The shiny metal weathercock at the top of St Elvan’s Church in Aberdare perches roughly 180 feet above the ground. It perches at the top of the impressive stone spire that dominates the skyline, and it can be seen from pretty much anywhere in or around the town.
In Aberdare: Pictures From the Past Volume 2 there’s an intriguing photo, dating from the 1930s. The weathercock had been removed for cleaning, and the local kids took turns to be photographed sitting astride it. A couple of months ago I was chatting to a nice old chap in the library. He told me that he remembered being one of a group of youngsters who’d taken the opportunity to get up and close with this unusual landmark.
I’ll return to the weathercock later, but please keep that fact in mind for the time being.
19 May 2015 would have been Stuart Cable’s 45th birthday. Instead, five years ago today, we laid him to rest. I say ‘we’, because everyone in Aberdare – indeed, across the whole of Wales and even further afield – was shocked by Stuart’s death. He passed away at home in the early hours of an ordinary Monday morning, only a couple of weeks after he hit forty.
It seemed that everyone in the Cynon Valley came to stand in the car park adjoining St Elvan’s Church, or in nearby Victoria Square, to say goodbye to one of this town’s most famous sons. It was hardly surprising, though.
If you’d spent any time in Aberdare, it was almost impossible not to have known Stuart. After all, he wore so many hats during his forty years on this planet: husband, father, rock star, broadcaster, raconteur, child safety campaigner, party animal, generous charity supporter, and – most importantly – a true and big-hearted friend to everyone who met him.
I’ve mentioned Stuart a few times in this blog already. I’m sure everyone in Aberdare will be conscious of the date today. It’s a good time to record some of my own memories of a great guy who was suddenly taken from us in his prime of life.
I first met Stuart in (where else?) the Carpenters Arms, a very long time ago. He was going out with my friend Emma P., and we struck up a conversation over a pint one evening.
We already knew each other to say ‘hello’ to, of course. Stuart had been part of a five-piece rock covers band called Zephyr, along with some other lads I also knew by sight. I’d first seen them play in The National Wine Bar, one Thursday night in the very late 1980s or early 90s.
(Calling it a ‘wine bar’ was just a marketing exercise. That place is worthy of a chapter in its own right. It was actually a great big pub in the old National School building. It had three bars, a pool room and a restaurant space on the first floor level, a disco upstairs, and a pizza place at ground level. They also hosted singers at weekends and live bands on Thursday nights, as well as the relatively new sport of karaoke every so often.)
I was working in Blackwells, and used to call in for a pint on the way home. (Some nights I went home later than others.) The first time I saw Zephyr I wasn’t too impressed, to be honest. They were decent enough musicians, but the Great Valleys Songbook (v. 1.0) was already well-established and the boys seemed happy to stick with it. My taste in music was already radically different. About a month later, I was in the National again, chatting to the lads at the bar, when the same gang of boys came in, carrying flight cases and PA gear.
I recognised them immediately. I wasn’t in the mood for Bloke Rock that particular evening. When the front man – a short, slim chap with strong features and longish dark hair – arrived at the bar, I turned to him and said ‘Oh no, it’s not you lot again, is it?’
When Stereophonics hit the big time, I had to tell that story on several occasions. After all, it was the only way to explain why Kelly Jones was – at best – rather cool towards me whenever we encountered each other in town.
As with most of the bands of that period, Zephyr went their separate ways in time. I still see some of the boys around every so often. Chris Davies, Paul Rosser and Nick Geake have continued to be involved in various musical projects (usually at least two at the same time, in fact).
Stuart and Kelly eventually teamed up with some other guys and formed a new band: Tragic Love Company. Along with Nick’s band Pilot Fish, they became one of the house bands at the Globe in Cwmaman. My brother and a lot of our mates were living in Cwmaman at the time, so I spent a lot of time in the village too.
The Globe was our pub of choice when we weren’t drinking in Aberdare. It’s a convenient stroll from Aberdare, along a former railway line which has been made into a footpath. The Globe has several large rooms where different groups of friends can make themselves comfortable over a couple of pints or five, and a large beer garden sloping gently towards the path.
In addition, Martin W., the landlord, had pioneered all-day Sunday opening before it was actually legal in the rest of the UK. He stayed open mainly to cater for a small army of soccer fans, who would otherwise have found themselves between hostelries during the big late afternoon fixtures. Even if we weren’t interested in the games, we used to go up there anyway. Martin also took advantage of the pub’s relatively secluded location to host all-day gigs on bank holiday weekends.
It was at one of these bank holiday gigs – a nice sunny August afternoon – that I eventually caught up with Tragic Love Company. By now their line-up had stabilised: Kelly at the front, Stuart at the back, Richard Jones on bass, and Simon Collier on second guitar. They played a decent outdoor set to a very mixed audience.
As well as some of the old Carpenters gang, there were some local guys whom I knew, and a fair number of local families out for the afternoon. I remember being quite impressed by their spin on ‘Voodoo Chile’ and thinking that I might have to apologise to Kelly for my earlier remarks. I’ve got a feeling that I did say something fairly kind about their set afterwards, but I can’t recall Kelly’s reaction.
A few months later, Stuart and his then-girlfriend Julia invited me to join them on a trip to Ebbw Vale one Friday night. By this time, the band had slimmed down to a trio, and were still gigging under their rather cumbersome handle. I travelled over in the back of Stuart’s little yellow van, wedged in the back with a drum kit and half a PA. (In his day job he delivered school dinners in his little yellow van.)
It was probably a good thing I accepted their invitation. It was hammering down with rain when we arrived, and if I hadn’t been there I doubt whether the audience would have made it into double figures. Once again they were competent, but not great. The good people of Ebbw Vale can rest easy in their beds, confident that they didn’t miss a great deal that night.
However, Kelly had started to infiltrate some of his own songs into the tried-and-tested rock standards. It’s always hard to pull that trick off around here. It’s usually the Great Valleys Songbook or nothing. It was pretty obvious that he had a nice line in lyrics, and the songs had some decent hooks. I told them as much when I was helping them carry their gear outside. Even so, none of us had any idea what would happen about six months down the line.
I wasn’t present at the now-legendary gig at the Coliseum. Under their new moniker Stereophonics, they made enough of an impression on a visiting A&R man for Richard Branson to sign them to his new label. I’d stopped reading the music papers long before that, and I haven’t listened to Radio 1 since my first student days.
Therefore, the first I knew about the boys’ good fortune was when I picked up the Cynon Valley Leader and saw them splashed across the front page. After that I read several press interviews with the band, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Stuart had done most of the talking.
Stuart was a noisy bastard par excellence, and it was no wonder he became a drummer. Even a Marshall stack with the volume turned up to 11 would have struggled to make itself heard over that foghorn growl. In the meantime, Richard (who was always the quiet one anyway) just about managed to get a word in edgeways.
I remember being in the Cambrian during the August bank holiday weekend, shortly after they signed to V2. I was sketching out some preliminary ideas for the Xmas Special Quiz (see, that’s forward planning!) when the band and some of their backline crew came in, with their girlfriends and a few other people I knew by sight. I congratulated the boys on their big break, and we started chatting.
Meanwhile, a few kids were playing in the street, and (as Kelly himself observed), word gets around. Before long the pub car park was full of youngsters, and Simon the guv’nor was giving them occasional hard stares through the side door. It must have looked like the opening scene of Oliver!, with the kids jostling each other before one lad was eventually thrust into the room.
‘Can we have their autographs?’ he said in a tiny voice, and Simon gave him an even harder stare. Kelly’s face fell at the prospect, but Stuart just opened his arms wide and boomed, ‘Aye, bring them in!’
Knowing when he was beaten, Simon got some pens and paper from behind the bar. The boys found themselves doing an impromptu signing for half the kids in Maesydre, while Stuart chatted to each and every one of them. One little girl even approached me and asked me to sign her piece of paper.
‘I’m not famous,’ I protested, but she insisted.
‘You know them – you’ll do,’ she replied.
Stuart and Julia had been regulars at the Cambrian quiz on Wednesday nights before the boys made it big. Dad was a semi-regular too, depending on the weather. He didn’t know what to make of Stuart at first. People’s first impressions of him were often reminiscent of Matthew’s eulogy to Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral. ‘Loud’ was the word that came most readily to mind. ‘Incredibly foul-mouthed’ rang a lot of bells, too. In spite of this apparent mismatch, Dad and Stuart became firm friends. He followed the band’s progress as their career developed, and always asked me if I’d seen anything of Stuart when I was in town. If Dad called into the Cross Inn for a pint, and Stuart was in the Welsh Harp, the entire building would resound to Stuart’s bellowed greeting across the bar.
I’ve previously outlined my theory of why certain Cwmaman people (Deno, Alan Swanson, Stuart) could usually be heard long before they came into view. Stuart was undoubtedly the loudest of the three, though. Paul E. and I once accepted his invitation and joined him to watch Wales v England at Cwmaman Institute.
By the time we got there, Stuart was already well-oiled and even louder than usual. The room was packed with families watching the match on the big screens, but his voice could be heard over the top of all the other background noise. I still remember his anguished howl of ‘Come on, boys, stamp on the fucking English cunts’ heads!’ echoing through the function room. It didn’t matter to Stuart that there were kids and elderly couples in there. How he managed to contain himself when he was on the air, I’ll never know.
Once Stuart left the band, he went on to carve out a second career as a broadcaster on TV and radio. This gave him a chance to meet some of his heroes, tell tall stories, learn the Welsh language, and add to the store of anecdotes in his frank and very funny autobiography Demons and Cocktails. He never forgot his roots, though, and became a fine ambassador for Wales in general and the Valleys in particular.
Stuart occasionally filled in on the mid-morning show on BBC Radio Wales. I was working in the cash office of the shop by that stage, so I always had the radio on for company. If I knew he was on the air, I used to (reluctantly) tune away from Ken Bruce and listen to Stuart’s programme instead. For some reason, I was working on my birthday (I always used to try and book that week off) and I was shocked when Stuart mentioned my name on the air.
Mother had phoned in a couple of days earlier, to ask if he’d give me a shout out on his show. He was only too pleased to oblige; my old schoolfriend Darren Broome was producing the programme, and added his own best wishes to Stuart’s message. It really made my day. The next time we were in the pub together, Stuart stood me a pint for my birthday.
I took him to one side and said, ‘I’ve got a message from my mother for you.’
‘Oh aye?’ he said, intrigued.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘She told me to tell you to stop saying, “Where are you to?” when you’ve got a caller on the line.’
He burst out laughing and said that he’d try and bear it in mind in future.
Every so often during his broadcasting career, though, he reverted to his native Wenglish. One morning, while talking to his fellow presenters about Valleys carnivals, Stuart used the word ‘gazoot’. His colleagues were completely baffled. ‘You know, those comb-and-tissue things they play,’ he said. Eventually one of his colleagues realised he meant ‘kazoo’ – by which time I was bent over the desk, laughing my head off.
Publicity shy he wasn’t. He was only too pleased to chat to anyone who recognised him, and you never felt as though it was too much trouble for him to say ‘hello’. I remember one of his random public appearances, in the Welsh Harp on a Friday night.
A young lad was out celebrating his birthday with some mates, and they were on a pub crawl from Hirwaun to Aberdare. They called into the Welsh Harp. Stuart was in his usual spot at the end of the bar. They were amazed to see him, and spent a few minutes debating whether to approach him or not. Eventually one of the boys asked me if I thought he’d be willing to have a photo taken with them. I told them I didn’t see why not, and when Stuart paused for breath I asked him on the boys’ behalf. Sure enough, Stuart insisted on posing for photos (which I took, using one of the boys’ phones) and stood them a round before they headed off for the next pub. That was typical of his attitude to people who approached him for photos or autographs. He was always extremely generous, but never flash with his cash.
Stuart became friends with everyone he met, in fact. Catherine P. called into the shop one Saturday afternoon, just before I was due to finish work. She’d been visiting some of her friends at a youth club she was involved with, and fancied a browse around the shop before heading for the station. It was the weekend of the motorcycle races in Aberdare Park, a couple of minutes’ stagger from my house.
The weather was surprisingly pleasant when we got off the train in Aberdare, and I invited Cath to join me for a drink outside the Cross Inn/Welsh Harp. She was a bit nervous about being turned away (she was a couple of months short of her eighteenth birthday). I assured her that if she sat outside while I got the drinks, nobody would ask to see her (non-existent) ID.
When we got there, I wasn’t at all surprised to find Stuart holding court in the beer garden. He was a biker himself, and always made a point of staying in town for the races. Cath was amazed to see him standing there, so I told her it was his local pub. I fetched our drinks and we found a seat on the corner of a table overlooking the main road. A couple of minutes later Stuart spotted me and bounded over to where we were sitting.
‘How the fuck are you, Steve?’ he erupted. ‘I haven’t seen you for fucking ages!’
I stood up to shake his hand, but he gave me a big hug instead. Then I introduced him to Cath, and he gave her a hug as well.
‘Lovely to meet you, babe,’ he said, only slightly less loudly than when he’d greeted me. ‘Any friend of Steve’s is a friend of mine.’
When Cath told her friends she’d met Stuart Cable over the weekend, half of them believed her and half of them thought she was pulling their legs. Neither of us had a camera that evening. Typical, isn’t it?
Stuart was in the Welsh Harp the night Dad passed away, in February 2006. I’d called in for a pint because I couldn’t face going straight home from the hospital. Stuart was gutted when I told the regulars the news, and bought me a pint straight away to commiserate with me.
He stood me another pint in September 2009. I’d been offered my university place, and I called into the Welsh Harp with Shanara to celebrate.
A few months earlier, Shanara and I had been on the train home from Cardiff when my phone rang. Stuart’s name came up on my caller ID, and I answered it with some surprise. It turned out that he’d selected the wrong ‘Steve’ while scrolling through his phone book, and thought he was ringing someone else. We chatted for a while – he was snarled up in a traffic jam in Monmouth – and I promised I’d catch up with him soon. Shanara hadn’t believed me when I told her who’d been on the line; however, when we walked into the pub to be greeted by Stuart from his usual perch, she had to concede that I did actually know him. When we were in the gents’ together a bit later on, he complimented me on my choice of female company. I told him that Shanara and I were just good friends. He roared with laughter and said, ‘Aye, if you insist!’
Having Stuart’s mobile phone number meant that I was able to text him silly jokes, some of which he repeated on his radio programmes. One of our particular favourites, ripped off (I think) from Ken Bruce, came in two halves:
Q1. How do you slow a drummer down when he’s playing?
A. Put a sheet of music in front of him.
Q2. How do you stop a drummer from playing altogether?
A. Write some notes on the sheet of music.
Having his number also meant that I was able to contact Stuart out of the blue one day, with an offer he unfortunately had to refuse. Chris G. and I were chatting in Waterstone’s one morning. He mentioned that his thrash metal band (Hunted) and their drummer had gone their separate ways, and asked me if I could think of a likely replacement. Knowing that Stuart was a metal fan, I thought he might be up for the chance to team up with Hunted.
I sent Stuart a quick text in the lunch hour. It didn’t take him long to get back to me. He said he appreciated the thought, but he’d only just formed Killing For Company with some other lads he knew. He hadn’t made it public at the time, so I just told Chris that my idea had gone south. I hadn’t mentioned any names, so I didn’t have to let anyone down gently.
A few days later, in the pub, Stuart asked me about Hunted, just to find out what he’d missed out on. I assured Stuart that he’d come to mind straight away, as I’d thought they’d mesh together nicely. I said I’d told Chris I knew one drummer who was resting between engagements, but I’d also warned him that he wasn’t all that good.
Stuart roared with laughter and said, ‘Aye, you’re fucking right there!’
Another night, Stuart was out with his ex-wife Nicola and their young son, Kian. I’d called in for a pint, and Kian was nagging his dad to help him play the quiz machine. Stuart called me over and asked me if I’d give Kian a hand. I was only too pleased to help out.
‘You’re better off with Steve than me, anyway,’ he shouted across the room, ‘I’m too thick to win on those things.’
I eventually got to see Killing For Company at the Coliseum. Former Alarm frontman Mike Peters was doing a charity gig, and Killing For Company played on the same bill. They could have gone a long way, if circumstances had been different.
As things unfolded, Stuart’s legendary partying caught up with him one fateful night. Mother rang me on the morning of 7 June 2010, telling me the terrible news. Matt H. heard the shattering headline at about the same time. As soon as I logged onto Facebook, I read it for myself. It seemed that everyone in Aberdare was in shock.
It took several minutes for the full impact to sink in. He used to invite me to his home in Llwydcoed fairly regularly, usually on a Sunday night, and I always had to decline because I was working the following day. This time, I was busy with university work (my first year deadlines were fast approaching). I already knew from our friends that Stuart’s house parties tended to be rather messy affairs, going on well into the wee hours of the morning. I probably couldn’t have taken the pace anyway.
I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading online. It didn’t seem real. It couldn’t be real.
I switched on Radio Wales, where Jason Mohammad was presenting a scratch show devoted to memories and stories of Stuart. I sent Mr Mohammad an email expressing my own shock. A few minutes later his producer emailed me back, asking me if I’d like to talk about our friendship on the air. I said I’d be honoured to, and gave him my phone number. Thus it was that I spent a few minutes live on Radio Wales, reminiscing fondly about my old pal and trying to keep my own grief and shock at bay.
I began by saying it seemed as though a bright light had gone out in Aberdare, and that Facebook was full of people who were equally horrified by the news. I said I’d known Stuart for many years, and shared a few incidents in his company. I mentioned the Cwmaman Institute rugby match incident, but skipped over the unbroadcastable details for obvious reasons. Instead, I said, ‘It was like listening to Scrum V with Ozzy Osbourne in the commentary box.’ When Mr Mohammad asked me for my favourite memory of Stuart, I told him about the evening I introduced him to Cath outside the Welsh Harp. I thanked him for the opportunity to remember my old friend, and offered my condolences to Stuart’s family and many friends everywhere.
When the pub opened, Matt and I called round there for a pint, more out of shock than thirst. We sat outside, glumly nursing our drinks and chatting to the other lads, who were equally shell-shocked. Stuart’s car was still parked outside, and well-wishers were placing floral tributes all over it. At one point a journalist rocked up outside, obviously hoping to get some unguarded quotes about the tragic events of the night before. Instead, he was sent on his way in no uncertain terms; a couple of the boys had to be restrained from sticking one on him.
Five years ago today, on one of the hottest days of the year, the entire Cynon Valley came to a standstill. A horse-drawn hearse made its slow, sad way through Victoria Square and as far as the gates of St Elvan’s Church. Rhian and I were standing together in the car park nearby, shoulder to shoulder with several hundred people who’d come to pay their respects to Stuart.
The service was relayed through a large PA system to the crowd thronging the town centre. My cousins Christine and Katie came up from Cardiff to say their farewells. Paul E. appeared from nowhere, too, and vanished just as suddenly once the service was over. (He asked me if we were going to go for a pint afterwards. I said, ‘Where – Ponty? You’re banned from everywhere in town, remember!’)
We all sang a couple of hymns and said the Lord’s Prayer, standing in the baking sun. Richard Thompson’s song ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ was played, and at the finale there was a fitting musical tribute to Cwmaman’s most famous son. High Voltage, an AC/DC tribute act consisting of Dai Barrow, Paul Rosser, Dai Turner, Justin Beynon and Wayne Barlow, fired up their gear and blasted two massive songs into the Victorian Gothic structure.
And the cock rocked.
Katie told me she’d been standing in Victoria Square. From her vantage point, she could clearly see the weathercock literally swaying under the sonic onslaught from below. Stuart, whose own taste in music could well described as ‘Cock Rock’, would have pissed himself laughing at the idea.
It’s a good way to remember a man who touched all our lives for the better, never had a bad word to say about anyone, and made a lasting impression on everyone he met. Aberdare’s been a much quieter – and slightly greyer – place without him.