Chapter 19 – Never Say Die
Three members of the Local constabulary had visited The Head at around eight o’clock. They asked me some questions about head count, fire regulations and licences and I played dumb for most of them. I told them the Boss had popped out to get ice. Vernon recognised one of three coppers as Matt Black. The boy who played drums in Thumbsize Private Eyes a few years back. They went off to the kitchen for a chat. Lo and behold a few minutes later it all seemed to be resolved. Uncle Vernon had schmoozed them or bribed them or something but they came out of the kitchen looking like they were good to head off wishing us all a fun evening. As I watched them shuffle through the overcrowded bar into the over crowded car park I heard Stick Man Theater tell one of them he was a big fan. He then sung a line from I Can’t Stand Losing You. PC Matt Black laughed. He told Stick Man he only listened to criminal records. Two drummers, having a joke. Their timing was terrible. I was going to miss drummer jokes.
“Steveo I have struck a deal with the local law enforcement. You have no idea how much pain it causes me to say that, but this is what we’ve agreed to do. As soon as Randy and The Bedwreckers finish out there we’re to shut the pub. We can still serve through the windows into the car park and we can still have the gig but we’ve got to get the people out of here. No more live music inside. We’ll lock the pub down and Sister Pain can play their set. We’re good until eleven. Then we’re done.” It was close to the plan we’d had all along. It did mean Mountain Of Light didn’t get to play their planned set inside. I looked to Dan The Man and he shrugged “We’ve played here 20 times already. We’re cool with that.” Dan and The Rain hugged one another. “You could play just before Sister Pain. I really want to see you guys.” I looked to Trace and Steve who had a call sheet were checking the line up. “Since Vamos Boushce never showed up and Sheena’s Remains played a 45 minute set in 35 it is possible to fit you in.” confirmed Double Steve. I pushed him out from behind the bar. “Dan, go get your band together. You’re on in ten minutes.”
Penny and the rest of Sister Pain had withdrawn from the bar about an hour ago. They were getting gig ready up in the flat above us. I hadn’t seen Rikki Stixx show his face yet but I was feeling pretty sanguine about everything at this stage of the day. Talking to Penny earlier had felt like closure. In my head I now owned my failures from 1997 and my many shortcoming since in a frank and honest way that gave me a kind of inner peace. I was my own worst enemy. I remembered the awful hangover. The angst of that day after. I remembered Lucy Diamond. The redhead who I muddled drunkenly into bed with after our break up phone call. She popped into The Head a couple of days after our night together wearing my lost T-shirt under a road worn biker jacket. I panicked a little at first. Pretty soon we had a grown up chat at the end of the bar where I apologised for puking in her room. She told me all about her husband coming back from working away on the oil rigs. Their marriage had been on the rocks but they were now trying to patch up their relationship. I paid for her drink, I wished them the best. We both agreed we’d act like it never happened. She then drank a beer with me before she headed off in my T-Shirt like it was some memento. I was glad at the time that was the only detail she took back from our night together. I hadn’t let on about Arthur, Mr Knickerbocker or any of that stuff that got me so bent out of shape on the whiskey it seemed.
The weeks after I broke up with Penny were an odd time. Although all Mr Knickerbocker related activity ceased immediately. I didn’t get ‘Torn & Frayed’ drunk again for as very long time. I did keep drinking though. Consistently and quite heavily by the standards of most functioning members of society. The smuggling, the compromising of a happy home, the second round with Arthur, handing him over to Mr Knickerbocker alive, Sarah coming to pick me up and whisk me away like a she was my mum pulling me away from a bad crowd in the play ground. That stuff felt like a barely recalled cheese dream almost two years later.
Arthur was alive when I saw him last, Sat in the back of his own car with Vernon at the wheel and Mr Knickerbocker sat beside him in the backseat. He was dead 24 hours later in a car by the airport. Asphyxiated. It left a gremlin my chest where my heart used to be. A noisy nasty presence that could only be silenced with eight units or more on any given night. I felt like I’d killed him, even though he’d rained more blows on me in our first meeting than the singular one I’d delivered to him in our last. Uncle Vernon only ever mentioned it once. It was the Christmas Eve after Penny and I broke up. All he said was “It wasn’t you” when he found me crying a single tear outside the pub at kicking out time. Mr Knickerbocker never organised a delivery to the basement again. The summer of Switcheroo’s faded into an autumn of no girlfriend, day drinking and watching VHS tapes of old movies with Dan The Van. Dan The Van went a few weeks with no work after Arthur missed his flight. We just kicked around waiting for things to get worse. They never did. No gang retribution. No weird Mr Knickerbocker double cross. No further visits from the police. It was a weird time. It faded throughout the following year but it never really went away. Now though, at the death of The Head. I owned my role in it. I did those things. I got played. I got confronted. I chose poorly, I lied, I made a deal with the devil, then I got cold feet.
Two years later I wondered sometimes if it ever really happened at all. Arthur Loafer dead at the airport. The mysterious boxes of undeclared content, a one night stand with a red headed stranger, the collapse of a happy home with an absent girlfriend. All I had was hangovers, Hammer Horrors, soundchecks and bar shifts. If it weren’t for the love, the community, the kinship of The Head it would have been a bleak old time. Somehow I’d spent two years single and sad and yet having (at least on the surface) a fairly good time. Happy unhappy.
We bolted the doors shut about twenty past eight. Vernon, Double and I arranged the last 20 boxes of beer, the plastic cups and the spirit bottles on the floor by the missing windows. Looking out through the gap in the front of the pub towards Dan’s Van in the middle of the crowded car park acting as a lighting rig it felt like a final shoot out. The stage lights flashed and Khan from Mountain Of Light was testifying and dedicating and preaching the law of rock and roll from the stage between every song. Ice On The Motorway, Proud Mary, You Never Can Tell. It was a barnstorming set. We were almost out of booze to sell when he introduced The Rain to the stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen. The Queen Of The Head has left us. Sarah Bellum is currently flying away to warmer climes.” There was a cheer for Sarah “This little lady here though. She is the heir apparent to a mighty legacy. Ladies and Gentlefish many of you may already know Lorraine King. She’s worked here a couple of years. She’s finally made a man of our Dan. She’s going to sing a song for you now.” The Rain stepped up to the Korg keyboard at the side of the stage. “This is for all the rock queens and the kings of the road who have passed through The Head” she tinkled the ivories a little. Then she sang “Look out the left the captain said the lights down there, that’s where we’ll land, I saw a falling star burn up above The Head above my man” The crowd cheered as she altered the lyrics to include the bar. Dan The Man bowed when she included him. A lone spotlight was picking her out on the stage to our right as we watched from inside.
“Oh star bright, star bright, you’ve got the lovin’ that I like, all right, turn this crazy bird around, I shouldn’t have got on this flight tonight” The tempo changed as the band struck up the intro to Counting Crows Rain King. Dan and Dickie harmonised along with Khan for the chorus “I belong in the service of the queen, I belong anywhere but in between, She’s been crying and I’ve been thinking” Lorraine joined in “and I am the Rain King”. It was a new tune for them to play. It went down a storm. As the applause subsided I thought to myself ‘there’s only one song these guys can do now’. I was right. They finished with their customary stomp through Leaving Trunk. Danny was playing that harmonica like a man who knew he was getting his oats tonight. Applause rained down outside and in. Khan thanked everyone for their patience. This rock and roll moment had rechristened Lorraine ‘The Rain’ King. She was now Lorraine Bough. Seeing as the engagement was somewhat premature (considering they’d only snogged a few hours ago) I was surprised to see both Dan and The Rain embrace the idea then each other before the amassed crowd. Khan played the part of a minister committing them both to a life or rock and roll. Then he assured the audience it was only a few short moments until Sister Pain would arrive to heal our souls. There was a loud pop from the PA and the lights were snuffed out.
The pub wen’t dark. The stage went dark. The bulb in the spotlight on top of Dan’s van slowly dimmed. I turned to Trace and Double Steve. “What just happened?” I couldn’t really see them but I knew they were close. Double Steve spoke up “I don’t know.” I felt a panic rising. There’s at least a thousand people out there waiting for a headline show. They are not going to like it if they don’t get one. There was a hissing noise outside and what looked like smoke filling the air towards the stage. “Oh shit. Did something catch fire?”
I felt a hand on the back of my head. It was Penny. I could tell. “It’s just a little show business my Darling.” She whispered in my ear. My eyes were adjusting to the dark. I turned to see her taller than ever in her stage gear. The rest of the band were stood by her side. Sin-Dee and Kim I could recognise in silhouette. There were two blokes there as well. In this half light I couldn’t tell which one was Rikki. It didn’t matter. “Why don’t you all come outside and see the show?” asked Penny to the team. I figured we were almost sold out now anyway. Why the hell not? Uncle Vernon unbolted the door and Daisy, Double Steve, Trace and the others headed out to join the crowd. The band passed through the pub in darkness and out through the doors. The smoke I’d seen was in fact dry ice. There were a row of purple lights at the back of the stage giving it a dim glow. The crowd knew the show was on. “I’ll man the fort Steve.” Vernon and I were alone in the shell of the pub. “Time to join the crowd” I stepped toward the door and met him in the doorway. “You’ll still be here after the show?” Vernon nodded. “I hear you’re doing the take. It’ll be here for that. You’ve still got my Jukebox in here. And I’ve got your safe. We’ll have a drink when it’s all over. Now go and watch this gig. Take the rest of the night off and dance with your friends.” I patted him on the shoulder “You’re gonna miss our Boss Lady aren’t you.” He looked shaken in the half light “I’ve been missing her for 20 years. I just couldn’t leave. Don’t make the same mistake I did.” I got it. He was still in love with Sarah. “Thanks Uncle”, “Alright Young Blood. Go” I stepped outside the pub and Vernon bolted the door behind me.
Choral voices rose over the PA and I found Trace, Zippy and Dan in the crowd about five rows back from the stage. It was like something from one of our Hammer Horror movies with all the Latin Chanting over church organ noise. A flicker of white light behind the drums made the band look 9 feet tall through the dry ice. Penny was at the mic. “The Children of the night! What sweet music we make!” Sin-Dee dropped a power chord and they launched into their cover of Black Sabbath’s Never Say Die. The spotlight on the van picked Penny out. A thousand lost boys and girls cheered in the heart of Rock and Roll Valhalla.
for a little over an hour they played songs from their album, their singles, cover versions and some B-Sides. They finished with the song that had gone down so well in the USA. Their stone cold hit. The track that would be paying their bills for years to come even if they never did another thing. I knew though. I knew they were just getting started. The audience knew every word. The bar staff of The Head knew every word too. We danced, we sang and the music played. Then Penny said goodnight and Sister Pain left the stage.
The clapping became organised after about a minute. It was not just applause. It was a beat. Duh-Duh Duh Duh Duh-Duh. The singing started soon after. “Hey Little Sister Pain, scared with the taste of angels, my little keeper of pain, hanging over my dark cradle” The words to that debut single. Their anthem. OK, so it was out of time in places. One thing was clear. This band were not getting away without an encore. I looked to my left. Trace had gone from the crowd. There were roars when Sin-Dee stepped back on and plugged in her axe. Rikki followed, then Kim. I saw Penny and Trace walk out from the back arm in arm. “You all remember Trace Elements don’t you?” The whole crowd roared. Trace spoke into the mic “If that were true my band may have sold more than 250 singles.” Trace turned away from the audience and started to get fitted with one of Sin-Dee’s guitars by one of the bands techs.
Penny made a simmer down gesture with her hand. “For anyone who doesn’t know. This band played it’s first ever show here. Before that, for a long time I pulled pints here. I met many of my friends and teachers of life lessons in this pub. I met lovers here, I hardly ever met haters. It’s a fucking crime that it’s being bulldozed in the morning to make way for something entirely less beautiful. A car park? Maybe we’ll come back in a year and play a gig on the roof.” That got a big cheer. “When we played our first show we were supporting this lady’s band. Flying Toasters were my absolute heroes. First band I ever saw live. Trace Elements. You’ll always be my hero.” There was another roar of approval for the greatest rock and roll barmaid any pub ever saw “Anyway were running out of time so we’re going to play a song that Trace let me play with her band at that first ever show.”
I knew what it was going to be. I remember that night like it’s preserved in widescreen deluxe technicolor on DVD. “This is Seether” Trace cranked off the opening riff and Penny let out the “Ow!” that kicked the rest of the band in. The glory of a three minute punk rock song swilled around the night air. I could die in this moment I thought. This is perfect. The crowd surged back and forth with a mosh that sent steam from the sweaty bodies up into the cold night air. Dan’s spotlight caught it in the space between the band and the sky. Seether finished to rapturous applause. Penny took to the mic for the last address. “This ones for Captain CaveMan. Just in case.” Trace and Sin-Dee stepped forwards. They played a familiar crunk. Not familiar like ‘Oh I know this one’ or even ‘Oh I love this one’ no, this was familiar in my DNA. This song was a song I’d known my whole life. “Sunrise wrong side of another day, sky high six thousand miles away, don’t know how long I’ve been awake, woke up in an amazing state, can’t get enough, and you know it’s righteous stuff” The mosh was intensifying. I threw myself in arms and legs flailing. Total freedom. What the hell? I’ts not like I had to work in the morning. “Motorhead, remember me now, motorhead alright!” All the Dan’s were in there. All the Steve’s too. Zippy, Stick Man, Tim Tilla, London Colin. All losing it one last time. In a heart beat it was all over. This time the lights came up not down. The car park flooded with white light. Nothing disperses a crowd like the bright light fright. Like roaches they scattered.
Fifteen minutes later there were only a handful of us left. Now we’re inside the gutted pub surrounded by empty bottles and blown out windows. Sister Pain didn’t come back inside after their show. That seemed right. They got back on the bus and headed straight to the airport. It was just us usual suspects. Vernon was true to his word. He was still keeping the flame alight. Literally. There were oil burners every couple of meters along the bar. No lights, just flames. I took stock of the situation. Trace was going off to become a teacher. Her job was forty miles away, She was all set to move house. She started in a week or two. Double Steve had got himself a gig running a basement bar across the county. He was taking Daisy with him. Dan The Man and The Rain were lost in each others eyes. Dan The Van was going to continue taking care of Mr Knickerbocker’s logistics. He’d still be running for bands too. Uncle Vernon would fade into the background looking after the holiday camp caper he had going. Dan DaDan Dan was going back to college. Little Steve was going to work at the Odeon. That left me. I had no plans, two months unpaid rent and the take from the days events sitting upstairs in bags.
I needed a word with Vernon. “Trace. Can you set everybody up with a drink? I need to check up with Uncle.” She gave me a salute for yes. I took my last trip up to the flat. Vernon showed me to the window seat and we popped it open. “I’ve taken a rough count Steve. It’s about nineteen grand.” I was flabbergasted. “That’s not all for me. It can’t be.” Uncle Vernon opened the safe. “There’s ten in here. Five in that bag. Four in this one. Give or take. A lot of it’s in change.” I thought of the team down stairs “We should all share it.” Vernon shook his head “She said you’d say that. No Steve. This is what Sarah wanted for you.” let’s twist again “They all worked hard for this” Jumping like catfish on a pole “Steve. They got paid already. They got help. You take this bag and give them a monkey each and you’ve still got fifteen left. Use it wisely Steve The Wise. She wanted me to say that.” It’s sounded right. Uncle Vernon had never called me that before. I was always Young Blood to him.
We bundled up the money into five hundreds while sipping scotch and smiling. “It’s been a pleasure Vernon. Working here.” He poured a measure for us both “We’ve been in some scrapes Young Blood that’s for sure.” Job done, we clinked glasses. “Let’s go pay the Ferryman.” I put the last few notes into a small flight case and clicked it shut. Then we headed down the stairs.
I set the flight case under the bar and called the team together. “Roll up, roll up. It’s pay day.” I gave a bundle to each of the assembled team. They were delighted. Everyone was drinking unusual drinks. The dregs of the bar. “What you got there Dan The Man?” He looked into his glass “Crème de menthe and tequila over the last of the ice.” I screwed up my nose. “Rainey?” She raised a plastic cup “Champagne. It’s warm”, “Double Steve?” “I think its red cider and hooch”, “Daisy?” “I have no idea. It’s disgusting.” Vernon put a bottle of Macallan on the bar. “Don’t drink that shit. Let’s polish this off and call it a night shall we?” Cups and bottles were hurled towards the stage. It didn’t matter. We weren’t cleaning up in the morning. We did still have enough clean empty short glasses for a dram each.
I raised my cup for a toast “You don’t fight in The Head” Trace took up the call “You don’t steal in The Head.” All together we finished the oath “And if you’re being a dick, you get invited, one time, politely to leave The Head.” We drank our last. “We done?” I asked. Trace nodded. “We’re done.”
At first light with the assurance of Double Steve and Dan The Van, Uncle Vernon and I loaded The jukebox into the Sherpa. Around it amps, monitors, stage lights and scaffolding poles were being fitted in carefully. We’d laid a heavy felt blanket over the glass to protect it. A flatbed truck was taking the rest of the stage gear by the time Dan pulled away. Vernon went for a walk to get some cigarettes shortly after the flatbed left. That was it. I never saw him again. Double Steve and The Rain left me waiting for the wrecking ball just before nine am. I was alone in The Head, just me, my flight case of cash and the Dansette record player that was once used for Jukebox Jury.
At about quarter past nine the Hard Hats started to arrive. They didn’t peer inside. They didn’t know I was sitting there. I could hear them talking. “Where’d you get that?”, “Tasty little bagel place just around the corner”, I was jealous. That’s our bagel place. I felt like a ghost haunting the tavern of old. Nine hours after we served our last drink.
“Look at this dump.”
“What a shithole. You ever drink here?”
“No mate. I heard it was a rough old joint.”
“Really? I thought it was a poofters place”
“You just asked me if I ever drank here.”
“Hahahaha. He got you there.”
“Give us a bite.”
I made my way over to the Dansette. It was plugged in behind the bar. I didn’t recall doing that. I opened the lid and there was a seven inch sitting on the deck. I recognised the label. Yellow with a pair of black and white dice above the red lips and tongue logo. The Rolling Stones. I clicked the thing on and set the shiny black arm of the needle down. Keith bent the note and Mick made the noises. “Women think I’m tasty but they’re always tryin’ to waste me, and make me burn my candle right down, but Baby, Baby, I don’t need no jewels in my crown”
“Baby, got no flavor, there’s fever in the funk house now, this low down bitchin’ got my poor feet a itchin’, don’t you know you know the deuce is still wild”
“There’s someone inside”
“Baby, I can’t stay, you got to roll me and call me the tumblin’ dice, always in a hurry, I never stop to worry don’t you see the time flashin’ by”
“Oi. You’re not supposed to be in there.”
“Honey, got no money I’m all sixes and sevens and nines, Say now baby, I’m the rank outsider, you can be my partner in crime”
I could hear the JCB’s rolling into the car park. I could see the little yellow hats peering in the open windows. “He’s not supposed to be there” The Homophone was saying. “Well, I’m not dealing with him. Wait for a foreman” advised Bagel Boy. “Fucking weird though innit. Sittin’ in a crapped out pub playing records?”
“Baby, I can’t stay, you got to roll me and call me the tumblin’… Roll me and call me the tumblin’ dice”