Extract from chapter ‘LAMF’.
After a lost weekend with a girl he thinks is called Caroline James Johnny ends up taking an unexpected trip up to Pontypridd with Cardiff boy TC, bass player in a funk band and the first black guy he’s spoken to since he left Wolverhampton.
The Castle is rushing by on my left as TC sits behind the wheel of his red Triumph Vitesse, a Summer Holiday hat which he says you have to wear to drive the car teetering on his hair. He pushes in a cassette with one hand while the other guides us round the bend onto North Road. I recognise the first song up from my nightclub days.
‘That’s right, Johnny. ‘Me and baby brother’. You knows your stuff.’
This is the first right note I’ve hit since we left the bar. It makes me cringe to recall that when we stepped outside I was trying to sound a bit more street, less like a jumped-up sixth-former, but all that did was make me come across as a bit thick compared to TC. I wasn’t quite sure how to act when it was down to just the two of us – If the passenger window had been open I wouldn’t have put it past myself to slide into the car Dukes of Hazzard style.
It’s not just the Splott address but also the black thing that’s making me uncomfortable. I’ve hung out in the same pubs as black guys back in Wolverhampton but apart from a word when you held open the toilet door none of them ever spoke to you.
It doesn’t help when your old man’s always quoting Enoch Powell, even though he’s cool with the black fellas he works with, or you’ve seen the Villa fans baiting Regis, Cunningham and Batson of The Albion only to cheer on our token black player, Ivor Linton, when he comes on as sub. Somehow it makes a casual conversation feel like a big deal.
‘Reach in the glove compartment by there,’ he says. ‘I’ve got something for the trip. Light one up, will you?’
Like I said I don’t really do drugs but I’m feeling a little edgy so a smoke might help.
‘Go for the smaller one, not the Studio One Special,’ and he gets all lyrical about the music until he pulls me up with, ‘Hey, don’t Bogart that joint.’
I let him do the bogarting as we head up the A470.
‘Nice car, this,’ I say.
‘Yeah, they’re alright if you can keep the sills from going rotten. I’d take it any day if it’s a choice between this and any of that modern shit. All that fancy stuff you don’t need.’
As I’m not yet a driver I can’t comment.
‘Bet you were expecting the old Black Man’s Wheels,’ he says.
He’s laughing and I’m squirming from hearing this stuff being tackled head-on. It strikes me is that his conversation has a different energy to the black guy talk I’ve eavesdropped to this point. Those fellas in Wolves never used to say much and when they did they never gave much away. TC sounds like he’s trying harder.
‘You been to Ponty before?’ he asks.
‘No. I don’t know much about it apart from the rugby team and Tom Jones.’
‘You wash your mouth out with soap and water mentioning that last name in my car. Only joshing. So what’s your real name then, bro?’
That’s an odd question. He said it back in the bar and just now. ‘Johnny. Or John. Johnny.’
‘What, you serious? I thought that was just a nickname. Caryl and I always called you that after that Thunders fella plays guitar with The Heartbreakers. So you’re actually Johnny then.’
We pass Gabalfa Interchange which until the Bakery was the northern limit of my experience of Cardiff. He’s rolled down the window and is Detroit Leaning, elbow on the door.
‘So Carol called me that as well?’ I ask.
‘Yeah. I love the way you say Caryl. Real Burmingumm.’
‘Caryl.’ He’s not even close but he’s not alone. I’ve never heard an outsider do decent Black Country or Brum.
‘Caroloine Jaimes,’ I say, broader than Noddy, Jasper or Ozzy.
‘What you on about? You can’t have Caryline. It’s Caryl.’ He repeats the name with a gesture like Manuel practising his English in Fawlty Towers. ‘And it’s better that I tell you first, mate, but it’s Caryl Morgan. I don’t know where you got the James from.’
I try to get my head round this. ‘What, she’s been married?’
‘No, always been Morgan. Unless she’s trying out a new name for her writing or something. But that’s weird, that was the name of a girl in our class at school.’
The previous owner of Ziggy. ‘Can I tell you something, TC? To be honest she didn’t really tell me. I saw that name on one of her records.’
He splutters at this. ‘Does she know your name then or did she just fluke it?’
I tell him I’ve never been asked and he has to make an effort to appear cool with it.
‘I don’t know what to make of the kids of today. You can’t just go jumping each other’s bones without some introduction.’
It’s not until Castell Coch comes into view that I break the silence by asking, ‘What’s this one, TC?’
‘Bit of dub reggae for ya. ‘King Tubby meets Rockers Uptown’. You like it? Yeah? You got good taste.’
Thing is, I’ve just tickled myself with the last question, what with the four or so hits from the old joint kicking in. I ask it again as Brain, Choo Choo, Fancy, Spook and Benny the Ball and he stops me before Officer Dibble with, ‘Alright, fuck’s sake, give it a rest,’ then adds, ‘And if you wanna know, it’s because my name’s Terry Clark, as in Clark’s Pies, and not because I’ve got my yurs sticking up through the brim of my hat.’
Let’s spark up the Studio One Special. I’m starting to loosen up.
‘No, I’m closer to Spook anyway. That cat’s got to be a brother.’
I lose it for the next couple of minutes. TC’s laughing too but not uncontrollably like me.
‘They’re playing your song, Johnny,’ he says of the next one and when I draw a blank, ”Johnny too bad’. It’s on ‘The Harder they come’.’
‘Right again. Gotta hand it to ya. It’s a rude-boy song. About a trouble-maker. Ruff-yahn. Bit like yourself. I know what you rockers are like: all those groupies and drugs, passing out in hotel rooms, TV’s out the window. Live fast die young.’
I don’t feel like a rude-boy, ruffian or cliched rocker. Then again three days ago I didn’t think I’d be getting laid to within an inch of my life and driving up to Pontypridd with the likes of TC on a mission to do God-knows-what.
Johnny Too Bad wouldn’t come out with anything as lame as my next words though.
‘I know him.’
TC is lost for words, staring out the driver’s window and chuntering like he can’t believe he got lumbered with this.