Recently, I was having a conversation about music with my mother and happened to mention that I’d downloaded an album by the English folk rock legend Roy Harper. Her eyes lit up. “Your dad played with Roy Harper,” she said. Puzzled as to how a drummer in a minor band in Leeds could have ended up playing with a musician who has collaborated with members of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, I questioned my mother about her claim. “His band supported Roy Harper’s band when they played in Leeds,” she said, her conviction faltering. And then I remembered all the rock lies she’s told me over the years.
Listening to my mother’s memories of the swinging sixties in darkest Yorkshire, I find myself entering a hallucinogenic dreamscape in which fact and fiction melt together. The past starts to look like one of those psychedelic sequences in sixties movies depicting someone having a dream or an acid trip. While some of my mother’s stories may be true, she appears to have reached the point where even the things she made up have gained the status of historical facts in her befuddled mind.
My mother actually repeated my favourite story of hers shortly after making her claim about Roy Harper. The way the story goes, the two young hippies that later became my parents were walking through Leeds town centre in early 1970 when a car stopped next to them and a long-haired man got out and asked them for directions to Leeds University. Of course, my parents were only too happy to help out Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who, especially as they knew the band was playing at Leeds University that evening. Roger thanked them for their directions and the band went on their way.
To her credit, my mother doesn’t claim to have seen Pete Townsend sitting in the back of the car, guitar in hand, as it sped off; nor does she claim that she received free tickets to the show and my dad took over from Keith Moon for a couple of numbers while The Who drummer drank ten lagers backstage. She does, however, allow herself the dramatic final flourish of revealing that, at that evening’s show, the band recorded their seminal album Live at Leeds, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest live albums ever made. And it might never have been made if it wasn’t for my mum and dad. Apparently.
In my second favourite story of my mother’s, she and my father took a trip out to a venue called the Troutbeck in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, to see a live performance by a rising star and his band. The police stopped the performance halfway through because there were too many people packed into the tiny venue, but according to my mother’s story, my parents somehow managed to meet the star and his band. My mother’s abiding memory of Jimi Henrix, she says, is that he was very tall, and that he seemed quite shy and softly spoken. Sometimes when recounting the story, she allows herself the observation that he “seemed like he might have been on drugs.”
My mother’s more bizarre stories are notable chiefly for their amusement value. I have a clear childhood memory of her claiming to have mobbed Paul McCartney near Leeds market when she was a young teenager with Beatle-mania, only to turn around and see John Lennon watching with a look of contempt on his face. While the idea of Lennon and McCartney taking a little time off from conquering the world to have a jaunt around Leeds market is bizarre enough, my mother still insists to this day that the whole family met the Hollywood film star Donald Sutherland on a ferry somewhere in Europe in the 1980s. When I say that I have no memory whatsoever of meeting Donald Sutherland, my mother counters that I was too young to know who he was.
Searching Google for signs that any of this happened at all, I found evidence that Jimi Hendrix did indeed play in Ilkley in 1967, just before he became a rock superstar. Unfortunately, I didn’t find anything that stated: “Hendrix also talked to a number of fans, including a teenage couple who later became Elron’s parents.” I did, however, find a revealing comment by a woman who firmly believes that Jimi was inspired to write the song Purple Haze after seeing her friend’s garish purple outfit at the Ilkley show. And that seems to be the key to my mother’s hallucinogenic memories. She and others like her were part of rock history in their own way, but they just weren’t as much a part of rock history as they would have liked. Over the years, as that generation got fatter, older and less cool, they lovingly embroidered their memories and passed them on as stories to garner admiration from the younger generations.
I can just see myself, years into the future, regaling my young son with tales of how I met Justin Bieber in a Kwik Save in Nuneaton, or the time Lady GaGa made an aggressive pass at me when I met her backstage at one of her shows. I can see my son looking up at me, wide-eyed with wonder.
“Who the fuck were they?” he’ll probably say.