It's great. I am a sucker for stories about lost records and rock and roll anyway. A worthy addition! (David Quantick)

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Blue Tunes and Echoes: a Soundtrack to my Short Story 'Blue'

A novella by John Pidgeon

Come on, boy, join our clan
Come on, boy, take my hand
Come on, boy, be a man
’Cause rock’n’roll will stand
(‘It Will Stand’ by the Showmen)

blue 1 - blue 2 - blue 3 - blue 4 - blue 5 - blue 6 - blue 7 - blue 8 - blue 9 - blue 10

It was when Johnny dyed his hair that I realised how serious he was about rock’n’roll. I heard Mum squeal and wondered what she’d broken, but then “Rob, it’s Johnny” came up from the hall, an edge to her voice, the same edge as when the cat brought a mouse in and became instantly mine, which made me drop the book on my bed and go downstairs, instead of calling for Johnny to come up, as I usually did. Mum had gone back to the kitchen, leaving the front door open and Johnny standing in the porch looking sheepish and proud at the same time.

As soon as he saw me on the stairs, he shaped a pose, planting his left foot over the threshold onto the welcome mat and aiming his shoulder towards me, his head canted slightly down and to one side, so that he was eyeing me from under his left brow. The rock’n’roll look. It was a stance that had earned Johnny and two form-mates the cane, when the trio had lined up for the school photograph sideways on, blazer collars up, ties knotted back to front with the fat end tucked inside the shirt, thin end hanging Slim Jim-style, offering that same up-from-under look. They could have been the Belmonts doo-wopping behind Dion under a corner street lamp in the Bronx.

In announcing at the end of assembly that their presence - along with the inevitable prankster who’d appeared in the photo twice - would be required outside his study, the Headmaster had referred to them in an ill-informed attempt at a humorous aside as the Everly Boys, prompting undisguised giggles that instantly darkened the Old Man’s mood and, Johnny was convinced, upped the punishment from one or two to four strokes of the cane.

Now, two days after term had ended, the same pose was topped off by a shock of bright blue hair. Not a tint, a blue rinse, but blue all over, like that first perfect summer sky when you lay on your back knowing there was no school for six weeks. That blue. Johnny grinned as my mouth fell open.

“What d’you think?”

He had said he was going to, but I realised I hadn’t thought he would go through with it.

“It’s definitely blue.”

“You didn’t believe me, did you?”

I shook my head, knowing I’d let him down. “I guess not, Johnny.”

Outside his family, almost no one called him Johnny. At school everyone knew him as Pelvis, in deference to his older brother, Roger, the original Elvis, who had left before I started.

In fact, it was Roger who had first made me aware of these local Presley lookalikes, when he got his call-up for National Service, and ‘Elvis Joins The Army’ was front page news in the local paper, captioning a photo posed in the barber’s by the bus station that parodied the picture of Presley having his short-back-and-sides at the Memphis induction centre a few months earlier. The look of horror on Roger’s face as the clippers wielded by the gurning, hunch-backed barber orbited his head like some alien spacecraft had, it turned out, not been wholly for the camera. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ shots had been taken, but Roger’s refusal to have more than a token trim, and not a millimetre off his sideboards, would have made a spot-the-difference competition unwinnable. The army barber, when he took his turn with the reluctant conscript, was less biddable.

The nicknames were justified. Where the boys’ looks came from was obvious when you met their parents. Although their father's face was well-proportioned, it was their mother who had the jaw and the cheekbones. She might have made a handsome man, but was by no means a beautiful woman, with the look almost of a boxer dog. Yet, in transferring this physionomy to her offspring, she had created a trio whose looks, enviable in any era, were head-turningly striking in the late 1950s.

(Doubtless it said as much about his disenchantment with Elvis, but once Johnny was aware of Charlie Rich, when anyone commented on his similarity to Elvis, he would shake his head and say, “Same label, different singer.” This would have been after ‘Lonely Weekends’, a late hurrah for Sun Records, flopped in the UK in 1960, rendering his response meaningless to all but the most diehard rock’n’rollers.)

On my first morning at grammar school I found the youngest of the three at the desk next to me. With Roger gone, David became the new Elvis. He and I got on easily from the off, and when he saw me doodling Little Richard’s name on the cover of my rough book, he said I ought to meet his older brother. I did, and Johnny changed my life, or, more specifically, showed me a course my life could take that I’m certain I would not have spotted without his guidance.

Aware of my continuing infatuation with rock’n’roll, Mum had taken to vocalizing her hope that I would “grow out of it,” as if saying it aloud reassured her. Most adults felt the way she did. Melody Maker journalists and avuncular voices on the radio regularly predicted the imminent demise of rock’n’roll and, in its wake, the return of big bands and proper singers and songs whose words you could understand, or at worst its overdue replacement by another fad that would come and go. Some touted the cha-cha, others the Twist. Fat chance. Yet what I only dared to hope, Johnny knew with unshakable certainty: that rock’n’roll would not go away, and that those of us with no desire to grow out of it would never have to.

Even now I can see the fire blazing in his eyes as clearly as if I were looking at a photograph. And I can hear the hissing vinyl as the stylus rode the outer grooves of The Showmen’s ‘It Will Stand’, Johnny watching my face intently as I registered Norman Johnson’s achingly emotive wail.

“Hear that?” he demanded as the first chorus ended. “‘Rock and roll forever will stand.’ Not for months or even years. Forever. It’s what I’ve always known. And it won’t just last, it won’t survive or lamely struggle on. It will stand. Like a centurion at the gates of Rome. Proud, brave, unafraid. Taking on all comers and seeing off every one of them.”

As soon as the record finished, Johnny swung the pick-up arm back to the start, this time picking out different lines, all of which resonated with me. The lyrics were a litany of all we believed in and why. Then, after we’d listened to it at least four times, he flipped the record over and wowed me with ‘Country Fool’.

Johnny lent me Little Richard records I hadn't heard. He turned me on to Larry Williams's 'She Said “Yeah”', a record that wasn’t even a hit in America, and he lent me Ray Charles's 'What'd I Say', still one of the most exciting records ever made. I ordered the album of the same name from the record shop in town, then Ray Charles At Newport, a live recording whose highlight was a spine-tingling duet with the Raelettes’ Margie Hendricks on ‘The Right Time’, then The Genius Of Ray Charles, in fact anything related to Ray Charles, even Bobby Darin Sings Ray Charles, which Johnny okayed because it was on Atlantic Records, the same label as Brother Ray.

He knew about the black sources of Elvis Presley’s Sun singles and where Little Richard’s records were recorded. He played me Jessie Hill’s ‘Oo-Poo-Pah-Doo’, Barrett Strong’s ‘Money’ and Rosco Gordon’s ‘Just A Little Bit’, and introduced me to other artists who were unknown then and some who would stay that way. Popular wasn’t bad, per se. For instance, Johnny championed Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ ‘Stay’ and the Coasters’ ‘Poison Ivy’, both of which reached the Top Twenty in Britain, although he did prefer the flip side of the Coasters’ record, ‘I’m A Hog For You’.

It got to the point where he was embarrassed by his early passion for Gene Vincent. But heroes are heroes, and when Vincent appeared on TV’s Oh Boy!, Johnny talked his way through the stage door of the Hackney Empire, from where the show was broadcast, by employing an American accent learned exclusively from cowboy films - “I’m Gene’s good buddy Blue - he’s ’spectin’ me” - but became so angered by his idol’s Richard III-style outfit and the producer’s overheard exhortation to “Limp, you bugger, limp” that his accent abandoned him, his cover was blown, and he was frogmarched from the theatre during a commercial break.

Vincent’s influence also lingered in the name of the group Johnny led from behind the drum kit: the Blue Pompadours offering twin homage to Vincent’s Blue Caps and to Little Richard’s towering quiff. Johnny’s own pompadour, raven black, except for that one summer, rarely survived a verse and a chorus of the opening song before it collapsed, shaken loose by his nodding head, after which it hung across his face until pushed back temporarily with a hand between numbers.

Johnny was my master; I was his apprentice. He not only introduced me to records that were and would remain secrets from the pop public, but convinced me it was worth working on the chords I’d first learned as a junior skiffler.

He had a way of locking eyeballs with you, so you couldn’t look away, which is what he did when he gave me this speech: how, if I practised and practised, I might get good enough to play in a group; and if the group played and played, we might end up good enough to do a gig; and if we gigged and gigged, we might get good enough to get paid; and if word got around and the right person turned up at one of our gigs, we might get to make a record; and, who knew, I might get to make a living out of it. Plus, he said with a grin that made me think this was more than an afterthought, I’d get to wear some great clothes.

Johnny already wore some great clothes, even on occasion to school when the Blue Pompadours had slept in a lay-by in their van after a distant gig. Our grammar and its Headmaster were big on uniform: a maroon blazer with the school badge up to O-levels; dark blue for sixth-formers.

Glancing out of the window one morning, I watched Johnny amble across the quadrangle in a plum red two-piece with tapered trousers and a bum-freezer jacket, then stand to attention as the Head bustled up behind him, gown billowing like a thundercloud. After a short exchange, during which Johnny ducked a slap, the Head led the way to his study, Johnny defiantly reshaping his quiff with a glinting steel comb as he followed.

“How many?” I asked, when I saw him at lunchtime.


I winced.

“It would’ve been four, but I got two extra for cheek.”

“What did you say?”

“I said I couldn’t see what the problem was - it’s the school colour, isn’t it?” He slipped a thumb behind a lapel and turned it so the light caught the weave in the shiny fabric. I wanted a suit like that.

“The Old Man told me to go home and change, but it’s hardly worth coming back for one period and games. Besides, I’m bushed.” He tousled my hair. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And Johnny headed for the gates, hands in pockets, whistling Frankie Ford’s ‘Sea Cruise’.

*   *   *

So I practised and practised. I already knew my way around the A, D, E and G chords that empowered me to play Eddie Cochran’s ‘C’mon Everybody’ and half a dozen Buddy Holly and Everly Brothers numbers, but now I added C, F and the deadly F7 and worked on them until the fingertips on my left hand were as hard as the pads on the cat's paws.

My first guitar should have been the one which was advertised weekly in the music papers with an illustration of a man in a checked shirt who was drawn to resemble every skiffler's idol Lonnie Donegan, but, when I got home from school one afternoon, my mother handed me a zippered nylon guitar-shaped bag and said I owed her three months’ shoe-cleaning and washing-up. Here’s why.

A regular churchgoer, Mum was one of the few supporters of an improbably boyish new vicar, Father Sachavarel – “Call me Sax” (naturally, no one did) - Southwood, who had upset a sizeable number of parishioners simply by being young, then alienated many more by performing with a skiffle group on the back of the local coal merchant’s lorry at the village fete. It was Mum’s mistaken belief that Southwood’s youth would attract teenagers, her son among them, into the congregation, which is why she went out of her way to make him feel welcome.

She even feigned interest in his skiffle group - the Crazy Cassocks, originally Never On A Sunday - and told him about my musical interest, which prompted an offer of guitar lessons and, when Southwood let drop the fact that he had an old instrument I could borrow to practise on at home, Mum asked if it might be for sale, which it was, and a deal was done, with the lessons thrown in for free. But, as with a lunch, so it is with a music lesson. Beware the free one. And an inexpensive guitar is not necessarily a bargain. Mine would not have been the first soul bartered for such a price.

I was five when my mother’s only brother died in a car crash on the North Circular, but I remember wondering what a north circular was and why, if it was so lethal, anyone would want to drive on one. Seeing the grief his death caused my mother also convinced me there could be no God, or, if there was one, such was his cruelty that I wanted nothing to do with him. Mum, inexplicably, turned to God at the time, but that was grown-ups for you: unfathomable.

Once I'd fallen for rock'n'roll, finding out that some Christians saw it as Satan's musical spawn convinced me that not only did the Devil have all the best tunes, but the loudest ones with the biggest beat. (Mum confessed years later that she would have paid almost any price Southwood asked on the basis that an instrument acquired from a man of the church would have good embodied in it.) So, although the pair of them had earmarked my guitar lessons as stepping stones to confirmation, what neither knew was that I was priest-proof.

Before the first lesson I had practised daily. Southwood hadn’t. As I echoed each chord more accurately than his stiff-fingered original, he first reddened, then, as if to distract me from his incompetence, launched into a rambling explanation of why, if He were to return to earth today, Jesus would play skiffle guitar. When I asked which of the disciples would be assigned the washboard, Southwood checked my face intently for a sign of a smirk, but I held his gaze until he nominated Peter. I didn’t trust myself not to laugh long enough to find out who might plunk the tea chest bass.

Amused as I was by the image of Jesus, robe swaying, sandaled foot tapping along as he sang ‘Rock Island Line’ in a Donegan whine, I was mortified when Southwood confided that he had composed several songs which, in his opinion, would not have been out of place in the Christly repertoire and, furthermore, that he would be happy to teach them to me. We attempted two, each of which was squirm-inducingly dreadful. One line lodged permanently in my memory: “Suffer not little skifflers to strum unto me.”

The lesson stumbled to a painful, premature conclusion, signalled when Southwood lifted his guitar from his knee, propped it against the arm of his chair and leaned his broad torso towards me until his face was pushed so close to mine that I could smell his beery breath. He shaped a smile, aiming for beatitude no doubt, but achieving a wolfish leer.

“I haven’t seen you in church, Robert.”

“You’re not likely to either, Sax.”

There were no more guitar lesson at the vicarage, nor talk of confirmation classes from my mother. I didn’t meet Southwood again face to face until, several years later, drunk on cider after a party next door to the vicarage, a friend and I let ourselves into his church, where we played ‘Green Onions’, he approximating Lewis Steinberg’s bass lines on the foot pedals, while I aped Booker T’s right hand. Once we’d nailed it, we went round and round and round, grinning wildly at the billowing swell of sound, until a voice loud enough to stop the Devil in his tracks boomed, “What in heaven’s name do you think you’re doing here?”

“‘Green Onions’.” Well, he did ask. “Booker T and the MGs.”

The not so young, several stone stouter priest had come in through a side door and was standing, swaying slightly, one hand holding a vertical rail beside the pulpit as if he were steadying himself with a staff. Given a beard and a Biblical robe instead of a tartan dressing gown, he could have passed for Moses.

“Get the fuck out of my church.”

We got the fuck out of his church.

*   *   *

I had sandpapered the crudely scripted ‘Sax’s Axe’ from between the frets, covered a crucifix scored into the body with a ‘Ban The Bomb’ sticker, swapped the nylon strings for lightweight wound-steel ones, and worked my way through the Blue Pompadours’ repertoire until I could manage every chord change without slowing down or watching where my fingers went, when Johnny pointed out to me that the instrument was set up wrong, its strings too far from the fretboard, which in any case was warped, meaning that it could never all be in tune. But I was ready for an electric anyway, and bought a white Rosetti Lucky 7 with a pearlized scratchplate from a boy in Johnny’s year. This genuinely was a bargain. There wasn’t a mark on it, it had an action that felt instantly right, and the owner only wanted eight pounds for it. Checking the price of similar second-hand instruments in the local music shop, it occurred to me that Johnny might have negotiated a special deal or even chipped in, but when I asked him, he laughed at the suggestion.

Because I couldn’t afford an amplifier, I replaced the jack on the end of the lead and plugged into the auxiliary socket of an old wireless I found in the attic. Dad protested that the power generated by the guitar’s twin pick-ups would blow the valves, but Mum took my side, pointing out that a) the set had come from her family, and b) it was Dad who had banished it to the attic. “Remember? You said you wouldn’t have a set in the house that had a station as old-fashioned as Droitwich and Hilversum on its dial.”

I could now play arpeggios and runs as well as chords, and when I’d mastered Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’, another gem unearthed by Johnny, I asked Dad if he would listen, figuring that even if it wasn’t entirely up his street, at least he would appreciate the obvious effort and hours that had gone into learning it.

I didn’t even have my makeshift amp cranked up loud, or what passed for loud, yet the instant the opening notes rang out, he buried his face in his hands, eyes squeezed shut, the heels of his palms pressed against his nose and mouth, the tips of his index fingers stretched backwards to stop his ears. I ploughed on, embarrassed and angry, thinking, how hard would it be to pretend? He maintained that sculpted pose even after I’d finished, no doubt as a precaution against an unwanted encore.

But he must have heard the click of the off-switch, because he rose, face set, cheeks inflamed where his hands had been, and strode purposefully to the radiogram he alone was allowed to operate. I pulled out the mains and the pick-up and coiled the leads while the valves hidden in the mahogany cabinet warmed up, knowing what I was going to hear, and, sure enough, on came Julian bloody Bream, turned up louder than I’d played Link Wray, while Dad stood at the French windows, rocking minutely on his heels.

I never forgave him for that humiliation, but took revenge incrementally, whenever I could. I gave myself an early opportunity by boning up the opening bars of a Bream tune and playing it with my bedroom door open when I heard him come home, then stopping abruptly, as if I didn't want him to know what I was up to. At breakfast the following Saturday, he said, as if expressing a passing thought, "If there was anything you wanted to play me, Robert..."

So I set up, lulled him into a false sense of security with my eight bars of Bream, then launched into the opening of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’, to which he reacted with a cartoonish spasm that jerked every limb, as if he were performing a charade of Tom and Jerry where the cat gets his tail jammed into an electric socket by the mouse.

I got used to his antipathy to the point where it washed over me, but I never did understand why Dad was so vehemently anti-rock’n’roll. Did he really believe it was doing me harm? Or could he not come to terms with me being impervious to opera, despite regular, but now abandoned, visits to Covent Garden which had given me a taste for nothing except smoked salmon, courtesy of the half-time sandwiches? Did he feel cast adrift by my passion for a form of music which had not existed before and was made for the exclusive enjoyment of our post-war generation? Or was it nothing more than a father-son battle of wills in which he felt bested? Whatever the reason, he never missed an opportunity to make the same tedious point.

A record token I requested one birthday, for instance, came with NO POP RUBBISH printed all over it. Not printed as in handwritten capitals. No, he had gone to the trouble of composing the slogan using a John Bull printing outfit that belonged to me, but which I rarely used, because of the fiddly process of picking out the rubber letters and blank spaces with tweezers, and sliding them into the stamp. Having done that, he had then repeatedly stamped the front, back and inner surfaces, until the card had the look of a well-travelled passport.

In the short term the tactic worked. For several days I carried the card in my blazer pocket, too self-conscious to produce it in the record shop; then I showed it to Johnny, who tore the token from the card, which he crushed into a ball and drop-kicked into the back of a passing lorry, before handing back the £1 voucher with a grin and “Problem solved.”

I bought ‘Shop Around’ by the Miracles and fell in love with a voice I thought was a woman’s, until Johnny told me it belonged to William ‘Smokey’ Robinson.

*   *   *

Whether Johnny always had me in mind to replace the Blue Pompadours’ sickly lead guitarist, I never knew, because he never said. If it had been a long-term plan, it certainly wasn’t with the encouragement of the group’s other two members - Peter ‘Nobby’ Smith (rhythm guitar, vocals) and Derek Allen (bass) – both of whom I separately overheard remonstrating with him that having a kid playing lead would be seen as a gimmick and, as such, would stop the group being taken seriously. On neither occasion did I stay in earshot to hear Johnny’s answer in case he really had brought me into the group to get us noticed. Watching Pete Townshend’s protégés Thunderclap Newman on Top Of The Pops almost a decade later, it wasn’t the bearded, balding pianist who got my attention, but the fifteen-year-old guitarist Jimmy McCulloch. It was as if Townshend had seen a picture of the Blue Pompadours, thought “The kid’s a funny idea,” and added an ageing ex-GPO engineer to the mix to make the age difference more obvious.

Once my debut with The Blue Pompadours was fixed, Johnny insisted that the gig should be publicised with posters, even though the venue was a local village hall, so after school in the empty art room he showed me how to cut a stencil, glue it to the screen, and spread the ink evenly from one end of the frame to the other. We printed them on black paper, some with yellow lettering, some with orange, some with lime green. He framed a green one for me to mark the event, which I hung on my bedroom wall.

One caught the eye of a neighbour, who told mum she thought it was pedigree cats for sale until she saw the price. “A pedigree cat for 2/6!” At least she’d seen it. Perhaps they were being pilfered by enthusiasts as soon as they appeared, like Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge posters had been in Paris in the 1890s, because they didn’t sell tickets.

On the night, kids weren’t queuing round the block. The local pub didn’t empty. The fish and chip shop didn’t shut for want of customers. The hall was not heaving with a kaleidoscopic community that included a baby at least two of us could have fathered being rocked rhythmically in its pram by an unwed underage mother, the newsagent who had sacked us from our paper round because we couldn’t get up in the morning, and a beaming teacher who always knew deep down that we would turn out okay. No one was turned away in tears. There wasn’t a riot; there weren’t enough audience members to start one.

According to Derek, who counted them from the stage, twenty seven people turned up, all of whom we knew by sight, most by name. They had come out of curiosity, but they must have liked what they heard enough not to walk out, which would have been understandable, given that we weren’t performing material from the hit parade, but our versions of gems from Johnny’s record collection. They clapped, and at the end they whistled and cheered. When they called for an encore, there weren’t any numbers we knew that we hadn’t already performed, so we did ‘Money’ again, which went down even better than it had the first time. As we were packing up though, a pouting girl asked why we hadn’t done any Marty Wilde.

“Because Marty Wilde doesn’t do any Marty Wilde,” Johnny growled with a curl in his lip, an answer that would have left her none the wiser.

There had been no explanations before or after songs as to where they came from or who had originally recorded them. Johnny had forbidden Nobby to say anything other than thank you between numbers. “They’re not coming here for chat from you,” he had warned, while we watched between the closed curtains, willing more people to turn up. “What they’re here for is rock’n’roll. Nothing less, nothing more.”

It was always rock’n’roll with Johnny, who only used the word ‘pop’ pejoratively, pronouncing it with a precision that let you hear the contemptuous inverted commas. Or it was rock’n’roll until he was given an American Billboard magazine by a GI at the nearby USAF base where he bought his records and found an entire chart dedicated to the black music he adored, which was headed: ‘Rhythm & Blues’. From then on the Blue Pompadours were a rhythm & blues group.

It was a GI who sold Johnny a pair of American jeans from the PX for a pound. Johnny tried to get me a pair, but I was still a shrimp then, and they didn’t come small enough. Although - no, knowing Johnny, because the trend was for drainpipes, Johnny took immediately to the looser cut of these American jeans, which started out industrial indigo, but faded to a work-worn cowboy look. He pointed out how you could tell from the turn-up whether they were the genuine article, because with jeans made by Levis the outside seam showed the finished edge of the denim. He wore them with double turn-ups over white socks and slip-on shoes, which he called loafers and also came from the PX.

People who were curious about his jeans and read the label invariably called them ‘leh-viss’, like Carol Levis, the oily host of a popular TV talent show, Carol Levis’s Junior Discoveries. His discoveries included Little Laurie London, a too-eager-to-please pre-teen who had a big hit with ‘The Whole World In His Hands’ and was responsible for Johnny being banned from the school Cadet Corps rifle range after he shouted “This one’s for Little Laurie” as he loosed a .22 round into a lifesize cardboard silhouette.

We rehearsed at the same village hall every Monday evening. As the weeks went by, word must have got around that our music was worth listening to, because the Blue Pompadours acquired an unofficial fan club. The same faces would press against the one window without curtains, and although Johnny insisted we should ignore them, when it rained suddenly one night, hard enough so you could hear the racket on the corrugated roof of the bike shelter, he agreed to let them in, and, having satisfied himself that these ‘kids’, as he called them, despite every one of them looking older than me, weren’t going to be a nuisance and were genuinely interested in what we were playing, he allowed them inside again the following week. In a reciprocal show of loyalty, our fans took to wearing blue items of clothing - a jacket, a jumper, iridescent sky-blue socks, one of them a Noddy hat, complete with bell, until Johnny told him he was barred if he wore it again – and helped out humping our minimal equipment from the van to the hall and back.

Gigs were scarce, and scarcer still for me, since homework prevailed during term-time, with a concession for our weekly rehearsal, so bookings between Monday and Thursday the Pomps had to do as a three-piece. If one of those rare gigs coincided with rehearsal night, since the hall was already paid for, we would run through the set before they left. I always played my socks off, partly out of the frustration that came from not being old enough to run my life the way I wanted, but also to leave the other band members in no doubt that the Pomps as a three-piece weren’t a patch on the group with me in. Then I would be left to lock up and take the key back, but not before I’d rattled off one last embittered instrumental, into whose chords and runs I could pour my feelings: rage against my parents and a school that shared their goal of academic success for me, hatred of my age and the lack of height and physicality that conspired to make me look even younger than I was, commonplace teenage frustrations that felt unique to me. What was if not unique, then uncommon was that I held in my hands a means of releasing them, although the potency of their expression was reduced to a whimper with consummate symbolism by the absence of the amp I shared with Derek, gone with him to the gig, leaving me poignantly powerless.

“All on your ownsome?”

The Pomps and our travelling band of fans had only just left, so the odds were on her knowing the answer, but I liked the way the question gave a lilt to the phrase, making it sound like a line from a song. Maybe it was. Pat Brown - I’d seen her around, knew her name, admired her looks, and marked her down as out of my league - pressed her palm against the strings to stop me playing. She took the guitar by the neck and laid it carefully on the stage.

“It’ll be safe,” she assured me, taking my hand and holding it behind her back, as if she were leading a pony by its reins. Where she was taking me was the room beside the stage, a cubby hole whose identity as the place I made the Pomps’ tea was about to be eclipsed.

*   *   *

The death of my mother's brother had left me with only one uncle, Dad’s younger brother Richard. Uncle Dick lived on his own and seemed to spend all his free time either recording or replaying Goon Shows on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Whenever we visited, we would be obliged to listen to the latest batch, Uncle Dick doing all the voices in near unison with the recording and laughing a lot, my dad laughing almost as often, and Mum not at all. Mum and Dad would routinely have an argument on the way there about “Dick and his damn Goon Shows” and a corresponding row – “Harmless? Gormless, more like!" (Mum again) - on the way back. I heard these rows so often that I could have mimicked my parents’ lines, Dick-style, not that they made me laugh. Then neither did the Goons.

But with the Blue Pompadours up and running, it occurred to me that, if I were to borrow Uncle Dick’s tape recorder, I could record a rehearsal, so, after feigning hilarity for another unfunny half hour of Sellers, Secombe, Milligan and Dick, I popped the question. He paused long enough to formulate an excuse, which was that the microphone impedence would be unable to cope with the dynamic range of “all that rock-a-boogie” - Dad nodding in agreement – so, sorry, no. "I'm sure you understand." Dead right I did. "Time for another one?"

Mum fetched my coat as well as hers and told Dad we were going home on the bus without him. She didn’t often act spontaneously like that, but she surprised me again when Uncle Dick was in hospital “for tests” and she'd been to feed his goldfish. She came home with his tape recorder and said, “There you are, you’ve got it for a week,” before adding a caveat that took the grin from my face: “Break it and your Dad’ll divorce me.” The way things were between them, it was easy to believe her.

So we set my uncle's Grundig up at our next rehearsal and assigned one of the fans to watch the meter and make sure the surges of the flickering needle stopped short of the red, with me fretting about that deadly impedence and wondering whether Dad would move in with Uncle Dick.

The result wasn’t hi-fi, but it sounded like us, and there were solid versions of ‘Money’, ‘Slow Down’, and Rosco Gordon’s ‘Just A Little Bit’, in the middle of which we’d developed a section – a ‘breakdown’, Johnny called it – where each of us played the riff in turn on our own, punctuated by the sparsest of drum beats, all in all about as far as you could get from a typical instrumental break, but hypnotically catchy. The only problem with the song was that Nobby had got so used to singing the opening line as “I don’t want a lot/I just want a bit of tit” that he couldn’t stop himself, so there was a frustrating succession of false starts. We also taped a number we'd recently come up with that kicked off with a riff of mine, for which Johnny he would write some words.

Our leader generally spread his praise as thin as Marmite, reminding us repeatedly that we were not and never would be a patch on the originators of the music we played, so Johnny must have been more impressed than he let on, because, as soon as he’d finished his final exam, he skived off school for the best part of a week and hitchhiked daily to London to trawl Denmark Street, where he would collar anyone who looked as if they were in the music business and ask if he could play them our tape. On day three, in a coffee bar called La Giaconda, he got lucky. An independent record producer, crying into his frothy coffee over an absolute dead cert No 1 that had just been turned down by Pye Records, agreed to listen, and liked what he heard.

Which is why, two Saturdays later, we were booked for a recording session in Sputnik Studios, a space-age name which gave no hint that it was a two-up two-down in a Battersea terrace, converted on a shoestring.

Certain singles produced by Jerry Moke at Sputnik show up on lists of all-time vinyl classics, which is remarkable, given the cramped conditions and that the soundproofing was so inadequate you could hear next door’s dog barking on one of the tracks we recorded there. Not that I hadn't been impressed when Johnny told us Jerry wanted to “moke” a record with us, as, he confided with a grin, the producer had put it.

Moke’s audiophile fans bang on about the bathroom acoustic - the legendary “shit, shave and shower sound” - but the truth was he didn’t record in the bathroom because he wanted to; it was because he didn’t have a choice. Having knocked the two downstairs rooms into one, then constructed within this still congested space a fibreboard-clad control room, like a garden shed transplanted indoors, there wasn’t enough room for a vocal booth. One of the two bedrooms above was where Moke slept; the other, padlocked, was where he kept his “special equipment”, not that any was in evidence when he produced our recording. Which left the bathroom cum vocal booth. This was handily placed above the control room, enabling the producer to maintain visual contact with the singer by means of a home-made periscope. If you wanted to use the lavatory in private, you had to remember to slip Jerry’s shower cap over the aperture.

It took us longer than we’d allowed to find the place, partly because we were on the look-out for a building that matched our concept of a space-age recording studio, and partly because the address was all but unreachable. “Off Battersea High Street” was what Johnny had scribbled on the tape box, but he hadn’t added - and swore Jerry hadn’t told him - was that it was cut off by a railway embankment and could only be approached from one direction. So by the time we’d found Sputnik and been underwhelmed by its facade - “Sputnik?” Derek sneered incredulously, “tupenny rocket more like” - the session should already have been under way.

We were less worried than we would have been had Sputnik been the impressive place we’d anticipated, and Nobby and I spent the time between Johnny pressing the button and Jerry Moke opening the door arguing over whether or not those were the actual chimes that punctuated the chorus of the Delawares’ ‘Ding! Dong!’.

If Moke was bothered by our lateness, he didn't sound it. “Hi, boys,” he greeted us brightly, “and yes, they were,” he added, reaching through the gap allowed by a security chain to ding-dong the bell by way of confirmation. I grinned triumphantly at Derek, who responded, as he always did when he was wrong, with his spaz face.

Although Johnny had warned us that Moke was an odd-looking bloke, he looked okay at that first glance - a touch puffy, older than he most likely thought he appeared, with too black hair and a sheen to his skin that might have been make-up - but that was because only half his face had been visible. The other half, I took in as the door opened fully, sagged like a candle left in a draft.

I recognised the damage done by Bell’s Palsy at once, because our Latin master was identically afflicted. Ding-Dong took revenge for his nickname on impressionable first years who were confused by an ablative case by thrusting first the good side of his face then the lifeless half close to theirs, repeating ever more manically, “Well, boy?… Well, boy?… Well, boy?” until the correct answer or, more usually, the boy’s tears put an end to the torture. But where Ding-Dong looked angry, unsurprisingly, since a boys’ school is a painful place to wear a disfigurement, Moke merely looked sad. Or half of him did. Which he clearly wasn’t.

“Stop to sweep a couple of chimneys on the way?” he inquired perkily, with a nod towards the parked van, whose side panel advertised Derek’s dad’s business.

“That's the deal when we borrow it”, Johnny said, squeezing out a grin as readily as toothpaste from an empty tube. The van was, always had been and would be, an embarrassment.

“Come on, let’s get inside before the neighbours start asking for your autographs.” We swapped glances, but concluded he was joking. His permanent sing-song tone was ambiguous. “Tell you what, I’ll put the kettle on, you bring the gear in, then we’ll get acquainted. Teas all round?” We mumbled agreement.

“Right, I know Johnny - obviously,” Jerry said, as we sat with our hands wrapped round a mismatch of mugs. He consulted a list. “Which one of you is Derek?”

At seventeen, Derek was not only the oldest in the group, but, more significantly, had a driver's licence and access to a van. Which made him unsackable. However patiently Johnny coached Derek at rehearsals, the lines our bass guitarist played were never quite as melodic, rhythmic, right as the ones demonstrated by Johnny, which was extraordinary considering that in the Blue Pompadours’ entire career I only ever saw Johnny pick up a bass to show Derek which notes to play.

But a van was a van, even if it did have ‘W. P. Allen & Son’ and ‘Chimney Sweep’ painted on the side. That son’s future had been fixed on his fifteenth birthday when, by way of a present, his old man had hired a sign writer to add an ampersand and that impersonal Son to his own name, though no S to Sweep. And no O-levels for Derek. Instead a face, from one end of his working week to the other, like a black-and-white minstrel.

Moke looked back at the list. “Nobby? Your name’s not Clark.”

We all grinned; Nobby squirmed.

“Come on, Nobby, out with it,” Derek urged boisterously.

Nobby - also known as Peter O’Tool, or just Tool - reddened and said, “It’s a joke," although in school it was a legend.

“Which means you must be Rob,” Moke said, turning the happy side of his face to me. “Is that your first pair of long trousers?”

We ran through the selection of songs on the tape with Moke bouncing between the control room and the studio, making imperceptible adjustments to the positions of the microphones and the door-sized carpet-covered baffles that made it hard for us to see one another, then we went for takes of ‘Money’, ‘Just A Little Bit’, and our own number, for which Johnny had come up with some words after hearing a drunk claim, while being thrown out of the Wimpy Bar, that everything he knew he’d learned at “the school of hard knocks”. Because of the late start, ‘Slow Down’ would have to wait for next time.

The hair stood up on my neck and my face burned listening back to ‘Hard Knocks’ - and not just because it opened with my guitar. Up in the bathroom Nobby had performed wonders with the vocal, stretching the word “sch-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-l” into a thrilling falsetto - Moke’s idea - at the end of the chorus, so that the “of hard knocks” part of the line, which he almost spoke, collided with my incoming guitar riff. Described that way, it might sound like a mess, but it was one of those magical moments that makes a record something special.

“Bo-oys,” Moke cooee-ed to focus our attention as we exchanged excited grins over the fade, even the sad side of his face looking happy, “I think we’ve just moked ourselves a hit record.” He waited for that to sink in, than said, “But you’ll have to change your name.”

“Over my dead body.” It was Johnny who said that, then, “We won’t. We can’t. It’s what we are.”

“That’s like asking the Shadows to change their name,” Derek chimed in. “Can you imagine doing that?”

Johnny turned a withering look on him. “They did, Derek. They were originally the Drifters. The Shadows is what they changed it to. You’re not helping, so shut up.” Back to Moke. “Well?”

“It’s hard for me to say.”

“But it’s your idea.”

“No, I mean it’s hard for me to say your name. Without drawing attention to my condition. Whoever named this thing Bell’s Palsy had a cruel enough sense of humour, but try saying Blue Pompadours when half your mouth won’t move. Yes, funny isn't it?"

I had no idea who that was aimed at, because I was too busy staring at my lap.

"But not so funny for you, because your problem – there’s another one, it's the Ps and the Bs – is that my job’s not done yet. In fact, it’s hardly started. I’ve now got to sell you and your 45 to a record company, and, once I’ve done that, I’ve got to help whichever record company's lucky enough to sign you to sell it to the public. Knob-twiddlers are ten a penny, but Jerry Moke’s a genuine personality, which guarantees that a Jerry Moke release is more than a record, it’s an event. Your name on the label is neither here nor there, because nobody’s heard of you. It’s having my name on it that’s going to get it written about and played on the radio, and if someone asks me about my latest boys and I can’t say your name without sounding like a character from a cartoon, then that record is, to use a technical term, fucked. Totally. Do I make myself clear? Now, how about the Cougars?”

*   *   *

Would it have been a hit? Who knows? Note, not “Who cares?” Because the answer to that is I did and, in a way, still do. Nobby likewise, and Derek. Johnny would doubtless say he didn’t care, but I'd take that with a handful of salt. I don’t believe it’s possible to have been that close to the end of the process and not wonder what if?

‘Hard Knocks’ certainly wouldn’t have sounded out of place on radio, not that hit records are all about what’s in the grooves. Luck plays a big part. Whether your face fits at the time counts. Which is why there are many more groups like ours than there are listed in the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles. Halfway hits have missed becoming massive ones because the demand for extra copies coincided with Ramadan, when the Muslim half of the workforce at the EMI pressing plant in Hayes was fasting from sunrise to sunset, which on a long summer day was incompatible with increased productivity or overtime. That’s a fact.

But who wants to end up a chippy middle-aged man telling people who aren’t interested that he could have been as big as the Beatles?

It’s pointless speculation, of course. Moke’s arrest and subsequent conviction saw to that. Johnny tried to reason with the record company that all they needed to do was remove Moke's name from the label and trust us not to mention his involvement, but it turned out that Jerry's boast about him being the one who mattered most was true. According to an executive who Johnny pleaded with to no avail, we could have been Terry and the Tosspots, for all he cared, because it was all about the Moke magic.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of all was that we didn't get to hear our record on the radio. I've heard or read more than enough interviews to know that, for many musicians, the big moment wasn't getting to No 1 or appearing on Top Of The Pops, but listening to the radio when their record came on. And how close did we get to that? Johnny heard some singles had actually been pressed before the record company pulled the plug, but none of them ever came to light.

Mum woke me with the paper, as she had when first Buddy Holly and then Eddie Cochran died, which had me wondering as I surfaced from sleep, “Who is it this time?” Until she said, “I’ve been praying for you.”

It was the front page story: five men arrested for importing and distributing male pornography - Jerry Moke, charged under his real name of Morris German, among them. There was a photograph, which must have been taken inside the padlocked equipment room, showing stacks of what were said to be still-wrapped magazines ('foreign filth') – stacks the size of speaker cabinets, which is the guise under which they had been imported from Hamburg.

As if being dumped by the record company wasn’t bad enough, things got worse for us after Moke was sentenced and newspapers were no longer bound by sub judice restrictions. ‘Two-faced Svengali who preyed on pretty boy popsters’ was typical of the headlines, and inevitably it emerged that the Cougars had been the most recent of the pretty boy popsters he had preyed on. Derek was flattered - "No one's ever called me a pretty boy before" - and his dad egged him on into an interview with the local paper in the hope that it would publicise their business.

Nobby was the major victim, getting expelled from school, thanks to the caretaker tipping off a tabloid that our singer used to charge boys a penny for a look at his penis, threepence to watch him masturbate. What the caretaker kept to himself was that, having seen money change hands in the school toilets, he had demanded half of Nobby's future earnings in return for not telling the Head, which, making no economic sense to Nobby, put an end to him exposing himself. This was the caretaker's opportunity to get his own back.

The irony was that Moke hadn't preyed on us. It would be naïve to pretend that Johnny's handsome face had not played a part in generating his initial interest in our demo tape, but once he'd heard the songs, it was all about the music. No two ways about it. He didn't try it on with anyone in the studio, there were no loaded remarks, and if there were funny looks, how would we have known, what with the Bell's Palsy?

Not that anyone believed us. Poor Mum. Here were all the fears she had harboured about rock'n'roll embodied in one demonic being. Except she aimed the blame elsewhere.

"It was your friend Johnny started all this. Him and his blue hair."

I'd half anticipated the first bit, but where did that come from?

"What about you and the vicar?"

"Don't imagine for one minute that I haven't blamed myself, but leave Father Southwood out of this. This started long before that guitar. What was Johnny doing taking such an interest in a boy three years younger than him? You should have been David's friend."

"Hang on, Mum, you've lost me. How did we get from Jerry Moke, a man who turns out to have a dark side to him, but during the three hours we spent at his recording studio acted entirely professionally, to Johnny?"

"Because this is all his doing. Who arranged for you to visit this pornographer's den? Which you've admitted you were intending to go back to."

"I didn't 'admit' it. I volunteered the information. Moke's place is a recording studio, one where hit records have been made. We wanted to record some more numbers. The room where the magazines were found was padlocked."

"No wonder."

"Well, that's a good thing, isn't it? But I still don’t see why you’re so obsessed with Johnny."

"What colour is the Devil?"

"If we're talking about the anthropomorphism of evil, then red."

"Wrong. That's a modern depiction. When he was at the seminary, Sacha wrote a thesis about Satan. Long before he was red, he was black." She paused meaningfully. "Or blue."

"If this conversation continues, there's a serious risk that I’ll get that suitcase off the top of the wardrobe and leave home. And seeing as you've regressed to the Dark Ages, why don’t you ask Southwood if he knows where he can get his hands on a ducking school?"

From behind the closing door, I heard, "I'll still keep praying for you."

Sacha! She actually invited him round, but naturally I wouldn't talk to him. I wished I could have said no to the Headmaster too, since it would have spared me an excruciating half-hour being interrogated entirely in euphemisms. But the biggest blow to me was that the press’s innuendo about Moke and his protégés put an end to my occasional encounters with Pat Brown, who screwed up her face in a show of revulsion whenever I tried to catch her eye.

*   *   *

Fed up with being stared at, or thinking that I was, I stayed in more, playing guitar in my bedroom or listening to music. Smokey Robinson was agonising over ‘Who’s Loving You?’, the tormented flip of the Miracles’ ‘Shop Around’, the room lit only by the twin red glow of the record player’s ‘on’ button and, over by the window, the tip of an outlawed (in our house) cigarette, when Johnny told me he was joining the Merchant Navy.

Only weeks before he’d still been at school, although I already knew he wasn’t intending to return in September. A county-class athlete, he had been stripped of his school colours for smoking - “I still came first, fags and all” - then suspended for what was left of his last term after being caught in flagrante delicto with a convent girl in the cemetery that separated our two schools. Whispers of “In what?” rippled through the school hall after the Head intoned the phrase, boys wishing they’d paid more attention in Latin. Despite the promise of a fresh start and a sixth form place after he got eight good O-levels, Johnny opted for telling the Old Man to get fucked.

“What about the group?” was the closest I came to a protest, which Johnny dismissed with a shrug and “Get another drummer.” I didn’t bother pointing out that he was more than just the drummer. His metronomic timekeeping and unstoppable impetus were hardly half of it. But I didn’t say anything, just felt cut adrift as he outlined his plans. He’d thought it through: what other way was there of getting to America without paying for the trip? I hoped he might change his mind, but as it had been before with the blue hair, there was no stopping him, and two weeks later he was gone.

The first postcard, which arrived a month later, pictured Galveston, a coincidence that made me say “Spooky” out loud, because we were studying Apollinaire in French and I’d just read a poem of his called ‘Annie’, whose opening lines were: “Sur la côte du Texas/Entre Mobile et Galveston…”

It was one of the first poems I’d read over and over that I hadn’t been pointed towards. I’d discovered ‘Annie’ for myself. The collection it came from, ‘Alcools’, wasn’t a set text. I’d been attracted first by the cover design, which was more like the sleeve of a jazz album than a school book: cool and typographically hip, with tinted mug shots of a heavy, happy man in a hat, more like an ebullient bandleader to look at than an introverted poet.

The American place names were what had originally caught my eye, but 'Annie' hooked me for all manner of reasons, and I read and re-read it, enjoying the rhythm of the words and soon knowing them, effortlessly, by heart. In its thirteen lines a handful of spare images brought to life a hot, exotic landscape and Apollinaire’s infatuation with his Mennonite, rose-growing neighbour. It even contained a joke of sorts. ‘Annie’ was, in short, an inspiration, although this epiphany was somewhat spoiled by a rhyme that got stuck in my head – mine, not the poet’s – and went round and round the way lines do, good or bad, refusing to be forgotten: “She’s a Mennonite/She’s all right/She won't date/She won't fight," the last two lines being the sum of my knowledge of that sect’s beliefs.

Judging from Johnny’s postcard, that part of Texas had undergone major changes in the half century since Apollinaire described a pretty coastal landscape of lime-fringed roads and rose gardens, because the picture showed a gigantic oil refinery. The only information the card contained was that he had jumped ship and was heading for New Orleans. The postmark was Lake Charles, so I checked in the atlas, and saw he was almost halfway there. There was nothing about being homesick or missing anybody, instead an unmissable briskness to the message, the economy of a writer keen to get the card filled in and posted, so he could hit the road again.

The second card was sent from New Orleans; or The Big Easy, as the garish caption bridging Bourbon Street announced it. Dad must have recognised the city’s nickname, because he pointed across the breakfast table with a triangle of toast and said, “You wouldn't like it there, it’s all trad jazz, you know.”

Not true, of course, but I was impressed that he knew even that much.

“Your idea of hell, I should imagine,” he continued, his newspaper once again a screen between us, "an entire city of Acker Bilks." Out of sight, he sniggered.

That card, ten days after the first, was followed almost immediately by a letter on lined yellow foolscap, several pages long, in which he listed the local musicians he’d met. Several of the names I knew - Aaron Neville, Benny Spellman, Smiley Lewis - but others, like Dorothy La Bostrie, Harold Battiste and Cosimo Matassa, I didn’t, though as Johnny tagged each name with notes like “DLB - she cleaned up the lyrics to 'Tutti Frutti'”, it didn’t matter. Anyone else, and I would have taken this list of new acquaintances with a pinch of salt, but not Johnny.

He listed the call signs of the radio stations he tuned to and the records they played, and described disc jockeys with names like Poppa Stoppa, whose gravel-voiced jive talk sounded black, but who, he’d been assured, was white. And he explained how he was working in a restaurant kitchen, where the chef spoke in a mixture of English and French. I couldn’t remember Johnny ever expressing an interest in eating, other than as an essential function, like washing, but here he was evangelizing.

“If you imagine, like I did, that all Americans eat is steaks and hamburgers, think again,” he wrote. “Mind you, the burgers are so good, someone should sue Wimpy for using the name for those sad squashed turds they serve up.” Johnny now breakfasted on doughnuts he called beignettes, ate po’boy sandwiches (“French loaves stuffed with oysters, chillies, etc”) for lunch, and dined on seafood gumbo. He was living in the vieux carré - the old French Quarter - in a rented room under the roof of a house that was so hot at night he couldn’t sleep, not just from the heat, but, since the window was wedged wide open to let in what little breeze there was, from the noisy conversations that drifted up from the street along with the sickly perfume of bougainvillea - food and flowers, this was a new Johnny - and didn’t stop till dawn.

Me, I was kept awake by countless questions I wanted answered, but there was no address for me to write to. His next letter - still no address, so the list of questions grew longer - transcribed a conversation he’d had early one morning after another of those sweltering sleepless nights, when he'd followed his feet to the edge of the mighty Mississippi. This is what he wrote:

The stone benches down there are still cool before the sun hits them, and though the river’s already busy, the waterfront itself is pretty much deserted. There was just me and this old black man I'd passed on the way, moving with a slow shuffle and pausing every now and then to lean on his stick. I'd said hi, which is maybe why he chose to sit on the same bench. He had this old brown hat on with a rippled sweat stain above the band and the brim pulled low. It looked like he was trying to uncurl his fingers from the handle of the stick, but if he was, he gave up, which is when he said, "I've seen you."

"Yeah, it was me said hi."

"In the club."

I take a good look at his face and realise he's the piano player from a joint on Canal Street. On stage his skin had glowed, making him look younger. Now it was as beat up as an old Bible. He tried unflexing his fingers again without success.

"See that. Comes and goes with the weather. Sometimes I can play, sometimes I can't. Arthur-itis." He said it like a name. "You know New Orleans music?"


“Young folks here don't. White or black, they don't give a damn." He spat for emphasis. "The only people come round askin' questions are college professors from the North East or Eur-o-peans. Like you, right? How is it you see something in our music our own kids can't?”

I'd been thinking about this myself, so gave him the answer I'd come up with. "Because they want something shiny and new. Like some of the music that's coming out of Detroit. Which is black, but has the polish of pop. But we want to know how your music got to this point. It's like most people just want to sit down to eat, whereas some are interested in what went into the pot."

He laughed at that, a laugh that turned into a cough, then eventually back into a laugh.

"Maybe they scared they'll find out the reason their dirty rice tastes so good is the cook took a leak in it."

So much for my theory! I asked his name.


“Shorty who?”

He repeated the question and started to rock with laughter that set him coughing again.

“You got it,” he said when he could. “Shorty who. That’s what they’ll be saying, ‘Shorty who?’”

And he got up and walked away with that same painful shuffle. I sat there for a while, then came back to this baking shoebox and wrote up the conversation as well as I can remember it. It’s never struck me before that the music you and I love could end up lost one day apart from some scratchy old records. That prospect is too dismal to contemplate.

But after he’d signed his name, he added, “A bit bloomy - maybe I just need a good night's sleep!"

I pinned the postcards to the wall opposite my bed, memorised their crudely coloured images and looked forward to being in New Orleans myself one day and recognising the different streets and squares, though, when I did get there, the French Quarter throbbed with red-faced tourists and conventioneers, gulping more alcohol than they were used to from paper cups as big as buckets. Bourbon Street was either bars or souvenir shops or strip joints, each as rewarding to visit as a fairground sideshow. At night it was like Soho with a sticky climate.

Johnny bought or borrowed a camera, because he started to enclose photographs of musicians with the letters, printing names and dates on the back. Pretty soon I had a pictorial record of the New Orleans music scene, or that part of it which interested Johnny, together with occasional shots where I glimpsed something of his own life: at a pavement table in bright sunlight, a pork-pie straw-hat tilted forward so the brim almost touched his nose, mouth exaggeratedly open behind a fat French loaf sandwich (caption: “The Famous Poor Boy!”); on a bandstand, behind a drum kit, to his right a black man bent over a piano (“Whitey and Shorty”); standing beside an older, overweight, but handsome bearded man, the pair of them in kitchen uniforms (“Me and the Boss - Best Chef in New Orleans”), the corner of a clapboard building showing the word Chez behind them, a black waitress in a white apron taking a cigarette break in an open doorway.

Then the letters expanded into packages that had the postman ringing the doorbell to deliver them. Wedged between cut-out squares of card were 45s on the local Minit label, like Chris Kenner’s 'I Like It Like That' and Benny Spellman’s 'Fortune Teller', and Lee Dorsey’s 'Ya Ya' and 'Do-Re-Mi' on Fury, and there were folded handbills for shows by these and other artists.

My parents made an unholy fuss about my bedroom walls being covered with Johnny's cards, photographs and handbills. Were they concerned I might be tempted to follow him? If so, I wouldn't have minded knowing how. Dad even offered to redecorate the room with my choice of wallpaper if I took them all down, but it didn't take a moment's thought to tell him no thanks. I liked my view of this faraway world to which I was connected by Johnny's words and an expanding collection of records that had been recorded there.

*   *   *

Verbatim from Johnny’s letter:

Out drinking with Alain after the restaurant had closed, I witnessed what looked like an argument between Chef and a balding man who must have been at least a foot shorter than him. The din in the bar drowned their voices, but, despite the difference in size, Alain appeared to be the one on the defensive. I pushed through the drinkers.

"Problem, Chef?"

"Who the fuck's this?"

"He's a commis in my kitchen."

"You got commies working for you?"

"It's French for junior cook."

"Well, now he's a stone in my shoe."

"A what?"

"Leave it, Johnny." And Alain hustled me out of the bar.

It turned out the short man was Carlos 'The Little Man' Marcello, not merely a member of the Mafia, but head of the New Orleans crime family.

"You know him?" I asked.

"Il est mêlé à tout. One of his enterprises is shrimp fishing. As you know, I choose to buy my seafood from one or two small suppliers. Mine is the biggest name absent from his client list. Naturally he doesn't like that. He hasn't threatened me yet, but that will come, no doubt. But you, Johnny, it makes me sad to say, must leave town."


"You heard his words?"

"Me being a stone in his shoe? So I'm an irritation. So what?"

"What do you do with a stone in your shoe?"

"Get rid of it. Oh, come on, you've been watching too many Cagney films."

"Do you know how many unsolved murders there are in New Orleans every year?"

"Tell me."

"I don't know, but it would be a meaningless number, because so many people just disappear. The shoe in the stone is misleading. You are a flea on the back of his dog."

Alain walked me all the way to the rooming house and seemed relieved when we got there.

"I will talk to him. Maybe I will buy his shrimps."

I managed to tell him not to do that on my account before all the air was squeezed out of me by a bear hug. On the way up the stairs I saw light under my neighbour's door. There almost always was. He was a journalist for the Times-Picayune. A sheaf of paper scraps and a pencil hung on a loop of string. You wrote your name on one of the scraps, pushed it under the door, and knocked once. After an indeterminate amount of time, either he opened the door or you went away. I wrote, I waited. The door opened.

"Much appreciated, RG. Two questions. One, is being a stone in Carlos Marcello's shoe a cause for concern? Two, how many people are murdered or go missing in a year."

"One answer: within 24 hours, whatever the total is now, plus one." A pause. "And all the other poor fuckers, of course. Where do you figure on going?"

"I haven't had a great deal of time to think about it. Memphis is on my list of places to visit."

"Not far enough. Not by a long way. It would be a mistake to plan this like a vacation."

I packed up my stuff, putting what I needed to survive in a bag, and stacking the remainder of my few belongings in the centre of the room. I pushed my room key, a $20 bill, and a note saying I'd be in touch as soon as I had an address under RG's door, where, for once, no light showed, and an hour later I was watching the sun rise over cane fields from the window of a Greyhound bus.

Johnny’s letter had been posted in Memphis. I added 'Mailed In Memphis' to the list of Possible Song Titles in my notebook.

*   *   *

It was understandable that Johnny would search out the old Sun Studio, where Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich had recorded, as well as Presley, but, given his antipathy towards post-Army Elvis, in fact pretty much everything the singer had released post-Sun, I was surprised when Johnny wrote that he had taken a bus along Highway 51 to the suburb of Whitehaven to see where Elvis lived behind “these wrought iron gates with a musical motif.” The letter continued:

Gracelands is large, but by no means palatial. Apparently it was built for a local doctor, and Elvis used to drive past it daily when he working for Crown Electrics telling himself, “One day... one day…” It certainly isn’t beautiful like some of the old ‘antebellum’ - before the (Civil) war, in case your Latin’s gone shakey! - homes in parts of the Memphis where the money’s been around for generations. Despite his enormous success, Elvis is what the people who live in those houses would call “white trash”, and he must have grown up knowing what he could and couldn’t aspire to.

So it’s sunset, and the front of the house has a glow to it, as if it’s been painted with luminous paint, when two things happen. First, this girl turns to me and her jaw drops open. Literally. You could’ve shoved a doughnut in her mouth and not touched her teeth. Then she presses her hand against her chest, like she’s recovering from a shock, and says, “For a second there, I thought you were him.” I’m about to start chatting her up, but we both get distracted by this chorus of screams. Someone’s standing on the front porch, arms hanging loosely, legs splayed. It’s the cover of ‘50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong’, minus the gold lamé suit. I’m thinking, no it can’t be, but every girl - there are about thirty of them - is absolutely certain it is. They’re going berserk, shrieking, squealing, jumping up and down, clapping their hands, waving. The only people not joining are a handful of embarrassed looking guys, who must be there to chaperone their girlfriends. They look more embarrassed and share uneasy grins and what-can-you-do-with-them looks, as the screams and the shouts of “Elvis!” get louder, because this person is on his way down the drive towards us. And I realise it is him, it’s Elvis. So now even I’m getting excited. I’ve forgotten how I’ve scorned almost every record he’s made since ‘Hound Dog’. All I’m thinking is, “I don’t believe this! Elvis Presley - The King of Rock’n’Roll - is actually walking towards us.” And he doesn’t stop until he gets to the gates, where he gives us this lop-sided grin, says, “Hi!”, which cranks the screams up another few notches, and starts signing the autograph books and Elvis photos girls are pushing between the bars.

He’s wearing Levis, a western shirt and motorcycle boots that must have been size thirteen at least. His feet are huge. And his hair is jet black – dyed for a film? And, man, is he handsome! You get an idea from pictures, but seeing him in the flesh, it’s obvious why he caused the impact he did - a Greek god made flesh singing stuff 99% of white Americans have never heard before, and the knowledgeable one percent has never heard coming from the mouth of a white boy. I’m not wrong about some of the records he’s made - most of them since he came out of the army are crap - but right at that moment I feel like getting down on my knees to thank him for rock’n’roll. Only what’s really occupying my mind is: what have I got for him to sign?

I check my pockets. Nothing. And all the time I’m being pushed closer to the gates by the girls behind. Should I just put my hand through and ask him to write on that? No, the ink’ll wear off in a week even if I don’t wash.

So I grab a pen from a girl who’s already got her autograph, pull my t-shirt over my head and bundle it through the bars with the pen. Elvis does a double take he must’ve learned from the movies, and laughs this easy laugh, so you can’t help but grin right back.

“You looking for a job as my stunt double?” he says, working the pen against my shirt, which is spread across his thigh. “Only joking, man. I already got one.”

I tell him it’s just the way I came, and he says, “Hey, you’re British,” and when I nod back, he looked genuinely pleased to have spotted the accent. And guess what he says? “You’re gonna see me there one of these days.” I tell him I’ll look forward to that. He says, “You and me both,” and that’s it.

I take back my t-shirt, Elvis turns his charm on a girl with pig tails and a glossy 10x8 - “Hope you paid the Colonel good money for this”, he jokes - and I put the t-shirt back on, hand the girl her pen, and feel myself being sucked backwards through the crowd, like I’m being tugged by an undertow. And it’s like the fans’ voices are far away, even though their faces are up close. I suddenly wonder whether this is some strange dream, but I look down and, yes, the signature’s there. I read upside down: Yours, Elvis. Sod meeting the Queen or the Prime Minister or the Pope. I’ve met the King! (Photographic proof to follow!)

I re-read the letter, wondering what piece of news from anywhere on the planet could be more improbable than coming face to face with Elvis Presley, and couldn’t think of anything. True, as Johnny said, he’d recorded some dire songs, particularly since leaving the army, but Elvis was still Elvis.

It wasn’t so surprising that the pre- and post-Army Elvis were musically different, as the last two years of the ’50s, when he was exiled in Germany, had brought about a dilution of the essence of rock’n’roll. Its raw spirit had been poured into a novelty glass, mixed with a fizzy, saccharine cola, and topped with a cherry. Real rock’n’roll was now nothing more than a renegade outpost of pop, peopled by untamable, out-of-step mavericks, but, according to Johnny, maybe, just maybe, there were signs that things were going to get any better.

Disappointed by the decline of Memphis’s Sun Records, which hadn’t issued a good record in years, apart from Roy Orbison’s ‘Ooby Dooby’ and, of course, Charlie Rich’s ‘Lonely Weekend’, he had been heartened to find WDIA on his radio dial, where his favourite show was hosted by a disc jockey called Rufus Thomas, who came out with lines like, “I’m young and loose and full of goose!” Johnny was 99.9% sure Thomas was black, except he had become accustomed to hearing disc jockeys who sounded black, but were white. Poppa Stoppa in New Orleans was one; John R. - “This is John R., way down south in Dixie” - on WLAC another.

Another feature of these radio stations that had puzzled Johnny was the popularity of records by mail order. WLAC, for instance, was peppered with commercials for Dot Records in Gallatin, Tennessee. “I commented on this to a black musician,” he helpfully footnoted his letter, “and he looked at me as if I was crazy: ‘You figure black folk are gonna walk into a white record store?’ Social history through rock’n’roll.”

It was on Thomas’s show that Johnny had first heard his current favourite record, an instrumental called ‘Last Night’ by the Mar-Keys, a group the DJ had referred to proudly as “Memphis’s own”. When Johnny asked around, he found out he’d already met one of the musicians and even had his phone number, so he called Floyd Newman, a baritone player who, it turned out, also voiced the “Ooooh, last night” line, and Newman gave him the address of the recording studio on East McLemore Street, telling him he couldn’t miss it, just look out for an old cinema. When Johnny asked what would be a good time to visit, the saxophonist had laughed, saying there’d be something happening most hours of the day and night: “Just ask for Jim or Miss Estelle - though she won’t be there ’til after she gets off work at the bank.”

Jim was Jim Stewart; Miss Estelle, his sister Estelle Axton, whose name rang a bell, although it took Johnny a few moments to pinpoint her co-writing credit on ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Which impressed Jim Stewart. It was Stewart who had met Johnny at the door, initially suspicious of the Elvis lookalike, but instantly charmed by the English accent and the enthusiasm for ‘Last Night’, which, in Stewart’s words, had been “nothing much more than a jam”. He had sat in the booth, rolled the tape, and out it came. A local hit record. Not the first that had been made that way, nor, he hoped, the last.

“I can’t have you calling me Mr Stewart, nobody else does round here,” he’d insisted, according to Johnny, who added - in a letter which had been folded round a copy of ‘Last Night’, playing on repeat as I read it - that such informality and friendliness were the rule, rather than the exception, with both the whites and blacks he’d met in the South. Jim and Estelle were the owners, the first letters of their surnames forming the name of the studio and record label: Stax. Johnny went on:

Jim introduced me to Estelle’s son, ‘Packy’ Axton, who happened to be there and who’s also a member of the Mar-Keys, not that the Mar-Keys are really a group. They’re more just part of an interchangeable bunch of musicians, not much older than me, who hang around the studio and ‘jam’ - a word that comes up a lot! When Jim told me Packy was one of the Mar-Keys, I must have looked at him as if I hadn’t heard him right, which isn’t surprising seeing as I didn’t think I had. The reason being that Packy’s white, and I’d taken it for granted that the group was black. It hadn’t surprised me that Jim Stewart was white, because quite a few people on the business side of rhythm and blues are, but, yeah, I’d assumed the Mar-Keys were black. After all, Floyd is - and this is the South, where whites and blacks can’t eat in the same restaurant or ride on the same bus.

They say things like, “There’s no colour bar in the recording studio,” and “A piano don’t play much of a tune if you only play the white notes or the black notes.” So their music is, as a by-product, promoting integration. Makes me feel like finding a way to do what I can to help the cause.

I stopped when I read that. In my experience, the closest Johnny had come to getting involved in any kind of politics or social action was during his blue period, which coincided with a local bye-election. We were sitting on the low wall in front of the Town Hall, waiting for Derek to pick us up, when this taxi pulled in. It was one of the ones you saw waiting at the station, all of three minutes’ walk away. It must have been a government minister or some top Tory from London come to support their candidate, because he got out, looked down at Johnny, and said, “Should I be thanking you, young man, for, as it were, flying the flag?” To which Johnny replied, “Do I look like a cunt?”

I went back to the letter, where, as if pre-empting the inevitable question from me, Johnny explained, “It isn’t about politics. It’s about basic human rights. How can you be a fan of rock’n’roll or rhythm and blues and NOT be anti-segregation?”

*   *   *

It was Derek who told me Johnny was back and working in a transport café.


Naturally I was miffed that it was him telling me rather than the other way round, but I was genuinely incredulous. There’d been a longer than usual gap since the last letter, but no hint that he’d been thinking of coming home.

“Not just working there. Seems he’s bought into the place. The one on the A40 that used to be the Beehive Café and now has that massive sign saying Hank’s Truckstop. That’s Johnny all over, isn’t it? The old man reckons he’ll have to take it down. He says you need planning permission for a sign that size.”

I was still struggling to take in the news. My bewilderment must have shown, because Derek added helpfully, “You would have thought he’d have checked before he put it up.”

Johnny was wearing a white chef’s jacket and checked trousers, on which he wiped his hand before shaking mine. He even had a chef’s hat. I must have stared at it, because he took it off, which got me staring again. I’d expected the quiff to flop out, but there wasn’t one. His hair was cropped close to his scalp, which shocked me more than when he’d dyed it blue. I’d got used to seeing shots of a short-haired Elvis in the army, but that first sight of Johnny looking as if he’d shown the barber a photo of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in the film of Julius Caesar and asked for the same was like opening New Musical Express and seeing Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis with a crewcut. Unimaginable.

“I don’t understand.” I couldn’t think what else to say.

“Too hot in the kitchen,” was his inadequate explanation.

“No, I mean…”

“Long story, but here’s the short version. Did I tell you I’d got involved in Civil Rights? Not in a big way, but enough to get me noticed by the cops. I started getting hassled, stopped in my car, that kind of thing. Although I’ve got a clean Louisiana licence, I knew it was only a matter of time before someone would want to see my passport, which of course doesn’t have the right visas. The funny thing is, it was actually someone from the NAACP – the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People - who said I should leave, after I told him about my problem with the cops. He was concerned it would be bad publicity for the movement, an illegal immigrant stirring up racial trouble. It wasn’t the rednecks running me out of town, it was the people I’d been trying to help who wanted me out of the country. Police are turning fire hoses on schoolkids, Ku Klux Klansmen are bombing churches and murdering black and white civil rights workers – and the NAACP are worried me not having the right paperwork is going to make them look bad? Anyway, they were courteous, but firm, helping me pack up, arranging for my stuff to be shipped home, even driving me four hundred miles to the British Consulate in Atlanta. They were adamant there should be no fuss, so I left Memphis without saying goodbye to a lot of people.”

“But this place? I don’t get it.”

“I like working in kitchens. It’s what I mostly did in New Orleans and Memphis. I thought I told you. I love the near mania when service is in full swing. There’s nothing like it. Playing in a band comes close, but that’s never paid my bills. And there’s money in the restaurant business. Real money. Cash money. Under the mattress money” He paused. “Or did you mean, why a transport caff? In which case, don’t be a stuck-up little prick. Not so little any more, I see. Ain’t you the lanky one all of a sudden?”

He swung his arm in a sweeping arc that took in twenty or so formica-topped tables, a patchily painted ceiling, and walls covered in peeling paper.

“I’ve got plans. I’m going to give this place the feel of a roadside juke joint. As you can see, the décor’s nearly done” – thank God I hadn’t commented! – “and I’ve got a trunkful of posters for Southern beer and hair oil and R&B singers. There’ll be real burgers, handmade right here from quality steak, soul food, Cajun food, you name it, everything but grits, which I just couldn’t get on with. Lorry drivers are going to love it, because although the reality may be that they do a daily run to and from a factory in Slough, in their heads they’re truckers hauling a big rig from Chicago to St Louis.”

“Your Elvis t-shirt framed in pride of place on the wall?”

Johnny gave a dismissive snort. “There were people in Memphis who didn’t believe it was real. Who’s going to take my word for it here?”

“So this is yours? You own it?” All my questions sounded stupid.

“Not all of it, not yet, but it will be.”

Here was the question I’d been waiting to ask. “I saw Nobby the other day. He’d heard you were back and was wondering whether you fancied getting a band together? More of a blues feel than the Pomps. With a second guitarist who can play lead, so I can double on harmonica?”

But Johnny was already shaking his head. “I’ve got a million things to do, but none of them is being in a band. The Pomps were it for me.” He made an impatient movement that made me feel I must be wasting his time. “Listen, I’ve got to see a man about a jukebox. Why don’t I give you a call when I’m not so pushed? You still at home?”

“Till October, fingers crossed.”

“University? You always were the bright boy.”

For a moment I thought he was going to tousle my hair.

*   *   *

Since Johnny didn’t phone, after a while I drove back to Hank’s late one morning. A blackboard by the door listed ‘Today’s Cajun Specials’. At a transport café on the A40? I’d picked a time when I assumed there would be a lull between breakfast and lunch, so Johnny might have time for a coffee, but the place was heaving. I asked a passing waitress if her boss was about.

“Do you hear shouting?” She cupped a hand to his ear and mimed listening. “No. No shouting, no Johnny. He’s out, as it happens. Checking out some place over near Watford. Expanding his empire.”

“Would you tell him –”

I was distracted by the opening chords of Benny Spellman’s ‘Fortune Teller’, and when I remembered what I was going to say, the waitress had gone. The source of the song was a pristine 1950s jukebox, all colour and chrome, with vertical fins on the front like the tail of a Cadillac with its brake lights glowing red. A Seeburg, I read, when I was close enough.

A thickset man wearing green overalls and a corduroy cheese-cutter cap high on his forehead was feeding coins into the slot and punching buttons with the ease of a pianist playing a familiar tune. He half looked over his shoulder.

“Best jukebox in the country,” he told me. “And I know every one between Southampton and Scotch Corner. I stop here whenever I can. Have you tried the red beans and rice?”

“First time I’ve been here.”

“It’s like another world. Least it is if you’re from Barnsley.” He stepped away from the machine and said, “Help yourself.”

As the panels spun, I realized my entire musical education was printed on the red-and-white cards that contained the titles of the records and the names of the performers. Little Richard, Ray Charles, Larry Williams, Barrett Strong, Shirley and Lee, the Showmen, Rosco Gordon, Link Wray, Maurice Williams, Frankie Ford, the Miracles, the Coasters, Booker T and the MGs, Lee Dorsey, Barbara George, the Mar-Keys, they were all there, every one of the artists Johnny had brought into my life.

And what struck me reading those names and titles was that almost every one of these records had been released between 1958 and 1962, the wilderness years between Elvis entering the Army and the explosion of beat groups in Britain, as if, by filling his jukebox with them, Johnny was proving a point, for him the only point worth proving: that rock’n’roll had made a stand against the Bobbies and the Frankies, the Adams and the Cliffs, and now lived on in the repertoire of the Beatles, the Stones and the rest.

I would happily have picked every selection from A1 to U0 and most of their B-sides, but it was the very last record of the lot that caught my eye. I felt for a sixpence among the coins in my pocket, pulled it out, then hesitated, my hand hovering over the slot, wondering was there any point? I could sit over my coke until the ice melted, and I’d still be listening to the Barnsley trucker’s choices.

“Get in there.” He must have been reading my thoughts. “It doesn’t play them in the order they’re selected. It goes A1, A3 and so on. This is what? T7? You pick something down that end, it’ll be up next or next-but-one.” I dropped the coin in the slot and pressed U and 0.

‘Fortune Teller’ was coming to an end. “…And now I get my fortune told for free” – the punchline intoned basso by Spellman.

“You know ‘Mother-in-Law’?” I asked the trucker.

“Ernie K Doe – it’s on here. You want me to find it for you?”

I shook my head “You know the bass voice that sings that line? The 'mother-in-law' bit. That’s this guy" - I pointed at the record - "Benny Spellman.”

The record faded, the pick-up retracted, ‘Fortune Teller’ returned to its slot, the turntable trundled an inch along its track and another 45 popped out. I moved away to a table by the window, where I could see the traffic on the A40. A guitar riff played by a fourteen-year-old rang out. I nodded in time and waited for Johnny’s drums to tumble in, the Barnsley trucker no doubt thinking, “Who was that know-it-all? And who the hell are the Blue Pompadours?”