February 2011. Hour ten of thirteen on a train from Berlin to Milan and we’ve come to a halt first Italian stop after the Swiss border. My stomach lurches at the figure of a policeman advancing through the carriage. He pauses at my seat and asks to see my passport. ‘Erm, I have a scan if that’s any help?’ I reply, grinning like a simpleton in the hope that looking like an idiot will help me get away with being one. He doesn’t return the smile, only scowls.
It was a journey I shouldn’t have taken; my passport was at the US consulate awaiting a visa so the original flights were no good. To make matters worse I had a kidney infection. Woozy with antibiotics, toilet trips every hour. Sane persons suggested I cancel. But the gig was back-to-back all-night with Andrew Weatherall my first ever DJ and producer hero, the stuff of youthful dreams. Stubbornly, I bought a return train ticket out of my own pocket and set off for Italy armed with little more than a vague sense that everything would be OK.
Some twelve years ago when I was just starting I bumped into a DJ colleague in Stanstead airport. I asked him how he was and he let out an Eeyore-ish sigh. ‘Oh, just tired, so tired. I think I’m going to cancel Brazil.’ In today’s era of recession and tightening budgets I can’t imagine being able to be so blasé. As Spencer Parker wrote recently the vast majority of DJs aren’t lounging in business class, waking up our agents to complain about being put in the wrong five-star boutique. We’re sitting cheek-by-several-jowls with middle-aged tourists on Easyjet, prepping for gigs in anonymous beige-veneer hotels in our underpants.
When you’re self-employed a missed gig is a set-back. My friends have ridden taxis across hundreds of miles to make shows after flights have been cancelled. When the Icelandic volcano struck I travelled in a sardine-tin train for 25 hours to get to my gig. Yes, we do it because we love it, but also because we have to make rent. Thankfully, you’re sometimes rewarded for caring. The border police let me through (it was 9pm and arresting me would have been too much work). And the gig with Andrew was one of the best of my life. Sometimes winging it is worth it.