As should have become apparent by now, as a child – at least – I was pretty confused about life on planet Earth. I was looking for a degree of consistency that didn’t seem to exist. I spent a reasonable amount of time trying to work things out but, to be honest, most of the time I just didn’t know where to start because I didn’t know anything. So, what I’d normally do would be to take the dog for a walk and drift off into fantasy land.
Lacking not only the basic knowledge with which to exist on Earth but also imagination, my early fantasies consisted of replaying other people’s fantasies that I’d heard about. Some of them were quite appealing – being a train driver, a spaceman, that sort of thing. Initially, the fantasies were, by most people’s standards, pretty dull affairs that focused on my doing a good job and receiving admiration and respect from governments and individuals alike. When fantasies about doing a worthwhile job grew dull, I expanded my repertoire to include, mainly, the rescuing of various people: my parents, teachers I disliked, famous people, animals, you know. Later, having seen Billy Liar, I missed the central point of the film – that living in a fantasy world might seem safe, but maybe it’ll stop you doing things you probably ought to actually get on with – and combined my previous fantasies into an overall (non) experience in a place a bit like Ambrosia. Actually, it was more or less identical to Ambrosia, including Julie Christie as Foreign Minister. As I say, I lacked imagination.
I read Psychology at university and found that this sort of thing is common: there are stages of fantasies that people tend to go through and mine were dead normal. Do you hear? Normal.
Once I’d realigned my priorities and decided that things such as doing a good job and getting patted on the head for it were bollocks, my fantasies dissipated and I found myself returning to one particular scene.
Paris, 1968. I would be a penniless writer living in a garret above the Moulin Rouge. Not in the Windmill, in the garret immediately to the left of it. I would write day and night on an unreliable sit up and beg typewriter; my words lauded by absinthe affected smokers on the Left Bank but, tantalisingly, not into enough money to support myself and my stereotypically Gallic tempered girlfriend who, I imagined, would be a dancer downstairs. Upper class yet poor, she would be slumming it, maintaining a tolerant front in the face of dirty old men ogling her just so as to keep me in fags and booze instead of following her own passion as a librarian. Or possibly a vet. Something sensitive and worthy; the details weren’t important, the main thing was that she was suffering daily out of devotion to me. Cheers.
She’d come in from a hard night of kicking her legs up and showing her frilly knickers for money and start chucking stained and chipped crockery at my head, shouting in broken English with a heavy French accent, “Why eez there nevehr eny murhnee, huh? Whhhhhyyyyyy?”
And I would pour myself another fucking Drambuie and eloquently soliloquise on her beauty and her spirit and her worth. And then we’d have noisy, passionate, hot sex. Probably on my tatty old desk, spilling treacly coffee all over my most recent and profound philosophical musings, but I wasn’t even bothered.
In the moments that followed, we’d smoke and gaze lugubriously and meaningfully and sadly into one another’s eyes before wordlessly rising, dressing in polo necks and three button suede jackets, joining the student barricades, sucking on lemons to negate the effects of CS gas.
Periodically, my unnamed, altruistic French girlfriend would die in my arms as a result of Police brutality and I’d drink myself to death, leaving only a manuscript behind, detailing the wondrous life and achievements of whatever my girlfriend’s name was.
Again, it’s not as if this was some form of original fantasy really: most of it came from a season of programmes on Channel 4 about the Paris riots of 1968 that I saw in 1988. Evidently, so did Ian Brown and John Squire, so when the first Stone Roses album came out, I was primed for it in most ways, including the most ephemeral. From the same source material, I was more or less Billy Liar and they were actually doing something.
1968 was my favourite year of the 1960s. Specifically, autumn going into winter. Hey Jude’s number one, The White Album’s just come out, everything’s fucking ace. I dressed the part, too. A second hand clothes shop which would now be described as ‘vintage’ called Beasley’s in the old town had piles of suede jackets and jeans from the sixties going dirt cheap. I couldn’t afford desert boots and they weren’t really around at that point anyway, so I wore deck shoes at £5 a pop from Debenhams. My feet were generally wet in those days.
I read about 1968, too. There was a tome that appeared in the remainder bookshops called Days In The Life by Jonathon Green that was an oral history of the late sixties – mainly London, but with sojourns to Paris, to my lasting joy.
As you doubtless know yourself, the more deeply you look into an area that piques your interest, the more you tend to find that the rule of diminishing returns takes hold: there’s only so much relevant stuff and there’s plenty of other bits and pieces that aren’t related to your area of interest. The same went for me. There was only so much that anyone could say about three or four months’ worth of information that related to a very particular part of history. I would like to add that my background digging wasn’t exclusively done in order to flesh out my grotty little misogynistic fantasy that revolved around my being pitiful and women who were barely more than a pencil sketch pitying me. It didn’t do any harm, though…
What you do find is other stuff. At first, it might not really appeal so much as that which you’re searching for but, at some point, the other stuff can lead you elsewhere. And it did.
In a recent Mojo magazine – for boring, middle-aged men like me – there was an article on 1968. Fifty years ago, eh? What it was mainly about was the blues explosion that took over from all the frippery of 1967 and all that psychedelia that about twenty people in central London were into at the time. I hate the blues. I don’t hate all that much music, in terms of entire genres, but blues is one of them. The other main one is swing. Fucking Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and all that shit. No thank you.
I digress: The Blues, let me count the ways I loathe thee. With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning
I loathe thee to the depth and breadth and height of the fuck faces that the guitarists pull,
I loathe thee to the level of every day’s fucking boring, self-pitying grunting.
I loathe thee freely, as men strive for that presumed depth of suffering that it supposedly details.
Yeah, so I don’t like it, even though the self-pitying aspect ought really to be right up my street.
But 1968 wasn’t just about The Beatles’ White Album and shitty blooze rawk. The big thing, especially in America, was bubblegum pop. It didn’t last very long, although Sugar, Sugar, by The Archies was the best-selling single of 1969, so it carried on for a bit longer. The bands that I want to talk about weren’t even really bands a lot of the time.
The 1910 Fruitgum Company and The Ohio Express were the big hitters, both coming out of the Kasanetz-Katz – Buddah Records stable. Simon Says; 1,2,3 Red Light and Indian Giver were the 1910 Fruitgum Co’s big hits; Yummy, Yummy, Yummy; Chewy Chewy and Sweeter Than Sugar were The Ohio Express’s. There were millions of other ‘bands’ who weren’t really bands at all: 1989 Musical Marching Zoo, JCW Ratfinks, St. Louis Invisible Marching Band, and stacks more. They were all a front for Joey Levine, Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffrey Katz’s songwriting and singing.
By 1968, pop music had developed into rock music. I put that down to the fucking blooze as well. The important things about rock music, so far as I can gather are: authenticity, technical ability and talking yourself quite seriously. Bubblegum pop was the polar opposite of all of these things. The bands were entirely inauthentic, there were no virtuosos in bubblegum pop because the songs were so basic and anyway, nobody in these bands was playing instruments on the singles. And humour was a big part of it. Mainly sexual innuendo, my favourite example of which comes from JCW Ratfinks’ Magic Windmill:
At the end of my room there is a Magic Windmill,
Friends all say it’s made of wood, but it’s my magic Windmill,
At the end of the end of the day, when I come home to stay, Magic Windmill,
Something happens again, I don’t have to pretend, Magic Windmill,
When I think of the life that I’m living, it often makes me feel like running away,
Magic Windmill keeps me up and keeps me living every single day.
Then, the coup de grace: It only stands for love.
In other words, when you have a shitty day, don’t worry about it, go to your room and have a wank. It’s always nice to find other people who share your perspective, isn’t it? Even if they shared it three years before you were born. “Rude!“ As my friend Dave’s mum would shout at me in public. “Rude!” And it is.
The Ohio Express might have appeared to the casual listener to be merely obsessed with food but closer inspection reveals that, whilst their fixation may well have been oral, it wasn’t food that they were keen on people shoving into their mouths. Not in the conventional sense of the word, anyway.
What I liked about Bubblegum Pop, apart from the infantile allusions to sexual innuendo was the instrumentation. I’m a sucker for a Hammond organ (organ, yeah, cheers) and it was all pretty perky.
In Midnight Cowboy (1969, natch), Nilsson sings, “I’m going where the weather suits my clothes…” The weather might not have suited my clothes, especially my shoes, but Bubblegum Pop suited them. Underneath my suede jackets, I tended to wear striped t shirts, picking out things that I expect my mother might have made me wear when I was about five. I don’t know why I did that, but I did. Consciously, too. I think I enjoyed having a glib response to common questions. Nothing much changes…
Diversion – Neil Young
Quite a few of my friends are into Neil Young. God knows I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. I can tell that he’s good and all that, but it makes no difference because I can only cope with his voice for about twenty minutes, by which time, I’m aching for something a bit lower pitched.
End of Diversion
The problem with Bubblegum Pop – and there’s almost always a problem with everything, isn’t there? – is that it’s a bit like Neil Young: it drives you a bit crackers if you overdo it. And once you’ve overdone it, you develop a tolerance to it, meaning that you might start inflicting it on other people. People who are into The fucking blooze and Neil Young, mainly. Not exclusively, mind. Most people have a very limited tolerance for it.
So, twenty minutes was about right for a Bubblegum Pop session. At that time, the weekly music papers were in the habit of giving away cassettes that had b-side material, live versions, demos and whatnot by bands that the magazines covered. The tapes were short, only about ten minutes per side and there was never anything worth keeping on them, so I’d shove a fag paper over the lug that stopped you taping over it and make compilation tapes of Bubblegum Pop records from about 1968 on them. I called them Happy Tapes, because they were. As far as I was concerned, anyway.
So far, so good.
Prior to what I’m about to tell you, my only experience of a stuck cassette in a car stereo was when I worked at Trading Standards. I’d managed to get The Rolling Stones’ “Got Live If You Want It” stuck. If you’ve never heard it, it’s a horrible record, mainly consisting of girls screaming, with the occasional drum hit poking through the cacophony. To be frank, you don’t want it and neither did I. It wasn’t a great six months for music in my car, which I got rid of when I went to university, because who needs a car at university, right? I was planning on being too battered to drive most of the time anyway, and the money would come in handy.
That was one thing, but the next time it happened was on the drive back from Exeter with the girl who was soon to become my ex-girlfriend for about the tenth and final time.
After graduating and finding out that my girlfriend had been shagging everything with a relatively recent pulse, I went out with a girl who was studying Social Policy at Hull for about six months, telling my unfaithful girlfriend that I’d had enough, having found out about all her shagging around. That went alright until about Christmas when the Social Policy girl turned out to be far too pleasant and understanding and I yearned for a bit of excitement. A bit of unpredictability. So, I left her and, following the pattern of the previous four years, went back out with the shagabout.
Things were, as usual, idyllic for the first three months and then I started pissing her off. I wasn’t really doing anything much: half-heartedly in a band or two, reading books, watching films, getting off my tits, that sort of thing. She was still at university, doing a four year course. She was being constructive and I was just dicking around, really.
By May, when she’d completed her finals, we went on holiday to Exeter to stay at her parents’ house. Her parents weren’t there because they were in their villa in the Algarve, La-di-dah. We stayed at her friend’s in Bath for a night and then made our way to Exeter, where her parents’ house was situated backing onto an enormous, grassed valley. I didn’t know it, but this valley was where I would spend most of the week. Alone and in high dudgeon.
On the first night, the Italian kid she’d run off with rang up. She told me that he was planning on coming over to stay in England and speak at some anti-facist rallies because he was pretty groovy, you see. Fucking dreadlocks. My arse.
As far as girlfriends go, my belief has generally been this: if they’re going to leave you, they’re going to leave you. No point wailing about it, no point getting aerated about it, if they don’t want to know, they don’t want to know.
Not at that precise moment though. What hurt was seeing how happy she was, having spoken to her old boyfriend again. How thrilled she was that he was coming over – probably staying with us. No, actually, not us: her. I’d get kicked out, even if only temporarily. I recognised the look of joy because it was the same one I used to get when I turned up in the early days. Those days were long gone and weren’t coming back.
I told her I felt a bit nervous about him coming over, what with her having dumped me for him about eighteen months prior. I felt concerned because she was clearly so pleased that he’d been in touch and all I ever did was say stupid things in front of her cultured friends at dinner parties that she threw.
It went down quite badly, my expressing concern. No, it went down very badly indeed. I didn’t trust her (no shit, I wonder why?), I didn’t care about her, I didn’t care about the fight against fascism, and on it went.
Eventually, I posited the concept that, as a country renowned for fascism, maybe her ex would be better off fixing the issues in his own back yard before coming over here and telling us nobheads how to do it. That went down really badly, funnily enough and she accused me of not understanding, which was reasonable because I didn’t. Probably. Unless I did, which I might have.
Anyway, in frustration, I did something most out of character: I punched the living room door. It must have been some sort of flimsy, southern door because my hand went straight through it. She was, understandably on this occasion, upset that I had begun to wreck her parents’ house within half an hour of being in it and started hitting me with a table lamp, which I thought possibly negated her point, but I had just enough about me to realise that, at that point, discretion was the better part of valour, so I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t going to do anything either because I couldn’t get my hand out of the door and I could feel blood dribbling down my fingers on the other side of it. Extricating my hand and injuring it further on vast splinters that I could feel protruding under my flesh, I bled on the carpet, provoking further ire.
The upshot was that I spent my nights alone on the settee in the living room and the days sat reading in the valley behind the house, listening to Jonathan Richman on my walkman. About ten or twelve hours a day. I got through some books. And batteries.
We didn’t speak at all until the last day, when she finally managed to bring herself to point out how I was seemingly incapable of doing anything right as we packed our belongings and loaded up the car which, when the time came to leave, wouldn’t start. For fuck’s sake. A passing horse rider towed us off the steep drive before we could set off on a one way conversation that comprised a very, very long litany of complaints directed at me.
On AA maps, it says it takes about five hours to drive from Exeter to Hull. It didn’t take us five hours, it was closer to seven or eight. In addition to the car not starting, the tape I’d had in it last had become totally stuck. It was a Happy Tape. Twenty minutes consisting of about eight Bubblegum Pop singles. The stereo wouldn’t even turn off. Working out the maths, I suppose we listened to that tape somewhere between 21 and 25 times, which would be too much of any music, really, but with it being Bubblegum pop, well…
Eventually, by the time we were approaching Worcester, she announced, “Oh yeah, and I can’t stand your music either,”
That, I could understand.
When we finally arrived back at our house, I was directed to fuck off back to my parents’. I asked her if that was it. Were we fucked? She said she didn’t know and she’d be in touch when she calmed down.
A few days later, I was told that we were having a trial separation for a month, during which time I was to “sort myself out.” Get myself somewhere to live that wasn’t under her feet, cut down my hours at the Odeon, get on some post graduate course, etc, etc, etc.
So I did. I did all of the things she told me to do and, when we met up after a heartbreaking but relatively productive month during which time I’d seen her out with at least three lads, I told her how I’d sorted out all the things she told me to and would she have me back? And she said, “No.”
She moved into a new house with some of her mates who sympathised with her about what a dickhead I was and how much better off she was without me. Then, after about a week, one of them knocked on my door and asked what I’d done to her because she was being weird.
I explained that this was what she was like, this is what I’d been telling them for months. You know when you have a conversation with someone and they get the wrong end of the stick? It had begun to happen with increasing frequency as out relationship went on. For months, every single conversation we’d had consisted of her getting the wrong end of the stick. Because I was a dickhead was her considered verdict and, again, I just thought she knew better than I did. I advised her friend to ring my ex’s dad up and see what he had to say. He was a poet/lecturer. A lovely man, actually. He gave me a poem called Contagion, about how he thought he was exchanging coded messages with the milkman though the placement of empty and full bottles of milk outside the step. It turned out that they’d both gotten the wrong of the stick too, so perhaps there was a precedent in her DNA or something. It was an excellent poem. Anyway, he came to collect her and she ended up being sectioned for six months, then doing a runner before getting caught on a fishing boat in the Solent with about eight million anti-psychotic tablets in her bag. Her dad told me I shouldn’t blame myself because she’d always had tendencies towards this sort of thing. He told me he thought she’d seemed much better with me and he’d hoped that might be the end of it.
Years later, she got in touch again just to tell me to take no notice of her dad: she’d not been in a single relationship since I broke her heart and, more pertinently, I was totally responsible for her breakdown and if possible, she was going to take me to court for it.
I don’t know what sort of charges she might have brought, but if one of them had been, “Forcing me to listen to the same eight Bubblegum Pop records for seven hours straight in a car,” I think I might have pleaded guilty.