Saturday, November 25, 2006

Miasma Generator

I once entered a side street shop in a Norfolk town, stalactites of peeling paint hanging from its façade like a leper playing chance with Newton. Garish ill-matching blinds peered out from seared windows. Masses of filled jars and ephemera beckoned me in through doors that would ensnare the unwary in its beaded hangings and invoke tinnitus with a chorus of mezzo forte wind chiming. ‘Hobgoblin’s Garden’ I think it was called.

The first thing that struck me was that familiar smell. The aroma from university gigs; the tang of musty halls of residence; the passing whiff of a mad woman with unkempt hair; the stink of some feminist batik class; the pungency of old metal pans stained with the veneer of overcooked pulses. The place was empty. Or so it seemed.

A feint humming sound permeated the hollow random peals as a mad woman with unkempt hair materialised from behind a stack of posters that had long given up the fight to keep their vibrancy and submitted to yellowing in the passing seasons. The rustling of her cheesecloth grated my teeth in approach as she fiddled with the loose arm of her spectacles. She too had yellowed in the passing seasons as her sepia tint dissolved into the gauche patterns of her clothing and splayed out wildly into warped angular fingers of greying hair. The sense to recoil was strong, but like an erection or a forthcoming yawn when in delicate company, in time one develops the experience and strength of will to beat it down. She loomed towards me, framed eyes bulging like globes herniating from an Auschwitz lampshade, and stopped momentarily to elevate her sandaled foot and vigorously fondle a shedding fungal nail disorder.

By this time the recoil had surrendered to the welling desire to heave. Yet there was a homely reassuring quality to her. A sense that you could leave your dying incontinent dog and return to see her covered in liquid canine faecality, retaining that faraway buoyancy and caring wry smile. You could visualise her droning softly while tending to a limpid cactus. Yet with all primeval male impulses you’d sooner bleach your sinuses with sarin than pleasure her.

“Hi, is there anything I can help you with?” came the words, in the Doppler effect of a passing gnat’s ambulance. I’d only entered the shop out of inquisitiveness at seeing a stuffed kitten in a jar playing a kazoo, and a hat shaped out of an armadillo. “Well, I, er, was just, er looking around and….” Trailing off with little conviction, I had involuntarily left the conversational door ajar, allowing her to wedge her besandaled hoof into the gap. “Well, you look like you’re into music” came the retort as she craned forward, spying my disintegrating Led Zeppelin t-shirt. Into music? What the hell did that mean? Did I have some caterwauling seraph hovering above my head? My face admittedly is shaped not unlike a plectrum, but that doesn’t mean that I’m Jimmy fucking Page. Perhaps like Robert Johnson, all those delta decades ago, I had the essence of a hellhound on my tail.

Her comment reminded me of those awkward moments when an old aunt gave me a £1 record token for Xmas, or the time that my nan thought that I would like to take ownership of her clapped faux-walnut cabinet the size of a coffin that cunningly concealed a radiogram …just because I was into music.

With a multispeed semi-circular sweep of her hand like a bi-polar gay on points duty drying his nails, she beckoned my attention towards a haphazard row of vinyl squashed between some hand-painted bras from Bolivia and an ashtray hewn from the scrotum of an Inuit. “Have a look in there. See what takes your fancy.” I sensed a fleck of spittle projecting from her excited lips. As with all vinyl junkies, second invitations are as superfluous as a nosebleed in an abattoir. I stretched across the objet d’art, and using the unique dexterity evolved from years of browsing, fingered through the stack with clockwork gusto. It was mostly 70’s tat. Redundant effects albums (featuring church bells, cars and wildlife to herald ‘the superb wonder of stereophonic sound’) and trashy Hawaiian guitar adaptations of popular hits of the day (complete with suitable sunset beach sleeve art to enhance the exotica). All probably considered relevant and innovative for the time, but like a Vesta curry, now languishing in a distant memory cupboard marked: ‘tasteless shit’.

Nostrils flared, I felt that familiar thread of dissatisfaction starting to writhe in my stomach. I always get this when leafing through vinyl collections. So much so that it is assured to have a dysenteric effect every time. If ever I needed urgent colonic investigations I could save the NHS a few quid on chemical bowel preparations. All I’d require is a nurse wheeling in a rack of old albums to thumb through, and hey presto; gravy time.

So, there I was rummaging through 12” purgatory and needing a shit, when I came across a lavish-looking platter with a 4-page coloured gatefold sleeve, presumably designed by one of those ‘visionary’ album painters (Roger Dean, Rodney Matthews, etc.) that influenced sixth form art students to paint their common rooms in garish hues featuring nymphs on giant misshapen fungi. The album was called “Seven Caves to the Ice Palace” by Icarus Descendents. There is an obvious formula to this that runs as naturally as the climates, and can only be detected in the radar of old musos. You could wager your left kidney that it would (a) feature ex-university chums; (b) have band members called Nigel or Tony; and (c) consist of cleverclogs prog meandering, where half-way through the overlong concept based on some obscure Pratchett fable, the music would degenerate into a free-for-all of accapella sea-shantyism and the worst type of pointless flute parping. Great stuff I reckon.

But I digress. As I picked up the thick card cover and perused the gatefold, I looked closely at the band photos. These contrived snaps will always give you an idea of the type of music therein: moody youths chewing & leaning against lampposts will usually gob out an image of punk; sneering moustached men surrounded by the paraphernalia of Satanism –yet preening through flowing blow-dried locks- would suggest heavy metal; sepia-tinted confederate mock-ups always conspire to exhibit the worst type of country rock; and in this case a cabal of eccentrics, including a balding professor-type holding up a cor anglais with a gnome peeking out of the end, a lanky man in a gaudy tank-top trying to look bemused, and a bespectacled woman in a kaftan, wild fingers of greying hair…..

Hold on. Rewind. I did one of those Oliver Hardy double-takes and swallowed hard. To complete the set, all I needed was to step back into a large bucket of paint and receive a loose shelving unit full of large tins in my face. I rubbed my eyes, looked again. It couldn’t be. As I pondered such, I felt a waft of moist fetid breath on my nape. “Yes, that’s me” came the voice, and I turned to view a chilling rictus replete with bulging eyes as she jabbed her finger towards the sleeve in a staccato rhythm as if trying to punch a hole into worlds beyond. Rooted to the spot, a gurgling mash of vowels tripped from my lips as my focus came to and fro the photo and the shopkeeper. “I played the hurdy gurdy and fingerbells on most of the tracks. We were considered to be the big thing in Norfolk and Suffolk, and once supported Steeleye Span at the Ipswich Gaumont”. I dropped the album and ran out of the shop trailing air croutons as my sphincter slammed shut in fear. I tore down the road powered with adrenaline at the pace of a relay anchorman with a ralgexed arsehole.


Years later I drove through the same town and hung a left into the street of ‘Hobgoblin’s Garden’. It had been replaced by a charity shop for spastic donkeys. I urged to look inside to see if a whiff of memories past would hang in the air. It was mostly run by old jam mongers and middle-class teaching assistants, and had that familiar sense of order interspersed with chaos that one gets in a charity shop. However, I spied something familiar. It was a stuffed kitten in a jar playing a kazoo, with a price tag of £3 attached to it. As I reached in awe, a crinkled whisper hanging in the shadows behind broke the bustle: “you look like you’re into music….”

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