London, 11p.m., December 1987
I’d left university the previous July with a degree in English Literature and no idea what to do with my life.
I lived in a shared house on a terrace in Camberwell, Sarf London. The landlord would only let to students, expecting them to move out quickly. “Don’t use that word!” he said in horror when I referred to myself as a ‘tenant’. Tenants had rights and might prove difficult to evict – but we were a lower life-form altogether.
I paid a hundred quid a month for a room and facilities comprising a subterranean toilet, a shower with a sheet of mould for a curtain, electric points that snapped and crackled like a fireworks display, and a one-bar fire. There was a rubbish-covered block of earth at the front, in which drunks and vagrants rummaged and urinated. In the back yard were discarded building materials, the bowl of a toilet with no seat, and an ancient piano, ruinously warped.
I furnished my cell with books and records, since that was all I cared about. I was working in a bookshop in central London, to which I commuted by bus and train. Leaving at eight and returning at six I went through the winter months without seeing daylight. In the evenings I spent my time in bed – the only warm place – wrapped in jumpers and blankets, scribbling plays and imagining myself a character out of Dostoyevsky.
My job was low paid and though the shop provided a supply of new books I didn’t have money for new records. I resorted to Peckham Public Library, whose music collection was free of the shoegazing guitar bands I preferred. I was forced to explore other genres and ventured into the classical and jazz sections.
One day I brought home The Sidewinder, a 1963 album on the legendary Blue Note label by the trumpet prodigy Lee Morgan. It begins with the title track – composed by Morgan, so the story goes, as a filler in 20 minutes before the session – that became the first jazz crossover hit to enter the pop charts, spawning countless imitators. Famously Blue Note ran out of records in a few days and had to press thousands more. The rest of the album consists of hard bop numbers that are just as brilliant if not so immediately accessible.
Apparently Morgan had a low opinion of the track, and its huge commercial success became a millstone around his neck, but to me 25 years later it was a revelation. I constantly replayed it, miming the instruments in turn (despite my lack of musical training) –the opening chunky piano chords and the bass figure (I defy anyone NOT to join in with that ‘bom-pa-dom-BOM’); culminating in Morgan’s soaring, brilliant, listen-to-this-asshole! solo. There may be sights more ridiculous than a skinny white guy wrapped in blankets playing air trumpet but I don’t know what they are. That didn’t matter. The track had an optimism, a swagger, an arrogance, that helped carry me through those grim months, even perversely enjoy them.
The Sidewinder became the soundtrack of my own crossover into the real world of commuting and work and rent and bills. It led me out of the indie-rock ghetto and into the fertile world of 1960s hard bop – musicians like Art Blakey, Coltrane, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, who I still believe were the coolest men who have ever lived. When I left the bookshop and the house and went overseas, I took the tune with me, ingrained in my brain.
There’s a stack of Blue Note albums on my shelf today but the one I go back to the most is still The Sidewinder. The moment I hear that ‘bom-pa-dom-BOM’ I’m back in my freezing room in Camberwell. And Lee’s trumpet is lifting me out of it, into 1960s New York, a world of cool where anything is possible.