The Road To Hell is paved with mistaken identities, unseen stars and close brushes with celebrity you’d never know you’d had. And to think I almost missed the man who did his best to put the “miserable” in Middlesborough. One late, thoroughly horrid, Thursday night at the old Our Price store in Neal Street, Covent Garden in 1996, I was the reluctant manager on duty, accompanied by two other staff, one on each floor; it was a typically slow end to the day, with only one or two stragglers flicking through the racks to kill time before traipsing home. I sat in the basement office with my canteenth coffee of the day, doing my level best to stay awake, when my colleague Nick came to fetch me. “Hey Johnnie, come and see if you recognise this guy.”
I followed him out to the counter and he pointed out a middle-aged man milling around the Rock/Pop A-C section; faded, brown leather jacket, highlighted hair which was ‘fashioned’ into an old-rocker mullet, and an unkempt painter-decorator beard. I shrugged, he looked like he could be anyone. “I think it’s Chris Rea,” Nick whispered. The man turned around slightly, so I got a better look at him. “No, it isn’t,” I whispered back. “It’s just a sad lookalike. I bet you he’s been in the same band since he was 18, and still thinks he’s 18.”
The man continued browsing for a few seconds more before, unable to find what he was after, came up to the counter. He opened his mouth to make his enquiry, and it was like a spontaneous burst of Auberge or Driving Home For Christmas filling the store: “Have you got The Cardigans?” came the astonishingly familiar, gravelly rasp. “Fucking hell,” I thought, “it is Chris Rea.” But we didn’t have any; The Cardigans were cool band du jour and we were all out. And that was that. He nodded forlornly and left.
Next morning, we replayed the CCTV video to show unbelievers that we had been visited by Mr Rea; well, there were many slow days in there. The one line he’d uttered to us became something of a catchphrase. In fact, if anyone ever asks me to do a Chris Rea impression (and oddly enough, people have asked in the past), all I can actually say to impersonate him is, “Have you got The Cardigans?”