The crowd felt like it was ninety percent men and ten percent women, with the air of a young-male tribal ritual. An edge of violence was in the air. The sense of impending mayhem was the same as The Who would conjure a few fast years later, and The Clash would recreate in a decade and a half, but the Clash preached to punks, and The Who played to erupting mods. In the Brighton Essoldo in 1961 there were no mods. The only mods of the time called themselves modernists, wore mascara and listened to Miles Davis, and were confined to the West End of London. The teenage, seaside riots were on down the timeline, just like The Who and The Clash.
There and then, we were all rockers under the skin. We had even sat in the Essoldo, or one of the other holiday resort picture palaces, and watched all those Hollywood movies that had shaped a UK style; Steve McQueen and James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven, James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, Paul Newman in Left Handed Gun, Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter, and Richard Widmark as the sniggering-psychotic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. Marlon Brando and the late-great Lee Marvin in The Wild One had been banned in the UK, although a few in the crowd might have seen it at a members-only flea-pit called the Paris Cinema Club, where it was occasionally run between uncut Brigitte Bardot movies and Swedish nudie epics.
We’d all seen the stills of Brando, though, and the style was still the vogue, and, if the interior of the Essoldo that night wasn’t wall-to-wall, 59 Club leather jackets, such was certainly the illusion. Drapes and the new Italian bum-freezers must have figured in the crowd, yeah, and probably some windbreakers and sensible sports jackets, but we didn’t want to think that everything wasn’t perfect, or that many of us simply couldn’t afford to dress like an American pan-head Harley Davidson outlaw of six or seven years earlier. We had come to witness the great Gene Vincent, and were determined that all should be perfect, even if it required a certain suspension of disbelief.
We didn’t have Elvis to preside over these communal rights of passage, but we had all turned out for what had to be the next best thing. For the night, Gene was to be the eye of our hurricane, and in some respects, for the time and the demographic, Gene Vincent was actually more important than Elvis Presley. Gene Vincent, you see, was ours. He was obtainable. His magic was within reach, and his role as rock ’n’ roll magician was one to which we might just aspire. No one in their right mind could seriously aspire to be Elvis. The only exception was The Beatles, and, even then it took four of them to do what he did. With cheap guitars and a drummer who could borrow a van, we might, at the very fullest stretch of imaginations, dream of being Gene. Also Gene hadn’t compromised. Unlike Elvis, Gene, crazy and underage, had enlisted in the navy, and had his military service behind him when fame and fortune came knocking. He wasn’t drafted at the peak of his wildness. And mercifully wasn’t in jail like Chuck Berry, hadn’t lost his nerve and found Jesus like Little Richard. He was, however, about to go on the run. In the USA, debts, unpaid taxes, a shut-out from TV where, by the machinations of Dick Clarke, pretty boys called Bobby ruled the top forty, meant Gene and the other first-generation, primal rockers faced a rapidly dwindling audience. To our eternal good luck, Gene fled to Europe, and America’s loss was our gain.
My memory is of a black-clad antihero in a white follow-spot, like the climax of a prison break turned bad. Top of the world, ma! Gene was not alone on the stage – far from it – he had all seven pieces of Sounds Incorporated at his back, the best band that money could buy in the UK in 1961, but he still managed to generate a wrenching sense of alienation, isolated in a personal purgatory, dangerous and vulnerable, for all the world like a man in the grip of some darkly distorting religious experience. The contorted figure in the black leather suit stood with one leg forward, knee bent, and the other, held rigid in a steel brace and thrust awkwardly out behind him. The stance was unnatural, you could maybe call it unholy. His body seemed twisted, almost tortured. At peaks in the act his whole frame would vibrate as he clutched the microphone stand with his gloved hands, desperately, as though it was all that prevented him from being born away by the rage and passion of the moment. His corpse pale face was framed, Dracula style, by the upturned collar of his leather jacket, and a sweat soaked bunch of grapes had collapsed on his forehead. He had this trick of raising his eyes to an imaginary point, high in the auditorium, higher even that the cheap seats in the upper balcony, as though he was staring into some unknown, Stephen King hell, at hovering, circling, malevolent angels, invisible to the rest of us.
For a man with a ruined leg, he was agile. At peaks of intensity, he would swing his damaged leg over the mike stand as the mob bayed its approval. During a solo that was crucial to the dynamic, he would mount flat top of the grand piano shouting un-miked, unheard words to guitars and horns as though he was Kirk Douglas leading his men over the top in Paths of Glory or Custer refusing to admit defeat. His power was that he gave the performance every last piece of himself. He took all the risks, chancing, it seemed, his own critical safety and survival, and courting either flame-out or burn-out.
Six or seven years later, after rock ’n’ roll went to college, Jim Morrison would attempt to articulate the tension of this theatrical craziness in terms of a return to Dionysian demonic shamanism. Gene, on the other hand, had no fancy learning, and behaved as though he had happened upon this fountain head of primal, Reichian energy, with no more clue than Jed Clampett when he struck oil and moved to Beverly Hills. Between songs Gene behaved with reticence, bemused, almost a deer in the headlights when confronted with the dark, angry-young-man magic he had raised with his invocation of ‘Who Slapped John’. He hardly spoke or acknowledged the crowd, maybe unsure if he was the bull or the matador in this oh-so primitive drama, or perhaps too locked in to the business at hand to raise even Elvis Presley’s bantering self-depreciation. For Gene it was a tentative, rote introduction. ‘Got a little song here we’d like to play for you now. Goes like this.’ A spread chord to give the man the note. ‘Wwwwellll… ’
And we’d all be off on the thrill ride again.
Back in those days, we South Coast kids who were too young to drive got around on Southern Region commuter trains that mercifully came without connecting corridors. These were local stopping trains serving stations with passing names like Lancing, East Worthing, Fishersgate Halt, Angmering, that came at less than five minute intervals. The constant threat of interruption thwarted any prolonged pornographic imaginings of unscrewing the compartment light bulbs and totally turning the last train going west out of Brighton into a rolling teenage bacchanalia, but we did the best we could. On that train back home, my hands were all over my date’s body and hers were all over mine.
This, on its own, was fortuitous but not unusual. Some heavyweight groping on the train home, with inhibitions lost to vodka and 7UP were a suburban ritual, but I swear, this time it was somehow different. The depth of need was deeper and the woman rose to meet me, equally hungry and angry, abandoning the game of token, reputation-saving resistance. I’ve already mentioned that the proportion of women at a Gene Vincent show was markedly low. The girls in the beehives, puffed-out skirts and white stilettos thronged auditoriums like the Essoldo for Cliff Richard and Shadows; they turned out and screamed for Adam Faith, and Billy Fury, backed by the Blue Flames, with Georgie Fame looking so cute on keyboards. On the other side of the side of the coin, however, the women how did show up for Gene or Jerry Lee Lewis had a tough and unique class, and took no fashion tips from Helen Shapiro.
The women who yelled for Gene and liked it could be factory workers, faux-hard diamonds before their time, or renegade convent girls already in full, if guilt-wracked, revolt against the celibate power of the nuns, but they all pretended to a gun moll style, if tempered with a certain skittish nervousness that they were walking a road that, by the reactionary morals and narrow proprieties of the time led straight to societal hell. In the future, they would take the pills, smoke the dope, drop the acid, some would sign on as bunnies at the Playboy club, others would become independent single mothers, groupies, singer-songwriters, or activists in the women’s movement, but all that was years in the future. In the meantime, the wore their blue jeans skintight, tilted their hips, snapped their gum, sucked on a Consulate menthol cigarette, and cultivated a smart and cynical mouth. If nothing else, it was an attitude that positioned them well for all the upheavals and sexual insurrections to come.
What this woman and I were feeling on the train that night was more than just some proscribed foreplay gratification. Again the only words were primal or primitive. We needed to scream and howl, but we had yet to learn the knack of doing it. Instead, we clung to each other as if some violent merging was possible, urgent and desperate, with no alternatives, and damned if we wanted any. We had just been part of a dark congregation of post-fifties teen-lust, backed by the loudest electric guitars we had so far heard in our young lives. We had passed childhood’s end but would kick and scream bloody murder before we’d allow ourselves to be forced into what was currently being promoted as maturity. We had, quite literally, been turned around, shown a direction that ran in complete opposition to the path the system had planned. We knew absolutely nothing of what was to come or what we could do, except that there had to be some yet unformed other way, a left hand path, without chart or map, but that offered a wild and dangerous hope that we could find the blind, bold courage we’d need stumble down it.
Such was the effect of a Gene, all those years ago. I firmly believed that rock ’n’ roll harboured a solid, if unshaped core of insurrection, long before it could even form or spell the word.
Well, Carl Perkins was down South… we were all down South, actually. Carl Perkins, me, Elvis Presley; Bill Haley was up north. Haley was into saxophones and horns and things like that. When it all started out, they called it rockabilly. Perkins started first. Perkins was on his way to do the Ed Sullivan Show when he hit a tractor and wrecked his back. So they said to themselves: who can we get to take his place? Well, they said that there was this boy called Elvis Presley and there’s one called Gene Vincent. But I was in the hospital at that time and Presley did it. On the Ed Sullivan Show.
The kindest word is confusing. Gene Vincent’s life, as currently recorded, is filled with conflicts, contradictions, and leaves much to be desired in the realm of hard facts. A drunken pillhead tends to be more concerned with legend than accuracy, and makes up the stories as he goes along. Add lawyers, process servers, ex-wives, ex-managers, and tax-collectors on two sides of the Atlantic, and a firewall of deliberate smokescreens comes into play, obscuring the names and dates. This seems to have been the way with Gene. Even his exact birth date is disputed. The popular version is that he was born Vincent Eugene Craddock, in the US Navy shipyard town of Norfolk, Virginia, on February 11th, 1935, just 34 days after Gladys Presley’s surviving twin first saw daylight. His parents were Mary Louise Cooper and Ezekiah Jackson Craddock, farm folk, by all accounts, from North Carolina, who moved the short distance across the State Line to Norfolk. His childhood appears unremarkable except that he ‘liked music and girls’. His sister Evelyn is quoted delivering a standard cliché of Norman Rockwell rock star origins, that has both Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis peeking in to the honky-tonk, hearing the blues on the front porch, and thus being inculcated with the music of the devil. ‘A black man lived down the street and he’d come to the store, an old country store, and we had chairs out there and he sang while Gene played.’
About the only real indication of the real nature of Gene’s early years was that he couldn’t even wait until his eighteenth birthday to run off and join the Navy, but, in this, he was little different to a whole host of Norfolk boys without skills, future, or even a high school diploma. As a matter of record, Gene Craddock formerly enlisted in the US Navy on February 19th, 1952. ‘Cry’ by Johnny Ray, and Hank Williams’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ were both in the top forty, and the Korean War had entered its third year of hostilities. His sister Evelyn remembers Gene having an obsession with war movies and wanting to be shipped to Korea while the fighting was still there for the experiencing. The Navy, on the other hand, had different plans, and, after basic training, he was assigned to the tanker USS Chuckawan as a deck hand, and he sailed on a tour of the Mediterranean. He seemed to have a reasonable enough time in his first three year hitch in the service, for Gene to decide to re-up for a further six, and that might have been that, except along the way, Gene had developed a passion for motorcycles, opening the door for fate to sideswipe him in a unquestionably epic manner. Legend now kicks in big time, immortalising how he blew a sizeable chunk of his reenlistment bonus on a 500cc Triumph Tiger, similar to the one ridden by Marlon Brando in The Wild One. One weekend in July 1955, in the Norfolk suburb of Franklin, a woman in a Chrysler ran a red light and smashed into Gene on his Triumph, crushing his left leg on impact, and changing the entire direction of his existence.
Gene was no more use to the Navy, and it looked as though he might spend the greater part of his life in and out of VA hospitals. Legend insists that doctors wanted to amputate the leg, but both he and his mother fought tooth and nail that he keep it. In a foreshadowing of lawsuits to come, Gene is also supposed to have signed some chump-change, out of court settlement with attorneys for the women in the Chrysler, who shoved the paperwork under his nose while he was out of his mind on morphine.
Gene Vincent’s injured left leg looms large in both legend and reality. Like some leather-jacket Achilles, he was a hero betrayed by his own mortal form. His body became a ball and chain. Constantly braced when not in a cast, the leg – probably beyond help from the get-go – dictated his unique stage stance. It provided him a massive biker credibility, and limitless sympathy. It also tipped him into the drug and alcohol problems that would dog him for the rest of his days. Red Gwynn, his chauffeur during the first surge of fame, tells the story that would be repeated endlessly down the years. ‘Gene was his own worst enemy. He popped a lot of pills… He’d break his cast in every town. Then, in the next town, we’d have to hunt up a doctor and get a new cast.’
The leg caused Gene chronic pain and quickly led to a painkiller habit and worse; the painkillers made him slow so he took speed to get back in gear; the speed made him edgy and thus he drank to mellow out. In the morning, he’d wake with a hangover and his leg still hurt. The cycle was repeated on a daily basis, a process that gradually eroded his heath, talent and stability.
Gene Vincent’s crippled leg and Elvis Presley’s well-known boyhood obsession with the early comic book superhero Capt Marvel Jr provide an odd and early piece of pop-culture symbolism. The premise of Captain Marvel Jr was that the crippled orphan boy Freddy Freeman utters the words of power, the magic lightning crashes down, and he his transformed into powerful and somewhat delinquent-looking Capt Marvel Jr. The allegory might be that Elvis was stuck by the magic lightning and elevated to the paranormal while Gene Vincent limped to a darker and more limited, but maybe more dignified notoriety, right here on earth, keeping it real, so to speak.