Friday, 6 June 2014

The Day I Met ZZ Top

I am familiar with the notion of borderland as sacred space from having read about Mexico before the Spanish conquest. Borderlands for the Mexica were dusk, dawn, and numerous points of the calendar at which one kind of time became another. Such junctures, so it was believed, were weak spots where sacred forces might be in flux, realms of neither one thing nor the other, and this was where the ordinary and readily understood laws of the universe broke down. I found myself in one such space for most of the summer of 1984.

My recall of the exact sequence of events is poor, which is of course understandable given the breakdown of reality, or at least of reality as I had understood it up to that point. School had ended with my fifth year of secondary edumacation in the summer of 1982. Shipston-on-Stour Comprehensive had no sixth form, due either to lack of funds, or it hardly being worth the effort given the quality of students. Those of us who had been coaxed into either taking A levels - or retaking those exams I would have passed at school had I been paying attention - signed on for a catch-up year at the South Warwickshire College of Further Education in Stratford-upon-Avon. A few of my friends were also there, and stranger still, we now found ourselves compressed into a single scholastic stratum with kids who had been in the year above our own at the school; because as I say, it was a borderland wherein the ordinary and readily understood laws of the universe broke down. We were stood at the threshold of our respective futures, in a manner of speaking, although loitering would be a better term; and none of us were under any illusion that those futures would contain yachts, private planes, or expensive Italian sports cars. This state of flux endured for two years, ending as I wandered off towards Maidstone in non-committal pursuit of a fine art degree, so 1984 was arguably the last year of my childhood.

Back at school there had been the four of us in our little gang: myself, Graham, Eggy, and Pete. We had been drawn together by a shared sense of humour, and the fact of our being the only kids in the entire town who preferred Joy Division and The Stranglers to Iron Maiden. Typically we formed a band, having understood that musicianship was no longer necessary for such an undertaking. Two of us could sort of play, and we were somewhat lacking in terms of instrumentation, but these were fairly minor considerations given that the main point was keeping ourselves entertained, which we managed extremely well. The music, such as it was, was recorded on an endless succession of cassette tapes, taking the form of whatever we felt like doing at the time, anything from puerile noise to a sort of sarcastic variation on the Oi! music then regularly championed in Sounds music paper.

Unfortunately, when Pete finished school in 1981, his family moved to Eastbourne on the south coast, leaving the Pre-War Busconductors - as we called ourselves - limping along without our least musical but otherwise most entertaining member, the only one of us who could really sing; and as the borderland years closed in, we all moved on. Pete had been a year older than the rest of us, but had crossed the generational gulf through being Graham's neighbour, and now we found ourselves as one with his former classmates, these strange older kids previously seen only from afar but now sat next to us in class at the South Warwickshire College of Further Education. Suddenly we were hanging out with Anders Longthorne and Mark Lewis, and our entire world was changing, sort of. I'd barely known these older kids had existed when I was at school, or even that there even were other kids who would refuse on principle to allow Electric Light Orchestra records into their homes.

Girls still being some years away, we discovered drink together, mounting expeditions to The Black Horse to ask for bottles of lager in deeper voices than those with which we spoke to our parents. Anders Longthorne, being older and taller was pretty good at this. It probably also helped that he didn't really care whether we got served or not. It was just something to do.

Anders was an enigma, the son of some guy who had worked for NASA in America, who hung large framed prints pertaining to the moon landing around his home, and yet who lived in Shipston-on-Stour, England - the middle of nowhere so far as the rest of us were concerned. Even without the peculiarly Scandinavian Christian name and exotic heritage, Anders was immediately memorable for being one of the most toxically sardonic human beings ever to walk the earth. When I first read Peter Bagge's Neat Stuff comic, Buddy Bradley immediately reminded me of Anders whom I viewed as having originated that same distinctive blend of hard, dry wit and nihilism.

'My life is shit,' he once chortled with casual venom, selecting a Mars Bar from the display in the newsagents. 'I may as well be fat and shit.'

He'd introduced the rest of us to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver - possibly so as to furnish us with all the required references for when he affected the insane intensity of Travis Bickle for comic effect. 'I'm gonna get myself organisised,' he would tell us. 'I'm gonna clean up this town,' he promised, laughing to himself and playing imaginary ZZ Top guitar riffs. ZZ Top, along with Motohead, Statas Quo and Judas Preist were one of those long hair bands identified in biro on the denim jackets of every other kid at school, so we had shunned them on principle; but Anders liked them, and didn't really care what the rest of us thought; and we realised that he was right.

His best friend was Mark Lewis, generally identified as Louie. No-one could quite work out why they were friends as they seemed to spend most of the time taking the piss out of each other. Possibly they had been brought together through mutual appreciation of ZZ Top.

Somehow inevitably, we formed a band, or at least Mark drafted the rest of us in to provide his backing, in a few cases without actually telling us. The band was called Louie & the Bum Ticklers - a name which held no promise of success, but no-one really cared enough to object.

Eggy, being our one bastion of social responsibility and the sort of wholesome activities of which a parent might approve, was a member of the Sea Scouts, which allowed him - and by association the rest of us - access to the scout hut situated on the London Road, near the Coach and Horses pub. It didn't seem like the scout hut was ever really used for much, at least not so far as we could tell, and so we became regulars, just hanging out because it was something to do. One evening, having returned from The Black Horse with more cider than seemed advisable, we staged a Monopoly tournament at the scout hut, discovering in the process that Monopoly can be a lot of fun when you're seventeen and too drunk to stand. Later that evening I regurgitated the contents of my stomach from my bedroom window, learning all of the usual valuable lessons that come with preliminary forays into alcoholism.

'Somebody had one too many last night, I reckon,' my dad observed over breakfast. 'They lost their guts all over the pavement outside.'

It appeared that he considered this funny, but I was not identified as a suspect which was odd seeing as it hardly required Sherlock Holmes levels of deduction to penetrate this particular veil of mystery. Later I went outside and noted the acidic cider trail etched down the brickwork from my first floor bedroom window to an incriminating and now dried out dusting of diced carrots and tomato skins on the pavement. The stain was such that it remained visible for many years to come, and may still be there now for all I know, a silent memorial to my bankrupting Eggy with all of his fancy hotels neatly lined up along Park Lane.

We also used the scout hut for Louie & the Bum Ticklers rehearsals, sneaking down there with crappy practice amplifiers and the cheap Teisco Decca guitar I'd bought from Andy Scrivener for a tenner. I had the impression that almost everyone involved in the enterprise aside from Mark and myself regarded it as distinctly lame, something we should have outgrown, but nevertheless we all gave it our best, such as it was. Graham, Mark and I chugged out three note riffs on our guitars, Anders kept a rhythm on cardboard boxes and other household objects lazily adapted to percussive functions, and Eggy sang the lyrics from an exercise book whilst trying not to laugh. It wasn't that Mark's songs were necessarily hilarious, although they were intended to be at least amusing, but Eggy was a vocalist distinguished by enthusiasm rather than ability, and he had a well-developed sense of the ridiculous. It was fairly easy to make him laugh so much that he couldn't breath if the circumstances were sufficiently stupid.

I drew a cover for our tape Down in the Pool Hall featuring four cartoon characters bearing no real resemblance to ourselves. The eight songs listed on the inlay, all, so far as I recall, recorded in that echoey scout hut, were Derek Griffiths, Wah, A Kid Called Grez, Heavy Metal Rebellion, Shipston Hero, Meat Head, Stereotype, and Pool Hall Blues. Being as the cassette resides in a cardboard box on a different continental land mass to the one upon which I am presently settled, I can recall only one of these songs.

Wah was about a student who took the same mathematics class as Mark, Graham, and Anders at the South Warwickshire College. He was substantially overweight and excessively spotty, possibly owing to the masses of chips with which he was observed stuffing his face each lunchtime. Additionally he had massive red lips resembling the kind which can be purchased from joke and novelty retailers, and he had an apparently odious personality to match. His nickname was Wah Wah in reference to a sound effect used on Family Fortunes, a popular television game show. The contestant would provide an answer which, if wrong, would be suffixed with a car horn style electronic wah wah and the announcement our survey says, followed by the correct answer. I never found out quite how this related to the target of our song because I wasn't in the same mathematics class, but I remember the chorus well:

Wah me old chip scoffer,
Wah my only mate,
You gotta purse them lips, Wah,
And suck them chips right off that plate.

I suppose it qualifies as bullying of a sort, particularly if you accept the notion that we live in a world in which nobody is a dick. Unfortunately though, this is not the case, and we in fact live in a world in which a great many people are dicks, and as Louie & the Bum Ticklers, we simply chose to acknowledge this with the gift of song. Specifically we chose to acknowledge this with the gift of songs that no-one would ever hear, which is still better than going around thumping people you don't like the look of, I would say.

Hanging around with Mark and Anders was fun, a prelude to the world beyond Shipston-on-Stour. Anders had passed his driving test, and would sometimes borrow his dad's car so we could drive through the town square feeling superior to the local bikers. We would wind down the windows whilst playing electro compilations on the Street Sounds label or the Grandmaster Flash greatest hits tape to underscore the point that we were different, and that although we didn't know what the future held, we presumed it would be better than this.

One small part of that future contained our meeting with ZZ Top. Mark had told us that he personally knew the members of ZZ Top and frequently spoke with them by telephone. Being as ZZ Top had sold millions of records and were a huge, globally popular rock band from Houston, Texas, the idea was so patently ridiculous that only Anders bothered to argue, as ever relishing the opportunity to give his friend a hard time. 'Come on, Louie, you moron. You don't know what you're talking about.'

'You don't have to believe me if you don't want to.'

'Well that's lucky, because I don't, and you're a moron.'

'Billy and Dusty don't think I'm a moron.' These were the names of the bassist and guitarist of ZZ Top, and Mark would underscore his observation with his weird, unique spoken chuckle, sh sh like the word shucks but without the -ucks, twice and in quick succession.

'Oh piss off.'

I could be getting some of these details in the wrong order, but that was roughly how I remember it. It seemed to be some private joke between the two of them, an argument they kept going because it gave them pleasure. It carried on in the background for weeks, culminating in the peculiar proposition that Mark would arrange for ZZ Top to come to Shipston-on-Stour and pay us a visit.

'You're out of your mind, Louie.'

'We'll just have to see what you say when the boys turn up.'

'I'll still say that you're out of your mind because we both know it's never going to happen, you stupid bastard.'

Mark remained nevertheless optimistic.

Sh sh.

The day came, and Graham, Eggy, and myself met at the scout hut as usual. We went inside and set up, which wasn't a big deal as it only really involved plugging in my small practice amplifier and turning it on. None of us commented on the fact that neither Anders nor Mark had yet arrived as it didn't seem significant. Neither did we discuss this being the proposed date of our promised audience with ZZ Top because we were all seventeen or thereabouts, none of us believed in Father Christmas, and it was obviously just some private joke, just the older kids taking the piss out of us.

Two figures entered the scout hut, swaggering like John Wayne. They both wore large black hats, sunglasses, and had long, obviously false beards.

Eggy began to squeak with laughter. 'You stupid buggers.'

'Hey guys,' said the taller one in a fairly poor approximation of an American accent. 'You seen Mark and Anders? They told us to meet them down here.'

'Yeah,' said the other helpfully. 'We're ZZ Top.'

'Very funny,' I said, trying not to laugh.

'What do you mean?' The taller of the two regarded the one who was about Mark's height. 'They said they would be here.'

It carried on for a few minutes. When Anders adopted some ludicrous position for the sake of argument, nothing on Earth could induce him to let it go. Short of pulling off the false beard, there was nothing we could do until they got bored, which eventually they did, and so they left.

A minute or so passed and Mark and Anders turned up, apparently in high spirits.

'You'll never guess who was here just now,' said Eggy with immense sarcasm.


'ZZ Top!'

'Oh man, and we missed them!'

Mark chuckled. 'I told you, and you didn't believe me.'

Sh sh.

The thing that had impressed me most was the amount of effort and preparation that had gone into those few minutes, building the story up weeks beforehand, then getting hold of some pretty serious false beards, and all towards ends that were ludicrous at best; and that ludicrous at best had been the whole point.

As previously stated, the two years from the summer of 1982 to that of 1984 were, by some definition, my borderlands, a period of general uncertainty during which I discovered both alcohol and sexual intercourse, and put away at least some childish things - although it was nevertheless annoying when I came back from the first term at Maidstone to find that my dad had given all of my Micronauts to Oxfam. In terms of this metaphysical borderland, ZZ Top might therefore be regarded as loa, expressions of sacred forces which briefly intruded upon my small world, channelled through the agency of Louie and one of his Bum Ticklers. Were I the kind of writer who casually invokes the concept of psychogeography, having picked it up from Alan Moore rather than Guy Debord, I might be inspired to suggest that ZZ Top, heralds of my eventual Texan future, had come to plant the seed by which I would grow myself some flax, weave a pair of comfortable shoes, and walk that fateful path as a sharp dressed man. Even aside from my spending the next decade resembling a twelfth century serf, the suggestion would quite clearly be rubbish, because it wasn't ZZ Top. It was just Anders and Louie up to their usual ridiculous bollocks, and in many ways that was better.

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