My first guitar saved my life. And I wish now that I’d never set eyes on it.
It was 1973.
I was on my way to step out in front of an express train. I knew a place where it would pass at full speed and I could walk onto the track at the very last second, giving the driver no time to brake.
I had it all planned.
When you’re a skinny, underdeveloped, bespectacled, thirteen-year-old, stammering ginger bookworm with bad skin and acute social-anxiety, you become the target of choice for every thug, wanker and bullying dickhead looking for a docile recipient for their anger issues.
Dave Scott was Dickhead-in-Chief, with Alex, his twin brother, a very able lieutenant. They were two years older, and their joint mission in life was to seek me out and kick the living shit out of me at every given opportunity. This they did often, and with an amount of pleasure, imagination and attention to detail that was terrifying.
Not that I was a stranger to the dark side of life. I had a brother in the army. He was my hero. Hard as nails he was. But he was killed in Northern Ireland, which caused my dad to drink himself to death, leaving me and my mum on to struggle through life as best we could. Victims don’t attract friends, and with no one to turn to, I lived in my head. It was, and still is, a dark and wretched place.
Welcome to my world. Welcome to my story.
When you’re the victim of a bully your mind takes you to places where rules don’t exist. Alone with your thoughts, a maelstrom of anger fuels your imagination such that in your head you create evermore violent acts of retribution. You fantasise about revenge; a hammer to the temple, a knife to the throat, a knitting needle pushed slowly into the ear, a razor blade dragged across an eyeball, bending a finger back until it snaps with a loud crack. Make them scream, make them bleed, make them hurt, make them beg for mercy. Taunt them. Humiliate them. Debase them. In your mind you’re ready for them.
Until the next time. When you turn the corner, and you see them waiting, and you literally piss yourself with fear because you haven’t got a hammer, or a knitting needle, or a knife, or the muscle, expertise or bravery to fight back, and you know damn well that very soon it will be you begging for mercy.
And the more that happens, the louder the voice in your mind tells you that you’re worthless, and with no case for the defence you reach the point where the only way out is to make an appointment for a meeting with the business end of a speeding locomotive.
I was on my way to that meeting when I spotted the guitar propped up next to some dustbins outside the Oxfam shop in the High Street.
Up until that point I had never seen any kind of guitar up close, much less had any desire to learn to play one, but when I saw that cheap, wooden acoustic, with nylon strings and plastic tuning pegs. I picked it up, ran my fingers across the strings, and something about the sound it made temporarily distracted me from the dark side of my brain.
There’s a first time for everything, and there would be another express train tomorrow.
I took the guitar home, borrowed a couple of tuition books from the library, and set about devoting every spare minute to practicing. In a very short time I reached the point where I needed a better guitar.
Back then, Mum bought everything from a Mail Order catalogue, just about scraping together the bare minimum payments each week.
Our neighbor, next door-but-one, was a representative, and Mum had borrowed a copy from her and left it on the kitchen table. I was flipping through it one evening when I found the “Musical Instruments” page.
That’s when I saw it. The object of my dreams and the cause of my nightmares.
“El Diablo” was a cheap Chinese copy of a Gibson SG electric guitar. It had accentuated double-cutaways, and when you held it upright they resembled the horns of the devil. The body was painted in a red so vivid that it reminded me of a stab wound and branded the outline of Satan’s head behind my eyelids every time that I blinked.
I spent over an hour staring at it (I even took a Polaroid photograph of the page, which I carried everywhere), a dark obsession growing inside me like a tumor as I pored over the technical specifications whilst ignoring the reality.
The price was an eye-watering £250. Even at the lowest weekly payment, spread over three years was beyond my meagre budget. Asking mum for help was out of the question. We didn’t have pot to piss in, and an electric guitar was right at the very bottom of a very long priority list.
That night I dreamt of it. And in my dream, I stood centre-stage in a dark, stinking dive-bar, playing to a crowd of slavering, writhing and fornicating scarlet demons. Demons that worshipped me as El Diablo screamed out a blistering, elongated siren call laden with reverb and feedback.
As I played, the room began to shudder, the dirt floor erupting ripe mud pustules through which corpses in various stages of decomposition scrabbled from their graves, stood upright, and then got their bad selves on down to the hellish groove. El Diablo screamed louder still, and then dive-bombed to a heavy, low-down 12-bar blues riff. Demons grunted like rutting pigs, shitting everywhere as the guttural power chords and driving bass line resonated deep within their bowels.
In the midst of this rancid, rocking, satanic hell-hole, one of the demons separated itself from the undulating mass, turned and lumbered towards me, its breath inundating my world with unholy stench as it morphed into Keith Richards.
“You get that axe, it’s gonna change your life, man,” Keith growled. “How much of a deposit would you need to afford the payments?”
Another corpse shuffled across the stage, strips of rotting material flapping and dangling from its bones, wisps of dirty grey hair creeping from beneath the rim of a filthy top hat. As it drew closer, scraps of desiccated facial muscle twitched in an obscene representation of a grin as the corpse laid its bony hand on my shoulder.
“Today is Friday,” it hoarsed. “People always pay their bills on a Friday.”
I erupted gasping from the nightmare, my pyjamas and bedclothes wringing with sweat, my heart thumping as I switched on the light and waited for the demonic images to fade.
The catalogue was on the floor where I’d left it. The photograph of El Diablo wiggling her curves at me, looking every bit as seductive as a Playboy magazine Centre-fold.
At the back of the catalogue was about ten pages of small print. I speed-read through to the payment terms and worked out that a 20% deposit would halve the weekly payments over three years. Putting El Diablo well within my limited means.
All I had to do was find fifty pounds.
It was dark when my alarm went off, and freezing cold when I slipped out of bed. Outside, the clear sky glistened with stars, the ground with frost and icy treachery.
I was halfway along my paper round when from behind I heard the familiar clinking bottles and low whirring electric hum of Sid Davies’ milk float.
Sid gave a cheery wave as he drove past and then steered across the road to stop outside a block of flats.
I watched him step out of the cab, and reach for a crate of milk bottles.
I watched him heft the crate onto his shoulder, and then turn towards the flats.
I watched him take three steps, and then his feet shot from under him.
I saw his head hit the pavement, and from twenty feet away I heard his skull crack through the crash of breaking glass.
When I reached him, Sid wasn’t moving. Blood poured from his ears, running along the camber of the pavement, mixing with spilt milk to create a grotesque strawberry milkshake pooling in the gutter.
I remembered my brother telling me that if someone is bleeding from the ears, then it’s not a good sign.
I knelt down and felt Sid’s neck for a pulse like my brother had shown me.
I grabbed his wrist.
Sid always wore a battered leather satchel on a thin strap slung over his left shoulder. The satchel lay to one side, the flap was open and in the weak pool of sodium light I could see banknotes inside. Lots and lots of banknotes.
“It’s Friday. Everyone pays their bills on a Friday.”
“You get that axe, man, it’s gonna change your life.”
I looked up and down the street. It was still early, still too early for signs of any movement. No lights coming on. No curtains twitching. No one around.
I looked back at Sid. Once more I checked his neck and his wrist for a pulse.
I checked the street again. All clear. My heart pounded as I slipped my hand inside the satchel, grabbed fistfuls of notes and stuffed them frantically into my paper sack.
My body twitched and I stifled a scream as a hand grabbed my wrist. Sid was awake, staring up to sky, gripping my arm, his cheeks puffing and deflating as he blew strange words into the cold morning air.
I leaned over him. “Can you hear me, Sid?”
“Do you know who I am, Sid?”
His left foot began to quiver, and then his leg shuddered violently.
By now his head lay in a lake of blood, his eyes staring wildly. I pried his fingers from my wrist.
“Do you know where you are, Sid?”
I looked around. The street was empty. Still no sign of anyone.
El Diablo flashed into my vision. Its body pulsing like arterial blood.
“You get that axe, man, it’s gonna change your life.”
I took a deep breath, grabbed Sid’s head in both hands, lifted it and then with all my strength hammered it onto the pavement.
I felt something give, like the shattering of an eggshell.
Sid’s breathing became ragged.
I lifted his head again. Took a deep breath and began smashing it down with all the force I could muster. Again and again and again.
Sid’s eyeballs rolled upwards, his throat gave a final clattering gasp, and then he fell silent.
I smashed his head once more, saw something ooze from the back of his skull.
By now I was panting, my body sweating, my arms aching.
I stood up and looked around again. Still nobody about.
I stepped over Sid’s body and carried on with my paper round. When I was out of sight from the street I started pulling banknotes out of my sack and stuffing them into my pockets.
Nobody saw me walking away.
Back at home, I laid the cash out on my bed.
One hundred and twenty five pounds.
Fast Forward to 1975.
By now I was getting pretty tasty. I was still underweight, still stammering, still short-sighted, still anxious and still ginger. But I could play the guitar just like ringing a bell.
Hours and hours and hours of finger-shredding practice, night after night was finally beginning to pay off. I could play pretty much anything, any style. I had inherited my brother’s record collection and developed a preference for early electric blues, and listened to everything by the Rolling Stones up to Exile on Main St. (the last album he bought before the IRA blew him up).
The bullying had lessened somewhat. Encounters were fewer, but no less violent. Going out was safer, but the effects of my anxiety lingered on and my mind was still feeding me dark and sinister thoughts.
El Diablo was my comfort blanket, soaking up most of my anger, calming most of my fears and converting most of my bleak thoughts into sweet tones. Whatever mood I was in, she made me sound good, and when I thought the voices in my head weren’t listening, I would daydream of a playing in a band and becoming a rock and roll hero.
The Turtle Doves were formed at my school in your standard rock group formation: lead singer, two guitarists, bassist and drummer.
Mick Taylor, the lead singer was a tall, skinny narcissist who thought he was Mick Jagger. He really wasn’t.
Dave Scott was the original lead guitarist. The very same spiteful, loudmouth bastard bully who had made my formative years a living hell.
Rhythm guitarist was Alex Scott, Dave’s twin brother and partner in crime.
Bassist was Jimmy Morton. Dedicated to music. Later on, Jimmy co-wrote all the songs with me.
The drummer was Tom Cornwell. Tom was a legend.
I’d watched them practice a few times at school, and soon noticed that cracks were beginning to appear. Jimmy wanted the band to record original material (he was a prolific songwriter), whereas Dave and Alex insisted on playing covers because they couldn’t be arsed to put in the work to learn new chords and create something new. No one else in the band could write music and so Jimmy was outvoted every time. After one particularly memorable argument, the practice session ended with the Scott brothers storming off.
I walked out of school that afternoon to find both of them leaning against a wall, passing a cigarette back and forth. Dave’s face twisted into a sneer.
“What are you looking at, you scrawny little cunt?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Leave me alone.”
I didn’t see the first punch, just felt the explosion on my face and the familiar taste of blood in my mouth. The second punch put me on the ground, my head bouncing off the asphalt. After that, all I could do was curl up tight and try and protect myself against the volley of well-aimed kicks from Dave and his bastard brother.
I heard someone shouting, and then a scuffle, and then the kicking stopped and I was being lifted to my feet.
“Four-eyed ginger twat.” The Scott brothers laughed as they swaggered away.
“Are you alright?” Jimmy looked genuinely concerned.
I sniffed back tears of humiliation. “I th-think so.”
“Pair of wankers,” said Jimmy.
He stepped back. “I’ve seen you watching us practice,” he said. “You like music?”
I nodded. “I p-play guitar,” I said. “Mostly b-blues-rock.”
I showed him the latest Polaroid of El Diablo.
“That’s a nice guitar,” said Jimmy. “I bet it sounds amazing. Listen. We’re playing at the Rose and Lion pub on Saturday night, why don’t you come along? I’ll make sure those two wankers won’t bother you. Maybe we can hear you play?”
“M-maybe,” I said. “Thanks.”
“See you on Saturday, then.” Jimmy turned and walked away.
When he’d gone I stared for a long time at the picture.
By now the Polaroid was about six months old, the glossy paper well-worn and creased, the image beginning to fade. But as I stared at the picture the colour of El Diablo seemed to become more vivid.
“Burning like the flames of hell.”
The voice made me jump. Its sinister tone suggesting another kicking was inbound, but when I looked around there was no one there.
The Rose and Lion was a down-at-heel pub in a shabby side street that led to a small park and kids’ playground.
The gig didn’t go well. Early on, a burly, shaven-headed punter made his way to the stage and began to heckle Dave loudly. At first Dave tried to ignore him, but the shaven-headed guy was relentless and seemed to know which buttons to press.
He kept on heckling until Dave stopped playing, grabbed his guitar by the neck and hit the floor swinging. Punches were traded, Dave was pulled away, and Shaven-Headed Guy was bundled out of the pub. The gig never recovered and I went home soon after.
The next morning Jimmy turned up at my house.
“We’re looking for a new guitarist,” he said. “It looks like Dave’s gonna be out of action for a long time.”
Jimmy told me that after leaving the pub, the Shaven-Headed Guy hung around outside. Later that night, witnesses saw him grab Dave and frog march him into the park.
Next morning, Dave was found unconscious near the swings. Every single bone in his body had been systematically and expertly broken.
A couple of weeks later, on a Friday afternoon, I went to visit Dave in hospital. He was out of Intensive Care and in a room on his own. Encased in a body cast, and hanging from traction wires, he looked like a wounded marionette.
I walked up to the bed and leaned in close. The bruising on his face had ripened to a midnight blue, with patchy clouds of sickly yellow. His broken jaw was wired shut, rendering his trapped words unintelligible.
“Not so scary now, are you? You fucking wanker.”
Swollen, bloodshot eyes stared back at me, first with anger, then uncertainty, and then widening in fear as I licked his face, dragging my tongue from his chin to his forehead.
I leaned closer, to whisper in his ear.
“Take a good look, because my face is the last thing you’re ever going to see. I hope you burn in hell, you piece of shit.”
I grabbed a pillow from an armchair next to the bed, placed it over Dave’s face and pushed down hard.
It was over in seconds. The bed shook violently at first, and then calmed, and then silence.
I looked up at the sound the scratch-flare of a match, and the smell of burning tobacco.
Sid, the milkman, stood in the corner of the room, dragging on a Woodbine. His pallid, death-mask creased into a grin as cigarette smoke poured from his nostrils and mouth.
“It’s Friday,” he said. “People always pay their bills on a Friday.”
Sid winked at me. “You did a good job,” he said. “When they lifted me up my brains fell out of the back of my head. Have a look.”
He turned around. Jagged edges of skull framed a gaping hole in the back of his head, it looked like a window pane after a brick has gone through it.
Sid turned to face me, and then nodded at Dave’s body. “He’s on his way. Probably burning as we speak. Nasty little cunt.”
His cheeks hollowed as he drew on the Woodbine. “You better go,” he said.
I put the pillow back on the chair. When I looked up, Sid was gone.
I took a moment to stroke Dave’s head, felt myself smile as I whispered, “Fuck you,” and then I walked out of the room.
I joined the band and very soon Jimmy and I began writing together, and gradually we built up a decent repertoire of original, hard-driving songs.
Without his thug twin for back up, Alex left me alone. But he still hated my guts, and I hated his. There was still a score to be settled, but I bided my time.
In 1976, The Sex Pistols (or Malcom Maclaren’s Monkees, as I called them) hit the UK like a lightning bolt, sparking a wildfire that swept across the country.
By 1977 our back catalogue captured the zeitgeist perfectly and we were soon compared with The Pistols, The Clash and The Stranglers.
Our name began to spread. A demo tape played by John Peel begat a local radio interview, which begat more gigs, which begat an offer of a deal with an up and coming indie record company, which begat a hit single, which begat another one, and another one.
And then we hit the big time.
We did Top of The Pops three times, became regulars on the John Peel show, and even supported the Rolling Stones for one show (John Lee Hooker was ill and we happened to be the only band in town. But still…).
After the Stones gig, Keith Richards asked if he could play my guitar. When he picked up El Diablo, he looked at me sideways, chuckled and then winked knowingly as he played the opening riff to Sympathy for the Devil.
Later that night, Keith posed for a picture with me. Later still, his dealer introduced me to heroin.
We made it onto the covers of New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Smash Hits.
All through this El Diablo never left my side, and never let me down. She became my trademark, and part of music lore, almost as famous as BB King’s ‘Lucille’. I made sure she was on every album cover, picture disc and concert poster.
Gibson got to hear of it and offered to give me a real SG, and a very lucrative sponsorship deal that would’ve set me up for life, provided that I agree to get rid of El Diablo. I declined, which sent Alex over the top in a thermonuclear drunken hissy fit.
“Are you fucking mad?” He screamed. “The biggest guitar company in the world have offered to give you one of their guitars, and you’d rather play that cheap piece of shit?” His foot lashed out, kicking El Diablo from her stand
Even though I’d killed two people, Alex Scott was the first and last person that I had ever punched. Drawing on a lifetime of experience, I knew exactly where to hit him. The first punch broke his nose, the second his cheekbone, the third and fourth resulted later in an eye-watering bill for cosmetic dentistry and the kicks to his nuts made him scream like baby.
That was in the Green Room at the BBC studios, just before we played on The Old Grey Whistle Test, which explains why Alex didn’t appear that night.
A week later, a couple of days before Christmas, we played the legendary gig in Belfast.
I hadn’t seen Alex since I smacked him. He flew to Belfast on his own, joining us for the sound check before the gig. He didn’t speak to anyone, and no one spoke to him.
I felt nervous at being there. We were an English band playing in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, and you could feel the tension in the venue. But we played a storm, the crowd roared their approval at every song. Half way through the set, Mick was introducing the band like he always did, when Alex stalked across the stage, grabbed the microphone and pointed to me.
“And this little shit is our lead guitarist. The IRA blew up his brother, and if any of you lot are in tonight I’ll buy you all a drink.”
El Diablo buzzed in my hand. Its devil-shape burned behind my eyelids.
Half the crowd cheered, the other half booed. And then it all kicked off. All of us had to duck as a hail of bottles and broken seats clattered onto the stage.
Mick froze centre-stage. I can’t say I blame him.
Jimmy came across to me. “We’ve got to do something,” he yelled. “This is like the Stones at fucking Altamont.”
I played a familiar riff. Jimmy nodded, patted me on the shoulder, and then looked at Tom.
“Stiff Little Fingers,” he shouted.
Tom nodded. Mick looked petrified. “I don’t know any,” he said.
Jimmy shrugged. “I fucking do.” He stepped forward to his mic, “1-2-3-4…!”
I played the riff again, and the crowd roared as we thundered through a monster version of “Alternative Ulster”.
When we finished, the house lights came on and I saw the full extent of the ongoing carnage. The auditorium was a frenzied mass of vicious sectarian fighting. In the midst of the violence I saw a familiar face battling his way to the exit.
It was to be our last ever gig.
Backstage was chaos and the band got separated in the melee. When we all made it back to the dressing room, Alex was nowhere to be seen. The unspoken assumption was that he’d made his own way to wherever he was going.
Jimmy looked at me. “What he said was out of order. Are you OK?”
I said I was fine.
El Diablo continued buzzing in my hand, and in my mind.
Alex’s body was found three days later. He’d been shot through both knees and through the back of the head. His hooded body left next to a burnt-out car on a patch of wasteland in Bandit Country.
The Turtle Doves split up after the Belfast gig, I haven’t seen them since.
After that I bummed around. When a solo career didn’t work out, I did some session work and got by. And then my mum died of cancer, I lost interest in everything, and that’s when my habit really got a hold of me.
When you’re in the money, a heroin addiction is something you can manage. Something you can laugh off, or justify to yourself. When I stopped earning, my life spiraled into a nosedive towards yet another “Live Fast, Die Young” rock and roll cliché.
Looking back I’ve forgotten more than I can recall. Can’t even remember the last time I played. Every last piece of my music memorabilia has gone now. Squirted through a filthy syringe to give me ever-shortened bouts of blessed oblivion.
All I had left was my guitar. I tried to pawn it the other day. The pawnbroker laughed at me as he offered me a pittance, and then laughed even louder as I stumbled out onto the street. People can smell desperation, and when you’re a fallen rock star and drug addict the only place you’ll find sympathy is in the dictionary, somewhere between shit and syphilis.
Most of my veins have collapsed now, I’m half blind (injecting yourself through the eye will do that), my teeth are rotten and I’ve got ulcers all over my body. My worldly possessions are this notebook, a pen that I nicked from a betting shop, a sleeping bag and the clothes that are hanging off me.
And that fucking guitar. Still burning red and as immaculate as the day I bought it, while my life has turned to shit.
This morning I woke up under some bushes. At least it didn’t rain in the night. One of the newspapers I’m lying on is a couple of days old. The front page story is about a British Army patrol killed by the IRA in Londonderry. There are pictures of the victims, one of whom is Shaven-Headed Guy, AKA the late Sergeant Major Adam Lane, 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. Best friend of my late brother, and pall-bearer at his funeral.
The last time I saw him we were standing over the body of Alex Scott, Adam’s Browning 9mm still smoking in my hand. Adam had broken both of Alex’s ankles so that he couldn’t make a run for it – he was good at breaking bones, was Adam – and then told me where to shoot him, to make it look like a punishment shooting.
Alex screamed like a baby, said he was sorry for all the times he and his brother beat me up, snot pouring down his face as he begged for mercy. I was as high as a kite but I remember laughing when I blew his kneecaps out, and the stench of him shitting himself when pulled the hood over his face and pushed the gun barrel against the back of his head.
After a lifetime of imagining scenarios of slow, violent revenge, I thought killing the Scott twins would make me feel better. Instead, all of my dark fantasies of retribution turned into terrifying nightmares of remorse – hideous dreams from which I always wake screaming. And when I go for too long without a heroin fix, my night terrors appear as daylight hallucinations.
The gift that keeps on giving.
When I’m not high or hallucinating I think of Sid the milkman, how it felt to batter his head on the pavement, cracking it open until his brains leaked out.
Lately, I’ve seen him every day. Sometimes he talks to me, but mostly he stands to one side, a Woodbine in his mouth, blowing smoke rings, smiling quietly, looking at his watch and biding his time.
I realise that I’ve shit myself in my sleep. I pick up the damp newspaper and read the story about the IRA bomb.
Sid’s waving to me now, beckoning me towards him. I guess it’s time to go. I stand up, and sling El Diablo’s strap over my shoulder for one last performance.
As I stagger towards Sid, the railway line’s vibrating and I can hear the train a’coming.
“It’s a Friday,” said Sid. “Everyone always pays their bills on a Friday.”
|Rock Star Suicide
Rich Anthony, troubled lead guitarist with the punk rock band, The Turtle Doves, has been found dead in an apparent suicide.
Anthony, 27, of no fixed abode, was hit by an express train at approximately 7am on Christmas Eve.
Since leaving The Turtle Doves, Anthony suffered from drug addiction, and mental issues brought on after the recent loss of his mother.
A police spokesman said that Anthony’s trademark red guitar was found undamaged near the scene.
©Richard Wall 2017
Bio: Born in England in 1962, Richard grew up in a small market town in rural Herefordshire before joining the Royal Navy. After 22 years in the submarine service and having travelled extensively, Richard now lives and writes in rural Worcestershire.