It wasn’t a Suzuki GSX-R750 – the bike I’d always wanted – that would come later. It was a Suzuki GSX-R600 – near enough, certainly for me, who’d never ridden anything faster than a Lambretta. I’d always had Lambrettas: GPs, Yorkshire style, no Moddy crap – race-tuned, stripped-down, 85 mph – fast for a scooter. But I was brought up with bikes, saw Barry Sheene at Oliver’s Mount and Ron Haslam and Wayne Gardner at Carnaby – my dad’s obsessed by bikes – he could never understand me loving Lambrettas – thought I might be ‘one of them’.
So, eventually I got a fast bike – I was 36 – and it changed my life – changed the shape of Britain. Not in London, where fast bikes are pointless – you can’t really get through traffic, you have to learn how to park one, have to learn that they don’t really turn around – built to go in straight lines and be leaned round corners, definitely not steered. Suzuki GSX-Rs: the first and still the best … and I’d finally got one.
Nick Sanderson died in 2008. We still talk about him – we always will. Amongst his many other qualities, he was the ultimate drinking partner. It was impossible to be bored when you were in his company, he just wouldn’t allow it. I’ve never thought about this before – never had to articulate it – but I think he was as he was from years of touring with bands (punctuated by years on the dole). What do you do if you’re stuck in the back of a van for weeks on end with three other farting men? Stuck on the autobahn outside Dusseldorf on your way to Hanover on a wet Wednesday morning? Or sitting in a recording studio – for two months, three days for the engineer to get a snare sound right? What do you do when confronted by the actuality of a life in rock ‘n’ roll – the sheer grinding monotony of it? You develop a resilience, I suppose – you develop a mind that refuses to be bored, maybe even a mind that refuses to acknowledge reality. I would imagine that normality becomes the enemy and you begin to live in your head – only he didn’t, ever the social beast and never ever wanting to be alone, he lived in other people’s heads too. Shared his head with yours, a kind of sitcom Tourettes-like condition where almost his every thought was shared – but his thoughts were worth it. To be fair there weren’t that many themes: football, trains, prog rock, the tragedy of popular culture and most of all: celebrity loathing. So everything became funny – every banality potentially hysterical – the shittier the situation, the more he laughed – and he had a great laugh – proper red-eyed hysterics as he explained in great detail how he was going to imprison Simon Cowell on the Isle of Wight – strip him of his snow-washed dignity. The Final Celebrity Solution went on and on … the schemes increasingly cruel, never actually finalised. Last I heard Cowell was to be melted down and turned into a HB pencil; possibly to be left neglected on a desk in an industrial estate near Maidenhead.
So the first fast bike I bought was from Ash – a GSX-R600 – went round to his house and it was just sat there – neglected, stood for a year or more under a canvas sheet in an open-fronted garage. Blue, white, vicious looking and shark-nosed – it reminded me of Jaws. It was love/terror at first sight. I was scared of the thing. Scared in the way that – how can I say it? Imagine if you found out that the person you really fancied – but knew was out of your league – told you that they fancied you too? Well, it was like that. Wanking scared. Thrilled.
It was sunny on the day of the gig; I remember that – a sweaty mini-cab from Shoreditch, all the way across town. When I arrived at the posh pub in Knightsbridge, Earl Brutus were already there. Sat around a table in the bar. Dark, even cold inside, blazing sun outside. The band had been quiet – not in themselves of course, never – but quiet as in not doing very much – no gigs, no rehearsals, no record deal – the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band with nowt to do. They drink. Nobody has any money – but the pints keep coming one round after the next. Meet at 4pm to play at 8pm – four hours to get warmed-up. No sound-check of course, just seven or eight pints of piss-weak lager – this is how they work. Nick is nervous – always so nervous before a gig. I could never understand why – he was a natural – a son of the stage. By this time – August 2001 – Rob had gone and Martin had replaced him on guitar. How to describe lovely Martin? As Northern as it gets – not that bollocks Mancunian Liam monkey post-Madchester thing. Nowt like that. I’m talking Coronation Street 1974, Northern. Old-fashioned, quietly drinking – his blotched skin irritating him again. Scratching his beard and saying next to nothing. Nick’s shouting of course. Holding court – his nerves disappear with every pint of Carling (always supplemented by Rennies). Nick and Martin love each other – you can tell that, they have history – old mates and opposites. Bickering.
I rode it around the block – 28 mph on a 165 mph motorbike. I didn’t realise these things have no steering. The quick-shift gears set upside down, just to add to my confusion and anxiety – and the weight of it. Incredible. How I got lost going once around the block I don’t know, scared probably. I told Ash I’d take it. Will pay him on Monday – he gives it to me cheap – glad to be rid of it but doing me a favour – I’m skint as ever, and he doesn’t really need the money – he gives it to me for more or less half-price. I ride it home – lost again near the V&A – I fucking hate West London. No insurance, no tax, no MOT and no idea how to ride it – but we get home. It is love. The next day I get up at 5am – a child on Christmas morning – and take the bike onto the A13, heading for Southend. I open up the throttle and – and what? – and I become someone else. My life changes there and then.
Martin didn’t start the argument – Nick did. Martin and Nick have become obsessive twitchers. Bird spotters. The perfect hobby for men on £40 a week, with 700 hours of spare time a month. But Nick is Nick. He can’t just be another twitcher – he has to be the World’s Best Bird Spotter – he can’t relax or enjoy it – to him it is a form of warfare. A competition – something else he can beat Martin at – beat everybody at. An Olympian: a gold medal twitcher stormtrooper.
“You’ve never even saw it, Martin. You were asleep!”
“Fuck off.” Martin wants none of this. He can’t be bothered. He sips his pint and lights another fag. Scratches his beard again and looks at the floor.
“I saw it,” Nick’s shouting.
“Saw what?” someone else asks, an innocent.
“The Great Crested Grebe!”
“Nobody’s bothered,” Martin says. “Who cares?”
“But I saw it!” Nick then turns to Jim: “Martin can’t even do a fucking impersonation of its mating call.”
Martin shakes his head. Quietly despairs.
The thing I realise straight away is this – under 9000 revs this is just a motorbike – just a vehicle – a pussycat as Jeremy Clarkson might say. But you go above 9000 revs in any gear and something else happens. It starts to scream – there’s no build up – no winding up to speed – it happens in an instant. It fucking screams and it lifts up a bit and you can feel it, feel yourself out of control, this big heavy motorbike so clumsy and lumpen in traffic, is suddenly as light as air. It rises up. It becomes a jet fighter – and you are not going forwards – you are still – you are in the same place – but everything else starts going backwards – faster and faster backwards – trucks reversing at incredible speeds out of the corner of your eye – and you are in a tunnel and the tunnel gets smaller and smaller – and you hold on. It’s instinctive – your head goes down and your knees tighten on the petrol tank, you lock your sight half a mile away as the world goes backwards. 90, 100, 110 mph – should I stop, slow down? Yes. But I can’t. Faster, it’s an addiction – it’s instant. You know you could die – one wrong move from Alan in his Vauxhall Corsa on his way home to Leigh-on-Sea and you’re dead. But you have to go faster. You just have to.
“You know why you can’t do its mating call, Martin?”
“Because you didn’t fucking see it. Only I did!”
The Barbour-coated, stiff gin drinkers, the inner-city tweed set, are already looking at him from the dining area into the bar, across this outpost of the Cotswolds in central London – and you have to understand – he was quite a spectacular-looking man; terrifying-looking until you knew him – big mad eyes – deep gruff voice – and he’s rock ‘n’ roll-shaped – wiry and quite tall – perfect for the stage. No fat at all. White as a sheet, angular face hardened by 20 years and 100,000 miles of touring piss-pot venues with Clock DVA, The Gun Club, World of Twist … Earl Brutus.
Nick stands up – he is determined to share what he has learned – in the middle of this chintzy pub – he’s going to make his point. Martin shall be beaten. We can only watch. He’s got his black Slazenger V-neck jumper on – his black Farah slacks – the jumper has a white electrical tape BR logo emblazoned across the front – he’s obsessed by trains – British Rail and Japanese bullet trains – don’t get him started on trains – he’s even more competitive with that than he is about bird spotting. Now everyone is looking at him – you can’t not – the OAPs stop eating their Ploughman’s lunches for a minute, the pub is almost silent.
120, 125, 130 mph – I’d never been this fast before – not on two wheels anyway – never even been on a big bike before – just dreamed about it. The first thing you notice is the road signs – they’ve changed. They used to signify the drudge, the incredible distance, but now they’re unravelling themselves – Southend 43 miles, Southend 31 miles, Southend 18 miles – just like that, one every minute – the world has changed shape. 10 miles outside Canvey and suddenly there is no traffic – an open road – a straight line of dual carriageway in front. What can you do?
He stuck his arse out and pulled his fists up to his chest – elbows flapping, chicken wings. Do Great Crested Grebes really look like this? Then he stuck his neck out – not his neck, his jaw – right out. The pub is totally quiet now. Only Jim is laughing, but it’s a silent laugh. He’s not gonna interrupt. Then Nick squats on the patterned carpet, his elbows flapping, neck outstretched, a low sound, like a distant cockerel barely audible in his throat. The landlord stops serving. Confused. Is this a banning offence? Can you ban a man for impersonating a sexually-aroused water bird?
I don’t really want to go any faster. But I have to. How often do you see a truly open road? 135, 140, 145 mph – and the world disappears. Two more things you notice – the handlebars, the rev counter, my hands – they are all stock-still – no movement – no vibration, not really – no indication other than the speedo that we’re travelling at more than double the speed limit. Only my jacket gives it away, too-tight leather but lifting up like a cagoule, moving around me in ripples – that and the ache forming across my forehead. But I can’t stop now. I don’t want to. I have to see if I can do it. Why else would you buy one of these things? 155mph. I’m Filippo Marinetti aren’t I? – Man and Machine. I could die, I know I’m dead – but – and please forgive the cliché – I’ve never felt so alive.
It was not what I’d call an impression as such – it didn’t remind me of any bird I’d ever seen. It was more of a guttural howl – a loud guttural waterfowl howl – that went like this:
“Goooooble – gooooble – gooooble. CoooooooooCooooooCoooooKukuKukuuuu” and then just when you thought it was over, he threw his head back – face fixed on the low, artexted and nicotined ceiling – and he let out this noise: “bud ddddd a bbudddd a budddda “ – his hair back – his arm-wings flapping and his chest stuck right out – then he slowly stood up, sort of rose gracefully as if trying to reach the ceiling with his nose – stood on tiptoes as if trying to reach some imaginary moon. Howling at the moon – a waterfowl wolf man, conjuring up a noise from across the ages.
160 mph, 165mph … it won’t go any faster, it just won’t – thank God – I can barely hold on – relieved that I’d done this, gone as fast as we could – I close off the throttle and immediately sit up straight. What was I thinking? I hit a wall of fresh air – BANG – a brick wall of absolutely nothing, full in the head and chest.
That night, Earl Brutus played at the Austrian Cultural Institute – a gig I’d sort of organised – but we were set up. The official title of the night was “Summer School of Bukkake” – organised by Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz as ‘a protest against the Imperialism of British art’. The room the band was to play was decorated by hand- drawn posters proclaiming ‘Tracey Emin is Shit’, ‘Sarah Lucas is Facile’ and most bizarrely of all ‘Matthew Higgs is a Meat Pie’. What appeared to be sculptures – readymades – were set out on trestle tables facing the band’s equipment: two dozen eggs, a box of past-it tomatoes, some water melons. The space was the size of a banker’s living room in Notting Hill – big for a living room – small for a band that’s brought full-size amps, enough dry ice to fill a large town hall and flash bombs loud enough to work for the Boss at Wembley Arena. As soon as Earl Brutus took to the stage – the feedback deafening, the smoke already blinding – Nick drunk – all of them drunk, but brilliant – Alexander Brener and Barbara Schurz started to throw their eggs, tomatoes and water melons at the band. Earl Brutus under a heavy barrage of fruit and vegetable weaponry. It was futile. The revolution had no chance against Earl Brutus. The revolution was crushed by a wall of feedback, explosions and disconnected, amplified swearing. The anarchists were forced to retreat – bloodied, shirtless, fleeing up the stairs to safety. And the band? Well, they played on of course – two more songs until Jim let off a gigantic flash bomb that shook the room – people momentarily deafened, people in panic. Minutes later the police arrived – blue lights flashing – reports that an IRA bomb had gone off in Knightsbridge.
Photograph by Brian David Stevens