Tuesday, September 18, 2012
A Conversation with Irish Jack
What is your take on Jimmy, the main character in Quadrophenia? How much of you do you think there is in him?
My take on Jimmy is that, yes, I am part of the Jimmy character. I helped [coproducer] Bill Curbishley cast Phil Daniels in the part. We watched him in a thirty-minute treatment by writer Barry Keeffe called “Hangin’ Around,” and I saw him as this loquacious, speed-freak, skinny kid who talked too much and wasn’t very good at listening. Director Franc Roddam and I spent a lot of time talking about Jimmy, and Roddam created similarities between us that to this day still make me smile to myself. I was a post boy at the London Electricity Board in ’64, tramping around the seven floors filling and emptying in and out trays, and Jimmy did exactly the same job at the advertising agency. Also, the fact that Daniels resembled me was a great help. When I showed my son the place in the Criterion DVD booklet where my story “History” begins, he looked at the facing shot of Daniels walking up from the sea and asked: “Dad, is that you? He looks like you.”
Jimmy was a wimp. Useless in a fight. Didn’t have much direction. Hugely the author of the loss of his girlfriend, Steph. Even out on the rock doing his best to commit suicide, he didn’t have the courage. When I was a mod, I got into a silly fight one time and it scared the shit out of me. That was the day I learned I couldn’t fight . . . I had dance steps Pete Townshend copied at the Goldhawk Club and reenacted a couple of nights later at the Marquee, and I had a kind of Irish lyrical eloquence—but I couldn’t fight. That’s who Jimmy really was. He wasn’t the champion of the world. He was an underdog beset by devils inside him. Lacking in confidence. My own devils were indeed quad-fold: My height—small. My girl’s name—Jackie. My Irish accent nobody could understand. My terrible hair back then—too curly and uncool. In fact, the only time I felt completely safe was talking to Pete Townshend, or trying to sound Oxford like [the Who’s] manager, Kit Lambert. Mod saved my life; there’s no doubt about that. But I was scared of who I was.
Growing up in Shepherd’s Bush in the early ’60s with the Who and, in particular, Pete was a revelation for me. I think he regarded me as this lyrical character whom he identified with and studied, and I unwittingly became a kind of catalyst for some of his writing. Hence his going on public record in interviews telling people that Quadrophenia is based on Irish Jack. Is it? What’s interesting is how he keeps the thing alive by sometimes varying my role: making it, say, a composite; another time I’m part of a small mod set who sat in his dressing room; and then sometimes I’m the inspiration. It’s a recipe for frustration, but his variations on me are healthy and they change from interview to interview. I remember Townshend saying in a tour program: “I have always felt a part of, and written for, a group. Not just a rock group but also a social group; a bunch of people from a small neighborhood in a big city. I am always trying to tell their continuing stories.” And that says it all for me. Townshend was an ace face. Nobody else could’ve written Quadrophenia. He was a mod and he lived it.
What is a mod, and what is a rocker?
Rockers were around long before mods. The archetypal rocker wore jeans and a zipped leather jacket and rode around on a motorcycle. Think Marlon Brando’s classic The Wild Ones. Harley-Davidsons, Nortons, and Triumphs. Rockers were very good at fixing their bikes and have a much longer cultural history, in that they evolved from that typical Marlon Brando smoldering look into an Edwardian style of dress that took off in England. And this is where it all gets pretty English: the style—crepe-soled shoes, skintight pants, draped jackets—took its name from King Edward, hence “Edwardian,” which in time morphed into “teddy boy.” Teddy boys were primarily English rockers, many of whom didn’t ride around on motorcycles.
A mod was essentially a young boy or girl from the age of seventeen up who dressed in neat-cut French/Italian clothes, and this fashion was at its peak, particularly in London, from 1963 to ’65. Mods wore handmade Italian cycling shoes and Sta-Prest jeans, usually in high-toned colors like pink, orange, and red. They wore Fred Perry sweaters with a special insignia to denote the fact that the garment was authentically expensive and not a cheap reproduction. They wore full-length coats made of suede and leather—buttoned. The great sin for a mod was to wear leather zipped. Sacrilege! They also wore blue nylon plastic macs to the knee with belts knotted, like an Italian film director, never belted through the clasp. Uncool! That would be more sacrilege. They wore French-cropped hair as well as a full head of hair with a parting in the middle. The only acceptable mode of transport for a mod was a Vespa GS or a Lambretta Li 150 scooter. The most beautiful sound in the world is not the words “You’re fired!” It’s the two-stroke piston pop of a scooter. Pop, pop, pop. The fairing on the scooter was held to be sexy, curvy, delicate like Brigitte Bardot. La dolce vita. Ooh-la-la. Rockers referred to our tiny two-stroke scooters as “hair dryers.”
Was it all about fashion and music, or were there deeper differences between mods and rockers? Class differences?
There were no class differences whatever. Most rockers were working-class, as were mods. It wasn’t so much about fashion as a dress code. A style of dress. An attitude to that style of dress. Rockers were regarded as being greasy and not having too much knowledge about music, though obviously there were exceptions. But on the whole, mods were more clued in about what they were listening and dancing to. The rockers’ music was mainly Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and Jerry Lee Lewis—yet there were some mods who knew more about these particular rockish guys than rockers did. I remember going to see Gene Vincent and another time Jerry Lee Lewis in 1963, and they both wiped me out. I never saw energy like that before. Being a mod, my music tended to be Dave Brubeck, the Ronettes, Muddy Waters, the Small Faces, and the Who. I remember I’d listen to anything as long as it had a beefed-up Hammond B3 organ. Booker T. & The M.G’s . . . you’d kill for one of their albums.
Quadrophenia zeroes in on the beach fight at Brighton. Was the violence ongoing, though? And, to your mind, what were the mods and the rockers fighting about?
This is one of the great myths about the trouble between the mods and rockers. People have this kind of skewed idea that if you were a mod, your mortal enemy was a rocker, and vice versa. Nothing could be further from the truth. And I know, because I was there. I lived it. People might be amazed to discover that, where I lived, in Shepherd’s Bush, there were a lot of rockers, many of whom were very interested in dating my cousin Janice, and many of them were friends of mine. Some of them I knew from the Goldhawk Social Club in Shepherd’s Bush, which was then and later acknowledged as being the spiritual home base for the Who and West London mods. The Who had a residency there in 1964, at the height of mod, and the place used to be jammed every Friday and Saturday night with mods—and maybe twenty or thirty rockers, and there was never any trouble. A typical incident I used to experience went something like this: I’d be dressed up to the nines in my mod clothes, and there’d be a group of rockers sitting on a wall as I passed by. I’d get this kind of verbal slating, nothing obscene, just a few comments as to the origins of my gender. Mods dressed effeminately. Clean-cut. Stylish and smug.
Do you still consider yourself a mod?
Yes, of course, very much so. I’ll die a mod. Don’t forget the word mod is an abbreviation of the word modernist. And that’s who we were. We were modernists. There is no beginning or end with any subculture. Every style or fashion is an evolvement from its predecessor. Mod fashion started with the rocker/teddy boy Italian box jacket. A reliable account says that the sons of Jewish tailors, primarily in the East End of London and talented like their fathers with a pair of scissors, redesigned the box jacket and added other accoutrements, like bell-bottomed herringbone trousers and bouffant hair. These guys listened to the modern jazz of artists like the Dave Brubeck Quartet, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. They told people they were “modernists” because they listened to modern jazz. Then, as this wave of style found its way across London, someone came up with the name tag “mod.” Brubeck’s “Take Five” is actually the core achievement of the mod sound.
Everybody who’s seen the film and watched the scooter go over the cliff wants to know what happened to Jimmy. Is he still around?
That’s easy. He goes to live in Ireland, becomes a bus conductor and then a postman. And having made a career out of Quadrophenia, he retires to do interviews.