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Paul van Gelder

Unison

       I

drag my soul to the last water hole

              On the corner of your street in the hope that we meet

                       Last orders at the bar, salmon oysters’ caviar

                        Plenty of Champagne to annihilate the pain

                          Pink ink blue veins one heart two names

                                                  Mood Elevator

 

                               I think about you around the clock

                   I keep thinking about you with another man’s cock

          Jealousy is misery and the thing I miss most is your company

                       Pink ink throbbing veins one heart two names

                                                  Mood Elevator

 

                  Both the sheep and the ox graze outside of the box

                       Without a map or a plan, I still do what I can

               To get you back in my life forget the trouble and strife

                   ‘Cause if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have a tattoo

                       Pink ink bleeding veins one heart two names

                                                  Mood Elevator

 

                           It is and will be my last day in the comfort zone. From tomorrow I cast my musical net on the other side of the lifeboat and hopefully catch some much-needed inspiration to rejuvenate this seasoned singer songwriter. Now that folk is in Vogue it is time to raise the anchor and move on up mainstream. Ousted from the family home and living in the musical Mecca that is London, I trade my electric for an acoustic guitar when most men my age purchase a Harley Davidson or take up tantric sex with someone half their age. Preferably both at the same time, like Elvis used to do after too many uppers revving around on the grassy knoll behind Graceland. Imagine my position on the lowest sport of the career ladder going up. Living off the PPI payment I received in addition to Performance Rights Society money four times a year plus some meagre royalty cheques and cash coming in from monthly gigs. Creating a legacy, the size of a pin drop and holed out by the falling grains of a contemporary hourglass. How old fashioned to suffer for your Art, if it is that after all and navigate through the modern cultural climate. In a sonic landscape without much talent or individuality and plenty of debatable taste there is the possibility to leave a mark for every chancer in the world. These days we are flooded with songbirds, thanks to national talent shows, coaching a karaoke participant into a budding nightingale. All washed up before they ever take flight. I prefer to dig deep and crawl through a tunnel to tap into and report back from the main line. Having lived through the heyday of popular music in all its variety; Blues, Rock & Roll, Mersey Beat-Flower Power-Glam-Punk-Soul-Disco-New Wave-Country-Funk and Rap, I like it raw, reckless and radio-active. Until reality comes a’ knocking that is. And I find myself lost at sea without a paddle.

 

The first invitation for an engagement on the chosen path to unknown pastures comes from a part time Dominatrix who originates from Scandinavia. She organises the entertainment for an LGBT tavern located in the back streets of King’s Cross. Just around the corner from her dungeon where in order to unlock the shackles of writer’s block, I attend her creative writing classes. When the date arrives, I set of to the Blowback Bar on a mid-week evening in July, navigating a public bicycle through the rush hour traffic. The shirt on my back feels sticky from carrying a guitar in a large rucksack. Gagging for a drink on arrival with my mouth dried out and numb from the exhaust fumes I make a beeline for the bar once inside. There I am caught short by the joy full greeting voiced by a pretty, middle aged woman: ‘Hi there’.

Dressed in a black ball gown, wearing a pink lily in her beehive she lounges on a scruffy sofa with a bloke on either side. There are a lot of people present I have never encountered before. A chap with orange hair is taking care of the sound system, fumbling with leads, sleep walking over the narrow stage from one microphone to another checking them, whispering ‘test-test-testicle’.

By the time my drink of choice arrives I spot the hostess and go over to say hello. She gives me a strong hug with bony arms while the garlic on her breath enters my nostrils. There is no running order and she will make one up as the evening unfolds. I am not sure yet what to sing on this occasion. All the time though I notice the petite lady like figure in the ball gown staring at me through squinting narrow eyes. She is in the process of fine tuning a metallic gold Gibson guitar in between sips from a pint of Guinness. The first act on arrives in the shape of a Jazz Poet rhyming Kerouac with caddy shack via panic attack, modestly received with a ripple of applause. Next up is a transvestite strutting around in heavy make-up covering a pock marked face under a dirty blonde wig singing wildly out of tune over a misfiring backing track. It is going to be a challenging evening. I order a whiskey and coke, both poured in a pint glass filled with plenty of ice. The hostess takes to the stage as the lights are dimmed to herald the arrival of the bastard offspring of Billy Holiday and Hank Williams, her words not mine. And there she is, applauded by the two blokes as she downs the rest of her pint, picks up her axe and strolls through the crowd wiggling her hips from left to right.

‘Hi there, so glad to have made it here this evening’

She mutters half cut and wrapped in a thick German accent. Once the guitar is plugged into a small wooden amplifier, she unfurls her flag with a tapestry of moderately slow staccato blues licks. Eight bars in she starts to sing with a rasp and a voice full of optimism released straight from the depths of her sorrowful gut. Lyrics mixed with loving sweat lamenting the break-up of her marriage and how her ex used to beat her up and left her with child. The whole audience captured while her tiny hands work the frets of her Gibson throwing in triplet notes over a time value of four to the beat. After all the flotsam I have heard and watched in venues around town here is the real deal. The future of Rock and Roll dressed up as a Retro act. As she finishes her set there is cheering and clapping and howling for quite some time. My own appearance comes and goes without causing much commotion. Apparently, the sound man mixes downers with alcohol and lost the capacity to control the audio desk. Makes it even harder delivering lyrics about what it is like being an immigrant in the Capital in the twenty first century. I finish with a forlorn love song and after leaving the stage go straight to the men’s room. It is there that she suddenly burst in and corners me by the urinals, the straps of her ball gown hanging loose, and with vowels affected by too many drinks she asks me in the sweetest chirpiest tone possible:

‘Would-you-like-to-have-sex-with-me?’

 

On the ground of an indoor maze without any windows and a very low ceiling I wake up many hours later. Once I open my eyes, I realize I am fully clothed lying on my own bed with a pounding headache and something else penetrating deep into the lower jaw. A merciless toothache is blowing my mind. When I roll over to check the time, I notice that my right arm is covered in letters and numbers written in red felt tip. It reads “Yes, let’s work together, call me 07814367778”.

It is hard to close my mouth completely so with a faint smile sucking in air at the same time I create a draft to cool down the infected area. There are a lot of different pain killers hidden under my pillow. Some bright pink, most of them white oval shaped. I take two for good measure. All the while she is sitting opposite me wearing a sleeveless tiger shirt, over a black satin skirt complementing fish net stockings inside dark brown cowboy boots with both heels pretty run down. The gold Gibson is amplified and resting on her lap with a large glass of red wine firmly held in both hands. On the floor are several cans of Guinness, only one of them open.

‘Do you have any tattoos?’

‘Not a single one, just scars’

I reply before I nod at the ink on her upper arm and ask without thinking

‘Who’s Rosetta?’

‘My daughter, she is having a sleepover at a friend’s home’

While she consumes both Guinness and wine for a moment, I take my Epiphone guitar from the case and start strumming the song “Jackson”. She locks in with the lead riff and it all comes together, sounding like a hot-wired engine taken on the road for a spin by a couple of intoxicated joy riders. With both of us singing the refrain our voices complement each other seamlessly, my baritone supplementing her free-floating melody.

‘Can we open a window and close the curtains; it smells a bit stale in here’

Not one to finish a song then I think as I whip two curtains together. We have a go at “Last Thing on my Mind” by Dolly and Porter, just a verse and a chorus which also works straight away followed by “Stuck on you” speeded up a notch or two. She takes off for a guitar solo that strips the paint of the walls and finishes way too soon so I shout,

‘Keep going!’ over the echoing feedback. She abruptly breaks off.

‘Don’t tell me what to do, just listen and you will hear when I’m done’.

She wears no make-up, but her nails are short and painted signal red. There are now two crumpled up Guinness cans next by the chair and one freshly opened. The bottle of wine looks half empty to me but more likely to be half full for her. She fills her glass generously. We jam some more and whatever I throw at her chord wise she counters with original licks and runs steeped in blues and rockabilly. Will we be able to write material together I muse as she sings a tune from her own catalogue? We are both getting a bit sloshed now since I joined her with a few beverages and the concentration is waning. Suddenly she rises to make her way to the bathroom I presume and as she gets up the Gibson slumps with a thud to the floor followed by her slipping over the empty cans on the carpet. The wine glass is still in her hand, but the content flies all over and drips down the wall next to the chair. She gets up again and wanders off, no apologies no guilt no nothing, stuff happens. On return she sings no more and almost immediately falls asleep in the middle of the room without taking of her boots but embracing her guitar as if it was a pillow. Maybe we peaked too soon.   

 

Wake up way too early with her sitting on the edge of my bed, phone in hand speaking loudly in German to what must be her daughter. She finishes the conversation with

‘Rosetta ich liebe dich!’

Now she has two phones and checks her messages before they are both put back in a bag.

‘Did we have sex last night?’

I look at the clock, it is six twenty-four.

‘There were too many reasons for not having sex, the main one is that you were unconscious’

‘That would not have stopped most men’ she replies as she checks her lily and hair in the mirror next to the bed. In silence she starts to collect her belongings, her amplifier, bag and guitar case and walks out of the front door into the sun rise. How about that for breakfast? I get up, fill the kettle and switch it on. It is preferable to be in a horizontal position as the effect of the painkillers is slowly ebbing away. I turn off my phone and take pen and paper back to bed.

                                                                 

                                                             

 

                                               Once I switch on my mobile again there is a message from the moody Australian musician turned promoter. A minor legend down under but here trying to make ends meet like most of us. He is getting some acts together for an evening at the Quicksand Club in Soho, a tough place to cut your teeth. Am I interested? Can I bring some people? I call him straight away.

‘Hey mate I am going to bring someone special that I am working with, we will be doing the gig together as a duo’

After a pause without a reply I continue and wonder out loud.

‘Is there any money involved or just a few drinks?’

This is not what he has in mind. What he means is if I am going to bring a crowd to boost the audience figures.

‘No and yes’ his sonorous voice informs me, ‘if you do not bring any people you will receive none of the money made on the door through ticket sales’.

Never mind, we might be able to get our fair share through a free flow of booze.

‘What name do you want me to use for you guys on the flyers?’

This question throws me just a little but after a split second of hesitation I reply.

‘The Honky Tonk Twins’.

That sums us up, hook line and sinker.

‘Fan-tactical, the itinerary will follow shortly’.

And so, with the deal made he abruptly finishes the conversation.  

 

A fair amount of water passes under the bridge before the event at the Quicksand club is finally about to happen. During this time, we manage to write a few songs that both inspire and stretch our abilities after hours of jamming. The co-written lyrics are shedding a good-humoured light on the combined experiences of our rudderless existence, living in a foreign land and dealing with the changes of the tide. We manage to road test our compositions in local bars and keep drinking spirits during the lock-ins. In order to match her flamboyant outfits, I have bought myself a dark pin striped suit, the kind they used to wear in old black and white movies with baggy trousers and a pair of two-toned shoes. It is a bit wrinkled from falling asleep while wearing it on too many wasted mornings when I make my way down on the underground to the West End. At the club I check out the stage from where it is uneasy to connect with the audience. Straight ahead you face the black mass and structure of the balcony with people hidden on top while down below on the ground floor you might see a handful of figures lurking behind the pillars. Ryan is the seventy-year-old house dealer who does a lot of business every night selling pick me up powder at cut down prices. A grandfather and former roadie with a broad smile on his face resembling a cornered newt, with one hand in his pocket while the other waves at anyone who passes by.

‘You all right?’ is his standard opening gambit.

‘Yes, man I’m cool, thanks.’

At the sound check my collaborator shows up without a guitar as it has been temporarily exchanged for hard cash in a pawnshop in order to buy food to feed Rosetta. A cold sweat is breaking out under the collar of my chequered shirt. On top of that she introduces me to Marie Juana, her so called girl friend who is tagging along but the sullenness expressed on her brown face does not show much enthusiasm for the special occasion of our official maiden voyage.

‘Make sure we get paid tonight’ is all she says when I air my grievances regarding the absence of her instrument. Having put the financial responsibilities in my hands, they go over to the bar where she sweet talks a chap from a band performing after us into borrowing his guitar. Then the adrenalin starts to rush once we hit the stage for our set. The rhythm erupting from my guitar strings starts cautiously but then gradually becomes more carefree. Suddenly while standing slightly ahead of me swaying in a blanket of sound she lets out a piercing

‘Yeeeeeeeeeehhhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaw’

With that primal throat clearance all my previous nagging worries disappear.

Like the persistent tooth ache trouble vanished with the help of Ryan’s medicine.

This is the first outing in front of a big crowd and security personal is keeping the anticipation in check. Our opening instrumental piece is one of her improvised solos titled “Anonymous Days”, and we quickly gather pace dovetailing some straightforward foot stomping feel good tunes together. There is a nervous vibe and buzz going around. Pulsating wavelengths are followed by riotous jubilation. After every song there are inane compliments directed at us with wolf whistles coming from the back of the auditorium. Next, we go straight into a gospel sung harmony over a three-chord blues sequence with a call and response lyric sung by both of us. The opening lines spreading tentatively around the room; ‘Ain’t wasting no time now the days getting shorter, ain’t wasting no time now the night’s closing in’. Our voices in unison as we breathe life into every sentence. She looks quite a sight in the spotlight dressed in a short red leather skirt and a black frilly shirt covered in white polka dots with tassels hanging from each arm. There is condensation building up above our heads and at the edge of the stage I can see a cordon of bouncers positioning themselves looking at us and staring with baffled faces into the audience. During “Demon Dance”, a murder ballad, she leaves from my side and walks into the crowd experimenting along the way by fading in and out in the middle eight of the song. It is there and then when she comes to a standstill as she crouches down while the shrieking of the guitar sound ricochets of the walls that her skirt moves up higher and higher caused by the gyrating movements on the floor. It becomes clear to the inner circle enclosing her and further down that she is not wearing any underwear. Although it is dark, I can see her neatly trimmed pubic hair from where I am standing, revisiting “Étant Donnés” at the same time. Peachy pink petals covered in dew drops twinkling like diamond studs, suddenly inviting the complete focus and attention of the dumbstruck onlookers. This portal of conception and birth transforming gradually into the eye of a hurricane foreshadowing what is about to unfold. The rhythm keeps going but certain beats are missing. A scuffle breaks out as security men step in trying to cover her up, invading the performance without any consideration.

‘You pumped-up steroid suckers can’t deal with female empowerment’

Is what I hear coming from what was the deep end of the mosh pit just a few minutes ago. Now there is a group of man-mountain bouncers trying to constrain one woman lying on her back holding on to someone else’s guitar for dear life. Without thinking I put down my tool and dive into the melee, trying with force to push and pull those barbarians away. Just as I am getting closer, reaching out with my hand to pull her up, a fist flies from nowhere through the air like a lightning bolt, hitting me full on the lower jaw with such speed that it dislocates my bad and bothersome rotting old crown. Both of my legs buckle from the impact and an instantaneous oily black cloud manages to blot out my wired consciousness.

 

It is early spring and I’m clearing debris in the backyard. Leaves need to be swept away and new compost is added in pots and boxes to plant fresh seeds. Months have passed without a single sighting or a sound from my Honky Tonk Twin. Enquiries around town left me none the wiser. It seems I have become persona non grata as there are no bookings coming in. No X-mass cards, no updates or postings on social media either. An eerie silence has followed me since the thunderstorm and subsequent shipwreck. There is a faint knock on the door and as I enter the hall the bell rings, but the letter box stays closed. After unlocking, the front door gets pushed wide open.

‘Hi there’ she says without making eye contact and brushes straight past me into the living room. She is wearing a grey tracksuit with a denim jacket on top and a pair of burgundy converse trainers. Her hair is without the usual lily but covered in a red bandana making her look like an early last century housewife. You can tell she has lost weight as her double chin, or turkey neck as I fondly used to call it has disappeared. I follow her to the kitchen where she makes herbal tea and inspects the contents of the fridge. A selection is put on a tray and carried over to the sofa. After the curtains are closed, she tucks into a potato salad with roast chicken and coronation coleslaw. I make a roll up at the table without lighting it and watch her from a distance.

‘I have been in jail’, she blurts out in between two sips of tea.

I play with the roll up between my fingers as she continues.

‘Three months inside for a previous conviction of shop lifting on top of a charge for indecent exposure’.

It seems Soho and nudity are no longer on speaking terms.

‘How am I supposed to look after my daughter when her own father, who is the kind of guy who could lose his life in a fight over a parking place, does not care about his own offspring?’

She waves her fork around before she pushes it aggressively into a chicken leg.

‘He has got enough dosh as it is since he works in the financial sector’.

Such lasting resentment aimed towards absent fathers. Plus, unregulated bankers who caused the financial crash were never persecuted due to a legal back up; the system is flawed and needs updating.

‘One of my sisters killed herself inside after the mismanagement of her mental health by the warders and staff of the prison; thankfully I had Marie Juana to look after Rosetta while I was away’.

Still women who do not toe the line, many of them mothers, are locked up sometimes indefinitely.

A brief pause follows another mouthful, and then she launches a final revelation.

‘Since they suspended our benefits the not so great British Government has arranged for me to be sent back to Germany and Rosetta is coming as well.

Gentrification and austerity in London are in full swing and lead a merry dance.

‘I am getting out of your hair for good’ she continues with a full mouth.

I could no longer watch her, so I pretend to look for a lighter and at the same time try to digest what just has been said. I watch a spider on the wall. It crawls out of a crack and now moves along the ceiling. It is only a matter of time before she leaves here, the inevitable certainty looming large. I kind of envy her going back to the continent and Europe, speaking your first language and no longer being asked ‘where are you from?’.

We are all from our mother’s womb but right now I get the feeling I am stuck on this island. She stands up and walks over to the kitchen to make carrot juice. On return I get the pink mug while she drinks from the green one with the added ginger burning all the way down to my stomach. After she finishes drinking the liquid she turns around and opens the curtains.

‘Time to let in some light again’ she whispers from underneath her orange moustache while she wipes mine away with her thumb.

‘Guess you won’t be wasting your time building a new comfort zone’.

I am lost for words. She is getting ready to go now and all I can do in the meantime makes no sense at all.

‘Auf wiedersehen mein herr’

 

And after those final words she planted a tiny kiss on my lips, picked up her bag and left me rooted in the living room as she walked out of the front door, closing it ever so gently. I watched her step for step through the window walking to the bus stop. It did not take long for bus 46 to arrive and as the doors opened, she moved inside. The indication lights came on and the one who had turned my square world upside down was accelerated out of my life there and then. The same mantra with the needle stuck in the groove repeated itself between my ears as I stood there, motionless:  

‘We are all on our own path, we are all on our own path, we are all on our own path’ 

 

                           A cosmopolitan delight dressed in foxy tights

                                    Blazing a trail through the suburbs

                          As far as we can see there’s a dragon in a tree

                                   Spitting fire at the sun as it is rising

                  Some say it ain’t kosher, but this ain’t life from a brochure

 

                         Wandering through the forest of our imagination

                               A cacophony of birds deep in conversation

                            Overexposed from our head down to our toes

                                    To hungry and feasting mosquitoes

                           As I keep you warm in the comfort of my charm

 

                                           On the road to nowhere

                                         Any road will take us there

                                 On the road with ample time to share

 

                           Let’s cut to the chase your hair is on my face

                                   Kissing and hugging in the suburbs

                 Will we make it on the dot ‘cause we’re rooted on the spot?

                                       Light years away from arriving

                       As you keep me warm in the comfort of your charm

 

                                           On the road to nowhere

                                       Many roads will take us there

                                  On the road with ample time to spare

 

                         We unravel and rewind, leave everything behind

                                      Deep in the heart of the suburbs

                           Your sensual smile makes me go the extra mile

                                       Cutting the ties that are binding

                      Some say it ain’t clever, but life has never been better

                                             

                                           On the road to nowhere

                                         Any road will take us there

                                 On the road with ample time to care.

 

                                                      P.V.G. 2020

 

                                                                                                                                       

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