It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll

It is Tuesday the ninth of June, 1981, and I am just finishing Paul Weller’s guitar. The Jam is performing at a concert this week and Paul wants his Rickenbacker to be perfect, the action and intonation just right. Dave, the electronics engineer, has made a special electronic device for tuning the octaves, and I have been doing just that but it is an awkward job with this particular make of guitar. The bridge is a bitch to tune, but I have persevered and it is now as good as it will ever be.

It’s half past four and I will be going home in about an hour and a half, and so I start to clear the work bench and put my tools away. Then I sit down on my stool, a tall chair with a high back that was once David Bowie’s, and pick up the guitar and start to play. I do this with every guitar that I repair. For me there is nothing better than to relax in the chair and run my fingers up and down a well set-up fingerboard. Rickenbacker necks are thin and uncomfortable to play in comparison to say a Gibson, but I am soon strumming complicated chords and playing fast rock runs. It is great in the workshop around this time, just sitting there playing, knowing there is nothing more to do than amuse yourself with your favourite instrument. And that’s just what I am doing when Joe the jazz guitarist walks in. He has his Gibson 345 with him, a beautiful instrument with a sunburst top and an inlaid neck.

“Howareyadoing, Joe,” I say, looking up and stopping playing.

“Just great,” he replies, jumping up on the bench and sitting down.

We talk about guitars for a few minutes and then start jamming, Joe playing lead and me strumming chords and riffs. We begin with ‘Something in the way she moves’ by George Harrison. The opening chord is C major, then it slips into a C major seven. There is nothing in the world like a major seven chord. It has a sort of celestial sound, and Joe loves this and his fingers whiz over the fingerboard of his Gibson and out flows this wonderful tune. Both our guitars are plugged into a Fender Reverb amp and it’s out of this world and the music is soft and round and beautiful, and Joe says, “Do you fancy a line of speed?” and I say, “Sure … I’ve got some good grass too.” So he stops playing and scrapes some powder out onto a flat surface and we snort the stuff through a five pound note. Then we roll a joint filled with grass and start smoking, and nobody in the music shop bothers about this because we’re all high on something, whether it’s drugs or big-macs from MacDonald’s or sex. John downstairs in the main shop can’t get enough of the latter and it’s gotten him into a whole lot of trouble, but that’s another story; and Pete the accountant can’t stop wanking in the bog — he sits in there for hours with a copy of Penthouse. But we don’t care. It all seems so normal, and so we smoke the joint and the speed is coursing through our veins and we’re feeling great, everything is so fucking great. And Bill comes into the workshop and squats on the floor with a set of bongos. They’re nestled comfortably between his slim legs and he’s tapping them rhythmically, natural as breathing, and his dark, curly hair is hanging down over his face, covering his brown eyes and lightly tanned skin, but his hooked nose is jutting out, and it is a visible reminder that his great grandmother was an American Indian. Suddenly we’re a complete band and the music is really good.

“Lets go to pub when you finish work, Mick,” Joe says, the joint hanging out of his mouth.

“But I want to get home early tonight because it’s my birthday tomorrow,” I reply.

“Come on, Mick,” Bill says, “we don’t have to spend all night in there … just have a drink with us.”

I agree and so we put down the instruments and I go into Barry’s office — he’s the boss — and tell him that all the guitars are done and that I am leaving for the night. He follows me back and checks what is to go when the roadie arrives, and I point to two cases on the floor and tell him, “Those.”

“Great,” he says sucking on a cigarette, the air hissing through his teeth as he draws in the smoke. I grab my leather jacket and put it on, then I pick up my crash helmet and gloves and we walk out of the room and head for the stairs. Barry says something about seeing me in the morning, or he might see me in the pub later, and I look back at him standing at the top of the stairs dressed in his baggy cardigan with the cigarette still smouldering in his hand. I smile and give him a wave. We enter the main shop through the staff door at the foot of the stairs and I say goodnight to John Picket who is talking to a female customer, and I have the feeling he is trying to sell himself more than the packet of guitar strings he is passing across the counter. Then I pass Johnny Warnett. He is looking like Dave Bowie who he loves and that’s precisely why he does look like him. Everything in the music business is about image and Johnny’s image is to emulate his hero, so his hair is swept back and dyed and his skin is pallid like Bowie’s, and sometimes he wears makeup and always he is bisexual. And Johnny loves to tell everybody how liberated he is and how he sleeps with men as well as women and how he takes drugs and how he went to see David Bowie at a concert. And he even sings like David Bowie and he definitely dresses like him and his weight is the same and so is the way he stands and walks and talks, and one wonders if he even farts like Bowie. But everybody loves Johnny. He is great to be with, and the speed is making me feel good and it’s mellowed by the grass and everything is so great.

We turn right as we leave the shop and head up the road to the pub, passing another shop and two large government buildings, one a tax office and the other a registrar where people get married. The sun is shining and it’s warm, very warm for early June, and it’s good to get into the pub because the bar is cool and the smell is wonderful, a mixture of beer and smoke and people.

Ruben the landlord is behind the bar and he welcomes me and Bill but he doesn’t know Joe and so he only nods his head. Ruben asks me what I am drinking and I say, “Just a White Label, please.” So he picks up a bottle and carefully pours it into a glass.   It’s a ‘live’ beer with real yeast which forms a sediment at the bottom of the bottle, and if you don’t pour it with care the yeast will turn the beer cloudy. He puts mine on the bar-top and pours a pint of bitter each for Bill and Joe. It’s great to sip the beer with the speed going round your brain, and the beer really enhances the feeling of well-being, what with the grass and all. And Bill says, “Do you fancy a game of darts?” I say, “Yes,” and so he asks Ruben if he can have some darts from behind the counter.

Bill and I have the first game and Joe takes the chalk, and my first throw hits the bull’s-eye, so does the second and third. Everyone is amazed at this and Ruben leans over the counter and says I have won the game outright, that three bulls in a row is enough to take the game. I know nothing of this rule and wonder if he has made it up but I don’t complain. Bill changes places with Joe. He throws first but his darts are hopelessly off target, and that’s how his game goes all the way through. I win easily and challenge Bill again but we don’t really want to play, we feel more like talking, so we wander back to the bar and sit down. By now we are chatting like mad and it’s almost unnatural the way we talk, the words coming out like bullets from a machine gun. But we don’t bother, in fact, we don’t even notice, because everything is really wonderful and there’s nothing like being in the pub with your mates, drinking beer and having a good time. It’s hot outside and cool inside so this is the place to be.

Suddenly I get philosophical and say, “Don’t you think it’s weird how we drink all this liquid, make ourselves full, just to get high?”

Bill says, “Yeah, but ain’t it fucking great?”

Then I say, “And even when we’re not drinking we’re smoking dope and when we’re not doing that we’re speeding … I mean, what’s it all about for fuck’s sake?”

“Staving off the inevitable,” Joe says nonchalantly. “What do you mean, staving off the inevitable?” I ask.

“The fact that we’re all going to fucking-well die one day!”

I can’t argue with that. “Give me another beer,” I say to Ruben.

Too bad that I have to go and so I say goodbye to my friends, and although I am reluctant to leave I want to get home and see my kids before they go to bed. I’ve spent enough time away from family, what with music and drugs and everything and I really want to be home tonight because it’s my birthday tomorrow and the kids are bound to have a present for me. So I walk back to the shop, which I know will be locked up by now, and as I walk I put on the helmet and gloves and get the keys ready to put in the Bike’s ignition. It doesn’t take long and soon I am walking up the ally between the music shop and the government building, and the bike is parked round the back where it always is. As I approach I am aware of how quiet it all is. This area is busy during the day, cars coming and going and parking, and people going into the government building and other businesses round about. Opposite, is a high brick wall, and the wall is very old. I can tell because the bricks have been laid in the old English fashion and they’re all defaced by the weather, their soft red surfaces pitted by rain and frost and cold and heat. On the top of the wall, grass is growing where the mortar has crumbled away and in parts whole areas have collapsed. Soon the Council will knock it down, like they did the old coach house that used to stand not twenty feet away. That had an amazing brass weather-cock that the demolition boys salted away.

I straddle the bike, put the key in the ignition, place my hands on the handlebars and rock it off its centre-stand. The bike goes forward and the stand springs up and hits the frame with a clunk. I turn the key and the engine thunders into life, all nine-hundred CCs of it. It growls as I flick the throttle. Wham! brrumm! it goes as I twist the grip quickly. Clicking the gear-lever into first, I zoom out of the car-park, into the ally and slow as I come to the road. There is nothing coming and so I turn into it and accelerate ahead. It’s great being on the road at this time of day. All the rush hour traffic has gone and what remains is neither here nor there, so I wind the throttle back and go through the gears and in no time at all I am doing sixty. I have to control myself because I want to go faster but I know these roads are not exactly major and so anything can happen. A child could step from the pavement or some idiot might pull out in front of you. Whatever, one has to have one’s wits about them otherwise accident could happen, but nothing is going to happen tonight because I really want to get home to see my kids and I’m feeling so fucking great and the speed has galvanised my concentration and the dope and beer has taken away all the rough edges.

I think how wonderful the bike is going, how well the engine responds to my slightest touch and I wish my wife could see through my eyes as I speed along, experience the thrill I am experiencing. And suddenly I am talking to her as if I have a microphone in the helmet and it is connected via radio to my home, and I say, “I have just put the bike in third gear and I’m winding the throttle back and I’m hitting sixty five but the bike wants more, can take so much more, and so I’m giving it stick, leaning it into the bend and accelerating out.’ And so it goes on as I journey home.

But what’s this ahead? There are a line of cars, about fifteen of them, all travelling slowly, at about fifteen miles per hour. In front is an old Morris Minor and it is holding the rest of the traffic up. I become agitated because everything was going so good and so I look for a place to overtake but there isn’t any. Cars are streaming past on the right, there is no problem there, but they’re stopping me from pulling out and zooming to the front. I bide my time and poodle along behind. Suddenly there is a gap and I calculate that I’ll be able to race ahead before the car in front reaches a tight bend in the road. It’s very important that I make it because I don’t want to be on the outside going into that bend and so I hit the throttle hard. The engines screams as I accelerate forward, the bike picking up speed like a rocket and making my wrists hurt as I hang on. In seconds I am alongside the car in front. I look down, casually, and am amazed to see two elderly women chatting to themselves, oblivious of the traffic behind. But my concentration has wavered, and as I look up I can see that I am already into the bend and I am going far too fast.

“Shit!” I think and lean hard to the left. The bike drops to a steep angle and starts turning round.

“Oh fuck…” Alarmed, I see that the council have started building a small island in the middle of the road, a keep left bollard outside the pub about ten meters away and I am heading directly for it. Time slows dramatically; my thoughts speeds up.

Gotta straighten up, pull the machine into line! Shit … there ain’t enough time to get the bike straight! Maybe I’ll miss it? The wheels are going to go over the curb! Shall I jump off? If I jump to the left I’ll fly into those parked cars. If I jump to the right I’ll hit the bollard, or fly into oncoming traffic. Oncoming traffic?! Shit! I’ll have to stay with it … gonna hang on and hope for the bes—

Suddenly there’s a pulverising sound and a huge flash of sparks. It’s as if someone has pushed a lump of metal into a grindstone. I know that the front wheel-rim has scraped the side of the kerb, but it hasn’t gone over it, thank goodness.

Hang on … grip tigh—!

What’s happened? I am laying face down, looking into my visor and there is blood in the visor and the blood is dripping down, splash, splash, splash. And someone is screaming, and I hear voices, lots of voices, and I guess people are standing around but it is all confusing. “Is he dead?” It’s a woman shouting. Her voice is frightened and shrill and hysterical. I think, “No, I am not dead, I’m here and I’m conscious but I need to get it together, need to analyse the situation, make it clearer in my mind before I move.” So I go to get up but nothing happens, and I try to push down with my arms but nothing happens, and I try to move my head but nothing happens, and I suddenly realise that I can’t feel myself, don’t know where my legs or arms are, or whether I am facing up or down. But the blood keeps dripping into the visor and so I know my head is looking towards the ground.

“I can’t move!” I blurt out. “I can’t move …”

Someone screams. I think it is the same woman.

Fear grips me and I wonder what the fuck I’ve done: have a smashed my brains out for fuck sakes?

I awake in an ambulance and two men are cutting my crash helmet off. One of them says, “He is opening his eyes.”

I awake in some room with people around me. They are talking about x-rays.

I awake in the x-ray room. I know this because the machine hanging over me has a glass lens and thick cables running from it. It also whirls.

I awake in another room and someone is drilling a hole in the side of my head with a really tasty hand brace-and-bit, the sort I would have loved to have had in my workshop. It is chrome all over and gleams like the shiny parts of my bike. I wonder what has happened to my bike. The man says hello and asks if I can hear him. I smile. Curiously there is no pain whatsoever. I try to shrug my shoulders but nothing happens.

Consciousness is with me now; the blackness has gone and I am fully awake. It’s two or three hours since I left the pub. Pain is throbbing in my neck. My head is clamped in traction and I can feel my neck being stretched by weights. The pain becomes severe and I start howling. A nurse gives me an injection. She says it is pethadine. My wife arrives. She is worried. “I’ve really done it this time,” I say to her.

The doctor tells me I have broken two small bones in my neck, but he neglects to tell me there is only one bone in the neck and that is the spine. What he really means is that I have broken my neck and damaged the spinal cord. I know it is bad but I also know it could have been worse. Later, the nurse gives me more pethadine. I am screaming with pain. My mind is a mad-house of activity but I have never been more physically still. The nurse comes throughout the night, administering pain killing injections at regular intervals, but I am always in agony and begging for more.

Barry visits the next day. My wife is on one side of the bed, her face drawn, and my mother is on the other side, her face very drawn and her eyes very wet. He pats me on the shoulder and tells me to take it easy, that it’s only rock-and-roll.

I grimace and reply that I don’t think I’ll be rocking and rolling for a very long time, if ever. He doesn’t know what to say. No one knows what to say. And no one has the nerve to wish me a happy birthday.

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