FWF frontman revisits his 16-year-old self for our latest Sweet 16 column
I noticed after I came to London that everybody in the big city starts shagging each other and doing drugs at age 13; no such joy in the soggy, racist backwater I grew up in. The kids in Cookstown, Northern Ireland, had few pastimes outside of football, setting things on fire and throwing stones at ‘the Portuguese’* on their way home from work in the evening. I had moved there from the west coast of Scotland after my parents split up several years before, my mum having married an accountant from the area after throwing in the towel with my dad. I went to a Protestant school as a result. Mandatory school uniform meant that between the ages of 12 to 18 I wore a great big red hand of Ulster out on my chest everyday. Loyal to the core! I remember being asked ‘if l liked the Sash?’** by a group of lads at school around that time; I thought they were referring to ‘Encore Une Fois’ by the French dance outfit ‘Sash!’, which had not long since been a huge hit. I told them I thought Sash! was dog shit; that I was into music with guitars. I’d been bullied and battered a bunch of times growing up but no beating contained such archaic mystification as that one.
Alas, I had by the age of 16 become a total loner, with nothing but a deeply entrenched sense of myself as culturally superior to keep me company. I took to rendering my own image in charcoal, gouache and oil paint posturing like Egon Schiele whom I severely admired. I had decided some time ago that I was on my way to London at the soonest possible occasion to study art. Given the complete absence of any kind of social life I was incredibly studious and this proved easy to accomplish. I had seen that film Summer of Sam with Adrien Brody on the telly, who also had a ridiculous nose, and began attempting to recreate his hairstyle. I would spend a half hour each morning recasting those absurd spikes only to be pilloried by the student body and excluded from classes by the staff. I decided that on the basis of my intellectual merits and soaring grades I was beyond reprimand of any kind, that should I choose to humiliate myself rigorously using only my confused self image and a jar of sculpting gel I should be free to do so.
Around this time i met and fell completely in love with a girl from school whom I’d been passionately staring at in the corridors, classes and halls for the last three years. It was the very definition of first love. She was the only person seemingly in the whole vicinity that had interests like my own: she loved music, books and films and had a tinge of goth about her general demeanour. My parents had their own detatched bungalow in a fairly decent bit of town and two cars. My girlfriend’s family lived on one of those Prod estates with the murals, union jacks and red, white and blue curbs. I would go and stay at hers at the weekends. We were both virgins, both really timid; it took us quite a long time before we explored each others’ bodies ‘in full’. Her mother would bring us 6 bottles of Miller beer and order us a pizza on a Friday night. We would smoke petrol bar hash, fondle each other and watch Elvis movies; a phenomenon for which she had a seemingly bottomless regard.
Her father was a quiet man who had served in the British Army working bomb disposal. He had an incredible array of records in his living room that me and his daughter would help ourselves to. They were both obsessed with Bob Dylan, whose nasal whine I was completely adverse to. Between them they had the entire back catalogue including all the Bootlegs. It was the only thing I used to whinge about; the constant Dylan. Then, one evening lying on her bed alone while she was in the bathroom next door getting ready to go out, ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’ came over the stereo, which is basically just a poem about the nature of integrity inspired by Guthrie’s ‘Bound For Glory’. I had never been a words man really but in that moment I was changed forever. A fantasy that I’d spend ten years toying with or trying to kill, that I finally submitted myself to fully only recently, was born in me. Whatever trick Bob had just pulled on me was a trick I had to learn, or at least try to. I bought my first guitar the next day.
*Migrant workers from East Timor who’d recently been brought in en masse to work the jobs at the meat packing plants, who the locals considered beneath them.
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