I remember my good friend David Blyth, with whom I suffered my only year at Auckland Grammar School (why, oh why do parents send their children to these psychologically neutering places – I despised the place and still do), saying to me about a decade ago that we seemed to be a charmed bunch. Of our – at the time – tight knit group, leaving school in the mid-seventies, all had survived more or less intact. Sure, we’d had our share of divorces and parental loss, a couple of substance problems, but as a whole, we had survived. After secondary school, through University and in the years that followed we’d been a close group; some had drifted off overseas, some had simply drifted off, but the bond, however, stretched it became, was somehow always there and still is. Those parties, weekends, regular road trips to Coromandel and extended periods on Waiheke, plus the odd tangled intra-group relationship, provided a strong, unspoken, personal link between us.
I thought about David’s observation the other week for the first time in many years, as I flew into Bali from Kuala Lumpur. I thought about it, and it saddened me that it’s no longer true. What triggered the thought was the song Lady Grinning Soul, the Bowie track off Aladdin Sane, a song that is cleverly wrapped around Mike Garson‘s cascading piano.
It’s perhaps the most elegant David Bowie has ever been, a liltingly perfect, slightly cynical, love song – a perfect song from what in retrospect, despite the fact it meant so much at the time, is probably his most less than perfect album from his most perfect decade. It was a decade when he was – and please don’t try and argue this, you can’t – the most important rock’n’roll star on the planet; the catalyst to almost everything that mattered in the decades to come. And some that perhaps should be forgotten: it was a long tumble to the self-humiliation of the duet of Dancing in the Streets with Jagger, only a few years into the next decade.
But that’s beside the point of this post.
She comes / she goes /she lays belief on me
That line, which opens the lyric, seemed largely appropriate to my thoughts, and it forced my mind back to December 1973, when I bought that particular album. Thirty four years ago, give or take a month or four.
That day, I forget the exact day of the month, although the 8th seems instinctively right, I’d taken delivery of my first car, a red Austin 850 Mini (CZ9598), which I’d bought from my mother. She in turn had inherited it from her mother, who’d bought it new from Seabrook Fowlds in Symonds Street in 1964. That morning Mum had handed me the keys.
I’d taken my new car to my girlfriend’s house. Jane Wilson lived in Entrican Avenue in Remuera, and there I went, proudly showing off, what was to a boy, a major purchase. Nobody else in my group had their own car – to satisfy the cost of it I was working three shifts a week at KFC in Panmure to pay it off.
After manoeuvring past Jane’s mother we headed into the city, stopping in Newmarket to pickup a new friend, Marc Baron. David Blyth had introduced me to Marc. He was from Whangarei, via a boarding school in Hamilton, and was new to the city. I’d met him once before, Jane had not.
Anyway, we found Marc at the gate and headed into the city. We were on a mission. We had decided to buy, with some of my KFC funds, a copy of Aladdin Sane. It had for a part of our generation, become the essential soundtrack in recent weeks, with god knows how many people painting the distinctive lightning stripe across their face from time to time. Odd tribal nonsense of course, but we were kids: Tony DeFries would have been thrilled …
So, from Direction Records in Queens Arcade we bought it. Direction, with their shop in Darby Street too, were the cool kids on the record retail block. Just being in the shop made one feel like you were slightly more switched on than the masses at the EMI Sore or the like, or – god forbid – McKenzies’ Record Bar in Vulcan Lane. They sometimes had imports; they had their own label and magazine (the very influential Hot Licks).
We headed back to Jane’s place. On the way, I offered the album to her as a gift, and she produced a pre-printed sticker from her bag, with her name and address on it and placed it neatly on the back cover.
Exhilarated, I turned down Shore Road, one of the steeper inclines in Auckland, and as we reached the bottom (probably going a little faster than we should have been) a car stopped on the left turned out into me. We spun a full 360 before sliding to a dizzy halt. The woman in the other car got out, making accusatory remarks about young hoodlums as she did so, before a passing police car arrived on the scene; he ascertained that my car was still drivable, but hers was not and took details and names. we then – both shaken and stirred – drove the wobbling Mini up the hill to David Blyth’s place, where we made the necessary phone calls and sat, waiting for parental judgement, listening to Aladdin Sane over and over.
The upshot was that the women, a doctor, tried to press charges, but the police exonerated me and instead charged her. The Mini was repairable (and indeed became The Suburban Reptiles band car some three years later, before being retired by me in 1979 after falling over a cliff in Parnell – although that wasn’t the end: it was repaired, handed back to my mother and survived in the family for another five years before it was sold again).
Over the next few years, things evolved. About a year later, Jane ran off with Marc (giving me the album back) for a short-lived fling, before she headed off to London to become PA to the editor of Melody Maker (and a fantastic source of verbatim punk gossip, records and trivia circa 1976/77). Marc and I became very close friends. Oh, and he also introduced me to a girl, Claire, whom he was trying, rather unsuccessfully, to pursue. A year or two later a couple of us formed a band with Claire as the vocalist.
It went around …
Marc too left for London in 1976. Auckland was always too small for him. I didn’t see him again, that is until 1983 when I moved to the city as well. We saw each other a lot, but less and less as time passed. London, and surviving with nothing there, had hardened him quite a bit; what was a charming roguishness in 1976, was a rather unscrupulous hardness in 1983, and I didn’t like it an awful lot. That said, there was always a bond. We went together to the London Premiere of David’s film, and there were times when we laughed a lot and did some crazy, crazy things. Although I was somewhat less amused when my driver’s licence was used without my permission to hire a vehicle that was not returned for many days.
I saw Marc once more in the very-early 90s when he came to Auckland and that side of him was even more evident. He stayed on my couch and did some fairly unpleasant things to others rather more trusting than me. It hurt.
After his return to the United Kingdom, he u-turned. Marc left the city and began working with horses in Kent (he’d been a champion rider in his youth), teaching and, by all accounts, exorcised the demons of the previous years, making amends to some he’d wronged. We spoke once on the phone after that and the change was evident.
Very sadly, some four years ago I had another phone call, but not from Marc. In Kent, he’d had an aneurism and died instantly, falling, I was told, from the saddle. We didn’t every find a way to fully reconcile – that hurts too.
Jane came back to Auckland about 1978 and I saw a bit of her, just as friends; she eventually married (I was invitd to the wedding) and had a family, although there was some tragedy in that. However, she was resilient and became quite a contributor towards children’s health in Auckland. I’d only seen her once in the past decade, though, in a supermarket – and then my mother emailed me in July last year to tell me she too had passed on, this time from cancer. I was devastated.
I still think about them both and that mixed morning in ’73.
Why am I writing this? I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s age; maybe it’s that song; maybe I feel some urge to make sure my old friends are remembered somewhere. A search of the net finds no reference to either person, which, considering how much they both meant in my life makes me sad. Why should I be documented and they not?
I still have the Aladdin Sane album we bought in 1973, and it still has her name on it.
For Marc and Jane:
She comes / she goes /she lays belief on me