Have you ever written to a musician? What happened? Unless you are currently enjoying supper with Bono, I suspect the answer is “not very much”. Not that I would generally blame the musicians. I’m sure at least sixty percent of all letters to pop stars are written in green crayon and contain uncomfortable adolescent confessions of unrequited love bordering on the aggressive.
This is the story of what happened on the one occasion I did write to a musician. And no, I didn’t write in green crayon…
1992 was a tough year for rock fans. Grunge had wiped the slate clean, clearing paths for Nirvana and Pearl Jam and The Screaming Trees but also for non- grunge bands like Josh Homme’s Kyuss and Soul Asylum. It was the year of Rage Against The Machine, Nirvana and R.E.M. which sounds pretty good, but it was also, if you preferred, the year of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Snap’s “Rhythm Is A Dancer”. At the forefront of the music scene as ever,* I was leafing through Kerrang! looking for articles on The Black Crowes and the five other non-grunge bands that still existed after Nirvana had made most of them redundant.
I noticed a small news feature in the pages of Kerrang! under the headline “Katon Boogies On” and it immediately rang a bell.
Michael Katon was a blues guitarist from Michigan who in 1988 had been on the cover of Kerrang! following the release of his debut album “Proud to be Loud”, which had been well received by the UK’s rock critics. The news article said Michael had completed work on a new album, entitled “Get On The Boogie Train”. I remembered Michael: four years earlier I had witnessed him play up a storm at The Marquee with an excellent band, including a memorable cover of the Stones’ “Midnight Rambler”.
The only trouble was, the new record wasn’t available in the UK. “Katon is currently negotiating a UK release for the album” said the feature. “However, it is available by mail order on cassette only. Allow 6-8 weeks for delivery”.
I obtained a US$13 cheque from the bank, who very kindly waived their normal £5 fee and I popped it in the post. I wrote a brief note with the cheque saying I had been at the 1988 Marquee show and I hoped he would tour the UK again.
A while later a package arrived from “Wild Ass Records” in the US enclosing the cassette plus a letter on headed notepaper. There was a logo at the top featuring a bucking donkey on a record player. The letter was from Michael Katon, who had actually written to me, thanking me for being “the first Englishman to buy the record”.
“I’ll be glad to meet you next time we’re over to play…just come to the dressing room door or whatever” he said. What’s more, there was an invitation to get back in touch. “Feel free to contact me…let me know how you like the record, your favourite song etc”.You can imagine this made me feel ten feet tall for a few days. An actual Kerrang! cover star had taken time out to thank me for buying his record and wanted to know what I thought of the album! What’s more, I “sort of” had a backstage pass the next time he was in town. I’d bring the letter along with me to show security and I might even get to hang out with the band.
The “Boogie Train” album was excellent. There’s an excellent song on there about what happened to the Detroit motor industry. I wrote back, sending a full set of the photos I had taken four years earlier at The Marquee, and asked who the Paul Butterfield guy was that wrote one of the songs. (Was he a friend? I asked, rather naïvely. We didn’t have Google or Wikipedia in those days).
I told someone at work what had happened. They liked blues and bought the album too – and Michael wrote thanking them too.
Although I wrote, I didn’t expect to hear from Michael again, so when another letter arrived a month later I was blown away.
“Thanks for the photos” he said in a two page letter ” and thanks for turning people onto my music”. He also told me about Paul Butterfield. I must also have said my favourite song was “Roadtested”, which he explained was about his wife.
Michael played another show at The Marquee later that year. After the show he sat at the front of the stage and I said hello. Michael offered to sign something: all I had was the concert ticket. He signed it and I thanked him – I think this was the first time I had ever met a musician of any description, so I was thrilled. I also felt a bit overawed, surrounded by people who also wanted to say hello, so I sloped off, happy with seeing a great show and having met a guy who really gave a damn about the people who bought his records and came to see the shows.
On the way home I looked down at the ticket he had signed. It read “To Steve: a special cat. You kept me goin’ man!!!
Michael Katon has released several albums since then and I have bought every one. Although I saw him play again in Chiswick Town Hall of all places, many years ago, he hasn’t toured the UK every time there’s been an album out. It’s therefore exciting to see he is soon back in the UK, playing at a great venue, The 100 Club in Oxford St on Tuesday 28 January.
I found Michael on Twitter recently and mentioned the cassette. “I must have been doing my own mail order back then!” came the reply.
I guess that’s what’s known as “paying your dues”.
I’m going to the gig of course. You should too. He’s a great slide guitar player and he has some great songs. That’s the 100 Club, Oxford St, London on 28th Jan. See you there.
Michael Katon: Cadillac Assembly Line
** That’s a joke, honest.
* Sarcasm klaxon.