Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Riding on the Prairie Wind

Procrastinating with Perry Iles, author of A Dictionary of Linguistic Absurdities 

In 1971 summer came in April. I was fifteen, going on sixteen. One morning I was at the family allotment with my father helping him put onions in. he had a special instrument like a spade with no spade on the end. He’d push a hole into the soil and I’d drop the onions in. By lunchtime he was livid because I hadn’t put all the onions in the right way up. With a teenage boy’s attitude to attention I’d just dropped the little buggers into the holes without caring which way up they were. I’d been cold. The sky was a slate grey and the wind was blowing the smell of cabbages in off the Cambridgeshire fens.

We had a sulky lunch. My mother, conciliatory as always, said “I’m sure the boy didn’t mean it, Tim,” and my father replied “he’ll be getting a job soon, try telling his boss he didn’t mean to balls it up, see how far it gets him.” The dining room was silent from that point on, except for the clicking of cutlery, a sound that becomes exaggerated during arguments, like a passing car before a thunderstorm. Then the skies cleared and the sun came out and the temperature rose and some birds started singing and my parents decided to go out for the afternoon. So when they’d gone I did what most fifteen-year-olds did in that era. I put some music on too loud and smoked a joint. I was at least wise enough to smoke it in the garden so my parents wouldn’t detect what the scare-pamphlet from school said was “a tell-tale bonfire smell”, and I opened the windows so I could hear the music coming from the radiogram in the dining room. Neil Young, it was, After the Goldrush. He felt like getting high too, or so he sang, so I lay on my back on the front lawn feeling the warmth of the sun for the first time that year, smoking my joint and watching an aircraft pass over, way up in the blue. After a while I came to the realization that the guitar solo in Southern Man was the best thing I’d ever heard in my life. The music was in the spaces, on the backbeat. Young wasn’t trying to fill the song up with advanced guitar pyrotechnics, he was just being laid-back and letting the emptiness beckon, allowing the notes to fall. He was riding on some kind of prairie wind, letting the music rest where it lay. It was dusty music; hot, alien. Later I discovered he’d written a one-note guitar solo for Cinnamon Girl on his previous album, and the song is still one of my favourites forty-odd years later. But back then I sat as summer began to awaken and the afternoon passed until I felt the sudden necessity to devour an entire packet of chocolate digestives before my parents came home for tea

Roll on forty-two years, and I’m in the Metro Arena at Newcastle trying to unload a ticket to see Neil Young live. The touts won’t buy it, they have enough and the box office won’t give me my money back. I’m trying to tell them my daughter has been taken sulky and my wife has blisters from a hard day’s shopping, but they won’t buy it. I knew this would happen, I’ve tried shifting the ticket on Facebook but no one wants it, so now I’m risking arrest outside the Metro Arena. You know that Stephen King quote? The one about how we could have changed the world but opted for the shopping channel instead? Well that’s me. I’ve had a long day in the Metro Centre and now I want to go home and watch The Apprentice or Britain’s Got Talent instead of staying here until half past midnight waiting for a guitar solo to finish. Somewhere along the line I got old and fat, but at least I’m not ginger any more, so some wishes do come true. I’d driven up the sides of the parking areas, past the tour buses, the luxury fitted chrome and blacked-out windows of rock and roll, past a row of parked lorries, all with the same European freight logo on the side and Luxembourg numberplates. Maybe Young is in one of these buses grabbing a quick forty winks before the show, because there’s one thing that’ll never change—I’m old but he’s older. Pushing seventy now, this could be the end of this incarnation, and he’ll need an afternoon nap. I’ve seen him before, with Frisbee Pills and Hash, with the Stray Gators, with the Trans-tour crew in the 1980s and with Booker T and the MGs in Glasgow, but never with Crazy Horse, that seminal rhythm section of two-chord plodders replicating the spaced out sound Danny Whitten used to make when he was too junked out to play properly. The music is still in the spaces, and as I leave the Arena parking lot still clutching my unsold ticket, driving past the buses and looking at the road crew resting before pulling down the big top in the small hours and heading for the next circus, I wonder what mess of pottage I sold my soul for. Then I look at my wife and daughter in the car next to me and realize that whatever it was, it was worth it.

My wife has blisters. Her shoes disintegrated in Maccy D’s last night when I was being grumpy because I couldn’t find a Burger King. So the day’s first task had been to find a shoe-shop, which meant heading for the Metro Centre. Please don’t be under the impression that my wife has only one pair of shoes. Nothing could possibly be further from the truth, but while she’s not exactly Imelda Marcos, the silly mare had only brought one pair with us, and they were now broken, so the Metro Centre beckoned, all shiny and sparkly and full of things to make life better, no doubt. Here is the shopping channel personified, all Primark and burgers and “yes dear, it’s lovely dear, can we go now?” My wife was in passive-aggressive mode, determined to buy the cheapest possible shoes and then walk in them until she got blisters to make me guilty about having been grumpy last night and the fact that her shoes had broken, which, while it wasn’t my fault, as the only man in the area it was all my fault. I thought of that ancient Chinese expression “If a man whispers something in the forest and no woman hears him, Is he still wrong?” and realized that the answer is a resounding yes.

Then I saw a guitar shop. It had a Martin in it, and some Fenders. I told my wife and daughter to meet me there when Primark had stopped being wonderful and went in to have a look around. Here I found a little oasis. There were Taylor guitars, and Guilds, and Takamines and more Fenders and stuff even I hadn’t heard of.

“Why are there no Gibsons?” I asked the proprietor.

“Gibsons are shite,” he said. Now, as someone who has spent most of a lifetime wanting an SG special (the cherry red one with the row of three gold-plated Humbucker pickups and the mother of pearl inlaid fretblocks, as played by John Cipollina off of Quicksilver Messenger Service) I took issue with this, and said so. The manager (Andy, his name was; he was knowledgeable and reasonable and had time for his customers, I was in an old-fashioned shop) passed me a Fender Telecaster and said “tell me what’s wrong with that, then.”

I looked it up and down, turned it over and looked down the fretboard on both sides for bendy bits, played it high up the top end listening for buzzy notes and for it to be out of tune because I was bending notes high up. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. “There’s nothing wrong with it, except for the fact that it’s a Telecaster” I said. Country musicians and purists play Telecasters, you can’t make them do things, there’s no tremolo and they look a bit sad when you smash them up.

“Exactly” Andy said. “They’re made in China and put together by computers that gauge everything to the nearest micron.”

“That’s why I don’t like it,” I said. At that point he gave me a Fender Jaguar and I began to whimper a little. I’ve always wanted one, ever since the days when they were so utterly uncool that grunge bands bought them by the truckload so they could smash them to bits without breaking the bank. Of course, this made them cool again and the price went up, so they’ve always been beyond me. Andy led me away, talking gently in a reassuring tone, and I played some of the acoustic guitars. Now, as far as acoustic guitars go, there is nothing better in this world than a Martin D45. Nothing, and no amount of inlay and roses on the scratchboard and gold plated tuning pegs is going to change my mind. The Martin D45 is to acoustic guitars what the Fender Stratocaster is to electric ones, it’s a design than cannot ever be bettered, it’s tone perfect and it costs about £5000 which means I will never own one.

“Take it out and play it to your wife,” Andy said.

“What, take this guitar out of your shop and into the world?” I replied.

“I bet I can run faster than you,” said Andy, looking at my stomach. He was probably right. So I did. My wife and daughter had been sitting outside the shop for a day or two while I discussed guitars, and when I showed them the Martin they both adopted that expression. You know the face men put on when their wives hold shoes under their noses and say “They’re nice, aren’t they”? That. But then my daughter said she wished she could play, so I took her back into the shop and bought her a guitar. In a fairy story, I’d have bought the Martin, but in a fairy story I’d be rich. But what this very impressive little shop (Windows, it was called, nothing to do with Microsoft) did have was a Fender acoustic package, a guitar that came complete with electronic tuner, strap, capo, chord book and instruction DVD, all for a shade over a hundred quid. Now Fender doesn’t make the world’s best acoustic guitars. They’re a bit like Ford Mondeos—they look the right shape and sound OK and don’t break down much, so I bought it. When I was fifteen, around the time I was lying in gardens getting stoned and listening to Neil Young, I’d asked my father for a guitar.

Thinking I’d abandon it after a few weeks he bought me what was basically a yard of German plywood strung with barbed wire. By the time I’d bought a decent guitar this old thing had fallen to bits so I took into the back garden and ceremonially Townshended it to pieces. My daughter would at least have a proper guitar which she’d learn to play proper music on.

So later that day we left Newcastle, me with my rock yearnings and my daughter with her Fender and my wife with some nice shoes. I felt like that guy off of that Bon Jovi song who walked the streets with a loaded six-string on his back, so I had to start thinking of something else quickly before I became ill. And what I thought about was Neil Young. And where I thought about him was Glasgow, because in two nights’ time he’d be playing there.

It was of course sold out.

So two evenings later I was wandering around the crowd outside the SECC like a drug scout looking for touts. I found one easily enough, and picked up a ticket for £50, which was good considering it was less than the box office price. I got chatting with the guy.

“Been a fan for long?” he asked.

“Oh, since about summer 1971, Goldrush days. Went off him in the eighties, came back after the grunge years.”

“Fuck, I wasn’t even born then” said the tout, as he sold two tickets to a couple who had lost theirs, meaning that their evening had just cost them £200.

“Oh he was good waaaaay back”, I said, all knowledgeable and sure of myself. “There I was, stoned off my tits in the garden, Only Love Can Break Your Heart coming through the windows….”

And at that point my wife and daughter played a mean trick on me. They had bought me a new smartphone for my birthday, and knew that I didn’t know how to work it. I had managed to call my wife to say I’d arrived and got myself a ticket, but then asked her how to stop the call. “Big red button, phone with a line through it. END CALL written underneath. Set your phone to loud so you can hear me if I ring” she’d said, with little understanding of quite how loud I was hoping Neil Young would be. So while I was talking to the guy, my daughter rang. Now, you can download popular tunes to this phone and set them as individual caller ringtones. So I’m talking to this young tout about getting stoned in the seventies when the strains of Justin Bieber’s Baby start ringing out. “Oh fuck, I thought we’d be safe here!” I quipped, before realizing that the sound of “baby, baby, baby ooooh…” was coming from my own pocket. I grabbed the phone and tried to find the off switch, the volume control and the call reject button all at once. I considered throwing the phone away (I could probably reach the Clyde from here and skipping-stone the fucking thing into Govan where they always listen to this kind of stuff.) “It’s my daughter, she’s eleven!” I yelled to a disgusted crowd. The phone eventually went to its answering machine and I breathed a sigh and apologized to anyone within earshot. Drawing the veils of my tattered credibility around myself with whatever dignity I could muster, I turned back to my conversation, but it wasn’t long before my phone went again. James Blunt, this time. “I saw an angel, of that I’m sure…” he sang. I began to weep, and put the phone down on the ground and backed away from it. Someone would steal it, surely, this was Glasgow after all. But everyone retreated until the phone was playing You’re Beautiful in a little empty circle on the tarmac. Then Neil Young and Crazy Horse walked by on their way into the venue and they all gave me looks of withering contempt. Well they didn’t, but they might as well have done. When the phone fell silent I picked it up like the dirty and diseased thing it was and carried it back to the car lest it play I Will Always Love You during the acoustic section of the performance. I’LL DEAL WITH YOU LATER I texted my wife and daughter and went to enjoy the show.

And enjoy it I did. Old stuff and new, the one-note guitar solo in Cinnamon Girl pounding out at threshold-of-pain volume, the white noise of My My Hey Hey and the brutally pounding twenty minutes of pulverizing feedback that ended Walk Like A Giant. I forgot I was a bald fat old bastard pushing sixty, and as I yelled for more I was a boy again, a boy watching summer start both physically and metaphorically, and as I walked out into what passed for the Scottish gloaming under the sodium lights into the car park fresh from rain, I felt cleansed by three hours of shuddering noise and genuinely uplifted, not only by the music, but by the realization that there was a part of me that would never grow old.

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