Ginger: Master of Puppets

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There’s a palpable sense of history that thwacks you right in your dormant senses on walking into the renovated church that is The Puppet Theatre. Beautifully carved mannequins hang in a proud line above the bar of the 300 year old building, but it isn’t until you’ve spent an age marvelling at these weird, beautiful and sometimes fabulously grotesque creations, all hand carved on these very premises, dangling as if poised to spring into life as soon as the humans have left the building, that you notice that you’re actually standing on dead bodies. Tombstones set into the floor, spanning centuries, housing the corpses of previous inhabitants of this medieval wonderland (one of 35 churches in Norwich, more than any other City in Europe).

I’m fucking blown away. My head is in the shed. It takes hours to compose myself and adjust to the job at hand, the reason that I’m part of this incredible setting in the first place.

I’ve got a gig to do.

It’s the first live music performance that the Puppet Theatre has put on, and we’re flying by the skin of our collective arses to make this work. Which, for the most part it does. Apart from when I start talking about ghosts during the show and the monitors inexplicably pack up. No reason, no loose cables, they just quit and revive some ten minutes later when I change the subject. I take it as all part of this unique experience.

As the tiny dressing room is currently being re-floored, we are given the workshop as tonight’s backstage area, a massive room full of puppets in cases and bizarre branch effigies with mirrors hiding behind them. Even the dressing room is distinctly otherworldly. We’re not on the rock circuit now, Toto.

Everywhere you look there is magic. I feel 6 years old. I doubt I will ever play a place more amazing than this again.

I instantly fell in love with the Ice Queen puppet (just out of shot), which was made by a famous, sadly deceased model maker. So they’re building me a replica.

Hoping to find some pornography. Found a monster instead. Fair deal.

Thank God we set up this Songs & Words tour ourselves, based around a desire to provide an unforgettable evening in settings that the audience would never normally venture. I cherry-picked each venue based on heritage, architecture, history, location and general weirdness (as well as fixed comfy seating, wheelchair access and a full time bar). No way would an agent have been concerned about such attention to detail, not to this obsessive degree. But I wanted this experience to be something very special indeed, for the audience and for myself. And with every new show on this tour, our tireless groundwork and tattered patience is paid back in diamonds.

Jane and Ean making sure that the projector worked tonight. It did.

Darren making sure the monitors worked tonight. They didn’t.

Tonight’s show is a stormer, as they’ve all been, to be honest.

Initially I had no idea how this format would go down.

I mean the audacity of the likes of Rollins, McKagan, Taylor and Ian, et all, standing yapping into a mic and calling it entertainment. How dare they?

Truth is I love them doing spoken word. It makes them human, and therefore infinitely more interesting. But they’re stars. Their stories are peppered with great spikes of success, the fantasy elements of which the everyman laps up adoringly.

Mine are bad luck stories that could happen to anyone, they just all happened to me.

My stories are more ridiculous than impressive, more cringeworthy than awe inspiring. And that, it would seem, is why it works. My show is about an ordinary bloke who has lead a very extraordinary life.

The Norwich Puppet Theatre bar, officially making the biggest bar profit in the 300 years since the building was built. Merch sales weren’t too shabby either.

One of the beautiful, lovingly hand crafted guitars that Tanglewood have kindly given us for a tenth of their actual cost. Wonderful people and wonderful guitars.

The computer on which our band lives. There are far fewer dramas with backing tracks than actual musicians, and they don’t drink all the rider before the gig.

Chance plays a bigger role than planning. From near death experiences, to Thai jail sentences, to simply ridiculous tales (mostly involving animals), none of this was actually meant to happen. Nothing was scripted. And neither is this show. Every night a new story pops into my head, and I find it impossible to obey orders to ‘wrap it up’ (relayed in frantic hand gestures by my tireless guitar tech Dunc) in favour of reliving and sharing the memory with today’s large group of friends.

And it works. They know I’m one of them, it’s just that it was me that set fire to the Chelsea hotel, fell in love with an old woman posing as a young girl on Myspace, recorded in a haunted castle, bought a horse and had to hold its front end while it got fucked (narrowly missing a sperm shower by an over eager stallion), oh…and accidentally killed a tramp.

In a place that usually have wooden performers, who don’t need monitors, we knew were up against it tonight. We thrive on a challenge and the show was a stormer regardless. In fact the monitors only really shit the bed when I started talking about ghosts.

One of the magic Songs & Words notebooks. This one is Jase’s and contains hundred of words, chords and technical black magic. Mine has a few scrawled subjects which I tend to ignore completely.

The place filling up nicely, and with the best behaved crowd that a fella could ever hope to attract.

Collectively they make an unexpectedly entertaining evening of the kind of tales you’d hear by the local pub raconteur. And as I slowly sip on expensive brandy the drunken pub entertainer shtick gets more and more authentic.

With musical breaks dispersed throughout the evening people are given relief from my constant yammering to take a piss or buy another drink. Oddly, no one leaves during the spoken word sections. I can’t figure out if it’s through politeness or genuine fascination, I’m just thankful that they want to listen.

By the end I feel a genuine one-ness with the people in attendance, and afterwards a genuine kinship with the Darren the proprietor, the kind of personal involvement that rarely happens in a Big Rock Show where volume is king and the power masks a multitude of phoned-in posturing and over-toured auto pilot.

_Jane making sure the boys make it to the stage on time. Thorough professionals, the lot of us. _

Through a tiny door I was able to enter the pulpit. And arachnophobe’s nightmare, this little space was a jungle of spiders webs. For me it all just added to the gothic authenticity of this amazing experience.

Every day is a new and exciting adventure on the Songs & Words tour, with no two venues resembling each other in any way. And I have fallen in love with the concept.

How I’m going to go back to a being sweat-drenched, high-jumping rock God, at this very moment, I have absolutely no idea nor desire to do so.

The theatre has woken something in me that I suspect won’t be going back to sleep any time soon.

Me, Jase and his gorgeous little girl, Holly, who I last saw about 7 years ago, when she was half the height she is now. She has blossomed into a stunning young lady and I will personally kill any boys that get any ideas about chatting her up.

Here’s me advising Holly never to get a boyfriend. Horrible, smelly and hairy. Boys that is, not Holly.

_Chatting with fans after the show. I really am a lucky motherfucker to have such a great crowd, and a day doesn’t go by in my life where I don’t feel that gratitude. _

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All photography: Paul Bayfield