Sometimes a record comes on to the radio, and you can pretty well taste the memories it brings with it. People often use the line ‘Where were you when JFK died?’ and the truth is, I can’t remember that too clearly: or, I can, but the memory doesn’t add up, because it couldn’t have been at the time of day I remember it (I can remember that the first episode of ‘Doctor Who’ was the same night, and I can remember seeing the news bulletin of Oswald being shot – perhaps the first time a fatal shooting was ever broadcast on the early evening news). As a tangent, one of the wittiest re-workings I’ve ever heard of the ‘I can remember exactly’ genre occurred during a late-night broadcast of a studio discussion of Oliver Stone’s travesty, ‘JFK’. Christopher Hitchens, particularly drunk, and on the edge of the panel as he was of his seat, threw in ‘I can remember exactly where I was the day John F. Kennedy tried to kill me’ – nailing the myths in one remark.
But ask me where I was when I first heard certain bursts of music, and I can tell you almost to the second. Canned Heat’s ‘On The Road Again’ – maybe one of the most popular song titles, since I can immediately think of two different songs, almost contemporary, by the Lovin’ Spoonful and by Country Joe and the Fish – always takes me to a particular room, and a particular friendship. It’s one of the most peculiar songs, with its weird use of the tamboura, and the falsetto of Al Wilson. It also takes me straight to my meeting with the Birks family, a meeting which changed my life. The Birks sisters – Julia, Clare, Toni – were the daughters of the local theatre manager, and a riot of laughter and good humour, unlike many of the slightly sober-sided friends, the children of my parents’ friends, with whom I’d been associating.
It was Clare whom I met first. She was dancing, in a memorably lop-sided and distinctive fashion, to ‘On The Road Again’. It was one of those dance-styles that you immediately want to imitate, and one that seemed to express the song. I moved nearer. Disaster. It was all the rage then to smoke menthol cigarettes (like inhaling chewing-gum), and the tip of my cigarette casually burned a hole in her tights. Canned Heat stopped. The tamboura stopped. Clare Birks looked at me and said ‘THOSE WERE NEW TIGHTS AND THEY COST ME 3s 9d’. The Birks sisters were lovably straight-talking.
The next day, clutching the piece of paper with her address on it, and as many pennies as I could collect (one forgets how heavy a pocket full of coppers could be), I went to make my reparations. Her mother, Diana, opened the door. ‘I burned a hole in Clare’s tights and I’ve come to pay her,’ I said. She looked at the handful of coins I was holding out, and said ‘You’d better come in.’
It was pandemonium in there (there were two brothers as well, one of them standing on a breakfast bar dressed as Superman and about to jump into thin air). I had never seen pandemonium before. I liked it. I fell in love with all the sisters straight away. It was the nearest thing to a bohemian life-style I had ever glimpsed. For the first time, I realised that you didn’t have to be straight-laced and studious all the time. I put laughter on to my personal agenda, and never took it off again.
Revolutions happen all the time when you’re an adolescent, but some revolutions are greater than others. This was a triple somersault and a cartwheel all in one.
So when Al Wilson starts up, coming in over the tamboura and the guitar, I know exactly where I was when I first heard him. I was growing up.