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Housing Benefit Hill: Rubber soul
"I suppose - looking at it from where I am now, in the future - I can say, yeah, it's things like that you want. I mean, I'd be delighted to be on the main stage at a festival with thousands of people going wild about me and giving me an encore..."
I HAVE it on good authority that Steven Andrews and his friends have got up a petition demanding that the Guardian prints a story about him every week. The good authority is Steven himself. I typed up the petition. Well I'm not sure I could manage a story about him every week, or even every month, but I'm certain that he deserves at least one more mention.
Steven Andrews - in case you've forgotten - is that old hippie friend of mine who had such a spectacular line in sartorial lunacy back in the '70s. He used to wear red satin trousers with yellow stars and a purple tee-shirt with black stars and a satin jacket and knee-length, metallic-blue platform boots, amongst other things. So if you imagine him dressed like that now, it should give you the flavour of the rest of the story.
Steve is quite tall and has a certain stoop. When his hair was long he used to wear it like a curtain to hide his face. He was often depressed. But even in the moments of the worst depression Steve was incapable of taking himself seriously. I used to say that he was a parody of himself. Whenever he speaks it is with a huge sense of the ridiculous, and he punctuates his conversations with snorts and guffaws, as if he's on the point of choking on his own absurdity. It's as if he's watching his life on TV, like an ITV sit-com, and providing his own canned laughter.
"I always wanted to be a rock star," he told me. "I suppose I wanted to be a protest singer, kind of Bob Dylan type. I used to think that somehow or another it would all come to me and I didn't have to do that much about it. But - well it didn't - it never did come to me.
"I used to do these crazy songs which I didn't really like doing. There was one called 'Extracting The Latex From A Rubber Ducky' which was just ridiculous. The whole concept was insane. It was inspired by a friend of mine who was schizophrenic. He used to often mutter to himself 'rubber ducky, rubber ducky, rubber ducky.' And one night we'd been smoking Durban Poison* and it just came into my head. I said: 'Paul, I could write a song called Extracting The Latex From A Rubber Ducky.' And he said: 'Yeah, well - you know - go for it!'
"So I went home, I wrote this stuff down. And I put a few chords to it and I thought, 'well, I've got my song, Extracting The Latex From A Rubber Ducky.' And I started playing it in Chapter Arts Centre. And people loved it and it was really stupid.
"It was a two chord song. It had crazy lines in it like, 'extracting the latex from a rubber ducky, gets you in a mess, yes, very mucky, will give you all a try if you're very lucky, extracting the latex from a rubber ducky.' That's the first verse of it. It carries on like that. It's just rubbish."
And then one night he was doing a performance at the Arts Centre: Extracting The Latex From A Rubber Ducky, and a few other songs, including one or two cover versions. He was half way through A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan, when two of the strings on his guitar broke. He wasn't all that good a guitarist anyway, and now he couldn't even get a tune out of it. So he put on this voice. "Well actually this is the Bryan Ferry version," he said, and then he hammed it up like crazy to cover up for the jangling cacophony of his strangulated guitar.
"And then I got stuck with doing Bryan Ferry versions of everything. So I was doing this stupid Rubber Ducky song, and Bryan Ferry voices for covers of other things, and all this rubbish people seemed to be, like, really into."
One time he was at the Windsor Free Festival, off his head on Mogadon, with a couple of people he knew. Hawkwind were playing. And he just decided that he wanted to play. He borrowed a guitar from someone, and he started hassling the organisers to go on stage. He was probably drawling, and almost certainly incapable of listening to reason. In the end the organisers agreed, just to get rid of him. This was on the main stage, after Hawkwind. So he was headlining for Hawkwind. And Steve had a little yellow rubber duck with him, and him and his two friends got up there before this massive crowd, with a beat up old guitar and a kazoo, and a rubber duck, and started playing the Rubber Ducky song. The crowd loved it.
"I had an encore for it. I just couldn't relate to it, cos there were all these thousands and thousands of hippie people out there in the field all going wild about this rubbish.
"I suppose - looking at it from where I am now, in the future - I can say, yeah, it's things like that you want. I mean, I'd be delighted to be on the main stage at a festival with thousands of people going wild about me and giving me an encore. I'd think: 'Great! I've really got it made here.' But then I just thought: 'God, these people are mad, they're just going wild about this rubbish, this Rubber Ducky junk.'
"I did some other songs. I did one called He Left His Head In Acapulco, which is also totally stupid. And a song called Pippin The Pigeon. And this was the kind of stuff they wanted. All the songs the people seemed to go for was all this rubbish. Any songs about - you know - the trials and tribulations of life, and my love life, or lack of it - things like that - people weren't into. But then again, if you were a big star writing songs about failed romance, then that's fine: people would all be into that. But if you're not a big star then they don't want that. They want to listen to a load of junk."
Some months later he was in London on his way to a Van Morrison concert. Van Morrison was one of his heroes (at least Van Morrison didn't have to do stupid songs about rubber ducks). And before the gig he went to a pub to get himself a drink. This was in Finsbury Park, an ordinary little pub at the end of a terraced street. So he's at the bar, relaxing with his drink and looking forward to the concert, when this stranger comes up to him. "Oh man!" the bloke says, bubbling with enthusiasm. "Oh man! You're the guy that does the song about the rubber ducky, you're from Wales, oh, this is too much, there's all these people over here who've heard all about you. Oh, you've got to come and meet all my friends."
And Steve thought: "Right! Well! I've just come in the bar and there's all these people heard all about me, and they wanna meet me, and this guy here knows all about me, and this is all about this fucking rubber ducky again!"
So he went over to talk to them.
They were treating him like a big star, asking him all sorts of questions, plying him with drinks and being generally enthusiastic. And all about a song that made no sense.
"I played that song so much that one day I had to kill the rubber ducky. One night at the Chapter Bar in Cardiff, I rearranged some of the song lyrics to include the death of the duck, and with some help I stabbed and stamped it into its shoe-box coffin. We even had a guy dressed up as an Undertaker. Of course, that wasn't the end of the bloody duck. I got calls to do the re-incarnation of the duck. I did it a couple of times, I'm sorry to say. But that time we killed the duck was wild. There were people in the crowd actually crying!"
Such is life. People crying over an imaginary rubber duck. But it strikes me that the image has masturbatory implications. Extracting the latex from a rubber ducky: think about it. Perhaps that's why the song was so popular.
Would you buy a record called "Extracting the Latex From a Rubber Ducky"?
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