The longer I’m in limbo, the more the music takes over…
You know the moment you put the needle on the record. When you get the lead-in, the snap, crackle and bop of anticipation. It always gets me. Every time. The second just before the tune kicks in. You’ve got to feel it.
Take this morning’s offering. Going by the name of The Cat, courtesy of the legend that was “The incredible... Jimmy Smith”. He’s a current favourite of mine, with his superlative Hammond organ touches, that send me off into jazz-fuelled rhythm and soul heaven.
It’s perhaps his finest, The Cat, though Back At The Chicken Shack and Midnight Special take some beating as well. Play them any time of the day as far as I’m concerned.
So, this morning, there’s me and my record player and the beautiful piece of black vinyl is sitting there, with the black label and the word in silver “Verve” in front of me. I lift the stylus and put the needle on and it’s that instant of waiting. Then it kicks in, the bass and some taps on the drums, then the organ, slower and more bluesy at first, then the horns blast through and Jimmy kicks in with his virtuoso Hammond and I’m closing my eyes and I’m away.
In this moment, I’m transported off to somewhere else. I’m in a sixties underground club and the cats are sharp, tanned, in perfectly cut polo shirts and strides, with closely cropped barnets. They’re on the dance floor and are strutting their stuff to the funky music that’s coming out of the speakers at maximum volume. The bass is thudding, the brass is blowing, the keys are soaring. The mirror ball’s flecking its light across the club. I’m out there, dancing far better than I’m capable of doing, and taking in the whole vibe of the night, the people, and the moment that my daydreaming has dropped me into. There’s a continental vibe about it all, like in a French new wave film, or maybe an Italian one, a feeling that I’m somewhere new, where the attitudes are liberal and open and creativity is the word on everyone’s lips and nothing negative happens at all.
Then I come back. To the here and now. To sweet English suburbia and all it entails. I open my eyes and look at the ceiling. And I’m back in the present. I try to get my head round it all. Or not, as the case may be.
And I look outside and, for once, it’s stopped raining. It’s been raining for days, or at least it feels like it. It’s the wettest few days on record if you believe what they tell you in their make believe television world. And I ask myself if it matters and I know it doesn’t and, in my soul, I really don’t care. I’ve got my music and my vibes and that’s all I need to keep me alive with a smile on my funky little boat race.
So I let my man Jimmy play his keys and the whole vibe of the record get into my soul. I think to myself about what I’m going to do for the rest of the day, maybe head into town again, or just hang around here and take in the sounds. I decide to let it all flow and take care of itself. I’ll see later. For now, I have my music. Who could want anything else?
It’s brightened up. It started today. I woke up and the sun’s shining, coming through a slit in the curtain. I pull the curtain together to start off with. I don’t want the sun getting in the way of my sleeping. I need my sleep, eight hours of it they say. Not that I ever get eight hours of sleep. I never did at university. I was always burning the candle at both ends. Why should I need it now?
I don’t know. I just do. I roll over and close my eyes and, in a couple of seconds, I’m asleep again. I wake up a couple of hours later.
I’m feeling more refreshed now. It’s bright outside, I can tell that. I lie back and look at the ceiling and ask myself what I’m going to do with my day. I don’t know. I get out of bed and head downstairs. No post this morning. I make some tea and open the back door and look out into the garden. The sun’s shining and it’s the start of a beautiful day which is strong and alive. I go outside and sit at the table and drink my tea and listen to the buzz from the factory at the back of the house. I did a summer job there once and thought about calling when I got home but I heard they weren’t hiring. I should have called to find out for myself but I didn’t.
I go back inside and upstairs where I have a quick shower to wake myself up. Then I throw on a t-shirt and shorts and go back outside where I get a sun lounger from the shed and put it in the centre of the lawn. I get a book and some music and lie there for the rest of the morning until I get some lunch. Then I wander into town.
“You go in The Queens, doncha?” he says.
I’m rifling through records in the second-hand shop and a voice comes in my ear. I turn round. Standing next to me is a skinny-as-a-rake young guy who, by the button badges adorning the lapel of his suit jacket (also oversized, like mine) along with the narrowness of his jeans and the worn-in nature of his baseball boots, looks like he could be something of a hipster. Or at least a hip kid. He’s got a huge smile on his face, all dimples, and cheekbones, and his shortish black hair is a little bit – though not overly – spiked. He has those curly bits for sideburns so beloved of a certain type of modernist, which I’ve been cultivating for a while.
I’ve seen him in The Queens. He’s one of the new breed. He was there on Saturday.
“Certainly do,” I say.
“Thought so,” says my new acquaintance. “Saw you putting a pretty cool record on the jukey. Thought it was you when I came in.”
“Nice one,” I say.
“The name’s Josh by the way.”
“Awright Billy. How come you’ve not been around before?”
“Guest of Her Majesty?” He laughs, which is halfway between a cackle and an audible smirk.
“No,” I laugh. “Uni.”
“Oh, right,” he says. “You’ve got brains, have you? Not like the rest of us.”
“I like to think so.”
“Sounds good. So when did you get back?”
“A few days ago.”
“Thought I hadn’t seen ya before. Well, my friend. We’ll have to hang out in there.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Be in there Friday.”
“But now I’ve got to love you and leave you. See ya Friday.”
He turns to leave.
“Just one thing.”
“There’s some bands on in town. My mate’s in one of them. If you want to come down.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“See ya then.”
He turns and leaves the shop and I watch him go.
When I grow too old to dream. That’s what Jimmy says. Jimmy, my boy, of the Smith variety, author of The Cat. It’s on his other, equally magnificent outing which I’ve mentioned before, Back At The Kitchen Shack. It’s a tour de force of his Hammond and Stanley Turrentine on the sax, Kenny Burrell on guitar, and Donald Bailey on drums. Put it on and it takes me away somewhere, to a different place from where I am. Isn’t all great music like that?
Will I ever grow too old to dream? That’s a thought that’s going through my mind. Why would I? I’ve got a philosophy of life which says that the best is yet to come. The best is always yet to come. It doesn’t matter what wonderful times you’ve had up to the point you’re at, the ones that are ahead are always going to be better. Now, I know that situations might mean that seems far fetched, like if you’re in a dead end job, about to start a prison sentence, or going into a battle in the war to end all wars. But you have to have hope, that, one day, not a long way from where you’re standing now, there will be something better, so much better. In short, you have to dream.
So, will I ever grow too old to dream? I suppose, if at the end of this mortal coil, I’m committed to an old folks home somewhere, where they’re telling me what I should do and, more importantly, not do and I can’t read those books or listen to that music or watch those films, it will be difficult to dream. But what I’ll do then is shut my eyes. I’ll lie there and go back, think about the things I’ve done and the places I’ve been and the people I’ve known and the great times I’ve had. And then I’ll think forward, to where those people are now, the ones I’ve not seen since I was young and haven’t heard from since that time. And I’ll wonder and pretend I’m with them and walking down a sunlit street in the south of France or someone exotic. And then I’ll be in that eternal nightclub once again where the boys are all blades and the girls are all sirens and the drinks are divine and the music heavenly and I’m on the dancefloor and strutting my stuff and able to dance so much better than I ever have.
I suppose I’ll wake up then. Some battle-ax of a matron will appear with a needle the size of Nelson’s Column to inject me with something that will send me off into another world. And, after that, I’d head off into that other world and be happy with that because it was so much better. Better than what I’d ended up in.
So, in short, I will never grow too old to dream. And, apart from the final days, the best will always be to come.
I love the way the light comes through the doors at five o’clock in the morning as I’m listening to Pet Sounds and Revolver and how Caroline loses her happy glow.
It’s been interspersed with jazz. Of course. I’ve been up all night. Sometimes you can’t stop yourself. You put on one record and then another and get pulled into the music. It takes you over. You’re at one with it and it gets into your soul.
I love that moment, the one when you can really feel it; when it’s a part of you. It doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes you can feel disconnected from it, normally when the reality of life has taken over in some way. But, at other times, when you’re being your freest and most individual self, you and the music are one.
That’s when this happens. One moment it’s midnight and the next it’s five and you still want to play lots more records. But the time has come to stop.
It’s a warm summer morning. I look out of the patio doors, across the terrace with the garden tables and chairs, over the lawn, cut yesterday. The new day’s sun is shining on the grass and the morning dew. A blackbird hops along in front of the bush. I get up from the chair, walk into the hall and go to bed.
I’ve been saving my dole money. I wasn’t planning to, not really. I just have. It comes from not going out and doing a lot, my enforced period of idleness on account of returning and knowing no one. Not that there’s anything wrong with idleness, I hasten to add. I’m a great believer in it, to get the head together and see the world as it is, not what someone tells you it is, as part of the hedonistic lifestyle to which I subscribe and stop you falling into the world of fools.
But there are times when you need to intersperse that idleness with something a bit more action-based. I mean going out and having a good time. And, now that young Joshua has come onto the horizon, with his invitation to go out and see his friend’s band, it would be rude to ignore that advance and sit at home again, or just prop up the bar, now wouldn’t it?
So, I get myself ready. A good soak in the bath is the order of the night and then the obligatory cooling off period, lying on my bed with a towel round me, listening to some funky tunes on the stereo to get me in the mood for the night ahead.
What will the sartorial be tonight? Good dressing, as we all know, starts with the shoes and a pair of loafers would be in order. I love this pair. They wouldn’t have been out of place worn by Alain Delon in the magnificent Plein Soleil, one of my favourite pieces of celluloid ever to grace the big screen offering a wonderful adaptation of the novel The Talented Mr Ripley, courtesy of the scribe herself, Patricia Highsmith – who said that the film is never as good as the book? And what would go with them? Some straight-leg Levi’s, of the pale blue and soft-to-the-touch variety, along with an electric blue knitted polo shirt, short-sleeved for the Summer night. I put my clothes on and comb my hair and stand in front of the mirror and turn to the side and the rest. Yes, that will do.
People used to call me a fashion victim at times when I was living away. I always disagreed with them. Fashion’s all about being dictated to by the man on what to wear, depending on his preferences for the season. It’s letting someone else decide your life choices which has never been something I’ve ever wanted to subscribe to. What I’m into is something else. I don’t know if I’d even call it style (who am I to elevate myself to that status?), just a love of timeless cuts and a look that wouldn’t have been out of place in the worlds to which I aspire, those of Fitzgerald, Kerouac or even Ms Highsmith herself. This electric blue top, for example, could have cut the mustard in any age.
And, with that thought, I head downstairs, say goodnight to the folks, and leave the house.
Josh is cracking up.
“Every time you come in here, you put on the same record,” he says laughing.
“It’s a damn good record.”
“Yeah, I know mate. It just makes me laugh.”
“There you go.”
“I’ve been watchin’ ya, man. You do it every time. It makes me giggle.”
He’s right, of course. It’s a record from those Council boys, the b side of the record they released a while back. It’s top drawer and everyone with taste knows it.
Right now, we’re sitting in the corner of The Queens. The conversation’s been flowing in the same way as when we first met. Josh is alive and full of expectations about the possibilities of the night that lies ahead.
“My mate’s band,” he says. “They’ve been practising all week. They’ll be on fire.”
That’s where we’re off to later, down to the function room at the local Constitutional Club, where there are a few local bands on. Josh’s friend’s band is on early, so we can’t hang around too long in here. But that doesn’t stop us getting a few in at the start of the evening, when the sunshine’s still shining through the windows and the jukebox is already on loud and blasting out its goodness into the Summer air.
“What does your mate play?” I ask.
“Guitar,” says Josh. "Allie blasts it out, you know. Like The Pistols or The Clash or Johnny Thunders and his Heartbreakers.”
“You like Johnny Thunders?”
“Of course. Who doesn’t? LAMF is a classic.”
“You’re right on that.”
“You ever been in a band?” he asks.
“I have. Played guitar in this band at uni.”
“Did ya? Sounds good. Play any gigs?”
“We played one or two. Upstairs in this pub. First support. Didn’t go any further than that. We were shambolic.”
“Sounds all right to me.”
“You think so?”
“The best bands are shambolic. You don’t want muso’s in you band, do ya? Killed by over-competence. Worst thing you can have.”
We sit and laugh and finish our beers.
“Go on then.”
I sit and look out of the window, at the traffic passing, the groups of early evening drinkers standing round and laughing. It’s the same spot I used to sit before I went away. I didn’t think I’d be here again. There were times during my uni days that I thought I’d left all this behind forever, that I’d moved on and my next things would be pastures new. Life teaches you it’s not like that, you’ve never left anywhere behind forever.
Josh comes back with the beers.
“There you go,” he says.
“Better go after these. Don’t want to miss Allie’s band.”
“No, of course.”
“So what were this band of yours like?”
“Sounds like we were much the same as your mate’s. Three chords, in your face bass and drums, out of tune singing.”
“Sounds just right. Like you were recorded in a sewer.”
“The best records are.”
“Do you play anything?” I ask.
“I hit a tambourine hard.”
“The answer’s “no” then.”
“Sort of. I can sing though. In a sense. I just stand behind the microphone and shout. Play guitar a bit..”
“Glad you agree.”
We sit and drink our beer and the early evening starts to go. Then we finish and head off to the club.