Zak; Our Danton, Our Very Own Odysseus
When some of us were seventeen, Zak was our Danton, our very own Odysseus. We knew that one day he would carve out his own wedding bed by his very own hands, and if not out of the celebrated olive tree, then probably from a Hobbycraft plastic model kit instead. The one thing that really stood out about Zak was his unfeasibly large nipples; and aside from Bran, our resident semi-pro footballer turn breakbeat dancer, he had a torso that wasn’t all skinny bone, like the rest of us.
Zak’s power to charm was textbook. He had learnt it from a family background immersed in 1970s pop music affectations. His dad was a dead-ringer for a middle-aged Jack Nicholson and had recently been the empire builder of a chain of Essex record shops that only started regressing fatally when the staff got a bit too handy on the tills. Before this financial apocalypse — announced one day by the weeping family accountant who realised too late that the record shops were haemorrhaging cash — Zak was packed off to the local private school, where he learnt how to merge his working class verve with the mid-level bank manager type arrogance they were training the boys for. Zak hewed this knowledge into a rough but dashing charm. Family business liquidation and divorce soon saw him enrolled back at the local comp., and so his life returned to a kind of normal, with his mother and brother, and an occasional visit from wayward wide-boy (and by now) alcoholic dad.
Zak lived in a village bungalow that looked as it it had been constructed out of a combination of pallets, slung from the back of arctic trucks circling the nearby M25, and gnarled chopped trunks from the surrounding ancient Essex woodlands. At that front door, upon meeting Zak’s mum for the first time, it struck me that her face had been hewn from some of those ancient Essex timbers as well, framed with a wild peroxide hair. She was still in possession of a powerful attraction, with a vocal twang of tarry smoke when she spoke. When we all camped over at Zak’s, she would linger briefly at the bedroom door threshold, making pointed but affectionate enquiries about our well beings, betraying a certain knowledge of our individual biographies fed to her by Zak. Meanwhile, in the shadows, Zak and an assortment of dedicated pot-smokers would be constructing giant reefers with a discreet insouciance.
For about five years Zak would exert a powerful lunar pull over all of us. It was a parochial little scene, but like everyone our age, we really thought we were at the centre of the entire known universe. The local sixth form brought us all together. We all coalesced around a leftist frame of thinking, with varying degrees of apostasy. Musical tastes generally defined the outer limits of our political loyalties; with the comings and goings and toing and froing over those few years we shared together, there were probably about two dozen and ten of us in total. The shrillest of us, on the most extreme wing, were to be located in the upper echelons of the sanctified moral high ground on all political matters. We were the Legislators, the Sans-culottes of the Assembly, which hastily gathered every day in what was known as The Facade of the local sixth form college, a crumbling amphitheatre, which seemed to have been long abandoned by the college authorities; it was our green world. For us — the Sans Culottes – it was Doctor Martin boots and Fred Perry shirts that marked us out from the rest. Paul Weller, Joe Strummer and the Redskins’ song catalogues were our vade mecums. We would sit around posing in the school canteen with a volume from the collected works of Vladimir Lenin, unwilling to admit we couldn’t get beyond the first paragraph, secretly wishing we had the NME (or in my case, Razzle) to gaze at instead. Some of us were card-carrying members of the Young Communist League, others were in the Labour Party Young Socialists. or even the SWP. But all of us, on this, the extreme left wing of Le Tribunal, shared one thing in common which ensured we remained united come what may; a contempt for those curs, the utter swine! — of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
Zak wasn’t of our band of Zealots, at least not a card-carrying member — but we loved him nonetheless. He was our esteemed ally within a much broader movement, and as such could always be relied upon to take our side in any showdown. He was proud to be associated with us, and that was because we were proud to have been bequeathed everything noble about the proletariat and the oppressed for millennia, and we milked it, learning our lines from pop songs and left-wing newspaper headlines. We would use it to establish unity, and, if necessary, to wield influence at key moments of crisis.
In any dust-ups with the odd Young Conservative who dared to darken the doors of our smoking den, or any foolish unsuspecting 18 year old Sun reader in luminous ski jacket who might, on occasion, fall in the roof by accident, before the dust had settled or the hubbub had calmed, Zak could be relied upon to defend the party line. He would be up the front on any demo or rally you might care to mention: you could always spot him by his unique TinTin style hair cut and trademark Venture Scout shorts (ideal for carrying multiple camping tools and top of the range Swiss Army knife). He was a reliable pal, but you would never want to push it by creating any unnecessary ideological schism by getting into any philosophical debate with him. Because, the horrible truth was that, in essence, Zak was, a mystic hippie! We knew he talked in hushed tones about Ley Lines when he was stoned. We had overheard his reverence for Carlos Castaneda (‘He really is out there somewhere, man, for fuck’s sake!’) But worse than all this, when his guard was really and truly down — more due to an excess of booze than dope — Zak would get all wide-eyed and mystical about a kind of undefineable Nietzschean Weltanschauung, a kind of Pallatoy Jungian anarchy. It was a slippery eel and it was his: you couldn’t discuss it with him. But he would keep his loyalists enamoured with it, his charismatic inarticulacy would always win the day. Those of us that wanted to seize it by both hands and hold this vision of Zak’s up to the light for scrutiny were drowned out by a chorus of moans — us Sans-culottes, well we were uptight, man, we didn’t know how to enjoy ourselves. But Zak, man, he was living it while all we did was talk about it. ‘Free your mind, man!’ Bran was now a Zak loyalist, his right-hand enforcer, and was armed with an indominatable Nietzshean élan himself of course, playfully vying to be the first among equals. Bran would loom out of the darkness at parties, and with massive joint in his hand, or a tab of acid on a finger tip, lean into you with bulb eyes and say; ‘Sal man, shut up, get this down you.’ And so the house music would be turned up, and drown out any doubters or moaners. We few Sans-culottes, with our hammer and sickle t-shirts and our Troops Out Now! badges, knew, in our heart of hearts, Zak was really of the Dark Side. We would occasionally allow ourselves a quiet, furtive snigger at his expense behind his back, but it was unsettling to witness the power Zak could channel, his power to dominate and control. Zak was the kind of guy who would build a house out of driftwood on that remote desert island the plane had just crashed on, and while the rest of us were all huddled under a scraggy scrap of plastic fencing, he would have a bonfire lit and have already organised the hunting party rotas for the next week.
The truth was, Zak was alive to the pulse of the world, and so was at his happiest in the company of those vassilating centrists, those despicable moderates, the Jacobins. They were led by Vincent, our gay classical pianist. and card carrying Hedonist.
Vincent lived in this salubrious pile with a huge garden and massive bedrooms. Everyone loved Vincent. He exuded a charm and confidence that, if he could have bottled it, would have lined the shelves of SuperDrug. Vincent’s house was so large he could play his stereo at half blast after midnight and his mum was so cool she wouldn’t disturb us once. Well, not that often anyway. The Jacobean wing of Vincent’s populist party were defined by a shared love of Pink Floyd’s mid career output. In particular, of course, The Dark Side of The Moon, along with anything by Van Morrison and Nick Drake, which would be played down to their plastic vinyl stubs every weekend, through a haze of sensimillia or black leb.
However, the party Modernisers were organising a palace coup quite early on in that winter of 1989. While Cat Stephens and the Beatles’ White Album would always be given their due deference — with appropriate statues and plaques raised in their honour after the revolution — the new era demanded a new sound. Zak was the leader of this centrist revolution, and his new legislative programme would be physically enforced by the duo of Richie and Danny, and assorted other loyalists as and when the occasion was required. Richie was a mute urchin who was rumoured to have had a tough homelife growing up. His studied inability to speak for hours when stoned was formidable, and subsequently we all mistook him to be some kind of mystic savant, a council-house estate shamen. In fact, he was just very vacant, but his steely determined inarticulacy helped to push through the House music putsch, along with Danny, the muscly ex marine of few words, and Zak’s right-hand man.
This Palace coup over the hippy Jacobins was sealed by Vincent himself. Vincent was to be happily hoisted by his own petard. It all happened one night that late autumn when he organised a round-up of assorted members of the Assembly for a visit to Heaven nightclub in Villiers Street. Vincent, who was ‘out,’ had been dating an ex-policeman turned academic since he had been about sixteen (all very illegal back then, in these dark days, the fag-end of Thatcher’s Britain). Vincent’s brief freedom from this quite overbearingly older boyfriend entailed multiple trips to gay London, of which Heaven nightclub was the epicentre at the time. On this particular occasion Vincent had enforced a three line whip on us lot, his heterosexual pals, and so we joined him on his trip up West. Vincent was tough and intelligent enough to exhude his battleship confidence when out in public, and was ship shape enough to boot: all the girls we knew swooned over Vincent — ‘what a shame he’s gay’ they sighed in unison. So that night, after hanging around in Heaven for half hour or so, us callow Essex boys, good looking enough then, and young enough to be targets (‘chickens’ as the gay scene parlance had it) were set upon by the senior gay clientele. One bronzed chap in a pink Lacoste polo shirt offered me a tour of his cruise ship currently docked on a Greek island. I fleetingly wished I was gay.
And that night Heaven was in full house music lock-down, as usual. I don’t think we took any E, but as far as Vincent was concerned it was his Damascene moment; he was now smitten with the new regime. Elsewhere in Europe that winter a dictator would shortly be taken out and shot in the streets of Bucharest, but for us kids in the suburbs of Four Oaks, Essex, any ideological violence was strictly limited to a shake-up in the ordering of the stack of vinyl in Vincent’s bedroom round his mum’s house in Brandville Avenue, the very much preferred meeting place when we weren’t at sixth form. Vincent’s popularity was a fact which always irked Zak, and there would be the occasional Sino-Soviet type border skirmish over the years, but ultimately both sides kept their territory and loyalists intact, until one day Zak lost it all. Forever.
Little did we know then that Zak, one of the very brightest stars of our generation, would come to flicker and wane into a perpetual darkness, loved by very few and remembered with a shudder by most, and that wedding bed that our Essex Odysseus would carve with his very own hands would actually end up as his tomb.