Chapter 3 – End Of A Century
Lorraine, Daisy and Trace all arrived at the same time. I had been covering the lunch shift with Dan The Man and Little Steve. Double Steve was on the customer side of the bar with a drink and a bowl of chips. He’d been sharing the bowl with Dan The Van, but right now the Road-man was nowhere to be seen. Sat in the nook up by the hatch reading the NME aloud was Dan DaDan Dan and his unwitting audience Zippy. The Jukebox was playing Manic Street Preachers, Little Baby Nothing as Lorraine (The Rain) King shimmied from the double doors into the bar in front of Daisy Chain-Reaction and Trace Elements. The Rain pointed at Dan The Man from across the room and mouthed the words like a vampy Marilyn Monroe impersonator as she approached. Dan grinned like a loon at her display. Trace rolled her eyes then took off her coat. Daisy went to say hi to Zippy and Dan DaDan Dan at the top of the pub. While the lip sync seduction routine unfolded in Dan The Man’s eye-line an oblivious roadie returns from employing the facilities.
Dan The Van emerged from the doorway at the side of the stage and took the bar stool that positioned him between The Rain’s performance and Dan The Man’s line of sight around the point of ‘If I’m starving, you can feed me lollipops’.
“Mate, I just laid a cable in there thick enough to take broadband to the Orkneys” he declared with pride beaming from his face. I couldn’t tell what it was he considered the greater accomplishment, the number two he’d just dropped or his incredible ability to find new and original ways to describe his toileting on a pretty much daily basis. I had to give it to him. That one was pretty funny. Dan The Man felt cheated though. I could tell. One second he’s staring into the eyes of a faux-fur coated vixen as she lip synch’s a sexy love song at him, the next his view is blocked by a Roadie declaring the magnitude of a bowel movement. Poor Dan The Man. He can never catch a break.
Trace had hung up her jacket. Now she was already behind the bar with a cloth in one hand a spray bottle in the other. She whispered to me as she passed “I wish those two would hurry up and fall naked into bed with one another” I looked at the pair of them, separated by awkwardness amplified by missed opportunity “It’s all part of the dance Trace, you know that” I replied. “Well this ain’t The Kids From Fame. This dance has gone of for too long” she whispered, before grinning then heading out to clean some tables. The Rain worked her way to the next seat at the bar. She popped herself up next to The Vanman.
“Hello Stevie” she cooed. Three of us answered at once. This made Lorraine giggle. “All the boys hanging on my every word eh?”. We’d mugged ourselves on this one for sure. I turned my back giving Dan The Man the chance to serve her. He might get back that moment which he had just lost. Little Steve missed my cue. He stepped right in. “And how can I serve The Rain?” he asked before Dan The Man could utter a word. ‘Sorry Mate’ I thought to myself. This new boy is a lousy Wing-man. The Rain and Little Steve were embroiled in a full tilt doe eyed exchange while Dan was shrinking before my very eyes. Daisy called him over. Dan The Man in the middle of a Chain-Reaction. Off he goes.
Double Steve and Dan The Van were now deep in speculative conversation as to why Sarah had asked for the whole crew to get together on a Friday afternoon. “Do you think she’s giving us a pay rise?”, “Have we booked a big gig?”, “Maybe the venue has been brought out by a chain”, “Do you think Paul McCartney has returned those calls at last?”, “What if she’s pregnant?”, “What if there’s a problem?”, “Did somebody die?” The clock struck three about 10 minutes after the last of the crew arrived. A fair wash of speculation had ebbed and flowed. I’d locked the doors on the dot, so there were now only paid up members of staff or those who belonged in the inner circle present. Sarah arrived downstairs, dressed all in black. She asked me to turn the music down a notch. Not ‘off’ you’ll notice, just down a bit. I reached for the behind the bar control then knocked it down to a low murmur. Sarah pointed towards the stage “Let’s go see the Elephant” she commanded. The assembled denizens of The Head made their way to one end of the building. She took the step up on to the stage in front of us all. She was stony faced as she delivered the news. “First of all, I’m really sorry. I am really sorry to get you all together on a Friday. A day when you should all be getting ready for a gig or doing something you really want to do instead of coming to a staff meeting.”
Dan DaDan Dan called out “I’m at The Head. This is always what I’d rather be doing.” He seemed rather pleased with himself. “Dan. Thanks, but please. Let me get through this unheckled if I may.” Dan nodded. He could suddenly see his interjection was not appropriate. “I’m afraid I have some rather bad news to share with you all. There’s been some stuff going on in the background I haven’t shared with you. Again, for that I’m sorry. Now. As it stands, despite a long fight and many hours with Lawyers and Councillors and Bank Managers I’m afraid to say… The Head has to close it’s doors permanently in one months time.” There were gasps, there were pained noises. Tears welled in the eyes of many of us. “The plot of land this pub stands on has already been sold. There’s nothing I can do to stop it and I’m really really sorry.” It was on the first “really” that I noticed my old friends composure break. She’d delivered the news, then her heart visibly broke. I leaped to my feet. I stepped up to give her a huge hug. She curled her arms into my chest and wept. I looked out at the team. A motley crew of Indie Kids, Goths, Punks and weirdo’s. A strange collection of freaks who behaved like a real family most days of the week. A group of eleven strangers brought together by a love of music who now stood watching their mother figure tell them this part of their lives was coming to an end.
Not one of them said a word until Trace muttered “Well that’s shit”. Sarah gathered herself then turned to the team “Guys. You’ve all been so brilliant. I want to do everything I can to help you find new jobs. I want to help you get to whatever comes next. I want to help…” Daisy stepped up. “Sarah, you’re always helping. Always. Remember how you hired me? Remember giving me a room to stay in when I had nowhere to go? You helped us all so many ways. How can we help you?” Double Steve joined in “Shit Sarah. We’ve lost a few shifts in a pub… And a place to hang out with all our mates, but you? Sarah what are you going to do?” Sarah was empowered by the kind words. “I don’t know the answer to that yet. All I know is November 29th this place is being knocked down to make way for a new development. The deal is done. The deeds are signed and the money men have all shaken each others hands. I could try and get a job as a interim landlady in a pub I suppose. I just don’t know”
Double Steve’s words of support came as a surprise to several of us I think. He showed depths hitherto unrevealed to the team at The Head when he spoke on all our behalf. “Sarah, we call The Head our home. For you it is not just that metaphorically. You actually live here. You only ever leave this place if one of us is here to hold the fort for you. What you’ve built here in the shell of an old pub is more than a bar, it’s more than a music venue, it’s more than a cool hang out with the greatest fucking jukebox anyone has ever seen. This is the sun we all orbit around. There’s no negatives in The Head. No bad days, there’s no hate, no evil, no weird. Because we’re all weird. Gay, straight, skint, stoned. Everyone is cool in The Head. It’s Disneyland for Moshers. You’re the reason Sarah. You made this place different from Fat Joe’s, The Barfly, The White Hart and The Corn Exchange because it was always music first. You helped every single one of us. You helped Trace and Scruff get together. You gave Daisy a roof over her head. You saved me from a bad path when I needed someone to turn to. You got Big Steve off the floor when he got beaten up. It was you that got this Dan his van. And you’ve put on so many great events. The Head-In Festival is a tradition now. So is Jukebox Jury, Christmas Black Mass, Punk Jam Night, Jail Guitar Doors, Hip-Hop Karaoke, Barbecue Blues, The 80’s Were Shit! Cider With Roadies. You are the beating heart of this counties’ music scene Sarah. We’re all gonna help you. This isn’t on you. It’s on us. We owe you Sarah. We owe you.”
The Rain kicked in “Fuckin’ right Double Steve. Sarah, let’s use this next month to sort everything out. Let’s make it work for all of us, but especially for you.” She looked back at Little Steve for affirmation. Everyone was coming to terms with what they had just heard. “Yep” Trace joined in “I love you guys. I love this place. I love you Sarah. Let’s get our shit together while we still have The Head. Plans need making. We’re going to use the time between now and when we open at six to absorb this and then we’re going to put on a gig tonight. We’ve got a one man tribute to The Clash playing at eight then the best Ramones covers band 200 quid can buy on at nine. We need you lot to raise a crowd and do it loud for the next month. Steve! Go to the rig and turn up the box. I’m buying a round.” Sarah looked palpably relived that the rabble had roused itself and yet, she knew people. She knew how quick moods could change. She’d had the fight beaten out of her during her own private war over the last six weeks. The war may still be lost, but a least now she wasn’t all alone. She had her kids. All of us young enough to be her children.
We hadn’t all realised immediately we were making her a surrogate guardian when we each individually found our way into the The Head. We were just lost kids coming together for music. It’s clear from inside the building though and not for the first time during this meeting. If we hadn’t found her while we were making our way in the world we’d all be worse off without our Mother Popcorn. Sarah Bellum, The Electric Fairy. While we were dressing strange, listening to diabolical noise and disappointing our own mothers she took us in. She gave us cash in hand, a place to call home and a sense of belonging we couldn’t find anywhere else. We all owed Sarah a debt of one sort or another.
I turned up the jukebox just as Oliver’s Army was fading out. The two second gap between the old and the new revealed itself. There was an acoustic strum. Blur’s End Of A Century staggered to it’s feet “She says there’s ants in the carpet, dirty little monsters, eating all the morsels and picking up the rubbish” Call us shallow if you must. Call us childish or misguided. Someone telling a rabble of heartbroken kids that ‘The Milkybars are on me!’ in a pub, when the milkbars are actually pints of beer and rum and cokes. Well, that can lift a mood on any given occasion. Even on an occasion when David Bowie’s Five Years would be a better hand than the one we just got dealt. Add to that an anthem by a band beloved by all and you’ve got some atmosphere on the build. End Of A Century from Parklife had done The Head a solid on several occasions, but in this final year of the twentieth century it had taken on a new sheen to it’s alchemy.
Sarah may well have seen some leadership qualities in Double Steve, a light of some kind or a glint of greatness when she hired him. To the rest of us, he was just a sweet guy with a quick wit and a beautiful singing voice. Double Steve was called Double Steve because I already had a job at the The Head when he joined and his surname is Stevens. So Steve Stevens became Double Steve because the name Steve was already taken. I’d seen Steve play lady killer with love-struck girls who came to see the slick haired rockabilly sing rock songs at jam night. Years before that I’d seen him fall completely for a girl who treated him like a punch bag for a good year or so. That was before the team at The Head organised an intervention of such invention that he not only got out of a bad situation, he got his self esteem back and he won the deeds to his cool flat over the docks. All the while his Harpie of a partner got a reality check and a first class ticket to another life far from the place we call home. “Keep your friends close and your enemies in another time zone” was Sarah’s zinger on that particular occasion.
Trace and Sarah were concerned they’d possibly created a monster every time Double Steve’s new found confidence sent him out the door with a new young lady on his arm. The jungle drums however, they never did beat out a warning. Every single time, he came up smelling of roses. Always the sweet dude with good grace and kind manners. These ladies perpetuated his reputation as a gentleman of sophistication and wit. All the while he quipped another one liner from underneath a Johnny Cash quiff. And yet, I never saw it in him to step up and lead before today. It may have been down to the scenario, but I felt we had a new general join the ranks alongside Trace and I. Three Musketeers ready to lead this… In the name of Sarah Bellum. Queen of The Head.
“We all say, don’t want to be alone, we wear the same clothes ’cause we feel the same, we kiss with dry lips when we say good night, oh, End of a Century, Oh, It’s nothing special!”
Trace, Double Steve and I formed a huddle at the end of the bar. I was relived we were all now in the picture. I’d hardly slept a wink last night. Keeping this huge grenade to myself for the duration of a lunchtime shift was like trying to swallow down a cricket ball. That said, it had given me time to think. “We need to pack this place out every night for a month. Every band that can drag a capacity crowd we need to pin them down. We need The Headhogs on standby if we can’t fill a slot and we need four weekends of serious headliners. We need to sell all the art on the walls, we need to blow the foundations of this place so they don’t need to knock it down.” Double Steve cottoned on to the fact I had advance warming. “You knew when you called us to this meeting didn’t you? That’s why you’re coming out swinging.” I nodded. Trace asked the big question “How long have you known?” She didn’t sound accusatory. More concerned for my own well being. I looked her in the eyes, I didn’t want any misunderstandings. “Since locking up last night. I went up to see Sarah and she told me after you lot had gone.” They both took this fact on board quietly. I could see them replaying my behaviour from the shift just passed in their heads. “I thought something was up with you” said Trace slightly relieved “I could tell you were carrying something heavy around.” I threw my hands up “Well, now you know.” Double Steve got us back to business, he pulled out the black book with all the band details and laid it next to the red diary used to plan the music. “So far we’ve got London Colin and Sheena’s Remains tonight. We’ve got Harrison Ford and The Travolta’s tomorrow night and we’ve got Jukebox Jury on Sunday.”
Trace suddenly had a dawning realisation “That’ll be the last ever one.” We all stopped in our thoughts for a moment. Jukebox Jury was the center piece of life at The Head. This was the inner monologue that formed our identity. It was a never to be missed gathering. All of the team came together for Uncle Vernon and Sarah to parade the hits and diss the misses of the box. It was like an insane game show with roast potatoes and no camera crew. I’d been to almost every single one since Penny had coaxed me back into the pub. That was about six weeks after the beating I took at the hands and feet of Arthur Loafer, almost six years previously. Similar conversations were taking place on the stage, in the nook, at the hatch. Everywhere in the place the team were breaking down the news and clambering over the realisations that life would not be the same come Christmas.
The Rain and Dan The Man had found themselves together/alone at a table at the top of the pub. He was gazing at her as she recounted her own story of how she came to find her way to The Head. She’d been brought along by her college friends one Saturday night to celebrate a birthday. Dan The Man and his brother Dicky were playing with their band that night. Their good time boogie had the whole place jumping. I remembered it well.
Mountain Of Light played Southern Soul and Boogie in an era of Britpop and Grunge. They covered Little Feat, Bad Company and Bruce Springsteen in a decade where all other pub bands did Park Life and Roll With It. Dan played harp and sang backing vocals while his big brother Dickie slayed on guitar. Their singer was a sharp dressed, snake hipped Balti waiter come Elvis lookalike called Khan. He was a consummate showman. Bass player Oklahoma Homer wasn’t really from Oklahoma. His nickname came from the fact he was going bald and loved show tunes. He had some decent paying gigs in sessions and had famously done some holiday camp work on occasions with Uncle Vernon. The band’s drummer was a massive unit who liked hitting things over and over again. Stick Man Theater had spent three years at college learning to become an animator in the early part of the decade. Now he was trying hard to find work in that field by day and paying the rent (or at least his bar tab) by hitting the skins in several different bands. He did not present himself as an artistic or expressive individual on first meeting. He seemed more like a Walrus who had found his way behind a drum kit and was trying to communicate a warning about the state of the worlds oceans via para-diddles and cymbal crashes. We had all seen his work however. He’d famously (for round here) animated several MTV stings a few years back which were still in constant use on the channel. He’d been paid a few hundred quid for each one but done nothing of note since.
The alchemy of this band together was a sound to behold. Plain old Lorraine King had entered the venue that night ready to dance and sing and celebrate a classmate turning 23. She had a 20/20 vision when they played Blinded By The Light. She was baptized when they did Take Me To The River and she was born again when Khan tore the arse out of I’m Alive. By the time the band were finishing their first set she’d claimed the spot on the dance floor in the center of the room and shaken down some outrageous moves. I remembered the evening for several reasons.
Firstly Khan had commented on Lorraine and her group of friends from the stage more than once. He’d dedicated a song early on, taken requests from them for another (Happy Birthday for ‘Manda, they’d played the Stevie Wonder version) and used many a stock ‘Oh don’t hurt nobody’ or ‘Take it to the bridge’ ad lib during the breakdowns as Lorraine and her mates cut some rug. Secondly I remembered thinking I’d never seen this gang of girls before. I’d been pulling pints in The Head for two years at this stage. Quite intentionally we had seen the clientele change over time. Just as Uncle Vernon had promised Magic Alex in the Leather Bar of distant past. People came for the music and when they’d been once, they became regulars. Casual drinkers were less common. As were the baseball caps and low level thugs of the old Queens Head. The place was no longer under new management. All the territory battles and old habits of the Die Hard’s were in the past. This place was for weirdos, musos and college kids with an ear to the ground.
When I saw Lorraine dance I knew she’d found a place to call home. She was atrocious. Not a rhythmic bone in her body. She waved her arms, cocked her legs and waggled her head like a rag doll in a tumble dryer. The whole time she was grinning like an idiot. Her friends didn’t seem to mind. They did their little hipsway dances in her general vicinity and celebrated a good time (Come on!) but The Rain? She poured herself all over the place. Not one fuck given. I liked that. Her good humour was infectious. It got Zippy on his feet, Trace too. Both of whom were punter side on this given night. Dan The Van was drawn to the pie eyed pipers dance. As were many a regular from The Head. Dan and Dickie had whispered to one another from the side of the stage. Both had a laugh about the display they could see looking out into the room. They weren’t being mean, they were loving that their music was going over so well. It was like watching the hippies freak out in the Woodstock movie but here and now and doing something very strange with the arms.
That’s what I found most memorable about that night. When I compared it to my first time walking through those doors, I knew this was mission accomplished. We’d built it and they had come. I looked across the back bar. Me, My Penny, Sarah and Daisy serving good beer in a jumping joint where you can turn up for the first time and cut loose. Not one fuck given.
Rock and Roll Valhalla!