THE KKK TOOK MY BABY AWAY
I have Jasper to thank for my enduring love of The Ramones and my unshakeable belief that they were the most influential yet underrated band of all time. In the late, boiling summer of 1976, when I was about to enter my thirteenth year on this planet, he was the first manifestation of anything ‘punk’ any of us had ever seen. Jasper’s real name was Anthony Taylor. He was known as Jasper because, allegedly, his dad had been cautioned for inappropriate sexual behaviour with a teenage girl; Anthony; guilty by association, had thus become Jasper the Grasper.
Jasper had briefly lived in the flat above us in Tourhill Road. He was an only child. He was a really tall kid, three years older than me and with the worst face acne I’ve ever seen. It had the look of that extreme make-up Robert Englund must have had applied every morning when filming Nightmare on Elm Street.
Prior to that glorious summer, Jasper hovered well below the radar of most of the kids I hung around with. He was a confirmed loner and didn’t attempt to integrate with anyone. On the few occasions he was seen outside, he just hung around the Tourhill Road shops, watching all the other kids kicking footballs against the three-storey gable-end wall that faced the main road leading to Kilmaurs. He always said hello to me on our communal stairs, but if I attempted any further conversation, it was only ever one way.
In the run-up to the summer holidays, I’d started to fear for him. Blazing rows between his mum and dad could be heard above us on an almost nightly basis. Don’t get me wrong, they never seemed to be about him: she spent too much money at the bingo; he was a drunken bastard who’d grope anything in a skirt, even if it risked a severe battering. That was about the gist of it. I felt sorry for Jasper, being in that environment every night, and couldn’t understand why he was so reluctant to get out and spend more time away from it with other kids. Although not in appearance, he reminded me a bit of Gerry Graham (a young boy who had been abducted from a street behind ours, when I lived in Pollok), and that definitely made me feel differently towards him than I might otherwise have.
He got a bit of a hard time from some kids at school due to his height, his awkwardness, his complexion, his dad’s dodgy past and the Oxfam-style clothes he wore. Essentially, he had the whole first-division check-list of weaknesses kids traditionally home in on like little Exocets.
I didn’t imagine my mates would ever treat him and me in the same way, so, in the first week after school broke up, I nervously went up the stairs and knocked on his door to ask if Jasper was coming out. The look on the face that opened the door was a mixture of surprise, fear and suspicion. But, after a ten-minute consultation with an unseen adult, out he came.
Jeff McGarry and I had been going up to a farm on the outskirts of Kilmaurs. Initially, this had been to try and build a rope-swing over the Coodham Water, but latterly we’d become more interest in the livestock. The Friesians, who spent the majority of their time in the expansive green topography on the other side of the mature tree belt from the stream, had grown accustomed to the two of us wandering amongst them. What they weren’t aware of was Jeff’s plan to get close enough to one of the herd to get on its back, whereupon a mate – i.e., me– would skelp the animal on the arse with a cricket bat. The rider would have to stay on for as long as possible. Jeff had worked this plan out so comprehensively, I was convinced he had blueprints at home. Up close, though, these prime cuts of Ayrshire beef were enormous, particularly across the bareback seating area. So we had judged that two things would be necessary to fulfill Jeff’s grand scheme: the first was a bucket, in order to make the step up onto the beast’s back less daunting; the second was a third member of the team. This was where Jasper came in.
The day Jasper finally came out was another in a long line of phenomenally hot days. As I remember, summers in the ’70s generally saw long spells of sunshine, and at the time, no-one put this down to the as-yet unknown phenomenon of global warming. Jasper came out wearing a hooded duffle coat.
We walked up to Kilmaurs with all the lack of purpose associated with our demographic; a comfortable twenty-minute walk took close to an hour. Jeff and I talked about the bodies that would be mounting up in the mortuaries as a result of the national strike and how incredible it would be if they turned into zombies. How the rats populating the mounting rubbish tips would start growing to around two-foot long. And how boring Bjorn Borg was. Jasper was on the periphery of the conversation, as if he had been discovered frozen in a glacier, and was now being thawed out by the explorers who had hacked him free.
Even allowing for the obligatory carry-on with the bucket and the cricket bat, our dilly-dallying eventually became unacceptable to Jeff, whose impending destiny was beginning to weigh heavily on him.
‘Mon tae fuck yous two. The coos’ll be oan a fuckin’ plate alangside some chips afore we get therr . . . !’
Jasper kept his coat on all the way there and for the initial rehearsals. The actual mounting of a beast was, predictably, much harder than it had been in the movie that had been playing in Jeff’s head for the last month. However, he was not to be denied. He had a focused determination, which, if applied in other areas, would have been admirable; something for a parent to have bragged about. But, as most parents will attest, a cowboy wasn’t really a job for a kid in the Ayrshire of the late 1970’s.
It was probably Jeff’s superhuman desire, rather than the efficiency of his colleagues, that eventually saw him briefly atop a black-and-white cow of substantial bulk. The bucket had been useful, no question. Jasper hadn’t. Jeff stayed on the terrified beast for about thirty seconds, extra propulsion having been given by the whack I administered to its backside with my swiftly wielded willow. Jeff was Harvey Smith, Lester Piggott and the Lone Ranger rolled into one. It was very funny. Even Jasper was laughing. And when Jeff eventually fell off into a swamp of mud, he was laughing so hard he threw up a little bit. Although caked in thick mud, he stood up and punched the air like someone who’d just realised that he’d put the ‘x’ in exactly the right place to scoop the spot-the-ball prize money.
In this exalted state, he was the last of the three of us to spot the farmer with the long, black stick, which looked suspiciously like an air rifle. He was coming over the hill from the direction of the farmhouse, running at a fair rate of knots. The farmer fired, and Jasper screamed and fell. Just a little earlier, he’d finally removed his big coat and, without its protection, he’d taken one in the arm. We all started to run back in the direction of the trees, but, with the accuracy of an Olympic marksman, the old hay-baler struck again. Again, Jasper; this time, his arse. He let out another howl. Jeff and I ran faster. Another shot. Another hit. Unbelievably, Jasper yelped again. This time, the agricultural Jackal hit the hand that was covering the last shot to the arse. Three pellets, three hits. Jasper slumped while we bolted.
There is a postscript to this story. Jeff McGarry’s bovine obsession came to a bizarre conclusion about three years later. A Kilmarnock Standard report, hidden away on an inside page – no doubt next to a story about a Newmilns man being abducted and probed by aliens – told of rustling at Crosshands farm, near Kilmaurs. Four young men, three of them brothers and the fourth a cousin, had stolen a prize-winning cow from a barn in the middle of the night. Amazingly, they’d managed to walk it about three miles back to a vacant, boarded-up council house in Onthank, with the purpose of killing it and selling the meat. The premise was born in Hollywood. Jeff had had the idea after seeing an eye-wateringly gory chainsaw scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The gang had managed to get the petrified beast into a ground-floor bathroom, although squeezing its girth through the two doors to get it there must have been a major exercise in patience. As was by now a common theme, Jeff hadn’t thought the plan through properly. When it came time to fire up the electric hedge-cutters, which were playing the role of chainsaw, and to look into those big brown eyes, none of the rustlers had the bottle. They also couldn’t get it into the bathtub, where the blood might have been more easily disposed of. They spent the night in the house, getting drunk in the hope that it would give them courage, but the moment had passed. The McGarrys felt the best plan of action was to disappear across the back gardens, leaving the cow in the bathroom for someone else to find. Someone else did find it almost two days later. The smell and the incessant moo-ing had been traced by a neighbouring Columbo to the empty house. He’d had a look around earlier but had, understandably, assumed the noises were a practical joke – rather than a cow having taken up rent-free residence next door.
The cops caught up with the McGarry gang without too much investigation. Their leader had left a list of potential carnivorous customers and their phone numbers on a piece of paper, on the top of the avocado cistern. It was entitled ‘Jeff’s Coo Meat’.
It was three months after he’d been shot in the arse by an irate farmer that I saw Jasper again. I had been convinced he would shop us, first to the farmer and then to the police. To his credit, he had done neither.
The rows had stopped in the flat above us, and I had begun to think the family had moved. It transpired that Jasper had been grounded for the whole summer, and his lack of an explanation for his pellet wounds or any detailed confession had led to such a monumental rammy that his dad just upped and left.
When Jasper finally resurfaced one Saturday in September, I barely recognised him. He was going back up the stairs from the shop below with a plastic bag full of groceries. He was dressed totally in black. An old leather jacket was peppered with white painted slogans and symbols: ‘No Future’, and a capital ‘A’ in a circle. Countless button badges lined its zipped lapels. Black Doc Marten Boots with laces up to the mid shin sat under tight, ripped jeans. His t-shirt had ‘Fuck Pink Floyd’ scribbled across it. Over the round-necked collar dangled a padlock, chained and wrapped twice around his scrawny neck. He was certainly thinner, and looked taller, if that was possible. But his hair was sticking up in spikes that must have been a good three inches long, and which most likely exaggerated his proportions. He used a mix of orange juice and sugar, he later told me. I thought he looked fucking brilliant. I considered my own apparel – sky-blue Oxford Bags with twenty-one buttons on numerous pockets, including two halfway down my legs that my arms couldn’t reach; a brown knitted tank-top with three big yellow stars across the chest; and black platform shoes with red stars on the heel – and for the first time felt a bit embarrassed.
I’d been vaguely aware of the punk revolution going on in London and of bands with great names like The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers and The Buzzcocks. But, like most, I’d heard little of the actual music. Jasper invited me up to his flat, where I expected the atmosphere to be frosty, but his mum was very welcoming. His room was a black cavern of posters and slogans. LP covers from bands who looked exactly like new Jasper were scattered at the bottom of his unmade bed. The one that immediately caught my eye had ‘The Ramones’ written in white at the top. I picked it up and studied the four cover starsin some detail.
‘Wait till you hear this. It’s fuckin’ brilliant,’ proclaimed new Jasper with an enthusiasm I didn’t realise he possessed.
And he wasn’t wrong. It was totally different from anything else I’d ever heard.
‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ . . . ‘Beat On The Brat’ . . . ‘Judy Is A Punk’ . . . ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ . . . The first four songs were a flash of riotous energy – over before Freddie Mercury would even have started all that ‘bismallah’ and ‘fandango’ bollocks. Christ, The Ramones’ whole career was just about over before Emerson, Lake & Palmer had reached anything resembling a chorus. From that day on, out went the pretentious prog and rock, and in came punk. The Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, but especially The Ramones, were all things that Jasper played for me in his room.
I started going upstairs every evening, and my own period of enlightenment began in earnest. He started going to school dressed as a punk, where he received all manner of abuse from kids, janitors and, most worryingly, his teachers. In the early months of 1977 his appearance got him suspended. His mum supported him though, rationally arguing that his schoolwork was good and that his dress was just a logical extension of his developing personality. She considered that, since her son had now emerged from his chrysalis with a point of view, he should be free to express it as he saw fit. He wasn’t harming anyone and she was incredibly proud of him. Punk, it seemed, had actually set them both free. She eventually took him out of school to continue his education at home and his whole case became the subject of a ‘civilisation’s about to end’-style local newspaper cover story. The tabloid slant was that he was clearly a threat to decent Ayrshire society and that any mother who encouraged such behaviour was at best a weirdo and at worst mentally deranged. The adverse publicity brought out the real freaks, and the flat and its occupants became local targets of hate. The level of public outcry and the resultant cancelled gigs on The Sex Pistols Anarchy in the UK tour only brought more local opprobrium down on Jasper and his mum. Still, he stuck to his ideology and his mum encouraged him all the more.
For three frantic days in the late summer of 1977, the area around the Tourhill shops where we lived became the focus of an investigation into the disappearance of a child. Six-year-old Alice Mole had vanished. Her distraught mother had sent her across the street to the Co-op for a bag of sugar and she hadn’t returned. Local feeling quickly turned from concern to shock, and then to angry suspicion. By the third day, some of the more aggressive in the community had turned their gaze on the most obvious local target: Jasper. He was different, and therefore, to them, a logical suspect. Stones were thrown, and the windows of the flat were broken. The police were less than proactive in quelling local rage, so these acts of vandalism went unpunished.
In the late afternoon of the third day of her disappearance, Alice Mole stepped off a bus, holding the hand of the father of her mother’s estranged partner. The old man was suffering from dementia and had ‘recognised’ the blonde, curly-haired Alice as his own daughter, who’d died of leukemia when she was only ten.
On the same August night that wee Alice was found, Jasper was coming home on his own from a Generation X gig at Ayr Pavilion. Despite the threats to his own safety, he’d refused to be imprisoned by small-minded intolerance.
A large group of kids from over in Altonhill were hanging around the piss-stained entry to the close. Many carried baseball bats. They accused him of taking the little girl and of interfering with her, even though she had come home unharmed earlier in the day. They wouldn’t let Jasper pass, one of them spitting into his face. Another kicked him squarely in the balls, which made him throw up. My bedroom window was open and I could hear the commotion below. As I drew back the curtain, I saw Jasper, first stumbling then running out of my view, followed by three of these screeching youths. Three ‘normal’ people chasing away an apparently ‘abnormal’ one.
I didn’t see it myself, but I heard the dull thud as the black van hit him on Kilmaurs Road, killing him instantly. There had been a series of strikes, and for two or three nights a week, the streetlights were out. Jasper was so thin he already looked like a Lowry matchstick man, and when viewed sideways, head to foot in black, he must’ve been virtually invisible.
By the time I went downstairs with my dad, the angry mob had dispersed and Jasper’s body was accompanied only by the shaking van driver. When I saw Jasper’s face, I immediately burst into tears. My dad took a sheet from the back of the van and covered Jasper with it. The van driver was sitting on the kerb, his legs stretched out in the road. He was also sobbing.
My dad had me stay with the driver, while he went up to phone for an ambulance, and to tell Jasper’s mum about her son.
That was a strange night; in fact shocking all round. Only three hours earlier the BBC television news had been dominated by reports from Memphis, where stunned fans of the King had been congregating at the gates of Graceland.
Jasper’s mum was found dead in the flat above us by his dad, the night before his funeral.
I didn’t attend the funeral myself. Jasper’s dad conducted it privately, telling my parents he didn’t want anyone from the Tourhill area amongst the mourners. So instead, I simply opened my windows as wide as they would go and played The Ramones song, ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’ repeatedly and at maximum volume for the whole of that evening.
It was the only tribute I could think of.