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Guitars, beers & tears: the life of a rock star

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In a working musician who picked a guitar up 50 years ago and hasn’t put it down, THEO PANAYIDES finds a safe pair of hands with countless famous friends and incredible stamina

Dave ‘Bucket’ Colwell’s Wikipedia page claims he was born in August 1964, which would make him 59 years old – but in fact he was born in December 1956, meaning he’s almost 67. It’s a random error, but significant in two ways. First, it makes it even more impressive that he’s still getting up on stage to play rock music – and in fact we chat in Larnaca a few hours before he’s due to play alongside Robert Hart (a former member, like himself, of supergroup Bad Company) in a show at Savino Live that’s due to finish around 2am. The second reason why his (real) date of birth is significant is because it means he’s been rocking out for a solid half-century: “I’ve been playing as a professional guitarist,” he tells me, “since I was 16. So that’s quite a long time”.

He picked up the guitar when he was about five or six – and never put it down: “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do”. He studied classical guitar and flamenco, went to the Royal College of Music in his early teens (not for long, though; he didn’t like the snobbishness), then saw Humble Pie play at Hyde Park in 1971 and knew he’d found his calling as an aspiring rock star – making it nicely ironic that he’s now in Humble Pie, or at least a later incarnation. This was in London, and “there was a thing called pub rock – so we were resident in different pubs every night of the week. For three years I played five nights a week, in pubs and bars”. It doesn’t exist anymore, that rough-and-tumble training ground where rock-minded teens could hone their skills. “Young people ask me, ‘I’ve got a band, what do we do?’. I mean, in London there’s nowhere to play,” he sighs. “You have to pay to play.” His fellow youngsters playing sticky-floored pubs included Adrian Smith, later the guitarist for Iron Maiden – one of Dave’s many, many friends in the world of music.

profile bucket as he is today
Bucket as he is today

There was no plan, as such; he was just “enjoying the moment”. What if he’d thought about the future? Where did he see himself in 30 years’ time? “Probably in prison!” he replies wryly. (It’s a joke; he’s never been in trouble with the law.) “No, I dunno,” shrugs Dave. “I mean, music is my life. I don’t really follow sport, or anything like that… Even when I was on the big tours with Bad Company, and we’d come off stage, I always had a guy waiting to take me off to the nearest bar, to get up and jam with the band. I play all the time, y’know? It’s – it’s just my life.”

He’s blue-eyed and ruddy-faced, with shoulder-length hair and that lean, weathered look – a been-there, perpetually-touring look – one associates with rock musicians. He wears sunglasses, a few tattoos (one says ‘Rebel Heart’, a nod to his own band which is called Bucket’s Rebel Heart) and a fair bit of bling. “I just like shiny stuff,” grins Dave when I ask about his rings and silver neck-chain. “Precioussss!” The Gollum impression is spot-on – though in fact, if we’re talking Tolkien characters, he himself might be closer to a different denizen of Middle-earth. Dave is a Lord of the Rings nut – the ring on his index finger is memorabilia from the movie, gifted by Warner Bros to a friend of his who oversaw the recording of the score – and was super-excited when the band toured New Zealand four years ago and visited the locations. “They were going to leave me there, the guys,” he recalls affably. “As the rock’n roll hobbit!”

profiel with good friends zz top
With good friends ZZ top

It’s a gag, but a pointed one. ‘Rock’n Roll Hobbit’ could indeed be his secret moniker, and might even make a good title for the memoir he plans to write someday (though an even better choice is the title of his first solo album, from 2008: ‘Guitars, Beers & Tears’). Hobbits, after all, are known for their compact size, jovial nature and steady, hard-working temperament – and he ticks every box, especially when it comes to the steady temperament. Dave tells a story from the mid-90s, the turbulent days when Brian Howe was the lead singer of Bad Company (Dave himself was a member from 1994-98, but toured with them for four years before fully joining). Howe left in a huff, claiming that the band had grown sloppy – but “there were other issues there,” recalls Dave, “y’know, with personality clashes. Towards the end of Brian Howe, it was very difficult: Brian wasn’t allowed to go on the tour bus with Mick [Ralphs] and Simon [Kirke], they only ever saw each other onstage”. Egos ran rampant, the two camps were exchanging notes through intermediaries, the whole dynamic had broken down – but the real point of the story comes 20 years later: “When Brian called me up in 2014, saying ‘Would you come out and play guitar for me?’, I was quite astonished. Because, y’know, I’d been in the middle of all that – uneasiness, if you like. And he said: ‘Well, you never took sides, Bucket. You just did your job and kept your head down’.”

Is that his style in general?

“It is. I don’t like conflict, really, and I don’t like working with people that – um, are difficult. I have worked with a few of them in the past, and it’s just like ‘I’m too old for this’, y’know?”

Dave ‘Bucket’ Colwell is a rock star without the usual rock-star bits: no massive ego, no addictive personality. Even his suggestive nickname doesn’t come from some rock’n roll excess: “That was when I was at school, but I don’t know you well enough to tell you why,” he says with the air of a well-worn joke. “It’s nothing to do with bodily fluids, internal or external.” He’s never been arrested, never smashed a guitar onstage (perish the thought!) or trashed a hotel room. He likes a drink – “after the show, of course” – but in moderation. “You have a couple of drinks, it’s not going to get any better if you keep going on. Y’know what I mean? And you couldn’t sustain our lifestyle by doing that – as many people have proved, pushing up the daisies because of it.”

When it comes to ‘our lifestyle’, he appears to have two great strengths that help him navigate it. The first is that he’s easy-going, happy to fit in anywhere: he’s played in over a dozen bands, including totally obscure ones with names like The Entire Population of Hackney (that was with a couple of Iron Maiden members, including his old mate Adrian Smith; they played two concerts in 1985). He seems to know absolutely everyone, at least in the close-knit world of ageing rock musicians. The second is that he loves touring, which is by no means true of all rock musicians. “I mean, Mick Ralphs used to hate it!… Mick would just disappear, middle of the tour. I’d have the tour manager call my room and say ‘Come down, we’ve got a meeting, Mick’s gone’. ‘What d’you mean he’s gone, is he dead?’ ‘No, he’s gone home.’ Then they’d go ‘Well, you can do it, Bucket’” – meaning fill in for him, paper over the gaps. Good old Bucket, the safe pair of hands.

profile on stage with bucket's rebel heart
On stage with Bucket’s Rebel Heart

He himself thrives on it, the nomadic lifestyle (the travel bug may have come from his dad, who worked in films and was always away somewhere), the gruelling, repetitive routine of hours on a bus or plane, playing a gig – at full blast, both volume-wise and energy-wise – till the wee hours, then an early start to the next venue. “Sure. Love it! I mean, we have great fun. The camaraderie.” Besides, “it’s not too shabby a way to live. We have beautiful hotels, we have $2 million tour buses” – this was in the old days, with Bad Company – “we have people doing everything. Which my wife is like… When she sees me at home trying to put shoes on or something, she’s like ‘How have you got this far in your life?’, and I say ‘Well, I pay people to do that’.” Dave laughs, then looks sly: “She’ll have none of it, by the way!”.

That’s his second marriage, and the first outside the music business. His ex “was an 18-year-old drummer in an all-girl punk band when I met her” – but his wife Michelle is a PA to the principal of an international school in London, which is not very rock’n roll. (He also has a 31-year-old son from his first marriage, who works as a nurse.) They were married eight years ago in Sarasota, Florida, where Dave had previously lived for a while. “We were going to be married by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, he’s an ordained minister” – but ZZ Top cancelled their tour when bass player Dusty fell off the stage and broke his collarbone, so instead Dave rented a yacht club overlooking the bay where he’d once played a benefit show with Rick Derringer of ‘Hang On Sloopy’ fame; Brian Johnson of AC/DC – another good friend – lives opposite, “but he couldn’t come to the wedding because he’d just been fired by AC/DC, and all the paparazzi were on his lawn”. It’s a classic Dave Colwell story, featuring a bunch of famous friends – but warm and low-key, and of course with a happy ending.

Sarasota was one part of his life; he also lived in Nashville for a spell in the mid-90s, having been hired by Disney to write country music (!). Mostly, however, he’s been in rock bands, as a working – and travelling – musician. The Covid hiatus was “absolute murder”, one of two occasions when he was forced to hang up his guitar and stay put for a while (the other time was when he went back to England after his father’s death, to care for his disabled mum and brother) – but this past year has been back to normal, kicking off with a US tour with Humble Pie which involved 11 shows in 12 days, plus a 16-hour drive on the one day off. “I had to laugh,” says Dave cheerfully. “The manager says to the singer, ‘Are you OK doing 11 shows in 12 days?’ – and he’s 37. I’m 66! I said, ‘What about me?’. He said, ‘Oh you’re a road dog, Bucket, you’ll be fine’. I said, ‘Yeah? Can I have that on me tombstone?’.”

His stamina’s incredible, for a man pushing 70. (Then again the Rolling Stones have a new album, and they’re 10 years older.) It’s mostly adrenaline, he claims, the body finding new reserves of energy when you’re up there in front of an audience. “I had a guitar-string break and go straight through my hand,” he recalls of some long-ago gig. “I just went off at the side of the stage, got my guitar tech to yank it out – there was blood everywhere – then just stuck my hand in a pint of ice-cold vodka, and went back and played… Pete Townsend taught me that. The adrenaline gets you through it.”

Clearly, the man loves to play – yet there is one little niggle, not exactly a fly in the ointment but a thought that may sometimes flit through his mind during those endless hours on tour buses. Dave ‘Bucket’ Colwell has been playing guitar for 50 years – but what exactly does he have to show for it? What, you might say, is his legacy? The aforementioned Mick Ralphs might’ve had his ups and downs – but he also, for instance, had a flash of inspiration when he came up with that guitar riff for ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’, a Bad Company song that’s still a classic 50 years later. Dave’s never reached quite those heights (not yet, we should say!), never wrote a classic of that calibre.

profile with humble pie
With Humble Pie

“Gosh, really depressing when you put it like that. Good lord!” he says, laughing heartily. “I feel inspired with the songs I have written,” he adds more soberly – and he’s had some triumphs, for sure, though he does concede that “I should’ve been born 10 years earlier”. He missed the peak years, both for Bad Company and generally – and the shows he does these days are also slightly sterile, mostly older audiences who’ve come for the hits and don’t want to hear new material. “But that’s the marquee value that sells the ticket, y’know?”

Dave is a working musician: down-to-earth, professional, gregarious. He enjoys every part of being in a band – the touring, the organising, the hanging out – almost as much as the music, and he does love playing music. I recall that album title again: ‘Guitars, Beers & Tears’ – though not too many beers, and only occasional tears. ‘How do you cope with the bad times?’ I ask, but he’s not really the type to delve into feelings. “Uh, I dunno,” he replies – then smiles sweetly: “But I’m still here”. And how.

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