Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Back To The Old House
I first met Andy Hollingsworth in early '73, when I was 19 and he was 16. The other members of Plod and I met him on the corner of Queen St and High St, Colchester one Saturday morning. He was a big lad with a baby face, slightly chubby, soft of build and a shock of dark curly hair. I'd instantly liked him. He was like one of those kids I'd been to school with, one of the outsiders, I suppose. This was partly by virtue of his sheer talent. He could play a piano, even at age 16, like a pro. He could sit down at an old pub piano and play complex JS Bach cantatas or Antonio Carlos Jobim sambas. What he wasn't, was a rock and roller, although he was something of a science boffin. He understood a lot of stuff that most of his friends didn't even know was stuff. Very occasionally, I'd get to play with him, and much as I liked certain types of jazz, I most certainly wasn't up to playing even an approximation of it at this stage in my life. Andy, therefore, was one of these guys that I'd gravitate towards in a pub, if I wanted to talk about something more complex than heavy rock bands or other musical mundanities.
Six years after first meeting him, it was a somewhat forlorn scene that he lit upon, when he visited me that day. I hadn't seen him for some months. I explained about the split-up with my girlfriend, about losing the house and then I found a couple of not-yet-packed cups and made us tea. While I talked to him, I carried on packing a few last things in cardboard boxes, ticked off items on the house inventory and generally swept up in all of those places, where the furniture had been. I'm my mum's practical son for that sort of thing. It was the last clean-up. He sat down at my clunky old first piano and played some Jobim stuff and some Bach. It was a still, grey day in early May. It was very poignant, which I suppose, is why the memory is still frozen there, so clearly in my mind.
He must have left at some point that afternoon. He wished me good luck and said that we'd catch up in the pub. My other friend Kate, arrived a little later. She was working as a waitress at the restaurant, where I was part-time kitchn porter. We loaded my boxes, and various bits and pieces in her old Morris Traveller. Except for the piano, which I couldn't take with me, we managed to get it all in the car. Looking at the car filled up with all my worldly goods except for a piano, my bicycle and my cat, reminded me of what happened to you if you joined rock bands. You don't usually end up with many material possessions. On the up side of things, your mum never minds storing it in the garage for you. This is where we headed next ‒ a village about 8 miles out of Colchester. I was twenty six years old. It had just gone a bit pear-shaped, really. When we got to my mum's place, we unloaded, stacked the stuff and had more tea. I was beginning to lose my voice again. The following morning, it had been reduced to a sort of Carslberg TV advert voice-over. A kind of low growl which you also hear on film trailers at the cinema. This co-incided with my dad, before we drove off, giving me an old raincoat ‒ a battered, sand-coloured Burberry flasher's mac with flaps, belt, straps and loads of buttons. “No wonder you're always getting colds and sore throats, if you walk around in all weathers without a coat.” he said, gruffly. It was coming on to rain. Cold English springtime rain. I put the mac on.
A couple of nights later, I met Andy in the pub. He was his usual boffin-like self, talking intensely to me about some revolutionary way of doing something in music, or some aspect of an invention he was working on. But he never forgot the occasion. Years later, he said: “I can never forget that night after you lost your house, and you came into the pub in that old raincoat, talking in that ridiculous croak, because you'd lost your voice.” Everyone else who'd encountered me at this point it seems, had just assumed that I'd for some reason, decided to do a permanent Columbo impression. There'd been much hilarity. But since it was the type of unpredictable thing that I might have done, for a laugh, no-one except for Andy realised that I'd lost my house, lost my girl and now my voice. There was a funny side to it, I suppose. Bloke blows it. Bloke decides to become Columbo for a week.
When you've got nothing, as the song goes, you've got nothing lose. There was a sense of freedom, too. There's something about those still grey days in spring. They can be very... healing. I spent a lot of time walking around. I revisited old haunts. I liked that bit of Colchester, the beginning of the suburbs just west of the town centre, with its big Victorian houses and avenues. I was going to miss it. I guesed that I would now go to wherever it was that I ended up.
I just didn't yet know where that was.
But I still had a band And there were gigs. I still had a part time washing-up job. I didn't owe anybody any money. The cat was staying with the ex until I got myself straight. Tell you what I don't like about being homeless? There's no window to look out of in the morning. It was only a couple of weeks, though. I stayed at my mum's a couple of nights. I stayed at one or two band members after gigs. I'd put enough unlucky people up in my time, hadn't I? My floor credit, at this point, was pretty good. Then, one day, Peter, who owned the restaurant where I worked, told me that he had a room going, just for the summer, mind. It was inWivenhoe. It was a big house, sort of bohemian. Lovely rambling old place. The room was mine if I wanted it, but only until the autumn. Soon enough, then, Kate the waitress was back with her old Morris Traveller, moving my stuff out of my mum's garage and into my new room.
Andy Hollingsworth died aged 49, which I suppose must have been about five or six years ago now. In the intervening twenty five or so years since he'd come upon me packing on that last day at Ireton Road, Colchester, I'd mostly seen him only sporadically. But in the mid 90's another old girlfriend of mine had formed a weekly jazz club around Andy's talent, for a few months. He moved his amps and his piano into the upstairs function room of the Greyhound in Wivenhoe. He actually 'lived' between his estate car and a semi-derelict building next to the Mark's Tey cafe and truck stop. That side of his life, for me at least was shrouded in mystery.
As for the jazz club, jazz musicians, being what they are, most of those who turned up to play each week were reluctant to sing. Andy liked a bit of singing. So after some persuasion and tutoring from him I learned a set of songs and we'd break up the general jazz willy-waving with Lullaby of Birdland, On A Clear Day, My Funny Valentine and other such standards, which I did my level best to sing properly.
Andy had lived in London for some of those intervening years. Sometimes, he'd taken residencies as a piano player. He'd played Ronnie Scott's, too. At one point, he became Head of Music at a large south London comprehensive school. I gather that he was pretty good teacher, but that those rough south London kids and their riotous behaviour was all too much for his rather gentle soul. While he was in Wivenhoe, we got to know each other all over again. He should have married and had kids, really. He'd have been great at that. Kids loved him. The thing was that he was pretty undomesticated. His diet was a disaster zone. Typical absent-minded boffin, he'd be working on manuscripts whilst eating sliced white bread out of the packet, which he'd smear with the cheapest margerine.. He'd adopted a huge and rather uncontrollable black Alsatian called Luke. The dog went everywhere with him. Andy had even been known to share the dog's food sometimes, if he'd forgotten to go shopping. Andy was also very fond of real ale and could drink quite a lot of it, without it ever affecting him much, other than to make him more philosophical.
I heard he got depressed sometimes, but to me, when we were talking anyway, he was always fired up with the general possibilities of things. I really found him quite inspirational. His talent and ideas were never really harnessed enough for the world's good. But he did not look after himself well.
He'd been ill. I believe he died quietly in his sleep ‒ I hadn't seen him for about six months, prior to that. I was surprised at how personally I took it when he died.
At the funeral were a handful of friends, fellow musicians and of course his family, who like us knew exactly how valuable he was. We hadn't known each other in childhood, but I think each of us, from the very outset, recognised in the other certain outsider qualities. I don't think I ever had a dull conversation with him. He'd have been one of those kids who was no good at football, like me, hanging round the frosty goalmouth on a cold afternoon, talking about music or great theories and waiting for the games master to blow the final whistle. So when I think of moving out of that house in Colchester, I can't do so without remembering Andy and the cadences of Bach and Jobim echoing around the newly-pictureless walls and the dusty floorboards on that last grey afternoon.
Moving Out / Moving On
Unconventional as this may seem, I write these details down, over 32 years later, in this, the second part of my memoir. At time of writing I have no idea if, or whether it will ever be published in solid form. For a writer such as myself, since writing is my chief occupation, it's good exercise, if nothing else. I like to entertain and to inform, too. Of course, since the time period I'm currently covering is about rock gigs, life in a band and the general struggles of a poor musician, I'm on familiar turf for many readers. It strikes me though, that when we read about the lives of such people, especially the more famous ones, we don't often get the domestic details. This is why rock stars are so mythologised, or martyred and why, sometimes, they appear to lead lonely lives and have lonely deaths.
We don't imagine Bryan Ferry de-fluffing the tumble drier, for instance, or Iggy Pop taking a cat to the vet. We mostly imagine that our idols have 'people' to take care of such things. Sometimes, it's true. They do. I was once told by a frustrated record company p.a. about a Famous Rock Guitarist, who phoned her at home during a bank holiday. He was distraught. "There's all this rubbish, everywhere." he told her. His family was away. The 'people' who looked after him were away on holiday. He'd been by himself for the weekend.
She told him, patiently. "Listen T***. What you have to do is...you know those big black plastic bags? There's probably some in a cupboard under the sink or something. Well, you put the rubbish in them, and then you tie the bags up and leave them outside wherever the dustmen collect them from. " He said. "I don't think we have any." She said to him:"Well, that's easy. Just go out down the road (he lived in central London) and go to the corner store and buy some." The guitarist was even more distraught. "But I can't do that!" he said. The p.a. assured me: "That's what I'm dealing with."
Now, it's my guess...no, my knowledge, actually, that many of our rock gods are actually much saner and more practical than you might think. Near the height of his solo fame, I have been out to buy brussell sprouts in backstreet Brighton, for instance, with Captain Sensible. Once, we went and hired a re-seating tool from a plumbing supplies shop so that we could fix a kitchen tap. To turn the water off to his house, I had to lie down in the street and dip my hand down a small hatch just outside his house to disconnect the water supply, shouting back to him." Is that the right one? Has it turned off yet, Cap?" I have been with John Cooper Clarke as he shambled up the road to the newsagents in old jeans, with flat hair and ordinary specs to buy 10 Benson and a copy of The Sun. I have been out in Swindon several times walking the dog in the park with Andy Partridge. In a long phone conversation with Rod Stewart,a few years ago, I asked him what he'd been doing that day. He'd been painting a room in his house,he told me in Los Angeles. I once heard that at the height of his fame, Eric Clapton regularly used to play the spoons in a pub down the road, in a band which his granny played the ukele for.
We don't usually imagine people in rarified jobs, having ordinary lives, which involve gas stoves, secateurs, paint brushes and dish-cloths. It is often the writers and p.r. people who help propagate the myths which surround the famous. What happens when the cameras aren't there, though and the mics are switched off? What did I used to do, in the old days when I wasn't in vans, on stages or recording music? According to the only pictures which I possess, my life seemed to be mostly, about such things. I only have pictures of myself onstage, during recordings or on tour. Most people didn't have cameras. Events, three decades ago or more, weren't constantly being snapped or recorded as they seem to be now. There weren't video recorders. Camera film had to go off to the developers for a week or so before you even saw them. Many pictures them didn't come out well. They were just blurred. You couldn't scan things or e-mail pictures to people. We led much more private lives back then, all of us-- even the famous. I sometimes wish now, that I had pictures of me doing the garden, cleaning the windows, brewing beer, wrapping the now long dead cats in a towel in order to thrust antibiotic pills down their unwilling throats.
Because life isn't really just about the great works of art, the important events, the big breaks or the watershed moments. It's actually about cleaning the carpets, making the tea, putting the bottles out and changing the pillow cases. This is why,on a grey afternoon in mid May of 1979, while I pottered around the home I was about to move out of, surrounded by a few cardboard boxes and a few stacked domestic items, I was glad when, probably for the last time during my occupancy, the doorbell rang.
The thing about the place where I was living during the most of my time playing in Gypp, was that it was actually home. As the eldest child of an army family, i'd moved around a lot. By the time I was seventeen, having been out at work for almost 18 months, I must have lived in as many different houses as I was years old. The houses went by like station stops on a long return railway journey for no purpose: Harpenden, Ash Vale, Watford, Lambeth, Ash Vale again, Cyprus, Harpenden again, Dundee, Scotland (these all before my 9th birthday), Chester, Singapore, Harpenden, Malaya, Putney and Balham. In the middle of it all, were long plane flights, railway trips, buses, transit camps and hotels. We never took holidays. Why on earth would we? One brother was born in Aldershot, another on the island of Penang and I was born in Hertfordshire. The only place which had been a constant in my life was Harpenden, where my maternal grandparents lived -- They had a little two down / three up house in a terrace of four, which they'd rented since the early 1930s. I was sent there in the summer holidays sometimes, if we happened to be in England at the time.
In summer of 1970, when I was just past 17, my parents moved up to Colchester, another army town, where my aunt, who was also married to a soldier, owned a little house. I, though, had decided to stay in London and moved into a bedsit in Clapham South. From then on, I lived in a series of shared houses, once or twice coming home for a month or so, only if all my other options had run out. I also became known among friends as someone who could look after a place if they were away, clean it up and generally make sure that the bills were paid. After joining bands, I mostly slept on people's floors after gigs -- these might belong to other band members, roadies etc etc. I looked after our roadie Nik's place for over a year, whilst he was working on cruise boats on the Rhine in Germany. But I never really had a proper home of my own I could live pretty much out of a guitar case and a couple of plastic bags. For about six years, this is what I did until I was almost 24 years old, And then this place came up...
It was a real stroke of luck. A work colleague's mother was renting out the bottom half of a nice house in Ireton Road, just off the Maldon Road in Colchester. My girlfriend and I went round and looked at the place in early January of 1977. There was still snow on the ground. It was a 1920s suburban house, with high ceilings, pebble dash exterior and little touches such as coloured Art Nouveau-style fanlights in the windows. It even had a Terry and June doorbell that went "Bing bong" Best of all, it had a garden and french windows leading out onto it. There was a nice big kitchen,a sunny living room and a long corridor to the bedroom, which had once been a front room, we supposed-- and where I hung my most colourful stage clothes on the picture rails. It smelled homely and nice. It didn't have that whiff of cats and old linoleum about it. It smelled like a home. We could just about afford the rent on it, between us. I was a Kitchen porter / rock singer. She was a cook /waitress and artist. So we moved into this place. There was a little repair garage on the corner of the street at the bottom of our garden. The neighbours were all middle-classs, middle-aged people and were rather welcoming and kindly. After a lifetime of dossing, house-sitting and travelling, for me, the place was perfect.
I lived there from January 1977 until mid May of 1979. When I left it, which was not through any fault of my own, it was a genuine wrench. The landlady, who was another army wife, rather like my own mum, an incredibly nice woman called Mrs Buckingham, told us one day, that she was selling the place. In my time there, I taught myself to brew beer, began for the fist time in ten years to tinker with poetry again and also started to teach myself how to play a piano. That my relationship with my girlfriend, was intermittently tumultuous, over the almost four years in which we were together, was fairly typical and to be expected. We were, after all, two people in our early twenties, with hardly any money and a fondness for all the things that you might expect young egotistical, artistic kids of that age tohave.
Of the two of us I was probably the one who took most readily to the general domesticity of it all. Hence, the beer brewing, the gardening and all the other stuff that I'd never been able to do, throughout my previously itinerant life. I was happy with most of it. She, I think, thought there might be something rather more exciting to life. Occasionally, and I never blame her for it, she went out and found it. I, after all, was going out three nights a week playing gigs.I knew what I wanted. She, like many people who'd just finished university did not then know what it was that she wanted --except that she liked to travel a lot.. She also liked to party, a thing which I sometimes didn't. Perfection, for me, was a rare weekend off in the autumn, fiddling around in the kitchen with my brewing gear, or having a bit of a bonfire in the garden. I certainly didn't always want to be dragged off to a party, or to the nearby University to see a rock band. There was already quite enough excitement and chaos in my life at that time. I think another thing which I didn't realise at the time, was that one of us could hear the inexorable ticking of a body clock, which was growing slightly louder with each passing season. It wasn't me, however. For me to have gone in for parenthood at this stage, would have meant the end of everything. The end of rock bands, the end of freedom, perhaps the end of this, the first home I'd ever had. Anyway, where would money come from? I was qualified for nothing but labouring jobs or rock stardom. I wasn't like her and all her friends. They would, at the turn of the 80s, whip out their B.A. degrees and become teachers, which many of them did.. It was what many of their parents had done. They were middle class. Whereas I was the boy from nowhere. I was going nowhere. I couldn't follow them where they were going. Not unless I had a hit record or something. It would have been downright irresponsible becoming a parent at this stage. .
These differences between us and the arguments ensuing from them, were probably much more common among couples of our time and our age than I realised at the time. But when the split-ups and inevitable rows came, it didn't stop me taking them personally. I was a rock'n'roller and it didn't matter how many knock-backs came, I was staying on that bucking bronco. Naturally, towards the end of my time at that house, a man appeared. A mature, sensible, patient and all-providing man. And off she went with him. I could hardly complain. I was never there. And when I was, I just wanted to stay in and play house. And eventually, they had children. Over thirty years on, they're still together. But dumb young Peter Pan here, still had several more adventures to get through, so he did nothing and just watched bewildered as he saw Wendy going off on the grown-up's arm.
The house, though, was great. I learned something there. I learned that, if you took all the music and all the other arts'n'ents stuff away from me, that I could probably just be happy caretaking a house, brewing a bit of beer, reading the odd book, fiddling around with a lawnmower, pruning apple trees and figuring out how many units of gas or electricity we were using at any one point in time. Because, ladies and gentlemen, I may be a card-carrying bohemian on the surface, but underneath it all, there's a fair bit of me that will forever be Hyacinth Bucket's long-suffering husband. A bit of peace and quiet and something trivial to do is all that I really required. Just no kids yet, that was all.
Once, one September night, I sat in the doorway of the french windows, looking out at the misty garden. There was a faint smell of woodsmoke on damp air. The leaves on the trees were just beginning to turn . Because I'd been making some kind of cider that day, the whole house smelled of apples. I poured myself a beer, lit a roll-up and played Brian Eno's Before and After Science. It was simple stuff. It was a free weekend. There were no gigs.. And there was no kitchen portering for about three days. There wasn't much money, but at least the rent was paid. The next day, maybe I would bottle another batch of beer. These were the days that I remember. I sort of liked living there.