I asked Barney if I could post a novella I’ve been writing with music at its core, and was grateful when he said yes, because it spurred me on from first to second draft. Although this is the third draft, it’s still a work in progress – not that I have any idea where that progress will take it – so I’d appreciate comments and advice. I plan to post a chapter a day for the next ten days or so. It’s called Blue.
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)
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.
(Without doubt 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 General 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.
“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’.