- 2020-09-03 22:30:06+02:00
Outside my room, London has reverted into one of its New York phases. A few years ago, during the earlier part of the decade, the heyday of Thatcher and Reagan, the ‘hip’ section of the city was solidly determined in its English identity, and deeply anti-American in its imagery. American speech was rigorously eschewed in favour of newly acquired working class accents and polished rhyming slang. American music was ‘shit’, although to the chagrin of the hip and wannabes, Bruce Springsteen could sell out Wembley for nights on end. But it was to Dingwalls that I came in 1984 to hear Finn play, with a band called ‘Siberia’ or ‘Polar’ or somesuch, and Finn was good: warm, sweaty, and raucous, as indeed was Keith, the lead singer. Finn afterwards was opaque. ‘Performin is a job innit,’ was his flat retort, when I suggested that he had done it rather well. Keith however sat elsewhere, and when I commented on his obvious charisma, Finn suggested that I should tell him myself. ‘He’s been feeling a bit down about things lately’.
I approached, opened my mouth to speak, and tried to remember to purge any newly-acquired Americanisms from my language. But even so, I found myself saying it, not once but twice, the very word that I had promised myself not to say. Yeah, Keith maan, great maan, really, great.... Keith shuffled and awkwardly thanked me and somebody else laughed and I overheard one girl sneer to another, Didja hear that...? I had done it. I had uttered American Hippy speak.
So it is with wry amusement, as well as fear, that a couple of years later I step out of Flip’s house in Stockwell to be accosted by trendy teenagers calling, ‘Yo, wassup maan, lend me some bread for smokes, YO!’, their language an extreme parody of New York street talk. Their hats are backward, their sneakers are for basketball, and their jackets are baggy and imported. Ludicrous appearance not withstanding, this particular group can get nasty, and I think about legging it up the alleyway, but as I don’t have to come back there regularly and make a habit of it, I stop and give them a couple of pounds. They leer at me a minute and attempt to pat down my pockets for the wallet, but I spin away, and put a serious look on my face.
‘Yo, don’t back off from me man,’ the main guy threatens, a skinny-faced pale kid of about sixteen, but he doesn’t push it further. They sprint towards the shops. After they turn the corner I hurry in the other direction, past the tube station that beckons me into Central London, the London of Soho and Covent Garden, past the comprehensive school where other kids are milling outside kicking footballs and comparing knives and 12” record collections, back to Kennington. The shock hits me when I arrive, and I have to sit down for a few minutes before the shaking stops.
I am going to the nightclub RAW this evening, with Jenny. She wants to see what’s being done for dance steps these days. When we get there she says, ‘I feels old, these kids are so young’, but when the music is playing I feel timeless. Perhaps I look ridiculous, but she’s happy to be with me, and there is no way she looks out of place. But then for me, she is timeless.
RAW is a sweat box dance floor, the sound system crude and large with a rugged harsh pumping midrange, you feel the attack of the kick in your chest rather than the ooze of the bass in your whole torso, but it’s good, the floor is rammed and the vibe peaceful, and perhaps a little flirtatious. I get shivery when records name check Brooklyn or Manhattan locations, as in a peculiar way I feel far from home, away from the familiar. I am like an expatriate delving into a local scene that is attempting to construct a facsimile of something I know well. Part of me is away from home. RAW could never be in New York, details of body language and large plastic pint-glasses of brown beer create a different vibe. Also, I have never seen such a combination of, well, uptown and downtown, in New York. RAW is an apt name for this particular gathering of the tribes. Still, it is New York styled, so I am wearing bicycle shorts and braces, and, oh yeah, a pair of hi-top basketball sneakers. Over by the bar I spot a man who is obviously a body builder, and as our eyes meet we smile and nod, it seems congruent with the geniality of the night. A few years earlier, his kind of overly glowing health was unacceptable as a ‘look’ on the scene, better wan, gaunt even, certainly skinny and marginally unhealthy. He passes me later and pulls on my braces, letting them ping back on my chest, saying, ‘yeh, safe look man’ or some argot laden compliment I couldn’t quite catch. London and its fashions...
Later that evening, back in my rooms, Jenny puts the radio on and hears that King Tubby, the producer and dub mix-master has been shot to death in Jamaica. We are both quite crumbled by the news. It’s something to do with the era he represents for us, the memory of back in South London school or Laban days, before either of us had really done anything. I hadn’t thought about King Tubby for years, but when the station started playing the old dubs in tribute, I recognised the sounds immediately.
The August sun is peaking. and it's time for the Notting Hill Carnival, which is an opportunity to get reacquainted with the Sound-System, something I would very much like, given the events of earlier this year in Jamaica. When you leave the main parade route you’ll find them, DJ’s, dancers, technicians, assorted hanger’s on, all circling huge speakers. The sound of bass and drums competes for every crossroads, every venerable Victorian terrace. Most likely it is reggae, or some bastardised descendant, dub, ragga, or Hip-Hop perhaps, that pours from the stacked boxes. I wander and look for a corner of deep, bass-heavy dub, one that is a throwback, an echo full of back in the days.
The ‘Selector’ cues another disc and guitars fade in and out of focus, twisting and writhing under the torture of phase and slider effects. Voices disembody and float senseless in the reverb laden sky, soaring above mountains of drums, and the ricochet of sidestick on snare. The rhythm stops. The rhythm starts and dancers bounce and twist, while away on the side an ancient Rasta nods his head in calm agreement. There is comfort in the unsteady perspective and the steady rocking rhythm, as if hearing in some inchoate and blurred manner through amniotic fluid the measured step of the mother, and the song of the world that awaits. The ‘Selector’ grabs the mic and starts to declaim in the tones of black London some message or another; the voice is the cadence of a Jamaican waterfall, each word is light dancing a complex course on a mosaic pathway that winds between water, plants, and windows open to the Caribbean breeze... dusty roads in the midday sun... and now, back in the English gloaming, cloudy between dark terraces once white now dirty city grey I look up and, climbing from a window onto the already packed veranda above the milling procession she smiles her greeting to Carnival. I wave as the ‘one drop’ beat explodes into a smoky melee of voices and chants, until emerges a shout, trapped in an echo chamber; ‘conquer conquer conquer...’ until the rhythm lopes again, and I leave, pushing towards Powys Square where there will be other systems, stages, dancers, and... somosas, because I am suddenly very hungry.