Love Songs / #3 / Thick As Thieves

“We`d stick together for all time.”

Dave lived in a big house on a wide road where the badlands of Thornton Heath gave way to the then relative affluence of Norbury. No pubs, corner newsagents, or offies. No burger bars or kebab shops. Only the odd doctor`s surgery, churches and trees. Dave had two older brothers and an older sister. The baby, he was the butt of their jokes and pranks. The one always caught red-handed. The one who always carried the can. They each had a huge room. The rooms were all huge compared to my home in Norwood. Two, three times the size. The decor was a kind of faded `50s flock, and despite its high ceilings and space the house seemed dark. Shadowed by foliage from the street.

I`d spend as much time as possible at Dave`s. I`d walk round there after dinner and set out again at nine to be back for ten. We`d sit on bean bags and play each other records. Attempt to learn guitar, and jump around on the bed miming with tennis rackets to The Jam`s In The City. Townsend windmilling, throwing splits as we leapt from our stage. It was a sanctuary from my dad`s bullying and the war that forever raged when he was indoors.

On Saturday evenings Matt and me would meet at Dave`s before going out. Into Croydon, or a party. Dave`s parents would let us have the run the front parlour. Drinking, laughing and singing. Getting louder and louder. Dave`s brother, John, would eventually threaten us to keep it down. But Matt was irrepressible and once the door slammed he would snigger. Then I would snigger, and then Dave would worry and shush. John was an ex-skinhead and had signed up for the services. The leather boots butch, but oh what a bastard to get off. Dave`s mum was into jigsaws. She`d always have two or three unfinished puzzles carefully laid out on trays. Whenever Dave wasn`t looking me and Matt would hammer wrong pieces into wrong holes.

Dave`s parents owned a caravan and twice a year they`d travel to France, leaving the kids alone with the house. During school holidays, with Dave`s siblings at work, we had the place almost to ourselves. Almost, since in the upstairs front bedroom was Dave`s elderly grandmother. Hunch-backed and near blind, the children that we were, Matt and me would hide if we heard her coming. If she entered a room before we had a chance to escape, we would freeze like statues in a game. Knowing that if we stood still for long enough she would assume her mind was playing tricks on her. Decide that there was no one there after all, turn and shuffle out. “Hallooooo” she would call ahead of her. Bat-like into cataract gloom. Waiting for a response. Receiving nothing more than an echo. Prompting more giggling. When we`d bring girls back, we`d pull the bed clothes over our heads.

I`d met Dave at Stanley Technical High School For Boys. Where Metalwork and Woodwork Lessons accounted for a third of the syllabus. Where they prided themselves on providing their students with a trade. Dave sat at the desk in front of me during Double Maths. My neighbour, the wire-wool haired Holding, and I would feed Dave wrong answers and keep getting him to turn round. Generally landing him in trouble. Dave never seemed to get annoyed. He just looked like he didn’t really know what was going on. Dave was not academic. The bare minimum or less would do. His Physics project to build an atmospheric railway didn`t get any further than collecting Bic biros. He took the ink refills out with the idea of making these empty tubes the trains. He`d had an A`level Mock exam paper returned with a “Sorry Dave, I couldn`t find a mark on it.”

Dave had been a Mod for a day. Cut his hair and bought a pair of desert boots. But after eight hours of stick about having feet like horses hooves, he never wore them again. It had been an ill-conceived decision anyway. All his Norbury mates were New Romantics. Since that`s where the easiest girls were. The Mods, The Jam Boys, before they matured into Scooter Boys, were a small all-white clique within Stanley. A hangover from the Two Tone thing. Ironic since Two Tone set out to unite races. The rest of us divided into said New Romantics and Soul Boys. Different music and different clothes. Enough to get you beaten up. The Mods kept to themselves. Making them appear, even if they weren`t, racist. So, if caught solo they were under constant threat of a pasting. But some of them were full on borstal head cases. Boys who`d watched “Scum” on Betamax too many times and thought that they were “the daddy round ‘ere”. These nutters gave the Mods protection en mass. Everyone took abuse of one form or another, very often racial in nature, on a daily basis. At school or on the street. Heads bashed against playground concrete. The workshops allowing easy access to “tools”. Once, a white man started on Ashely, a mixed race boy, at a bus stop. Ashley had kicked the shit out of him. Our Games teacher, Henderson, who`d seen the fight, had called Ashley up to the front of the class. Raised his fist aloft. Praised him on his right hook.

Since Stanley was all boys, the quest for the opposite sex was key to one`s standing and appearance. On lunch breaks, we`d walk to the nearest girl`s school. At the end of the day we`d take a bus to loiter at the gates of the larger, mixed comprehensives. A dangerous but necessary step. A pecking order of course existed and girls would generally gravitate towards the “First Division”. Flash chaps with reputations earned by mouth, expensive clothes and / or acts of violence and sadism. The “Chelsea Boys”. Some monied. Some psychotic. A fraternity where “glassing” a stranger while underage drinking in a public house was the equivalent of a U.S. college`s hazing. They`d mix with the edges of the local underworld. Buying puff and stolen golfing knitwear. When one of the Chelsea Boys, Podge, got stabbed in a pub on The King`s Road, by another Chelsea supporter, I lost all interest in football.

Like the pack of animals we were, these guys would scare off competition through threats and menaces. But once girls had been “fucked” or not “fucked”, depending on which shower room boasts you chose to believe, a “Second Division” would get a shot. Dave`s Norbury mates made this line-up, and through association Dave occasionally found himself involved in the tail-end of the league tables. Have him cornered in hallways, surrounded in courtyards, by marauding been-there-done-its:

“So you’re seeing Jeanette. Shagged her yet?”

To improve his chances of pulling Dave took to knocking about with boys of a much lower rank. Perry and Storer were ugly and stupid. Not saved by the grace of being either brave or skilled in any form of martial art. They were as far down as you could go before hitting the stiffs and bookworms who still didn’t know what a girl was. They would flick their toes like members of the Second Division, and get a kicking for it. Out with this lot Dave was top boy and would always get the girl. He’d go ice-skating with these guys on Saturday mornings and cop off every weekend.

I`d been skating for a while. Streatham Ice Rink doubling for a youth club. A place to meet the opposite sex, or to take them on a date. I`d had my own Bauer hockey boots, at least until a gang had taken them from me. I`d see Dave there with Perry and Storer and the girls they were then pursuing. Jackie, Janice, Jeanette, Nicola and Karen. I`d been in the same class as Karen before my move to Stanley. Her initials featured heavily in the code of a diary I was foolish enough to keep. I`d always assumed that she lived in South Croydon and had often lit out that way on my “Chopper”. Cross-navigating its grid of nicer tree-lined streets, in the hope of “bumping” into her. Turned out they were all from Five Ways. The “workers cottages” and council housing shadowed by the fly-over. Because of Karen I hung around. Perry and Storer weren`t keen, due to my piss-taking. That was what I did. That was my defence, my martial art. At school I`d verbally joust with the First Division if picked upon. Making the circle around me laugh at my tormentor`s expense usually spared me a shoeing there and then. But meant that I would stall leaving for home as long as possible. In the hope that anyone waiting at the gates would lose patience. My “wit” left me baited but relatively unharmed. This amnesty no doubt made more secure by the fact that luck had me sat next to Dez Witter in morning Registration. Dez was the hardest black kid in the school. He was also an amazing dancer. While Mr. Porterhouse would slur his way through roll call, me and Dez would exchange details on records we`d heard. He at the clubs he`d go to with his older brother. Me fixed to pirate radio. I`d do him tapes so he could practice routines, and he`d try to teach me basic Funk shuffles. Without much success.

Dave didn`t know it but he was on his way out. His male skating companions had tired of him getting first dibs on any new women. So when we all got invited to a party Nicola was throwing, Perry and Storer told us to make our own way there. Allowing them to arrive early, help the girls set up, make tapes, etc., and get a head start at getting in their pants. Up until this point I don’t remember really speaking with Dave.

We`d arranged to meet outside the Whitgift Centre and decided to walk to the party, which would take about an hour. I`d already walked into Croydon, on the way meeting a former English teacher, or as he would have it “Master”, Thompson. When I was around thirteen, this teacher would take me into his office and shake, red-faced, as he`d lift me by my lapels. Swear and slap me. Driven to do so by my “talking back” in class. I would score top marks but such was his hatred that on my report card he wrote “E for effort, E for attainment”. He`d seen me coming and crossed the street. When I`d gone after him he`d begged me to leave him alone. I had no intention of hurting him. His promises of violence and open hand had meant nothing to me. I thought he was funny. I had the real thing at home. Thompson wasn`t a small man, no doubt played rugby in his university days. He wasn`t old either. Mid-30s? He`d have likely knocked me stupid, and I`d figured that was it. He didn`t trust himself.

I`d paid for my gear with a part-time job in Safeway. Charcoal Farah slacks and a grey Gabicci sweater, half-zip with black and red suede trim. I`d had my curly hair cut into a kind of mushroom in an attempt to look like Terry Hall of the Fun Boy Three. It was the best I could do. It was either that or a crop. A more fashionable “wedge” was out of the question. I always seemed to be chasing something and Dave would learn to despair of me. He was comfortable just being Dave. Never a slave to the vagaries of what was in or out, he relied on his good looks. “Like James Dean”, my mum would say. He`d dress down. In jeans and a beat up old denim jacket. Sometimes topped off with a Palace scarf. We pooled our money in the off-licence and bought a “Watney`s Party 7”. Dave`s idea, which we realised was a poor choice. Since it meant that we had nothing to drink as we walked. How we were going to open it was a concern for later. We’d hit the punch and everyone else`s booze before resorting to our own. By the time it came to open our purchase, the chosen method was to bang a couple of holes in the top with a pen knife. Tilting it shot out a three foot jet of Bitter. So, we took turns. One of us holding the “Party 7” . The other standing some distance away with two paper cups at arms length. We handed out cups to passersby, and got them to join in the game. Nicola, a blonde, who was taller than either me or Dave, had bent over in front of us. Selecting the next tape to play. Her well-rounded rear right in my face. Without thinking I`d grabbed it. She`d looked from me to Dave, weighing up the most likely culprit, and whacked Dave. He didn`t even know what he was supposed to have done. For the most part of the night Dave was stuck with me, cramping his style and ruining his chances. “Lame”, shy and inexperienced, I`d claimed there were no pretty girls there. As they french-kissed with older boys in front of us. For the most part `cos I had a curfew. On the Monday at school Dave wore his scarf. He wore it all week, and at breakfast and dinner with his folks, hiding the love bites he’d collected after I`d gone.

When Dave`s nan died, it was Dave that found her. The local paper picked up the story and spun some rubbish. Printed that she`d been uncared for. A prisoner up there. That she`d been dead for days. That Dave was at fault, to blame. Red-handed and carrying the can.

Formed in the suburb of Woking in 1976, after witnessing The Clash, The Jam fused the energy of the Sex Pistols with Pete Townsend`s riffs. Sartorially they slavishly stuck to a `60s “Modern” rule book. Which gave the music press a stick to beat them with. Prompting Weller to wear a sign around his neck that read “How can I be a fucking revivalist when I`m only seventeen?” They instilled an unshakeable loyalty in their army of fans. Selling out their final five nights at Wembley Arena in twenty minutes.

The appeal of The Jam to “My Generation” was that Weller was one of us. Not particularly well educated. An insubordinate in a `70s school system. Suffering a brow beaten childhood of withering sarcasm and canings for answering back from those in whose care we had been placed. He spoke to us of our limited horizons and experience. In our language. Nothing too flowery. But he read the odd book. Quoted Colin McInnes. Referenced Van Gogh.

“I lose an ear a day, dreaming like I do.”

Believed he could better himself even if no one else did. It was this determined self-belief, against odds, that I was, am, sold.

Weller was that internal voice that fought to be heard. All but drowned out by the noise of authority. Every quarter shouting “Useless!” “Good for nothing!” Demanding that you be aware of your place in their grand old scheme of things. Weller was the hero that spat and kicked as they went to tighten the straight jacket sleeves. An A-bomb in Wardour Street. He shouted encouragement. Begged for resistance. If there were no expectations, then there was absolutely nothing to lose. True failure was to never try. Or to stop trying.

“Dont` live up to your given roles.”

He sang on Ghosts.

“There`s more inside you that you won`t show.”

But to show what you were made you stick out. Made you vulnerable. The weirdo. It made me miserable. I always felt that if I was going to be murdered it would be in Croydon.

Weller`s were Working Class stretches of poetry written on the way home from the pub. A sixth form John Cooper Clarke. A cockney beat poet making day-to-day, soon to be Non-Working Class observations in a bad hand. That`s Entertainment accurately described the world I was living in. Held up a mirror and showed me that I had to get away. His head and heart set on convincing the dead-end kids that they were alright. An angry youth railing, flailing, hitting out against everything. Smash that wall down. Inequality is always stark, but there were less distractions then.

The Kinks and Beatles bass lines backed triads on Class. Pro-Right To Work. Anti-War. When the straight rabble-rousing Rock fell away, The Jam`s records became mini, Tamla Motown symphonies. With string and brass arrangements squeezed into three minutes. The beat became Northern Soul. As Weller realised that, while the `60s were gone, to be young is to be “Modern”, and we, the children of the `80s, were still the “Mods”. While the music changed, his delivery remained that of a man incensed. Driven near insane by inane tabloid headlines, public ignorance and apathy. The tunes still charged at a sulphate-driven pace, and he almost screamed their lyrics in rage. Snarled love songs through clenched teeth. In a moment of Pop genius he had working men`s clubs up on their feet.  Dancing, stomping, clapping and singing along to a bright action-painted rendering of their grey, dull, existence. Likely unaware of the chorus of discontent they were joining.

“Stop apologising for the things you`ve never done.”

My mum`s constant worrying and sorries.

Yet he was the voice of self-belief that didn`t quite believe. As if the seeds of defeat by his own hand were too deeply planted. What chance have you got against a tie and crest? The intensity of his commitment was unquestionable, but impossible to sustain. When I met him around a decade later his clay feet had him just another coked-up Rockstar. Sweaty in the Milk Bar. Another Lothario chasing blondes his significant junior at the Heavenly Social.

Listening to The Jam to sketch memories of David, everything I hear is tied up with Anna. The band`s more soulful swan songs echoing her parents` collection of 45s. Reflecting the straight-lined, symmetrical, retro Biba / Mary Quant look that she cultivated. I see her posing for photographs. Voguing in a new outfit. Perfectly turned out. A misanthropic Go-Go dancer, who loved with a passion called hate, and who felt as desperate as me. I remember lying on a bed crowded with stuffed toys, teddies and dolls, attempting to distract her from her A-Levels. Her fists against my chest as I held her, laughing.

I looked for both of them, Googled their names in vain. Scanning a resulting infinite wall of strangers faces I realised that I probably wouldn`t recognise them now. And that perhaps I wouldn`t want to. Better to hold them, James Dean and Penelope Tree, at seventeen.

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