When I was 22, E was not for England.
The country I grew up in wanted me inside a Pink Floyd lyric
Wanted decorum and a pulling up short
It said “that’ll do” and “that’s quite enough”
And “don’t you think you’re overreacting”
And “there’s no harm in giving up.”
And my generation wanted out of that
Were bursting to exhale
To taste, sense, see with new sensation.
My generation had an idea too
Had a quiet feeling that things might break open
I suppose every generation do.
In England in the 90s something happened that was akin to America in the 60s.
We didn’t have Dylan or King or Kennedy
Or counter culture or civil rights or even rock and roll
We had dance music.
And if that doesn’t sound much, consider:
All it takes to turn a strip of dead metal into a blinding white ball of light is this:
When I was 22 E was not for England.
I took ecstasy for the first time with Aaron Johnson at the Empire nightclub in Teesside at 10.30pm on a Thursday. That was important, Aaron said. Because that way you’d be coming up before midnight and if you were enjoying it you could add another dose, before the club closed.
And first, he said, just try a half. Else you might vomit everything up and we’ll have wasted five quid. And don’t drink too little; you’ll get dehydrated and pass out.
And don’t drink too much; because you’ll end up like that girl who died because she kept on drinking water and forgot to piss.
Leah Betts, she was called. And her parents agreed her death should be used to warn about the dangers of drugs and so the papers were full of it. Showing photos of her lying there in hospital fighting for her life, tubes shoved down her throat and up her nose and her face swelled up so much her eyes were pushed closed.
Her skin was ink blue and red and for all we knew she was already dead.
And over it the headline:
“It could be your child!”
When I was 22 I was doing a dead end job; data entry at an insurance company, indexing cards with customer records on them in a windowless room with a dozen others.
And there was an old guy worked there was a narcoleptic and 20 times a day he’d fall asleep.
I’d listen to him snore
Thinking how that crackle of breath was like the sound an engine makes
When it’s out of fuel and stutters to a stand still
Makes one last revolution before it admits defeat.
And I didn’t want to give in to sleep.
Be like the sleepwalkers I saw each day under nicotine skies
Their faces unwell; their eyes filled with silent rage; suffocating inside
Trying not to think about how or when or why they’d thrown in the towel.
I wanted something more for me
I wanted ecstasy.
I came from a post-industrial landscape
The remnants of dark satanic mills
Replaced by petro-chemical plants.
And I would take the bus (just one an hour)
Past 60s housing and tower blocks that stacked like cigarette boxes in corner shops
And get out at the cinema and watch American movies:
See technicolour heroes always win the day
And sitting in the darkness feel the bitter-sweet longing
Knowing that romance did exist in life. Just somewhere far away.
And you would go each week to your grandparents
Who sat all day in front of TV sets turned low
Like ancient Salamanders basking in the glow
Of halogen suns.
And grandma took wulferin for her heart
And a couple of brandies to take the edge off things at night
And Aunty Mary smoked 40 Benson and Hedges
And Uncle Jim drank seven pints a day all his life.
And I played football with Aaron Johnson
On grass pitches underneath pylons in our hometown,
Which sat in the loop of a river
Like a condemned man in a noose.
Then grandma died and mom got cancer
And a kid from the town threw himself in front of a train
And for me and Aaron Johnson escape was only answer
Because no one had ever taught us how to deal with pain.
So at the age of 22 I stood in the dark recesses of the Empire nightclub
And Aaron laid the half into my palm
I washed it down with a mouthful of beer
Like a Christian taking secret communion
And waited to see water turn to wine.
Maybe you know what happened next
Maybe you’ve been there too
Bought a ticket for a lottery
Asked yourself in the darkness: is this the stupidest decision of my life?
Will I be dead in an hour?
Will I be a poster boy for a government awareness campaign
My parents standing shame-faced round the grave
And all the kids from my old school
Fidgeting on church pews, wanting out,
Like animals in a zoo?
Maybe you’ve been there too
When the floodgates open
And serotonin soaks you like a summer shower
And everything is Technicolor
All is love
And you can’t believe you’ll ever get higher
(And you won’t)
And just for those few hours
It’s as if God reached down from heaven above and said to you:
My boy, you must never be afraid or give up hope
You must know that I am with you
That I walk beside you every step of the way
And the people you share this grim northern town with are your brothers and sisters,
And the world around is beautiful and bountiful and will give to you, and keep on giving
So long as we all shall live.
And here was Aaron beside me,
Hypnotized by the beat
And in the darkness I grabbed him, and called ‘I fuckin’ love you man!’ in his ear.
And he turned to me and grinned
And at that moment it was as if we had found each other for the first time;
Had met in some new way.
Like creatures living in the abyss of deep sea
Who looking across the expanse of eternal night
See one another as specks of colour illuminating the blackness.
We bioluminesed that night.
I took ecstasy once more with Aaron. At 70s night at Club M. 15 quid in and all you could drink.
But the law of diminishing returns is writ large over every addict’s grave and that night Aaron threw up in the bushes after necking four pills and swore off it and cleaned up and got a job in a call center
And, a few years later, a wife and two kids.
And I kept wandering; unable to settle down.
Because something had changed in me after ecstasy.
A filter had been removed; a veil had been lifted.
In some strange, nearly imperceptible way my vision had been shifted
And the real world was never quite the same.
And on I went and in the distance saw the lights of New York
Like a million souls before me stepped onto Broadway.
Looked around the movie sets of my youth.
Thought to myself: In a world of shifting perspectives,
I could get used to this view.
So I stayed. And now I’m old enough to feel morning aches,
And heartburn and to empathize with period pains.
And I go running in the park at twilight when the fireflies are out on summer nights.
The fireflies, who long ago learned to feed themselves a chemical
That breaks down in them and makes light.
So this is where I’m at in my story.
And now I’ll tell you where I hope to be.
I want tell my friends I love them without shame.
And fill a room with the warm glow of communal bliss
That touched me that Thursday night
And do it using only heart and mind
And no trick of chemical binds.
I want to face my troubles down
Risk a burn or two to wake myself up
Because discomfort is better than numbness,
Numbness is giving up.
I will shine my light
Not fade to grey like grandad in his chair
Search for the lights of others in the darkness
Since there is life in knowing someone else is there.