26 May 2006

Gimme Shelter

There's a pub next door, in between my building and the Tube station. It's been there forever, well, maybe not forever, but at least since the century before last. For many years it was a neighbourhood pub, but by the 90s it had begun to deteriorate into what the less charitable referred to as "a grotty old dive for old men and alcoholics."

I actually rather liked it, though I only ever went in to watch the football, because it was the kind of place where you could be social or sit completely on your own with a "Fuck off" sign plastered across your forehead and nobody was much bothered either way. But once I stopped drinking, it seemed to lose a lot of its admittedly elusive charm, and I began watching my football in cleaner, more upmarket pubs, preferably those that didn't allow smoking.

Somewhere in the years since I stopped going there, the pub, like almost every other pub in Notting Hill, was subjected to a makeover. The old men were turfed out, as were the television screens, and hey presto, we had yet another ├╝ber-trendy, multi-culti pub of the month, the kind you read about in heinous publications like Time Out, and which are generallly to be avoided at all cost.

It's not all bad; although the crowd it attracts is noisy, rowdy, and probably riddled with drug dealers and similarly dodgy characters, it does add a bit of life to the area (fortunately my flat faces away from it, so unlike my neighbours I don't have to listen to it), and makes late-night walks home from the station feel a little safer. This past year or so, the crowd seems to have gotten a bit older - late 20s to mid 30s as opposed to teens and early 20s - and the music steadily more retro. Every Sunday night they have a DJ who features music meant to make you think you're in the Notting Hill of old, when rude boys and Rastas peddled their wares in the All Saints Road and the 101ers were in residence at the old Elgin in Ladbroke Grove. Most of the crowd grooving to the ancient tuneage couldn't have been much more than infants when the songs were new, but they seem to enjoy them all the same.

Tonight, though, wasn't even Sunday, but instead of the usual Friday night electro-dub or whatever they're calling it this week, the whole block was echoing with the sound of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." (Yes, as predicted here yesterday, the council needed only to turn the heat back on in our building to transform the weather back to almost-summer conditions, and the pub had thrown open all its doors and run speakers out into the packed beer garden.) It was the second time this week that hearing music from the 60s left me feeling more enthralled than annoyed, but I also marvelled a bit at the concept: here's a song - more than a song, really; it was the title of an album, a film, and shorthand for the end-of-the-60s apocalypse zeitgeist - that's going on 40 years old, and here's a pub jammed with people, few if any of whom have yet seen 40, jamming away as if it came out yesterday.

I almost wanted to buttonhole a few of the people and ask them what "Gimme Shelter" meant to them; was it just a catchy riff, or a crazy nostalgia trip, letting them goof on the grandiose and pretentious posturings of their parents' generation? Or had it taken on a whole new meaning for the kids of today, with its cries about love and war and life lived on a knife edge?

The first time I heard the song was in 1969, in Dennie's apartment above Mark's, the old beatnik coffee house on East William Street in Ann Arbor. We'd just been out to dinner at the Cottage Inn, the ersatz Italian joint up the block where a year or two earlier Jan and I met Allen Ginsberg and he tried to pick one or both of us up, though it was hard to tell exactly what he had in mind. It was mostly a crowd of Dennie's friends from college, and I hardly knew any of them, so I thought it might help if I ate a tab of acid before we went. This didn't help my appetite or my social skills at all, and I sat there growing more catatonic by the moment, afraid that at any moment the sight of spaghetti wriggling like so many albino worms in pools of blood-like tomato sauce would cause me to vomit all over the table.

Dennie, who'd gone out of his way to organise this dinner to give his friends a chance to meet me, was annoyed that I turned into a slightly green space cadet, but took me back to his apartment anyway, laid me down on a pile of coats in the bedroom, and went out to carry on with the party in the living room. I lay there writhing in misery and terror, feeling as though I were on the verge of drowning, when it occurred to me that the problem might be that instead of being too high, I wasn't high enough. On the chance that this might be the case, I swallowed two more tabs of the strawberry acid, and lay back waiting either to die, freak out and lose my mind completely, or be rocketed into the next dimension.

The plan worked. I'd been struggling along as though I were just below the surface of a sea of treacle, but as the new acid kicked in, it was though I burst up into the fresh air, with all my fears and neuroses and pathologies left sinking behind me. It was precisely at that moment that someone in the next room put on the new Rolling Stones album, the first song of which was, of course, "Gimme Shelter."

From 20 feet away, but as if from another world, I listened as the record played all the way through and then started again, and it sounded to me like an epic of Biblical proportions, one that contained the entire story of humanity, its downfall and ultimate redemption. I think they played the entire album three times in a row, by which time it was 4 or 5 in the morning and both my personality and my world had been thoroughly deconstructed and only tentatively reassembled. I tried to explain all this to Dennie when the crowd finally left and he came into bed, but he just smiled that enigmatic smile of his that could have meant, "Yes, Larry, I know just what you mean" or, "I have no idea what you're babbling about, nor do I have the slightest interest in finding out." It was always hard to tell with him.

By the end of the year, another life-changing musical encounter, this time involving ten hits of acid, saw me quit my job, sell or give away all my possessions, and head off with Dennie for California in a beat-up old Volkswagen bus. I came back to Michigan a few times when things got too rough or confusing out west, but essentially from then on I was a California boy, and that's where I found the shelter and the comfort that seemed always to have been missing back where I was born. Anyway, that's my "Gimme Shelter" story, and if any of the youngsters rocking out in the bar tonight end up having similarly life-changing experiences as a result, I can only wish them Godspeed and watch out for the yellow acid.


Matt Andrews said...

You met Allen Ginsberg? I just wrote about him in my BA English poetry exam, wow. What was he like?

Larry Livermore said...

Actually, I met him several times, but never had a substantive enough exchange to allow me to describe "what he was like" with any great reliability.

The first time, as I noted, was when my girlfriend Jan and I were coming out of the Cottage Inn and literally ran into Ginsberg as he was coming in. He immediately started a conversation about the funny old hats we were wearing (we'd been thrift store shopping, which in 1967-68 was still a radical and little-known concept among young hippies), and although he was very friendly, it basically felt like he was trying to pick up one or both of us.

The second time, I'm afraid I can't remember the details of. It was either in New York or Berkeley, and I must have been very high on something. The third time was in 1974 in San Francisco, when Ginsberg and several other friends and associates of Timothy Leary had called a press conference to denounce the acid guru for having turned informer to ease his legal troubles. I was with Jack Leary, Tim's son, who'd also participated in the conference, and on the way out we ran into Ginsberg, who of course Jack had known for years. We had a brief conversation, mostly to the effect of, "Isn't it awful what Tim is doing?" and that was about it. My overall impression of Ginsberg: friendly, almost too friendly, but with an agenda. Maybe a bit too pleased with himself, but considering all the recognition he'd gotten, understandable, I suppose. With all due respect, he didn't seem like the kind of guy I'd want to spend a lot of time with. Too edgy, hyper even, and maybe a bit too preoccupied with his own needs and desires to be good company. But to be fair, someone could easily have said something similar about me.

Matt Andrews said...

That's really interesting. I feel a bit stupid appreciating his poetry when the reality is I'm 40 years too young to really "get" Beat poetry, but I can definitely imagine him being quite the sexual character, given the tone of his poetry.