In the early 1970’s I would sometimes frequent the Yate’s wine lodge in Corporation St. Its major attraction was it’s bohemian atmosphere and it’s sweet australian white wine. I don’t recall what they charged, but being an innocent abroad, my experience was that I could get pretty drunk on four schooners. Once its effect took hold, my tongue would start to fly and my inhibitions somewhat loosened.
I often drank in the company of Roberto a Brazilian musician who seemed a reliable sort of guy. I could rely on him never to refuse the offer of a schooner, but then be even more assiduous in disappearing when it was his round. Yet Roberto had a Latin charm about him that made you overlook his shortcomings. He was a mass of dark curls and his face had a vulpine angularity that made it difficult to read. He gigged a lot and was able to drop names from the music scene with ease.
‘ Lennon’s been giving bread to the IRA” he offered on a Saturday just before closing time. I was on my 4th australian.
“don’t be ridiculous Lenin’s been dead for 50 years”
“No’ he grimaced, “ John Lennon you know the Beatles”
“ O “ I scratched my head and grasped for an angle to attack this unusual nugget of information….. “ but when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out”
I swayed as the latest wave of aussie amber took hold. I had just recently read an article on Antonio Gramsci and felt a moment of dialectic insight approaching.
“ 1968 was a real moment Roberto, when things could have changed and the fucking Beatles gave us transcendental meditation and fucked off to Rishikesh !!!
I just about avoided puking as Roberto offered another nugget
“ Well it’s what I heard on the street man, maybe he’s stopped meditating”. The barman shouted last orders and Roberto started for the door, he hesitated and turned towards me.
“Hey why doncha come back to my pad and I got sumptin’ to show you.”
Roberto lived in Balsall Heath with his girlfriend Siobhan. I had known Siobhan slightly when we had been pupils at the city’s catholic grammar schools. St Paul’s, the girls school, had been extremely disappointed with Siobhan as she had dropped out before A levels, after being groomed for Oxbridge. She had met Roberto in ‘67 at a Brazilian music event at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, they had then gone on to a Pink Floyd gig at the Round House, taken LSD together and emerged as a Mr. and Mrs. HippyDippy.
They couldn’t afford to live in Birmingham’s hippy central, Moseley, so they were renting two rooms in a house owned by a Pakistani family, who seemed to tolerate the smell of weed that hung around the pair, and whose overworked mom Mrs. Ahmed brought them the occasional pot of basmati rice and a few chapattis. Siobhan worked at the dole office in Moseley where she was in charge of the N.F.A.. section. No Fixed Abode claimants were a rum bunch of the genuinely desperate, alcoholics and junkies, and the flotsam and jetsam of hippy street life.
Siobhan handled her charges with a mixture of benign tolerance and official chivvying. NFA claimants were obliged to sign on every day, in an attempt to harass them into a more ordered life and also to keep tabs on them. Siobhan would sit a the counter with her tray of claims and when things went slack she sneaked a look at Roberto’s copy of “On the road” or Ginsberg’s “Howl”
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,”
Ginsberg never dropped in on Roberto and Siobhan or Moseley’s itinerant caravanserai, but sometimes Siobhan felt his aura at the back of the hall.
As Roberto and I made our way across the dark city streets we chatted about his life. He hadn’t escaped from some Rio favela, but was the only son of a wealthy doctor who had encouraged his son’s gift for the guitar. He had paid for Roberto to study classical guitar at the Paris conservatoire.
Roberto had been a model student for a while then with the upheavals of May June 68, Roberto had become involved with a group of anarchists, and had been forced to leave Paris at short notice. I had never pressed him on the exact details of his departure and he had never volunteered any.
“ It was a very exciting, but difficult time man, it really messed with my head, a bad,bad karma” was the closest he came to revelation.
As we entered, Siobhan was sitting cross-legged on a hand knitted rug, at the apex of a triangle. Two Bang Olufson beovox speakers faced her like an altarpiece, in what struck me as a gesture to her Catholic upbringing. A joss stick smoldered slowly, in an earthen jar. The low Celtic swirl of the Incredible String Band leaked from the stereo and the cover of the “Hangman’s Beautiful daughter” lay at her side, its innocent photo of the band and assorted offspring, looking like a cross between a vicarage garden party and an amateur production of the Wizard of Oz.
As she resumed her trance, Roberto gestured me towards the bedroom. In the corner next to an old distressed welsh dresser stood a guitar, the wooden body and distinctive “horn” shape at the middle marked even to my untutored eyes as a fender “strat”.
We sat in two odd dining chairs under the big bay window, and as a delicate moonlight filtered through the Balsall Heath gloom, he told me how he had come by it.
“ You know I was at the Isle of White festival a couple of years ago’
I nodded in agreement although it was the first time he had mentioned it to me. Perhaps it was common knowledge on the street and he thought the fact must have percolated even as far as my unhip brain.
“ Well you know that Dylan was two hours late coming on stage”
again I nodded to humour him; I’d given up on all things Dylan when he went in to hiding, just as the struggle intensified.
Roberto pulled forward in his chair and motioned me closer.
“ He wasn’t late ‘caus of nerves or stage fright, that’s just the line his people put out”
his voice grew quieter
“ You know the famous cream suit “
Dylan’s garb and appearance had made all the headlines. Gone was the post apocalyptic bouffant hair of Blonde on Blonde, and in its place a cherubic, shorn, bespectacled choirboy had appeared.
“ Well at a pre performance walk-about that cream suit had been splattered with mud by Jane Fonda.”
My eyes went from F32 to F5.6 in a heartbeat, this was a revelation.
‘She walked straight up to him and shouted that he had sold out the ‘movement’, told him he was headed straight to hell along with Nixon and Kissinger.’
The account tallied with what I had read about Hanoi Jane. I nodded for Roberto to go on.
‘dylan was well freaked out man, and refused to go on without a clean suit, he kept shouting that he was clean, he was clean, and stuff like my burden is heavy my dreams are beyond control. Yeah, and this is where it gets deep man. I 'd gone to the festival on my motorbike and the organizer, a guy called Ray had seen me on it ‘
I knew Roberto was a biker, he owned a vintage 1939 Norton 500 simply because it was the model Che Guevara had ridden across South America.
He went on
‘ Ray asked me to take him into Cowes on the back of my bike, man. He said he knew the manager at the Villa Rothsay and he could get the suit cleaned there. I got him to the hotel in 23 minutes by jumping every red light and doing a ton. When we got back to the festival. Dylan couldn’t have been more grateful. He grasped my hand man and told me I had saved him’
Roberto stopped and fixed me with his inscrutable foxlike stare.
‘Dylan went over to his caravan and came back with this’
Roberto touched the fender as if he was indicating his mother’s ashes.
‘ he said,…… Bob... said... this guitar was real important to me man
I want you to have it’
We both sat back in our chairs and Roberto glowed with triumph. Was I missing something I thought? My quizzical look clearly upset Roberto.
‘ You don’t get it do you man. You just don’t get it. You don’t understand what this is’
He took the strat in his hand
‘Man this is the Turin shroud of Rock. 1965, man, Newport Dylan goes electric, Pete Seeger goes nuts……don’t you see?
After a pause for me to consider, Roberto put his hand on my arm
‘Listen man things are getting real heavy between me and my old lady. You know what I mean man, she dreaming about tying knots. I just gotta split ya know. I need some wind under my wings man. I aint cut out for this life.’ His voice pleaded ‘ £500 its yours man.'
So Roberto was planning to leave Siobham and he saw me as his ticket out.
‘ £500’s a big slice of potato man let me think about it’
As I left Siobhan held up a palm to say goodbye, and then most curiously she made the sign of the cross in my direction.
The Incredible String Band warbled on.