Distant Star

by Noel Denvir


“No nev-er-rr nooo-oo mor-rre!” Heavy ‘G’ chord finish... silence.

Well, not really silence; just that low, bubbling noise made by pub audiences before, during and after an unsuccessful musician’s rendition of The Wild Rover. That old favourite, guaranteed to bring the house, or the player’s morale, down.

Jim graced the crowd with a chiselled smile. “Thang-yoo!” Bubble... bubble ... bubble.

“No nay never no more, no way no more.” he intoned to himself, and it was true. He promised himself at every gig that he would not play this cheap crowd-pleaser ever, ever again, but in the face of an inattentative audience, all his resolve disappeared.

Actually, The Wild Rover is quite a nice song if played more slowly and with feeling, but this is a player’s, not a listener’s, view.

He tried another pitch. “Is there anyone from Dublin here?” Apparently not.

“Thought not... well, here’s one for absent friends. It’s called... em, Cockles and Mussels.” Or was it In Dublin’s Fair City? or Molly Malone? Some songs were better known by their first line or chorus. Thus a request for Streets of London became Have you seen the old man. The musicians actually had a light-hearted quiz on this theme:

“OK, How many roads?”

“Easy, Blowin’ in the Wind.”

“Almost heaven?”

Country-Bloody-Roads.”

“Well... I woke up this morning?”

“Very funny.”

And so on.

Jim then indulged in another bad habit of needlessly retuning his guitar and then playing a variation of the intro to the next song, dragging it out. The time went faster when you were playing. Long periods of silence only attracted unamused looks from the bar.

Just then, a group of pale-looking visitors appeared and waded their way through the tightly packed tables offering bows and apologies to the few seated guests, who almost seemed glad of the interruption.

Jim lightly strummed his guitar, stopped, took a sip of beer and then gave the new audience a smile and a nod. It worked! They all beamed back at him and he felt a surge of relief and renewed confidence at the arrival of a party that might be easily pleased.

He decided to play the slower, more tasteful, James Taylor-type version of the song, the one where he actually sounded as if he was sorry that Molly Malone had died.

It was a success, though not directly from the start. At the opening sliding instrumental part, the happy assembly looked stunned, surprised, dismayed, even terror-stricken. When he started to sing, various members started to look at him wide-eyed and began swaying slightly back and forth.

The female contingent looked like they were going to start crying and — probably Rory at the bar mucking about with the two spotlamps, which were optimistically known as the “lighting rig” — all the tourists seemed to have taken on a chalky-blue colour.

By the time Jim was singing about cockles and mussels being alive and their unfortunate seller being dead for the third time, the new strangely-tinted guests were wailing along like babies who’d just had their bottles stolen.

Young Seamus, the waiter, “just off the boat” from Cork, stood by in a state of acute embarassment, holding his tray deliberately higher than usual in the hope that onlookers would not mistake him for one of the people who were making this remarkable noise.

Heads were now appearing from behind pillars. Stout rosy-cheeked men with pints clutched to their chests were wandering in from the front bar. There was much rolling of eyes, protruding of teeth, taking the piss, but something was happening. The atmosphere in the place had become charged, the mood had taken a sudden upswing. No one wanted to be anywhere else but here at this moment, and that’s what alcohol and live music is all about, isn’t it?

The applause sounded like a herd of buffalo stampeding away from an avalanche. Jim held up his half-full, not half-empty, glass in acknowledgement, “Thang’nuuu, and I’ll have whatever you’re havin’ yourself!”

The visitors looked at each other, and then earnestly engaged the waiter, Seamus, in detailed negotiations about their order. Seamus was relieved at its simplicity.

“Sixteen whiskeys!” he gasped, clapping his tray onto the bar.

“What?” gasped the bar manager, Rory.

“No... em, fifteen... yeah, fifteen whiskeys.” replied the obviously excited Seamus.

Rory ogled at him in mock relief, “Thank God for that, for a minute there I thought you’d said sixteen.” Seamus opened his mouth.

“Seamus?”

“Yeah?”

“You’ll need a bigger tray.”

“Um... right.”

A large tray of whiskeys was then set down in front of the guests. Then, to everyone’s astonishment, the visitors all got up from their places and, one by one, in a very orderly fashion walked to the stage. Each one in turn placed their drink at Jim’s feet until he found himself looking down at a row of fifteen golden discs glimmering in the subdued yellow (no longer blue) light of the stage.

Jim decided it would be better not to mention the ice.

“You drink(?)!” asked, or demanded, the moon-like face just beyond Jim’s stomach.

“You’re right there!” replied the singer in his best Belfast, crooked smile and all, but he wasn’t sure what was going on. “Aren’t you drinkin’ these?”

The man in the moon smiled back at him. ”No, you drink!” he said pushing an imaginary button in front of him. “Drink then!”

“You mean, them?”Jim squinted.

“Yes, then!”

Jim counted the drinks and calculated that if he put away one every twenty minutes he should be lying dead at about 3 a.m. Better than being run over by a bus, he thought.

He raised the first whiskey and widened his eyes. “Slainte, em, cheers, do you...?” he drew a horizontal arc with the glass, “...all drink?”

The man opened his mouth alarmingly wide, his eyes seemed to disappear and he emitted a high-pitched shriek like that of some tropical bird.

The rest of the group laughed in a similar manner, which Jim found puzzling because they couldn’t possibly have heard what he had said. He decided to follow the golden rule of Irish relaxation: go with the tide.

The bemused Seamus was then hailed and given the “same again” order.

These words were often heard as the rest of the evening flew by.

“Same again!” roared a maniacal Jim as he put the eighth whiskey to his mouth.

“Same again... aaaaahhhh!” screamed fifteen large holes in fifteen round heads.

As the mood rose to new heights; Jim’s playing reached new lows. His third rendition of ‘Molly Malone’ contained no chord changes whatsoever and finished with the strange hybrid finale of “No Moll... eeee... no moooore.”

Indeed.

And, do you know, the audience — everybody in the place — loved it. Arms were linked together, allegiances sworn, passionate kisses and declarations of love exchanged.

Jim had often heard that the line between entertaining people and making a complete fool of yourself was a very thin one. Sometimes, he felt that the more he tried to play well, the less people appreciated it. He knew other musicians who just played their “own stuff” all night and got away with it. Oh well, he supposed that he had got away with drinking too much and playing like a drunk all evening.

Just then, Rory the manager made what could be perceived as a threatening gesture towards Jim. He drew the forefinger of his right hand across his throat while displaying a painful clenched-teeth smile. A less experienced pub player might have understood this as: “You’ve just played your last gig here, mister!” But Jim knew it was only time to stop. They’d work to the bone in these Irish pubs, but even they wanted to go home some time.

His new fan club must have been very drunk now, and looked even bluer than before.

He couldn’t ever remember alcohol having this effect on him but he did recall one German tourist telling him that “blue” in that language was also a synonym for “drunk.”

Rory came over to the stage and shook hands with Jim while the audience looked on approvingly. The handshaking, of course, was merely a discreet handover of tonight’s fee.

No tax, no signatures, just a night’s pay for a night’s work: it couldn’t function any other way.

It was a young person’s world. A world where you think you’re making money, but you’re being ripped off, really.

At the end of a gig, when you’re tired or drunk or both, there are two things you have to do before relaxing.

One: put your money somewhere safe so that even if you get shipwrecked, the cash is in your zipped-up top-right-hand pocket.

Two: pack your gear away. Forgetting a footpedal or a microphone could wipe out your entire earnings for an evening, not to mention the sheer bother of having to buy a new one.

That done, Jim inspected the small stage using the old giggers’ logic that if there’s nothing on the stage, then it must be all in the van, or in tonight’s case, the rucksack. The Irish pub had its own beer-stained, smoke-filled, semi-operating PA system.

He stepped heavily down off the stage and then broke into what looked like an Irish jig, but was simply a desperate attempt to regain his balance. He then careered across the floor and then neatly fell, bum first, into a seat beside the tourists. They stared at him; impressed.

Jim was just glad to be sitting down. Standing all night singing took it out of you. He could never opt for the folkie-on-a-stool posture because it made him burp into the microphone.

Jim beamed at them. “Well, are yous havin’ a good time?” Much vigorous nodding and smiling confirmed this. The most confident-looking of the group — Jim thought he recognized him as the “you drink!” man — put his hand gently yet firmly on Jim’s arm.

“My name is Lon.” He certainly didn’t sound very drunk. As a matter of fact, Jim felt strangely sober himself.

“You engaged?” he continued.

“Engaged? No, I’m... um... single.”

Lon looked puzzled. “You mean, you play alone?”

Jim was used to pub conversations like this, where drunks and lost souls seem to launch off into totally disconnected sentences.

“What do you mean by ‘engaged’? ”he asked, trying to get the conversation back on track.

“You know, engagements?” Lon perservered.

Jim exhaled in comprehension. “Engagements — you mean gigs?”

Lon’s baffled silence cued Jim to continue.

“You mean, do I play a lot?”

Lon smiled and so did everyone else even though they hadn’t seemed to be listening.

Oh good, thought Jim, a private gig, some sort of get-together. These were great because it meant that you only had to play for half as long and could ask for twice or even three times as much as the usual fee. Very often they were early evening or daytime affairs which included free food and drink, sometimes even accommodation.

“You play for us?” asked Lon.

“Yeah sure, when?... Well I mean, I’ll have to check my diary.” Which shouldn’t take very long. This sentence was unspoken.

Lon continued, “We would like to book you on a permanent basis.”

Oh this could be brilliant, a regular well paid slot, once or twice a week, five hundred big ones each time.

Lon swept his hand majestically in a half circle, as if waving on traffic. “You will never have to play here again.”

More good news, thought the Irishman. He then glanced over at someone who had been mildly distracting him for the past few minutes. A girl dressed in a black mini-dress and with long stocking-clad legs. Dark straight shoulder-length hair, pale — almost light blue — skin, thick red lips and a beautiful piano-keys smile which was being directed back at him at this very moment.

Jim gazed back at the magnetic oil-black eyes and offered a friendly grin. He had never had the sort of teeth that could house a broad dazzling smile like that.

“Her name is ‘Etu’ and she likes you too.” Lon had been sitting with his back to the girl. How could he have known this? Jim felt a pang of embarrassment mixed with excitement.

“Oh, yeah, em ... Etu... hmmm... she could eat a lot more than two with those teeth!”

Lon gave him a slightly worried expression and then returned to the original theme.

It turned out that the party was from Macol. Jim thought he’d heard of it, but didn’t want to show his geographical ignorance or insult his new ... well... employers. God, what’s happening to me, he thought.

The engagement would entail living there, but nearby accommodation would, of course, be included.

The fee for each gig was, was... was...

Lon seemed to pause for dramatic effect, or was he nervous?

Was... Five thousand per gig.

It would have seemed from any observer’s point of view, if there had been one, that an outside source had pressed a ‘pause’ button on the assembled group.

Both Lon and Jim’s faces held similar expressions, but for very different reasons.

Lon took his finger off the metaphorical button. “You are not happy with this?”

Jim, who had always hated the bargaining game that was such a drag for musicians, felt that with money like this, he was free to be honest. “I’m delighted, really, it’s a great offer.”

“You say ‘yes’.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

Everyone was delighted, not least Etu, who bunched her fingers into narrow pointed fists and shook her head dizzily so that the black shiny hair rippled like thin strips of metal. She rose from her place and, in what seemed like one flowing motion, swirled onto the seat beside Jim.

As she pressed her shoulder against his, Jim felt like he was speaking for both of them, “So, when do we start?”

“Tomorrow!”

“Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow.”

“But I em, you know, my apartment... my... eh... affairs... mmmmm... things.”

Etu leaned forward so that she could look into his face, then she smiled and said in a surprisingly low voice, “You can take them with you!”

Jim smiled and nodded, concluding that Etu had not completely understood what he’d said.

“Yeah, take them with me... of course. Logical really, isn’t it?”

Her eyes disappeared and she smiled beatifically, obviously deeply pleased that she had conjured this immense problem out of existence with one simple but ingenious proposal.

Jim, however, was easy either way. His ‘affairs’ — contracts, bills, apartment and all the other grubby infrastructure that propped up his meagre lifestyle — were the very things he would be quite happy to leave behind.

“All I need is my guitar!” he proclaimed in mock Texan.

This brought a round of applause which grew until the whole place was clapping and cheering, and most of those doing it were enjoying it too much to ask why they were doing it.

Lon shook Jim’s hand enthusiastically.

“So,” said Jim, “where is this place?”

Etu leaned her head towards him. Her anthracite hair closed around her face so that all he could see were her strong white teeth as her dark red lips parted. She whispered, “I’ll take you there.” And she did.

* * *

“Seen Jim Daly recently?” asked the man at the counter, having just reduced the contents of his Guinness by three creamy inches.

“No, but if I do, I’ll wring his neck for him.”

The Guinness drinker enquired after the motive for this aggressive outburst from the normally placid bar manager, Rory. “He let us down on the twenty-third, place was packed, big birthday party and they wanted somethin’ Irish.”

“That’s not like Jim. You know, a gig’s a gig.” The speaker was, however, concealing a feeling of interest. He also played the pubs and although the musicians always passed on a few phone numbers to each other, or would hand over a date they couldn’t do themselves, they were all — at the end of the day — in competition with each other.

“So there’s a few evenings going, if you’re interested.” said the telepathic Rory.

“Right... yeah... great... erm... I’ll just have to check my diary.”

“That shouldn’t take too long” said the bar manager without moving his lips.

“Any idea where he went?” asked the musician after he’d written in the gig dates which ‘as luck would have it’ he had free. Rory arched his eyebrows, “Where all Irish people go,”

“Where’s that?” frowned Jim’s replacement, pushing his empty glass forward.

Rory lifted the glass. “Home.”

* * *

On the planet Macol there is no music tradition, but since the introduction of imported players, the new age of Rock and Roll has been gathering momentum. Artists like Ruton Lower Half, The Invertebrate Three, and Jim Daly are now household names.

Some of Daly’s own compositions such as: Hey Mr. Tandragee Man, Goin’ to Ballymena in My Mind and of course Surfin’ Dundrum Bay have become classics in the oral music scene.

‘Oral’ because music on Macol is never recorded or broadcast. This would be seen as a vulgarity; a theft of the original moment. You’ve either heard the ‘Greats’ or you haven’t.

There have been oral reports that Daly was thinking of retiring and that he had already visited his former home to check out property prices. It was also oralized, however, that his wife Etu and their five children — all fine musicians — have denied these reports and that Jim ‘The King’ was only planning some holidays. This is good news for all rock music fans who look forward to hearing him perform again and who enjoy seeing that famous crooked good-humoured grin, smiling out from that unmistakable pale blue face.


Copyright © 2008 by Noel Denvir

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