I was filled with a strange pang of realisation watching Darren Hayman perform last night in Cheltenham. It was the painful but semi-comforting realisation that Hayman was one of the few constants in my life. I had seen him in various incarnations on a regular basis for well over a decade. Going to his shows and listening to his music had outlasted relationships, friendships, love affairs, and every shift and shunt in the passage of my adult life.
Hayman is middle-aged now. He sits down and plays beautifully-constructed songs at a piano and drinks white wine.
When I was sixteen, I worked as a pot-washer for a chef with a sickeningly long little finger nail that he used to pierce pieces of carrot with. In that greasy kitchen, I remember listening to a Hefner Peel Session and singing along as I scraped arteries of fat from one end of a giant pan to another. John Peel is dead now; he’s been dead for nearly 8 years.
I am 28 now; approaching 30. The seats in this theatre are comfortable and I am happy to be sat down at a gig; happy that the grey-haired and bespectacled people around me are going to be respectfully quiet. I am growing older. I am getting hair in my ears and I struggle to drink two nights in a row.
In the year 2000, I took the first girl I ever loved to see Hefner at the Zodiac in Oxford. We sat on the tacky wooden floor and waited, holding hands, drinking cider. She has two beautiful children now. When Hefner came on stage, we jumped up, kissed deeply, and danced hard and sweaty. We were seventeen.
Tonight, Darren plays a selection of tracks from his recent Ship’s Piano album; a quiet, contemplative, and suitably nostalgic collection. His song-writing is still impeccable but the subject matter has changed over the years - the frantic ups and downs of young love, the urgency and joy of sex, have been replaced by songs about the Dagenham Ford plant closure, cuckoos, and the comfort of patio-heaters in winter.
At Reading 2001, out of sheer dizzying excitement, I took it upon myself to roll a spliff large enough to pass around the crowd gathered in the tent to watch Hefner. The process of rolling that joint had the benefit of stopping my hands from shaking in anticipation at seeing my favourite band. I lit the spliff when Hayman bounded on to stage, passed it around as the first chords rang out. I jumped around in a hazy delighted muddle, screaming the words at the top of my shrivelled lungs.
I haven’t smoked a spliff in seven years. Even writing the word spliff seems silly. Now, sitting cross-legged supping a pint of Stowford Press in Cheltenham, I smile to myself at the ridiculousness of that spliff, that idea, that gesture.
Through osmosis perhaps, rather than any true love, my ex-girlfriends have all liked Hefner and Hayman. It may have taken a while, a few compilation cassettes with carefully selected tracks, but eventually the nuanced lyrics, the emotion, raw and fragile, in each strained vocal won them over. They had their own favourite songs and would come with me to shows without the need for bribes.
In Cheltenham, Hayman plays the piano. I have never seen him play a piano before. I’ve seen him with guitars, retro synths and keyboards, ukuleles, but never a piano. It is a nice change, bringing something tender to the old songs, and lending itself perfectly to the textures of Ship’s Piano. When Hayman’s fingers play the first chords of From Your Head To Your Toes, I think of every girl I have ever loved, they rush through my body like ghosts in an endless charge, in one overwhelming instant. Tonight, the song is delicate, yearning, and takes my breath away. I miss this feeling…
It’s a valley, so divine, at the base of your spine.
Sometimes I rest there and wish.
We’ve a nest here to build, we have memories to kill,
Let’s waste some time for a while.
The show ends not long after with Hayman bellowing each word of Greedy Ugly People out into the small dark space of the theatre and my soul. He is as witty, intelligent, and likeable as that first time I saw him, I doubt very much that I am.