Sunday, April 06, 2008

A death in the family

I've just had a phone call from my Dad. My cousin Gary's died.

Back in the early '70's our family holidays consisted of us- Dad, Mum, brother Terry and me- going up to visit my Dad's family in Birkenhead. We'd stay with my Dad's Mum (everyone called her Nin- I've never been able to find out why!) in her house in Brattan Road; also living there with her were my Auntie May and her two sons Gary and Steve. They were a few years older than Terry and me, and they were naughty boys. There was always a mad story about them floating around, they were in trouble all the time and they seemed to be heroic, almost mythical characters to me- like they'd been made up or something. (I realise how silly this sounds now but I was very young- and anyway, what's wrong with innocence?)
One year we went there and something extraordinary happened. Gary and Steve arrived home, and as they came in through the front room door my Dad, non-committal as always, roared something like 'WHAT THE BLOODY HELL'S THAT?' in their general direction. It was Gary and Steve- but they weren't mischievous little lads anymore. Now they were great big men with shoulder-length hair, flared jeans and furry coats that smelt a bit weird... things had changed, and not necessarily for the better in my Dad's opinion. They just laughed at him, called him a silly old sod (he was younger then than I am now!) and offered him a go on Gary's motorbike. Describing this scene now, over 30 years later, will never convey how hilarious me and Terry found it- the generation gap, before our very eyes. They took us out into the back room where they put a record on at a previously unimaginable volume- it was by The Beatles, but it sounded like no Beatles record that I'd ever heard. It was in a plain white cover, they called it 'the double white' and it sounded incredible. They played us strange music by strange bands with strange names like Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath; neither of us had heard anything like it before. I couldn't for the life of me work out why the groups making these amazing sounds all seemed to have colours in their names... and 'though I wasn't too sure about some of the music a lot of it was ok, with mad-sounding titles like 'Flight Of The Rat', 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene' and 'Fairies Wear Boots'; then again they also had a Who album called 'Quadrophenia'- I liked that one. A lot.

And then, it happened.

Gary said something like 'stay there Leigh, I've got something to show you' and left the room for a minute. He came back in holding a guitar. It was a reddish acoustic with steel strings; he played a few chords and said that his girlfriend- girlfriend!- played better than him but that he was 'getting into it'. He passed it over to me.
It was the first time that I'd seen a real guitar, let alone held one. My Mum always said that from a very young age I'd been fascinated by them; I'd look at pictures of The Beatles and ask why one of their guitar's was pointing the other way to the rest, it looked different too with less strings, what was all that about? And what were those big boxes behind them? Were they where the sound was coming from? Considering that at the time I couldn't yet read or write, these were big questions- and now, not only was I in a room with a real guitar but I was holding it! And our Gary could play it! Amazing!

Last night me and my Blues Brothers buddies played at The Winter Gardens in Eastbourne. Oddly enough I'd mentioned Gary earlier in the day, to Richard our sax player- he's in the process of learning to ride a motorbike, I told him about my cousin who we used to visit when we were young, how he had a motorbike, a 650 Troopster which terrified the life out of me. As we spoke, our Gary was nearing the end of his life. It was a life of ups and downs, highs and lows, the same as for all of us in the end- but his life changed my life immeasurably. It would perhaps be over-romantic to suggest that were it not for him I'd never have picked up a guitar, but- and I've said this a thousand times since, to pretty much anybody who would listen- it was Gary's guitar that started it all for me, that rush of excitement that I felt when he come through the door holding it, the incredible moment when he gave it to me to hold, and all the times over the years when he came to see me play and I would say to him things like 'this is all your fault you know', and he'd just laugh and tell me that he might try to 'get into it again one day'...

All my love to you Gary mate, wherever you are- and thanks.

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