Authors: Tom Cox
A bit like
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
, but with crispsÂ .Â .Â .
Peter's mum and dad are worried. It's not just the mumbling and the melancholic moods, coupled with Peter's ever-more-militant mop of curly hair. Forget the oversized trousers complete with dangling metal chains. The problem is that Peter is fourteen and he wants to be a rock star. OK, he wants to be a musician, as long as it involves a guitar, bags of money, free CDs, and unlimited scantily clad groupies (and it's not classical music).
Peter's parents convince their music-critic friend Tom Cox to guide Peter to the dark heart of Britain's musical heritage and expand his horizons. Their journey takes them to Cambridge seeking former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett where they encounter numerous folkies in tights. After exploring the wilder shores of prog rock, they get up close and personal with Brian Wilson â in a lift. Tom imparts second-hand-record-shop etiquette, and discovers Peter is something of a child prodigy. Most importantly, they drive around, they talk about stuff and Peter eats crisps.
Part coming-of-age story and part urban travelogue, this brilliantly funny book is a must for anyone who has ever been, or been baffled by, a teenage boy.
THE WAY I
remember it is something like this.
He drags himself into the room, eyes to the floor, hands buried in the arms of his long-sleeve t-shirt. Jenny says, âPete, meet Tom'; he mumbles hello. He roots around in the cupboard for a packet of crisps. I ask him what CDs he's bought recently; he mumbles something about the second AC/DC album. He shuffles away, back to his bedroom.
I say, âSo. I'll pick him up a week on Tuesday, then?'
Jenny says, âIf you could, that would be wonderful. He's got fencing class from ten till eleven, then he's all yours.'
I say, âRight, er, cool. I guess I'll be off.'
Jenny says, âMind out for those roadworks on the North Circular.'
And that's how it all started.
Did I miss a bit out? Possibly. There's a chance he picked up one of his bass guitars and plucked disconsolately at it for thirty seconds before he rooted
around for the crisps. Perhaps we even shook hands. What's pretty certain, however, is that our first meeting couldn't have been described as âunforgettable'. Nothing screeched, sparked or went âKapow!' Nobody called the police or drove a 1969 Aston Martin.
Like many men who'd grown up playing with too many model cars and watching too many films starring Warren Oates, I'd often fantasised about this moment: the beginning of my Great Road Trip. I'd pictured Jeff Bridges haring out of nowhere in a Dodge Charger to save Clint Eastwood from a shower of bullets during the opening scene of
Thunderbolt And Lightfoot
. I'd pictured a big sky, a fast car, a hopelessly romantic meeting of inseparable outlaws, perhaps with the added bonus of a couple of loose women looking for a ride to nowhere in particular. But now this was it: I was here, finally embarking on my adventure, and all I could see was a North London kitchen, the first flowering of acne, some rather fetching Ikea units and a Slipknot t-shirt.
Outside the window, a wicked wind took a running jump down Alexander Palace hill, whipping along Crouch End Broadway, making a couple of local underfed aesthetes unsteady on their feet. Double-parked, my slightly-lower-than-middle-of-the-range Ford Fiesta waited for some action beyond the hot wax it had been lavished with earlier that day. Upstairs, in his room, the Thunderbolt to my Lightfoot attempted to master the riff to Metallica's âEnter Sandman'. North London slept. Nothing continued to not happen. I decided, on balance, I'd settle for it.
Then again, by this point I would have settled for just about anything.
My whole life, I'd been planning some kind of four-wheeled journey into the unknown, but as the years piled up â that is, the years when it is still dignified to drive around for the hell of it while dressed in a loud shirt, listening to even louder music â my Great Rock And Roll Road Trip had become in danger of turning into My Great Bag Of Hot Air. The original idea had been something fairly vague that I'd dreamt up on receiving my first plastic pedal car as a seven-year-old: I would drive, anywhere, mindlessly, just for the thrill of driving. In my late teens, this was modified to the clichÃ© of all Great Road Trip clichÃ©s: I would fly to New York, buy an ineffably cool second-hand car and drive cross-country to San Francisco, picking up hobos, buskers and itinerant jazz musicians on the way. However, in 1997, as I was travelling back from an Italian holiday, the plane had been struck by lightning, plummeting 1,000 terrifying feet before righting itself. As a result, I'd vowed not to take to the air for the foreseeable future, thus making America a less viable option. Additionally, I'd finally got around to reading Jack Kerouac's
On The Road
, rather than just talking about it, and discovered it was a vacuous pile of antelope droppings.
More recently, my thoughts had turned towards the winding B-roads and endless Little Chefs of my homeland. Everyone talked about the American Dream, but what about the British equivalent? Did it exist and, if so, what did it look like? How come you never saw
rootless outlaw types cruising through the Lake District just for the existential hell of it? Was drifting banned in Britain, and had someone forgotten to tell me?
I wanted to discover the real Britain. Whatever this was, I felt certain it was out there: a rock and roll place every bit as weird as the backwoods America that writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe had discovered. But more than anything I wanted an excuse to drive around aimlessly, getting lost in places with names like Snafbury and Little Piddling. All I needed was someone willing to ride shotgun: a relentlessly up-for-it soulmate â the kind of partner who'd be willing to help me out of a gambling debt, come to my aid in a tussle with Hell's Angels, or, more importantly, navigate me out of a council estate on the outskirts of Hull. But circumstances had changed since I'd begun to lay down the plans for my Great Rock And Roll Road Trip. Many of the friends who'd shared with me in the nihilist's vision of films like
as twenty-year-olds now held down steady jobs in insurance and the civil service. Most of them simply couldn't afford to up sticks and abandon their jobs and girlfriends for six months. The ones who could, meanwhile, just couldn't see the same romance in driving up the M4 listening to Fairport Convention as they'd once seen in cruising along Route 66 listening to The Byrds. There were still the isolated loose cannons I knew I could count on, of course: Colin and Surreal Ed, a couple of relentlessly cheerful womanisers with a penchant for jumping out of cars at red traffic lights and running
into nearby woodland for no apparent reason. These, though, were the kind of insatiable single and free party animals for whom âa good book and an early night' meant the latest issue of
and only two nightclubs instead of the normal four. In other words, great company in moderation but a veritable health hazard if you were talking about six months on the road, and not one I could afford as a married man with a mortgage and five pet cats to support.
In short, I was beginning to lose hope.
The call from Jenny couldn't have come at a more desperate moment. Jenny, I could be fairly certain, wasn't the type of woman who would jump out of your car at a red light and hide in adjacent shrubbery. She was fifty-three, for a start â the same age as my parents â and in full-time employment as a college lecturer. I'd known her since my third birthday party, when, seated in her lap, I'd smeared an ice cream sundae in her hair for reasons I can only remember as âto see what it felt like'. Since then, I'd enjoyed the kind of respectfully distant relationship with her that one enjoys with surprisingly cool friends of one's family whom one has disgraced oneself in front of. I tended to see her, when it came right down to it, at fiftieth birthday parties and weddings. Jenny liked a lot of good blues music and, unlike many of my parents' other friends, still occasionally found time to go out to the cinema, but it had never occurred to me to call her up to arrange a friendly drink. You just didn't do that kind of thing with your parents' mates. Besides, she and her ex-husband, Ian, had their hands full with Peter, a teenage son whom I'd never met but who relatives assured me
was just making the transition into the âmelancholy' stage of adolescence. For a couple of weeks now, my parents had been hinting that she might get in touch with me with a mysterious proposal, but I couldn't guess what it could possibly be.
âIt's about that road trip you've been planning,' Jenny explained to me, after we'd caught up on some random family gossip.
âOh. You heard about that? Bit of a non-starter, really.'
âYes, well, I had a bit of an idea that I'd like to put to you that might make it a starter again.'
Abruptly, my mind filled with incongruous images of me and a flame-haired ex-hippie cruising along a sun-splashed highway, radio on, sunroof open, discussing the meaning of life. Part of me kind of liked the idea. Part of me didn't. The remainder was alive with questions. What would my wife think? Where could this journey possibly go? How many times would we have to stop at Ikea?
âIt's to do with Pete,' continued Jenny.
I let out a silent lungful of relief. âOh yes? How old is he now?' I asked.
âWell, let me tell you all about him,' said Jenny.
And, for the next half an hour, she did.
Peter, Jenny explained, had recently turned fourteen and, virtually overnight, an unfathomable transformation had come over him. Just yesterday, it seemed, he'd been a cheery, fluffy-haired kid whose main priority in life had been where his next Pokemon toy was coming from; now he stalked the house in
black clothes, guitar slung over his shoulder, a storm-cloud in trousers looking for somewhere to rain. The funny thing was, Jenny couldn't remember ever buying him any black clothes. And what were those strange dangly chains that hung from his trousers? Try as she might, she couldn't work out what had detonated the change in her son. It could have been a friend. It could have been a video or record he had heard. It could merely have been a new set of hormones. Peter certainly wasn't giving anything away. But he was certain about one thing: one day, in the not-too-distant future, he was going to be a rock star, and he wasn't going to let anything stand in his way.
Jenny didn't have anything against producing a rock musician, per se. She'd liked plenty of rock music when she was younger, and had even been on dates with a few of the hairy people who made it. But now, three or four months into her son's obsession, it was becoming obvious that it was having an adverse effect on his schoolwork. Peter's teachers were starting to use words like âenigma' and âunfulfilled'. And it got worse, said Jenny. Two weeks ago, Gaynor, the nanny Jenny relied on to look after Peter when she was off in Europe on lecture tours, had handed in her notice, having decided to go and work on a kibbutz in Israel. Meanwhile, Ian, who worked as an actor, was due to spend most of the summer as part of a travelling theatre on the American West Coast. It was going to be a busy summer for Jenny, too â lecture tours in Norway, Greece, France and Spain â and she was beginning to panic: about the effect her son's new
interest would have on his future; about what he would do with his free time; about where she would find a nanny as reliable and inspirational as Gaynor. But, during a conversation with my parents at a friend's fiftieth birthday party, a strange idea had popped into her head â a long shot, which wouldn't solve all her problems, but which might just work.