COLUMN: April 5, 2012

PHIL COOL saved my life once.

If you are knocking on the door of middle-age, or, like me, are hanging around in the vestibule of middle-age reading the takeaway pizza leaflet, you will remember Phil Cool well.

For those of you who think of the 1980s as an exotic time, full of Tom Cruise in aviator specs having a Rubik’s Cube-off with Mr T and the Human League in a bleeping warehouse, I will explain Phil Cool. Incidentally, you are exactly right. That is what the 80s were like.

Phil Cool was, and still is, an impressionist, able to re-arrange his facial features at will – the anti-Andie MacDowell – and had a hugely popular series on BBC2 called Cool It, before he decided fame was not for him and retired from television. But when I was nearly 17, he was at the height of his fame.

I had recently acquired a harmonica, fancying that the ability to play the harmonica would make me catnip to teenage girls. I might as well have learnt the bagpipes.

And I had the harmonica with me when I went to the heaving cellar of Flanagan’s Apple on Mathew Street, with Martin and Philip, my equally unencumbered-by- female-interest friends from school. I liked going out with Martin and Philip as they looked a year older and were able to be served at the bar without any reasonable doubt on the barmaid’s part in those pre-ID days.

I, however, was much fresher of face, like some freakish elongated baby. So that night, after Martin and Philip had both got their rounds in, they turned to me.

“Get the Guinnesses in,” they said.

“I don’t like Guinness. It tastes like earwax,” I said. I looked over at the bar. I was convinced the barmaid would not serve me. She looked the sort. “I won’t get served.”

“Get on with it, you freakish elongated baby,” they said.

The Saturday night Flanagan’s crowd at that time was entertained by a singing guitarist whose name my memory convinces me was Lenny. Members of the exclusive clientele were often invited to join him on the tiny stage and sing along.

A plan formed. If I got up on stage with Lenny, it would surely be proof to the bar staff that I was of age. After all, what sort of idiot would draw attention to himself if he were underage?

At that moment, Lenny’s G-string snapped. Let us ignore the comic resonance of that statement and join me as I push through the crowd, harmonica in hand.

“Fancy a jam?” I ask, anticipating tooting the odd note in the background. Even I can handle that.

“Nice one,” says Lenny. “You just play for a bit while I fix this.” Before I can say anything, he introduces me to the audience as “Johnny Harmonica.”

I look out at a sea of faces. I don’t know what to do. I can’t play anything all the way through. And who really wants to listen to an unaccompanied harmonica? Somebody clears his throat. As the silence goes on, the atmosphere becomes threatening.

And suddenly Phil Cool’s gurning face swims into my head. I bet I could play the harmonica-based theme tune to his show, Cool It. So I begin. And it turns out I can. And, a few bars in, the crowd starts to clap along.

It isn’t a long song, so I start to improvise. Brilliantly. I take the roof off, readers, which is even more difficult given we are in a cellar. I finish to applause and cheers. And then I accompany and sing along with Lenny as he does the Rolling Stones’ All Over Now. It is the best night of my life.

I step down and am patted on the back all the way to the bar.

“Blimey,” say Philip and Martin, as I pass.

I drink it in. This is my life now. Adulation and respect all the way. I am Johnny Harmonica.

“Two pints of Guinness and a pint of cider, please,” I say.

The barmaid looks at me and beams.

“There’s no way you’re 18, lad,” she says.

It has been like that ever since.

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