Alex Grech's blog

Sunday, May 14, 2006

All revved up and no place to go

Things have a habit of happening when you're out of the way on holiday, blissfully incommunicado with no email or internet. In September last year, while I was contemplating a five-course feast in Chiaramonte Gulfi in Sicily, the Depeche Mode concert in Milan sold out in five minutes. A second date was added the next day, and that sold out in just over half an hour.

I tried to convince myself this was fate. I mean, I wasn’t really into Depeche Mode. I only woke up to their blend of electronic music once Dave Gahan nearly died of a heroin overdose and got most of his torso tattooed. My brother Shaun’s band Syrup had done a mean cover of Enjoy the Silence. I bought a couple of CDs, loved the dark stuff. But that was about all I had noted of Depeche Mode for the best part of two decades.

But one morning last November I got out of bed early, spent two hours on eBay and bought a ticket for the Milan concert from a woman called Valentina - for a lot of money. Then I thought, sod it, I’m middle-aged, I can afford to stay in a couple of decent hotels. So I booked those too - one in Milan, and another in Rome – because a working man deserved a week’s break to play and travel in style. By breakfast, Depeche Mode was starting to look like an expensive exercise in impulsiveness.

Fast-forward to five minutes trying to browse through Zara’s men spring collection while my three year-old wrestled with a red-faced kid with the neck of an ox. There, among the rails and hangers, I had a chance encounter with a flaming red t-shirt with the nostalgic reprise…..‘NOW is the time to relive the WONDERFUL EIGHTIES.’

My generation came of age in that twilight zone, squashed somewhere between the late seventies and early eighties. We were starved of most things essential for the body or soul: a credible University; toothpaste; foreign imports; dangerous films; and jobs without a patron. My friend Pierre licked stamps for six months at the Philatelic Bureau while on a student-worker placement. A girlfriend’s claim to fame was refusing to give up some of her UK chocolate stock to a Customs Officer at Luqa, and then proceeding to eat all ten Cadbury’s Milk Tray boxes in front of the ‘Nothing to declare’ channel.

Between 1978 and the early eighties, we were four testosterone-fuelled guys in the back of Godfrey’s father’s blue Polo, howling to Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell and trying to figure out why punk had never made it to Malta. Paceville was a sleepy place with Casablanca and Crow's Nest offering neon lit ‘poola’ and the greatest juke box. The best chicken and chips was at Grotty Pub, as long as you could bear being press-ganged into Eddie’s sing-along on a Thursday night. The best value hamburger was the Mexican burger at Sunrise Inn. In our pre-cholesterol days, we saved up for tortellini at Borsalino, and licked the cream off the plate. When we were broke, we stopped for early morning burgers from Golden 7, or huddled in conversations on Kafka and politics in Rabat, around 10c coffee in a glass and a mountain of pastizzi at the Crystal Palace.

Music was our release from what was outside our door. Chris had the best hi-fi and VHS system on the island in his parents’ flat in Parallel Street. Saturday night was video night. Chris made great toasted sandwiches. We curled up on the sofa and watched whatever few films were available in VHS format.

We never pulled any women.

But we listened to some great sounds. King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, the Floyd, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell – and whatever still resonated from the sixties. David Bowie’s God status with his Berlin trilogy was consolidated with Scary Monsters. What we did not own, we taped.

Then the eighties kicked in, and everything went belly up. We rapidly went from platforms to ankle boots. Women discovered shoulder pads, t-shirt dresses, big hair, and named their daughters Kylie and Sue Ellen. Bono got a mullet. I went from an unsuccessful DIY perm to a trimmed beard and blue Spandau Ballet baggy pants with elastic. For a while, I thought orange leg warmers and a burgundy boiler suit were cool. The only one who resisted the fashion tide of change was Chris. His pièce de résistance, a netted blue t-shirt and a stained pair of shorts, became a pornographic piece with the years.

Music got crap, big time. Even Bowie got crap. Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Adam Ant, Culture Club, Bucks Fizz, the New Romantics.... the names still send shivers down the old rock ‘n roll spine. The Riffs said it all with their anthem Dance music for the eighties depression. For one night, we witnessed a near riot at the Ambassador in Valletta, when rows of cinema chairs collapsed like dominoes.

We stumbled into theatre, into a make-believe world away from the beatings and the school protests. For a brief period I bailed out of my accountancy articles then realised I would starve being a jobbing actor and chickened back to my dull text books.

Some things started to change. My sister got her friends along, and Chris improved his repertoire of closed toasts. The dating started in earnest as one or two of us got lucky and stumbled into the awkward, groping world of sex. Except the girls wanted to neck in more secluded places than in front of Chris’s VHS, and we really had to get serious about earning some money.

I used my first pay cheque to buy gleaming silver hi-fi and spent three years paying it back on instalments. My second purchase, a Yamaha DT 125, was regularly stripped of its mirrors and mud-guard because Japanese spare parts could no longer be imported. So you had to go and buy your bike’s body parts back from the shady guy at the Monti on Sunday. I seemed to go about life either soaked or bruised. There were moments of respite from the groundhog crises – Italy accidentally won the World Cup in 1982. A Dylanesque songwriter called Grimaud inspired us to hold lighters in the dark before the rest of the world caught on. But generally, we were in silent freefall. As a generation with no aspirations other than to survive, and hope we got lucky - somewhere, somehow - our horizons shrunk back into the clenched fist of the archipelago.

Then on 1st June 1984, my indestructible mother succumbed to cancer and I realised life had to be seized by the scruff of the neck. The next year, I got a one-way ticket to London and bailed out.

Gradually, all my friends did. Two were already on to Sea Malta contracts and travelled, others got on the timeshare sales' bandwagon in Lanzarote, while the doctors were out on a limb in Saudi or the UK. We became the nomad generation.

And then, for some reason, in the nineties, we started to drift back, quietly. Some of us made kids, late. A few joined the establishment. Most of us woke up to thinner hair, bags under our eyes and proper love-handles. Chris now wears a suit but still needs a style challenge. Sometimes I circle showrooms with gleaming bikes. Except the speed cameras would nail you screaming through the tunnels. You cannot really get a child seat on the back of a Honda Fireblade.

On the 18th February 2006, I joined 20,000 kindred souls to scream songs about angst, drugs, emptiness and the fragility of life. And I realised that instead of travelling backwards, to the eighties, we had gone full tilt, fast forward. Just like Dave Gahan, the front-man with the tattoos, we were not looking over our shoulders or hanging on to memorabilia T-shirts. We were experienced, hard-nosed, dangerous, heart on your sleeve, 21st century online, kids now.

Maybe the night was about that heady place where life meets the powerful memory bank of music. Music, our first love, that like our basic sense of smell, can roll the clock back - but also carry you somewhere else. To that place where for a second, restlessness and doubts and regret are pushed aside and you live for the moment.

And you realise, that somehow not only have you survived the eighties soundtrack to your life. But that you've finally arrived for the second half of your life.