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I've been searching, I've been looking, for something, one thing that's tangible, something I can hold on to, the recognisable piece that'll make sense of this crazed hotchpotch of a jigsaw, a definite thread that'll unravel this tangled tapestry of my memory. Something that pulls all the loose ends; snapping strings of questions that whip us like a slave driver on a Roman galley ship. Yeah, exactly like those old beat-down slaves, straining on their oars to the thud of the drum, part of them still hanging on to a dream of freedom, hoping there's still a chance if they make port alive, another part so despairing they hope the whole ship goes down, and then there would be an end to their suffering, their misery ... I'm looking for something more than hope. I'm looking for something real, something palpable. I'm on a mission. I'm on a trip. I'm taking in too much memory. There's nothing definite about memory. There's only one thing that's certain ...
'Yip, yip, yippa-ya-eh,' Gene yodels, with a loud slap to my shoulder, cracking me out of my reverie. 'Look at that! Just look at that building! Awesome! Such an impressive edifice. The Embankment gives me a hard-on. I know I'm in London when I'm hitting the Embankment's black top. Just look at those lights! South Bank sodium soporific sentinel, keep watching over the Big Smoke. Big Brother, we know you are watching over us. We who are about to die salute you. Look, look, can't you see? Cleopatra's Needle, Rome's Golden Eagle. Et tu, Brutus. Spikey baby? Brother!'
'Just keep your hands on the wheel, and your eyes on the road,' I snap, 'or we may be meeting our maker earlier than expected.'
Gene has a habit of forgetting that we're mere mortals, and cars are fast-moving steel machines, capable of horrible injury to flabby flesh, causing serious damage and untimely death. I suppose this may be the difference between passengers and drivers, the difference between me and G. Being a pavement pounder myself, I have a healthy respect for the wheels of steel. White lines – don't cross that zebra crossing. Is this pedestrian paranoia? Gene has some other kind of view about crossing the line – some other paranoia – white line fever – don't do it!
Gene laughs, and shouts, 'Lighten up; this is one hell of a journey – the Beats go west to kick some ass. Earls Court, here we come! Keeping the flame of poetry burning. Yeah, burn baby burn. Come on, babe, ignite my fire.'
The G is flying high as usual. Got to get his feet back on the ground. It isn't funny, considering my respect for my own mortality and motor cars, that I am in this hell on wheels with the G-man. I don't think too much about the consequences, or about how any drivers I share a car with are going to cope with the results of their actions at the wheel; it's their responsibility. Am I irresponsible? Maybe. But these days with the big A killing all before it, and retrospectively too, I guess it would be too much to ask drivers to fill in a questionnaire regarding their attitudes to speed limits. They're probably more worried about who they're sharing their beds with than about their travelling companions' concerns at blithely careering down highways filled with complete strangers. It fits, considering more people die in their own beds than in their cars ... or other people's cars.
I say firmly to Gene, 'Let's make sure we get there in one piece, or the only asses being kicked will be our own.'
It's a message that gets no reaction but another pull on the joint that is a constant companion for the G. Now, I am not a moralist, nor in any way do I wish to be judge and jury on the drug issue. Hell, I toke the odd spliff now and then. My problem is it's always someone else's spliff. I'm just no good at rolling my own, and as I don't smoke cigarettes, soft drugs are strictly an area I don't get involved in. G is more erudite and articulate than most, and despite his massive consumption of the herb, he always appears to be on an even keel; a little crazy, but then who's sane after Hiroshima?
Gene rolls his eyes, smokes his joint and yells at the top of his voice, 'Beats, Beats, Beats, Beats ... Big City Beats,' passes me his spliff and remarks, 'You take life too seriously. As Jim said, no one gets out of here alive, but it's up to us to jump and jive. G laughs and starts singing along to some mix tape on the stereo.
Times like this – just me and the G – were real. All my days at the office, pushing paper and answering the telephone – all my time with my partner, watching television, cooking, washing, shopping – all of this was like background static in my life, compared to the bright images left in my mind of the time spent, just me and the G.
'Ladies and gentlemen, I have great pleasure in introducing you to London's foremost gurus of the spoken word. The most brilliant performance poetry duo ever ... the BIG CITY BEATS! Ye-e-eah, yeah, yeah! Oops!' Gene swings the wheel, narrowly missing colliding with another car as he drifts into the middle lane.
'Fuck!' I say.
'Sorry, Spike! I'm sorry.'
I'm a passenger in somebody else's transport – I'm always the passenger. Life passes by, through glass, as I gaze at the city, in silence – a silent protest – round Parliament Square, down Great George Street, Horse Guards Road, and into The Mall. It doesn't take long for G to move back into the spotlight, after his brief, silent sojourn on the sidelines. He strikes up another spliff, inserts another cassette. I hear the opening bars of David Bowie's 'Queen Bitch'. Gene starts singing along at the top of his voice, lost in his own reality.
Looking back, I wonder just how much was real to Gene. He was constantly doing his best to make life a big play, pull the strings, change the shape of things. If the world was a movie set, and he was lead actor and director, what part was I playing? Or was I just a member of the audience; the passenger?
The roundabout outside Buckingham Palace, the stereo blasting, and Gene's bobbing about in his seat. He's such an actor, singing as loud as he can, one hand outstretched, his head thrown back.
Bang! We hit the tail of another car, trying to turn into Constitution Hill. Gene stops, swings open the door, saying, 'Spike, roll down your window.' He's in the road, dodging traffic, and running over towards the car he's dented. There's a policeman rocking on his heels outside the Palace, looking incredibly ill at ease ... I wind down the window, and sit and watch, as the movie moves into quick edit – and the director ... directs.
He's apologising profusely to some shocked woman, he's fussing around looking overly concerned for her welfare, her car; maybe my perception wasn't too sharp, but I'd swear he was flirting; he's got her by the elbow and gently guides her back to her seat; he's closed her door, and is squatting down, elbows on the sill, whispering a last few condolences, then he's spinning round and up, with an almost imperceptible wave over his shoulder. How does he do it? I've had a couple of tokes on his spliff, and my head's gone – I'm sat here in a damaged motor, in the middle of the road, directly outside Buckingham Palace with a jittery policeman full of fresh paranoia, after the Queen's had a gun pulled on her during the trooping of the colour, a maniac sitting on her bed, and the IRA have raised their campaign of bombing the mainland ... and G's in his element. Thank God I'm only a bit player in this psychodrama, I couldn't handle a main part in such an intense scene, but then I haven't had the rehearsals Gene's had. The movies he makes are never boring.
Gene's coming in my direction, but he doesn't look at me – he's looking straight ahead, looking straight at the policeman – he's smiling, a warm and open smile. He turns his palms upwards and shrugs his shoulders – an obvious and deferentially expressive gesture, as if saying, 'Look, sorry – shit happens!' Fuck knows what the policeman's thinking. As Gene approaches the bobby begins talking into his radio.
Gene looks cool, very cool, completely in black, with his two-piece suit, roll neck sweater and thick-soled loafers, short-cropped hair. He walks with relaxed confidence, but I notice without the usual swagger. He's right next to the policeman, slightly to one side, so the bobby can keep an eye on the road, on the car, on me. G's expressively motioning with his hands; broad, free and easy sweeps of his arms. He's handing the policeman something, he pats him on the shoulder. He turns towards the car; still no register of my existence. He's anticipating the mad hubbub of traffic. He passes in front of the car, I watch through the windscreen – through glass. This is like some new form of television, where the viewer feels involved in the drama on screen – involved, but not involved, always through glass, always at a distance. Gene has stopped on the off side, fists on his hips, head cocked on one side. He bends down, he's out of my sight, 'off screen', he's pulling at the wheel arch or somewhere – I just sit and watch – it's not my car – I know nothing about cars.
I'm sat watching, I can just see the top of his head and his shoulders straining. He's stood back up, he's looking at me, he gives a gesture with his hands as if saying, 'That's the best I can do!' – his gestures are at me, but not for me – he gestures as an actor would gesture – for the audience. And then he's opening the door, swinging inside, back in the driving seat.
'Spike,' he exclaims, 'you could have got rid of the roach!'
I look at the half-finished joint sticking out of the ashtray. I can't say anything.
He reaches under his seat, pulls out a brown envelope, shoves it down the front of his trousers, 'Let's get the fuck out of here before the SPG arrive!'
'What happened? What did you say?' I ask, as we move along Constitution Hill towards Hyde Park Corner.
'Well, her name's Irene, and she's terribly worried, 'cause this is the second bump she's had this month, and her husband was so angry last time. I told her not to worry, I'd take full responsibility. She was quite cute – I felt quite horny – I've got her number – she could probably do with an affair; her husband sounds like a pig.'
'Yeah, but the policeman ...?'
'Oh, he didn't really seem to wanna get involved, I think he's got other stuff on his plate right now. Anyway, I appealed to his male chauvinism and he agreed that all women are terrible motorists. I gave him my card.'
'Fuck!' I say.
Gene begins to laugh. 'We'd better get a move on, Spikey babe; we're late for work. Beats, Beats, Bea-a-ts!'
The two of us are on the road, with no Kerouac to guide us, no Ginsberg to howl, no Hunter S Thompson to interpret the fear and loathing. The G-man is doing a bloody good imitation of all three. He's just inserted another cassette, rapping along with our mentors, the Last Poets, proclaiming that the white man has a God complex.
Round Hyde Park Corner and down Knightsbridge, I become very aware of the boundary that divides east from west – it's a money boundary. I'm musing on the difference to our main drag in E1, the Whitechapel strip ... and suddenly I realise, this is not the route we'd normally drive to Earls Court. 'Gene, why are we coming this way?'
'Oh, didn't I say? I've just got to drop in to see someone on the way; it won't take a minute ... It's just here.'
He's pulling in to the forecourt of the Carlton; he turns and smiles, and says, 'Just relax, Spike, I'll be seconds.'
He's out of the car and through the main doors. I sit with the soundtrack: the Last Poets declaring they've got Jones comin' down. I know this has got to be a drug connection. Everyone has to make a living. We never talk about it – it's one of two things we never talk about.
I do not like sitting outside the Carlton Hotel in Knightsbridge in a damaged Vauxhall Victor, while the G is doing God knows what, with God knows who, and the Last Poets are shouting, 'Niggers are scared of revolution,' but it's not my car, it's not my drug deal. I switch off the cassette and sit in the passenger seat and wait – the passenger. I close my eyes so I'm not really here. I try and summon up some indignation, something I can say to make Gene apologise for his behaviour, but as ever I know there's nothing to say. I know I'm here by choice – nobody made me get involved.
Gene and me had a history. We had been small-time successes fronting a leather-clad rap band, the White Brothers. We advertised ourselves as 'London's premier rappers'. We were almost famous. We believed the only reason we didn't become huge stars was 'cause we were before our time (that's what we told each other!). One day I'd rung Gene up moaning about how much I missed those days.
He'd said, 'Let's be poets!'
I'd said, 'OK.'
At the time neither of us knew anything about the poetry world, but we soon found out. We trod round London's dead-bed poetry societies, we checked out 'the scene' – hell, there was no scene, just a disparate, desperate collection of individuals who had one common thread: poetry. Their words sad, funny, mostly confused; stumbling around like lost children, lost voices, hoping for a smattering of applause, or to suckle the milk of human kindness. Zombies in Limbo's waiting room, gathering together to try to find some kind of comfort – waiting ... waiting for something. Waiting in basements, rooms above pubs. Displaying their hand-crafted wares to like-minded individuals, who had too much of the same kind of commodity – nobody was buying. Lost souls reaching out, and hoping that every once in a while their words might touch something, or somebody. A motley crew, the proverbial mixed bag – take your pick. Ages, sexes, race varied, but predominately elderly and male. If I could draw an analogy, poetry in the late eighties was like a cosy, smoky gentleman's club, where old fuckers exchange terse nods over newspapers. But nobody gets too close. Silence is the mode. When you're in an exclusive club, you get smug; the clientele feel safe with the familiarity, the tradition, the furniture, ensconced in their comfortable niche, content and conceited. Armchairs, pipes and slippers have been passed around, and the dust of time settles down, as the world grinds around and everyone snoozes.
Suddenly the car door opens. 'Hey, Spike, we ain't got time for cat napping, let's go cruise the Court.'
So it's back to the road, the journey, the mission; the bards of E1 go west.
'Yee-hah!' the G squeals with glee. 'Just check out the queens of the wild frontier. Woo-hoo, wild boys! Spikey, it's the Wild West. Midnight cowboy country. Head 'em up, move 'em out ... Rawhide geht alawng! I got no rim on my brown-eye, but I'm still mincing along. Woo, dig those leather queens. Don't think much of yours, Spike!'
'Oh, I don't know; cute butt.'
I'm picking up G's infectious high spirit. G's cooking, and I'm getting hungry. This is how I like it to be. The Big City Beats. Tonight we're the mad, bad wordsmiths of E1. London legends, in search of ... who knows? Who cares? Tonight poetry is a wild beast, a hard bitch, a dominatrix, a strict mistress, clad in leather ... Whip it on me, Jim – just like Sister Ray said; just like the G tells it, and I want to believe him. Tonight I want to totally serve under the Muse's heel. I want to sacrifice myself before her altar. Tonight I'm a true believer, and I want to believe.
The truth is poetry isn't so much a wild beast as a queer fish. Truth is there ain't no fame, sex, or money in this scene. So why do we do it? It's a good question. Does it soothe the soul or calm the stresses of modern-day life? The emotional pains of mechanistic, masochistic, materialistic madness on 20th Century Street? Does it fuck.
Perhaps we're men born out of time. Lily-livered fops who have no place in the big, bad city, or futurist warriors who will endeavour to survive the ultimate big bang, whose true mission is to have sufficient vision to make the new world a place fit for poets to live. Who knows?
Why are we poets? 'Cause between us, me and G, we wanna believe we can say something. We have to believe we can say something. We have to believe that what we're doing is important. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. I know in totalitarian regimes they imprison their poets. We aren't in a totalitarian regime, but we like to believe we're doing something dangerous. Me and the G, we make each other believe. Believe something is true, and it is true. Belief is a powerful thing; it's probably all that keeps a poet going when he's in prison – it's all that keeps a poet going when he's out of prison. I guess we also do it believing one day we'll be famous and have plenty money ... Who knows why we do it? Who gives a fuck?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Still Searching For the Big City Beats"
Copyright © 2016 Glenn Carmichael and Kevin Evans.
Excerpted by permission of Burning Eye Books.
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