Read Educating Peter Online

Authors: Tom Cox

Educating Peter (6 page)

‘You've heard of Mick Jagger, right?' I'd asked Peter earlier, in the car.

‘Yeah. Of course. He's the one who tries to pretend to be young by shagging all those women and making that sad album with those hip-hop guys. I saw that documentary about him on TV, where he was taking the piss out of Kate Winslet.'

‘What about Keith Richards?'

‘Think so.'

‘You should do. He's the really cool one. What about Charlie Watts and Ron Wood?'

‘Ummm . . . not sure.'

I decided not to mention Bill Wyman. As a rule, it's best not to. Besides, we had only just eaten.

It was one thing playing Peter The Stones' invincible 1973 album,
Exile On Main Street
(Peter: ‘This is alright, actually'), going into a bookshop and showing him a picture of Keith Richards taken during the making of its predecessor,
Sticky Fingers
, and convincing him that The Stones had once been the coolest men on earth. It was another thing entirely trying to convince him that they'd been the wild men of rock as well. One of Peter's favourite bands, Slipknot, regularly defecated live on stage without being noticed, never mind arrested. Merely by opening their mouths and switching on their microphones, other groups he listened to could replicate the sensation of having someone projectile-vomit down your ear canal. Why was he going to be impressed by a group of former art students having a slash against a petrol station?

I pictured the months ahead, and wondered what kind of battle I was facing. How hard was I going to have to try to impress him? Just how anaesthetised was he to the murkiest reaches of Rock And Roll Babylon? As we stood and focused on the scene of the crime, I attempted to give him a sense of historical perspective: a 1965 world on the brink of upheaval, with flower power just around the corner, when pop music genuinely seemed dangerous. He nodded a lot – it was difficult to know if he was taking it in or not – then went to purchase two tubes of Pringles from the kiosk.

‘Can you feel it in the air? The sense that you're somewhere special?' I asked him upon his return.

‘I'm not sure. I'm a bit too cold to feel anything at the moment,' he said.

‘But can you picture it? It was a pretty daring thing to do in 1965, you know.'

‘Yeah. It sort of sounds like fun. My mate Raf's brother sometimes drives around with eight people in his car. I think you're supposed to only have five.'

‘You could probably fit eight in a Daimler, though.'

‘Yeah.'

‘I suppose it's a good job that the car didn't cut out when they were trying to pull away. That would have ruined the moment a bit.'

‘Mmm.'

With one last wistful look – well, a wistful look from me; a slightly relieved one from Peter – we turned for the Focus. It started first time. Sticking our hands out the window in a well-known gesture that the Rolling Stones probably didn't use, we waved to our
new friends in the booth and pulled out into the unruly early evening traffic. It was, after all, just a wall, and there was only so long you could stare at it.

REALLY FUNNY

‘
IT WAS REALLY
funny. There's this guy in my year, Sam, who's, like, really cool on guitar. He can play all bottleneck and stuff, but he's a bit of a mosher . . .'

‘What's a mosher?'

‘Well, it's kind of like a goth, but not quite.'

‘What? More energetic?'

‘Yeah.'

‘It's weird. Moshing was just a kind of dancing you did when I was a kid; now it's a whole lifestyle choice. Bizarre. Anyway – sorry. Carry on.'

‘Yeah, so Sam's like showing off in Mrs Williams' music class, playing this Feeder song, and Raf, who's in year eleven, walks in, and he's like, “What's going on?” And we're like, “Oh-oh,” 'cos Raf's, like, the best guitar player in the world, ever – better than Sam. And they start having this duel, and Sam's playing this Feeder song really quick, but Raf just keeps getting quicker, and Mrs Williams walks in and she's just watching, going, “Wow.” It was so cool.'

‘I never really got into music lessons at school. I had a problem with those weird xylophone-type things that you had to blow into. The bit where you put your mouth always seemed to still be covered with the spit of the last person who'd used it. Do you have those?'

‘Er . . . no.'

‘So is Raf your best mate?'

‘Yeah, probably. He's a couple of years older than me, but we've got really similar taste and stuff. He got me into Nirvana and AC/DC.'

‘And he's in your band?'

‘Yeah. He's in Goat Punishment. It's kind of his band, really. He writes the songs.'

‘You write your own songs? That's pretty impressive.'

‘We do a few covers. There's this song by American Hi-Fi that I really hate, but the rest of the band like it. We do “Lithium” by Nirvana, too.'

‘It's weird that you like Nirvana, 'cos I'm – what? – thirteen years older than you, and most of the people I knew when I was growing up liked them too. I saw them play once, you know.'

‘No
way
. Really?'

‘Mmm. I could never really understand what all the fuss was about, to be honest. Although it was always a good excuse to push people over when they played them at my local student night.'

‘I don't know. They're just really . . .'

‘I always preferred Smashing Pumpkins. But I hate them now.'

‘. . . intense.'

‘So have you done any gigs yet?'

‘Sort of, but only at school. There's this thing at school they have every month, which was called Folk Night. Last time it was really funny, 'cos there was all this mulled wine, for all the parents who had come to watch, and everyone kept stealing it, and all the glasses were shaking and stuff on the table 'cos we were playing so loud when we did “Lithium”, even though it was unplugged.'

‘You said it
was
called Folk Night.'

‘Yeah, they changed it 'cos we complained.'

‘You don't like folk?'

‘Well, kind of, but it's not that. It's just not really what anyone plays.'

‘So what is the night called now?'

‘Axe Demons.'

TIGHTS

‘
NOW. JUST A
warning. He's going to be coming around that corner in a minute, and he's going to be dressed slightly strangely.'

‘Like, how? What do you mean, “strangely”?'

‘Well, he's going to be wearing purple tights, for a start.'

‘What,
just
purple tights?'

‘Well, no. I imagine he'll have a kilt on as well, or an extremely long cape. Maybe a broadsword, too.'

‘But how do you know his tights will be purple?'

‘He just told me on the phone. That's what he said: “I'll be the one in the purple tights.”'

‘And what did you say?'

‘I said, “Er . . . cool.” What else do you say at moments like that?'

‘Here he is.'

‘You say, “Here he is”?'

‘No. I mean, I think this is him. Look – those are quite purple.'

‘Oh, right. Yeah. They are. It must be. Okay. Oh . . . 
Oh
.'

MR ED

THERE ARE TWO
important things to remember when socialising in a refined coffee house in a historic coastal town with a man kitted out authentically as a member of Robin Hood's Merry Men. One: don't let him get his banjo out. And two: if he waves his axe around, cut the conversation short.

For close to twenty minutes now, I'd had one eye on the ladies sitting to the left of our table in the Hastings branch of Costa Coffee, and I'm pretty sure Peter had too. Obviously these were respectable women, perhaps in their late forties, possibly called Jan and Gloria, impeccably dressed without being showy, probably with steady, long-serving jobs in the beauty department of John Lewis or Debenhams. All they wanted, you could see, was to have a quiet mocha, compare new curtains and grouse about the respective shortcomings of their daughters' fiancés. And I had to give them credit: they were doing very well at getting on with it. But you could tell the scene to their
immediate right was beginning to bother them, the little indignant explosions going off in their heads one by one: who was the bearded, grey-haired man, and why was he dressed like a Knight of the Round Table? What on earth was he doing hanging out with the younger man with the fluffy sideburns and the Fleetwood Mac t-shirt? And what relation were the two of them to the bored-looking boy with the dark clothes and the peculiar chains hanging off his trousers?

It was the axe that finally did it. In his defence, Ed wasn't intending to do any harm by unsheathing it and holding it in the air for me and Peter to see. It wasn't even a very big axe – about a foot and a half long, at the most. Nevertheless, he didn't really make any attempt to disguise it. It was clearly too much for Jan and Gloria. Grabbing their coats quickly, but making sure to straighten their chairs, they headed for the door, emitting just-audible wibbling noises.

Ed didn't even seem to notice. He was talking about tapeworm.

‘Tapeworm' is what Ed The Troubadour calls the thugs who make his job a living nightmare – the people who verbally and physically abuse him while he busks, the people who set fire to his Reliant Robin shortly after he arrived in Hastings. But Tapeworm, for Ed, can also be a catch-all term for the disease of modern man. Occasionally, as he sat with Peter and me in Costa Coffee, he pointed to young men – dead-eyed young men, admittedly, but young men who ultimately looked fairly harmless – who were passing by the window. ‘Look,' he muttered. ‘Tapeworm. Grrr.'

For Ed, it all came down to hair. ‘Everything was better before everyone started cutting their hair off,' he told us. ‘People, I mean, and music. I think hair's a very spiritual thing. Now look at them all. They all look the same. Tapeworm.'

Ed told us he hadn't cut his hair since the late Sixties. He had the appearance of a silver lion. He looked good for his age (he was fifty-five), but said he didn't feel it. He felt white-hot pain throbbing from his foot, meaning he could only work for two or three hours per day. He didn't like Hastings and felt trapped: he could never make any money here, but didn't really know where else to go.

I'd interviewed quite a few buskers in the past, and most of them had heard of Ed. There were stories galore: about him busking on Christmas Day; about disturbed residents pouring buckets of water on his head; about him threatening to put superglue in the locks of the same disturbed residents' cars; about him trying to get folk bands to put him up for the night; about him turning up uninvited to the premier of a documentary about the life of Sam Phillips from Sun Records, only to be manhandled to the floor by bouncers, then rescued by the documentary's subject and lavished with a front-row seat. He was a mythical figure in country, rock and roll and folk circles: a modern-day minstrel of no fixed abode who felt that he had been fleeced when, in their search for a soundtrack composer, the producers of the
Lord Of The Rings
trilogy had overlooked him in favour of Enya. My own experience of his music had been limited to two olde English ballads he'd played at Nashville
Babylon, a regular Sunday afternoon country rock get-together in Camden. Both songs had stood distinctly apart from the warped Americana that the crowd had heard from other performers that afternoon, yet in that setting the concept of Ed had seemed almost normal (he could have been dressing the way he did ironically, or for a dare, or seriously – it didn't matter; it was London). Now it seemed less normal. And Hastings quite clearly thought so.

I'd lied to Peter in the build-up to meeting Ed, giving him the impression that getting together with him would be an out-and-out fun thing, when only a small part of me believed it. A bigger part of me sensed that this would be one of the harshest parts of Peter's education – a stark lesson in the downside of the rock and roll existence. Ed's life, by all accounts, had been somewhat tragic, and rarely more so than in the last few months. In truth, I was here for two reasons: not simply on behalf of Peter, but also on behalf of Big Steve, organiser of Nashville Babylon and lead singer of the alternative country band The Arlenes, who was worried about Ed and wanted me to talk him into returning to London.

The way Ed told it, the trouble had all started towards the end of last year, when police had broken down the door of his room in the West End hostel he was staying in. Exactly why they'd broken in wasn't quite made clear – not to Peter and me, and not to Ed by the sound of it. But Ed had been thoroughly spooked. He'd packed his few possessions – tights, the armour that he'd bought from an antique clothing shop in Nottingham, the cloaks that he'd made for himself,
some tapes, a dozen or so medieval weapons – into his Reliant Robin and taken off, with no aim other than to see where he ended up.

‘Cool!' I enthused to Ed. ‘That's kind of what me and Peter are doing. Just rolling along. Trying not to let the sound of our wheels drive us crazy.'

Ed appraised us silently, apparently not thinking it was cool at all. He continued the story.

‘I slept in the car for a while,' he said. ‘You'd be surprised how comfortable those things are. Then I found a place up the road from here.'

Earlier, on the phone, he had invited us up to the ‘place up the road from here', and I'd politely skirted the issue. It wasn't that I didn't want to see his bedsit: I did, very much. But Ed had talked about ‘snails on the floor' and ‘tapeworms' living in the flat below and I was worried about Peter. Sure, I wanted to show him a heart-rending aspect of the musical existence and give him a crazy adventure, but I didn't want to scare the living daylights out of him.

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