The Arrival of the King
I recognised him as soon as I walked into the cafe. I ducked in out of a summer downpour, and he was sitting alone at one of the formica tables facing the door. Although our eyes met, there wasn't a trace of recognition on his part. Nor should there have been, after all, a little arithmetic told me it had been around forty five years since we last saw each other. Back then, I had been an insignificant little boy; just one of his friend's little brothers.
I took a coffee and sat at a table to one side but facing him where I could take him in unnoticed. Although he must have been in his sixties, he hadn't changed much. He still had all his hair and that sparkle in his eye.
I knew, that if I were to walk over there and tell him who I was, he would then remember me. He would probably say, 'yeah, so you're one of Billy's raggy-arsed little brothers! you must be the nosey one!' He probably wouldn't remember that first visit to our house, which has stuck so firm and yet so fresh in my mind for all these years. I felt I wouldn't be able to express how back then he had instigated such a shift in a young boy's world. And, oh, how often I've thought of that fateful day he first appeared.
Before that time nothing interesting ever seemed to happen in the street I grew up in; well, nothing that was life changing anyway. Everyone in the area was so hard up -- life tended to be lived within the narrow limits of pay-day to pay-day. It was the nineteen fifties, the place; a slum, hellish, beyond black! And it seemed to me, that I was living in a closed stifling little time-capsule -- as if it were all there was; no outside world!
But like Marquez's Macondo, later some things did find their way in from the big outside world. Somethings seeped slowly in over years, while others just smashed their way in overnight! And it was one such smashing entrance, so to speak, which gave the boy, I was then, a weird but wonderful shock! But also, a priceless gift, and it was brought to me by this man.
He didn't stay long in the cafe -- the rain stopped and he got up and left. And I suddenly realised I would probably never see him again
My mind now goes back to that day so long ago. I remember it was a warm summer's day, but I don't remember exactly how old I was; maybe eight or nine. But I surmise it must have been a Saturday morning. Why? -- because my mother wasn't there, so, she must have been shopping. And my stepfather was there, so, not at work or in the pub.
I was sitting outside on the doorstep of our dreary little slum -- probably forming one of my mad schemes or fantasies, which were becoming a major pass-time for me, when my teenage stepbrother, Tommy, came swaggering to the door with two friends. One I knew well -- Ba-Ba (Dave Lamb), the other, who my eyes now sprang on, I'd never seen before.
Where as Tommy and Ba-Ba were dressed like all the other kids in the area – ragamuffin -- in our worn and patched, baggy, hand-me-down clothes from older brothers and fathers -- this stranger, a tall slim stick, looking a year or two older than the others, was dressed as flash as magic!
He wore skin-tight, ice-blue jeans, a sharp black salt and pepper speckled jacket, and a crisp blinding-white shirt with a black lace-necktie, which had a large silver longhorn-steer emblem as a grip, which sat at his throat beneath his upturned shirt-collar. His black shiny shoes were as pointy as fingers! He was good looking, fresh faced, with blue eyes that sparked. His hair was crazy -- rather than the standard short back and sides of the time -- he wore it long. It was butter coloured, and greased back with a large bouffant pulled forward defying gravity like a frozen tsunami.
I couldn't make head nor tale of him, I'd never seen such razzle-dazzle clothes as these. I had nothing to compare him to; I was fascinated.
But what then caught my attention, was a black, foot-square, heavy looking box he was carrying by a leather handle. What could be in that mysterious looking box distracted me from his bizarre clothes. I immediately began my interrogation.
Tommy, completely ignoring my stream of questions went inside the house, while I stayed on the doorstep and continued, without success, to try to wheedle some information out of his leering mocking friends. A few minutes later Tommy returned smiling, saying that his dad had said, it was 'Ok' for them to go in the front room. So they all roughly pushed past me as they went in. I made to follow, but was blocked at the front room door by Tommy, who told me to piss-off, before slamming it in my face!
I was now even more intrigued to know what it was all about, so I went in the back room to ask my stepfathe, if I could join them, although, already knowing the answer would be, as always, no.
Dejected, I parked myself in a chair to ask him about that boy and the black box, and what they were going to do in there. He said, wearing six and half metres of his usual scowl, that he didn't know what I was talking about, that I was getting on his nerves, and should shut up or get out!
He was sat reading a greasy newspaper -- probably the horse racing-form, as he always put a bet on of a Saturday. Being a normal Saturday the radio was tuned, as always to the BBC Light Service, and some nondescript musical-fog was wafting around the dingy room, also as dammed usual!
All of a sudden the air seemed to shift, followed by something like a sonic-boom. I remember grabbing at the arms of the chair. A floor inside me seemed to give way -- turbines churned -- or was hell being released? I will never forget the sudden look on my stepfather's face -- hundred and fifty watt eyeballs straining at their sockets, his mouth all wavy, crushed, and frozen, still as a photograph, as if all at once his synapses had been disconnected! The sound began to hammer on the walls! Then came the voice -- roaring, braying, screaming like a demented railway announcer.
'YOU AIN’T NOTHING BUT A HOUND DOG' chon-chon chon-chon-tisssss cha, 'CRYING ALL THE TIME.’
Wow! My mind was instantly blown away, like one of those dandelion clocks – puff! And suddenly one becomes thousands.
My stepfather shot up from his chair as if on a spring and headed through the hall with me at his heels. We burst into the front room like the Gestapo, the sound hitting us like a plank! And what a scene met our eyes -- three mad people jumping around in that limited space on their tiptoes, their bodies squirming, contorting like three eels on hooks. Fingers stabbing the air, their mouths twisting like stroke victims, screaming along with the haunting, scornful, attacking voice as if their very lives depended on it.
'YOU AIN’T NEVER CAUGHT A RABBIT AND YOU AIN’T NO FRIEND OF MINE.'
When they looked up and saw my stepfather they froze, as if someone had just said, coitus interruptus! My stepfather then boomed out the question I was also dying to ask.
'WHAT THE BLOODY 'ELL IS THIS?'
'IT'S ROCK 'N' ROLL DAD.... IT'S ELVIS!'
The name echoed sub-audible in my head Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!
'IT'S A BLOODY RACKET! I'll GIVE YOU ELVIS IF YOU DON'T TURN IT DOWN!' he shouted, his usual grey metal face now deep red.
Then I tumbled it! The black box was, in fact, a record player. And there was the record sleeve with the word 'Elvis' in big red letters with a photo of a guy who looked like a Red Indian and just as bloody dangerous. He was in the same get up Tommy's friend was wearing. His face and body also looked contorted, and he too was on his tiptoes, pointing his finger accusingly at the viewer -- at me!
I immediately fell in love with him and this wild crazy music, which made my little heart quicken and my spirit soar! Ye gods! little did I know then it was the phenomenon, which is Rock'n'Roll, that had just manifested in our front room and blown my ears off.
On his way out my stepfather slapped my head and asked me what I had to grin at.
From then on, whenever that black box arrived, I could be found camping outside the front room door. Through that inch and half thick piece of wood, I heard all the heroes of Rock 'n' Roll.
Rock'n'Roll music was but the camel's nose entering the tent. Over the next weeks I saw Tommy's life totally change -- from a jack to a king. He got himself a part-time job working after school at a scrapyard, persuaded his dad to let him have a ten pound club-check, to be paid back at two bob a week on the never-never. He blew it all on clothes just like those of his new found friend, who he couldn't stop talking about. Whose name turned out to be Clarky (Johnny Clark). Who lived in St. George’s Road across the Hessle road. Who worked at a sawmill. Who had a girlfriend called Sandra, who was a real looker. Who spent all his money, as he always proudly exclaimed: on clothes, my girl, and Rock 'n' Roll records.
I along with Tommy thought he was the bees knees. But what was now on my mind was how to get into that room where the action was.
Well, in the end everything fell straight -- as I was the only one in the house who cared a damn about Tommy's new found obsession -- my brothers and sisters cared as much about Rock'n'Roll as they would about a newly discovered leaf mould. Tommy was now suddenly happy to talk to me and answer all my questions. I showed so much interest in the music that on two or three occasions he actually allowed me in the room when his friends were there.
They all laughed themselves silly at my childish impersonations of Elvis. And although they could get a little rough with me in play, I think they all liked me. They took turns showing me how to box and wrestle, how to punch, or head-butt, or how to knee somebody in the balls when he was not expecting it. Oh, and how to empty somebody's pockets by holding them upside down by their ankles. All pretty useful stuff but very painful. And what with all that, and the Elvis impersonations, I'd be rather the worse for wear by the time I came out of those Rock 'n' Roll Sessions.
Sometimes, when he came round for Tommy, Clarky would flash me a smile, scruff my hair, and call me 'little Rock 'n' Roller', and I'd shine like the sun!
For me, this alien, but invigorating new music stole me away from the emptiness of that mundane life. It seemed to have broken the spell of all that had been before, and it was the first authentic thing in my life. It had wings! and the energy of a locomotive! And I wished I was ten years older.
It wasn't long before Rock 'n' Roll became the buzz-word, and rockers and teddy-boys were everywhere to be seen. There were gangs of them hanging about street corners – dandies – rebels without a clue – their clothes; splashes of toxic colour against a timetable-grey world. Now it was all talk of drainpipe trousers, brothel creepers, duck's arses, and the bop. But their kind of distinction was at odds with everything around them. Their very clothes challenged the right angled world. And all the boring cramps started using words like juvenile delinquent, Blackboard Jungle, and the devil's music. But to the youth from the slums a juvenile delinquent was at least something to be. Sometimes screaming into the boredom can actually help.
I didn't know then just how much my life over the next years would be deciphered through this music -- both code and message coming from its spirit healing sublime depth. But it would take me a few more years to come into its closer orbits, and to feel its full gravity.
So, the upshot was; Clarky actually sold that record player to Tommy after he had bought himself a new and better one. Then Tommy would often let me in the front room to listen to his ever growing collection of music by such people as Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course Elvis.
Several years later when Tommy got married and left home, I inherited that same wonderful black magic-box, and then the next generation of Rock 'n' Roll came under its needle!