Tuesday, 21 May 2013

By By, Farewell

Last week I heard the very sad news that Wakefield musician Liam Pease-Smith had died. And I was surprised how much it upset me, really, as I can’t say we were especially close and our paths only ever crossed in conjunction with our roles in the Wakefield music scene. We were, at best, somewhere between minor characters and cameos in each others lives, yet the fact he is no longer around has affected me profoundly. Cameo seems an apt word - even if was only for a few seconds, you'd certainly remember a meeting with Liam.

In fact, I clearly remember the first time I met him. My band had just played a set at Inns Of Court (and due to my detailed record keeping I could probably figure out the exact date, if i so wished). At that time I was 'running' a very small record label called Geek Pie Records, and putting on a few gigs. It was mine and my friends first bash at DIY and was all handmade sleeves and poorly recorded songs in bedrooms that were barely mixed, let alone mastered.

This wild-eyed character approached me as I packed up my gear. He was mad with enthusiasm and excitement and handed me a series of crumpled pieces of A4 stapled together. He was insistent that Geek Pie Records release the upcoming EP / Album by his band, called By By, and as if to prove how serious he was had produced a petition - the stapled papers - signed by as many people as he could find. Astoundingly, it included the signature of comedian Richard Herring, who in the ‘why should Geek Pie sign By By box’ had written something along the lines of “To keep him off the streets and out of my way!”

If By By had 'made it' and / or Geek Pie had been a real label, that's the kind of story that creates a legend. Instead, I had just been introduced to one of the most eccentric people I've ever come across. Geek Pie never released the record (Martin Watches The Skies)  though it wasn't for want of trying; pre my tenure at Rhubarb Bomb, we advertised it's upcoming release in issue 11.

By the time Liam's track Dirty Day Sludge was released on the Geek Pie Compilation Future Relics, many in Wakefield had become accustomed to the By By live show. Well, accustomed suggests some kind of acceptance and understanding of what was going on. You endured a By By live show, but I don't especially mean that in a negative way. It was his style of performance

Largely they featured Liam, alone, sat cross legged in the floor with his keyboard across his lap, or sometimes an oddly tuned guitar. Liam wailed more than sung. The keyboard was cheap. The playing was inconsistent. The music was simplistic.

But it had something. It had an honesty, without a doubt. Each song was a journey through some part of Liam's psyche, and they gave the impression that his mind was a confusing, troubled, but playful place. I once commented that one of his songs sounded like a rather disturbing acid trip and he was instantly thrilled I'd picked up on that, then just as quickly despondent that his music sounded that way. I think he just wanted to make pop music.

But the great thing about By By was the mischievous side to the performances. Liam revelled in being the noisy, discordant 'talentless' guy on the bill, and at open mic nights. He was the antithesis to dullness, in every way.

Oddly, in the 24 or so hours between his death and me hearing about it, I saw a band that perfectly illustrated what he stood against. They were called Pugwash. Middle aged old hacks, they must've been going 20 odd years. They sounded exactly like the covers bands at The Hop, except they were playing their own songs. Old men, going through the motions, to the point where event the banter is planned out. Safe, clean, toe-tapping nothings. They are everything I dislike about music.

The idea of By By being inflicted upon fans of bands like that was very exciting to me, and I think Liam revelled in that idea too. Which isn't to say what he did was a joke. But he walked the line smartly between the two. Many a time, Rob Dee and I would watch him and we would try and pin down what it was that he had. As a zine writer or a record label - or indeed as a music fan - we love nothing more than someone who is willing to get in people's faces, and challenge their ideas and perceptions. It doesn't matter how good or bad the playing is - anyone can practice and be 'proficient' - we are looking for something harder to define. We saw it in him and hoped he would make something of it.

Liam was also a Bambino, writing lyrics for the band, including their Philophobia release InBed With The Bambinos, and the split single with The Ran Tan Waltz (I always loved that Bambinos group shot). He would talk in length about constructing these lyrics and despite not being on stage for the gigs, was a dedicated member. Sadly, despite a lot of love in Wakefield, the band never got much momentum and disbanded in 2011.

It was around 2010/11 when I saw Liam most. Now much busier myself with Rhubarb Bomb, our paths crossed alot more often. He seemed to have ten new ideas every week; concepts for By By records, ideas for touring, or lyrics, or just people he would like to piss off. I took much of what he said with a pinch of salt. At that time, I had changed my own outlook on 'getting things done'. I heard alot of people talking about what they were going to do; writing a screenplay, forming a band, releasing a record, starting a fanzine etc etc etc but never getting round to it (alot of them are still saying these things now). I decided I didn't want to be like that and would never even talk about my ideas unless they were definitely going to happen.

Liam was like those other people in some respects, but the difference was that he didn't follow through on his ideas because he simply had so many of them - and many of them were wildly ambitious. Looking back now, it seems he needed other people to help him realise his ideas, because when he did make it to the finish line, they were great. The Bambinos was a good example of this, and when he saught help with By By, the results were also impressive. His track on the PhilophobiaMusic compilation was like nothing else on there and his self titled EP (first track below, my original review here) was impressive, building on the eccentric solo live shows. I wonder now if I could have
helped him more.

There was clearly a darkness to Liam too, which became more explicit in later years, but when amongst the right people in the right place, he thrived. And never more so that the Rhubarb Bomb coach trip to London in 2010.

Although he never shouted about it, he essentially bank-rolled that trip. I can't remember how, but he had come into a bit of money and had some vague idea about getting some Wakefield bands on a coach. We worked on it together and eventually 50 Wakefieldians coached it down to The Windmill in Brixton and Chat Noir, Piskie Sits and Runaround Kids played with Elks. I think everyone had a great time - it was a very memorable day out and jolly and communal in a way that only coach trips can be. Without Liam throwing £500 into the pot, most of us probably couldn't have afforded it. It's funny watching back now, we are all so young!

I think this was Liam at his best, showing his generosity and his love of his friends. He had a busy mind and was a thinker; his thoughts seemed to escape his mind almost uncontrollably, which could be a blessing and a curse. He seemed to flit from extroversion to introversion on the spin of a coin. Sometimes he would revel in his free-wheeling 'madness' yet was self aware enough to see how daft that was. Like all of us, he was just trying to find his place in the world.

I didn't see him very often over the last couple of years. Largely this was him frequenting gigs and the like less often. But a peace seemed to have entered his life too, that encroaching sense of domesticity that can arrive out of nowhere in your mid twenties. I felt happy for him. The eccentricities that veered towards disturbing and upsetting now seemed like the indiscretions of youth and I really hoped he had found his place. 

The last time I saw him was briefly at Long Division 2012. After that, my understandings of where his life went were restricted purely to Facebook updates from him and others. The story sadly turned very dark, details of which are not worth mentioning here. But whatever those demons that troubled him in his youth were, they were still very much present and these, combined with circumstance led everything else to unravel.

Liam's battle was always with himself. I am sure his close friends feel the same when I say that I wish he could have seen himself as others saw him; a good natured, considerate and thoughtful man. I can't pretend to know him well at all, but it was clear to all there was some internal struggle underway. He spent time in Fieldhead and I now feel naive to have thought he was 'better' when some of the troubles he had were probably just a part of his character, part of the person we knew. In mental health, there is no right and wrong. We can only measure it by how capable that person is at existing within society. Some people aren't built for that.

The saddest thing for me is that Liam was built for that, or damn near close. He was that great type of person that as an artist walked the line between madness and genius. He could be inspiring, shocking, thoughtful and evil. It would have taken just a couple of random acts of the universe to have gone the other way for him to have been a happy and successful man, and there was still time to engineer those changes. I wish I could have told him that, and I wish I could have helped him get there.

I can't imagine how bad things had got for him. We have to respect Liam enough to accept he made a decision based on things only he could truly understand and explain. But I wish I could have spoken to him and even though I barely knew him compared to so many, I feel like I have failed him in some way.

The tributes I have seen on Facebook show how important he was to the people who knew him best. I decided to write this as a way to try and remember him, and maybe to find a lesson in it all.

The latter is the hard part, and the part we are left to mull over for the rest of our own lives, but at least remembering him wont be so difficult; that boy was a complete one-off and I am glad I knew him.

Dean Freeman

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