This may seem a strange photograph to accompany the latest chapter of Chris’s memoirs but, all will become clear as you read on and learn how Chris first met John Mannion and had a horrendous experience with drugs –
Waiting for the Sky to Fall
By early ’65, Pauline and I had at last got our wish and were now married and living in a one bedroom flat in a red brick tenement in a little street in Partick called Sandy Road. I’ll draw a veil over the ceremony for, to placate my mother, we had agreed to tie the knot in a Catholic Church, a decision I always regretted. On the day, my best man was Dempse and Pauline’s bridesmaid was her good friend Betsy, whose taxi failed to turn up so, after standing in the street for half an hour trying to get another, she accepted a lift from a passing Corporation refuse lorry, which dropped her off right at the church. Naturally this caused her a degree of embarrassment, but happily there was nothing symbolic in it, for fifty years later, Pauline and I are still together.
The flat in Sandy Road had a kitchen, a bedroom and a toilet on the half landing of the stairwell. We were technically buying the flat but with no mortgage, just a Factor’s payment book. However, it was ours, and we were as happy as the collective noun for Larry, which could well be Lawrences. For one of the few times in my life, I was unemployed, though as I mentioned in the Prologue, I was actually waiting for a grant from a body that administered a special recruitment scheme for teachers, a situation I would never have dreamt possible, given my deep loathing for the educational establishment and all it stood for. However, as they say, needs must, for with marriage came responsibilities.
It was during this period that I had my only flirtation with the world of hard drugs, as embodied by the aforementioned Alec Brown, whom I happened to bump into one day as I was leaving the Job Centre, or as Glaswegians call it, the Broo. This was Friday lunchtime, so Alec invited me to join him for a quick pint at a bar just across the road. Stupidly I agreed, but what started out as one, became several in a succession of bars that at least had the saving grace of taking me back towards our flat, where Pauline was anxiously awaiting my return. The problem was, when we eventually got to Sandy Road, we kept going till we reached the next bar, a decision which I blame on the reprobate Alec, who had a fund of excellent stories, mostly drug related, though some involved his short stretches in prison, where he seemingly worked in the kitchen. There, he declared, the only drug that could be readily obtained was the old standby known as Nems, at which he pulled a handful of colourful capsules from his pocket and bade me take a couple.
I had never succumbed to peer pressure, but after five pints of lager on an empty stomach, I wasn’t thinking too straight, so I downed them with the last of the beer then invited Alec back for lunch. As you can imagine, Pauline was not too happy when I turned up at the door with this notorious druggie, and she was even less pleased when I began to fall asleep over the soup she’d dished up. Excusing myself, I staggered into the bedroom, stripped off, climbed under the covers, and that’s the last I remember. Meanwhile, Alec was finishing off a second bowl of broth when from out in the close, there came this sudden banging and wailing. Swiftly exiting the kitchen, they found that the front door to the flat was wide open and there, down on the half landing was yours truly, stark naked, banging on the locked door of our outside toilet and demanding to be let in.
Happily, Pauline managed to get the door opened before I emitted a stream of bright yellow vomit, from which you’ll no doubt deduce what colour the capsules were. It was only much later in life that I discovered that the innocent sounding Nems were actually Nembutal, a heavy barbiturate responsible for many overdose deaths, usually of poor unfortunates who fell asleep on their back and choked on their own sick. So, for me, this was a salutary lesson which stood me in good stead in years to come. As for Alec, our paths rarely crossed after this, but one day many years later, I read a story about a chap who had been arrested for the murder of his uncle in the most unusual circumstances, the victim having been found with a plastic bin bag tied tightly over his head and upper torso. According to the accused, this was simply a bizarre Houdini game, gone badly wrong, though sadly the court took the opposite view and jailed him for manslaughter, but knowing Alec’s predeliction for living life way out on the edge, I prefer to believe that his nephew was telling the truth.
The grant that would re-introduce me to a profession had still not arrived and the need for a job was now more urgent because Pauline was pregnant, so next time I visited the Broo, I asked if they had anything temporary. The answer was yes, if I didn’t mind knocking doors, which is how I then found myself in the basement of a shop in Finnieston learning the art of selling vacuum cleaners. The model in question was the Electrolux Z65, pink as I remember, with little wheels at the base so that the housewife could pull it around the carpet. I was on a basic salary only slightly better than the Dole, but with the prospect of commission if I sold. In fact, it seemed like the sky was the limit, for we had a team leader who would supervise us, taking us out each day in a minibus to small unassuming towns where business was seemingly at its briskest.
It all sounded wonderful until I finished the three day course and came face to face with the actuality of walking around housing estates carrying a cardboard box containing the Z65. The epithet ‘harsh’ is often attributed to reality, and here it was especially apposite, for there are few things in life more discouraging than having a door slammed in your face, one of them being a succession of doors. By the end of the week I was ready to quit, but picking up my wages, I bumped into a member of another team in the office, who asked me how I was getting on, and laughed when I told him I hadn’t as much as sold one bloody vac.
‘Transfer to our team,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you the ropes.’
My benefactor was called John Mannion, a chap with a goatee beard and a slightly old fashioned slicked back hairstyle. I soon discovered that he was a man of the world, having been in both the Merchant Navy and the Army, from which he’d been invalided out when he lost a kidney. He sported a lumberjack jacket and read the Daily Worker, presumably seeing no paradox in flaunting his Marxist credentials whilst benefiting from the dubious spoils of capitalism. Under his tutelage, I managed to get a few sales, which made the job a bit more secure, then one day he turned up with a battered old acoustic which he used to entertain us on our journey to deepest Lanarkshire. His voice was a high tenor, strong and energetic, and though his guitar playing was pretty basic, he sold the tunes well, yodelling his way through a selection of Jimmy Rodgers and Cisco Houston songs, none of which I’d ever heard. When I asked for a shot of the ‘box’, he obliged, so I gave him a rendition of Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’, thereby cementing this meeting of minds.
Soon afterwards, I managed to borrow a six string and the next Friday night, our team leader dropped us off at a pub in Cambuslang, where we proceeded to get drunk for nothing on the strength of our combined repertoire. Again, the two voices really blended, and I found I had a natural talent for harmonising. It was like second nature, even on high yodelling parts that feature in Jimmy Rodgers’ songs, like ‘Two Timin Mama’ and ‘Muleskinner Blues’. Unfortunately, Pauline wasn’t too happy when these late Friday nights became a regular occurrence, which led me to invite John back to Sandy Road. The first time we sang as a trio, we knew it was special. I was a natural baritone, John a tenor and Pauline was basically a contralto. The mix was perfect, so after some peremptory practices, we hit a local pub, with Pauline rattling away on a skinned tambourine, which she waved in the face of unsuspecting punters after we’d sung a few numbers. And bingo! They stumped up. Just a few shillings, but enough to pay for a curry, which was a big thing back in the days when the first Asian restaurants were just beginning to appear in Glasgow’s West End.
So the trio quickly became our social life, the entertainment paying for itself. Our strategy was to find a main road with bars on every corner, of which Glasgow had plenty, then John would go in and give the bar staff his sales pitch, saying we were poor students. On being invited in, which we invariably were, we’d batter out a few songs, take a collection then move on to the next hostelry. We were basically indoor buskers, making a quid or so at each pub and getting a few drinks bought for us for good measure. And there was nothing precious about our approach. If they wanted Hank Williams, we’d oblige, ditto the Beatles, Everly Bros, Presley etc, etc. Not that these were ‘covers’, for with our limited instrumental lineup, there was little thought of copying arrangements. We simply worked out the chords and applied harmonies to the melody, putting our own stamp on the material.
Obviously, we could see the potential in what we were doing, but with a baby on the way, any thought of a full time musical career was temporarily out of the question, so in the meantime it would have to be a case of having fun while the sun shone. But when you first hold a new life in your hands, priorities tend to change and frivolous things like partying get drastically curtailed, so after our son Chris was born, the impetus to perform simply petered out. In the event, John had had enough of door to door sales and decided to head down to Kent where his two brothers lived. By this time, we were firm friends, united as much by humour as music, but it looked like the embryonic trio was going to be just another short story, rather than the first chapter of something bigger.
Around then, my grant arrived, so it was time to get serious, but as always with my academic career, things were not straightforward. The trouble with the training scheme was that first I had to upgrade two of my ‘O’ levels, but as the adjudicators wouldn’t accept Art, these would have to be French and Maths. French was fine, for I’d enjoyed learning the language during my epic road trip, but Maths was the rock on which this latest vocational ship would eventually perish. Truth was, I couldn’t tell a logarithm from an algorithm and when confronted by these concepts, my brain simply froze, like a rabbit caught in headlights. Add to this the fact that Jordanhill Teacher Training College was full of a breed of mature student who were as close to me in outlook as Spock was to Bones, and you’ll see why I was soon asking myself why I had ever considered sleeping with the enemy. Within weeks, that old recurring Orange Syndrome kicked in and I began to go AWOL.
By now I was twenty one, a father, husband and putative home owner, so it behoved me to ask myself why I couldn’t just do like everyone else and simply buckle down. It wasn’t that I was scared of work, for during those missed classes, I actually spent my days in the Mitchell, devouring books on philosophy and religion. By now I knew my Wittgenstein from my Huxley, my Nietzsche from my Hegel and I had left the main highways of religious study to explore the byways of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Steiner and Blavatsky. In fact, it seemed to me that if I could get to University and study Philosophy, I would be totally in my element, for to me the questions that these great thinkers raised were like lettuce to a hungry tortoise, pure unadulterated sustenance of the mind.
Then one day, reading about the philosophy of language, I came across the concept of the ‘liar paradox’, where a liar who says: ‘Everything I say is false,’ is telling the truth, which makes the statement a lie. Head reeling from these intellectual contortions, I then came upon the work of Alfred Tarski, who in trying to resolve this paradox, came to the conclusion that you could not define the truth in any given language, using that same language, and used as an example “.. ‘Snow is white’ [in English] is true, if and only if, [in English] snow is white.” It was a seminal moment for, lost as I was in these semantic minefields, I was forced to ask myself what relevance such obscure witherings actually had in real life, and deciding that the answer was none, I mentally pissed all over the snow and returned the book.
The obvious antidote to all this intellectualising was music, so I put the borrowed six string to good use by starting to write songs. Lyrics had always come easily to me, as back in school I’d fancied myself as a bit of a poet, after reading guys like Rimbaud and Verlaine. But that said, a poem is not a lyric. A poem has to stand by itself, while a lyric is one half of a relationship. Its partner is melody, and they must work together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. When it came to finding this elusive partner, I found that phrases contained their own meter which usually suggested a tune, and I was adept enough on the guitar to come up with a riff or chord sequence to accompany it. For me, the hardest part was finding an engaging subject without resorting to trite clichés about the moon being blue because it rhymes with true. One song I wrote at the time which I felt had this quality was ‘Waiting for the Sky to Fall’, which owed its inspiration to an incident in my teens.
Early one morning in our house in Yoker, I was woken by an air raid siren rising and falling in the distance. This was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we discovered that our destiny was now in the hands of advanced missile guidance systems with response times measured in pico seconds. My first thought was “this is it” and in a few moments a searing blinding light would arrive and wipe me and all I knew away. So, as it wailed, I lay there, wondering how long I had. There was no sense rushing round the house waking my parents and siblings, for in minutes we would all be dead. This was guaranteed because the US had its Nuclear submarines at Faslane, just twenty miles away. No-one could survive within that range. Better to leave them in the ignorant bliss of sleep. But then, quite suddenly the siren faded and died and outside the window, the clouds went floating by in a bright blue sky, and it came to me in that instant that given this sudden reprieve, I should be living life for the moment, as we were all of us on borrowed time.
But three years later I was in a totally different position, with a wife and child and, far from living for the moment, parenthood and marriage meant reining in all those hedonistic tendencies. Gone were the days of all night parties and hanging out with the boho crowd in Reprobatia. By now, Paddy and Dempse were in London and on the rare occasions I visited The State Bar, the old crowd was beginning to thin. One guy who was there, however, was a young muso by the name of Jim Mullen, who owned a Ferrograph tape recorder, on which he offered to record these new songs of mine. Jim was a jazzer who worked as a sub editor with the Evening Times, but he’d once taken a gig as a bass player on a Cunard liner which sailed to New York, in order to see his hero, Roland Kirk. When he finally tracked the legendary saxophonist down, he was playing in some obscure backstreet dive to a tiny audience, which says a lot about jazz prophets in their own land.
Jim was a bundle of energy, and as a guitar player, light years ahead of me. When he arrived with the Ferrograph, I asked him to do some lead parts, but though he was happy to add vocal harmonies, he declined my request. The two best songs from these sessions were the aforementioned ‘Waiting for the Sky to Fall’ and ‘Someone Else’s City’, in which the protagonist finds himself in some girl’s room, in a strange city, awaiting her return. Outside it’s getting dark, reflected headlights swimming across the ceiling, but it’s really hot, with ‘the river sweating iron filings.’ This was not something that had ever happened to me, but any time I play the song, it brings back visions of Sandy Road on one of those rare summer nights when it got too hot for comfort. When this happened, our cold Northern city seemed to change its nature, the heat transforming it into an alien terrain with tramcars all called Desire; so maybe the city in the song is just Glasgow in heat, if you’ll forgive the pun.
Mullen also introduced me to The Poets, who’d had a big hit with ‘Now We’re Thru’. They were Glasgow’s only addition to the Sixties beat boom, having been discovered by the Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who decided, bizarrely, to honeymoon in Glasgow. Mixing business with pleasure, he asked the taxi driver if there were any bands worth seeing, so the cabby drove him straight to a club called Sgt Peppers where the boys were playing and the rest is pop history. By now the lead singer, George Gallagher, had left and their new man, Andi Mulvey, was keen on doing ‘Someone Else’s City’, but at their next London session, one of their number stuck chewing gum in the producer’s flute and understandably, their recording career took a sudden nose dive.
The producer in question was a man called Eric Woolfson who figured vaguely later in our career. A gentle giant of a man, whose family owned a high profile furniture store in Glasgow, he started out working for Oldham’s Immediate label as a session pianist, but he was one of these guys who can play any instrument he cares to pick up. By this time he had written B sides for Marianne Faithful and Chris Farlowe, but the Poets were no respecters of reputation. With a Glaswegian style of humour based largely on cutting people down to size, they were less than impressed with his upper class accent and when he opted for a flute solo rather than their normal trademark guitar, they decided to deliver the coup de grace. Leaving aside the sanitary issues, and the problems of removing gum embedded in the mouthpiece, there was the basic issue of unwise career moves, for Woolfson went on to become one half of the Alan Parsons Project, while the Poets were soon back in Sgt Peppers.
Around this time, I began to discover the perils of home ownership in a tenement, for out of the blue, we began to get bills for ‘communal repairs’ which I couldn’t possibly pay. These were the days before overdrafts and credit being tight, if you wanted something, you saved up till you had enough to buy it. But that didn’t work with bills, as creditors weren’t prepared to wait, so we were now faced with a real dilemma. At the same time, the teaching grant was about to run out, and I had a reel of songs to sell, presumably in Tin Pan Alley, wherever that was; so after some soul searching we decided to make a virtue of a necessity and move to London. I would go down first, find a job and a flat, then Pauline would join me. When I told Mullen of my plans, he offered to do a piece in the pop column of the Evening Times, and after a mutual friend had taken some moody photos of me, the story duly appeared under the headline:
‘Chris Heads South with Songs.’
As send offs go, it was as good as I could expect, so bidding a tearful farewell to my young wife and child, I set off with my precious 5” reel to seek fame and fortune.