It would have been Alex Harvey’s 83rd birthday today.
It’s 1975 and I really want to stay in and watch Susan St James (and some bloke) in McMillan And Wife. But I’m thirteen and my mate Darren’s got us tickets to see the Sensational Alex Harvey Band at the New Victoria Theatre and my Mum’s letting me go. Mainly because I haven’t quite told her we’re going.
We get the 29. It takes hours. I feel a bit scared. We go to the pub. I feel a bit more scared. I drink my first-ever whiskey, hear my first-ever rebel song. We cross the road, bustle our way in. I feel even more scared and, as we stand there, surrounded by Celtic scarves and pissed, proud Irishmen, I try so, so hard not to vomit. And then, finally…
A hatchet-sharp, thunder-heavy guitar riff leaps towards us from behind the stage. The lights in the place snap out. There’s blackness silence for a second. And then the riff strikes again, twice as loud: it starts pounding and cutting and sawing. I’m not feeling sick anymore. I’m pinned to the floor, free of thought and feeling. A weird, fear-white man, picked-out by a single spotlight, skips onto the stage, all clown make-up, camp-glammy clothes and leering grin. There’s a roar that I’ve only ever previously heard at Spurs — the roar of men united within a temporary community, a transient certainty of connection and loss of self, a near-sexual thrill of anticipation. The painted man plays one huge, building-collapsing chord, the spotlight disappears, it’s darkness again and then He’s there, suddenly, at the front of the stage: black-and-white striped shirt, a lined, knowing face, the smile of the Devil. The roar from inside me and out, from every man there, is deafening, inhuman. A drummer and a bassist and a keyboard-player magic onto the stage behind Satan and The Clown and they start to embrace and kiss and stroke the riff, engorging it, transforming it into a warped, sinewy soul-blues thing that twists and turns and makes me feel more alive than I ever remember feeling.
And then? And then Alex Harvey starts singing. Or, rather, Alex Harvey starts commanding and preaching and whispering and cajoling and seducing and threatening. This isn’t a pop singer. This isn’t like any singer I’ve ever heard. Or would ever hear again. This is an angry, amused, terrifying man who’s both deeply, theatrically *other* and tremblingly, disturbingly real. He’s telling us stories: he’s from Glasgow and Louisiana and Liverpool and Detroit and Berlin and Chicago; he’s a cowboy, he’s a warrior, he’s Vambo. And he’s utterly captivating. Despite the spice and leer and vitality of the guitarist, despite the muscular drive and vigour of the other three, I can’t take my eyes off Alex Harvey. I want to be him and I want to run away from him at the same time. The music his slaves are playing is sharp, strong, stabbing, subtle — whatever he needs it to be so he can beguile us and seduce us and Gorbal us into his shadowy Gothic pantomime, so he can pull the pin of the sweet, orgasmic, dark-camp, circus-caress grenade that sits beneath the stories and poverty, the meaninglessness and waste and glories of our lives.
The world has changed; the two-hour (probably) set lasts two years and two seconds and then we’re staggering out of the place, dripping with sweat, the chorus of Delilah echoing round the city and round our heads, a mesmeric thrum that will last for days…
…Forty-three years later, I’m sitting in front of the computer and listening — for the third time this evening — to Framed, the album Darren once said I should get if I was only going to buy one Alex Harvey album.
I’ve been thinking about how that 1975 night changed me, how I fell in love with music, fell in love with spectacle and with the catharsis of sound, how I fell in love with Alex Harvey and the blues and rock and soul, fell in love with the idea of falling in love and, somehow, recognised the possibilities we all have in us to change ourselves and others for the better as we keep one foot, one part of our heart, permanently in the shadows… I’ve been trying not to think too much about how I’ve let that recognition fade… and I’ve been thinking how genreless and timeless Harvey and the band were/are, how they trod on and tried on blues and pop and vaudeville and rock’n’roll and glam and clambered higher, reaching up to and beyond punk, merging black and white, linking the US and Scotland and all our desires with joy and humour and an acknowledgement of our shared darknesses. Tonight, I’ve been listening to the vast Isobel Goudie, proggy in its ambition, yet sensual, insidious, celebratory, doomed; to the Glaswegian gobbling, swallowing and spitting out of Leiber and Stoller’s title-track; to the Francis Bacon-inspired, oddly-never-quite-made-it-as-a-Yuletide-hit There’s No Lights On The Christmas Tree, Mother, They’re Burning Big Louie Tonight; and to the Gothic/Catholic Southern-burnt rhythms and stabbing concerns of the thing as a whole — serious and winking and blistering and religious and secular and like nothing else and like everything else.
And… I’ve been thinking this evening about time and the ways in which a middle-aged man bewitched a young kid by taking from the past and handing the best bits on to him. I’ve been thinking about the gratitude I owe Darren for introducing me to SAHB (and to gigs and Bob Marley and politics and not accepting the obvious). I’ve been thinking about how sad I felt when Alex Harvey died in 1982 and no-one I knew seemed to care and just how proud I felt when my daughter went out one night wearing a Vambo tee-shirt with His picture on the front. Above all, I’ve spent the last couple of hours not thinking anything very much, just losing myself in the power and the joy and in the silly, redemptive possibilities of music. And, just a little, in memories of Susan St James.