Part 2 of our seasonal tale, A Christmas Playlist. Written by Ken Irvine
THE BIG MAN
I bought the Christmas edition and nothing else. I had realised that I had enough to eat and drink in the studio, I guess I had just gone in there for some recognition. Now, out in the cold, with the magazine tucked under my arm and my hands deep in my coat pockets, I mused about how strange it was that we had ended up in there, Fortrose Bros, of all places.
When we first turned up on that late spring morning, half volunteering, half hungry, they had treated us like nineteen year old gap year kids. The shelves had to be filled on the go – during opening hours – no sooner had the delivery wagon backed up the alley into the loading bay, than we were in there, offloading the cages and wheeling them straight into the supermarket. No storing this stuff in the back – it was needed straight out there.
We had been nighthawks in the studio but in the store it was the opposite – they had wanted us in there at 4.30am to meet the first deliveries, the bread and the dairy – that had been the end of our working day in the studio – our bodies were used to our first beer at 4.45am, then we would drink till about 9am – listening to the recordings, bed at 10am then rise around 5pm to start all over again.
Andre found the supermarket tough the first few days, I would smell alcohol and weed on his breath, I think he had stashed some away to help him get through the day. He was miserable and uncommunicative at work – especially with the customers. The management told us that we were all ambassadors for the company and we should know the products and drop anything to help a customer. “Drop everything” – but at the same time, not fall behind in our assigned tasks.
He just didn’t buy into it at all. He wouldn’t last the week.
And then one day something changed.
We were out back, sorting out the surplus produce – for pick-up by the Food Project. I was hungry and wanted some lunch – I had opened up a packet of ham and was rooting around in the crate for some nice bread to go with it.
“Good idea, shoot a piece of that over here.”
I pushed the open packet towards him –
“No,” he said covering his eyes with one hand – “don’t let me see it.” He dipped his hand into the packet and dropped a piece into his mouth still with his eyes covered.
“Nice choice my man, Wiltshire free range roasted ham with rosemary and thyme, … one day still left on the shelf life too”
I read the label: “OMG – dead right-how do you know that?”
“I lived on these things for years – in the streets. People round here are tight with money, they won’t give you a pound coin – which is what I really wanted – but they were generous with food and drink – always the good stuff too.”
He went quiet for a bit then got up and headed into the store. I feared the worst.
When I came back in from helping the driver load the crates into her van, I saw him in a heated debate with a customer. She was shaking her head animatedly and yelling, “No – how can you say that?”
I went over to defuse things, we needed to keep these jobs, but when I got close I saw that she was smiling at him.
“Believe me M’am I’ve read a lot about this, it’s a family farm, on a modest scale, their approach to animal welfare is second to none, you will appreciate this – I just had an IMMENSE sandwich with this in the – ummm… staff canteen – it cost me a bit more but it was .. incredilicious.” He kissed his fingers.
I watched her replace her packet of cheap cuts with the premium one and walk away still smiling.
“You totally upsold her” I whispered.
He told me later that she was one of the people who would drop food off for him on the streets.
“I was humbled, man,” he said. “You know, she would always leave the best of stuff” He picked up a bottle of chocolate milk. 89p it said in big letters. “Not this, but that one” – he pointed to another that was priced about three times more. “Then I see her in here and she’s buying the budget meat for herself – so I was like, you have to treat yourself in these times. You’re wrong, I wasn’t upselling her. I also told her that our £4.99 Pinot is better than the £8.59 one she had in her basket, so she’s up on the deal”
And she didn’t recognise you?
He laughed. “Look at me, I’m a square,” pointing to the brown and green striped shirt, grey tie and brown grocer’s apron, glasses and facemask. “I’ve never worn a neck-tie in my life – till now.”
So, no one ever linked the smooth-headed, metal-framed-glasses-wearing grocer with the wild-eyed, dreadlocked, homeless busker.
Now I had followed suit, but only recently, my locks had gone. It felt weird, the cold air against my bare head, but strangely liberating – like I had been playing a character for years and now I was free. The cold air was condensing around the edges of my mask – I pulled it tighter and wished I had worn a hat.
I was listening to Wilco’s Tiny Desk concert from 2016 – trying to figure out how they got that vocal sound without a PA.
We never got round to sending the video to NPR back in springtime. That had really annoyed Venetia.
“You lazy fekkers, I left you one thing to do!” She was berating us like schoolkids – I started wondering what it must have been like working for her in the bank or wherever she had been employed.
“Sorry Momala,” said Andre
“Stop calling me that!” But she went off, biting her lip and suppressing a smile.
Maybe it was all for the best, otherwise we wouldn’t have met the man.
“Hi kids, how are you all doing in here?” He was a middle-aged guy, tanned, grey haired with a stubbly beard, no mask. He was dressed for an informal business meeting, smart jacket, open neck shirt, jeans, and he had walked in like he owned the place, one day in early summer. None of us asked him who he was- when we spoke about it later we realised that we all thought at least one of us was acquainted with him.
He asked what we were up to and we sat fidgeting in our seats for a moment, then let him hear some tracks that we were mixing,
“take the bv’s out there, they’re cheesy and they’re at odds with the guitars-”
“-cut that intro you don’t need it –straight in with that horn stab”
Andre was at the desk at the time and he found himself obliging the overbearing stranger, half thinking that we would restore the parts after he had gone – but it turned out that we got used to his ideas and went further with the edits in the same vein. Venetia called him the big man, and from then on that’s how we referred to him, or a variation, big man, BM or the man.
The last thing we played him was our home-made video of “We Need an Able Hand” – he went a bit crazy when he saw that, the blurred close up of Andre’s face at the mic, the build-up of the track, the two guitar parts that I somehow had managed to play simultaneously, the interweaving melodies on Venetia’s bass and the other-worldly drum part that was almost impossible to call – as the camera pulled out to reveal that Andre was not only delivering the heartfelt vocal but was playing that drum track.
“The blues, the blues, it’s the very essence of the blues,” he kept murmuring “This is it guys, this is genuine. Tell me, please tell me you haven’t sent this to anyone.”
He picked up on us all avoiding his gaze. “Tell me, come on – have you actually physically sent this out?”
“Well, we were going to send it to NPR for their competition…. but we missed the deadline.”
“Hallelujah! Forget NPR, they’re minnows in a sea of sharks. I tell you, let me have this … I can get a major corporation interested. Promise 100%.”
He held my gaze and in the periphery I was aware of Alex hypnotically pulling a pen-drive from the desk and handing it to him.
“We trust you, man,” Alex said, but with slight menace in his voice. The man snapped his hand closed and was gone.
He hadn’t even asked for the band’s name – but somehow he must have found it, because about a week later a letter arrived, addressed to Alexandre Appolonia, c/o The Studio, St Julian’s Mews….on BBC stationery.
“We loved your back story,” the BBC guy said, “we are doing a special on,” he scrolled his phone “….. Black Pumas, but … starting the show with new acts, and you guys fitted in perfect.”
“BBC not bigger than NPR!” Venetia had mumbled under her breath as she grudgingly helped us unload the battered equipment from the back of a Citroen estate. I had sensed she was apprehensive, so was I.
A lot had happened since the letter had arrived.
I just wanted them out of there before they twigged. I could do a passable imitation of his voice – about 90% there – I had persuaded myself that it would be ok, a song is a song, it doesn’t matter who sings it
“How many are there of you again, will 3 mics do?”
Luckily the people from the BBC looked as nervous as us, they weren’t comfortable in the cramped surroundings – some hasty instructions and then they were off. There was a laminated instruction manual.
I wasn’t sure if they had noticed, they certainly didn’t question us any more – where was the flamboyant front man with the dreadlocks, the one who bashed out the songs on a drumkit set up stage front and sang beautiful poetic heartfelt lyrics with an air of detachment from the body that was working the drum kit?
They didn’t ask that.
I slumped into the leather sofa when they had gone. We could do this. Luckily, we had Venetia on bass. It was fate. She had answered an advert. She had the look, torn clothes, a croak in her voice that sounded like it came from late night cigarettes. She had confided in us later she had got the look from an internet search and had seen a picture of the Clash – the croak had come from a fight she had had with her partner when she had thrown him out for good.
Venetia was a classical musician. She had studied double bass at the conservatoire and had wound up in a top orchestra in her province, Yunnan. I hadn’t heard of it and she said it was mountainous and not many people had, except the 45 million people who lived there. It wasn’t enough for her parents, who persuaded her to enter an arts recruitment programme in a major accountancy firm. From there she had gone on to work in San Francisco, then had come here. She had worked with a Top Four something or other. About a year ago she had a meltdown at work and started playing music again as a kind of therapy. She left her high-pressure job and got recruited by some symphony orchestra here, I couldn’t remember which one, but they were the real deal. They were due to do a major tour starting in Hong Kong in February. That got cancelled and she had finally been furloughed in March without performing a single note. She needed music, for her mental health – our advert had come up and she had gone online, done her research, ordered a wig and made up a stage name. She had cruised through our audition. We didn’t pick up on the wig or the phony name.
I opened my eyes and she was sitting beside me – studying the manual.
“Kinda weird this, isn’t it, they’re expecting a couple of complete amateurs to set up a TV studio and broadcast live a big chunk of a peak time Friday night show using a few photocopied instructions.”
“It’s not peak time, it’s 11pm, everyone’s in bed.”
I had started to explain to her that the timing was set for people coming home from the pub but stopped when I thought it through. She was clearly still miffed about NPR. That was more her thing.
My phone went.
“Hey, have you seen the news? – there’s going to be a big freeze.”
“I know mate, I’m out in it just now, freezing my bollocks off!”
“You should’ve worn a hat.”
“How’d you guess? – anyway, doesn’t matter. Venetia, you know I worry – that he may be dead …or worse.”
I didn’t know what I meant when I said it “…or worse” – nor did she, but somehow I knew that she understood.
She changed the subject – “Yea, what is it – once every ten years or something it goes this cold – get home and make sure you put the heating on – don’t worry about the bills – money will come to us – it has to – I heard our track in the supermarket today”.
“Hah, so did I. Yea, I will do, but later – I’m gonna check out a music thing at the Old Swan this evening.”
“Rather you than me, ok, enjoy, and don’t worry about him- he’ll be ok, he’s a survivor.”
Part three continues next week.