In 1980 I went off to University. As an only child from a fairly sheltered upbringing, I had no idea what to expect (especially that within a few days I’d meet the woman I was going to spend the rest of my life with….but that’s another story).
Being a shy and solitary soul, I’d requested and been given a single room – no sharing for me! I arrived with my parents, we unloaded the car, went to the “welcome Freshers and their parents” tea thing, then waved them off. And met the guy in the next room, Jonny.
He had long hair. And a beard. And he smoked roll-ups (it was 1980 – seemed like I was the unusual one because I didn’t smoke). And he wore some kind of linen smock. Basically, he was (to my way of thinking) a Hippie.
I’d never met a Hippie before – I went to a very straight-laced school, and they certainly didn’t feature amongst our family or friends – but he seemed friendly enough. And as it turned out, I’d got lucky – this guy in the room next door was really nice, and we became very good friends.
Of course, he wasn’t really a Hippie, just someone who was a bit radical in his approach to life. And that’s one of the things you go to University for, right? – to meet people who are different from you, to experience other points of view and alternative philosophies.
And Jonny had some very different taste in music from what I was listening to. I was into Prog Rock in a big way – Yes, Genesis, ELP and the like – but Jonny introduced me to something different, something more free, more laid back. Through Jonny I discovered The Grateful Dead, The Band and The Allman Brothers, bands who were simultaneously loose and tight – great musicians, often seemingly playing their own thing and going in different directions but somehow holding the reins and bringing it all back together by the end of a track.
He lent me Steal Your Face by the Dead and I played it to death (pardon the pun – actually, don’t: I’m quite pleased with that one). I’ve read since that this is one of the least-loved Grateful Dead albums, and there’s ample evidence of characteristic out-of-tune singing, but there’s also some relaxed brilliance, and it was like nothing I’d heard before.
I’m still listening to The Allman Brothers (there’s no better tune when you’re driving down the motorway than Jessica – the producers of BBC’s Top Gear got that spot on when they chose it for their theme tune all those years back), and The Band will be turning up in another “How I Got Into….” at some point.
Not everything Jonny played stuck – I remember liking his Stanley Clarke albums, but not so much the Alice Coltrane or Chick Corea – but he did enough.
Unfortunately, life in our College didn’t suit everyone, and for our second year Jonny moved out into a flat, then found that University in general didn’t really suit him, so he left. We lost touch and I haven’t heard from him since (in the pre-internet days I was even worse at keeping in touch with people than I am today).
Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, wrote a book that I read during that year, Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. The central character (as I remember it) relates a story of a group of fish who never leave their small stretch of stream. One day, another fish from further upstream is carried down by the current to their stretch. To them, he’s an exotic stranger, who brings “wisdom” which is little more than a different perspective, but his arrival has a profound influence on the more parochial fish, which remains after the current sweeps him on again. I guess Jonny was like that for me in this regard – I knew him for little more than a year, but in that time he opened up a new musical world.
When I started writing these “How I Got Into….” posts I said that one of the objectives was to have a record of the origins of some of these cultural loves. And with this one, when I’m in my senile dotage, and have Casey Jones, Ramblin Man or Stage Fright rattling round my head, hopefully I’ll be able to read this post and remember where they came from and the friendly, smiling, not-really-a-Hippie who gave them to me.
In the staggeringly unlikely event that he ever reads this: thank you Jonny. I owe you.