September 29, 2017 | by Emma Falk Dennis Illustrations by Julian Dennis (@jlznns)
The initial thing I realized when I started gigging regularly was the wonderful advantage given to every performer by a dark room and bright stage lights. With bulbs in the eyes, there is no way of telling what an audience looks like: no optic measure of how far back a crowd stretches, whether or not heads are bobbing, how many people are dancing, or indeed, yawning. The performer is free to imagine their crowd in as much fervour as they like — the spectators become a blank slate upon which to draw, in luminous filament, an ideal gaggle of fans.
It’s the perfect recipe for grand visions. The ideal scenario for fragile egos. And, most helpfully, almost all gig venues have some version of this set up. The stage is dark, the room is dim, and the lights are shining right up into your eyes, dancing you blissful and visionless into an anything goes waltz — imagination taking lead.
Pubs, on the other hand, are different. Pubs are places wherein people drink and chat and sometimes dance. In those cases, shows are secondary to the drinking. You need more light for drinking, pubs seem to tell us, and any performances that go on in pubs are set up around the drinking. Have I got my pint in hand? Is said pint visible enough for me to know when the liquid level has dropped and it’s time to go and procure another pint? Right then, perhaps I can take in a show!
The Mongo, by any definition of the word, is most definitely a pub, arranged and assembled with the thirst of its customers in mind. Sure, people come here for the bands as well as the booze, but firstly the booze, and the kind of open-ended evening a steady rotation of pints brings with it.
And so, as with any pub in the UK, the lights at the Mongo are left on for the imbibing. There ain’t no dimming the “front of house” at showtime. No demurring to the performer here.
This can make playing a boozer something akin to public humiliation. To be up before the shimmering illuminants of libation is to be naked on Mainstreet, under continual surveillance from passersby. For no matter how few people are actually pointing forward, intentioned on watching the gig, whoever else is in the building is also keeping an eye out. Like a bunch of government bugs in the walls of every watering hole, in constant, passing, detached review.
Take a regular, let’s call him Joe — old, leathery Joe. He may be at the back of the bar and only there to drink his beer and sink into his stool with a copy of the Evening Standard, but he’ll still be side-eying with the one he’s got left in between sips of London Pride.
Or slick Tony. A suited up thirtysomething in for afterwork drinks with his entry-level marketing colleagues. Sure, he’s more interested in making frequent trips to the toilet to do corners of ill-gotten Camden coke off of his Amex, but bet your last dollar he’ll still find time for a peek. And likely, a snarky comment at a loud, powdered-up volume.
“Bloody ‘ell luv, calm down!”
A pub stage is a television screen, one essentially left on in the background whilst everyone goes about their business. It’s the family set in the middle of the living room being stared at, glimpsed, or glanced over incidentally by a whole bunch of terrifying pupils.
Tonight, those pupils were peeping out right at me. I’d moved smack center of the terror. I was a brand new character on the Thursday night line-up; a fresh offering for the Mongo’s viewing pleasure. My palms were wet, and I wanted to run.
Leave now. Danger! Like a train whistle warning a passing truck of its impending death on the tracks, my body was trying to push me out of the way. Why the fuck are you doing this to us?! It seemed to be shouting at me. What have I done to you? I thought we’d been good pals. Sure, sometimes I don’t recover from hangovers as quick as you would like or I make you sleep too long, but really, I’m doing the best I can.
I’d forced this poor suffering body out in front of the microphone and now the eyes on us, looking out from the crowd, felt white hot. I was the ant under the magnifying glass, except where an ant has the excuse of unintentionally frying himself as a result of an exceptionally small field of vision, I was not only aware of the danger, I’d also scurried out looking for it. I’d positioned myself straight under the glass eye, beneath the hottest of suns, and was now scorching up from the stage in scrutiny.
By stage, what I mean is merely a small patch of floor near the center of the room bordered by an upright piano, the “no service” side of the bar, and the lone microphone out front, just a piece of cold mesh up against my lips, picking up my heavy breathing. It was only me and the punters out there. Some of them sitting at tables and sipping at drafts, 10 feet from my toes.
Some Weird Sin
The morning had the condensation of a cold sweat circling it. I was in a thick fog of panic before I’d made it out of bed — a panic punctuated by the sensation of being zapped by a million tiny cattle prods every time I tried to relax my thoughts. This is happening this evening! Remember! This important, scary, brand new thing you’ve never done before! Be frightened! These nerve blitzing prods were so constant and electric, keeping me on edge and on alert, all I could do for the course of the afternoon was go over my poems and practice my songs, and change my jacket innumerably. It was either that, or pace back and forth across my seven-foot floor space until it was an acceptable time to leave my flat.
As it was, when I finally did steady my breath and walk out my front door, I still had a good three hours until the TV set was due to be turned on. I had my notebooks tucked under my arm as I pushed through the outer and then the inner door of the club, trying to wedge my hand inside and keep hold of the loose pages and crumpled notes at the same time. The books were in weathered shape: torn edges and scrawled messages, pages of the same pieces written and rewritten in slightly neater script, words changed and new lines inserted. I asked Mags for a glass of water, found a seat to plop down on, and stared hard at the papers, reading back lines to myself on a loop — petrified of forgetting.
Sitting there, a slick, nauseous wave began to pass over my body. A sickening, continuous sensation I’d never had before, but one that would become very familiar to me in time. The pre-show stomach churns and body aches, as I would soon discover, made the post-show payoff all the sweeter. Finishing a set is like having a hypodermic of health blasted into every sick cell in the body. It’s an infusion of strength. It’s the voodoo of the superhuman stage person. But I was a long way off from all that. Presently, quivering on my barstool, I mostly felt like I was awaiting death by execution. Or maybe it’s poison? I’m certainly sweating enough. I hope you can’t see it through my j… yes, you can, you can definitely see it through my jacket.
As if he’d come to join me on my way to the grave, or perhaps just watch me sweat, a subdued and pleasant Daniel appeared from the back room and pulled up a chair at the bar. He saw my hands, turning the pages of my ragged notebook, badly shaking.
“Why don’t you have something stronger?” he said in his softest pusher patter. “Help steady the nerves.”
“No. No.” I replied resolutely. “I want to be totally present. Feel this all, you know? And not give myself any more chance of forgetting my words. I’m already pretty worried about that.”
Also, if I pour any alcohol onto the spin cycle my stomach is currently churning it’s way through I’m pretty sure my first words to the audience will be delivered in vomit.
Not something I fancied sharing.
“It’s a smart plan. You can celebrate with a drink afterwards,” he said sitting down next to me. “You should leave those notebooks here when you go up,” he offered as he pointed to the dog-eared page I was currently fiddling with. “Don’t worry, you’ll remember the words. If you don’t have those things, ya won’t need ‘em.” Though the thought of taking leave of my little scraps of security was a daunting one, I knew he was right. Without having crutches to keep me crippled I’d have to go up and run.
There it was. Bestowed on so many performers before me. A little slip of some of Daniel’s Grade-A golden advice.
We sat for a while longer. I shuffled my pages and murmured lines back to myself, and Daniel chuckled at me in between pulls from his Bud Blue. When Raven finally appeared to be walking up to the stage, it looked to me as if her steps were in slow motion. And when I heard her mention my name into the mic just a second later, it seemed like I’d pulled the scene from a dream I was currently drifting through.
“Making her stage debut, it’s the fabulous Emma!” Reality snapped back quickly and coldly. The blood left my body — all boiled off and evaporating through my ears.
I had decided it would be a bold move to begin proceedings with my cover of “Be My Husband” by the one and only, Nina Simone. The first time I’d heard it, I’d been taken — swept up in her command over an audience, with just the stomping of her foot, and the single high hat accompanying the voice. Hers was an act of exposure, full of darkness and seduction and pleading. And likely also I would imagine, lots and lots of practice. I was less concerned with this last point. Having only had the idea to add it to my repertoire a couple of days before show time, I felt confident I could pull it off. And from the vacuum of my bedroom, I seemed to have a pretty good handle on it.
Now I was standing on a stage in a room completely void of noise, laser eyes tracking me, the stark realization running up and down my mind: The next sound we’d all be hearing would be coming from me. All that bedroom confidence vaporized, and my rhythm went to join my blood, somewhere in the hot air above.
Come on, you’ve got to do it now. Make your arms move! They are waiting for you to start! Come on, you asked for this you crazy woman! I was having a rather hard time remembering what had drawn me to putting myself into this position in the first place. Was I a masochist? Did I have some deep seeded fetish for humiliation? For god sakes this is not the time to ponder about your motivations! Make your damn hands move!
After what felt like an epoch, but was likely somewhere before the 30-second mark, I did. I started my hands clapping together in lieu of high hats and my feet stomping along, in all kinds of creative timings right from the beginning, but as soon as I started singing, my body froze. Keeping limb and mouth moving at once turned out to be impossible.
The strength left my arms, and they hung still at my sides. A couple of heavy, ossified, useless stones. It became immediately apparent I was perhaps not quite the consummate professional I’d assumed. Maybe it took more than a couple of days to become a multi-tasking rhythm master with a steely confident stage presence. My insides were all so high up in the ol’ throat at this point, I could feel them threatening to burst out over my tongue and choke me in my own failure.
Ever wonder what the answer is to the famous Zen Koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I’ll tell you the answer: It is silence. It is silence until you get the other hand to join in. Painful, seemingly endless, silence. I may have been singing, but in my head all I could hear was the tragic loss of my rhythm section.
As the sweat dripped down and cattle prods jabbed at me, and I could feel myself breaking apart nerve by nerve, something suddenly swooped in to save me. A hand up as it were, in the form of a bunch of hands, all clapping back at me, and all emanating from the source of my terror, no less. My audience — all those leery eyes tuned into the pub TV — had jumped in when my hands had jumped ship. For a good four bars of the first verse everyone came in on the clapping. Palms from every section of the room accompanied, in unison and yet all over the place. Or rather, all over the same offbeat place I’d started out on. But it hardly mattered. In those four bars, the world, for me, changed.
Everything broke open and inside I found a vibrant, chaotic, electric plane. It was some new space we had all come upon together. Somewhere still checkered with the same anxiety and tinged in the unknown, but with an overwhelmingly tempting entrance of rattling colour and vibration. Indeed, it was as if instead of clapping, everyone in the crowd had, at that moment, come out of their seat and grabbed hold of a golden rope in the centre of the room leading right on up to what a wise friend once described to me, speaking of music, as “The Hotline to Heaven.”
The cattle prods stopped. The nerves settled. My eyes opened wide and fixed in a glare. I stood straight. My heart found a steady pace. By the time the hands in the crowd dropped off, I didn’t care. I could still hear them deep in the character of the song. The rhythm circled all around me, right there in the silence.
The voice that flowered over my reticence, smothering it like a coating of overgrowing vines in my throat, became something fully immersed in whoever this stage woman was. By the time my tribute to the great Nina was over and I’d started my first poem of the night, stage Emma was more wolf than women, pouncing wildly around the tiny room. I was a performer happily caught on prime time, fearlessly commanding all the gazes before me. Face forward, my delivery was unwavering. The nerves I had suffered with transformed into something else — a kind of hunger. I bit down on every poem and sucked out the character of each one. I shifted into the form of every next opening line and morphed with the energy of my audience. There was an exchange going on. In full swing. I broke myself open and let everything I had inside come flying out over their heads and into their ears. Even old leather Joe’s, or at least the one good one he’s got left.
It seemed my surveyors and I might get on after all. I certainly never wanted to leave their line of vision. Inside myself was an immensely powerful feeling of connection. It was a heady exchange I was being let in on, and man, I never wanted it to end. It felt vital. The gig voodoo had set up roots in me, and I felt ever so happily stuck to the stage.
This must be magic. I felt like I had been let in on the single greatest secret, almost certainly something the government bugs wouldn’t want us to know about. Some weird, wonderful sin leading on up to freedom and togetherness, as only the best sins do.
So I shook on the stage for as long as I could and then it was all over, far too soon. I would have happily stayed up there until someone stuck one of those comedy canes around my neck and dragged me off. Alas, after my half an hour, I was out of material. I basked in a final applause, and then stepped into the pub fray. From beginning the day in an anxious fog, I was presently feeling as though I’d stuck my nose down at one end of a cocaine trail leading up to the sky. If I could have eked out the well being that came from my time on stage, perhaps distilled it into pill form, I would have been a happy woman, and probably also a very rich one. Who wouldn’t want the chance to purchase sustained camaraderie and triumph? I was like a glory junkie looking for the next accolade. And at first, they were easy to find.
Mags set a whiskey down on the end of the bar for me and I swallowed it whole in an act of invincible revelry. As I was putting down the empty glass I felt a pat on my shoulder. “Nice job, Em.” Dave, one of the first people I’d seen play the Mongo, raised his pint and tipped his flat top cap to me. Daniel came over and enveloped me in a hug, a gesture I was fairly certain I’d never seen him involved in before. “I’m proud of you,” he said. Never had I felt more part of a family. I even got a “good job, mate!” from Johnny, an eye-bending performer regularly on stage at the club. Light years ahead of me in ability, and now it seemed, a “peer.” I was swelling with pride, with invincibility, and soon enough with whisky.
“Another please, Mags!”
In later years, I learned to control this feeling, the one my bandmate Nick used to call, “Post Gig Glory”— a condition from which we both suffered acutely. When touring, it’s inadvisable to indulge in this as you run into the obstacle of “The Next Day.” Getting up early, packing the van, being awake for sound check, being able to sing again, remembering your lyrics. I learned this lesson the horrible way on more than one occasion, and the take home is always the same: Bacchanalians until the sun comes up are never a good idea on tour. No exceptions. Never good.
But after that first Mongo show night, with no gig the next day to keep sharp for, and no glory-related lessons yet learned, keeping the party going until I was eye-to-eye with sunlight felt like a perfect idea. Really, it felt like the only idea.
And so, hooch in hand, I held court. Dave and I talked poetry and recording techniques, Johnny told me about living with his new girlfriend the Playboy bunny (a line of conversation that in no way aided in my glory and had to be quickly side stepped). Raven and I shot the breeze about the next possible show. I was happy, charged, and drunk.
And then, people started to leave. This was a Thursday night and the usual midnight prowlers who occupied the grounds till all hours on a Friday or a Saturday were tonight bevvied up just enough to take themselves home and to sleep. No continuous party for them — and no post midnight adventures here.
One by one, they started to empty out of the building until the only people left I knew were Mags and Daniel, and they were both clearly ready for closing time to come. I could feel the celebration slipping away from me, and with it, that ecstatic charge in my bones. I was losing the grasp on my celebratory high, like a balloon slowly deflating as the clock marched towards the witching hour. A drunken Cinderella, looking for someone or something to break the spell of morning before I turned into a pumpkin. I began to panic.
My eyes started a desperate prowl around the largely empty room until they happened upon a small group of young men, perhaps a median age of 21, left finishing their pints by the end of the bar. In that moment, with the alcohol in my veins, the clock ticking away, the glory laying in wait, those lads suddenly appeared as the most interesting people on the planet. One of them in particular began to stand out: dark hair, wiry, about my age. He looked to be the exact personification of my after party. The bright lights absent from the pub stage were now glaring out of the glory bus, blinding my sight, turning the shiny new face of this fellow into a primed blank canvas of possibility.
I let my legs join my eyes in prowling over towards him. “Hey,” I began, once I’d reached a distance short enough to make out the pores on his nose. The single syllable was soaked in all the suggestion I could slather upon it.
“Hey,” he responded. Okay, good start so far! He continued: “I liked your words. Enjoyed your set.”
“Hey, thanks! Want another drink? Mags, two more whiskeys please! Yeah, yeah. Cool you liked it! Do you play? What kind of music do you like?” My words, by this juncture, were slurring.
“Oh, I listen to everything.” This answer, for me at least, is generally the kiss of death in not only a conversation about music but also a budding relationship of any kind. In my experience, when people say they like “everything” they almost always mean music isn’t really their bag. Like if something comes on the radio that sounds pleasant, they won’t turn it off, but they are not passionately invested.
These people don’t find Alt J or Will.I.Am personally offensive. Generally speaking, not people I want to sleep with.
But try telling that to post gig super-human Emma, five whiskeys in and already pretending she had never asked the question in the first place. “You look kinda like Jim Morrison.” (She’s telling herself more than she’s telling him.) And it’s true, there was a passing resemblance, especially behind my ever more obscurant alcohol veil. He had curly brown hair and was wearing a decidedly retro blouse. And that’s where the similarity stopped. Other than that, he was gangly, mostly mute, and still seemed rather unsure whether or not it was a good idea to get anymore involved with this loud, drunken American.
To my soused mind, however, his timidity was a sure sign I’d intoxicated him with my confidence. He was simply taken by my prowess. I pressed on, and whatever his reservations may have been, he overcame them. Pretty soon our faces were enmeshed, unlocking just long enough to say goodnight to Daniel and Mags. Then off we went, finding our way back to Morrison’s flat.
It may seem a glaring omission that with all the references to him as fellow, boy, and indeed Jim Morrison, I have neglected to regale you with my new friend’s actual name, but that is simply because I have no idea what it was. I don’t think I ever knew. All I can remember is him mentioning he was Italian. From this point forward, I am thinking of referring to him instead by an Italian-American gangster name like “The Reluctant Prince,” for although he wasn’t very princely, he was more than a tad reticent. Or maybe, “The Lamb,” as he was, in many ways, the sacrifice for my Dionysian evening.
Still in glory mode, I asked Lambo if he had any drugs at his apartment. I’d had a rather successful hook up with an Adonis the week previous and upon bringing me back to his house he dug out a couple of ecstasy pills from his dresser, an act which preceded a truly spectacular sporting event of an evening. So I now expected this was how all my hook ups would unfold, the standard by which all of them were now to be judged.
And by that standard, by any standard really, this one was going downhill. My stage-lit good times were fading.
First, there was the one sided nature of our conversation:
“How’d you like the other band’s set tonight? Pretty cool, I thought! The violin sounded amazing!”
“Hey what about that new film? Do you like films?”
“Yeah, I dunno.”
“Wanna put on a record?”
“I guess so, maybe. I don’t know.”
“What about the government? Elephants? Plastic bags? What do you think of the prison system? Do you like books? What do you think of boots? Do you like pencils? How about candy? Know anything about palm trees? Who do you think built Stonehenge? Got any gum?
There’s only so many times someone can answer a question with, “I don’t know, I guess,” before it becomes tiresome to ask another one. Already exhausted by my efforts to engage in dialogue, I decided it was time to move the evening along to the sex portion. Which also rapidly showed itself to be a shambles.
Here is some dialogue to accompany what our bodies were trying to communicate, mostly in silence:
“Here, let me put my leg over and try this angle.”
“That’s harder for me. Ouch, I think you’re on my hand.”
“Oh sorry, hang on, I’ll turn round. What about this?!”
“Yeah, that’ll work for a bit, but I think I’ll get tired.”
“Okay, let me just try clambering up top here.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. This is as much enthusiasm as you’re going to get out of me. Maybe I’m nervous, or just not that bothered. Either way, just gonna tepidly finish this up and go to sleep.”
Much like my hands attempting to clap earlier in the evening, I couldn’t find an agreeable rhythm. That was the glory dead and buried for the night. Here comes the sun.
Soon, we were “asleep” or at least, in silence. And not long after, I flew out of there to join the first of the morning commuters — dressing quickly, leaving quietly. Possibly I would never see my imitation Lizard King again, I mused walking up Archway Road. Perhaps far more likely, I’d see him on the door next week at the Mongo, where I would give a weak gesture of recognition, and just pretend the whole thing never happened.
Daniel, of course, had a field day with my escapades. All talk of ghost “kaeers” were replaced that next weekend with talk of my performance night.
“Was it a rush for you then, up on the stage?”
“It really was, I loved it. It was such an honor to play here as well. I can’t wait to do it again. I felt alive and just filled up. I didn’t want it to end!”
“Is that why you went home with that fellow then? Because you didn’t want that feeling to end?” He said this whilst giving me that look. That one eyebrow up, mad-eyed stare. All those audience eyes, now replaced by just two, burrowing in and bringing me back down.
“You were just full of electricity, weren’t ya? Needed a release did ya?” He’d keep asking me those questions and grilling me for those stories for months to come. To him they were amusing, alluring fodder to pass the time in the chilly hours outside the pub. That is, they were for now. If only I had known he was collecting them. Storing them up to use as weapons against me when his tide of favour turned.