Saturday, May 20, 2006

Walk The Line

Walk the LineMemory is a strange thing! Incidents that at one time were indelibly imprinted on your brain can seemingly vanish without trace, only to be revived, years later, by some seemingly random event that kick-starts the file retrieval system in the brain. The latest Hollywood biopoic Walk the Line, out on DVD on Monday, triggered one such retrieval suddenly, and without warning, as I watched it last night.

Cue strange Star-Trek -type glow as the lounge disappears and morphs into an outdoor set of stadium seats somewhere in London (Wembley?) in 1973.

1973! How can I be so sure of the date? Because I was in London with a small school group of Christians at an event called, rather catchily, SPREE '73 (SPiritual Re-Emphasis 1973) which helps pinpoint precisely when the events I'm about to recount occured. SPREE '73 was a few days (possibly even a week) of propoganda and nightly Billy Graham lectures.

Like most, I'd joined this Christian group not because I was in any way 'a believer', but because it was run by the 'hip' teacher at our school, Mr Scott, and also because I had friends who decided to join at the same time. Mr Scott looked like a singer of the time called 'Hurricane' Smith. You won't remember him unless you're of a certain age, but suffice to say he was not gifted with the best of looks, having long straggly hair to presumably try and cover what looked like a bag of marbles having erupted under the skin. He was an unlikely pop star and pretty much a one-hit wonder as I recall, and Mr Scott looked just like him. Except unlike Mr Smith he smelt permanently of hair lacquer. Very strongly of hair lacquer. Other teachers used to take great pleasure in coming in to his class room when he was out, belittling him, and opening the drawer to show us the stacked cans of hair spray - something which we kids derived great amusement from, even though part of our conscience was saying that teachers shouldn't be behaving like this towards other teachers, and there must be some reason behind this behaviour!

But the unattractive looks and hair lacquer didn't matter, because Mr Scott played in a band. A band with electric guitars. That made him cool. Especially when his band did cover versions at the school disco of stuff like Slade and (my own particular obsession at the time) T.Rex!

There were vague rumours that Mr Scott was a bit of a salacious character with 'a history' at another school, but nothing really concrete ever emerged from the schoolground gossip that centred around the young attractive girls who seemed to hang around him. Mr Scott ran a local Christian group at his flat, just round the corner from school, out of hours. To help he had a rather highly strung social worker (I don't remember her name, just the fact that as kids we all thought she was the last person on earth who should be giving any sort of advice - social or otherwise - to other people) and a former pop star called Terry Dene.

We had no idea who Terry was, just that he kept talking about the days when he was famous, carried an acoustic guitar everywhere, and sang songs that were quite catchy with memorable melodies, even if they were always about Jesus (the phrase 'One Day with The Lord is worth a thousand years, One Day with the King of Kings' is one that keeps looping in my mind as I type this!). We were an odd group of disfunctional adults and schoolkids, but SPREE '73 offered the chance to spend a week away from parents in London, camping out at a church hall, and was too good an opportunity to miss! Parents had no objections to something so obviously healthy, unlike that glitter and glam pop stuff (with its whiff of possible drugs) that we were otherwise enthralled by!

My memories of the event itself are very vague - the brain file retrieval system seems to have broken down in that area. As I recall, there were lots of evening lectures in Earls Court that rather arrogantly assumed we were all radical Bible bashers prepared to do anything we were told 'in the name of the Lord'. The lowlight of the whole week for me was being forced to go out in groups of two or alone, knocking on doors trying to 'convert' housewives over to Christianity. I kicked up a bit of a stink ('We're just kids and anyway, I haven't decided yet whether I'm a Christian or not'), but the psychological pressure at these events is such that by the end of the week I think I'd signed up to 'being a Christian' in that 'Don't embarrass yourself in front of a large group by being the only one who doesn't conform' way that these groups co-erce you into.

The hypocrisy, given all the moral lectures being directed our way, of the leaders was immense. It turned out that the female social worker was knocking off Terry (one of them, or possibly even both, were still married to other people at the time) and the infamous Mr Scott (since exposed, if friends can be believed, as a 'paedophile and pervert' in the Southampton local paper) was craftily sleeping in a separately curtained-off area of the Church Hall, with the best looking girl in our group in the same area. What's odd is how much of this didn't really register at the time - I was incredibly immature for my age (no change there then! ;-)) and emotionally and mentally much younger than my physical age would imply.

But I digress - back to the topic at hand: It's 1973 and I'm at a stadium, possibly Wembley, and I decide to take a dump before the main concert - the day's big event - starts. The loo's have queues (oh look, I'm a poet, and I didn't know it!) but I eventually get a free cubicle, sit down... and a hand pushes a note underneath the gap separating the cubicles.


Terrified (like I said, I was very immature for my age), I finish my doings as quickly as I can and the note is thankfully retrieved moments later. I run from the toilets in blind panic. Why did this person pick on me? Did he spot something specific about me that implied I might be homosexual? Did anybody else know I might be homosexual? Was it THAT obvious? In my naivety I thought I'd been specifically singled out.

Fear soon gave way to hatred. How DARE this person do this to me? The loo's had been packed. All those people around and he still wrote his little note. Even if I was 'out' did he seriously expect someone to just say 'Yes, I'll come into your cubicle'? At a packed religious event? By the time I got back to the stadium bench I was indignant with self-righteous anger and told my friends about the incident. 'It shouldn't be allowed', I cried. 'Someone should stop it'.

One of the group told our teacher, the afore-mentioned Mr Scott, who decided, in his wisdom, that I was the comedian of the group and was clearly making it all up. I don't know what was more hurtful - the idea that I'd been singled out as being obviously gay, or that I would lie about an experience that, at the time, I found quite terrifying (nowadays of course I'd probably be scribbling a reply 'Your place or mine?')

I wonder now about the person who pushed that note under my cubicle. Was he really depressed, as his note had implied? Was he sad and lonely? Or were events like this just rich pickings, with this being another bit of cottaging from a very happy homosexual? People sometimes wonder why, when I'm so 'out' in other areas of my life, I'm rather right-wing in my views about the age of consent and why I tend to shun people I regard as sexual predators of the young. Ultimately it all comes down to one's own prejudices and experiences of course. For me, even though I knew that I was gay at 16 (albeit in continued self-denial), I was still far too immature and vulnerable for the many predators that were around to take advantage of such immaturity. Such people tend to use physical maturity rather than mental or emotional maturity to justify their selfishness and self-gratification in my view, and the repercussions can have a tremendous impact on someone's life.

What has this rather perverse tale to do with the Walk the Line DVD review that you'd thought this was going to be a post about? The main headlining act at that concert was one Johnny Cash and his band. I remember that from our point of view we didn't understand the seeming fuss being made about his appearance (and how 'controversial' it was - because they were letting a former druggie perform at a big Christian event) - just that he was another 'old fart' who had little real meaning in our world of T.Rex, Slade, Sweet and David Bowie. Didn't he play that boring old American blues stuff? I also remember changing my mind half way through the set and thinking that actually the band really rocked and maybe all old music wasn't as bad as those tiresome scratched mono recordings from Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimi Hendrix and the like I'd heard on the radio had implied.

So for me, Walk The Line, proved an unexpected nostalgic trip - partly because of Mr Cash, but mostly, I suspect, because this is an extremely old-fashioned movie anyway. Last year's Ray has, in many ways, stolen its thunder and plaudits (I think 'Walk the Line' is a better film, but with the oscar buzz around 'Ray' last year it looks like a 'me too' movie) and the stories and time periods in both of these films are too similar for 'Walk the Line' to feel anything other than a repeat performance. Joaquin Phoenix is fine as Mr Cash, if not quite as convincing a Mr Cash clone as the movie reviews had indicated, but the big stand-out is Reese Witherspoon. I thought her rave critical reviews over-rated (especially for 'Legally Blonde') but she deserved her oscar for this movie. She delivers a stunning performance, with only her poor lip-syncing in an early 'live' performance spoiling the otherwise note-perfect performance.

I haven't watched the extra's yet (work beckons :( ) but this DVD - available as a single disk or extra's laiden two disk special - is well worth a purchase if you're looking for a good two hour plus biopic. Beautifully directed and with a great transfer, my only real criticism is that it feels a bit long in its 130 minute cut.

Not a great movie, but a good one. And I'm grateful to it for that until-now- forgotten cubicle memory where someone didn't just walk the line. I think they crossed it!


Brian Sibley said...

As usual, a spot-on review (the film felt like a dozen other bio-pics I've seen over the years, but unquestioningly elevated by RW's performance) and for sharing your reminiscences which in turn triggered the retrieval of a variety of recollections - Billy Graham rallies, school trips, sexual awakenings - in my own memory archive...

Nigel said...

Bloody Hell - This Mr Scott wouldn't be the bloke who ran "Crusaders", would it?
I think that was the first time I ever saw/heard proper live music - when you took me to one of their gigs at Glen Eyre school...

John said...

Yes, Spree 73 had it's main event at Wembly, I was a steward at the event (held on the Saturday if I remember correctly) and can actually say I have kicked a football at wembly (we had a knock about first thing in the morning).

John said...

Yes, Spree 73 did hold it's final event at Wembley (on the Saturday I think).

Somehow I was a steward at the Wembley concert and my claim to fame is that I played in a knockabout football match on teh pitch about 3 or 4 hours before the event started. The only time I will ever get to kick a ball at Wembley.

Dana Winner said...

Thank you for this stream of consciousness description of your experience of SPREE73...I was just writing about it from my own memory and decided to check the web to see waht other people remembered/experienced. I must say that you provided a significantly different perspective from my own and I enjoyed it at several levels :O