Chapter 15 – Dancing On Your Grave
November the 20th 1999 was our penultimate Saturday. One seven day weekend lay between me and unemployment. I’d been to see Rick at The Clock Tower a week or so ago. He said he’d be happy to have me “part time” but business had not been great and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to offer me anything serious. I’d been back into Fat Joe’s when taking an afternoon constitutional (I mean a walk, not everything is a suitable Dan The Van-ism for taking a dump), I may have been in luck. They were looking for an assistant manager. However, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend more of my life hanging out in one of Penny and I’s old haunts. It was the scene of our first date after all. So I ummed and ahhed about it to the point that if I were them, I wouldn’t offer me the job. I was pretending Mr Knickerbocker hadn’t made me an offer. I wasn’t going back to that.
Still… We had seven days. I was first into the bar because I’d had the shortest commute. I’d slept in The Pigeon Club. I told myself this was because there was so much work to do. The full truth of it was also because I got legless drunk after Bis played their return show to a packed house last night. It’s safe to say I wasn’t taking the impending closure well or dealing with things proportionately. Since The Levellers had kicked off our secret headline shows we’d been painting logos on the ‘Up Coming Shows’ board before putting X’s through them like Spitfire Pilots used to do with Messerschmitts. We’d had The Levellers, Shed Seven, Terrorvision, The Jellys, Ladytron and now Bis play in the last couple of weeks. They were the big names. We’d also had Tim Tilla’s band Tortilla Killa return, London Colin had brought his expanded show down one night. We’d seen The Elephant of Surprise, Harrison Ford and The Travoltas, The Millennium Bugs and Mr. Ranger Danger all play returning shows like they were triumphant music legends despite being made up of the regulars relying on the same 2 or 3 drummers working in rotation. Every gig was at capacity, regardless of who was playing.
I washed my face and hands in the gents then cleaned my teeth in the kitchen. I had kept a bundle of clothes in a backpack for just such an occasion stashed in the kitchen ever since the morning I’d had to choose between being on time and bloodied or late and presentable. What even constitutes presentable in a rock bar anyway? I pulled on a Terrorvision T-Shirt fresh from it’s plastic packaging and put my hair back in a messy pony tail. This sturdy mother-ship of a pub was a beautiful sight in the morning when it was empty. The sunlight from outside shining Hendrix’s colours all around the back bar. I looked over at the Jukebox. I needed a hit. The yellow glow rose like a homemade sunrise as the speakers made their tiny hum. I grabbed my cleaning bottle and cloth, hit the random button and went to work.
The controls were still set at last nights volume. The ‘Da-Da-Dung-Dung-Doo’ pickings of Brian “Robbo” Robertson playing his brief stint in Motörhead rang out from every corner of the room. Dancing On Your Grave wasn’t even a single from that era. How there was a seven inch of it on the box was a mystery to most. Uncle Vernon had returned from overseas with it some time in the mid 80’s. He’d claimed it was a promo from Japan. Dancing On Your Grave was flipped with the equally razor-backed Shine. Two absolute monster tracks from the band that typified this rock and roll lifestyle. Not Vernon’s usual stock in trade. He liked Soul, Ska, Funk and Blues as a rule. He had a Lemmy story though, so Motörhead got a pass. A story from a night in Hong Kong harbor one Christmas time. A story involving a case of mistaken identity, an unpaid bar tab, a ballet dancer with a twisted ankle. The tale culminated in Uncle Vernon and Lemmy requiring a quick get away on a Tuk-Tuk. No one was sure if the story was true. It didn’t really matter. It was a good yarn when it was trotted out at Jukebox Jury. It secured Motörhead’s place in the box.
“I bet you you thought you were a real operator but I don’t know why, All you had was a bankroll, babe and a glint in your eye”
The music was good and the music was loud. The rush washed over me as I worked. The fuzzy logic of an impending hangover chased away by electric guitars over thumping drums. Music was like a drug. Rock and Roll like a headache pill. I positioned tables and chairs. I wiped surfaces. I laid out beer mats and filled fridges. I loved the routine. I loved every stick of mismatched furniture in the place. I turned on fairy lights, straightened the remaining framed pictures on the walls and decanted half bottles into singles. I didn’t see Sarah come in. She made no complaints about the volume or the hour. She was watching me busily graft and sing and enjoy myself. Motörhead had given way to The Verve then Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Right now Frank Black of Pixies was thrashing his acoustic to Headache and I was word for word all over the bitter regret presented as upbeat pop. I came back from the toilets with a mop and bucket in my hand to see her sat by the hatch on Dan The Van’s regular stall smoking a rollie.
“Stevie Stevie Steve. What are we going to do with you?” I suddenly became aware of the fact it was probably Lemmy and I who had woken her up. “You’re not gonna fire me are you?” Gallows humour. It’s so metal. “You’re ‘up and atom’ early Fallout Boy. Did you go home last night?” I walked the bucket round to the slop sink “You want me to lie to you?” Sarah smiled. “Not at all. No judgement. I’m just trying to look out for you. You do need to sleep in a real bed from time to time.” I put the empty bucket back in the cupboard “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” This was bollocks and we both knew it. I slept like a traffic calming bump the second I closed my eyes when I was pissed. I’d been solid gone for 7 hours on the sofa in The Pigeon Club. “You’re quoting Bon Jovi now? Things are worse than I thought. Listen. Steve. I’m saying this because I care. You have one week of gainful employment left. You are spending your every minute here. Working on something with a guaranteed expiration date. I’ve sorted the others out where I could. Dan The Man has got a job. Trace is getting a new place and going to Teacher Training College. Daisy and Double Steve are all soppy and in love. Even Uncle Vernon is moving on. He’s got a gig in an out of season holiday camp building a festival or something or other. You’ve worked so hard for me all these years. Since the news broke about us closing you’ve doubled your efforts. Steve I can’t bear to think how it’s going to be for you Sunday week.”
I took everything Sarah had to say on board. I was about to speak. She smiled a kind smile. I did a classic diversion “Imagine being one of the kids in Trace Elements class at school. Blimey. She’ll be raising an army. You know that right?” Sarah laughed. Then she pulled me right back on topic. “Steve. We’ve taken a shit load of money in the last couple of weeks. It’ll go a way to sorting out some of the mess. You’ve earned a share of it Steve. Not just your wages and the tips.” I began to protest “We have done this for you. I am doing this for…”
“Shut up Steve. Shut up a minute. Listen to me. I’ve got somewhere to go too. I’ve found a gig. Mr Knickerbocker has sorted something out for me. I’ll have to leave to catch a plane on Saturday Night. I’m going to Spain to run a bar out there.” This news was a revelation to me. I was delighted for Sarah. “That’s fantastic.” I beamed. Sarah sang a little ditty “I’m going to Spain, Cousin Norman had a real fine time last year” I stared back at her blankly. I did not get the reference. “No? That’s a surprise. Look, I’ll get some winter sun and be ready to rock and roll by the time the Easter Holidays start. It does mean however that I won’t be here to take the final till. I can’t count up on the last night. I’ll be air-side by the time you close. You’re the last Caesar. I’m leaving the final lock up to you.” This news was too specific. This was a week away. “You got an out! Sarah that’s great news.” She patted me on the shoulder. “Steve The Wise. Big Stevie. I will make sure you don’t go short. There will be enough money for you to really do something. You’ve just got to do a few little chores around here before ‘The wreckin’ ball comes around’. Can I count on you?” I nodded “Have I ever let you down?” She smiled. “Don’t answer that.”
The XTC hit Peter Pumpkinhead’s jangle pop perked up behind us still at a bellowing volume. Sarah mouthed the ‘Let’s begin’ part before she drew a long drag on her cigarette. I unbolted the doors to let the first customers of the day find The Head open and ready for business one week from the end. It took about ten minutes before Double Steve and Daisy joined me behind the bar. Another ten minutes in our next customer arrived. Tim Tilla was with a girl who’d been following him around like a lost puppy since their show last week canoodled their way to the bar. She looked all of sixteen. “Morning Steve. How’s The Head?” I took it he was asking about business and particularly last nights gig not the state of my hangover. “Well “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride!” Tim. What a ride. What a day. What can I get you?” Tim laughed, he made some strange gang sign gesture with his hand “Yes Steve! See I told you he’s a Don. Words like Eminem!” I felt the need to confess. “They’re not my words Tim. They’re Hunter S. Thompson. Do your homework.” Tim laughed again “I learn more here than I ever did at school.” His girl giggled at him “Young Lady. Please don’t take offence. I have a to check you’re old enough to be here. Do you have any ID?” Tim looked shocked. “She was in here the other night no problem Steve. When we played. Sarah didn’t ask for ID. Neither did Dan.” I righted myself up tall on the bar. “Tim. What kind of Bartender would I be if I didn’t check the odd ID when a girl this youthful looking comes into the pub? Especially when she’s keeping the sort of company she is.” Tim looked around. “What? She’s with me!” I smirked “Exactly. What’s your name Hon?” The girl squirmed a little “Cass”, “OK Cass. I need to ask you a couple of questions. How do you know Tim Tilla?” She wasn’t sure if she was about to be kicked out or not, “I saw his band, I liked them. He came to say hello after the show.” I sucked on my teeth. “I bet he did.” Tim went to speak. I raised my hand to silence him. “Where did you see Tim Tilla’s band play Cass?” she was quite enjoying the charade I could tell “I’ve seen them twice. First time at the Pool Hall. Second here last week.” I rubbed my chin. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Cass where were you the night Kurt Cobain died?” Tim laughed. Cass did too “I was at home doing homework. It came on the radio. I cried for days.” I nodded. “We all did Cass. We all did. That’s good enough for me. Any friend of Tim ‘Rock N’ Roll Star’ Tilla is a friend of mine. What are you drinking?”
She opted for a lager top and Tim for a regular pint. I poured their drinks with the pride of a father (or at least a sketchy uncle) seeing his Son go off to college. Tim Tilla with a fan. The scene was growing up. As I laid the drinks down I pointed towards the sign stolen from a local swimming pool which adorned the pillar by the bar. “Remember, no heavy petting, no running, no bombing.” Give it another half hour and there were a few dozen punters drinking, eating and feeding the Jukebox with coins. Everything from Hair Metal to Motown to Britpop was getting an airing. The phone rang during a lull in service and after six rings I decided Sarah wasn’t going to pick up from the kitchen so I slipped into the corner to answer it. “The Head Must Die” I proudly announced. “How may I direct your call?” There was nothing on the end of the line at first. I gave it a second “Hello. Anyone there?” I could hear something at the other end, but no one was speaking. I was about to hang up when Penny spoke. “Steve? Is that you Captain Caveman?” The world stopped. “Penny? Penny. It is you isn’t it?” I knew it was her. I knew that voice anywhere. “Steve. It’s good to hear your voice. It’s good to know you’re still there.” Awkward silences between broken up couples are like invisible walls. The two of us were separated by more than distance and time. We were in different worlds now. “Pen. I’ve been following how you’re doing in the press. We’re all so proud of you. Of the girls. Of the record. Still not sure about Old Man Myles though. He’s shady.” Penny laughed. It was as beautiful over the phone as it was the first time I goofed around with her on a lunchtime date six years ago. “He’s definitely playing the long game.” I laughed too. “How are you? How’s America?” There was a moments silence. I feared we may have got cut off. It was just the delay between our two continents rattling down the telephone wires. “It’s a-maz-ing. Oh Steve. You’d love it.” That hurt more than it should. I’m sure it was just an innocent remark but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting. “We’ve played festivals, we’ve done TV. We’re going to have a song in a movie Steve. It’s everything we ever talked about.” I was so happy to hear her happy. The sting was worth enduring. “Number five on the Billboard chart Penny. I heard Casey Kasem say your name on MTV. I saw a review that said you played with Sleater Kinney and The Donnas in LA. That must have been a hell of a show.” Penny made a mmm sound and jumped tact. “Listen Steve. I’ve heard about what’s happening. Motorcycle Mary got a call from Sarah a couple of weeks back. We are going to try and get back over there for next weeks show. We’re going to try but we’re on a pretty big tour and it might be a bit tight.”
I knew exactly who Sister Pain were on tour with pretty much most of the time and right now they were jumping off a stint with Dave Grohl’s band Foo Fighters to pick up with Metallica. There was no way I could see them squeezing in a jump across the pond and a gig in the pub where they played their first show. Bless her though for even thinking of trying. “You want me to get Sarah?” I really hoped she would say no and we could keep talking. I hoped that the universe would fade away and we could just talk to each other across the world forever. “No. It’s OK. You can pass the message on. Steve. It’s really good. Really really good to hear your voice.” I nodded hoping she could feel me through the phone. There was a moment of dead air. “Steve I’ve got to go. It’s really late and there’s a car here to take me back to my hotel.” Every word of that sentence scrunched me up inside like a discarded piece of paper. “Penny.” She didn’t hang up. There was another of those ominous silences “Yes Steve?” I gulped. “Penny I’m so sorry.” She took a moment then whispered back into the receiver “Me too.” I gasped for air. “Hope to see you soon OK?” With that the line went dead. I sort of wished I had too. It turns out a phone call from my rock star ex-girlfriend didn’t kill me. It did leave me shell shocked, staring at the wall for a hot minute. I was thinking of all the ‘could’ve been’ scenarios. If I hadn’t let Mr Knickerbocker push me into storing hooky goods for him I’d never have lied to Penny. If I’d been strong willed enough to keep my nose clean I could have been on tour in America with her right now. Maybe doing the road manager job Motorcycle Mary was doing. If Motorcycle Mary hadn’t left to join Sister Pain’s entourage maybe Magic Alex wouldn’t have overdosed in a squat last spring. If I didn’t let Sarah come and whisk me away from the lock up the night I hit back at Arthur Loafer maybe I wouldn’t have felt so guilty about everything. Maybe then I wouldn’t have sat up drinking every night instead of being a supportive partner for Penny. I might not have missed the album recording sessions because I was sitting in front of our cellar waiting for squad cars to light up Cemetery Road. I might have taken some joy in the release party. I might have joined Penny and the bands thrills and excitement If I wasn’t constantly reliving the sickening thud of steel on cranium or the Gangsters buggering mess that followed.
The police went around town to look for anyone who may have seen Arthur alive or could help with his final movements back in 1997. They retraced a lot of his steps before his body turned up in his car down by the airport. Someone at The Majesty remembered he and I had scrapped in 1994. We’d had a chat. Me and a Detective called DI North. I gave a good account of myself knowing absolutely nothing. I had an alibi, witnesses for the period of time they suspected he died of asphyxiation in his car. Still, I felt I’d been left on the bottom of a lake of bleakness.
Maybe… Maybe not. Maybe being in a state of domestic bliss with me would have dulled Penny’s drive. Maybe she’d have wanted to stay home and play house for too long. Maybe she’d have missed her window if I had been a decent boyfriend. I wasn’t. I filled her home with illegal contraband. I lied to her about criminal activity that could have rendered us homeless. I wasn’t there when she hit the big time. I was busy assisting police with their investigations the night she hit the UK top ten. I was roused from this game of ‘What if?’ by a punter wanting to order some burritos and beer.
What could be more perfect than burritos and beer?