Even in the heat of acrimonious political debate a friendship has emerged to keep me Young At Heart, writes Euan McColm
It began when the owner of an anonymous Twitter account told me he reckoned I was wrong about Scottish independence. What followed has been the stuff of dreams.
Back in 2014, as the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future became ever more fractious, I grew accustomed to receiving some fairly unpleasant messages and Tweets from keyboard warriors who saw my scepticism about the SNP’s proposal as a matter of considerable treachery.
Often they’d want to know what I was being paid to espouse the views I did (answer: not enough) and, when they were referring to my trade, they’d be sure to put the word journalist inside inverted commas, lest anyone be in any doubt that the truth was I was nothing more than a shill.
Every day, I’d block dozens of accounts – 1,863, at the last count – and get on with my “so-called” “journalism”.
But when the owner of an account by the name of @ropoem popped up on my timeline to challenge something I’d written, he stood out. Unlike my usual correspondents from the Yes side of the tracks, he was polite and playful.
And so I followed him back and enjoyed our little exchanges, which never ended in agreement but always passed in good humour. Occasionally, I’d wonder who this guy was; we seemed, politics aside, to have a lot in common. I’d wonder, too, what he made of me. Before long, I was to find out exactly who he was and, it turns out, he thinks I’m not so bad.
In 1984, the owner of my local video rental place bought a job lot of 7”singles that had previously been used in jukeboxes. There were boxes and boxes of the things, which he knocked out at 50p each or a quid for three. To a 14-year-old music fan of limited means, this was a treasure trove. Over a period of months, I bought dozens of 45s – among them such classics as Rip it Up by Orange Juice, Werewolves Of London by Warren Zevon and 18 Carat Love Affair by The Associates – that I cherish still.
When the stock on display ran low, the shopkeeper would produce yet more boxes containing yet more gems and, thus, one Saturday afternoon I walked out of his place with three recent hit singles – Cath, I’m Falling, and Young At Heart – by The Bluebells. What a magnificent score.
These records – I’m Falling, especially – have remained great favourites of mine throughout the ensuing decades. I know them intimately yet they retain the power to thrill me.
So when a friend emailed me in 2014 to say he’d noticed I seemed to be getting on pretty well online with Bobby Bluebell, I was surprised and delighted. This @ropoem bloke, it turned out, was the songwriting genius behind some of my favourite records.
An invitation to watch The Bluebells play in Glasgow a few days after the independence referendum followed, and when Bobby dedicated Young At Heart to me from the stage, I was fully smitten.
I can be awkward with new people but Bobby and I slipped into an easy friendship, opening up about times good and bad, and enthusing about the music we loved.
Perhaps I was being a little cocky, but when my mate Kenny, a drummer, and I, a sort-of guitar player, began renting out a rehearsal room in Edinburgh to make a racket, I invited Bobby along, if he wasn’t doing anything else, mind, and it was okay if he couldn’t make it.
Not only did he make it, but he gave generously, patiently listening to scraps of music I’d written, to half-realised riffs, and offering gentle and wise guidance. Usually, this would entail him suggesting the removal of unnecessary noodling and the focus on the essence of the song.
I may have been a know-it-all newspaper columnist but I was a know-nothing novice songwriter and here was someone who’d written for some of the biggest names in popular music – he’s written for Brian Wilson, for heaven’s sake – acting as my mentor.
Soon, I was in not one but two groups with Bobby. Last year, our group Best Picture released their first single, Isabelle, and last week our other band, Fat Cops, released their debut, Hands Up! Get Down!, a song written by Bobby, the band’s keyboard player Neil Murray, and me. It was named single of the week by BBC Radio Scotland’s Afternoon Show. Proud? You bet.
For someone who bought his first single in 1978 and still buys them, these have been truly magical moments. And underpinning these developments is a friendship that came out of the blue. Bobby and I still disagree about politics, of course, but the circumstances of our meeting act as a constant reminder in these horribly turbulent times that political disagreement needn’t be a barrier to an enduring human connection.
On 1 March, 2019, Fat Cops’ debut LP will be released. We’re proud of it. It’s better than any of us – Bobby, Neil, Chris, Bass Chris, Al and I – imagined it might be and we’re looking forward to playing gigs to promote it.
But the music we’re making is only part of the story. Yes, I’m now realising an ambition I’ve harboured for four decades, but I am only able to do that because of this most surprising friendship.
And when it comes down to it, friendship is what really matters, isn’t it? We might live in troubling times with political leaders who want to divide us and extremists who want to help them in that objective but, if we’re lucky enough to have them, our friends will sustain us through the darkest days.
When @ropoem popped up on my Twitter timeline to tease me about my columns, I could – touchy as I can be – have taken the huff and told him where to go.
Instead, I found a dear friend who has had the most profound and positive impact on my life.