New Year Rag

SAMPLE STORY FROM “I’ll Tell Everything I Know” collection


New Year Rag
A Tale of 1964

New Year Rag illustration

By Dart Travis

The rest of the group blamed him for getting them into it. Technically, he could see how they might consider it was his fault, even if it wasn’t. Which it obviously wasn’t.  It had been his sister’s friend’s idea after all, and all the people who’d bought the tickets for the dance were her friends. The group sat huddled together at a table at the back of the church hall, gazing glumly at their half pints of cloudy beer.

‘We’ll all get the shits,’ said Neil, ‘The barrel hasn’t settled. Anyone can see that.’

‘Don’t drink it then,’ snapped Steve. Christ, they were even blaming him for the beer now.

‘Not much of a party,’ said Alfie, looking round the half-full hall.

‘There’ll be more coming later,’ said Steve.

‘No one our age,’ Alfie went on, ‘I mean they’re all years older than us. And in couples. No chance of a New Year snog for us.’

He had a fair point, even if he was a drummer.

‘They said we could bring girlfriends,’ pointed out Steve.

‘We haven’t got any,’ stated Alfie, with unfortunate accuracy, ‘We could have gone to the New Year’s Dance at the Imperial Ballrooms. We’d have been in with a chance there.’

‘They haven’t even got our name up,’ said Neil, ‘Look at the poster.’

They stared. New Year’s Eve. Welcome in 1965 with The South Street Stompers plus support.

‘We’re the “plus support”,’ said Steve, ‘And we’re playing. You should be playing on New Year’s Eve. Any band that’s even half good gets to play on New Year’s Eve.’

Alfie snorted, ‘Half-good? Us? We’ll be lucky.’

‘They won’t like us,’ said Neil gloomily, ‘We won’t be their kind of thing. We won’t go down well at all. I sense it.’

‘We’re getting paid.’

‘Not a lot,’ Neil shook his head, ‘And we’ve got to pay for our own beer. It’s only half past fucking eight. We’ll have spent it all by midnight.’

The main act was clambering on to the splintered wood of the low stage at the end of the church hall. They all had red waistcoats over white shirts and red bow ties. They had red arm suspenders too. Johnny was in the middle, wearing a rakish red beret, and holding his trumpet. The whole of this New Year’s Dance had been Johnny’s idea. Johnny was a friend of his sister, and like her, six years older than Steve. The South Street Stompers were a popular local trad jazz band, playing two or three times a week in pubs all over the area. For beer money, Steve suspected. He’d heard Johnny talk about them often enough, but he’d never seen them play. He recognized the skinny, bearded banjo player. He was a chemistry master at Steve’s school. Fortunately he’d never taught Steve, and he was never going to teach the second year sixth form arts set now. Banjo … it reminded him of Pete Seeger doing ‘Little Boxes’ on Sunday Night at the London Paladium in his role as a patronising, earnest scoutmaster. That fitted. Did banjo players have to be skinny and bearded? Did trombone players have to be fat and cheerful? Or did fat and cheerful people naturally gravitate to the rude farting sounds of the trombone?

It was apparent that Johnny was the youngest in the band by several years. It was a classic trad jazz line up … trumpet, trombone, clarinet, banjo, drums (played with brushes), piano and double bass. Johnny had rented the church hall, issued pink raffle tickets at five shillings a time for admission and installed barrels of beer and rough cider. Then he’d realized that they’d have to play all night, and asked Steve if his group would like to do an hour or so in the middle, between the Stompers’ two sets. A proper New Year’s Dance sounded better than the Methodist youth clubs they’d played before, and so he’d committed them to it. It was only then that Johnny had thought to ask what they played.

‘Your sister says you play all this R&B stuff …’

‘That’s right.’

‘We wouldn’t want any pop, or Beatles stuff, but R&B is close enough … negro music too, don’t you see?’

‘In a way, but negro’s not a word I’d …’

‘That’s settled then. What numbers will you be performing?’

Steve was ever eager to please, ‘Um … we know St. James Infirmary.’

‘We play that too. Yes, very good … that’s the sort of thing.’

‘House of The Rising Sun? Um, it’s about New Orleans …’ Steve grasped at straws. New Orleans must surely be a positive word for trad jazzers.

‘OK … that’s two slow ones.’

‘San Francisco Bay Blues? That’s quick.’

‘Don’t know it.’

‘Jesse Fuller. It has a kazoo part.’

‘Kazoo?’

‘Yes. Greg … the rhythm guitarist … plays it. It’s a bit like trad … but more in a folkie bluesy countryish kind of way. Or skiffle. Jesse Fuller was a sort of one man band.’

‘I used to be in a skiffle band,’ ruminated Johnny, ‘Total nonsense.’

‘We’ll give it a miss, then,’ finished Steve.

The Stompers lurched into their first number.

‘What is it?’ demanded Neil.

‘Dunno,’ said Steve, ‘Trad tunes all sound exactly the same to me. Except “When The Saints Go Marching In.” I recognize that one.’

Neil sighed, ‘And you really think this lot will like “Smokestack Lightning?”’

‘Possibly.’

It seemed unlikely. The men in the audience were attired in tweed jackets, enlivened perhaps by the odd floral tie. The girls, or women, ranged from mid-twenties to forty, and frock was a better description than dress. Steve had wondered about their own band uniforms. They’d invested in blue and white hooped matelot shirts in an attempt to look mod. Neil, the singer, refused to wear his until he reached the hall. Where he lived, it was exclusively rocker territory, and Neil’s quiff and wide leather belt with studs was definitely rocker attire. Walking around in a mod matelot shirt would have been suicide. Alfie, as their third drummer in six months, had declined to invest in a matelot shirt until he’d decided whether to stay.  After all, as the owner of a full kit including bass tom-tom, his services were much in demand. The two guitarists, Greg and Paul, hadn’t spoken in half an hour, but seemed intent on pouring as much cloudy beer down their gullets as they could. Greg’s Beatle jacket just didn’t go with the shirt anyway. Steve was freezing cold without a jacket, as the asthmatic heating system in the church hall was failing to cope, and draughts from the ill-fitting windows were rustling the chintz curtains.

The hall filled during the Stompers first set, and the crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves, stomping around on the battered wooden floor.

‘Do they all take a solo in everything?’ complained Neil.

‘Yeah … I think that’s what makes it trad jazz,’ replied Steve, as the banjo player took his plinkety-plunk break. Followed by a couple of plucked scales from the bass player, twenty-four bars of honky-tonk piano and a flatulent trombone solo.

At half past nine promptly, Johnny waved the second rendition of  ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ to a standstill, beckoned to Steve’s group, and shouted into the microphone, ‘We’re going to take a break now. Back in an hour! In the meantime, we have a fabulous R & B group called … called …’, the bastard couldn’t remember, thought Steve, ‘… called … I don’t know, actually, but that’s Susan’s baby brother on the bass guitar! So give them a warm welcome.’

While Johnny was speaking, the rest of the trad band had divested themselves of their instruments and made a dash for the beer barrels. Most of the audience seemed intent on joining them.

Steve switched on his amplifier, which emitted a satisfyingly loud hum. Alfie tripped over him getting to the drums, ‘Hello, baby brother …’ he hissed.

‘Fuck off,’ muttered Steve.

Neil turned from the mic, ‘Where’s the set list?’

‘On my amp.’

‘I can’t read it from here.’

‘I can,’ said Steve, ‘I’ll tell you. Anyway, you know we’re starting with “Bye, Bye, Johnny.” ‘

‘Tune one,’ snickered Paul. Paul always called Chuck Berry twelve-bars “tune one” and Bo Diddley twelve-bars “tune two.” They didn’t play much that didn’t fit one or the other category.

Neil grinned and leaned over, ‘Baby brother …’ he whispered.

‘Get on with it,’ said Steve, plucking his bass guitar experimentally. It boomed round the hall. Alfie was checking his drums with sudden dramatic crashes.

A few of the people fighting to get to the beer barrels glanced round. The chemistry master shook his head and rubbed his ear. Bastard.

Neil gave his tambourine a preparatory tap and rattle. Greg was fiddling with his guitar’s tuning heads, oblivious to the rest of them waiting to start. Paul picked out a couple of bars of The Shadows “Foot Tapper” for no apparent reason. They hadn’t played it in eighteen months, but Paul still liked The Shadows.

‘Are we ready?’ asked Steve.

‘Won’t be long,’ said Greg, moving to pluck the next pair of strings.

‘Couldn’t you have tuned up while we were waiting?’

‘Couldn’t hear. It’s alright for you. No one notices if the bass is a bit out of tune.’

Paul doodled out a few bars of “Walk Don’t Run” very quietly.

Most of the audience now had their backs set squarely to the stage and were intent on their beers. Greg began adjusting the volume and tone controls on his small amplifier, testing each step with a tentative chord.

‘What are you doing tomorrow, Greg?’ asked Alfie conversationally, ‘Thought I might have a lie in,’ then he thwacked the cymbal suddenly, as hard as he could, ‘Come on, Greg, pull your fucking finger out, mate.’

Greg looked shocked by the sudden noise, ‘Ready when you are,’ he said in a hurt voice.

‘Oh … are we starting now?’ asked Paul in surprise.

Steve looked towards the yellowing ceiling in despair. Their initial impact on stage clearly needed work.

‘Go on, then,’ said Neil, staring menacingly at Paul, ‘Get going.’

Paul shrugged, stuck his tongue out of the side of his mouth in concentration, furrowed his brow and finally played the guitar run to launch the song, and Neil came in with a mighty bellow, ‘WELL … SHE … finally got the letter she was dreaming of!’ and they were away.

The audience seemed to freeze, almost in anguish, before turning to gaze at them. Steve saw his sister, her face reddening. Were they that bad? He ploughed manfully forward with the bass riff. At least they were loud. And Neil always sounded … well, determined. But no one moved to dance. They ground to a halt, Neil put down the tambourine and picked up the maracas. Steve looked down at the set list, ‘No, Neil … it’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”’ But Neil gave a long banshee wail.

‘Hey! Bo Diddley …’

Steve and Alfie started straight away (tune two, as Paul called it). Greg looked perplexed for a few bars before he joined them, then Paul tentatively came in too.

Steve sighed with relief as Patty, his sister’s best friend, started jiving. Yes, jiving, but it was a lot better than staring.

They went through the Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley songbook, with asides for a few standards; Smokestack Lightning, Big Boss Man, Can I Get A Witness.

‘This is a slow one …’ boomed Neil’s voice, and Paul and Greg immediately sat down on the front of the stage with their guitars as Neil went into an emotive, wailing ‘St James Infirmary.’ Guitarists sat down for that and ‘House of the Rising Sun’. Every band seemed to do the same. Bass players retreated to the back next to the drummer.

As they finished the song, Steve looked up at the hall clock. They’d fought their way through their allotted hour. Just a fast one to finish off, ‘Down The Road Apiece’. But Johnny was standing at the front of the stage beckoning him. Steve bent down.

‘Do us another twenty minutes, old chap. The lads are just relaxing and getting a few more beers in.’

‘What?’

‘Your beat combo seems to be going down terribly well,’ Johnny was as pissed as a jazz trumpet player on New Years Eve. Which was very pissed.

Steve reviewed the vast indifference of the paying public, who’d largely ignored them for an hour, ‘I’m not sure they want us to.’

‘Course they do. Course they do,’ Johnny staggered off towards the barrels.

‘What did he want?’ hissed Neil.

‘Another twenty minutes.’

Neil beamed, ‘Great!’ He was into his own singing as usual and getting over-excited.

Alfie murmured, ‘Will we get paid extra?’

‘I shouldn’t think so,’ said Steve, picking up the set list, ‘But haven’t we done them all now?’

‘How about “Walk Don’t Run”?’ suggested Paul mildly, ‘Do you remember it? It’s the first thing we ever learned together.’

‘No,’ lied Steve, ‘And we haven’t rehearsed it with Neil or Alfie. And there’s nothing for Neil to do in it,’ and Neil’s the only decent performer among us, he added mentally.

‘I remember it,’ put in Greg.

‘Well, I don’t,’ Steve closed that door as firmly as possible.

‘It’s easy. It’s just  …’ started Greg doggedly.

‘We can just repeat stuff,’ said Neil, ‘They’ll never notice.’

Steve considered. He’d bet every Chuck Berry song sounded exactly the same to this lot, ‘OK, let’s do that …’

They stopped just before eleven. Johnny approached the stage. He was cross-eyed, his beret and bow tie had gone, and there were beer stains all down his shirt front, By the smell of it, there were piss stains all down his trouser legs, ‘Jolly good show,’ he slurred. Steve jumped down. Johnny grabbed his arm, ‘Steve, bit of a problem-ette, old chap.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Arthur.’

Steve thought about the name. He’d never ever met anyone called Arthur, ‘Who’s Arthur.’

‘Our bassh player. Comatose.’

‘Ill?’

‘No, pished paralytic. He can’t stand up.’

‘Ah, well … you’ve still got the six of you,’ Steve realized his tone of voice was unsympathetic, so added, ‘I’m sure you’ll manage.’

‘Thought you could play the bass with us.’

‘Me? I don’t know any of the material.’

‘It’s easy enough. Just note and fifth does it most of the time.’

‘How will I know what the note is?’

‘You just listen. S’what I do.’

Steve was uncomfortably aware of his lack of natural musical ability, ‘Um, you see, Johnny, I have to learn it.’

‘A lot of it’s basic twelve bar stuff. Course you’ll handle it, old chap.’

‘Well, I don’t know, maybe I …’

‘Arthur’s bass is right there.’

Steve looked at the overgrown fiddle. Double bass, like violin, is not a fretted instrument. You can’t just place your fingers on the third fret, or the fifth fret. The world of instruments divided before Steve’s eyes between those that gave you a button to push, so to speak, guitars, keyboard instruments, woodwind. And then the other mysterious lot where you had to slide around and find the note for yourself … the violin family, trombones and so on. Steve had to know where the note was going to be, and a double bass has no buttons to press, or rather no frets to locate the note, ‘Shit! I can’t possibly play double bass!’

‘Same four strings. Same tuning. E-A-D-G.’

‘But there aren’t any frets … and anyway I play with a plectrum …’

‘You mean you’d have to use your electric thingy?’

‘Yes!’

‘With an amplifier?’

‘Obviously.’

Johnny stroked his chin, ‘The lads won’t like it. We’re rather against electric instruments.’

‘Take it or leave it,’ said Steve, fervently hoping Johnny would leave it.

‘We’ve got no choice,’ said Johnny, ‘Plug it in and switch it on!’

The rest of the Stompers were filing onto the stage and sorting out their instruments. Steve strapped his electric bass guitar back on.

The banjo player’s lip curled, ‘It’s light-blue!’

‘Ice-blue,’ corrected Steve. He was very proud of his solid body Watkins Rapier electric bass guitar. Thirty-six pounds, it had cost him.

‘Johnny …’ the banjo player whined plaintively, ‘A blue guitar! We’ll be a laughing stock.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Johnny.

‘You will tell me what key we’re in, won’t you?’ hissed Steve.

‘Watch the pianist’s hands…’

‘That won’t help,’ said Steve, ‘I can’t play piano.’

‘Reg!’ Johnny called to the pianist, ‘Make sure you tell Steve here the key … for each number.’

‘Cheers,’ said the pianist, and downed a full half pint of beer in one gulp, ‘First one’s in A.’ Then he gave a sickening liquid belch.

Steve nodded, and positioned his index finger on the fret in readiness.

It was easier than he’d feared. The note and fifth goes a long way as a dead simple bass part, and because everyone had to take a solo in every number, you had plenty of time to get used to the tune. In the first couple he earned glares for playing through the banjo solo. He’d noticed in the first set that the bass player … the plump and now comatose Arthur … had stopped playing for the banjo plinkety-plunk solo bit every time. It had seemed an excuse to swig some more beer, but now he could see that it was the etiquette of the thing. So he stopped, and swigged some beer. There seemed to be a laden tray of beer arriving for every number, and the whole band gurgled down as much as they could between numbers. And during numbers while others were soloing. Steve thought he might as well do the same. By the third song, ‘When The Saints’ yet again, he was shouting along with the band. In the fourth number, he stepped forward and yelled in Johnny’s ear, ‘Can I do a solo too?’

He played very fast scales for a verse (this was much what Arthur had done) and the Stompers seemed to take it as read that it was acceptable.

As the beer took hold, he started to enjoy himself.  He felt free to improvise a bit and fiddle around doing whatever seemed to come naturally. He supposed that was what jazz was. The pattern of soloing in turn was pretty-well rigid, and any attempt at vocals consisted of everyone yelling together. Except for ‘St James Infirmary’ which the trombone player intoned in a baritone. Steve knew that one anyway, though in a different key, so turned up his volume control a couple of notches. After the round of solos, he realized Neil was clambering up on stage to sing. No one seemed to mind him roaring out a verse, though they laughed, nastily he felt, when Neil fell over getting back down to the floor. He found it hard to work out what to do in the jaunty ‘The Green Leaves of Summer,’ and merely slumped on a chair playing nothing during ‘Stranger on the Shore’ which had been announced as a ‘smoocher.’ The pianist gave him a dirty look, but appeared to be coping adequately with his left hand filling in for bass. But the last two stomping numbers before midnight were great, and Steve was at full volume. The audience were so drunk that every solo, including Steve’s, was met with wild applause, so much so, that he decided to carry it on for a couple more verses.

‘Auld Lang Syne’ was a bit of a bastard, but he plucked his bass randomly in time to greet the New Year. He felt a bit dizzy in fact. But triumphant. He’d played the evening with a jazz band, way older than him, and had received thunderous applause for his solos.

He sat on the side of the stage smiling beatifically as Greg, Paul and Alfie began packing up their gear. None of them said a word to him. Jealous, the sullen bastards. Probably afraid he’d leave the group and seek more lucrative and jazzy pastures. Still, he’d tell them later that his heart was still in rhythm and blues.

Johnny wandered over and literally fell down next to him.

‘I made it,’ said Steve.

‘Yesh …’ Johnny tried to say, ‘Arthur … puking all over the place. Damn shame. His missus won’t let him out tomorrow night … we’re doing the Red Lion. Regular slot.’

Steve’s chest swelled with pride, ‘Don’t worry, Johnny. I’ll do it, mate. No problems.’

Johnny looked at him. What was that … gratitude?

The banjo player had sidled up with Reg, the pianist, during their conversation.

‘Yeah …’ Steve went on, ‘What time do we start?’

The pianist and banjo player exchanged glances. The pianist was the one who spoke, ‘Look, Sonny, you didn’t know the numbers. We understood that.’

Steve smiled, ‘Yeah … well … I picked up. I’ll be better tomorrow.’

Reg ploughed on, ‘And to be frank, your bass was out of tune. Noticeably out of tune.’

‘It does that … I’d already been playing for a couple of hours. Dropped my plectrum. Couldn’t find it. Got a blister on my thumb.’

‘Right,’ said Reg, ‘But given that you had no idea of the melodies, and that you were out of fucking tune …’ he paused significantly, ‘And that you appear to have a singularly poor sense of rhythm, and you were the only one with an amplifier … What the fuck possessed you to play at full fucking volume all fucking evening?’

Steve frowned and tried hard to concentrate, ‘OK … sorry about that. But what time should I get to the Red Lion tomorrow?’

© Dart Travis 2013

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