I’m idling along the High Street in my tan sit-up-and-beg Ford Pop, when ‘Whatcha Gonna Do About It’ comes on the radio. Its opening bars are instantly uplifting, as they always will be and as they were a year ago when the riff belonged to Solomon Burke’s ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’. I grin, shape a pout, and work my chin in and out to the beat. Saturday shoppers who hear the music and turn to see its source may be reminded of a chicken. My elbow is angled out of the open window, offering a glimpse of the rainbow weave in my John Stephen Madras cotton jacket, which is worn over an Italian knitted shirt with three buttons and genuine Levis an airman got me from the PX at the local USAF base. An inch of white sock shows between the cuffs of the jeans and my loafers.
It’s October 1965 and I know the Small Faces’ record well. I’ve played it to death since I bought it a month ago after hearing it once on the radio. Now it’s a hit. And I know what the Small Faces look like: me. Or the way I wish I could afford to look every day. But it’s hard staying in step with the relentless pace of mod fashion on pocket money and the pay packet from a Saturday job in John Collier, which is thirty shillings plus commission. Except there is no commission on the basic two-piece displayed in ‘the window to watch’ that most customers walk in intending to buy, while all you get for persuading them to pay more than they can afford is sixpence commission. A tanner. That’s half a pint or one doob.
Besides, if the Saturday boy looks like he’s selling more suits than he should, the full-time salesmen have him making tea and running errands all afternoon, so they won’t get shown up. But the reason for working there isn’t the pitiful wage, it’s the opportunity to order made-to-measure, stitch-for-stitch copies of Carnaby Street and Shaftesbury Avenue outfits with a staff discount. Ben, a mod who works in Burton’s next door, tipped me off.
John Collier customers, and it’s the same in Burton’s, are only shown the standard style book. ‘A, B or C, sir?’ is the choice you offer, unless you want a bollocking from the manager, who measures the inside legs, fills out the dockets for the factory, and doesn’t welcome the smooth running of his day being disrupted. Whereas, for the same price, you can actually specify dozens of style details, like jetted pocket flaps two inches deep, thirteen-inch vents, and double ticket pockets – an invisible, but essential item for at least three hip weeks. When your suit arrives, all you have to do is unpick the labels from the lining you’ve specified in a contrasting shade. Should a customer admiringly eye your suit and ask the inevitable question, you reply innocently, ‘Mine? No, sir, I bought this in London. Mind you, we could do you something quite like it, if you were prepared to consider a slightly more expensive range.’
I no longer work there, as I leave for university next week, though I quit in August to go busking in Europe. Radio London had been promoting a cut-price train-and-ferry package to Paris, and we – Derek (Dex for short) on guitar, me on harmonica – decided we would clean up busking blues on the steps of the Sacré Coeur for the tourists in Montmartre. So we skipped school to buy travel tickets in London, but stopped off in Carnaby Street, where we spotted these matching Madras checked jackets, like the one Georgie Fame wears on the cover of his Rhythm & Blues At The Flamingo album, and we blew the cross-Channel fare and more on threads instead: Dex’s mostly a mix of greens, mine pink, yellow and blue.
Driving back along the A40, we had the jackets out of their John Stephen bags and spread like travelling rugs across our laps, the pair of us grinning at their technicolour splendour. Between Gerrards Cross and Beaconsfield, we careered past an oncoming straggle of CND protesters en route from Bomber Command HQ at Walters Ash to Speakers’ Corner, the mackintoshed and duffeled marchers, in contrast to our peacock coats, as drab as the clouds that threatened to burst over them.
A second trip to town secured the tickets, but for some long-forgotten reason, Dex departed for Paris before me, and by the time I set off, four days later, he was back, hankering for the pills that have lent his nickname a pertinent new meaning. Since I’d paid for my ticket, I went anyway, but finding no one to busk with, hitchhiked south with an acquaintance I ran into in a beatnik squat. We picked up a memorable ride along the corniche of the Côte d’Azur in a Citroën Pallas décapotable, steered with ostentatious, one-handed abandon by a golden-skinned, bare-chested playboy, who bought us a meal before dropping us in Nice, where we slept on the beach and were roused at dawn by a tattoo of police boots against our sleeping bags. Given 24 hours to get out of France, we headed into Italy, winding up in Florence at a youth hostel whose magnificence was ascribed to the duce Mussolini, who supposedly had housed a mistress there. I’d only played harmonica at the roadside to wile away the wait between lifts, but here I hooked up with a tall, blond Californian guitarist called Peter Kaukonen, who was travelling with twin Scandinavian beauties in tow. They shared his tent and thumbed his rides, while he hid until the car was stopped and the passenger doors open. Peter and I played a bit, but I was rusty and embarrassed. He told me that when he returned to the States, he would be joining his brother’s band in San Francisco. Some years later, when I read the name Jorma Kaukonen on the sleeve of a Jefferson Airplane album, I wonder if this is the brother and whether Peter has been unable to tear himself away from his girls.
I turn off the High Street into the car park of The Antelope, where Dex and I will plan our outing to the Flamingo, my last All-Nighter before I leave for university. I kill the ignition, but leave the radio on, so I can listen to the end of the record while I light up a Winston, pocket my Polaroid aviators, and check my hair, which is cut short and teased to stand up on the crown, in the rear-view mirror.
The radio, tuned to Caroline, is a bulky portable, wedged between the parcel shelf and the back window and powered by a battery the size of a brick. How well it works depends on the direction in which I’m driving and, because adjusting the volume means pulling over and climbing most of the way into the back seat, it’s kept permanently loud as a precaution. Built-in radios aren’t standard kit, even in new cars, although one boy I know has a record player clamped under the dashboard of his Triumph 2000, whose glove compartment is crammed with 45s. You slot one in, it starts automatically, and when it’s done, it pops out like toast, but the records groan as if their hole is off-centre when Harry corners fast, which is round every bend. Harry, who wears driving gloves and whose father owns a handbag factory, is better off than the rest of us, but he and I aren’t that close, because he isn’t a mod, which matters.
The Small Faces are mods, without a doubt. It isn’t just the hair or the fact that they’re photographed wearing jackets like the ones Dex and I own, but the singer Steve Marriott moves like a mod. I can picture him dancing the Block to Guy Stevens’ American imports at the Scene in Ham Yard or preening himself at the cloakroom mirror in the Flamingo, pilled up to the eyeballs for the All-Nighter, just like Dex and I will be later.
Dex has recently become a dealer to fund his accelerating habit. He now takes his pills ten at a time, chewing them despite the poisonous taste before swallowing, so they kick in faster. I have no idea how many he sells each week, I’m not interested, I don’t want to know, as long as my six only cost me three shillings. All the same, it would be useful to be told he sold some down the Flamingo last weekend and that he intends to do the same tonight, so I could choose to stay at home.
Pushing pills is franchised in the Flamingo, or so I understand, the pusher paying for the pitch like a market trader or a news vendor. I know you can buy pills there, because I’ve been offered them often enough, but even without Dex’s supply, it wouldn’t be a wise place to buy. That’s one of the ways the plain clothes from West End Central operate. They work the club in pairs, one to entrap, the other to arrest, though whenever they’re spotted by someone they’ve busted, a silent signal is sent out and the crowd backs away, opening a circle around the detectives, clapping out the beat to help the heavy-footed couple get in step, until they give up and head, red-faced and scowling, back to Vine Street.
There’s a dealer who’s been down there every time I have, so he must be the one who’s been given the nod. Whenever I tell him no, he shrugs and says, ‘Well, you know who I am.’ Which is true, I couldn’t miss him, with his flat, square face and black hair cropped close, emphasising the deep V of his widow’s peak.
Some time during that last All-Nighter, he leans against me hard enough to take my attention away from the stage, directs my look down to his hand, and uncurls his fingers to show me the folded switchblade he’s holding. Then he closes his hand and waits for my eyes to come up to his. His look says nothing, nor does he; the knife has been the message. As the dealer walks away, his hands in the jacket pockets of a Tonik suit the colour of peanut butter, my heart is beating so hard I’m convinced people will hear it the second the music stops. I’m dazed with fear and confusion, then it hits me this has to be something to do with Dex, whose escalating edginess I’d put down to the speed.
From the raised area off to one side where I’m standing, there is a view over the whole of the dance floor. I see the dealer, nodding in my direction, a couple of faces either side of him following his eyes, nodding too, but I can’t see Dex. He regularly goes missing. He’ll drop by The Scene or there’s a cafe that stays open in St Anne’s Court where he trades nonsense with the nighthawks. Once I’ve controlled my jangly panic sufficiently to think, I figure nothing’s going to happen in here. The only trouble I’ve seen in the club was a whisky-fuelled spat between a black GI and a Jamaican over a prostitute. So I’m safer where I am. If I split and go searching for Dex in Soho, they’ll surely follow.
He’s beside me before I notice him, looking gaunt and sick, his top lip drawn back and stuck drily to his gums. He tells me we’re going to get rolled. I ask why. He explains. Now I understand. Speeding dementedly, he keeps seeing people he’s sure can help us, until he taps them on the shoulder and they turn into strangers. When he does find someone he knows and tells him what’s going to go down, the guy laughs and says it’s time he took it easier with the doobs.
‘Tell Micky it’s true,’ Dex begs me, balling his fists in anguish. I tell Micky it’s true. I tell Micky about the knife.
‘You an’ all?’ he grins, and goes back to chatting to a woman who looks like a witch.
Georgie Fame’s second set ends, the lights come on, the cloakroom queue swells then dwindles, as the club empties. Over the PA, John Gunnell asks the stragglers, don’t they have any fuckin’ homes to go to? Dex and I hang on helplessly. I want him to apologise for what he’s done, but it’s a futile, irrelevant wish. I feel like a schoolboy. Across the empty floor, the dealer studies us with casual concentration from a huddle of cronies, making no move to leave. There’s nothing to be gained by staying, so we head for the stairs, and they follow.
People always hang around outside after the All-Nighter, scattered across the trafficless street in groups, waiting for the world to catch up, but this morning there is a solid semi-circle ringing the exit, an arc of expectant spectators. Micky, looking worried, slips out of the crowd with two faces I recognise, but don’t know.
‘Got a car?’ he asks from the side of his mouth, his gaze across my shoulder.
For a long, uncomfortable second I can’t remember where I’ve left it, then I nod.
‘Broadwick Street.’ I qualify that. ‘I’m pretty sure. I’ll know when I get there.’
I get ready to run.
‘No,’ Micky says firmly. ‘We walk. I don’t run from anyone.’
We cross Shaftesbury Avenue, Micky beside us, walking in the road, the other two behind, not that I look back. We pass the churchyard on the right, Old Compton Street, Brewer Street, the Marquee, without a word. All Micky says when we turn into Broadwick Street is, ‘This is going to cost me.’
One stays on the corner, Micky and the other wait, watchful, as we get in the car. I will it to start, which it does second time. I find first gear and wind the window down to thank Micky.
‘You’re not home yet.’
At Oxford Street, where the lights are red, a Jag comes up so fast behind me, it slews sideways when it stops, the squeal of tyres a banshee yowl between the blank buildings. One of the dealer’s mates is out and sprinting, a hammer in his hand, as I crash the lights. I get a head start while they pick him up, and I jump every light to Marble Arch. Along the Bayswater Road and through Notting Hill I’m doing sixty, flat out for my old banger, but I don’t lose the Jaguar and know I can’t. As we hit Shepherds Bush, Dex points at a police car on the north side of the Green, its blue light and siren coming on as he does. I yank the hand brake to keep the brake lights from showing, and the Jaguar closes, but then slows too. The police car rounds the east apex of the Green, canted crazily.
Dex murmurs, ‘If they stop us, I’m busted.’ He’s pulling envelopes from his pockets, those small brown ones they push through your letterbox for charitable donations.
‘Chuck them away, for Christ’s sake.’
Heavy on the brakes and clutch now to change down as we near the junction with Shepherds Bush Road, I shoot a look at him.
In the mirror I see the envelopes whirl like dead leaves in our slipstream, apart from the one whose top he tears off to tip its contents into his palm. I turn towards White City on green, knowing I’ll have to stop if the lights at Uxbridge Road stay red, because there’s other traffic about now, as well as the police car on my tail. I check the mirror again and see the Jag hurtle on down Goldhawk Road, the police car behind it. I don’t tell Dex, who is grinding blues between his teeth. I just hold the wheel tight to stop my hands shaking and wait for the lights to change.
By the time I drop Dex in the middle of town, he’s high again and full of plans for the day, but I don’t want to do anything but go home, so I do, slowly, trying to think myself into the frame of mind of someone who’s spent an evening at a jazz club followed by a good night’s sleep, until I look at my watch and see it’s not yet eight.
Whether I wake her or she was already up, my mother opens the front door while I’m aiming my key at the lock. We greet, but that’s all, and I feel her eyes interrogate me as I pass. In my room, clothes are piled on the spare bed and a suitcase is open on the floor. I close the curtains carefully to keep out as much of the day as I can and lie on my bed without undressing, certain I won’t be able to sleep, but not ready to pack for university. Whenever I hear a car, I wait for it to stop, and once, when the door bell rings, I hold my breath, half-expecting to hear it’s the police, even though logic has dismissed this possibility.
I’m still coming down on Monday, my depression compounded by the stuffiness of freshers dressed no differently from the parents who’ve driven them there. I see no hint of mod among the suits, blazers, tweedy jackets, knife-creased trousers, corduroys, lovat jumpers, and ties. I will eventually meet the only other mod on campus, though Tony, a squarer peg than me and homesick for Hounslow, will leave halfway through the first term. There are two or three mod-ish girls, and one of the college barmen claims to be a mod, although he doesn’t look much like one, and says he knows where he can score some pills.
My records are in demand at Junior Common Room discos, I will book Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames for an all-night dance on Valentine’s Day, and at Christmas and Easter, when I return home, I will visit the Ricky Tick in Windsor, but even on that first day, with the furniture in the white-walled room rearranged so I can operate my record player without getting off the bed and Otis Blue on the turntable, while I lie there feeling like shit, listening to Otis sing, ‘You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry,’ I know mod is over for me.
* * *
The week after that Valentine all-nighter I recognize my mother’s writing on an envelope. I open it, but there’s no money inside, nor the usual chatty letter. I unfold an article scissored from the local newspaper and read the headline: ‘Ex-Grammar Boy Peddled Purple Hearts’. Wrapped around the cutting is a sheet of notepaper on which a single line has been scrawled with such force the ink shows through on the reverse: ‘So that’s what you were up to!!!’ I drop it in a bin on the way to my room, where I roll a joint and read how Dex, coached no doubt by his QC uncle, has got away with a hefty fine.