Off Piste: A fortnightly series in which academics step outside their area of expertise
Off Piste: Youth is never wasted on the young
Leslie Gofton recalls swapping words, if not licks, with Jimi Hendrix, and argues that a misspent adulthood is a much greater waste than ill-spent adolescence
The deputy head of department adjusted his half frames on the end of a bulbous nose and shuffled my CV without looking at it again.
"When I was a young man," his pale eyes attempted to twinkle as he essayed a Mr Kipling smile across the boardroom table, "playing billiards too well was said to be the sign of a misspent youth. Perhaps these days it is the guitar."
My own fault, I suppose, for putting down all that part-time work in the local further education college teaching the guitar to Chinese and Greek students, who found my Geordie accent a challenge long before they got to transposing a 1-4-5 progression. Better luck sometime, I mused, as yet another interview ended with a foul cup of coffee in a railway waiting room, and no result.
Eventually, I got my first full-time teaching job, and then a university lectureship. I settled into my career, but somehow my misspent youth never quite went away. Furtive gigs, and the occasional paying spot in a pub or even at a concert, were a guilty secret. I was, after all, a grown-up now. Three of my tutees surprised me doing a support slot for Bo Diddley. I was embarrassed, and I suspect they were too. I still had my mum's voice in my head: "When are you going to get a proper job? You're getting on, you know, 22 next birthday."
She was, in Billy Connolly's perfect phrase, a "bring-out-your-dead" Scots highlander for whom lack of suffering was very suspicious and probably immoral. Occasional gigs were separated by longer and longer periods filled with family and work, but it has never quite completely gone.
I blame Jimi Hendrix. Rather like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, who stoppeth one of three, I seem to have been cursed by the need to tell people of the time when I played with the legendary performer, as though this was the most interesting thing about my life history (I do also wear a Gucci enamel albatross). Now, I say "played with", but actually, Hendrix and I swapped words but mercifully not licks. My band was the opening act in a little club where he was the headliner, right at the start of his career.
When mentioned in the histories of the great man's life, it is sometimes described as "the worst gig he ever played". True, his equipment was damaged, so he had to sing through the appalling house PA system, but my memory of the occasion is somewhat more generous. It seemed to me that this was an important event in my life, and that it somehow made me "special".
Why is that January night more interesting than the surrounding years? One notion - that my youthful noggin was filled with a desire to emulate my hero, with wild dreams of riches and adulation beyond the pharaohs, and it set me off in fruitless pursuit of same, the "misspent youth" thesis in other words - certainly sounds plausible. As "Dirty" Harry Callahan told us, however, "A man's got to know his limitations", and my night with Hendrix certainly convinced me of my own. I was once invited to jam with Diz Disley (by the man himself) and found myself politely declining, overcome with awe at the idea of playing on the same stage as the man who had filled Django Reinhardt's guitar chair alongside Stephane Grappelli.
The band I left to go to university went off to London in the early Seventies. Our drummer joined a group called Roxy Music. Some of my associates and bandmates from those days went on to play with AC/DC, Deep Purple, Elton John, Tina Turner and Procol Harum. Even that did not shake my confidence in my career choice. I was convinced that education was essential if I were to escape the lotus-eater existence of the pop musician, and that these self-indulgent adventures were no way to grow up.
After a very enjoyable existence as a mature student, both undergraduate and postgraduate, I found myself across the table from a string of potential employers, trying to account for the fragmented and disorderly nature of my employment history, and the gaps when I was playing nightclubs or dancehalls. What would a well-spent youth have been like, I wondered. Maybe I should have had one.
Colleagues with a more conventional schooling, who had been dancing to my music at end-of-term balls and living in halls or badly heated university flats while I was carrying speaker columns and guitar cases into pubs and clubs, were certainly more comfortable in the world that I had chosen. I recognised myself in the grammar-school boys described in Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden's Education and the Working Class, unable to fit comfortably in the world into which I'd been born, or the one education had permitted me to enter. The words of the interviewer at my university college began to assume a new significance. "Are you sure you want to come here? This is a very middle-class university."
And yet I also began to realise that the misspent youth theory may have had some holes in it. I found that performing had given me some absolutely indispensable qualities and skills. I could talk to crowds, despite being a painfully shy child. I understood how to hold the attention of a group, and how to keep them in order. Performing also gave me a sense of when a song or tune was working, the importance of keeping the interest of the audience and achieving appropriate effects during the show. I also stopped being afraid of making a fool of myself - all that you don't get from school, college or university. I wanted to know: which part of it was misspent? Youthful obsessions of whatever stamp are world-building exercises. Some are magnificent and transformative and others may not be, but all are the gift of youth's hopeful energy.
My dad, who was a miner, dreamed of boxing and singing, and my childhood was filled with his music and grainy movies of the Johnson-Carnera fight, Gene Tunney versus Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis drubbing Nazi Germany's pugilist hero Max Schmeling. The very spirit of the man is still, for me, in the romance, drama and poetry of those sporting heroes and the music of Nat King Cole or Dean Martin, his dreams and his misspent youth, rather than the danger, the injuries and the illnesses from his working life. His Hendrix was the ex-welterweight champion with whom he had boxed one and a half exhibition rounds while in the RAF. He spoke fondly of being knocked out when he had tried to impress his mates with an overenthusiastic left hook to his hero's jaw.
E. P. Thompson argued that the loss of the apprenticeship system, whereby the values of the preceding generation are passed on to the young, is one of the biggest problems for a de-industrialising society. I hope my father passed on his capacity to find pleasure and meaning in the life of the mind, in the imagination and the capacity to organise his life around the core values of love for his family and responsibility for their lives. The last thing he wanted for me was to go down the pit, as he used to say.
It strikes me that it is also important to recognise what is not passed on, but is the genuine hallmark of each succeeding generation. Jean Anouilh says those who argue that youth needs an ideal are fools, for it already has one - youth itself. If one has the capacity to pursue a dream, what then? Should that be encouraged, and if so when, and when not? Maybe realism is the logical response, and we should get people to accept the grim limits of the situation in which they find themselves.
The social thinker Erving Goffman argued that in everyday life, where individuals or groups might feel themselves cheated or deprived, and that they and their lives were meaningless or of little value, then society was acting very like teams of con artists or confidence tricksters.
Marks, or victims, would be "cooled out" by "shills" or team members left behind to persuade the victims that to make a fuss would only open them up to ridicule or opprobium, or that they should be "good sports" and just accept what had been done to them. Think of the role of the church in old people's lives, or the games and gambling industries mushrooming around the creation of "virtual" alternative reality. Do we need to "cool out" the inhabitants of the sink estates, the angry gangs stalking their streets, or the traffickers in drugs and flesh who are their most visibly successful entrepreneurs?
As we are presented with anecdotes to support the "broken Britain" hypothesis, we are again confronted with tales of estates filled with "predatory" youth, wielding knives or guns in defence of their territory or honour while their women churn out babies to exploit the child-support aspect of social welfare. This is often contrasted with the success stories of contemporary society; the young people who have come from desperate circumstances to triumph in business or academic life.
Chicago-born sociologist Richard Sennett's revisiting of the housing project in which he was raised, which revealed the ways it had changed from a clean and well-ordered community of respectable working people to a sink of marginalised and rootless deprivation, contains an account of one such attempt to inspire the youthful inhabitants by presenting them with a role model, a young doctor, who had raised himself from the very neighbourhood they now inhabited.
The response, Sennett notes, was not admiration or respect but resentment - this model, perhaps all models of this kind, serves merely to remind the individuals that they are in a contest in which the majority must lose.
Not only that, they involve the need to transform a self already created within the neighbourhood, to discard existing emotional and cultural connections, and to be recast as - what? To present this desperate (and for most young people ultimately doomed) pursuit of socially acceptable and conventional goals as the "right" way to spend one's youth is to deny the individuality, the capacity for imagination and choice, to those at the time of their lives when these are their most precious rights.
Is it better to dream of the world of celebrity? As I watch The X Factor and its youthful aspirants, the appallingly manipulative posturing of the judges, the desperate imprecations of the contestants, each pleading for their emotional and spiritual lives likes the gladiators of ancient Rome, waiting for the thumbs up from the would-be emperors of popular culture or from the baying "vulgus" in cyberworld, it is easy to be drawn into the common-room horror that this "vulgarity" evokes. My dear, the noise ... and the PEOPLE!
And then the traps that language represents become clear. Who would talk of "vulgarity" save to echo Alexander Pope's dismissal of the common people - that the "vulgar, through imitation, err"?
The greatest insult to every generation is their elders' refusal to accept that they have ideas and values that we do not really understand or appreciate. The X Factor is not representative of popular culture. The real deal is, I'm sure, in the rehearsal rooms and cellars where musicians and DJs are playing for change, or no money at all. As for the "vulgus", never assume that ordinary people lead simple or intellectually unsophisticated lives. Demonising working-class youth and the creation of folk devils begins with the co-opting and corruption of language.
Thus a dialect word such as "chava" or "chav" - which in my youth was simply another term, like "marra" or "che", and equivalent to mate, friend, buddy, chum - has become a code word for the detritus, the underclass, the "shock absorber" class of unemployed and unemployable, a label and a uniform to be applied to anyone without the trappings of the cosy, conventional mainstream. The contemporary currency of the word "chav" is the best example I know of what Pierre Bourdieu used to refer to as "class racism" and is thoroughly despicable.
Unfortunately, we baby boomers are so numerous and healthy that we are, as Jerry Garcia used to say, "old and in the way". It would be the utmost arrogance for us to demand that our tastes, values and ideas continue to predominate within the culture of which we are beginning to constitute such a disproportionate lump, and yet "market forces" tend to produce that result.
There is, perhaps, only misspent adulthood, rather than ill-spent youth. Maybe that's my true role: to walk the earth like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu, bearing witness to the wonder that was Sixties music, and the need to find your own Jimi Hendrix. Just a minute, there are some wedding guests over there ... Lads, did I ever tell you about the time I met ...? l
Leslie R. Gofton lectures in the School of Applied Social Sciences, Durham University.