The studio guitarist’s guide to happiness and personal fulfilment, as related to us by top sessioneer Mitch Dalton. Part 7, where Mitch finds himself gyring and gimbling in the wabe.
Every one loves a loser, right? Rest assured. Well, despite the fact that the events described are a quarter of a century old, the scars from this egregious episode remain to this day, the memory still buried deep in my brain fill site somewhere south of the cerebellum.
To think that it all started so promisingly. An invitation to participate in a lavish TV video production of Alice In Wonderland, to be recorded in costume as an oratorio with an all-star cast including Claire Bloom, an impressive list of Luvvies and The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knusson. My good friend Andy Pask (five-string bass guitar, double bass, good reader, own transport) and I were booked for a lengthy day at a church in Dulwich Village. Don’t ask me which one.
Our attendance was required from 8am until 8pm, in return for which hefty financial compensation was offered and accepted with an unseemly mix of feigned dignity and suppressed alacrity. To be quite frank, our mission seemed like money for old minims. Our contractor, Burt Rhodes - a man who combined the seemingly incompatible roles of fixer and gentleman - had told us that our parts were written for all but one segment of the work, a musical setting of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, Jabberwocky. At the point at which the analogue alarm bells ought to have burst into life, he concluded casually that the music had been written by the neoromantic, avant garde composer David Del Tredici. And he thought that he might send us the parts. Maybe I was a tad busy at the time but I forgot all about our date with destiny until an A4 sized envelope dropped through the letterbox about a week later.
I slid open the contents and within five seconds I knew that my low-end colleague and I were in low end trub. Not only was the guitar part unplayable - it was incomprehensible. At first sight it seemed as nonsensical as the eponymous mythical creature itself. Weird time signatures, odd note clusters, crazy displaced figures, non repeating atonal phrases. Everything you never want to see on a recording session. The intellect driving this work was clearly a genius or quite mad. Possibly both.
There was no alternative. Every available practice minute was to be harnessed in an attempt at disaster avoidance. In the fortnight that followed, I shredded. I nightmared. And I visited Andy’s home on several occasions to play through the slythy toves. There was much gyring and gymbling, stopping only at bryllig for a cuppa. And by the eve of the big day, I truly thought that we might achieve this thing, given a slice of luck and a following wind.
The next morning I arrived at a ridiculous hour, bleary of eye and faint of heart. To be sent away with Burt’s instruction, “We’re already massively behind schedule. Come back after lunch and I’ll update you.” A pleasant luncheon in Dulwich Village ensued. As did afternoon tea. And dinner. We checked back periodically, to be dismissed repeatedly by an ever glummer fixer. “I’m so sorry, boys. They are nowhere near ready for your item. Can you stay until nine o’clock? We’ll pay, obviously.”
And so it came to pass that at precisely 8.42pm Burt sprinted out of the gothic gloom and screamed, “Now! We’re recording you immediately! Get in here!” At which point merry hell broke loose and stampeded in our direction. Chairs, music stands and backline were all manoeuvred into place at the front of the orchestra in a desperate attempt to beat the clock. Power appeared miraculously as we jumped into our positions, reminiscent of those old Le Mans 24-hour motor racing starts.
Presiding over this carnage was the maestro himself. “No time for a run through. We have precisely six minutes before the camera crew and technicians pack up for the night. Time for a single take.” The phrase “You avin’ a larf mate or wot?” might have been employed at this point. But it had yet to be invented. From my vantage point I could see Ms Bloom dressed as The Queen Of Hearts, as if confirmation were needed that I had landed at Wonderland Central. Nothing for it. I fixed my fretted bayonet and went over the top, intent on watching Mr Knusson’s baton like a hawk.
Sadly, no one had briefed us about one detail in the staging. I counted the bars’ rest with the concentration of a high-wire artist on stilts, readying myself for my grand electric opening statement. And, at the exact moment the conductor cued my entrance, Mr Jabberwocky himself, all six foot five of him, dressed as a giant golden bird with a wingspan to match, leaped in front of Andy and myself. He then proceeded to spread his feathers and render a deafening interpretation of Lewis C’s opus, all the while obscuring Oliver Knusson’s conducting.
Andy and I gazed at each other in open-mouthed horror. We were lost within seconds but continued with an assortment of guessed attempts, improvised phrases and utter drivel. Cue silence and staring at feet. “Sorry about that chaps. That’s all we have time for. Thanks for coming along.” And with that he was gone. Inauthentically but understandably, no grin remained.
If I tell you that two weeks later I was booked to appear at Windsor station on a coruscating winter’s evening, don the garb of a Victorian railway porter, climb atop the coal scuttle of a steam engine and mime to the utter nonsense I had played previously in Dulwich, clutching a Strat and any number of straws, you might raise a quizzical eyebrow.
But it happened. I still have the video. And the night panics.
we were lost within seconds but continued with an assortment oF guessed attempts and drivel
The horrors when an almost impossible-to-play piece becomes exactly that!