Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail | Just The Bloke I've Been Looking For | 2005
FROM CHAPTER 1
JUST THE BLOKE I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR
I live opposite Rat Scabies. He's the former drummer of The Damned, one of the 'big three' British punk rock bands, the other two being the Sex Pistols and The Clash. The Damned were the first of the punk group to put out a single, a typically speedy ditty called 'New Rose'. That was 1976. They were also the first to release an album and the first to perform in America, but their greatest success came a decade or so later with a song called 'Eloise', an uber-goth anthem that got to Number Three in the UK charts. The Damned are still doing the do today – trotting off on the odd tour, recording the odd album – although Rat Scabies quit the band in the mid-1990s. Around about the time I moved in across the street from him, as it goes.
A friend of mine who drank in a pub round the corner had told me that Scabies lived somewhere in Brentford, but I was surprised to discover that the man who sits up there with Johnny Rotten and the ghost of Sid Vicious in the very highest of the high chairs of punk rock infamy was, quite literally, on my doorstep. I must admit I was delighted too, because The Damned had been big heroes of mine as a teenager. When I was 15, a classmate at school had lent me a copy of 'New Rose' for the night and, within three seconds of dropping the needle on the record, three seconds that consists of nothing but Scabies' demented drumming, I was hooked. I wore a little round Damned badge, stark white letters on a plain black background, for three years solid after that. Punk rock – the sound of London, 100 miles yet a zillion lifestyle years away from the small town in deepest, dustiest Norfolk where I grew up – had hit me like a lump-hammer. I don't believe I've ever properly recovered.
The first time I spoke to Rat Scabies, he was climbing out of a battered old Ford he'd manoeuvred to a juddering halt outside his house. He was wearing swimming goggles and had a leather flying helmet jammed on his head. I smiled and said hello. He smiled and said hello back. So far so good. I saw him again a few days later, when I was struggling to trim my high and unruly hedge with a pair of rusty shears I'd found in the garden shed. I suddenly had the feeling that someone was watching me and, spinning round, there he was, arms folded, back pressed against his gatepost.
'Give it a mohican,' he shouted across the street. 'That'll teach the bastard.'
The next time I met him, he came hurtling out of his house as I trundled home from the supermarket. 'Just the bloke I've been looking for,' he said, waving a freshly bandaged hand in my face.
'What have you been up to?' I asked, nodding at his injury.
'Sliced through me hand in a whittling accident,' he replied. 'Cut through the tendons in me thumb. I may never play the drums again.'
My brow furrowed in genuine concern for the future career of a man often described as one of the best rock drummers in the world. 'Let's not worry ourselves about that just now, though,' he added, with a half-snarl, half-grin. 'My immediate problem is that the missus has taken the kids up to Scotland for a few days and this' – shoving his hand under my nose again – 'means I can't roll spliffs. You any cop at rolling? Yeah? Good. You can come in and flick up a couple for me, then.'
I flicked up more than a couple for him over the course of the next week or so. One morning, when I opened my bedroom curtains, he was standing in the middle of the road, grinning at me with his bandaged hand aloft. He paid me for my trouble in cups of tea and tales of rock 'n' roll excess, which seemed to be more than a fair enough deal to me. 'Earl Grey or normal?' he'd begin. I felt 15 years old again, although I was disappointed that he had no memory of when The Damned had played Peterborough in 1979. It was one of the first live gigs I'd ever been to.
'You set your drums on fire and most of the stage went up with them,' I told him. 'The rest of the group buggered off, but you were still playing when the fire brigade turned up. They flooded the venue and sparked a riot. Every window in the place got smashed. People were fighting in the car park for hours afterwards. You must be able to remember that?!'
He took a glug of his black, honey-sweetened Earl Grey and shook his head. 'Sorry mate, you're gonna have to give me something more. There were loads of gigs like that.'
Having spent a lot of years working as a music journalist, I'd got plenty of music biz anecdotes of my own to share – and Scabies and I soon discovered we had several mutual acquaintances in the industry. Gabbing about music while drinking tea in Scabies' kitchen (during the winter months) or on Scabies' back porch (in the summer) has become a major part of my life in the years since then. Not that I've always had a whole lot of choice in the matter. A phone call that usually begins 'Fancy a cuppa?' and sometimes continues with 'Hi Ratty, erm, I'm actually kinda busy at the moment', invariably ends with 'I'll see you in a minute, then'. Click. Brrrrrrr.
Scabies is a persuasive man, that's for sure. Which, as I have to explain to all first-time visitors to my home, is why I have a bass drum for a coffee table and a head-high Marshall stack standing in the corner of my living room. 'Just for a couple of weeks,' he'd promised me. 'Just 'til I sort out some space in the attic,' he'd said. That was about five years ago. I've stopped mentioning it now. I got tired of him coming back at me with, 'Yeah, but the Marshall looks great with plants on it. It really works. It makes the place and it's a piece of rock 'n' roll history. It's a unique artefact. I reckon you ought to give me money for it. A hundred quid, whaddya say?'
I soon learnt to say nothing. I've learnt to say nothing on many such occasions. Instead, I usually respond with a sigh and a dog-chewing-a-wasp look – eyebrows knitted, mouth twisting left and right and left again. I've got it down to perfection, but then I've had countless opportunities to practice. Like the time Scabies tried to sell me the porch built onto the back of his house. He negotiated with me for the better part an hour before announcing that the porch, a wooden structure that looks like the sort of thing you'd find at the front of a Wild West store, complete with a hitching rail and a creaky old rocking chair, wouldn't actually be moving.
"You'll be able to use it whenever you like,' he declared, tipping backwards and forwards in his rocking chair. 'Although there is the small matter of access. Don't look at me like that, I'm trying to do you a good turn here.'
In all fairness, he has done me lots of good turns over the last few years. He's supplied me with sugar, milk, tea, coffee, bread, jam, butter, baked beans, booze, fags, matches, headache pills, cough remedies, light bulbs, fuses, shoe laces and cat food, often at a ridiculous hour of the night. Above and beyond the call of neighbourly duty, he once gave me a dozen sticks of celery and a tin of peaches at two in the morning. I didn't actually want them, but that's not the point. He's given me computer games, dodgy videos, racing tips and business advice (the latter consisting of a mere three words – 'follow the money'). He's introduced me to some fascinating people (including several other punk heroes of my youth) and taken me to some amazing parties. Going anywhere with Scabies is always a bit of an adventure, not least because he's forever initiating conversations with complete strangers. On one occasion, he tried to persuade a South African woman we met on a 15-minute tube journey to smuggle diamonds for him.
In short, he's become a very good friend. He even taught me how to do the Michael Jackson moonwalk. He was in his slippers at the time, which was quite disconcerting.
It was thanks to Scabies too, that I first heard about the commonly-styled 'mystery' of Rennes-le-Chateau. If you're interested in the esoteric, a regular reader of Fortean Times, say, you may be aware of the bizarre story centred on this remote French village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. But if you're someone like me, who doesn't really believe in secret societies and occult mysticism and paranormal happenings – I mean, not really believe in them – Rennes-le-Chateau is unlikely to mean anything to you.
The first time Scabies told me about Rennes-le-Chateau, sitting on his porch late one evening, I put most of what he said down to smoking a tad too much grass – but whether it was him or me who over-did the heated herb, I honestly couldn't tell you. Either way, something certainly gave me a fuggy night's sleep. I often have peculiar dreams, but the visions that I experienced on this occassion were way more disturbing than usual.
After a couple of days of abstinence, I asked Scabies to run the story by me again. It wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done. Because the second time around, the tale turned out to be even weirder and wilder than before. The more that he talked, the more confused I got. On reflection, that's perhaps not surprising. After all, the cast includes (in no particular order) Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene, Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Claude Debussy, Jean Cocteau, 17th century painters Nicolas Poussin and David Teniers, and 19th century opera diva Emma Calve. Plus numerous popes, various kings, the occasional Nazi commando, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Knights Templars, the Freemasons, a bunch of medieval heretics called the Cathars, and some bloke who wrote episodes of Dr Who for the BBC in the 1960s. The Holy Grail gets in there somewhere too. If it sounds like lunacy, that's because it is. Especially the way Scabies tells it.
By the time I'd walked the few steps home, my brain was mashed. It felt like somebody had replaced the contents of my skull with semolina. It was as if I'd first heard those opening three seconds of The Damned's 'New Rose' all over again.