What a difference 40 years makes. Our columnist looks back to 1977, a year of death and tragedy but illuminated by chinks of light, (such as the birth of Hot Press)
I was sitting in a snug in Bowes Bar on Fleet Street on August 15th 1977 when Mary Maher from Chicago burst in. She had come over hot-foot from the Irish Times, where I’d been doing a subbing shift. There hadn’t been much to sub that night, as I’d knocked off a couple of hours early and gone to the pub. Back in ’77, people, you could do that sort of thing. “Elvis is dead,” she announced. “Would you write something?”
Thus it was I got to write the Times obit of Elvis. This remains the highpoint of my life in journalism.
It is truly impossible to explain now how sensationally different Elvis was to all that had gone before, how threatening to every concept of good order, right attitude, decency, respect, respectability. 1977 was also the year that punk exploded. But that was only a firecracker to discommode the diffident compared with the detonation which had tilted the earth on its axis when Elvis first spasmed into our consciousness. There was a clear class element to Elvis. I recall priests at St. Columb’s explaining that Elvis Presley might be all very well for the ragamuffins and scruffs who infested the Bogside. But all of us here, even if originally from the Bogside, were destined for better things.
Those of us from the Bogside and therefore at close risk of ragamuffinry should be extra-careful to steer clear of this veritable epitome of evil, gyrating his body and throbbing his voice for one reason only. Uh huh, we responded.
Rock and roll was outlaw music and Elvis was Jesse James on the jukebox. That was the whole point. Elvis gave us an identity that opened us out to the world, that didn’t depend on tunnelling back through mists of time but on being hot-wired to a new world arising.
John Lennon was right when he said that before Elvis there was nothing. For a while in the middle of 1977, it seemed as if nothingness had enveloped us again.
But then Hot Press hit the street and the world, or at least the little scrap of it that we lived on, was saved again for rock and roll. Well, more or less. La lotta continua.
Troubles at Home
1977 had gotten off to a bad start. January 1st, Graham Dougan was killed by an IRA bomb outside his home in Harmin Park in Glengormley as he sat on his mother’s knee in the passenger seat of the family car. They were fleeing after being warned of a suspect bomb. As the Cortina pulled away from the kerb, the bomb erupted 50 yards along the street. Graham, 15 months, was struck by debris which crashed through the windscreen and crushed his head.
In the immediate aftermath, there was some speculation this could be the beginning of the end of it… an infant cradled by his mum on New Year’s Day… surely giving all involved pause for thought… 1977, Year of Peace? But false dawns have ever been a regular feature of the weather pattern where we live.
A day after the killing of Graham Dougan, January 2nd, Highland Fusilier David Hind, 23, from Kilmarnock, was shot dead by the IRA as his patrol crossed the square in Crossmaglen.
Two days into the year, it was one apiece and all to play for. Fifty-five civilians died in the conflict in 1977, 14 members of the RUC, 31 regular or Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers, eight republicans, seven loyalists.
Four decades on, neither the killers of Graham Dougan nor of David Hind, nor the political leadership of either band of warriors, are willing to step forward and tell the truth. Nor will they. For many thousands, tens of thousands, the past isn’t over.
May 27th, 1977 Tom Waits was mauled and manacled by cops outside the Tropicana Coffee Shop in Los Angeles after he’d intervened to stop two guys beating up a third guy.
Mike Ruiz of New York’s punkish Milk ‘n’ Cookies, testified at the subsequent court hearing that one of the cops had Waits in a headlock and was banging his skull off the side of a telephone booth. In cross-examination, Deputy DA Ronald Lewis asked Ruiz to re-enact the scene: “I’ll be the deputy and you be Waits and show me what happened.” Ruiz replied, “No, you be Waits and I’ll be the cop.” By all accounts, Ruiz put on an authentic performance. A shaken jury acquitted Waits, who was later to pick up a sweet $7,500 in compo from the police department. Strangely enough, maybe, it was a paragraph about this event in the NME which first alerted me to the existence of Tom Waits. Without ever having heard him sing a note, I was an instant full-blown fan, and still am.
In 1962, hi-tech locks were fitted to all US nuclear missiles, rendering them impossible to launch without keying in a unique, super-secret code stored only in the deepest armoured recess of the most secure area of the Pentagon.
But army officers guarding the missile silos couldn’t see the point of this rigmarole. They reset every lock to “00000000”. Nobody noticed this until just after the launch of Hot Press in 1977. There has never been any proof that these events were connected. On the other hand, there’s been no proof they weren’t.
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