Sunday 15 June 2014

Lucky Philosopher - Youth cult interlude


Immediately before the Tolkien era there was a brief period - a few months, maybe half a year - when I began to be pulled-into the mainstream world of youth groupings and cults; and I was in danger of becoming normal.

(Normal, that is, for a thirteen year old boy at that time and place.)

There are a few residual signs of this. A single photograph of me standing in a family group with 'long' hair - that is to say, halfway down my ears, and beginning to curl-up like a watch spring. Curling-up, that is, despite my best efforts; which included washing my hair just before bed-time, plastering it down flat, then sleeping the night in a woollen balaclava helmet.

This photo also depicts me wearing a lavender coloured T-shirt and 'Loon' pants - which were denim jeans tight to the knee, then with a V-knee seam and the bottoms flaring out to 24 inches so they would completely cover and conceal the shoes - which were baseball boots.

All this indicates I was trying to be a Hairy - which was the slang term for the contemporary incarnation of 'Hippies' and devotees of 'Heavy' or Progressive Rock; and what confirms the interpretation is my head-hanging-forward, round-shouldered stance - as immortalised by Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo cartoons.


The Progressive Rock craze incorporated groups such as Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd  and (from the USA) Mountain - we listened to these (borrowed from a friend's older brother) on a little portable record player supervised by an older kid who wore black velvet 'Flares' (a less extreme version of Loons) as part of his school uniform - but who had spent so much time slapping his thighs in response to 'the beat' that he had oval bare-patches on the front of the trousers. We therefore nicknamed him Frix, which was short-for Friction Pants.

Also, I attended a few school discos in the evenings (which I never did in later years); where I stood around trying to appear sophisticated by holding my chin in my cupped hand - even though I was standing-up. This was something I had seen being done by Steve Peregrine Took - who played bongos next to Marc Bolan in the Tyrannosaurus Rex combo. I believed it made me look thoughtful, enigmatic and sophisticated; so that girls would be compelled to come up and ask me what was on my mind.


The only part of the discos I actually enjoyed was dancing to the Hawkwind single of Silver Machine with the strobe lights on - which caused a dissociative trance state.

This led to what later stood as an anomalous album by Hawkwind nestled in my accumulation of Long Playing records. I tried hard to like it, especially having spent so much pocket money on it; but something about the music, the graphics and the text actually sickened me, and after a while I just hid it away and pretended it didn't exist.


Most of the music I listed to was recorded 'live', on a tiny portable cassette tape player, from friends albums - but after a few months hard usage, these cassettes would get slower and slower, then jam solid and become useless.

I also tuned into late night radio, lying in bed with my little transistor and single earplug, when the likes of John Peel and Bob Harris would play the latest exotica from the edge of Rock - which was in these early 1970s at the most pretentious level it ever attained - as epitomised by the double or triple LP 'concept album', and the inclusion of ten minute improvised solos on bass guitar, or drums.

Heavy Rock on a tranny via a tinny earplug does sound like a contradiction in terms - the apparatus was only a small step-up from a crystal set - but this was irrelevant, because the whole thing was almost entirely a symbolic gesture of belonging to 'youth'.  


Anyway, by good sense or good fortune, I was rescued from this path by Tolkien; who triggered changes that made me step outside of the world of mainstream youth culture and into something altogether larger, more suited to my nature, and more nourishing.



William Zeitler said...

Tolkein in my teen years changed my life also. My little cadre of friends when I was about 14 or so made a game out of who could read Lord of the Rings the most times -- I seem to recall I managed 13. I had no way of knowing that I and my family were heading towards cataclysm. That image of noble Frodo persevering through Mordor, of the courage of all the 'good guys' in the face of the impossible -- somehow Tolkein's vision of those virtues was compelling for me like no other author's, found their way into my bone marrow, and served me well in a very difficult chapter in my life. I am grateful!

Wm Jas said...

"Steve Peregrine Took"? Apparently Tolkien isn't necessarily enough to rescue a person from youth culture.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I heard of Tolkien from the friend who had the older brother who lent the progressive rock records - and this was the time when Tolkien-esque notions were first permeating English pop culture. Tyrannosaurus Rex were very obviously Tolkien influenced - not in terms of spirit (of course!) but in terms of being about Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy subjects such as wizards, druids, elves, talking animals, and faux-archaism generally. Marc Bolan not-much-later became the biggest name in mainstream British Glam Rock with the electrified T. Rex (a much bigger name than David Bowie)- and still included a lot of this stuff in his lyrics. Bolan published a book of 'poetry' - actually prose poems - which I remember getting from the inter-library loan system. I looked at them again a few weeks ago, and while they are obviously not good and indeed embarrassing; it seems clear he really did have a talent with words, he did have a certain something, and this was part of his very mainstream lyric appeal.

The following was a spoken item on one of the Marc Bolan albums I was listening to just before I read The Hobbit - and which I found very amusing. Since it stimulated me to read T. it deserves due acknowledgement. However, I am glad that I forked away from mainstream youth culture at that point.