‘Don’t It Just Hurt’
On October 18th 1976, at the age of 23 and three years after leaving home for London in search of fame and fortune, I lay in Fulham’s St. Stephen’s Hospital in a considerable amount of pain. I had broken my back and smashed both my feet, having launched myself from my Earl’s Court bedroom window. At the time I shared a flat with two Filipinos who for various reasons were on the run from Marcos. June, (Perfecto Terra Junior -“Son Of The Perfect Earth”, at least to his father) had written less than complimentary articles on the Philippines leader and only got out of the country by hiding in a delivery truck. My second flatmate Cid was a top art critic back home, but in London turned £30 a week as a clerical assistant.
And so it happened that on this fateful night my flatmates and Ricky, a friend of theirs, dragged back a bit of ‘rough trade’ – a rather large Russian sailor called Dimitri. I on the other hand hadn’t dragged back any trade, rough or otherwise. I lay fast asleep in my little broom cupboard after a long day and night singing and playing the piano in AD8, April Ashley’s Knightsbridge restaurant.
In the living room next door, things weren’t going quite according to plan. Apparently after several unsuccessful attempts to screw each of them, (as Cid later told me –“he was such a big boy, my dear”), he suddenly turned very nasty, and wielding a large kitchen knife, started to trash the room demanding money. Nothing new of course, many a queen has similar tales to tell. Not content with trashing the place he proceeded to throw the poor dears around the flat. With no ready cash to hand, June hit upon a brilliant idea.
Feeling rather groggy, I didn’t really take in June’s hurriedly hissed tale of mayhem and butchery being perpetrated in the next room and I rather generously told him to take the £20 I’d just earned that night from my jeans at the bottom of the bed. Muttering his eternal gratitude he departed clutching the note as though his life depended on it, which it did.
I lay back down in the hope of returning to my dream and hence the embrace of my perfect man – six foot four and built like a brick shithouse.
Unfortunately this was not to be. A few minutes later and on the brink of being reunited with my hunk, the door flew open with a bang and Cid rushed across the room and dived into my bed.
“Oh John,” he sobbed, shivering uncontrollably. “He won’t go! What are we going to do?”
I could feel his racing heartbeat thumping in panic against my chest as his tiny frame lay shaking in my arms.
“He’s got a knife John. He’s going to kill us all!”
ALL! Suddenly I was wide awake. This was more serious than I thought. As we lay in the darkness I had to think quickly.
My room led directly into the front room where Dimitri was indulging in a bit of late night queer bashing and extortion. The only escape route to summon help was through my window. Before I could make a move however, there in the doorway loomed the Russian. Switching on the light he lunged towards us, grabbed Cid by the arm and dragged him to the floor. Not to be outdone, I immediately grabbed Cid’s other arm and dragged him back onto the bed. For a few crazy moments we both tugged at the skinny creature as he shrieked hysterically, “Please don’t kill me! Please don’t kill me!” (I think he was talking to the Russian).
Remaining surprisingly calm in the circumstances, I looked up at the towering angry giant and, trying to sound reasonable said:
“Look, let him stay here with me, you can see he’s terrified. I mean it’s not as if we can go anywhere is it?”
The logic of this penetrated his large skull, and with a grunt, he tossed Cid back onto the bed, as though flicking off a particularly sticky bogey. The petrified queen fell into my arms and whimpered pathetically.
Pointing very firmly, and I thought rather rudely at me, Dimitri growled:
“You stay here. You stay quiet. You behave.”
“You bet we will,” I replied ever so sweetly.
With another grunt and switching off the light decisively, he left the room closing the door surprisingly gently behind him.
I waited a few minutes and then crept out of bed. I pulled on my jeans, dived into a T-shirt and headed for the large sash window. It made the most dreadful racket as I struggled to lift it open. Then, making sure there was no movement from next door, and not even stopping to ask myself why it had gone so deathly quiet, I clambered out onto the small balcony, which overlooked Finborough Road.
As always, even at this late hour there was plenty of traffic about. I was sure someone would come to my aid.
Now, if this had been Twickenham or some leafy suburb in Wilmslow, within minutes someone would, I’m sure, have stopped to help.
But this was Earls Court, and in the 1970s it was an area packed with drug addicts, prostitutes, winos, opera loving leather queens and of course the ubiquitous Australians. (To think I used to find that exciting!).
So let’s face it, the sight of an hysterical queen waving frantically from a first floor balcony was hardly likely to cause a flicker of interest. People ambled by beneath me, one or two vaguely glancing up in my direction and then hurrying on. Most didn’t even bother to look up. I couldn’t shout for fear our Russian friend might hear. So I sort of gasped for help, waving my arms about in dumb show. They must have thought I was on some sort of acid trip.
Meanwhile Cid was behind me cowering on the bed, wailing like a demented banshee:
“John, John! I think he’s coming back! Ai’ee! No, it’s all right he’s not. Ai’ee! Yes he’s coming! Oh God John, he’s coming. Oh God!”
Action was needed, fetching help a life-saving necessity. Looking down at the pavement twenty-five feet below, I decided it looked a lot more inviting and a lot more promising than it did up here. I took a deep breath and launched myself into the night.
The memory of my landing is still with me today. It hurt, badly, everywhere.
Cid stood hovering nervously on the balcony above me, unable to decide whether to follow. I waved at him croaking hoarsely, telling him to stay put.
Cars drove by – even a police car – as I lay on the ground. I waved at them pathetically. I tried standing, pulling myself up by hanging onto a lamp post. That hurt, and my feet made funny cracking noises. I slid back down to the ground and tried to think what I could do to get out of this mess. Cid had disappeared. Here I was, at 2 a.m. in the middle of October, lying on a pavement in jeans and T shirt, shoeless in Earl’s Court. No wonder everyone ignored me.
Just then the front door opened. Down the steps and heading my way, calm as you like, came the Russian, the cause of all my misery and pain. He sauntered over, stood over me arms akimbo and said:
“Why you do that?”
“I don’t know,” I answered lamely. “I thought you were going to kill me.”
“No. You stupid. If you kept quiet, I would not have killed you.”
Where that left Cid and the others in his scheme of things I couldn’t say and I didn’t have the inclination to ask him at that precise moment.
Without another word, he turned on his heels and whistling tunelessly, disappeared into the night, never to be seen again, at least by me.
The next couple of minutes passed very slowly. I was beginning to despair that anyone would come along.
Suddenly, the sound of clicking stiletto heels broke the cold night air. A lady in black tights, leopard skin mini length coat and long peroxide hair came hurrying towards me. I smiled at her gratefully as she looked down at me. I breathed a sigh of relief. Help at last. I should, however, have realised that this was not going to be my night, for before I could say anything, she pulled her coat tightly round her, sniffed, stepped over me and walked on.
“Hey,” I croaked at her retreating back, “where’re you going?”
She slowed down and turned round. I could see what was going through her mind: “Shall I help the poor bugger or what?” then she seemed to make a decision:
“I’m goin’ ‘ome love,” she said, “I’ve ‘ad enough problems for one night.”
“Please help me, I think I’ve really hurt myself badly.”
“I don’t want to get involved, sorry.”
As she turned to go again I managed to shout:
“Please! Just ring my doorbell. Please?”
A glimmer of doubt flickered across her face as she thought for a moment.
“Alright,” she said. “But that’s all. I don’t want to get involved with the police.”
I told her which of the numerous buzzers to press and just as she reached the door at the top of the steps, it flew open and three tiny oriental figures came sweeping past her down towards me like birds of prey. She decided to beat a hasty retreat as fast as her high heels would let her.
Hands to their mouths in horror, screeching “Ai’ee!” in unison they gathered me up and carried me clumsily up the stairs to the flat, laying me out on the bed-settee in the front room. Around me lay a scene of total devastation. Cupboard doors hung open, their contents spewed all over the floor; drawers were smashed, wallpaper torn from the walls, and the hi-fi speakers were slashed to pieces. Tables lay upturned and vases, once full of beautifully arranged flowers, June’s pride and joy, were now jagged bits of porcelain mixed with bent and broken blossoms, scattered around the room.
“We’ve called an ambulance,” said June brightly, as though he was informing me my taxi was on its way.
“Oh my God, John,” wailed Ricky, the prettiest of the three, and apparently the culprit who had picked up the Russian, “What have I done to you?”
“Ricky!” shouted June officiously, “Stop getting hysterical! John will be alright.” Then he smiled at me persuasively as if to say “Won’t you?”
Not really sure if June had grasped the seriousness of my injuries – my back and feet hurt murderously and I’d begun to shiver violently and uncontrollably – I nodded wearily at the distraught Ricky and assured him I’d be fine. Cid just stood over me shaking his head and murmuring ”Ai’ee” sadly to himself and stroking my feet as if they were sick children.
The ambulance arrived very quickly, and when they saw the extent of my injuries and the state of the flat, they insisted on calling the police.
“Oh that won’t be necessary surely,” said June smiling so sweetly.
“I’m afraid it will sir,” said the man in charge, not smiling so sweetly.
“Oh my God”, screamed Ricky, throwing his hands up in the air
dramatically. “We’ll all be deported!”
As always in a crisis, June took control.
“You see sir”, he said, taking a long dramatic drag from his cigarette and blowing the smoke out in true Lauren Bacall fashion, “John is not well.”
“I can see that,” snapped the ambulance man, indicating my smashed feet.
“No, what I mean is…” and here he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “he jumped out of the window because he’s not well.”
“Oh, I see, you mean he’s….”
They both nodded at each other, then looked at me as if to say “poor sod.”
By this time the room was beginning to spin. I had to get a hold of myself or at this rate I was going to end up committed.
“Look, I’m not mad!” I protested, realising at once how pathetic that sounded.
“Then why did you jump out of the window, sir? You must admit that’s not normal behaviour.”
I didn’t like the way this was going.
“I jumped because…”
“Actually he fell.” It was Cid who spoke this time.
Things were going from bad to worse.
“I did not fall, I’m not crazy, I jumped!” I was now starting to get angry. “I jumped for a very good reason, and my friends here know just what that very good reason is!”
I could tell from the look on the ambulance man’s face I was beginning to get through. He turned to his companion and asked him to call the police. Then looking back at me he added:
“You can tell the police all about it in St. Stephen’s, sir. For now let’s get you secured safely onto a stretcher and into the ambulance, OK?”
Ricky insisted on coming with me to keep me company and hold my hand. As it turned out it was me holding his hand, trying to console him as he kept wailing, “I’m so sorry, John. Oh, John!”
At the hospital I was wheeled into the X-ray room, photographed, wheeled out, questioned by a rather dishy policeman and then accosted by one of those over-cheery nurses.
“You don’t believe in doing things by halves, do you?” she cheeried.
At last they found me a bed. I was told that I’d fractured my spine and my feet had been what they decoratively called ‘powdered’ by the impact.
So, as I lay there on that winter night in 1976, not sure if I’d walk again, staring at the high white ward ceiling, hearing the sounds of people sleeping and dreaming around me. Whether it was the painkillers or the shock of what had happened to me taking effect, but slowly the last three years of my life seemed to appear on the blank ‘screen’ above me…my own private biopic…I watched in hazy wonder…
…Autumn 1973, I’d just arrived in London; signed by a manager and publisher; working on my first demos in Chappell Studios
…January 1974, I was commissioned to write and record the theme song for a Peter Fonda/William Holden movie and travelled to Rome to record it
…April 1974, I began recording my debut album at Abbey Road and Apple Studios
…Autumn 1974, my first single, Goodbye Suzie was released, with all the hope and plans of everyone rolled into that four-minute opus; the single flopping, the resultant panic which ensued around CBS, “What shall we do with him now?”.
…Autumn 1975, my second album, Technicolour Biography shelved, recording another set of compositions with disco producer Biddu, Can You Hear Me OK?. Waiting for CBS to announce a release date; none forthcoming
…As 1976 dawned, I was dropped by the label, no new album released, no recording career, dreams shattered.
Like a spring uncoiling, a dam bursting, the whole of 1976 had turned into a hedonistic rush, lots of booze, casual sex and drugs, playing in bars and restaurants every day and every night, Blitz, April Ashley’s, The Last Resort – how aptly named. Cruising gay clubs and bars every night, waking up with a different guy every morning, hash cakes easing the edges.
Just a couple of weeks earlier I’d started work on a song called ‘They’, a piece of paranoia and detachment which reflected how I felt about my life then. I’d gone into a bar drunk and high on hash, freaking out about the security guys on the door and running into the club shouting “they’ve all got guns!”. Life had reached a point where something had to give.
And boy, that night, had it given.
As I lay watching all this unravel above me, and sleepily thinking it all through, wondering what the hell was going to happen to me, a large bulky Captain Birdseye figure of man wandered down the ward, the male night nurse. He passed by the end of my bed and smiled at me, and for some reason I suddenly felt very safe, for the first time in a long time.
I was taken back to when, as a small child, I’d watch my parents passing my bedroom door on the dimly-lit landing. My dad would pop his head in and whisper…
“Goodnight, son,” Captain Birdseye whispered.
And, as he wandered off along the ward, from my warm secure bed I whispered back, “Goodnight, daddy.”
copyright John Howard 2016