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By Dogbox L’aplage
The first thing you learn when you come to the city is that nobody lives in the centre where all the skyscrapers are being built. That’s just for suckers and yuppies. Most people reside in little satellite communities that pepper the city’s edges and, generally speaking, the further out you went, the cheaper the rent. When Moses and I fell in with the Urban Chill-Out Collective, they were living on a small artificial island moored to the edge of the city by a chain.
A whole neighbourhood of these islands had sprouted at the harbour’s edge, each one only big enough for a single building. This was a legal thing, apparently. Any more than one building per island and residents could claim autonomy as a separate republic and cause all sorts of trouble for the council.
As the islands were very small, the houses tended to be several floors high and often they were quite exotic. We had an Aztec pyramid a few doors down from us and another that had been designed as a sort of miniature castle. Others were box-like structures that had been built up by hand; you’d have a first floor done in red brick and then a load of old rocks and mud for the upper floors and a roof made from an old bit of fencing. Ours was a modern, prefab job, known locally as the Bog Roll, though we residents preferred to call it the Turret.
The Bonzo Gonzo Urban Chill-Out Collective was a fiercely intellectual community of boundary-baiting utopianauts committed to radical political reform and relaxing, world-tinged music. We’d stumbled upon them on our first day in the city as we foraged through a skip for gubbins. Though this loose ensemble of beatific freaks and sages lived wildly disparate lives, every Thursdays we gathered in the Turret’s “live-space” to create, reflect and mastermind the city’s bohemian diaspora.
You could tell before even reaching the Turret that the Thursday Soul Orgy had begun. The island rocked visibly from side to side, and you could hear chanting and moaning and the beating of drum skins flow gloriously from every window. We stepped gingerly from the harbour, across the chain onto the small turfed island’s edge. Here, blocking the front door, a pair of Chillers were smoking bananas. The smell was awful, black smoke wafting everywhere and yellowish molten blobs dripping all over the lawn. They were really gone, too busy doing Hannibal Smith impressions to notice us as we squeezed by.
The Turret was rammed. Bohemians were spilling out of the cramped live-space and into the entrance hall, up the stairs and through to the kitchen, each of them clutching some musical doodad or other to add to the cacophony. Some of them had semilegitimate instruments, rainmakers and didgeridoos and things like that. Others clutched remarkable homemade contraptions, lovingly constructed from everyday bits and pieces, toilet rolls and pipe cleaners and what have you. A load of old crap, basically.
One fellow stood by the front door bending over, his pants down and a hand on the doorpost. He was craning his neck around, winking at everyone with a conceited grin as though he were some kind of jazz merchant pulling off a particularly witty refrain. In fact, all he was contributing was the sound of his balls slapping against each of his thighs. In fairness, his sense of rhythm couldn’t be bettered, and were it not for the strobing image of his anus, I might well have clutched the man to my breast. I gave him a swooning whistle at least as I followed Moses into the thick of things.
It was deathly dark inside the Turret. The lights were out and every window had an ethnic blanky pinned to its frame. Smoke rose from the grooving mass, forming a dense poisoned cloud above our heads. I quickly lost track of Moses and, not wishing to look the pranny, I insinuated myself into a conversation between two nearby visionaries. One of these bad boys I knew was called Panda Pop, but the other one I didn’t have the foggiest. I planted myself between them anyway, grinning broadly, listening to what I assumed was some sort of debauched anecdote.
“That’s really awful, friend,” Panda Pop deadpanned. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
His chum continued the romp.
“Well, it was really traumatic at first, how quickly the illness consumed his body, but I do find some comfort in that he didn’t suffer long.”
“Oh God, here we go!” I chuckled, placing an arm about each of my brothers.
They glared at me witheringly, perhaps trying to put a name to my face.
“I can really relate to what you’re going through,” Panda Pop continued, ad-libbing fancifully. “Alicia’s mum fell ill last year and it’s been difficult for everyone to remain strong.”
“Oh gawd, the mother-in-law gag!” I chimed in, cottoning on to the gist of the yarn. “Handed down from generation to generation since the days of prehistoric man. Erm!”
I cackled loudly, leaning into Panda Pop’s face. The pair stared at me, wrinkling their mouths with revulsion.
“Listen, mate,” Panda addressed me at last. “I’m not being funny but do you mind fucking off?”
I gave the bugger a wise, dry glance – that sort that said, I think we understand each other – and took three steps backwards. I remained there for some time, waiting to pounce at the next gap in the carry-on; but in their arrogance, the pair had already eradicated me from their minds.
Fortunately, Moses returned minutes later. He was clutching a set of bagpipes, which he dumped in my arms as he led me deeper into the house. I struggled to sort the instrument out, all these flutes sticking out and a tartan handbag in the middle of things. I shoved one of the flutes into my mouth and gave a good, solid blow. A sickly, tuneless wheeze emanated from the handbag, like the last gasp of a dying devil-cat. It was perhaps the most nauseating sound I’d ever been associated with, but it had the distinction of being almost supernaturally loud.
The noise howled through the densely filled air of the Turret, and people glared my way with pained expressions. The ambient sonic brew lulled perceptibly as the hepcats tried to get in line with the new nazz. The tartan bag twitched and writhed in my hand; it felt as though I was breathing new life into the lungs of some flattened roadkill as the painful droning and squawking filled the air.
It’s a feat of endurance, playing the pipes. I was quickly out of breath and knocking into people, poking them with my flutes. By the time Moses had led me to the couch on the far wall, I was utterly exhausted and suffering from dizziness. Letting out a final moan, I tossed the bagpipes at a girl standing nearby. I’d intended the gesture as a sort of passing of the baton, but in my delirium I chucked the wretched instrument directly at her head. She fell to the floor instantly and didn’t get up. I tiptoed away, abashed.
“That’s a serious vibe sandwich your friend is making there,” a voice sounded from the couch.
“What? Oh yes, I suppose it is,” Moses replied.
I gasped. Seated very casually on the couch were our benefactors: the founding members of the Bonzo Gonzo Urban Chill-Out Collective. It was they who had penned the Bonzo Gonzo Urban Chill-Out Manifesto, the very Bible by which we all lived. They were not leaders as such, for we had no leaders, no power-crazed autocrats telling us to tie our laces and button our lips, but one of their dads owned the building, so they’d let you know if the hoovering needed doing or whatever. I marvelled silently at the shamanic presence of the pair: V-Tek and Spirit Storm.
V-Tek was a sharp customer with a complex network of train tracks shaved into his head. I’d never known a grown man to have such short hair and yet not be bald. His hair was like a peculiar speckling effect upon his scalp. It might well have been a rash, or a vainglorious tattoo. He wore a hooded top with a camouflage-style print, though I can’t imagine what sort of terrain it might have hidden him in, its colour a melange of acid yellow, pink, and orange. He was currently imitating an electric drum machine, shifting his head from side to side and jabbing a hand about as he spat all over himself.
Spirit Storm had a different thing going on, little dreadlocks sprouting from the top of his head and no hair at all at the sides, like a pot plant. He was wearing a large, dirty T-shirt with a yellow vest over the top of that. The vest bore an inverted MacDonald’s logo, resembling a big red bum, with a brown shit coming out of it. MacDollop, the vest read. They both sported wildly oversized silk trousers in bright colours which, I reasoned, they must have bought from a joke shop or a clown’s stockist. Spirit Storm had been constructing a reefer all this time, which he presently handed to V-Tea.
“Why don’t you sit down and chill the fuck out?” Spirit Storm whispered sincerely, looking me square in the eye. Moses and I settled ourselves eagerly at the pair’s feet.
“Take a chuff on this thrillmonkey,” V-Tek called down to us, reaching forth and handing Moses the joint.
“What is it?” I asked, excited, as another was handed to me.
“It’s a Hungarian rat’s tail,” Spirit Storm explained. “They have spiritual qualities. Hungarian crop rats were the first creatures placed on the Earth. The basically have a hotline to the etherrealm.
“They also burn more slowly than joints,” V-Tek pitched in, “so it works out cheaper.”
“This is an actual rat’s tail?” I asked, sucking at the thing. “I thought you was veggie, Spirit Storm.”
“Hungarian crop rats have a hotline to the etherrealm,” the dude explained again, the faintest edge of annoyance in his voice. I shrugged, took a lungful of rodent extremity, and got wild with the rest of the Collective.
Things became quite vague after that. Though he was sat right beside me, I barely saw Moses for the rest of the evening, as he’d become shrouded in a dense vale of smoke. The conversations became heavy as the rat tails burned away. Spirit Storm began discussing different ways to overturn the City’s power structure by nonviolent means. Lots of ideas were put forth, but each time we’d find, on close inspection, a crucial point at which violent means were in fact involved. I found it all quite hard to follow. I felt disconnected down there on the floor, catching the odd word over the futuronic jazz-out which continued to shake the walls. The music had taken a very sinister edge, tense and threatening, like the score from a horror film. I felt crummy.
Up top, V-Tek was explaining to his flock that the biggest threat to their utopian objective was the Hypnogogic Chilled-Out Vibe Committee. They were the Urban Chill-Out Collective’s archrivals, run by V-Tek’s brother Radcliff and his mate Peace Pipe. I’d heard all this chatter before. V-Tek and his brother didn’t see eye to eye on a range of town planning issues. His gang were the big enemies of the Turret and apparently we had to overthrow them by nonviolent means before even starting on the council.
“Shaaad ap!” I called up to them all, waving a hand. I suppose I was just trying to stay in the loop. The debate stopped abruptly and they all stared at me, but I had nothing more to offer. I tried to share a smile with good old Moses, but he couldn’t see me for the fog. He’d shuffled closer to the couch now and was seated between Spirit Storm’s legs, running his hands up and down them like a skier on the slopes.
It was bullshit, all this, I realised with sudden clarity. I had a sudden yearning to retire to the high shelf upon which I’d made my bed, but glancing up there, I saw that some chancer had beaten me to it.
“Oy!” I yelled, thrusting a finger toward the intruder: a horrid little boy dressed up like a bat, perched with legs dangling from my shelf. He looked back at me with a fiendish grin.
“Get off my shelf, you rotten turd,” I demanded. I turned, appealing to the Collective for their support.
“He’s on my shelf and he won’t get off.”
The boy wrinkled his face and launched himself into the air. He flapped his wings all over the place and circulated the lounge above our heads, causing the smoke to shift and curl. Little brat.
Again I tried to get Moses’ attention, but he was lost to humanity, cackling away as he ran his hands over Spirit Storm’s silky calves. None of the others seemed to give the remotest shit about my woes. I lay my head on the floor and imagined that I was a spaceship travelling through distant, lonesome expanses. The stars winked at me from the impossible velvet curtain of the infinite. I stared, humbled and awed as the stars in their courses revealed their secrets to my newly opened mind. Ah, but what was this now, rippling through the vacuum to torment the caverns of my inner ear? An inhuman wail was dragging me back to Earth. I peeled open my eyes and watched with horror as the miserable bagpipes began to wheeze, unaided, into life. They were still draped over that poor girl’s head, puffing up and giving way like a possessed lung, causing the pipes to twitch and claw at the girl’s hair and the sides of her face.
I tried to bury my face in the floor but found myself spitting out maggots and worms. They were twitching through the threads of the carpet. The damn thing was infested; it hadn’t been cleaned in years. I gave up on the lot of them, tucked myself into the gap between the couch and the wall and closed my eyes. The noise of a drum machine hammered through me, but I drifted to sleep despite it all.
When I awoke Moses was tugging at my legs, and I crawled dutifully from my burrow. The lights were on. The wig-out was over. I came to a stand and swung my arms, limbering up.
“There’s been an incident,” Moses told me, straight.
“Incident?” I screamed, grabbing his arm.
“Take a look,” he said and led the way to the front door.
Lying in the entrance hall with his head halfway out the door was my friend the ball-slapper. His trousers were still at his ankles, and his two baggy balls and his flaccid little winkle were splayed at his crotch like a carelessly arranged fry up. Presently V-Tek and Spirit Storm arrived.
“What happened?” I begged of the tragic soul, kneeling beside him and clutching tightly to his hand.
“I was pushed,” my little soldier explained. “Right in the middle of a nifty little fill, some buzzard appears in the doorway and gives me a shove. Clears off without a word.”
“And how are the holy trinity holding out?” I whispered, lifting his penis for inspection between thumb and forefinger.
“Some pretty heavy slapping occurred,” the brave bastard confided. “I’ll have a bruise to tell the grandkids about, but they’ll pull through.”
“You’re shit sure they’ll pull through,” I told him. “Or I’ll pull ’em through myself. You hear me?”
“Who would do this?” Moses demanded, laying a fist into his palm.
“There can be no doubt who is guilty of this crime,” V-Tek announced with bitter certainty.
“It was my kin. My blood. My ghost. This is the work of the Hypnogogic Chilled-Out Vibe Committee.”
“Let’s get to work,” Spirit Storm uttered with grim and unshakeable determination, and without another word we started looking for our shoes and coats and keys and our various bits.
It’s a wonderful feeling, crossing the islands at night. People are wading their ankles, bottles of cider in hand, Leftfield’s Leftismundulating through the night air. Now and then you’d hear some straight-head asking us to please turn it down a bit, and one of us would answer back, outlining the inherent hypocrisy of mainstream society. Whooping and howling inevitably followed as the righteous folk celebrated the endless fight against oppression. We high-fived the various Chill-friendly neighbours that we passed, many of them joining our ranks as word of our misfortune spread. It made you feel like a superstar, I tell you, walking in unity with the Bonzo Gonzo Urban Chill-Out Collective. We reached the harbour as a horde, power walking with serious intent. V-Tek and Spirit Storm led the way along the harbour’s edge until we reached the Key River.
The Key River flows from the sea to the very heart of the city. It’s the most affordable route to the centre for people of our sociopolitical persuasion. Canoes were parked at either side of the slim crack of water. We walked right by these, for tourists we were not. Further upriver there were cheaper fares and more righteous forms of transport. Spirit Storm spotted one now and with a wave and a holler led us down to the banks.
We stood in a line, sheepish on the thin mud bank while Stormy and V-Tek negotiated with the owner of the Jet Ski. He was a Hell’s Angel, a stocky fellow perched on his frail-looking Jet Ski, chunky legs folded back to reach the pedals. More than likely, this character didn’t have a licence, but that’s the sort of hazy underworld lifestyle that we lived nowadays, so get used to it.
Most of the Chillers were changing into flip flops and rolling their trousers up. Moses and I couldn’t be bothered. I dug into my backpack and fished out my urban surfboard. This was an essential bit of kit for city living. You were nobody without an urban surfboard. Some people had proper ones from Fat Willy’s, but most of us made do with homemade contraptions, sometimes with fins and spoilers glued on and decorated with symbols and slogans. Bugger that. Mine was a tea tray, and it served its purpose perfectly, thank you very much.
Moses had managed to find the rope lying loose beneath the river’s surface. He shook the drips out and we each took hold of a knot, nestled our boards in the shallows, and settled our feet upon them.
“Ready?” the ferryman called back.
“Yeah, ready,” we all said. He nodded, and I could see him grin through his beard in the darkness as he cranked the motor. The rope tugged and wriggled as the Jet Ski rumbled into life. In seconds we were tearing up the river, surf spitting up onto the banks at either side. For kicks I dug my tea tray a little deeper into the water and the Collective squealed with delight as we were dragged from edge to edge of the river and water pissed up all over us.
The city advanced upon us in cross-section, like the layers in a slice of cake. Once past the harbour, you were in the marshlands where the ground soaked up the sea and the tumbledown shacks began. Often these were nothing more than greenhouses dumped amid the long reeds. You could see these poor families through the dirty glass, running wild or rotting away in there, going mad. These were followed by the tower blocks and construction sites. Great concrete slabs were being gutted, their walls dragged off and their tiny flats exposed, beds and blankets hanging from them. Cranes stuck up all over the place like giant mantises, ripping everything to bits and chucking it all back together again. Families looked on, wistful at the edges of the sites, suitcases in hand.
After the building sites came the garden centres, office furniture stores, and the car parks that marked the entry to the inner city, and from here things changed. Cafés and bars began to appear on either side. The straights were out, their flesh exposed or else tightly wrapped, laughing manically at each other. Bubbles rose in every glass as money was spilled into tills.
The river’s end lay just ahead of us now, where the land asserted itself in a curved concrete basin. The river was channelled beneath the city at this point through a row of shadowy archways in the stone. The basin acted as a sort of parking zone for all the river traffic, filling up like a drain whatever time of day it was. Since our chariot was not what you’d call legitimate, of course, we had to park a little way up. This suited us fine. You only wound up walking through the shops and stalls selling tourist crap anyway, and Chillers like us avoided that kind of corporate voodoo like all hell. The Jet Ski sputtered to a stop, and we all grabbed for the bank before the river could swallow us up. When he saw that we were safe, our escort gave us a nod, steered his Jet Ski about, and powered back up the river, the rope trailing behind him like a dragon’s tail.
As we dusted ourselves off, V-Tek and Spirit Storm planted themselves before us. V-Tek began to tap a foot and was looking about as though receiving signals from the stratosphere. He started again with his noises, beat-boxing and slapping his bottom and his thighs and the soles of his feet. Beside him, Spirit Storm produced a tiny plastic saxophone from under his vest, which he started to blow into with great puffs of air. We looked at one another, some of us able to produce a washboard or a kazoo while the rest of us had to rely on our voices and body parts.
“Like calling society into question much?” I enthused, karate-kicking imagined foes with an impassioned “Hai-ya!”
Moses responded by pogoing high into the night air. Up ahead, V-Tek turned and, still beating himself up, led the way through the city streets. Spirit Storm kept apace, striding backward so that he could address his flock.
“Revolution in the skies,
My brothers, my sisters,
Revolution in the skies.”
He cast his arms wide to embrace the world.
“Revolution in disguise,
My brothers, my sisters,
Revolution I most strongly advise.”
I’d been informed that Spirit Storm had once been cast in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, and its influence was evident in this composition, with its funk-soul histrionics and wailing falsetto.
“While society sleeps, insane in the ozone sky,
And while the powers that be close their twisted minds and their eyes,
And while Mother Nature dies,
The children of righteousness rise!
Oh shit, yeah…”
The Collective were really digging it, providing complex vocal arrangements and making broad amateur-dramatic gestures. At either side the straights and suits were marvelling at our antics, rethinking their ethical system and generally being challenged by our spectre. I was drunk on this feeling and, paying heed to null-une, I sweep-dropped to the ground to performing the wiggly worm all over the street. A carnival atmosphere quickly developed as I boomerang flipped to my feet, people yelling and screaming and dashing out of my way.
The breaks, of course, are not usually performed on the move and Moses, and I had ended up at the bum ’ole end of the groovy parade. We continued our antics, revelling in the space this afforded. Moses drew inspiration from the Eastern Gods, performing martial arts-style moves at passing pedestrians as I held forth with an aggressive rendition of the Stonk.
What with all our carry-on, Moses and I were slow to register that a change was in the air. An influx of mingled rhythms reached our anarchist ears. New and alien sounds were infiltrating our jazz-out: vibes from spheres of influence that upset our refined sonic palettes. It was sell-out music, for divs and pigs. There could be no mistake. The Hypnogogic Chilled-Out Vibe Committee was on the street, polluting our groove with guff and wrongbeat.
We paced toward our enemy as one, clapped hands, took another step forth, all in time. Over the raised hands of the Collective, I spied Spirit Storm on his knees, fists raised to the heavens.
“…While the cabinet of corruption pepper their fattened hog,
We rise up from our gutters of truth and beauty, yeah,
’Cause we’re gonna eradicate the hate and the sin from the world tonight,
(By nonviolent means,)
We will destroy the insane, oppressive power system,
(By nonviolent means,)
Shit in the face of their zany hypocrisy society disease,
Dismember the practitioners of the eternal lie dream,
Crush the brains of the zany corporate machine,
(By nonviolent means)!”
“Seriously, though, this is a lot of guff, isn’t it?” I commented. They were well ahead of us now, and quite honestly I think they’d forgotten Moses and I completely.
“It does have shades of guff,” Moses agreed. Hand in hand, we ducked down a side street between two buildings and, in the shadows, showed each other our willies, just for jolly.
The streets of the city were ours that night, and the morning found us talking in tongues, half-starved and giggling as the suits wielded their meal deals and builders returned to their scaffolding. Though we’d not cross their path again, the Bonzo Gonzo Urban Chill-Out Collective had stripped us of all preconceptions and, like pigeons freed of their cage, we pottered about the concrete.