Saturday, 5 April 2008

Hero Worship

I don't pretend to know the psychology of it, but hero worship is a powerful attraction which hooks you into utter adoration without ever meeting the person concerned.

The catalyst for the adoration can be music, a voice, a photograph, a fragment of writing.

It's the reason teenage girls went wild for the Beatles. The image of those young men in the peculiarly tailored jackets and the sound they made stirred the already heady mix of swirling, multiplying hormones. A sure-fire recipe for mass hysteria.

I was too young for the excitement of the Beatles in their hey-day. My hero worship was music-based, deeply personal and lavished exclusively on James Taylor and Reg Dwight.

I dreamed of the places they described. The subtle slide guitar behind “In My Mind I'm Going To Carolina” took me to unfamiliar territory, the wide-open spaces of the US and the lyrical calm exuded by JT. With “Sweet Baby James” I needed to know where the Berkshires were and see what he was seeing when he wrote the words. “You Can Close Your Eyes” offered a touchingly simple tenderness.

An integral part of the idolization of these people and their music was the urge to somehow know them.

Too young to work out my feelings in anything but art, I studied their images and reproduced them in assiduous, loving detail. My bemused and bewigged art teacher Mr Davis must have known. Obvious really. I expect he'd seen it all before. The inspiration of a fevered frustrated youth expressed in coursework.

The image on the cover of the album “Sweet Baby James” mesmerised me. I produced at least ten portraits of James in different mediums. I needed to study his beautiful 'lost apostle' face, see exactly how the eyebrows formed, look at the precise relationship between the generous eyebrows and the pupil of the eye. The eyes themselves were crucial, looking at how they reflected, endlessly guessing at what they reflected. His mouth was good with sensuously curved lips stretching broadly. James never did do teeth and it didn't matter.

I watched, listened, drew, played his music on the guitar. Apart from being in his physical presence, which quite frankly I don't think I could have survived without suffering the vapours, it was the complete hero worship experience.

Similarly with Reg. I churned out sheafs of pencil and charcoal studies of him.

“I'm surprised you think so much of him,” my mother declared.

“He's podgy. And he drones on and on.”

I never tired of those cool squarish tinted specs, the dark blonde, slightly wavy hair. Deft and yes - pudgy - fingers on the keyboard. I brushed up my keyboard skills to play Your Song, Rocket Man, Border Song in workmanlike ways and plonk my way through the rest of the Elton John songbook.

Then a flood of other music took over my consciousness. I didn't listen to James Taylor for years and was mostly disappointed by Reg's output after Yellow Brick Road.

A couple of years back, I was taken to a concert for a birthday treat. It was a surprise. I had no idea who was on the bill.

Looking at the older people strolling to the NEC in Birmingham, I had a horrible feeling that it would be one of those deeply sad sixties nights with the original member of Showaddywaddy (a band I detested with a passion) plus a handful of sound-alikes.

It was actually JT himself.

He walked on stage bald and gaunt in a drab suit which hung from his bony frame; a shocking image a lifetime on from the lost apostle I adored. I almost wished I'd forgotten my specs and he'd remained a myopic mystery.

Then he sang and nothing mattered. The voice was still perfect. The voice I'd listened to as I lay on the floor of the living room sketching, the voice which was the source of miraculous, disturbing dreams.

Hero worship persists, as I found out, there in the darkness of the NEC as I closed my eyes and was submerged in the sensations of being a teenager again. There was the curved polished wood of my parents' 1950's radiogramme which, thanks to dad's electrical wizardry, housed the record deck. A warm late afternoon sun slanted through the windows on to my bare feet as I sat on the floor against the sofa, hugging my knees, intense, listening to “You've Got a Friend” alone with James, ready to be furiously resentful of any unwelcome intrusions by my little brother. Real but unreal. Deeply pleasurable.

So listening to those old classic tracks is still very special, as was seeing JT on Jools Holland's TV programme the other night.

Not hero worship as such, but I had a frisson of something akin to it recently; a sudden uncontrolled, unconscious reaction that was very similar - a teenage sensation that reached out suddenly from the past and grabbed me.

It was good, so hallelujah.

Winter ride

A murmuring gunmetal ocean

stretches and slips beneath my wheels

Traffic roars in frozen ears

a winnowing wind takes all the tears

and an aching heart is

calmed by fiery circular rhythms;

soothed by the comfort

of concentration.