Illusions of Success and Failure: Cliff Richard (1959)

Cliff Richard Living Doll

The row of terraced houses wound up and down Tiverton Road like an industrial accordion cast aside by a drunken giant. Grey slate roofs glistened with Christmas frost under the full moon. Roy and I scrambled out of the car and scurried down the entry to Grandma James backdoor. The front door was only used for weddings and funerals.

When I was 7 Boxing Day was like a second Christmas, almost as exciting as the actual day, and there were more presents, even if some of them were monogrammed hankies or grey socks from Aunty Dorothy. The whole James clan would gather and jam themselves in Grandma May’s and Granddad Charlie’s tiny terraced two-up-and-two-down (being the total number of tiny rooms on each floor). There was a shadowy entry way to run up and down, there was an outside toilet to flush when empty and bang on the door when occupied, and there was a mysterious back garden, a small patch of weeds that surrounded an Anderson shelter left over from the war.

I threaded my way through forests of trouser legs and sailing ships of dresses and reached the front room. It’s amazing what the lure of the stage can do, especially when fueled by booze. I may have only been 7 years-old but I knew what a glass of Stones ginger wine could do to warm my chest and fuddle my head.

“Come on then our Alan. That’s right,” Dad yelled, “Get up on that table and give us a turn.”

I clambered via a chair up onto the polished top of Grandma James’s front room table. I looked round, my head just about level with the crowd and spied Auntie Christine over in the corner next to her Dansette record player. She was old, about 12 I thought. Anyway, she wore a big girl’s party dress with lots of layers and had pop records. Her idol Cliff Richards was warbling on about his living doll when Uncle Bob said:

“Come on Christine, turn that bloody racket off so we can hear Alan.”

She shot me a furious look but did as Uncle Bob said. Most people did, he’d been in the army. He’d got a tattoo and had stood outside Buckingham Palace and guarded the Queen.

buckingham-palace-guard-london

I looked at Christine as she slipped her precious 45 records into their green Columbia Records sleeves. I was determined to impress her.

Uncle Harley came up and stood next to Dad. He puffed on his cigar, the smoking fireman.

“He’s a card your Alan.”

It was one of the few times I ever remember seeing Dad look proud of me.

“Daft as a bag of spanners.” Dad said, “But we might get a laugh out of him.”

I started marching up and down the table imitating a cartoon character from a paraffin advert on the telly.

Esso blue man

“Boom-boom-boom-boom Esso Blue!” I proclaimed, and then segued into “You’ll wonder where the yellow went – when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent”, grinning out at everyone from behind a face full of teeth.

Then I hit them with “Nuts! Who-o-le Hazelnuts!  Cadbury’s take them and they cover them in chocolate!” to the tune of The Banana Boat Song,  moving on to wow ’em with the big finish:

milky-bar-kid“The Milky Bar Kid is tough and strong,

The Milky Bar Kid just can’t go wrong,

The Milky Bar Kid only eats what’s right,

That’s Milky Bar, it’s sweet and light,

Nestlé’s Milky Bar!

The Milky Bars are on me!”

This was a sure-fire winner as everyone thought our Roy looked just like the Milky Bar Kid from the advert. As I lapped up the good-natured applause I saw poor Roy beetroot red with embarrassment at the back of the room. Dad handed me my prize glass of Stones Ginger Wine. Aunty Christine swanked past me in her frock.

“Well at least Cliff has got nothing to worry about!” she said with her snoot in the air.

We’ll see about that, I told myself, and slugged down my drink.

Illusions of Success and Failure:Roll Over Beethoven (1965)

Beatles_Shea-Stadium-2
I was 13 and we were still living in our tiny council house slum. One bright and freezing Saturday in December, I strapped on my blue plastic Beatle guitar, slapped on my black plastic Beatle wig, and strode out onto the “stage” that faced the tiny patch of hardened mud we, in lighter moments, called our back garden.

I stood shivering on the stage, a small, cracked patch of cement outside our toilet window, and while our Roy set up his biscuit tin and saucepan lid drum kit, I did a sound check. That is, I turned on our red and white transistor radio and checked to see if any sound was coming out of it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Through the open toilet window I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke and the dulcet strains of Granddad straining away. I twiddled the tuner and Radio Luxemburg faded in, The Rolling Stones clattering through Come On. We didn’t have long to wait for what we wanted, only Roll Over Beethoven by the almighty Beatles would do for us.

Our audience was always the same, the empty balconies and blank windows of the tower block opposite ours. We were both a bit scared of the rough kids that lived in these tower blocks, so these shows were probably my first experiences of stage fright. Needing just that little extra bit of swagger, I was always John Lennon and never mind what song was playing.

Beatles roll_over_beethoven

Illusions of Success and Failure: Get A Haircut! (1964)

The Beatles

The Beatles

Saturday morning, I caught the number 4 bus into Cotteridge with Mom and Roy. It was the weekend after my 12th birthday and I still had 10s 6d in my pocket. Rain verging on sleet lashed my legs as we stepped off the bus’s back platform. I had to wear short trousers until I was fourteen, and never mind I was already five foot seven inches tall. It was both school rules, and Mom and Dad rules. My whole life seemed to be run by other people’s sodding rules! But right then I really didn’t care because we were going to Woolworth’s.

“Can we go to Woolworth’s first Mom?” I asked.

“Haircut first,” she said, tugging Roy by the hand along the rain-swept misery of Cotteridge High Street. We battled towards a flickering barbershop pole, then up a steep, narrow flight of stairs and into Sid’s barber shop. I breathed the sacred stench of singed hair and Dettol. My eyes started to water.

“Don’t cry son,” Sid said, looking up from the pudding bowl massacre he was executing on some glum kid’s thatch. “Least not till one of yer ears is lyin’ there on the floor!”

He rattled out a chesty laugh that quickly morphed into a hacking cough. Reaching out his scissorless hand, he groped for the cigarette smoldering in its ashtray. He sucked smoke wetly into the tail end of his cough, stuck the fag in the corner of his mouth, and bent to peer at the back of the head in front of him. There was a brief yelp from the chair and a fresh curl of singed hair smoke made its way into the room. He straightened up, leveled the scissors with a palsied hand and the snick-snick of clumpy haircutting continued.

I stared at the embryonic clusters of black plastic combs sitting in their jars of milky disinfectant, the blue rubber bulbs of talc, the clippers hanging on the wall next to the leather razor strop, the glass shelves of bay rum and aftershave. It all seemed designed specifically to prevent me from being one of The Beatles.

Beatles plastic guitar

Sid buzzed the back of the kid’s neck with clattering clippers, then squirted a cloud of talc at the neck. He waved a desultory brush over the kid’s shoulders and then whipped off the puke green nylon cape with all the gusto of a tubercular matador.

“Next.” he wheezed.

Roy and I looked at each other. Mom nudged me with her elbow. I walked over and climbed slowly into the executioner’s chair. I stared at myself in the speckley mirror while Sid fastened the green cape of doom round my throat. The edges of the cape were liberally spotted with Woodbine burns and grease stains. He reached for his clippers.

Plastic Beatles Wig

Plastic Beatles Wig

“Boston in the back.” I said.

In the mirror I saw him look askance at Mom. She nodded slightly. It was the sole concession to style allowed me – a straight cut edge at the back of my neck instead of the regulation vee-shape.

As Sid set to work on my barnett my reflection gradually disappeared in a growing cloud of fag smoke and flying hair. I closed my eyes and slipped my hand into my pocket. My fingers found the crumpled 10 bob note. I focused on the reward at the end of the ordeal: a trip to Woolworths to buy my black plastic Beatle wig and my pale blue plastic Beatle guitar.

I was hoping Mom would spring for a plastic wig for our Roy as well. If she did, we’d definitely look the business next time we tuned the transistor into radio Luxembourg and mimed to Roll Over Beethoven by The Beatles.

The Illusion of Success: Early Days

Bill Haley and the Comets

Bill Haley and the Comets

The illusion of success hits us at an early age.

Sunlight was fighting its way through the dark orange and brown of our living room curtains. What little light did manage to seep into the room was immediately sucked into the twin banks of cigarette smoke rising from Granddad and Grandma Turner who were planted on the couch in front of the TV.

I was 7 and my brother Roy was 4. We stood in front of our Phillips radiogram straining to hear Bill Haley and the Comets. We had to keep the volume down and the song was occasionally drowned out by a bout of hacking coughs from the couch.

Bill Haley and his band mates had recently landed in England and were splashed across the front page of the News of the World. They were causing quite a stir. Just how much of a stir we weren’t sure on account of we weren’t allowed to look inside the “News of the Screws” as it was apparently full of vicars having it off with schoolgirls. Whatever having it off was.

Everyone at school was tallking about rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis and Bill Haley, Gene Vincent and Billy Fury. People were lining up to see Bill Haley and the Comets play.There was even a film in the cinemas about them.  Unbeknownst to us, even as we stood there listening, Teddy Boys were ripping up the seats at picture houses across the land while Rock Around The Clock coined it in.

Teddy boys rock around the clock

The air in our living room, as well as being heavy with fag smoke and boiled cabbage, was also rife with revolution. As a sign of sympathy to the rebels our Roy and I had rolled our socks down around our ankles and loosened our school ties. We might have only been 7 and 4 but we knew a revolution when we sniffed one.

Dad grumbled into the front room bringing with him his own fog of cigarette smoke, engine oil, and Old Spice. He reached down and angrily snapped the volume knob to off.

“That’s enough of that! Go and do your homework. Bloody jungle music.”

Poor old Bill Haley never got to rock much past about 4 o’clock in the afternoon in our house.Off we trudged to our tiny bedroom.

“I’m telling you two you better pull your bloody socks up.” he yelled after us.

He went to join his in-laws on the couch to squint in disapproval at Emergency Ward Ten on the TV.

 

THE IRS RECORDS VAN TELLS ITS OWN STORY

ANARCHY PARKING


Part One – Birth of a Van
 
I was born in Detroit in 1973. I wasn’t on the NY car lot long, but that’s only natural when you’re as beautiful and functional as me, a two-tone, brown Dodge Passenger van. An exhausted-looking couple signed the paperwork and drove me to a leafy suburban street a long way from downtown. I sat proudly on the driveway, sun glinting from my chrome. On weekends I did have to put up with being the little league team bus, but it wasn’t so bad. Little did I know that this was just a foretaste of things to come, things bigger, louder, and far far worse.
 
One Sunday afternoon, this fat-bellied, scruffy human showed up, gave my family some pieces of green paper, then climbed in and drove me away. This new human was not only considerably wider and heavier in the seat, but as we pulled onto the expressway he set fire to something and filled my interior with smoke! Then off went the nice FM station that was warbling hymns and here came some noisy guy yelling something about anchovies in The UK. At least, I think that’s what he was yelling, something about them being on a dog’s body? Made no sense to me.
 
I spent the night in a parking garage on the East Side with some very dented and rusty-looking vehicles. There was a lot of coming and going, doors slamming, even yelling, and one time the squeal of tires and a sound that was either a gun shot or a backfire. Bad news, either way.
 
The next day around midday the big, smoking man drove me a couple of blocks into midtown Manhattan and picked up another large, blonde-haired man who wore glasses and had a loud voice. At least there was no smoke this time, but there was more strange music. I wasn’t quite sure that I cared for a lot of it, but there was one song that was quite catchy. About a human called Roxanne who had a red paint job, I think.
 
I noticed they’d taken the airport exit. Why were we going there? I hoped no one was going to be leaving me in some long term parking lot. I need to feel the road move beneath my rubber. Then one of them said something about meeting the police. The police? Well, I wasn’t too worried, I mean I’d never even had a parking ticket, much less a moving violation. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering why they were they taking me to meet police officers. I wouldn’t mind a high speed chase should the opportunity arise. Just as long as there wasn’t going to be any shooting. No bullet holes in this boy’s bodywork, thank you all the same.
 
Turned out these police were just these guys who talked funny. And they weren’t even in uniform. Although they did all seem to have blonde hair. Undercover? The big man who was driving, Harry, was ordered into one of my back seats by other big man the one with glasses, Miles.
 
“Let Kim here drive, Harry. He’s gotta get used to driving on the right side, eh Kim.”
 
“Bollocks.” Kim said climbing into my driver’s seat. He was smaller, thinner, a little on the bony side, when he readjusted the rear view mirror I saw he had a mop of curly hair and one of his front teeth was missing.
 
“Don’t worry Miles, he drives on the right back home half the time anyway,” one of the policemen said.
 
“Bollocks.” Kim reiterated, and stomping on my gas pedal, he launched us out blind and wild into the stream of traffic crawling past the arrivals lounge entrance.
 
“Fekkin’ ‘ell. Sting, will you tell this arsehole to take it easy.”
 
“You tell him. He never listens to me.”
 
“He never listens to anyone.”
 
“No one ever listens to you either, Andy. That’s cos you’ve got nothing worth saying.”
 
“Yeah. Typical guitar player. All trousers and no mouth.”
 
“C’mon guys, lookit we’re headed toward the Big Apple.”
 
“The big bollocks!” Kim yelled and cut in front of a Big Mac truck that treated us to a blast of air horn.
 
“Kim, cut it out!” Miles boomed. “Let’s try and get there in one piece. You can hardly conquer America if you’re smeared all over the freeway.”
 
I watched the lights of Manhattan come on as dusk fell, it was a magnificent sight. I was so proud my headlights were twin points in that ocean of dazzling light. By the time we bounced into downtown I’d learned that the big hairy one was called Harry, the other big blonde guy with the glasses was Miles, the current driver was Kim, the other three seemed to be the musicians, Stewart, Andy and Sting. They were as rowdy as any little league baseball team hopped up on post-game victory coke and donuts, but Coach Miles seemed to able to keep them inline. Mostly.
 
We dropped the Police at a seedy-looking hotel, The Iraquois, on W44 Street. I understood now that these men weren’t law enforcement officers, quite the opposite really. A rock group, and what was more not one of the anchovy yelling type. Far as I could make out they were the the ones who sang about the girl with the red paint job, or dress as these humans called it.
 
Harry parked me in another of those gloomy multi-story parking structures. It was a far cry from the suburban driveway on that peaceful leafy street but I had to admit that a part of me was excited to be parked deep in the heart of Manhattan. I was just dozing, doors and windows securely locked, when footsteps approached, the driver’s side door was unlocked, wrenched open and the unmistakable weight of Harry bounced down into my driver’s seat. He had a cigarette clamped in the corner of his mouth. He started me up, all but drowning my engine noise with a coughing fit.
 
“Not right man. Why I gotta come fetch the goddamned van for that Limey fag driver. Harry, go fetch the van for Kim. Harry, go get me a friggin’ sandwich. Harry, suck my-”
 
And he drowned out the end of his tirade by turning on a blast of terrible punk rock music.
 
We drove to a warehouse on the East Side where he cussed and coughed as he unlocked my back doors. He started to load heavy black cases, boxes and cabinets into me. I felt myself settling lower than was comfortable onto my suspension. We drove back to the hotel and The Police came out carrying what I had at first taken to be rifle cases but I now knew were in fact guitar cases. They climbed aboard babbling about the snow. The snow? We were going to be driving through snow? But I didn’t have snow chains. If only they’d play a decent radio station now and then I’d have some clue about the weather.
 
Then I realized they were talking about a show, not snow. Well waggle my wipers, a show, a music show, I was going to be part of a music show. Rock and rollbars!
 
We drove down into the Bowery, and even though I saw a few wheel-mugged cars up blocks and corpse cars rusting away in weed tangled vacant lots, I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t even nervous. These humans exuded a bravado that was infectious. I wasn’t just some suburban kid transporter now. I was a Police car!

THE SEEDS OF FAME ADDICTION: Somewhere To Escape From

Luke.jpeg
 
Luke James struggled for 9 years to get a record deal after he left school. When he signed to Miles Copeland (IRS/A&M Records), he found himself and the band he fronted (Fáshiön) on tour in 1978 with several then unknown but upcoming bands and their singers: The Police and Sting, U2 and Bono, Simon LeBon and Duran Duran.
 
But what drives this desire to be famous, what nurtures it into addiction? First, you have to have a place you badly want to escape from…
 
Fame Seed
 
SOMEWHERE TO ESCAPE FROM
 
“But why we moving, Dad?” I asked.
“Get in the van.”
“But why?” I whined.
“Shut up and get in that bloody van you little sod or you’ll feel the back of my hand.” Dad said.
“Come on our Alan, do as you Dad says. I’ve got Roy.” My brother was cradled in her arms, asleep, oblivious.
“Alright, Mom.
 
I climbed into the back of the Bedford Doormobile and stared out at the trees on our road. The wind was whipping the upper branches back and forth and even from inside the van I could hear the surf roar of their movement. The huge box of a moving van had taken all our furniture earlier that morning.
 
“It’s a bloody disgrace.” Dad said, and ground the starter motor a few times. Eventually the Bedford’s lawnmower-sized engine spluttered into life. “He worked all his life to get that house, your Dad did.”
“Never mind, Arnold. It can’t be helped.” Mom said.
“Can’t be helped? It should be helped. A pittance they paid him for that house, a bleedin’ pittance. Just so as they can build some bloody by-pass.”
“It was from the City Council.” Mom said.
“Ar, well I bet none of the sodding council ever had to move so some buggers could make a packet in backhanders. Evicting people on a bleeding compulsory purchase order wotsit and sending ‘em somewhere no sod wants to live.” Dad said.
“Shush Arnold. Language in front of the kids.”
“Sorry, love.” Dad said, “But it’s still bloody wrong.”
 
I still wasn’t sure exactly what had happened or why, I was only-5 years-old, but I did know I was saying goodbye to all my friends, the streets I played in, my hiding places, trees I climbed, and everything.
 
“Ending up on some bloody council housing estate!” Dad grumbled and complained half to himself as he ground the Bedford’s 3 forward gears, coaxing it away from home.
“I expect it will be very nice dear.” Mom said.
 
Housing estate kid
 
Sounds quite nice doesn’t it – “housing estate”. And “Pool Farm” might summon images of rural mill ponds. But what it was in reality was a jerry built sprawl of tower blocks, maisonettes, and three story blocks of flats the council had thrown together to house 10,000 or so displaced inhabitants of Brum’s inner slums. Sometime in the late 1950’s the city fathers took a look at land prices that near the city center and decided they were far too high to allow a bunch of shifty, working class bastards and their spawn to carry on living there. So they bulldozed the slums and built towers of office and retail space.
 
As I stepped out our battered Doormobile and took my first innocent steps across the pavement outside 14 Barretts Road flat 1, I had no idea what awaited me. I didn’t care about the ugly cement blocks with peeling paint work, boarded up windows and streets full of litter. All I could see was the patch of overgrown wasteland across the road and the adventures it promised. There was a rusty oil drum, half a plank of wood, and a pile of crumbling old house bricks. Magic!
 
The next day I was playing pirates with the rusty oil barrel and the splintered plank when a shadow fell across me. I squinted up at 3 kids who were about twice my size.
 
“What yow doin’ squirt?” the biggest one asked.
“Pirates.” I said, “You want to play?”
“No we don’t want to play, do we Jimmy,” one of them said.
“Who said you could play with our plank and our oil drum?” the Jimmy one asked. “Gerrim.”
 
I was dragged kicking and yelling to the other end of the field where they threw me into a pit. I picked myself up coughing and squinted up at the edge, which was too far above my head to reach.
 
“You better let me out!” I yelled up at them, “Or my Dad –”
 
But I didn’t get any further because it started to rain. Then I realized that not only was the rain warm, it smelled funny. The three big kids were standing around the rim of the hole pissing down on me and laughing.

Fame Addiction

Luke 8
 
I have an addictive personality, and ever since I can remember I’ve been addicted to being famous. This addiction was additionally fueled by the gradual realization of where I lived. Birmingham… England … The Midlands of 1952 to 1970. You have to understand that the Birmingham I grew up in was far removed from the Birmingham of today. There was no ultra-modern, Europolitan city center – just a miserable collection of dour, smoke-blackened Victorian buildings. There were no fax machines, no cell phones, nobody had walked on the moon, no color TV, no CDs or ipods, no Walkmans, no Starbucks, no com satellites, no Google, no Internet, and precious little exciting music. The pubs shut at 10.30pm, the last bus was at 11.30pm and the whole miserable place was pretty much shut down, locked up, and asleep by midnight. It also seemed to either rain or be overcast the whole sodding time.
 
RAIN
 
And if there was one place that encapsulated for me everything about Birmingham I was so desperate to escape, it was the British Leyland car factory. The factory spread like a stain at the foot of the Lickey Hills, one of Brum’s rare attempts at scenic splendor marred forever by the sprawling complex of buildings.
 
British Leyland strikers
 
When I was a kid my Dad told me that during the war they had painted the roofs to look like country lanes, so that the German bombers wouldn’t be able to target the factory. Pity some fucker hadn’t climbed up there and painted “AIM HERE ADOLPH” in big red letters. Those bombers could have done succeeding generations of school-leavers a huge, unwitting favour by bombing the miserable place into the ground.
The seeds of my addiction to fame were scattered throughout my childhood.
 
Fashion promo London June 1978
 
To be continued…

Sting… Bono… Luke Sky… who?


 
I never had a train set, never had a bike, lived on a council estate and ran with a gang. I never went on holiday, went to a state school, son of a taxi driver, but no feeble-minded git, me – no, clever. Sharp. Ambitious. No dole factory pension illusion for me. Pop star me!
 
As a teenager, I was laughed at for being a freak, I never got shagged, instead I got beaten up in the toilets. I was the black sheep of the family, who did I think I was, first with that long hair and guitar, then with that spiky hair and make-up? Blokes don’t wear make-up in Brum. Must be one of them bloody pooftahs. I’d get my own back though, show every bastard what was really what. Pop star me!
 
The first gig, we gatecrash: The Mekons at The Bournbrook Hotel, borrow all their gear, we only have curly guitar leads, drum sticks and the best-looking clothes. The Mekons give us five songs before their support band. We only have four songs, so we have to do one of them twice. Right before we go on, drummer Dik Davis and I go to the gents, which is stinking up the corridor outside the saloon bar. The saloon bar’s full of British Leyland track workers, swilling it down and setting fire to their fingers to prove how hard they are. We’re standing in the ammonia puke stench, taking a leisurely piss, when we hear a voice behind us, slurred and thick with menace.
 
“What the fuck am that doin’ in the gents?”
 
“’Ey girls, the ladies is downstairs,” booms a second voice.
 
“Oh very funny, you dimmock.” Dik says.
 
“Yeah, ha-soddin’-ha spunk bubble.” I add.
 
“What do yow say, yow bleedin’ queer?”
 
Dik turns from the tile, smiling, “Your missus doesn’t think I was very bleedin’ queer last night.” he says.
 
I don’t have time to laugh or brace myself, much less zip up. My face is slammed into the tiles and everything goes to fuck. I get hit, I try to hit back, I get kicked, I try to kick back, but there are fists and boots everywhere. It doesn’t last long, it’s over really quickly, probably just as well. As suddenly as it started, it stops and they’re gone. The British Leyland lads are already back in the saloon bar, laughing over a fresh pint of slop about the fun they had with the queers in the bog.
 
I’m down on my knees, cheek against the slimy tile. I struggle up from piss-stained knees, wobbling, waiting to see how badly I’m hurt. I can taste blood and my lips feel like old inner tubes. I see a pair of black leather legs sticking out of a stall. Dik’s lying on his back, head propped against a crusty, brown toilet bowl. One of his eyes is already starting to close and his nose is streaming blood.
 
“Yow alright?” I ask him. My mouth feels broken. He grins up at me.
 
“’Ello darlin’,” he says, “Come here often, do you?”
 
Just the working class fighting the working class – a necessary part of keeping things the way they are.
 
We play our five songs – one of them twice as an encore – and fourteen minutes later we’re out of the door, and off down the road, with the applause still ringing behind us.
 
Pop stars us!
 
We work hard, the gigs get better, we think we’re on the stairway, but we’re not, we’re Brummies, working class council estate oiks, second city, second class, tolerated but not really invited to the party that is London. Court jesters? No, pop stars us!
 
A year later onstage at The Hollywood Palladium we’re still the support band – we’re not The Police: a teacher on bass, a public school hippy on guitar, and a member of one of the richest familes in America on drums. We’re shite! We still have our pride though. We’re clinging to it by our black glitter fingernail polish. Pop stars us!
 
Come on you bastards, when do we get our go? All this promising us the nice car, then buggering us senseless and sending us home on the bus with spunk running down our legs.
 
Your single won’t be a hit – we’re spending every penny to make sure “Message In A Bottle” by The Police is bought in every country across the globe. Whether they have electricity or not!
 
Sodding pop stars us! Now one old man, two dead, and one missing – pop stars us? Not really … not even close!
 

Stairway To Nowhere: Chapter One

AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STAIRWAY
Huh! I come awake, my chin on my chest.

Neck pain.

Eyes throbbing pain. Drooly shirt front. Bladder full.
 
“I need to piss!”
 
“No time big boy.” Miki says swerving us across three lanes of downtown traffic, “We’re almost there.”
 
“We’re late Luke.” Annette adds.
 
Fucking managers. “We’ll be wet Luke if I don’t have a slash soon.”
 
“Shut up!”
 
The truck lurches, stops, doors swing open and spit me out onto the asphalt. Staggering for balance, ice cold night air knifing my lungs, head clearing but then I’m shoved toward and swallowed by the stage door mouth. Down narrow gloomy corridors, through a door, bearing a tarnished star on flaking paint. The dressing womb. Toilet stall in the corner, thank fuck. Pissing in almost orgasmic relief, I lean one hand against the wall in front of me. Back in the room I find a speckled mirror, framed by lightbulbs, only three of which work, and a cold, metal, folding chair. Starting to focus, make-up ritual, deep breathing. Enough of that, fuck all that yoga shite Sting does, get a cigarette lit, suck some blessed relief. Fag balanced on the burn- decorated table edge. Foundation, eye-liner, eye shadow, blusher, hair gel spiked, perfect.
 
“Any chance of a beer?” I ask the room.
 
“No.” Annette says.
 
“Two minutes.” Someone yells through the door.
 
“Whaddya mean two minutes? What about the sound check?” Dik demands.
 
“Have to do it in the first number.” Mulligan says.
 
“Shit.”
 
“Are the guitars and bass in tune with my synth?” Mulligan asks.
 
“Give it here.” I say.
 
Practice amp dead, my ear pressed to bass guitar like fucking Beethoven trying to guess the bugger into tune. Have to do, close enough, I think. I hope.
 
Back out into another birth canal corridor, low ceiling, naked bulbs barely above the top of my head, wading from pool of light to pool of light, feeling the floor rise beneath my Docs. Rumble of crowd growing. Doors slam open, blinding lights, red, green, searing gold, silver, blue. Lights die, I’m plunged mid-step into an abyss. Tap-dancing across snakes nests of cables, a starter roar from the crowd. Fumble guitar lead into pedal, then into a strange amp set on fuck knows what, drag pedal next to mike stand, cable into pedal, cable into guitar, eyes adjusting to the gloom, back to amp and flick standby by switch. Twist volume knob up full, middle all tone controls. Menacing tidal wave of feedback pulsing as I swagger back to microphone.
 
“Good evening!”
 
Blam – lights up, full chaos, searing heat, blindness.
 
“We are Fashion.” Dik’s voice booming all Bog-like, bam, bam, thud, as he does a quick check of his snare and bass drum.
 
“Meeeep … warble!” Mulligan’s synth up and running. “Boom boom boom boom boom boom boooom” bass line intro to Red Green and Gold and we’re away.

Oceans of light, then drowning in darkness, coming up gasping, sweat building already, guitar neck slippery, finger positions and song structure now rooted deep in muscle memory, automatic pilot engaged, adrenaline thrill sparking like high voltage through tired wiring, head aflame with pulsing beat, guitar slicing magnesium chops through the back beat. Huge breath, mouth to mike to find it, pull back a couple of inches, and:
 
“Red, green and gold – let this be the color for all .. no more black and whi-yite game – together we can overcome all!”

This next one must be Burning Down, teeth gritted throttle that fucking guitar neck, smash the chords’ face in, sweat flaying in arcs through the lights as I dip and whirl, psycho carousel of thunder, rising like Poseidon to the mike:

“Can I borrow your lighter – ‘cos my forehead’s getting tighter – and I gotta go gotta go – bu-urn some-um-thing da-own”.

And even before there’s a chance, the smallest gap
into which might creep a whisper of applause, we’re into the third number:

“Die in the west and you’re halfway to heaven, heaven, heaven!”
bawled over bratty chords, thunderous bass and drum avalanches.

There’s a gasp of breath after the last looping vocal note and into the sudden ear-roaring silence the applause wells and breaks over the lip of the stage. Take that and I’m straddled, balls to the crowd, and don’t you all just wish you could be me! A dip to the bottle of water a roadie has magicked at my feet, seared throat soothed with ice cold water shock.

“This is our new single. It’s called Citinite. You won’t like it!”

And we’re off into Mulligan’s hurdi-gurdi carousel, drowned Ferry, acid vocals with Andalusian guitar slicing the face from the windshield. Pain in my throat, notes totter on the brink of discord, breath is now furnace hot with every landed fish mouthful seeming to deliver minimum oxygen to starved muscles. One more song segment to go – I think –into Big John and then Hanoi Annoys Me, both of which Dik sings, before I have to sing The Innocent. Move off the mike and dance this beautiful fucking guitar around the moonscape stage. Mulligan and Dik’s faces rising occasionally through the lightshow bombardment like satellites lost in a cosmic stew. Teeth and grins and nods and snarls slamming in strobe. Back to the front of the stage to strafe them with the opening chords to Hanoi Annoys Me. Light spilling back off the stage giving occasional glimpses of upturned faces, arms snaking above a mass of writhing bodies. Then back to the mike to boast:

“We are innocent, it’s not our fault, if we don’t stop moving, we won’t ever come to a halt.”

And then we’ve nailed the set’s carcass to the back wall and run for the wings, a passing “thank you very much” tossed at the mike.
Panting side-stage like dogs, sweat drenched, grinning at the growing roar for more.

“Not too long – let’s go before they change their fucking minds.”

Back out into the land we now own, a roaring wave of applause washing up over me. Mea culpa, absolved, and adored. No messing, smack them with the Fashion anthem and then dive back off down the rabbit tunnel to the dressing womb.

Sweat everywhere, gasping, drowned as rats, towels lobbed over heads, Annette bobbing and gushing, the words “fucking brilliant” buzzing through the air like honey-stoned bees. A drink, a drink, my condom for a drink. A soothing stream of some cheap lager, ice cold pinning me in my seat, a babble of voices, the room filling. I can hardly breath, somebody get me a cigarette. A line, then two of white powder appear on the table at my elbow. No need to even roll my own note these days, kapow, brain floodlit, mouth buzzsawing words into easier to understand pieces, delivered with accelerating blood pulse. Limbs, smooth arms, slim shoulders, silky hair, long legs of mini-skirted slinkers, ruby mouths, proffered breast fruit, juicy arses, a joint here, another line, a shot, then outside, into a cab, I’m suddenly in orbit around a club dance floor, or two, then a hotel lobby, the room, the bed, the faceless orgasm, the exhausted slump sideways into tomorrow.

The door is being pounded. It’s time to get up and do it again.

Speed Merchants, Thrash Masters, Typists, and Other Guitarists

When I started playing guitar I seemed to be surrounded by other guitar players who thought the faster you played, the better guitar player you were. Alvin Lee from the 60’s band Ten Years After has a lot to answer for in this respect.
 
The shred merchants who followed in his wake all sounded more like typists to me than musicians. It wasn’t, and indeed isn’t, that I can’t play fast – I can. I just never saw the point of burying the emotion under an avalanche of notes.
 
The occasional burst of speed as a device to catch the ear, make you sit up say to yourself “woah!” is fine – it’s an effect. But just as playing with the same effect pedal all the time means you’re not using an effect speed for speed’s sake never made sense to me.
 
There’s an immense amount of snobbery among guitar players. It’s like that old joke:
“How many guitar players does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“Sixteen. One to screw the bulb in and 15 to say I could have done it better than that.”
 
Perhaps it’s because guitar players are ten-a-penny, and always have been that a lot of us feel insecure. We’re like the guy with the big red sport car. Check out the speed of my riffs baby, my penis must be enormous.
 
And so it’s a little sad for me after more than 40 years of playing to find the same snobbery and lack of sensitivity alive and well in my new found musical infatuation, Flamenco. That a music so drenched by turns in pain and joy should be rendered as emotionless as the racket from the factory floor is ridiculous. There are Flamenco guitar players out there working on playing arpeggios faster than the human ear can follow!
 
Even in a remote town in Andalusia in Southern Spain back in the 1970’s, the same kind of nonsense was afoot. My current guitar hero and master Diego del Gastor (1908-1973) had his own way of dealing with the speed merchants.
 
Celebrated Flamenco guitarist Niño Ricardo recalled:
 
“I decided to see what all the hubbub was about, this Diego del Gastor fellow, so I got some señorito friends of mine to hire him for a juerga. When he showed up they explained to him that they had hired another guitarist as well, so that he wouldn’t have to tire himself out.
 
“Diego recognized me right away – I was well-known, and my photo was splattered about here and there – and it was obvious the poor guy was dying to get out of there. But he was stuck and he knew it; he couldn’t have just left without losing face. I watched him while I played. He seemed to shrink, and refused to touch the guitar throughout the night. All he did was drink, and I was feeling quite contemptuous after some hours. I was warmed up and playing well – really well – and it was painfully obvious that Diego had been had.
 
“Then around five or six in the morning, when Diego’s hair began springing away from the back of his head, he began looking more animated, started talking it up and encouraging me with ‘oles’, and I must admit I felt a tinge of worry deep in my stomach. But he continued refusing to touch the guitar until about eight in the morning.
 
“He then actually asked for the guitar. I handed it to him, and he started playing a slow-motion soleá like I didn’t know existed. He played about a tenth of the notes I had, and each note rang clear and true, emotional like no playing I had ever heard. When he made tears spring to my eyes I knew the one who had been had was I. The very essence of this man emerged through his playing. He arrived directly at the soul of flamenco without frills or bullshit. You might say that Diego is flamenco. The rest of us are something else, professionals only too often lost in the technicalities of the instrument.”
- Niño Ricardo, from A Way of Life by Donn Pohren