What if Christ was born in 1950? Would he have been a hippy, a drug addict, an alcoholic, an intellect or a dullard? Would he have embraced the benefits of free love in the sixties or abstain from the temptations of the flesh? Would he have been a travelling man, a family man, a prophet, a singer, a carpenter, a fisherman, a poet or a seer? Would he have preferred pop, rock, ballads, The Rolling Stones or The Beatles? Had he been born in 1950 would the Red Sea have opened or would he have turned water into wine, fed the multitude or healed the sick? Would he have been recognised the world over or would that only happen retrospectively at some point so far in the future that nobody would even realise that they had once been in the company of a very special person? And what would his faith have been? Who or what would he have believed in?
Wherever there are questions there will always be answers and in these pages I will endeavour to give you those answers. I'm not talking Jesus Christ Superstar or any sensationalised off Broadway productions that you may have seen or read about in the papers. I'm talking about real people in the real world and events that really happened. And why am I writing this? Of course, the main objective is to keep his memory alive, but that aside John Christianson was an interesting man, a charismatic man, a funny man, a caring man, a man loved by all who came into contact with him. And all in all a very unique man, so it only seems fitting to pay tribute to him in the only way I know how.
In recent years I've travelled to the Middle East, Far East, Australia, North America, South America, and all around Europe. Over fifty countries in all, and still to this day I've never met and I'm sure I never will meet another man quite like him. But if the truth be known there's a little bit of an ego trip in here for me too. I mean, what greater compliment could there be than to check into a travel lodge or motel and find a copy of Gideon's Tangents next to the bed?
Born on the Fifth of April 1950 in London's East End borough of Stepney on the same day that gave birth to Agnetha Falstag in Southern Sweden's Jonkopin, sharing the same birthday as the girl who was to become a quarter of world chart topping pop group Abba was to be my only claim to fame until several decades later. Unknown to me at the time, 1950 was also the same year that Gustav and Wilma Christianson were to become the proud parents of their only child John.
We were two kindred spirits living our separate lives until, at about the age of seventeen our paths crossed. We were both from very different backgrounds and other than our age, at that point it seemed that that was the only similarity between us. I was born out of wedlock and lived on a farm with my mother until at the age of twenty eight she met and married Victor. My mother worked with Victors wife Mary who suddenly died and left him to tend his three sons on his own, so after a short courtship my mother and Victor married. It was a match of convenience that worked very well until he too eventually died twenty years or so later, but in that time he had given me another two brothers and a sister. We were never poor and food was always on the table, but the people on the other side of town were obviously a little better off.
John Christianson lived on the other side of town. St Julians Estate had its own high school and everything about the area was a little more up market to the Corporation Road area, or Corpa as the locals called the place where I grew up. Town was neutral though. Everybody had to go into town at the weekends. To shop, to socialise, for a change of scenery, or whatever, and it was there that I first met John Christianson. It was a strange twist of fate that drew us together as with the exception of Hornpipe and Mr Wha who lived around the corner from one another, the whole crowd of us who were to spend the next five years together were individuals from different parts of town who had nothing whatsoever in common with one another except that we were all basically the same age and probably a little crazy, but that aside! It was a moment in time. I'm sure that if you ask anybody if they could have been born at any time in history when would it have been and what was the most special time of their life their answers would all be the same. Their own birth date and their late teens in that order, but the sixties really were special.
Khrushchev and Kennedy's country folk had threatened to obliterate the planet over the Cuban Missile Crisis, the white population of the deep Southern United States of Georgia, the Carolinas and neighbouring states were finally accepting after two centuries that they couldn't carry on killing and persecuting blacks just because of the colour of their skin, rock'n'roll was dead and replaced by new types of music from the other side of the Atlantic, fashion gurus like Mary Quant were tearing down the barriers of acceptability as hemlines went up with the birth of the mini skirt, and there was a sexual revolution. The sexual revolution. Every teenager, irrespective of gender class or creed wanted to take advantage of their new found freedom. Of course there were teething problems in the start of the sixties that could have screwed the whole decade up like the assassinations of arguably the most powerful black and white people in the world and the start of the cold war in Europe, but come 1967 everything had settled down.
Johns parents had moved to Wales from one of the Eastern European countries just after the war. To the best of my knowledge there was nothing sinister about it. They just moved for no other reason than that. There was a large Eastern European community in South Wales at the time and most of them arrived some fifteen or twenty years before the existence of The Iron Curtain. Lithuanians, Slavs, Poles and Jews from any number of the countries that had persecuted them as Hitler had tried to take command of the world. So with most of them arriving by boat and Newport being a seafaring town it made sense that a large proportion of them would stay there instead of moving on. Most of the immigrants were poor, arriving with little more than what they could carry under their arms. But the Christiansons were different. The Christiansons lived in St Julians.
At the end of my primary education I deliberately flunked the eleven plus examinations so that I could go to the local secondary modern school with all of my not so educated friends whilst John passed his with flying colours. For the next four years he would be a student at St Julians High while I marked time at Corpa Secondary Modern until I was old enough to legally buy my first pack of cigarettes. Had I passed my eleven plus I would have gone to either St Julians or the newly built Hartridge High School but I didn't fancy either. Corpa was a rough part of town where you stuck with your own, lived in the same street for sixty years, got a job in the local factory until you retired, and eventually died of boredom. We didn't need to mix with the toffee nosed ponces from them la-di-da schools on the other side of town, so for the duration of my youth I existed with no ambitions or expectations other than to wake up the next morning.
Of course, when you first get into your teens you have an unbalanced outlook on life, but as you get older in general you start to think for yourself and become more of an individual instead of following the pack. And so' despite my tender easy to influence age, the Paki bashing and terrorising queers that seemed to be the weekend entertainment in Corpa remained somewhat alien to me. People are people and whilst I may not have shared another persons religion or heritage or personal beliefs, I still didn't think they should be victimised or put in hospital for them. So as time went by I left school, bought my first pack of cigarettes, had my first real encounter with a girl, bought a guitar, and dreamt of the day that I would become famous and escape from the insanity of the South Wales shipping town of Newport.
I was learning to play guitar and hanging around with mostly musicians either at The Kensington Court Club or at The Castle Folk Club at the top end of Pill which was the towns roughest and most dangerous area. Pill was four square miles of dilapidated buildings that bridged Newport Docks and the town centre. The Castle was a scrumpy serving pub just on the town centre limits and had it been a few blocks down I never would have ventured there at such an innocent age. At that time Newport had twenty or thirty scrumpy houses - pubs that sold natural cider with chunks of apple and orange peel floating in the top. Of the twenty or thirty there were about five that served meths under the bar. The favourite tipple of the alcoholics at the time was a pint of scrumpy with a dash of methylated spirit to top it off. And you could always tell a meths serving pub the moment you walked into the toilets. They all smelt like cats piss. And The Castle was a scrumpy pub where the toilets stank of cats piss.
In retrospect I can't imagine why Dublin Moran, the folk clubs founder ever held the weekly get togethers in such a place but I never got to ask. The club was in the back room, and whilst I was simultaneously trying to play guitar and sing on stage, whilst edging on oblivion from my new found love of alcohol I was under no illusion that I was about to be the next Mr Big. But I'd always had a crazy streak running through me so again I felt the need to move on before I got lured into taking the dash of meths. And before I knew it everything seemed to fall into place without any effort. The Castle closed down and my attentions were to be diverted to The Kensington Court Club, a few miles out of town on the other side of the River Usk and not so far from Corpa.
The Kensington was in an altogether more up market area, and with the exception of the common link of music The Kensington and The Castle were like chalk and cheese. I can't remember JC being at either at that time but I was later to discover that he played guitar and sang at both so maybe we just went on different nights. Whatever the case, to the best of my memory our paths didn't cross, or if they did we didn't actually speak to one another until some time later. The Kensington was a small hotel that had been turned into a night club and was later to host performances by Vinegar Joe fronted by the singer Elkie Brooks, Doctor John the night tripper, Roxy Music and amongst others Status Quo.
The Status Quo event was one of those moments that we should morally forget but everybody involved loves to remember. Hornpipe, me, JC, who's crowd I was by then a part of, Mr Wha and a few of the others had gone to see the band and this was around Quo's transition from a pop band to a rock band. Around the same time as they came up with their one and only riff that they were to use as the backbone for the next hundred and fifty songs. Anyway, at the time it was a novelty as was the advent of the air guitar. Hornpipe was boogieing like a demented banshee to the beat until he noticed the guy next to him playing the invisible instrument. Turning to him whilst his head was still bopping to the beat he commented "'ere that's a good one mate. Can I have a go on it"? With that the air guitarist said "you taking the piss"? and laid into Hornpipe, and the next thing there was a riot with everybody in the place involved until the band temporarily stopped the concert. And still to this day Hornpipe's only real claim to fame is that he caused a commotion at a Status Quo concert.
But for the time being it was 1967 and the regular acts to play at The Kensington were Kimla Taz (a band who had an enormous cult following in South Wales around that time), Shaking Stevens and the Sunsets, Love Sculpture featuring Dave Edmunds on guitar, Amen Corner, and JC. It was later to be a standing joke that everybody who played there except JC got famous. Well, the least they got was a recording contract but no such luck for JC. I vividly remember being there on a Thursday night when Andy Fairweather Low, the singer of Amen Corner dropped to his knees in the middle of the bands first single Gin House on the weekly television show Top of the Pops. It was the first time any of The Kensington crowd had been on TV and in those days the show was recorded in Manchester on a Tuesday then aired at seven on the Thursday, so by eight thirty The Kensington was mobbed as the band were playing there that night and everybody wanted to congratulate the lads on their performance. And even though I was oblivious of his existence at that time, apparently there was equal adulation for the band as there was mickey taking of JC with people asking "so when are you gonna get famous"? But all the rib taking was harmless fun. It was never malicious and JC took it all in the good spirit that it was given in.
A few not so successful folk clubs followed The Castle and it was a good learning curve for me as I gained confidence enough to go out doing solo gigs with my trusty Martin D18 guitar on a regular basis. It was at one such performance at the Maesglas Conservative Club that I met Hornpipe and Mr Wha. They lived on the Maesglas Housing Estate and were only in the club for a drink while they waited for the next bus into town where they planned on causing some mayhem. The pair of them were head cases in the nicest possible way. They told me about their weekends when they'd go into the roughest pubs in town, get drunk on scrumpy or Newcastle Brown Ale, mix with the local hoods, or Mayo the towns most infamous prostitute - I was later to teach her daughter to play guitar for services rendered but that's another story - or Starky the tramp, and they'd do the craziest things just to freak the old timers out. My kind of people I thought. And throughout our conversation it became evident that like me Hornpipe was a fanatical Bob Dylan fan, so before they left they suggested that I bring myself and guitar to their local boozer later in the week so that we could all have a sing song of Dylan songs.
For no logical reason I had a good feeling about them and a few nights later I duly obliged at the pre designated pub, despite the fact the New Found Out was the most notorious of scrumpy houses in Newport. It wasn't a meths place though so it was OK. I mean, The Black Horse at the top of the road where I lived was a scrumpy house and my step father drank there so scrumpy houses were OK. Just as long as they didn't serve meths beneath the bar it was fine. The New Found Out which was also referred to in some circles as The Office or the NFO became my local, and through Hornpipe and Mr Wha I was introduced to Screwball, Hodge, Lazy Shit Anywhere Man - I'll tell you about him later - a host of other luminaries who I'll eventually get to in these pages, and at last I was to be formally introduced to John Christianson, or JC as he was commonly known.
In the months that followed we spent more time together and I got closer to them than I'd ever been to anybody before. I don't know if my schooldays were really as bad as I remember them but I was enjoying life in the latter half of my teens like I never had before. I spent a lot of time with my new friends, especially John Christianson, staying over at his place on many occasions and sharing his single bed while his mother brought us tea and biscuits in bed in the morning. Of course you're not supposed to say things like that today unless you're gay but there's no innocence in the western world anymore. We were good friends and our families didn't have guest rooms or spare couches so we shared beds and that was how it was.
Our weekends rotated around the New Found Out, The Globe, The Tredegar Arms, The Trout and The Swan (two more scrumpy pubs), The Station, The Hornblower and whatever other unsavoury pubs we could while away the hours in. The entertainment would range from laughing at the old boys falling off their bar stools, to fights over nothing more than whose drink someone was drinking, or Starky the tramp walking into the NFO and wetting his pants whilst standing at the bar as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. And whilst you could be forgiven for thinking after just one look that none of us had a home, Starky was the only one of us with a true claim to that status. Nobody knew when or why he became one of the country's destitute but he lived not a spit away under the arches of the road adjacent to Newport Bridge that led to the towns Roman castle. And as for peeing himself at the bar! Yes The New Found Out really was that rough.
And then there was the occasional female who was short of cash for the next drink so she'd do an impromptu strip while her boyfriend did a collection. It was on one such occasion in The Trout that Hornpipe nearly got battered for refusing to contribute claiming "I didn't ask for a stripper. I only came in to read the paper". Of course the fact that he wasn't reading a paper didn't help, but for some unknown reason we had been befriended by the hard knocks and on that occasion a few of them had intervened, ensuring that Hornpipe's head and shoulders remained intact.
At some point we'd all started taking speed, uppers, downers, acid, morphine and quaaludes, you name it we took it. Consequently when we went into the pub we were so out of it that we couldn't start a fight with ourselves let alone anybody else, so the hard knocks took us under their wings. In the land of blood stained toilet walls that were perfumed only with puke we weren't a threat to anybody. We were just a few crazy hippies who entertained the locals, even if we were a pain in the arse to most of them for the majority of the time. But despite it all, for some unknown reason the hard knocks liked us and protected us. So, on that occasion Hornpipe got to see a free glimpse of muff, kept his money in his pocket and laughed it off with the hard knocks.
When I think back in hindsight there's no way I'd ever go into those kinds of places if I had my time again but when you're a teenager you think you can take on the world. Ninety percent of teenagers truly think they're invincible so they have no fear and will go anywhere, no matter what. And out of all the pubs I've named the only one that was ever even half respectable was The Tredegar. The rest were absolute dives, and dangerous ones at that. It made no sense why we frequented such places as their usual clientèle were a mixture of old men who'd drank there since before the place had gone to the dogs, alcoholics whose favourite tipple was scrumpy with a dash of meths, and a selection of the towns craziest hard core criminals whose partners didn't mind showing off a bit of muff for the occasional drink.
My step father who hereon after I shall refer to only as my father as he's the only one I ever had drunk in The Swan. I'd like to think of him as falling into the category of old man who'd drank there since before the place went to the dogs but in honesty, I'm not sure if such a time ever existed. I mean, Newport was a shipping town. Glasgow and Liverpool and The East End of London were big shipping communities. I'll let you work that one out for yourself. And pubs like The Swan were the places that JC, Hornpipe, Mr Wha and the rest of people I was to spend the next five years with frequented.
I don't consciously remember any of the drug things ever starting. It was like one moment I was a drunkard and the next I was a stoner. Of course I'm going to say it was somebody else's fault and I was innocent but who really knows or for that matter who really cares? At first in those early days it was more me, Hornpipe and Mr Wha hanging around together then the others, and even though I don't think they knew one another, Hornpipe's father drank in The Swan as did my father. Mr Wha lived around the corner from Hornpipe so he made the threesome up when we met in The Swan or The Trout which was right across the road from it. But it was our continued drinking in the New Found Out that resulted in my meeting the others so I guess one of them introduced us three to drugs and in return we introduced them to complimentary muff shows.
Another of the local boozers we frequented back then which also happened to the hangout of the drug population of Newport was The Globe. Originally it was only the mods who made it into the busy establishment that it was because the parking across the road was within eye-shot of their prized Vespa and Lambretta scooters from the window, but now its clientèle was more universal. Mods, students, underage drinkers who had been lured there by its reputation to look for their first experience of something to give them a different high, and the hippies! The Globe was on the upper end of Dock Street, almost within spitting distance of Cashmores, an engineering company that was partially responsible for the break up of decommissioned steam trains after the new rail boss Robert Beecham was employed to streamline the service and save a fortune at the same time. Before that though, as kids we'd go there and keep a watch out for the police as gamblers punted away their weekly wage packets playing pitch and toss or three card brag under the disguise of the disused railway wagons. We were probably only ten or eleven at the time so were more than satisfied with the thrupenny piece or silver sixpence we were paid for our services. But in 1968 it was different. Cashmores was on the verge of closing its gates forever.
The discarded steam trains were rotting away, and The Globe attracted an assortment of all sorts of people just as long as they were young. It was about a year after we got into the drug thing on a night when we'd arranged to meet there that one of the most memorable of The Globes events happened. I was with JC when we followed a few hundred yards behind the others who by then were already there. JC and I had taken some morphine and probably something else to top it off and we found ourselves on a building site watching floods of blood cascade from the floors of a multi-storey car park. Of course it wasn't really happening but in our minds it was and moments like those were part of what constituted my adolescent love for hallucinogenic substances. Like the discarded stream trains and Cashmores, the whole area was in the process of being decommissioned and though we didn't know it at the time The Globe too would be closing its doors for the last time soon.
Back on the building site where we were seeing things that weren't really there, one thing that wasn't an illusion was the dead seagull. Never letting the opportunity to entertain go by JC picked it up, and standing at the top of the four steps that led from The Globes back door down to the bar area he threw the carcass in the general direction of the bar staff. Falling short of its target and landing in the middle of the throng of people waiting to get served the place went into pandemonium. The corpse hit a rather attractive teenage girl square in the back of the head. Under normal circumstances that would be OK but she had a burly sidekick of a boyfriend with her. Luckily there were also a few of the trusty hard knocks from The Trout there too or JC would have had his head kicked in, but as was always the case, he got away with blue murder and the only thing to be hurt was some innocent bystanders pride.
Even though every guy claims to have had his first sexual encounter at the age of thirteen with a female schoolteacher or the biggest busted girl in the neighbourhood the truth of the matter is that few do little more than fumbling before the legal age of consent. In that respect we were basically the same as any other kids and with the exception of JC were yet to be involved in any real meaningful sex.
Of all of us, he was the only member of the gang to be formally introduced into manhood in any kind of mature way. Of course we'd all fumbled in the back seat of the movies or gone through the you show me yours and I'll show you mine scenario but JC was allegedly different. One of JC's most endearing qualities was his ability to tell a good story and time and time again those around him would be mesmerised as they listened intently to his words of wisdom. To this day I don't know if the story he told of becoming a man was true but nonetheless, he told it at every possible opportunity in an accentuated Welsh accent for effect. "My dad took me the corner shop owned by Mrs Wilson and as he led me through the sacks of potatoes and wooden boxes he gave Mrs Wilson a nod and a wink like he had so many times before.
I'd been a regular visitor to the shop with my dad when he went there to buy a few packets of rolling tobacco but I'd never noticed the exchange of glances before, or if I had it hadn't registered with me. Mrs Wilson was a slightly over sized forty something who I'd never seen with a man. She'd obviously been married as she was of Irish decent, had a broad Irish accent and the name above the shop door was her maiden name of Irene Mahoney, but I couldn't remember there ever being a Mr Wilson. Its the lads sixteenth birthday announced my dad as he turned to leave me in the care of Mrs Wilson. So will he be needing some rub she asked? Leaving us alone my father didn't answer but simply smiled with the same glint in his eye as he had when we'd entered the shop. Mrs Wilson took me into the back room where there was a bed and some other basic furnishings. I thought nothing of the bed in the room as the shop was open twenty four hours a day seven days a week and she was the only person who lived or worked there". In latter years we were to use the shop regularly at three or four in the morning to get some nibbles if we got the munchies after smoking dope, or Jimmy would occasionally go in there to pilfer stuff he didn't need just for the hell of it as she slept slumped over the till that probably didn't have more than a few coins in it, but none of that happened until years after JC's initiation.
JC continued with his story. "Mrs Wilson asked me if I wanted some rub which I didn't understand but if I could have guessed what she meant I would have been right. Undoing her blouse and lifting her bra, she took my hand and put it on one of the breasts that had just flopped out of her bra and down to her belly. You can suck it if you want she volunteered. I didn't want to insult her so I ran my tongue over her nipples while she reached down for the buttons on my trousers. Holding me in her hand I thought it was going to explode so I closed my eyes and thought about bus stations and raw vegetables and million other things that had nothing whatsoever to do with sex to stop it all being over too soon. Letting go for just long enough to remove her pants she lifted her skirt to reveal the hairiest triangle of womanhood I've seen in my life. Lying back on the bed she simply asked and demanded at the same time do me!
Twenty minutes later and the overhead door bell in the shop rang for the second time since I'd gone into the back room with Mrs Wilson and she shouted is that you Gustav? My father said yes and we both went back into the shop to meet him. As we left my father shook her hand and I noticed the money slip from his hand into hers which was presumably payment for turning his son into a man. My dad turned right and went to the pub while I took the opposite direction and I skipped home whistling a tune that I made up as the sound came out of my lips. Full of the joys of life I washed the dishes for my mum which was a bit of a give away as I couldn't ever remember doing it voluntarily before. A few hours later my dad came back from the pub drunk, and from my half closed bedroom door I heard my mum say to him he's acting like he's just won the pools. Did you take him to Mrs Wilson for some rub"? Every time JC told the story it got more graphical with a little extra pronunciation on the Welsh accent with each new rendition, and though none of us really believed it actually happened it was a lovely story that never failed to entertain.