Chapter 5 – I Am The Upsetter
Last night was hard graft for the crew at The Head. Sarah stayed down in the bar the whole evening while most of the guys who were at a loose end stayed around to help, even if they weren’t on shift. I’d asked Sarah before the doors opened if she was cool with the punters knowing the sad news. She cracked a joke about how impossible it would be to keep a secret like that with this crew of gossip lovers and chatterboxes.
One of the first faces through the Door was Colin the one man Clash Tribute. London Colin was not only tonight’s opening act, he was a regular in The Head. He took the news pretty hard then he announced it to the room after only two songs of his set. His cover of Lost In The Supermarket was dedicated to some token big business who would build their new venture on the hallowed ground where the best music bar of all time currently stood. After his set of a dozen of the best Clash songs performed on acoustic guitar with assistance at one point from a guy with some (mondo) bongos, the bar was packed out for the greatest tribute to the Ramones any pub could hope for. Sheena’s Remains were an all girl Ramones tribute with a habit of slipping in covers from the current pop scene done in Da Bruddas style for a laugh. They always packed the place out. Last night was no exception. We took a fortune from people who were really kind and understanding about the situation as the news got passed around more and more. The gig went so well we ran out of three of the draft beers before decimating the stock on the back bar.
I hardly had a moment to talk with any of the team about anything other than service until we’d called time. After Blitzkreig Bop came an encore of Needles And Pins, then a run through Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca (in a minute and a half) the crowd started to thin out. That’s when Trace pointed out that the tip jars were looking particularly healthy tonight. Trace also mentioned The Rain having some sort of wobbly moment halfway through the evening. Apparently she needed Trace to issue a pep talk in the ladies. I missed the nuances of what she was saying at first but it was all about losing the regular love felt when working a night like this (or something).
As the window booths were mopped down Sarah started sorting the tables around the nook. I was taken aback to realise she was setting up the service hatch for a chili pot lock in. Jenny and Janet Remain were being invited into the kitchen. All the subtle signals that the late night Head Space was being prepared were flickering from one bartender to another. Regular faces were invited into the kitchen with sleight touches to the arm or eyes darting to the end of the bar. All with nary a word being said.
Ten minutes or so later John Lee Hooker had played over the credits and I’d bolted the doors behind the last unknown. The coast was clear. Just like switching from side A to B, the silenced Jukebox was switched back on. Forever by The Charlatans began its slow and low organ build as the standing room only inhabitants of The Head’s Kitchen came back out from hiding carrying plates and bread baskets. Daisy was sat between Jenny and Janet, enthusing about their show. London Colin was talking to Sheena’s Remains drummer Suzie Remain. I figured I’d see if she needed rescuing as Colin can be a bit full on. She looked relived to see me when I interrupted. “Hey Suze, you need a refill there?” I opened the rescue bid. “Hey, yes, that’s a great idea. Thanks. Say, did Colin ever tell you his theory on what makes The Clash the only important rock group since The Beatles?” – Suzie turned the torch of Colin’s laser focused Clash worship directly on me. In truth I’d heard this one before, I’d heard it almost every time Colin and I were in a bar if he was more than 4 drinks in. Here we go again I thought. “Is that right Colin?” Colin had a few beers in him now. He wasn’t aware he was being palmed off on a barman so a young lady could politely escape his babble. He took the bait, the hook and a significant length of fishing line. “They’re not called the very last gang in town for no reason you know. Some might make a case for The Who but I would say in order of importance, quality, diversity and influence The Clash have them out gunned.” Suzie mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ behind Colin’s back. She slipped away to join her friends while I indulged Colin’s thesis a moment or two longer. “What that band did was mercurial. They took the tools of The Damned and The Pistols. Then they deepened the touchstones. Not just from 50’s rock and roll or Iggy & The Stooges noise. You see they gave the white man permission to enjoy Reggae and Ska. Thanks very much! Then they had a hand in the invention of hip hop. That’s just for starters…” I baited a hook “You mean like Blondie?” before heading off to serve someone else leaving him arguing with thin air about Topper Headon and early Rap.
Trace whispered in my ear as I set about making a Jack & Coke. “Three hundred quid in tips” I was amazed. “Really? You counted?”, “Three hundred and seventeen to be precise. That’s the most I’ve ever seen in all the time I’ve worked here. Even more than Black X-Mass”. I ruminated aloud “Wow, people really do love this bar don’t they?”, “There’s talk of a tribute gig, a massive event with everyone playing to help Sarah.”
“It’s a good idea”
“We’ll get some big names. We could even get Penny and the girls back”
“You think she’d come?”
“In a heartbeat. Schedule willing. Would you be OK with that?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? If it helps Sarah. Besides, it’d be good to see them all play again, Sister Pain. I do still love that band”
“I knew you’d be cool with it”
“I’m cool with it. Can we pull it off though?”
Just then, while I was as lying about my feelings to one of my closest friends I heard a raised voice. A smash of glass (a rumble of boots?), a vowel heavy murmur that can only spell trouble in a bartenders mind. I shot round to the hatch to see Janet Remain and a lady punter of unknown status holding each other in headlocks. A space had opened up in front of them. Dan The Van was holding Jenny Remain back from wading in. I called out to Trace but Sarah was already on the scene, speaking like the Metatron to the situation. “You! I don’t know who you are. I don’t know why she just slapped you and ‘Oh get this!’ I don’t give a damn who shagged who’s boyfriend. I just want you out of my pub.” Trace caught up with me. “You going in?” I asked her. “Looks Like Sarah’s got it, but fuck it. Might be my last chance.” Trace vaulted the bar top like an athlete. She landed between Sarah and The head-locked Ladies. Trace’s presence made Daisy brave. So she squared up along side her boss and her colleague. I dipped a bread roll in the chili. Broke it in half and took a bite. “Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup” muttered Dan DaDan Dan as he took the other half of the bread roll from me and dipped it in the pot. The headlock was softly untangled by a barmaid on each arm. The Unknown was escorted toward the door. Sarah held court, however I’ve seen Trace scrap (as have a few of us in the bar). She’s like Wonder Woman in dungarees. Tonight’s defusing went relatively peacefully though.
The party was diminished by three as the rules of the head were recounted like a Green Lantern’s oath to the offender and her two team mates. They were handed their coats along with their tattered pride. “You don’t fight in The Head” said Sarah. “You don’t steal in The Head” added Trace “And if you’re being a dick, you get invited, politely, one time, to leave The Head.” concluded Daisy. They looked like a grunge era Charlie’s Angels. There was a glimmer of confrontation which lasted seconds in the face of the rules. Then the three left without further ado. Dan DaDan Dan grabbed a ladle. We made like we’d been tending to the chili this whole time. The doors were rebolted with the party of three removed. Sarah turned to the room “Right. Who’s hungry?” A cheer erupted from the Locked In.
I placed a bed of rice in a succession of bowls just before Dan lolloped generous servings of Sarah’s famous Chili on top. We couldn’t serve them fast enough. A room full of servers, musos and road crew eating is a glorious contented feeling. The clink of glasses under the plinky Ska of Lee Perry playing I Am The Upsetter made for a lovely vibe. Skanking gently to a room that right now feels like the biggest kitchen table in a home we all share. I could see Sarah huddled in with the band with Uncle Vernon as they swapped stories and passed condiments. Plus ones mingled with regulars all dotted about the place cracking jokes, expanding theories, having to listen to Colin’s Joe Strummer worship. Dan DaDan Dan, Trace and Daisy were all sat in the corner with The Rain. There was a space saved for me.
As I took my seat midway through an existing conversation I felt like I might have to try and play catch up. “We’ve been like such good buds for so long though. It’s major awkward now.” The Rain was lamenting something or another. Trace capped this line of conversation off with a stern yet sage resolution “You have eyes and ears and a brain like the rest of us Rainey. If you can’t see you’re worrying about something that would literally never be a problem then maybe you don’t want to see it. I’ve told you so many times. You can’t just moon about on this like it’s a Dear Jackie moment.” It sounded to me like exactly the sort of conversation I wanted nothing to do with so I decided against catching up. I let Trace put the tin hat on it right then and there before changing tact. “Daisy, Trace. Can I just say? Excellent crowd control display just then.” Trace raised her glass at the tribute. Daisy grinned like she’d been crowned official Queen of the Riot Grrrl’s. “Where’s Scruff tonight Trace?” I hadn’t seen Mr Elements at all this evening. Which was unusual, especially after hours. “He’s got a gig. DJing about 60 miles away at a club. He’s still hours away.” “He’s DJing again? When we tried to get him at Head-In Festival he said he didn’t do that anymore.” Trace rolled with it “Do Indie DJ’s ever retire? Maybe you piqued his interest.” Before I could conclude that thought, conversation turned to the upcoming gigs, to the business of the pub then it rolled around to filling the schedule with as much as possible. Dan, Daisy and The Rain were all animated about who we would or couldn’t get. Much was made of which bands had pledged to play during the course of the evening via an attendant Drummer, Bass player or friend of a friend. We were all feeling pretty exhausted. Within the hour the lock in was starting to thin out.
In our little corner though plots were thickening. Daisy and Dan returned to the table with more drinks. The Rain was throwing hers back with perhaps more abandon than we usually saw from her. I mouthed ‘Is she OK?’ to Trace after the next round of shorts. She gave me a cheeky wink and a nod. I wasn’t entirely convinced but Trace made a pretty spotless Head Girl for our band of boozy besties.
At about two thirty I found myself looking down the bar to see Sarah and Uncle Vernon sending the remaining Sheena’s Remains out the door. This got me realising it was us and us only still in The Head. “Hey Boss. You need us to clear off?” I stage whispered enough for Uncle Vernon to hear us. He had his arm around Sarah, He made a low hand signal that indicated we had clearance to stay put. Sarah looked our way and smiled. “My Babies” she slurred. “My Bar Back Babies. You stay. Have a drink with your Boss Lady.” Vernon rolled his eyes like this was an inconvenience to him. “I’ll get the scotch.” he sighed. Sarah plopped herself down next to The Rain and opposite Dan and Daisy. “Kids… I’m really sorry you know.” We all protested at once. We knew this wasn’t Sarah’s doing. This was “The Man” coming down on the side of “The Straights”. This was not “Rock And Roll”, nor was it Cricket. This was “Fuckery”, It was a “Diabolical liberty”, it was “A lack of beautiful vision in the core of the system” and at some point it was New Labours fault as well. Sarah woke our dozy table with firewater and oaths of allegiance. There were promises of new dawns and beautiful futures. Uncle Vernon preached his hip lyrical jive like a musical journey man wise with the Code Of The Road. We all sang along to Down In The Tube Station At Midnight by The Jam at one point then Can You Get To That by Funkadelic at another. It was a good time in the heat of a half dozen hearts breaking.
Double Steve and Daisy both fell from view by half past three. Later I learned Double had put Daisy to bed in the rehearsal space behind the pub on the fold out sofa bed only to then fall asleep himself in a stall of the Gents. The Rain was comatose at four AM but she could have been out of it a lot longer, We were not in any condition to look after ourselves. Sarah and Trace tucked her up on one of the window seats under blankets, with pillows usually stored in the cloakroom for just such occasions. I committed my services to walk Trace home. We left Uncle Vernon and Sarah waiting for the man about the time the streets were only populated by milk-floats starting their rounds.
Trace and I had been slamming espresso shots for the last hour and trying to get in the shape we needed to be to walk across town to the flat she and Scruff rented. I took Trace’s arm in a display of gallantry that served also as a support system for my own impeded two legged stability “Stevie. You know you’re one of my best friends right?” I belched. “How drunk are you Trace? We don’t do ‘I fuggin’ luv ya’ unless it Christmas do we?” She belched. “Twat. Answer the question. You are aware, that you… The bloke who I am currently carrying home because he’s scared of the dark and too pissed to walk all the way on his own, is in-fact one of the people I care about the most, In my life. Right?” I took a beat. “I’m not scared of the dark.” Trace took a beat. “No you’re right, that’s Scruff! OK. Listen fucker.” I stopped and made a mouth zip motion with my free hand. “Steve The Wise. Steve The Smart Arse. Steve The BarMan. Big Steve, Steve of all the Steve’s?” I nodded. I was listening. “I hate what happened to you and her.” I wasn’t sure if I was suddenly pulled into sobriety or hit with a bolt of drunken vertigo. “I loved you both. You were the best. For each other. For The Head. Scruff and I used to talk about you and Penny like you were who we wanted to be when we grew up. I never saw a couple so right. You were the dream we all dreamed.” I was dizzy with more than booze “Trace, please. I’m really wasted. I can’t.” She held me by both of my arms. She had a hint of tears in her eyes. I was frustrated as all hell. Why was my mate doing this to me now? The wrong side of an all night bender. My trusted friend with years of spot on conduct under our collective bridge decides to dismember me in the street like this. “Steve. She was my best friend. You turned her world upside down and inside out. You saved her life, you changed her life. You did so much to change that girl. She was besotted with you. And then you threw it all away. Why?” This was impossible “Trace. I don’t know why you’re saying this. I love Penny. With every fucking fiber of my being I loved that girl. And she left me. She. Left. Me Trace. She went off to become a star and I stayed here pulling pints and… Not changing. At all. For three more years. I just kept on turning up everyday. Every night. I go to The Head and I play Steve The Barman, Steve the Good Bloke, Steve The Joker, Steve The Wise because it’s all I have left. It’s where I knew her. It’s coming to an end now. The longest rebound in history is about to come back around like that fucking comet. She left me. To become a star. She was already a star. We all orbited her Trace. You. Me. Sarah. The Head. I’m just a barman. A barman who won’t have a bar in a month from now.”
“Steve. He’s leaving me.” This took the wind out my sails, Scruff the kooky little man with the vinyl record shop and the cooler than cool guitar slinging, high-kicking, bartending girlfriend. He was leaving her? What the hell was wrong with the world? “Trace… What?” She looked so small in that moment. “He hasn’t told me out loud. He hasn’t come out with it. But I know it, in my heart I know.” I didn’t quite follow “You sure? We’re pretty fucked up right now. Why do you think. This?” She sobbed. “He’s not gigging tonight. He’s miles away though. Again. It keeps happening. He’s always got to go somewhere or another that I’ve never heard of. He’s always disappearing. He doesn’t kiss me anymore. He doesn’t hold me. He doesn’t want me.” I’d not done this before. Not for my right hand woman. “Trace you gotta talk to him about it. You gotta ask what’s going on?” She looked exasperated. “I’ve tried so many times Steve. He wanted to tell me something last night. He’s a coward. He started to try and say something when we left work. He tried earlier in the day too. You can tell he’s not there anymore. He doesn’t love me Steve. He doesn’t want me.”
We got to the street entrance to their flat. Trace was in floods of tears. I couldn’t leave her like this so I took her keys from her and walked her up the stairs. When we got to the front door I struggled with the keys. Between sobs Trace unlocked her door and as she went in she kept hold of my hand. I followed her into the flat. “You need a cuppa?” I asked her as we reached the kitchen. “I really do. Yes please” She answered and flopped down on the sofa. I knew where everything was in this kitchen so I rapidly made us two huge mugs of strong tea. I sat myself in the chair opposite the sofa and placed Trace’s mug on her side of the big glass coffee table between us. “I’m sorry Steveo. I didn’t mean to get all emotional on you.” Trace sounded cooler and calmer than she had while we were walking. Like the relief of getting home and getting the door shut behind her had helped steady her drunken state. “I might be over reacting you know. I might be but I don’t think I am.” I took a long sip of tea. I felt the hangover, the booze and the antioxidants in the tea doing battle in my cranium. A battle royale of free radicals and bad ju-ju swimming in my head. “If you talk to him, maybe you can help him say whatever it is he is trying to say. You want to hear it right? Good or bad you want to hear it.” She took a sip of tea too “I know. You’re right. You’re always right. You fuck head.” She too took a long sip from her mug. This seemed to melt her into the sofa. One step closer to unconsciousness. We sat nodding slightly for the time it took to drink the rest of the mugs. I felt the room spin a couple of times so I figured I was about to collapse into sleep myself if I didn’t get moving. I rose from my seat. Trace opened one eye. She looked up at me. “You going?”
“Yeah, thanks for the tea.”
“Can you do me a huge favour?”
“Anything for you Mate.”
“Can you take my boots off?”
“I’m not wearing your boots”
With a swimming cranium and the motor skills of a newborn giraffe I knelt at the end of the sofa where her big black Docs were slumped. It was like trying to pick a lock with a hot-dog but I untied her laces. “You’re good to me” she added as she lifted the respective foot to aid with each boots removal. “Will that be all Ma’am?” I asked as I tried to get back up. She curled a finger in a come closer motion so I crawled to the other end of the sofa. “Hold me.” she muttered in a voice too tiny for the mighty Trace Elements. I put my arms around her shoulders and gave her a long hug. She curled herself into in and rested her cheek on my chest. I could feel my lights growing dim.