Read Educating Peter Online

Authors: Tom Cox

Educating Peter (7 page)

I looked across at my young companion now, wondering if I'd made the right decision. He was picking at his lip, not giving the impression that he had any living daylights to scare.

Every so often, during a break in Ed's monologue, I would try to get Peter involved in the conversation, by (if Ed talked about choral music) interjecting with ‘Peter's mum and dad like choral music!', or (if Ed talked about lutes) interjecting with ‘Peter got taught how to play the lute at his school!' This would merely result in a small pause, or, at best, a grunt from Peter and an ‘Oh' from Ed, before Ed resumed the
monologue and Peter resumed playing with the small hunk of Eccles cake that was left on his plate. I was starting to get an inkling of how stepfathers feel when they're trying to get kids from separate marriages to acknowledge one another's existence. Peter was either genuinely bored or doing a great job of pretending to be nonchalant about the irregular nature of the situation. Ed's radar, meanwhile, didn't seem to pick up Peter at all. He was too busy telling his life story. Still, you couldn't really blame him: it was an interesting one.

Since he started busking in the late Sixties, Ed told us, he had performed in eleven different countries and 250 different cities. He announced, proudly, that buskers had been the Queen Mother's favourite form of entertainer. ‘Some of the richest people in the world!' he said. I assumed he was talking figuratively. In the old, good days, he explained, he could easily earn £200 for a day's work, but now he was lucky if he made an eighth of that. ‘Nobody cares in this place,' he lamented, gesturing towards an obese woman in a baseball cap across the road who was walking a German shepherd, as if it was all her fault. ‘My foot hurts too much to do more than three or four hours at a time. And I wouldn't busk at night. Too dangerous here.' He always carries his weapons with him – a sword, a bow or an axe. ‘The police have confiscated them a few times, but they've always had to give them back. It's part of ancient law, y'know: a busker is allowed to be armed.'

Ed was born in North East England but moved to Memphis in the mid-Sixties, and his drawn-out vowels reflect more of the latter. His wandering spirit
had taken him from a cardboard box beneath the Brooklyn Bridge in New York all the way to the Robin Hood statue in Nottingham, which used to be one of his favourite places to play. I told him I spent the first twenty years of my life in Nottingham. ‘Do you know the story from the early Nineties about the busker who split his landlord's head open with a broadsword?' he asked me. I said I vaguely remembered something of the sort. ‘That was me!' he said, bristling slightly. ‘He did kung-fu on me and I whacked him one. He got forty-five stitches. I got seven months in prison.' Ed talked a lot about violence – the winos who'd attacked him while he busked, the drunken townies who'd tried to steal his instruments – and seemed to feel that the modern city high street was no place to hang out unarmed.

The best period of his life was in Memphis, where he met Elvis's dad (‘lovely bloke'), refinished the guitar that The King used on his '68 Comeback Tour, and, with his band The Jesters, cut some rocking demos for Sam Phillips of Sun Records. He recalled the day that Phillips asked him to sign to the label in that vivid way people reserve for the moments that have made or ruined them.

‘I'd been told by a friend that I shouldn't do it, that I'd be signing my life away. I was stupid. I said no, and almost got into a punch-up with him [Phillips]. Biggest mistake of my life. Everything changed that day.' A tear came into his eye as he said it, and I thought I saw a rare flicker of emotion from Peter. It was hard to know what to say, so I offered everyone another coffee.

Earlier, before we'd settled on the coffee house as a good place to sit down, Ed had suggested we get a drink at a pub across the road from the town square, but, having entered it, he'd looked around nervously, then led us out. ‘Tapeworm,' he'd hissed, by way of explanation. Throughout our encounter, he maintained a strange combination of paranoid energy and stoned lethargy, which seemed to fit quite well with the conflicting mixture of hippy philosophy and macho hostility that made up his worldview. The sad thing was, he talked a lot of sense, between the bitterness. It was hard to imagine a right place for Ed in modern Britain, but it quite clearly wasn't Hastings. Had he thought about going back to London? ‘Yeah, but it's a question of getting the money together. And where would I go?' Would he think about playing at Nashville Babylon again? ‘I don't know. It depends on the price. Playing for nothing – that's just a mug's game for me these days.'

It was a blustery day in Hastings, oppressed by a low grey sky, and Peter and I found ourselves wandering around the town centre in a kind of daze as morning turned into afternoon, like survivors of our own mini-earthquake. Peter looked shivery and underdressed, with just the flimsiest of AC/DC tour t-shirts under his big leather jacket. We had no real reason to stay here – the record shops catered for neither my love of adult-oriented rock nor Peter's yen for obscure Norwegian blood metal, the lone guitar shop we found was closed, and the unnaturally high quota of baseball caps and ‘Everything's A Pound!' stores was spiritually
unsettling – but something unfathomable dictated that we didn't quite feel ready to leave. As we'd watched Ed limp off up the street towards his snail-infested flat, cape flapping in the wind, we'd seen two teenage boys gesticulate and shout towards him from an adjacent street. The boys were roughly Peter's age, and their comments – not quite loud enough for Ed or us to hear, but loud enough to convince the teenagers, in their minuscule minds, that they were doing something extremely brave – almost certainly didn't relate to what a stylish fellow our busking friend was. It suddenly occurred to me that Ed might not have been wholly comfortable in Peter's presence. Teenagers were probably the bane of his existence. I wondered about Peter, and how he would have behaved towards Ed on his own, or with his friends.

‘Were you unsettled by him?' I enquired, as we strolled along the seafront.

‘Neh,' said Peter. ‘Not really. I was a bit worried when he got the axe out. But that was sort of cool as well.'

‘But his stories must have made you a bit sad?'

‘Yeah, sort of. I dunno. But I thought he might have been making some stuff up. Like the women.' Ed had talked about ‘girls' a lot – how their quality differed from town to town – in the manner that you might expect of someone a third of his age. ‘He seemed to think he could pull anyone, which was weird, with him being so old and dressing like that. And the knife fights and that – I wasn't sure if they were true. And some of the bad stuff – he seemed to have, like, brought it upon himself. I mean, it was obvious he should have signed to that record label.'

‘Yeah, but people were kind of naïve in the Sixties. They had lots of silly ideas about The Man, and sticking it to him. Ed was probably a bit like everyone else: he didn't want to sell his soul to the devil. But while everyone else just pretended, Ed actually followed the whole thing through. And look where it left him.'

‘Yeah. Fighting Tapeworm.'

‘You didn't fancy going to his flat then?'

‘Neh.'

To me, Ed was properly three-dimensional: hyper-real. Half of me wanted to drive him back to London, offer him a bed for the night and put out his records for him. The other half was slightly frightened of him. For days, even weeks after I met him, he was there, at the edge of my conscience. I wanted to write a book about him, a film. Yet I already felt guilty for exploiting him by using him as part of Peter's education.

What I couldn't quite gauge was how real he was to Peter. How would he describe Ed to his friends? As a mad old guy who thought he was Robin Hood, or as a fascinating relic? Would he even mention him to them? When he got back to his natural environment, would he see Ed in the same way as the fourteen-year-old me had seen Daft George, the man who had minced up and down the lane where my gran lived, reciting poetry while dressed in a kaftan and a hard hat? In other words: in a small-minded way which ignored the baggage of personal history? It was hard to tell.

Back in the car, as we trundled along the coast road behind what seemed like every one of South East England's most wheezing, sluggish HGVs, Peter
slipped into one of his stoical phases. That is to say, one of his even-more-stoic-than-normal phases. I liked to think he was chewing the morning's experience over, adding it to his psychological armour. On the other hand, I worried that I'd done the wrong thing, let him see too much too early in his apprenticeship. During the journey down to Hastings, I'd felt we'd been finally getting to know each other, talking almost constantly – about his karate classes, about rock stars, about soft drinks, about Goat Punishment – but now we were silent. Earlier, we'd alternated between the boxless tapes that resided permanently in my car (Styx, Aerosmith, The Pretty Things, Sly And The Family Stone) and the ones Peter had brought in his rucksack (Puddle Of Mudd, AC/DC, Slipknot), but now the radio seemed to have somehow tuned itself to Classic FM without either of us noticing. The silence, punctured only by Peter crunching his fourth bag of McCoys in as many hours, was something cinematic and profound – pregnant with the understanding that when something was finally said, it would have to sum things up in the deepest manner imaginable. Normally, I would have broken it, but my pedagogical instinct told me it would have to be Peter's job this time. So I waited patiently until, just as we approached Lewes, he finally turned around to speak, his face bustling with double-decker revelation.

‘I've been thinking,' he said, ‘about buying a new jacket.'

THE JACKET

‘
WHAT'S WRONG WITH
the one you're wearing?'

‘It's not long enough.'

‘Looks pretty long to me.'

‘No. It's got to be longer. It's more goth for it to be longer. You should see Raf's – it's really long, like, soooo goth. A bit like the one Brandon Lee wears in
The Crow
.'

‘Oh.
The Crow
. I remember that. Bit rubbish – all that brooding and silliness.'

‘I love it.'

‘It's a long time since I saw it.'

‘He's just so awesome. And it's just so weird that he got killed while they were filming it.'

‘Yeah – you wonder why on earth there would be real bullets in the gun, if it was just a movie set. Do you think that makes you like it more?'

‘Mmmm. Dunno. Haven't really thought about it. Maybe.'

‘I like Angel from
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
– he's
got a big billowy dark coat. I'm onto series five of that now, where Spike decides he loves Buffy. Dead good.'

‘Uh.'

‘So what else makes up the goth look, apart from the coat?'

‘Well, big boots. And straight hair.'

‘Yours is a bit curly, isn't it?'

‘Yeah. It's really irritating. I try brushing it, but it just gets a sort of straw mushroom effect. It kind of looks better when it's wet.'

‘I know what you mean. I had straight hair until I was fourteen, then I woke up one morning and it was like wire wool. Nothing I could do with it, and when I tried to grow it, it just went out, not down. It's kind of okay and straightish again now, but it only seemed to get okay when I stopped thinking about it.'

‘I'm seriously thinking about getting mine straightened.'

‘I'm not sure if I'd advise it. My cousin tried that and it started falling out, and the effect lasted virtually no time at all. She was well pissed off.'

‘Really?'

‘We sound a bit like girls, don't we?'

‘A little bit.'

‘I'm glad nobody can hear this conversation.'

‘At least we don't run like girls.'

‘Good point. Do you want to put some music on? This classical shit's alright in traffic jams but it's bugging the crap out of me now.'

‘Okay. What?'

‘What about that – the one on the floor, by your left
foot. Yeah, there, just under that Frazzles packet . . . No, those are Wotsits.'

‘Cheap Trick. Who are they?'

‘People called them the metal Beatles. They're probably not heavy metal as you know it, but they do rock. Don't worry – they don't use lutes. The guitarist has a twelve-neck guitar or something . . . This song's ace; it's what they used to start their concerts with. There's another really good song a couple of tracks on that you might know because Shakin' Stevens covered it.'

‘Who's Shakin' Stevens?'

‘Don't worry. Forget I said it.'

‘Oh. I like this.'

CHEAP TRICK –
IN COLOR
(
CBS
, 1977)

TOM
: ‘
CHEAP TRICK'S
second album is their best because its drums are like sofas for your ears, because Robin Zander's voice is the spirit of rock encapsulated, and because it features none of the sentimental goof boy indulgences or overproduction of the band's later work. It's a slicker record than the group's eponymous debut, but with just as much energy, and an example of guitars sounding as smooth as they should ever sound, but not a hair smoother. Here, the Trick, Chicago's finest, offer the perfect bridge between the best kind of hard rock chest-beating and new wave's burning immediacy. The record's sleeve, with the pretty boy half of the band pictured on the front, and the geek half pictured on the rear, sums up music which is just as playful and dangerous on the inside as it is sweet and shiny on the outside.

‘If the songs on
In Color
were potential suitors for your daughter, they'd be somewhere between The Fonz and Matt Dillon, and would be certain to wink salaciously at you before they peeled out from the kerb outside your house. “I
Want You To Want Me”, “Oh Caroline”, “Downed”, “Southern Girls” – the majority of classic Trick is here, in its pouting, yearning pomp. None of it lasts more than three minutes, none of it leaves you less than dizzy, none of it takes the blindest bit of notice that, somewhere to its east, punk is in its heyday. Zander, Tom Petersson, Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos don't care about revolution; they care about motorbikes, skinny ties, your sixteen-year-old daughter and amp specifications. They also leave you in no doubt that these things are the essence of high-adrenalin music, and that you'd be greedy to want anything more.'

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