Chapter 1 – Tumblin’ Dice
I’d seen the pub busy like this a thousand times. A local band with a bit of a following had organised their crowd with military precision. They’d made sure every other boozer in a 30 mile radius was free of goths, punks, Indie kids, metal-heads and anyone with a passing interest in scoring some pot for one night only. They’d have hustled, cajoled and charmed their way round 90 percent of the people in the room in the weeks before the show and brought them all here, to The Head.
We were now at the stage of the evening where things graduated from a gig in a local music venue to the precursor to whatever you’re doing next. The band had played their set. They’d done well and laid another brick in the slow build of their reputation. They had possibly shifted some screen printed T-Shirts or reduced the pile of white label seven inch singles going back to their lock up by as many as a couple of dozen. Their part was done. Now it was 10:30 and the particulars of our live music licensing curfew had to be observed. Ears ringing with a little feedback, the crowd were still clapping when the spotlights turned off and the guitarist unplugged. The drummer was unscrewing cymbals by the time the house lights were up. The rest of his band evaporated as his load up began.
The real star of the venue had it’s time to shine. The jukebox on the opposite wall to the stage was the stuff of local legend. Every single track in that silver and yellow light up museum of rock and roll goodness was a gold plated, five star undeniable anthem. Getting a track inside the box was a tough call. The rules regulating the one out/one in policy and the Sunday League who approved it were as keenly observed as the local football team’s performance.
To be part of The Jukebox Jury was to be accepted by the scene. It meant you were part of The Head and The Head was part of you. In the last Sunday of every month the Jury would gather to review new releases and submissions from the assembled crowd. Legends or one hit wonders did battle with indie stalwarts and next big things to earn their place in the box. It was music nerd heaven to some, a strange hilarious ritual to others and completely unintelligible bobbins to most. For the ceremony this evening though, the random button had been hit and the mechanics of the box were working their strange alchemy. A thousand songs jostled for the prize tonight. The honour of being the first track on after the band. A portion of the regulars waited with baited breath as if a musical groundhog were about to see (or not see) a shadow.
Keith Richards bent the first note of Tumblin’ Dice and the room roared. Jagger rushed in behind his compadre with a ‘Mmmm yeah’ as Zippy clambered the customer side of the bar to duet over a beer pump with Trace on the staff side ‘Women think I’m tasty, but they’re always tryin’ to waste me and make me burn my candle right down’. A mob of faceless randoms over by the stage pitched in ‘But Baby, Baby, I don’t need no jewels in my crown’. And that was it. The pact was sealed. We were assured a damned good time… For the next hour at least.
I gave a punter his change and looked for the next order to take… ‘Yes please Ladies and Gentlefish. You’ve seen the band now gimmie your folding stuff. It’s payday tomorrow and I’m sure you want to start with a clean slate, I know you do. Empty those pockets and fill up on the good stuff. Thursday is the new Friday and Friday is the new Christmas. Happy Halloween… Get ’em while the gettin’s good Boys and Girls.’
Now here’s a likely customer. Solveigh. The Danish beauty who glided into The Head with her troupe of immaculately turned out Ladies and got boys and girls all a flutter where ever she goes. “Evening Gorgeous. What can I get you?” I was imagining myself to be some suave and sophisticated bartender like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, despite the fact I looked more like a Viking at a Ramones concert. “Two gin and tonics with slimline tonic and two glasses of white wine with ice please Steve” She purred. Those plump matte painted lips over pronouncing my name in her sultry Dansk accent. We’d been doing this dance for years. She vamps it up at the bar. I serve her right away. We chat a friendly chat and she sails back to the most glamorous corner of the venue not having queued. “Coming right up. Did you like the band?”, “We did.” Solveigh always answers for her whole group. It’s as if the Heathers who made Winona Ryder’s life so miserable in that movie had decided to spend the night in a dive bar listening to some toilet circuit Indie Rock. Like they went for a bit of rough one time and just kept coming back. “We thought they rocked” she added with a wink of one long dark eyelashed brown eye. “Excellent”.
What happens next will move like clockwork. One of the Dan’s on the bar crew will act like a Looney Tunes Cartoon with eyes popping out and tongue lolloping. He’ll resemble Gene Simmons having a stroke the minute her back is turned. And so it goes. Dan The Man met me at the back bar to pour measures for his customers while I set up the drinks for the Supermodel among us. “Steve Mate, I know I say this every time but, how?” There was a nervousness in Dan’s voice most of the time. Like the thrill of being alive was both terrifying and exciting him at every given moment. Dan The Man had the personality of a golden retriever with his head out of a car window. “I don’t know what you mean.” It had begun. The turn. The moment in our conversational dance where I get to pretend to be James Bond cool for a few minutes. “Yes you do. Can you pass the measure? Yes you do. You know exactly what I’m asking” Dan The Man’s stage whisper and nervous voice makes the pledge think he’s either about to swoon or piss his pants. It’s all part of his humour. A humble, well meaning shy boy tortured by manners and insecurity. Like Dudley Moore in Bewitched or Hugh Grant in everything he’s ever made. “What?”
“How is it you serve women who look like that and don’t stutter and stammer. You just go ‘Allo Gorgeous!’ like some Barra Boy while I’m over here serving roadies and swamp trolls? I’m looking in on your life like, how does he do it?”, Bless him. The bar is busy and as much as the rituals must be observed I don’t really have time for a whole play for today on the subject of Solveigh tonight. So I jump to the prestige. “You wanna swap?” He flinched “Fuck No!” Dan’s a little shocked that we got there right away. “I’d turn into a pile of bugs if she winked at me like that.”, “Then pass me that bottle of white. Give my regards to the trolls and have a look and see if you can find out where Sarah has got to. I’ve got to go and change the Export on two.” I motioned to the cellar hatch. “She’s just so bloody pretty.” Dan seethes at me through gritted teeth. I’m Han Solo for a second “I know” I wink and move on. He mutters on “They all are” Not really at me. Possibly at Eros or the plastic cherub hanging above the till that represented the God of love inside The Head. I patted Dan on the back in a consolatory manner and chuckled to myself about his ironic alpha male nickname. Dan The Man. Tongue tied at the sight of a pretty girl. Shy in front of the bathroom mirror and vanished in a puff of smoke at the first sign of trouble. “I know.”
Solveigh glided back with four glasses in her hands as if she was on rails. The crowd parted like a hive-mind was making way for a queen bee. There was never a risk of those drinks spilling even a drop. Dan’s nickname helped differentiate him from the other Dan’s who populated The Head on a regular basis. Dan The Man worked the Bar.
Dan The Van drove for the local PA hire company, and for most of the local bands, and for anyone who needed anything moving or doing anywhere that might require a van. He also happened to have some pretty shady connections who sent him on lucrative trips to pick up loads of suspect goods which he had promised not to sell in The Head as it’s wise to ‘not shit where you eat’ in the words of his employer. The notorious Mr Knickerbocker.
Then There’s Dan DaDan Dan. Bass player in Zippy’s band and barfly in the Head for as long as I can remember. Dan DaDan Dan is a good bloke. An ox of a man who would do anything for anyone if his memory wasn’t so shot he always forgets where he’s supposed to be (if that’s anywhere other than) propping up the bar in The Head. Dan DaDan Dan collects glasses and sets the stage for the venue most nights to keep his bar tab within the realms of his life expectancy and yet he could be any age between 21 and 45.
Gaz (from tonight’s band Cheeze Whizz) was stood by the hatch as I opened it up to make my way down to the cellar. “Yes please Steve.” he said keenly with a victory V signal that indicated he would like two beers. I reached into the ‘Band Crate’ and pulled out two bottles of knock down student night £1 a bottle lager. “Good set” I popped the caps and handed them over. “Cheers. You like the new cover?” I nodded appreciatively “Wait For The Blackout? Loved it. We were singing along behind the bar.”This seemed to please Gaz “Excellent!”
I descended to the cellar looking to roll a new barrel into position. When I emerged a couple of minutes later with arm loads of back stock for the fridges, Tumblin’ Dice had given way to Beck’s new single. The parping horns of Sexx Laws had got the indie boys and girls bopping all around the building. I went straight back into serving. Dan, Trace and Daisy were all taking money hand over fist. Everything was going according to plan inside The Head on a Thursday night eight weeks from the end of the twentieth century.
Beck’s thin white duke-alike was followed by Gil Evans and His Orchestra covering Crosstown Traffic. A 70’s funk throwback brought to the box by Uncle Vernon upon his return from working overseas. Blur, X-Ray Spex, Eminem, Blondie, Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder all followed. It was a time honored tradition to finish the night with One Bourbon One Scotch One Beer at 11pm and send everyone home by 11:30 with John Lee Hooker ringing in their ears, their tongues down each others throats and their money in our tills.
Sometimes there would be a lock in. Sarah would come down from the flat upstairs and serve her famous chili for the band, for the bar staff and for The Heads’ entourage. Tonight she was nowhere to be seen. So, I paid the band and saw most of them out the door. I had Daisy, Dan & Trace cleaning down the back bar before the weekend was due to start properly tomorrow.
Trace Elements had worked at The Head almost as long as I had. She was shacked up with a guy called Scruff who pushed vinyl at the local indie record store. I’d once seen her break up a fight with two swift Mum slaps and a pointy finger. She dressed like Tank Girl had got a job in a day nursery. She also had the sharpest bullshit detector in the business. Trace no got a round in for the four of us. With the last of the band dispatched I started putting chairs on tables while Daisy was wiping down the bar.
Daisy Chain-Reaction got her nickname from an incident that had passed into legend. She was once cleaning down a mess in the far corner of a glass shelf above the bar when she knocked a pin loose that caused around sixty glasses to come crashing down. In an attempt to avert disaster she’d tried to move a tray of empties from the path of destruction. Only to fling them into the liquor bottles on the back bar. Somehow this blew a light fitting that caused the wiring to trip and the whole building to be plunged into darkness. Dan and Trace were both working that night and retell the tale often. Their versions have Daisy stood screaming, her hands to the sides of her mouth like she was painted by Edvard Munch as sparks fly, bottles topple and things collapse all around her.
After a couple of talked up coincidences involving things being dropped or some piece of equipment malfunctioning when Daisy raised her voice in the year since then, her reputation was sealed. She was our own English Sissy Spacek. It helped that Daisy was a long haired blonde hippy of a girl in floaty dresses or retro 70’s outfits who looked every inch the spiritual type. This crew formed the core of the bar staff on many a big gig night. While it was Sarah who owned the place. I managed it for her seven nights a week. I’d been there for six years at this stage. Trace was my right hand woman and Dan my left handed side kick. Daisy was a sweet girl with an easy charm who the customers liked. She was smart and funny and could sing and play piano with the natural ease most posh girls who grew up having choir and piano lessons possessed. Everyone on the staff was musical in one way or another. Everyone except me.
Dan (The Man) Bough played a mean blues harp and was in a band with his big brother Dickie. The boys in Mountain Of Light may have all been bartenders, waiters and brickies in their day to day work. When they got together to play the pubs and clubs of our county they were time travelling soul men from the Delta.
Trace had a band that used to play in The Head regularly before they went their separate ways. She was a fantastic guitar player who had been called up on stage on several occasions to play a Sonic Youth or Smashing Pumpkins track with younger bands who formed after seeing her tearing it up in here some years previous. She held a little status as something of a local legend. She was having none of it though.
With the place all set save for a once round with the Henry in the morning, I joined the others in the nook. “It must have been a good night” stated Daisy as Trace set a drink in front of each of us. “I reckon” I replied. “We must’ve taken Saturday night money. For a Thursday before a big weekend that’s pretty good. Are you all on for tomorrow night?” Dan pointed out he and the band had a gig Saturday but was fine for Friday. Trace confirmed attendance for the next two evening shifts and Sunday Lunch. “Are you all here for Jukebox Jury?” It was a full house. Everyone could make it. Dan had organised the wider staff and most of them would be there too.
We recounted the evenings highlights under the pretense of making notes for the dray. Daisy told a joke about how she used to play triangle in a reggae band. She delivered the punchline with relish “I used to stand at the back an’ Ting”. Dan got his coat from behind the bar and asked if he could borrow a cassette to listen to on his walk home. Scruff appeared at the doorway to walk Trace back home across town. I’d asked him in but he didn’t want a drink, He said he had an early start in the morning and wanted to see Trace before bed.
I told the others to lock up on their way out and necked my pint. I said I’d put the takings in the safe and tell Sarah we were off. I picked up the heavy steel cash box and headed through the kitchen to the stairs soundtracked by the sound of Daisy making laboured puns about an ill fated tour with Poison. They were co-headling with The Cure so it cancelled itself out. She was trying to strong arm a Placebo gag in there and the others were laughing tired laughs.
The second I got to the door of Sarah’s living room I suspected all may not be well. She was listening to some mournful 60’s folk. Joni Mitchell I thought it was. I rapped twice on the door and she called me in. “Hiya Boss” Sarah was laying on the floor in front of her couch. She had built a respectable cloud of smoke above the rug on which she lay. It hung there like a tiny weather experiment. The large room was low lit with tiny lamps dotted around. I looked over to the turntable and saw the sleeve for Ladies Of The Canyon was propped against one of the speakers. I knew it. “Come in Stevie” Sarah gestured towards the sofa without attempting to stand. She may well have been stoned but she just looked depressed. I filled the void with chatter as I set the cash box down on the desk by the bay window and crossed the room ducking below the indoor storm cloud. “It was a decent night. Gaz and the Cheeze Whizz boys did us proud. Shall we count up now or…”
“We need to talk.”
“The team, all of us. We need to talk. Tomorrow. Three o’clock. Between shifts. Can you get them all together?”
“Are you OK?” My question just hung there. I sat down on Sarah’s couch looking down at my friend as her eyes filled like two lakes neath the cloud she had conjured above her. Sarah held her finger up to silence me and took a deep breath. It felt like an eternity before she uttered a word. “Kill the body and The Head will die.” She said. “The Head must die.”
Sarah went on to explain she’d received a final conclusive version of a compulsory purchase order for the building. Something she’d been fighting for some time and struggling in silence with over the last six weeks. The sum of money in the deal equated to far less than she had left to pay on the mortgage for the property. That would be disastrous news in it’s own right. Compound it with her commitments to the business and some historic debt she’d been paying off, this was a financial annihilation of her assets, her credit and her future.
Thinking selfishly for a moment the part of this that rang loudest in my ears was that we would be losing the building. The Head was the center of the scene. It was where a whole community communed. It was my livelihood, my home, my stage and the best damned music venue in the region. This was but a flash of ‘me me me’ though as I sat there looking down at the strongest person I knew welling up with tears. Bringing it right back to the room, the rush of feelings I got when I thought about all Sarah had done for me, for Trace, for so many local lost boys and girls was a stirring moment of indignation. “They can’t do that” I blurted out. “They can and they have Steve.”
“But, you have a thriving business here. You have a home. You have the jewel in the crown of the bloody County right here. You’re Sarah Bellum. Queen of The Head. They can’t fucking do this.” I was aware that I was about to be contradicted but I said it anyway. “Steve” She still wasn’t sitting up but she did a thing with her hand that stopped me dead. “You can’t fight City Hall. Six weeks I’ve been meeting with lawyers, councilors, bank managers, motherfuckers of every shade of grey. I’ve been offered the offer I got today as a result of this pushing back. It’s a damned sight better than the first two numbers they gave me.”
I didn’t know what to say. I started thinking back to the August Bank Holiday Weekend Extravaganza we’d thrown about six weeks ago. Sarah and I had put on our biggest gig ever. We had an outside stage facing onto the car park out front and had bands all day. It was a huge party on the Sunday night which melted into a Monday lunchtime Barbecue and Blues Jam. We’d seen over a thousand people come through the place over 3 days of music from the 50’s to the 90’s. It’d got us in the paper and in the national music press thanks to a few called in favours and some real sizable names playing strategic slots throughout the whole thing. The very next morning the early shift had all been full of tales from the event. A buzz remained in the building after the stages and extra tables were packed up and towed away. Sarah had seemed distracted since that morning. Seldom coming into the bar except to cover a no show shift. She’d been out at meetings when we opened up more often that usual. It was all there to see and I’d missed it up to now. 20/20 hindsight. Alright.
“You’ve known since The Head-In Festival haven’t you?” Sarah exhaled the longest lung full of air “We got the first letter the morning after” My blood was still up and my indignation had not entirely subsided. “We? You should have shared this Sarah. It’s a hell of a thing to carry on your own” She took another drag. “I didn’t want to drag you all down. I wasn’t alone.” Sarah is almost twenty years the senior of every member of team at The Head. We spend hours and hours together and often we can forget she’s got two decades of contacts and a history with the scene that stretches back to when we were all still in short trousers. “I got Mr Knickerbocker and Uncle Vernon in to help early doors. Or I tried to at least.” That was bad news in my book. “Shit Sarah. How the hell did Mr Knickerbocker help?” These two guys had lived a lifetime of shady deals and illicit activity in and around Sarah and her life as a publican. The difference between the two is that Uncle Vernon was first and foremost a musician with underworld connections while Mr Knickerbocker was a scary bastard first and a man of mystery second. All with a further helping of scary bastard on top. Truth be told though, they both loved Sarah. Either for the things she’d done for them in the past in Mr Knickerbocker’s case or because they were once lovers in Uncle Vernon’s. “He knows some bloody good lawyers Steve. This is grown up stuff.” I felt that one. “Well that figures. Did he behave himself?”
“Mostly. That’s not important right now. What’s important now is I give the team a chance to sort themselves out. They’ll need to look for jobs. They’ll need time to process this. Poor Little Steve he’s only just joined us.” Bless her I thought. Always helping “Ah, you should never have had three Steve’s on the staff in the first place. Do you know how confusing it is when we’re all on the same shift? This is what’s done it you know. You’ve gone over your Steve quota and angered the Dan Gods.” She didn’t laugh but she didn’t frown for a moment. Sarah laid there looking at the ceiling of this huge living room dealing with one of my stupid jokes again. “You’re a wise idiot Steve.” I counted it a small victory “And you’re an Electric Fairy Sarah”
“I am aren’t I?” She mused “Yep” Sarah put another roll up to her lips and lit it. “Do you remember the first time you came into the pub?” I did remember. It was a life changing experience.