Chapter 8 – Sometimes Always
My second visit to The Queens Head was a vastly different and all together more pleasant experience in comparison to the first. It could be scientifically proven in many ways. From the condition of the venue, to the company I was keeping. Not least the fact it was a pub and I actually got to drink a drink. You wouldn’t need a bar graph to recognise the improvement. The violence involved had a 100% drop off second time around too. Which was nice.
From the moment I arrived it was as if the last time I was there was some crazy fever dream. Something that didn’t really happen. We came in through a back gate not the saloon bar doors. Tucked in the corner round the back was this almost invisible entrance. The back of the pub was surrounded by a walled garden. Not the type they write children’s books about. From the outside the wall of the quad was mostly obscured by a huge billboard. It was currently displaying a poster for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Last Action Hero. A colourful and garish distraction that helps hide the grey and green tattered gate in the corner where the wall butts up to the much taller building next door. Beyond that gate was not the stuff of childhood fantasies. This was a Beer Garden. This was a concrete rectangle with plastic furniture and a huge brick built grilling area made from a couple of discombobulated shopping trolleys. And yet, once through the gates The Head’s atmosphere prevailed. On those high brick walls was a mix of graffiti art, rock star portraits and painted Blue Meanies. The tacky cheap fixtures and fittings were placed there with love but also with panache. Two Indie Kids were sat drinking on a bench made from the rear seat of a taxi cab under a corrugated lean to. There was a fire trap shaped like a pyramid. A couple of stolen mirrors from an amusement park on opposite walls were bejeweled with coloured stones, glue and plastic figures which reflect light around the space. Between it all a dozen semi-populated picnic benches. Two meters above in what was once the hayloft for the dray horses was Sister Pain’s rehearsal space, an area they all referred to as The Pigeon Club.
A cabal of young alternative types were hanging out in the area below the loft as we arrived. I guessed the band members. Of course I recognised them from Penny’s descriptions but also, I can identify a star and those in her orbit in any social situation. There were people in that garden I was destined to become firm friends with. Dan The Man, Dicky Bough, Sarah Bellum, Tim ‘Tilla and Dan The Van were all there, some chatting up the girls in the band, some showing an interest in the new noise making waves around the fringes of the scene. Some were just drinking a long cool pint in the confines of the Sanctum Sanctorum of kitsch that was The Queens Head’s outside space.
I said ‘Hi’ to everyone Penny introduced me to before I settled into a chair next to Dan The Man and his brother Dicky. They seemed like safe people to know. Penny left me alone for several minutes at a time to check on various details. I chatted with the Bough Brothers about music, about how I recognised them from seeing their band a while back at a righteous shindig where they’d raised the roof. They were humble about the praise but somehow we got onto the subject of Taj Mahal’s harmonica on his magnificent Leaving Trunk. I’d seen Danny tear the arse out of that song at the show they played. It had really impressed me.
Just before Penny and her band took their leave to go practice up in the old pigeon fanciers loft I saw her in clandestine conversation with Sarah Bellum. I knew I recognised her from my last visit. The Stevie Nicks linen was swapped for denim and cheesecloth. Looking around this group (and still technically outside the pub) I did not feel the gut instinct warning I’d felt before with the baseball caps and football T’s of Arthur Loafer and the Coke Blokes. So I played it cool, I kept things on the down low. Just before Penny left us I made a thumbing a ride gesture like I’d be leaving. She blew me a kiss and headed up the steps. I had a mouthful of beer left in my glass. This was to be it. I’d had a lovely day so far. It felt like time to go. In my head Jim Bowen was counting out my cash and sorting me out a bendy Bully. As I rose from the table Sarah appeared at my side “Can I pour you another beer Steve?” I’ll be honest, I think I looked a little panicked. Sarah was cool though. “I think you and I should have a chat.” Her friendly tone put me back at ease. “I assure you my intentions towards your barmaid are entirely… Erm, Well entirely my own at least.” I still had some wit in the tank. Sarah laughed and beckoned me inside. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go but I followed her inside the pub through the doors Magic Alex had gestured out through when we first came in here almost seven weeks ago. In through the out door.
I was back in the nook. The part of the bar I’d bought that round in with Mary and Magic. Sarah stepped through the hatch and for a short moment was all business. “What’ll it be?” I felt odd asking my next question but I went on ahead anyway “Is there any chance I could get a cup of coffee?” She raised her eyebrows then reached below the wooden bar-top to retrieve two coffee cups and some saucers. “That is definitely not a problem” I felt like I had to fill the silence. “I’m a couple of beers in and the wrong side of five o’clock to have another” I over explained. “Knowing when to switch to coffee is a superpower. Never lose it” She pulled up a coffee pot from the alcove by the hatch. It was ready to go as she poured two cups. “Milk? Sugar?”, “Black as a Crow” I answered enjoying this little exchange (I’d never been told I had a superpower before). Sarah slid a cup and saucer across the bar “I remember your last visit you know. I am really pleased Penny could talk you into coming back to see me.” I picked the cup up “I get the impression most would follow Penny anywhere she wanted them to.” Sarah made a mental note. She could tell I was smitten. “She’s a sweetie that’s for sure. Seriously though. Thanks for coming back. I felt awful about what happened. I wanted a chance to say sorry, to explain we’re not like that. This place is going through some changes. That behavior will never ever happen here again. You are so welcome here. That guy though. He’s barred for life. And his bloody mates.” She seemed so sincere. I trusted her instantly.
“How do you know I didn’t start it?” I asked jokingly. Sarah tried to look shocked but it was not a convincing bit of play acting. She sipped her coffee and looked me square in the eye. “I’ll tell you how I know. You came in here with Motorcycle Mary and Magic Alex. Two people I know. One of them I trust implicitly. On top of that, you left an impression on our Penny and you have a kind face. Not a bad opening gambit stranger. That other guy has been a problem for me since I took this place on three months back. He gets all coked up and spoils for a row on a regular basis. He’s done time for various violent misdemeanors in the past by all accounts and the company he keeps are downright ignorant pigs. That’s how I know.” I took all that on board. “Right. Well, thanks. That means a lot actually.” I looked around the interior of the bar. There had been some changes in the last few weeks. The yellow lung disease colour of the walls was now dive bar black almost all over. Save for chalk white outlines in certain areas. There were strings of fairy lights festooning down in various vantage points. A spectacular Jimi Hendrix mock stained glass feature painted on one of the tall leaded windows really looked the business half way down the room. The whole place had a much more music focused vibe overall. Home spun, but cool.
In one corner I could see a large silver jukebox. Not the sort you see on the sleeves of Rock And Roll compilation albums with it’s tubes of coloured neon and 50’s curves over chrome. This was a later model. It was still an ornate and beautiful object in it’s own right. It sort of looked like a hybrid between an argon welding booth and a glass coffin for an important soviet dwarf to lay in State. A cool rock and roll Soviet Dwarf, Konstantiny maybe. Within the glass box were rows and rows of moving chrome hoops all holding discs. The light tubes in it were all half dipped in mirror paint and the warm light that bounced around inside looked like the memory of a childhood Christmas. Sarah could see it had caught my eye. “My buddy Vernon and I found that. When we saw it at a liquidation auction. Well, just look at it. I just had to have it. Rumour has it that it once belonged to some record label executive who went missing”, “Anything good on here?” I asked heading over to have a look. Sarah sort of scoffed, “Everything” she said hitting the random button behind the bar and holding her arms in the air in a sort of ‘Ta-dah!’ stance. I could see the parts moving as I approached the step upon which the machine sat proudly lighting its corner of the room. There was a STRAANNG! Then the opening chords of The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Sometimes Always rang out into the empty bar. I looked back at Sarah and she raised her eyebrows as if to say ‘See?’
There are some people who would just consider this a record being played in a bar. Nothing more than that. There are others, closer to myself who would hear this cool alternative classic and perhaps decide this bar was their kind of place. Closer to myself, but not me. No, for me when I heard what would often pass as my favourite record playing on the jukebox in a bar run by the coolest people I’d met in this Dog forsaken town I felt a shift inside me. Not just the fact that there were new characters like Sarah, Dan and Dickie, just idling the hours away in the middle of the afternoon. This felt like a destination. Those kids out in the courtyard knew it. The hangers on and the roadies can tell when the land lays right. Cap it all off with a band of goth girls sound checking out the back. I’m all in. I may have bled my own blood in this building but this was no longer the same place. I suddenly felt like I had arrived home. Sarah knew what she was doing. I started pushing those big back-lit buttons to flick through the track listing of cards.
The Jam, Transvision Vamp, Alice Cooper, Salt N’ Pepa, The Mama’s & The Papas, The Stones, Both Elvis’s (Costello and Presley), Jefferson Airplane, Madness, The Specials, The Only Ones, Metallica, Wu Tang Clan, Pulp, PJ Harvey, Stevie Wonder this magical machine had the absolute best of everything. It was beautiful. Sarah was talking to me in the distance as I did a virtual crate dig through the greatest collection of songs I’d ever seen. “I know you’ve taken a drop in shifts at The Majesty. So I was wondering if I could help you out. It’s a two way thing. We need some help here a few nights a week and if you’re looking to pick up a bit more work. This could be a place you’d fit right in.” I heard every word but I kept reading the tracks on the jukebox.
Pressure Drop – Toots And The Maytals, I Hate Myself For Loving You – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, One Way Or Another – Blondie, Step On – The Happy Mondays. Every single track a floor filling belter. I looked up when I realised she’d stopped talking. “Are you offering me a job?”, “I am, yes.” Sarah smiled her ‘everything is coming together’ smile. It was a look I would come to know over the next six years. I smiled myself as I headed back over to the bar. I needed a big gulp of coffee to buy me a few more seconds. The idea of getting to dress like myself and listen to great music while I worked was something that felt like only a pipe dream until now. Something that only happens to graphic designers and car mechanics. “What’s the catch?” I asked looking Sarah in the eyes as I did to make sure I was getting this right. “No catch. Four nights a week to start. Minimum wage plus tips. Might need some help in the afternoons if you can stretch to it.” If I could stretch to it? Like I had anything better to do with my time. “This place is in it’s infancy as a venue. We need to build a scene. We need artists, we need street teams, we need contacts, posters, theme nights, traditions. We’re trying to do something special here. I think you can see that.” I thought about it for a tiny moment. “I can. I can see what you’re doing. I can see what it can be. And yes. I want ‘in’. I want to join together with the band.” I’d spied The Who during my disc flip. Join Together. Not an obvious track to have front and center. As a fan it spoke of credibility. This wasn’t a My Generation or Pinball Wizard kind of place. Join Together, 1972, not on any album. I like this place. Sarah seemed disproportionately pleased. “You’ll do it? That’s great. When can you start?” I didn’t think hiring bar staff was ever a particularly onerous task and yet here and now you’d think she’d just pulled off some sort of coup de grace. “Tomorrow? I don’t have a shift at The Majesty until Sunday lunch.”
“Aww that’s a shame.” This confused me. The disappointment at my immediate availability was not inline with the conversation I thought we were having. “Sunday lunch is Jukebox Jury. I think you’d like that”, “Jukebox Jury. Like from the 60’s?” I was genuinely curious at the turn the conversation had taken. Should any conversation head down some nerdy grid reference while looking for pop trivia. Well, I’m Indiana Fucking Jones. I could tell the Landlady was impressed “Wow. Yep. Kinda. Only the Jukebox is real” Sarah explained the rules to me. There had been one event so far. Last month when the machine was installed. There was a bit too much doo-wop and no grunge or Britpop on the box when it was unpacked from the auction house. So the assembled team had gone record shopping at The Record And Tape Exchange on the Saturday. They’d loaded the machine up with a fantasy football league vs D&D level of pedantry in a 3 hour drinking session on the Sunday. Everyone had enjoyed themselves so much they decided to make it a monthly fixture. Just to keep everything in perspective, I could hear what she was saying, This was just people sitting around talking about records and drinking, it happened every month. I can rationalise this as a lazy Sunday time waster. I am not delusional. And yet, to me it might have been the greatest (semi) invitation I had ever heard… Well, except for that time the pretty girl with the big dark eyes walked into my work and bent reality until I took her to lunch ohh nearly 20 hours ago.
The idea of this ‘music nerdery’ was like a light-bulb to a moth. I had to check some details. “Was Penny there?” Sarah nodded. “She was here yes. She fought hard for 50ft Queenie and Love Your Money. Even won her case on the PJ Harvey.” I felt my heart swell at the news from the front. My Penny slugging it out in the trenches for PJ Harvey and stealing the flag. What a Gal. “I think I’m going to like it here” I said looking around the room a little more. “How do you perform under pressure?” Sarah asked. “Oh. I usually do the Bowie parts”