The Only Way to Fly
The small, handwritten add in the music shop's window caught my attention. "Wanted - Sax Player. Must be experienced. Enquire within." I knew that someday the cash injection from my dad's account was going to trickle down of almost zero. My last birthday present from him was five thousand pounds and a stark warning to pull my socks up, get a job, and stop being a burden to him. I could see his point. I had put myself through Music College, tried a bit of round the world busking, earning my dad's fondest nickname for me. Loser.
Dad had worked hard all his life putting food in the mouth of his only son, and could only see me as unemployable because I chose to "waste my time" playing the odd concerts and music festivals instead of getting my hands dirty, even though, each time I went home, I managed to get a lot of maintenance jobs done on his bungalow. No mean task when you have a cantankerous old grouch breathing down your neck and telling you how to do things.
I suppose his uncompromising attitude was the main reason I loved the road and my freedom so much, playing or busking where I found the opportunity. Occasionally, I found clubs and pubs looking for an entertainer for next to nothing and a few pints. That suited me, especially in the winter, as they often provided somewhere on the premises to doss down, put some well earned food in my belly, and keep my sax repaired. To ensure I would be able to support myself from now, on I had bought my latest instrument, a straight 94m soprano, out of the last payment, and after fitting myself out with some decent travelling clothes, boots, and a 1995 Peugeot 405, there was around fifteen hundred left in the bank to keep me and the car going. I went into the shop and asked for details.
The old man behind the counter looked me over from head to toe and back. I had seen that look many times. Was I straight or gay? I stood five foot ten in my socks and my light brown hair was shoulder length and at the moment in need of a wash and trim. "It's down at the Jewel. Ask for Daley. The band is staying there for a few days while he builds it back up. Had a few member leave at short notice. What do you play?"
"All the saxes, clarinet and flute."
"Can you sing?"
"A bit, why"
The old man shrugged his shoulders. "The more you can do the better your chances. Daley's a hard man to please."
I smiled at him. "You seem to know a lot about him."
"I should do, he's my youngest son. I can tell a good'n when I see one. Go down the street a hundred yards and turn right into an entry. The club is on the right, down some steps. This time of day it's members only so, if you get stopped at the door, tell 'em Jack sent you."
The club was easy to find and, from the moment I arrived, I had misgivings. At eight o'clock in the evening, punters were already arriving, dressed in their best slinky frocks, and that was just the men. Don't get me wrong, each to their own way of life, and some of my closest friends were gay. Me? I was thirty-two and didn't yet know what I was. I'd had some intimate liaisons with women but they had fizzled out before the fire of love really started. After a brief fling with a school chum, I had decided that someday Joe or Jane Right would come along some time without me getting into a panic about it.
I got "Sexy Sal", my soprano sax out of the car boot, and headed down the steps. At the door I asked for Daley and mentioned Jack's name. I was let in straight away and directed to the rear of the main room, past the long bar and more than a few appraising looks, to an open door. Through it, I could hear musical instruments being tuned up. I stepped through and saw a younger version of Jack seated at a small desk working on a laptop. I did a quick sweep of the other players in the room, two trumpets, base and rhythm guitars, a trombone and a tenor sax. Not bad, I thought.
As I strolled over to the desk, Daley glanced up, eyed my instrument case, and nodded a greeting. He stood up and I found he was about the same height as me with a slim frame. He had a young face but his hair was already streaked with grey.
"Hi, I'm Magnus Alton, Mags for short. Your dad sent me."
"I'm Daley Roberts. Are you looking for work?"
"How long have you been playing?"
"Since I was eight. That makes it about twenty-six years on and off. Been to college, done the biz; travelled a lot; pubs, clubs, festivals, street work. I played in a big band for several months, and I worked as backup in a recording studio in New York; Nothing big but enough to gain some valuable experience."
"Where are you from? Just being nosy, of course."
"Oldham." Well at least that was the nearest sizeable city; no need to go into closer details at this point.
Daley seemed impressed. "Care to play something for us?"
I took out my faithful lady, fitted the mouth piece and played a Chris Sodoud classic, "Yele Ye", a piece for alto or tenor sax but easily transposed for soprano if you knew what you were doing. By the time I finished the piece, all the band members were listening with interest. They applauded me and Daley shook my hand. "You're the third to come and audition for a sax part. If you can get your talents round the other Saxes as well, I think you'll fit very well. Do you have a car?"
"A big one?"
"A Peugeot 405"
Daley grinned. "All the better! Our bus is in dock, having a new engine and half shaft fitted, and we're relying on whatever transport we can scrounge. If you're willing to help us with the use of your car, we'd appreciate it. Perhaps I ought to tell you a bit about the set up here, you might say no afterwards. Digger, get some pints in here will you please?" One of the trumpet players scurried out of the room with a tray of empty glasses.
Daley sat me down at the desk. "As you can see we're not a big band by any means but there are enough of us to split the band if we find ourselves needed in two places at the same time. So, if you're out to make a load of money you're in the wrong place. We make a CD once a year which we sell wherever we play, but mainly our goal is to have fun while we can.
If we get paid that's a bonus, and we split the cash between us. If anything needs repairing, all of us put money in the pot. We've got friends all over the UK willing to bed and feed us as long as we play good music. We're a cover band, we'll play whatever music we think is needed, R and B, Jazz, Latin American, Folk; anything with a good rhythm to it." He pointed to the laptop. "I do my own arranging, and we all pull our weight. The guys you see here now are all original members except Digger. He was a navvy till about two years ago. We've been together for five years now, and rather set in our ways. Most of us won't see forty again and none of us knows how long we can carry on, so we're always on the lookout for younger talent. As you get older Festivals can be wearing with all that shifting around and the mud and the wet weather. Now, let's talk about your musical tastes. Do you like The Blues Brothers?"
"Chris Rhea? Jules Holland?"
Daley reeled off a string of musical greats and I said yes to most of them, at the end of which he was grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. "All we need now is a replacement drummer and a lead guitar. Our latest one broke two of our golden rules. No drugs and no drunken fights, so we chucked him out. I heard last week he had suddenly found himself a guest of Her Majesty The Queen. So, what do you think? Will you give us a try?"
I laughed. "Shouldn't that be the other way round?"
Daley shrugged his shoulders. "If that's how you want it, I'm easy with that. Jam with us tonight and we'll sound each other out. Have you got your other instruments with you or would you like to borrow our spares?"
The offer was a surprise, as most musicians hated someone else using their instruments, as each player cut their own wind tracks, especially with a flute.
I had my own tenor sax, clarinet and flute in the boot of my car, so that night I played my heart out, easing into the band and enjoying the atmosphere, rather than feeling uncomfortable in a gay bar. The drummer wasn't too hot, but I learned he was only on loan from a youth band in the next town. Daley wasn't worried as he said he knew where he could find a really hot drummer for their next round of festivals due to start in three months. "He's got too fond of the domestic life and he'll need a lot of persuading on my part to pry him loose."
Daley told me they would spend the three months at the home of this drummer where they would take a well-earned rest then rehearse like crazy. That night my sight-reading came into play and I really had some fun. And from the response from the packed bar, I wasn't the only one. The clientele here were mostly over thirty and knew how to dance, the 'ladies' throwing off their mincing steps to really get down to the jives and salsas with their enthusiastic partners.
We finished around one thirty in the morning and by then I was pleasantly ready to drop. Daley invited me to doss down with them on the top floor of the building where the rooms were empty of furniture but dry and warm, and we had a large two-tub bathroom all to ourselves. The band used their own sleeping bags and some old cushions for pillows, so I got mine from the car and joined the band for a welcome pizza supper the manager sent up. We had coffee and tea making facilities so the meal was very enjoyable, I didn't tell the band I hadn't eaten since breakfast but they must have noticed how I wolfed my food down. At one point I took a huge bite of Pizza and glanced up. They weren't looking at me directly but they were all smiling. It was then that I knew I was in with a good crowd with a healthy sense of humour, and I looked forward to working my socks off to stay with them.
There were some pretty cool characters in the band. Indian, the six foot six tenor sax player, was descended from a Sioux chief, and had the kind of face I remembered from my childhood days, watching Western films. He didn't talk much and never got angry, a real gentle giant who joined in the fun by wearing a fringed sleeveless jacket and a braided headband with an eagle feather stuck in it on stage. Trilby, the second trumpet and the oldest in the band at sixty-four, was a whippet of a man who always wore a battered trilby on stage and off, hence his nickname. Till I joined the outfit, Ashton had been the youngest at thirty-six, he played a wicked trombone.
Todd was a good all-rounder and could play several instruments including piano accordion, and mouth organ, a handy man to have if the band needed to split, but his main instrument was the guitar, and also took his turn playing keyboard to give Daley a break. In the absence of a lead guitarist, Rob, the Scots rhythm guitar player filled in when needed. Proud of his Scottish roots, he wore a plaid kilt and Glengarry on stage, and even played the bagpipes as an interlude when the band needed a short break. He talked with such a broad Scots accent only Daley seemed top understand him, and he went round calling everyone Laddie. Daley told me he was a hit at Christmas and the New Year.
For the next three days, things went well; we enjoyed each other's company, the band members making me feel really welcome, and it didn't bother me that most of them were gay. Then a letter arrived for Daley. Indian had gone out for some milk and eggs for our breakfast and brought up a couple of letters from Daley's dad's shop. One was an invitation to play at a wedding in two weeks time, the other made the colour drain from his face. "Oh My God!" he breathed, and re-read the letter. Finally, he looked round at the band and said in a hushed voice, "It's Bill, he's in hospital."
"Is it bad?" Trilby asked him.
Daley nodded. "Sorry guys I have to go to him."
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