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Mongo Boogie

"Emma" by illustrator Julian Dennis

April 25, 2017 | by Emma Falk Dennis Illustrations by Julian Dennis (Instagram @jlzdnns)

The lights behind my eyes had just come back on. They had started in the corners, hazily illuminating blurs and loose shapes. Soon after, they came as more of a blister, running brightness into those corners, dimension to the blurs. A second or two more, those lights caught fire and the scene’s entirety came sharply and suddenly into focus. My whisky blindfold fell. I was lying down, half naked in a darkened room on a double-wide bed. Ruffling the sheets with my arms. Dozily, ignorantly, dancing on my back. As if I were writhing around in my own imagination. As if I were alone.

It was with the same suddenness, however, that I realized I wasn’t. The bulbs in my brain now lit the picture all at once: A soft, middle-aged belly hovering above me. Belonging not to my imagination, but to my boss, Daniel. Stripped to his underwear and glaring intently with a look which said, “what appears wizened in these eyes comes only from madness.” He was sweating and muttering in his thick syrupy Irish accent: “We mustn’t. We can’t.” Speaking as if he too were lost in his own reverie. As if he too were all alone. But of course he wasn’t. He was speaking to me. Speaking over me, whilst a chestnut brown leather bullwhip — thick and long as a boa constrictor — slithered between his chubby, sweaty little fingers.

The only context I’d had for a bullwhip, previous to my time at the Mongo club, was reading about Gerard Malanga in the pages of Please Kill Me as a teenager in California. Pie-eyed dreams of my leap over the ocean and into the mouth of the city followed me everywhere back then — they infused all I read, saw, touched, and smelled — and this story was no exception. The image of Malanga waving a whip around on stage with the Velvet Underground as they unfurled their decadent and dangerous noise: It felt so much more like home than my beach town did. It was a pull to a darkness and complexity that I couldn’t find in the sand or the waves or the incessant football talk. It was a sweet black fog I knew would come to greet me on the other side, though it had nothing to do with whips or leather. It was the possibility of such perversions. Just knowing all chance of everything was seeded in the underbelly of my mythologized London. Ready to sprout up from the earth like weeds, wrap around my body, and march me out in new directions.

It had been a nervous moment, first meeting Daniel. I can remember my limbs feeling as constricted as my stomach: tight rubber bands of tension pinching everything in me. Not only had various friends and musicians deified him to me as a guru in possession of golden career advice, but the hallowed ground of the club itself had meant a great deal from very early on in the London chapters. It had been one of the first places I’d walked into after touching down in the city, and that inaugural night had been a good one. Sitting against the wooden walls, near the mural of Joe Strummer covering the door that led out to the bathrooms, I melted into my chair listening to a voice deep with texture and swimming in soul as it came cooing from the wide mouth of a beautiful man onstage. One that looked like he could have been Kevin Ayer’s lovechild. The resemblance, I felt, was uncanny.

The Mongo stage felt alive. As I sank further into the floor that night, seduced by those sounds and wrapped in the sights, I made a silent pact with myself: One day, I’m going to play here.

Long before that day was to come, I found myself back in the club for a very different reason. The first time Daniel and I shook hands, I’d come in to ask for a job. I needed one, badly. I’d been let go from my position as resident wild barmaid in Camden, having gotten a little too comfortable in the role, and subsequently too unreliable, to continue. Losing this job happened to coincide with my moving off of a warehouse floor and into my first studio apartment.

My own little box on the hillside. The, ahem, Muswell Hill... side. My domestic pride and joy: one minute room with a prison bed that pulled down from the wall and an oven so ancient I was too scared to try using it. But it was the first time I was handing over a rent check for my housing and that felt tangible and exciting. Until I lost my job, that is. Then it was mostly terrifying. The odd bar shifts I was working for friends were not enough to cover even half of the 100 pound a week price tag. I couldn’t pay for pride, nor for joy.

So, with those nervous limbs wrapped in a tattered flannel and a denim motorcycle jacket, I had stepped from the quiet drizzle of an early Tuesday evening and into a mostly empty pub. A pub caught in the middle hours before the night crew would come in from their work lives, seeking whisky warmth and refuge from anything real. There were regulars propping up the bar who’d been warned by their doctor that any more alcohol would likely kill them, yet when they walked into the Mongo their worries seemed to abate. It was as if the dream bubble that settled over the place really did provide protection from any potential hazards on the outside. That, or perhaps it was the holy water that sat in little pots throughout the place — corporeal remnants of the exorcism Daniel had a priest perform before he opened for business.

I approached the three girls behind the bar as they polished glasses, lost in lazy conversation. I asked for Daniel. Though if I’d looked a little harder, he would have been easy to spot: The only man, besides his business partner ever on the other side of the bar, I later found out. “I never have men working here,” he’d say. “Too much trouble having men.”

Even with my heart drumming loudly in my ears and my palms sweating enough to dampen the corners of my flannel, my meeting with the man himself went smoothly enough. We talked about Ken Kesey — or rather, he told me he used to manage Kesey’s literary affairs — and the fact that I was impressed by this seemed enough to warrant him giving me a shot. On a trial basis of course.

It wasn’t long before I was hired outright as the official “door girl” for Friday and Saturday nights; standing outside between one of two imposing bouncers, and sometimes Daniel himself, charging people three pounds to enter if we deemed them to be the right sort. There were official rules on this (no sneakers, no football shirts) but there were, I soon learned, many unwritten ones as well. As long as a girl was hot, she was in. No kids with muscles big enough to potentially cause a fight and no guys with angry faces. Nor anyone who looked ready to chew off their own face. On the same score, no visible powder under anyone’s nose (once you were inside rules were more lax on this). Of course, friends of Daniel’s and regulars to the club included infamous Irish mobsters and active heroin addicts. It was a skewed code.

"Augustus" by illustrator Julian Dennis

There were nights during these three-hour shifts, in the mostly always frigid air, where Daniel would stand by my side the entire time recounting stories. Stories about the ghost of Augustus Caesar, whom he regularly had conversations with up by the local tube station. And his tales of ghost cars. Those took me a while to grasp. Because he spoke with such a heavy Irish accent, I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying the first time he brought them up.

“Ghost what? Who’s ghost did you see?”

“Ghost kaeer, Emma, It was a ghost kaaeeer!”

I thought maybe he was speaking of a General Kerr, whom he’d spied in the company of Augustus, but after some back and forth I realized he meant an actual car — a Thunderbird in fact, bright red and straight out of a Beach Boys tune. My eyes were wide and my expression stunned for much of the time I spent talking to him.

We were both working the door on the evening the world was meant to end, according to some nut job religious zealot many people apparently had reason to believe. Stories had flooded London news outlets that day of folks all over the world who’d sold their homes to traverse the country warning people of the coming apocalypse. As we sat in the quiet in the early evening at the start of our shift, watching the night buses pass by against the backdrop of a still solidly existent world, I asked Daniel what he would do if he knew the earth was only going to exist for another 24 hours. We surmised together that there would be no point in travelling — that’d be a waste of precious time, and anyway who’s to say you could. The world would be running amok, airline personnel would likely be in short supply.

“But where would you go?”

“I’d go to the Groucho, of course.”

His reference to his favorite private member’s club in the city surprised me. “They’ve got everything you need at the Groucho. Beds, booze, music. And they take care of you at the Groucho. You walk through the door and you’re home.”

“Yeah, but Daniel, there wouldn’t be anyone to take care of you — the place would likely have been ransacked by the staff if the world was going to end. The booze would be taken, beds would be occupied…”

“Oh no, not at the Groucho,” he countered with a sense of childlike certainty on his face. “They wouldn’t do that at the Groucho.”

It wasn’t long before, like the Groucho to Daniel, the Mongo engendered love and loyalty from me and became my place of certainty. My safe second home. Each weekend, I’d head down early before my shifts to catch whoever was playing that evening. My little guitar band–loving brain was set on fire by the stuff I heard.

Each set was truly blazing. Everything was interesting. Everything was tight, and passionate, and sweaty. From Alfie, the gorgeous crooner I’d seen play on my original visit to the Mongo — singing songs about beautiful actresses and poisonous love, to the wild threesome I walked in on one night wailing their way through Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” I was immediately entranced by their leader: a corkscrew-haired kid with brushes in his hands, beating his drum hard enough to break their wire bristles, and bellowing a tempestuous scream full of his guts — rich and sharp and exhaustive.

There was Andrew Lightstone. A local legend. And a lonely soul. The list of people he’d backed read like an incredible roster of the who’s who in rock royalty. After each tour he did, he’d come home to sit and noodle on his guitar in his top tier flat, looking out his giant window onto the high street until the sun went down, after which he’d head to the Mongo and play a few tunes. Although he was awkward and his stringy, long hair and sunken, loner eyes resembled a scarecrow more than a man, as soon as he started his impromptu set, you could feel the energy in the place shift. He knew as well as everyone that by the time he’d finished he could point his eyes like magnets to whichever waiting fawn he fancied.

There were the Cockney geezers who played every Christmas, a show that always threatened to break the walls with the amount of people we tried to squeeze in between them. They would whip the bursting room up into as much energy as the limited space would allow. By the end of the night, the ceiling was raining sweat.

There was also the Australian bearded pirate poet. To see him play in such a small room felt like being let in on a beautiful secret. I stood on a wooden chair in the back, enrapt and on tip-toe for the entirety of his set as his voice oscillated: the purest of sweet, clear notes suddenly polluted with throttles and gruffness. He covered Leadbelly and did it justly. Filling the air with the blues long into the night.

It wasn’t long before I was lined up to perform. One of the women on staff had taken a shine to me as we sat in the kitchen enjoying a cigarette at the end of a shift. “I’m putting on a night in two weeks… you should play it. I’ve not heard anything you’ve done, but I just have a feeling you’re good. Yeah. You’re good. You’re playing.”

This sweet soul, this retro dressed red-haired raven of a girl gave me a golden ticket into the family, and then she did me one better. She’d heard about my employment woes and set me up with a job. It was as a “retro waitress” in a vintage tea shop above a pub in Soho, run by a trust fund baby living off both his parents and his well-to-do wife’s money. A man so steeped in his own self-love and narcissism he rivals the newest president of the United States. (More on him and all the many stories that job brought with it later.)

"Portrait of Emma" by illustrator Julian Dennis

For now, the short version of events in a very tangled tale is: I took the job, and then I lost the job. That day, the day of tea shop job losing, was tenebrific. I got back to my empty flat, the month’s rent still to be paid. The little room filling ceiling-high with all my doubts and thoughts and fears. I was suffocating and needed to escape. And what better place to catch my breath, I thought, then in the beery air of my second home, the Mongo. I wanted to quiet my thrashing mind with a drink. Hopefully, a free one.

My fortunes were already turning when I walked in that afternoon to find Mags behind the bar. Mags: the kindly den mother. The only older women on staff amongst a bunch of twentysomethings. She took shit from no one and had a very short fuse for idiots. But for those who’d proven themselves not to be one, she was as caring as they come. She immediately picked up on the deep grey clouds in my eyes, handed me a whiskey, and softened me up to talking about it all. Just as Daniel was walking in.

I was out of money, I was saying to her, mist now joining the clouds, a full-on storm waiting behind my pupils for another whiskey or two to set all weather free. The weekend shifts here were not covering the rent, not to mention the travel, the all-important cigarettes, and then there was my affinity for spending cash places my nose would have been better off staying out of (I left out this bit in my recounting to Mags.) I was going to have to barter with the shop owner for my next travel card; wait until midnight on Sunday for the last of my money from the tea shop to hit my account so I could get my Marlboros.

As I talked, another voice chimed in with a pledge to help. Bossman touched me on the shoulder and told me not to worry and brought out another bottle of whiskey. One of the many quirks of Daniel: A man who didn’t drink (one expected because he’d ruined it at some point in his life), yet he was always ready with inebriants for others, and certainly would keep the supply going, even for those in danger of their own ruin — if they were old enough friends or had enough rock ‘n’ roll cachet. But for Daniel himself, non-alcoholic Bud Blue was the only thing anyone would ever see him drinking. I always had a feeling that if I’d seen him at the Groucho, it might have been a different bottle in his hand.

Daniel’s only visible vice was delusion, usually with himself at the center of the fantasy. Whether it was the diet he was constantly explaining to his staff was shrinking his belly, even as it continued to protrude further with each week and each Mars Bar he thought no one had spied him eating, or the waitress at his favorite diner whom he was convinced was in love with him because she frequently let him order things not listed on the menu, Daniel’s reality was his own and we were all just guests in it.

He offered me money after the second whiskey. Through rain in my eyes, I accepted. As my tears grew heavier, he took me upstairs for another drink. And probably a couple more. After that my memories are arrested. I was further from the storm but deeper underground. Down in blackout land.

"Substances" by illustrator Julian Dennis

To summon Daniel to mind at present is to feel pricks of fear and dread and shame, like needles of a cactus I’ve rubbed up against and are now buried in my skin. Back then, perhaps they were just burrowed further down. Back then, all that happened just... was. Whether that made me freer, or simply more numb, I still am not sure. All I know is, at the time, that episode was just another one of life’s turns. Perhaps even a bit of an exciting secret only Daniel and I were in on. Something else I’d lived through. Something else I’d conquered. I had been in London some time by then and, I must confess, not much surprised me any more. A surreal interlude with a boss and a bullwhip would not have deterred me from coming back to work the next day. It had only been an afternoon behind the blindfold. Shut out from the world by closed shades and copious whiskey. And Daniel’s phantoms.

Before he was straddled over me, he had offered to help me, a new member of his family. And I had accepted my family’s help — his help — even as it came to me in sweat, and with leather, and in the dark.

[Continue the tale next month!]

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