15 July 2018
Today would have been Chris’s 74th birthday. We are remembering him by posting chapter 7 of Heartfeeder which features some harrowing moments and the band’s first residency. If you enjoy reading his memoirs, why not get a copy of “The Grail Guitar”. Excellent value, a great read and the last few signed copies are still available.
All the earlier chapters of the book are here on the site together with lots of pics and a store where you can purchase the albums we have left in stock.
The Beatnik in Box Three
There’s an old chestnut which says that the definition of ambition in Glasgow is getting out and, considering my previous form, the mystery was why it had taken me so long. But, having at last taken the dive, here I was a couple of months later, back home. So, was this yet another recurrence of the funk that had sent me running towards the streetlights of Orange or was it a sensible tactical retreat? After all, within weeks of returning, I had been accepted for the civil service and had found accommodation within walking distance of my place of work. Also, on the music front, John was due back up soon, so everything was positive, apart from Dempse.
Looking back, I can see now that it was just a case of bad timing, for keen as he was to get his hands on his first real junkie, Paddy Mullen was not quite ready to open his Rehab, so in a matter of days, the heroin had run out, and Dempse was lying in Dennis’ flat squealing like a banshee from withdrawal pains. Never having dealt with such an emergency, I called an ambulance which rushed him to a hospital in Duke Street, and thence to Woodilee Mental Asylum, a Gothic Victorian pile that could happily have served as a backdrop for a Hammer vampire movie. At this point, in the mid-sixties, psychiatric care for addicts was in its infancy, but it turned out that here, the go to treatment was electro convulsive shock therapy, or ECT, so when I next got a glimpse of Dempse later that week, through the glass walls of a visitors room just off the ward, I was forced to ask myself whether we wouldn’t have been better just to leave the poor guy shuffling around Piccadilly.
After a male nurse had taken away a box of Maltesers that I’d brought, presumably to check if I’d injected them with heroin, I was shown into the fishbowl, where Dempse was sitting at a table with a white coated individual who turned out to be a doctor, albeit one with the worst impediment of speech I’d ever encountered. Introductions made, he launched into what I took to be his prognosis, though launch is maybe not the word for a process which involved fighting grimly to squeeze the most basic of sounds from the high security prison of his gullet. Endless minutes went by before I got the gist of his message, which appeared to be that further regular doses of ECT were needed in order to complete the treatment. Seeing the look of betrayal in my friend’s eyes, I sought to intervene, but the stammering medic would have none of it, deciding instead to go all in.
‘B.. B.. B.. Brian..’ he gurgled, throat gobbling with each consonant, ‘c… c ..can’t y.. y..ou s..s..s..see…. I’m your o..o.. only hope!!
At this, Dempse closed his eyes and pushing back his chair, flung his head forward, whacking it off the edge of the table. Transfixed by this unexpected turn of events, I watched in horror as he repeated the exercise again and again, blood running from a ridge in his forehead as he began to syncopate each thud with the doctor’s tormented delivery, creating some devilish form of techno rap, decades before the genre existed. When the Malteser nurse eventually rushed in, Dempse was semi conscious, an outcome he had obviously intended, though I would have to take issue with his choice of MO. There again, in his defence, may I say that anyone who entered this establishment in sound mind would not long have remained so, had he fallen into the clutches of this mug.
Outside, still shaking, I found the nearest callbox and phoned Dennis.
‘Look, tell this guy Paddy Mullen that if he doesn’t get Dempse out of here soon, he’ll be leaving in a wooden box.’
Happily, this is what Dennis did, at which Mullen immediately drove to Woodilee in his red Mini Minor and basically kidnapped a comatose pyjamad Dempse. There followed a couple of weeks of valiant attempts to wean the addict off, using a derivative, Methadone, but this drug was obviously not to Dempse’s liking and security at the Southern General Hospital being much more lax than in Woodilee, at the first opportunity, he absconded.
Our new lodgings were one half of a mature semi, owned by a middle aged bachelor called Frank, and they overlooked a boating pond, behind which loomed another psychiatric establishment called Gartnavel, which will feature in the following pages. My position in the Civil Service was as a Clerical Officer in the recently formed Ministry of Social Security and my place of work, a nissen hut in the back street of a working class district called Maryhill. Our job was to help those individuals who for some reason did not qualify for dole money, so for once it seemed like I was on the side of the angels, the operative word however being ‘seemed’, for it soon became apparent that the elite London executives of Immediate had no monopoly on making people wait.
Some of my co-workers were perfectly nice people, amongst them a young man of my own age called Colin Speed who was to make a singular contribution to what follows; but sadly, there was a strain of fascism in middle management which propagated the view that the claimants, as our customers were termed, were an undeserving underclass and should be treated accordingly. Why this was the case, I know not, but it occurred to me that the longer you’d been in this kind of job, the more jaundiced you might become. For me, however, the situation was simple. I had recently been on the other side of a counter much like this and if the Earls Court clerk had not taken the trouble to be both polite and helpful, I would not now be on this side, so it was only fair that I should treat the claimants likewise.
Musicwise, when John eventually arrived, the Trio basically took up where it had left off, initially pub busking, then landing a bi weekly residency in a well known Maryhill bar called The HLI, an acronym for The Highland Light Infantry. As you can see, this was very much a different age, when public houses were called after Army Regiments, though in this case there was a good reason, for the HLI had been based at Maryhill Barracks just up the road until relatively recently. Incidentally, this was where they brought the Deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess, on the night he parachuted into a field near Glasgow in May 1941, but despite this and other claims to fame, the HLI were amalgamated with another prominent Scottish regiment in the late Fifties, leaving only its namesake pub as evidence of their historical long standing Maryhill connection.
Anyway, by the time we started playing there, all sign of militaria had long gone, which was just as well, given the changing times, but there were two other problems which needed addressing, the first being the proximity of the venue to my place of employment. Given the sensitive financial nature of the job, fraternising with the claimants was verboten, presumably on the basis that they might bribe or blackmail us into giving them favourable treatment. As it happens, Civil Servants of my paygrade had no discretionary power over who got what, but that still left the question of public perception, understandably as it turned out, for I soon discovered that my relative lack of sadism had already engendered an urban myth among the claimants that if they wanted to get preferred treatment, they should endeavour to see the ‘beatnik in box three.’ So, there was a potential issue here but, for me, the musical career came first, so I decided to ignore this bridge until I reached it.
The other problem was slightly more pressing, for ‘though we’d landed a paying gig, we still had no name; which is where my workmate, Colin Speed, came in. Colin was a bit of a comedian, whose default party trick involved pulling lumps of his hair out by the roots, a bizarre habit, but one for which the MOSS regularly provided an excuse. On leaving Dundee Art School, he had joined DC Thomson, publishers of those legendary institutions, the Beano and the Dandy, and seemingly his job had entailed thinking up gags for the top line above the cartoons. When I requested an example of his work, he asked what was tartan and squelched underfoot; answer, a Scotch tomato. Such ingenuity was totally wasted in the nissen hut, but as he was due to go into hospital soon for a hernia operation, I suggested he use this period of enforced idleness to think up a name for our Trio. A week later, he was back with a fixed hernia and a list of suggestions, the standout amongst them being ‘The String Driven Things’, which I gratefully accepted, before proceeding to singularise and deCream it.
Meanwhile, all was not well in suburbia, for out of the blue, our landlord Frank began to display the kind of symptoms which would shortly reveal his rather unusual past. The first inkling came in the dead of night when our nuclear family of three was, as you would expect, fast asleep. Suddenly there was an almighty banging on the bedroom door, followed by a booming voice which yelled:
Waking from a dream into what presented itself as a nightmare was disorientating, to say the least, but at Pauline’s behest I jumped out of bed and opened the door, to find Frank in striped pyjamas waving towards the rear half landing window, seemingly indicating how the man in question had gone over the side. Taking this for some sort of sleepwalking episode, I tried clapping my hands to wake him, but it became clear from the look of alarm this caused that Frank was in fact, no unwitting somnabulee. Rather, he was wide awake and starry eyed, his seafaring delusions being due to the fact that he had stopped self medicating, a state of affairs which effectively guarantees a relapse in anyone unfortunate enough to have been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.
Not that we had ever dreamt for a moment that Frank had a psychiatric problem. If he had seemed a bit slow and deliberate, this just fitted with his shy, self-conscious persona and we only discovered the truth when a lady friend of his arrived next morning and having heard what occurred, immediately contacted Gartnavel, where Frank was seemingly a well-known face. She assured us that he was in no way dangerous, and indeed, after Pauline had calmed him down the previous night, he had become his old charming self. So much so that next morning, aware that he had caused something of a disturbance, he had phoned the lady friend and asked her to come round. She then obligingly drove him a half mile or so to the hospital where he was admitted, leaving us temporarily as the sole residents of his fine suburban semi.
But despite the reassurances of the lady friend, Pauline had made up her mind that we should now find a place of our own, and after the unexpected awakening, who was I to argue. Happily, rented flats were not hard to find in Maryhill and with my new exalted status as a Civil Servant, we soon found one that suited us on Maryhill Road, close to both the HLI and the nissen hut. But before we left, I received one last call from our absentee landlord. It was the day before our departure, and we were busy packing when the phone rang. I answered and Frank’s voice came down the line in a conspiratorial whisper.
‘Is that you, Chris?’
‘It is, yes.’
‘Right, can I speak to Frank..?’
For some reason, a story my Mother used to tell flashed into my mind. It was about a friend of hers, who was visited by an Irish neighbour late one night, holding a small glass bottle.
‘Mrs Smith, thank the Lord you’re in,’ said the woman, ‘I’ve got the priest giving my mother the last rites and I’ve discovered I’ve run out of holy water. Please, can you help me?’
Anxious to keep her reputation as a good Catholic, my Mother’s friend told the poor woman to hold on a minute, walked through to the kitchen and filled the empty vessel from the tap. As she handed it back, the neighbour grasped her hand, eyes misting over.
‘Oh, Mrs Smith, I knew I could count on you.’
In the spirit of this tale, I asked Frank to hold on a moment, then in my best baritone, said:
‘Hello, Frank here.’
‘Thank God,’ whispered Frank. ‘These people here are trying to tell me I’m insane.’
Now that I was earning a salary, I had bought myself a Levin acoustic, but John was still using a Japanese twelve string that he’d got down south, for which fingers of steel were needed. Once we fitted pickups and bought a small PA on the never-never, it was all systems go. We had now expanded our repertoire by adding songs from the Mamas and the Papas and The Lovin’ Spoonful, both of whom had released some great singles over the last few months. Obviously with the latter, the attraction was the harmonies, which we could do justice to with John’s strong tenor and Pauline’s clear contralto. As I’d seen in Gravesend, John was also a great front man with impeccable timing and a natural joke telling style and at this point, I was happy to play the straight man. So, all in all, we had a good pub entertainment package, and as far as I was concerned, that was enough for now.
Our next move upwards came when we got a regular gig in a cellar bar called Carr’s Keg, right on Charing Cross. From the word go, the place was packed, and it was here that we acquired the first of our many road managers. As roadies went, Don was somewhat atypical, for he wore a suit, drove a Jag, and seemed to be permanently in the money. He worked as a Cash and Carry manager, but a short-lived marriage had recently split up, leaving him Jack the Lad on the town, so ours became a perfect symbiotic relationship, for amongst our followers was always some single female delighted to get a lift home in his Jag. At this point, our gear fitted easily into his boot, leaving us the capacious back seat and now that we had wheels, we began to take gigs further afield, courtesy of an agent called Johnny Kildare.
Meanwhile my day job involved visiting pensioners whose meagre income we topped up, plus single mothers and abandoned wives. So, I was leading this strange double life, breezy entertainer by night and serious Civil Servant by day. This dichotomy was made all the sharper by the fact that conditions in some of these old Maryhill tenements had not improved greatly from the time that Betjeman wrote his piece for the Daily Telegraph. I remember one young Mum telling me she was afraid to leave her baby in its pram in the backcourt because of the rats, so in a strange way, the Sixties were also leading a double life with the glamour of Swinging London filling newsreels and magazines, while the reality of life for many families in Glasgow was outside toilets, coal fires and the prevalent fear of rodents.
In fact, the only thing that was swinging amongst some of our claimants was the lead, as in shirking responsibilities and no better example could be found than a little incident that occurred one Saturday morning as I was having a well-deserved long lie after a hard day in the nissen hut and a heavy gig in Carr’s Keg. As I lay there, reading a book, the top of a pair of ladders appeared over our window ledge and next moment a well-known face hove into view, humming away, squeegee and shammy in hand. He began professionally at the top, and it was obvious from his technique that he knew what he was doing, but as he got to the lower panes, he glanced casually through the glass and his features froze into a forced plastic smile. I gave him a wee wink, keeping up my maverick reputation as the ‘beatnik in box three’, and, later that morning Pauline remarked that it was strange, but the window cleaner hadn’t come for his money. Nor did he ever return.
In the context of bucking the system, I had another friend in the nissen hut, whose job it was to track down malingerers. was a man in his mid-forties with an outlook much younger than most of his contemporaries, which I should put in context, for back then, you were grown up at twenty and middle aged at thirty. I still have the birthday card my mother gave me when I reached this latter milestone, in which she’d written a wee poem that started: ‘You’re no longer young, Chris, no longer young.’ She wasn’t trying to depress me; she was just stating a fact of life; or rather, a perception of life as her wartime generation saw it, for though times were starting to change, their mindset still ruled the social landscape.
Anyway, Ray was the LR officer, acronym for Liable Relative, usually the missing husbands whose wives were now claiming off the State. Sometimes tracking these feckless individuals down wasn’t as difficult as it sounds, for some of them had not actually left the bosom of their families; they had simply persuaded their wives to visit the nissen hut and lie through their teeth, telling us their hubby had scarpered. It’s hard to blame the wives for this calumny, as the LR had usually drunk or gambled the wages, or the Dole money, leaving her to feed the family as and how she could. So in order to catch these rogues ‘in flagrante’ with their supposedly abandoned spouses, Ray would set up a little after hours spying expedition, and like the police in Scotland, who always work in pairs for the purposes of corroboration, he had to have a colleague with him, so I became his first choice.
There was overtime to be gained by doing this evening work, plus the adrenalin rush of hiding in a back court to see if the LR tried to escape through the rear window when Ray knocked unannounced at the front door. After the stake out, we’d go for a couple of pints and he would regale me with tales of LR’s who had gone to extreme lengths to evade capture, the most famous being a guy who successfully passed himself off for several years as his own sister in law. I’ve mentioned Ray’s modern outlook and he and his wife demonstrated this by hosting parties in their West End flat to which their student daughter would invite her friends. It was here that my two occupations cross fertilised when Don drove us to one such do and met a young lady who appeared to be of German origin, if her physical frame and Christian name were anything to go by. As the lady in question is probably now a highly respectable granny, for the purposes of this tale, I will call her Heidi.
She and Don immediately became an item, and as we were now playing in towns throughout Central Scotland, she became a permanent fixture in the front seat, both in the Jag and at gigs. However, soon becoming bored with the same set and jokes each night, she took to bringing a selection of women’s mags and a box of chocolates, which she proceeded to read and munch directly in front of us. Now normally John had a quip for any occasion. Once when we turned up late at a venue in Bonnybridge, the crowd started yelling: ‘You can sing nane!’, local patois for you can’t sing, but John just cupped his ear as if he was hard of hearing, then launched into an impromptu version of ‘Mame’, the Broadway show hit. Impressed by his spontaneity, the audience soon got behind us, and we proceeded to go down a storm. So, you’ll gather there were few situations we couldn’t handle. But Heidi was a totally different dynamic. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that she had become the butt of John’s pointed jokes, she continued to serially devour mags and chocs, sitting there like some bizarre art installation till we were finally forced to ask Don to choose between music or sex. Sadly, he chose the latter, and though we remained good friends for many years, the days of travelling in luxurious Jags was over.