(Excerpt from Stairway To Nowhere)
The thing about U2 in England in 1980 is that they are a great band. They are vibrant, passionate, energetic, they are on a mission they believe in.
And then there’s Fàshiön – exhausted from two years on the road, a road littered with broken and false promises, going through the motions with very little new material, slowly being devoured by internal dispute and dissent. Apart from that we’re doing just fine!
In fact, Miles Copeland (manager of The Police and head of IRS Records) will be later quoted in New Musical Express saying: “Fàshiön are all at sea – but doing quite well”.
Ah there’s nothing like having your record company’s backing … and that’s nothing like having your record company’s backing. More like having them behind you with a fistful of daggers. But I digress …
U2 have great songs and put on great shows. It’s a bit like touring with a bunch of really nice, well-behaved boy next door types. They don’t do any of the booze or drugs. If there had been any groupies they wouldn’t have done them either. No, they show up, treat everyone with courteous respect, play amazing music, then say goodnight and drive back to their bed and breakfast in a battered old transit van.
The U2 “tour”, with only a couple of provincial exceptions, turns out to consist of gigs in London’s smaller clubs, clubs we’d first played back when we thought we were on our way up.
First stop, May 22, is The Hope & Anchor, Upper Street, Islington, London.
“I see we’re back playing in someone’s mouth again.” I say, eying the red painted walls and dangerously low ceiling of The Hope & Anchor.
“Some of my happiest moments have been spent playing inside someone’s mouth.” Dik says.
“Pity we didn’t all become dentists instead,” I say, “Then again …”
“What’s he moaning about now?” Annette asks.
“Oh, the usual,” Mulligan says, “Everything.”
I watch Whistling Pete and Pedro try not to get squashed lowering bass cabs through the street level trap door that in former times was used to load huge barrels of beer into the pub cellar.
“I was just saying, we were here two years ago, that’s all. Remember there was that journalist bird from Record Mirror. Gave us a great review, she did.” I say.
“That’s not all. She gave great he—”, Mulligan says.
“Yes, yes, alright, alright. Spare us the grizzly details. True and otherwise.” I say. Then to Annette, “So is there going to be any press here tonight, boss?”
“I’m sure the usual will be here. NME, Sounds, Melody Maker.”
“Tractor Breeding Monthly?” I suggest. “Wasp Farming Quarterly? The British Journal of Dung?”
“Shut up Luke.”
“Hello. Are you Fashion?” asks a fresh-faced lad, “I’m Bono. I’m the singer with U2.”
“Very nice to meet you Bongo.” Dik says.
“Yeah, welcome to the big time mate.” I say.
“Take no notice of them Bono.” Annette says to Bono, who has a slight smile on his face. “No one else does.”
She squints at her file-o-fax.
“We’re opening the show for you tonight. You open for us tomorrow at The Moonlight Club.,” she says, “So, we’ll get set up, and if you can have you back line ready at the side of the stage—”
“That postage stamp-sized thing over there,” I say. “That’s the stage.”
“Shut up Luke.”
“And next to it, that alcove where they stack the mops and sawdust, that’s the dressing room.” I say, “Watch your head on the ceiling.”
Luke Sky: guitar and vocals
Mulligan: Bass and synth
Dik Davis: Drums
Band meeting, Birmingham, England – July 1978
Mulligan, dyed platinum dreadlocks flying behind him like jet stream, bursts into the room.
“The Cla …. The Cla … The Cla…” He pants.
“You’ve got the clap?” Dik asks.
“What, again?” I add.
“No … The Cla ….”
“You really should cut down on the fags you know.”
“No stamina these keyboard players.” I tell Dik “What do you expect though? They just stand there all night.”
“The sodding Clash!” Mulligan explodes.
“Congratulations. A complete sentence. Sort of.”
“I knew he could do it.”
“WE’VE GOT A GIG WITH THE CLASH!”
“It’s those night school classes he’s been – WHAT!? What did you just say?”
Mulligan has got his breath back. He sniffs and turns his back.
“Never mind never mind, arse face, what did you just say?” Dik demands.
“Come on Jon. What? A gig? With The Clash? You’re kidding, right? Like that time you told us your granddad was a captain in the IRA.”
“I’m not telling you now.” Mulligan sulks, but I can see malicious glee is all but straightening his dreadlocks.
“What we need in a situation like this is a manager.” I say, “So we’d know what’s going on.”
“Or a swift knee in the bollocks.” Dik says.
“Oh, alright then. I was in town and I ran into Corky. He needs a band this Saturday to open for The Clash at Barbarellas. He said we could do it if we want.”
“If we bleedin’ well want to?!” I’m hopping around the room like a totem pole on the loose.
“Hang on,” Dik says, “It’s Friday today innit. That means, tomorrow night?”
“Yeah.” Mulligan says, “You aren’t busy are you? Washing your pubes or anything?”
“Right after the gig Jon, that’s precisely what I plan on doing.” Dik says. “Right, rehearsal tonight men. There’s gonna be some skankin’ white men in Barbarellas tomorrow night!”
The rehearsal is absolutely terrible, Nobody’s mind is on what they’re doing. We’re all time traveling forward to sharing a dressing room and then a stage with Joe Strummer and his pals. I forget the words and try to make up for it by playing chords that have no business being anywhere near a guitar neck. Mulligan’s synth plays itself when it feels like it, mostly between numbers, and it’s only the relentless fury of Dik’s drumming that occasionally holds the whole thing together. Not that he sees it that way.
“I can’t decide whether I sound like I’m building a bloody shed or pushing a suit of armor down our cellar stairs.” he says.
“Oh shut up, you tart. This is the third string I’ve broken this afternoon. And what the sodding hell is up with that bloody Wasp Jon?”
“I think it’s lonely.” Mulligan says, and as if in agreement the black and yellow, touch-sensitive keyboard lets out a sad, dribbling sounds not unlike a farting badger being blown off a cliff.
“Well lads,” Miki says, “You know what they say, lousy rehearsal, brilliant gig.”
“So on the strength of today we’ll blow The Clash offstage then.” I say.
“Here, here big nose,” Dik says, “a bit less of the blasphemy if you don’t mind. Strummer be his name.”
I’m at home practicing for when we’re on Top of the Pops, skank dancing in front of the wardrobe mirror, miming to Product Perfect. The neighbors are probably banging on the wall but I can’t hear them. I ponder the eternal question, if a neighbor knocks on the wall but there’s no guitarist around to hear it, is he still making too much noise?
Then I decide more important matters are in need of my attention. I bring my Technofascist Doc Martens to a halt, set the John Birch custom on its stand, and go into the kitchen to get the boot polish and my brush. The docs are going to be polished to mirror-finish tonight. There’s a knock on the back door and it topples into the kitchen. I really must get around to rehanging it on its hinges sometime – that was some party though. So they tell me. Dik comes into the room like Taz off the Bugs Bunny show, a whirlwind of hair, knuckles, drumsticks and invective. He pirouettes to a halt in the middle of the floor and lets out a bellow of rage.
“Nice of you to pop round.” I spit on the toe of my left Doc and attack it with the brush.
“That wanker! I’ll bleedin’ swing for him, I swear I will! He’s only pulled us.”
“Pulled us?” I’m not really listening. I often don’t.
“Corky. From the gig tonight.”
His voice sinks to a low growl filled with the promise of extremely painful retribution.
“He’s pulled us and put those New York poufters Suicide in our place. I’m gonna-“
“-please. Spare me the details. They can’t be any worse than the ones I’m thinking.”
Mulligan creeps into the kitchen. He looks like some severely depressed Revlon field mouse who’s lost his tea party.
“We have to do something.” I declare.
Mulligan digs in his jumpsuit pocket and pops a handful of small purple pills into his mouth.
“I’ll put the kettle on.” I say.
“It won’t fit. And besides, it doesn’t go with your eyes.” Miki has trailed in behind Mulligan. He lights a B&H, so he now has one in each hand.
As Mulligan subsists almost entirely on a diet of toast and pills it only takes about ten minutes for the purple hearts to gallop through his empty stomach into his blood stream. Somewhere around my second cup of tea, his head snaps up.
“Bollocks to ‘em.” He says, “we’ll do a gig anyway. Our own gig.”
“Great idea, Jon. I mean it’s not as if anyone’s going to Barbs tonight to see The Clash is it. They’ll all need something to do.”
“No, come on. Sod this for a game of tinnies. It’s us against the world, right?”
“Apparently.” Dik mumbles, but then he gets a sudden devilish look on his face. “Jon’s right. Us against the world. Come on lanky, shake a leg, we’ve got a gig to organize.
I’m standing with Miki at the back doors of the van. He’s just driven it over the pedestrian-only little humpback bridge outside the main entrance to The Canon Hill Arts Center. No trolls were harmed in the parking of this van.
“Barbarella’s has changed a bit then.” Miki observes. B&H smoke swirls around him like Sherlockian fog.
“Yes,” he says, unraveling the electric cable holding the back doors of the van closed, “it’s amazing what a dab of paint and turfing over Broad Street can do for a club’s ambiance.”
“We’ll be needing a bleedin’ ambulance if you don’t shut it.”
“Oh yeah? You and who’s army sunshine?”
Mulligan bursts out of the arts center doors and hares towards the van.
“His.” I say.
“Oooh, you big butch cowboy, you know I love it when you talk dangerous.”
“Alright chaps?” Mulligan wants to know.
“Just fine and dandy.” I say with a face as long as the line currently winding its way round Barbarellas to see The Clash.
“How you are adjusting to life in the army Mulligan?” Miki asks him but Mulligan has already learned to disregard the more surreal of Miki’s questions. Which is most of them, then.
“Let’s get in and get set up.” Mulligan says and then I need you to take me back to my place please Miki. With the van. To pick up a few things.
I stand and marvel at the stage, upon which sits a good deal of Mulligan’s flat. There’s the sculpture from the bog, the one that always confuses me as to where I’m supposed to piss. His biggest paintings are strung from invisible cables so that the minotaur on the black and white checkered floor looks as if he’s about to step over and adjust the stack of televisions. There are ten television stacked on a board that’s balanced on the backs of a couple of female shop window dummies posed down on their hands and knees. All very Korova milkbar, I’m sure.
Dik’s standing onstage wielding the mystic Premier drum key and doing mysterious things only drummers pretend to understand to the 3-D jigsaw puzzle of his kit. There are a couple of motorbikes parked either end of the stage. Center stage, a large white screen is silently showing one of those old black and white French films, all full of rotting dog carcasses, eyeballs being sliced by razor blades, and other things the French think of as art.
Then those two thin white dukes in trench coats I’d met last week at Mulligans walk onstage, and start setting up a couple of amps and a keyboard. What were they called again?
“Duran Duran.” Mulligan says coming up behind me and making me jump.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“They’re going to open the show for us. That’s their screen and projector.
“Very multi-media, I’m sure. Where’s Miki?”
“Up the village. In the pubs, trying to get a few punters down the hill.” He tugs a pocket watch from his jacket pocket, “He should be back in a minutes, then we’ll do sound checks. I’ve got a couple of phone calls to make” And he rushes off like a dreadlocked white rabbit.
Afterwards, how did I feel about the show: Fashion and Duran Duran at The Cannon Hill Arts Center on that night in July of 1978? We’re helping hump Mulligan’s furniture and artwork back into his flat around about half past midnight? And I’m surprised to find I actually ended up having a great time. I managed to shake off the depression of losing what would have been at that time the most important gig I’d ever played.
I’d actually quite enjoyed Duran Duran – they were a bit synthy and drum machiney, but they had a few other good songs as well as that Girls On Film we’d heard on their demo tape. They were a bit funky in places, that John could play bass by slapping it with his thumb which is quite impressive, then again, I am easily impressed. Add in Nick’s synths meeps and warbles, and decent singer in Andy Wickett, and their set had seemed a good enough soundtrack for the black and white arty, Frech films they’d projected behind them.
And whereas there were only about 50 people in the whole 200-seater theatre, I did actually manage to get into our songs. We played a tight set, twisting and dipping, roaring and whooshing, in all the right places, all the right notes in the right order sort of thing. I completely forgot where I was, and why I was there, and those 50 punters must have picked up on that because they did a Dr. Who Tardis number on the theater, and somehow seemed to fill the place. It was only our eighth gig and despite the circumstances it felt like progress.
I’m tired, sweaty and almost happy as we unload the gear back into Mulligan’s flat.
“Help me get the sculpture back in the bog.” Mulligan says.
“Good idea.” I say “I’m dying for a slash.”
I can see everything from up here you know, all the way to the door at the back where Frank’s not bothering to check most of the IDs. I’m as drunk as the rest of my fellow revelers, probably more than most, as I’m breathing the fumes rising from the trough of fermentation that is the bar well. Not that you can tell because at 6 foot 9 I’m drunk at altitude. I’ve barely filled myself up to just above the knees. Blessed be the tallest man in the bar. Not only can I clock the birds, scout for the girls from up here, I’m also handily above the majority of the inane drunken babble that’s going on down there. I can though, with a slight bend of the knees and a bit of a lean forward, lower myself to give or even on occasion receive a bon mot, a bad joke or a cool quip.
Being drunk in America is different when you’re 6 foot 9. Being anything or anywhere in America is different when you’re 6 foot 9. Different from the land of my birth. England. Not so sodding Great anymore if it ever was in the first place Britain, those Septic Isles set in a sea of phlegm-colored effluent. In Britain the different, including the physically different are derided, sneered at, taunted , laughed at as freaks – all out in public in loud voices. These supposed inhibited little titchy people will loudly yell “fuckin’ ‘ell Barry, look at that freak over Thayer. Hey lamppost what’s the weather like up there. What a state, look at him, shouldn’t be allowed. Fucking freak.” The denizens of this land of conformity hate anything or anyone that by daring to look different reminds them of the crushing weight of their conformity. Children will dance and chant and taunt down around your ankles and girls will call you Frankenstein while they go off to pub with the normal sized captain of the cricket team on the back of his motorbike.
In pubs in my car factory hometown of Birmingham I was often picked on by drunks who were too drunk to care whether they beat up or were beaten up by the biggest fucking freak yow ever saw. Just as long as they had something to tell their fellow morons on the track at British Leyland, or in the dole queue, next day.
But that’s England, it’s different here in America where everything’s bigger anyway, right? Just ask a Texan. There is though a cultural crossover where I encounter an increasing number of Indian and Pakistani people who grew up under the crushing yoke of the legacy of colonial British rule. They tend to peer up at me, not quite yet assimilated into the cultural mores of their new country, and I see the flicker of astonishment, the knee jerk reaction to smirking derisive laughter, hastily quelled by the sudden realization that they are now in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and the tall.
In America there’s this whole pantheon of tall heroes, men who have their heads in the clouds of ambition from long legged Texas rangers to basketball players, being tall in America is admired not sneered at.
In American bars being this tall means you often get served quicker at a crowded bar, it means with a bigger body mass you can hold your drink, and girls? Well a lot of the time American girls look up to you, look up at you … while trying to gauge the contents of your pants.
I was picking up a pizza at Big Kaisers the other day and there was a gaggle of high school kids behind me. As I turned to leave clutching my box of tasty Americaness one of them said: “Excuse me sir, are in the NBA.” I smiled modestly and said, “well I used to be.” “Wow,” said the youth nudging his buddies as I went out through the door “he was in the NBA dude.”
Yep I thought as I folded my foot too tall ass into the interior of my Mazda 626, as a man who has never played a game basketball in his life I was nevertheless once NBA, National British Aberration. Not any more though, not now I’ve found where I truly belong, where I fit in, the US of A. The tallest man in the bar.
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.
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.
“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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.