It was a place and time when LOL stood for Loyal Orange Lodge and CU stood for Christian Union; but I remember it as vividly has if it had happened yesterday. We were in the kitchen of our house and I was banging on nonsensically about some battle that had been fought on the banks of a river in Ireland in 1690 when my mother turned to me and asked calmly, “If you learned that Hank Marvin was a Catholic, would you like his music any less?” And in that instant, I realised how profoundly stupid and illogical my prejudice was; that I was simply repeating, parrot-fashion, what I had heard others say, without giving it any consideration of my own, without thinking it through, without considering whether it truly reflected what I felt. I was a teenager. I was at that age when belonging was the most potent driving force; and to belong meant to conform. But like a pebble thrown into a glassy pond, over time the ripples caused by my mother’s simple, but insightful question, spread to all my other prejudices and I became who I was meant to become.
The cleverness of my mother’s question, like a Zen Koan, never ceases to amaze me. Hank Marvin was my boyhood hero. He was the lead guitarist of a group called The Shadows, which had started as a backing band for the English pop singer, Cliff Richard, but had gone on to find success in their own right when they topped the British hit parade in July 1960 with a tune called “Apache”. Following that, a million kids went out and bought guitars. I was one of them. I had pictures of The Shadows all over my bedroom walls. I had all of their records; and I had learned to play every one of them, note for note. My Saturday afternoon ritual was to get out my guitar and amplifier and play their entire repertoire from Apache to whatever their latest release was, in chronological order. The first tune I played in public with a band was a Shadows hit: The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt. Our regular lead guitarist didn’t like to play instrumentals (he was afraid of breaking a string and looking stupid) so I took over that role. It was a school dance and we were up on the stage, behind the curtain. The tune starts with the drums, then the guitars come in to play an intro, then the curtain opened and the three guitarists marched forward in unison playing the melody. It was corny as Hell but the kids in the audience loved it and we were proud as anything. Those were wonderfully naïve times; and we had so much fun.
I had an uncle by marriage who was a jazz trumpeter. Technically, I suppose, he was too far removed to really be my uncle but I’ll use that term to facilitate the telling of the story. At that time, he was in the resident band at London’s Palladium Theatre and every Sunday evening, on BBC TV, there was a live broadcast from the Palladium, prosaically called “Sunday Night at the London Palladium”. I fantasised that, one day, we would go to London, and I’d meet my uncle, and he’d get us tickets to the Palladium, and The Shadows would be on the bill, and after the show he would take me backstage and I would meet Hank and the others, and my ultimate dream would come true. But in those parochial days, London might as well have been capital of Outer Mongolia for all the chance I had of going there. So I never got to meet my uncle. And I never got to meet Hank.
Ten years later, though, I was in a jazz bar on 54th street in Manhattan, listening to the music of a trumpet player described as the link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. I was alone that night so I sat at the bar. During a break between sets, the horn player came over and happened to sit on a barstool next to me; and a conversation began with him asking me the customary opening question: “Where are you from?” When I told him that I was originally from Scotland, his eyes widened and he told me that he had once known a Scottish trumpet player, …”an’ he was pretty good too” he added, confirming his appraisal with a nod of his head. I waited for him to elaborate and to my astonishment he went on to name my uncle.
From that moment, our conversation became more animated. We exchanged names (in his case, somewhat needlessly) and shook hands. We drank together. We clinked glasses and toasted my uncle; the uncle he had met and I had not. And we spoke a lot about jazz. At 3:00am I left the bar totally elated and feeling that, in a strange and unexpected way, my uncle had finally come through for me. I was happy; and satisfied.
A couple of days later I visited the Museum of Modern Art. It was a very complex time in the social history of the United States; the height of the Blaxploitation era. The assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Dr King in the preceding decade had thrown the country into a desperate confusion, dashing the hopes of millions, only to have a new movement, a more determined movement, rise up and assert its right to be treated equally as the Declaration of Independence decreed. The movie, Shaft, had been a groundbreaking sensation the year before; Bobby Womack’s iconic Across 110th Street was in the charts; and on the previous day I had seen Lady Sings the Blues in a cinema on Broadway, before making a pilgrimage to Carnegie Hall to visit the site of Billie’s ultimate triumph; but in MOMA, with its riotous colour and bizarre abstractions, all of that seemed very far away.
I was alone, as usual, but I soon fell into conversation with another guy of my own age who was circulating the gallery in the same direction and at the same pace, and who was also alone. His taste in art was similar to mine, as was his taste in music, and the conversation flowed easily; and when we had exhausted all the paintings, we went to the cafeteria for a snack and some coffee and continued the conversation there. He told me that he was from Paterson, New Jersey; but to be honest, that conveyed little to me other than the name of a place not too far away. As it turned out, however, it was much farther than I had realised.
When it came time to leave the gallery, we walked to the foyer and he offered me his hand to shake. I asked him which way he was headed but the question seemed to cause a curtain to descend between us. He dismissed it by saying he was just going to catch the subway; but I sensed more to it than that. Being the naïve out-of-towner that I was, I failed to understand the subtleties of the prevailing situation and I needed an explanation. Finally, he told me that he didn’t want to be seen walking down the street with me. It was nothing personal, he assured me. But if anyone he knew saw us, it would be bad for him.
The remoteness of that probability, that a friend of his from New Jersey would happen to be walking along 5th Avenue in Manhattan at that precise moment and see us together, seemed to underline the realness of his fear. I felt a profound sense of indignation, not at my companion, but at the world. How dare society dictate who should and should not become friends? I was angry; and I wanted to scream my anger and fill the canyons of New York City with my protest. But the sadness and fear in his face convinced me to shake his hand, as offered, and leave it at that. We parted in the foyer of MOMA and never met again.
Later, that evening, as I reflected on what had happened, still seething about the injustice of it, I remembered that day long ago, with my mother, in the kitchen of our house; her calm voice; the simplicity of her question and the irrevocable change that it had brought about; and it occurred to me that if she had been able to reach more people with her wisdom and insight, what a better world this might have been.