Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Little Tinker

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Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Downstairs At Eric's
Every now and then, for old time's sake, I pull on a tight black tee bearing the name of a live-music venue where I used to hang out back when I was a student. Twenty-three years on, I'm chuffed it still fits.

At these times I'm invariably approached by a total stranger, who recognises the name and logo across my chest. It's usually a bloke in his early-forties, and, although he might have lived down south for half his life, his Scouse accent comes as no surprise.

And then, at the drop of a safety-pin, two men, who should know better, grow misty-eyed with memories of a tatty old basement in Liverpool, across the road from the site of the original Cavern; a dark subterranean den which let you in for less than a quid, and where the manky juke-box blared out the choicest three-chord 45s you'd ever hear; and which sold Snakebites in plastic glasses because sometime during the night you were honour-bound to chuck them at whichever act was on-stage at the time.

For four years, legendary Liverpool club Eric's dominated my nights. The venue opened just fifteen hours before I arrived at University; it closed its doors for good, two months before my Finals. But though a fair number of students did pogo on down its rickety stairs, it never was a student joint.

It made its name as a punk and new-wave venue, back in that glue-sniffing, pill-popping summer when Rotten and Vicious were Saving the Queen, and the Pistols were one of the first bands to perform there. But in the end what it was really about was good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll.

Such was the club's reputation that, though it could hold barely a couple of hundred, even big-name bands felt obliged to come along and play their best on the cramped, lager-flooded stage. I remember catching the Fall and Siouxsie and the Clash and the Ramones and Buzzcocks there, as well as X-Ray Spex, Wayne County and, of course, Those Naughty Lumps, and the Sausages from Mars (featuring Holly Johnson); but missed out on the Damned and OMD, the Boomtown Rats, the Police and - believe it or not - Dire Straits.

But the real stars weren't the big-name bands, but the Eric's kids themselves, a dysfunctional yet readily-accepting family of wasters and scoundrels, angels and devils, hard-as-nails scallies with home-made tattoos, and beautiful shaven-haired girls - as well as student tossers like me, trying to be punks two years too late. Wannabe stars, every single one of 'em. (Some of them made it too – The Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Wah! Heat, to name just three.) It was a place where, when Steve Jones and Paul Cook ("the two boring Sex Pistols," as Eric's manager described them to me) turned up for a drink, we all did our best to ignore them, on the grounds they were just too straight.

It's hard now to imagine what a club like Eric's meant back then. In the 70s, along with what seemed the rest of the broken-down city, Merseyside teenagers were on the dole, with a Thatcher government practically a dead cert. They had no job, no prospects, no future; all they had was Eric's. Just as with the first Merseybeat explosion in the 60s, music was what would define them, and give them an identity. Eric's was their club, their living-room, their play-pen and recording studio all rolled into one.

And which is why fortysomething men still accost me on the street and ask me to name my price for my Eric's tee-shirt. And which is why I'm never going to sell it.