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Memory often serves as a patina eclipsing the brutal truth of Time.
The Seventies breached into view with a new birth: in 1970, nearly eight, I was adopted by my stepfather and mother and was rescued from one plight and pitched into another.
How do we know when we first become conscious of the affect of music, of words? Perhaps we never can for, like breathing, they belong more to The Other World than this one, seeping into form, supportive and humble, lifting us from a low ebb.
The decade opened in my grandparents’ vicarage in the middle of Small Heath, Birmingham, an oasis of charity strangely placed amid klaxon-hearted factories beating out the rhythms of industrial Britain.
(Until the advent of Peaky Blinders, set exactly there, I’d little cause to pause.) Small Heath had been the hub of my young life and the city receded along with my accent as we moved, progressively, in concentric circles out to the country.
We had lived at the heart of the community yet set apart. Grandchildren of the parish priest we were welcome, yet – as children of divorce – slightly tarnished, minor and miniature celebrities, corpsing in church (where else would you corpse?) and spying on the steady flow of parishioners into our home.
I read voraciously and was known for my prowess as a speller. I particularly liked Hugh Lofting’s Dr Doolittle series; what came next is patchy, but a few years later I was scaring myself with James Herbert’s The Rats, in prelude perhaps to The Stranglers’ Rattus Norvegicus.
Similarly with music, a memory then a drought. Interestingly, the blank spots are evident when the traumatic injuries I received were most pronounced. The music must have played on without me present.
In Catshill, Worcestershire, I danced around the spare room to A Hard Day’s Night by The Beatles. If you’ve never listened, do and you will be rewarded by tight and pristine genius.
It is very rare for an album to hit the right note with every track, this is one such. It is, quite rightly, consumed with the issues of youth:
‘Before this dance is through I think I’ll love you too, I’m so happy when you dance with me.’
I was less keen on the other album we had by The Beatles, Revolver, but tried to will myself into submission. At eight, I had no idea I did not have the power to make myself like it as much as its twin.
But it was clear I was going to be an album person with singles strewn, quixotically, through childhood, adolescence, youth: Itchycoo Park, The Jean Genie, In The Summertime, Telegram Sam, ABC, Silly Love Songs, The Boys Are Back In Town, Love Hangover, Golden Years, Sailing, Imagine.
When we look back at the timeless, time collapses. The record or book we thought published five years ago, turns out to be ten. It is startling to think Elvis died and John Lennon was murdered nearly 40 years ago.
Yet with the sudden demise this year of key figures in the entertainment industry the eternal is ever present. As the late, great David Bowie wrote, ‘Time, she flexes like a whore…’.
What Golden Years and Mrs Gaskell’s North and South have in common lies, for me, in the collisions of youth, for critical developmental stages are studded by cultural offerings which, when conflated, mark turning points in a life.
I wonder how many other 12-year-old boys went to see Jaws mid-decade in platform shoes and ‘baggy’ trousers, which had patch pockets and gained in kudos with each button on the waistband. We were The Bay City Rollers minus the tartan.
And we were certainly terrors, shooting up the neighbours’ sheets with an air rifle, which was trouble-making enough, (yet worsened when one of our gang shot another in the back of the head), drinking Coke bottles laced with whiskey on the obligatory school trip to Ironbridge, and setting fire to some poor girl’s hair in morning assembly.
This was The Seventies after all. Recklessness and minor illegalities were commonplace. Journalists got drunk at lunch; people smoked at work; seatbelts were just beginning to make their way through Parliament; football hooliganism peaked and Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile were cultural heroes.
Innocence and denial were awkwardly and unbreakably related. It was the time of The Blind Eye. For some that spelt tragedy, but for us it was a time of freedom, organised school fights down The Castle Green and, with the admission of girls to what had been a boys’ school, the perfect time to discover our nascent sexuality.
In the first four years in my new family, caught in the crossfire between my mother and her new husband, life was filled with an emotional turbulence, made worse by the depths of its unconsciousness. Like children before me, I felt what the surrounding adults would not or could not. (I would recommend anyone read Alice Miller’s The Drama Of Being A Child.)
By this time, we lived in a large castellated house, isolated high on The Malvern Hills and – drilled to perform – I passed the entrance exam to Hereford Cathedral School and began the long days, six a week, by train. And although on my first day, I was corralled by a group of older boys who stuck my head in the sink in time-honoured fashion, I soon loved it.
There were film shows on a Saturday night (I remember Cabaret and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), the advent of snogging, and a school disco that left me swooning for a girl I bumped into 35 years later in rural Somerset.
And always there was a soundtrack playing in the background – and another girl. At junior school it had been 10cc’s I’m Not In Love and Karen Philpotts, the progenitor of a pattern.
Music, books, movies were all shackled to some rite of passage. It was many years later, as a therapist, that I clocked the link between fantasy and trauma. Like denial and innocence, they too came as a polarised pairing.
Yet a certain cosiness prevailed with happier memories of family nights watching The Good Life, Upstairs Downstairs and Porridge, which cast a cosy seventies’ sheen even over prison life. Ugliness cocooned in cotton wool.
On a school scout trip to Dartmoor, we were split into groups of three for one of those silly team building exercises designed to inflate the serious and stir the rebels. But we were three rebels not helped by the settling of the sort of fog they don’t make anymore.
What tied us to Reality was Alan Freeman’s Saturday afternoon show. Fluff, as he was known, seemed to play the best music, introducing me to Camel and Weather Report, the guitar genius of John McLaughlin, and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. But as Pink Floyd’s epic Echoes rose through the mist, Reality again receded as the moor was suffused with eerie psychedelics. (On a later visit to Canada, I played Echoes to a bemused family friend who wondered when it was going to start.)
But if the music failed to act as GPS, as always it lifted enough of our spirits to carry us home – or at least to a hillock the other side of base camp, where, charged to stay out for one night, we hid until the morning. Cooking sausages, I threw boiling oil over my hand and spent the whole night blowing on it in silent agony. Neither the farmer’s son nor the doctor’s were sympathetic.
On another trip, I was finally expelled from the scouts, with two others, for writing swear words aimed at the next trio in a visitors’ book on some tor. When the scout leader and the head master went out for a walk we knew the game was up. There swiftly followed a hysterical court martial.
But such happenings conferred honour and by the time I went to see my first band Be Bop Deluxe, who were eclipsed by The Steve Gibbons Band, I was on a high.
The Malvern Winter Gardens was on the circuit and a lot of good bands came our way. Everyone has a first big band, mine was Thin Lizzy, but it wasn’t long before the benign schism between Pink Floyd and Genesis saw me choosing sides.
At Knebworth in 1978, I saw a tiresome set by Jefferson Airplane, Devo canned off stage, too much vodka and Tuborg lager in the afternoon and thus, finally, the inside of the bus as Genesis picked up a slot too late in the day for me. It was a shame for I was endlessly excited about their live album Seconds Out.
In 1976, I sat in a sweltering cinema to watch Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same. I was 14, unenamoured of both the heat and the music (which years later I came to adore) and was catapulted into a belated obsession with Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.
On reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Magus by John Fowles, I found a pathway in anti-heroism. And as I tip-toed into Quadrophenia and found a friend in existentialism, I realised that my status as a perennial outsider was complete.
‘God save The Queen,’ railed John Lydon, ‘she ain’t no human being.’ Creativity had finally sicked up conformity. Apparently.
Bill Hicks reminded us, as the 80s crested the horizon, marketing is manipulation, even with The Sex Pistols at the helm.
Never forget, he famously opined, ‘It’s just a ride’.
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I didn’t expect to get high with Jerry Garcia. Tina Brown, my editor at the New Yorker, craved celebrity profiles and I chose Garcia because he was the least noxious celeb I’d ever met. He lived close by in California’s Marin County, so I arranged a chat at the bungalow in San Rafael where the Grateful Dead conducted business.
The band’s PR guy warned me not to mention drugs. Jerry had recently been busted for possession, so the issue was a sore point. But he arrived in a jolly mood and looked as ever like an unmade bed. Without any prompting, while the PR guy gnashed his teeth, he described his greatest acid trip, the one where he turned into a field of wheat.
That was Garcia in a nutshell. He was bright, warm, witty and never met a rule he wanted to obey. He loved to talk, but also loved to listen. Our meeting, scheduled for an hour, lasted three and became a conversation, so he invited me to dinner at his condo in Tiburon the next night.
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