George Cheyne: Glasgow, October 2022
By the time I turned 15 I was well on my way to being worldly wise thanks to my parents, teachers and peers.
I knew how to eat, walk, talk, do sums, kick a ball, ride a bike, swim, neck a can of Tartan Special, get myself a paper-boy job and spend my hard-earned cash on records and going to gigs.
This was all learned behaviour. But nobody – and I mean NOBODY – could teach me how to dance with a girl at the local Saturday night disco.
Sure, you could watch others up on the dance floor from the safety of the side of the hall and it looked pretty straightforward.
A banging tune, just three minutes or so to throw some shapes and find a bit of chat…how hard could it be? Nigh-on impossible for me, as it turned out.
That teenage angst has stayed with me for almost 50 years and I can’t listen to the song I had my first dance to – Bryan Ferry’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, if you must know – without regurgitating that sense of pain from back then.
This would be late 1973, so the only dance-floor experience I’d had up to this point was the school dance – a clumsy collection of classmates hurtling around a hall with no coordination or finesse trying to do waltzes and such like.
There was, I suppose, an all-male jump-around to Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize” at the disco, but that hardly counts.
Dancing in front of a bedroom mirror to practice my dance moves was a non-starter, so I opted for that traditional Scottish warm-up – a shared half bottle of vodka and a couple of cans of Tartan Special.
It was during this illicit booze session that my fate was sealed.
Too many slugs of voddy and coke had loosened my tongue enough for me to start singing: Oh, where have you been my blue-eyed son? Where have you been, my darling young one?
Aside from the amount of drink taken, there was no rhyme or reason for belting out the opening lines of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Well, apart from liking Bryan Ferry and having blue eyes of my own, that is.
It was just a random song rattling around in my befuddled mind, but it was somehow seen by my tipsy mates as a sign from the Dance Gods.
“That’s it”, I was told, “If they play that song tonight, you have to get up and dance.”
“No bother,” I said, clearly emboldened by a few more gulps of vodka.
An hour or so later we were standing around like wallflowers at the local disco as the chart toppers of the day boomed out one after the other.
The odds of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” being on the playlist shortened dramatically when, unbeknownst to me, one of my pals went up to the DJ’s booth and requested the song.
Just for good measure, I was reminded of the promise I’d made about getting up to dance to Ferry’s interpretation of a Bob Dylan classic.
A song ironically about suffering
The net was closing in. One of my mates had the decency to say he’d be my wingman if the song was played to make sure I wasn’t flying solo.
Then, to my dismay, out the speakers came: Oh, where have you been my blue-eyed son? Where have you been, my darling young one?
Gulp! This was it, no turning back. Any thoughts of not going through with it were banished by a friendly push in the back from my wingman as he steered me towards four girls already up dancing.
They were only a couple of yards away, but those few stuttering steps somehow felt like a walk to the gallows.
Target 12 o’clock high. I tried to keep my focus as beads of sweat trickled in my eyes, down my back…everywhere, in fact.
Hold formation. Shoulders back, eyes front, make eye contact and remember to smile.
Target dead ahead. Keep smiling, clear throat and say: “Uh, widjuhliket’dance?” Thankfully, the noise levels disguised my mumblings and – it appeared to me, anyway – I had bagged a dance partner.
What I didn’t have was a wingman. He’d aborted the mission halfway through and returned to base.
I risked a half glance behind me and saw him standing with the rest of them in full wallflower pose, giggling and pointing in my general direction. Cheers, lads.
My legs felt as if they had been planted in quick-set concrete and restricted my movement to the waist up.
The result was a dance style which was somewhere between a Weeble toy trying to restore its balance after being pinged with full force and a hen with two broken wings trying to take flight.
Not at all embarrassing, then. To her eternal credit, my dance partner stuck with it despite the bizarre antics of the uncoordinated 15-year-old in front of her.
The song’s lyrics flashed through my mind during the five minutes and 20 seconds of torture I’d given myself. Trust me to pick a song which went on for ever.
The blue-eyed son in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” had stumbled on the side of 12 misty mountains, walked and crawled on six crooked highways, stepped in the middle of seven sad forests and been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
No mention, you’ll notice, of him dying on his arse on a crowded dance floor. That particular embarrassment belonged to me and it’s why I still cringe whenever I hear the song all these years later.
Ferry’s haunting voice singing: Oh, where have you been my blue-eyed son? Where have you been, my darling young one? is enough to make me know a hard pain’s a-gonna call.