Chapter 11 – What A Beautiful Day
The article in the paper had been like a blue touch paper on a firework. In the days after it was published every ‘face’ we hadn’t already seen in the week since the news broke came by. They came to express their sadness, to drink with us. They came to eat, to see bands and to feel ‘The Headness’ while they still could. The hints in the paper that tonight’s band would be a special secret star turn had the rumour mill churning. The local radio had sent people in every day to try to ascertain who the mystery band might be. The staff had been having a glorious time playing misdirection games. On the first day we all quoted lyrics by various indie bands when being interviewed. The speculation went into overdrive. The next day we all turned up in Motörhead T-Shirts. The fervor got a bit too intense and so we had to categorically confirm the guest band was not Motörhead for the following 24 hours. Just yesterday we’d had to prop all the doors open and put the support group on in the garden because there were too many people in the building to get the gear in. Now it was Saturday afternoon. We were having an extra dray delivery to top up for tonight’s show.
Primal Scream’s Kowalski was playing on the jukebox when a TV crew pulled up outside to unpack their kit. It kind of worked like a film score for the unfolding epic-ness. Sarah was getting concerned about safety, about us blowing it before we got to the end of the month and about how everyone was working so hard on our huge ending that they were not concentrating on finding alternative employment after the place closes it’s doors. When the reporter from the TV came in to speak to her Sarah was not in full PR mode. His name was Terry. He worked for the local regional news show. He had a camera person, a sound tech and a director with him. He bowled up to Sarah all enthusiastic, He was talking about the excitement building for tonight’s show. Sarah’s responses were clipped at first. Then she took him to task for celebrating the fact she was losing her home and a dozen staff were losing their jobs. Immediately after that she went in on him that the town was losing a much loved and needed arts space. She wanted to know why the local TV hadn’t given a damn when we’d had events just as big as this one without the sword of Damocles hanging over us? Poor Terry was used to doing bits about dogs shows or waitresses who’d been in the same job for 30 years. He looked terrified of Sarah. I decided to throw him a bone once she’d gone out to the kitchens. I pointed him in the direction of some of the wittier folks in attendance so he could get his soundbites and his piece to camera back to the studio in time to make the 6 O’Clock News.
Mr Knickerbocker pulled up in his black Mercedes just after they packed their gear in the van and took a break. He loomed into the pub glaring at the OB van with it’s TV station livery. Then he glared at me like I knew the answers to his questions. “Tell me what’s going on?” I suddenly felt responsible for the fact there were TV cameras and a massive gangster in the same room. “They’re doing a report about our secret headliners tonight”. He looked back at the van and did that lean in thing so only I could hear the ominous tone of his next sentence. “Get rid of them yeah?” I must’ve looked confused. I was. I’m a bartender, this is the media. What does a bartender do to put a TV crew off doing what they came to do? I guessed I’d have to ask. “How on Earth do I manage that?” Mr Knickerbocker looked back at me and blinked. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen him do that before. I thought maybe he’s realised the task he’s given me was above my level of influence. “Quietly, perhaps.” He suggested as he headed out to the kitchen. He was fucking with me. He had to be. We were about to make headlines with the first of a short run of big name shows that would seal the legacy of our venue, He wanted to turn the spotlight away from The Head? Why? Because he likes it in the shade? Nah. I’m not signed up for that. Not anymore. Then again, he’s a terrifying individual and I do not want to disappoint him. One thing I would not miss when I finished working here was dealing with this hard stare Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels bollocks.
Dan The Man and Dan DaDan Dan came in from the outside having collected a couple of dozen glasses. He’d missed Mr Knickerbocker’s arrival entirely. Dan The Man was buzzing about the TV being here. More specifically he was vibing about the fact he’d managed to slip a Spinal Tap quote into his interview with them. “I just got it in there, ‘Have a good time, all the time’ Imaging if they use it!” I was impressed. This sort of shit mattered to us more than anything else. “Did you stand in front of the Puppet Show sign when you said it?” Dan nodded enthusiastically. This was the stuff I would miss. Professionally dicking about for the inside joke’s that get a crew through a working day. Dan The Man was loading the glass washer now, his attentions had turned to Solveigh and The Heathers who had arrived about 25 minutes ago. “What did they order?” I decided to make him work for the information he sought. “Who?” He grinned. This was a game he enjoyed. “Lady Sol and her gathering. They have a food order in right? What did they order?” I pretended I couldn’t remember even though I took the order myself just 15 minutes ago. “Umm. I think they ordered something.” Dan The Man looked over at the table of immaculate glamorous beauties. He sighed like a Dickensian street urchin looking through the window of a pie shop. He may even have licked his lips. The bell rang in the kitchen for service. I looked to him. His eyes widened with panic. “I think that’ll be it. Solveigh is having the tuna salad. The others all ordered wraps or panini’s. You wanna take it over?” Dan shook his head. I rolled my eyes. “You’ve got precious few shifts left Lad. When are you going to start using your Barman Points? You don’t get a set of champagne flutes if you keep them all unspent.” He looked perplexed. I knew he knew what I was talking about. I went out on a limb. “You know they come here to see you don’t you?” This was met with immediate denial. “They come here to see YOU Steve.” I shook my head. “You’re so wrong. I’ve tried chatting to Lady Sol. I can’t get past the first 30 seconds. That group come here and while you’re working they watch you. They whisper to one another. I’m not sure which one it is but one of Solveigh’s Lieutenants is sweet on you Man.” Dan The Man went beetroot red like he’d been caught with his pants down. “Now take those Ladies their lunch.” He shook his head again. “I’ll do the clean down.” I folded my arms. I wasn’t moving. “Dan!” The bell rang out from the kitchen again and Sarah hollered “I said service!” I watched him head over with four plates of hot food and a glow in his cheeks. He began conversing as he put the plates down. I beamed with pride as I started pulling a pint for another customer. I may have invented the odd detail in that story but I had scant time left to ready Dan The Man for the outside world.
Trace came up from the other end of the bar with more empty glasses. She had one eye on Dan as she did. “This is a heck of a time for him to find his sea legs” She filled the last few spaces in the glass washer and turned it on. “It might be a bit late in the game but Dan The Man may live up to his name by the time we get done here” She shook her head. I could sense sorrow in her eyes. “How’s you?” I inquired aware of how public our surroundings were. “I’ll tell you later.” Trace’s light had been visibly dimmed since the night of the lock in. She still turned in an absolutely pro performance at work. She still took part in the late night after show service and she still out gunned every other team member on a daily basis, but I could tell she’s not 100%. We’d spoken a couple of times about her home situation since Scruff had battered me. He’d moved most of his stuff back to his Mum’s. Things were not going well.
There were a group of moshers at the end of the bar waving their cash in our direction so Trace headed back down to serve them while I took care of Zippy. Zippy and Stickman Theater were getting a round in for their whole band. It was a few minutes before Dan made his way back from Solveigh’s table. He was beaming from ear to ear. “How was that?” Dan was nodding but short of words for a moment. “That was terrifying. That was brilliant.” OK I thought. Dan The Man can talk to girls now. It’s about time.
We’d got to about six in the evening when Sarah popped out from the kitchen to ensure all food service was finished. Now the kitchen could work as a backstage area. The TV crew were long gone but we had the Monitor TV at the end of the bar tuned to the news to see our report come on. The evening shift had convened at that end to call out when it was on. Trace, Dan and myself were still pulling pints and prepping for tonight. Dan The Van, Double Steve and Daisy had been helping remove furniture to The Pigeon Club so we could fit more people in. Dan announced he had to “Shiver Me Timbers” and headed off to the toilets just before the news began. There was Terry in his suit and tie.
“Rock and Roll music venue The Head is expecting a big night tonight as the first big show of their ‘going out of business’ season gets underway with a secret big name band. I visited the coolest bar in town to talk to customers about going out in style and the end of an era”
The VT cut to Solveigh and her Heathers sat in the corner of the bar. She looked a natural on TV. She said something nice about the venue and it’s atmosphere. She said she was exited to see what band was going to be unveiled tonight. Then they cut to one of the customers who had sat outside. I didn’t recognise him but he knew who had played here before. He stated that if we could get bands of that size before, then it had to be worth coming along this evening. Dan The Man’s moment came next. The crew cheered when he popped up on screen.
“The Head has always been the rock and roll heart of this area. I’m proud to work here. I’m proud to have played here too.”
Terry asked Dan The Man the name of his band. As he spoke the edit cut away to a Mountain Of Light screen printed poster hanging in the pub. “I play blues harp in Mountain Of Light. We played last week. We’ll be playing again at the all-dayer on the 27th November. It’ll be a sad day when they bulldoze The Greatest Rock And Roll Bar In The UK. Until then? Well, we’re going to have a good time, all the time.”
Dan was getting his hair ruffled. Double Steve was telling him that there was a thin line between clever and stupid. Hearing the cold hard facts on TV like that was a sobering moment. Only a moment though. Neil Young’s Hey Hey My My began playing on the box and the assembled bar staff went to work singing it like it was a fucking hymn. Within 25 minutes of the broadcast the place was at capacity. We were taking money hand over fist. Stock was selling so fast we had Dan The Van on standby to go to the cash and carry if we ran out of bottled beer. Daisy and The Rain came buzzing out of the kitchen shortly after we had heard that the band had arrived. Upstairs in Sarah’s flat several Levellers were relaxing with a drink and a smoke before their surprize show. “Is this really happening?” asked Daisy excitedly. It’s a valid question. Are The Levellers about to play to our crammed pub just to do an old friend a favour? It was a strange concept but as the gathering crowds would attest, something was really happening. Word came down from the flat that the band would go on at eight thirty. That would give them two hours until curfew. It was only just seven. That meant there was an hour and a half of anticipation to get through. The crowd felt rowdy. We had a plan. The Head Hogs were a band comprising of the best local musicians in off duty mode. They had filled in for various acts when vans broke down on dual carriage ways or when musical differences upset planned scheduled dates. There was one time they’d taken over from a dreadful act who’d been booked by mistake who clearly couldn’t play worth a toffee vodka shot.
The Head Hogs had a revolving line up of Zippy, Khan, Stickman Theater, Daisy and occasionally Dan DaDan Dan. Someone in the crowd had started a ‘Who are ya’ chant as the support act plugged their guitars in and prepared to make some noise. There was enough positive noise from the regulars to understand this was not the headline band but instead was some beloved musos filling a gap. Dickie put the crowd at ease with a little banter while Zippy tuned up. “Hey everybody. I’m Paul McCartney and these are my Wings.” There was a ripple of laughter. “We’re going to play some party music. Get you all in the mood and then… Then I’m going to finally give away who the headliners are.” A cheer went up. Stickman belted out a ba-dum tish. “We will take a couple of requests” A voice came from the back of the room “Fuck off then!” There was a kerfuffle in a corner. Zippy took to the second mic. “Show some respect Mate. That’s one request we’ll not be taking.” Dickie peered out to the throng. “But first… There are some songs that become like anthems. There are some songs you associate so much with a place, well, they become part of the walls. Part of the building. This is a track that belongs here. In The Head. The best bar I’ve ever known. I know you know the words. So do your best yeah?”
Stickman Theater raised his arms high and rattled out John Bonham’s massive drum intro for Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll. Zippy followed him down with that boogie woogie riff. The place went nuts. The Head Hogs, as house bands go these guys were the business. All together, people with various allegiances to all alternative music sub genres were singing in unison “Been a long time since I rock and rolled, been a long time since I did the stroll”. It was a blistering performance. To a room full of whistles and howls that song collapsed under its own wind milling crescendo. Zippy stepped forward and wrung out the opening of The Stone Roses Love Spreads for their second song. There were no doubters in the room by the time the drums kicked in. I was starting to wonder if the The Levellers were concerned they’d have to follow this?
Then I remembered the last time I’d seen The Levellers. And I remembered Glastonbury, and Brockwell Park and Brixton and Headlights and White Lines and Black Tar Rivers. And I knew a covers band whooping it up was all well and good, but we were about to have one of the all time alternative party bands tear the roof off our place. The Head Hogs blasted through Live Forever, Up Around The Bend, Pretty Vacant and a bunch of other 25 carat solid gold pub rockers until about 20 minutes before the headliners were due on. The crowd were won on some songs, small numbers lost on others. The mood was expectant and the mass of people jostled between excited and manic in a fun but slightly frightening way.
I knew Khan and Dickie had worn their welcome wagon down to the rims by the time they finished Brown Sugar. They had to give the game away before they left the stage. “OK Everyone. Thanks for singing along with us. Thanks for warming this place up. Let’s hear it for Zippy the Axe! Let’s hear it for Stick! Man! Theater! All the way from behind the bar let’s give it up for Daisy Chain Reaction and Dan! DaDan! Dan! Dannnnn!” The applause was robust but the moment had come. Nothing other than a reveal would do. “It’s time to take this party up a level. It’s time to let this river flow. There’s only one way to go now. Let’s get you Bozos on the bus. What a beautiful night, what a beautiful crowd, what a beautiful day! Ladies and gentlemen! It’s only the bloody Levellers!”
The reaction was wild. As Jeremy, Mark, Charlie, Jon and Simon took to the stage the cheers were deafening. Mark lifted his guitar over his shoulder and said “Alright” to the room. Then he plucked out the opening notes of Just The One as a wild night of rock and roll got underway. They followed with Exodus, Last Days Of Winter, Hope Street, Another Man’s Cause, Dog Train. Hit after hit. The entire venue was having a glorious evening. They were five deep at every inch of the bar. We were swapping notes for bottles at break neck speed. I got to demonstrate my three pint pour and my Jackie Chan high kick to turn off a lager tap two meters away. Sarah kept removing the take up to the safe just so we could get the tills shut. When Mark got to 15 Years he did it solo on his acoustic and I was not quite prepared for the content. This song has been playing in the indie clubs and pubs for a decade. Tonight the lyrics cut me deep.
“All the lights and the late night lock in, have faded away when he gets in, the girl from 15 years ago has packed and gone away”
Was this being beamed in like the ghost of Christmas future for Ebeneezer Steve? A mournful ballad of regret from a vantage point you can’t resist when it’s too late. When you’re at the bitter losing end of the 20th century. Dammit! It all came hurtling in on me at once. My job is going, my pub is closing down, all my friends are going to move on and oh my wobbly arsed Christ. My girlfriend and I split up two and a half years ago. Ever since that happened, I’ve just buried my head in the sand and swilled away the idea I might be sad. I’ve done that every single night for 3 years. Oh Thank The Dog! He’s going to play What A Beautiful Day at last. Swallow that down now. Get your barman face back on. There’s a sing along from the opening line! I’m back to pulling pints and dishing out bottled beer by the fist load in exchange for the folding stuff. Sarah comes back into the room with an empty cash box. She’s singing too. “What a beautiful day, hey hey, what a beautiful day, and nothing is impossible in my all powerful mind” That’s Sarah. Ever the optimist. Problem solver. mover, shaker, fixer of problems. The Leader Of The Pack. She starts making space in my till with another haul. This is an epic night. There are less than 20 of them to go. The band finish with One Way and The Devil Went Down To Georgia. It all comes spilling over the bar. We have to suspend serving to help crowd surfers over the counter. Away into the far end of the room we send them, just to keep things safe. Who are we kidding? There’s nothing safe about this. We are heaving. The building is packed beyond capacity. Anything goes wrong and the authorities wouldn’t let us finish our run. Making it to the 28th suddenly feels massively important. We’re building a legacy here. The sort of story the people present will tell in their later years. When the clubs, drugs, pubs and parties are all in the past tense. When we’re all fat and grey haired. I saw it. I was in The Head the night The Levellers played. I was there for the final shows. I saw the last night. Never been another place like it… That kind of thing.
Everyone’s smiling and laughing. Inside I feel a deep dark hollow sadness.