Chapter 16 – Hide N’ Seekin’
The Replacements, Scruff would tell me, were the greatest American rock and roll band to never have a hit. They were constantly messing things up when they should have been heading on up to the big time. They started off making messy noisy squalor with records like Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash and Gary’s Got A Boner before they ended a decade later making beautiful torch songs like Bent Out Of Shape and Here Comes A Regular. They cut their shapes in an alcohol and lipstick smeared mess as if they were tragic clowns paid a pittance to destroy themselves before us. Scruff thought they were fantastic. When he played me an album called Tim that contained Left Of The Dial, Kiss Me On The Bus and Bastards Of Young among it’s tracklisting, I had to recognise that he was probably right. Scruff introduced me to The Mats (as they were known to their fans) about five years after they split up. What a bastard.
The lead singer of this band of fuck ups was known to me already. Paul Westerberg had two songs on a compilation album I played a hell of a lot. In point of fact, it was searching for his full studio release one day in Scruff’s record shop that got this whole dealer/junkie relationship off the ground. Scruff wanted to know why I would buy 14 Songs by Paul Westerberg with the cover sticker that read ‘The Voice Of The Replacements’ when I didn’t have copies of any of The Mats records at home? I was trying to explain when Scruff ran to the front of the shop like a little goblin creature and locked the doors in the middle of a trading day. “We’re about to have a moment” he announced. He selected two Replacements records from the racks on his way back to the turntable behind the counter.
Scruff’s Records wasn’t a conventional looking record shop. It was piled high with music in every format. There were old posters, tour t-shirts, framed discs, musical instruments hanging on every inch of wall space. If you moved too quickly in here you could cause an avalanche. That is unless you could hop about like Scruff does. Nimbly and resembling David Bowie’s Jareth in Labyrinth. The shop was clearly a spiritual relative to the inside of The Head. Many of the artifacts that found their way to The Head had materialized in the portal to Narnia that must be in Scruff’s stockroom. Everything from rubber monster masks (Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie) to giant comic book covers (Josie & The Pussycats Issue #1) would have wandered across town at one point or another. For now though Scruff wanted me to hear an album called Let It Be. “No not that one” he prefaced the moment and the needle hit the groove. I Will Dare was a rollicking tune. Scruff knew his shit. He was grinning and nodding and doing a weird fish-stick finger dance thing with every riff.
“How young are you? How old am I? Let’s count the rings around my eyes! How smart are you? How dumb am I? Don’t count any of my advice”
This little listening party had occurred three years ago. By now I was a fully paid up Mats fan myself. I had Paul’s solo stuff too. I’d bought Paul Westerberg’s 14 Songs from Scruff the week after I bought The Replacements’ Tim. Although Penny never really got into them, upon it’s release she had surprised me with a copy of Westerberg’s second solo album. A curio titled Eventually. I’m not sure if it’s because she bought it for me or because I love an underdog of a record but Eventually worked it’s way up to one of my favourite albums pretty damned quickly. It was pure of rock and roll heart. I loved how it wore it’s vulnerability behind a street tough swagger. Not to mention the fact it had horns. Not the devil kind. Sax and Trombone. It even had a song called Trumpet Clip. Penny gifted me many records in our time together but Hide N’ Seekin’ off Eventually felt like a satellite link up with my Coinage while she was away on tour.
“Is that you? Peeking out from that hat, hide n’ seekin’ behind a drink that’s gone flat, Is that you peeking out from your tree? Hide n’ seekin’ from everyone here but me.”
She’d been gone for seven weeks the day Melody Maker published their review of Sister Pain’s North American Tour. It arrived at The Head in a pile of post that included local bands demo tapes and some hefty bills. The clock stopped when I saw they’d given Penny the front cover. She was as beautiful as ever. Her black hair was now pillar-box red with just a streak of the black down the left hand side. She had a black trilby on and a tiny red mini-dress over fishnet stockings. I had never seen Penny in any colour other than black until that magazine landed. She also wore knee high silver go-go boots. Bright red lipstick, green eye shadow and long silver nails. The monochrome Penny black who had played so many shows at The Head was now a stylists muse in red and silver.
The headline of the inky read FEEL (UP) THE PAIN: America Falls In Love With Penny Black And Goth Girl Power! Inside it’s pages the article title was Baby I’m Ready To Goth. It was an enthusiastic piece about how their third single (the second from the album) was a college radio hit. It detailed how their tour had sold out everywhere they went. Firstly they were playing with Marylin Manson, then a couple of dozen dates headlining clubs on their own. Before flying home they were going to Canada with Garbage and L7 for another 20 arena dates. This was news to me. I’d been expecting Penny home 3 weeks ago. I got the first call the night before they were due to fly back. I was excited for her. Motorcycle Mary had hooked up some dates while they were out there. By borrowing some kit and hiring some more crew they could do their own tour for a fraction of the price tag. The label were pushing them to do TV and Radio every chance they could get. The clubs they were playing were names that meant something to us. CBGB’s, The Roxy, The Riviera, The Stone Pony, First Avenue & The 7th Street Entry. The sorts of places amazing live albums were recorded by some of our favourite bands. I egged her on from the side lines. She was living the dream.
When the tour started she called me at The Head on the first night they landed and after the first show. It was all hyperactive superlatives and ‘Say Hi to everyone at home’. Then it was a week before Penny could find time to call. We we’re putting on shows, bringing in business and shifting Mr Knickerbocker’s stuff around. Then it was two weeks. She was due home soon so that was all cool. I couldn’t wait to see her. I was counting down the days. Then she called to tell me about the club tour. Of course I understood. Trace, Daisy, Dan, Sarah and I had a busy time running ‘The Bar That Launched Sister Pain’ back home. After the headline club shows call I didn’t hear from Penny again until I read about her in the Melody Maker. Heading off to the big white north with her hero Shirley from Garbage and L7.
I gave good face. I pretended I was all cool. I mean I was excited and pleased for her and for the band. Truth be told I felt a bit like I’d been forgotten. The dates in the magazine added another 3 weeks from today that they’d be away. I finished reading the article. It was a glowing review. Looking at the fold out of the three girls in the band across two pages I didn’t feel like I was looking at my girlfriends band anymore. I was looking at some genuine MTV sheen rock stars. Their faces were familiar. So were Shirley Manson’s and Marilyn Manson’s. Dave Grohl? Well, he really looked like the guy who used to play drums in Nirvana.
On 21st of June 1997 I opened the doors to the pub at midday just in time to see Double Steve and Zippy approaching with their own Melody Makers in their hands. They were excitedly reading the article aloud. Ten minutes later Stick Man Theater and Trace were reading it on the counter of the pub. By 2:30 PM there was a framed copy of it being hung next to the stage by Uncle Vernon and Dan The Van. The Jukebox had played both the Sister Pain singles it held at least three times a piece when I started to feel decidedly grumpy. At 3pm we closed the kitchen for the afternoon. All the usual faces had by now talked to me about Penny, her band, the new single, the tours, how sexy her new look was, how lucky I was and Sister Pain, Rock N’ Roll, Big time, Big Time! Big! Time!
Around five PM Uncle Vernon came back into the bar with a stack of vinyl records under his arm. He eyed me suspiciously as he took a bottle of scotch from the back bar and two glasses. The room was all but empty. Pubs used to close in the afternoon and open again at 6:30. These days they just petered out and I drew up the chalk boards, played records, chatted with anyone who hung on for the evening to start. Vernon clicked the bolts on the top doors and made his way down to the swing doors to close those too. I wondered what had got into him. “We’re OK Vernon. We’ve got the all day licence.” He looked over his tiny John Lennon sunglasses at me. “You need a drink” I was puzzled. It had been a long time since anyone had told me I needed a drink. Usually it went the other way. I felt I had a lecture coming so I went about clearing the bar top as best I could in the moments before The King took to his throne. The clunk-click- whir of a selection over riding the random feature on the jukebox called time. Mott The Hoople’s All The Way From Memphis kicked in. Vernon did that duck walk thing he does when he’s digging the music all the way back over to the hatch.
Vernon set the glasses on the bar. He poured us both a generous double of whiskey. “Get that down you. We need to have a chat.” I did not like the sound of this. I did not particularly like whiskey either but I did as I was told. Vernon set us up again immediately after I took a slug from the glass. I made a whiskey face. It never gets any nicer. I leaned on my elbows opposite him “What’s this about Uncle?” Vernon knocked his second drink back and gestured to my glass. “Steve. I want to talk to you about life on the road. I want you to listen to what I have to say and I want you to be a good lad and never repeat what we discuss at the end of this conversation. Can you do that?” I took a mouthful of whiskey instead of answering. Uncle Vernon seemed to take that as an affirmative. “When I went on the road in 1974, I left home a good boy with his O Level results in his back pocket and a new coat my mum had bought me. I climbed on a tour bus outside the local chippy a schoolboy and I didn’t really get off it until I was banged up in chokey in 15 years later. I saw the world. I lived out of a suit case and I learned that people are all the same the world over. There’s no difference between the English, the Egyptians, the Americans or the Poles. We all want to have a good time. It’s a lawless frontier Steve. There are a lot of people in the world who will help you out if you catch a flat tyre and by the same token, it’s very easy for someone to take what isn’t theirs if they’re sure they’ll never get caught. Chaos in action. It’s beautiful and It’s addictive.”
I could see where this was going. Uncle Vernon was going to tell me that what goes on while on the road changes you. He was going to tell me not expect my Penny back. He was going to tell me she’d moved on and I should too. I wasn’t sure he was wrong but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear it. “How long has she been gone Young Blood?” I knew he knew how long but I answered anyway. “Seven weeks. Seven weeks two days. Seven weeks, two days, six hours.” He poured again. “I bet you she doesn’t know that. Not in the detail you do. Life on tour, especially with a band on the rise, a hit, label involvement, more than one tour manager. Support slots, press junkets, adoring fans, bigger bands, after shows. Every day will feel like three. They’re like dog days. Seven Weeks on tour? That’s a lifetime. Three more to come? That’s more gigs, more miles, more bits and pieces than a fan does in a year.” I held off my next sip. Vernon charged his glass. He held eye contact. “I remember the first time we did the States. I went out playing bass with a funk outfit who had been on Top Of The Pop’s in January, album out in February and supporting Bobby Womack in the US in March. I left my girl barefoot and pregnant with promises of big money and a mortgage deposit when I got back. We started in Los Angeles and went all over on a month long tour.” So far so clear. I knew this part of Vernon’s story already.
“I took up with a waitress in San Francisco. I knew I was being a bad boy but this Chick Steve… My God! She was like something from a Hollywood movie and I was completely awestruck. You didn’t see girls like that back home. She wanted to be an actress. She talked to me like I was already a star. I felt like a lump of shit the next day. Like I’d really let myself down. I promised myself it was a one time thing. An adventure. The Mrs would never know and it would never happen again.” Something told me this was not the end of that part of the story.
“By the time we got to Dallas I was bumping coke off groupies tits like the rest of them. It was madness. Feral, lawless, manic fun followed by hundreds of miles of boredom and hangovers and stinky tour bus tedium.” That’s the sort of thing you got in rock star autobiographies and those long ‘I’m with the band’ articles people like Lester Bangs or Charles Shaar Murray used to write. “That tour ended in New York with a three night residency. We played our last show and had 24 hours before our flight home. We got paid too, in cash. The deal was straight up and suddenly I found my self loaded and at a loose end in the Big Apple. I could’ve brought all that back home and kept a promise. I could’ve but I was terrified I’d never get to New York again. This might be my only chance. I wanted to see everything. Me and our drummer Pondlife decided to stop on an extra night and be proper tourists. We climbed the Chrysler building, We went to Central Park, Time Square, Brooklyn Bridge and we caught Queen and Mott The Hoople on Broadway. Our label got us back stage. We mingled with the industry. We drank Ian Hunter’s Brandy and dipped into Freddy’s coke. It was EVERYTHING Pondlife and I had ever dreamed of.”
I had to ask a couple of questions. “OK, Firstly your Drummer was called Pondlife?” Uncle Vernon nodded. “Yep Robert Pond. Pondlife. Wicked drummer, had a real swing in the way he played. He’s dead now.” I nodded “Second. Are you telling me you believe Penny will have slept around? I’m not buying that Vern. Not for a second.” Vernon made a drink up gesture and picked up the bottle. “I don’t know what Penny will have done in the last seven weeks Steve. I just want to share a perspective with you. See, when we got back from the US, only 48 hours later than expected, my woman knew two things. Firstly, I had made seeing New York and Mott The Hoople a priority over seeing her and my baby. Secondly, and this is a big one, I didn’t have the full deposit. Despite her knowing all the other boys in the band got paid in full, I came up short. I tried to make it up to her. Sort of. I still went ahead and put money down on a place. We couldn’t buy, so I paid the first few months on a rented place instead. She knew what was coming before I did. I tried to be a good husband. A Dad. The road though. It’s different. It changes you. She didn’t do anything wrong. I was just so bored in those four walls. I took the next road job I could pretending it was a vital earner. ‘Too good to pass up’. Really I just had to get out. I had to see the loading zones and departure lounges again. Once you’re a road dog you can’t go home. It’s just so fucking boring. That’s what I want you to think on Steve. She’s the other side of the glass now Young Blood.”
I thought long and hard about what Vernon was saying. I knew a lot of what he was saying was right. Christ, I’d seen Slade In Flame, Look Back In Anger, 200 Motels. I knew couples who didn’t make it through the first year of university or one of them working away from home. I knew Penny had seen the stuff of every rock and rollers dreams live, in real time. All the while what had I seen? I’d seen the cellar, the bar and the same old faces. Me and Penny though? We were different. I took the bottle and poured us both another shot. “She’s the other side of the glass huh?” Vernon nodded. “She’s got to grow into it for sure. She’s fresh meat at the moment. The music business takes it’s pound of flesh by stealth. You need a clear head and no ties to win in that game.” Vernon raised his glass. Mott The Hoople gave way to CCR doing Travellin’ Band and I got the theme. This was Vernon soundtracking our conversation. “What’s your third track Vern? Comfortably Numb” He knew he’d been sussed. “I thought about This Flight Tonight but it’s not on there.” I kind of laughed. “Vernon, Mate. I know what you’re trying to do” He put his hand up “I’m trying to help. To help you both.” I gestured to the stack of records. “What’s in your stack?” He handed them over. Jackson Browne Running On Empty, The Stones Exile On Main Street, The Who Odds & Sods, Toots & The Maytals Monkey Man, Sly & The Family Stone There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Some good stuff. Some stuff I’d never heard. “So there’s a track on each of these to explain this concept to me is there?” Vernon laughed. “Well I’m guessing you know Postcard by The Who.”
I knew the song. One of my old man’s albums. “‘Hope you’re well at home, Next week I’ll try to phone, Not very long to go, I’ll tell you when I’m coming home as soon as I know’ Yeah I know it. Not very subtle Uncle” Vernon squirmed a little and tapped the cover of Exile On Main Street. “Torn and Frayed?” He smiled. “Stick it on. Cracking album.” As I took the album from the bar the third track in Uncle Vernon’s trilogy of reasons Penny and Steve should split up rock opera began on the jukebox. It was The Byrds So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star not Comfortably Numb as predicted. I rolled my eyes at Vernon and flicked the input knob over to The Rig behind the bar. I placed the needle on side two. Sweet Virginia oozed itself out of the speakers. Uncle Vernon looked like he wanted to correct me for a moment then he let it slide. Torn and Frayed would be along soon enough.
Sarah was going to need to cover my shift. Vernon and I were getting soussed and listening to records.