After a career with heavy metal gods Spinal Tap – and a battle with addiction to the internet – the bassist, Derek Smalls, is back with a new album reflecting on the ageing process.
“I am content in the knowledge that many of my colleagues are much bloody older than me.’
“I have been meditating on ageing during the recording of my new album, Smalls Change. Age, I say at the beginning of it, is just a number. Number is just a word. And word is just a thing. If I could say it better myself, I still wouldn’t.”
“As a bass player, first with Spinal Tap and now solo, I’m used to seeing life from the bottom, the foundation, the basic 1-4-5 of existence. Like the heart, we provide the pulse, and like the heart, eventually we decide to stop and retire to a country home with dogs and, perhaps, chickens. I think it’s easier for bass players to regard the ageing process more calmly than our more fiery brethren in the vineyards of rock. It’s like my friend Eddie (Low Flame) Dregs, the bassist for the near-death-metal colossus Chainsaw Vermin, says: ‘Low flames extinguish more slowly.’ The same could be said for lukewarm water, although I suppose you’d have to use different words.
“I remember reading once that we replace every cell in our body every seven years. If that’s true, even a 90-year-old man is probably just six or seven in cell years. So, as time goes on, we’re not really ageing, we’re just being handed dodgier cells. In my seventh decade astride this planet, and as my own cells degrade, there are some things I cannot do now: skydiving, marathon running, calculus. I can proudly say, however, that I couldn’t do them in my 20s, either, so no big loss.”
My dad, who sanitised telephones for a living, used to tell me how much better we had it than his family had. His dad, Percy, spent his whole life selling wood chips for horse bedding. Even when he was having heart problems, old Percy was still out working his trade. He finally keeled over and died at the age of 91, found by a stable boy face down in a mound of his own product. For years afterwards, whenever I heard the phrase “in the chips”, I thought it meant poor as a church mouse. But the idea of working till you drop still appeals to me, although not near stables. Maybe when I start getting feeble, I’ll get a job in a pillow factory.”
“I remember thinking when I first heard the story of Methuselah: how in the bloody hell did they know he was 900 years old? Would a person that old really remember their exact date of birth? Did he have a friend or assistant of the same age to keep notes? Did normal people pass down a box of calendars to younger colleagues with the advice: ‘Keep track of this geezer, he’s going long’? Did he lug around a big stone and mark 900 Xs on it? Since he lived in a time before electric music, I prefer to believe he gave that as his age in order to meet women. Yes, age can be a babe magnet – I read a book once that said Einstein had to fight them off by reciting boring equations.”
“Memory, they say, fades with age. Who are ‘they’? I forget. Men have it so much easier than women as we age. Unless you’re a rocker, a man doesn’t show off nearly as much of his body as a woman does, so the muffin top just becomes a more powerful belt line. Facial hair can hide the old chin-weakening business. Although your memory fades with age.”
“Of course, all the insecurities and anxieties of youth – Do they like me? Am I acting foolishly? Is this the way I’m supposed to dress? – fall away. But they are replaced by different insecurities and anxieties – Can they tell I just wet myself? Is this the doctor who almost killed my cousin? Is this normal?”
“But as I embark on an ambitious tour playing with symphony orchestras on at least one continent, I’m content in the knowledge that many of my colleagues in tuxedos, evening gowns, or both, are much bloody older than me. Do I look back at 19-year-old Derek, at 39- and 49-year-old Derek and think, as I know some of you do: ‘What a hopeless tosser?’ Not very often. As I count my years, I also count my learnings, such as how to play a five-string, or how to check in for a flight on my mobile. Would I trade all that I’ve learned for a 20-year-old rocker’s body? Where do I sign?”