Billy Get Your Guns

It must have been a sign of the times. I was brought up on stories of musicians being interviewed in the back of limousines or in a back street late-night bar where you could bond over a series of drinks paid for by somebody else until you lost track of time and if you were lucky, who you were.

The new thing was afternoon based hotel lobby interviews. A latte, a carafe of iced water, other guests ambling around like there was nothing of any interest going on and maybe there wasn't. It was as cold as going to work at your desk-job in a call centre and sometimes, just about the same interest level as musicians struggled to find something interesting to say about themselves in a world where everything had already been said.

The band this afternoon had not long been strapped into the mighty slingshot to Jupiter. You could always tell what a record company thought of a band by the hotel they were booked into. You knew you were a lost cause if you found yourself doing an interview in the breakfast room of a Travel Lodge but this was a real-life 5 star hotel. I'd never been in one before but judging by its location in the middle of Bloomsbury, the record company thought they were worth the investment.

Of note, the rest of the music press didn't. Nobody cared except me, so I had the whole afternoon to interview all of the band members before I got to sit in on the soundcheck and watch the show.

To keep the status quo in the band hierarchy, I sat down with the singer/guitarist/songwriter, which in the real world means: 'the only one anybody really gives a damn about' where we quickly got down to the business of talking about the new record as we demolished a plate of croissants that was sitting between us. It was hardly snorting coke from a strippers back, but we're not in Kansas anymore Dorothy. Those days have gone and aren't coming back anytime soon.

Richie was a nice guy. Genuinely into his music, his guitars and everything he was here to talk about. Nothing happened without him knowing about it. Frankly, I don't think the rest of the band were qualified to even make an attempt to comment on the bigger picture. They were hired guns and if they knew what was good for them, they knew it and didn't kick up dust on the way to their hotel room.

Which begged the question of why I was being handed the whole band to talk to. Maybe it was a set-up but when you put a plate of croissants in front of me and keep the coffee coming, I'm pretty much game to do anything.

Richie and me got the job done. An hour and half on his humble beginnings to being picked up by the record company and his plans for the future and while we did this, my photographer skirted around us like a ghost - never once even touching the croissants. She's such a pro out there.

When we were done, the PR guy came over and had me sit at the bar with the guitarist, where we drank more coffee and ate more pastries. We talked about Hendrix bootlegs, Jimmy Page, Rick Nielsen and Elvis Presley. It was good background stuff that would be a valuable addition to the piece.

In the meantime, the drummer who was meant to be next on the list, had wandered off back to his room to play Nintendo because he couldn't be bothered and figured he didn't have anything to say anyway - which left me with the bass player.

I looked around to find the PR guy talking in hushed tones with Richie and some other guy I hadn't seen before now. The road manager perhaps. It looked like something was going on and it was.

The PR guy - who I had worked with many times - pulled me to one side and told me that the band was having some problems with the bass player and his ego. He had already threatened to leave the band five times in as many weeks. In all likelihood, he would be fired by the end of the tour and being as that was in just two days, all we had to do was keep the peace.

He asked me to take one for his team and enter into a really in-depth interview with him, which should appease him enough for those final two days to get to the end of the tour without the whole thing falling apart. I could do that. This music world is run on favours and you never knew when you might need a secret back-door into somewhere you shouldn't really be.

So I took it in my stride and we sat for about twenty minutes talking about his contribution to the album that was about to come out - which in itself was unusual. Nobody releases an album at the end of a tour, so I just figured they would go right back out on the road again when it did - albeit with a different bass player - but chose not to ask right at that moment.

Billy - that was his name - seemed satisfied with my line of questioning and to be honest here, we hit it off just fine but not so much that I was going to throw the whole band under the bus because of it. He leaned in conspiratorially and says,

"Let's go out for lunch."

I'm game. So we get up and walk out of the hotel without saying a word to anybody. The band are from Chicago and don't know London too well. I am not from Chicago but still don't know a great restaurant to eat at within striking distance so we just walk until we find one he's happy with - some Vietnamese joint - and we go in there.

His phone rings and he ignores it both times.

"Probably the band wondering where I've gone," he says with something that looked a lot like satisfaction.

I play the game to see where the game is going but I can already see that the game I'm playing is not the same one that he thinks we're playing.

"Are you still playing that old Rickenbacker?" I ask him. I did my research like a good storyteller should but I can see his mind is somewhere else, so I did the decent thing and simply asked him what he wanted to talk about.

"Can you keep a secret?" he asks.

"Secrets are my best skill," I tell him. "Five minutes after you've told me whatever it is, I'll have forgotten it."

That makes him laugh and he believes me which, whilst being absolutely true, doesn't negate the fact that there is a dictaphone in my shirt pocket that has been capturing everything for the record since I arrived.

"I'm not so bad at playing bass but it's never going to make me a fortune. I don't think I'll be retiring on the wages of a touring bass player."

"You're not a full-time member of the band then?"

"I don't know," he mused like it was something he'd never thought about. "I mean I'm in the band and I've been in the band since the beginning but I've never signed a contract for anything, so there won't be any royalties shuddering their way to my door in the future."

There's a long uncomfortable silence on the table between us now like I've cracked open a box belonging to Pandora that he knew was there but pretended not to see.

"So what's your plan?" I ask trying to get him back on track.

"Back home in Oregon - that's where I'm from - there's this bank that's been left behind by the progress of time."

He stands up and reaches into his back pocket, comes out with a well-folded sheet of paper which he then unfolds for what looks like the millionth time and spreads it on the table in front of us.

"I found these plans in the library, it's a copy of the original layout of the place. Look here..."

He points down with his fork which leaves a trail of fermented shrimp sauce along the paper which bothers me more than it does him.

"This here's an old sewer that's been dry for centuries so far as I know. They built the bank right on top of it and there's a couple of access points here... and here."

He dots them with the shrimp sauce again.

"You see where I'm going with this?"

"I think so - this is your retirement plan? You're talking about robbing a bank in Oregon?"

"Got it all mapped out. Me and three of my buddies back home - we'll be in and out before they know what's happened."

He stands up again and digs his hand into the other back pocket of his jeans and pulls out a photograph. Hands it to me.

"This is Larry on the left, Larry Jr who's not his son but we call him that anyway so as we don't get confused and then there's me and on the end, Carlos the Jackal. His real name is just Carl but we figured that was boring so we made a name up for him.

"You can keep that so as when you read about it in the news, you'll know who the stars of the show are."

I was going to point out that news of a bank job in Oregon was hardly going to make it as far as London, but I kept it to myself. If they pulled it off without getting caught simply by breathing heavily anywhere within 10 miles of the bank, they would be a lucky bunch of vagabonds that's for sure.

I slugged at my drink while I thought about this. Why would you carry a group photograph around of you and your friends who you were going to do a bank job with?

Let's not forget this was before the internet had reached a critical mass but you hear about that sort of thing all the time now. Burglars who take pictures of themselves with their swag, unable to resist the lure of their fifteen minutes of facebook fame. This was kind of the same I guess, only I was a music writer nobody cared about, so maybe that was even safer ground.

I steered him back to talking about the band and playing bass but his heart wasn't in it. That was the point I knew he wouldn't be in the band when they recorded their next album or started the next tour but I'd wager it hadn't even occurred to him that being in a band on their way up was hardly compatible with being a bank robber.

I finished my drink and down at the bottom of the glass, I began to maybe see his point. You probably could make more money as a bank robber than a bass player in a band - hell, you could make more money working in a supermarket than being a bass player unless you happened to be Sting or Paul McCartney. Being a non-songwriting bass player was barely one step above being a non-songwriting drummer when it came to making a comfortable financial living for yourself.

A little later, we walked back to the hotel to be met by a very stressed PR guy, but he handled it well. Back in the lobby, the world was back on an even keel. I could see then that the rest of the band also knew he wasn't going to be recording or touring with them ever again.

But the show must always go on.

We spent the next hour before our time was up finishing off the pastries in the lobby and without a recording device in front of them, the band became more animated, which is what you ideally want when the recorder is running but I'll take whatever I can get. We talked about comic books, movies, bands we both loved, had a minor disagreement about who was the best band to come out of the seventies - all of which, in the absence of said recorder, I committed to memory to use as colour when it came to writing the piece.

I sat through their soundcheck, watched the show, shared a few drinks afterwards and looking back now, I can probably say it was one of the better days I've had with a band out on the road. It got a little bit weird when Billy walked past me - multiple times - and every single time, did that 'zipper across the mouth' thing even when the other guys were in the room, but I feigned confusion, shrugged a lot and thankfully, nobody asked me what was going on.

A year or so later, news filtered through the grapevine that Billy did indeed hold-up a bank, though in the final story, he had done it by himself with a shotgun. There was no mention of Larry, Larry Jr or Carlos the Jackal. Maybe that was never the real story anyway. Maybe the photo was just him and his friends and he’d taken an opportunity to blow the story up a little. The final piece of the story is that Billy was killed in prison by another inmate with a toothbrush handle filed into a point.

I still have that photo. All these years later, the band has long been split-up but for some reason - despite my love for them as a band - I find his part of the story to be the only part still worth telling.

Everybody just wants to be seen and validated in some way, right?