Middle-age approaches – and I’m taking it seriously… sort of

2012 is a very important year. Well, it is for me, anyway.
This has nothing to do with the London Olympics or even the fact that I have tickets to see The Stone Roses in concert.
No, 2012 is the year I officially become middle-aged.
Some would argue, of course, that this begins when you hit 30.
However, we all know that the big Four-O is the age everyone really dreads and I’m just 68 days away. (Hard to believe, I know).
Yes, I was born in 1972 – a year of momentous events such as Britain finally joining the E.E.C… and the airing of the first episode of Emmerdale Farm.
It’s hard to work out which has since proved the more entertaining soap opera, isn’t it?
One thing’s for sure – there’s nothing like a looming milestone to make you reflect on what has gone before.
In the last decade I have experienced endless sleeplessness and the indescribable pleasure of watching my daughters be born and grow into brilliant little people with whom I can now have proper conversations.
In the last 10 years I have also done things I never thought I’d do – such as visit relatives in New Zealand, try my hand at public speaking, start an internet blog, appear in a pantomime, beat cancer (touch wood) and, crucially, meet Bon Jovi’s guitarist Richie Sambora and The Fonz.
Through my job I’ve also crossed paths with some amazing people in the last decade – people like the Treetops Hospice kids and cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths.
My thirties have been very painful for me, at times – not least because the fortunes of my beloved Port Vale have taken such an awful nose-dive.
During the last 10 years, many of the people I looked up to and actually helped to shape who I am have also passed on – leaving genuine voids.
Remarkable people like my old Boys’ Brigade captain Roy Harrison, my Sentinel colleague John Abberley and my nan Ethel.
Suddenly I’m the one people are looking to for words of wisdom or leaning on and, frankly, it’s a sobering thought. As most people are fighting the urge to break two-day old New Year’s resolutions I am trying to crystal ball-gaze into my next 10 years.
Oh yes, I’m taking 40 seriously, alright. Even so, as of March 12 don’t expect me to suddenly start acting my age.
I may wear slippers and I may be on the cusp of middle-age but I’ve still got all my own teeth and (most of) my hair to let down.
There’s certainly no danger of me suddenly liking gardening or starting to watch BBC period dramas.
I won’t be getting a tattoo or anything because I did that when I hit 30. (Chinese symbols – right upper arm, in case you wondered).
However, I will be marking my 40th year with my first trip to the States and having a party with everyone I’ve ever met. More or less.
If you don’t get an invite, don’t worry – just assume yours got lost in the post.
Mine’s a bottle of Newcastle Brown. Cheers.


REVIEW: Slash at the Victoria Hall, Hanley (July 24, 2011)

They say the devil has all the best tunes. Not last night he didn’t.

Slash, AKA Saul Hudson, borrowed them for his long-awaited homecoming gig.

This was one of those rare musical ‘I was there’ moments.

Those lucky enough to get their greasy mits on a ticket were taken on an epic, three-hour rock odyssey.

I knew we were in for a treat because I spoke to Slash’s uncle Ian Hudson, from Tunstall, before the gig and he told me just how much the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist was looking forward to his return to the city where he spent the first six years of his life.

As the queue snaked around the Victoria Hall before the doors opened I sneaked in during the soundcheck and had the pleasure of watching Slash’s band warm up.

That’s when I came over all ‘We’re not worthy’ – à la Garth from Wayne’s World.

I stood up in the circle next to an amplifier, my ears bleeding and gazed down upon a rock legend not 30 feet away.

Now I’ve seen some decent guitarists in my time – Eddie van Halen in his pomp springs to mind, or Joe Perry from Aerosmith and, of course, my beloved Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi.

But I’ve experienced nothing which quite compares to the visceral thrill of watching Slash play his signature Gibson Les Paul to within an inch of its life in front of such a partisan crowd.

The audience came from all over: Paris; London, Bristol, Torquay, Portsmouth, Ayrshire and even Japan for a gig that sold out in two hours. But mostly they came from North Staffordshire to welcome home a bloke who left this city as wild child Saul Hudson and returned as rock royalty.

Slash doesn’t tend to say much. Not much that is printable, anyway.

However, he informed the crowd (to much whooping and hollering) that he had chosen Stoke-on-Trent to shoot the first tour DVD he’d made on his own.

He also said he’d been wanting to do this gig for ‘more years than he cared to remember’ and that it was special to be back, adding: “Needless to say it’s chuffin’ cool.”

OK. He didn’t say chuffin’.

When the bands you have been in have sold 120 million records and packed out stadiums across the globe, playing the Vicki Hall up Hanley on a Sunday night could be considered small beer.

However, Slash and his band worked their backsides off last night for the 1,500 people who turned this grand old venue into a cauldron. It’s hard to take your eyes off Slash and his jaw-dropping mastery of the strings.

But, in truth, one of the most memorable aspects of this intimate gig was the performance of frontman Myles Kennedy whose vocals were, dare I say, at least as good – if not better – than the deified Axl Rose.

Through it all Slash sweated, swaggered and strummed while his uncle Ian looked on proudly from the balcony above.

Highlights included Starlight – a single which is released today from Slash’s latest album and Slither from his days with Velvet Revolver.

But you could literally feel the building shaken to its foundations when the band played Guns N’ Roses tracks.

We were treated to Rocket Queen, Night Train, Mr Brownstone, Sweet Child O’ Mine and the epic Civil War before Paradise City brought the show to a shuddering climax.

Rock music simply doesn’t get any better than this.

The night my rock heroes reigned at The Brit

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora at The Britannia Stadium in August 2000.

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora at The Britannia Stadium in August 2000.

While thirty-odd thousand people were enjoying Toploader’s first song, yours truly was waiting patiently back-stage.

I was watching Richie Sambora, who had arrived only minutes earlier in a blacked-out V-reg Mercedes, meeting members of the Bon Jovi fan club.

As he headed back inside the stadium a bloke heckled him: “Richie, I’ve got a guitar here that we’re raffling off for a children’s hospice charity. Will you sign it for us?”

“Sure, man,” the big guy responded in a kind of Joey-from-Friends accent, shaking the fella’s hand and squeezing past the mean-looking guards in yellow T-shirts.

Seconds later, I too was whisked through the kind of security I imagine surrounds the SAS head-quarters in Hereford for a face to face interview with Jovi’s lead guitarist.

Wearing a white T-shirt, brown combat trousers and boots, he stood up as I entered the tiny hospitality suite and extended his hand.

“Sc’use the leftover food,” he said, motioning to a half-eaten bowl of pasta. “Take a seat. You want anything?”

At this point, my worst fear was that I was about to discover that one of my idols was a self-obsessed idiot with an ego bigger than his bank balance.

But, though tall and tanned like you’d expect for a multi-millionaire musician, Richie Sambora was, mercifully, a hell of a nice guy.

Down-to-earth, attentive, and witty – he made the interview a breeze and went out of his way to ensure I was given enough time as a frantic American PR woman hovered over us.

No, he doesn’t get nervous before gigs, he assured me. Neither does he or any of the band drink before or during a show.

“Not like the good old days man,” he smiles, sipping a pint of what looked distinctly like lager.

Gone are the girls, girls, girls, days of the Slippery and New Jersey tours.

“Most of us are married now and Jon and Dave have kids,” explains Richie. “Hell, we had a great time before Aids and all those social ills. Then you get money, of course, and you realise you can get sued,” he laughs.

The Crush tour differs from previous monstrous Bon Jovi journeys because it is paced differently, accord-ing to Richie.

“We leave more time free these days to keep our own sanity,” he says.

So is he amazed the band is still filling stadiums across the globe 14 years after the album that first rocketed them to stardom?

“Sure,” he says. “Every day. But then I look back at the amount of touring we’ve done and what goes into making our records and I can understand it a little better.

“For example, we write about 60 songs for a record and then choose 13 or 14 for the final cut. The rest don’t make it but we’re then able to choose quality for the fans. It just goes to prove there’s no substitute for hard work, my friend.”

So why is it that Bon Jovi are still together making records when so many of their peers have gone to the wall?

“Oh man,” he says. “If I had the answer to that one then you and I could bottle it and sell it and we’d make a million dollars. I do think, however, that it has something to do with where we came from, where we grew up.

“We’ll never forget that. Jon said the other day that this band is way past ever splitting up. We’ve grown up together man. We’re real close friends who just get together when we want to make a record. Simple as that.”

Richie then went on to say that he thought the band would be back in the UK on tour again next year.

At that point frantic American PR woman insists my time is up.

“You coming up to the bar?” says Richie, referring to the on-stage bar for VIP guests.

“Am I?” I ask PR woman.

Before she can answer Richie stands up and says: “You make sure he comes on stage with us.”

So she did.

Moments later and Jon Bon Jovi was climbing on to the aforementioned bar mid-way through One Wild Night and giving me a high-five. Of course, the concert cameras zoomed in on the action and for the 60 seconds JBJ was up there my pasty, ecstatic face was plastered all over the giant TV screen.

Needless to say I was on a high when I melted back into the crowd 15 minutes later.

The boys were at their brash, polished best last night. Launching straight into Livin’ On A Prayer and You Give Love A Bad Name.

Nothing like starting as you mean to go on is there?

The set was a mixture of old and new. An irresistible cocktail of Jovi anthems and ballads, spiced up with enough material from the new album to keep it fresh and exciting.

Who am I trying to kid? They could have got up there and played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and I’d have hailed it a masterpiece.

In my opinion Bon Jovi are one of the world’s top acts.

They can play and sing live with the best of ’em. And they give two-and-a-half hours of sheer value for money.

You can’t help but marvel at Richie’s mastery of whichever guitar he picks up. Keyboardist David Bryan and drummer Tico Torres are the background troopers who never put a foot wrong.

And then there’s Jon. He only has to curl his lip and the crowd goes nuts. Covering more ground than a Premiership referee and sweating like a stuck pig, he always delivers the goods. And by the way – have you noticed how he never ages?

Bon Jovi were superb last night. How do I know?

Because a colleague who shall remain nameless went to the show with the serious intention of hating every last minute of it.

In the small hours of this morning, he admitted clapping his hands and singing along to Bad Medicine and, through gritted teeth, said he’d enjoyed himself. Not that he’d ever admit it, of course. As he said, he has a reputation to think of…

That’s why if you look up the dictionary definition of smug today, you’ll find my name next to it.

And so, Jon Bon Jovi and his cohorts continue to fill stadiums the world over – much to the annoyance of trendies who wouldn’t know a good band if they fell over one.

Last night’s gig at the Britannia was my 15th Bon Jovi concert – made all the more special because my wife was in the audience for the first time. Not because she was a fan you understand – until last night that is.

To see them in my home town was great but more importantly, surely a portent of things to come.

You see, it’s one thing for us to host whimsical events such as the Summer In The City with all their teeny-bopper appeal, but attracting the likes of Bon Jovi to the Potteries is undoubtedly a coup which should put the stadium on the touring map for top bands who play live rather than mime through their sets.

Bon Jovi are far from everyone’s cup of char. But like ’em or loathe ’em, they’re a quality act with 16 years of touring and album sales in excess of 60 million under their belts.

And anyone who thinks they simply faded away and took their bad haircuts with them after the success of Slippery When Wet needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

For while fine bands like Guns ‘n’ Roses were pressing the self-destruct button in the early 90s, the four original members of the New Jersey Syndicate have continued to reinvent themselves and still manage to cling on to and even broaden their fan base.

A mickey-taking colleague told me the other day that he had heard metal was making a comeback.

I just smiled ruefully, because Jovi fans like myself know it never really went away.