By Paul Swainson
With Mike Stax & Rick Brown
North India, 1947
The bullets hit his shoulder and groin. The old sadhu neither heard nor saw them but the impact threw him from the ghat into the sacred river. Blood flowed into the muddy current, beginning a journey to who knew where. The Ganges water rushing into his ears muffled gunfire and screaming on the bank. He surfaced. Lungs sucked in air - a reflex as automatic as it was pointless.
There was no sorrow in the knowledge that his soul would depart. This was the moment he had awaited his whole life. He regretted only that, with destiny still unfulfilled, he would be forced to continue his journey into another life. That was enough to bring a tear to his eye. But It had always been so, and would always be so until he was worthy of release from the cycle of rebirth. Perhaps that would take one more life, perhaps a thousand, perhaps more. One day though he would sit at the feet of the Gods and smile with them at the fallibility of mortal men.
Life drained away while he shivered in the cold Himalayan water. And yet somehow he felt more than ever connected to the rest of Creation. He was at one with the terrified people swimming for their lives, and the boatmen trying to save them, even with the wild-eyed lunatics firing into the water.
He doubled over in pain and summoned ebbing strength, feeling unable to depart without perfecting the wisdom gathered in decades of contemplation; without completing his spiritual journey. But the force of time, the pull was overwhelming...
Swinging London, 1966
“I’m not talkin’” Rick wailed, as his mic. stand hit the floor. He swayed, suddenly struggling to keep his footing, disorientated by lights flaring, now green, now blue before fading through yellow back to blood red. The screams redoubled as he took a step towards the girls in the front row. He put a foot on the stage monitor as the guitars chimed in.The drummer beat out the rhythm of the universe but all eyes were on him.
"That’s all I’ve gottta say."
The Marquee Club, Wardour Street, London.
The crowd roared in unison. If ever a band and their audience had been one it was now. They played on. Louder even than before, the stage lights flickering in time with the bass while the singer prowled the stage. Hands reached out as the crowd surged forwards seeking to add a physical connection to the mental. They moved as one with each other, screamed as one with the singer. They were his as he was theirs. They were one.
There were people in the room whose attention was not fully on the band's performance; two of them, leaning against the bar where conversation was just possible over the sound of heavily amplified guitars. Both men divided their thoughts between the need to guard against being swindled, the possibility of swindling the other, and the girls swaying by the stage. While the relentless beat was irresistible it didn’t lend itself to dancing. Still, the pulsing lights occasionally flashed across their thighs and you had to admit that there was something to be said for mini-dresses.
Eventually the two men dragged their eyes upwards to glance at the band. Both nodded approvingly. “Not the finished article, Nigel, but…. yeah. Why not? We don’t have anyone ‘psychedelic’ yet and it wouldn’t take a genius in the marketing department to generate a few headlines for a Yank-band based in Blighty. Mind you, they look like shit!”
“Don’t worry about that. A haircut and a bit of a scrub-up and they’ll be fit for Top of the Pops. You should worry about whether they’ll want to sign for you. Fontana isn’t the only gig in town, Dick. And they may not wish to share a label with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, Tich, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all."
Dick stood up, the better to extract a cigarette from his jacket and to allow him to stand several inches over his companion. Nigel’s public school accent was bad enough, the blazer was inexcusable. His own suit had been tailored just off Saville Row and might have taken someone’s eye out had it been any sharper. But that was the point. Nothing said working class boy made good than expensive tailoring and that was an image he was happy to invest money in maintaining.
He found a lighter and pushed it along the bar with the cigarettes. He wanted to sign these boys enough to put up with their pompous manager but looking desperate would make it an expensive deal. And Sir Jack did not approve of expense. A drop of sweat, not necessarily his own, ran down the inside of his collar. Another hit the bar, dripping from the ceiling. The Marquee was that sort of place.
Despite the dingy furnishings, the incessant racket and the smell of beer-soaked carpets Dick's distaste for the club didn't come close to his distaste of Nigel. God help him but there had been more than enough Nigels at Harrow to make the years it had taken to lose his own boarding school accent seem time well spent. If he never spoke to another Justin, Jeremy or Raif, he might die happy. The idea of spending time in the company of the sort of people who’d bullied him into doing their Latin prep made him shudder. It was the reason he spent his life pretending to be a Cheapside barrow-boy brought up on jellied eels and clips around the ear-hole from local Coppers.
“You don’t think they’d be at home with The Pretty Things, The Troggs and The Mindbenders? There's plenty other groups who’d sign in their place at the drop of a Trilby.”
“They’ll do what I damn well tell them to do,” Nigel insisted, lighting one of the A&R man’s execrable cigarettes. He winced as the strong tobacco hit his throat. It reminded him of his father’s roll-ups. He hadn’t invested in a second-hand MCC tie and elocution lessons to go back to a two up two down in Cricklewood. Posh boys slumming it made the best managers, you only had to look at Brian Epstein. St. Michael’s Secondary Modern hadn't been posh and hadn’t given him much education. But it had at least taught him how to avoid being stiffed by fellow low-lives like Dick.
“I doubt they’ll welcome the news that Mickie Most is sniffing around, mind you. Herman’s Bloody Hermits these boys are not.”
Dick put on his jacket and exhaled. However much the props went with the role he would always hate Rothmans. “Fine, give ‘em a bath and bring ‘em over on Monday. You and me'll convince the big cheese to issue a contract and we’ll find a sympathetic producer to capture their… unique sound. This time next year we could be ordering a Bentley each!”
He reclaimed his cigarettes and made a perfunctory wave over a mounting wall of sound. The crescendo of feedback seemed a good excuse to finish the discussion. He was anxious to get back to his car. “I’ll call you then,” Nigel mouthed, knowing the A & R man couldn’t possibly hear him. “You jumped-up barrow-boy oik.”
Dick waved before heading quickly to the exit. Any longer in the foetid atmosphere of The Marquee and the stitching of his suit might come apart The sooner he got back to his Jag and the excellent cigars in the glove compartment the better. He hadn't been able to face the Underground. Only drunks, losers and tourists took the Tube. But he hadn't felt able to risk pulling up outside the club in a new car. Not until after The Misunderstood accepted the pitiful deal he was about to offer. Sadly, it had left him with little option but to park ten blocks away and play hop-scotch with the dog-shit on the pavement.
The ten year old who'd watched him lock the doors was another reason to hurry back. A century earlier an undernourished kid in his elder brother's clothes might have been a loveable Dickensian street urchin looking for pennies for minding his horse. But Dickens was long dead and this urchin was a member of the Kray Gang's youth wing.
"Mind your car for ten bob, mister?"
"That's okay, son. My dog's on the backseat."
"Gonna need a big bladder to put out a fire though, ain't it."
It was cold back-stage. A cloud of smoke hung below the low ceiling, mingling with the scent of excitement and sweaty bodies too tired for another encore. It was a small changing room with paint that nicotine and the graffiti of previous acts had long since tainted. Condensation ran down the windows and collected at the foot of the mildewed walls. If The Marquee’s management kept animals in there the RSPCA would prosecute.
“They love us, Moe. They fucking love us!” The singer collapsed into a venerable leather chair; stuffing hung out of both arms and springs stuck through the seat, daring visitors to sit on it. Rick ignored the discomfort. He grinned disturbingly at his friends until the drummer threw his sticks at him. “Why wouldn’t they love us, Rick? We’re so suave.”
Moe gestured at the funky clothes on his own body. There were better-dressed bums in Regents Park hedges.
Rick half-heartedly threw the drumsticks back. The others stacked instruments and attempted to enjoy the beer their manager had arranged. It was darker and considerably warmer than anyone cared to think about, but it was wet and wasn’t costing them anything.
Steve swallowed a pint in a single practised motion and picked up another, knocking the table with his leg and catching it before the dozen or more other beers cascaded over his bass.
Glenn carefully placed his steel guitar in its case before Steve washed it unexpectedly. He grimaced through a sip of stout and then through several more in swift succession. He was too happy to let the unaccustomed bitterness worry him. “We must be the news of the whole friggin’ city, man!” “Merrie Olde Englande's swinging, man. But once we switch it on it’s gonna rock.”
The door opened. Everyone looked up in the hope Jeff Beck might have turned up to introduce them to his gifted girlfriend. The look of disappointment when Nigel’s face appeared would have upset anyone less brazen. “Good set, lads! The crowd seemed to enjoy themselves.”
“Enjoy themselves? They were ecstatic, man. We rocked out!”
Nigel perched on the grubby table and hoped that the spilled beer wouldn’t stain his suit. These malodorous Americans might just be on the verge of the big time and he needed them to appreciate the importance of his input to their success. His ten per cent of the millions they'd earn would cover the dry cleaning.
“You were splendid. Of course, you were. I told you I’d arranged for a representative from Fontana to come, yes? He was a little surprised by all the feedback and so on, but I think I convinced him that we could smooth over the rough edges.”
“Jees, Nigel! Rough edges are what stop us being Freddie and the Dreamers. No rough edges, no trip! No trip, no Misunderstood! If he doesn’t get that then tell him no deal.”
“Hey, now! Wait a minute, Rick. If someone wants to give you some bread we should talk to him, even if he is a bit of an arse. I don’t want you to live in that apartment any longer than you have to. And I’m sure you'd like to be able to buy food not wrapped in newspaper for a change."
"Nigel, we've been stuck there six months already. Hell, man, we'd all give anything for a half decent meal. And if we don’t get one someone’s gonna die!”
"Well, fortunately I don’t think that’ll be necessary." Nigel smiled. “Despite his reservations I convinced Dick to arrange an audition at Fontana. Monday afternoon, gentlemen, we begin the process of making stars of you!”
No one spoke for a moment. Then suddenly everyone spoke together.
“What the Hell, Greg?”
We worked three years for this… Are you serious?” Greg shrugged and avoided making eye contact. He’d been dreading this moment but the decision was made. It had been made for days but he hadn't had the nerve to say anything. “I’m going home, guys. That’s all there is to say.”
Rick collapsed back into the unwelcoming chair. For months he’d been attempting to live his life according to words he’d read on the walls of an underground station. All possibilities remain open to those with open minds. Thanks to some strategically placed phallic vandalism it hadn’t been clear who was being quoted but the truth of the sentiment was irrefutable. Rick chose to think of it as the Gospel According to Saint Pancras. Even so, it was inconceivable that Greg could really want to go home just as they were about to make it big. “You lived in that rat hole of an apartment with us since we got here, and now we’re finally getting some place, you wanna go back to Riverside?”
“There’s nothing wrong with Riverside!”
“Riverside is the centre of nowhere, Greg. The dead centre, with the accent on dead. It’s not even a one-horse town any more 'cause the horse moved some place more interesting. Riverside is the ass- end of everywhere.”
Moe took Rick’s lead. Greg clearly hadn’t thought this through.
“Yeah, this is London, man. If we can make it here we can make it anywhere, like New York only without indoor plumbing.”
“Yeah, right! Make a gag outta it but I gotta go home. I’m getting drafted.”
“You’re going home because you’re getting drafted?”
That was a possibility that even the most open-minded would consider a bit flaky.
“Are you high, man? Only you forgot to share.”
“It’s not a joke. I gotta go home. I’m sorry guys, really. But my folks already sent me the ticket. I leave Sunday night.”
The silence returned. No Greg meant no band and no band meant no contract. They’d all be going home to be drafted. It didn't bear thinking about. For all the desperate moments of misery they’d shared in London and in California, for all the freezing nights with empty stomachs, and the wasted performances in front of unreceptive ingrates in scuzzy little West End clubs, for all the hopelessness and fear of failure there had always been the band. Never had a whole been so much stronger than the sum of its parts. So long as the five of them had worked towards a common goal – first gig, first demo recording, first management deal, the move across the Atlantic – so long as they’d been worked towards something the bad times had been bearable. But now?
“I’m sorry to be the voice of doom,” Nigel offered. “But you signed a contract. I struggled to pay your bills for these months and if you don’t turn up on Monday you owe me back rent and the money I advanced you.”
Glenn rarely lost his temper. Or, if he did, no one heard; Glenn rarely spoke. But this was the last straw. The loss of Greg was the loss of a limb and all their manager could do was moan about the paltry few hundred pounds he’d invested in them. “Fuck you, Nigel. For the last eight weeks we’ve eaten the food the chip shop on the corner leaves in the garbage when it shuts. Then we burn the paper that shit comes wrapped in 'cause there's refrigerators warmer than that apartment and we can’t afford to heat it any other way.”
“Yeah," Moe added. "It was kind of the Luftwaffe to do the place up for you but you might wanna think about fixing the roof so it stops raining in the bedrooms.”
“Very well, so you didn’t like the flat. And if you fail this audition I’ll lose a few shillings but you’ll also lose your one chance at a career that could see you being the next Rolling Stones. So, you talk to Greg and make sure you’re ready for Monday’s audition or you’re finished in this town.” But no one talked to Greg. There was no point; Greg hadn’t changed his mind in living memory.
Rick kicked open the fire-escape and wandered along Wardour Street in search of the one point of British culture he’d felt truly au fait with – a pub where no one would make eye-contact overseen by a barman who'd rather break his own fingers than start a conversation.
“I’ll take a pint of that,” Rick said, pointing at the plastic keg on the bar. The barman looked surprised; possibly at the American accent; possibly at someone ordering for Watney’s Red Barrel while sober. Either way, he accepted Rick’s last two shillings, opened the tap and allowed the gas-assisted brew to fill a greasy glass. Grudgingly, he dropped six pence change in the puddle of stale bitter slowly soaking into the elbow of Rick’s best and only shirt.
Rick sipped slowly and deliberately. He was aware the beer would taste like something cooked up in a High School Science lab, but all British beer was like that. Red Barrel had the redeeming feature of being refrigerated, though its sour aftertaste actually preceded and overwhelmed what the manufacturer wryly claimed to be “a subtle hoppy flavour with a hint of oak casks.” If he lived to be a hundred Rick knew he’d see the inside of an oak cask before anything Watney’s made.
“Wot a’ ye neckin’ that shite fo', man?” The newcomer wore a leather jacket and jeans so tattered it seemed likely he'd recently fallen off a motorcycle at high speed, possibly being run over a few times subsequently. He was looking at Rick with genuine concern.
“I’m sorry,” Rick said patiently, taking his time to enunciate. “But I only speak English.”
“Ha-way, man. I just seen ye's in The Marquee, ye wor fuckin’ class!”
Rick smiled. He had no idea what the guy was saying but he’d picked out the words “Marquee” and “class”. There was some sort of irony in making fans just as the band was falling apart, even if they had incomprehensible Bulgarian accents.
“Let us buy ye's a proper bevvie. Hey, Ken, two bottles a Dog an’ hoy ‘em outta the back a the fridge this time the last one burned me lips.”
The Pig and Whistle, Wardour Street, London.
Two brown bottles appeared on the bar. One of them instantly began to empty itself into the stranger. Rick sipped his experimentally. It tasted like a hangover wrapped in a headache. He drank it anyway. He was keeping an open mind. And it was free.
“Cheers, Ah’m Tony, by the way. Ah’ve never seen a band like ye lot before. All that feedback at the end. Man, it was like pulsing in me heed.”
“Yeah,” Rick agreed noncommittally. More of the man’s words were beginning to make it through to his brain but too quickly to translate.
“An’ the lights!”
“They wor like vibratin’ wi the feedback! How the fuck d’ye's de that?”
Maybe the alcohol was kicking in early but suddenly he understood.
“The lights are Glenn’s idea. He wires them to the amps output extension somehow. It changes the power supply with the pitch. Or the current. Maybe it’s the voltage. I’m just the singer, you know? If I had any less technical know-how I’d be the Roadie.”
“Fair enough, an’ ye’s all Yanks, like? How de ye’s like England? Must be pretty weird bein’ surrounded by bleedin’ Cockneys all tha time.”
Rick took a wild guess at what Tony was talking about. “It’s okay, I guess. People are people, you know. Cockneys seem a bit glass half empty compared to home. Californians are more glass half full kind of people, if you see what I’m saying.”
“Nah, not really. I’m a glass too small kind a bloke. Let’s see what we can de about that.”
Another two bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale appeared and disappeared quickly. Rick was determined to take advantage before Tony’s generosity wore off. There wouldn’t be any afternoon drinking when he was knee-deep in mud in some Alabama marine-corps training camp. Make the best of your remaining days of freedom, he told himself, even if that means spending an hour getting drunk with an unintelligible stranger. How open-minded was that!
“Man, ye wor fuckin’ brilliant. That’s exactly how ah hear music in me dreams but every band ah’ve ever been in’s been shite”
“You’re in a band?”
“Naw, nay any more. Ah keep quittin’. Ah don’t think Ah’ll be satisfied until Ah’m in the fuckin’ Yardbirds."
Maybe this was fate. Rick didn’t like to think that his fate revolved around meeting strange dudes in lowlife bars but the alternative was turning down a record contract and going back to the US. Riverside had been sadly dull when he was seventeen, going home to admit failure now was unthinkable. “Are you any good?” It was a rude question. But Rick felt safe. The Brits always misinterpreted rudeness in Americans as blunt honesty.
“Good? Ah’m fuckin’ great, man. Ah mean, Ah cannae play steel guitar like yer man back there. But, other than that Ah’m bloody hot!”
Rick took that as "yes". He downed the remaining brown ale and slid the empty bottle back across the bar. Ken, now that it was clear who was paying, looked at him with even less interest than before. “My new friend here is going to buy more of this and whatever bar snacks you have that aren't pickled eggs. Then he's going to join the greatest band the world has yet to hear.”
Tony opened his leather jacket and pointed to one of the pockets. “Fuck the ale, man. I got this direct from yo' neck o’ the woods. We’s goin on a trip an’ the charabanc's aboot ta leave!”
Rick modelled a look somewhere between bewilderment and fear. He could only hope that Tony wasn’t suggesting anything less pleasant than Brown Ale. Ken leant across the bar to press a packets of peanuts into his hands. “I believe your Geordie pal means he has some American acid. But if it turns out a dud come back after nine and knock on the door round the back. I’ve got quality Moroccan ‘ash if you've got the readies.”
Lee Bridge Road, Hackney, London.
Tony had seen hard times in his life; he took in the condition of the apartment without a flinch and sat on the bare floor-boards as though the idea of furniture had never occurred. No one could out-slum him. Tony was from Gateshead.
Twenty minutes later no one was flinching, not even when mice ran across the floor for the cellar door, apparently unconvinced by the poorly orchestrated jam session. “Pull me fuckin’ heed out a the ‘lecky, man. Ah feel like me brain’s wired to the National fuckin’ Grid!”
Inexplicably, the more stoned Rick became, the more sense Tony made. Some of what he said now appeared to be English. “Jees, I’m floating through myself, man. Like levitating in like another…. dimension, or something. It’s intense.”
If Steve was levitating it was no more than a few millimetres from the floorboards. To a casual observer he was flat on his back, staring directly at the bare 60 watt bulb. Tony and Rick shared his fascination. It was only amazing they'd never noticed how intensely... intense the filament was before. Now that the mice had decamped the only other witness was a bluebottle. Like all its species it refused to believe in materials light could pass through that it could not. It head-butted the window in search of somewhere less dank to hang out. Everyone in The Misunderstood had felt like that at some point.
“Let yourself go, man.” Rick advised. “Your body’s just a vessel for the spirit, like it says in the Book of the Dead. You just gotta find the key and you can escape the illusion.” Rick wasn’t entirely sure what he was saying. He wasn’t entirely sure he was saying it. And he wasn't convinced anyone was listening. Still, strange things were happening in his cerebral cortex and talking made the sensation less disconcerting. “It’s like Acid is the key to the way in and our music’s the key to the way out. But we gotta use the Acid and the music together to find a hidden door…. So people can get into it through the music and… and…”
“And out of it through the Acid!” Steve suggested.
Tony struck a chord and dreamed up a riff that reverberated inside everyone’s skull. They let out a collective “Woah!”
“Find the hidden door,” he sang. “It’ll show you the way.”
“That’s good.” Rick grabbed a pen and scribbled on the back of a stolen beer mat. "It's deep. It has ....depth." Tony refocused on the filament. It glowed orange through the misty glass as the light, like the bluebottle, struggled to escape. “It’s got really deep fuckin’ depth,” he agreed. "Like a German submarine that isn’t even yellow."
Rick was blown away. Tony had just spoken the words that had formed in his mind. Or had Tony transmitted those thoughts to his brain before speaking? Maybe he’d transmitted the thoughts to Tony? “Steve,” Rick shouted. “Plug your bass in, man. Play Tony the riff we were fooling with last night there's a wave of higher consciousness here and we’ve got to ride the mother before it breaks on the shore of… of…. sureness.”
Shortly before dawn the bluebottle finally made it through a hole in one of the broken panes. The Misunderstood had a new song and were rehearsing it for the tenth time. In the cellar the mice had found traps to hurl themselves onto. But Greg's face had formed itself into a grin that no one had seen for days. “Looks like you replaced me already, guys. You gotta play this at the audition. This song is bitchin!”
Fontana House, Marble Arch, London.
“This song is bilge!” Jack Baverstock muttered. Why was he even surprised? He hadn’t heard a record he’d enjoyed since 1955 but his distaste for this went beyond his loathing even for Elvis. “Hidden door to where?”
“It’s a metaphor, sir.” Dick said. “The kids love Eastern, mystical stuff right now.”
“God help us all then! And all that dreadful electronic racket at the end?”
“Feedback, Mr Baverstock.” Nigel explained. “A sort of electronic loop, if you will. It expresses freedom from the conventional structures of music. It’s the sound of 1966.”
“If not ‘67. They’re certainly loud enough to be heard next year. In fact, other than their clothes, I doubt there’s been anything louder since Hiroshima.”
“Direct from Granny takes a Trip, sir.” Nigel said. “I sent them there this morning. They need to look the part as well as sound it if the kids are going to really get into this band. First time I saw them they looked like they'd been sleeping in a bush.”
"A thorn bush," Dick added. "Growing on a dung hill." Sir Jack looked unimpressed. It looked as though Caroline, his granddaughter, had chosen the clothes. She was fond of colouring-in Disney comics. For some reason she insisted that Mickey's shorts should be orange and Donald's uniform fluorescent yellow with pink trimming. But Caroline was seven.
“I don’t claim to understand modern fashion any more than I understand modern music. The rot set in with Tommy Steele, in my opinion. However, I place my absolute trust in you, Dick. If you say this is what Fontana needs then this is what we shall have. You are sure it will sell, I take it?”
“The post-boys and the secretaries couldn't get enough of them at the audition, sir. Even the press are getting into it. Look!” It was true. Dozens music journalists had abandoned the free bar and canapés and were staring at the band’s performance with genuine attention. Some of them had gone as far as putting down their drinks to make notes. Even Sir Jack was impressed by that.
As the final chords of “I Can Take You To The Sun” squealed to a conclusion he walked towards the crowd. Despite a distaste for reporters rivalling his feelings about spiders he greeted them as old friends.
“Gentlemen, Perhaps now you see why I promised you the most exciting band-launch of the decade. That was The Misunderstood, the sound of ‘67, the sound of ‘68, ‘69 and the decade to come. If you’ll be good enough to join me in the press room for a snort of champagne the boys will be in to answer your questions shortly.”
Steve wasted some moments attempting to hide behind his microphone. He'd spent years trying to get famous but press-conferences hadn't figured in his thoughts. He wasn't sure he was comfortable with the idea. The enormous poster of his face above the desk suggested he’d be getting plenty of attention in future like it or not.
Fortunately, the rest of The Misunderstood couldn’t have been happier to be magnified and displayed to the world. They were only too eager to answer whatever questions the music press cared to throw their way. They may have suffered the worst of the East End for only three months but three years of playing to half-empty clubs in California had demonstrated the value of attention. Few of the country club dinner dance audiences had been anything but hostile. The Misunderstood had paid their dues; it was time to start reaping the rewards.
“David Jenkins, Daily Mail… What do you hope to achieve by playing this Space Age kind of music?”
“We’re just trying to open people’s minds,” Glenn suggested. “You know, so they can appreciate more than just what they can hear. We want to give them a flying carpet to explore the Universe.”
“Hi, Melody Maker. That was fab. How do you find England?
“Turn right at Greenland, man.” Moe grinned. “We’re the Reverse Beatles! We’re the American Invasion!”
“English people have been real kind to us," Steve agreed quietly. “So we’re hoping our music will help people find the truth.”
The man from the NME raised his eyebrows. Eight months before he’d given short shrift to the pretentions of Rubber Soul only to look foolish when the public lapped it up. He couldn’t afford to miss out on another new movement. Readers seemed to like loud guitars, noise and tuppenny-ha'penny philosophy these days. “You think your music can show people the truth … like some sort of religious experience?”
Rick shrugged. Nigel had warned them to be careful with the British press. He sensed a trap. “Truth is the freedom from fear and hate and envy.” He’d read that somewhere and it sounded like exactly the sort of thing people would want to hear. “When you get rid of negative emotions, only love is left. We’re trying to play peace and love.”
The NME reporter scribbled the words “Balls” on his pad. Perhaps it was possible to enjoy this music without the accompanying claptrap but it did nothing for him. He’d see how the others felt about it in the bar before writing up his copy. Breaking ranks to voice a lone negative opinion wasn't something to rush into again.
“Do you play peace?” The Disc reporter asked Moe.
“I play drums, man. That’s war.”
“And what about drugs?” The Daily Mail asked. “Hey! Find your own candy man.” Rick laughed.
Nigel groaned and began to move towards the stage, sensing disaster. Perhaps now was a good time to play the single before its release next month, preferably before The Sunday Times began a campaign against it to defend Britain's youth from foreigners intent on importing their drug culture.
“We don’t need drugs to play.” Steve interrupted. “Listen to our music and your mind goes places without help. We’re the cure to drugs.”
Nigel relaxed. The Daily Mail reporter looked disappointed, but he hadn’t climbed the greasy pole to become entertainments editor without losing his nose for scandal. The readers of the Mail preferred Mantovani to Manfred Mann and this new group seemed to have something more contentious to say than Do-Wah-Diddy. If he had to write about noisy, long-hairs The Misunderstood's mixture of oriental hogwash and cod philosophy was much more likely to provide him with a stick to beat them with than songs about Pretty Flamingos.
"What about the war in Vietnam?” he asked. “Your countrymen are dying over there while you’re playing music over here.”
“War is wrong.” Rick insisted uncontroversially. “We’re anti-war. We were anti-war back in the States and we’re anti-war here. One of our best friends is going to Vietnam – sometimes good people get caught up in bad things. But we want to be a force for good.”
Daily Mail gave up for a while. He sensed they were getting defensive. Perhaps they'd let something slip to one of the other rags. Record Mirror jumped in.
“You’ve been together for three years. Do you think success will change you?”
“Man, I hope so,” Moe grinned. “I’ve eaten enough cold fries outta dumpsters for one lifetime.”
K-MEN, San Bernardino, California.
“This is K-MEN broadcasting across the wonderful world on one hundred and two point five of the highest quality megahertz, whatever they are. You’re listening to the John Peel Show, the finest radio show presented by an Englishman this side of Fresno. That was Love with “She Comes In Colors”, which is a neat trick for those who know how.”
“A few of my most intimate acquaintances may know I’ve been taking an interest in a group from these parts now across the ocean making a big noise in the old country. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to be able to say for the first time… this is the brand new single by the really quite special The Misunderstood with “I can take you to the Sun”. A little hot up there for my taste, so I’ll stay here and have a cup of tea while they tell you all about it…”
“Mom! Dad! Holly! It’s Rick! He’s on the radio.” Suzie Brown ran into the living room and turned off the repeat of the Dick Powell Show. She turned up the radio in the kitchen and they listened in silence to quarter of an hour of driven improvisation condensed into three and a half minutes. Suzie bounced up and down on the carpet and hugged her mother and little sister in turn. Bette Brown smiled at her daughters. The sound of her son singing on the radio give her a little thrill of pride, though she wasn’t certain about the words. And the music made no sense at all. She squeezed Suzie’s hand but said nothing. She was worried about Dick. Her husband looked displeased to be reminded he had another child.
“That’s what he’s wasting his time on? I sit here day after day fielding his draft papers so he can make that noise?”
“It’s not noise, Daddy. It’s cool!”
“It’s an embarrassment, Suzie. And it’s selfish; he puts me in an awkward spot day in, day out at work so he can play at being a pop star.”
Suzie knew better than to argue. She’d have been shocked if her father had liked the 45. More than that, she’d have been disappointed. This music was for her generation. Colonel Brown found Perry Como a bit louche. She’d have been surprised if he’d had a good word to say about The Misunderstood, though not as surprised as she was to hear her mother defending them.
“He’s not playing, dear. He’s making records and getting paid. He has a recording contract. It’s work.”
“It’s an embarrassment," Colonel Brown repeated. “And it stops here. He comes home and faces up to his responsibility or he’s not my son.”
Suzie burst into tears and ran from the room, dragging Holly after her. Why would Pop want Rick to come home to be drafted? Bette started to follow her.
“If they send him to the war you may not have a son whether you like it or not,” she warned.
Colonel Brown turned the sound up on Dick Powell and then switched the television off altogether. Why did he watch that clown anyhow? He took a pen from the desk and began to write.
Fontana House, London.
Fontana’s boardroom was smaller than the press room but intimidating by design nevertheless. The Misunderstood had been there before to sign away their lives in return for the promise of future earnings. A happier mood had prevailed then.
Despite the gloomy mood it was difficult not to be struck by the view across the city through the enormous window and equally difficult not to be impressed by the enormous mahogany meeting-table. Jack Baverstock and two anonymous suits sat with their back to the cityscape. The Misunderstood and Nigel faced it – all the better to be overawed by their surroundings. Dick sat at the side, mutely expressing his role as an intermediary between the company and the band. Of the musicians only Rick remained underwhelmed by the view, perhaps because his head was face-down on the table. He wasn’t even impressed by the dense grain; he was staring at the inside of his eyelids.
“You’re the lawyers, man.” Rick moaned. “It says I gotta go home now or I’ll be indicted. What does that even mean?”
Fontana’s lawyers looked at each other and then at Jack Baverstock. Nigel and Dick looked at each other with barely concealed revulsion and then at Rick. They needed him. They’d replaced a guitarist but losing a singer after days of expensive studio time would be disastrous. They'd pressed the acetates for the next three singles. How would they get any of their investment back without a singer to promote it?
“An indictment is a formal accusation of wrong-doing.” One of the suits ventured. “In this case it would be the US government accusing you of deliberating failing to enlist despite the repeated issuance of draft papers.”
“I believe that’s a criminal offence in America,” the other agreed. “Quite a serious one. You might go to jail.”
“For three years,” added Suit One. “And there’s a fine of several thousand dollars.”
“But only if Rick's in America,” Nigel insisted. “Their government has no authority here.”
Jack Baverstock cleared his throat to speak. No one else presumed to interrupt. Everyone knew where the money was held. “That’s really not the point, Nigel, as I'm sure you know. We’ve invested a great deal of money into promoting this group, and the record is just taking off as a result. This indictment puts us in a very difficult predicament. If we’re to make a significant return on our investment The Misunderstood must sell records in America. And, if they’re to do that, they’ll most certainly have to promote themselves there. I can’t see how they’re to tour with the FBI following them across country.”
“Jack, please. These boys have…”
Jack Baverstock shot him a look that could not be misinterpreted. Nigel stopped speaking immediately. Suit One sensed his moment. “I should point out that no mention of Mr. Brown’s draft status was mentioned when The Misunderstood entered into their contract with Fontana. Technically you’re in breach of said contract. Unless we find a solution, Fontana could take you to court.”
“Sue away,” Rick said, his voice muffled by the boardroom table he was still pressing his face into. “I got nothing to lose anyhow and I’ll have even less when I’m being helicoptered outta Saigon in a body-bag.”
“Hey, Let’s not get hasty here,” Nigel said. “No one could have known this was going to happen, there’s nothing to gain pointing fingers. We need to think of a way out. There's got to be something we can do?”
“We could tell the Yank government to stick tha heeds up tha arse an’ fuck off.” Tony suggested. “This war’s nowt to de wi Rick.”
“Sadly, ignoring the law rarely makes it go away.” Suit Two argued. “He’ll be a draft evader, and that may not matter in Europe but it’ll generate bad publicity in America. And bad publicity isn’t going to get your records played there.”
“And we can’t have that.” Jack agreed. “When this group takes off, it goes global or it goes under. No America, no band. Rick has to bite the bullet.”
“Oh, shit!” Rick moaned, still trying to force his face through the mahogany. Couldn’t people at least avoid words like bullet?
“How?” Nigel asked. "What's one man meant to do to stop a whole government?"
Suit One leant back in his chair. He glanced at Suit Two and at Sir Jack. It was clear they’d already discussed this eventuality before. “Well, there may be a solution. Mr Brown wasn’t subject to the draft when he entered into his contract with Fontana. And, as far as we’re aware, he entered into contract with us innocently, in ignorance of the likelihood of subsequent events. Mr Brown is therefore legally contracted to our client under English law and being under a legal obligation entered into innocently may provide him with a temporary exemption from the draft. Then we'll see about getting him naturalised as a subject of Her Majesty and he'll be permanently exempt as soon as he renounces his US citizenship.”
Rick looked up. The grain of the mahogany was etched into his forehead. “You mean, if I become a Limey I don’t have to go to Vietnam?”
“You signed a business contract, Rick,” Jack laughed. “You were obliged to us before you were obliged to the military.”
"And don't forget you were obliged to my company before that,” Nigel added.
“Right, so between our legal eagles and whatever Nigel can scrape together we should be able to come up with enough paperwork to put a jam in the works of the American military for a few months.” Dick laughed. “We can fly the paperwork over and all you’ll have to do is look after your voice and start to count the money. There will be someone in the Home Office prepared to look after your British passport for twenty quid”
Suit Two twitched nervously. Evidently, not all the news would be positive. “Well, it’s not quite that simple, I’m afraid. Mr Brown is still required to present himself to the draft-board in person, even if only to hand over the paperwork. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“What? Ye mean go back ova there? Te America, like? Are ye fuckin mental?”
“Tony doesn’t think it’s a good idea,” Glenn translated.
“I’m afraid there’s no alternative,” Suit One insisted.
“Divn’t go, man. It’s a fuckin’ ambush!”
Jack beamed paternally at the band. It was among the scarier sights of the band's time in London. Baverstock's face wasn't designed for smiling. It had the glassy eyes and waxy-complexion of a slightly melted inhabitant of Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. “Don’t worry, old chap.” He reassured Rick. “It’s perfectly straightforward. We’ll get the paperwork together this afternoon. You can be in California on Monday and back here by Friday. Besides, as non-Commonwealth citizens you all need to apply for permits to continue working in Britain. I’m told it’s a mere formality for Americans but you must apply from outside the United Kingdom for some reason. Rick can pick one up at the British Consulate in Los Angeles, I expect. I’m afraid the rest of you will have to take the overnight ferry to Calais to pick one up from our people in Paris. I’m not sure about Tony, he may need to return to his own country.”
“Ah’m from fuckin' Tyneside!”
“Splendid, your embassy will be able to advise. You’ll find it in Piccadilly, I expect. Try the Yellow Pages.”
Los Angeles International Airport, California. 1967
The Pan-Am stewardesses said goodbye. They watched the handsome stranger tottering down the mobile stairway to the Tarmac and smiled a little more warmly than the training manual required. No one was sure who they'd been talking to, but he was dressed like John Lennon and had provided each of them with free copies of his latest single, pre-autographed. He had to be a famous rock-star. Why else would anyone wear sunglasses inside a plane?
They lost sight of him as he stumbled into the terminal. Perhaps they’d see him on the return flight. Perhaps the one who had pressed her number into his hand might see him before.
Rick made it through baggage reclaim in a daze, the ground still shifting unpredictably below his feet after fifteen hours in the air. The complementary champagne hadn’t helped but the stewardesses had barely let him drain one glass before bringing another and three months of privation in the East End had left him unable to turn down the freebies business class provided.
The sunglasses shielded his headache from the California sunshine flooding in through the plate glass windows as well as allowing him to ignore the curious, disapproving stares of other travellers. No one had ever paid that much attention to him in an airport before. Arriving in a Paisley patterned silk shirt and orange velvet trousers had been calculated to grab the notice of females under twenty five but it was no way to avoid the scrutiny of customs officers. Twenty five minutes to search one suitcase and a back-pack was more than a little over the top. He'd considered complaining. He'd considered the possibility of provoking a full body-cavity check. He'd said nothing.
As Rick heard his name being called he was knocked across the concourse by the sheer force of his sister's love and the impact of all ninety five pounds of her speeding body. Fortunately, an elderly couple’s luggage trolley broke his fall. When he’d apologised and recovered their cases, Rick turned back to greet his sister properly.
“Suz! How're you doin?”
“I’m great! You look brilliant! And you’re famous too – in Riverside, anyhow.”
“Riverside and Hackney!” Rick laughed and span her round in his arms. “I’m unstoppable. Come on, let’s find your car. I gotta get over to K-MEN and talk to John.”
Suzie stopped in her tracks.
“You can’t do that! You have to come home first. Mom and Dad and Holly want to see you.”
Rick slung his bag over his shoulder and took her hand. Gently he pulled her towards the automatic doors and the car-park. If he was really nice to her she might let him borrow her ’64 VW bug. That way he could see John any time. He knew from experience that it steered and braked like a sports car.
In the years since he'd left home the immaculate paintwork had been scratched and nicked until it now needed a re-spray like Death Valley needed light showers. Still, it had a reassuring mass of engine and body-work between the front fender and the steering wheel should they crash. That was surely why Colonel Brown had bought it for him four years ago when cheaper even less expensive models had been available. And that was why his sister had inherited it, despite its small size.
“You really think Dad wants to see me?”
“Oh, boy does he want to see you! And Mom and Holly will kill me if I don’t bring you home. Everyone’s worried about you.”
“Okay, I guess. But I don’t know what they're worried about; I’m the one they’re trying to draft.”
“Damn it, Rick. Why do you dress like that? What the hell’s wrong with you?”
It was an even less enthusiastic home-coming than he’d expected. He'd have accepted an angry officer yelling at him at the draft-board. A ‘good to see you’ and a firm hand-shake would have seemed more in order from his father. Thankfully, his mother was there to referee.
“Calm down, Hony. He just arrived.”
Bette Brown hugged her son and led him towards the kitchen and the baking she’d been doing all morning in preparation. The smell was overpowering, almost magnetically attractive. Rick felt at home for the first time that year.
There had been many good reasons to leave Riverside but his Mom's ability to make food which didn’t taste of the cardboard packaging it came in provided a strong counter-argument. The smell of baking alone was enough to make him doubt the wisdom of his decision. The Brits could learn a thing or two. The only brownies in Hackney assembled in church halls to swear allegiance to the Queen every Thursday evening. And you weren’t allowed to chew on those.
“The Army will straighten him out and put him in some decent clothes.” Colonel Brown muttered. “That’s for sure.”
“Don’t count your chickens, Pops." Rick thought, though he said nothing. An argument with his father would spoil his appetite and he was pretty sure that his mother would be cooking up his favourite meal and serving it with lemonade freshly prepared with lemons from the tree in their yard. Even his father wouldn’t invite a recruiting Sergeant to the house to arrest him after spaghetti and meatballs.
“I’m going straight down to the recruiting-depot first thing in the morning,” he informed everyone. “Right after I go to K-MEN to thank John. His Mom put us up when we first got to London and he got us a management deal too. Then I gotta talk to the British Consulate and buy a ticket back to London. I’ll be gone by Friday, we gotta record another single before we start the tour.”
Shkardu, India, 1947
The old monk did not relish the thought of travel. He was, perhaps, eighty years old. Too old to hanker after new sights. Too old to be excited even by the prospect of bathing again in the scared Ganges. He wanted to go nowhere, to sit among the trees familiar to him since his youth and to meditate on the name of God in peace. But there had been fear in Deepak's eyes and on the faces of the other villagers who had urged the Swami to join them. They wanted to leave; their wives wanted them to leave. Why would he not come?
The Swami had no possessions to abandon. He lived in the earthen floored house the villagers had built for him, with its grass thatch and dung-plastered walls. If they were so in fear of their lives that they would leave behind their fields, homes and businesses, he would have to give his blessing. They would not leave without him and he could not ask them to remain.
They say there were riots in Amritsar again, Swami-ji, Deepak had said. Over a hundred Muslims were killed by a mob.
Amritsar is far away, child.
The Muslims in Lahore took revenge. They set fire to their Hindu neighbours. No one knows how many died.
Lahore is also far away, my son.
Lahore will be in Pakistan, Swami. So will Shkardu. Our neighbours will burn us too.
No one knows the will of God, my son. Why should our neighbours set on us when we have lived together before Shah Mir ruled over our ancestors?
They have no love for us, Swami. And we have fields that they would give to their children. We must go to India before they kill us all.
Are we not yet in India? The old man thought. But he said nothing. He picked up his stick and rose stiffly to his feet. Placing his hand on Deepak's forehead he marked it with the ash from his fire.
Then we will go to Ladakh until it is safe to return
US Army Recruitment Center, Pomona, California, 1967.
The Induction Center was every bit as forbidding as its role demanded. The floor was battleship grey, the walls off-green and decorated with posters of fierce men with automatic weaponry exiting landing-craft and helicopters. The locals were greeting them with a hail of welcoming lead. That appeared to be the way everyone liked it.
A queue of nervous boys with varying degrees of acne thrust back their shoulders in false bravado or slumped morosely according to their mood. Each one hoped no one else had noticed their mother kiss them goodbye. Most wore jeans and a t-shirt, a few of the more patriotic wore a shirt and tie. Only Rick had had felt able to carry off purple flares and a sheepskin tank-top. And even he was beginning to wonder why he’d come as a pimp.
After a long wait in line a large man in a small Smokey-Bear hat glared at him. He looked like a black Ranger Smith. Rick decided against asking if there was a pic-a-nic basket under his desk.
“It ain’t Halloween, boy. Stand up straight an’ take them shades off. You in the Army now.”
Rick handed over his exemption papers. He turned them through a hundred and eighty degrees so the sergeant could read them more easily; assuming Recruiting Sergeants were required to be able to read.
“I don’t think so,” he began. “I think you’ll find I’m smarter than the aver…” He made a grab at the legal papers as the sergeant dropped them in the waste-paper basket. He missed. A cold sensation spread from his finger-tips to his brain. This was not in the script. “Those are legal papers! I have a binding record contract in London that exempts me from the draft. You can’t just…”
“Get yo' ass back in line, recruit!”
Either the sergeant was a very angry man or he was a great actor. Either way Rick felt unable to resist.
“That shit don’t mean shit here. That shit ain’t even American. You wanna wave legal papers in my face, you make sure they’s American legal papers then I’ll salute ‘em ‘fore I throw ‘em in the trash.”
Rick blinked. It didn’t help. This was still happening. “Can I at least have the papers back?”
“You can take the oath like everyone else, boy. Then you can have a free khaki suit, new shoes an’ a haircut. Now get outta my face!”
A pair of uniformed automatons marched Rick to the end of a line of boys about to swear willingness to die for the liberty of faraway people who rarely looked grateful on the news. He tried not to look at anyone while he quickly recalculated. Plan A had gone horribly wrong. There wasn’t a Plan B. That was why he ran.
“Someone stop that yellow-bellied piece a shit!”
Rick assumed the Sergeant was talking about him rather than to him. He ran harder and kicked open the door without breaking stride. Ignoring the blaring car-horns, Rick ran into the traffic and along the opposite sidewalk. Being open to new experiences surely didn’t require him to visit Khe Sahn.
In moments he began to regret his decision not to train with his High School Track Squad when the invitation had been made all those years ago. At the time the need to peer through the cracks in the roof of the girls’ changing rooms had seemed more pressing. Since then he’d scarcely run for a bus and his yellow Gohill boots weren’t built for speed no matter how good they'd looked in the shop window.
He made it two blocks before an MP caught up and shoulder-charged him into a doorway. The MP's boots were black and built for stamping on the enemy, a point he demonstrated by attempting to dislodge one of Rick’s knee-caps.
Los Angeles, California.
Contact us for an update on the progress of this new novel by Paul Swainson