A Journey Blessed
Shropshire England 1993
“We’ll be in Shrewsbury soon” said the driver. Gordon had hitched a lift from Manchester with nothing but a guitar on his back and a feather in his cap – finally escaping the crime-ridden council estate he’d lived in all his life. Gordon was a precocious musical talent with a natural sense of rhythm – learning his trade by hitting pots and pans with wooden spoons. In his teenage years he discovered an aptitude for the guitar and the piano – attributing his musical prowess to his father who played the drums in a jazz band. All the gigs he’d played, the recording sessions he’d been involved in and the useful contacts he’d made in the city, all seemed futile now. Without the offer of a record deal the Manchester music industry had seemingly overlooked him. With the recent recent split from his long term girlfriend there didn’t seem to be a good reason to stay in Manchester. “A rolling stone gathers no moss” echoed the proverb in his mind – “I may not be a rolling stone but I’ve had enough moss”. The town of Shrewsbury resonated with Gordon. He recalled the story his father told him of a fishing trip on the river Severn – which encompassed the town centre in the shape of a horse shoe. He was dropped off on the outskirts of Shrewsbury on a warm spring Saturday evening. He walked towards the town, over the English bridge – that reflected over the rippled water of the river, among the old black and white buildings -” wow – what a mellow town” he thought. He approached a group of rowdy young people and noticed two tall lads walking slightly ahead of the adjoining gang – so inebriated they were holding each other up like giant matchsticks. Spotting Gordon had a guitar on his back, one of the lads – Martin, asked Gordon if he had a place to stay. Gordon shook his head and so was adopted by the gang. Martin was a virtuoso slide guitar player and street wise too. He sensed intuitively that Gordon had nowhere to sleep, and as he had a guitar on his back – felt an obligation to invite him to the guitar jam party they were all heading to. The party house was decorated in guitars of all shapes, sizes and colours than circled the main room and hung from the walls. Unbeknown to Gordon, among the party-goers were some of Shrewsbury’s most accomplished guitarists. After extra drinks they all settled down on the numerous sofas – “do you want to play a tune mate?” chirped Martin to Gordon – sensing Gordon had something special up his sleeve. Gordon took his green guitar out of its soft case and played a furious funk song with blistering speed – intervening intricate rhythm patterns on the body of the guitar with his right hand – his singing voice soaring with effortless range and raw passion. The room erupted into rapturous applause and Gordon followed it up with a moving ballad that reduced some of them to tears. “I call it Folkadelic” said Gordon. Martin smiled wryly – he knew Gordon would be special before he’d even taken his guitar from out of its case, but Folkadelic was a revelation and a new music.
Some of the party people then requested Drew to play a song. Drew was the same age as Gordon – Twenty eight, a Shrewsbury born lead guitarist who played with sublime feel, exquisite touch and a formidable attack. At his most ferocious he could purposely break strings, to the concern of worried onlookers who would wince at the potential injury he may have caused himself. He’d played in a local band and was considered a mercurial guitar hero – for all his uncanny skills he could be an inconsistent and undisciplined performer. He was blighted with acute anxiety than often affected his guitar playing. His arms and shoulders would freeze and numb as a consequence of his panic attacks and during gigs his fingers would sweat so profusely it was difficult for him to grip the guitar strings. He would drink heavily to pacify his condition – consequently he would be too drunk to remember the guitar chords he otherwise knew so well. Drew though was obsessed with fame. Playing guitar in a local rock band wasn’t enough – he wanted to leave his mark on the planet. He played one of his songs at the party, and though well received, he shrugged his shoulders in concession that Gordon was an impossible act to follow that night. The group then encouraged Bruce – a heavy metal whizz kid Guitarist to play a song – a twenty two year old classically trained player with a giant wing span. Bruce played an instrumental piece but halfway through the party group lost interest and began chatting – Gordon had stolen the show. Drew felt an instant affinity for Gordon – as if he’d met him before. Drew was as disillusioned with the Shrewsbury music scene as Gordon was with Manchester – for different reasons. Drew was tired of Shrewsbury’s old folk and blues scene – Gordon’s music made you want to dance, it was progressive and fresh – it was Folkadelic. He was enthralled to witness this new music genre – he looked over at Gordon and said “I’ve got a place you can stay”. Gordon was welcome to sleep over at the party but Drew felt he would be the better host. He trusted Gordon and realised that Shrewsbury’s music scene needed him and Shrewsbury may well be good for him too. Drew had an agenda for the good of all. When Drew and Gordon arrived at Drew’s place the front door was locked and the only key available had been mislaid by one of the other tenants, so the only access was through a side window that was left ajar. “Interesting evening” said Drew climbing through the window with half a bottle of wine in his hand. College House was a three storey, black and white building with old beams that adjoined a bed and breakfast and housed six tenants including Drew. “Sleep in this room – if anyone asks you’re a guest of Drew’s” said Drew. The next morning Gordon realised that Drew had given up his room and was astounded by such a grand gesture.
There were good reasons for Drew’s generosity however. He felt Gordon would more likely stay in Shrewsbury if he was looked after. Also from the tenants perspective it would cause less concern if Gordon were to appear from Drew’s room as his guest, rather than being a discovered stranger sleeping on the living room floor. Drew took Gordon to the local café for tea and sausage sandwiches – “everybody plays guitar around here” said Drew casually. This was a subtle ploy to entice Gordon into staying in Shrewsbury, and so Gordon moved into College House. College House, for all its aesthetic charm was largely a dysfunctional dwelling. There were no beds, chairs, tables, T.V sets, radios, fridges, light bulb shades or curtains. In the beginning it flourished with a harmonious equilibrium, but without an authoritative figure to maintain standards it quickly became an open house. One morning the tenants were chatting away in the living room, when they suddenly became aware of a rustling sound from behind the sofa they were sitting on. A young lad then appeared from nowhere, stood up, said “good afternoon” and promptly left. It was assumed he’d tried to sleep behind the sofa secretively, and though nobody knew who he was – no questions were asked. Gordon chuckled infectiously at this, looked over into the girl tenant Sci-Fi’s eyes and she chuckled back. A visitor called ‘Derek The Dude’ would often show up draped in jewellery, a floppy hat, earphones, gloves, sunglasses, a money pouch and rucksack – with the intention of impressing the tenants. He was so heavily decorated in personal accessories however, you could hardly see him. He was phoney too – he would spend the entire visit shaking hands with the tenants, congratulating them on how well they were doing for themselves – having such a nice place to live. Speed the tenant was a real handful – a bright, articulate, well-dressed young lad with multi personalities. He harboured fantasist traits – adopting the persona of eminent T.V. characters. He would imitate Robert De Niro one day and Clint Eastwood the next – and it could last all day. Once in a Bruce Lee mood he tied a punch bag to the kitchen ceiling, and as a consequence of his incessant kicking, the weight of the bag pulled down one of the old beams. Drew was concerned Gordon would become intolerant of the crazy characters and silly behaviour at College House and continue with his journey into the next town. He pleaded with Speed – “Speed I’ve discovered a genius. Do you remember when Jimi Hendrix first came over to England? – he’s going to have a similar impact. If things get too heavy around here he may move on to London – go easy on him will you?”. The following evening all the tenants were at home drinking wine when suddenly Speed leapt into the living room with an inflatable guitar, singing the song ‘Purple Haze’.
He dropped the ‘guitar’, fell to his knees, waggled his tongue provocatively and produced a flame from his cigarette lighter – presumably with the intention of re-enacting Jimi Hendrix’s guitar-burning stunt at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967. Drew flew across the room and snatched the inflatable from Speed’s grasp and yelled – “Speed you bloody fool – it’s made of plastic – you’ll set the house on fire!”. The next day Drew arrived back at College House with a box of wine and noticed Gordon’s guitar was missing. “Gordon!” – he frantically searched all the rooms but Gordon had gone – and who could blame him? what would he want with a little backwater town like Shrewsbury anyway? – he could make it anywhere. He ran out into the street and headed in the southerly direction of the town – “Gordon!”. Finally exhausted he sat down on the kerb – “he’s gone! the new music has gone!”. He slowly wandered back to College House and drank himself to sleep – dreaming the words ‘forlorn at the funeral pyre, we mourn the death of the new music’s last breath, as it flames the fire on the smoking wrecks of choking guitar necks, once held by innovative fists, now stand the crying artists that concede – they were good enough to follow but never to lead – R.I.P. Folkadelic’. Drew was awakened by familiar voices in the living room. He stumbled downstairs and saw Gordon standing there with his guitar – holding hands with Sci-Fi. “have you been out then?” said Drew – careful not to show too much concern. Sci-Fi the tenant was a twenty-two-year-old waitress. She was gentle and quiet, and would giggle at the ridiculous – “she’s really mellow – the opposite of my ex-girlfriend” said Gordon. She acquired the nickname Sci-Fi from the futuristic clothes she wore. Serendipity played its part when an old friend of Drew’s mentioned he’d still got the keys to a residence he’d long vacated, and the place was now empty. Drew now had the keys, and along with Gordon, Sci-Fi, and Sci-Fi’s sister Kate – decided it would make a good squat – a risky adventure but a better option than the madness of College House. The first night they moved into the squat however, an ugly incident occurred. Their belongings were packed for a leisurely move at College House, when a visitor arrived drunk – turning aggressive on another visitor. The air was tense and a bad scenario for Drew’s anxiety. Drew had a heightened fear of heights, closed spaces, insects, flying in aeroplanes, sudden loud noises and aggressive people. Sensing danger earlier than the others he stood up – announced his departure and left. He’d only walked a few hundred yards when he heard running footsteps behind him – “Drew!” – it was Gordon. “All I want to do is play guitar and drink my wine in peace – I can’t believe that guy would start trouble like that in our home” said Drew disgruntled. They walked to the squat together – “well you’re a mellow lad aren’t you?” said Gordon in a sincere, sympathetic, comforting tone that embellished indelibly upon Drew’s sensibilities. The squat was a huge three story house set in an upmarket area of the town. It had beds and mattresses but no curtains, electric or running water. “What kind of squat is this?” said Gordon – lighting a large candle.
“It has good acoustics” said Drew. Later that night Sci-Fi arrived at the squat with the story of how the two visitors at College House had nearly come to blows. Learning the location of the squat, the same two guys turned up and banged on the front door. Drew opened the second floor window and saw they had expressions on their faces that seemed to say – “it’s ok – we’ve reconciled, it’s still early – may we come in?”. Before either of them could speak, Drew growled – “go away! this is an official squat – you don’t have permission!”. He’d tolerated such nonsense at College House but he wasn’t about to let this dubious pair disrupt the harmony of the squat. “Wow you really told them” said Gordon – “nah – Dutch courage” said Drew. They jammed late into the night – Gordon serenaded Sci-Fi with a lullaby he’d written – ‘sleep on it baby’, but he couldn’t resist cheekily changing the lyric mid-flow to ‘sit on it baby’ – “oh no – you’ve ruined it” she said.
At night they lit candles, but without curtains the nearby residents had a clear view into the squat during the daytime – so to not be spotted, Gordon and Drew crawled from room to room. At one point they jammed lying on their backs in hysterics. Though the squatters were paragons of discretion it wasn’t long before they were rumbled. One night there was a loud knock on the side door. Gordon gingerly crept to the side of the top floor window and briefly peeped out. “It’s the police – two of them” he said, “tell them we’re out!” yelled Drew from the adjoining room – Sci-Fi giggled, “shhhh they’re leaving – someone must have seen us” said Gordon. It was decided unanimously they would vacate the squat the next morning. In a mixture of coincidence and a bizarre twist of fate, some builders arrived at the squat very early that morning – parked on the driveway, let themselves in to what they assumed was an empty house with the intention of carrying out some maintenance work. Suddenly the four squatters walked out of the house carrying guitars and clothes in full view of the bemused builders – “morning” said Drew casually – swigging a bottle of wine. With considerable reluctance they moved back into College House. “I’ve found us a place to live – it’s very small but it’s cheap” said Sci-fi. Sci-Fi’s sister had decided to stay at College House so the plan was – the three of them would live temporarily in the single bedsit under the guise of one tenant and two ‘visitors’. If they could overcome the overcrowding issue it would again be a better option than College House. The room Sci-Fi rented was part of a large three storey house that was infamously referred to as ‘Smoke Row’ – the source and reason for its title was unknown. The only other tenant living at Smoke Row was Ralph – a thirty something quiet man who kept himself to himself.
An awkward incident however brought Ralph out of his ‘shell’. Gordon – devoid of a tin opener one night, opened a tin of beans with one of Ralph’s luxury kitchen knives – causing a chip in the blade. Ralph confronted Drew – demanding the perpetrator reimburse him with the cost of the damaged utensil. Later that night the REM song – ‘Everybody Hurts’ floated up from Ralph’s room as if he was making an indirect point through the sentiment of the song – expressing his upset over the knife with a subtle musical implication. Gordon, Drew and Sci-Fi looked at each other – shaking in muted hysterics.
Back at College House an incident occurred that maintained its reputation as a mad house. The landlord had decided to evict the tenants in light of the constant rowdy behaviour from the endless stream of visitors that would drop by when the pubs had closed. In order for the tenants to receive their deposit however, they were asked to move the giant sofa from the living room. As none of the tenants had transport, they decided to carry it out of the house and leave it somewhere discreet. The Square in Shrewsbury was a quaint little tourist area of restaurants, cafe’s and pretty gift shops, but it had recently been blighted by a large gathering of aggressive winos who had claimed one of the park benches as their own. Routinely they would get paralytic and scream obscenities at passers by. It wasn’t long before the headline – ‘Armchair Rowdies’ appeared on the front page of the local newspaper. Unbeknown to the tenants, the winos had descended upon The Square that day, with bottles of home brew beer and a ghetto blaster. Instead of resting on their usual bench, they adopted the abandoned sofa from College House and claimed it as there own property. A local shopkeeper had alerted the police – who tried to disperse the group and confiscate the sofa, but were challenged by the rowdy bunch who took exception to ‘their’ sofa being taken away, and a struggle ensued. The sofa was pulled to and fro until the police finally overpowered them. Although Shrewsbury had been perceived by many as a conservative straight-laced little town, it never failed to deliver its fair share of eccentrics. A good example of this was wine shop owner Ritchie – an immaculately dressed middle-aged gentlemen who grinned incessantly and shook hands with every customer.
He would stand behind the counter holding a deck of cards – refusing to serve anyone until they participated in his magic tricks that always flopped. He once pelted a young lad with chocolate bars as he had the gall to query the price of a bottle of wine. The classic incident though, involved a couple who were good friends of Drew. They’d only met Ritchie on a few occasions and found him charming – at that point they were unaware of his crazy antics. As they approached the wine shop in their car they spotted what they thought was Ritchie waving at them.
As they slowed down to have a chat with him they realised he wasn’t waving at all – he was boxing. He was boxing with somebody who wasn’t there. Drew’s friend put his foot down on the accelerator as they both slid down in their seats – pretending not to see him – “keep your head down – he’s out of his mind – he’s fighting fresh air!”.
Gordon, Drew and SciFi were drinking wine and playing guitar in the park when they were approached by a very old sweet lady called Mary. She asked them if they had a spare cigarette and Drew – in an error of judgement, handed her his smoke. “No Drew!” yelled Gordon horrified, but it was too late – Mary proceeded to smoke the remainder of Drew’s joint. “What flavour is this?” asked Mary – “it’s fruity Virginia” replied Drew – without the sober clarity to offer a sensible answer. Impressed with their generosity and friendly chat, Mary invited them back to her home for a cup of tea. Gordon was instantly receptive of Mary’s invitation – recognizing she needed the company of friends more than a cigarette. Drew was a little more reluctant but he staggered behind the rest of them – swigging his wine. Mary’s place was a private old people’s home – sectioned off exclusively from the rest of the building. She poured her guests a whisky and they sat and watched a football match on T.V. Mary told them the story of her trip to Blackpool in 1976. On returning to the coach she’d travelled there on, she discovered the coach door was closed. She’d walked around to the driver’s side and saw the driver was asleep in the driver’s seat. She had to attract his attention, but being under five feet tall the only way she could alert the driver was by whacking her handbag against the driver’s side window – giving him the fright of his life. They all guffawed at that anecdote. Gordon was a light drinker and didn’t smoke at all, but Drew and Mary were drunk and stoned. Mary put on a record from her big band collection and Drew asked her if she’d like a dance – she duly obliged and Sci-Fi giggled. Gordon needed the toilet and instead of pulling the flusher he pulled the emergency cord – installed to alert staff in an emergency. A young female voice emitted from a speaker in the main room – “Mary are you ok?”. Mary, who was hard of hearing retorted – “hello – who’s there?”. “Are you ok Mary” repeated the concerned voice – “who’s that?” said Mary, “is everything alright?” said the girl – “what do you want?” said Mary. If only Mary had reassured the staff member of her well-being it may have diffused the crisis – but just as with the squat they had been rumbled. Drew, with his heightened sense of danger, staggered out of Mary’s place as the girl staff member burst into the room and yelled “oi you lot! get out! we’ll have no smoking weed in here!”.
It was mid-summer now and Gordon and Drew were jamming in the park. “Let’s play a gig at the Yorkshire Arms – we could call ourselves The Squatters” said Gordon. Sci-Fi made some tickets to promote their first gig, but the night before – Drew pulled out. “Sorry Gordon, I’m a bit anxious about it, we’ll do another one when I’ve sobered up – do it on your own – you don’t need me” said Drew remorsefully. “It’s ok Drew, I’ll do this one solo, I’ll wait until you get strong. Don’t give up – you’re the only guitarist in this town that gives me the Shivers” said Gordon. Gordon played the Yorkshire Arms and someone insensitively put the jukebox on – mid-performance, but was soon reprimanded by the other patrons. The Folkadelic sound was so Leftfield to the audience – that were raised on traditional Folk and Blues – they weren’t sure if they liked it or not at the outset, but they warmed to it eventually and admired his courage to stand up and sing on his own.
Drew in his drunken wisdom, bought a car he didn’t need. It soon became apparent it was a heap of scrap on wheels. The wing mirrors fell off, the wipers stuck, and one day when Drew and Gordon were about to leave for town, Drew dropped some coins behind the driver’s seat, and in an attempt to retrieve them he had to adjust the seat, and in doing so it jammed in a permanent forward position. Drew drove Gordon into town with his forehead squashed against the windscreen – hoping nobody would recognise him. The saga of the cursed car didn’t end there. Drew mistakenly put diesel into the petrol tank. Gordon, Sci-Fi, and two musician friends tried to bump start it through traffic lights in the town centre as it spluttered and spewed out thick black smoke. At one stage they passed a wedding photo session, and as one of the guests knew Drew, he decided to abandon the wedding party and help out by giving it a push. When the car did start up, Drew had to maintain a certain speed or it would cut out and stop. He raced around the block and slowed down to pick them up, but as it threatened to break down again he had to speed up, so off he raced – gesticulating his intentions that left them all bewildered – “he’s off again, where the hell’s he going now?, why won’t he stop?” said Gordon.
One night Gordon and Drew were jamming at Smoke Row. Drew, in one of his drunken epiphanies, suddenly muttered – “let’s have a march for no reason”. Gordon stopped playing his guitar and said “what?” – with a combination of curiosity and disbelief. “A march for no reason – it’s never been done, let’s make history. If we don’t become famous musicians we’ll never be remembered” said Drew. Gordon sat in silence for a while – “it’s genius Drew” he said.
Drew had always been obsessed with fame. His anxiety and booze addiction problems however, had prevented him from fulfilling his potential as a performing world class guitarist. The March For No Reason was an opportunity for him to leave his mark on the planet. An organized march like this would not only be the first of its kind in history, but the only one – “it’s thirty years since Martin Luther King’s pivotal civil rights march on Washington” said Drew enthusiastically. They decided the location of the march would be The Charles Darwin statue on September 4th 1993. Sci-Fi printed off two thousand tickets and Gordon handed them out at gigs. On the eve of the march, Gordon and Sci-fi were alone at Smoke Row. Sci-Fi looked pensive – “what if the march is sabotaged by anarchists? , it may turn violent, the police might arrest us for gathering in large numbers in a public place – I’m worried, can’t you cancel it?” she said. “I’m worried too” said Gordon, “but we’ve come too far to go back now, besides this is his only chance to leave a significant legacy – he’ll never perform again – he’s shot”. On a warm September Day Gordon, Drew and Sci-Fi made their way to The Darwin Statue – Gordon joked – “you watch – they’ll be holding up banners with nothing on them”. Drew took a swig of wine for courage and they arrived at the statue expecting hundreds to be there, but the turn out was just forty two. A mixture of young and old, dressed in colourful clothes, playing guitars on the grass verge. They waited nervously, and it wasn’t long before the police arrived in large numbers – “rumbled again” giggled Sci-Fi. The senior officer approached Gordon as he was positioned at the front of the group – “what’s all this about then?” asked the officer, “it’s not about anything” replied Gordon – Sci-Fi giggled like never before. “Well you need permission for an organised protest” said the officer. Right on cue as planned, Drew stood up and yelled – “come on marchers! let’s go to the park!”. The plan worked a treat – Drew had foreseen that should the police enforce a crowd dispersal, it would subsequently prompt a unified movement of the crowd that would walk together along the same route if a proposed destination was announced. This by default would become the march. Drew knew the police would have to follow them – giving the march more credibility. The Marchers reached the gates of the park and were confronted by another line of police that had cordoned off the entrance and locked the park gates for the first time in its history. As Drew was the leader he felt a duty to try and climb the gates – if only as a gesture of defiance, but he was apprehended as the marchers adapted the John Lennon song – ‘All We Are Saying Is Nothing At All’ as their signature anthem. Gordon pulled Drew back from the skirmishes – “Drew get back! you’re pissed! you’ll get arrested for drunken disorderly – we’ve done it, people have taken pictures – we’ve got the proof, you’ve made history!”. Gordon held Drew up and they retreated along with SciFi – back into town for a well-earned celebratory beer in the Yorkshire Arms. Every marcher gathered in the pub and they chanted “they had to close the gates! they had to close the gates!”. A policeman walked in and monitored them closely in case they felt like an evening revolution. Gordon asked the officer audaciously – “can you buy us a pint mate?”.
In the Autumn of 1993, Gordon and Sci-Fi moved out of Smoke Row and into a room that was part of a house share at Berwick Place. Berwick Place was a large white house on a lofty hill, situated on the outskirts of town. Drew stayed on at Smoke row. He busked every day in an attempt to regain his confidence as a performer and to help pay the rent. Though he was appreciative of the newly-found space, he missed Gordon and Sci-Fi’s company.
Gordon would often invite Drew back to Berwick Place, and so to not wake the tenant downstairs, they would often scale the stairs in unison to imitate the stepping sound of one person. Gordon was making a name for himself in the Shropshire music scene – every gig was packed, and he would bring the house down every time. He incorporated funky acoustic guitar with techno rhythms and the audiences would dance in their Folkadelic hats with a frenetic passion equal to that of the eighties rave scene. In January 1994 Gordon played a gig at a commune in the Shropshire countryside. He began with an organic Folkadelic set and moved on to the synth and drum sequencer, accompanied with a cosmic laser light show – watched closely by an unexpected bystander. One night the phone rang at Berwick Place – “is Gordon there?” said a deep mature, well-spoken voice. Sci-Fi called Gordon and when he realised who it was he nearly dropped to the floor. “It’s Jim Rocks here, I saw you’re gig at the commune, I thought you were marvellous – I’d like you to join me on my world tour”. Jim Rocks was an eighties pop icon and was now making a come back. “Can’t I go with you?” said Sci-Fi, Gordon smiled, “only Paul McCartney takes his girlfriend on tour with him” he said. Gordon put his arms around her – “you’ve been good for me Sci-fi”. There was a knock at the door at Smoke Row – it was Gordon. “You’re off then?” said Drew, “yeah the first concert’s in Australia – we’re flying from Manchester” said Gordon. “I’ll walk you to the station” said Drew, “no it’s ok, finish your wine” said Gordon. “Time for one more jam?” said Drew. Gordon smiled and hugged Drew.
“You’ll send a postcard off course?” said Drew, “off course” said Gordon. Drew closed the front door and walked into the living room. He sat down and swigged his wine slowly – leaning back in his chair, breathing deeply as he put the bottle down. He noticed a small bird perched outside on the window sill. He smiled and asked it rhetorically – “what are you waiting for birdy – it’s ok, I won’t forget you”. Gordon walked over the English Bridge that reflected over the rippled water of the river, among the old black and white buildings and punched the sky.
Copyright © 2017 by Stephan Phillip Druce