The Undercover Man – Van Der Graaf Generator
here…at the glass…all the usual problems…all the habitual farce..
you ask..in uncertain voice..what you should do..as if there were a choice..
..but to carry on..miming the song..
..and hope that it all works out right
Didn’t need to look up the lyrics for this song. Burned into my brain. The man who wrote them, Peter Hammill, he of the extraordinary angelic devil’s voice, was a constant companion of mine through the 1970s. I bought H to He (Who Am The Only One) from Simon Korner in 1971 (?) Van Der Graaf’s second LP, quite possibly my first album that was all mine; terribly weird and prog, heavy and jazzy, literate and dense. I loved it. I still do. I first heard this track from their 5th album on the John Peel show late one night in my bedroom in Hailsham. Van Der Graaf Generator were so underground and unloved at school (Lewes Priory) that I was astonished to hear their name and their music on the actual radio. The song is from an album called Godbluff. This and the follow-up Still Life are my favourite musical moments from VDGG. There is something about the intensity of Hammill’s lyrics and his uncompromising vocal delivery, his fury and his passion, his feeling and his focus that drilled through the teenage me, through all the layers of coping and pretence and bearing up, all the capability that I summoned at each maternal nervous breakdown, each visit to the phone box to call the doctor and complain about the latest bottle of pills prescribed to Mum, each battle in the kitchen over food, washing up, coal, cats, milk bills, noise, TV channels or haircuts. The music exposed my innermost panic. It cut through the pop fluff and the melodic flair to the gritty bone of loneliness that was my very private world. In a way it was quite good that no one else in school liked Van Der Graaf Generator because I didn’t want to share my feelings with anyone. Of course I used to feel that my spectacularly dysfunctional family was a kind of pin-up of affliction, that the cross I bore, heavy and splintered and surely too much for one teenage boy to carry, was heavier and harder than anyone else’s. It was a badge of honour, a hidden scar that I would only reveal to girlfriends, look, this is who I really am, then they would want to make it better, they did !
Now an adult I see my childhood as just another suburban tragedy. Everyone has one.
I bought this LP in 1975 when it came out – late October as the leaves fell from the trees. I’d left school, left home and been left by my girlfriend in the same week (see My Pop Life #58).
My first day of work on B Villa, Laughton Lodge I had thirty strange faces staring at me – the new nursing assistant in a white coat with name badge. The friendliest bloke Martin had Down’s Syndrome and immediately introduced himself “hello sir!” with a strong lisp. He shouldn’t have been in there. But who should ? Described on the entrance hoarding as a “Hospital For The Mentally Sub-Normal”, Laughton Lodge in 1975 was what local people called the loony bin, ‘bedlam’ or the madhouse. On B Villa all the 30 men could walk, feed themselves and take themselves to the toilet. Critical distinctions. It meant our work was watching out for epileptic fits, walking the hyper Michael Payne round the grounds because he upset the other “residents”, taking a select group to ‘work experience’, or maybe into Lewes, sorting out problems and fights and helping with tying of shoelaces, distribution of drugs (I wasn’t allowed to do this except with another nurse) and subduing of violence. The drug of choice was Largactyl, the chemical cosh. Half of the ward walked around like zombies under the effect of this powerful sedative. The other half either behaved, or were headed the same way. Ian was severely autistic and didn’t speak, kind of yelped when he was upset. He had memorised all the puzzles in the day-room, he would pick up a piece and know where it went immediately. Ronnie was a 19-year old murderer, and a pyschopath with a sickly grin. Gerald was a big dangerous intelligent man who would explode with violence from time to time, attack another patient, he smashed the acquarium one day, it would take six male nurses to hold him down. when a patient went “up the wall” they acquired superhuman strength from deep within and furniture would go flying. We had largactyl injections, straightjackets and a padded cell upstairs.
Michael Payne was the saddest case. A handsome gentle man in his thirties, he’d witnessed a motorbike accident at close quarters and his mind had cracked. Somehow through the system he’d found his way onto B Villa Laughton Lodge. He talked incessantly and we would take it in turns to walk him around the grounds, answering his questions, never quite sure what was a memory and what wasn’t. “Did you see that tiger on television last night Mr Brown? Scratched me right down my face!” The Charge Nurse Ray Lucas explained to me that he was on a decreasing cycle of experience, his ups and downs were getting closer together, at that point he was three days up (walk around the grounds talking ten to the dozen) three days down (slumped in green plastic armchair on the ward). As the wavelength got shorter he would be more difficult to manage and when the up and the down met eventually he would short-circuit and burn out, and become like the monosyllabic zombies. This made me terribly sad.
The whole place was incredibly sad. There were psychiatric patients mixed with murderers. One fella Nick got picked up by his Mum and Dad every Saturday and brought back every Sunday night. Apart from a twisted hand and club foot he was perfectly fine: intelligent but damaged. The nurses were compassionate and coped well. There was no abuse or piss-taking that I witnessed. All the patients, and some of the staff were institutionalised – stuck in routines and ways of thinking. I was only there for nine months, I couldn’t change anything. Eventually one of the nurses from C Villa (the women’s ward) invited me to dinner one night in Ringmer. While she was cooking, she handed me a book saying “this is what I’m interested in”. Christine Glinkowski – a Polish woman in her late 20s – had given me “The Joy Of Sex”. Readers, I was 18 years old. “We can’t have sex on the first date” said Christine, “but we can do this…”
After work I would walk across the fields to the Nurses Home where I lived, a huge manor house divided into living quarters for the staff. I shared a kitchen with two Mauritian gentleman who cooked gentle curries and were very friendly and sweet. I would read a book, watch TV or play records on my little record player. My first independent flat. No surrogate mum. Just me and my dope and cups of tea and vinyl LPs : Van Der Graaf Generator, Wings, Joe Walsh, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Gentle Giant, Stevie Wonder, Spirit, Commander Cody, Osibisa, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Focus, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, John Lennon, Man, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Greenslade, Hawkwind, The Faces, Audience, Blue Öyster Cult, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Peter Hammill’s solo albums. White people ! Apart from Jimi. To be fair I had a box of singles too, 45s which were nuggets of gold, among them Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Dave & Ansel Collins.
Van Der Graaf were the original pretentious art-rock prog band par excellence. Formed by Peter Hammill and Chris Judge-Smith, the classic line-up became Hammill, organist and bass pedals Hugh Banton, sax-player David Jackson and drummer Guy Evans. You’ll note that there’s no guitarist. They are still going, although Jackson doesn’t appear with them often, I saw them at The Barbican in 2009 and they were, as ever, amazing. The voice of Hammill which goes from a whisper to a blood-curdling scream, from a sweet melody to a harsh monosyllabic bark is one of the wonders of the world, and has influenced many singers including John Lydon. Hammill’s solo albums are more introspective and personal, while the Van Der Graaf catalogue is often science fiction speculation, Hammill being a fan (like me!) of Philip K. Dick. For all their harsh pretentious beauty the band soothed me through my troubled teens. Perhaps just knowing that someone else felt fierce anguish and wasn’t afraid to express it was enough. I was always afraid to express it. I still am.