Tom Raymond: One Hand Clapping



Prelude


Out in the auditorium, they’re selling pictures of Julian. His heart-shaped face is everywhere – on mugs and key rings and on giant posters. Here he is, leaning over and tousling the head of a cocker spaniel. His head is at a thoughtful angle, his slightly slanted eyes, like Vivien Leigh’s, look out beyond you into a sort of pop eternity. In this one he’s bare-chested, toying with his nipple and with the base of his stomach. His hair is the same shaggy helmet that it’s always been, only more carefully disordered. You can see that his body has been worked on, or worked over, but, of course, what you’re getting is a platonic ideal: “Julian”, rather than Julian.


It’s the line drawings that I hate the most. It’s like those views that you get of London, or of Venice; all of the sordor – all of the mulch and river snot – has been tidied up and prettified into something your mother could love. Walking around, unrecognised (who recognises a guitarist?), I feel a sudden urge to go wheeling about, pulling down and tearing up as many images as I can. But I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I’ve got ten minutes before the show starts, and I really should be thinking about getting back inside.


I wonder what the audience are thinking. Why are they here? I don’t know what it is that I expect. A certain intensity, perhaps; a willingness to listen. Whatever, the people you see are always smoking, or flirting, or drinking. Tonight, there’s a high proportion of young girls. They’re bouncing up and down on their heels, looking round at their friends and giving them the thumbs up. They’ve over-eagerly applied their lipstick and mascara; some of them look like they have another, wider mouth plastered over their own. There are little knots of three or four of them, like girl groups. You can hear odd yelps and stray catcalls all over the room.


But then the lights go down. I’ve always loved this moment. You don’t so much see it, at first, as feel it. Brightly lit, the stage seems to disclose itself. There had been a low, companionable sort of buzz but now it’s a roar. You could kid yourself that it’s some kind of massive outpouring. That they’re here for you, rather than themselves.


The curtains swing apart and Julian is there, in person. He always tries to insist on a curtain, if he can; it means that he avoids the bathos of having to sidle on. As he is slowly revealed, the audience can see that he’s alone, bathed in a blue spotlight; a chanteuse. Behind him – way behind him – is Ian, sitting at the piano. Julian likes to stand there, silently, clasping the microphone. He likes to wait for the noise to reach a point that is almost unbearable then, at a little flicker of his fingertips, Ian will start to stroke the piano. You can barely hear it at first, and Ian really has to hold his nerve because if he starts too early or plays too loud then Julian won’t join in. He’ll make him play for five, maybe even ten, minutes while he stands there, gazing soulfully at his feet.


Ian starts with a tiny splash of jazz chords and then allows things to spiral, gradually, out of control. It’s like the beginning of “Aladdin Sane”, the music seems to break up into shards and splinters. At last, Ian is hammering the piano. He’s standing up, putting his back into it; gaudy, spot-lit flecks of sweat are being thrown across the stage. Julian, meanwhile, just stands there. It’s eerie, almost. The dysjunction is disturbing, as though a film director has inserted a horror film’s jarring discords under a love scene. I always thought that it expressed Julian perfectly, which is why I worked so hard on it, drilling Ian until the early hours. You get this terribly stylised exterior – a Noh mask, say, or the stillness of a Vogue model – but then, behind it, there is an awful sense of impending chaos. That’s Julian all over.


Just as you think it can’t get any noisier – when the piano playing has disintegrated into atonal thumps and hectic little sparks – Julian lifts the microphone above his head. It's a signal: Ian takes a final swoop, a long musical pratfall, back into the melody. He lands softly, on the quietest of chords, and Julian answers it with a low, soft note of his own. The audience have to quiet themselves to hear it.


“Theeeeere’s”


There is a long pause. You can feel how tense the audience is; they’re like a pan of water that is about to bubble over.


“...a somebody”


Another pause, shorter this time; a snag, or glitch.

“...I’m longing to see.”


And Ian comes in, properly, on “longing”. There it is, at last – a structure; meaning. Everything’s gone back to normal and has been resolved. Julian, you realise, is singing the Gershwin ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me”. He’s cossetting the melody. He’s worked hard on his voice and he does a good job of sounding like he has a mellifluous croon. The trouble is the song has never been recorded and it soon gets lost. The audience aren’t interested. They’ve seen the rest of the band come on and plug in their instruments and they are barely pretending to be listening. There are shouts, encouraging catcalls. Julian hates all this. He wants to be concentrated upon. Wilfully, he extends the pause before the final “me”. He stands away from the microphone and crosses his arms. The audience think they are being teased, or toyed with; they don’t see the underlying aggression. They call up to him: “Juuuuuulian!” Julian just stands there grinning. He makes as though to undo his zip, and, of course, the hall goes spare. There are howls and cheers and feral-sounding screams. I think I know what he’s acting out, here, though. He’s done this mime before. He wants to piss on them.


It’s getting unbearable. I want to wrestle the microphone from him and sing the note myself but then he saunters forward and does it so softly that the audience would have to be silent to hear it. It’s another defiant gesture: see what you’re missing? It’s also Colin’s cue. Steadily, just like he does everything else, he starts the the mid-paced metronome of “Louise May”. The audience start to clap along, so Colin milks it. He gestures for the band to keep quiet. For a while, all you can hear is the crisp tick of his sticks on the edge of the snare and the audience clapping in unison. Julian is folding his arms again. He talks into the microphone.


“Now do it with one hand”, he says.


He sounds encouraging. But I know what he's doing. He's goading them into making fools of themselves. The room goes quiet. Everyone, seemingly, has one hand up, clapping above their heads. Julian is grinning again. He looks empowered. But then, thank God, here are my chords. G and C, with an added, optimistic topnote. A big, hopeful strum. Julian fits the microphone back into the stand. He leans into it. He’s careful not to look directly at anybody. He looks up and beyond them, into space. He looks wistful. He’s like an ingenue. He’s acting out the song’s sense of possibilities, as though he were in a musical. I never liked the way he did that, but the audience always does.


“Well the world looks kind of splendid tonight.”


There is another roar. All of the voices of the audience seem to coalesce.


“And the stars look like they’re shining for someone. They’re shining for me.”


It’s an expansive song. I wrote it that way deliberately; it’s vague enough to sound inclusive. Julian tilts his head a little and keeps his eyes up on the invisible stars.


“I won’t feel a thing.”


I’ve never known what that means. I kept it because it sounded kind of appropriate. “Thing” is a gift for Julian, though. I knew what I was doing there: it takes him right down into his lower register. He closes his eyes. He knows how sexy he is.


“As long”.


He opens his arms.


“As if she starts insulting me she ends up laughing.”


In a way, none of this makes sense when Julian sings it. No-one could doubt for a second that he would be successful, whoever he had a crush on. Maybe that’s the point: his certainty of success gives the song a lift. If I had sung it it would have been embarrassing. In the video he was on a roof, aspiring upwards. He had his arms outstretched like he was trying to fly. The band were way off in the distance, behind chimney pots and fire escapes, and looked earthbound – terribly prosaic, dressed in jeans and T-shirts – where Julian looked elfin, his diaphanous shirt wavering in the wind. It was a huge hit, in several countries. Over here, it was number one all over the summer. You couldn’t get away from it. That’s when the papers lopped off his surname. He is just “Julian” now.


Afterwards, there’s “God Bless America”. Clive does a solid, uninspiring job of the walking bass line. (I came up with it in the shower. I remember running, naked, up the hall, rolling slightly because of my leg. I could hear giggling from Julian’s room. He told me afterwards that the girl he was with had seen me. She said it looked like I had been shot up the arse.) Julian, meanwhile, might just as well be doing the words phonetically. It’s a political song – a sort of bebop, with teeth – but Julian doesn’t do politics. He likes it because he gets to snap his fingers while he sings.


But then, of course, it’s all phonetic. They’re all my words. “One Hand Clapping”; “Broom Street”; “I Don’t Know What I See In You” – they belong to him in a way that they never belonged to me. Just look at him sing them. I could never have been so unselfconscious. He embodies them. I tried to make “Broom Street” big-sounding, like a Motown ballad, and tonight it is: Julian is having to fill his lungs to sing it. In the video, the street is long and wide and Georgian. The houses are like portraits of themselves, with warm light painted in the windows. It misses the point. The point was, I was homesick; I even missed Broom Street. I was dignifying it. But not even memories can compete with Julian. Of course, he’s really at one remove; both the emotion and the sexiness are things that he’s projecting. Still, I’d like to take the microphone from him and… What? Shove it up his arse? Sing it myself? They’d lynch me. Instead, I allow myself to look the part, nodding my head in time to the guitar. I do a little smile. I think: just wait for the finale.



Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.