years back i was living above a second hand record shop in the centre
of town.A funny little place specialising in second hand ska and reggae
records. the owner was a veteran of the old school, a guy in his late
forties who looked like john lennon in his mind, but not to anyone else’s
eyes. He went by the name of The King and the shop was his castle, where
held court in his own kind of way.
He used his shop as a way to get hold of good records for himself cheap
from collections and make profit on what was left. My flat shared the
doorstep with the shop and i was always in there listening to records
on his all in one 1970s portable turntable setup. two turntables, a two
channel mixer, built in speakers, microphone facility and preamp all packed
into a black veneer flightcase. it was almost the size of a coffin. a
power cord plugged directly into the case and you were away.
be in the flat reading books, listening to the reggae skank booming through
my floorboards and would inevitably end up wandering down there sooner
or later. sharing a doorstep meant i could see anyone who came to my flat
through the shop window, so i'd be in there most days, at ground level,
seeing what the action was. there was a regular crew of characters who
passed by to talk shop and talk shit and take shits and drink my coffee
when The King ran out. Conversation could be fast or slow depending on
the company but regardless of subject matter a smutty sense of humour
would run throughout. this was the king's influence. he always saw to
One time he put on a gig with an old ska legend, a guy way past his prime
who's willing to do anything to keep the glory going. he still feels the
music, but he doesn't like what he does in terms of having to get up there
with his candle almost burned out and churn out lacklustre versions of
his old hits when he knows he should be able to kick back and appreciate
rather than still having to strive but somehow it never worked out that
way for him. what else can he do? he's got to keep going because he needs
the money and what else is he gonna do? everybody has the capacity to
fuck up, so you can understand him but it was sad to watch, believe me.
Let me explain how far the man who twenty years ago would have drawn a
crowd big enough to fill a football stadium had fallen - he was now playing
at a low key workings man club type setup with the maroon carpet then
the small wooden dancefloor in front of an eight inch high stage with
a bar at the side and a pool table at the back.
I'd gone there with a friend of mine, Nat, a half polish girl of an elfish
posture with blonde dreadlocks. We sat at our round table and watched
as The King played records on his stereo coffin hooked up to the PA system,
looking around and seeing a most bizarre collection of people in the place.
It was old school alright. I was thinking, how many poor bastards have
had wedding receptions here? how many lucky bastards have had wedding
receptions here? the scene by the wall over to the right of the room was
the image of a Martin Parr photograph, one of the ones full of people
indulging in the mediocre side of British life. In front of us was a skinhead
straight from the seventies, tight jeans, black boots, check shirt tucked
in with braces, stood on his own right on the edge of the dancefloor,
swaying to the music, locked into the skank. feet not moving, rooted,
just nodding his head and bobbing his body and swinging his arms alternately
to the rhythm. simple pleasures. For a moment i thought i saw a wedding
cake on one of the tables but i was mistaken.
We went off to play pool, you could here the balls echoing from the pockets
over the music. Our ska legend came on and failed to light any kind of
fire in the place. it was a sham. a non-event. the band sounded like some
duo you'd find in a thai hotel foyer or terrible bar with a guy and his
keyboard, the sound of which can only make you laugh while the nervous,
desperate vocalist, shuffles with the discomfort of prostituting themselves
through their performance.
I'm sat watching the spectacle of a man in freefall from a table at the
back of the room with a rasta guy who sells records to the king. we're
laughing at the whole scene. we're laughing at seeing a legend being reduced
to being a cheap parody of himself. we're laughing at the crowd of deadbeats
and hollow people with no insides and no kind of life, just an existence.
we're laughing at the drunken state of the king. there's a girl shooting
pool with her man and i'm watching her. late 20's, short blonde hair,
great body, great rack. I'm looking at her ass as she bends over to take
a shot. the rasta sees me taking her in. 'i bet you wouldn't mind getting
up that, eh?' 'it looks good from here.' 'i've been up that,' he chuckles,
'it's good.' There's no chance anyway, she's off the pool table and on
her man now, arms round his neck and smiling a big crooked smile, flashing
him a look with her eyes. a look that was capable of causing a whole lot
of trouble. By this time our ska legend has packed up and left the stage
after struggling to convince the majority of the crowd that he was actually
there in the first place. he had barely lasted twenty minutes. i could
hear the balls clattering round on the pool table. Nat was playing pool
with a couple of people i recognised from the bar out the back of my flat.
Just then the king makes his way to the stage with a drunken stomp and
clumsily takes the microphone. He's swaying from drink but i know he's
had a dab of speed too so he's alert and ready to talk shit and spew forth
like a burst sewer. 'Our ska legend has gone and finished 'cause he's
knackered. he's old and past it and has gone for a lie down.'
The man he was talking about was obviously able to hear all this. there's
some laughter in the room but there's also something else you can sense,
an underlying unease to the whole situation.the king starts drawing the
raffle that had been taken earlier. (i told you this guy was old school.)
some guy wins a cheap third prize. i can't remember now what it was, i
just remember it was unmemorable. the king is drunk, he knows his night
that he has been talking up around town for six weeks has been a washout,
he's getting a bit loose of the tongue and gives the guy a fair chunk
of abuse along with his prize. the atmosphere begins to turn and then
it happens. the king loses it and gives way to the impulses most affected
by the booze and the drugs. second prize goes to a foreign girl. when
the king realises she can't understand english and doesn't grasp his description
of the prize, he leers at her from the microphone stand and says into
the microphone 'you've won a shaftin' from me, luv.' she understands that
alright. who wouldn't. the atmosphere of the place turns in an instant
as the king stumbles forward to give her a prize and reaches for a tit
while trying to give the unsuspecting prizewinner an inappropriate style
of kiss. after that the king lost all control, he was completely given
over to the hands of the booze and the speed and the adrenaline and the
testosterone, and the hands of all of those things had completely let
go of the reins. we didn't even get to first prize, the king forgot about
the whole contest and was acting purely on his maniacally twisted wits.
Focusing on the microphone he tries to pursue the subject one final desparate
'if any pussy, wants a screw, come see me in the toilets in five minutes.
i'll give you first fucking prize.'
the place fell silent. on stage, the king just hung from the mic stand
like a dirty old rag. i laughed and shook my head, looked at the rasta
and he was doing the same. we were embarrassed for the king, and for the
people he had insulted. all this was too much for most of the others.
a fair portion of the crowd got up and left with an air of disgust and
the event descended quickly into a non event. i looked over to where we'd
been sat earlier. the skinhead was still stood in the same place, militantly
bobbing away to the skank, seemingly oblivious to everything that had
just taken place, but there was no music - the rhythm he swayed to was
somewhere in his head.
I left soon after with the people from the bar near mine, two girls and
a guy, odd in their own way, but then isn't everyone? We went to the bar
i know them from, predictably. The girls, Anna and Julie, asking me questions
and then looking at each other and laughing at my answers like they had
some kind of private joke. i don't like in-jokers. Trying to amuse themselves
and feel good about themselves and thinking that they're clever because
they've got one up on you when really they're wasting their time because
i couldn't care less. They were playing a pointless game. if they really
were clever they would realise that the only way to live is to cut the
bullshit out of your life rather than waste your time with the kind of
fooling they were given over to. Dave, the guy they were with was a good
kid, he offered to give me harmonica lessons and apologised for the girls.
i don't know how or why he put up with them. i never bothered to ask.
i got the hell out of there, i'd seen enough for one night. as i got to
my doorstep the king was just pulling up outside with the rasta and a
few others. he was radiating incoherence but still had the intention of
an after party back at his castle. i didn't bother speaking to him, just
entered my flat and went up the stairs with nothing else to do but lay
on the sofa and listen to the skank boom from below. as i lay on the edge
of the sofa and the edge of consciousness i imagined the skinhead still
stood in the same position swaying to the music in his head in an empty
room, an image punctuated only a moment later by the sound of the police
turning up and i realised that the night had come to it's logical conclusion.