I had give him his due; he was where he said he would be and he was on time. In fact, he’d been early. I’d staked out the meet a half-hour before and seen two other suckers approach him and make a purchase before scurrying away with that satisfied scuffle that fool who have only recently parted with their money make. He was leaning back again the old Piedmoor Bank building, his ankle length leather coat tails dancing in the cold midnight wind. Occasionally he lifted his head from within the depths of his upturned collar to see if any more prospective purchasers were braving the elements to make a hit. Then, like a praying mantis, he reteat back into his coat. Sheltering from the wind and a fine, misty rain that had given the city streets a slick, polished look, I witness proceeding from a disused shop doorway. Safe within its reclining darkness I was summoning up the courage to walk across Main Street and to the junction of Mall and Circular to join the illegal to and fro because this wasn’t a part of the city you wanted to spend too long hanging around after dark. Once it had been a bustling financial centre, but now its decaying offices and high rises were the haunt of the night people; pimps, prostitutes and pushers; much like the one opposite whose only signs of life was the slow but regular plumes of breath omitted into the cold night air. Another couple of degrees lower and the fine rain would turn to snow.
Two hours earlier I’d bade farewell to my wife, her worried eyes saying more than her trembling lips could. She didn’t want me to do this but she knew I had to, not just for me but for her too. I felt her eyes on me until the car turned out of sight. It was one of those drives you make in silence. You don’t turn on the radio or a cassette because nothing acts as a detraction from what is on your mind, where you are going, what you are going to do. The fear, the risk, the foolishness and folly of the act. But these are banished by the need, the addiction, the highs. Cold, clammy hands constantly need wiping on your trousers as you wait traffic lights to change. The steering wheels sticks to the palms, your stomach churns, your adrenalin boils like an unwatched pan.
I’d parked several streets away, hoping the car would still be there when I needed to make my escape. I pointed the key at the vehicle, pressed the anti-theft button and saw the reassuring glow of the ‘live’ electric current passing over the bodywork. It was supposed to be foolproof but technology was moving so rapidly it was only a matter of time before the car thieves found a way to block the current or short circuit it, I prayed this wouldn’t be the night…
He didn’t hear me approaching. The roar of a passing car masked my footfalls. I was upon him and could make out the details of this facial lines before he saw me. He straightened up quickly, trying to gather his composure, his cool. He was a really sharp customer this one, as mean as the poorhouse, as slick as a £500 haircut.
“Hey, you’re your late,” he said, peeling back his cuff to reveal a Rolex that blinked back at the overhead neon lights.
“Yeah, I had really hustle to get the money.”
“You got it all?” He didn’t so much ask as demand.
“I’ve got it all, but it took a little long than I thought.”
“That’s cool, that’s cool. Let me see it?”
Somewhere across the street I thought I saw a brief movement in the doorway.
“No, let me see the stuff. I’m not tap dancing in Paradise Alley for the good of my health”
We were both edgy and I figured his night had been longer than mine. He started to unbutton his coat, the big round buttons freed from holding the luxurious, thick leather in place. Six buttons.
From top to button there were six buttons. I counted them, the tension rising with each one.
I felt a cold drip of sweat leave my armpit and hit my waist. And I saw it. There wasn’t just one but forty or fifty. I’d never seen so much contraband on one pusher. The needles glinted from their exposure to the harsh city lights.
“Yeah, pretty impressive. Huh?” Now where’s the dough? Where’s the shlack?”
“I’ve got the money, but I need two Ortofon PRO 5’s…
“We agreed on one-not two.”
“I’m not making this journey again in a hurry. I’ll got £250 for the two, that’s £50 over the odds.”
He looked over my shoulder, his eyes trying to make out details on the dark side of the street opposite. He was growing very edgy.
“OK, OK two. But no more.”
He handed me two pristine packages and pulled a ball of cotton wool from his pocket.
“Wrap them in this,”
he advised, quickly counting the ruffled wad of notes.
And he was gone.
The house was more welcoming than ever. More warm and welcoming than after a hard day’s work; more receptive than an all night drive through the rain. It was home. Be it ever so humble and all that. She threw herself into my arms, her body taut with tension, her tearful eyes burying themselves into my shoulder.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,”
I kept repeating, but the tense hours of waiting, not knowing, the hundred and one probabilities that had run through her mind…she clung to me as if I were life itself.
“I’ve got it,”
I told her, sitting her down opposite the stereo.
“I got it.”
We sat and marvelled at its small, almost weightless beauty. Just a small pin-like splinter of metal with a tiny, sharp obtrusion, its point of power, the point at which it didn’t just flirt with the vinyl but copulated with it. A copulated which varied in speed by a few revs, but which produced sound, a medium that no other could match. I removed the old stylus that had worn out many years before and replaced it with the new one.
“What will you play first?”
she asked. The girlish smile that had first enchanted me all those years ago returning to her lips.
“Well, there was a time when owning this would have been everything to me…”
You spend a lifetime in pursuit of certain records. In some cases you never actually obtain them, you just constantly re-wind the grainy tape someone has kindly made you or sold you and that has to suffice. You can still hear it but you’re not totally at ease; you know you need to own it.
Herman Hitson is worth waiting a lifetime to own, no matter the format, but the luxury of a crackly 45 is obviously the most preferential way to overdose on this most lucid of all drugs,
“You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down “ is a soul record; from the atmospheric drum roll and blast of horns; from the opening “Hmmm…” of Hitson before he rasps “Hey Baby…”, nothing suggest this is anything but a soul record. It’s the perfect fusion of the ‘hard’ school of Chicago soul and the bare-boned ‘horns ‘n’ drums’ Southern fried grits of Memphis or Muscle Shoals. It’s the tormented soul syndrome; a waft of burning passion flaring up your nostrils, alarming your senses. You sympathise with Hitson’s mournful tones but you suck on his plight for your own pleasure. Deep soul? It sure as hell is. Anguished and volcanic. Hitson roars and rages like a wounded lion trapped in the back of a dark cave, its tormentors pouring in to administer the coup de grace…And then there’s the lyrics. Words that evoke images of a bowed-but-unbroken man, someone on the wrong sidewalk in the city of hard knocks.
Brokenheartsville has sucked Herman Hitson dry and spat him out but he’s there, ragged and torn but with gritted teeth and clenched fist shakin’. He’s spat in the eye of the storm and he’s roller on every punch and from within his battered frame a ragged voice, crackling with tension and pain, delivers lyrics that should have been carved in stone…
“Here you come again, honey,
Tellin’ lies on me to my best friend,
Trying to turn the whole world against me, honey,
After you spent all my money,
Listen, I’ll be back on my feet one day,
And out of your life I’m gonna walk away,
‘Cos you a do wrong woman Ah’m gonna put you down,
You calling me the biggest fool in town,
But listen, but no matter what you say,
I’ve got that will to keep on pushing day by day…
‘Cos You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down…
Even the horns writhe in pain, twisting in tandem as Histon splinters in Pickett-esque contortions; the shrieks spitting like hot fat from an overheating pan. And all the while the bulk of the backing simmers in a sturdy midtempo stew of cross-sawing slewed strings, tottering percussion and, somewhere in the wings a piano, jutting in trying to override the bass. Could there be more? Could a pain-wracked frame take one more verse; one more tilt at that windmill; one more twist on the rack; take the grief but hold on to his pride and esteem? Few could. The voice is tapering to a point of agony and is growing discordant, grating, guttural, harsh.
But for Herman Hitson it is not over…
I know it’s gonna be h-a-r-d,
Leaving you alone to make a brand new start, baby,
There’s gonna be a brighter day for me somewhere,
No heartaches and tears, they won’t be there…
You Can’t A Good Man Down…
For Herman Hitson it can never be over. And the finale betrays this, the final, screaming ad lids go beyond the preordained lyrics of Hitson and shotgun rider (the great) Freddie Terrell, far. Far beyond the written word. There’s an intensity to the powerhouse pleadings and obstinate vows before Hitson disappears into the vortex that is missing in so much of today’s music, that harrowing leap over the chasm that sets souls free, a ‘gotta-gotta’ go for it, forever. Not just a recording, not just a record, a piece of soul’s history. The fact it wasn’t commercially successful means nothing.