I know a lot of my fellow performers are struggling without an audience to perform to, but I don't think it's too bad. Check out this tale from a pre-lockdown gig and you might realise why I might even prefer a lack of punters...
I got the call. A singer was ill and cover was required. Could I help? I shelved my original Sunday night plan (sitting, doing nothing) and agreed. In hindsight, this was something of a Sliding Doors moment. How different could my life have been, if I’d made a different decision?
Once at the venue, the first issue was the long get-in. I searched in vain for a convenient fire door but soon realised that I’d have to carry all my gear across a short patch of car park, up some steps, through several double doors and down two long, narrow corridors to the stage. There were no doorstops but somebody did helpfully provide a large print copy of Barbara Cartland’s Cave Of Love (not a euphemism) to wedge the door open. The narrow corridors proved to be the source of my first ‘encounter.’
I’m a polite chap and can often be heard asking, ‘Do you mind if I squeeze past?’
Usually, I’m encumbered by a speaker or two and the short reply of, ‘Of course, sorry!’ is satisfactory to all. This night – in so many ways – was different.
‘Do you mind if I squeeze past?’ I began.
‘Did you call me fat?’ Five feet nothing, she wore an asymmetric Minnie Mouse T-Shirt and an asymettric bob. The angles didn’t match but that was the least of my worries.
My mouth smiled. My eyes widened. I expected her to move aside. She didn’t.
‘DID YOU CALL ME CHUFFING FAT?’ The shout was unexpectedly, unnecessarily, unbelievably loud. I’ve no doubt the early bingo was compromised and several people dropped their dobbers. Between the two sentences, my new friend seemed to have forgotten she was engaging in playful banter and now genuinely believed I’d insulted her. I tried hard to think of a retort that would ease the situation.
I smiled and edged around her.
My next trip was halted by a rather terse, ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m your singer for tonight.’
What should have been delightful news was greeted with a grunt and a shrug towards a poster. ‘But I’ve just put that up.’ It was promoting the original performer, the one I’d recently replaced.
‘I think she must be ill.’ I explained.
‘But I’ve just printed it. The screens will be wrong too.’
Resisting my urge to offer a Partridgeon shrug, I tried to temper his frustration by offering to wear a wig. He simply pulled a flip phone from his pocket, muttered and wandered away. I was on a roll.
‘Do you do Mammas and Papas,’ my asymmetric friend called across the room as I unsheathed my speakers (again, not a euphemism.)
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘What about Tami Lynn?’
‘What’s the point of you?’ She headed for the bar. Ominous.
An hour passed. I sat in my dressing cupboard and tried (and failed) to wrestle with my emotions and answer her question. What was the point of me? Then someone won £8 on the bingo and it was time for me to sing.
I had an inkling there may be problems when I started my first set and three women immediately got up to dance. Nobody ever dances during the first set. If Benny, Bjorn and Michael Jackson sat down to write the ultimate floor filler, then gave it to Freddy Mercury to perform, the resulting masterpiece still wouldn’t get working men’s club members on the dancefloor between 8.30pm and 9pm. But these weren’t members, were they?
NON-members in the club. Pause for audible gasp.
They weren’t so much dancing, but rioting to music. They used their feminine wiles (and vigorous tugging) to encourage a range of elderly men onto the dancefloor. They attempted to climb onto the stage and provide backing vocals. Between each song, somebody (you know who) implored me to ‘sing Tami Lynn or get off!’ It was hilarious carnage, made even funnier by the faces of the regulars. Disdain, disgust, disapproval etched across every one. More pursed lips than a botched Botox convention.
They kept it up for the entire set, screeching during every track and shouting across my between-song patter. Every punchline suckered by a incoherent yell or impolite ‘request.’ I kept smiling. Somebody would soon have a word.
Clearly, somebody did. Set two was much calmer, punctuated only by a man in his 60s dancing with laser-like focus to When The Going Gets Tough. Feet flying like Flatley, his upper body remained entirely motionless until I sang ‘Climb any mountain’ and ‘Swim any sea,’ whereupon he threw in the relevant, literal arm motions. This it transpires, was the evening’s highpoint.
Not long into set three, I could feel something was brewing. The club secretary, a man in his early seventies with a pronounced limp, descended from his box and approached our Tami Lynn aficionado. He pointed towards the exit (bear in mind I couldn’t hear what was going on as I was mincing around to Could It Be Magic) and for a moment it looked like she would comply.
She took a step away, then obviously thought better of a dignified exit. Turning back towards the gentleman thirty years her senior, she reached up and shoved him full in the chest. He dropped his walking stick and tumbled backwards, skittling several chairs and domino-ing into a lady wearing at least two cardigans (her attire is irrelevant but I found it interesting.)
Powder blue suit torn and wig at an angle that would embarrass even Trump, he needed the kindness of strangers to help him back to his feet. Some were offering their support in a different way, chiefly by advancing on his attacker. For want of a more elegant phrase, it kicked right off.
‘Baby take me, high upon a hillside.’ I couldn’t help but feel ignored as I continued to sing my little heart out. The dancefloor was now split firmly into two factions. I dubbed them the ‘Leave it! She’s not worth it!’ crowd and the ‘I’m literally gonna put you through a window’ brigade. I sang on as they rumbled beneath me. When the track finished, I went straight into the next. The compere was crying and a barmaid had rolled the shutters down. Nobody needed to hear my words of wisdom.
I felt sorry for the shovee. He’d clearly been trying to help and couldn’t have expected that reaction. I thanked him as I called my last song and ensured the club gave him a (disappointingly lukewarm) round of applause. Then he held up three fingers. My sympathies retracted into my body. I couldn’t believe it. Very publically, he was requesting I sing three extra songs at the end of my contracted set. We are always expected to do a couple of extras, but bear in mind that nobody, NOBODY was paying any attention. The few that hadn’t followed the fight out to the car park, were not in the mood for Daydream Believer. The bar was closed.
I sang at them some more.
I realised that one of songs lined up was Troublemaker. Ho ho, I thought, this will at least give me a giggle. The smile dropped from my face as the ejectee came tearing back into the room during the (impeccably performed) rap break. I thought I might be next in the firing line but it turned out she’d just returned for the dregs of her blue WKD. She never got the chance to savour them however as she was quickly escorted from the premises once more.
As I packed up, I was approached by a punter who ticked me off for singing such provocative songs in my first set. Apparently, if I hadn’t performed the likes of Brown Eyed Girl and Superstition, they wouldn’t have been ‘lured’ onto the dance floor. I smiled and coiled my cables.
She was sat on the curb as I loaded the car and I was tempted to tell her I’d sung a fifteen minute Tami Lynn medley just after she’d been kicked out, but thought better of it. I shoved the gear in the boot and returned to get paid.
As the manager very deliberately counted out my cash, he let me know they were booking for next year and I’d definitely be on the list. ‘Great!’ I replied. ‘I’d love to come back. Looking forward to it.’
‘Cos that’s what it really all comes down to. These sort of nights happen a lot. Trust me, I’ll tell you all about them.
But at the end of the day…it’s work, innit?