Monday, 31 May 2010

An Open Em Ringing through a Late-Period JCM800

Taken from the pages of End Of Times: Punk Rock and Anti-Culture, issue 19, Spring 2008

I first met Johnny-Boy through Tim, a quiet, introverted guitarist who carried a lot of anger and wouldn’t tell why he didn’t drink anymore. I think he had a crush on my girlfriend of the time.
As much as John liked to act like he was born with a gram up his nose and Jack and Coke in his veins, he had no more idea than I did. When I first met him, his persona, Johnny Clawhammer, was still half-formed and unnamed.

Tim and I met while training to be charity fundraisers, a job we would quickly share an equal hatred an inaptitude for. I was 18 and he was about 25. I lasted a week longer than him.
In breaks and gaps when we were meant to be developing our ‘spiel’ (marketing co-opted Yiddish), we would talk about music. punk rock, American 'indie', Leatherface, Nick Cave, Black Flag, Fugazi. He quickly let slip he was in a part formed band, looking for a bassist. Having been in many, many failed attempts at forming bands, I proffered my services, despite being a barely capable bass player.

I worked my way in with the as yet unnamed band and met the other two members- Allan and Johnny-Boy, two refugees from Canuckistan who would laugh and joke and chat about life in Alberta in a seeming bond that I would later find out to be nothing more than alcoholism on one of their parts and deep seeded animosity on the other.

Their set had already been written and I had the triple-pronged task of learning how to play the songs, learning how to play in a band and re-learning how to play the bass guitar without letting them know that I hadn’t picked it up in a couple of years. Not that ability was a major issue, as I would later find out.

Tim faded away into the ether of people you know and click with well and never see again once the moment passes, and Allan stayed, with his alcoholism, his fucked up relationship and his inability to do a fill that lasted anything less than 4 ¾ bars, throwing each and every song off.

My girlfriend, who I was sure that I would wed, also faded into the sad, grey fog labelled THE PAST, and I was left heartbroken in the way that all good teenage romances will leave you.
Johnny-Boy confided in me about how much he hated not only Allan, but all Canadians, and I drank, smoke, ate and snorted anything that would pass in front of me and confided in him about how little I felt about anything at all. Evenings were given up to beer, whiskey, weed, coke, pills and k. Lines were done off 12 inch sleeves and music was played and debated loud, much to the pain of Johnny-Boy’s long-suffering girlfriend. More importantly, every heartbroken, tear-stained word was listened to. Every one of them. And for that reason, I find it hard to hate Johnny-Boy, whatever happened later.

Clawhammer Barmizvah’s first gig (also me and Johnny’s first), like every one that followed, was marred by a lack of musicianship, tuning and basic time keeping, but with the additional interruption of a soundman who would keep stopping us every few seconds.

The Church, our local punk rock dive, had been goodly enough to put us on, opening an unspecific rock night, mostly through Johnny-Boy’s attempts at charming one of the barmaids. The low Monday turnout was, in hindsight, a blessing.

The nerves, the adrenaline, the fear. My head was light. I felt sick and my fingers tingled like I was having a stroke or I’d held a broken bottle of liquid acid and I was pretty sure that I’d completely forgotten how to play every one of our songs. We launched into our first number and the soundman came on stage.

Turn this up. Started the song again. Turn this down. Started the song again. It got to the point where we almost told him to fuck off, me and Johnny-Boy sharing looks of embarrassment and anger, before he informed us that our soundcheck was over and we needed to be back in half an hour.

We recounted the story to Suicide Sid, the gaunt, ghostly soundman of The Church, on one post gig evening lost to the bottle, but this was only met with slight acknowledgement, an movement of eyebrow or sound from the back of the throat punctuating his tales of touring with Pop Will Eat Itself and the consumption of an entire bag of monkey nuts, possibly the only solid food he had eaten in days.

We became the go-to band for The Church, any time they to fill space in at a gig. We played with all the touring punk bands, local indie groups, folk groups and electro outfits to a sea of bewildered stares, indifference, and on the days they ran a barbeque, chewing. A few months in Allan took his broken sticks, his lack of time keeping, his alcoholism, his fucked-up relationship and his miscarriage with him and I never saw him again.

So began a revolving door of drummers and the rise of Johnny-Boys public ego.
“Well, you know Sammy, we may be a goofy punk rock band, but I try and pepper my in-between-song-banter with Bill Hicks-ian humour. Remember that line about the audience looking like a dog that’s been shown a card trick? Yeah, that’s our crowd”

From then it was studded belts and swigging straight from the bottle and ‘I’ll fuck you and your friend’ and ‘what else you got’ and a world away from lending me a Chomsky book or the reassuring, brotherly hand on my shoulder.

We continued, the two original and consistent members. He christened me ‘Uptown’ when he found out I was born in the dreaded north of the city. It was a name I hated, but let stick.
There were incredible moments I’ll never forget. First time we played out of London, first (my only) tour around the UK, the two 7s and an EP we put out on Shit-Eatin-Grin (I’ve a box of these in my attic at home. Mail me if you want one)

Later, long after I’d finally left the band, I heard that they were still going, but the last drummer had copywritten the songs from under Johnny-Boy’s feet and strong-armed him out the band. I also heard that drummer’s wife had done time for running someone over.

“Man, if they want to sing about my fucking ex-girlfriends, then be my guest, you know?”
Running into him in a pub years and years later was a funny occurrence. I realised how far my life had moved on by this point.

Sometime in the intervening years, his girlfriend had left the country. No more having to suffer the indignity of his barely concealed infidelities, much of which he would confide in me with a surprising amount of humanity and guilt (in addition to the inevitable filth).
After he told me this, he looked at the floor, and a little bit of the Johnny-Boy I used to know returned for a second. Sober, afternoon and not hung over.
“C’mon, let me show you my pad”

We went back to his squat- me, Johnny-Boy and Alec, a friend who never knows when to shut up.

His place, a small apartment in a squatted complex, was just like the flat I remembered, except with the pleasant elements removed. Now just posters, 12”s, guitar strings and broken equipment. A 17-year-old’s dream.

Alec slumped on his bed without asking and Johnny-Boy tossed me a cheap CD.
“Here you go, my new demo”

His new band, The Loose Knots, stared out from the over-photocopied cover blankly. They stood in a row in front of a brick wall, just like the Ramones. I looked at the back.

“So what, you’re just on guitar now?”
“Yeah, thank god. Hey, you see this one here? That’s about dirty sex”
“Ha, oh right”

I showed the CD to Alec, who was fascinated by all the paraphernalia of Johnny-Boy’s punk rock lifestyle, unfamiliar as he was with this world. Posters, old tickets, patches and the like.

So me and Johnny-Boy shot the shit about people I hadn’t seen for years, that we knew from the scene back in the day. Patrick from The Alisons had a breakdown, moved to Australia, Davy from RATATAK collapsed on stage and died, Rotten Note were still going, except with a new drummer. Dear John, their singer, was the same as ever- very, very vegan. Johnny-Boy began to reminisce with me about drunkenly eating a box of chicken in front of him, stating it was the best I’d ever eaten and his face going redder and redder as he knew there was no point in arguing. We continued chatting, but this was interrupted by a drunken Alec shouting at Johnny-Boy.

“And then he..”
“his fists were...”
“And you could see he was about to...”
“JOHN!!! JOHN!!!”
Alec was pointing at the cover of the CD
“You got a double chin here, mate!”

I spoke to him once more, in another pub. I tried to impress a friend I was with by pointing out I used to be in a punk band with that guy. He wouldn’t believe me at all. I left the group I was with and had a chat with Johnny. He’d kept everything up except the rock ‘n’ roll, which had “died” when his last band broke up. He introduced me to Malc, a young protégé. He showed me a tattoo that Johnny had done on his arm. It looked like with a broken biro and a needle.
“nice” I lied. Me and Malc exchanged a nod, that was about it. Johnny talked to me as if he wasn’t there.

“How old are ya now?”
“Jesus! I remember when you turned 19. Well, none of us are getting any younger”
“Speak for yourself, mate”
He just looked at me slightly baffled. I don’t think he got the joke.

Last time I saw him he was rolling along the street with a guitar over his shoulder and his arms around two punk rock chippies. He was across the street. I didn’t bother to call out.

Johnny-Boy, you were an arsehole. You lived how you wanted to with no concession to others and you were my only friend when I needed one more than anything in the world, and for that I will always love you.


‘Uptown’ Sammy Clawhammer


  1. Wonderful.
    Perfect fiction,it took my ages to be sure that you weren't talking in your own voice about people we know, but it's better than that.

  2. Thanks Nhatt! That's a really nice thing to say. Yeah, I see why you thought that, but the name was coincidental. Probably. It’s loosely based on real people, but not the ones you’re thinking of.