The Last Mad Surge of Youth: An Excerpt
A tall man with floppy hair walked towards him, smiling so his
teeth were on show, top and bottom.
“John, John Barrett? Nice to meet you, mate. I’m Dustin
Cowley, producer of Lunch Brake.”
He smelled of expensive aftershave and was wearing sensible
shoes and designer jeans. Woodwork teacher wanker, thought
Barrett; this had been the stock insult for the straights Killing
“How’s it going?” asked Cowley.
Barrett sensed Cowley had been forewarned that he had a
drunken guest. It made him determined to act sober and confound
the bastards. In the lift Cowley asked again:
“How’s it going?”
“Where are you off to next? Got more promo?”
Barrett was used to media people asking this. They wanted to
know who they were competing with and confirm that they
were among others clamouring for an artist’s time; the celebrity
thing only worked with the tacit agreement that they all chased
the same prize.
“I’m going to bed actually,” said Barrett. “I’m absolutely
“Been busy then?”
“You’ve got a new album out, haven’t you?”
“I haven’t heard it myself but I’ve been told it’s really cool.”
Cowley looked perplexed by this response.
Short news pieces began appearing in the music press speculating
to which label Killing Stars would sign. Zigzag ran a longer
article: ‘Who’s Looking to the Stars?’ Aspinall declined to do
any direct bidding.
“They’ll come to us,” he said.
Barrett grew apprehensive as other groups were offered
deals. Aspinall said stalling gave them ‘more edge’. Eventually,
he began negotiations. He offered them first to a label that had
courted them for a few months, though none of its staff had
been in contact for a week or two. The head of A and R had
recently changed and the new incumbent wasn’t convinced.
Aspinall asked why not.
“They’re lacking that certain something. Too low-key, somehow.”
“I’m not sure the lyrics have a broad enough appeal. It’s obvious
they mean it but songs about factories and bombs—I can’t
“I did my best,” Aspinall told the band afterwards. “God, I
must have been with him for two hours. I couldn’t persuade
That same day they received a letter from another label. They
were thanked for submitting their demo tape (which the label
had actually requested) but, at this moment in time, were not
what they were looking for. They were wished all the best in
their desire to break into the music industry, yours sincerely.
“Do you want some make-up?” asked Cowley.
Barrett usually declined make-up but decided he didn’t want
to look whited-out any more; he’d glow with the rest of them.
“Oh yes, please. Lots of puffy.”
He was introduced to Cheryl, a girl in her early twenties in
jeans and a white T-shirt. Her hair was tied back and she
looked radiant as though she’d just jumped from a horse after
galloping around a field. She dusted his cheeks with foundation.
The gentle patting made him sleepy. His chin slipped to
his chest for a second.
“Had a late night?”
“I did, actually.”
“You’re on Tommy’s show, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. What do you reckon to him?”
“He’s great. He’s just like you see him on screen, dead funny.”
“Does he flirt with you?”
“Nah. He’s married.”
“He looks too young.”
“I think he’s older than people think.’’
She asked why he was on the show.
“I’ve got a new album to plug.”
He was a great admirer of people like Cheryl, he determined,
shop-floor people who were easygoing and didn’t condescend or
self-promote. Honesty was under-rated.
“My mum was really into your stuff when she was younger,”
So was discretion.
Cowley returned, beckoning Barrett.
“Come on John, we’re ready for you.”
He led him down a corridor, talking all the time:
“Tommy’s going to open by asking you a few general questions
about what you’ve been up to lately, some stuff about the
new record, that kind of thing. He’s obviously going to talk a
little bit about your reputation: which stories are true and which
aren’t. We were hoping to close with a short spot of you playing
but we’re running ridiculously late so we’ll probably have to
leave it this time around. Next time you’re on, hey? With a full
Except it wasn’t. They had broken a promise, although, as
he’d just realised, he’d forgotten his guitar anyway.
The band met that evening and went to the pub. After a few
minutes and barely a few sips of his pint, Barrett said they
might as well go home.
“I knew this would happen. It’s all bullshit. All that fuss after
the NME piece and then nothing, absolutely nothing. They just
like fucking people about.”
“There are a few others I’ve not got back to yet,” said
Aspinall. “I think you might be over-reacting a little bit.’’
“It’ll be the same with them, blagging tapes and not playing
them. It’s a stitch up.”
“We could always try and make the music less low-key, I suppose.’’
“No, we don’t go down that road,’’ said Barrett. “We are
what we are and if they don’t like it, tough luck.’’
Barrett headed home alone, desolate. Al dead. No deal. Life
shit. He pulled up his hood. As he opened the knackered,
permanently-squeaking garden gate, the house wavered
through tears as if it was on fire. He pushed past his mother and
collapsed on the settee.
“What’s wrong, love? What is it?”
“They’ve turned us down.”
“That record company.”
“Which one? That lot who’ve been phoning all the time?”
“Are they allowed to do that?”
“They can do what they like.”
“That’s not on. Can’t you report them?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Hey, don’t take it out on me. I’m only trying to help. They
shouldn’t make promises, building you up and letting you
down. You’re only kids. What’s Gary said about it?”
“You’re always saying how professional he is.”
“He is for round here but not for London. It’s different
“What are you going to do now?”
“You can’t do that, not after all the practising. Another company
might like your songs. There’s a lot of them, isn’t there?
Why did they say they didn’t like you anyway?”
“We’re too low-key.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. They just say these things. It’s the first thing that
comes into their heads.”
Suddenly, Barrett felt fantastic. His head was clear and his heart
full of blood and happiness. He sensed acute physical strength
and sharpness of mind but it was simultaneously blurry, as if he
was in the moment but it was behind him too. He guessed it was
the pile-up of drink, nerves and adrenaline. As he marched
behind Cowley he made up his mind. The tipsy guest was a
television cliché. Everyone knew the form. But he wasn’t going
to be the playful puppy let loose. He wasn’t even going to be
drunk (he was drunk but there was a difference in being drunk
and acting drunk). Instead, he’d be the truth-king, on a mission
to blow up television’s falsified reality. It was the world, your
life, the lot of it, boiled down to an anecdote or a wisecrack:
question, answer, laugh-laugh, cue the music. No one acted like
that in real life; no one fizzed like Tommy Hulme, apart from
“Ladies and gentlemen, a big hand for John Barrett.”
As he made his way to the chair at the side of Hulme’s desk,
the house band played a few jazz-tinged bars from one of his
“So, John Barrett,” announced Hulme.
The camera panned to Barrett. The protocol was to react by
smiling or nodding, preferably both. He stared at Hulme,
“Right, I know this might appear an odd question and laugh
if you want, but, tell me, what’s it really like being John
“What do you mean?”
“My friend! The women, the adulation.”
“I adore women,” began Barrett.
Hulme smirked. Bring on the banter.
“We all adore women, John, we really do, but what is it especially
with you and them?”
“I’m not happy unless I’m fucking them, at least according to
Barrett went to his bedroom. His acoustic guitar was propped
up against the wall beneath a poster of Bob Marley. Why other
bands and not his, he asked himself. His music had so much
more worth and potential. Already he had mastered dynamics,
loud and quiet. He could switch rhythms so the guitars chopped
and chewed or gelled together as one. He knew how to form
lead parts, thickening the sound with keyboards and then leaving
it sparse, pinned delicately to a picked chord or the clickclicking
of a solitary hi-hat rhythm. All this came natural, as
easy as breathing. Born to it, born to go.
What happened now? Without an outlet for his music, it
became a vanity. If he carried on he would be viewed as someone
who hadn’t accepted the truth—that he wasn’t good
enough. But if he packed in, he knew the bitterness would
ferment. He could see himself walking his home town twenty
or thirty years on, telling everyone what should have been. He
couldn’t bear not being special.
The streetlights came on outside, orbs of purple light flickering
to an orange glow. He blamed Aspinall. Should never have
trusted him. What was he thinking? What was he doing hanging
around town if he was any good as a manager? Those boots.
The quiff. Those fucking name-cards.
“Whoa whoa, fella,” yelled Hulme, holding up his hands as if
protecting his face.
“True, but I didn’t ask you to relay it in such crude terms.’’
Hulme did an upside down smile to camera:
“Moving on, and I think we should good people, you’ve got a
new record out John, tell us about it.”
The presenter leaned back in his chair.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
“It’s toss or as I said to my wife this morning: utter toss.”
It was classic panic TV: cameras moving from side to side, the
audience laughing nervously, then silence sprawling wide as
“So, I take it that you’re not too keen on it?”
“That’s the same question as before, asked in a different way.
You’re buying time while you think of something to say.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Hulme.
“Good. Do you know what else you should be sorry about?”
“I think I’m going to find out.”
“What you said before, your speech at the start of the show.
I’ve got a four-year-old daughter who means the world to me.
She doesn’t want to hear that stuff.”
“What stuff is that?”
“Notches on the bedpost, all that nudge-nudge shit you came
“I think if you take a look at the biography supplied by your
record company it makes quite a point of trumpeting your
libido. If you live by the sword, you die by it too, so to speak.”
Hulme pressed down on his earpiece so everyone knew he
was receiving messages.
“I think we’ve one or two very anxious producers backstage.’’
The audience laughed. Barrett turned his chair to face them.
Barrett heard the front door open and guessed it was his dad,
home from work. Soon afterwards he could smell potato hash;
they always had hash on Wednesdays.
He thought fancifully of death, of taking his own life, running
a razor blade across his wrists. His would be the poet’s suicide,
an ethereal wasting away, blood trickling down the sheets,
droplets forming elegant splashes on a neatly written note. His
music would live on. A posthumous album could be assembled
from the songs recorded at concerts and rehearsals. He visualised
the cover of the NME: black with a tiny box in the centre
given over to a photograph of him singing. Underneath, in tiny
letters: ‘john barrett, r.i.p.’ He scolded himself for being so
stupid. That night with Al in his ripped up room had shown
him starkly the difference between disappointment and depression.
And there was still hope: more labels to hear from, more
concerts booked. He picked up his guitar and began strumming.
A few minutes later he had written a track he later titled,
The End of Music.
“Why are you laughing? He’s not funny,’’ said Barrett. ‘‘He’s
just sarcastic. Can’t you see he hasn’t got a soul? None of this lot
have. It’s fake. They’re scared of real life. Terrified. Don’t
encourage them by laughing.”
Ironically, a few giggled.
“Look, so I’ve had a drink. At least I’m alive. This lot here,
they’re already dead. They all want to be something they’re
Hulme had recovered his poise.
“If you don’t mind, John.”
“I do actually. Shut the fuck up.”
Aspinall received a phone call from Rob Murray, a name he’d
“I’m not sure who he manages but I think he’s pretty bigtime,’’
he told Barrett. ‘‘It’s only fair to tell you he’s been in
“I’ll ring him and see what he has to say.”
Aspinall was taken aback.
“Where does that leave me?”
“We can sort things out later.”
“Come on, that’s no good.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way.”
“I’m bound to, all the work I’ve put in.”
“What work! How long have you got? It’s been non-stop
since that NME write-up. Sending tapes, writing biogs, sorting
out pictures, chasing promoters. Bloody non-stop. These things
don’t just happen, you know. It’s all graft.”
“Well maybe that’s the problem.”
“That you’re so busy rushing around, you haven’t had time to
stand back and take an overview, to work on the big things—
like getting us a deal.”
“I’m not having that, John, I’m really not having it. It’s exactly
the kind of bullshit that bands come out with when they’re
about to fuck someone over.”
Barrett hadn’t realised Aspinall was so robust.
“I’m not going to fuck you over.”
“You are, I know it. That’s what people like you do.’’
“People like me, what does that mean?”
“You’re cunning. I could tell from the moment we met that
you had an agenda.”
“I thought that was a good thing, knowing what you
“I’ve got to talk to Murray at least.”
Aspinall stared at the floor. Barrett scrutinised the office: the
plastic figurine of Elvis on the window sill; the tray of index
cards on the table (one for each of his acts, including one
re-listed ‘TBC’ because Barrett said seeing the words ‘The Bug
Club’ made him feel ill); the CND badge clipped to a Legalise
Cannabis poster; the peeling wallpaper; the files on the floor in
cardboard boxes; the tatty carpet; the calendar daubed in black
marker. Barrett liked the homespun, hopeful air of it all but
felt he now had to force his belief in it. If he were to return in
four or five years he was sure it would all be gone, the room
rented out to someone else or given over to storage, maybe left
unoccupied, gathering dust. Aspinall would be working in a
clothes shop in town, talking bitterly about his days as a pop
impresario, how he had been let down, ripped off.
As much as he wanted to take it with him (the office,
Aspinall, his home town) and shape it into something that could
fend for itself in the music business, it had to go; it was holding
Barrett was now standing, not sure whether to speak directly
into a camera or address the studio audience. He looked from
one to the other. Hulme was trying to attract his attention, still
pretending it was droll and vaguely under control.
“Yoohoo, Mr Barrett. We’re over here.”
“You’re over there, I’m not.”
“Indeed, you’re more out-there, aren’t you?”
“What an arsehole. The thing is, he’s a bright kid. He’s
chosen to do this rather than something worthwhile with his
life. What’s he being paid? Tell us, how much are you on? How
much am I bid for this soul?”
“A good deal more than the royalties you received from your
“See, he doesn’t give up, does he? What a peevish man. He is
your God, folks, people at home, people in here. Your new God.
Oh so much cleverer and smarter than you. So worship him,
worship all this shit.”
He reached the front row of the audience. The faces were
pale. He’d run out of words. He felt light-headed, dizzy. He
held out his arms and fell to the ground as if he’d been shot.
Hulme’s voice stretched out like a wire across a divide.
“Well, don’t let anyone tell you we don’t do things a bit differently
here at Lunch Brake. Time, surely, for a short break.”