- 2021-06-27 23:49:44+02:00
At the North end of Portobello Road there was a mad club; not the relatively well-known ‘Tabernacle’, that in itself was the strangest mix of Yardie dealers and Roughnecks from All Saints Road (West London’s ‘Front Line’), local Sloanie types and Trustafarians; but ‘The Shop’: hardcore, dark, cramped, and a potential deathtrap with its one small entrance to the squatted house. Packed with intense bodies pulsing to Hip Hop downstairs and feverish ‘acid’ house upstairs; it was a dark box that raved without distraction. Eventually, the heat and sound and the utter absence of any light except the bewildering effects on the dance-floor would overpower you, and you would leave, that is fight your way through the mass of bodies in the old entrance-passage, (that had the same wallpaper design as that of the abandoned cottages by the old factory I worked in) until squeezed tight by the crush of both exiting and entering punters you would suddenly pop out the front door, expelled like a cork from a champagne bottle. The crowd outside was usually huge, and a fist fight would often ensue with an irate youth who was convinced that you had lurched into his face on purpose as you staggered down the short flight of steps; he would cuff and shout, you would extricate yourself into the middle of street, mutter ‘fucking idiot’ under your breath, and decide whether to walk or cab to your next destination.
A few turnings further on, past Goldhawk Road, past the limits of Notting Hill, of ‘Trend’ and ‘Scene’ and ‘Cosmopolitan Glamour’; past the market, past the small café where the emigres from some nation I could never quite identify played dominoes into the small hours, in North Kensington was the ‘Avenues Youth Centre’, located in a single storied concrete building on a corner of the Harrow Road, at the end of a line of shops selling West Indian foods, an off licence, and some shuttered supermarkets. It was to this outpost of the borough council’s efforts to ‘serve’ the community, that I came, as the ‘music worker’, teaching guitar, organising a ‘girl’s rap’ workshop (ten fourteen year old girls sharing a mic while I programmed a drum machine and played some bass, the triumph being the twenty minute version of Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s ‘Push it’) and generally ‘facilitating’ aural mayhem. All the while looking out for some new rhythms and people to work with on my own stuff, because I was convinced by then that ragga was going to be the wave of the future, after House of course. House was perceived in this setting as a purely white-people thing; vainly I told them of the parties in Brooklyn where the beats kept pulsing four on the floor all night long.
The Avenues was a rough place; the music workshops, the chess, the pool, the table tennis, were only a side show to the real business in hand, that of dealing. When I first arrived the product of choice was weed, but by the time I left it was crack-cocaine. This of course reflected the trend everywhere; check the manic and sharp beats that increasingly found favour with the roughneck as time rolled on. Music bounced around the room nightly, and youth did too, handshaking, chatting, squabbling, and as the highs grew more hyper, so did the rhythms.
Occasionally small groups from the Avenues would be seen down at The Shop, or The Tabernacle, or even at Heaven, the club under the railway arches at Charing Cross in London proper, but they were never in attendance for pleasure, or edification (although they were students of human nature in a way I suppose), only business, supplying whatever the drug of the moment was to the punters. For these people this was the possibility offered by London’s centre.
Down at the Avenues we would have visitors, specifically the ‘Posse’, usually to conduct the quiet business of supplying the men and boys who worked the clubs directly, but sometimes looking for those they felt had wronged them in some way; those who had got greedy or reneged on a promise. I didn’t know much about this, and although perhaps I should have, I didn’t care. I just wanted to teach my bit, or hang out with those who wanted to speak with me, keep my nose clean, and leave early enough to catch a meal at the Pollo restaurant on Old Compton Street, thereby completely changing the feel in my body before going home. I found the scene mentally exhausting, but strangely easy to put behind me. Once home I would listen to sounds, or go up to the studio to work until the morning.
One evening the posse came in particularly ‘vex’, a group of them, sudden and fast, blades drawn. I was deep in conversation with Tony the drummer, and hadn’t really registered the situation when I saw a group of guys pushing at the toilet door, where they had holed up their intended target. Dibs, one of ‘our’ lot, was arguing animatedly with them. Feeling I should take the responsibility commensurate with my job-status stepped forward to aid Dibs. It was lucky for me that I was talking with Tony at the time. He grabbed me by the arm and said with an authority I had never heard from him before (I was used to directing him and believed I was the more experienced individual), ‘No-not now. This ain’t our business’. I stopped and looked at him, and around the room again, and then I spotted them all: the boy roaming with the long knife unsheathed and the sweaty look of fear and battle on his face, the man with the shooter sat at the only exit, and the posse staring down Dibs at the toilet door. The atmosphere was hysterical and tense. I had been incredibly stupid; wrapped in myself as only a conversation about music can lead me to be. Tony saved my life, or certainly saved me from hospitalisation, and Dibs saved whoever it was was holed up in the toilet, because it was the time that he bought with his protests that eventually drove them from the building, with the deed undone. They had come expecting to do it quickly and without witnesses and instead the club had stopped still to watch. I learned later that by a complex family lineage Dibs was related to both, the intended victim, and a member of the Posse, hence his ability to withstand them.
There was also an idea mooted that because there was a white guy - me - present, that it was not a good moment for internecine murder.
Some nights were good though. The music was rough and rugged and kicked where it should: so leaping in the dark, close, sweaty, came an embrace; physically separate spirits joined, intertwined through the beat. An electric energy of union coursed around the room. For a moment the coruscating bodies would take on a synergy that was almost an inner, and collective, stillness.
I was proud of my new job, in the thick of things, where it mattered and thought that Jenny could hardly fail to approve. Here I was, back in London amongst our/her people. ‘It’s off the West End loop, yes...,’ I admitted, (this seemed to bother her), ‘but it’s the voice of the street, you watch, this is where the next wave of music will come from’.
She smiled and drained her mineral water and sidestepped my enthusiasm, saying,’come on, we’ll miss the last tube, and then it’ll have to be a taxi. Besides, I said I’d ring Randy tonight, we have to go over some stuff in the old flat this week; before he goes on tour again...’
Jenny and the American singer had separated about the time he acquired permanent working papers and the heroin habit. I’m not sure what happened to the social-worker, but I knew he wasn’t around anymore. She always parried my inquiries with a resounding ‘No!’, and a quick return to the subject-matter of my life, a ploy I could never resist. She was not impressed by the Avenues though, that much was clear. ‘Roughnecks,’ she grumbled.
It amused her that I could deliver the latest lyrics and dance-steps from whatever ’slack’ dancehall track was happening that week, but otherwise she stayed well clear of the place.
Instead she told me about auditions. ‘Say there are over sixty girls and six places open. At best they’re only going to take one black girl, so you just look around at who else is there and then decide if it’s worth staying. I always stay of course, but you know what I mean...’ ‘Well maybe that’s why the Avenues is as it is... ...that is a pretty hopeless ration of places isn’t it?’ ‘Maybe....’ she considered for a minute. ‘But no, I don’t see it, no. There’s no need...’ Then she went on to talk about curtains, or furniture.