His real name was Crispin. Bespectacled, quiffed, bandy legged, Ken wore the aloof expression of the terminally lonely, a tilt of the chin upwards feigning pretence that his skin was in fact thicker than the rest of ours. Fooling everyone, he went about his business on his own terms, heading out early for net practice to bowl at empty stumps (what he lacked in raw pace he more than made up for in guile, swinging it, disguised, both ways, with an advanced understanding of how to hit the seam and when to bowl a slower ball), ingratiating himself to the chemistry master so he could spend extra hours locked in the chemistry lab, and gradually became invisible. We shared a stud in the fifth form with my best friend Charlie and an extrovert fast bowling hulk with undiagnosed ADHD called Davies whose favourite pastime was grabbing Ken by the knot of his tie and bellowing three inches from his nose any random thought that happened to be passing his way, most of which seemed to circle around the provenance of Ken’s sexuality, the weakness of his batting technique, or the ridiculousness of his cowboy boots. Unusually for a bully, this could be extremely funny: even Ken laughed. But Davies’s free verse rants contained accuracy too. If you’ll pardon the expression, those boots were Ken’s Achilles heel. On account of their similarity to those worn by the country singer Kenny Rogers, they were directly responsible for his nickname. If Ken did care, he didn’t show it, wearing them in summer swelter and the Great Freeze of the winter of 1981/82 alike. Whatever he really thought of the rest of us, Ken played it for the long game. He knew that secretly we needed him. Not for his wit and repartee, not for his chemistry advice, but for his hi-fi. Ken’s dad was something big in fertiliser. Money therefore not being at the front of Ken’s worries, his sound system (he called it that) was the silent envy of the corridor, whose cardboard walls he took great delight in attempting to dissolve each break time. When Ken played by the rules, which involved blasting the tracks Davies told him to, things went well. If you could pogo, play a guitar solo on your hockey stick, or incant wild scatology to it, Davies was in: Black Betty by Ram Jam, Are ‘Friends’ Electric?, Hangin on the Telephone, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Where things got tricky was when Ken went off piste by playing music that did something else, and required us to discover that a different kind of ecstasy could lie in the possibility of that most forbidden act, dancing. To be fair to Ken, he did not try this often. When Davies was out on one of his Sunday exeats, he would try his luck with Earth Wind & Fire’s September, Stomp by the Brothers Johnson, and, if he emerged unscathed, he’d take a risk with Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Rock With You, or even a ballad like Out Of My Life. I soon learned that Ken not only had different taste to the rest of us (nowadays we prefer the term ‘guilty secrets’), he actually listened differently too. Notwithstanding the largesse of his audio equipment, Ken heard stuff in those songs which no one else picked up. I remember the delight he took in September especially. Four or five bars in, perhaps six seconds at most, a tiny, barely audible click starts to reinforce the groove laid down by Al Mckay’s guitar. It has to be one of the most insidious licks to open any song, and Ken wasn’t interested in it. ‘Can you hear it?’ he would say. ‘There. There. There!’ And he would play it back on his tape machine, over and over, rewinding to the second the part where the clicks started to appear. Seven plays later, with a sly dab of the volume knob, Ken revealed that the click was accompanied by a thumping bass kick on the off beat. ‘Can you hear that?’ he said. ‘Incredible.’ He listened to records, and heard things in them, like no one I knew. He was more of a producer than a schoolboy. The desolation at the heart of Message in a Bottle, the sweat you could work up shouting along to Too Much Too Young didn’t interest him. But his mistake was not to hear things no one else did, it was loving them. Oxygène and Équinoxe you could get away with because they sounded a little bit like bits of prog you picked up from the Floyd. But The Buggles? I must have lost several weekends of my life listening to the stunning snare-fill midway through Chuck E’s in Love, but I could not admit, to myself, let alone anyone else, that Ken might be right. He was indiscriminate, and he didn’t care who knew it. If it sounded gorgeous, Ken was into it. By the time we reached our sixth form dotage he persuaded me, briefly, to fall in love with Elton John’s Blue Moves. A classically sprawling and uneven double album of legend, the album, like Ken himself, crosses countless boundaries: from the ballads Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word and Tonight, to the everything including the kitchen sink disco of Crazy Water and Bit Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!). Ken’s favourite track? Out of The Blue, better known as the closing credits music to the old Top Gear. We’d sit into the night in his bedsit (we’d long left the studs behind) sipping sweet Earl Grey tea after House Prayers on a Friday night, pondering the meaning of Theme From a Non-Existent TV Series (and deciding there wasn’t any) before he would suddenly perk up and tell me to get the ‘cans’ on: ‘I’ve discovered this brilliant bongo solo thirty-nine seconds into Between Seventeen And Twenty. Wanna listen?’
Really enjoyed this character study. Just as I enjoyed the wonderful eulogy for Smith.
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Thanks so much for this. I really appreciate it. On another matter, I saw Liesa Down the other day and she said you were doing well. Thank you again, Anthony
Enjoyed this, both the intimate portrait and the tumble of the words.
Especially enjoyed ‘We shared a stud in the fifth form with my best friend Charlie’…?!
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Hi Roselle, So pleased you saw this, and thank you. Stud: school slang for study. x A
Love reading yoru piece in English English while I only read American English and French. So many words that sound so unordinary.
I couldn’t help but fall for Ken/Crispin’s unusual personality. That’s quite a musical trip you took with the guy. Saw that you could tolerate Jean-Michel Jarre because thanks to the Floyd 🙂