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There's nothing at the end of the rainbow
There's nothing to grow up for any more

Richard Thompson, "The End of the Rainbow," Richard and Linda Thompson, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, 1974


Nothing about Blackie and Whitey made much sense at first glance. Both of them, by their accents, were clearly Geordies ("Where the Animals came from, before Eric Burdon got soft," they explained to Southerners, Americans and anyone else unfamiliar with the magical properties of Newcastle Brown Ale) but not much more was obvious.

Blackie, for a start, was white. That is, pinkish. He had the ruddy complexion, deep freckles and auburn hair that is often associated with folks north of the border, where the men are tough enough to wear knee-length skirts and the women smart enough not to. He was lumbered with the handle Winston Leonard Spencer Black by a remote and elderly father who seemed more choked that the old warmonger had been flung out of the office he'd never been elected to than that his wife of nearly a quarter of a century had died in childbirth, leaving him with an afterthought to go with three teenagers. The aunt who took over the household had enough smarts to preserve the boy from the torment of being a 'Winnie' and everywhere north of Leeds he was known as 'Len,' which might at least have been after the immortal Hutton. When he reinvented himself in college, he stuck to the simple variant of his last name and eventually began to dress to match.

Whitey, by contrast, was not black, although he claimed to be half Cherokee on his father's side. His mother Mandy insisted, with impressive detail, that her fiancé had died over Dresden, during the most obscene bombing raid before the flight of the Enola Gay. Her cattier neighbors wondered how she could be so sure, since allied losses surely weren't high enough to cover all the candidates, but most of them went along with the posthumous engagement "for the child's sake." When the babe was born, his genes obviously supported the young mum's story but the general reaction was shock rather than relief. "It's a bloody papoose," one cynic who learned his racism at the movies put it, and the community attitude was fixed.

Mandy soon found her boy a step-dad, who was free enough with his fists to silence anyone who insulted the kid, which might have been more useful had he not relied upon the same technique to teach the lad "our ways." Not surprisingly, the boy preferred the way of the pink Cadillac. When Elvis betrayed the world he had created by going into the army, the young loner dived into the nascent blues scene. There his high cheekbones, smooth skin, straight black hair and inscrutably indeterminate age made him instantly memorable. Unfortunately even the cops managed to figure out who he was, which led in fairly short order to a stint in Borstal, being thrown out of the house, and escape to the smoke a little ahead of the pack, just in time to catch Alexis Korner at the Marquee and the six-man Stones in Richmond.

His timing was fabulous.

Whitey turned seventeen the month before four Scouse wiseacres with cool boots and pouffy suits released their first single. In the next two years, the scene exploded. The Stones made it, and then – pace Keef and Brian – the really hip bands started to get signed. Bowing to the inevitable, the record companies declared that street credibility was in and Fabulous magazine began to feature such uncompromising groups and unlikely teen idols as The Animals (who were), Them (quite) and even The Pretty Things (who weren't).

In this context, a six-foot Apache who had toured with Slim Harpo (well, a five-eleven half-Cherokee who'd heard of him) could become a professional bass player. His agent called him Running Bear after the old Johnny Preston hit and used his picture and phony bio (but not his limited musical talents) on three dodgy singles and one appalling album. Out of this, he got a year's worth of hash, several enthusiastic screwings, a number of useful contacts and a lasting moniker, courtesy of Sonny Boy Williamson. He was introduced to the old bluesman back stage at Ready, Steady, Go! one afternoon when the bullshit was flying even more copiously than usual and the television asslickers had been drowning the great man in Scotch. Sonny Boy glared at this Limey kid in a flowered shirt who'd been introduced as an Apache. "Look like Whitey to me," he growled, and it stuck.

Blackie at the time was trying to get himself thrown out of the London School of Economics. This was harder than you might think, since the invariable rule among English universities was that the more exclusive the institution the more infallible were the admission procedures – after all, if you're grooming the leaders of a hierarchical social system, you can't have them thinking that luck played any part in their selection – and the LSE certainly thought it was pretty hot shit. So did the New Left neo-Marxists who were beginning to dominate the student body. They were thrilled to welcome a rough diamond from the north, with the authentic working-class donkey jacket and jeans, the taste for an ale or ten after a Saturday afternoon on the terraces and the fock-you way of talking. Most of them did not want to hear that the accent was only slightly more authentic than Mick Jagger's cockney and the clothes were a pure reaction to a bourgeois background. (The beer and football, however, were for real.) Len Black had spent nearly two decades buttoning his lip and despising his surroundings; the habit was becoming hard to break.

The astute reader (pay attention at the back there) will already have divined the catalytic agent that brought these two outcasts together. Ale was part of it, and football too, but what connected them first was Afghani black at ten quid an ounce. Whitey had access and Blackie had a little cash. This was in the days when three and a tanner would get you a couple of pints, two in the back stalls and cod 'n' chips on the way home ... not exactly, but ten pounds was a week's wages for a lot of crummy jobs. The quid deal, at about twenty to the ounce, was the most common unit for transactions.

The connection didn't start out primarily as a business. Stoners were a rather exclusive sub-group in the days before Dylan turned on the Beatles, who proselytized the world with the help of an enthusiastic volunteer advertising campaign centered on San Francisco. Jazz musicians, poets and beatniks manqués were the main users. Mods and rockers alike stuck at first to uppers, such as the famous Purple Hearts, the better either to dance the night away or to have a punch-up on the beach, which after all was why the army popularized amphetamines in the first place. The politicos were mostly puritans, shocked at the notion that illegal smiles were breaking out all over. The mid-sixties dopers were alienated, apathetic, hedonistic, self-involved and soporific, knew it and didn't give a flying fuck. It was a great relief for all of them to find each other. At last there was someone who understood.

As it happened, there were soon rather a lot of people who seemed to understand, including a goodly proportion of the undergraduates at every major campus. Blackie was introduced to dope by one of the few people he met to hold Karl Marx and Adam Smith in equal contempt, who taught him to score from this half-breed half-musician in Notting Hill. When his patron graduated (to the Atlas mountains of southern Morocco), Blackie began to do other people favors, and Whitey asked him not to bring too many of them around.

Fair enough, figured Blackie, who at least knew how to count. Might as well pick up a commission.