Never forget the golden rule of the open mic: it was good last week, so it will be awful this. You hope against hope that it won't always be the case, but invariably it is. I say it was awful, but I can't really speak for the first hour or so as I don't get there until after 10pm as it's a late night at work. But Cas's last words to me on Wednesday after our weekly practice session are along the lines of 'get there at 10 because I can't wait to play the stuff we've practiced'. Getting back home from work, wet, brain-dead and tired, I could happily flop in an armchair and yell abuse at the screen whilst watching Question Time with the sound muted (well, we all have our own ways to unwind) but I leave a mildly disgruntled, long-suffering partner in crime to head back out into the rain, trying to keep the worst of it off my little 4 watt Vox amp and my caseless £80 Strat copy with my overcoat, and down into the steaming pit of rock 'n' roll debauchery that is the Cow & Snuffers. No matter how tired or apprehensive you might feel, the pull is always too strong to resist.
Mick the Landlord pulls me up a free pint of 'Buie and I try to hide from view of 'the stage' so that I can at least savour a couple of gulps of grog, but it's hard to be discreet when your amplifier is causing a blockage on the well-trodden route to the ladies loo and Paula the Landlady is flecking both one's (facial) cheeks with parodic aristocratic French mistress kisses replete with much exagerrated lip puckering and butterfly wings arm flapping. Sure enough, I'm spotted and make my way through the adoring crowds to the tiny corner of the pub into which a drum kit, PA system and various other forms of amplifiers have been arranged to form a Krypton factor-esque obstacle course for the daring handful of musicians. Once a week they attempt to insinuate themselves between this jungle of mischievously angled microphone stands, noose-like cables and illuminated music stands in order to attempt to bluff their way through a carefully selected repetoire of popular favourites and hoary old chestnuts. In short, imagine an area the size of a modest king-size bed decked out by Salvador Dali and co. along the lines of their first Surrealist exhibition only with an overloaded household electrical current running through it and you have some idea of the extreme bodily contortions required by the artiste in order even to stand on - or, more accurately, in - what we might with heavy irony refer to as 'the stage'.
"What kept you?" "What time do you call this???""Thank God you're here!" The imploring throng pat a legendary shoulder, shake a saintly hand, grasp at a messianic arm as I move amongst my flock. Their pent up desperation for my arrival wafts me onward, their sheer desire spiriting me towards 'the stage'. It's quite touching at first, until the bubble is rudely burst. "Thank God you're here - Zak said she was waiting for you to get here before she'd go up and sing. Come on - we've been waiting all night to hear her."
And Zak - Cas's daughter - is indeed here and sporting an early modernist masterpiece by way of her coiffure. Resembling the charred remnants of a crop circled cornfield that's been razed to the ground, her short back and sides are topped by an electric blue ball of coiled plaits. It's lovely to see her. Where do you start with Zak? Studying at Oxford, super model good looks, voice of an angel and with all that, add in a zen-like poise and self deprecating niceness that many with a zillionth of her talent or accomplishment lack. So, all in all, just your average teenager, really. Jo, her Gran, is there too - only Gran seems far from apposite when used to describe this lady. Only the grey of the hair might offer a clue - unkempt in fiery abandon, it's like something out of Blake and emblematic for me of the bold, bohemian spirit I've known since I was a kid. The hair, like the spirit, is no less wild, than it was back then, just lacking that black lustre of yore. I give Zak and Jo a hug, ask Jo if she's had a chance to play - she's blossoming into a fine jazz pianist since studying improvisation. With each week it's harder to equate the confidence and authority of some her playing with the timid-seeming soul we almost had to lead screaming up to the piano when she first performed here. She has played and, barring the obligatory music stand disasters and accompanying blizzard of carefully prepared cribs and sheet music, it went OK.
Lovely Julia is on 'the stage' with her shiny new Yamaha semi- acoustic and, with Bluegrass John - charming hard-to-believe-he's-a-pensioner - on acoustic and Cas on stand-up bass we lurch through 'I'll be your baby tonight'. My poor attempts at the kind of fills you'd hear on an early Johnny Cash record (who, incidentally, sounds not entirely unlike our Bluegrass John here) are saved from total, tuneless mediocrity only by the judicious addition of a few intermittent cutting out and spluttering noises, the kind usually associated with a faulty lead. Or Adrian Belew. It's always easier when the first one's out of the way, thinks the eternal optimist in me. Then a Cornish-looking debutante - Sue(?) - gets up to sing an old folk number about white something or other. I say debutante, you understand, because it's her first time 'on stage' at the open mic, not because she looks like Yasmin le Bon or some similar glamorous upper crust fillie. Simon (no, not another le Bon) knows the chords to 'White something or other' so he plays acoustic and harmonises with Cornish looking Sue (?) and, not really knowing what else to do, your humble scribe interjects a bit too loudly with a few trademark Exile-era Keef/Proud Mary-era Creedence-style slurs. It's awful, but a bit better than the first one.
Simon gives me a nod and asks if he and the other guys from Grand Union - his wife Kate, Cas and fellow gooner Gerry, who also moonlights as the Cow & Snuffers' resident kit basher - can do one more song before he and Kate have to go. They have a gig on Saturday and I'd expected them to want to use this session as a final rehearsal for that, but with an unusual turnout of wannabe performers tonight, they've obviously only had a limited time to play. It's fine because I can sit down and have a breezer or two and catch up with Zak. One song turns into two and I find I'm feeling a bit wound up - a combination of not playing well earlier, having kind of known that something like this might happen - that I'd get all psyched up to play and then not get the chance, despite having spent all yesterday afternoon practicing for what I knew would only be, most likely, a 10-15 minute spot - and of partly not really wanting to be here in the first place.
Several flute solos later, Zak finally steps up before her adoring public. I've been wanting to hear her sing 'I only have eyes for you' - our arrangement based on the gorgeously loopy Flamingoes version - for a while, but as soon as we start, I make a fundamental error of judgement. The arrangement relies on some beautifully abrupt and oddly unsettling (for a doo wop record) 'shoo-wop-shoo wops' and in order to make these work, I need to contort myself through the cat's cradle of cables and isometrically arranged stands to a position somewhere in the vicinity of a microphone. However, in doing this, I realise with mild alarm that the position I've adopted (at the cost of some considerable discomfort, most pertinently a rakishly angled cymbal perilously close to my crack which I keep backing into and getting jammed up there) was perhaps ill-advised. Whilst allowing me to 'shoo-wop' like a queen, sadly I'm also positioned in such a way that Zak's gently skanking body is almost completely obscuring the chord sheet I'm relying on to get me through the song. It's turning into one of those evenings. All the 'shoo-wops' in the world won't disguise my inept chording. My casual acquaintance with the structure of 'I only have eyes for you' becomes a total stranger during Bobby Vinton's 'Blue velvet'. Oh sure, we'd rehearsed it yesterday and it sounded fine- only that was in Bb. Zak prefers D which, not to get too technical about it, is a long, long way up from Bb - at least on my fretboard it is. I end up soloing as at least it will only sound fucked up one note at atime, rather than in clumps of fucked-up-ness if I stick with the chords.
Something has to change - and fast. I pluck out the stacatto opening riff of 'I'm blue (the gong song)' and suddenly we're motoring. Cas and I share the bluesy harmonies of the call and Zak lets loose on the response in a cascade of gong, gong, gong, gong g-g-gong gong yeahs, Gerry pinning it all down like Al Jackson and the place starts to move. A handful of folks are dancing and I can spot the row of regulars propping up the bar mouthing along with our voodoo mumbling. It comes to a halt and I feel that at least something's worked for me tonight. Happy to have finally got into it, I get a bit hacked off when Cas calls a halt to the proceedings. But then we find out it's only ten to eleven so there's the usual dithering - probably only a couple of seconds, but in the adrenalised timespan of the performer, it feels like about 3 days - what to play and at some point I go into a minor 'I'll play anything you want me to play and if you don't want me to play anything I won't play at all' style wobbly.
More dithering about whether to do 'Run baby run' even though like a divvy I didn't bring the chord sheet with me in my rush to get out. I suggest 'Sympathy for the devil' and we're off. Cas thinks afterwards that the potency of our rendition is sparked by my channeling some of my frustration and aggression into the song, but I actually become quite calm quite soon into the song. Gerry once again gets his target acquisition system locked straight on the groove and starts to enjoy himself with the tom toms. Cas throws in some spirited growling harmonies on the chorus and the woo-woo mantra that we finish on and for a brief moment, it's like you're floating on air with the chug of Richards' guitar as your shield and Jagger's barbed lyric your spear. I don't even have to look at Cas, I can sense the relief in his voice that we're finally cooking and that I'm at last starting to enjoy myself. I try not to look at my neighbour Geoff, who is old Bill, when I sing 'just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints'. Old Bill, Old Nick, none of that matters anymore, in the moment of the song. There's still an internal frisson though at the transgressive power the words somehow seem to have maintained, but the real power it contains is something wordless, elemental. You feel the full power of the song like a pistol in your pocket, the dancers lose their clothes, become a warpaint-daubed tribe. A strange telepathy of the spirit takes place. None of us, performers, dancers, needs to say it, we just know. We know that everyone in the room is involved in this song, that we are merely the channel for it. And I realise that none of the rubbish they have written about this being some diabolical evocation or summoning up of evil spirits is true. You know it, you can feel it. This is no satanic ritual. It's an exorcism.