Monday, 22 October 2012

Who Are You? If Only You Knew…

Elvis Presley never wrote an autobiography, or any other kind of book and yet a search on Amazon for his name throws up some 1500 titles. Cheryl Cole has 'written' two autobiographies, and the latest sits at #1 and #2 in the Amazon best-sellers/biography chart (HB and Kindle editions respectively) and at #5 in the Top 100 chart (the HB). There are 57 Cheryl Cole-related books available on Amazon.  Elvis trumps our Cheryl in the book stakes, and rightly so. Perhaps by not writing an autobiography and dying young (yes, 42 is young) a sense of mystery and legend was inevitably going to develop around the former King of Rock 'n Roll. Knowing less about the real Elvis has contributed to the creation of more speculation, invention, investigation and creation among authors of every kind.
This year there has been a glut of autobiographies published by 'legends' of Rock 'n' Roll, three of whom were stars while Elvis was still making movies, records and stage appearances, and moved in the same exalted circles (or studios, at least). Pete Townshend, Neil Young and Rod Stewart are all competing for the book-buying dollar of their respective audiences and the generic Rock 'n' Roll fan who has an interest in why they didn't die before they got old. At the time of writing Townshend's book is the bestselling R&R book on the US Amazon site, with Neil Young a few places behind and Rod's yet to be published (it comes out on Oct 23). In the UK it is Rod's book that is far outstripping sales of Townshend's and Young's (which is hardly registering in the UK).
All of them are being trounced in sales by Cheryl's second volume of memoirs though, and that's to be expected and is probably a Good Thing. Cheryl Cole is a contemporary figure, her relevance to 2012 is obvious and vital. Whereas the former wild men of Rock are mostly irrelevant in a century that prefers R&R wildmen to be dead or madly damaged: Keith MoonSteve Marriott and Danny  Whitten are enshrined in their youthful glory on social media home pages, tumblr blogs and adverts around the world and they are not likely to ever appear in public looking like old, grey men who go out to get lunch dressed like grandad (as an unfortunate David Bowie did the other day).
Pete Townshend however, has sadly suffered a even more unfortunate public humiliation than simply looking old and sad. He had originally planned to publish his autobiography in the 1990s but didn't, citing 'writer's block'. Following an unfortunate piece of 'research' failure which resulted in his being arrested after giving his credit card details to a child porn site in 2003, the former Who songwriter found his block lifted and he explains why he tried to witness the appalling sight of children being sexually exploited in his book. Inevitably the book ends up being self-justifying and a cry to be 'understood' at last because no-one—least of all horrible former bandmates and ex-wives—ever has before.
Neil Young, possible because he's Canadian and has ploughed his own, often meandering musical furrow for the last thirty years, has not added many young fans to his audience in the past few decades, except for those whose parents brainwashed them into it. He doesn't care, either, it seems and that could make for a revealing and intriguing autobiography. It's a shame then that his book has been allowed to follow the Bob Dylan Chronicles model of being written as if it's a transcript of an old man's rambling monologue. It may well be exactly that, and therefor genuinely by Young, but it doesn't offer a rewarding literary endeavour for anyone but the hardest of hardcore Young fans.
When Rod Stewart's autobiography was announced it was something of a surprise to his fans, because he'd always said that his former wives would object to his revealing all. The focus on his love life is what made the British Daily Mail so eager to buy pre-publication serial rights in the book, which they breathlessly called 'the rock autobiography of the decade'. That the Mail thinks so says more about Keith Richards and Eric Clapton's reluctance to reveal the intimate bedroom secrets of their rock fame in their autobiographies than Rod's book. A quote taken at random from the cleverly titled Rod: The Autobiography reveals the man's inner strength: 'If I wanted a date, she said, I’d have to call her myself — so I steeled myself and picked up the phone.' Fans of Rod's music and those interested in the creative process that led to some sensational records (1969-1976) will have to wait for a different book however. If it's Rod's birds, booze (only a little bit of cocaine, honest) and lots of lovely money that you're interested in, the this is the book for you.
Cheryl's book is full of honest-to-goodness heartbreak, of course. Townshend's is heart-breaking but for different reasons, while Young's could be heart-warming if you can wade through the hokey text. Rod's is as brash, fatuous and insubstantial as his music has been for  the last three decades—when he has also been at his most successful, it has to be said. But ultimately, what's the point of any of these books? They are of course money-making PR exercises, and demonstrate the lack of self-awareness and stunted emotional development that is so essential for making truly great Rock 'n' Roll music. But they are not truly revealing, they lack the insight and perspective that the best writers bring to the art of biography—and it is an art.
When considering the best of Rock 'n Roll books ever published, few people list autobiographies, and those that are included are invariably ghost- or co-written with professional writers. As Nick Hornby proved by his musical collaboration with Ben Folds, authors make rubbish musicians or songwriters; so why would we expect musicians to make good authors? Peter Guralnick has done a far, far better job of rendering Elvis Presley in prose than the man could or would have done himself. Distance from the subject allows an objective and sometimes surprising opinion and view of the subject to emerge. The best writing about musicians should send the reader back to the source of their original interest in the subject: the records. Hands up who wants to listen to Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Teddy Boy

This is a 'guest' blog; the author wishes to remain anonymous.

The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated—and precisely for that reason—this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalised separation. 
The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord (1967).

   Fashion significantly contributes to the spectacle of society, but is situated outside of the academic discourse, and firmly in the realm of consumerism. Unlike ‘art’, which is regarded as engaging with the world on an elitist level, fashion is considered to be strictly for the masses. Even couture, despite being elitist, is mediated to the masses via mass production of look-a-like items. Museums hold costumes in specialist departments, but art gallery spaces rarely (if ever) hang clothing on display in the manner that they may construct a display of house bricks (Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, 1972), show an unmade bed complete with detritus including used condoms (Tracy Emin’s My Bed, 1999) or plug in strip lighting (Dan Flavin’s Untitled [to you…] series, 2006). Occasionally museums or art galleries stage exhibitions of couture dresses and other one-off outfits created by Designers (always capitalized), who might consider themselves to be Professional Artists, but they are employed by major international corporations (GucciChanelLouis Vuitton etc.) to produce consumer goods that will be sold in large numbers.
   Any concept of the ‘art of fashion’ is constrained by its sole motivation for being to satisfy mass demand and a certain degree of utility. However, in the middle of the last century a spontaneous and non-commercially-driven fashion developed among a working class group of British teenage men that sparked a revolution in fashion—and art. The ‘Teddy Boys’ of south, east and north London were a disparate group of males who took to wearing clothes based loosely on an Edwardian design, but which were amended using items of clothing and adornment adopted from Hollywood Western and Noir movies. The resultant exhibition of found items were arranged and displayed on the bodies of Teddy Boys in a wholly new and artistic manner.

The modification of dress by individuals for less than merely practical purposes has, since the advent of mass consumerism in the 19th century, involved intricate and subtle levels of artistry. Deprived of the means of artistic expression by class, position and education, the British working class male has, since the beginning of the Modern period at least, created their own fashion which reflects aspects of ‘beauty, truth, genius, civilization, form, status and taste’;[1] all the assumptions we make about works of art, according to John Berger.
Styles of dress and the addition of purely decorative elements to an outfit have been affected since the Middle Ages, and usually by men. Recent investigation into the history of fashion has led to a reconsideration of a widely held idea that fashion was a largely feminine concern. As Anne Hollander has pointed out, 'for centuries male potency was expressed in erotic and vividly imaginative clothing, and female charm was expressed in much simpler clothing that primarily emphasized modesty. When women wanted to look more interesting, they either cautiously exposed a small area of skin, or imitated men'.[2]
Hollander goes on to describe how little men’s fashion needed to change after the end of the 18th century though, because of improvements in the production and quality of lighter cloths, the mechanization of tailoring and growth of the middle class for whom ready made suits were acceptable because they were difficult to tell apart from the hand-made suits favoured by the wealthy and titled—at least at a glance, they were. ‘Fashion is meant to be read, not seen; fit and proportion matter less, signals matter more.’[3] The aspiring middle class of Victorian Britain could look like they were more affluent and successful than they might actually be.

Brent Shannon’s original research into the growth of the male consumer of the 19th and early 20th centuries cites the spread of the department store, the popular press and advertising, as reasons for a middle class male adoption of fashion as more than a matter of mere functionality. 'Much of the machinery vital to the ascent of a modernized capitalist culture of consumption—the large-scale urban department store, sophisticated advertising and marketing strategies, the mass production of affordable ready-made items—were not possible until the technological and commercial advances of the machine age'.[4]

The flourishing department stores thrived as hetero-social centres in which the sexes could mix and consume in pairs or separately, but always within sight of one other. Tailors ‘ shops were predominantly masculine spaces in which customers were served by male staff. Department stores, points out Shannon,  ‘were well-known sites of female employment and activity and therefore already attracted a variety of eager and flirtatious male voyeurs, flaneurs, and suitors.’[5] Such a point is made by Henry James in The Princess Casamassima (1886) in which its central male character Hyacinth Robinson, who is courting a department store model (Millicent Henning), comes to realise, as he watches her model a dress for a male on the shop floor, that she is having an affair with the customer. Being working class, Robinson only visits the department store to meet Millicent, and when he does, he wears his ‘Sunday suit’.

The working class in Victorian Britain did not shop in department stores, but they aspired to. Without the means (or need) to dress other than for comfort, warmth and protection while at work, workers who wanted to raise their sense of self worth and to make a statement of intent about their social ambitions began to watch their bosses at play, and to develop their own sense of sartorial taste from them. James relates the late Victorian ritual of Sunday courting in the novel, during which shop girls, maids and cooks walked in parks or more often, along high streets to window shop with ‘their’ young men who were similarly employed as bell boys, apprentices, factory hands or footmen. After a morning spent in church, the single suit that the working class male possessed would be retained in order that he could impress in public his respectability as he walked with his partner. They would walk alongside carriages carrying the upper classes, observing their clothes and accessories, enjoying and wanting to be part of the spectacle of their society. They’d look through windows of stores showing new styles of dress for both sexes, getting ideas of how to produce their own versions at home (Robinson’s guardian in the novel is a seamstress who makes items of clothing for girls and women in her neighborhood; her work decreases as ready made clothing becomes cheaper, however).

In the years leading up to WWI the British upper classes enjoyed what would prove to be their last days of social superiority and absolute deference from the working classes. Masculine styles of dress had become both more ornate and more streamlined than in the late 1890s. Top hats were replaced as daywear by bowler hats, morning tails had been replaced by frock coats with tapered waists and flared edges, suits were slim-fitted and three-piece, of which the jacket hung to fingertip length. Waistcoats were decorative rather than merely functional, shirts lost their starched fronts and Eton collars. Pocket handkerchiefs flowed from breast openings, trousers were tapered to the ankle and shoes were elegant and always shone. Even the evening dress for men became less formal, with dinner suits as well as, or rather than, tailcoats being considered de rigeur.

The cut and style of the upper class Edwardian male’s clothes were copied by as many working class males as could afford to pay a tailor, or buy a ready-made version. It was a look that, after two world wars and during a period of austerity and rationing, would re-emerge in Britain, and be modified as fitted the wearer.
            It is commonly held that the British couturier Hardy Amies encouraged Horseguard officers and young bankers to adopt the Edwardian dress style in the early 1950s, in order that, ‘the average young man of position try to give an air of substance without being stodgy’.[6] Savile Row tailors recreated suits and coats, hats and accessories for the wealthy and privileged, and the sharp look stood out against the loose, wide-lapelled, dour, demob suits that dominated the streets of the capital at the time. Or, at least dominated the City streets of the capital. In the poorer boroughs of London, a different look was being worn by young working class males, many of whom had been born just before (or during) WWII.

Most commentators on the Teddy Boy phenomenon credit the development of the style to being an aping of those upper class officers by working class males. As Christopher Breward writes, Harry Hopkins’ The New Look: A Social History of the Forties and Fifties (London, 1964), supplied the approved account of the rise of the teddy style for successive generations of academics and researchers. Hopkins ‘traces its origins as a whim of upper class Mayfair playboys, its migration to the deprived boroughs of south and east London, its importance as a mode of social resistance, and its rapid commercialisation at the hands of a growing retail sector adapted to the desires of the teenager, has become an oft-repeated mantra of sociologists and historians of popular culture.’[7] However, quoting a 1949 Mass Observation study, Breward suggests that by then,
The Teddy Boy was rapidly emerging as a particular working-class London type; Anglo-Irish or ‘cockney’ in his associations in contrast to the continental and American preferences of London’s sizeable Italian and Maltese gang members. Though he drew some inspiration from the ‘spivvy’ style … his look was far more negotiated, deliberately differentiated and consequently more subversive than that.[8]

With their radically different physical appearance, the children of war heroes (or cowards or ‘conshies’) sought to express themselves as individuals, outsiders to society, but as belonging to a new society of their own making; that of the Teddy Boy gang. Teddy Boys—who predated both the import of rock n roll music by at last five years and the emergence of Elvis Presley by seven—adapted and adopted elements of clothing and style from their grandfathers and American cinema, by essentially including a ‘signature’ piece to their outfits. That could be something as small as a ring worn on a finger, a tattoo, a certain colour handkerchief, a delicately brocaded waistcoat or a scarf. The addition of the original and unique item to the standard dress code of fingertip-length ‘drape’ jacket, tapered trousers, brogue or thin crepe soled shoes, bootlace tie and extravagantly quiffed hair enabled the Teddy Boy to be one of the gang—usually defined by the neighbourhood in which members lived—and an artist (without knowing it), utilising the only materials they had. Their look was all-important, a visual statement which spoke far louder and more articulately than they ever could with words.

The group life and intense loyalty of the Teds can be seen as a reaffirmation of traditional slum working-class values …  to lads traditionally lacking in status… there remained only the self, the cultural extension of the self (dress, personal appearance).[9]

Certainly some Teddy Boys sought to show off their lack of deference to the upper classes by copying the style and form of the Edwardian look, and by having original suits made by a chosen tailor, to who the Ted would give strict instruction on length, width, materials etc. However, financial restrictions meant that the majority of young men who would and could be a Ted—and many were still either at school or in apprenticeships and so earning little—took to having either their father or more likely their grandfather’s Edwardian suits and coats adapted by mothers, sisters, girlfriends or tailors, in order to fit them.

The important distinction here between fashion as pure consumer product and as art is the individuality of the Teddy Boy’s style—at least until the look was commodified and mass produced to be sold in department stores. Even then, while elements of the style could and were bought from stores ready-made, the accessories applied to them and the meaning with which the wearer imbued them, was a unique expression of what Richard Martin calls, ‘the maverick, bad-boy self-expression that once was the province of the fine arts bohemianism and Existentialist angst.’[10]

The news media of the early 1950s took notice of the emergence of the Teddy Boy after there had been several instances of ‘turf war’ battles between rival gangs and the supposed ‘Teddy Boy murder’ of 1953 in Clapham, south London. Teds were reviled in print as being juvenile delinquents and dangerous to society in general. The idea of the Ted as an outlandishly dressed thug and/or rebel was disseminated across the UK in newsreels, documentaries and made-up newspaper stories. The shock of the new was such that even Americans began to take note, and the first rock n roll musical hero of the era, Bill Haley And His Comets, were re-dressed in specially made Teddy Boy outfits when they arrived in Britain in 1957 for their first tour.

The swift and effective exploitation of the Teddy Boy phenomenon by the fashion industry was the beginning of a turn toward a new generation of consumers hitherto unrecognised by the retail industries; the teenager. The anti-social inference of the look, at least as it was interpreted by the media, was identified by businessmen as being imperative to the success of their products. It was a lesson not to be forgotten by the industry. ‘In our time, fashion strives to provoke as readily as to appeal … In this capacity, fashion seeks to disclaim society and to declaim the individuality of its single or exceptional wearer.’[11]

The spectacle that Teddy Boys created was an unarticulated artistic statement that, because of its swift immersion into general acceptance by society was rendered as invisible. The outline of the Teddy Boy, from his slicked-back quiff, down to his crepe-soled feet became visual shorthand for a time and an attitude that was temporally fixed. A closer examination of any Teddy Boy from 1951-1955 however, reveals something more subtle and complicated: an artist working in unique materials.

[1] Ways of Seeing, John Berger, p.11 (London, 1972)
[2] The Modernization of Fashion, Anne Hollander, p.29 Design Quarterly, No. 154 (Winter, 1992), pp. 27-33
[3] The Modernization of Fashion, Anne Hollander, p.33 Design Quarterly, No. 154 (Winter, 1992), pp. 27-33
[4] Refashioning Men: Fashion, Masculinity, and the Cultivation of the Male Consumer in Britain, 1860-1914, Brent Shannon p.626 Victorian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Summer, 2004), pp. 597-630
[5] Ibid, p.611
[6] Just So Far, Hardy Amies, (Glasgow, 1954) quoted in Style And Substance, Christopher Breward, p.190, Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective (Oxford, 2003)
[7] Style And Substance, Christopher Breward, p.194, Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective (Oxford, 2003)
[8] Ibid, p.201
9] Cultural Responses of the Teds, Tony Jefferson, p.367 The Men’s Fashion Reader, eds. Peter McNeill and Vicki Karaminas (New York, 2009)
[10] A Note: A Charismatic art The Balance of Ingratiation and Outrage in Contemporary Fashion, Richard Martin p.310, The Men’s Fashion Reader, eds. Peter MacNeill and Vicki Karaminas (New York, 2009)
[11] Ibid

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Britain in the MODern World

In an essay published in the August 13 dated issue of Time magazine, the usually adroit commentator Nick Cohen made the point about the Olympics opening ceremony that, 'when it came to modern Britain, the best Danny Boyle could offer were crass pop songs'. If Mr Cohen watched the closing ceremony he can only have been confirmed in that view. If only there had been Crass songs instead of crass pop, things might have been far more interesting.

But then the Visa Olympics are not meant to be anything more than a two-week long advertising bonanza for the global brands who take most of the money out of the 'Games'. In that, the Brits did the mighty credit card, junk food and European auto industry proud. Britons happily turned Caliban's speech, used in the opening ceremony, into a hymn of praise to the slave masters who exploited, raped, pillaged and murdered the monstrous 'other' that Shakespeare created Caliban to represent. Britain took poor half-mad William Blake's poetic appeal ('Jerusalem') against the ecologically disastrous, polluting, and uncaring industrial revolution and made it into a hymn of praise to 'progress'. 'Jerusalem' should never be sung in celebration of national pride, that would be like asking John Lydon to advertise butter.

Where once Britain ruled the waves and oversaw the dismantling of indigenous civilisations around the world, now she simply serves those who own the brands that set the price of 'freedom' to buy, buy, buy! Watching either of the live-action Olympic extravaganza you cannot help but think that Britain is now defined by the waves of spontaneous, anti-authoritarian pop culture and youth cults which punctuated the latter half of the 20th century, and which have now become icons of marketing cool. Once anti-authoritarian protest songs have become weapons of mass persuasion in the war on people's wallets as waged by Starbucks, McDonalds, HSBC, Coke, Fred Perry and the rest of the homogenous junk-peddlers too numerous to mention.

The Olympic opening and closing ceremonies presented an idea of Britain as a land of rehashed, warmed-up and reconstituted pop culture, and its inhabitants a nation of nostalgia-obsessed, heritage-spewing worker ants striving to keep calm and resolutely backward-looking as the world moves on. The appearance of a bunch of 'Mod' scooters on stage, just like the ridiculous 'pogoing' dolls at the opening fiasco, exploited, trivialised and sanitised the once honest and heartfelt principles on which each youth cult was founded. But that's OK, because now everyone can be a 'Mod', not just the privileged few who came up with the idea in the first place, and if you're willing to pay for the gear then you can buy into any anti-social cult, right?

The willingness of performers to push their back catalogue on any global stage can't be argued with, of course. As much as the sight and sound of child porn site visitor Pete Townshend playing 'Baba O'Reilly' with its chorus of 'teenage wasteland' is obscene, it's still a crowd pleaser ('My Generation' is beyond a joke). Although I'm not sure that crowds of teenagers who've had their paltry £30 a week learning grant removed in order to pay the £9 billion it cost to turn the slums of East London into a ghost town can afford to be that pleased about it. The sheer hypocrisy and cant displayed by the organisers, bands and politicians who wriggled their fat arses in time to the crass pop on offer was unpleasing to me, certainly.

There were far more deserving exponents of British musical excellence who would have made a greater and more relevant representation of past British arts culture. What would the world have made of Robert Wyatt in his wheelchair singing 'Shipbuilding', or 'Stalin Wasn't Stalling'? How about a video-projection of England's greatest stately homo Quentin Crisp relating bon mots from his life instead of the self-hating, hypocritical liar Bulsari, a man so petrified of revealing his sexuality that he entered into a sham marriage and was threatening to sue anyone who dared write that he was gay even on his AIDs-inflicted deathbed?

Why not play Gavin Bryar's majestic 'Sinking of The Titanic', have John Cale perform 'Catastrofuk' instead of the Who, Grasscut instead of Blur, anyone other than Beady Eye, and let Adam Ant on stage to twat that attention-seeking idiot Russell Brand before he opened his mouth? If we must have our past regurgitated for the titillation of visa-swiping morons the world over, where were Linton Kwesi Johnson, Annie Whitehead, John Cooper Clarke, Eve Libertine, PiL and Gang of Four?

Actually, on second thoughts, to quote a man who used to believe that Pete Townshend was someone to look up to, 'the public gets what the public wants'. Problematically, it seems that the public wants a neatly packaged version of the past, and since it has no idea what the definition of 'Mod' is anymore (isn't it an acronym for Mostly Old Dads?), how can there be a future?

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Punks in Mayfair

The Mercs stayed skinhead for a few months in 1983, but by the beginning of December there were signs of a Mohican strip being allowed to grow on each of their heads again. The strip grew down the back of their heads, too this time, not just straight up. The Lizard, being the elder of the brothers, had begun the new hair fashion after making some new junkie-pals in West London. Lou and Dennis shared everything with the Lizard, from beds and various needy women to drug habits and clothes, so naturally they began cultivating their own strip of hair.

The Goth scene had become hip among the former trustafarians of Westbourne Grove who'd moved from Ganja to blow, and finally skag. Subsequently ultra-skinny, pasty-faced rich kids wearing tight black jeans with over-long black topcoats could be seen swapping dangling earrings (complete with small diamonds in them) for small packages on the corner of All Saints Road or up and down the length of Old Oak Road in the very early hours of freezing cold mornings.

The Lizard's new best friend was an exotic, androgynous creature who called himself Manu and had hired a band of session musicians to put his Goth poetry into musical settings that were not a million miles away from those of The Southern Death Cult. One of the musos shared a dealer with the Lizard, and on bumping into him there, had dragged him along to a rehearsal with Manu. Being tall, thin and striking looking, the Lizard had appealed to the singer's visual sense and been asked to join his band (also called Manu). Loathe to leave his brother and cousin in the lurch, Lizard said yes, but only on the agreement that he could play support with The Mercs at all and any gigs Manu might buy into.

Which is how we all got into The Embassy Club one cold and dull Wednesday night. Usually our sort would have been turned away at the door of the West End club—if we'd ever wanted to get in, that is. Because we were on the guest list though, the Kollaps collective couldn't be refused entry. Jerry had a particularly productive and profitable night, collecting a new leather jacket that someone had carelessly left on a seat, several poppers from young men eager to meet the band (Jerry was acting as head roadie for the Mercs) and a wallet containing over £100 that somehow found its way into his skinny black jeans.

The Mercs had adjusted their sound to fit in with the Goth sound that Manu was trying to copy, but they did it with decidedly more edge and volume. Drummer Lou pounded his floor toms while Dennis pummelled the bass and the Lizard shook his psychobilly guitar as if it were a live snake. A highlight was a new song that the Gun Club had inspired, and took its title from Jeffrey Lee Pierce's 'Bad Indian'—Wardance. The dozen of us there to support the Mercs had a great time on the dance floor as they played, but the Embassy regulars clearly had no idea what to make of The Mercs and stayed pretty much way back at the bar.

Manu, being a regular, knew everyone there though, and by the time he took the stage at midnight the dance floor was full of braying Hooray Henrys and Henriettas done up like it was still 1980 and this was Billy's Club. After we'd finished pissing ourselves laughing at them, we decided to pogo into the middle of the dance floor and see how many of the upper class twats we could knock down.

A brief 30 seconds of mayhem followed, until Manu stopped playing, and Lizard took the mic to scream at us—his 'mates'—to stop fucking about and piss off. Jerry slid across to tell us that there were supposed to be A&R men in the audience and that Manu was looking to get a record deal. Lizard was aiming to also get a bit of that deal.

Gobsmacked, we left to get a drink at a local tom's caff that we used when in the West End, before heading back up the Finchley Road—a trip that would lead to arrest and trial at Crown Court, but that's another story. We didn't see The Mercs for a couple of days after that, and when we did, they drew up to the curb outside the Kollaps in an almost brand new Transit van. With only a few words exchanged, they loaded up their clothes, records and gear and left. They were moving into Manu's house in Blenheim Crescent.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Annie & The Werewolf of London

In the summer of 1984, James and Mary squatted a house by the canal in Primrose Hill. Surrounded by scaffolding, the house belonged to British Rail, had a crack in the side wall on the first floor that allowed a clear view of the path and water below and was as close to the railway line at the rear as a signal box. There were three floors, though, and the roof didn't leak, all of the windows were in one piece and it was detached from the neighbouring warehouse, which housed both the London Film Makers Co-operative and the London Musicians Co-operative. On a quiet night you could hear Lol Coxhill squeaking away at the LMC in between trains. Opposite sat a grimy, dark boozer named The Engineer which had a sticky floor, dartboard and an unwelcoming landlord.

James and Mary had to leave the Burn It Down collective and Finchley Road after they became lovers—James had been Ruth's partner of 2 years until he fell in love with Mary. She'd been celibate for two years and was healing a broken heart. James didn't know it, but he was working out a damaged relationship with his mother through his affair with Mary; both women shared physical and emotional traits, being small, dark and violent.

Mary was the youngest of three sisters, and the only one who lived in a squat, and embraced the squatting lifestyle.Her sisters were 'straights', and had 'normal' jobs as secretaries, went to the office every day and paid rent. The eldest sister, Maggie was married to a British Transport inspector, lived in Sussex and had two small children at the wage of 27. Annie, the middle sister, had been living with Martin in a flat in West Hampstead for a year, but in the late summer of that year, they were evicted.

It was the full moon that did it. Martin was a fantastic guitarist, but a serious depressive with delusions of being a werewolf. He was incredibly hairy, his hands and back covered with thick, wiry black hair, his face usually hidden behind a curtain of black bangs that made Phil Oakey's look like a kiss-curl. At first when he and Annie had started living together, she thought that Martin didn't like to go out during the day, which was fine with her, but they didn't go out very often at night either, preferring to stay in and make love. It took a few months, but eventually Annie figured out exactly how weird her boyfriend was, and then she tried to both ignore the weirdness and to assuage it by acting as normally herself as possible.

It was kind of Annie's fault that Martin became a werewolf. She loved his hairiness and started to call him 'Wolfy', and encouraged him to role play as a werewolf with her in the privacy of their two-room flat. Martin loved Annie but more dangerously, he needed her in order to continue to exist, so he really got into the role she wanted him to play. During the day Martin would play the most fantastic blues guitar all day and every day on his own. At night he'd howl—softly at first—to Annie as she cooked and after eating they'd make the two-backed beast in every corner and on every surface in their tiny rooms.

Annie and Martin's strange existence went on for months, the wild times interspersed with periods of complete shut-down for Martin, when he'd take to his bed and not move, talk, eat or drink for days, no matter what Annie did. The eviction came after neighbours complained about the terrible howling, crying and banging that went on until 4am on the night of a full moon, during what and been one of Martin's shut-down periods.  By this time, he really believed that he was a werewolf, and locked himself into the flat—locking Annie out of it—in order to undergo the change and not hurt Annie. The 'change' that affected Martin had him tear off his clothes and trash the flat completely. Annie spent the night at the door trying to calm Martin down, sobbing and shouting at her lover.

Which is how Annie and the Werewolf came to live in the squatted house by the canal in Primrose Hill. Martin and James got on really well; 'He really likes you!' Annie would tell James every day on her way out of the door to work, dressed in her straight clothes, leaving her lycanthropic lover in his black-painted bedroom on the top floor. And it was true, Martin liked James. He liked him so much that he would only talk to James and Annie, no-body else, no matter what. Which made James uneasy, and feeling the weight of responsibility, he started staying at other squats instead of the house by the canal.

Naturally this made Mary annoyed, Annie disappointed and Martin perplexed. When James did appear at the house by the canal, it wouldn't take long before Mary and he were in a fight, which inevitably led to Martin howling and holding his head in a foetal curl on the stone floor of the kitchen where most of the fights happened, it being the main route into and out of the house.

Later, after he'd disappeared never to be heard of again, Annie discovered that Martin's parents, who had been delighted when their only son moved in with her, had been prone to indulging in physically violent bouts of domestic violence. They'd fought viciously from when their son was a toddler until he'd been sectioned for the first time, aged 16 (he'd slashed his wrists). "Oh, he does that from time to time", Martin's mother droned to Annie down the telephone line. "He'll disappear for a few days, but he usually turns up in a police station or psychiatric ward. Isn't there a big one near you dear? At the Royal Free? I'd go and look there first if I were you. Do let me know when you find him".

Annie looked for her werewolf for months, calling police stations, psychiatric wards and Martin's parents once a week, but with no luck. Eventually she stopped looking, reasoning that his parents would be the ones to best take care of him. Plus, she'd fallen in love with L, a saxophonist and self-styled beatnik who moved between various squats, including the house by the canal. Mary would eventually have L's child and he'd be happy enough to see the kid every few months—if he was clean of the smack.