Now he is huge, of course. Look at him: he’s all affect. You can hardly see him, what with the stark circle of light around him. It turns him black and white then yellow then a virulent purple. When he’s singing, he’s learned to magnify everything, even his stillness. He’s a star.
Of course he used us, that goes without saying. He was always going to be famous; he knew that long before he set eyes on any of us. The band; Desmond; even our landlady – we were like the struts or engines or whatever they are that help to lift a rocket upwards. (Look at him: he looks like he’s about to rise, at a slight angle, towards the ceiling.) As individuals, the band barely exists but the songs have developed in just the way that Desmond promised they would. Two albums on, and “One Hand Clapping” is a sprightly jaunt, with cymbals sizzling and Ian making knowing little passes at the organ. “I Don’t Know What I See In You” is both sombre and melodramatic. Each verse is preceded by a two note piano figure. It sounds like the kind of musical punctuation that you get on black and white films; something that signifies that somebody has died, or is about to die, or has succumbed to someone that they shouldn’t have. Julian makes the song richly ambiguous – he’s like some weirdly passive femme fatale; someone who’s been crushed by love. His arms plead outwards; his fingers stretch, then flutter helplessly.
The audience are standing up and there is a crush at the front. Here and there, throughout “I Don’t Know What I See In You” and “Broom Street”, lighters have briefly gone aloft, although you get the feeling that this is a ritual that has been largely emptied of meaning. People see other people do it, lift their own then sheepishly lower them. Now, people are singing along to “Julie Doesn’t Mind”. Despite the lack of definition – despite the way that the hall swallows any attempt at enunciation – you can still hear all the words clearly.
“Kiss me with velvet kisses
Touch me to stop me wishing
For someone gentle and kind.
Those Mills and Boon confections and soapy soft perfections
Pass us both by
But Julie doesn’t mind.”
Too wordy, Ian always said, but listen to them. It has turned into a kind of boast. A roomful of people seem to be boisterously rejecting romance and embracing something... odd. It gives me the creeps.
The song careers wildly to a close and the crowd go mad. Again, it is a ritualised response; the howls and wolf-whistles and cheers aren’t just appreciative, they’re offered in a spirit of community. Julian goes to speak then stops himself and bows his head. He laughs, briefly, in a show of self-deprecation then does a complex little mock bow – it’s ironic, obviously, but the irony is deliberately deployed to show that he can distance himself from who he is. (From who he thinks we think he is.) He seems smaller when he stands away from the microphone; diminished in some way. Acknowledged, the audience makes more noise, building up its own part. Julian wants it over now, you can tell by the way he’s rubbing his ear, impatiently, even as he’s smiling at the crowd. He makes the “we’re not worthy” gesture – his arms go up, then down, in a show of supplication – but his heart isn’t really in it. He leans forward and, gradually, the noise subsides. Coyly (half whispering, half singing it) he says,
His voice is a surprise. He hasn’t spoken since he asked the audience to raise their hands and now he’s weak-sounding and effete. He seems a little out of breath. Nevertheless, the noise of the crowd increases. Smiling, he lifts a finger to his lips then keeps it there. It becomes a sly expression of sexuality. At last, he pulls it away, still aloft, so that it looks like he is asking that we follow his finger; like he’s trying to hypnotise us. His mouth pulsates slightly and then he says,
Again, this is self-defeating, and he knows it. He might as well have wiggled his hips. The crowd are baying now. Exasperated – mock-exasperated; his hands resting humorously on his hips – he stands and waits. Finally, he steps towards the microphone.
“OK. Thank you. Thank you.”
A pause. He waits, again, for quiet and finally he says,
“This is a homecoming for us.”
Now, this is new. There are cheers, which he silences.
“I mean we’ve, phew. We’ve done Liverpool, Manchester, Hull.”
He ticks them off on his fingers.
“Um. Bristol. Cardiff.”
He leaves a pause then cuts it off before he can lose control of the crowd.
“But, you know. It’s true what they say.”
A pause. He grins.
“There’s no place like home.”
He steps back, and, sure enough, the room explodes. I think: now click your heels together. He is ridiculous. They’ve started “We All Need A Crowd To Lean On”. It’s exactly the way I always wanted it to be: a sweaty fumble at The Cavern. The trouble is, Julian’s words have made it seem emblematic. He has condescended to appear inclusive, and now he is pointing at the audience, stretching his arms out, seeming to gather them in. Clive, as ever, looks like he’s lucked into the party of his life and now he’s frightened that somebody’s going to ask him to leave. I am abstracted from the whole event. I’ve begun to worry that someone will notice; that they’ll see that I’m just nodding my head and tapping my feet by rote. That I’m not even grinning any more. (As though someone could take their eyes off Julian long enough to notice me.) I’m concentrating on the guitar parts. The more I do this, the more clumsy and badly played they seem.
Then there’s “You Need Someone To Talk To” and “Let’s Be Alone Somewhere” and “Feels Like Heaven”, all of them, I realise now, more or less clumsy attempts to replicate the heft and swing of an Al Green or a Marvin Gaye record. They seem slightly lop-sided – as though they have one leg longer than the other – but it strikes me, all over again, that once Julian is at the microphone they could be taken at three or four times their normal speed and he would still communicate sex. Sometimes, it seems as though we’re all projecting him; as though he represents all of our desires. In “Let’s Be Alone” he makes his way delicately from note to note and the band seem to follow him, like he is leading them somewhere deliciously wicked. The guitar is good here, I have to admit; a little shimmer here and there, which segues into the sharp, choppy downward strokes of “Unhappy Again”. It’s a pub sing-a-long – Ian’s piano is all of a sudden rollicking and tipsy-sounding – with, at the climax, Julian conducting the entire audience.
“I won’t be happy”, they sing, cheerily.
His arms are stretched towards us. He is swaying from side to side.
“Until I’m unhappy again!”
The audience, and Julian, are turning my masochism – my distrust of happiness - into a football chant. At the end, Julian laughs and touches his hair back into place. He smiles, sidelong, at the band. He does a great impression of embarrassed modesty when he can be bothered.
“OK. Give me a moment.”
He pushes his hands downwards, shushing them.
“Thank you”, he says.
He sounds just like a little boy, or girl. He all but flutters his eyelashes.
“Now then. I’d like to introduce some friends of mine.”
Oh Christ, I think. He says this every time, like he’s in Vegas or a northern club. I never fail to feel embarrassed.
Colin goes into an enthusiastic, stripped down version of his favourite backbeat. He never liked ostentation, Colin; he’d rather play like this than anything. Then Clive, one careful note at a time. It’s like rehearsals used to be: something is being built up around the drums. Ian brings it into focus. It is, you suddenly realise, the Dragnet theme.
“And on guitar.”
The crowd are clapping along, two-handed now. I step forward.
Two thuds on the bass drum.
Julian windmills his arm and points.
George does a little dance. It is the same at every gig; a jerky bobbing motion, like a chicken. It is the only time that he stands out. I am still, I like to think, the band’s presiding spirit. The person next to me is screaming in my ear and I step backwards slightly. It’s not only because of the noise; I’m worried that I’ll be recognised, despite the beard and the extra weight. I have seen enough of them to know what will happen next: a couple of covers; “Dancing Cures Everything”; “La La La” and “I Want You Back”, one on top of the other, then “Albert”. They always finish on “Albert” then come back for the encore, or encores. Tonight, though, there won’t be any encores. I narrow my eyes a little and the lights behind Julian disperse into an aura that spits and fizzes disturbingly, like a warning. I step further back and notice that my palms are sweating. I think: not long now.
Tom Raymond has already written two novels, The Conquest of the Incas and Rough Music.