My Aberdeenshire grandmother was fey, my Mum used to say. Read people’s tea leaves, in the village she came from; until one day she saw a neighbour’s death in them.
By the time I was old enough to remember anything she said, she restricted herself to a stock of weird catch phrases that seemed to be all her own.
One that stuck in my mind was when she used to walk on the beach with us sometimes, screw her face into the wind, and say, ‘We’re a’ naebody’s children, hen.’ Then she’d look down at me and smile, and say, ‘You’ve to find your own song, ye ken? The one only you can sing.’
When she died, a whole lot of her old tea-reading clients came out of the woodwork to tell me all about what she’d forseen for them. She had healing hands, too, apparently.
I ran into a lot of New Age types in L.A., of course. Sat cross legged on on floors till my knees ached, and breathed in more incense than the pope. All that chanting!
Well, I maybe didn’t inherit Granny’s second sight, but there were a few things I could see coming. Like all those male gurus, who were after something a bit more basic than spiritual enlightenment. Which, depending on the guru, might be just fine by me.
That time in Toronto, though, coming back from backing the boys in ‘75. The airport was open, but only just. There had been a heavy snowfall overnight, and you could smell more was coming. The flight took off, then turned south in a long curve, and half an hour in we were flying through ice clouds.
Put down in Newark, which was like the seventh circle of hell, with people sneezing, babies projectile vomiting, and that anxious, sweaty scent you get off too many nervous fliers pressed up too close together.
Cut a long story short, I got another flight late afternoon. It flew direct into another snowstorm, and had to put down in Cleveland, of all places. Took the most expensive taxi ever trying to get a decent hotel for the night, and ended up in a Rodeway Inn that stank of cigarettes and floor polish.
I decided I needed a drink, and lit out to see what was on offer.
Down the street there was a disco bar nearest me, and a rough and ready place on the other side of the freeway advertising live music. I crossed the road and went in.
Everyone had dragged the slush in on their shoes: there was a steamy, wet clothesy fug of an atmosphere, foaming pitchers of beer, and a band of some sort tuning up in the corner.
I got myself a drink, and a vantage point.
The band were kids, really: probably why they’d called themselves Nobody’s Children. The lead singer looked about sixteen. He had a ripped t-shirt, oily jeans, and a Fender Telecaster with a big gouge out of the top. He muttered something to the others, the drummer counted off a breakneck beat, and they were off.
It took me a minute to recognise the tune: they’d thrown a lot of the major chords into minor, it was all at different time signature from the original, and the kid snarled the words rather than sang them. There was no missing the chorus though.
That was the first time I’d really heard punk – I mean, I’d read the reviews of bands like the Ramones, but I’d never listened to them. And here was this band of young punks, ripping So Said the Clown to shreds. The song that gave me my big break, and then hung like a millstone round my neck as I tried to make my own way. I swear the lead singer looked me right in the eye when he hit the final chord.
You had to admit they had energy. The West Coast sound had got flabby, self indulgent by then. You could see the new wave coming, out of the East Coast mainly, but even in places like Cleveland, Ohio. You could smell it, like the snow. You could predict it.
What could I do though? I didn’t have a band, just borrowed session guys, or friends, for my albums. Just me and my songs and an acoustic Gibson.
So I hit the road, and headed for Europe.