Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Piper at the Pearly Gates

I’ve been reading Tom Cox’s Educating Peter, described on the front cover as being “a bit like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but with crisps...” It’s the rock journalist’s memoir of a period when he was asked to take under his wing the 14-year-old son of a friend, which mainly involved going on long car journeys, listening to and talking about music, and meeting a few musicians. It’s a slightly contrived scenario, notwithstanding its apparently factual basis (I don’t think we’ve got a James Frey thing going on here), as it seems to have been purpose-built for any Nick Hornby fans who might want the best bits of High Fidelity and About a Boy in one tidy package.

Inevitably, one of the themes of the book is that Cox learns as much from the experience as the black-clad, Slipknot-loving Peter does, forcing himself to interrogate his own likes and dislikes, and the very nature of the relationship between the fan and the music. So they visit the petrol station where the Rolling Stones pissed against a wall in 1965; attend a Brian Wilson concert at the Royal Festival Hall, and find themselves sharing a lift with Brian himself; and go to the tree on Barnes Common that took the life of Marc Bolan. It becomes clear that Tom and Peter differ in their musical tastes not because of anything inherent in the noises that come out of the speakers, but because of their contrasting responses to the mythology that surrounds them, the connotations rather than the denotations. Before they go to the Wilson gig, Peter thinks he might know three songs by the Beach Boys: “‘the one with the weird video that they always show on VH-1’, ‘the one about surfing’ and ‘the one about California’.” Instead of playing him more of the music, Cox
...attempted to fill Peter in on the essential elements of the group’s story: the early good-time hits followed by the descent into madness and darkness, friendship with Charles Manson and strange songs about worms. To me, this was stuff that had been repeated by so many deferential rock critics that even grazing the subject seemed like a monumental cliché. But to Peter it was new and mysterious. Or – as was equally likely – plain boring and fogeyish.
Later, they go to Cambridge, not so much in search of Syd Barrett, who was still alive in 2002 when the story is set, more to look for the myth. After all, as Cox admits, he doesn’t really care much for Barrett’s songs per se, especially not the solo stuff:
I was in Cambridge because I was enchanted by his legend, or at least my own romanticised version of it, and, in a way, I felt even that was losing its appeal, now I’d stopped pretending that I liked his music.
Peter shares his scepticism (“Did they not have proper studios in those days, then?” he asks as they listen to The Madcap Laughs on the way.) but still tags along for the ride. When they arrive, they find little evidence of the lost genius, and little interest in him from the locals:
The place seemed somehow beyond Syd Barrett. And while he was surely still here somehow, painting or being diabetic or hanging out in someone’s local pub or having a picnic or gardening or having a secret party with Brian Eno, his ghost had obviously skipped town aeons ago.
Cox ponders whether his home town might have been more respectful had Syd actually died decades before, like proper rock legends do; then fans would have been free to fill the intervening 30 years with imagined, projected glories, rather than the mundane reality of a tubby, ill man trying to avoid his more besotted fans. But if we do consider the pantheon of died-too-young rockers, in very few cases (Holly? Hendrix? Redding?) is there evidence that they might have gone on to make music even better than what we have available to us now. Far more common are the stars who are still young, but already past their best. As Lennon said, Elvis really died when he joined the army; Lennon himself recorded very little of any real worth after about 1971; Jim Morrison maybe never really had it to start with.

In an ideal world, maybe we should be able to order our idols to die at the optimum time, and in the most appropriate manner: Dylan, in the bike crash in 1966; Wilson, burning to death in his sandpit as he finishes Smile; Barrett, overdosing on Mandrax and Brylcreem; Bowie, shot while trying to scale the Berlin Wall at the end of the 1970s; at the photoshoot for Thriller, Michael Jackson gets rabies from the tiger, rather than his weirdly anticlimactic demise in 2009. I briefly covered the last one in my book about the Noughties, still available, blah blah:
...but in truth Jackson the man had died years before, to be replaced by a grotesque post-human, a parody of celebrity concocted by a cabal of publicists and plastic surgeons.
Of course, we’d then lose some of the unexpected late flowerings of rock gods in their mature years. That said, great as these can be, if you were to play ‘Hurt’ to someone who’d never heard of Johnny Cash, he’d just hear an old man ranting about drugs and self-harm. And I was at the same Brian Wilson concert that Tom and Peter attended, and it was probably the most enjoyable gig that I’ve ever attended; but I know that was probably down to the huge outpouring of goodwill towards the man on stage, and the recognition that he’d at least partly defeated his demons. Watching footage of the same event, you see a slightly befuddled Wilson fronting a well-drilled covers band.

Still, the whole thing gives me an excuse to post this clip of Syd defending his music, rather than his myth. Fortuitously, it also includes a brief glimpse of the magnificent Robert Robinson, whose retirement was announced a few days ago. Maybe, in years to come, there will be diehard fans hanging around his Chelsea flat, swapping bootleg DVDs of Call My Bluff and talking about what might have been.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like Hans Keller's introduction.
I don't want to prejudice you before you hear them, but first I'd like to slag them off on four different grounds... Not wanting to prejudice you though."