Extract from Chapter Eleven of the Headpress book,
The Hellhound Sample (a novel)
by Charles Shaar Murray
READING, BERKSHIRE, ENGLAND 1958
Veronica Hudson stood at the foot of the stairs, pitching her voice to cut through the noise — she refused to call it music — coming from her son Michael’s bedroom. The drums sounded like pneumatic drills, the saxophone like a demented foghorn. Someone was obviously in the process of destroying a perfectly good piano, and she didn’t know what on earth was making that other sound. Could that really be a guitar? She thought of guitars as being nice quiet civilised instruments, quite unlike these new electrified monstronsities. And on top of all this noise was some screaming Negro howling complete and utter gibberish. Honestly, it was just too, too much. That infernal racket was literally rocking the house.
No response. She tried again, louder.
“DAR-ling!” Pause. “It’s TIME for DIN-ner!”
Still nothing. Sighing theatrically, she climbed the stairs and rapped sharply on the door. “MICHAEL! Turn that noise off IMMEDIATELY! It’s time for your dinner and your father’s waiting!” The music ceased abruptly and suddenly the house was basking in heavenly, heavenly peace and quiet. “Kah-ming!” announced an irritated little voice from behind the door. With a final “Hurry up then!,” Mrs Hudson retraced her steps downstairs. Honestly, life had been an absolute nightmare since they’d foolishly agreed to buy Michael a little gramophone for his birthday, but at least it was an improvement on having to put up with that awful American muck he liked on the big Regentone radiogram in the living room. And he’d been so insistent that a gramophone of his own was what he wanted. He’d chosen it as his reward for entering his third year at grammar school in the A stream. It may not have been at the right school — Michael’s father, Frederick Hudson, taught English, Latin and history to O level at Reading’s most prestigious school; Michael’s disappointing results in the eleven-plus exam had only entitled him to a place in the second-best school — but at least it was the top stream. Hudsons were always in the top stream. It was the family rule.
Michael half ran, half tumbled down the stairs. Such a graceless, clumsy boy: tall, skinny and so utterly uncoordinated that it was no surprise that he was useless at games. Which didn’t mean, unfortunately, that he was an intellectual: his teachers undoubtedly relished telling a master at the town’s top school how disappointing Michael’s results generally were. Maybe his high placings in the previous year’s exams had been some kind of fluke. Certainly all he seemed to care about was that bloody music. He always complained that he received less pocket-money than any of his classmates whose parents weren’t actually poor, and most weeks he denied himself sweets and comics and trips to the cinema, sedulously hoarding his pennies to buy those dreadful records. And he played them so loud that half the time it was almost impossible to listen to the radio downstairs.
He was still wearing his school uniform, delighted by his first pair of the long trousers which announced to the world that, while he was not yet an adult, he was at least no longer a child. However, Mrs Hudson noted disapprovingly, his shirt collar was unbuttoned, his tie was loosened and pulled to one side, and his hair a complete mess.
Mr Hudson was waiting for him at the dining table. As ever, all Michael could see of his father was an unfolded copy of that morning’s Daily Telegraph from behind which puffs of aromatic blue pipe smoke would periodically ascend languidly towards the ceiling. The three of them emitted a perfunctory unison mumble which a keen-eared listener might have deciphered as the family saying grace and then addressed themselves to their grey, flavourless roast lamb, mashed potatoes, and watery overcooked peas and carrots. Mr Hudson’s laden forkfuls disappeared behind his newspaper. Conversation was brief and sporadic.
“Have you finished your homework?”
“Done English and geography. Haven’t finished the Latin.”
“Well, there’ll be no more of that racket until it’s all done. If you’ve finished before nine o’clock, you can listen until then, but only if you turn it down.”
“Listen to your mother now, “from behind the Telegraph. “That decision is final.”
There was a jaunty rat-a-tat-tat at the door. Sighing, Mrs Hudson went to answer. A few seconds later, she was back: a tall, cheerful-looking individual hovering behind her. “Michael, it’s Mark come to see you.” Mark Reynolds was the twenty-two-year-old son of their next-door neighbours: when he’d been fourteen to Michael’s six, he’d spent the best part of a summer in a wholly unsuccessful attempt to turn Michael into a decent cricketer. Absolutely mustard for what he called ‘modern jazz,’ he had joined the Merchant Navy purely to take advantages of stopovers in New York, which allowed him two or three days on each voyage to scour the shops for obscure records and night-owl his way around the Village Vanguard, Birdland and other celebrated Manhattan jazz clubs, where he would worship at the feet of musicians with strange names like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus and John Coltrane.
Before setting off on his most recent jaunt across the Atlantic, Mark had asked Michael what he wanted for his upcoming birthday. Michael couldn’t believe his good fortune. “Get me some rock and roll records,” he had begged Mark. The birthday had come and gone while Mark was still at sea. But now Mark was back, carolling “Hello youngster!,” and he was holding a huge parcel behind his back.
“Please may I leave the table?” he pleaded, and after a seemingly eternal delay while his request was considered, Mrs Hudson allowed, a trifle grudgingly, that she supposed it would be all right. Mr Hudson issued a vaguely affirmative grunt from behind his paper. Michael scampered up the stairs, Mark following him at a more dignified pace. “Not too long now,” Mrs Hudson called after them. “Remember you’ve still got homework to finish.” Safe in his room, Michael cleared a space on his narrow bed for Mark and sat down, fingers itching. Smiling, Mark held the gift-wrapped parcel out to him. Michael tore away the wrapping and sat back, stunned. “Woowwwwwwwwww,” was all he said. Then he remembered his manners and stammered incoherent thanks.
The parcel was a whole stack of LPs. Michael’s pocket-money would only stretch to singles: he had never had any long-players of his own before, only the ones his parents had bought him. He had a couple of 78s, but mostly he collected the new seven-inch 45s. He had a few by Elvis and two by Little Richard. The only British artists represented in his sparsely populated record rack were Lonnie Donegan and a new bloke, Cliff Richard, whose first record, Move It, he’d bought two weeks ago. And now here he was with his bed practically covered in LPs: proper American ones with stiff matt cardboard covers, not the floppy shiny ones English LPs came in.
“I got you some stuff I thought you’d like,” Mark said, smiling benignly. There was The Chirping Crickets, with Buddy Holly on the cover holding this really strange-looking guitar with horns and a blond-wood neck. There was the Everly Brothers’ first LP — the brothers on a motor-scooter, the Everly riding pillion had a guitar slung across his back — and no less than two by Elvis: one had a picture of Elvis, mouth open, strumming his guitar while his name ran down the left-hand side of the cover and across the bottom in fluorescent pink and green; the other, Elvis’ Golden Records, had just about every Elvis hit he’d ever heard.
“And I got you some that you won’t like now, but you will when you grow up,” Mark continued. Michael’s heart sank as little: that was the sort of thing his parents would say when they bought him classical records, or boring sentimental songs for old people. These were more promising, though: one was called Miles Ahead, by a trumpeter called Miles Davis, and there was one with a really weird cover by the mysterious Thelonious Monk, who Mark said was a really great piano player.
“These ones here,” Mark said, handing over the last three LPs, “are people you haven’t heard of, but if you like that rock and roll stuff you’ll probably like these. It’s called blues.” They were all by Negroes.
The first record was called The Best Of Muddy Waters. The second, The Ray Charles Story, had a bloke on the front in really big sunglasses. Michael immediately decided he wanted a pair like that for himself. “He wears those because he’s blind,” Mark said, evidently reading Michael’s mind. The third had a man in a bright red suit on the cover, doing the splits with a guitar held behind his neck, against a rich blue circle. It was called Once In A Blue Moon.
“Which one do you want to play first?” Mark asked mischievously. The kid was obviously drowning in indecision: starved of music and then suddenly confronted with an epicurian feast in gourmand quantity. Michael’s forefinger stabbed out at the Blue Moon LP. “This one,” he announced decisively. He took it over to the Dansette gramophone in the corner, switched it on, proudly flipping the speed control to thirty-three, the first time he’d ever done so for a record he’d willingly chosen to listen to. He turned the volume down to what he hoped was a parent-acceptable level, reverently removing the record from its cardboard jacket and paper inner sleeve, placing it on the turntable, carefully lowering the needle onto the opening groove.
The first thing he heard was a slicing electric guitar playing an insolently teasing line, answered by a heavy ba-whump from bass, drums and brass. Then the same again. Then a voice, simultaneously deep and nasal, started to sing…
And then his mother was in the room carrying a tray with a plate of chocolate biscuits and two cups of tea. “You boys can listen for ten minutes,” she conceded, “and then I’m afraid Michael has to finish his homework before his bedtime.”
“You can have lots of fun listening to your new records over the weekend, or you can play them… quietly!… tomorrow evening. Thank you very much, Mark,” she added, “I’m sure he’ll be delighted. Have you said thank you to Mark for your new records?” she asked Michael sternly.
“Yes he has, Mrs Hudson,” Mark interposed quickly, “like a real little gentleman.”
“That’s all right then,” Mrs Hudson said, not quite certain whether Mark was poking fun at her or not.
Mark and Michael listened to almost half of the first side of the LP before Mrs Hudson knocked at the door to demand that Michael return to his homework immediately. Latin translation was hard enough even when Michael was concentrating, but tonight it took more than twice as long as usual. All he could think about was the man in the red suit with the piercing guitar and that voice which seemed to be the absolute incarnation of worldly wisdom.
Later, tucked up in bed, he just wanted to be listening to that record. Then he wanted to pick up his own guitar and try to play along. He’d shown little aptitude for either piano or violin and, when he’d first asked for a guitar when he was eleven, his patents had compromised by buying him a ukelele, possibly envisioning him accompanying them at family sings of Tea For Two or If You Were The Only Girl In the World or even, yeuuchhh, How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.
Then they’d finally capitulated and bought him a guitar for his birthday. Mr Hudson had seen it advertised on a school notice-board and bought it, for £2 10/-, from a fifth-form pupil. It was next to impossible to get it to play in tune all the way up the neck, and the strings were so far off the fretboard that it was actively painful to try and press them down. Mr Hudson had hoped that the guitar’s shoddiness and unapproachability would put young Michael off all this Negro foolishness and bring him to his senses, but against all the odds Michael had persevered with the instrument and could already play three or four chords.
Now Michael, drifting off to sleep, was imagining himself in a bright red suit like James Blue Moon’s and a pair of big sunglasses like Ray Charles’s, playing a ferociously loud electric guitar while girls — particularly that tall snooty blonde from the convent school who he sometimes saw at the bus stop but didn’t have the nerve to talk to — swooned before him and impossibly complex phrases fell elegantly from his fingertips.
And he wondered what James Blue Moon’s life was like. A man like that, who played so brilliantly and looked so — what would Mark call it? Cool? — must have lots of money and loads of girlfriends. He must know all the other stars, like Elvis and Little Richard and Buddy Holly and that blind guy Ray Charles, really well. And he probably drove a really fabulous car, probably a Cadillac — Michael wasn’t quite sure what a Cadillac looked like, but all the articles he read about American stars said they drove Cadillacs — with darkened windows and a radio and leather seats that smelled of sex, whatever sex smelled like. Wherever he went the tough guys all knew him and admired him for his talent. He was probably a tough guy himself. Michael could imagine Moon in mid-performance, swinging his guitar to one side, gracefully fast-drawing a gleaming automatic from beneath his billowing red jacket in a single smooth action, drilling a thief trying to rob the place he was playing with one shot, then finishing the song to wild applause.
He couldn’t think of anything he wanted more in the whole wide world right now than to play the blues and be exactly like James Blue Moon when he grew up. He’d never really wanted to grow up before, because his parents and all his parents’ grown-up friends were so boring, living in a grey world where thin grey daylight could barely force its way through tightly-drawn net curtains, where all the colours and flavours were bland and muted and the volume control was always turned right down.
James Blue Moon was the first grown-up Michael Hudson had ever wanted to be.
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