Farewell to the King of Mill Road

Some people might find this odd but I have a thing about Cambridge. Sometimes I even feel like I live there when I don’t, and I never have. Yes, the dreamy spires and oldy-worldy charm are alright, but that’s not what I’m on about. Underneath is a regular English city facing the usual onslaught of cuts, austerity and gentrification. But there is also a spirit of fierce resistance that goes back a long way. It’s based around a network of – amongst other things – gigs, campaigns, squats, art, a rebel radio station and Strawberry Fayre: one of the last, big free festivals left in the country. It’s a world of working class, bohemian radicalism, the likes of which seems to be disappearing fast everywhere. And it’s the world in which I first encountered Johnny Marvel.

I was hoping to ask him next time I saw him exactly when and where we first met, but he died last Sunday. He was fifty years old. Maybe I’ll never know now. Was it at a gig featuring my old band Flannel at the now-defunct Boat Race pub in 1996, where we’d joined forces with SchNews, the radical weekly A4 newsletter of the burgeoning protest scene? Was he the DJ who played his records at 45 rpm when they should have been 33 rpm as a deliberate act of cultural vandalism, just for the laughs? The night was run by a crew called Thee Theatre ov thee Absurd, after all. I’m pretty sure Johnny was there but I’m not sure it was him DJing. That’s ok, though, because in some ways it seems he’s always been around. Except now he’s not.

I definitely remember the first time we bonded. We went out on the piss and I was only drinking lime and soda but I still ended up intoxicated. We both did. It was the sun and the chat about the wildness of life and its possibilities. It seemed we’d got through to some mystical essence or kernel of truth at the heart of things. Everyone who knew Johnny went through a similar experience with him. You can see it all for yourselves on the Facebook page set up in his memory. That’s why we all loved him. It was that ability to connect in such a profound way.

What was it that Johnny did? I was never sure, but he was a man of many talents. He was a poet, that’s for certain. An active anarchist. A DJ. A raconteur. A promoter. A hustler of culture. An organiser of a support group for the council flat residents where he lived. A producer. A carer. He was all these things and more, and yet so much more than the sum of his parts. In the end, Johnny was just Johnny and that’s all there was to it.

Part of my attraction to Cambridge is that it’s unique: it’s the only place in the world I’ve turned up and do gigs and always found an audience that actually knows my stuff! Perhaps if I was more ambitious I’d say this was a case of “early adaptors” or some such marketing bullshit, but in truth I was always just happy to be amongst like minded people. Johnny would always turn up to my shows, except when he didn’t. This would all depend on who he’d pissed off, or who had pissed him off, or where he’d been banned from, or some combination of these things. Like small places everywhere, the scene in Cambridge can be quite claustrophobic at times, and memories can be long, but things can also all come out in the wash, too and there was always a whole lotta love around for him.

It was weird given that we both made music that we never formally collaborated. The nearest we got to it was about ten years ago at the Secret Garden Party festival. Johnny and I wondered around the site late one night tripping the light fantastic and talking shyte with a talented MC from Bristol called Clayton. The three of us then decided we’d take over a small venue called the People’s Front Room. I played piano – not my forte – Johnny ranted and Clayton played guitar. Maybe it was great, maybe it was rubbish but but I’ll remember it fondly forever!

One of the last times I saw him I introduced him to my goddaughter who was studying at the art college. Four of us went out for a meal on Mill Road. That’s the part of the city that’s not quite studentsville and not quite townie-ville. Despite the inevitable signs of gentrification, it still radiates – for me at least – a history of community squats and proper old-school pubs. After leaving the restaurant, we swung into his fave watering hole the Dev. He told me it used to be run by a load of Rastas. Years ago he’d had a birthday do in there. When Diana died, he’d stood on a table and he went into an anti-royalist rant. These events rolled into each other with such speed as he was taking, I didn’t know whether they all happened on the same night or different ones. “I’m the King of Mill Road!” he said to me. I didn’t doubt it for a second. Mill Road was always the throbbing heart of underground Cambridge for me and Johnny was always the Don. But that heart is in pain today and so is mine.

The last time I saw Johnny was his 50th last year. He’d turned the area round the back of his flat into a mini festival. There was a bar and a stage made from wooden pallets and snazzy lighting: true DIY spirit. Weirdly enough, things felt at a crossroads that night, between one thing and another. Johnny’s mum turned up and I met her for the first time. I phoned my mum and Johnny spoke to her. Once everyone left, we went back to his flat, put the world straight, talked about the new projects we were doing and laughed long and hard at all the stupidity in the world. The last time we spoke on the phone a few months ago, we said how much we loved each other. And now he’s gone. The world seems that bit darker today. But we can always let the light in, as Johnny might say, if we just stopped being so fucking boring. True. I’m just finding it all a bit difficult at the moment.

I can’t believe I’m actually writing this. I’ll miss you, you fucker. Farewell.