My Unplanned Obsolescence. By Thom Topham. Chapter 5.

23 May

Devils On Horseback – And Angels On My Shoulders


Fears and anxieties seem to follow me like devils on horseback.  Apocalyptic horses. I worry about bringing home the, well, the bacon – and the sausages of success, or the lack of them.

I get stressed because no-one appears to be impressed enough with my talents to invest in them.  But why am I apparently being pursued by a plateful of chipolatas wrapped in streaky bacon?  It’s not Christmas – that’s the only time anyone seems to eat such alleged delicacies, as part of ‘all the trimmings’ that traditionally accompany turkey, at least in the UK. I’ve never spent Yuletide anywhere else, so I don’t know. 

And why can I hear waves crashing on a seashore, as if I’m sleeping on a beach?

I wake up and blink, shake my head and pull the curtain open on the window by the right-hand side of the bed.  Of course, I’m in Cornwall – and it looks as stunning as ever.  The window is open and I inhale deeply.  The sea looks quite rough today – I remember, it’s a high tide –  there’s a pleasant, spumy breeze and the sun is breaking through the clouds.  The clock on the tower of the village social club reads 11.15.

It’s Tuesday – I really must take a long walk today and take some pictures, especially as it looks like it’s going to be a scorcher.  

I take a slug of water from the glass on the windowsill – that was a very strange dream – and lay back on the pillows, half-closing my eyes. Then I fall back to sleep.

I was sound-checking with my band BiJingo, it would seem that we were to perform in that large, white , tented pavilion by the Westway, off  the Portobello Road (cue floods of memories from my various visits in the late 60s and then in various homes there throughout the 70s) in Notting Hill –  where they have the vintage clothes flea market and where bands play at The Carnival.  In my dream, it was for some different kind of festival.  Something to do with Oxfam?  But all my equipment was malfunctioning and I was becoming increasingly frustrated.  My three keyboards and the little mixer and leads, pedals, lights and the mic were just like a pile of electronic spaghetti in front of me.  Nothing would work!  I was fiddling with this little circuit board and it was driving me nuts. I looked across at Jason Greenaway, our infamously famous drummer, who was playing slightly annoying and repetietve  rolls on his tom toms and grinning at me maniacally.

Jack Mann-Davies waved cheerily at me from some sort of kiosk he was in under The Westway – the raised motorway that runs over Central West London –  and beckoned for me to come over.  Jack and I had had a bit of fling in early 1994, when I was living in a tiny room in my ex-business partner Adrian Oasthouse’s upside-down (the huge living room with the stunning view over London was in the converted attic) penthouse in Highgate.  Jack and I had actually met back when I was doing the PR and helping to design a fabulous venue called Strictly Ballroom set in twenty acres of lush grounds in the country in Surrey the year before.  Adrian and his cousin Clive had somehow managed to obtain a twenty-year lease and get a late licence for it.  They’d raised half a million from the bank and from pop-star investors who were friends with Adrian, to completely renovate the buildings and the grounds and turn it into a destination –  which is where I came in. There was an incredible, 1920s wood-built ballroom, straight out of Agatha Christie,  with french windows in it’s five-sided facade, behind the stage, opening on to balconies overlooking a small lake, in which there was a simple, spouting fountain.  It was linked, at the other end, by a corridor , to a massive, lofty, medieval barn, which housed a bar and restaurant, which I’d designed.

Finally – I got to design a bar/restaurant! Eureka!  It had a forty foot-long bar down one side clad in five-inch, black and white tiles (my homage to the seventeenth-century painting style known as Dutch Interiors), with a row of oversized, industrial-style, aluminium pendant lights hanging low above it from the medieval beams, with quirky framed canvases and tasteful arty black and white prints on the walls.  It was furnished with a deliberate mish-mash of retro-modern and shabby-chic antique furniture which I’d had great fun buying in auctions.  Nothing matched,  apart from the odd pair of armchairs, which was quite deliberate on my part.  It was also inspired by The Freud Club in Soho, that chrystaline maze of media and celeb networking and intrigue.

Strictly Ballroom’s grand opening featured my all-star jam session, in the ballroom, of course, where we made-up songs, as ever, literally on the spot – with Jason Greenaway on the drums, a guitarist who’d played with Madonna, a percussionist who’d played with Soul II Soul, the bass player from Major Offensive  (or was it SImple Minds?) and several singers, some well known, some unknown.  Jack was one of the latter. There were several limos in the car park – The Betting Shop Boys and The Fourth Reich were amongst the eight hundred guests.

It was a great success, on a beautiful summer evening, so people could happily wandder in the grounds, around the lakes and ponds, which I’d lit with flaming torches and strings of old-school coloured lights. I was in my  extreme comfort zone – ie PR, design, and making-up songs on the spot with some fabulous musicians and singers.

 Later, I had an in-depth conversation with one particularly erudite gay, pop-star, who, after he’d told me how much he’d enjoyed the jam session – which he said he’d felt soulfully unqualified enough to join-in with.  He had then asked, apropos of nothing, if I’d like to guess how much money he had in the bank (I think he’d had a line or three of coke).  Slightly taken aback, I’d suggested around a million.  Not bad, he’d replied cheerily:  nine hundred and fifty-eight thousand.  These days, he’s fully paid-up member of London’s art establishment.

Jack (who is black) and I got talking afterwards; he was obviously gym-fit and masculine, but evidently also had a keen intellect, which is always a plus.  We’d never met before – one of the other singers had brought him along –  and I’d been impressed with his powerful voice, although I’d noticed that he over-emoted to an extent, or perhaps he was trying to show-off a bit with his ‘licks’, like people in gospel choirs, and Mariah Carey, do. I didn’t know if he was gay or not, but I had a feeling he could be.  We exchanged numbers and it turned out that he also lived in Highgate, well, more like Crouch End,  about a mile away from Adrian Oasthouse’s grand-yet-slightly-bland domicile.

I invited him round for a drink a few nights later and we  talked and talked into the early hours.  It turned out that he was bisexual – and was living with a guy who knew me from when I lived in a a squatting community in Camden (small world, big belly) , when I’d first moved to London in 1973 – when I was twenty-one. So Jack, who was thirty-one,  was ‘taken’, it transpired, by a very obese white person of forty-five; which was weird, as Jack was so fit and sexy.  I therefore discounted any chance of sexual interaction, but we soon started writing songs together in their slightly dingy place down the road, when Michael, his ‘other half’ was out at work at some ‘youth outreach’ program in Kentish Town.  He would come back home and make me feel slightly uncomfortable, as if he saw me as a threat, whilst feigning friendliness; but I was innocent, so I always made my excuses and left.  I’d never ‘tried it on’ with Jack and he never gave the impression that he found me attractive. This carried on for several months, as we wrote and recorded several songs together.

I’d moved to a funky little studio flat which I’d  sub-let (illegally) from its young, gay, slightly hippyish tenant, who wanted to go back-packing for a year or so.  It  sat alone on the top floor, the fifth, of a Victorian, charitable housing trust estate near London Bridge, in South East London, way before the area became gentrified.  Perhaps it was formerly intended for a janitor.  My stay in the little room in Adrian’s penthouse had only only been intended to be temporary. And Strictly Ballroom, despite being quite a success (apart from the restaurant, which they’d closed after a few months, having ignored my advice how to make it work), was to mysteriously burn down a couple of years later.  The cousins’ official line was that it ‘been as a result of an electrical fault’, but tongues were soon wagging that they’d fallen-out and that Clive had done it deliberately to claim the insurance, after ‘buying Adrian out’.  They never spoke again. And how Clive later twisted the knife with Adrian over Nirvana was a whole different ball game.

Jack knew someone who was happy to lend me a Fostex eight-track tape  recorder and little mixer, the make of which I forget.  I soon learnt how to use them in my delightful little  impromptu studio, with its wonderful skyline views on three sides. And when Jack wasn’t there I was able to record many of my own songs, which was very liberating and satisfying – and  it was also a first.  That’s where I wrote and recorded *click here!* ‘Chatterton‘.  

‘Chatterton is hangin’ out, on forty-second street, just another youth who found that truth gets trampled underneath your feet.

Chatterton is goin’ round all those corridors of powers – to show his works to coked-out jerks, who never could smell a perfect flower’.

The song had been inspired, to an extent, or at least triggered, by the view from the main bedroom window at the cottage in Cornwall, where I am right now. It had made me think of that famous, somewhat mawkish, Pre-Raphaelite painting by Henry Wallis, depicting Thomas Chatterton, the seventeen year-old poet, as he lay dying, having poisoned himself with arsenic, beneath a window looking-out over what was apparently the English countryside. He actually committed suicide  in Brook street, in London’s Holborn, in 1770.  My song put Chatterton in the modern age, in New York, where I myself had been trying unsuccessfully to tout my musical wares just the year before. You can tell that there’s quite a strong Tom (Thom!) Waites-meets-Springsteen influence in the song.  My respective faves (as you may have noticed if you clicked the hyperlinks just now <<<< echo…echo) are ‘Tom (THOM!) Traubert’s Blues’ and The Streets Of Philadelphia (which, incidentally, I don’t find cheesy at all).  I like the low-tech fact that you can actually hear me clicking the tape on at the very beginning of the song to record the lead vocal.

It will be interesting to pull the 1993 diary out of the bag, but I’m not going to do it now (I’m only half-way through the one from 1988 and ‘will be going to Ibiza on the night ferry’ very soon).

Outside ‘the shoebox’ in London Bridge, I even had the whole roof  – which was L-shaped and about fifty yards long – all to myself.  One evening, having had an al fresco dinner and drinks out there in the delightful summery night,  Jack and I were singing and recording multi-tracked backing vocals together on the mic, back inside, and they sounded so good on playback that we whooped and hollered and hugged each other.  That’s when it happened. We didn’t stop hugging…  and could hardly ignore our sudden mutual hard-ons.

Before long, we were regularly having sex after our recording sessions – or even during! Despite this interesting development, I was trying to get Jack to be more laid-back in his singing.  He was always trying to hit really high notes, but in a slightly melodramatic, over-stated way.  He was a naturally gifted soul singer, but maybe his inner hang-ups were reflected in his delivery. This was also evident in his sexuality.  He only went ‘half the way’, as it were – meaning he loved to have his beautiful, round butt played with and his tight little arsehole licked forever, but wouldn’t get fucked, dammit. He had marvelous, almost heroic, pectorals, but he hated his nipples being played with.  Once, I playfully slapped his arse whilst were having half-arsed (geddit?) sex and he almost hit me, becoming, for a moment, slightly pyscho, holding me in an aggressive bear-hug.   He’d split from fat Michael, but, regardless, after a while, we  also drifted apart.  Plus,  no one in the music biz seemed interested in our collaborations – the songs were really quite good – although the best thing we ever did was a version of  Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’.  He disappeared to Turkey, where he met a local girl and lived  in a relationship with her for many years.

Flashback to a few months after I’d unexpectedly had sex with Jack:  I was in The Workhouse , a gay club in Soho, the very same club (but under ‘new management’) where ‘my night’ The Mine had been so successful on Fridays for five years, up until the late Eighties, although the wonderful pillars-which-were-aquariums (inspired!), that had been so beautifully described by the gay, Booker Prize winning writer, were long-gone.

I saw this handsome, manly-looking black guy with a neatly clipped beard by the bar, talking to a friend.  I sensed that he was checking me out.  He looked very un-gay, which is, as you may have noticed,  is always a thumbs-up for me. Eventually, I went to get another beer and found myself standing next to him at the bar.  He smiled shyly.  He had nice eyes, silky mahogany skin and full, soft, pink, kissable lips.  I smiled and said ‘Hi.’

‘Hello.’ He said, with a half-smile, which a revealed a fine set of teeth, then turned around and carried-on chatting to his friend.

I went to check out the music – nice funky house – and smoked a sneaky mini-spliff, disguised as a roll-up, that I’d made earlier, jigging around on the dance floor (obviously, you could smoke at least cigarettes in clubs back then).  After a while, I sensed a presence behind me… and there he was again – half-smiling.  I stubbed-out my spliff on the floor (there wasn’t enough left to offer him any) and went over to him.

‘Fancy a drink?’ I asked. ‘Yeah, why not,’ he said, in a deep, slightly metallic-sounding voice, ‘that would be nice.’

We went to the bar, at the same place where we’d met, in the corner. I got us two cans of Grolsch. ‘My favourite,’ he drawled’

‘What’s your name?’  He sked. I told him and asked his: ‘Derek, he said.’  

Suddenly he kissed me… and kissed me.  We held each other close. I was grabbing his impressively round, muscular butt cheeks and could feel an equally impressive erection pushing into my crutch, where my dick was also responding extremely positively.

Before too long we were climbing the five flights of stairs to my little eyrie, the shoebox on the roof, with its evocative, romantic views over London on three sides. You would have been able to see The London Eye, had it been built at the time. We had fantastic sex that night.  We were definitely very compatible on that level.  But on a mental level he seemed distant – maybe he was just shy.

Despite this,  Derek soon became a regular fuck-buddy; but  only in a relatively detached way.  He would generally only come to visit very late. I think he came to a ‘proper’ sit-at-the-kitchen-table dinner (with its amazing view over South London)  just once.  That’s when he asked me if I thought he might be schizophrenic. I replied that I didn’t, but suggested that he had some sort of mental affliction. He agreed, but explained that he had no idea what it might be. I said he should go and see someone about it – maybe get his his doctor to refer him.  He did eventually, a few years later, and the problem seemed to ease, but not his inner anger.  He even did the washing-up that night.  Just once – in seventeen years – or is it eighteen?  But  he would mutter  gibberish under his breath, like he had a private language for himself, and was telling himself off for something, then would chuckle in a slightly manic and almost sinister fashion. Still, the sex was so goddam good and he liked to get high and get fucked, which was fine by me (and he still has the most perfectly beautiful butt…ever).  He drank a lot too, and so did I. He still does – in fact,  he’s probably an alcoholic.  He said so the other day.  Just a glass or three of wine… echo…echo.

Back in my dream, at the BiJingo sound-check by The Westway, I went over to Jack’s kiosk, which appeared to offer a range of tiny electronic items.  ‘You need a new wah wah circuit board,’ he said, in his slightly strident, teacherish voice, offering one to me. It was like a little metal staple gun, but covered in silicone chip…olatas. All that was missing was the streaky bakolite. Electric devils on horseback.

There were beautitful  people of all races dressed in vintage, mutli-coloured clothes swarming around everywhere, which made it hard to concentrate on getting everything up and running.  I went back to my electronic spaghetti and fiddled around with the circuit board.  Jason continued to do pa pa pa rolls on his tom toms. Then Maddox appeared from nowhere, grinning broadly, wearing a brown suit, with a matching shirt and a big, pink silk tie. To say I was somewhat taken aback would be an understatement.

It  really was Maddox, looking just the same as when I’d first met him outside Notting Hill tube station, as large as life. ‘It took me so long to get here from Memorylania.’ He said pleasantly, looking at me intently with those huge, green eyes, ‘the traffic was really awful.’

‘It took you well over twenty years Maddox,’ I said, with a rueful smile, ‘but I’m glad you made it at last, in the flesh, as it were, or at least in spiritual 3-D.’

‘So you’ve noticed when I’ve visited you in spirit?’ He asked.

‘Of course, I think I sensed you most times.  It was a comfortable, reassuring feeling, as if you wanted me to know that you were alright and that you were there to guide me and gently push me in the right direction.’

‘Oh good! I’m glad, very glad.’ He said.  ‘Let’s go for a walk.’ ‘But the sound-check… ‘ I protested. ‘Fuck the sound-check.  Let’s walk to Cornwall.’ And that’s, of course, when I woke up, smiling; safe in the knowledge that he was indeed an ‘angel on my shoulder’ –  and willing and able to help me do battle with the devils on horseback.

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