Like a Bird on a Wire, and Suzanne roll through my memory while I’m writing about 1976. Forty years ago he was one of a multitude of welcome gatecrashers trying to get through the front door into the party. “Music to slit your wrists to” and “passé” then. He died last night, and when we saw him in 2008 in Kilmainham, he proved he’d never lost his right to be at the party.
By November , I’d been at Sheffield University for just over a year, studying for a Bsc in Psychology, at a time when Hubel and Wiesel, the leading researchers, thought perhaps our memories resided each in individual cells which each recognised one thing – The Grandmother Cell Theory, and when Bowlby was king. Computers were running fuzzy logic for pattern recognition, using ticker tape for programmes, written in ‘braille’ and PCs were still a twinkling in the eye of Bill and Steve. Though strangely, Phillips had already invented the lazer disc, a 12 inch equivalent of the CD. Most of us were still hooked on audiotape and especially vinyl and we cherished the gate-fold album, extra suitable for catching loose tobacco during the joint rolling process. Yellow Brick Road and Quadraphenia and Songs in The Key of Life and The Double White Album and Yes all have a spotlight shining on their artwork, even now.
Sheffield was a typical university. Friendly, buzzing, full of flairs and incipient punks, a bunch of stark sixties and early sevenites tower blocks and a couple of ivy-clad red-brick buildings funded, no doubt by Sheffield Steel. There was a pater noster, an amazing invention to transport people up and down the twenty stories of the Arts Tower, like a squashed ferris wheel. We lived in the student union cafe, on meat n potato pies and warm beer, and I also lived in the student theatre, acting in and directing 17 plays in three years.
By November I’d moved into Brunswick street, which had been home to the city’s brothels for the previous fifty or one hundred years, but had been overtaken by student bedsits and colonies of rats. Rent was £4 per week for a room in a shared house, and, having met the first love of my life, Isabella Mann, I was contemplating a move to more salubrious accommodation in the form of a bedsit across the street, with more privacy and space for a double bed. It had been a year of sexual adventures and more than a few misshaps, and meeting Iz brought a change of status from singleton to half a couple. Iz was a Liverpudlian who had grown up within shouting distance of Anfield, where Bob Paisley managed and Kevin Keegen sported a perm. Iz’s father had been a seargent in WW2 and still cleaned his teeth with soot from the front-room chimney. He was an ardent supporter of Labour’s Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist movement led by his friend Derek Hatton. This was the Scargill era, the Three Day Week, Tony Benn’s heyday. We marched across East London for The Anti Nazi League and chanted “What shall we do with Martin Webster” the fascist, leader of the British National Party, Enoch Powell’s legacy and UKIP’s grandparent.
But that whole movement was more about music than politics for me. I was surrounded by people who wanted to hear Tom Robinson and The Clash, and who thought we should pierce ourselves with safety pins but were too scared of becoming septic. But having older siblings and middle class parents, I loved Bowie and Bach and Dylan and Beethoven and Cohen and Mozart and The Beatles and Scarlatti and Picasso and Nietzsche and Hesse and Epstein and Waugh. The self absorbed nature of being almost twenty meant everything was on display. The Penguins were colour-coded on my bookshelves, The albums in alphabetical order. Sartre sat beside Simone de Beauvoir and “Art is Optimistic. Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty” occupied wall-space next to “What is it, is man merely a mistake of God’s or God merely a mistake of man”. Life was all one explosion of sensual and intellectual stimulation and realisation. My egocentricity was unbounded.