Love Songs #10 / Big In Japan

“Things are easy when you`re big in Japan.”

They were sitting on the torn vinyl covered seating in the corner of a university bar. The two of them had been there since it opened at five, when they’d been the only ones in the place. Now, it was eight and other students were starting to arrive. They sat here most nights. Unless a trip was planned to go somewhere more lively, or to buy some dope. But they didn’t need to go anywhere, because they could get in enough trouble where they were. Here, the evening could end in a fight, they could get laid, and the beer was cheap.

Most days they’d sleep and read until midday, and then travel in to the campus to steal lunch. Get stoned, and convince someone else to scrap the afternoon. They were halfway through their first year. They didn’t go to lectures or even out dancing. The drink was the thing.

The warden of their Halls of Residence kind of liked them, since he was only a few years older. But seeing them this way night after night – spilling pints on the floor, and on themselves – had first made him laugh, then made him sad, and finally made him angry. They were beginning to drop him in the shit. He walked up to them as they sat whispering to each other. “Look what you’re doing to yourselves”, he said, and he asked, “What kind of clowns are you?” One of them replied, “I’m not really the kind that tells jokes”. And the other one said, “That wouldn’t be a clown that’d be more like a jester.” 

“I’m the sort of clown that wears a bow tie that spins around, and throws buckets of confetti into the crowd. He’s the kind of clown that wears a plastic flower in his buttonhole that squirts water and drives a funny car that falls apart. Both of us wear those big shoes.”

Al`s room was around the corner from mine, on the ground floor of the Halls of Residence. For the first two weeks of term no one saw him come or go. I don`t think he used it. He was a “mystery man”, a topic of conversation, as Mario took his apparent boundless bonhomie and befriended the rest of us. Making us all friends in the process. Providence had put Mario next door.

Through the dividing wall I could hear Prince. It`d always be something provocative like Darlin` Nikki or Lady Cab Driver. Disturbing my Morrissey sensibilities. But if it hadn`t been for Maz I`d have probably never even made it to dinner. Daunted by the prospect of so many strangers in the dining hall. Food and eating were over-rated anyway. He knocked on my door, introduced himself. “You coming?”. He saw my guitar and said he played a little. I didn`t play at all. He`d just got back from a three month working holiday. Skiing in Switzerland. A year younger than me and he`d gone on his own. Both impressing me and serving to underline what a sad sack of shit I was. I would have been terrified. I wasn`t sure about his stories about the close friendship he`d formed with Roger Moore. Or the dance routine he`d do to Colonel Abrams Trapped. Or the nasty, flecked Fosters` suit that he`d wear on big nights out. But there he was, poor cunt, used to socialising with James Bond – the camp one mind – and on his nineteenth birthday he was out drinking with a token northerner called Clive and Bobby No Mates. Staggering about Leeds 6 with a traffic cone on his head. Athletic, good-looking, smart, confident, the “Italian Stallion”. I`ll never know why Mario decided to take up my cause, and attempt to instil some of his confidence in me. He`d bully me. Shame me into accompanying him, and through his association I was inducted into an “in-crowd” of First-Year “hell-raisers” and “womanisers”. Who very likely thought of me as “weird”, “a bit quiet”, but since I was with Mario, “Must be OK”. One of Maz` catchphrases was, “You make your own luck”, but mine from here had largely been determined by whoever decided to put “Pederzoli” next to “Harris” on the room plan.

I`d actually seen Al, without knowing who he was. I`d been leaning against the railings overlooking the dirty, beer and sick soaked, subterranean dance floor of the Student Union. I was with my female rugby player and her friends. Barely interested in their conversation. My attention not engaged. I wasn`t looking anywhere in particular. Just somewhere else, but started watching two guys passing a joint back and forth. Again, I wasn`t thinking anything, other than they looked a little older than everyone else. The dark-haired one took the joint from the blonde one. Then made a fist with his right hand, put the joint between his fingers, cupped the fist with his left, pursed his lips and drew smoke through the circle of his index finger and thumb. “Not showy, not conspicuous, at all”, ran threw my mind. By then I must have been staring because the dark-haired guy had passed the joint back and was now pointing at me and shouting. I just turned round and returned to not listening.

Mario introduced himself to Al so he could get to know Tracey. The engineering student that Al had been bedding since Freshers` Week. Huge perm, long lashes, thin face. Kinda hairy and hound-like. Sun-bed tan, Fiorucii blouse, skin-tight stone-washed jeans and embroidered cowboy boots. She was far removed from my idea of beauty, but in my present company I was in a minority. Mario`s opinion of himself was so high that he figured he could befriend Al, get to know Tracey, and replace Al in her affections. This was the plan I was privy to.

One afternoon, I was on what I thought was the empty top deck of a bus. Travelling back from lectures. When someone had tapped me on the shoulder.

“You`re Mario`s mate aren`t you?”

He`d been lying slumped, prostate across the rear seat. I`d never met anyone like Al before. He didn`t have any prepared or copied routines. He seemed to do and say the first thing that came into his head. His surrealism replaced my catchphrases. He was more worldly. So much more experienced than I. Like me he was a year older than everyone else, having also failed his A` Levels. But rather than re-sitting at his local Technical College, he`d gone to an expensive crammer in South Kensington. Where his fellow students wore silver coke spoons on chains around their necks. Where they included South Africans with horror stories. Of a National Service. Forced to man machine guns on border patrol helicopters. Tales which Al would re-tell. Money-ed but damaged folk who would shoot vodka to beat breathalyzer tests.

Everyone wanted to be Al`s friend. Women couldn`t leave him alone. A Chemistry Senior he slept with passed us her first year practical notes. Which we both copied word for word. Freeing up Monday and Thursday afternoons. We`d pass out side-by-side in Ricky`s night club, but I`d always wake up with only the staff. Clearing the night away. Some hot piece would have spotted Al earlier in the evening, when he was still alive, and seized the opportunity to pick him up. He didn`t like the young Oliver Reed comparisons, but he did. Either that or Richard Burton. Hair rakishly tousled in the self-developed black and white photographs friends took of Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Carrie told me he was the most beautiful man she`d ever seen. He and the blonde guy, Adrian, who he`d met at the crammer, would indulge in threesomes. Al would tell me about the awkward moments when the girl would go to the bathroom and they`d find themselves, just the two of them, together naked. The moment dawning as they shared a cigarette. But sometimes he`d disappear. He once left a party unannounced, and walked to York. Hitchhiking back. And he had another story. About how as a kid he`d been into tropical fish. How he`d killed them all when his favourite died. Earning him weekly sessions with a shrink. Which now, away from home, had stopped.

Al hadn`t bothered unpacking. His clothes half in, half out, of a suitcase. Uncooked rice was all over the floor of his room. He was a Food Scientist. Though I`m not sure that explains anything. We`d sit, there, in his mess and he`d smoke himself catatonic. I guess he`d brought a load up from London. Neither Mario, Howard or I smoked, but H and me would take tea made from the resin. Al would lie there with his Walkman on. While me & H would be running around outside. Laughing. Hallucinating the sound of unseen animals in bushes and hedgerows.

Al only had two cassettes. Two singles. The The`s This Is The Day.

“You didn`t get up this morning because you didn’t go to bed, You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red.”

And Alphaville`s Big In Japan. It`s prophetic, the way things panned out. That the big-haired Synth-Pop smash was actually a veiled ode to heroin addiction. “Crystal bits of snowflakes”. Waiting for the man in Christiane Felscherinow`s Bahnhof Zoo, and dreams of kicking.

I`m sure Al didn`t know.

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