James in black. Drainpipes, black. Second-best shirts; buttoned to the throat, Dylan and Dylon-black. Fingernails stained, if not from clothes dye, then from varnish, black. He wore double you double you two jackboots: zip-up, calf-high, inch of sole, steel toed, black. Hair, cheap, black. He would sometimes sport a pink TRB button, a lapelled safety pin or a pair of elasticated silver garters, to stop his shirtsleeves, he said, from getting in the way of his work – though there was little fear of that and it was clear that he wore them as affectation and because he could and because they looked as punk as fuck.
He had for a while, run a specialist record shop in a near derelict part of town, that he named, in honour of, or as tribute to, The Flaming Groovies’ quintessential rock n roll seven inch, Shake Some Action. He sold, if and when, mainly American hardcore and DIY; hard-to-find-psychfolk, out-of-print queercore, hard-to-swallow punk rock labels – Simian Hard-on, Shallow Freak, Yank’d, Cherry Pie, K is Silent, Homewreckords… this kind of thing. Vinyl and limited cassette.
I would see James occasionally at gigs – Comet Gain at The Lexington; Billy Childish at The Prince Albert; Huggy Bear at The Powerhaus. He was generally approachable, enough for a nod, a hi, a how-you-doing, but always reserved or distant: slouched at the back bar with a pint glass and a cigarette hanging, chatting to Miki from Lush or Mary from Gaye Bykers On Acid or some other almost-made-it for-15 minutes starlet. He never, I noticed, could look them in the eye as they spoke, preferring instead to gaze from between smudged eyeliner over their shoulder at the action unfolding on the stage. He shook tambourine, on occasion, for Gallon Drunk, but they hadn’t bothered too many ears for some time and this was only hearsay from his very lips. “I shake tambourine for Gallon Drunk,” he would say. “Tambo-urine.” And this would reduce both boys and girls, for some time, to tears of laughter; or giggles of confusion; or merely raised eyebrows.
It was his proclivity for late nights and cider and lo-fi schmoozing and street amphetamine that made him such a dreadful businessman. I don’t think I ever met anyone who found Shake Some Action actually open. Maybe this was its charm. James lived in the flat above the shop and he provided a tiny red plastic bucket, shaped like a simple castle – the kind you would find abandoned on the beach by a kid from the city after a particularly hot day – filled with road gravel by the front door: the idea being to take a small handful and sling it up at his window to rouse him from his thin speed sleep. If, and only if, this brought him to consciousness, would he, after some time, open the shop and, in yesterday’s eyeliner, black, clutching a bowl of melted ice cream and looking somewhere over your shoulder, usher you in to his low-lit emporium of punk rock.
It was at a Darren Hayman gig (perhaps at The George Robey) that I bumped into him again some time later. “Hi, what you up to?” He looked at me briefly and then back to the stage. “Bit of tambo urine for the Drunk,” he said. But we both knew this was rubbish and I could barely raise a frown. “What happened to Shake Some Action?” He drew a long drag on a dead fag, looked at my shoulder and told me it had closed down. “Couldn’t meet the rent. The arse fell out of queercore.” I was sorry to hear this.
“But,” he said. “I’ve been doing film extra work.”
Now, I’ve heard this bull-schtick as many times as you. It’s the last vestige of the lost punk rocker. So, sadly, I had to ask him, “Oh, really? What was the last thing you were in?” You have to call this nonsense out.
“I was in a drama about the last days of Hitler,” he says.
“Hmm, cool. What was you. A German soldier or something?”
And here he does something quite unusual. He drops his cigarette to the floor, crushes it beneath his boot, puts his cider on the bar, dismisses Darren Hayman completely, looks me straight in the eye, and says, “Nein.” He draws his fringe to one side, plants a stained black finger across his top lip and says, “I was Hitler. I was dead Hitler. It wasn’t a speaking part.”