Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.


February 2, 2011

2-2-11 Stairway To Nowhere

2-2-11 Stairway To Nowhere.

Here’s to the stamina and enterprise of writing and self-publishing a memoir. I had this book arrive in the post last year and what with The Vicissitudes, left it awaiting a read for a while, read it in a wallop and then couldn’t find the time or will to write anything.

My connection to the narrative is loose and distant by the time the book pulls the toggle on its outboard motor and  begins its voyage, like Lon Chaney’s launch navigating the subterranean tunnels in Phantom Of The Opera.

I knew this guy Alan Victor James in the early 70’s while i was a semi-detached art student in Birmingham.

Hippies came in several varieties and we fell into that category of back-to-the -land dreamers, into American country music, plaid shirts, English folk and Music Hall, The Whole Earth Catalogue deal, planning for the collapse of the oil-based economy with our plans stashed to build Buckminster-Fuller geodesic domes from recycled material at the centre of our self-sustaining organic smallholdings.

While we waited for The Man to come to grief we read comics, smoked dope whose provenance and effect we compared like wine-buffs, watched old black-and-white movies on afternoon TV and divided the world into the neat classifications ‘weird’, ‘heavy’ and – at least we got the irony here – ‘cosmic’.

I had a Columbus guitar, a janglebox with dreadful action which I fancied had the sonorous boom of John Fahey’s – I still have it though I only discovered a couple of years ago that with a slight Allen-key turn on the neckbrace the action and sound improved significantly. For decades, until I bought a Samick Gibson-copy parlour-guitar, I’d resigned myself to a small repertoire of easy-chord country-blues numbers, thinking that was about my standard.

Al wrote his own songs with tricky lyrics and rapid-fire barre chords, sung in a half-swallowed tenor growl at the kind of folky dives that infested Moseley and Balsall Heath. I knew my place: in the audience.

At that time he looked like Albrecht Durer’s self-portrait, a chin like a bearded chisel and a cascade of hair worn in various states of grooming, rats’ tails to ringlets depending on his last brush with a shampoo-bottle. That he smiled laconically at you from an altitude of 6’7” with the air of a wiry giant who could on a whim place an enormous hand on your skull and lift you out of his way contributed in no small part to his ambient cool.

His buddy and accomplice, Micky Cotterell in contrast came to about my 6’ shoulder height but compensated with the aura of one of those who run on a couple of volts more than the rest of us. His memorable advice to me about traversing the mean streets of Balsall Heath was ‘At my size, anyone who wants to have a go is going to, so I just make a silhouette that says: win or lose, you’re not going to walk away unmarked, pal.’ I believed him; he had a born roadie’s build and demeanour, a tattered Dickensian dandy with a whiplash eyebrow that was enough to subdue fools he didn’t suffer. Gravity played warily in his presence, and you’d see him trotting up backstage stairways, a Marlborough parked in his face, with a speaker cabinet under each arm.

Together they were The Illegal Brothers, a familiar gang-of-two on the scene.

Then in ‘76 came the purging fire of Punk, admirably suited to the Al James guitar-flaying technique, and the attendant embrace of reggae, a new spectrum of rhythmic subtleties he practised with hours of herbally-enhanced close attention to obscure 12” dub mixes that woozed between the stereo speakers for what seemed like a lifetime.

In an odd way those reminded me of Terry Riley’s proto-electronica ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ and ‘Persian Surgery Dervishes’ and The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’ which sounded like excerpts from a churning soundscape that had been going on long before the tapes rolled and were probably still out there somewhere as you listened to the vinyl.

Overnight the straggling hippy had reinvented himself as Luke Sky, borrowed a vanity-case of mascara and gone all New York Dolls. He was fronting a slapped-up reggae outfit calling themselves Fàshiön – Fah-shiern? The imported accents were apparently silent. The French accent grave was stylish, the umlaut was borrowed from Motörhead.

The first 7” single was Steady Eddie Steady, a peculiarly noir number appealing to the eponymous Eddie not to blow his brains out ‘Steady Eddie Steady, is this the only way out? Eddie hold the gun steady.’ I played the grooves grey – that was Big Al driving the Ghost Train.

Before long they’d only gone and got themselves management: Miles Copeland, Stuart Copeland’s Dad, yeah, him out of The Police. They were off to tour the States. Bloody hell.

Now at that point I was so green with envy and constitutionally uncool that I retired even further into the margins, kept my head down and drew comics, but it was as if Al, Luke, Luke Sky(!) had been given the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket to the unbridled Fellini Rock Star On The Road theme-park.

I read the memoir with a growing sense that actually I’d had the good fortune to get a note from home saying I was excused games. I suspect I would’ve shrivelled like the worm in a bottle of tequila.

My idea of decadence was modelled on louche aesthetic fin de siècle flaneurie; touring was evidently a search and enjoy pursuit of wanton excess, the band a small raiding-party of Viking beserkers in Max Factor warpaint.

The effect reading it now is exhausting, a kind of All Riot On The Western Front, long episodes of time anaesthetised rather than killed, punctuated by vivid shell-bursts of micro-celebrity. The music hardly features, the accounts of the gigs sound like a football team playing a succession of away fixtures against auditoria of the baffled and blasé.

What distinguishes Stairway To Nowhere from a lot of rock memoirs is exactly what the title implies; the history isn’t drawn from the winner’s perspective. Name-band stories pass over ‘the early days’ as episodes of local colour, overtures to chart domination, fame and influence. This, as someone once said of the Marquis de Sade’s later writing presents excess as an interminable carousel rather than an elevator.

In a brief road-movie tableau, Al James-as-was glances across a diner to see a small-town college couple – ‘I wonder how they aren’t blinded by the combined glare off their teeth’ – take another booth. ‘So here I am, a new wave dancing bear, a painted frankenpunk, and even though I’m sure I’m on my way to ruling the planet as a megastar, still I’m denied the joy these two perfect specimens enjoy.’

Luke, I hear, is settled in the States now, doing the family thing and still involved in music and writing and eco-activism. The cliché goes that you regret the things you didn’t do more than those you did. I put the book down rather grateful that he did all this stuff so I didn’t have to.

Stairway To Nowhere©2010, Luke James; Brummie Git Press.

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