Wednesday, January 18, 2023

"I can't imagine a life without music."

Gordon Hayes, owner of Nervous Records, the longest-serving record shop in Hinckley, died on Monday, and a town is in mourning.

Gordon was our friend, and was thought of as a friend by most of our small Midlands town, it seems. With sparkling blue eyes behind spectacles gently channelling those of his idol John Lennon, he wielded the exuberance and sparkle of someone much younger than his date of birth might suggest; sharp of wit, firm in his beliefs, he was unfiltered in his kindness and generosity.

So far this sounds like the kind of write-up that would have him cringing, batting it away with a checked shirt sleeve while offering you a cup of tea. I can hear this distinctive voice tutting and laughing as I'm sitting here grappling for phrases that don't succumb to cliché. You can hear that gentle voice in this interview.

I grew up next door to Gordon's Dad, Eric, who lived at No. 4 Hays Lane. It was decades before I was corrected in my belief that the lane was named after Eric; it wasn't, as Gordon pointed out one day, because his 'Hayes' has an 'E' in it. Gordon would arrive at No. 4 in a rocker's jacket with long hair, cool specs, looking grown-up and dramatic, and I would watch as this elongated, slim 'youth' wandered up the drive. That's Gordon, my Mum and Dad would say.

He opened his shop in the 70s, and its history is the subject of this documentary. And although the shop's breathtaking longevity is impressive in itself, surviving recessions, streaming, online shopping and pandemics, this blog is about the man who ran it.

He bought our records, we bought his; he ordered in the rare things for us. We sold him records, he sold our 45rpm adapters during the years that we made them. He bought our vegan solid chocolate eggs and we drank tea. There were all the conversations in the Co-op; the joy over their vegan doughnuts, when such things were still a distant fantasy for us. His horror when it closed down - how far was he going to have to walk now! I still refer to brussels sprouts the same way as him, my fellow sprout-lover— ‘little cabbages’.  I even designed him a new shop logo once; I think he used it on paper, but it never made it to the shopfront (why would it, when his hand-rendered type stands as bold and clear today as the day it went up?)

And he was our biggest cheerleader when we released a 12" with Sage Francis:

Gordon came to our gallery events and surprised me with his never-diminishing interest in my work. I worried I was boring him if I went off on a work chat, but he was always curious. Maybe I was still the art-school teenager in his eyes; the one that would have walked into his shop asking for awkward records when I could easily have sought them from the 'other' record shop - the one I didn't like to go in, because the staff could be aloof and they never had what I wanted.

Speaking of work, his DIY ethic was front and centre, and a significant contributor to our own modus operandi. Of particular charm were Gordon's hand-drawn shop signs. Long ago established as a way to save cash, his beautiful, almost casually-calligraphic letters were called upon to write every sale board and every poster. He somehow managed to master kerning and justification without resort to digital means - no small achievement. The little stars too; check out the little stars!

I was emailing him a week or so ago, as he'd sent me his annual home-produced birthday card - always funny. His last words to me were "Again, just the one at the back!" - I chuckled, but it wouldn't be funny here even if I tried to explain it. Gordon's desire to argue his point was strong and informed, but he was also a listener. His lapel badges and posters were a neat non-verbal heads-up to his stance on a way of life - which you could choose to engage with or not - and wherever you stood on the spectrum of those issues, he'd talk with you about them all. His influence was such that, having had to give up dairy in 1997 as an already non-meat eater, I was inspired to cut the remaining animal-based foods and products from my life, like Gordon. We continue to live that way today, and in further examples, we're able to reflect back on our music-buying and identify the things that came to us through the Nervous sphere of influence.

In the hours after the news of his death was made public, Gordon’s many customers began deploying the word 'legend' - and when I looked it up, I realised it wasn't a lazy superlative; it actually fitted like the proverbial Smiths' Hand In Glove:

His legendary status came from his humility, his wealth of knowledge, his ethical stance, his humour and warm welcome. There’s more, but they’re all quality traits in a human. His existence on earth spanned seven decades, so not only did he possess a musical knowledge that was empirical and encyclopaedic, he had a customer base that was multi-generational: people all over the area knew him, but so did their Grandpas, their Mums, Aunties, siblings - and then their children. The poet Buddy Wakefield, seen with Gordon in the photograph above, said "truly humble people don't use the word humble"; Gordon's humility first and foremost seemed to shape everything else he did and was.

He's gone. But someone on Facebook said that they thought Gordon "was just always going to be there" - and in all the ways that truly matter, he will be.

~ The growing collection of tributes outside Gordon's shop today, 18th January 2023. ~

Photos: First (Will Johnston/Leicester Mercury) and last photo of Gordon borrowed from The Hinckley Times where I briefly worked as a typesetter of obituaries for a while. All other photographs are my own.

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