Friday, August 06, 2004

by Eddie Willson

Eddie Willson Photobooth Picture

The lighting strikes me as quite arty, looking at the pictures now.

I'm in the top frame. Just below is D. Then N. Then me again. I was a storeman in a builders' merchant back then. That's where I bought the donkey jacket. I qualified for a staff discount so I also got them for a couple of friends. They were popular then as an interim step between ditching the old graffitied school blazer and saving up enough money for a leather jacket.

N and D have gone for the charity-shop look popular then, which I favour even now. I can't quite make out which badges D is wearing. My guess is, the smaller one on his left lapel is based on the cover artwork for Joy Division's first LP. Nobody seems to wear badges these days; not even those ones urging you to lose weight now, and inviting you to ask the wearer the means by which this might be achieved.

In these pictures I ably demonstrate that Britain was just coming out of a bad hair decade. Any film of the period shows you couldn't get a decent haircut to save your life. Believe it or not, the tonsure I'm sporting passed for not looking like a hippy, and was enough to get you beaten up in some pubs. I persuade myself it's a trick of the light, but I can't deny I look as if I'm wearing earmuffs. Even three years after the first flush of the Pistols and the Clash it was still necessary to shop around to find strides that weren't flared. Here, despite my allegiance to all things punk, I'd managed to saddle myself with flared hair. The moustache I cannot excuse or explain. I prefer not to dwell on it.

We all look stiff somehow. The most natural picture is the last one. As there were only three of us, we had one shot spare. At the last moment, either D or N shoved me into the booth. What looks now like youthful swagger is really just me falling over.

The photo-booth was inside Bristol University. We'd gone there to see the Slits. I can work out that the picture must have been taken after their set. The booth was just next to the porters' office, which was unlocked. I sneaked in and stole a pork pie, which was on one of the desks. We got a minicab afterwards, at which point I'd begun eating the pie. As I got into the cab, the driver said, 'You can't eat that in here, sonner.'

I duly lobbed the pie onto the pavement. D later complimented me on the cool with which I did this. It was the first of only two times in my life when I've done anything which has been described as cool by somebody else.

Even now, I can just about tidy my memories of the evening into sequence. When we arrived, there was a good-natured mob of people hanging about outside. The Slits were pretty much at the peak of their popularity then, having just released 'Typical Girls' as a single. Unbeknown to us, the gig was only open to students and their guests, so there were delays getting in.

I'm unsure about the next bit, but I've got some memory of the Slits arriving at the front entrance, and stepping out of what struck me at the time as quite a flash car. In reality it was probably a fairly ordinary hire car. I definitely remember being struck by something stylish in the way they swept into the building, as if they were arriving at a film premier.

We were kindly signed in to the venue by one of the students. He seemed much older than us. It wasn't just the teenage thing of thinking everyone over twenty is ancient. He had shoulder length hair and a beard, and wore a check shirt. This placed him on the other side of an age divide, beyond which youngish men modelled their look on that of Whispering Bob Harris.

I forget the support band altogether. The Slits were, competent but uninvolving. I remember little about their set, except Ari Up improvising extra lyrics to 'Spend Spend Spend', around the phrase '1980'. That suggests the gig was early in 1980. January the 14th sticks in my mind for some reason. Me and N stayed near the back of the crowd for most of the time. Only D ventured to the front, during 'Typical Girls'. He returned satisfied, having taken a look up Viv Albertine's skirt. Even then this struck me as missing the point.

The decision to stay near the back turned out to be a lucky one. A fight broke out just in front of the stage. Afterwards a big pool of spilt lager and blood spread itself slowly across the sprung dance floor. That kind of violence was common then. Summer of the same year I was at a big open-air benefit gig for the Morning Star newspaper, at Alexander Palace. John Cooper Clarke was one of those on the bill. During 'Thirty Six Hours' he blurted, 'Fooking 'ell', and his delivery began to falter. Moments later, a man scrambled onstage with blood streaming from his head. Cooper Clarke led the man backstage with an arm around his shoulder. The unaffected kindness with which he did that really struck me. There were four or five more bottlings that afternoon.

The last time I saw N to speak to was in 1985. I'd just taken my first 'A' level at evening classes. I was moving to London so had packed in my second job, at Payless DIY. On the goodbye pub-crawl with my workmates I bumped into N in the Mermaid. He'd just come out of Exeter Prison, having served a short sentence for importing heroin. He seemed typically unshaken by prison and was keen to recount his experiences 'on the in'. We'd seen little of each other for the previous two years but he'd been a true and solid friend. I didn't repay that friendship as I should have. I remember headbutting him in the Taj Mahal for no reason. I also remember drunkenly groping his then fiancee Louise at a party. He was in the room at the time. She dumped him a year or so later. None of that wishy-washy 'It's not you, it's me' stuff; she came straight out and told him she was giving him the elbow because he was boring.

On the night, he came straight round to my house to tell me. On hearing the news I promptly burst out laughing. Again, I'm at a loss for a reason.

I last saw D on a return visit to Yeovil. He was married with kids. He was the first of us to move in with somebody, despite having been famously slack up until that point. He was the sort of person who couldn't sleep with anybody without telling the whole world about it. There was widespread glee when, outside a nightclub, he severed his frenulum [look it up] while having sex with a woman we referred to, with typical cruelty, as the Camel. He was taken to A&E, from where he was later collected by his mother. We'd have all paid good money to witness the conversation they had.

By an odd coincidence I met one of his exes in South London about two years ago. I introduced myself, mentioning the D connection. Too late I remembered that she had allegedly dumped him because of his repeated requests for anal sex. I then also remembered that I had last seen her at a party where I had narrowly missed her with a bright red arc of projectile vomit.

I always saw D as a fatuous poseur, even though I didn't learn the word fatuous until December 1987. But there must have been more to him than was apparent. The band he formed went on to record three albums. They had some modest success in a lazy indie guitar sort of way. They were quite big in Japan for a while, and once had a full page feature in the NME. I played with them for two early rehearsals, before it became crashingly obvious that I wasn't up to it. I was puzzled at the time by the kindness that led him to ask me to join the band, and still am now, I suppose.

I can't remember whose idea it was to take our photo that night. It suits me to think it was mine. It's the only photo I have of me from when I lived in Yeovil. I don't know how much to read into the fact that so few pictures of me exist prior to this point. I do know that from the point when my dad died almost no family photos were taken. We acted like a town that didn't consider itself worth a postcard.

I hardly recognise the boy in the picture. I remember things he did and saw, but I'm starting to forget what it felt like to be him. And that really pleases me.

Eddie Willson is a writer from London, England, UK. His novel The Black Car Leaving, about a group of friends in a small town in England when punk rock hits in the 1970s, is really brilliant. Encourage him to write another by buying a copy for 5 dollars or 2 pounds or thereabouts (perhaps email him at eddie (whereit'sat) to find out the going rate) from Self, Self, Self Publishing, 20 Rochdale Way, Deptford, London, SE8 4LY UK. For more of his writing, visit his blog and website.

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