My oldest friend Tony, who moved to Norway back in 1991, has just been in hospital. I got an email from his mum to tell me he had kidney failure, high blood pressure and heart problems. He, like me, is 39. He contacted me yesterday to say he's back at home, on all sorts of pills and potions. He's also had to stop drinking, smoking, eating too much salt and spicy food. He's 39.
Me and Tony met at school back in 1980. We must have seemed like an unlikely pairing. I was tiny back then, 4' 11" at most. A skinny little white kid, a bit of a brain, although too moody to fit in with the geeks. Tony is Jamaican, and at the age of 11 was already 5' 6". But we clicked. A love of Star Wars, comics, music, drawing and a shared sense of humour brought us together. The other thing that we shared was a short fuse that led to fights. I got broken noses. Tony got a reputation for being hard.
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
1981 -1985 we were pretty much inseparable. Comics from Forbidden Planet on a Saturday morning; listening to the American Top 40 on a Saturday afternoon reading our purchases or drawing comics of our own; reggae on Radio London on a Sunday afternoon and taping the top 40 in the evening.
As we got older we started to explore music, branching out from our initial obsessions: Human League led to Kraftwerk and Bowie; Paul Weller led to The Who and punk - the British kind; which led us to Patti Smith and Talking Heads and the Velvets. We went mad for Prince in 1984. The year previous I'd gotten a copy of Star Wars on video, taped from it's premiere in October 1982 (the same day I appeared on Capital Radio reading out a story I'd written in a competition). We watched Star Wars until the tape started to warp, going home at lunchtime with chips to watch a bit, then carrying on after school. Twice a day during holidays!
But Prince took over in 1984. I can remember us watching the video for Lets Go Crazy over and over again one day from 9am until about 4pm. We'd also both started to learn guitar at this point. My dad taught me House Of The Rising Sun and I taught Tony his first chords. I was ok on guitar - I'm a pretty good guitarist now - but I had to work at it. Tony took those chords and videos of Prince, Paul Weller and Jimi Hendrix and within 6 months he was playing like a demon; seems like Tony was a natural musician.
By this point we were in separate streams at school. I was in with the brains, despite being surly and pretending to be Jimmy in Quadrophenia. Tony was in the lower set, despite being very intelligent. Tony just got bored easily and the system didn't give him the chance to do better. The only thing we shared at school was art. Both the art teachers loved music and encouraged us to bring our music in. One of the teachers had been a punk (he used to tell us about pogoing in front of Siouxsie at the 100 Club or somewhere, while she shook sweat onto him!) and he loved Patti Smith. He used to play Easter in lessons. Tony adopted one of the tunes from that album as his theme tune. If you know the album you'll know which track a guitar playing black guy would love....;)
The other thing about me and Tony, which looking over this piece I can see showing up in a few places, was that we had a pretty intense rivalry. In the early days it showed up in comparing our comic collections, or who heard a great song first. By the time we reached sixteen or so it tended to involve girls. We would either go for the same girls. Or if one liked one that the other had shown absolutely no interest in..well, you can imagine the sorts of things that happened. For five minutes we would hate each other. Then when the girl was off the scene we would be back to normal.
And the other thing that we competed for was the title of most depressed teenager. We were both angry all the time, even when we were having a laugh. And always falling for the wrong girls. Angry romantics, playing loud guitars. Drinking too much by now and dabbling in too many drugs.
By now we were in our late teens and at this point our roads diverged. the rivalry started to turn a bit off. We'd argue more than laugh. Tony moved into squats and busked; I went to work and couldn't get bands off the ground. Tony went to squat parties; I went to raves. I gave up on loud guitars for a while too; preferring acoustics following an obsession with The Pogues and Elvis Costello's King Of America album. For a couple of years we didn't see each other very much. Then Tony met a Norwegian girl who he married and followed to Norway. They had a daughter and although the marriage didn't last very long Tony stayed.
We've stayed in touch over the years. Every so often Tony would come back to London. We'd get drunk together for a few days, getting along great and then stop getting on. But eventually we managed to resolve our rivalry. I guess we grew up a little and realized that we couldn't spend our lives being jealous of each other. And since then we've gotten on great. I never made it across to Norway until last year, but that was pretty cool. We stayed up all night with our partners and drank ourselves stupid, while outside it never got dark.
The thing we both discovered was that whenever we would hear a great new band, or see a film we loved we both would have a conversation in our head with the other about it. Tony was the first person I thought of when I heard Arctic Monkeys or Goldfrapp's Black Cherry album for instance. The other thing I realized was that over the years I'd been half expecting to hear Tony had...gone. His partying overtook mine by some distance through the 90s. After years of consuming anything that was good for getting out of it I got a little more choosy; lager and whisky down the pub. And good vibes at clubs and raves....;)
Tony on the other hand, expanded his repertoire considerably. A love of acid for instance, which we'd both taken back in the 80s but I hated. Any other substance he could get his hands on for a while, especially the 'faster' drugs. And lots of booze. I've only known a few people who like to start the day with a can of lager and work their way up. A few too many possibly. But Tony made it an artform. So it's understandable that I would believe he was on a downward path. Self destruct even.
But no. Tony moved through that. An enforced break a few years ago when he came back to London for a while after a messy break up with a girl seemed to clear his head. And when he went back to Norway he moved to the country with a new girlfriend where he's been living in domestic bliss for about four years. And then this. Hearing he was in hospital was something that I'd expected all those years. Now he'd settled down a bit it was a bit of a shock. Apparently it may be connected to his years of partying or it may not. They're doing all sorts of tests. But it looks good; none of the tests have shown up anything dodgy so far. I'm crossing all sorts of fingers and toes. If I was religious I'd probably pray.
Reading over this, it sounds a bit like an obituary. It's not meant to. More a little celebration of my oldest friend.
I thought long and hard about the song I was going to post with this. And I kept coming back to one. It's obvious, but sometimes that's how it goes.
(The picture above is Hoxton Street looking down Myrtle Walk. Tony used to live about twenty yards down the left hand side.)
The Jam: Thick As Thieves
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