This next chapter sees Chris take him into the world of accountancy and gives him the first taste of the music business. He also discovered a man who would become the inspiration for one of Chris’s best songs “Hey Jack”. A video with the song can be accessed here on the site.
Glasgow was stale beer after my adventures, though I felt very grown up as I regaled friends with my travelling tales. It’s amazing how mature you can feel at sixteen, but then, compared to the child you so recently were, you are, so it’s all relative! In the context of the maturing process, I knew that going through the ordeals I’d endured would stand me in good stead, but though I obviously had a talent for survival, the ghost of that walk in the dark outside Orange still haunted me. That, and the fact that I’d run for home so easily, was something that I would have to come to terms with, one way or another. But, in the meantime, it was back to what would hopefully be my final three terms of schooling.
I only had one real drama in that Fifth Year and it was caused by religion. The Jesuits, in their wisdom, had encouraged us to question the tenets of Catholicism, believing it better to come to Faith through a minefield of doubt rather than accept it blindly. In pursuit of this, they held after hours debates resolving questions such as, do animals have souls, and happily for us, the Priest who fielded our nasty stingers was one of the world’s foremost theologians. Sparked by these discussions, I spent much of my truancy in Glasgow’s largest reference library reading about Christian mystics like Kierkegaard and Swedenborg and as my religious researches gradually broadened, I came to the view that if I had any sort of belief at all, I was loosely what you might call a Pantheist.
From this you will gather that I had become a bit of a wise guy, so to those classmates who were willing to argue the Biblical toss with me, I would say, only partly tongue in cheek, that I believed in Fairies at the bottom of my garden, adding that there was as much proof for them as there was for virgin birth, original sin or the panoply of sacraments dreamed up by the Medieval Church. Now, as it happened, the then Pope, Pius X11, had lately invoked the rarely used power of infallibility to declare that Mary the Mother of God had been assumed into heaven, body and soul, which led me, foolishly, to ask the RI teacher whether they had toilets in the Hereafter. As it turned out, this was a quip too far, for while the Jesuits were English intellectuals, I was now in the realm of Irish Catholicism, where such remarks were considered heresy. In no time at all, I found myself in the Headmaster’s Study with the Parish Priest of St Augustine’s sitting across the desk from me. He was a big man in his Fifties and he sized me up, much as a seasoned rat catcher might, eyes boring gimlet style into mine.
‘So… you’re an atheist, are you?’
His tone dripped with condescension, though his accent was one that the world would soon come to associate with the Reverend Ian Paisley.
‘Definitely not,’ I replied, ‘If anything, I’d say I’m a Pantheist, though not in the narrow Spinozan sense of the word…’
He gurgled, jaw dropping, then slowly he began to rise from his chair.
‘Enough!’ he boomed. ‘Get out of here…’
I scrambled to my feet, turning towards the door.
‘And you better take that bag of yours, cause your Pantheist God won’t pick it up for you!’
By now my main problem was that I had virtually run out of Catholic schools, so I bit the bullet and phoned my father. By this time, he was working for a company called Babcock and Wilcox, coincidentally, in Dalmuir, and on the long bus journey, I rehearsed what I was going to say. Knowing that he was not a man of Faith, I was hoping that he might have some sympathy with my position, but in the event, he shook his head sadly and asked why I had this compulsion to inflict my views on other people.
‘Your beliefs are your own business and you should keep them that way!’
This was the kind of pragmatic advice from which the world in general would greatly benefit, but crucially he accompanied it with some practical assistance, by arranging for me to visit another Jesuit theologian at St Aloysius, a very elderly and esteemed priest called Fr Gitts. Once in his rarefied presence, he asked me to elaborate on my doubts, and lying through my Pantheistic teeth, I told him that I had difficulty believing that the bread and wine held up by the priest at Communion actually did turn into flesh and wine when the Angelus bell rang. Gripping my arm, the old ecclesiast bent forward and breathed the holy word:
‘Transubstantiation!! My boy, that is one of the deepest mysteries in the whole of Christianity. Great scholars have spent a lifetime trying to come to terms with it. Now I want you to return to your school and tell your teachers that you’re suffering from adolescent effervescence! Do you hear me? No more than adolescent effervescence!!’
Armed with this abracadrabran phrase, I returned to St Augustine’s and for the next two terms, faithfully followed my father’s excellent advice.
However, around this time I found something in the way of spirituality that allowed me to proselytise without risking my continued presence at the school. It happened that one day I was in my local library, sauntering down the fiction section, when I suddenly saw a title on the spine of a book which pulled me up short. It was the last word of ‘The Dharma Bums’ that did it, for back then, such words did not normally appear on display in any decent setting. Naturally I slipped it from the shelf and soon found that what lay inside was to provide a context for some of the feelings that had been growing inside me since my epic hitching trip. The writer, Jack Kerouac, of whom I knew nothing, wrote first person prose like a poet and described a world where he and his fellow bohemians seemed to live for the moment in one long continual existential rush. For someone who had just spent time on the road, where life becomes reduced to certain basics and indeed, leads to a degree of altered consciousness, this was heady stuff. It even helped me come to terms with my terror in Orange, for something in it spoke of being in thrall to forces much deeper and stronger than simple will power. Later I discovered that this novel described Kerouac’s journey away from the madness caused by the success of his earlier opus, ‘On The Road’, but in a strange way, reading it first helped prepare me for the impact of that full on riffing masterpiece.
Once I had devoured the spirit of Dean Moriarty, I became a voice in the wilderness, crying out Kerouac’s name, and one of the first fellow spirits I found was Dempse, real name Brian Dempsey, who invited me to a ‘literary club’ held once a month after school hours by our English teacher, Doctor Durkin. His doctorate was in theology, and it transpired that he was a good friend of the Bishop of San Francisco, who hearing of my passion for Kerouac, began to send him copies of xeroxed magazines with work by Ferlinghetti, Corso, Ginsberg, and Borroughs. Obviously it was a big thrill to receive these primitive mimeographed sheets, because it made the fabled Beat Scene much more real for me, but years later when I read Jim Morrison’s biog, ‘No-one Here Gets Out Alive’, I found myself screaming with frustration when I discovered that as a teenager, he had just headed down to the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco to meet these guys in person.
At the end of the year, I got two ‘Highers’ but for Art, I was given a complimentary ‘O level’ which meant that I had just failed to pass. This was maybe not a surprise as I’d only started the course at the end of Fourth Year when I turned up for the Art Exam rather than keep up the pretence that I was studying Science. Either way, it wasn’t enough to get me into the Glasgow School of Art, which meant I would have to do yet another year of school, so back I went. But a couple of months in, I decided I’d had enough. The fact was, I wanted to buy an electric guitar and the only way to do that was to get a job. With the qualifications I’d gained, I managed to procure one that satisfied my parents, who had made up their mind back in St Vincent Street that I would join a profession. And so it was that I went to work as an Apprentice Chartered Accountant at the fabulous sum of three pounds two shillings & six pence a week.
This pittance allowed me to buy a Burns guitar on credit, so I could at last launch my musical career, but for reasons I will outline, it wasn’t the one I’d coveted so long. My plan was to start a band with my longtime buddy, Harry, who as a sturdy six footer, was just the right physical size to play bass, but his musical skills being even less than mine, I volunteered for this role and let him play rhythm. Given that I was the singer, this was to be a bad choice, though it took me some time to find it out. The other two guys in our band, ‘The Witnesses’ were a local drummer, ‘Suds’ Sutherland, and a guitar playing schoolmate of Harry’s called Gordon Ramsay. Our repertoire was Eddie Cochrane and Buddy Holly, with some Chuck Berry and Everly Brothers numbers thrown in. In time, I began to write songs with Suds, who was the only born musician in the band. His father had also been a drummer and Suds could turn his hand to any instrument, be it piano, sax or bagpipes. As it happened, he also saved my life, which occurred in the following manner.
We rehearsed regularly in my bedroom, with Harry sharing Gordon’s Selmer amp and me putting my Burns bass and mic through a little Grundig tape recorder. On the evening in question, I grasped the mic’ stand as usual, but for some reason on this particular night, the recorder wasn’t earthed, so I created a loop through which the current passed, electrocuting myself. As a result, the muscles on my fingers tightened in a clasp of death round the stand and I literally got the shakes, which the two guitarists found very amusing, thinking that I was mimicking Elvis with my sudden violent gyrations. Suds, on the other hand, was totally clued in. He saw what was actually happening and, jumping up, he kicked the stand away, releasing me from what felt like a giant mechanical boa constrictor pumping liquid concrete through my veins. After I had stopped shaking, we found that one of the strings on my bass had burnt right through, but apart from the psychological trauma, I was unharmed. That said, it was a severe test of my love for the electric guitar.
My days were now spent time travelling in the Dickensian world of accountancy, with five of us sat round a big table in a small airless room, ticking entries in an endless succession of ledgers. Two of us were fully blown adults, one a female in her late thirties who smoked incessantly and had presumably hit her glass ceiling, while the male was nearly qualified, but not quite, as the exams were seemingly fiendishly difficult. He was balding rapidly, which made him look older than his years, and the general impression he gave was that he had been here forever, and might well remain so. The other two were teenagers like myself, though one was a part time footballer playing in the Celtic reserves with guys who would soon become the Lisbon Lions. When offered the chance to go full time, he decided to opt for the security of accountancy, a decision which I would liken to a condemned man refusing a pardon.
One of the few upsides of my new career was the fact that our office was less than a hundred yards away from Glasgow’s oldest ‘Boho’ pub. The State Bar in Holland Street had been the watering hole for generations of art students and it increasingly became my centre of gravity in those years. This led to a sharp dichotomy between the more innocent suburban scene that I shared with my buddies in The Witnesses and the alluring world of Bohemia, now peopled exclusively by long haired, jazz loving Beatniks. It’s hard to explain how alien these individuals looked in the uniform landscape of the times, when fringes and beards were all but unknown. People would turn as they walked down the street, visibly shocked by such strange apparitions, all of which made me determined to become one.
On the music front, the Sixties were now two years old, but as in the Phoney War of ‘39, my generation had seen no action. A succession of Bobbies ruled the airwaves, Rydell, Vinton, Darin et al, and on the rare tv shows that featured ‘Pop’, it was usually Cliff Richard or his Shadows that came two stepping across our screens. In this virtual desert, it seemed that Rock’n’roll had died, like Buddy Holly, and been forgotten, like Jimmy Dean. The tube in our tv sets was like the ones they used to dispense toothpaste, with a tiny orifice regulating the flow of what passed for culture. But even as my pals and I were forming the Witnesses, four young men were leaving Liverpool for Hamburg and like a ticking bomb, their sojourn in that city would eventually lead to a cultural explosion the like of which we’d never seen.
It started quietly, though, for their first single ‘Love Me Do’ caused few ripples, and it wasn’t till they appeared on the Saturday night pop show Thank Your Lucky Stars, that it all kicked off. That one performance of ‘Please Please Me’ changed everything. Until then, the Sixties were a blank canvas waiting to be filled and that night they burst onto it like a four headed Jackson Pollock. Clad in alien jackets with beatnik fringes and strange guitars, they had a frontman with the kind of presence normally only bottled in Molotov cocktails. Where ‘Love Me Do’ had been a polite appeal, this was an explicit sexual command and judging by the reaction of the females in the audience, milk fed for years on anodyne pop, they would soon be queuing up in their millions for the chance to acquiesce.
But The Beatles were about much more than pop. While the Bobbies projected slick glamour, they were disarmingly down to earth; and the honesty extended to their music. Their guitar sound had a metallic edge that gave the records an urgency, with no bland reverb to blur the focus. And they spoke differently, with a laconic Scouse accent that bled into their vocals. Speaking of which, the harmonies were different, as witness the single note running through the ‘Please Please Me’ verse, if you could call it a verse, for the construction of the songs was also unorthodox. Even their punny, counter intuitive name, was different. In fact everything about The Beatles was different, from Paul’s violin bass to John’s horseriding playing stance; from George’s little skip step to Ringo’s low slung drumkit.
And once they’d opened the flood gates, a whole tide of bands came bursting through, the Searchers from Merseyside, The Hollies from Manchester, The Animals from Newcastle, and Them from Belfast; meanwhile London begat the Stones and the Kinks, so it seemed that every second week there was a brand new outfit, with their own variation on the same theme. So, like a thousand other beat groups up and down the land, the Witnesses caught this wave and went surfing. Our repertoire, which had hitherto been Eddie Cochrane and Buddy Holly, expanded as the Beatles album hit the shops and when they got their own radio show, we taped it and learned more. Stylewise, we bought dark brown cord jackets and my bandmates started growing their hair. By this time, mine was already well over my collar, and according to my Mother, on the Monday after that famous broadcast of Thank Your Lucky Stars, a neighbour actually stopped her on the street to ask if I’d been on tv on Saturday night!
That year, we gigged regularly, though personally I found playing bass and singing a difficult combination. Born musicians have a built in co-ordination that I lacked and though I could sing and strum away on six string, playing complex patterns under the vocal line was a real chore. By now we had a part time roadie in the shape of a school buddy from St Al’s called Paddy McCarry. Paddy had an old Wolsely and like me, his hair was getting long. He had just dropped out of Uni, where he had been studying Pure Science, whatever that was, and like me, he was into Kerouac. He also had a particular liking for artists like Sonny Boy Williamson, and was working hard to master Blues Harp, aka the moothie.
One Sunday night he drove us to a gig at a Church Hall in a place called Whiteinch, where we had played regularly and towards the end of the show, I kept feeling something brushing my face. I should explain that I used to take my glasses off when playing, like John Lennon, though that would be the only similarity between us. So here I was, on this relatively high stage, wondering what could possibly be causing this sensation. Between numbers, I mentioned it to Harry, at which Suds came round from behind the kit and advised us that a chap on the dancefloor was taking small bits of chewing gum out of his mouth and flicking them up at me. After Suds had identified the culprit, Harry announced ‘House of the Rising Sun’, adding that if the joker at the front really wanted to show his appreciation, we would prefer that he threw coins.
As we launched into the number, the offender pulled the gum ostentatiously from his mouth, bit a piece off and flicked it up at me. This was enough for Harry. Throwing his guitar back over his head, he ran forward and launched himself from the stage. I watched in horror as his Cuban heels got the guy full on the face, but as they hit the floor, his buddies began to crowd in, so chucking my bass back over my head, I took a run and jumped. By now, Suds had sprung into action. Dashing to the side of the stage to put the house lights up, he managed to achieve the opposite and as I was in mid-air, the hall went totally black. I landed with a thud, felt a punch and started lashing out at my unknown assailant. Suddenly the lights came up and Paddy and I were wrestling each other to the floor. The fight was quickly stopped by a janitor, but later we had to run the gauntlet to get out; so not the nicest of gigs.
Around this time, I was exposed to an act that changed the whole way I thought about live performance. It happened one night in late ’63 in a club called The Cave in Midland Street which like The Cavern in Liverpool, was under railway arches, in this case holding up the main lines that ran into the City’s Central Station. Like the Cavern, it was also featuring a band just returned from Hamburg, though in this era of Beatles and Stones, it had a rather old fashioned name. But as I was soon to find out, that was the only remotely uncool thing about The Alex Harvey Big Soul Band. In fact, if a film director had called Central Casting and asked them for a gang of villains for a movie, to be set in the Marseilles docks, they couldn’t have done better than send these guys. As they walked onto the small stage that night, my immediate impression was that this bunch looked dangerous.
Just a few minutes into the set, it was apparent that they played the way they looked. Their repertoire was eclectic; Ray Charles, Cannonball Adderley, Booker T and the MG’s, The Isley Brothers, Mose Allison, but all of it was totally theirs. They took ownership of the material, and most of that was down to Alex. He was a shortish man, with a face that looked like it had been designed in a boxing gym, and he had a slight twist to his eyes that seemed to invite you to inhabit the space he was staring into as he sang, somewhere far away, yet near at hand where spells were being cast by those with ears to hear. But he wasn’t just the singer. He sported an old red Burns guitar and he played down stroke rhythm on it the way Johnny Strummer would have given his back teeth to, using it like a conductor’s baton to bind his band together with an elemental style that was as much percussive as it was musical.
The band featured tenor sax, bass, drums and keyboards, usually a cheap sounding Farfisa organ, and sometimes they had a big African dude on a set of congas, but though they were all good players, when Alex started to sing, there was only one man up on that stage. This was partly to do with his presence, which radiated a particular kind of menace, but it was also because Alex did something else with the material. He would abruptly bring a song down to a whisper then slowly build it up, only to take it back down, and each time the peak would be even higher, so that the music began to immerse you like the flow and eddy of a river, or the rise and fall of the ocean tide. And he seemed to do this in some telepathic way, his band responding to unseen cues as they gradually built wave after wave, climbing to a crescendo which would unleash this raw pulverising force of nature.
But while it was obvious that his dynamics were based on the rise and fall of sexual rhythm, in songs like Ray Charles’ ‘You Don’t Know Me’ or Hoagie Carmichael’s ‘Georgia on my Mind’, he could be the soul of sensitivity. In short, Alex Harvey was a Shaman and standing there watching him in that packed sweating club was the best lesson a young man could ever have asked for. It taught me that music was about being in the moment, and then being able to stretch that moment to its limits, so that all the excess intellectual baggage was exactly what the Romans called it: impedimenta; something to slow you down and take you out of the now, into the unsure future or the impermeable past. And so I watched and learned at the feet of a master.
One other gig from that time stands out in my memory, though for a very different reason. This was a dance we played in a School Hall in Clydebank in November of that year. I remember we had just started our second set, when a man came up, handed me a note and asked me to read it out. Usually this would have been a request, or maybe a dedication, but when I looked down at the slip of paper, it said: ‘President Kennedy’s been shot.’ I took a deep breath, showed it to the band, then read the brief message out over the PA, watching shock waves begin to distort the faces of the dancers. And that was the end of the evening. There was no more music, just a strange eerie silence as they left the hall, in twos and threes. So, when that old question occasionally gets asked, about where were you that particular day, I can say with certainty, I was up on stage with my boyhood buddies.