Tuesday, 29 January 2008

It Was A Very Good Year

Well, actually it wasn't. Not when I was seventeen, anyway. 1986 will go down in history as one of the generally-less-successful orbits of the sun that the planet's had, especially if you're considering the period since we daft humans stopped having massive, ideologically-motivated wars on a global scale - opting for downsizing and using proxy dictators/states seemed like a much better bet at the time. The year started badly with Phil Lynnot's death, then millions of us watched the space shuttle 'Challenger' blow up (22 years ago today - it doesn't seem possible that it was so long ago). Things continued downhill when Sweden's prime minister, Olof Palme, was assassinated (still unsolved), then Libyan agents blew up a disco in Berlin...which was swiftly followed by American air strikes against Libya, facilitated by the (ever-radiant and delightful) Margaret Thatcher, of course - these followed their usual pattern of successfully hitting some military targets, while simultaneously blowing-up purely residential areas, (including, on this occasion, Western embassies in Tripoli). All this and it was still only April...

Violence was something of a recurring theme for the year, with aeroplanes being bombed by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and hijacked by Palestinians in Karachi (the folk who chucked a hand grenade in amongst the terrified passengers, as I recall). South Africa's white-minority-rule apartheid regime launched military raids on foreign cities thought to be harbouring African National Congress 'bases', but the (charming, fragrant) Mrs. T yet again ruled-out sanctions against P.W. Botha's racist government. Another great follower of democratic principles, 'Dr.' (merely honorary, bestowed by that bastion of intellectual rigour, Bob Jones University, South Carolina - his "Reverend" status is equally flimsy) Ian Paisley called on Northern Ireland's protestants to prepare for "civil war", and to make a "show of force" on the streets, culminating in rioting in Portadown. The head of Renault, Georges Besse, was murdered by a couple of ultra-leftist terrorists (seemingly because he restored the company's fortunes by means of mass redundancies), but across in Chile, that evil old tyrant, General Pinochet, somehow managed to avoid any serious injury despite coming under sustained assault from a heavily-armed bunch of neo-Marxist guerillas.

As a small counter-balance to this litany of woe, however, we should remember that 1986 was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, as Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" (restructuring) and "glasnost" (openness) started up in earnest, with the return of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Dr. Andrei Sakharov from internal exile being a major event. Plus there were high-profile ministerial resignations over leaks and back-stabbing surrounding the Westland Helicopters affair (Leon Brittan, Michael Heseltine), and who could possibly want to forget the start of Jeffrey ("liar, liar, pants on fire") Archer's woes, when he was photographed paying money to a prostitute, in a bid to keep her from going to the press. (For anyone who doesn't know what happened next - already fabulously wealthy by writing [well, coming up with some of the basic ideas, anyway - who did the actual writing is highly debatable] lowest-common-denominator-tripe novels, he sued for libel, won record damages, got a peerage from John Major for charitable fundraising - that later proved to be [like so much else in his life] grossly exaggerated and largely illusory, did some dodgy share dealing, and finally was nicked for perjury and perverting the course of justice relating to the original libel trial. Is now regarded as the finest public liar Britain has ever known [Tony Blair came close, but couldn't quite land the top spot], and a source of cheap laughs for lazy stand-ups throughout the land...oh, but not me of course. Perish the thought.)

We also found out just how crooked Ronald Reagan's chums could be, thanks to the "Iran-Contra / Ollie North-and-his-red-hot-shredder" scandal, the Guinness "false-accounting-conspiracy-and-mysteriously-self-healing-alzheimer's" inquiry commenced, and cunning (but dangerous) cult founder L. Ron Hubbard shuffled off this mortal coil (or did he?? Anyone got Tom Cruise's mobile number? I'm sure he'd be able to clear that one up in between the sporadic irrational rants...)

On the other hand, this was the year when George W. Bush turned 40, gave up drinking and had a 'spiritual awakening' - and just look how that has panned-out.

For me, personally, 1986 wasn't great, but then I was a hormonally-imbalanced, over-energetic, girlfriend-free-zone (desperation is never attractive), whose self-confidence was in inverse proportion to his (plentiful) acne (at least now I can grow a beard, which solves half the personal pulchritudity problems...only half, mind). Fortunately for me, there was a refuge, a wee sanctuary where I could hang around for hours (when I wasn't doing ridiculous amounts of sport), trying not to get in the way or clutter the place up too much.

This was the incredible shop-of-arcane-wonders known as "Live Music", situated on Candlemaker Row in Edinburgh (I think it was on the site of the "red shop on the right" in the picture, but could be completely wrong. It's happened before...it'll undoubtedly happen again. With increasing frequency, as the senses dull and the brain addles further...), owned and run with a quixoitic disregard for capitalistic, profit-based business models by a pair of very fine guitarists, Mike & Steve Park. They were a boon to the low-budget musician, giving overly-generous trade-in valuations, and accepting piles of oddly disparate junk in their desire to shift some of the stock. Trouble was, the shop was full (usually far too full - trying to take a guitar off the wall, or an amp from out of the window, sometimes seemed like a mountaineering enterprise worthy of Tenzing Norgay - who, incidentally, died in 1986) of great "classic" stuff (Marshall and Orange stacks, early 1970's Les Pauls, Colorsound Fuzz pedals, a different Sessionette 75 every week,etc,etc), mixed with weird-but-expensive bits of gear, like a John Birch custom model, a Bond Electraglide guitar, or even, for a while, an enormous upright bass banjo. (The sort of equipment, in other words, that everyone wants to fondle, but are highly unlikely to purchase). Alas, almost none of the customers ever had much in the way of spare cash, so the shop became virtually a charitable institution for the keen-but-impoverished local muso fraternity.

What it provided for me, though, was a musical learning environment of the highest order. Where else could I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to all the older (semi) pro's who'd wander in, pick up an interesting guitar and rip through a selection of styles, then stop and chat with whoever else was in while the next guy took a turn? This was where my abiding love of blues was truly born, where I discovered that the (original) Fender Esprit was the greatest Gibson guitar ever made, and where, one day, a large, bearded, and definitely pissed guy came in, with a leopard-print-clad middle-aged peroxide blonde in tow. He blethered away completely incoherently with/at Mike Park very happily for about half-an-hour, then declared his intention to return to the Greyfriars Bobby's bar, where he had been previously ensconced.

I thought nothing of this at the time, but a year or so later, freshly back from university, I was in the shop enthusing about John Martyn, whose music I'd recently been introduced to by a mate, when Mike said, "You know, you've met him, yeah?". Which stopped me in my tracks a bit, because I'd no idea what he was talking about. I probably said nothing more eloquent than "Eh?" in response to this, because I was truly befuddled. He then reminded me of the encounter many moons before with...ah, you're there ahead of me, aren't you? Fair enough. Yep, turned out the big drunk dude was the incredible Mr. Martyn himself. Ah well. As with so many things in life, if only I'd known earlier what I know now...I'd have used every last penny I had to buy up old Marshall valve combos, which were going horrifically out-of-fashion at the time (a decade of Peavey "giant-bee-in-a-tin-can" noises ahoy!), and made a bloody fortune when the guitar-playing world finally came to its senses a few years ago...

Live Music, inevitably, eventually went the way of all good things. The name remains, but it's under completely new ownership, over near the King's Theatre. It's a perfectly good wee shop, with friendly staff, and sometimes an interesting second-hand item or two, but it could never replace the dimly-lit, cramped (and slightly smelly) delight that was the old place, back in 1986.

Maybe it wasn't such a bad year, after all...?

p.s. Mike Park can still be seen and heard on stage, playing with Edinburgh blues legends Blues N' Trouble (if you scroll down, he's the guy with the green tele) - you can catch them at the Darlington Arts Centre, Friday 7th March, 8pm. £10 a ticket - bargain! Oh, and if you do go, say "Hi" to him from me - he'll not have a clue what you're on about, stare at you blankly, and think you're odd, but it's the thought that counts.

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