Most mornings I check the ‘For You’ recommendations from Apple Music on my phone. Today, on a playlist called ‘Rock Hits 1979’ I noticed the song ‘Heartache Tonight’ from an album called ‘The Long Run’ by The Eagles. This was the last of a string of 70’s albums by the band. I don’t remember this album being too popular with kids my age (I would’ve been 14 or 15 when I became aware of the song), and apart from ‘Heartache Tonight’, I don’t think it got much airtime on our local radio. To be fair, anything measured against ‘Hotel California’ was going to be considered a disappointment. They had snookered themselves, the same way Fleetwood Mac had with ‘Rumours’.
Although It isn’t a song I’m particularly fond of, it has a bunch of strong memories attached to it. Generally, these are good memories – like most 15 year olds I was starting to spread my wings and I was determined to fall into every teenage trap on the list. Smoking and drinking and a smorgasbord of other temptations lay ahead of me like a minefield. I proceeded to cross that minefield blindfolded on a pogo stick.
Some memories attached to ‘Heartache Tonight’ aren’t so good, and looking back (now as an adult with a 15 year old son), some are moderately disturbing. They centre around a mate of mine named Gordon and a few incidents that could easily have turned out very badly. One of them, I was lucky to walk away from.
I liked Gordon. Back then, he might have been described as “a bit of a nutter”. In today’s pop psychology parlance he’d probably be called a violent sociopath. I’d put him somewhere between the two. A thing he liked to do was put the corkscrew tool from his Swiss Army Knife between the fingers of his fist, and using the knife body as a knuckleduster, punch me on my upper arm, twisting the corkscrew as his punches landed. Obviously painful, this would leave small holes in my arm and blood all over my sleeves. At the age we were at, it was important to be seen as tough by your peers. Gordon was acutely aware of this.
Thinking about it, the opening words of the ‘Heartache Tonight’ are, “Somebody’s gonna hurt someone… before the night is through”. Turns out they were ominously appropriate.
Our parents were friends, that’s how I got to know Gordon. Like mine, his parents were piss-cats and although they weren’t in the same drinking league as my folks, they sure loved to tilt a glass. They had a bit of money (or that’s how it looked from where I was standing), so Gordon had a lot of what I considered ‘nice stuff’. He also had an older brother who was a junkie and went missing for weeks at a time on drug binges. I always thought maybe Gordon was pampered as a result of his brothers behaviour. He seemed to get away with murder at home.
He had a mop of white blonde hair and a wicked sense of humour. ‘Taking the piss’ was our favourite pastime and we’d constantly try to out-do each other with snide comments and observations. What we lacked in wit, we made up for in teenage social cruelty. The bus ride home from school would usually provide enough material to entertain us for the afternoon. On a few occasions during the short walk home from the bus stop, I remember us both laughing so hard we’d end up laying in the street, hysterical and gasping for breath.
His parents went away for weekend trips regularly. The Kruger National Park was one of their favourite destinations.
Gordon had a friend I knew only as ‘Oaks’. If we were 15, Oaks must have been at least 30, maybe even older. Gordon never told me how he came to know Oaks and whenever I asked questions, he became vague and evasive. It was obvious that Oaks was on the shit list with Gordon’s folks because he only ever contacted him when they went away. On those weekends, before their car had reversed out of the driveway, Gordon would be on the phone and within a couple of hours, Oaks would turn up at the house with a car full of booze and other contraband. He was a thin, soft-spoken guy with an acne scarred face and he took orders from Gordon like a creepy butler. Looking back, I still can’t decide if he was a sinister character or just a lonely loser. I get to sleep easier if I believe the latter. Even to a naïve 15 year old kid, the arrangement seemed unwholesome, but while Oaks was providing booze and taking us to restaurants, I went along with it.
This is where the song links in;
Gordon had a decent drum kit and his step-father Clive, had a killer sound system. It was called a Phase Linear and Clive spoke about it the way a young mother speaks about her new child. It was impressive – when the turntable spun, it looked like a UFO landing. The speakers were made of heavy wood and sloped out at the bottom like the Carlton Hotel.
‘Heartache Tonight’ starts with a heartbeat bass drum and one Friday afternoon when his folks were away, we set up Gordon’s drums in front of the hi-fi and spent hours taking turns at playing along with The Eagles. When the song finished, we’d set the needle back and start again, trying to get as far into the song as we could before screwing up. Every time we dragged the delicate needle across the record I could imagine Clive weeping.
Oaks had arrived earlier with a case of Amstel lagers – weird how I remember the brand of beer, but I do – and as we drummed, we got steadily shit-faced. I doubt the beer enhanced our drumming skills but it certainly made us think it did. After a while, I thought I was Ringo Starr and I probably had the goofy smile to match.
Then things got blurry.
The drink of choice for discerning teenagers at the time was a nasty coconut flavoured swill called Coco Rico. We wanted to get wasted but most drinks we could steal from our parents cabinets, whiskey, brandy etc. didn’t agree with our young palates.
As a result we were drawn to any alcohol with a fruity name. Drinks like Coco Rico, Pina Colada, Bana Colada and Clubmans Mint Punch all met our very low standards. In a pinch, a cheaper coconut flavoured wine concoction called Vin Coco was a rough but acceptable alternative. A litre of Vin Coco and you were projectile vomiting like Regan in The Exorcist. Ahh…good times.
On this weekend though, we were living large. Along with the Amstels, Oaks had brought a few bottles of the above-mentioned fruity poisons. As the evening wore on I tore into the Coco Rico like Sue-Ellen during happy hour at Southfork. Predictably, it all went tits-up from there. I remember brief euphoria, then rolling over in Gordon’s bed and puking into the gap between the wall and the mattress, then oblivion.
The following morning, dangerously dehydrated and with a lingering aftertaste of coconut flavoured puke, I wobbled into the lounge. Now, without booze and The Eagles, the atmosphere was very different. A harsh sun poured through the windows and revealed all the evidence of the previous evening’s misdemeanors. Under the beer cans, bottles and glasses, all surfaces were covered with spills and ring stain patterns. Overflowing ashtrays of varying sizes and shapes littered the room like glass dog turds. A new, brownish yellow stain which resembled the shape of South America, covered the carpet at the front door. The stench of stale booze and dead cigarettes hung over the room like a fog. It was obvious that a lot had happened after I’d…retired for the evening.
Gordon was sitting on the couch in the corner. Like me, he was still wearing the previous day’s clothes, now crumpled and dishevelled. Smoke rose lazily from the cigarette in his hand adding to the fog. He was pale, and his default confidence had evaporated.
“Jeez, what the fuck happened here?” I asked, surveying the room.
“Yeah, things got a bit out of hand” he said before adding, “…and it gets worse”.
The carpet was sticky as we walked through South America and out the front door to the driveway. The front of his Mom’s Chevy tilted down drunkenly on one side because the tyre was flat. The side panel above the wheel and the front corner of the bonnet were crumpled and dented. Flakes of paint hung off the damaged panels and the light and indicator units were smashed.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit”, was the extent of my vocabulary for the next twenty minutes.
In my absence, another of Gordon’s friends had arrived and at some point, they had decided to take a spin in his Mom’s car. On a corner, they’d lost control and slid into a concrete lamppost.
Because I’d been taking a power nap at the time, I wasn’t technically responsible for the damage to the car but I knew that – in my Father’s mind – I was an accessory to the crime. I also knew that difficult questions would be asked about my whereabouts at the time of the accident.
We spent the remainder of the weekend (which felt like a decade or so), cleaning the house, mowing the lawn and staring at the dented car, shaking our heads.
With Gordon’s anxiety steadily increasing at the grim prospect of his parents return, I gave an early glimpse of my true character…I bolted for home like a dog caught in a thunderstorm, leaving Gordon to deal with the whole shit show. In the end, all our agonizing came to very little. Although Gordon caught hell for the damage to the car, I never heard any more about South America, the puke stains on his bedroom carpet or Clive’s molested Phase Linear. For me, the only real significance of the whole weekend was how the memory of it has bound itself so tightly to ‘Heartache Tonight’.
While I’m in the Gordon memory zone, there’s another more somber story to recount.
Around the same time as the above (I think it would have been later, but I can’t say for sure), Clive dropped Gordon and I off at a place called Pelindaba on the Crocodile river. It must have been during a school holiday because we were there for longer than just a weekend, probably 5 days to a week. We had a two man tent, fishing rods and a few bags of food for the week. We camped under a tree a few metres from the bank of the river, close to a portion of burbling rapids. Across the river was a sheer rock face. Maybe the excursion was intended as some kind of half-arsed ‘coming of age’ survival/initiation exercise. Again, these were different times. I have a son who is around the same age as we were then, and right or wrong, I wouldn’t dream of dropping him off at the side of a river with a buddy and a tent for a week.
When I consider most of my memories from these days, surprisingly, this one doesn’t involve any drunken mayhem or debauchery. For the most part, I remember swimming in the river and getting bumped about on the rapids, as well as being terrified of the legavaans (big monitor lizards) that would crawl out of the river to steal the bread we were using as bait for fishing.
One evening it started raining so in an attempt to stay dry, as we climbed into the tent to sleep we closed all the vents and zipped up the inner and outer tent linings.
At some point in the night I woke up. I was groggy and confused but I remember desperately wanting a smoke (sadly, at this early age nicotine already had me on the line). I scratched around in the tent for my cigarettes and matches, dug one out of the box and tried to light it. As I struck the match on the side of the box, the flame flared briefly and then went out. Again, I took another match out and struck it and got the same result – a brief flame that died before I could get it to light my smoke. After another attempt, I gave up and sat there disoriented, trying to figure out what was wrong with the matches. After a few moments a thought came rushing at me through the fog, ‘the match won’t light because there’s no air in the tent’.
When I had woken up, it wasn’t nicotine I was craving…it was oxygen.
I lunged to the end of the tent and pulled the zips down on the inner lining and then the outer flap. Crisp, cold air rushed in and I filled my lungs like a free-diver surfacing after setting a new world record.
We were lucky – but for a moment of clarity, Clive might have returned to find flies buzzing around a tent containing two blue-faced, swollen boys.
Down the years I’ve read the occasional report in the news about similar scenarios that ended in tragedy. The reports make me think about this story and drive home just how lucky we were.
After school I lost track of Gordon and I’ve no idea where he ended up. Whenever he comes to mind, the over-riding memory I have is of us both laughing until we fell down. The sort of laughter you take for granted when you’re 15.