Read Educating Peter Online

Authors: Tom Cox

Educating Peter (9 page)

It had been an eventful fortnight for Peter, in my absence. First, he'd gone up a belt in karate, then, at a friend's party the same night, he'd kissed the daughter of a minor TV chef. It had been a heat-of-the-moment thing, a direct product of his elation at the new belt, but now the girl was following him around, sending him notes during Geography and saying he looked like the guitarist in Staind, a new metal band that Peter didn't even like.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, Toast Hero, the band that he looked upon as his lo-fidelity side project, had split up. Except they weren't called Toast Hero any more; they were called Toast Punishment. Goat Punishment, meanwhile – who, I was relieved to hear, were still going strong – were now called Goat Hero. The name switch had been suggested by Peter's friend Raf, who'd decided that Goat Hero suited the nature of his new songs better, and subsequently approved by the three members of Toast Hero (two of whom were also members of Goat Punishment anyway). But now, with Toast Punishment no more, all of this seemed something of a moot point.

‘I mean, technically,' I suggested to Peter, ‘now Toast Punishment have gone, Goat Hero could be called Goat Hero or Toast Punishment without anyone having any problem with it.'

Toast Punishment had disintegrated because Sam, the guitarist, had grouped together with Tiger, the drummer, and put forward a motion to introduce rapping and sampling into the group's sound. Peter, who hated all rap music, had recoiled in terror at this suggestion and threatened to leave, then gone around to Raf's house and told Raf about his growing dissatisfaction with Sam's insistence on inserting words like ‘yo', ‘homey' and ‘beeaaatch' into his lyrics. This had somehow got back to Sam, and the group had imploded in the school's quadrangle at breaktime. Peter knew that Raf, who'd long been pressing for him to leave his side project, had probably been stirring things up, but he didn't care. Toast Punishment, he told me philosophically, were only meant
to be great for a short time, and that time had passed.

‘Did you ever get around to recording a demo?' I asked.

‘Not in the end, no,' said Peter.

I was glad that Peter now felt able to share the more intricate details of his life with me, and I wondered if in some small way it was my fresh means of transport that was inspiring the new confidence. I'd decided to leave the van as a surprise until I arrived to pick him up, and his reaction had been encouraging, pitched somewhere between disbelief and confusion. Now, as we approached Waterloo Bridge in the tail-end of London's all-day rush hour, he seemed less slumped in his seat than usual. Edie had joined us for the trip, and Peter appeared far less withdrawn in her presence than he'd been during his first day in mine. Moreover, despite the fact that we'd been listening to the
The Best Of Steely Dan
for the last fifty minutes, he'd managed to refrain from putting his Walkman on.

On the opposite bank of the Thames, about half a mile away, we could just make out the lights of the Royal Festival Hall, where, in half an hour or so, we would meet up with my friends Steve and Sue, and take our seats to watch a rare performance by one of my favourite songwriters of all time: Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys. It would be the first gig that Peter and I had attended together, but I wasn't certain he knew what was in store for him.

‘What kind of place is the Royal Festival Hall?' he'd asked me earlier.

‘Oh, it's a big place. Very posh. All-seated. Expensive drinks,' I'd replied.

‘Seated? So there won't be any moshing, then?'

‘Er, I doubt it. People might sway from side to side quite vigorously, though.'

Peter, it transpired, knew three Beach Boys songs: ‘the one with the weird video that they always show on VH-1', ‘the one about surfing' and ‘the one about California'. He thought his dad had a copy of their
Pet Sounds
album, but wasn't quite sure, and was fairly certain he'd never been exposed to its delights. There was, of course, no reason that he should have been, yet I couldn't help inwardly gasping on hearing this. There were a few occasions during my time with Peter when it suddenly, fully dawned on me just how young he was, and this was one of them. Wasn't it weird, I found myself musing, that people were still being born as late as 1988? Somehow, the idea seemed deeply wrong, a cruel trick played by some malevolent god: the only hit single The Beach Boys had scored during Peter's lifetime was their risible 1989 nostalgia-fest, ‘Kokomo'.

It was hard enough to explain the legend of The Beach Boys to someone who
did
think
Pet Sounds
was their greatest album, let alone someone who'd never heard it and was under the impression that the group only recorded one song about surfing. Between trying to manoeuvre the transit around irate taxis and senseless bus drivers, I attempted to fill Peter in on the essential elements of the group's story: the early good-time hits followed by the descent into madness and darkness, friendship with Charles Manson and strange songs about worms. To me, this was stuff that had been repeated by so many deferential rock critics that even
grazing the subject seemed like a monumental cliché. But to Peter it was new and mysterious. Or – as was equally likely – plain boring and fogeyish.

The career of Brian Wilson, who'd written the vast majority of The Beach Boys' best songs, was currently enjoying an Indian summer of sorts, which was a good job, since its ordinary summer had been unnaturally curtailed. During the late Sixties, I explained to Peter, Wilson had gone into hiding, taking vast amounts of acid, writing the odd classic orchestral pop song and leaving the rest of the band to tour without him. Wilson was pop's saddest casualty, and endless stories circulated about his strange domestic habits. He insisted, so the legend went, on having his feet in a sandbox as he composed on the piano, and when fellow icons like Paul McCartney and Phil Spector came to his house to wish him well, he locked himself in his garden shed and hid from them, convinced they were there to harm him. Yet, with just Wilson's rare bursts of inspiration and stockpiled demos to draw from, the remaining Beach Boys continued to make terrific records, with Wilson's younger brothers, Carl and Dennis, finding a strength in their own songwriting abilities that frequently surpassed their older brother's. These – 1970's
Sunflower
, 1971's
Surf's Up
, 1972's
Carl And The Passions
and 1973's
Holland
– were shadowier, more damaged albums than before, but, in the eyes of many, even more beautiful than their more famous mid-Sixties predecessors.

The oldest Wilson spent most of the Seventies in bed, apparently rehearsing for a Grizzly Adams lookalike contest. His weight ballooned, then the fat
seemed to fall off him overnight, but in neither state did he look healthy. The late Seventies and early Eighties saw him make a series of aborted comeback attempts, but his mental state remained fragile, and wasn't aided by the efforts of a psychiatrist, who, it was said at the time, turned him into a nervous wreck who had to ask permission before going to the toilet. Carl and Dennis, meanwhile, hung out with Ronald Reagan, fell off yachts to a watery death and recorded ‘Kokomo'. But now the psychiatrist had been seen off by Wilson's family and friends, and Wilson was finally back on the road, singing songs he'd never sung live before, with a backing band he considered better than The Beach Boys in their prime.

Over the last couple of years, I'd become friends with this band, meeting up for bangers and mash with them when they were in the UK. They were called The Wondermints and, when they weren't working with Wilson, they made great records of their own, bursting with sunshine melodies and a rhapsody of impenetrable lyrics about outer-space and underwater love. The leading figures in the group were Darian and Nick, both of whom were chiefly recognisable by the unusual outline of their heads. Nick was never seen without a furry Russian hat, while Darian had a quiff of such immense size and wiriness that it wasn't unheard of for complete strangers to request to touch it in public. Each was an unimpeachably nice guy obsessed with good food and antique keyboards. It was Nick and Darian who'd been responsible for obtaining tickets for us for tonight, a show which had sold out within hours of being advertised.

‘Uh. Mmmff,' said Peter, when I'd finished relating this to him. The tone of the ‘mmmff' seemed to hint towards at least a buried modicum of awe for the story, but without Jenny's superior translation skills it was difficult to tell for sure.

I'd wanted to take Peter not just to a gig, but to an event, and this, quite clearly, was what this evening was set to be. To our immediate rear sat Bobby Gillespie, frontman for the dance-rockers turned electro-nihilists Primal Scream – a proper rock star whose hard-living, tough-talking rebel credentials were denigrated only by his rumoured passion for organic vegetables. To our left sat Ray Davies, former leader of The Kinks. To our right sat Colin Larkin, a man who was rumoured to have the largest record collection in Britain. It was clear that Wilson, who'd once been the brittle genius behind America's biggest band, was now a cult hero on an unprecedented scale. Would he be fat, thin? Would he have a sandbox with him? Would he sing ‘Surf's Up'? The low humming sound in the air was that of a few thousand people wondering these things. Just one voice seemed defiantly out of tune.

‘Everyone's so old,' whispered Peter, surreptitiously munching his way through a bag of Frazzles.

‘I don't know. What about him?' I pointed to a lanky, bleach-haired kid of about seventeen, taking his seat a couple of rows ahead of us.

‘Mmm. Suppose.'

‘Don't worry. Just think: you'll be a step ahead of all your friends after this. In a few years, everyone will think you're really cool for liking The Beach Boys.'

‘You reckon?'

‘I promise. I used to think Beach Boys stuff was old and boring when I was your age, too.'

‘It's not that I think it's old and boring. Just, y'know, not very heavy.'

‘But don't you think it would be a good move for Goat Hero to be influenced by something not very heavy? That could be really subversive.'

‘Neh. That would just be silly.'

Thus far in his life, Peter had been to see five live bands: Offspring, Kitty, Slipknot, Linkin Park and AC/DC. It wasn't a vast amount of experience, but even if it had been, I felt sure that the next two hours would give him a glimpse of a different kind of hero worship – nothing to do with showmanship, or shock value, or heaviness, or risk.

Wilson, it turned out, was neither fat nor slim, but somewhere in between. Each time he arrived on stage – for the normal set, and for the trio of encores that followed – he jogged to his seat in the manner of a slightly absurd uncle miming out everyday actions for his three-year-old nephew. During each song, he acted out lyrics – a small circle with his hands for ‘sun', a hand on his heart for ‘love', a finger pointed towards the audience for ‘you' – and, as each came to a close, he turned to the audience and asked, ‘Wasn't that a lovely little song?' The whole routine had a way of turning grown men into milksops, and seemed to be having the same effect on the nihilists behind us as repeated viewings of
Steel Magnolias
tended to have on broody housewives. Everywhere you looked, people seemed to be striving to win a Who Loves Brian
The Most? contest. Yet Brian wasn't stylish, or handsome, and he certainly didn't rock. He was just a slightly simple-looking guy with a goofy smile and an emotionally naked way with a melody. If you were an alien, sent to the Royal Festival Hall to study the habits of human life forms, you'd find the scene quite hard to grasp. If you were a melancholy teenager, you might find it even harder. I wasn't completely sure
I
understood it.

After the show, Darian supplied the five of us with tickets for the aftershow party. I liked to think that this was because I'd complimented him on his quiff the last time I'd seen him, but I knew that it was more likely to be a gesture aimed in the direction of Steve and Sue.

Among those closest to them, Steve and Sue were known as The Goldens, both because of the colour of their hair and the shining inspiration of their personalities. In modern music industry terms they were a genuine phenomenon of fandom: a couple of people who had no financial ties to the music industry, could offer a musician nothing in terms of sexual or career-orientated gain, yet were fast friends with a huge number of bands. If you were a musician making Sixties-style pop in America, slightly eccentric, and had had a record out in the late Nineties or early Noughties, the chances are you would have exchanged a compilation tape with them. Their home was a constant thoroughfare of psychedelic drifters, wayfaring strummers and rag-tag power-poppers, to the extent that extra room for their guests (and Darian's quiff) had been a major factor in their last house move. Most weirdly of all, they did it all for love.

In short, they were good people for Peter to be around.

Although it was already ten thirty, and I'd promised Jenny that Peter would be home not much later than eleven, I felt the chance to go backstage was too important a part of his training to pass up. Also, it was obvious this would be no normal celebrity party filled with the usual music industry liggers and poseurs. Tonight, explained Darian, there would be two parties: the one upstairs, which people pretended was the party, and the one downstairs, where the real action was. I thought the concept seemed somewhat dishonest, and said a lot about the corrupt nature of the music business.

‘So which one are our passes for?' I asked him.

‘Oh, the
real
one,' said Darian.

‘Great!' I said, punching the air.

Down and down The Wondermints led us, through the bowels of the Festival Hall, until it seemed we could only drop out of its bottom onto something hard. Eventually we found ourselves in a lift the size of a small car, already stuffed full of eager-looking Americans complimenting one another on their knowledge of obscure Farfisa keyboards. Peter looked scared, his mouth tight, his eyes jerking to our right. I followed them to the corner of the lift, where a bulkyish, square-jawed man of around sixty stood humming to himself. He looked kind of familiar.

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