Last Chance Saloon is the story of Neil ‘Twink’ Tinning, a troubled, magnificent man living with bipolar disorder, and his unique attempt to understand the science behind his, and many other, mental health conditions – all while getting ready to play the biggest gig of his life.
In part 1, Twink explains why he’s so motivated to understand mental illness, in all its forms. He reveals how he went from being a talented child with a camera to official photographer for The Jam, at the time one of the biggest bands in the UK. We’ll also meet Twink's own band, The Tinstones, and learn of Twink’s devastating awakening to his own serious mental illness.
Neil ‘Twink’ Tinning: Who is Twink? I’m still trying to work that one out. I guess I’m on a journey of rehabilitating Twink’s mind.
Twink: One Christmas, I got a Zenith E camera which was like a Russian-made tank camera, a big bulky heavy thing. I used to take these pictures, and this picture here I’m going to show you (and then we’ll cut to the picture), it was a photographic competition and there was a section for children and it was judged so well that they didn’t put it in the children’s category, they put it in the adults’ category – and I came a runner up.
Being 16 in 1977 during the punk thing was a huge deal, so I started to get interested in taking pictures of local bands and that type of stuff. As you do, you develop your contacts and I got friendly with the drummer of The Jam and I got invited to do a gig at the Michael Sobell Centre in Finchley, and I took the famous shot of them in the corridor between encores. And then, I don’t know, maybe a week later Paul Weller came up and he said, “Here Twink, how do you fancy doing the album cover? Would you consider it?” “Yeah sure, I’ll consider it.” “When can you do it?” “Well… tomorrow?” [Laughs] So I had total access.
I heard in about June of 1982 that Paul Weller had decided that he was going to disband the band, and of course I was devastated. You know, I was just getting to a point where I’m working for the best band or the biggest band in the country, and then all of a sudden he wants to pull the plug on it – “Oh, no!” Of course, I didn’t realise at the time that that sort of high and low was going to be for the rest of my life. Unbeknownst to me, I think I’ve been bipolar all my life.
Brian Girdlestone: I’ve got two ambitions in my life: one’s to get on the Jools Holland Show and the other’s a walk-on part on Coronation Street, and then you can happily box me up. I’ve known Neil since he married Liz – I was a good friend of his wife’s for years before I met Neil. I’ve known Neil for about 30 years now. Neil was a photographer for The Jam at one stage, and he was always interested in music, and he asked us if I would write a song. And I had a go at writing a song, it seemed to come together and we recorded the song, and I think since then we’ve done many a song together, you know. But he was always into the producing side, he likes all his little gadgets and things like that.
Interviewer: How are you feeling about the gig itself, the one in Cardiff?
Brian: I’m looking forward to it, I’m putting a lot of practice in. I’m more the lyricist, but I’m doing a lot more rhythm now. But I’m generally on the writing side of the songs, you know. To Neil I think it’s everything – if he didn’t have music I honestly don’t think he’d be here to this day. It’s definitely everything to him.
Twink: I think music has always been a lifelong love, because it does soothe you so. But you’ve got to find that you’ve got a soul in the first place, and that’s the problem with mental health – sometimes you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s taken away. And once it’s taken away, you’re always striving to get back to where you were. It helps me remember that I’ve had a fairly successful life – even though I’ve had suicide attempts and all that sort of stuff, I’m still here.
[Cuts to performance recording]
Twink: Right okay, welcome to the first rehearsal of The Tinstones, and we’re trying out a new album track. This is going to be on our new album called The Last Chance Saloon, and we’re just going to hit in to some G12 bar. Hang on, I’ll do an intro – one, two, three, four… [Music starts]
Twink: How it developed was, because of the reclusive nature of where I am and the very tight-knit people that I’m friends with, it developed into this idea that I still could be reclusive, so therefore I could maintain some of the protection around me – and using the internet to find musicians who might be willing to contribute towards the project. Initially it was videoconferencing and sending a backing track, then recording the backing track and sending the backing track to me, so I could fit it in and mix it and all that sort of stuff. I’m using technology to try and break down some of the issues that I’ve got, and we’ve now got to a point where I feel confident enough to work with Alan and Brian.
Alan Harrison: I look at you, is that the best way?
Interviewer: Just look at me.
Alan: Right, look at you, not look at the window, not look up. Basically me focus is you because you’re asking the questions…
Who am I? Alan Harrison. One of the lads at a barbeque; I went to this barbeque and Neil was there. I’d took the harps up there, and Neil just started doing something on his banjo, a bit bluesy, and I thought that’s quite nice, and there was a lad there playing guitar, and so I just thought I’ll get my harps out and started just jamming along with them you see. Then Neil – I gets a phone call one night at home and it was Neil. He said: “Remember me, I was in the band,” and I said, “Oh aye,” and he said, “I’m just trying to put a thing together, I’m recording a few songs, do you fancy…? I would like a harp on some of them, so do you mind coming along?” And I came along and that was it, basically, here I am.
Interviewer: How are you feeling about the Cardiff gig?
Alan: A bit apprehensive. It’s a bit off isn’t it, now; we’ve now got a bit of time to practise and everything else, so I’m looking forward to it, I’m looking forward to the adventure, really. It’s a bit of an adventure, do you know what I mean?
Twink: The thing is it’s not a band.
Interviewer: Well, what is it then?
Twink: To be honest with you, it’s probably more to do with the fact that it’s rehabilitation for me, and I’m using music as some type of therapy. When you consider that 25% of the population will suffer some form of mental ill health in their lifetime; if we say that there’s 60 million people in the UK, that’s 15 million people bipolar or mental ill health. It’s no respecter of status, creed or colour.
Twink: Throughout the course of the films we’ll probably see some bad days, we’ll probably see some good days. The difference now with my way of looking at life is, I’m trying to get more good days than bad days, whereas previously I was getting more bad days than good days. I’ll be happy if I get a 50:50 split. There’s so much to be learnt and to be discovered about the illness, and that is why I’m really, really interested in doing these films. I want to investigate what is poor mental ill health, because everybody’s experience will be different, but there will be commonality, there’ll be common ground between different types of illnesses. That’s why I want to do this, it’s because I want to find out what it’s like to be normal.
[Music strums ending]
Alan: [Laughs] Hey …
Twink: That’s made up on the spot, man.
Alan: That’s it, aye …
[Trailer for part 2]
Twink: We’re talking life and death issues here, we’re not talking about some namby-pamby, can’t get out of bed because he doesn’t want to get out of bed or whatever it might be. It’s a little bit more serious than that.
Twink: A good day, you know, can be as simple as getting through the day, and a bad day might be thinking, well, “Should I go on the internet to find out how to tie a hangman’s noose?”
Twink: What’s the most amazing thing about the brain?
Scientist: There’s so much, I think. I suppose the most amazing thing about it, though, is –
[Music to fade]