Out Of The Box
Echo & The Bunnymen
McCullough, the “Duke” of old, would do this set piece, he may well still do it, where he`d move centre stage in the darkness and light a cigarette. It`s glow would be the only illumination in the theatre, his singing lips in its shadow.
“All at sea again, and now my hurricane….”
The song comes out of the cassette-player, a dirge my Mum would call it, despite her Scott Walker records, and the car is hushed. Three or four of us are squashed into the back seat, Debb Lello, in there, being groped by whoever`s turn it was tonight, and in the post-midnight blue, Gary, driving, mimics Duke and sparks up. Seventeen and heading back on empty roads from Leicester Square. A Saturday night and failed attempts at foreign students in The Empire Ballroom, or passed out between tables at Cinecitta Roma, the alleys off Oxford Street, in shoes, jacket and tie. Trying to look twenty-one. Red embers. Tomorrow`s papers the only prize.
On the way up West we would have drag-raced in and out of traffic down Streatham High Road. Once an irate driver caught up with us at the lights by the station and as Dave worked frantically to wind up his window, just opened the door and thumped him. We`d meet in a pub in Norbury on a Thursday to make plans for Saturday, and it was always the same. Gary was in charge, but wanted a consensus. Johnny C the milkman would claim to be skint and refuse to go anywhere, Matt & Dave would be clowning about at the pool table. Neil would be pulling faces, his tongue pushed Steptoe-like into his lower lip, behind Gary as he pleaded for new ideas. Johnny “Trenton” Fenton would say, “I don`t know Gary”, and me and Paul would say nothing. Nick, a Cheshire cat at Gary`s right hand. The only lasting loyalty here was between Gary & Nick. Gary and Johnny C, who was older, would argue and Johnny C would fuck off.
Gary was a “diamond” who called everyone a “spanner”. Smiling, winking, a stud in his ear. A chipie with his Dad`s shop-fitters. A cross between Adam Ant and Matt Dillon. Oversexed, and very possibly bisexual. There had been Epstein-Lennon like rumours about a teacher at school, whose car he was seen driving. G knew how to use his charm to manipulate. Johnny C and Neil were two of the biggest cunts I`ve ever met. Mean, spiteful and cowardly. Neil later became a copper. Paul was Neil`s younger brother and really too smart to hang about with his sibling. Johnny F conversely was a simple innocent, fool enough to sometimes bring his younger sister out. That left me and the clowns at the pool table.
Dave & Matt were a comedy duo, like Rik & Viv from The Young Ones, `cept Dave looked like James Dean and Matt looked like a Greek God in the middle of a fine Mick Jagger impression. These two were my best friends. Matt was working a site-foreman apprenticeship. Me and Dave were about to fail our A-Levels. Matt`s smart mouth, lip, and need to push things as far as they would go, would often back us into trouble. Their slightly more affluent backgrounds, they all lived in bigger houses, and their dads all ran their own businesses, meant that they had not developed a sixth sense for aggravation, so as Matt jollied with any local toughs that we came into contact with, Dave riffing and verbally sparring, carried along and away, they would never see, the pool cue`s weight being shifted for a swing, or the enemy moving to their flanks and rear.
Prior to this I`d been into Hip Hop and a breaker, but I`d gotten tired of the constant fighting and the “taxman”, and so friendly with Dave at school, I`d quietly attached myself to them, as they`d go where girls would go. I`d walk from Norwood to Norbury. An unpleasant, incident-ridden course once the pubs had shut.
Debb was blonde, half-Italian and in love with Gary. She`d hang around for any scrap of him that she could get. He`d treat her like a thing, it was shameful, and he`d pass her over to Neil and Johnny C whenever she was getting in his way or on his nerves, though she would shrug off Nick. If feeling playful he would parade her underwear in front of us, dangle her bra and panties out of his bedroom window as we waited in the street. I was in awe of her because she was the only girl I knew. An unpracticed sword believing in fairy-tale, in search of a princess to rescue. I didn`t like it when they made her cry.
Gary once asked me, “You`re a good-looking bloke, why do you never pull?” Clueless I guess.
Tired. Spent. Silent. Red embers. Blue against the window, narrow horizons pushed a little broader, at least in terms of what was out there, the spur to move a little sharper, in the knowledge that “this is shit”. Not disappointed, because I had no expectations. I was young, I didn`t know what the blackest thoughts were.
I think my introduction to Echo & The Bunnymen must have been “Ocean Rain”. I was in my late teens. Half of me still breakdancing, the other half hanging with a new group of friends, who were into girls, driving into the West End on a Saturday night in search of some. I don`t remember what would be playing on the car stereo on the way up there, but “Ocean Rain” seemed to soundtrack every failed journey home.
I`d seen the Bunnymen on Tops Of The Pops, doing “Seven Seas”, either ripping off, or taking the piss out of The Cure`s “Caterpillar” but as an album “Ocean Rain” was different, darker. Yo-Yo men and Vegetables never coming out of the fridge. An obvious debt to Morrison & The Doors, with the lyrical flights of, probable LSD-induced, transcendence and illumination of Arthur Lee`s Love.
Singer Ian McCulloch had been a Bowie obsessive (“The Killing Moon” plays “Starman”`s chords backwards), nicknaming himself “Duke” after the thin white one, and was part of the scene centred on Eric`s, the club run by Roger Eagle, responsible for bringing Punk and Post-Punk bands to Liverpool in the late `70s. A scene that included future manufactured “hit-makers” of the `80s like Holly Johnson and Pete Burns. Once in a band that never existed, The Crucial Three, with fellow “scene-sters” Julian Cope and Pete Wylie, McCulloch, and The Bunnymen, went on to steal thunder, success, resources and ideas from Cope`s The Teardrop Explodes, when they were both signed to Bill Drummond`s Zoo. As a B-boy, to me they looked like fey Pop stars, but for endless anecdotes of treachery and excess read anything written by Cope or Drummond. The Bunnymen`s initial swan song, the bankruptly titled “Echo & The Bunnymen”, was allegedly recorded in a blizzard of cocaine, McCulloch stuck on a handful of images, life as a circle, a game, throughout.
My first real girlfriend, the one I lost my virginity to, I`d have said with, but that information was never offered, lived across the street from a house where some of The Bunnymen would stay whenever they were in London. It was home to a divorcee with two daughters our age whose charms disguised, at least from me, a thirst for chaos, known as The Fugs. Good at kicking off a pub fight, they`d carry tear gas in their handbags and were later responsible for a few of our associates being incarcerated. The snow very likely blew for The Fugs and The Bunnymen but all I was interested in then was a glimpse and a chance meeting.
Later at University I fell in love with a girl from Liverpool and when she took me to meet her folks we visited hang-outs and coffee shops, like The Tabac, and they were full of long-fringed chaps, art students in overcoats, dry, dour and Bunnymen-like. This was Merseyside`s “cool”, “fashionable”, opposed to the plasterers and gasfitters in Armani that I was used to in South London. She `d insist that “Do It Clean” was about sex. I`ve always assumed it was about drugs.
“I`ve got a handful of this. What do I do with it?”