Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 20 – The flat where it happened

The flat where it happened

Pete and I shared a tiny room in the flat where it all happened. In the flat above lived Tony Merrington and Geraldine. She was the black haired girl who was the subject of Donovan’s song ‘Geraldine’.

We shared our flat with Tony Merry and Hans. Hans was Dutch and had a snore like a ripsaw. It actually shook the partition wall between us.

There was just enough room in our tiny cubical to fit two single beds. We had French Windows at the end and the place was freezing. In order to deal with this we blocked up every crevice of the badly fitting French Windows with newspaper and had a paraffin stove for warmth. It was a wonder we didn’t asphyxiate ourselves. Even though we kept it on all day and night the place was still freezing and we piled all our clothes on top of the bed to keep warm. Some days it was too cold to get up. The paraffin stove also acted as heater for the kettle. We found that if we filled the kettle with water and left it on the stove overnight there would be enough water left to make two cups of cocoa in the morning. We could reach out and pour our cocoa without having to get up. That was our breakfast.

 Lipher the pet rat who roamed our room

We shared our room with Lipher the pet rat. She lived in a bird cage with the door open and roamed the room hunting for soap which she gleefully ate with great relish. She was exceedingly friendly and adorable.

At one end of the room Pete had stacked three harmoniums which he had managed to purchase for next to nothing. He had a guitar and some mando-yukes that he had made himself and later a violin. The place was full of instruments. It was a wonder we fitted in at all.

It was here that Pete taught me how to play guitar. He showed me the three cheat chords to play ‘Light my fire’. I practised religiously – at least I shouted out ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ quite a lot. It was then that I discovered that having a great interest and love of music did not necessarily equip you to become a musician. Firstly my ear did not seem able to detect whether a sound was higher or lower and so I couldn’t actually tune anything. Then my fingers had obviously evolved more for counting than manipulating. While I had very good control over my index finger and thumb (which I still use for all my typing) the rest do not seem to be under the control of my cerebellum. Their only function is to make up the numbers. This phenomenon manifested itself when I tried to force them to assume the shapes necessary to make chords.

Opher holding down an incredibly complicated chord 1976

Pete enthusiastically encouraged me to persevere. It would all come right with practice. I watched the effortless way he played the real chords complete with twiddley bits and finger-picking and realised I was destined to be a fan and not a practitioner.

In the flat where it all happened we entertained, read sci-fi, headed off to gigs, talked through the night like maniacs, played arrows with the guys next door, and played lots of music. We stuck homemade posters on the walls and Pete made his weird light-shows out of polarised sheets.

We had one meal a day which might be a huge heap of cheese potato (we cadged cheese scraps from the local supermarket – they took pity on us because we were so obviously starving) or lambs head stew (we bought a sheep’s head from the butchers for one shilling and six pence – when boiled up with a range of vegetables scrounged from the greengrocers it would last for a week of meals for all four of us) or brawn (that entailed boiling a pigs head (also one and sixpence) with vegetables). We got sick of brawn though – it set into a gelatinous jelly that was not greatly appetising even when curried.

The worst meal of all was when we’d run out of money. It was Pete’s turn to cook and the cupboard was bare. I was presented with a plate of what looked like fried spinach. I tucked in but it was so gritty and bland it was almost inedible despite the malnutrition. It turned out that Pete had gone into the garden to find something edible and had ended up frying up grass. It is a meal I will remember for ever.

Food was not our priority. Gigs and albums were my priority. Pete bought instruments.

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