Read Educating Peter Online

Authors: Tom Cox

Educating Peter (3 page)

I began to make lists of people Peter could hook up with, but always in the sceptical knowledge that rock stars are an awkward bunch and getting them in the same place at the same time as a recalcitrant adolescent might be a task no less arduous than persuading your favourite fragmented musical casualties to reunite and perform at your birthday party. In my planning I leaned heavily towards mates of mates and the kind of real people who'd be generous with their wisdom, and tried to ignore the more famous, plastic ones who might, if we were lucky, grant us twenty-five minutes of platitudes in a hotel room with their press agent eavesdropping outside the door. I could guarantee that
someone
out there would want to talk to us. What I couldn't guarantee was structure, or that Peter would become a more rounded person as a result. Jenny explained again that she simply wanted Peter ‘to get more ammunition to enable him to make the right decision about his future, and to fill his spare time with something that wasn't computer games'. Was it just British music she wanted me to teach him about? ‘No. Not really. Anything.' Did she want me to persuade him that he
didn't
want a career as a musician? ‘No. I just want him to be sure of what he's getting himself into.' The problem was, I wasn't sure that
I
knew what he would be getting
himself into. I wasn't even sure whether the people I was taking him to meet would know what
they'd
got themselves into. That was the point of rock and roll, surely: it wasn't supposed to be a carefully planned career choice.

Gradually, reality was beginning to replace my Thunderbolt and Lightfoot fantasy. Originally, I'd thought only of the
concept
of me teaching a teenager the laws of rock and roll on the road, as if the whole thing was nothing more than a movie, a series of easy-to-swallow images spliced together by Steven Spielberg for popular consumption: Peter and me in the car, arguing over a late-Sixties folk album; Peter and me being taken to an archaeological site by Julian Cope; Peter and me getting lost in Runcorn.

Well, okay. Maybe not Steven Spielberg.

The point was, this was going to be nowhere near as easy as I'd thought. Looking at the coming months with a clear head, the chances seemed slim that I would be picking up random hitch-hikers and playing surreal practical jokes at traffic lights. What had seemed like a great opportunity to be even less responsible than normal was suddenly looking like the most responsible thing I'd ever had to do. I wasn't going to be spending countless hours sitting next to a caricature of a teenager; I was going to be sitting next to the real thing, with all the messy eating habits, imbalanced taste and raging angst that that implied. I was devoting the best part of my summer to this, I realised, as I set off home from Jenny's place. I'd gone past the stage where it was going to be possible to back out. What was more, in all my meditating I'd forgotten
to circumnavigate the roadworks on the North Circular, and was bringing up the rear in the South East's most monotonous traffic jam.

Not every great road movie starts with a bang, does it? I thought back to the sleepy opening frames of Seventies films like
Vanishing Point
and
Badlands
: nothing events in no-horse towns with negligible hints of the mayhem to follow. Besides, who said I was at the start? The real beginning could come at any moment I wanted it to, in virtually any setting. I was director, writer, producer and cinematographer here. There was scope for freedom, anarchy and adventure in this project, after all – it was simply a matter of loosening up, using my imagination and letting it happen. Liberated by this thought, I clicked
The Best Of The Steve Miller Band
satisfyingly into the tape machine, pushed the gear-stick back into neutral for the ninth time in as many minutes, and turned my attention to the evening's shopping list.

CASH OR EXCHANGE?

BEFORE I GOT
to know Peter, I got to know his self-image. In the prelude to our first meeting, Jenny, rather slyly, had loaned me one of his most treasured possessions: a dog-eared sketchbook. ‘Just to give you an idea of the way his mind works.'

The sketchbook's cover displayed no name or tutor group, just a sticker featuring the logo for the veteran heavy metal band Metallica, as if that said all there was to say. That night, back at home after our initial meeting, I leafed through it, feeling somewhat guilt-ridden. The opening few pages largely consisted of crayon copies of band logos – AC/DC, Slipknot, The Deftones – but about halfway in I found a self-portrait of Peter, dressed in the longest jacket it's possible to wear without tripping over, strumming on a Gibson SG Standard guitar. There were certain similarities between this picture and the Peter I'd seen earlier in the evening, but differences, too. Like Real Peter, Crayon Peter dressed all in black, played guitar and
wore his love of the darker end of rock and roll on his t-shirt. But while Real Peter played bass guitar, Crayon Peter played rhythm. While Real Peter's hair was brunette, awkwardly jaw-length and curly, Crayon's was jet black, shoulder-length and straight. Crayon Peter looked genuinely deep and mysterious, while Real Peter merely looked moody and worried. Crayon's clothes hung on him like the armour of a gothic warlord, while Real Peter's threatened to swallow him up. All in all, you might have said it was a pretty good likeness, if you'd either a) recently had to cancel an operation to remove a cataract, or b) seen teenage self-portraits before.

Still, since my first engagement with Peter had been so fleeting, it was the image of Crayon Peter – or Thardoz, Lord Of Goth, as I'd come to think of him – that I carried with me in my mind as I readied myself for our maiden voyage. The only person who wore black on a permanent basis for whom I'd ever had any respect was the South African golf legend Gary Player, but unaccountably I found myself wanting to impress Thardoz. How could I win his trust? What would he think of my collection of brightly coloured shirts, flares and Fleetwood Mac t-shirts? What would his feeling be towards ‘Lollipop Years: 1967–73', the self-made, sunshine-themed compilation tape I currently had on permanent rotation in the car stereo? How would this Satan-worshipping Brandon Lee-lookalike react when the chirpy opening chords of ‘Goody Goody Gumdrops' by the 1910 Fruitgum Company kicked in?

Moreover, what about the car itself? I'd never seen a
Ford Fiesta in a road movie. Scratch that: I'd never seen a Ford Fiesta in a
movie
. It was a car synonymous with the quotidian, an automobile almost indelibly linked with the phrase ‘I'm just nipping down the road to Tesco – would you like me to get any celery?' Recently, I'd been slowly coming to terms not only with its unsuitability to a road trip environment, but its unsuitability to the lifestyle of a vaguely upwardly mobile man of twenty-seven. Something had finally clicked when, during a job for a sports magazine, an Audi-driving affiliate of the England cricket team had sneeringly pointed out his amazement that I had trekked the entire width of England in my ‘little car'. Made in 1997, the vehicle couldn't even be written off as stylishly retro. It was just plain boring.

I was perfectly aware I needed a replacement. My problem was finding a balance between the cars of my juvenile dreams, the kind of car that Thardoz would be impressed with, and the kind of car that would demonstrate my responsible nature to Jenny. What I needed was a cross between an Aston Martin, the Batmobile and a station wagon. What I wanted was the 1968 Karman Ghia that had been sitting, unloved, outside my local used Volkswagen dealer for too long. What I
bought
was a slightly used Ford Focus estate. Sure, it was dreary and responsible, but it had one of those devices where the car stereo gets louder in tandem with the engine's revs, dictating that I could listen to ‘Life In The Fast Lane' by The Eagles without the fast lane joining in on percussion. Not only that, I liked the noise that the indicator made.

‘You don't want one of those classic cars, son,'
Norman, the avuncular sales assistant at Busseys, Norwich's premier Ford dealer, had advised me. ‘You listen to your Uncle Norman. I've been working with Fords for forty years, and this is the best car they've made. You don't want to go messing around at those second-hand dealers. I mean, do you want to spend half your time on the hard shoulders of motorways, mending fan belts?'

‘What's a fan belt?' I'd asked Uncle Norman.

Once again, when it came to the crunch, I had let down my younger self, who would almost certainly have plumped for the Karman Ghia. I felt bad about this to an extent, but that extent decreased somewhat as I realised my Ford Focus had dual beverage holders and a button which opened the boot from the interior. Besides, why should I owe my teenage self anything? Okay, so he'd done me a favour by dropping out of university after three months, but he'd worn shapeless clothes, listened to music that sounded like it had been recorded in a coal bunker, frequently chosen his friends and girlfriends badly, and made embarrassing pronouncements on the state of the universe.

That said, even if I didn't want to revisit the mindset of an early Nineties teenager, it was important that I got at least a vague insight into the thinking of his modern day equivalent. I owed Peter that much. Thus, as the day of our first expedition drew nearer, I began to venture tentatively into the unknown and research the very age group I was most afraid of: Generation Why, the even more confused and disenfranchised descendants of Generation X. From my local bookshop, I purchased
Adolescence: The Survival Guide
For Parents And Teenagers
by Elizabeth Fenwick and Dr Tony Smith, a self-help book which gave useful yet temperate suggestions on how to deal with troublesome adolescents who did things like listen to techno music at unsociable volumes and moon over pictures of Christina Aguilera. From my local video shop, I hired the first five seasons of
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
. This gave me the opportunity to relearn the rules of teenage sarcasm, along with totally new phrases like ‘You're giving me the wiggins', ‘No biggie', ‘Cutie patootie' and ‘Wipe that face off your head, bitch'. From a satellite entertainment channel, I at last found out who mysteriously ubiquitous teen icons like Freddie Prinze Jr, Heath Ledger, Kirsten Dunst and Katie Holmes were. Finally, from my local record shop, I purchased a copy of Wheatus's massive-selling single ‘Teenage Dirtbag'. To my astonishment, I discovered I quite liked it – even the bit at the end where the girl who sounds like a constipated witch starts singing. These were all important initial measures, since I sensed this adventure wasn't going to be entirely about Peter's education, but mine as well.

Our opening trip was to be a three-parter, revolving loosely around the theme of Loose Cannons Of Rock: a tube journey to the Rock Circus in Piccadilly, followed by a drive to the garage on Romford Road that The Rolling Stones had been arrested for urinating against in 1965, before heading down to Hastings to meet Ed The Troubadour, one of South East England's most notorious buskers. The last leg was going to be something of a lottery. I'd never met Ed, but I'd seen him
wandering around the streets of Camden Town, dressed in authentic medieval garb, playing traditional folk music and Fifties rock and roll. Rumour had it that he'd once been a protégé of Sam Phillips, the man who'd discovered Elvis, but that ever since then his career had been in freefall, resulting in violent and impulsive behaviour and a penchant for strangely coloured tights. I'd phoned Ed after acquiring his cellphone number from an acquaintance in a country band, and a friendly voice pitched somewhere between Dennis Hopper and Eeyore from Winnie The Pooh had replied that it would be delighted to hook up. I'd been told that Ed rarely strayed beyond the thirteenth century in his fashion sense, and I thought the mobile phone seemed an incongruous auxiliary touch. Perhaps stranger still, unlike many of the other musicians I'd approached in connection with my adventure with Peter, Ed had barely needed me to explain the point of the trip before agreeing to an interview. It was as if he encountered rock journalists hanging out with adolescent friends of their family on a daily basis. How had he wound up in Hastings? I asked. ‘I thought I'd follow in the footsteps of William the Conqueror,' he replied, not seeming to be taking the piss. I didn't know what to expect from Ed.

What I felt certain I
could
rely on, however, were waxworks. They had a tendency not to act too irrationally or impetuously. I'd first visited the Rock Circus, Britain's premier music-themed waxworks museum, a couple of years previously with my friend Allan. Together we'd marvelled at how closely the model of The Who's Pete Townshend resembled
the former
Blue Peter
presenter Peter Duncan, rejoiced in the fact that we both had much bigger hands than Meatloaf, and insulted Michael Jackson's bum-fluff. To me, the place seemed like one of London's hidden musical treasures. With the exception of Allan, though, I was yet to meet another English-speaking, music-loving acquaintance who'd been there. This seemed somewhat sad, since to see the Circus's Bruce Springsteen model – one of the venue's few special ‘animated' dolls – doing its creaky, jerking dance as it sang ‘Born In The USA' was somehow to get a tiny glimpse of God. To me, the Rock Circus seemed like the ideal place to begin Peter's rock and roll journey. He wouldn't be too overawed, yet he'd also get a sense of the inherent anticlimax involved in meeting nine out of ten of one's musical idols. From my point of view, the trip would be a good fuss-free way of covering the Fame section of his training. Not only were the idols of the Rock Circus free of meddlesome managers and publicity officers, they didn't use the phrase ‘It's all about the music, man' and refrained from hitting you with their guitar when you suggested their latest album was stale and corporate.

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