000-volt-Duracell-Bunny fretenicism. Matt was tuning his guitar, him the only occupant of the room who didn't look he'd just had the air stomped out of him.

"Matty's lost his job," he informed me, gesturing towards our drummer's sprawled figure.
"You're kidding," I said, genuinely shocked. "Today?"
"Monday," the figure on the floor replied, dejectedly, "They gave me a whole week's fuckin' notice."
"Jesus..." I paused, calculating this information. "Redundancy?"
Matty nodded, still staring completely into space.

Matty had worked for the marketing department of Universal Music for several months through a temping agency, a fact that we had come to take for granted, and had completely failed to use to our obvious advantage thus far.

Shane looked weary and lost in a cloud of general malaise.
"I'm going to be doing this rehearsal sitting down," he announced. "I'm still really ill at the moment,"
"Shane's been shitting blood and water lately," Matt chipped in, delightfully.
"I think I may have a virus of some sort." added Shane.

Perfect, I thought, our whole promotional machinery undermined by the very thing it's promoting. Would we be in any fit state to play a gig this Friday? Or would we be a luckluster mess of illness and shattered morale? As I would later learn, Shane had already sent a text to Matt earlier that day declaring a impending cancellation of the rehearsal and the gig. But even without that knowledge, in that moment, I still felt like the wind had been completely knocked out of me.

We soldiered on with the rehearsal, but the lack of our usual spark was evident, and we were all shocked at how rusty we had become at the songs, having not rehearsed for over three weeks. Our second run through the set was more successful - Matty had managed to banish any thoughts of impending unemployment long enough to transform back into the manic skins-abusing antipodean we all know and love - but ultimately it was clear we were still only firing on about 70% of our cylinders - and with Shane's usual acid delivery reduced to a low mumble, overall we sounded pretty daft.

Shane was feeling worse by the minute, and by our second pass at "Opinionated Blue-collar Outlook", Matt and I had comically taken over singing duties. Eventually, Shane left the rehearsal early, leaving Matt and I to practice a few of our other (non-Handbags At Dawn) numbers. We joked that if Shane didn't recover in time, the two of us would have no choice but to go out there and fill the slot somehow, but I started to wonder how much I was actually joking. Most of the songs that Matt and I had co-written were unfinished instrumentals - worthy in concept, but somehow lacking in execution. The ominous thought of Spinal Tap's "A Jazz Odyssey" loomed unshakeably in the back of my mind.

With the rehearsal time up, myself, Matt, and Matty decided to go out for a drink, along with Bobo, a friend from Oxford. The four of us ended up in a basement Soho bar called "The Friendly Social", where I switched to Scotch after I felt the beer getting too heavy. The more we drank, the more it suddenly seemed like a really good idea to both myself and Matt that the two of us should take the stage and perform our own material, in the event of Shane being too ill to perform. In fact, by the end of the evening we were almost banking on it. "Tim and Matt play extended free-jams... NAKED!" Sure, it would almost certainly tarnish the good name of Handbags At Dawn forever - but then so would a no-show. Bad publicity is better than no publicity at all - and hey, we'd make it entertaining.

It was sour humour though, and I still felt totally defeated at the thought that everything I'd done up till now would be for nothing. With less than 48 hours to go, we were going to need a serious amount of good fortune and no small helping of bravado to pull this off.

Thursday, 29th July 2004

With 35 hours to go, the promotional campaign ground to a halt. I managed to make a total of one phone call that morning, before realising I just couldn't do it - I couldn't phone up people and cheerily badger them into coming along to something that I wasn't even 50% sure was going to happen now. I felt like I'd had the wind knocked out of me. A mere five hours of drunken sleep had left me weary and aching all over. How should we play this one? How late should we leave it before we resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no gig, and that it was time to start calling everyone back to cancel? Or were we already overdue for throwing in the towel? I desperately wanted to call Shane for a health status report, but knew somehow that - barring a miraculous overnight recovery - it would be pointless and discouraging. I decided to leave that particular call 'til the evening.

In retrospect, it seems pretty cold that my concern for Shane's health was entirely hinged on how it would affect the performance. It wasn't that I just wanted Shane to be able to get on stage, I wanted him to be fit to deliver an all-out 115% performance. It was only those sacred 30 minutes which I really cared about - if we had to stretcher him in at show time, pump him full of speed so he could get up there, then stretcher him out again when we were finished, then goddammit that's what we'd have to do.

When I finally called, I was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Shane informed me he was feeling much better, and had even "passed a solid" earlier, which he was very proud of, in contrast to the "blood and water" that was coming out a mere 24 hours beforehand. I look back now and I almost forget that the vast majority of that phonecall was Shane talking about how earlier that day he'd split up with his partner, with whom he was living. It's a testament to how single-minded I had become about The Gig - that everything else that had blighted us: illness, relationship breakdowns, unemployment - all became nothing more than distracting noise.

I write this not to express regret for what I felt, or to try and elict disgust for my mindset - I write this merely to record these things so I can mull over them from a detached context: Shane had been suffering for days, and had now ended a relationship that was very important in his life. Matty was about to be unemployed, with no fall-back position. But all I could perceive, in vivid black and white, was The Gig - and the fact that Matt and I could feel confident about going back into promotional mode again, resuming our barrage of phone calls and messages.

Friday, 30th July 2004

Gig day, and I was feeling very upbeat. Unless Shane were to have a severe relapse at the 11th hour, we were 100% on for our ten o' clock slot tonight. The promotional campaign had served its purpose, and was now doing a victory roll, scraping the barrel of absurdity with its spinning wings - I had worked through every name on our list, and had now moved on to pestering people at work. They were a decent lot, but, with a few exceptions, were not generally the sort of people who you'd expect to comprise a gig audience in a low-ceilinged smokey basement club - but hell with it - they could be Robert Mugabe for all I cared, as long as they paid on the door and said they were here to see Handbags At Dawn.

I met up with Shane at lunchtime, at The Pillars of Hercules in Soho. He had regained his healthy glow, and was surprisingly upbeat, given his personal circumstances. We talked a little about the news he had told me yesterday, and then I asked him if he was looking forward to the gig. I don't actually remember his answer, but I can remember looking at him in that moment and being suddenly very aware of how different we were. Had my sheer bloody-mindedness completely removed me from the spectrum of understanding for anyone who wasn't utterly obsessed with the dynamics of playing a gig? Or had it always been like this between the two of us? Parallels - moving together in the same direction but never quite connecting.


At 6:03pm, I marched briskly out of Highbury and Islington tube station, and met Matt be the entrance of The Buffalo Bar. Luke, the promoter of Twisted, had been adamant that he wanted us here at 6pm - which for me had necessitated a mad dash from work. But aside from a few venue staff milling around inside, no-one affilated with Twisted - not Luke, nor any of the other bands - had bothered to arrive yet. Shane turned up ten minutes later with my bass amp - our contribution to the shared equipment pool. Sam, who had agreed to videotape everything for a mini-documentary production, turned up shortly - and then inexplicably sold his only spare blank tape for his camera to someone milling around the venue. Luke eventually turned up at about half past six (the time we were supposed to be soundchecking).

At this point we still trusted the little sot. It wasn't long before he was badgering us for money - 20 for use of the drumkit belonging to the headlining band, Twisted Charm - for whom Luke was conveniently also the saxophonist. We had agreed this in advance, as it was far less hassle and less expensive than hiring a whole drumkit for ourselves. Our official line had been "how about we slip your drummer 20, and use his kit?". Luke had seemingly seized upon this, and I'd received a very odd text message from him a couple of days beforehand, declaring that parts of the kit had suddenly been stolen, and that they were having to hire some of it - hinting that the agreed 20 should be given straight to him as soon as possible. In truth I don't honestly believe the drummer ever saw that money, or had even ever known that there was supposed to be any money coming his way from us, and I'm going to be sure to let him know this, the next time I see him.

As it happened, not all the drumkit was even there - some vital metal clamping pieces were missing - but, calling upon the powers of physics, Matty was able to improvise, and managed to get the kit into a playable state.

Soundcheck time, and things were starting to get silly. The soundman kept asking me where our second guitar amp was.
"Luke," I said, "Who's bringing the second guitar amp?"

Luke had been talking to one of the other bands, and came over and mumbled something along the lines of: "He says his amp is a special one that can't be used by guitars and only computers..."

I looked at him blankly, not having a clue what he was on about.
"Luke," I said calmly, "Where's our second guitar amp?"
"Well, couldn't both your guitars go through that one?" he gestured towards the lone 50 watt guitar amp on stage.

Shane started to intervene: "Why can't we use that one?"
Luke repeated the perplexing line about it being a special amp for computers only.
"Well he should have fuckin' said so!" Shane blurted out, losing his temper (Later he admitted it was his diva act, and he was putting it on. Either way, it was very effective, and had us fooled.)

There followed a period of deliberation where I grudgingly suggested going home and getting my other guitar amp, but eventually ended with us successfully persuading the owner of the sacred computer amp to let us at least try and plug a guitar into it. This worked fine, and at last the increasingly-frantic soundman was able to get us soundchecked.

"Are all your songs as good as that one?" I was asked by a member of one of the other bands, after we'd finished our soundcheck.
"I'd say some of them are even better." I grinned at him and made my way outside, to The White Swan, a Wetherspoon's pub just around the corner.

It was just after eight, giving us a couple of hours to kill before showtime. The pub turn-out was overwhelming, giving me such a boost, to the point where I felt completely wired. A great many of our friends had turned out at the pub in force, many bringing their friends too. I ordered some chicken nachos to get my energy reserves up, and lots of beer to attempt to calm me down.

And people kept arriving - friends from far and wide who'd got word of the gig through our impeccible promotional machine. Come 9pm, when I decided I should probably head to the venue, there were more people there still. Everywhere I looked - the bar, the seats, the dancefloor - the club was being taken over by our friends, people who had come out tonight to see us.

And then, from that pure, innocent, happy peak, everything plunged into total fucking dis-array.


"They have little suction cups on their bellies," I said. "And they attach themselves to sharks - when the shark gets a big meal, the suckfish eat the leftovers.

"Tim, I'm worried about Matty, right," Shane had taken me to one side, "He's getting completely fucked... I know he's taken two pills, and he's getting more and more drunk."
With almost an hour to go, this was not a good situation to find ourselves in. As far as Matty was concerned, this was his leaving do - why shouldn't he get completely out of his head on whatever drugs were taking his fancy that night? Sure, he'd have to get up on stage and bash the skins for 30 minutes, but what on earth did that mean in the grand scheme of things, to a man who had that same day been cut loose from the corporate life-line like a piece of garbage - future uncertain. Hell, if I were in his shoes, I wouldn't be letting any of this persistant noise get in the way of enjoying myself to the full.

I went over to the "backstage" area, where Matty was lounging on a sofa. I didn't really know what to say to him, and as it happened, I didn't get a chance anyway. Matty spoke first.
"Oh, apparently we're headlining now." he told me.
"WHAT?" my jaw dropped.
"The guy who runs it asked if we didn't mind headlining. Shane's cool with it too..."
"No.", I retorted, "No, no, no. We can't headline. We absolutely are not going to headline. I've got a room full of people here expecting to see us onstage around 10pm."

So I went and said exactly the same thing to Luke - firmly, but politely. I explained how we'd filled his club with our friends, many of whom would have to leave before our performance if we were to go on any later than our alloted time. But then out came the sob stories - just like the "stolen" drumkit - this time it was: "Our drummer's just had a baby and it's really sick and he really wants to leave because they don't know what's wrong with it."

It's really hard to protest: "That's not my fucking problem", after someone lays on something like that. So I didn't. Instead I talked through the time implications of headlining, and demanded a definitive answer as to what time we would be onstage if we did agree. The response was "no later than 11pm". I decided to find Matt and get him involved, as my nerves were rapidly becoming frayed. We argued and argued and argued some more, and to my eternal shame and regret - we caved, and agreed - on the condition that we would be guarenteed a 10:45pm slot, even if it meant shortening his band's set.

Then we were distracted when Matt discovered his effects pedal was missing, and when we eventually found it, it was far too late to do anything more about the vastly undesirable bill switch-around. Our good friend Daniel astutely observed that Luke was well aware that the vast majority of punters were Handbags' "fans", and the switch was quite conceivably tactical - so they could "cash in" on our success, instead of having to deal with the majority of the crowd going home after we'd played. Daniel's girlfriend Ailsa asked Luke why the bill had been changed, and received the terse, rude response: "It's my club, I'll do what I want".


It was 11:15pm, when we finally clamoured on-stage. Many of our friends had had to leave to get trains home, and more would have to do so before the performance was over. I was drunk, pissed off, and at the end of my tether. We were all a little closer to drunk than we should have been, although oddly, in spite of our earlier concerns, Matty was the most lively, and attracted squeals roars of crowd approval. Matt was again without guitar effects - the pedal had been found, but now the power supply had gone missing, and to be honest we just didn't have the energy to get stressed about it.

I guess the performance itself was the only other good memory I have of that night. Our playing was sloppy, but we were fun, and our audience were feeding off that. Everyone started really getting into it, and I threw out free CDs as an apology for the lateness of our slot. At one point I realised my lead was long enough to wander into the audience while still playing, and I did so... and then sheepishly wandered back on stage again when I realised I had no idea what I was supposed to do next. Matty seemed to be upping the tempo a bit for certain songs, as we found ourselves flailing to keep up, and all throughout there were some terrible problems with our equipment - but we soldiered through a full 8-song set (Shane had wanted to reduce it to 7, as 7 was a luckier number, but was over-ruled). Finally as the bass channel cut out completely for the nth time in the closing part of "Opinionated Blue-collar Outlook", our final song, I threw my bass down violently, dived at Matt, and knocked him flying off the side of the stage. As he valiantly dragged us both back on, I remember him saying in my ear: "I don't think we'll be invited back here."

It would have been nice to end the evening on that high note, but there was a final nail still on course for this coffin. I spent the hour or so following our performance drinking Wild Turkey and being wretched at Francis and Becky. I had had fun up there on stage, but mostly I was just glad the evening was over, and I felt like drinking myself into a stupor rather than going home. At some point I asked Matt if he could sort out the money - we were owed 40% of our door takings (for all of those who had come in with one of our flyers, or said they were here to see Handbags at Dawn). I hadn't kept count of how many people had turned up, but I knew it was in the region of around 40 (a more accurate count afterwards revealed we'd actually had a mammoth total of 49 - outstripping even our most optimistic projections). With roughly 40 people paying 5 each, the door takings for Handbags at Dawn would be 200. We were owed 40%, which of 200 would be roughly 80.

I'd like to point out here and now that making money was not ever our motivation (if it was, we weren't very good at it, as we'd spent easily in excess of 80 preparing for and promoting the gig) - but this time Shane, Matt and myself had agreed beforehand that we'd give all the money we made from the gig to Matty, as a gift to help him out now that he was unemployed and slightly panicked about the situation. We felt it was the right thing to do.

Matt returned looking serious. "You're not going to like this."
He showed me the three tattered notes. Three 5 notes.
"Fifteen quid?" I said, in utter disbelief. "You're kidding... how many people did we have?"
"He wouldn't say."

And that was it. In that moment I realised that we were the idiots. There had never been any intention of giving us a fair symbiotic deal. We had been played for fools all along. We'd worked our arses off for weeks to make this gig happen and work. We'd spent our waking hours drumming up support, painstakingly pressing up promo CDs, designing and cutting out flyers, handing them out everywhere we went... We'd overcome huge personal adversity, faced exhausting physical and emotional strain - all so we could do something we believed in, under the mistaken belief that the people we were dealing with were kindred spirits who believed in this too, and that we'd all share in the rewards.

And now there was nothing. No feeling of a job well done. Just the guilt at having let down so many of your friends who'd been dicked around all evening. And three measily 5 notes.

I felt myself standing up, and climbing on a chair... and then onto a table. I faced the DJ booth, and the thinning group of revellers milling around the dancefloor.
"LISTEN UP," I yelled, my voice already hoarse from singing earlier, but still loud enough to be heard, "NEVER COME HERE AGAIN. NEVER COME TO THIS MOTHERFUCKING CLUB AGAIN. IT'S RUN BY NAZI PIG-FUCKERS. YEAH, THAT'S RIGHT - YOU, YOU MOTHERFUCKING NAZI'S - ROT IN HELL..."

I probably could have continued for a good few minutes, but I saw a bouncer moving in. I leapt down from the table, and gestured him to stop: "It's alright! I'm in the band." I said firmly. Surprisingly, this halted him, "And I'm leaving anyway." I added.

I walked over to the stage, hauled my bass amp from the rack, turned round, and marched out of the club without looking back. Away from the twisted jumped up little shit who had managed to systematically defecate on every principle I hold dear. Away from that filthy hellhole of deceit, where they don't even sell any decent beer. Away from where we, the shark, had brought in the big meal, only to watch it devoured greedily in whole by a slimy inspid little human suckfish.

- Tim Steele 05/08/04


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